When you stop to reflect about what the Cleveland Browns' wide receiving corps accomplished in 2014, the unit eclipsed external expectations. They may not be fantasy football superstars, but this was a group of players that collectively became a unit capable of winning games.
Travis Benjamin's No. 11 jersey now hangs in the Hall of Fame in Canton because of his two monumental touchdown receptions that spurred the NFL's largest come-from-behind victory against the Tennessee Titans.
There was a point in early November when the only receiver averaging more yards per catch than rookie Taylor Gabriel was Washington Redskins superstar DeSean Jackson. His 34-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter sealed the deal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 9.
Andrew Hawkins carried the torch as the key playmaker, posting a career-high 63 receptions and 824 yards – all while constantly hauling in acrobatic catches in traffic and fighting through injuries.
Marlon Moore embraced his role on special teams as the primary kick returner and a ferocious gunner on punt coverage.
Though Josh Gordon never found a rhythm upon returning from his 10-game suspension and ultimately finished the season where he started, he provided a lift to the unit (eight receptions, 120 yards) in Cleveland's last win of the season at Atlanta.
Miles Austin, whose phone didn't ring for a month after the Dallas Cowboys cut him loose, took on an instrumental role in Cleveland. Every week, the opposing team's No. 1 cornerback would rarely leave the 30-year-old's side.
But it was what Austin did in the offseason that struck a chord with his position group, helping bring this eclectic unit closer together.
Alongside since released veteran Nate Burleson, Austin invited every wide receiver to a lengthy, sit-down dinner at Hyde Park Steakhouse. The conversations didn't revolve around X's and O's, but rather how to survive – and thrive – in the NFL.
That dinner took place in June, a few days before each player would go their separate ways for a final vacation before the season-long grind. Austin and Hawkins made sure every single person in the group exchanged numbers.
Now, that simple gesture of dinner from Austin has evolved into brotherhood. The receivers are in a group text message chat that's constantly flooding everyone's phone on an hourly basis. Texts last week included a play-by-play of the birth of Austin's son and funny meme pictures Benjamin always seems to send.
"This is the closest receiver group I've ever seen as far as us talking, sharing knowledge," Benjamin said. "The best way to describe us is that we have a special bond. We go to each other's houses.
Said Gabriel: "I'm out here blocking defensive linemen and linebackers – doing things I never thought I could do – because of the confidence our wide receivers room has given me."
The offseason's arrival hasn't signaled the end to this group's communication. This past weekend, the entire unit booked a private jet to Las Vegas to let loose with each other after the grueling season. The receivers even brought a photographer with them to document their trip, and Pro Bowler Joe Haden tagged along.
While the dinner and text messages brought them closer together, two more details poured fuel on their fire: Doubt and coaching.
Wide receivers aren't naïve. They read the articles and saw the tweets of many skeptics in the media who argued the unit was too anemic to generate any type of punch on offense. Those headlines were used as theoretic bulletin board material in coach Mike McDaniel's classroom all season long. The 31-year-old assistant figured out how to properly channel the outside world's suspicion of his unit.
"Here there is a bunch of hungry guys and each one of them has a lot to prove in their mind," McDaniel said in August. "Our receivers are very strong-minded people that are really out to prove something for each other and themselves individually."
Said Hawkins: "The underdog feeling of the city of Cleveland and our receivers – that's really who I am. I truly believe we are just getting started."
Benjamin calls the Yale-educated McDaniel "the Albert Einstein of coaches" because of how intricately he breaks down film. The way certain defensive backs play, where the Browns receivers can get themselves open – nothing is left untouched.
"When he talks, every receiver locked onto his every word," Benjamin said.
The biggest believer in the Browns' wide receiving unit is among those who matter most. General manager Ray Farmer thought the receivers, as a whole, played team football by each stepping up in unique ways.
And for the Browns, team football is the most necessary trait in producing victories.
"I'm a big believer in it's a team sport, and when we combine the requisite skill sets necessary to let guys have success, we have that success," Farmer said. "We saw that earlier this year that we were missing certain key components that people thought were high-value targets and assets for us, but we played team football. As a result of that, we were able to have success."
There may be a fresh face or two in the Browns' wide receiver classroom in 2015. That's the nature of the NFL. But Cleveland's wide receiving group showed in 2014 that an unheralded group can prove cynics wrong. And just because many members surpassed their perceived outlooks, it doesn't mean this unit will change their prove-you-wrong mentality.
"Now that we've had a year together," Hawkins said, "it's time to take the next step."