Rags To Riches: The Browns' 4-Year Turnaround From Winless Season To SUper Bowl Contenders
By Tres Valenzuela
For the first time since their return to Cleveland, the Browns have a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl. After posting a 0-16 2017 season, the Browns have made all the right moves to put the franchise in a place to have success. With so much at stake, this team will need to click on all cylinders to meet this season’s expectations.
From Then To Now: Finding The Franchise Quarterback
Following a disastrous 2017 season that resulted in no wins, the Browns once again found themselves with the first pick in the draft. After taking all-world Defensive End Myles Garrett with the first pick the year before, the fan base was teething to finally find a franchise QB…
In a draft that had 5 quarterbacks predicted to go in the first round it was imperative that Cleveland found the cornerstone of their franchise. After much uncertainty, the Browns surprised many experts by selecting Oklahoma gunslinger Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield quickly won the hearts of Cleveland fans by making a relief appearance on Monday Night Football and defeating the Jets – and fellow first round QB Sam Darnold -, giving the team its first win in over 500 days. At that point, the team was so desperate for a win that Bud Light held a promotion for “Victory Fridges” that would only be unlocked once the Browns found themselves in the W column again.
Baker continued to have a very strong rookie season, setting the record (at the time) for most passing yards by a rookie. A lot of his success in his rookie year was credited to his offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. Following a dismal campaign with Hue Jackson at the helm, Cleveland found itself promoting Kitchens to Heach Coach. Fans and pundits alike expected the Mayfield/Kitchens marriage to continue to blossom, but in familiar fashion the Browns struggled to find consistency and Kitchens found himself unemployed at the conclusion of the season.
Going into 2020 it was evident that it was a “make or break ” year for Mayfield, and to Cleveland’s delight he was able to tap into his 2018 form. Mayfield led the Browns to an 11-5 record and their first playoff appearance since 2002, when puka shell necklaces were still in style . On the heels of long overdue success the Browns have put the weight of the franchise on Mayfield’s shoulders, recently picking up his 5th year option through the 2022 season. With so much at stake this upcoming season it will be interesting to see if Mayfield can carry his momentum from last year. He certainly has the weapons on offense, and after a strong free agency the defense should have all the pieces necessary to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Building A Strong Staff
Some refer to the NFL as “Not for Long”, and that is never more apparent than when a team fails to win. That hits very close to home to Cleveland, with over 20 GMs/head coaches since the team re-entered the league in 1999. The change in the Browns culture seemed to come with the hiring of GM John Dorsey. Dorsey notably drafted Baker and Denzel Ward, and traded for Odell Beckham.
Unfortunately, Dorsey’s tenure ended after the failed Freddie Kitchens experiment. The Browns found themselves in an all too familiar place, needing to fill the GM and head coach role. At the time the selections of Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski were deemed headscratchers by fans and the media. Stefanski was coming off a less than stellar season as the Viking offensive coordinator, and Berry looked to be a risky choice as he would become the youngest GM in NFL history.
It did not take much time for the two to win over the fan base. Stefanski implemented a heavy run scheme, relying on the dynamic tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. That strong run game allowed for the offense to utilize play action, especially on bootleg passes, giving Baker easier reads as he had less progressions to make within the pocket.
Andrew Berry has been just as impressive in his role, fine-tuning an already talented roster. Berry has been aggressive at the right times, signing the aforementioned JaDaveon Clowney, along with former LA Ram defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson. The new GM also got a proper left tackle for Baker in taking Alabama product Jedrick Wills. Most recently, Berry traded up for Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a player many believed would be taken in the first round. Berry has been vocal about his analytical approach – a tactic that has seemed to provide him with immediate and impressive results.
Putting It All Together
With their first game less than two weeks away, the Browns were able to avoid any significant injuries throughout the offseason, leaving no doubt about the team’s expectations. With elite talent at almost every position complimented with a great coaching staff, the Browns have the pieces necessary to make a Super Bowl run. Many teams in the past found themselves in a similar position only to squander the opportunity, and only time will tell if Cleveland will suffer that same fate or rise to the occasion.
It is imperative that the team doesn’t get arrogant and assume success. Luckily, The Browns will have no chance to get complacent, as they travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1. Looking to avoid the same outcome that ended their last season, the Browns will have to play a near perfect game to escape Kansas City with a victory. Needing to find a rhythm and identity so early on in the season will either rally the team together, or be the catalyst to them falling apart. Either way, it is going to be an interesting season for the Cleveland Browns.
A former collegiate wide receiver and current Texan, Tres is the newest
member of The Touchdown. In addition to writing for The Touchdown, Tres also works
as an NCAA analyst for Pro Football Focus.