‘Crazy,’ ‘craftsman,’ ‘wizard’: How Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan developed his unique coaching style

BEREA, Ohio — When Wyatt Teller was asked about offensive line coach Bill Callahan this week, the Pro Bowl guard said his position coach is “still crazy, but one of my favorite guys.”

So just how exactly is Callahan “crazy?”

“He’s this little guy that will get in your face,” Teller said. “You’re 6-foot-5, 315 pounds. Not a lot of people will pick a fight with you, but I swear, he’ll come out there and slap you right in the face. He’s not afraid of anybody, and I’m thankful for that. He’s had great players under him. You can talk to any of his past players and they respect him. It’s something you earn. It’s not something you just get.”

Teller is embellishing slightly, Callahan joked on Saturday.

But what’s not up for debate is that Callahan has certainly earned his respect in his 45 years of coaching, 24 of those years in the NFL. He has been a position coach, a coordinator and a head coach, both on a full-time and interim basis. He was the head coach when the Raiders went to Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season.

Now, Callahan is one of the most respected position coaches in the game, but it’s funny to think that when he was coming up the ranks, he never thought he would be an offensive line coach.

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Callahan recounted his career path with reporters before the Browns’ ninth training camp session on Saturday. In the 1980s he joined Mike White’s staff at the University of Illinois.

“I wanted to learn the West Coast system, so I went there as a graduate assistant with the hopes that I would be a coordinator and a quarterbacks coach,” he said.

Things went so well, though, that when Callahan was only 25 he was promoted to tight ends coach. It was by chance that the offensive line job opened up before the 1984 season, and Callahan was thrown into the fire.

“He said, ‘You’re the line coach,'” Callahan said. “So I said, ‘Oh boy, what do I do now?’ So I had 25 or 26 kids in my line room. Here I am, I’ve coached the tight ends and tackles, but I didn’t coach the line. So it was my first opportunity to get in front of a group and really teach technique. Coach White had helped me with that. He was a great mentor and a good friend. It was just one of those experiences that you would never expect, and then I just kind of ran with it.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? I’m really short. I don’t weigh a lot. So coaching these guys is different.”

Almost 40 years later, he’s become known for his wide zone scheme and his Browns position group calls him a “craftsman”

“Literally I can say everyday there’s something I pick up from him,” Jack Conklin said this week. “I think the cohesion he brings to the room, sometimes he’s kind of a wizard with that. He gets us angry at him, I think sometimes it’s on purpose to bring us all together and it’s just everything, he’s always thinking, it’s great to have him.

Jedrick Wills Jr. and Joe Thomas

Wills’ development has been a big question mark coming into this season.

He had a rough 2021, playing through an ankle injury that he suffered in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Browns expect him to bounce back from an up-and-down year. He gave up 28 pressures — the second most on the team. Pro Football Focus gave him a mediocre 67.9 pass-blocking grade and a 61.5 run-blocking grade for the season.

Coming into 2022, however, Callahan talked about the work Wills has put in, particularly with future Hall of Famer and legendary former Browns left tackle Joe Thomas.

“He’s coming along,” Callahan said. “We’re trying some different things with him in terms of pass protection, we’re trying to get him to feel comfortable not only with his set but with different types of hand usage that we’re trying to employ. And Joe Thomas has been incredibly helpful and it’s great to have him back with us. As we all know, the last two years because of COVID protocols have been challenging where we would have loved to have him. We said that before.

“But this is just such a great idealistic situation for him to be here, and he’s doing media in the preseason. So yeah, it’s a perfect opportunity to take advantage of him being here, not only out here on the field but in the classroom as well. It’s just great for the players to be around a great player.”

The development of Nick Harris

Callahan had nothing but positive things to say about Nick Harris, who is stepping in as the starting center after the Browns released JC Tretter this spring.

Cleveland saw a glimpse of Harris’ readiness in Week 16 last season when the Browns went on the road and fell to the Packers 24-22. Tretter was on the COVID-19 reserve list, and Harris stepped in for his second career start and first offensive snaps of the 2021 season. According to PFF, he received one of the highest offensive grades in that game (a 70.0 offensive grade, 75.3 pass blocking grade and 67.2 run blocking grade). The offensive line allowed just one sack and Harris showed how mobile he could be, fitting in well in the Browns’ wide zone scheme.

While Harris has performed in a small game sample size, Callahan has of course been privy to much more of his development over the last two-plus years in practice ever since the Browns drafted him in the fifth round two years ago.

“When he came in, and all the college players have a limited base, and then when they get here, they’re blown away at how much they have to do and how much goes on,” Callahan said. “To see him grow, not only physically, because he’s done a great job in the offseason in the weight room, but mentally — picking up the system, learning how to communicate calls, hitting players in the right spots.

“What’s really impressive is his dialogue off the field and the questions that he asks, they’re excellent. They’re really well thought out, they’re meaningful and they’re applicable. I would say his development mentally has really grown, more so than his physical development.”

On the tight ends blocking

Browns no. 1 tight end David Njoku will be the first to tell you how much he loves blocking.

It’s one of the areas his game has improved the most, and one he’s sought direct advice from Callahan on over the last couple of years. Not one to take credit, Callahan credited tight ends coach TC McCartney, who was promoted this offseason, and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters, and said they are more than happy to help the tight ends with that aspect of the game.

“TC has done a very good job,” Callahan said. “Scott Peters meets with the tight ends on the field every day at 7:30 in the morning and goes over all the various techniques they’re going through. It’s been kind of a shared responsibility. We’re helping TCTC is learning and doing an incredible job. It’s a hard position because there is so much. So if we can lend some assistance to that position, we’ll certainly do that, which we are.”

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