Rock bottom isn’t always easy to identify. It’s often buried under layers of trash.
But for a Browns organization that won eight league championships in its first 19 seasons, the nadir wore neon.
Led by coach Hue Jackson, dozens of members of the organization jumped into Lake Erie on June 1, 2018. Jackson was fulfilling a promise — threat might be more appropriate — he made after going 1-15 in his first season. Not only did the Browns fail to win more games in Year 2, they regressed, joining the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history.
The plunge was filled with joyful shouting and splashing and it screamed incompetence. Owner Dee Haslam joined Jackson in the water, then explained why he was the right man for the job despite a 1-31 record.
The regrettable flashback is necessary to appreciate just how far the Browns have come.
In so short a time.
In 15 months the Browns have gone from a national embarrassment to a source of extreme excitement. Time, Sports Illustrated and GQ visited team headquarters to write about the hottest team in the NFL. Oddsmakers vary but some list the Browns as the fourth choice to win the AFC — ahead of the Steelers — and sixth to win the Super Bowl.
A franchise that hasn’t had a winning record since 2007, hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002, hasn’t won a playoff game since Jan. 1, 1995, and has never been to the Super Bowl has certainly captured the country’s imagination.
TV executives are all-in, handing the Browns four prime-time games, including Week 2 at the Jets, Week 3 vs. the Rams and Week 5 at San Francisco.
“I think the expectation is to win,” Dee Haslam said during training camp. “I think that’s everybody’s expectation.”
From the Lake Erie shore to national phenomenon is a journey of a thousand steps. Here are the 10 most significant, in order.
1. Hiring the architect
General manager John Dorsey wasn’t the first piece in the turnaround.
He’s the most important.
At its core, the NFL is about talent evaluation and acquisition. Dorsey excels at both.
He was criticized for an early interview in which he said he needed to get some “real players.” He was exactly right.
When he was hired Dec. 7, 2017, he inherited a team bereft of talent. Predecessor Sashi Brown, who was fired as Dorsey came aboard, had executed a teardown but wasn’t capable of the ensuing construction. He left Dorsey with a bushel of draft picks, a ton of salary cap space and holes across the roster.
The significance of Dorsey’s hiring isn’t complete without Brown’s firing.
A certain stubborn and vocal segment of the media and fan base praises Brown for the plan to lose games and accumulate assets.
It’s debatable whether he deserves credit for sinking the franchise to the lowest level of any team in NFL history, but it’s indisputable Dorsey had resources at his disposal when he took over. What many of the Brown backers refuse to acknowledge is that he had failed to prove he could capitalize on the draft picks or salary cap space.
Of the 53 men on the 2019 Week 1 roster, only six were acquired by Brown — defensive end Myles Garrett, tight end David Njoku, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, linebacker Joe Schobert, receiver Rashard Higgins and center JC Tretter.
Dorsey has overseen a dramatic transformation of every position group except linebacker — and he drafted two of them in April. He’s used trades, the draft, free agency and the waiver wire to stack a roster that ranks with the best in the league.
“My job is to get as many good football players as I possibly can,” he said at the start of training camp.
He jump-started the process by trading for receiver Jarvis Landry and free safety Damarious Randall in March 2018. He laid the foundation for the future by drafting quarterback Baker Mayfield, cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb within the first 35 picks in April 2018.
Then he decided to push his chips into the center of the table by trading for receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon and signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson this March.
“He’s a football guy. Most GMs aren’t football guys,” Randall said. “He played on the field. He understands the athletes. He understands taking risks.”
From Carmen Policy to Butch Davis to Phil Savage to Eric Mangini to Tom Heckert to Joe Banner to Ray Farmer to Brown, none of Dorsey’s predecessors since 1999 could handle the No. 1 job of a GM. Find a quarterback.
Dorsey appears to have nailed it with his first pick.
2. Getting the guy
As the Browns stacked losing seasons and the dysfunction reached ridiculous levels, it became apparent a special person would be required to save the organization.
That person better play quarterback.
Enter Baker Mayfield.
Months before the Browns would turn in their pick — when the thought of taking a 6-foot-1 quarterback at No. 1 confounded experts and every word, movement and throw was scrutinized by teams, media and fans — Mayfield declared himself the man for the job. He climbed the steps to the podium at the scouting combine, set his jaw and didn’t care how cocky he sounded.
