Photo by: Jason Miller/Getty Images
The year is 2018. The Cleveland Browns are coming off the worst two-year span in NFL history with a record of 1-31. Hue Jackson is gearing up for his third year as head coach, and John Dorsey has hand-selected what he believes will be the franchise quarterback; they had previously gone 0-10 in selecting quarterbacks in the NFL Draft, with 16 other swings and misses acquired via free agency or trade. Tyrod Taylor has yet to suit up for the Cleveland Browns, but the inevitable switch to Baker Mayfield is looming.
Hue Jackson says the right things - or rather, what he thinks are the right things - about choosing to start Tyrod Taylor. "He'll thank me for it one day" was a real response Jackson gave when asked if Baker would play in 2018. Perception was mixed; Jackson had been dealt an awful hand in the middle of a 'trust the process' level rebuild, and fans wanted to ensure that their rookie franchise-saver was actually set up for success. Patience was welcomed. But the writing was on the walls that the Browns' culture was broken; misaligned views on how to run the offense should have set off flashing red lights. Hue's apparent disdain for Baker Mayfield shone through the corporate answers. General Manager John Dorsey made public statements that indicated he wasn't fully on board with what Hue was doing.
All of these should've indicated that the cultural issues ran deeper than "the Browns can't get the quarterback right." They didn't. Not at first.
Upon Hue Jackson's firing after an abysmal 2-5-1 start to the 2018 season, John Dorsey remained. Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Denzel Ward made that possible; they were all outstanding performers as rookies, and that oddity (the Browns traditionally would be lucky to have one draft pick hit in a single draft, let alone three) created the perception that maybe Hue was the only problem.
But the writing was on the walls that maybe that wasn't the case. Maybe John Dorsey's issues as a general manager - the same ones that got him fired from a perennial division champion Kansas City Chiefs team - carried over into Cleveland. Fans and media turned a blind eye to that possibility due to Dorsey's exquisite eye for NFL talent. It took a massive letdown of a 2019 season from the Cleveland Browns under Freddie Kitchens' "leadership" for owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to make a change.
It took the sacrificial lambs in Kitchens and Dorsey for the Browns to truly have a chance to reach their full potential.
It took an injection of real leadership in the form of Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski for the Browns to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Confidence. A holistic, collaborative approach. A clear alignment from top to bottom within the organization.
Browns fans were always going to be skeptical of Andrew Berry upon his hire. His return to the franchise after a stint during the Hue Jackson era left a level of concern that the broken culture would bleed into the new regime. Fans and media needed concrete results that showed that these words had substance; Browns fans had been duped before, and the dread that Berry and Stefanski were just next in a long line of promising, yet underachieving regimes was prominent. But it was hard not to feel optimistic after Andrew Berry took the stage for his introductory presser.
The 2020 Cleveland Browns returned their core: Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham Jr., a stellar offensive line, and company. After all, the 2019 Cleveland Browns were loaded with talent. Yet the 2020 Browns vastly outperformed the 2019 Browns (they jumped from 6-10 to 11-5, one of the largest record improvements in the NFL). When most factors remain constant, leadership excluded, it's much simpler to identify the most impactful change.
Kevin Stefanski's role in the Browns' recent success is not to be understated, either. Stefanski had a hand in selecting Andrew Berry to lead with him, as he was hired a few weeks prior to Berry. The resulting congruence of the two Ivy League minds was clear. The once-checked-out and oft-frustrated players were immediately bought in to the overarching goal.
Looking at the grand scheme of things of what we brought in throughout the draft, trading, free agency and all of that, it seems like they are absolutely one message, one team. We have a gameplan for what we really want to try to accomplish, and it seems as though Andrew, Kevin and the whole staff have gotten on the same page personnel wise and probably wanted to accomplish that. Seeing the cut-ups and everything, we do have somewhat similar personnel to what Minnesota had with the strong running game and picking up (T) Jedrick (Wills) and (T Jack) Conklin as of recently for our run game to help those backs out. Just for the passing game and what Minnesota did, they had some good tight ends so having (TE) David (Njoku) still on board, (TE) Stephen (Carlson), a young guy going in and then also obviously Austin Hooper to come help out, with that as productive as he is. Personnel wise of what they have tried to do for the scheme and matching that up, they are on the same page, I will say that. For the whole team, we are bringing in guys that have the right mindset, that want to win and it seems as though they will do anything to have that accomplished" - Baker Mayfield on Kevin Stefanski in 2020.
Stefanski was clear with his expectations, communicated the goal, and transparent with the process by which the Cleveland Browns were going to operate. That transparency was foreign to some of the players that were around for previous regimes. Denzel Ward "appreciated the way [Stefanski] approaches the team" and Nick Chubb vouched for Stefanski, explaining that he has the trust of the entire team - just a few months after taking over the team.
Browns fans have left the area of skepticism and fully embraced the notion that they have a functional, stable regime in place with eyes set on a Super Bowl Championship. Even so, the qualities of a great leader are often difficult to identify. There are plenty of leadership styles that have been proven effective in the NFL; from Bill Belichick's strict, rigid style to John Harbaugh's human connection-centric approach, there is no single 'right' answer.
Turning over every stone, establishing trust and connection with others in an organization, and ultimately, being aligned is more important than the actual practice of leadership, though, and that's why Browns fans should be comfortable with the aforementioned embracement. Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski are doing it the right way, and just how much that truly impacts on-field success is evident. Their widely public belief in the players, no-nonsense approach to press conferences, and overall control of the team show players that the organization is in sync. When the organization is in sync, the players are in sync. The holistic approach that the Browns take to talent evaluation and game plan construction has been refreshing. The Browns went from "we're going to incorporate the analytics, but I'm a football guy" to "information is power." The Browns went from an environment under John Dorsey that most closely represented a dictatorship to a collaborative, ego-less workspace. And it matters.
The Cleveland Browns are hungry and primed for a deep playoff run. And for the very first time since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns' leadership isn't going to cost them. For the very first time since the 1999, the fans can trust that it isn't a hoax.