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How the Browns Built a Winner, Despite Themselves

An Unlikely Journey Indeed

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
If at first you don’t succeed...
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We are in a spot this weekend we’ve not been in almost three decades, and it doesn’t seem real. The win last week against Pittsburgh (spawning any number of inspirational responses) is legitimately the most satisfying of my lifetime and personally it’s something of a 25 years-too-late payback for the drubbing they gave us in the ‘94 divisional round (still a little salty about that and looking at you, Derrick Alexander).

Nevertheless, having been completely satisfied with the season success to this point we look onward to Kansas City with legitimate dreams of Super Bowl glory still intact. It’s January y’all, and we haven’t even looked at any draft prospects yet! Seems surreal given where we were not too long ago, but then again this was what we were hoping would happen after going through what we had to endure. To put it in perspective, the Detroit Lions also went 0-16, and since that time (now 12 seasons) they’ve yet to win a playoff game. Thus, karmic justice is far from guaranteed (as we ought to all have embedded in our respective souls to this point) which makes the drubbing of the Stillers last week that much more satisfying.

However the story of how this iteration of the beloved Orange Helmets came to be is rather amazing. Realistically, we could be staring down the barrel of a completely mismanaged cluster-you-know-what considering the hastily slapped-together manner in which the pieces of this organization have seemingly been assembled. That it all coalesced in 2020 - quite possibly the most challenging year for something like that ever to happen - is near miraculous. Then again, so is going to Pittsburgh and soundly beating those sobs without most of your coaching staff and half of your offensive line (#someguynamedblake).

Looking at the finished product suggests there was a plan that led to this formation, and to the extent Chief Strategery Officer Paul DePodesta has fingerprints on any aspect of it, perhaps that’s actually what it is. He has been the one consistent presence since the beginning of the Franchise turnaround really began at the end of the 2015 season. It’s very unclear how much input, influence and/or weight he’s able to throw around within the inner circle at the top of the Browns’ organization. Since his arrival the team has undertaken a rebuilding path with wildly divergent approaches at varying points - a path not unlike that which the team had followed in the previous decade prior to this rebuilding effort.

Which was, lest we forget the sublime memories - a period where we literally changed our coaching staff and front office every other year on average. Now this has a myriad of negative consequences. From a personnel standpoint, you scout and bring in players that fit a certain scheme that your coaches want to run. Those guys then come in and get a year, maybe two in that scheme before a new group comes in and changes everything up. So guys that were brought in to do one thing have to drop all that and start over with a new thing that the new front office people don’t really like them for anyway since they are now scheme mismatches and not “their guys”. Thus many that can’t make the transition(s) end up getting discarded for nothing close to what was invested to acquire them.

Not only that, but those new GM hires typically happen in January, and the draft is in April. Therefore, teams going through those transitions typically keep the previous regime’s scouting team because those guys have been doing the hard work since the fall and you can’t just make up all that ground in a couple of (very busy) months. So we end up with a constant cycle where the scouting teams are pretty much never corresponding directly with the group that hired them and presumably set the standard for the type of players the team was trying to acquire.

Are you getting the full picture here? We have a revolving door of GM’s and HC’s constantly changing the direction of the team and using scouts that are not their own pretty much ever. You have those (very unfortunate) players getting brought in to fulfill roles that change halfway through their development cycle and they subsequently get declared to be busts and the team moves on, washing it’s hands of the wasted draft picks of the previous regime(s). This is the business plan that kept the Factory of Sadness running at an incredibly high efficiency rate for most of this century.

And it’s not as if the beginning of this go-round was/has been appreciably different. As we reach the climactic conclusion to the 2020 season the Browns have had, since that process was initiated prior to the 2016 campaign, four head coaches in that five year span. It’s as if we took what wasn’t working and super-charged it, and that’s what led to success...except that seems to defy anything resembling logic or reason.