“If anybody’s going to turn that franchise around, it’s going to be me,” he said in Indianapolis. “They’re close, they’re very close, they’ve got the right pieces, they just need that one guy and quarterback makes the difference.”
Does he ever.
Browns fans didn’t need the infamous jersey with the crossed-out names to know the futility at quarterback. The scars went deep.
The draft-pick busts (Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel), the over-the-hill veterans (Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Jake Delhomme) and the collection of misfit passers who never had a chance (Robert Griffin III, Jason Campbell, Kevin Hogan).
The organization needed someone who wouldn’t crumble under the weight of the past. Mayfield just doesn’t care. He refused to answer questions about the 0-16 season because he wasn’t a part of it and didn’t want to be associated with it.
The Browns couldn’t wait any longer to take a quarterback at the top of the draft. Brown had passed on Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, Houston’s Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
Dorsey gambled with Mayfield, an undersized underdog compared to Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen in his draft class. Dorsey saw everything he needed and wanted.
Mayfield’s decisive and accurate. He moves well inside and outside the pocket and has the arm strength to make any throw. He also has the intangibles.
“His internal relentless desire to compete will get him wherever he wants to go,” coach Freddie Kitchens said. “He is a natural leader. People follow him.”
Mayfield electrified the city by coming off the bench to beat the Jets in Week 3 last year and end the team’s 19-game winless streak. He led the turnaround in the second half of the season and finished with an NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes.
He’s doing what he said he would at the combine.
“He’s confident,” Kitchens said. “He’s going to go out there and back it up.”
3. Picking the pass rusher
Stopping the quarterback is the No. 1 priority of the defense. The best way to do that is with an unstoppable pass rusher.
A year before Dorsey took Mayfield at the top of the draft, Brown chose Garrett at the same spot. The pick can be second-guessed — Mahomes and Watson went Nos. 10 and 12 — but Garrett’s talent and potential can’t be denied.
He entered the league as a physical freak at 6-4, 272 pounds. He lost 10 pounds in the offseason and begins his third season lighter, faster and more motivated than ever.
If the Browns can take leads into the fourth quarter — and with Vernon, Richardson and Ogunjobi filling out the front four — the conditions will be perfect for Garrett to make a run at Defensive Player of the Year. He had 13.5 sacks last year without dominating consistently. If he can get to 20 and the Browns reach the playoffs, he’ll check a giant box off his career to-do list.
He has the speed and flexibility to turn the corner, the power to jolt a tackle and the creativity to mix and match moves. All that may be missing is the determination to dominate every snap.
“Myles is good, but Myles has aspirations to be more and I want him to be more because he can be more. I want him to be the best that he can be,” Kitchens said. “Myles has a high expectation of himself. We are going to hold him to that, and he is going to hold himself to that.”
4. Reuniting best friends
The trade for Landry signaled to the rest of the league the Browns meant business.
He was one of the league’s most productive receivers in his four years with the Dolphins, catching 400 passes and making three straight Pro Bowls. He wanted big money and the Dolphins weren’t willing to pay.
Dorsey sent fourth- and seventh-round picks to Miami in March 2018, welcomed Landry’s competitive spirit, encouraged him to be a culture changer and signed him to a five-year, $75 million extension.
The trade for Beckham this March let the league know the Browns were ready for prime time. Dorsey wasn’t afraid to send first- and third-round picks and strong safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants for the emotional superstar with boundless talent and a five-year, $90 million contract signed last year.
Beckham and Landry have been best friends since high school in Louisiana. They believe the reunion is fate and they’re destined to do great things with the Browns.
Dorsey got his young quarterback two playmakers with expansive catch radii and highlight reels full of one-handed receptions.
“They’re brothers and they both want to win,” Mayfield said.
5. Clearing the way
Whether Kitchens is the man to lead the Browns back to prominence remains to be seen. That Jackson wasn’t that guy had become painfully obvious long before he was fired Oct. 29.
The Haslams were timid following the backlash for firing three coaches in their first four years and held onto Jackson for a third year despite the worst stretch by a coach in NFL history. They finally relented and fired him when the working relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley turned toxic.
With Jackson and Haley gone, the team reset and Mayfield could grow. Kitchens, placed in the coordinator job, nurtured that development and pulled the ultimate upset by being named head coach.
