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Browns center J.C. Tretter on Baker Mayfield, pressure and facing his hometown Bills

J.C. Tretter and his fiancée are getting married in late February.

The beginning of the month was off limits, in case the Cleveland Browns advanced to the Super Bowl.

“We definitely had to leave the dates open,” Tretter said.

But these days, the former Akron High School star and Browns starting center isn’t thinking about much beyond playing his hometown Buffalo Bills on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Besides, any thought of the Browns reaching the Super Bowl, after losing four consecutive games to drop to a 2-6 record, seems far-fetched.

Cleveland was widely expected to be among the top contenders in the AFC with an improved roster surrounding quarterback Baker Mayfield, the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. The Browns added elite players, including receiver Odell Beckham Jr., to go with Jarvis Landry and running back Nick Chubb. But they’re averaging just 19 points per game, and the frustration has spilled from the field into the locker room.

“Losing is never fun,” Tretter said, “so obviously there's that frustration of just we haven't been able to execute the way we should have been able to. And that's tough. But I think for us, there's really nothing we can go back and change over the last eight weeks. It’s what we can fix going forward? And that's really what we have to focus on at this point.

“We've dug ourselves quite a hole. And now obviously, we've got a tough climb out of it. But all we can really focus on is correcting the things we've been doing poorly, and then letting it all loose and doing everything we can to try to turn everything around.”

Tretter, 6-foot-4, 307 pounds, was drafted out of Cornell with a fourth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2013, and after four injury-plagued seasons, signed with the Browns.

He’s played every snap since, including throughout Cleveland’s winless season in 2017.

“I was here during the 0-16 year,” Tretter said. “The amount of work and effort and pain that you put in and take on to go out and play on Sundays, to lose is always kind of just a kick to the gut. So that's always a frustrating part. And a win gives you that little taste of glory and I think that's just something where we need to get back and get a couple wins under our belt and just get that positive momentum going.”

The Buffalo News caught up with Tretter this week for a discussion about the state of the Browns, playing with Mayfield, the concept of “too much pressure,” facing his hometown team, whether he’d consider re-signing in Cleveland and more.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

BN: You’ve played every single snap since you signed with the Browns in 2017. How much pride do you take in that, especially considering you dealt with several injuries in Green Bay?

JT: For an offensive lineman, there’s not really any stats or anything to go off of and I think something all offensive linemen take pride in is availability and being out there for your teammates and trying to help the team win however you can. I got banged up quite a bit in Green Bay, so it's been nice to kind of stay relatively healthy, at least healthy enough to go out there and try to help the team any way I can. It's definitely something that I pride myself on, trying to play every snap.

BN: What's it like working with Baker Mayfield, and how has your relationship developed?

JT: I love Baker. Baker's as genuine a guy as you'll find. He's got a really magnetic personality. Guys want to be around Baker, want to hang out with Baker. He’s just a really good guy, a really good leader, and he's done a great job since coming in here as a rookie last year, of bringing his charisma and his attitude in the locker room and guys love it.

Fitting in at first, especially at the quarterback position, where the expectation is for you to be the leader in the locker room, that wasn’t easy for him last year, being a rookie and still being a young player. I think the most important thing is being genuine. Older guys in the locker room have seen it all and seen a lot of personalities, and if they feel like you're not being your genuine self and you're putting on kind of a face, they're not going to gravitate toward you and they’re not going to take you seriously as a leader. So I think that's something Baker has done well since day one, is just being himself and being the competitive guy he is.

BN: You changed positions several times over the course of your playing career, from Akron to Cornell to the NFL. How did you figure out who you were and remain true to that?

JT: Personality-wise, I've at least tried to be the same guy I was when I was a quarterback in high school, and then tight end and offensive lineman. I’ve moved around the line. But I think as I've made all those position changes, you realize that you have to really know yourself. You have to know the positive qualities and your strengths, but also be very aware of your weaknesses and understand those things and be able to adjust because of them.

I think the more self-aware you are with the things you struggle with and the things you're good at, that only makes you better as a player and as a person. I think that's kind of how you find growth. And I think that comes as you get older. You can look back and see things you wish you had over again and you make those tiny changes of, this is who I am, this is who I should embrace being and not spend so much time trying to fit into what other people think I should be. Instead, just try to be the best person you can possibly be.

Center J.C. Tretter and quarterback Baker Mayfield have developed a bond. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

BN: Do you think there's such a thing as “too much pressure?” Sports Illustrated had the Browns on the cover to begin the season. Mayfield was drafted No. 1 overall. That stuff obviously doesn't matter on game days, but does it help? Does it hurt? Is there anything to that?

JT: Honestly, I think there are two different kind of expectations and I think that's where the pressure comes from. You have the expectations of what people outside the organization, the media, the fans, expect of a team. And then you have what the team's expectations are. And sometimes they're exactly the same. Sometimes they're vastly different. But I think a lot of the pressure you’re describing is the outside expectations.

I think whether we were on the cover of Sports Illustrated or the pick to win the Super Bowl, that’s on the outside and doesn't really impact the team that much, because we have our expectations and that's more what we care about, what we think we're capable of as a team. So it's not like anybody put anything on us that now we're trying to live up to exterior expectations. We had our expectations of the team we think we are, and we're trying to live up to those, and whatever the outside thinks of us, that's kind of indifferent for us. We can't really control that, whether they think we're the best team in the world or the worst team in the world. We set our standards inside the locker room. And then we have to try to play up to those.

BN: You were with Browns first-year offensive line coach James Campen in Green Bay. What was it like being reunited with him?

JT: I love Campy. It was great. Our coaches last year, I had them for two years, Bob Wylie and Mark Hutson, who I developed a great relationship with, as well. So when they were let go, there’s always that nervousness of, "Who's going to be the next coach for our position?"

When the news broke that it was going to be Campy, it was really exciting. I was on vacation at the time. And it made my day, having that rapport with him from coming into the league and being able to get started again. We stayed in touch, even when I was here and he was in Green Bay. So it's kind of just like seeing an old friend again. And you just jump right back into it.

BN: Wyatt Teller, who began his career in Buffalo before being traded to the Browns earlier this season, started at right guard in last week’s loss at Denver. What's your impression of him?

JT: Wyatt works very hard to get better at the game. And he's always asking questions, always kind of listening and actively trying to hear from guys like Joel (Bitonio), who's an established guard in this league, a Pro Bowler, and just trying to get better at his craft. It's one of those weird things where usually when a guy changes teams or gets traded, he's an older guy, and that's the thing about Wyatt, he's still very young. And he's still getting his feet wet in the league. He got his first start for us last week and he's just continuing to grow into the position and learn how to play at this level.

BN: Is consistency along the offensive line as big a deal as it’s made it out to be, as far as being conducive to success?

JT: I think you always would love to have the same five guys play every snap together for years on end. It just never really works out that way. I think we play a sport and then a position that has so much carnage on a weekly basis that it's rare to have guys stay healthy consistently. I think that's always nice to have, but it's never a realistic expectation.

BN: The Browns been running the ball really well – 5.2 yards per carry is the second-best mark in the league. What factors into that? And how much do you think Kareem Hunt is going to help?

JT: I think it starts with Nick Chubb. I think he's as talented a back as there is in this league. He can do it all. He's powerful, he’s fast – and he doesn't get credit for how fast he is because he's such a big guy. He does such a great job, even when we don't block perfectly, of making a guy miss, breaking a tackle and getting those extra yards. So I think everything starts with him and then the addition of Kareem, that’s just another asset for us to have, another thing that the defense has to prepare for. And I think he'll do a great job of stepping in and helping us with whatever snaps and touches he gets.

Bringing in a guy who was the rushing leader at one point in Kansas City, having that coming in midseason is just a great addition to get. So I'm excited to have him in the lineup, as well.

BN: You’re in the final year of your contract. Any talk of an extension at this point? Or any thoughts on potentially continuing your career in Cleveland?

JT: At the beginning of the season, I said that if you just go out there and play well and do what you can to help the team win, that stuff will eventually settle itself. So I haven't been worrying about it. I've just tried to go out there and play to the best of my abilities and then let the chips fall where they may. I’ve loved it here in Cleveland. It's great, growing up in Buffalo, being able to shoot home and my parents having an easier trip down to see me play has been a very nice. So it's been a great spot. I'd love to keep playing here. And then, you just wait to see what happens.

BN: What’s your greatest concern facing the Bills? I'm sure you're aware that Jordan Phillips leads all defensive tackles with six sacks this season.

JT: They have a talented group up front, so that'll be a challenge for us. One thing that jumped out to me was the speed and aggressiveness of the linebackers, too. They play sideline-to-sideline very well in the run game. And that's another thing, especially for centers, where we have to block linebackers very often. So that's something that I'll have to pay attention to, as well, is just how fast they are and how athletic they are sideline-to-sideline. It's a really talented group.

BN: You played the Bills in Buffalo in 2014. Is there anything special about playing against your hometown team? I'm guessing you grew up a Bills fan?

JT: I actually grew up a Vikings fan. My dad was one of five boys and I think the other four were all Bills fans, and he bucked the system during the Purple People Eater years, so I jumped on the Vikings bandwagon. That stuff gets passed down, I think in the genes, so I grew up a Vikings fan.

But being from Buffalo, I know that team is just so important to that area. I think it's just always a kind of surreal experience going against the team that’s so important to so many who grew up around me. It's always unique playing a team that you know everybody that you grew up with is going to be watching them play. So that's always a cool experience.

BN: You brought this up a second ago. Cleveland's obviously not far from here. Your parents still come to all your games?

JT: They were a perfect 40-for-40 in college when I was at Cornell, home and away games, and then they make it to, I think, every home game and then a handful of away games every year. It was a lot tougher to do that in Green Bay, but it's gotten significantly easier for them. And it's always great. And then my fiancée, her family lives in Detroit, so it's about the same length of drive into Cleveland for them, so it's just been a great spot.

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