The Way It All Started

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
One of these two was a very bad idea
Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Sashi Brown model for asset acquisition when it was established as the objective was the most prolific the league had seen up to that point. It was, to my observation, a slow but ultimately sustainable process of acquiring a boatload of draft picks and clearing an enormous amount of cap space while simultaneously spending a large number of high caliber draft picks to infuse youth into an intentionally depleted roster. We drafted a TON of players in 2016 & 2017 while also amassing a metric ton of picks and cap space heading into the 2018 offseason.

It was like a calculated game of risk/reward while playing the contract-game to the letter. You trade down high picks for future picks and lower, but still high picks in the current draft. Those picks either are hits, or they can become assets used in future trades for future assets (such as drafting DeShone KIzer at #52 and using him a year later in a package to bring in Demarious Randall, for example). It was about mitigating loss while maximizing future opportunities. It also featured a variety of excellently crafted trade packages, like trading an expensive punter and getting a 4th rounder out of the deal, or getting Houston’s 2nd rounder in exchange for eating Brock Lobster’s contract. That pick eventually became Nick Chubb, though in all likelihood it wouldn’t have been had Sashi remained at the helm.

Which he did not for reasons not worth re-litigating here. One of the tactics he employed was trading down high 1st rounders to teams who are likely to use those picks on quarterbacks. The theory extends that such teams are likely to play those quarterbacks for a prominent part of their rookie season, and it goes therefore that if a team is starting a rookie for a good part of the year, they probably are going to have a rough time of it, and we benefit in the following draft with their high draft pick. This is exactly the formula that led to Cleveland having the 4th pick in the NFL draft in 2018 enabling them to draft Denzel Ward. Again, somewhat ironically, that’s probably not the pick the Browns would have made with Brown still hypothetically in position going into 2018.

That’s because the Browns took huge turn in the opposite direction when they fired Brown and replaced him with John Dorsey. While Sashi Brown could be thought of as the money-ball master and heavily influenced by the disembodied but nevertheless sentient entity known as Analytics, Dorsey was by stark and direct contrast the definition of what is typically referred to as a “Football Guy”. The former is an approach dependent on statistical models and margins of probability, whereas the latter is more about having the ‘gut-feeling’ about this guy or that guy. Now yes I’m grossly oversimplifying but this is pretty much what it came down to: Sashi calculated how to maximize each position in terms of both present and future value, and Dorsey just determined whether or not players were good at football or not.

And that is exactly what happened in 2018. The meticulous acquired MASSIVE collection of assets by the Analytics guy were given to the Football guy. Fortunately, the Football guy actually had a pretty good handle on what good football players look like, and wasted no time spending the stockpile his predecessor had worked so hard to create. His moves and decisions were WAY different, and it was apparent early on that the Sashi-ball model was dead as disco. That model, while creating the stockpile, also loaded onto the roster players like Myles Garrett, Rashard Higgins, David Njoku, J.C. Tretter, and Larry Ogunjobi.

Dorsey filled every spot that appeared weak with guys he thought could fit the bill right away, and realistically that’s probably the right way to approach free agency if you’re trying to do what we were doing. Some of the moves appear in hindsight to have been homeruns, like Jarvis Landry. Others were, in retrospect, not worth what was spent on them - like Tyrod Taylor. Then there are head-scratchers like Austin Corbett and Genard Avery. Or even Darren Fells - players that he brought in who he also decided he didn’t like, after they had shown some positive things on the field. That was the thing about Dorsey especially in contrast with Sashi; while Brown’s moves were all calculated down to the inth degree, Dorsey (affectionately known here as “Meathead”) just kinda did whatever.

His influence is widespread, with the aforementioned Landry, Chubb & Ward. There’s also Kareem Hunt, who looks like the bargain of the century, to complement the also excellent Chubb. There’s Wyatt Teller, Chris Hubbard, Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson, Terrance Mitchell, and Jamie Gilan. Mitchell in particular is an example of someone that everyone thought was an overreach, but has been a rock for us since he’s been here. ’Ol Meathead had his oddball stuff, but he also could pick out talent where other people did not (See: Mahomes, Patrick).

