CLEVELAND — One year ago today, the Cleveland Browns had just lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and were 5-7 on the season and about to lose three of their next four. Two years ago today, the Browns had recently lost to the Houston Texans and were 4-7-1 on the season, although about to hit a hot streak thanks to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. And no one needs a reminder about where the Browns were three years ago. That’s a memory many would love to forget.
But here, in the craziness of the 2020 season, the Browns are 9-3 after beating the Tennessee Titans Sunday 41-35 (although the final score doesn't reflect the way the Browns controlled the game).
From major toe-drag catches to a big guy touchdown from offensive tackle Kendall Lamm, the Browns looked dominant through much of the game. Sunday's win was defining. It solidified the fact that the Browns aren't just beating bad teams but competing at a high level against playoff teams. The tide has turned in Cleveland, and it's been a long time coming.
The Kevin Stefanski-era
The Browns are nearly unrecognizable this season. On the field they’ve shown resiliency and grit, embracing the “next man up mentality” in a season riddled with injuries and impacted in nearly every way by the COVID-19 pandemic.
From Jan. 2 when owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam held their first press conference after firing former head coach Freddie Kitchen and former general manager John Dorsey, the Browns organization started mentioning the idea of finding “alignment.”
“I think everybody talks a lot about structure – and I think structure is important – but I think far more important are these two things: getting the right people and making sure they are aligned. If you looked at the other 31 teams, there are all kinds of different structures, but if you look at the successful organizations that are consistently in the playoffs year after year, there is alignment within the organization, and they have the right people in the right place – coach and GM,” Jimmy Haslam said in January. “That is what we are focusing on tremendously, and that alignment is something that is really, really important. It sounds easy, but it is not.”
Well, easy or not, 12 days later the Haslams found their head coach in Kevin Stefanski. He was plucked from the Minnesota Vikings where he learned how to marry the run and pass game, coached an array of positions and proved his ability to develop and improve a quarterback—a perfect trio for the Browns organization.
During his first press conference as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Stefanski outlined his goals.
“I’m not going to stand up here and make any bold predictions about what we’re going to do this year. I’m not going to speak anything into existence right now. I can just promise you that we’re going to work,” Stefanski said in January. “I’ve spoken to a few of our players already, and that’s what I’m about. I’m about working, and I’m about putting a foundation together.
Bold predictions aside, Stefanski has started the season strong. Last week, Stefanski’s 8-3 record marked the best among new head coaches in 2020 and the best start to a season by a first-year Browns head coach since Blanton Collier (8-3) in 1963.
This season, although bumpy at times, and with plenty to improve upon moving forward, has been different than seasons of the past. Stefanski said in January when he was hired that he sought to establish a “culture of accountability” in Cleveland.
“We’ll have a culture of accountability. We’ll have structures in place. The players will understand our rules and what we’re about, and we’re going to be demanding. We’re going to hold each player accountable,” Stefanski said.
On Thursday, a little less than a year after his initial press conference, Stefanksi addressed that culture change again, crediting the people around him for buying in and sharing a mindset—a mindset that has allowed the Browns to start 9-3 this season with a chance at the playoffs within reach.
“I do not think I came in here or any of our coaches came in here to change a culture. We just established our own, and we just kind of explained what we are about and what we believe in,” Stefanski said. “To the players’ credit, I think we have a bunch of guys that believe in the same things, and they want to help the team in any which way they can.”
Bolstered by Berry
Stefanksi shared praise for Executive Vice President of Operations and General Manager Andrew Berry.
“I would give Andrew Berry a ton of credit for the people he brought in here via trade, free agency and the draft,” Stefanski said.
Berry, the youngest general manager in NFL history, has made impactful moves in his first season.
Under Berry, the Browns have solidified their identity as the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL as of Week 12 by tendering running back Kareem Hunt to keep the one-two punch he provides with Nick Chubb in the backfield (the duo is truly dynamic) and KhaDarel Hodge, who has started developing chemistry with Mayfield.
Berry also brought in a ton of talent to bolster the offensive line and provide depth to aid in Stefanski’s offensive scheme, including tight end Austin Hooper, right tackle Jack Conklin, backup quarterback Case Keenum, linebacker B.J. Goodson, safety Karl Joseph, fullback Andy Janovich and defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
He found rookie talent in the draft in Jedrick Wills Jr., who was moved to left tackle and has created an offensive line able to both open up the run game and protect Mayfield, with the help of Conklin, right guard Wyatt Teller and left guard veteran Joel Bitonio.
That’s not to mention drafting wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, center Nick Harris, tight end Harrison Bryant, linebacker Jacob Phillips, defensive tackle Jordan Elliot and safety Grant Delpit.
Nearly every move Berry has made has seemed to complement the Stefanski-era of the Browns so far, and it’s gone a long way.
The growth of Baker Mayfield
One of the most important goals for Stefanski coming into Cleveland was getting Mayfield back to his rookie-year self and solidify him as the franchise quarterback the team had spent years searching for.
Mayfield has had his ups and downs this season, drawing criticism for his missteps and mistakes, sometimes rightfully so. Because of those mistakes, Mayfield has said he’s been hard on himself but is using that criticism to improve.
After last week's uneven performance, he said, “I am not going to add any more pressure on myself, but I am very critical of my play. I pride myself on being an accurate passer, and I did not do that. I am going to beat myself up about that because I know I can be better, and it pisses me off I do not do the things I need to. I am trying to get better each week. That is taking care of the ball and that is completing these passes that should be made in my sleep.”
While his growth is still in progress, Mayfield has shown this season that he is capable of being the franchise guy. On Sunday against the Titans, his footwork was solid. His accuracy was on point. Completing 25 of his 33 attempts for 334 yards, Mayfield connected with nine different receivers in the first half alone.
He set a tone on Sunday and even recorded a major milestone, becoming the first Browns quarterback to record four touchdown passes in the first half since Hall-of-Famer Otto Graham did it in 1951.
The coaches have said they’ve been working with Mayfield on developing the balance of taking care of the ball and being aggressive with his choices, and we’ve seen him do both well this season, especially on Sunday.
Last week as they prepared to take on the Titans, Mayfield reflected on how far the team had come since facing Tennessee in 2019 and getting crushed to open the season. Mayfield said the team's culture has changed since then.
“It is night and day. Obviously, staff and personnel on the team, but, like we talked about, it starts with culture. A lot of that was the moves in the off-season to create this culture change. We are going to continue to build on it. We are not satisfied whatsoever,” Mayfield.
And no, they shouldn’t be satisfied just yet, there’s still a lot of season (and, fingers crossed, postseason), but the Browns are 9-3 and hardly resemble the team of the past. With Sunday's win, the Browns clinched a season over .500 for the first time in 13 years and have their best overall record through 12 games since returning to Cleveland in 1999.
In less than a season, the Browns have found a way to distance themselves from the haunting phrase, “I’ll have to go back and watch the tapes.” In the words of Stefanski, “I think if you bring in the right people, all of a sudden, you have the right culture.”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.