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Browns Preview 2021: Team makes climb from winless to Super Bowl contenders

The Browns are nearly unanimously considered a top-four team in the loaded AFC. They can inhabit the same sentence as “Super Bowl” without a punch line following.

The fans’ fervor is finally justified.

The moment can’t be fully appreciated without remembering the past. Growth needs a starting point for proper measurement.

This origin story has two. They took place on the shores of Lake Erie 15 miles and nearly five months apart.

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Then-coach Hue Jackson jumped in Lake Erie on June 1, 2018, after a failed guarantee that in his worst nightmares he couldn’t fathom he wouldn’t be able to keep. The Browns went 0-16 in 2017 after 1-15 in ’16.

The organization turned out at Huntington Beach. Vice presidents raced into the frigid water. Owner Dee Haslam defended the job Jackson had done. The thousands of dollars raised for charity was a saving grace, but the event reeked of humiliation.

The sarcastic, ironic, cathartic 0-16 parade was the precursor Jan. 6. It did a lap around FirstEnergy Stadium, the site of so much frustration, on one of the coldest days in recent memory.

In two decades full of miserable moments, these looked and felt like the lowest. The laughingstock had become a full-blown embarrassment, including being ridiculed by some of its most loyal fans.

“I wouldn’t point to any one day or any one moment, the entire time was tough,” chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta told The Chronicle-Telegram on Wednesday in a phone interview. “Just losing. I know how hard it was for our fans because I know how hard it was for me and for all of us. I hate to lose.

“It’s just awfully, awfully depressing and frustrating and you just want to fight so hard to get out of it.”

The flashbacks aren’t gratuitous. They’re necessary to frame the progress. The Browns have changed coaches twice and general managers once since 2018 but at long last appear to have all the pieces in place.

General manager, coach, organizational alignment, quarterback, edge rusher, playmakers, roster depth.

“I think all together, the players, the coaches, the organization, everybody’s doing their part,” two-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb said. “We’re getting guys in here who want to be in Cleveland. Coach is doing an amazing job, too.

“Just the culture change, winning some games and what it feels like to win. I think it’s contagious. We’ve been just winning games and that’s all we want to keep doing.”

THE REAL DEAL

The Browns have appeared to turn the corner before, only to crash headfirst into a dead-end.

Butch Davis took the 2002 team to the playoffs in his second year as coach. Romeo Crennel went 10-6 and barely missed the playoffs in 2007, his third season. They even went 7-8-1 in 2018 despite Jackson being fired at midseason.

The moderate successes turned out to be mirages.

This time has the makings of a bona fide breakthrough.

Coach Kevin Stefanski navigated a pandemic to go 11-5 in his first season as a head coach at any level, earning AP Coach of the Year honors. With him watching from his basement after testing positive for COVID-19, the Browns went to Pittsburgh for the opening round of the playoffs and won 48-37. They then took the Chiefs to the wire in Kansas City, falling a step short of the AFC championship game.

“Being a leader, being a man of his word, he has always been about the team, has always been about the work we put in,” veteran offensive lineman Chris Hubbard told The Chronicle about Stefanski. “It’s amazing to see the growth and development that he’s brought upon. And I love him. He’s been helpful, been guiding and I couldn’t ask for a better coach.”

DePodesta wanted Stefanski, an unknown assistant with the Vikings, at the end of 2018, but then-GM John Dorsey picked Freddie Kitchens, who had success in the final half of the season as Cleveland’s interim offensive coordinator. Kitchens quickly proved to be overmatched and was fired after going 6-10 in his only season, Dorsey left the organization and DePodesta led the search that settled on Stefanski.

“Kevin has a great way about him when he walks around and everyone feels valued and feels like they’re a part of things,” DePodesta said. “He can bring that out in people, which is tremendous, because he’s so genuine.”

DePodesta stressed the hiring process was collaborative and involved every part of the football operations.

“We were very painstaking in terms of putting that process together and believed in it,” he said.

The next decision was bringing back Andrew Berry as the youngest general manager in NFL history. Berry, 32 at the time, had made a lot of friends and admirers in a previous stint with the Browns.

DePodesta had been with the organization since January 2016 and watched the failure of two regimes. He had been unable to rid the organization of the internal conflict that sabotaged it for nearly two decades.

Alignment became the No. 1 priority, and DePodesta is confident he found the solution with Berry and Stefanski.

“It was just very clear that in each of these cases that we had people that we thought were exceptional,” he said. “Just from a personality standpoint, two low-ego guys that were sort of all about the team and just wanting to win. And felt like that would fit really nicely into the type of culture we were trying to create.”

CULTURE CLUB

Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney give powerful testimonials about the improved culture. Each arrived for a free agent visit and came away impressed enough to dismiss any preconceived notions.

“It starts at the top,” Walker told The Chronicle. “AB, Coach Kevin, they do a great job of being transparent early. When I first walked in, that was the No. 1 thing I told my agent, I can play here because of the leaders of the organization.

“Once you have a solid foundation up there at the top, it makes pretty much everything easier. Just because the guys, the transparency, the honesty, the vision that they have, the one accord that they’re on. You have the GM and the head coach on the same path, with the same goals and everything in mind, doing things the right way, the same process the right way. It makes the players have no choice but to buy into it. And that’s what you want to be a part of.”

That’s music to the ears of DePodesta, who knows how real the struggle was.

