CLEVELAND — We knew it when they went to the playoffs last year, and this preseason has only reinforced it: These aren't, as fans have intoned for decades, the "same old Browns."
This team has a winning culture -- but how does any team make such a stark turnaround so quickly? There are many contributing factors, but the one the players talk about most is the chemistry.
This Browns team, they say, has chemistry. Over the past few years the players on the roster have formed almost a brotherhood, and in their unity and with their bonds have created a new culture both on and off the field.
Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy, who spoke to the Browns after their Orange & Brown practice a few weeks back, made the importance of creating bonds with each other clear, letting them know they can win a lot of games with Xs and Os, but he said "the best teams are the ones that are the closest."
If Dungy's message holds true, these Browns are well on their way to the top.
Jarvis and Odell
The leader of the change and the spark that helped begin creating the bonds was wide receiver Jarvis Landry. We all remember the passionate (and a little NSFW) speech on HBO's "Hard Knocks" in 2018 right after his arrival to the team.
"I don't know what the ***** been going on here and I don't know why it's been going on here but if you're not hurt—like if your hamstring ain't falling off the ******* bone, your leg ain't broke—you should be ******* practicing. Straight up. That **** is weakness and that **** is contagious as ****. And that **** ain't going to be in this room. That **** has been here in the past and that's why the past has been like it is. That **** is over with here.
If you can ******* practice, practice. You can't get no better, ain't nobody going to get better by being on the ******* sideline if you ain't ******* hurt. If you're not ******* hurt you've got to ******* practice because you make other ************* work even ******* harder and now they're at more ******* risk at getting hurt because you don't want to ******* practice—because you're being a *****.
Straight up, that **** is ******* real. That **** ain't happening here. So I'm just letting y'all know that **** is not ******* happening here. I'm hurt and I'm tired just like every ******* body in this *************, but I ain't taking no ************* days off because I can't be ******* great that way. That's got to be the attitude and the mentality all the ******* time. All that weak **** don't ******* live here no more—that **** don't exist. It's contagious, it's really ******* contagious. It's contagious.
That speech still resonates with many fans who feel that moment might have been the turning point for a team that had been historically awful for years. Landry has continued to be a vocal leader since that moment on national television, but beyond his dedication to changing the culture on the field, his friendships with teammates, especially Odell Beckham Jr., have helped create culture change off the field.
"I think it does start with Odell and Jarvis, who've been best friends," said Browns offensive lineman Joel Bitonio.
Bitonio, who has been a part of the Browns since 2014, has been through the good and the bad of the organization, and if anyone knows the ins and outs of the Browns friendships, it's him.
Beckham and Landry's friendship stems back to high school, becoming friends right away at a football tournament in Alabama—a friendship that continued through their days together at LSU and into the NFL with their paths coming back together on the Browns in 2019.
That deep-rooted friendship is important to the team because it has helped change the culture within the organization. Sure, players were friends before either Landry or Beckham were on the Browns, but their closeness has branched out and drawn their teammates in as well, creating tight-knit friend groups within the roster.
While drawing in fellow receivers Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones and developing the friendships with rookies like Anthony Schwartz and Demetric Felton, Landry and Beckham have been blossoming the friendships in their position room and beyond.
The connection between Landry and Beckham is the longest-lasting, but a group of guys up front has also helped create bonds on the Browns.
Joel Bitonio and the Browns O-line
Of all of the different friend groups on the Browns, the one that might be the biggest—no pun intended, honest—is the group of offensive linemen.
Bitonio is entering his eighth season with the Browns, five of which he's played next to center JC Tretter. Their friendship has grown exponentially over the years and has recently welcomed new faces to the gang.
"Me and JC now going on five years together, so when you have those type of friendships, you bring guys like Jack [Conklin] who's pretty easygoing, and it's like, 'Alright, now we have three friends that want to do all the stuff together,'" Bitonio said.
Right guard Wyatt Teller recently mentioned how much fun the guys are able to have because of their connections off the field.
"I've been blessed to have the opportunity that I have and then to spend it with good guys. It's kind of funny, it's like we're back in school, we'll get yelled at for talking too much because we like each other," Teller said. "It's good that we have that camaraderie and good guys in the room -- good guys around me."
That fun translates on the field each and every day and gives the players something more to fight for game in and game out.
"Anytime you're close with somebody, when you go to the field, and it's like, man, I don't want to let down my teammates, but now I don't want to let down my brother, my best friend," Bitonio said. "We're playing for each other, we're playing for something bigger, you know, the Cleveland Browns, the city of Cleveland, and it all just kind of adds on."
Baker Mayfield tying things together
While Landry and Beckham, as well as Bitonio and the O-line, are credited by some of their teammates for sparking this collection of close friends on the roster, the glue that makes it all stick is quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Like on any team, one would expect the quarterback to be the leader of the roster. But Mayfield has done much more than simply lead during his time in Cleveland.
"When your quarterback is like Baker, he's kind of like the trigger man here, because he can relate to anybody," Bitonio said. "When you have him at quarterback, it's easy for everybody to unite around him."