He’s also responsible for the blockbuster deal that brought in Odell Bechham Jr. from the Giants, in exchange for a substantial amount (although presumably it was in some kind of packaged-connection with the companion trade that saw Kevin Zeitler go for Vernon). Of course, the biggest decision was the one he made with the first pick in the 2018 draft.

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s important to recall at this juncture he’s still working with a head coach who he nor no conscious person should have trusted with important football decisions. As a result, he didn’t even let Hue Jackson know who we were taking until the morning of the draft, and dutifully that is when it became leaked that Mayfield would be our guy. For a lot of reasons keeping that information privileged was a priority up until the point where it ceased to be, and Dorsey’s handling of that situation was superlative.

I also happened to think at the time, do today, and have through all of the last three years, that the right choice was made. That isn’t any kind of sleight to either Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson - two prospects that I also liked (Lamjax more than Allen or Rosen/Derpnold for that matter), it’s to say that I thought at the time, and I think the situation has borne out, that Baker Mayfield was the right quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, and other than maybe DeShaun Watson, the only one who could have brought us to the place we are now.

Let us review that place: at the time the Browns drafted Mayfield, they had been 4-50 (.074) in their previous 54 games, spanning the previous three and a half seasons (raise your hand if you watched every play of every one of those games.../curls into fetal position). Also, at the helm of the football side of the organization was Jackson, statistically-established (as well as eyeball tested to be) the worst coach in NFL history. I dare say that whoever is number two it’s probably not as close as it looks. Jackson was, provably shown as that 2018 season progressed, a direct impediment to his team’s success. He was also fresh off the victory over Sashi Brown, whom he’d slain in the previous season for his only win of the year. A culture of losing headed by the losingest loser of all time with seemingly limitless support from ownership. Any quarterback walking into that situation (that basically spans the entire period of the rebuild at this point) is just a few wrong moves away from the buzzsaw.

Fortunately, while Dorsey’s stupid-like-a-fox routine was absolutely perfect in gaining the trust of the inner-circle, it also extended Jackson’s false sense of confidence by giving him enough rope to eventually hang himself and set the Browns on a positive course. Need a veteran quarterback (because you whine about not having one even though you throw away ‘Lobster) no problem, here’s Taylor. Of course you look like a fool when the rookie comes in and looks miles better pretty much immediately.

Need a veteran back? Sure thing, here’s Carlos Hyde. Although people scratch their heads when this Chubb kid seems to rip off 70 yard touchdowns every time he touches the ball, which is infrequent because you don’t play him for some reason. This went on, and I recall myself being in attendance when the Browns played in Tampa, and these two college aged (and pretty well hammered) kids next to me were accurately predicting everything we were doing on offense and defense in the 2nd half. We of course lost that game even though it was clear we had the better team, and just a week later, after blaming his kicker for his team getting rolled in Pittsburgh, Jackson was finally let go. To think that so much of this rebuilding process was placed in his hands, and that it didn’t become an absolute mountain of smoldering tires is a full blown miracle.

Of course, we can’t have anything nice unless we roll around in feces a little bit first, and that’s what 2019 became. The incorrectly learned lesson of the 2nd half of 2018 success begot the hiring of Frederick Kitchens as Browns head football dude and the move was hailed with great fanfare. Kitchens was credited with the turnaround and thought to be just the right neck-shade of red to foster Mayfield’s development towards NFL badass quarterback.

Unfortunately the actual experience on the field led people to disbelieve the exact date Mr Kitchens had claimed to have fallen from off of the turnip truck and further led a hastily aligned group of suddenly-entitled fans to declare that the guy they had to go 0-16 to get was irredeemably worthless. After only a single season, Kitchens was gone and Dorsey was shown the door right along with him. Just a year earlier, especially after the Beckham trade, it appeared Cleveland had it’s organization set for good long while, and instead it became just another year of a new coach, new front office, new schemes, and all that comes with all of that.

