January 2021 is the start of the Browns 75th Anniversary and marked the end of the 2020 season, which was a big one for the history books. An epic season that established a powerful team culture reflecting the City of Cleveland and all of Northeast Ohio: hard work, humility, and a next-man-up attitude.
These are the tenets that defined the 2020 Browns and will continue to hold true for the future.
1. About The Work
Everything shut down when Kevin Stefanski was just getting his footing as the Browns' new head coach.
Stefanski and all Browns employees were no longer permitted in the facility and would work remotely for an indefinite period starting March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stefanski rejoined his family in Minneapolis and many of the team's other coaches returned to their previous residences, but the work continued.
The Browns, of course, had plenty of it.
They had an (almost) entirely new coaching staff that needed to get to know their players. They had a new offense to install. They had a new defense to install. They had a first-round rookie making the transition from right tackle to left tackle. They had a large number of free agent signings who would play pivotal roles on both sides of the ball.
The list went on and on, and it all had to come together while everyone was apart.
Stefanski, though, made it clear from Day 1: There would be no excuses. Every other team in the NFL was facing the same circumstances. The teams that handled them the best would fare the best in the fall.
"They attacked this thing. That was great to see," Stefanski said. "It was pretty cool from a message standpoint of whatever it takes, these guys are willing to do to put the work in."
"Whatever it takes" carried into training camp and the season. The Browns would be "about the work," no matter how or when it got done.
During training camp, the Browns dealt with a COVID-19 scare that briefly shut down the facility and delayed their first full-contact practice. Throughout the season, especially the second half of it, COVID-19 cases caused numerous closures of the facility, resulting in even more virtual meetings on a schedule stocked full of them. During the final three weeks of the season, the Browns were able to hold just a handful of traditional practices. In the days leading up to their Wild Card showdown with the Steelers, they had just one, and it didn't come until a Friday afternoon.
They attacked this thing. That was great to see. It was pretty cool from a message standpoint of whatever it takes, these guys are willing to do to put the work in. Coach Stefanski
"That is just the nature of the beast this season," Stefanski said. "I think it speaks to the team's resilience that they are going to get their job done no matter what."
"The work" went beyond what took place on the field.
The Browns grew closer as a team during the offseason program when protests for social justice erupted all across the country. Stefanski gave his players time to simply discuss with each how they felt in the moment and were given time off during the funeral of George Floyd, whose controversial death spurred the movement. They were empowered by Stefanski and Andrew Berry, Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM, to "get in the arena" and use their platform to make a difference.
When training camp arrived and meetings remained mostly virtual, Stefanski helped the team forge a bond by having players, coaches and other members of the organization share their four H's — history, heroes, heartbreak and hopes. FB Andy Janovich's unforgettable session set the tone for an exercise that allowed players to get to know their teammates — old and new — on a more personal level while breaking down the barriers presented by all of the rules that limited their social interactions.
"He was always ready for it to be different," veteran G Joel Bitonio said. "When you become a family, it just means a little bit more for you."
2. Next Man Up
Just a few days into training camp, Grant Delpit crumpled to the turf during an individual drill and writhed in pain. The second-round safety out of LSU had torn his Achilles tendon and would be lost for the season.
It was the first of a number of significant injuries to key players the Browns would have to overcome throughout the season. Coupled with a surge of COVID-19-related absences during the second half of the season, the Browns were stretched as thin as they've been in years, entering a handful of games with players who carried little or no experience at all primed to fill big roles.
"It takes everybody," Mayfield said. "We said at the very beginning, at some point this year, we are going to need everybody in the building."
One day after Delpit went down, Greedy Williams, the Browns' second-round pick in 2019 and a projected starter, suffered a shoulder injury during a tackling drill. He'd ultimately miss the entire season.
Still, the Browns pressed forward. Their opponents wouldn't be feeling sorry for them.
"We care about our teammates. We care about these guys. We do not like to see that," Stefanski said. "Injuries are part of this game. They have happened for a very long time. They will continue to be part of this game. As much as you hate to hear it, it is next man up."