“One of the hard things when you’re part of a senior leadership team at any of these organizations is your focus is generally on the field,” he said. “And you think, geez, if we just sign one more great player or draft one more great player, it’ll solve so many problems. And the reality is that that’s rarely the answer. Don’t get me wrong, the players end up determining whether or not we’re good, so they are front and center.

“But to try to get those decisions right, to try to maximize performance of each of those players, those are just huge levers. And so I think culturally, you gotta be in the right place in order to be at your best in making those types of decisions.”

He described the work necessary to cultivate the desired collaboration and culture inside the 70-person football operation as “really exhausting.”

“It’s almost like a marriage and you don’t go through a marriage and it’s just easy,” DePodesta said. “You have to put in the time and to do that at this scale is actually quite difficult.”

Clowney, the No. 1 pick in 2014 and a three-time Pro Bowler, wouldn’t consider the Browns as a free agent in 2020. He changed his mind after a visit this spring.

“It’s a good place. They’ve got it going on here,” he said. “I told a lot of rookies and second-year (players), ‘Y’all should be happy that y’all got drafted here.’ It’s been worse some other places that I’ve been. They should be happy.”

Stefanski doesn’t get philosophical about improving the culture, only saying it’s about having the right people. Receiver Jarvis Landry considers that mission accomplished.

“We started bringing in the guys with the right type of mindset and that were about working, are about winning,” he told The Chronicle. “And you get enough of those guys in the same building, you can do things like we’re beginning to do here.”

KEY PIECES

Ownership and DePodesta always knew the formula for success, even if they couldn’t execute it. Find a great coach and a great quarterback.

Baker Mayfield beat Stefanski to town by two years but always had the mindset required for the massive turnaround.

“My draft class and the free agents that came in, we have just been trying to change the culture and set the standard to what it used to be of a winning football culture,” Mayfield said. “We have to expect greatness, and you have to strive for that every day. We have a great locker room right now and a great staff that is pushing to do so.”

His play in the second half of last season answered most of the lingering questions about his ability to lead a winning team. He completed 65.2 percent with 11 touchdowns, an interception and a 103.4 passer rating in the final six regular-season games as the Browns broke their 17-year playoff drought.

“Baker has always steadily handled it, he’s grown,” Hubbard said. “And just to see that, he’s the leader and he’s becoming the person that you thought when we first drafted him.

“He’s gonna work. He’s always got that chip on his shoulder, man. And he’s always wanting to be better, wanting to do better and help out in any way, form possible that he can.”

The Browns believe they have the right man for the critical job, and a contract extension worth upward of $40 million a year seems like only a matter of time. DePodesta said Mayfield’s impact can’t be overstated.

“Quarterback’s the most important position in all of sports, in terms of team sports and what it means for the rest of the team,” he said. “His growth has been probably more steady than maybe it looks externally, or what everybody points to in terms of just the raw stats or whatever.

“I think Baker has been a force since the day he came in, our guys gravitate to him, they believe in him. I think he represents a lot of what we want to be, so he’s absolutely instrumental in our progress to date and also believe going forward.”

The roster is so complete, Mayfield isn’t asked to do anything he can’t.

Sashi Brown got the defensive cornerstone in end Myles Garrett. Dorsey, who followed Brown, added receivers Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Chubb and Kareem Hunt, right guard Wyatt Teller and cornerback Denzel Ward.

Berry went to work filling in the gaps and strengthening the depth. The 2020 offseason was dedicated to offense, with right tackle Jack Conklin, left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and tight end Austin Hooper brought in to protect and support Mayfield. This offseason was all about the defense, which will feature eight new starters in the nickel package, including Clowney, Walker, safety John Johnson III, cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Garrett was drafted No. 1 in 2017 after 1-15, lived through 0-16 and can point to the differences inside team headquarters.

“A lot more positive, a lot more discipline, guys excited to be here, wanting to go out there and give their all for their coach, for each other and just having fun playing the game that we love,” he told The Chronicle. “Once you have all those things together, that’s a helluva combination once you’ve got all the talent to go with it.”

SPEECH CLASS

The moment was made for TV, and HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras captured it. Landry stringing profanities in a rant to the receivers demanding they practice through pain and abandon the losing mentality that had grown deep roots over nearly two decades.

Landry meant every word, and they mattered. He was acquired in a 2018 trade with Miami, signed an extension, wasn’t satisfied with just collecting a check and wouldn’t settle for less from his teammates.

It was a signature moment in the culture change.

“Looking back at it, yeah, I guess so,” he said. “Everybody still considers it a speech, at the time it was just something that was on my mind, something that I had been thinking about, something that I just had noticed throughout the time I’d been here.

“And with the guys that we had in the receiver room, I realized I had probably never been around that type of mindset that was here. And I know what it was doing to me. And that was not something that I came here to do, and I just wanted to make sure that everybody understood that that was the standard in that receiver room.”

Landry doesn’t want credit for his role in the turnaround, but his teammates give it.

“I remember when we both came in together, the energy was connected and you want to win,” Hubbard said. “That’s the attitude that we all have, and you see that with his passion, you see that when he comes to work. There’s never a day where he’s not getting better. It’s amazing. It just shows through his play.”

The speech came about two months after Jackson’s visit to Lake Erie. The Browns have reinvented themselves since then and begin the season Sunday in Kansas City with legitimate Super Bowl expectations.

“You see it, we speak about it more, we talk about winning, we talk about championship, we talk about work ethic and you see it,” Landry said. “I’m just happy that I don’t have to give more speeches.”

The Browns have come a long way in a short time.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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