The Most Unbelievable Part Yet

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports and Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This is where the story takes the unexpected turn. After making seemingly every wrong coaching and/or front office move (by virtue of having relinquished the services of all involved), Cleveland made a series of decisions that, as things stand at this moment, appear to have been blow-by-blow absolutely perfect. The first was to bring in Andrew Berry, who had worked in the Browns’ organization at the outset of this process, only to leave and perform well in an elevated role in Philadelphia. Berry made his share of bold decisions but did not take a flamethrower to the existing roster either.

In a way if felt to me like a partial return to the Sashi-ball/Analytics-based approach that preceded the Dorsey era, but also with a nose for high-end talent targeting as well. Berry and his team kept Vernon, but added Adrian Clayborn and Porter Gustin. They kept Hubbard, but added Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills. Hubbard went from a liability to a great asset and one that we all wish was available to play right now and none of us thought we would ever think that about him but a year ago.

Not every move panned out, as Grant Delpit’s injury really hampered a lot of what the defense’s growth trajectory was to be this year. It’s a similar situation with his college teammate Greedy Williams, a Dorsey holdover that Berry so far is showing patience with. That’s an element to team construction that has eluded our franchise for this entire millennium. At the same time he’s added his own guys, like Austin Hooper - a high end Tight end that further assists in Mayfield’s development (and can help us win games if he stops dropping passes). At the same time we kept David Njoku, who is a great story of perseverance in his own right. It’s like that all over the roster, with a blend of Sashi, Dorsey, and Berry players - and exactly two: Joel Bitonio & Charlie Hughlett, from the Ray Farmer experience.

Making it all come together is the hiring of Kevin Stefanski as head coach. Evidently this was who DePodesta wanted last year and was overruled by the Dorsey team. I would say that it’s a shame we aren’t in year two with him at the helm considering the unbelievable progress he’s made in his first season as coach, but at once you can’t know how much additional knowledge he gained in the last year doing what he was doing but moreover, I’d be curious to know if coming here last year would have precluded the availability of Bill Callahan as offensive line coach. Because if not, I’d almost trade the Kitchens’ year for Callahan - he’s been THAT impactful to the expansion of the offense.

Stefanski has been a rock of consistency and seems to be the exact same level of enthusiastic (which is somewhere in the just-above lukewarm area) whether he’s just won the lottery or has just smashed his knuckles with a ballpeen hammer. We don’t make excuses here, Tony - the hand will heal. And all year long, every Browns’ player seems to parrot his words and body language. Every game is one game at a time. No one is satisfied. Nothing on the outside is important. We all have a job to do. To say the culture has been radically transformed is an understatement.

That culture is embodied by the triumvirate that has caught fire together and delivered the Browns this close to the (gulps) Super Bowl. Andrew Berry, the wise but adequately aggressive GM, combined with Kevin Stefanski, the boring administrator that keeps everyone focused and moving in the same direction at all times, and the quarterback who went through the entire Cleveland gauntlet and has come out on the other side a winner. For anyone that wants to say that Baker isn’t a franchise quarterback or that we’d have done better with anyone else seriously needs to consider just how ludicrously special the CLEVELAND situation both was and is. Baker Mayfield had the right combination of everything to withstand what the Browns’ situation was and be that guy to turn it around.

The future looks really bright, and possibly the very immediate future if some things break our way. However this one ultimately ends we move forward in the healthiest spot we’ve been in since...I don’t even know. We’re extraordinarily fortunate, and given the road to where we are and where it looks like we are going, just absolutely amazing that we didn’t screw it all up the multiple opportunities we had to do so. That is precisely the reason why this is definitely not the same old Browns.

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports