CLEVELAND — For years, Cleveland was well known as the butt of the joke across the sports world, particularly when it came to the Browns. Super Bowl-less, winless in 2017 and in what seemed to be a perpetual cycle of failed coaches and quarterbacks—no athlete looking for a championship would give Cleveland a second glance.
On Friday, newly signed safety John Johnson III and defensive end Takkarist McKinley spoke for their first time as members of the Browns. Among their answers about how they can contribute on the field and who they have connected with on the team was a shared perspective, one which has scarcely been held by players in the past.
The Cleveland Browns are the team to play for.
“I felt like it was an opportunity of a lifetime, coming to a situation that things are moving in the right direction. That’s rare in this business,” Johnson said. “It's rare that people care about you, people actually appreciate you and want to do things the right way. This city as a whole, let alone the organization, it just drips that.”
A player just one season removed from the Super Bowl calling signing with the Browns “an opportunity of a lifetime” seems like a dream. But that’s the reality in Cleveland now. In just a few short years, the Browns have changed the narrative, flipped the script, killed the jokes, all by simply getting the right guys involved in the organization.
“That losing stuff is not a part of Cleveland anymore,” McKinley said.
And while we’ll have to see how the 2021 season plays out, McKinley is right—because the Browns are no longer losing out on talent in free agency.
“Honestly, I knew that the fans loved their team and supported the team, but when I got here yesterday, people started to notice me already so that just confirmed everything. I have just been hearing things. It is all coming into fruition, and I am just happy I made the right decision,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘It will be a perfect fit to get out here to Cleveland.’ It was a no-brainer.”
Before the free agent signing, the Browns tried to claim McKinley off waivers three times and even attempted to trade for him. He also said the decision was a no-brainer for him.
“It was a really easy decision for me once they offered. I talked to my agent – ‘Let’s get it done. Let’s go. I am ready to go,’” McKinley said. “I’m just very, very excited to be a part of the Cleveland Browns knowing how bad they wanted me and just knowing the opportunity that lays in front of me. I’m with a team that has a great locker room. The culture is changing. I’m just excited to be a part of and continue to change what people think about the Cleveland Browns.”
Although the Browns got a taste of success last season, making the playoffs and winning in the postseason for the first time in years, the work to change the perception of Cleveland’s football team is only just beginning—but their newest additions are eager to help the Browns take that next step and do what fans around the world have been waiting for their entire lives—hoist the Lombardi Trophy through the streets of Cleveland.
“I’m just proud to come join this team and keep trying to win games and keep changing the narrative,” McKinley said. “I don’t know what Andrew Berry’s vision was – I’m not going to lie to you – but whatever it is, it’s shaping up and looking good for the city of Cleveland.”
General manager Andrew Berry focused last offseason on strengthening the offense and was expected to take a similar approach with the defense this offseason. With the signings of Johnson and McKinley, linebacker Anthony Walker, cornerback Troy Hill and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, Berry seems driven to get the Browns to the next level.
Johnson, who was the signal-caller for the Rams defense and is a proven leader, is ready to help his teammates get there.
“They invested in me so I have to give them back what they invested in me. I’m just looking forward to it, looking forward to being the same person every day. I’m looking forward to coming to work with a positive attitude rubbing off on people and most importantly, winning. That is the goal,” Johnson said, “That is why they brought me in – to establish a great defense, which we have the foundation to do it, but a guy like me, I feel wholeheartedly that we can take the next step.”
The tide has turned thanks in part to the explosive offense led by the long-sought franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield, the innovative and competent leadership steered by head coach Kevin Stefanski, and the strategically analytical decision making led by Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta. Now, the Browns are a destination team where players with a little bit of confidence feel like they could be the final piece that completes the Browns puzzle and helps land the Browns that elusive championship.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.