The Browns seem to have found a comfortable combination to support Mayfield in Kitchens, quarterbacks coach Ryan Lindley and veteran backup Drew Stanton.
“It’s important to have that nucleus in the quarterback room,” Stanton said. “It’s a collective group effort to try and get Baker ready to play on Sundays and play as good as possible.”
6. Dominating on the D-line
If the recipe for winning is getting a lead and then unleashing the hounds in the fourth quarter, you need hounds to unleash.
Dorsey inherited Garrett and Ogunjobi but recognized the need for more pass rushers along the front four. So he traded for Vernon and signed Richardson to a three-year, $37 million contract, transforming the defensive line within a couple of days in mid-March.
“Wanted to win,” second-year end Genard Avery said. “We brought it inside and out.”
Garrett is suddenly surrounded by talent on a line Kitchens calls the strength of the team. The Giants and Eagles won Super Bowls recently led by their front fours, and the Browns are trying to follow suit.
7. Bolstering the backfield
Dorsey has shown time and again he’s willing to take risks. Signing troubled running back Kareem Hunt on Feb. 11 was another obvious example.
Dorsey spent the No. 35 pick on Chubb in the 2018 draft and he rushed for 996 yards, a 5.2 average and eight touchdowns. Dorsey saw a chance to get even better and accepted the criticism he knew would come with signing Hunt, who is suspended for the first eight games for two off-field altercations, including shoving and kicking a woman.
Dorsey believes in second chances. He also believes in talent.
By himself, Chubb is a potential Pro Bowler and wonderful complement to Beckham and Landry. With Hunt, the backfield could come close to matching the receivers in explosiveness.
“It can definitely be something special,” Hunt said. “It already is something special, but it’s like we’ll two-time ’em.”
8. Cornering the market
Dorsey didn’t have much time to celebrate after picking Mayfield, except for a quick “buddy boy” on the welcoming phone call. He also inherited the No. 4 pick and the opportunity to make a statement on defense.
The popular choice would’ve been North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb, but Dorsey was chasing greatness with the top-five pick and went with Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.
“The kid is as talented a young corner as there is in the league,” pass game coordinator/secondary coach Joe Whitt said. “The kid can bend, he can run, he can get the ball, he can see the flash of the ball, he can do all of that.”
Sticking to his game plan, Dorsey wasn’t content with Ward and doubled up this year, taking LSU corner Greedy Williams in the second round. The most critical positions require the most resources.
9. Stealing a safety
Quarterback DeShone Kizer, a second-round pick of Brown, started 15 games as a rookie in 2017. Dorsey had seen enough to know not only did the Browns need better, he didn’t want Kizer.
That he turned the errant passer into Randall belongs on Dorsey’s list of best moves. He only had to give up Kizer and agree to switch picks in the fourth and fifth rounds. Kizer was cut by the Packers on Saturday, while Randall earned Pro Bowl consideration last year and seems poised for a breakout season in his contract year.
The Browns put Randall back at his natural position of free safety after he played cornerback with Green Bay, and allowed him to display his over-the-top personality. He’s talking about going undefeated and blowing out half the schedule before taking the field for Week 1.
“He has range. He has great ball skills. He’s extremely smart,” Whitt said. “The kid is very gifted, he’s talented.”
Randall’s an example of the Packers connection cultivated by Dorsey. He hired assistant GM Eliot Wolf and vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith from Green Bay and continues to add players with the Packers in their past.
10. Using the leftovers
Brown left Dorsey a handful of players who will be key contributors if the Browns get to where they want to go this year.
Garrett’s talent speaks for itself and he’s headed for a record-breaking contract. Bitonio has been a team leader for years and finally made the Pro Bowl last season.
Schobert was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and remains the signal caller of the defense. Ogunjobi looks poised for a Pro Bowl season. Tretter has been better and tougher than expected when signed as an under-the-radar free agent.
Bitonio has a soft spot for Brown and believes his teardown plan is paying dividends.
“From a grand scheme of things, looking back on it now, I think they had a plan where, hey, we’re going to be bad for a couple years, we’re going to get a lot of picks, we’re going to make a lot of trades and we’re going to put ourselves in position to hit on those picks,” he said. “He never had a chance really to live that out, but it set it up really nicely for Dorsey and I think Dorsey has capitalized on that.”