How the Cleveland Browns went from rags to riches

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Photo Courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr

The Cleveland Browns made history during the 2020 NFL Season.

By Paul Gustafson, Lead multimedia & social media editor

When someone thinks of the Cleveland Browns, a common set of words pops into their heads. Losers, embarrassment, disappointment, dreadful and complete and utter garbage. However, for the 2020 season, Cleveland was anything but that. They finished with a record of 11-5 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, a unicorn season for an abysmal franchise. 11 wins was the most for the Browns since 1994. To put that into perspective, in 1994, the team’s head coach, Kevin Stefanski was only 12 years old, star wide receiver Jarvis Landry was two and starting quarterback Baker Mayfield was not yet born. The incredible turnaround from bottom feeder to a legit contender was one that took many years to develop. 

Between the years of 2008-2017 the Cleveland Browns were the laughing stock of not only the NFL, but the entirety of professional sports. Over the 160 games that the team played during this 10 season period, they won 38 of them, making for a horrific 23 percent win percentage. This stretch includes the historically bad run of Hue Jackson. Over his 40 games as the head coach of the Browns, Jackson finished with a record of 3-36-1. Jacksons 8.8 percent win percentage is the worst record for a head coach in the NFL with at least 40 games. Jackson is not the only symbol of losing in the city of Cleveland, the team also has a known history of draft busts. The most notable of the bunch is former Texas A&M standout quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel. With his cocky attitude and signature “money” celebration, fans were quick to doubt Manziel’s maturity and capabilities to lead a team. Cleveland had similar concerns, ditching the young quarterback after only eight starts with the team over the course of two seasons. 

The days of losing are long gone in Cleveland and the careers of Hue Jackson and Johnny Manziel are an afterthought. The path to success began for the team in the 2017 draft. The setup of the NFL draft rewards losing with higher draft selections, giving the Browns many chances to select high talent, blue chip prospects. Following an embarrassing 1-15 season in 2016 the Browns had the opportunity to select with the number one pick in the draft. With this selection, Cleveland chose Myles Garrett. The 6’4 defensive end out of Texas A&M has been Cleveland’s defensive anchor since being selected, being named to two pro bowl teams and one all-pro team. Garrett’s elite performance on field paid off during the 2020 offseason when signed a five-year contract extension with the team worth $125 million, solidifying Garrett as a vital part of the team’s success for years to come. 

The Myles Garrett selection did not result in initial success for the Browns, the team finished the 2017 season with a record of 0-16. Thanks to the fortunes of the NFL draft, Cleveland once again had the opportunity to pick first overall. In a selection ridiculed by many, the Browns landed on a guy who they viewed as their future starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield. Mayfield’s maturity and leadership qualities were questioned early on, many viewing him as the second coming of Johnny Manziel in Cleveland. The Browns didn’t only land Mayfield in the 2018 draft, the team used their other first round selection on pro bowl corner Denzel Ward and they landed pro bowl running back Nick Chubb in the second round. In order to help their young quarterback, the Browns used the offseason to build a talented offensive unit around him. Cleveland traded for star wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Landry is a reliable target who has been Mayfield’s favorite receiver since arriving in Cleveland. 

WIth Mayfield, Chubb and Landry in the fold, excitement heading into the 2018 season was at an all time high. On September 20, history was made in the city of Cleveland. Following an injury to starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield was given the chance to make his debut with the Browns. The young Mayfield never looked back, defeating the New York Jets, 21-17 to give Cleveland their first win in 635 days. The season was up and down following the win over New York, but one thing was certain, the future was bright in Cleveland. The team finished with a record of 7-8-1 and Mayfield finished second in rookie of the year voting. 

After tasting some success in the previous season, Cleveland decided that 2019 was the year to win. Offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens was promoted to head coach and the front office made a splash by trading for New York Giants star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.. The Browns also signed former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt who would be suspended for the first half of the season. The changes didn’t pay off quite the way Cleveland expected and the team finished with an underwhelming record of 6-10. The Browns were quick to axe Freddie Kitchens in favor of Kevin Stefanski. Cleveland viewed Stefanski, who was formally the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, as the guy that would put them over the edge. Paired with Stefanski, the team made minor, but impactful signings including tight end Austin Hooper and lineman Jack Conklin. 

In a year of shocking events and unprecedented moments, the most surprising of all was the Browns. The laughing stock of the NFL finished with a record of 11-5 and made the playoffs where they eventually defeated their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the wild card round. It was the first time Cleveland made the playoffs since 2002 and the victory over PIttsburgh was the teams first playoff win in 26 years. Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett and lineman Joel Bitomio were all named to the AFC pro bowl team and head coach Kevin Stefanski is a frontrunner for the coach of the year award.

In a year unlike any other, the historic dumpster fire franchise in Cleveland found themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL. It took many bad draft picks, signings, coaching hires and fires until they finally found the right guys to lead the team. With a young  and well coached team, who already experienced some success in 2020, the Cleveland Browns have a bright future ahead of them.