It’s no longer fashionable to say the Cleveland Browns are miserable. That’s old news. The preferred expression now is they were miserable.
After so much time spent languishing as an NFL’s doormat, things are finally looking up for the Browns. They suddenly are the darlings, the can’t miss kids who have captured the attention of the major networks and casual fans on the lookout for feel-good stories.
You know the history: The Browns have had only one season (10-6 in 2007) over .500 since 2002 when they played their last postseason game, which was their first since 1994.
They were 3-13 in 2015, 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 in 2017. They were a laugh track, a sad sack and cause of a cardiac to fans who had come to the conclusion things might never get better.
So imagine how they must have felt in late October last season when they sat at 2-5-1. Another season, another reason to howl in the Dawg Pound.
Then something happened. Browns general manager John Dorsey fired head coach Hue Jackson, who’d been 3-36-1 in his two and a half seasons, and replaced him with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Management then promoted quarterback coach Freddie Kitchens to offensive coordinator and even though he’d never called an NFL play hoped for the best.
The Browns then finished the season 5-3 to end up third in the AFC Central. People perked up. And now the assumption is the best is yet to come.
It is not an unrealistic point of view because the Browns have assembled a top-flight cast of characters on offense, led by their combustible quarterback Baker Mayfield, the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma.
Mayfield is the reason this franchise is on the ascent. He is brash and creative, a master of improvisation on and off the field. He is unpredictable in the pocket and in the locker room where he has become a club spokesman with his irreverent, straight-shooting points of view. That’s right, he pisses people off.
Once the Browns gave Mayfield the starting job last season last September, and paired him with Kitchens, the team’s offense took flight. Mayfield threw for 27 touchdowns, an NFL rookie record. And it was because of that success that the Browns decided to name Kitchens their new head coach in January.
Mayfield’s presence is not the only reason there is so much hope for the Browns, although it’s not hard to quantify what he brings to a franchise which has suffered through Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer over the last few years.
To make Mayfield better, the Browns traded for dynamic receiver Odell Beckman, Jr. and paired him with his former LSU teammate, Jarvis Landry.
“In different ways, we help each other. We balance each other. Like a ying and yang,” Landry told The Athletic. “He’s more the outgoing one, I’m more the quiet one. But we have a good balance, we know how to talk to each other. We understand each other, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Late last year, they signed troubled, but talented running back Kareem Hunt, a former NFL rushing champion. It’s a gamble they hope will pay off when he comes of his eight-game league suspension and joins second-year stud Nick Chubb in the backfield.
What the Browns have done is stack offense talent many believe will turn them into one of the most exciting teams in the NFL. And four of their five offensive linemen are returning.
The synergy between Mayfield and Kitchens was apparent in the Browns opening preseason game last week against the Washington Redskins. Mayfield choreographed a two-minute drill for Mayfield to run on the opening series. After throwing an interception on his first attempt, he connected with the next five and moved the team on a seven-play, 89-yard drive that ended in a 24-yard TD pass to Rashard Higgins.
This is the Browns team everyone expects to see.
“The way (Mayfield) plays quarterback, he’s very confident. He can go out there and throw two picks in a row, but he thinks the next throw is going for a touchdown, no matter what,” guard Joel Bitonio told The Athletic. “That’s something you respect. He knows what the stakes are, and he’s never going to point the finger and say, ‘Oh it’s his fault.’ But he’ll let you know, quietly, like, ‘we’ve got to pick this up, it’s our job to get this done,’ and that’s one thing you really want in a quarterback, that accountability.”
They’ve worked to improve their defense, as well, adding two defensive line starters in Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, a former defensive rookie of the year. Former Arizona Cardinals coach Steve Wilks replaces Williams as the defensive coordinator.
Vernon and Richardson will join Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, one of the best young corners in the league. Garrett has 13 ½ sacks last season, just short of the franchise record (14). Vernon will line up on the other end, preventing offenses from doubling on Garrett.
Meanwhile, Kitchens has injected raw arrogance into his team. He does not joke around with the media and has warned all in the organization that they will be fired if caught leaking information to the press. He has run a very aggressive training camp, putting his players in full pads as soon as he was allowed by league rules. When they make mistakes in practice they run.
“I do not have a leadership council. I have me, and that is it,” said Kitchens. “I do not get into that stuff, either. That is all a façade for excuses to blame other people. I will take the blame.
“I want them knowing that the football game is played with pads on. I told them at the beginning that the light that they see is a train. It is not at the end of the tunnel. That is what I want them focused on … I think they have done an excellent job embracing the challenge of that.”
Even though it means more work in hot conditions, the Browns are buying into it.
“He’s not abusing his power for a first-time head coach,” Landry told the New York Times. “He has a really good grip on things. He’s really just taken control of the situation.”
Remember, the Browns have never played in the Super Bowl. And as long as the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs remain prominent, it might be a few years until they approach that level.
But the Browns could win the AFC North this season, which means they will finally play an important game in January. And wouldn’t that be a great first step for a franchise apparently on the rise.
“We have our own goals,” Garrett told The Times.