Hey, they don’t call it the wild card for nothing, and nothing has been wilder in this Browns season than this Browns season.
Somehow they managed to crawl from the wreckage with 11 wins, more than any Browns team since 1994, when their coach was Bill Belichick and their quarterback was Vinny Testaverde, who are now 68 and 57 years old, respectively.
So, yes, it’s been awhile.
Sunday the wait, finally, was worth it, even if Browns fans had no choice but to wait. Browns fans are world-class wait-ers, with world-class loyalty.
To them, the Browns on Sunday beat the Steelers in a blowout: 24-22. That’s right, a two-point blowout. Consider the context.
It was a playoffs-clinching blowout, and blowup, because it blew up AND out all the years of waiting for your Browns to play like your father’s Browns and your grandfather’s Browns.
That train has finally rolled into the station.
Regardless of what happens next weekend in Pittsburgh when the Browns and Steelers meet again, nothing will match, in its own way, the significance of the victory Sunday, when the Browns, having to win or go home, won and will go to Pittsburgh.
In many ways it’s a seminal win that validates this turnaround season for a franchise that has been stuck in reverse for decades. Finally, ownership got all the right pieces in the right place. The template has been re-struck, and the man holding the hammer is Kevin Stefanski.
Taking over a hopeless, woebegone, franchise — the kind of mess first-year coaches tend to inherit — Stefanski rolled up his sleeves and navigated through an NFL season unlike any in history. It was culminated in the last two weeks in which — with his team’s season on the line — a pandemic ruptured Stefanski’s roster, but not his coaching chops.
It got a little dicey with the loss to the Jets, which the Browns prepped for with Stefanski putting the team through a morning walkthrough practice in a hotel parking garage. Not to mention the loss of all of the team’s top receivers due to COVID-19 protocols.
The loss was ugly for many reasons, the main one being it meant the Browns had to beat the Steelers to reach the playoffs.
Sunday the Browns beat the Steelers to reach the playoffs.
It sounds cliche-ish, but it really is a culture thing. And the culture thing has been the biggest thing missing since the Browns once again became an NFL thing in 1999.
Culture and character go hand in hand, and the establishment of both those qualities in a franchise absolutely devoid of both for, it seems, forever, is Stefanski’s most important achievement this year.
It’s reflected in the 24-22 blowout of the Steelers on Sunday.
“There was a culture of losing,” said Browns guard Joel Bitonio, who, having been on the Browns roster the longest, has seen more losing than anyone. “Hopefully we’re setting the stage for a culture of winning in Cleveland for a long time. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction. We’re playing for each other.”
The creation and nurturing of all that lies at the core of great coaching. Normally it’s not done overnight. Normally it’s not done in the middle of a pandemic. Normally it’s not done by a first-year coach in the NFL.
But Kevin Stefanski is not your normal coach.
Indeed, the biggest takeaway, the most important takeaway from this wilder-than-wild Browns season is Stefanski’s demonstrable ability to almost immediately create a culture in which a season like this can occur.
The NFL backroads are littered with failed coaches who were unable to turn the losing around because they couldn’t turn the culture around. That’s a people thing. A chemistry thing. A leadership thing.
It’s a thing that a coach lacking it would have been powerless to prevent this Browns season from going down the drain in the last two weeks.
Stefanski, who himself did not have a good game against the Jets, orchestrated a quick self-and-team reboot following that debacle. He adjusted to the loss of still more personnel, including (don’t underestimate the impact of this) valued assistant coaches due to COVID-19. He game-planned a blueprint that resulted in a victory over the erstwhile AFC bully Steelers that resulted in what, for many reasons, is one of the most important wins in recent Browns history.
Yes, Pittsburgh sat some of its stars. But the Steelers already have their culture. You saw it on display Sunday, when the rest of the Steelers nearly broke Cleveland’s heart.
One of Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrases when talking about his team is “the standard is the standard” and that’s what his team played up to Sunday.
Stefanski has taken a giant step in quickly setting the standard for the Browns, and that’s what won Sunday’s game.
Tangibly it was only a two-point win.
The importance of it intangibly?