CLEVELAND — Just a year ago, the Browns were winless. They were aimless. They looked hopeless.
Disgusted with their laughable team, some Cleveland fans spent the holidays planning a tongue-in-cheek parade around FirstEnergy Stadium to celebrate a probable 0-16 season. Coach Hue Jackson promised to jump into Lake Erie.
Those gloomy days are long gone. The Browns have turned it around.
“It’s been a long time coming,” wide receiver Rashad Higgins said. “We were due for a winning team.”
With their 26-18 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Browns (7-7-1) completed the biggest turnaround in franchise history. Cleveland’s seven-game improvement — and it could be eight with a win this week in Baltimore — since last season tops the six-game jumps the team made in 1976 and 2007.
It’s been a remarkable swing for a franchise that has had just two winning seasons since its 1999 expansion reboot. And it’s a stunning rise for a team that endured a late-October coaching change, and if not for a play here and there, would be preparing for the playoffs.
In an unpredictable season across the NFL, Cleveland’s one-year comeback may be the biggest shocker of all.
As the final seconds bled from the clock on Sunday and the Browns clinched their best home record in 11 years at 5-2-1, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield took the snap and dropped to a knee before urging the sellout crowd to scream louder than it had all day.
After shaking hands with a few Cincinnati players, Mayfield, who had been serenaded with chants of “Ba-ker! Ba-ker!” throughout much of the second half, then sprinted toward the locker room.
In a way, Mayfield’s departure after the home finale felt more like an arrival. The Browns are back, and Mayfield intends to keep them around.
“I relate to Cleveland,” said Mayfield, who threw three touchdown passes and improved to 6-6 as a starter. “The work ethic, the stuff that you have to earn it around here, that is what the Browns are all about. It is going to be a good relationship for a long time.”
To interim coach Gregg Williams, Cleveland’s surge this season isn’t a surprise. Williams, who has led the Browns to a 5-2 record since taking over for Jackson, has always felt the team had enough talent to win and is finally putting it together.
“I don’t ever walk into any game thinking that we can’t win, and I thought that last year,” said Williams, whose candidacy for the full-time job after the season improves with every victory. “I thought we played extremely well enough in many of those games to win games, and that is how close and tough the league is. It comes down to anywhere from three to four to four to five plays a game.
“Now, we are making more of those plays. The more you make, the easier it is to buy in to understanding of this is how we play as a team. A team wins the game, not individuals.”
Williams has always put team goals first, and while there are several factors that have led to Cleveland’s turnaround, he believes an emphasis on accountability has transformed the Browns.
“We have been able to help them understand that you have to do your job and you have to block out the outside distractions,” he said. “You have to focus and rally together and play for each other. They have done a very good job of not only just doing their job but supporting each other. People see that in team execution over individual execution.”
Williams will likely go into Sunday’s game against the Ravens (9-6) uncertain of his future. Long before the Browns rattled off five wins in six games, general manager John Dorsey said Williams will be one of the candidates he interviews when the season ends.
Dorsey may never have considered that Williams would emerge as possibly the best coach going forward.
Williams has not publicly campaigned for the job, and he wasn’t about to start Monday. He declined to say if he was hoping to get a guarantee like the one Baltimore gave John Harbaugh last week.
“We are on to the Ravens,” he said.
Williams’ short-term goal is to have his team ready to take on Baltimore’s league-leading defense, and to possibly spoil the Ravens’ playoff hopes. If Cleveland beats Baltimore, the Pittsburgh Steelers could take the division with a win over Cincinnati.
“We will treat this like it is our playoff game,” Williams said. “We will treat it that way because that is how intense the game is going to be. It will be fun.”
NOTES: Rookie CB Denzel Ward remains in concussion protocol after suffering his second head injury in three weeks on Sunday. Williams said Ward “was much better” when he left the stadium but doesn’t know if he’ll face the Ravens. ... At 3-1-1, the Browns have clinched their first winning season inside the AFC North since it was formed in 2002.