The outstanding and ongoing season is, of course, about Kevin Stefanski, Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett.
Don’t forget Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry and Joel Bitonio.
But as much as this year of surprising success, thrilling firsts and hope for even greater achievements has been driven by the stars, it’s been held up by the supporting cast.
That list is a long one with names much less familiar.
Porter Gustin, M.J. Stewart Jr., Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michael Dunn, Blake Hance and Sheldrick Redwine to kick things off.
The freshest memory is the wild card win over the Steelers last week. Stewart, Redwine and Gustin — the 260-pound defensive end made a diving grab — intercepted Ben Roethlisberger as the Browns built a 35-7 lead in the first half. Dunn, starting for the first time at left guard, won his matchup with four-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cam Heyward before leaving in the fourth quarter with a calf strain. Enter Hance, who had been with the team for nine days, had never played in an NFL game and had just met Mayfield in the visiting locker room at Heinz Field.
“We put faith in everybody that’s out there,” Redwine, a safety, told The Chronicle-Telegram in a phone interview Thursday. “We have a collective mindset of whoever’s out there we’re going to get it done as a team together. Even though we understand we’ve had key players down in key games, once we have that collective mindset as a team it’s hard to stop.”
The Browns are in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1994 season. Their Super Bowl aspirations will be put to the test Sunday when they go on the road to play the Kansas City Chiefs.
Key contributions in pivotal moments from well down the roster have been a theme throughout a season disrupted by absences from COVID-19 and injuries, and will be necessary again at Arrowhead Stadium. They’re proof of an emerging organization being run the right way.
“It is very fulfilling, not just from a front office and then specifically the scouting and personnel group, but also with our coaching staff,” first-year general manager Andrew Berry said Friday in a Zoom interview with beat writers. “Ultimately we try our best to bring in guys who we think have upside and can perform at a high level when they are called into action.
“Our position coaches and our coaching staff from top to bottom, they have taken a development-oriented mindset, which is not always the case across our league because it is not just getting the starters prepared, you are going to need your younger players to grow and you are going to need your depth because the season really is a war of attrition.”
A point of pride for Berry is that it takes a complete organizational effort to get winning performances from guys who spend most of their practice time on the scout team.
The talent must be good enough for the players to have a chance against the league’s best. The roster Berry inherited from John Dorsey was top-heavy and not built to withstand catastrophe. Berry quickly addressed that.
He didn’t have pressing needs when he drafted tight end Harrison Bryant and offensive lineman Nick Harris in the fourth and fifth rounds in April, but he recognized their talent and the importance of depth. Bryant has played major snaps all season, catching three touchdowns, and Harris came off the bench in prime time against the Giants to hold down right guard when Wyatt Teller and Chris Hubbard were hurt.
The list of backups Berry picked up also includes Dunn, who spent much of the year on the practice squad, Stewart at nickelback and veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith.
“We do have confidence with the guys that we have on our 53,” Berry said of the active roster. “Otherwise, we would not have attempted to acquire them or kept them on the roster.”
The process of acquisition was altered by the pandemic. The preseason was canceled, depriving teams of the chance to scout the rosters across the league, and the tryout system used for in-season pickups had new restrictions. The logistics made the life of the personnel department more difficult.
“It takes a lot of planning when a guy can actually join your team in person and on the practice field,” Berry said. “(The personnel department has) done a great job of scouting guys who have been on and off of rosters throughout the regular season, tracked guys in other leagues and tracked guys based on their previous pro history. Ultimately, it is the job, and I think our groups have done it at a really high level this season.”
Once Berry acquires the pieces, the coaches are responsible for getting them ready. The job was harder than ever this year with nearly all the meetings held on Zoom and the practice schedule sabotaged by positive COVID-19 tests, especially as the Browns tried to clinch their first playoff spot in 18 years then advance to the second round.
Veteran offensive line coach Bill Callahan led the effort to have Dunn, Hance and Harris comfortable and confident when their turn arrived. On defense, coordinator Joe Woods and his staff used rotations at safety, linebacker and on the line — sometimes through necessity and sometimes by design — to provide valuable game experience for as many guys as possible. They wanted to be ready when the COVID absences hit.
So Woods wasn’t surprised when the backups went bonkers with takeaways against the Steelers.
“I just felt like it was going to be the year for everybody to contribute, just based on what we were going through,” he said. “We were short-handed — players and coaches — and just for those guys to step up and make big plays to help us, it was just awesome to see. It just felt truly like it was a team win.”
DO THE JOB
The Browns wouldn’t be in the playoffs without the reserves executing in the clutch. It’s all about them.
“We’ve got a team of backup players that prepare week in and week out like a starter,” Gustin said. “That’s a common theme with this team, I know several guys that really take it serious, including myself, with preparation and just knowing your job and studying and putting all the work in and knowing it just as well as the starter just in case something goes down.
“As a backup, you don’t get a ton of reps throughout practice. You get a little bit, but most of them go to the starters, as it should. As a backup you’ve got to be able to take the mental reps and dial it in and I think we have a lot of guys on this team that do that. Just quiet guys who just put in the work.”
Gustin played sparingly in his first NFL action last year but won the job as fourth defensive end in training camp. He’s started three of 14 games, totaling 30 tackles, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits.
He played receiver, tight end and running back growing up, so he wasn’t awed by his diving interception in the franchise’s first playoff win in 26 years.
“I guess I’ve still got a little bit of hands left in me,” he said. “It’s definitely the game to have an impact in, make a big play in. It makes it all that much better.”
Porter Gustin DIVES for the INT!
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 11, 2021
All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett and starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi loved Gustin’s pick, especially because it was made possible by backup defensive tackle Vincent Taylor throwing his arms up to tip the pass.
“That was kind of just the name of the game last week,” Garrett said. “Guys making those extra-effort, big-time plays to put us out front.”
“We talk about plays leading to other plays, and those are special,” Ogunjobi said. “Just being with those guys in the room, they come to work each and every day, especially Porter. I always like to see when that work pays off, so I am really happy for the both of them.”
MORE TO COME
One of the first unlikely contributions came from Peoples-Jones, the rookie receiver drafted in the sixth round. His two career catches had come earlier in the game, then he hauled in the 24-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati on Oct. 25. The five-touchdown performance helped turn Mayfield’s season and he’s thrown only one interception in the 10 games since.
The everyday heroes also kept making big plays and the Browns kept winning big games. With a date Sunday with the defending Super Bowl champs, the approach hasn’t changed.
“Just hunger, and everybody’s about the business and everybody’s about the work,” Peoples-Jones said. “Something that Coach Stefanski has emphasized since Day 1 in the spring, being about the work, everybody about the business and really just a shared, collective want-to-win mentality.”
Stefanski has also established a culture of resilience. Linebacker B.J. Goodson sees the fruit of that in the big plays by the little names.
“It shows great character of guys being willing to step up and stepping up in the case of certain guys going down,” he said. “It is a beautiful thing. It just shows how important the word ‘team’ is.”
Browns legend Joe Thomas won 10 games as a rookie in 2007, played 10 more seasons and never experienced another winning record. He sees a major difference in how the organization and roster are currently constructed.
“It’s a roster that’s been built for long-term success,” he said. “I know a lot of teams are panicking right now because the salary cap’s going to go down next year and they’ve got these talented players that are maybe getting a little older, they don’t know what to do with them because their cap number is too high. And the Browns are sitting here just in a really good position.
“Andrew Berry has just done a really good job. Everybody in the front office in Cleveland is on the same page, they understand the vision and the vision is starting to play itself out and we’re just in the early chapters of this book.”