Against the Cowboys in Week 4, the next man up was D'Ernest Johnson, who was two years removed from working on a fishing boat and thinking his football days were behind him. With Pro Bowl RB Nick Chubb lost to a knee injury early in the second quarter and Kareem Hunt dealing with a painful, nagging injury, Johnson took center stage and led the team with 95 yards on that day. He'd entered the game with 26 — for his career.
Johnson would close out the Browns' win over the Colts the following week with a 28-yard run late in the fourth quarter and punctuate it with one of the most memorable celebrations of the season.
"I was so excited," Hunt said. "D'Ernest is a great player. He works extremely hard."
That same mindset was evident when a cast of next men up were tasked with filling the shoes of WR Odell Beckham Jr., who was lost for the season on the first play of Cleveland's Week 7 game at Cincinnati.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, a sixth-round rookie out of Michigan, had only played 46 offensive snaps before he took the field that day. He'd yet to catch a pass in the NFL.
But the Browns had no choice but to turn to Peoples-Jones when Beckham suffered his injury. Peoples-Jones, as well as Rashard Higgins and KhaDarel Hodge, were immediately thrust into bigger roles. They stepped up in a big way as Baker Mayfield completed a franchise-record 21 consecutive passes to keep the Browns in the game.
Peoples-Jones was on the receiving end of Mayfield's final pass, a game-winning 24-yard touchdown with 11 seconds to play.
"He is Mr. Reliable," Stefanski said. "There are going to be opportunities for him moving forward just like that."
Higgins filled Beckham's starting role the rest of the season and posted career numbers (37 catches, 599 yards, 4 TDs) while Peoples-Jones maintained a significant role in the offense (14 catches, 304 yards, 2 TDs). Jarvis Landry, meanwhile, elevated his game to another level and averaged more than five catches and 59 yards per game the rest of the way.
"Those guys, whether they are getting reps, they have to know what they're doing," Stefanski said. "They know that when we need them, they have to be ready."
That approach was necessary for the offensive line during a trying few weeks at the end of the season that tested the group's mettle in unprecedented fashion.
It started Week 15, when the Browns entered a Sunday Night Football showdown without RG Wyatt Teller, who was out with a high ankle sprain. Chris Hubbard, who had performed well as the next man up all throughout the season, exited the game on the first snap and suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Nick Harris, a fifth-round rookie center out of Washington who had played just one offensive snap, took Hubbard's place. The offensive line didn't look any different.
"He did his job," Stefanski said.
Bitonio was among a number of players and coaches placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list in the days leading up to the Browns' Wild Card showdown with the Steelers. Hubbard and Harris weren't available, leaving Michael Dunn and Blake Hance — two undrafted players who combined for one snap of NFL experience — as the next men up.
Dunn started — becoming the ninth different Browns offensive lineman to do so during the season — and performed at a high level, but he went down with an injury in the fourth quarter. Hance, who was signed off the New York Jets practice squad a week earlier and hadn't even met Mayfield until the day of the game, played the final 14 snaps and helped the offense seal the Browns' first playoff win in more than two decades.
"We have been without guys for various reasons all year, and guys step up," Stefanski said. "That is just the nature of this beast. That is what is required."
It wasn't just players who had to step up.
Stefanski was among five coaches ruled out for the Wild Card game because of COVID-19 protocols, joining DBs coach Jeff Howard, TEs coach Drew Petzing and offensive line coaches Bill Callahan and Scott Peters. The contingency plans Stefanski alluded to back when he first spoke of a "next man up" mentality would need to be enacted.
With offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt calling the plays and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer serving as the acting head coach, the Browns played as if it were business as usual and got the victory. All of the sidelined coaches would get to experience the playoffs first-hand the following week against the Chiefs.
"The resilience and the 'next man up' mentality that we have been talking about the whole season," Mayfield said, "that just permeates through the whole team."
We have been without guys for various reasons all year, and guys step up. That is just the nature of this beast. That is what is required. Coach Stefanski
3. Never Satisfied
The Browns were out-played, out-executed, out-everything'd in a lopsided season-opening loss to the Ravens. It was as bad, if not worse, than the losses of previous years, but the Browns carried a sense of resolve as they returned to Cleveland.
They had no other choice. Four days separated them from their next game, another AFC North matchup with the Bengals.
"We have a game on Thursday night so we have to regroup," Stefanski said after the 38-6 loss in Baltimore. "When we land here after leaving here, we have to let this one go, and we have to move on."
