Kevin Stefanski never bought into the popular yet nebulous concept of culture. When the term’s been brought up, as it has many times, the coach boils it down to people.
Good people equal good culture.
The Browns had the right people this season as they went 11-6 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2020. It took a lot of them, as injuries gutted the roster of many of its best players.
With the season coming to a screeching halt in the 45-14 wild card loss and change inevitable before next season — it already started with coaching staff moves — the question becomes whether the culture (sorry, Coach) is strong enough that it can be maintained.
The Browns believe the work doesn’t stop but the key pieces are in place.
It starts with general manager Andrew Berry and Stefanski, who arrived in 2020 and are expected to receive contract extensions in the coming weeks.
“We learned what it takes to be resilient and obviously each year is different, but the main core is going to be back and the main core can carry that over,” Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio said Sunday. “We had 11 wins, we made the playoffs and hopefully that’s our floor now — a playoff team that has a chance to win a division and host a playoff game in the future.”
That hasn’t been the baseline for the Browns since the late 1980s. Instability and incompetence too often led to sustained losing and dysfunction.
Since the return to the NFL in 1999, the Browns made the playoffs in 2002, 2020 and 2023. The only other winning season was 10-6 in 2007.
As much as it pales in comparison to the league’s best teams, including all three AFC North rivals, the two winning seasons and playoff trips in this four-year span is a tremendous sign of progress. And the core Bitonio referred to appears to be strong and one that can survive changes to the rest of the roster.
Bitonio, defensive end Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward, tight end David Njoku, safety Grant Delpit, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson are entrenched at their spots. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is perhaps the biggest piece of the long-term plan but has appeared in only 12 games in two seasons with the team. And running back Nick Chubb, who’s been the heart and soul of the team, is trying to come back from a major knee injury and his contract will have to be redone, so his future is at least somewhat uncertain.
“The core of this football team, the guys that we know are coming back, are guys that represent who we are, that understand what they need to do on a day-to-day basis to be great,” Stefanski said. “So we’re excited about that. But bottom line is when you’re talking about the locker room, it’s the people. It is just the people in that locker room, and I feel strongly about the people.”
Cornerback Greg Newsome II, a first-round pick in 2021 who could also be considered part of the core, said continuing the culture is “easy” when a “great structure” has been laid.
“The core guys will always be the core guys,” he said. “I feel like those core guys were able to make a good locker room. So I think it’ll be easy to just incorporate people and just teach ’em our ways.
“When you build something so strong that we’ve built, I feel like it’ll be hard to tear down.”
Berry and Stefanski began to instill their principles when they arrived, preaching the need to have “smart, tough, accountable” players. That grew into S.T.A.R.T. — adding resilient and team-first. Bitonio said Stefanski references S.T.A.R.T. every day.
Resilience was necessary in the season of serious injuries and became a rallying cry.
The players attributed the ability to overcome the adversity to their personal bonds, with the training camp trip to The Greenbrier Resort and the in-season week in Los Angeles most significant in the building of meaningful relationships that reached beyond the locker room. The winning also helped.
“We were a really close-knit group,” linebacker and captain Anthony Walker Jr. said. “When we went to L.A. and we came back after those two losses I said, ‘we lost those two games but we got closer as a team and it’ll be better for us moving forward.’ And I remember somebody said, ‘well, we want to win more than we want you guys to get close.’ And we won and we got close.
“That trip was really crucial for our success this year. And also The Greenbrier. That was a huge one, as well. So very close-knit group. And when you have that culture in the locker room it makes it easy to play the game with each other.”
Whether it was a night out in Los Angeles in which new quarterback Joe Flacco stayed out with the guys until well after midnight, the defensive linemen traveling in a pack all season or support for each other’s off-the-field ventures, the players gave example after example of how the dynamic was special.
“We’re still going to be hanging out and being with each other during the offseason and working out together and training and everything,” Ward said. “That’s going to be big once we get back and being able to build upon the foundation that we already set.”
Berry and Stefanski recognized the chemistry wasn’t good enough in 2022, with communication issues on the field and bickering and resentment off it. The most blatant example was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney refusing to play on first and second downs against the Ravens and telling Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot the organization favored Garrett over others.
Berry focused on changing the dynamics of the locker room last offseason. He signed Tomlinson, Ogbo Okoronkwo and Maurice Hurst II on the defensive line, Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod at safety and brought back Walker.
Stefanski also hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, a strong personality credited with strengthening the culture.
“Andrew Berry’s built that with the guys he’s brought in, revamping the D-line this year with the guys that he brought in tremendously changed the culture on that side of the ball and for the team,” Bitonio said. “I do think we’ve built something.”
With the number of impending free agents and the inherent volatility of NFL rosters, it’s imperative for Berry to find the correct pieces this offseason to supplement the talent pool and augment the chemistry.
“It sucks because in the NFL you’re probably going to have a 20-guy turnover no matter what you do, but you want to bring in the right guys,” Bitonio said. “You want to focus on some of those intangibles. But I think the core is here, and when you start from the top down, ownership to Andrew Berry to Coach Stefanski to the coaches to the players, everybody’s connected right now, and everybody has that same vision. I think that helps out the most.”
The players who won’t return can still have an impact. Stefanski cited the lasting effect of former linebacker Malcolm Smith on the young position group.
“You do learn from a lot of veterans that you bring into your program,” Stefanski said.
Owusu-Koramoah liked the intentional and organized approach of the front office in building the roster and the chemistry, identifying “anchors” and role players.
“Culture is actually what sustains the society as we see it itself,” he said. “Once the culture is established, people act a certain way. They live by a certain moral code, a certain standard and are able to continue to be in that same mindset.
“The culture’s not out there. The culture is inside of all of us as individuals and as players.”