The Season that Almost Never Was
And How the Cleveland Browns Made it Great
Empty stadiums, social justice marches, blasting hailstorms and gashing winds, a global pandemic, political unrest, a season always on the brink of collapse. This is what the NFL was up against heading into the 2021 season. Chaos. And in that chaos, the Cleveland Browns soared.
They did something many thought they wouldn’t be able to do with a rookie head coach, a brand new system, and a season with so many question marks. They reached the divisional playoffs, finding themselves matched up against the Super Bowl contender Kansas City Chiefs. For the first time in forever, the Browns were playing in the heart of January for a chance to reach the AFC championship.
There was a certain energy to this team, a new kind of feeling, an identity that people were still trying to wrap their minds around. Who was this Browns team? Why did they look so unfamiliar? Were they for real?
Somewhere in that forgotten season of torrential downpours, delayed games and COVID protocols, the Cleveland Browns had changed the culture.
Before Kevin Stefanski was the football genius that we know him to be today, he was a slightly controversial choice as Browns head coach. A leading favorite was the New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Behind him was the fiery, defensive-minded Robert Saleh. And then, farther down the line, though with a lot less enthusiasm behind his name, was Kevin Stefanski.
He was a calm and balanced coach, a drastic difference from a candidate like Saleh who was often seen chest-bumping his defensive lineman after a sack or screaming something from the sidelines, his bald head gleaming under the stadium lights. Often, with his big frame and passion for the game, it looked as though he was about to throw on pads and jump into the fray. A lot of the Cleveland fan base was drawn to this kind of intensity.
And when compared to a candidate like McDaniels, Stefanski seemed a little less experienced. Yes, he’d led the Vikings to a playoff appearance, but they’d been defeated early. McDaniels had been to multiple Super Bowls and had the rings to prove it.
Stefanski was an underdog, a man who had to prove himself. And as Stefanski would soon realize, like all coaches and players who come to Clevealand soon realize, landing a job is the easy part. It’s much, much harder to earn the loyalty and respect of the Cleveland fans.
A Maze of Difficulties
Stefanski was walking into a lot of problems. It was a historically dysfunctional organization that was coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in recent history (maybe even more disappointing than the 1-15 year). Jimmy Haslam was restless. The fans were holding protests outside the stadium. Things, as was too often the case with Cleveland Browns football, were looking grim.
And that was just on the football side of things. In the outside world, things were even messier.
Video of the murder of George Floyd was sweeping across the nation. Protesters took to the streets to march against police brutality. Athletes all over the sports world were boycotting practices and games.
And all of this was happening, of course, within the atmosphere that COVID-19 had created.
Everyone had to be tested before entering the facility. If someone tested positive, they went into COVID protocol, missing precious time that otherwise would’ve been spent bonding with the team.
I would be hard pressed to draw up a scarier opening few months for a rookie head coach.
It was in these early moments, before the season even started, that Cleveland saw the character of Kevin Stefanski. When faced with adversity he retained that same calm, cool attitude, even when the world around him seemed to be burning. It was a nice trait to have in an organization that seemed to switch things up every other year. COVID and social justice issues alike were being handled well as other teams were seeming to struggle, and the Browns seemed to be on a united front heading into the home opener.
Then Baltimore happened.
3rd and 41
It didn’t take long for the initial hype arc to plummet in Cleveland. The hopeful season opened with an interception and a failed fake punt attempt. The usual dread began to fall on fans’ shoulders as they watched. Even after the Browns answered with a touchdown, the extra point ricocheted off the post. The Ravens would go on to score 28 unanswered points, and the Browns wouldn’t score again for the rest of the game. It was an awful, mistake-filled game for the Browns, with failures on nearly every aspect of the team. A moral loss. It was a bad feeling, but perhaps even worse was that it was a feeling Browns fans were used to.
Nothing was more discouragingly familiar as a second quarter Browns drive. After a flurry of penalties and sacks, Cleveland found themselves in a 3rd and 41, staring down an almost comical vastness to the sticks. As the camera panned to Kevin Stefanski, a collective groan seemed to emanate from Cleveland. Not again, we all pleaded.
The feeling after the game was akin to that 3rd and 41.
We have a long way to go.
Suited up in the orange pants under the lights, in front of a masked crowd of about 6,000, the Browns didn’t disappoint.
A strong Nick Chubb run and a long ball to Odell cracked the game open 14-3, and the Browns continued to thrive from there, relying on great defense and a constant rush attack to close the game. It was a well-oiled, efficient Browns team that looked like they knew what they were doing. It was something different.
The following week the Browns took care of business against the Washington Football Team, and the next week they displayed an offensive powerhouse in Dallas against the Cowboys, where a trick play electrified the team. The Cowboys threatened a comeback but a signature Odell run sealed the deal. In Week 5 Cleveland hosted the Colts, where a Ronnie Harrison pick six helped the team to another victory. The Browns were suddenly 4-1 with a chance to prove themselves against a division rival: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
But a battered Browns team showed up to Pittsburgh to get absolutely decimated - from the very first drive the Steelers dominated, embarrassing Cleveland in the national mid-afternoon time slot. Browns fans got to hear the whole tragedy from the mouths of Nantz and Romo as they described the 38-7 drubbing.
Same old Browns, touted the media.
Eyes were on Mayfield in Cincinnati after a questionable performance in the previous week. He started the game shaky, going 0-6 with an interception. Then there was a big gain to Landry, and the flip switched. Mayfield went on to complete the next 22 passes, throwing for 297 yards and five touchdowns. The Browns won on a last-minute haul to Donovan Peoples-Jones in the corner of the end zone.
