The 2020 season won’t be forgotten — for what was accomplished by the NFL and the Browns.
The league played through the coronavirus pandemic without missing a game.
The Browns returned to relevance with their first playoff appearance since 2002 and established themselves as a likely contender for years to come.
The Browns went 11-5 for the first time since 1994, an impressive turnaround from 6-10 in 2019 and 12 years without a winning record.
They conquered decades of demons with back-to-back wins over the Steelers — the first to get into the playoffs, the second a 48-37 wild card win that snapped a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh.
They reached the divisional round for the first time in 26 years, falling 22-17 at Kansas City to the defending Super Bowl champs.
The Browns did it all under the direction of first-year coach Kevin Stefanski and first-year general manager Andrew Berry.
The giant step taken in the quest to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl feels more like two or three.
“We definitely achieved a lot,” Stefanski said. “We did some things we set out to do, but ultimately we came up short and there is a very real sense of disappointment there among our players and coaches. We can definitely look back and see some things that we accomplished and be proud of that.”
Adding even more encouragement and excitement to the rejuvenated fan base is that the Browns appear set up for long-term success. The roster is young, every offensive starter is scheduled to return and they have about $20 million in salary cap space.
Leading the way is quarterback Baker Mayfield, who made huge strides over the second half of the season. He got more comfortable in Stefanski’s system, which was tweaked at the bye to take advantage of what Mayfield does best. He made a huge jump in accuracy and decision-making, finishing the season with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions among his last 386 passes.
He put the Year 2 regression of 2019 behind him and regained the confidence he had lost. He ended the season playing like the No. 1 pick he was in 2018 and put himself in position for a possible contract extension that would likely pay him close to $40 million a season.
“We are very, very pleased with him,” Berry said. “We would not be where we were at the end of the season without his performance. He had a really tremendous season.”
The Browns appear to finally have the franchise quarterback that’d been so elusive since Bernie Kosar was cut in 1993. The right coach had also been missing for too long, but Stefanski looked like a veteran in his first time in charge.
Despite no in-person offseason program and no preseason games, Stefanski and his staff got the players to buy in to his approach, learn the new offensive and defensive systems and trust each other. He was voted Coach of the Year by the Professional Football Writers of America and is a favorite to win The Associated Press award announced Saturday.
“Kevin’s personality is steady and sturdy where Kevin is the same guy every day,” center JC Tretter said. “He is very laser-focused on the task at hand.
“To have your leader be so steady and so even-keel and message the right things every day, I think that keeps everybody on the same page.”
After so many years spent wandering cluelessly, the Browns seem pointed in the right direction. They have a coach, a quarterback and a playoff win as proof.