With the nation watching, the Browns delivered a triumphant response on Thursday Night Football. They took control after a Chubb touchdown run late in the first quarter, led by multiple scores for the vast majority of the game and saw their biggest stars make the biggest plays on both sides of the ball in a feel-good, 35-30 victory.
The Browns vowed to go 1-0 every week, a motto Stefanski repeated all throughout the season. This was the evidence players needed to see what it meant.
"The way we handled that week of walkthrough at practice, and how we moved on to the next game and understood that the season is more than one game was pretty impressive," Bitonio said.
The mentality, though, went both ways. The Browns, under Stefanski, would be equally steady during their upcoming weeks of preparation whether they'd won or lost.
By the time the Browns hit Week 4 with a highly anticipated matchup against the Cowboys, they'd already started checking off a number of "firsts" and milestones. Among the most staggering: Their 2-1 start was the team's best since 2002.
There would be many more added to the list after the Browns delivered a Texas-sized statement in Dallas.
The Browns rattled off 24 unanswered points in the first half to take a 31-14 lead into halftime — their highest-scoring first half since 1991 — but they needed to keep scoring. Their advantage grew as large as 27 entering the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys drew within a field goal with 3:42 to play.
Beckham took it into his own hands on the ensuing possession.
The talented WR got the ball on a reverse handoff and went nearly 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage before bolting up the field, darting between defenders and racing toward the end zone for a game-sealing 50-yard touchdown run.
"Kareem before the play was like, 'We just need 5 yards,'" Beckham said. "Harrison Bryant, the rookie, is giving me advice and coaching me up, telling me to stay in bounds. I said 'Thanks, rook.' I turned the corner and everybody was blocking and it was weird. I was about to slide and I just turned the jets on and got in the end zone."
It put an appropriate bow on a game in which the Browns rushed for 307 yards, the most-ever allowed by the Cowboys. It was the Browns' first win in Dallas since 1994.
They won the next week, too, picking up what would become a very important victory for playoff seeding over the Indianapolis Colts. The Browns were 4-1 for the first time since 1994 but there was no sense of satisfaction.
"There is a lot of season left," Mayfield said. "We have to continue to improve."
Two months later, the same sentiments were echoed after a win that delivered a powerful statement to the rest of the AFC.
The Browns were 8-3 and firmly in the center of the AFC playoff picture after three straight wins over Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville. None of the wins were pretty, but they were wins, nonetheless, and that's what good teams do against teams with losing records.
The Tennessee Titans, who were also 8-3 and just a year removed from a run to the AFC Championship, provided a stiffer test. It wasn't a must-win for the Browns, but it served as an important litmus test for just how playoff-ready they were.
Cleveland aced the exam with one of the best first halves in franchise history and withstood a late push from the Titans to move to 9-3 — clinching their first winning record since 2007. It was how they did it that really caught the attention of those who may have previously doubted the team's capabilities.
The Browns played their best 30 minutes of the season in the first half, scoring five touchdowns and a field goal on their six first half-possessions. The 38 first-half points were the team's most-ever in a single half, beating the mark of 35 set in 2004 vs. Cincinnati. Mayfield threw for four of those first-half touchdowns, making him the first Browns QB to hit that number in the first half of a game since Otto Graham in Dec. 1951.
Still, the Browns weren't done. This was simply the new norm, and they'd have to be just as good the remainder of the season to accomplish their goals.
We are not satisfied. We expected to be here. We have worked extremely hard to get here. We are excited to have a chance to be in the playoffs." Baker Mayfield
"I feel like all wins are statements," DE Myles Garrett said. "Everybody is paid in the NFL to do their job and no matter who you are going against, they are going to give you their best shot."
And even in the afterglow of one of the franchise's best moments since 1999, when the Browns clinched their first trip to the playoffs in 18 years with a season-ending win over the Steelers, Browns players made it clear: They wanted more.
"We are not satisfied," Mayfield said. "We expected to be here. We have worked extremely hard to get here. We are excited to have a chance to be in the playoffs.
"All we wanted was a chance, and now we have one."
Mayfield embodied the unwavering confidence and belief the Browns had in themselves all throughout the season. Even in the face of skeptics or disappointing losses and performances, they never doubted the trajectory that would take them to the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.