The Lost Games
The Raiders game started what I like to think of as the lost games. These games were played in disastrous conditions - pouring rain, sleet, snow, lightning, thunder, high speed winds. Watching these games was like going back in time to the 80s where handoffs were ninety percent of the playbook. The field was a mess, players came away from the games coated in mud and various parts of the turf. It was a vast difference from the shootout games the Browns had played in the first half of the season, where we watched Odell juke defenders on a spotless Cowboys turf. This was a three-game home stretch in the heart of Cleveland in November. It was less about highlights and more about finding a way to win. Less flashy moments and more grit-your teeth, hold on to the ball, and stomp your way through the mess. It was true Browns football.
The Browns went 2-1, dropping a game to the Raiders and beating the Texans and Eagles. At the start of the Texans games, fans had to take cover underneath the stadium because of inclement weather. During the Eagles game, it didn’t stop pouring for even one second.
The games were lost to everyone in the NFL except maybe those in Cleveland and the teams that played them. There were brief highlights that showed a camera fogged up and coated with raindrops - you had to squint to see Kareem Hunt leaping over defenders towards the pylon. The dark, disastrous weather of Cleveland didn’t sell on the big stage.
But those tough, brutal games in November built the foundation of what the Browns strove to be - relentless, gritty, hardworking. In the darkness and grayness that was November in Cleveland, the Browns built a culture.
On the Other Side
After playing in hellish conditions for three weeks, the Browns went on the road to bright and shiny Jacksonville. They took care of business, winning 27-25.
The next week showcased a marquee matchup - two 8-3 teams going head to head: Browns versus Titans. The Browns were ready. They put up 38 in the first half alone, making Derrick Henry seemingly nonexistent. It was the game that brought the Browns to national attention, though they still had a lot to prove - like beating a division rival.
The Monday Nighter
The Monday Night Ravens was a showcase event. A 47-42 bombshell of a game, with two quarterbacks dueling for points, it showed the world not only the stamina of the Ravens, but also the lengths the Browns had come throughout the season. They were an offensive powerhouse, with a stellar running attack between backs Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, and a quarterback who had seemed to have found his poise in the pocket. It was touted as the best game of the season.
The Final Stretch . . . What Could Go Wrong?
After beating the Giants handily, the Browns seemed ready to clinch a playoff spot. All they had to do was beat a 2-13 Jets team.
Then, everything fell apart.
The Browns had almost expertly handled the COVID situation thus far. As other teams fell sick and went into protocol, the Browns had stayed relatively clean. Now that they were nearing the postseason for the first time in what felt like centuries, the past had finally caught up with them, just in time.
Nearly the entire Browns receiving core was sidelined because of COVID protocol. Though the NFL had previously postponed other games because of coronavirus issues, the order was clear later in the week: the game wouldn’t be moved.
There was a rumor that Browns second-string receivers were out practicing routes in the parking garage before the game. Nonetheless, there was hope that the Browns could still pull out a victory against the struggling Jets.
But it soon became apparent that the losses were too much, as the Browns struggled to get anything going throughout the game. They lost 23-16.
It now came down to one game, one chance.
The Cleveland Browns would have to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final game of the season to launch themselves into the postseason.
Same Old Browns
Against a lazy, second-string Steelers team who’d already clinched the postseason, the Browns won, though not by a lot. It ended with a Baker Mayfield QB keeper to the right side for a first down (Cadillac), sending the fans into a frenzy. For the first time in a long time, the Browns were in the playoffs.
And the media immediately got to work.
The playoffs set up (of course) so that the Browns were matched up with the Steelers in the first round. But this time they’d be at full strength. The Browns had hardly managed to beat their backups, at home. Last time they’d played their starters it had been a disaster. Now they were off to Heinz field, and oh, yeah - without a head coach.
Kevin Stefanski had tested positive for COVID and would now watch his team play from his basement on a flatscreen. Mike Preifer, the team’s special teams coordinator and Cleveland native, would be stepping into the role of head coach.
It was almost unanimous throughout the sports world: the Browns were going to lose. They simply didn’t have a chance. Everything was against them.
Some go back and say it was the snap over the head of Big Ben that started it. Or Kareem’s hard nosed running for those two touchdowns. No, it was those picks that did it, others say. But what was it? How had the Browns done it? How had they scored 28 points, in the FIRST QUARTER?
As Ben Roethlisberger and Juju and Claypool all nursed their wounds on the sidelines, they seemed blown away at what had just occurred, as did the rest of the world. The only ones who didn’t seem surprised were the players on Cleveland’s sideline.
A New Culture
In all that chaos that was the 2020-2021 season, the Browns stuck together like a family, quietly building a culture that everyone bought into. Stefanski brought it in and it was upheld by great leaders like Baker, Jarvis Landry, and Myles Garrett. It didn’t matter what the world thought because they believed in themselves, in their abilities. It was a group of perennial underdogs, in a city labeled as the underdog, in a league where the Browns had been, for a long time, the punch line to a joke on the national broadcast.
Sometimes cultures take some time to present themselves - and this time it didn’t become apparent until the postseason, when the Browns blew the socks off the Steelers to get to the divisional playoffs.
The Browns lost to the super-bowl reigning Kansas City Chiefs on January 17th, 22-17.
It was a brutal end to a great, magical season.
Looking back, I realize there was something missing, especially when I think back to that last game against the Steelers and looking up at the scoreboard which read 2020 Playoff Champions.
It was the missing 60,000 in the crowd who weren’t there to celebrate.
Maybe the future holds another celebration, this one in a full-capacity FirstEnergy stadium, 70,000 people cheering their way into Super Bowl contention.