CLEVELAND — Donte Whitner hears it from every direction, the constant questions about losing. His own frustrated kids give him regular flak about it.
The veteran safety didn’t exactly bargain for this when he joined his hometown Cleveland Browns before last season, ready to carry the winning tradition he helped establish with the 49ers to his new franchise.
Instead, a young Cleveland team is 2-10 and at the bottom in the AFC North after going 7-9 in coach Mike Pettine’s first season a year ago when Whitner came aboard, just 13 months removed from reaching the Super Bowl with the 49ers.
“It is a bit frustrating. Especially coming home, and being from here, and having to hear people — family members, even my own children — say stuff about us losing, and [asking] when are we going to start winning,” Whitner said. “So it has been tough. One thing I can say is, we haven’t given up. We have guys that want to get things right.”
As Whitner prepares to face his former 49ers (4-8) today, he recalls his three successful seasons out West as a pivotal stretch for him in learning to become a leader by watching those around him: Justin Smith. Patrick Willis. Jim Harbaugh. Vic Fangio.
Like Whitner, all four of those men are now gone. Harbaugh is coaching Michigan, while Fangio is defensive coordinator in Chicago. Those special defenses that commanded the NFL’s respect as one of the best units at stopping the run were dismantled in a matter of months last season when Willis walked away from football at age 30 and Smith later followed.
Whitner soaked up all he could from his time around those two stars.
“Being with the 49ers definitely helped me as a leader, learning from guys like Justin of course, Pat, just everybody that we had there,” Whitner said. “Everybody held their own and no matter what happened during the week and no matter what happened on the field, when it came to Sundays guys were going to be ready to play football and win games. That’s what we had there. We had a chemistry unmatched.”
Whitner was with the 49ers from 2011-13, helping the organization advance to its first Super Bowl in 18 years after the 2012 season. San Francisco missed a chance at its sixth championship in a three-point loss to Baltimore — with Harbaugh’s big brother, John, coaching the other side.
Now, Whitner is rooting for 49ers running back and ex-Browns teammate Shaun Draughn after they were Friday weightlifting partners always eager to get a workout in even if it was optional on the schedule.
“That’s my guy,” Draughn said.
When Draughn broke his hand late in training camp this past summer, he couldn’t grab a bar to lift so “I was inventing stuff.” Draughn used a strap over his cast to still do his curls.
“He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I like that one,’” Draughn recalled of Whitner’s reaction. “He’s a guy that leads on that team. As a young guy still, not in a sense of years but in a sense of playing, you look up to those guys. He’s been to the Pro Bowl, he’s done a lot of great things.”
Draughn and Whitner will hardly be the only ones having a reunion this weekend at FirstEnergy Stadium.
San Francisco placekicker Phil Dawson played his first 14 seasons for the Browns, while Cleveland three-time All-Pro punter Andy Lee spent his initial 11 years with San Francisco before being traded in June after the Niners drafted punter Bradley Pinion. San Francisco defensive coordinator Eric Mangini coached Cleveland in 2009-10 after beginning as a Browns ball boy in 1994.
As the 30-year-old Whitner nears the end of his 10th NFL season and second back home with Cleveland, he has 66 tackles, half a sack and a forced fumble heading into Sunday.
“We’ve had a little bad luck this year — losing by field goals, getting called offside, getting an interception versus Denver in the latter parts of the game and overtime,” he said. “We’re a lot closer than a lot of people would give us credit for. Nobody is going to believe it until we actually go out there and turn it around and put some wins together. But right now we’re in the same boat as the San Francisco 49ers and we’re just clawing for a win.”