For Mayfield, everything changed Week 7.
Mayfield, looking long for his favorite target, threw his fifth interception in three games on his first throw of the game, a deep throw to Beckham that ended with Beckham suffering a season-ending knee injury. The offense appeared to be out of sync for the rest of the first quarter, as Mayfield started the game 0-for-5 and the Browns fell behind, 10-3.
It all changed in the second quarter, and Mayfield simply didn't miss the rest of the game.
Mayfield completed 21 straight passes to set a franchise record, and the Browns needed every single one of them in a back-and-forth shootout with Bengals rookie QB Joe Burrow. After an intentional spike ended the streak, Mayfield completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to Peoples-Jones, his fifth of the game, to complete the comeback and send the Browns to a 37-34 victory.
It was a turning point for the third-year quarterback and the Browns offense as a whole.
"Throughout this week, I was reminded by some very key people and very important people in my life that I have support from them no matter what," Mayfield said.
"Keeping the faith and keeping the belief is extremely important."
For the rest of the season, Mayfield completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,171 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception. More importantly, he was the driving force of an offense that shifted to a much more pass-heavy approach that kept defenses — keying in on Chubb and Hunt — off balance.
"We would not be where we were at the end of the season without his performance," Berry said. "He had a really tremendous season."
Even on nights that didn't end so tremendously, the Browns' confidence couldn't be shaken.
Cleveland was on the wrong end of a Monday Night Football game for the ages, but it was an important moment for a team with goals of playing in even bigger games into January. The Browns went toe to toe with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' high-powered offense but ultimately lost the back-and-forth shootout, 47-42.
This was the closest thing to playoff football, and, on this night, the Browns came up short. They'd need to learn from it and be better when the real thing arrived.
"We just have to build on the fact that this team fights," Mayfield said. "I am really proud of this team for fighting … we just have to be better."
The Browns were better the next week against the Giants, and they controlled their playoff destiny entering a win-and-in, Week 17 showdown with the Steelers.
On an unforgettable afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium, the Browns delivered the kind of playoff-ready performance they needed. It didn't come without a little anxiety, as the Steelers nearly came back from a two-touchdown deficit, but Mayfield was the one to close it out. His rush for 3 yards on third-and-short electrified the crowd of 12,000 and sealed the 24-22 victory.
"The feeling of walking off the field and the energy in the stadium, playing 'Cleveland Rocks,' I can see an old school video going on and I can look up and see old school highlights of players like (Browns Legends QBs) Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar and some old-schoolers on there," Mayfield said. "For it to be that loud with the limited number of fans, it is a special moment for us."
It was special, sure, but the Browns believed they were a team that was more than "happy to be there."
The Browns faced adversity all throughout the season, but it came to a head entering the biggest game in the franchise's recent history. Their belief never wavered.
Stefanski, a number of assistants and key players such as Bitonio and Ward were sidelined on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The team went through just one practice during the week. History wasn't on their side.
As those outside the franchise cast doubt on their chances, the Browns tuned it all out and stuck with what got it to this point of the schedule. The work, the next men up and a never-satisfied mindset came together on what would become the best night of the season.
The first snap of the game sailed over Roethlisberger's head and into the end zone, where S Karl Joseph pounced on it for the improbable touchdown. The Browns scored on their next possession when Landry darted across the field and dove into the end zone on a 40-yard touchdown. They never let go of the lead and built it to 28 points by the end of the first quarter — the largest in NFL playoff history. The defense forced five turnovers, four of which coming on interceptions.
For Browns fans, it was a night they won't soon forget. For players, it was the latest example of how the team thrived when others overlooked their potential.
"Nobody thought that we would have a winning record," Garrett said. "Nobody thought that we were going to get to the playoffs. Nobody thought that we were going to do anything in the playoffs.
"We just have to keep on proving people wrong. That is what it is all about. Don't hold yourself to other people's standards."
"As we turn the page on the 2020 season, we're back to work starting the next chapter for our 75th Anniversary" said President, Haslam Sports Group, Partner JW Johnson, "In coach's words, it's about the work, never being satisfied and we want more." He went on to say, "The season was exciting, but the best is yet to come."