Despite a winless start to 2017 and disappointing past two seasons, the Browns are confident they're heading in the right direction with coach Hue Jackson.
After Sunday's loss to the Bears, Cleveland fell to 0-15 and must win at Pittsburgh this weekend to avoid the first winless season in franchise history. But even amid these difficult times, both Jackson and players believe they see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"No one ever said this was going to be easy. No one ever thought it was going to be this hard, neither," Jackson said Wednesday. "At the same time, we get where we are and what we're trying to accomplish. Like I said before, I think we are closer to it than we are further away from it."
Jackson stressed that dynamic as the Browns prepare for their arch rival and glean bright spots from an otherwise frustrating and sometimes dispiriting campaign. "I think the biggest seed that we have planted with this team is the grit, the fight," Jackson said. "We know how to do that. We just haven't found the way to win yet."
That remains Jackson and his team's charge as they try to put together a complete game and, in the process, end this season on a high note. Earlier this month, Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement Jackson would remain Cleveland's coach for 2018 and beyond despite what's now a 1-30 record over the past two seasons.
Against that backdrop, Browns players expressed confidence in Jackson, whom they painted as a steadying force amid all the losing and setbacks.
"I think he does a good job of inspiring the guys to play hard, to work hard. I think he's done a good job of keeping us motivated, keeping us playing hard," left guard Joel Bitonio said. "Sunday wasn't a great example — we got beat pretty good — but for the most part we come out, we compete, we fight to win He's taken the losing the hardest each week. Nobody expects to lose the way we've lost recently and for him to bring his same energy, his same fight each week is impressive … he's done a pretty good of competing everybody together."
"He gets this team to go out there and keep fighting every game, regardless of what's going on," running back Duke Johnson added. "You really can't say this team lays down."
"The energy that he brings to us each week is unbelievable," rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer said. "Obviously, being at the quarterback position, you get to feel the weight of the losing that we have been going through. To see how he comes back and responds each week is motivation on my part to make sure that I follow his lead and do whatever I can to help out my teammates during some rough times here."
Jackson, who's admitted the Browns' struggles have weighed on him, said he hopes he's created an environment built to last through tough times like these.
"Leadership to me is priceless. It's more important to me than sometimes Xs and Os and all this other stuff because it's through these times that if you have the wrong leader, it will fall apart. I'm just being very honest with you," he said.
"Being in this situation is hard. Everything comes at you, whether you're putting out fires or helping guys through things or keeping the football team together, to me, you better have some strength to do that. I've been blessed to have the opportunity to do this. I don't want to continue to do this, this way. This is as hard as it gets. At the same time, I'm not running from this. I think I started in this, I'm part of the reason it is like why it is and I would like to be part of the reason why it gets fixed and sooner rather than later. I think we will do that."