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For a week leading into Sunday, it was hard to look at the Cleveland Browns and resist letting the memory of 2007 creep in — a history lesson of buying into success and change too early, only to find out that it was another cruel mirage in a desert of frustration.
For many who have orbited the Browns over the past two decades, that’s part of what made Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers so consequential. This wasn’t just about securing a spot in the playoffs. It wasn’t just about erasing the incomprehensible loss to the New York Jets. And it wasn’t about rubber-stamping the 2020 season as being demonstrably worthwhile.
No, this was more. It was about exorcising 12 years of football that carried one common thread: If something could go wrong, it did go wrong. From bad quarterbacks to bad coaches to bad ownership to bad roster building. And even when it went right — like the 10-6 season in 2007 that seemed to promise a new dawn in Cleveland — the next horizon was always some kind of embarrassing catastrophe.
That’s why Sunday mattered so much because in the larger picture in Cleveland, nobody was going to give this franchise any breaks for a late-season swath of COVID-19 issues. You lose to the Jets and then follow that up with a home failure against a stripped-down Steelers team, decades of muscle memory kick in for the critics. With the postseason on the line? Back-to-back losses to subpar teams? To close out a season that was supposed to be the stuff of real cultural change?
To invalidate so much of it now would have been framed as a disaster. Just another teasing 10-6 team that came up empty in moments that mattered, leaving fans to wonder whether they’ve been drinking in a season of change or swallowing a mouthful of sand.
Presumed franchise quarterback Derek Anderson? Sand.
Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. becoming reliable cornerstones? Sand.
Romeo Crennel rebuilding the franchise in the image of the New England Patriots? Sand.
All of 2007. All of that 10-6 promise. All of that sand.
That’s why 2020 had to go further. That’s why it couldn’t collapse on itself right at the most predictable time — in the final two weeks of a season when a playoff berth was so firmly in grasp. If this was all going to be different, change had to be secured rather than promised.
Browns finally put pieces together
And finally, it has been. Cleveland is going to the postseason, having earned its wild-card ticket with an 11-5 record that would have been a wild dream four months ago. All accomplished inside a lesson in how some sensible-but-elusive team ownership decisions can remake a franchise. Hire the right coach in Kevin Stefanski. Pair him with the right general manager in Andrew Berry. And if chief strategist Paul DePodesta must continue to guide this whole thing, align the three together and let them become a balance against the impetuous nature of team owner Jimmy Haslam. Then hope team ownership gets the hell out of the way and lets a rare series of good decisions grow into a dynamic, working culture rather than a fractured, warring one.
The Browns have done this. It’s working. And Sunday’s 24-22 win over the Steelers is an example of it.
Not because the win was anything close to pretty. And certainly not because it was perfect. But because it happened right at the time when history suggested it wouldn’t for this franchise.
In any other season, the quarterback would have cratered under the pressure of a postseason berth. Or the coaching staff would cracked with petulant infighting. The rookies would have been too inexperienced; the free-agent acquisitions would have fallen flat; or the moment would have been too big for everyone involved.
We have come to know those Cleveland Browns. But they are a thing of the past.
If you don’t believe that, then you likely haven’t been paying attention this season.
You haven’t seen that aside from second-round draft pick Grant Delpit suffering a season-ending injury, the majority of this rookie class has contributed meaningfully this season. You haven’t seen that the A-level free agents have pretty much all lived up to their price tags when it comes to their fit inside the scheme and what the coaching staff had planned for them. You haven’t seen Stefanski employ a system that has materialized as precisely what the front office believes it would be, creating a spine through the running game and tight ends, and allowing Baker Mayfield to play at his best off of a play-action look that teams have to respect. You haven’t seen Mayfield work harder than ever while keeping his emotions on a more even keel. You haven’t been around to hear the resounding silence of dramatics between a coaching staff and front office that have meshed together in support of each other.
And you apparently haven’t noticed that seemingly even Odell Beckham Jr. — who has never not been a part of some story down the stretch of a season — is suddenly just a deep subplot to something much bigger.
Browns’ durable build is how franchises work
That’s what defines this Browns franchise. And it’s why it didn’t fall apart Sunday after a seemingly endless run of COVID-19 infections and a week without any practice. It’s why it didn’t fall apart when it was the team with all the pressure in the world, while the Steelers could play free and loose and without much worry for the stakes. Losing defensive end Olivier Vernon? Seeing key wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones go down? Watching the Steelers mount a fourth-quarter comeback to the point of a two-point conversation that put seemingly everything on the line in the waning moments? Cleveland weathered all of it.
Again, it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t perfect. But it was meaningful.
That’s why Browns fans can rejoice today. Because this is a franchise that learned to beat bad teams, average teams and playoff-level teams. It learned to win on its bad days and avoid losing on its worst days. It learned to deal with season-ending losses to talented players, and bounce back from losses — never suffering consecutive defeats once this season. Most of all, it learned to take steps.
In the stories of franchises that get themselves right, this is usually the most durable kind of build. One that doesn’t survive on a sugar high of free agency or some kind of lightning in a bottle that can’t last. It leans on running the right schemes for the personnel and having the right kind of personalities working together to keep everything on track. For a long time, these were the characteristics that evaded Cleveland’s ownership. And in turn, lasting success was just as elusive.
Things have changed. Regardless of how Sunday’s playoff game turns out in this quick rematch against a fully loaded Steelers franchise, there is no taking away the step that was just taken. This success is real. Soon enough, the franchise will engage in the next phase of building — with the goal of making it lasting. And to once and for all send a message to the fan base.
Don’t be afraid to drink this in. It’s real. And there will be more to go around.
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