Whether he's going out to dinner with the offensive line or hanging with guys from other position groups, Mayfield has not only been a part of the bond that has grown on the team but has brought them together, intermixing the groups and solidifying the entire team as one close unit.
"You enjoy playing and working with people who have the same goal-oriented mentality as you," Mayfield said just before Browns training camp began.
With what started at 90 guys on the roster at the start of the summer, reduced to 53 before the regular season approaches — you don't just stumble into that many like-minded people. Instead, a shared mentality can be attributed to a leader keeping them focused and grounded — a leader who has helped instill a winning attitude across the team.
"When it comes to culture, that's just a process. It was not exactly fun the first few years trying to build that. It just takes getting people in the right mindset and having people on the same page. That is one of those things that — it takes time,” Mayfield said.
It's just two years into the newly-established culture, but so far it looks as though Mayfield has successfully completed the task of getting his teammates in the right mindset, with credit to the people above him as well, but what does that change actually look like?
The Browns haven't just changed in the sense that they win games now. The change of culture has made a world of difference for the team, stemming from the bonds they've built with each other and translating that on the field — that means even when they aren't winning.
When the Browns would lose a game in the past, which was nearly every week there for a good stretch, coaches, players and the like would point fingers at each other. The solution wasn't to hold each other accountable but rather find someone to blame and hold team meetings to decide what to do about whatever was deemed to be the specific problem.
Last season could not have been further from what those years were like.
"Any time we lost a game last year, there was never any finger-pointing or anything where in years past, it's been like, 'Oh, we need a team meeting, we need to figure this stuff out,'" Bitonio said. "Last year was just like, 'Hey, we didn't play well enough, we're going to get back to work and do this.' And I think when you have a friendship, you can hold each other accountable in that sense."
Friendship helps, and minimal turnover on the roster the past few years doesn't hurt either.
"My first few years in the league we had so much turnover, and you bring in new GMs and new head coaches, that it really is hard. Some of your best friends you lose on cut down day or they get traded and things like that. And we've had two years of kind of stability here," Bitonio said. "We have these friendships where it's fun to go into meetings and talk with your guys and have meals together and stuff like that where you're enjoying being around guys. And sometimes when you're on a football team or you go to work, you don't always do that. You go to work, and it's part of the business."
The friendship between Landry and Beckham might be the longest, and the friendship between the O-linemen might have the most members in the group, but all of the bonds built within the Browns have importance.
Whether it's running back Kareem Hunt working to crack a smile on the face of stoic Nick Chubb or jabbing him to buy him a Wagyu steak after a big contract extension, or rookie safety Richard LeCounte III heading up a few floors in his building to hang out at John Johnson III's penthouse and watch film together—the Browns are continuing the trend of growing closer with each other.
Even having players from the same school has helped to jump-start on the bonding process. The Browns have multiple players from LSU, Northwestern, Michigan State, Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State and UCLA.
It's been visible throughout training camp this year. The Browns have shared a lot of laughs, some unique celebrations and intricate handshakes among the teammates. On any given practice, you can find groups of guys dancing on the sidelines, rookies and veterans chatting it up and sharing knowledge, a few moments of disagreement here and there followed by explanations and apologies, and plenty of work going on in between.
The Browns are having fun, both on the field and off, and they're hopeful it pays off this season in the way they perform. The last time the team looked like this was more than 30 years ago, and one player from that era sees similarities between then and now.
In 1989, the Browns ended the season first in their division, going on to beat the Bills in the divisional round of the playoffs before falling to the Broncos in the AFC Championship. It was the last time the Browns knocked on the door of the Super Bowl.
Led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, those Browns played well through all the adversity they faced, not allowing losses or outside distractions like a player being arrested in a drug bust to keep their focus off winning.
Former Browns running back Eric Metcalf said he can see his former team reflected in the Browns' current roster because like this team, the 1989 group was tight-knit and great friends.
"Of course, there was Bernie. Then you had Hanford Dixon and [Frank] Minnifield. You had Eddie Johnson, you had Webster Slaughter — was a guy who liked to talk a lot," Metcalf laughed. "There were so many guys then, and it's so similar to what's going on right now."
Metcalf looked back on the many years that followed the '89 team and even early '90s teams. These past couple of decades have been filled with losses for the team and heartbreak for the fans, and there is one thing the former Browns star noticed about the bad old days.
"Guys were looking for a way out. Guys are looking for free-agent deals, what they're going to do next and they don't want to get hurt. So it makes it a lot harder, as opposed to having a player that you're winning with, and you love being around, then you don't really care, because it's all about the team and your sacrifices for the team," Metcalf said. "I think in those years, it just wasn't in a situation where guys really wanted to be in Cleveland, where guys really wanted to play for each other. And that showed."
While the Browns still have to produce on the field this season, being able to play well together is something that should come a lot more naturally for this team now that they've gotten on the same page and created these strong bonds.
"I think when it's all said and done, when you have guys who lead like that and guys who want to play for each other, it makes it a lot easier to win football games," Metcalf said.
But it was Beckham who said it best at the start of training camp: "There's just something that feels special about this team."
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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