The Browns' perseverance this offseason in signing Jadeveon Clowney paid off Wednesday when the three-time Pro Bowler inked a fresh contract with Cleveland. Clowney — who, when healthy, is one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL — adds another level of ferocity to a defensive line that already looked scary with All-Pro edge rusher Myles Garrett on the other side.
Clowney was the sixth defensive free-agent signing made by the Browns this offseason. His addition solidifies the defensive makeover Executive Vice President of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry and the front office aggressively pursued, but it also solidifies something else the Browns have sought to improve for several years.
Clowney, as well as every other new free-agent acquisition signed by the Browns, have pointed to it as one of their biggest reasons why they chose Cleveland.
"The coaching staff was pretty laid back, and I felt like they knew what they were doing and know where they were going and where the organization is headed," Clowney said in his introductory press conference. "They knew how to get where they were trying to go. I want to be a part of something like that. That is how I ended up here."
Check out photos of Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney isn't alone. Similar sentiments were voiced by S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, LB Anthony Walker, DE Takkarist McKinley and DT Malik Jackson, the five other free agents new to the Browns.
When they toured the team headquarters, they could tell that Berry, head coach Kevin Stefanski and his group of assistant coaches — nearly all of whom returned to the team after last season — shared the same goals and plans about how to sustain a winning football team.
"I felt like it was an opportunity of a lifetime, coming to a situation where things are moving in the right direction," Johnson said in his first press conference. "That is rare in this business. It is really a business that it is rare that people care about you, people actually appreciate you and people want to do things the right way.
"This city as a whole, let alone the organization, it drips that."
The Browns have quickly become one of the most desirable teams to play for in the NFL. That's a result of how far Berry and Stefanski took the organization in their first year in 2020, when the Browns finished 11-5, clinched the playoffs for the first time in 18 years and were one possession away from advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
But "culture" is created beyond a team record. It requires personnel who take time to learn about their players outside of football. Stefanski, the 2020 NFL Coach of the Year, is quite good at that.
"He's an outstanding leader who's the same guy every day," said pass game coordinator/wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea. "He's very consistent that way. He's somebody that (makes me) want to get up every day, come to work and do the best job I can within my role because it's such a good working environment to be in with him."
Perhaps the greatest sign of Stefanski's bond with his players occurred Jan. 10. That was when the Browns defeated the Steelers in their Wild Card playoff game without Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week.
Cleveland finished the first quarter with a 28-0 lead and showed they could rally without their coach, for their coach. The 48-37 winning result stunned the league and proved that the Browns' talent — and culture — were among the best any NFL team could offer.
"(They're a) Super Bowl-contender team, and that is what I was looking for," Jackson said. "I didn't want to go anywhere that was trying to rebuild. I wanted to go somewhere with a consistent team."
Those performances are the best way of displaying a team-first culture within a franchise, and they don't go unnoticed by players looking for new teams in the spring.
Some guys wasted little time to sign their deals. Johnson, McKinley and Walker all signed in the first three days of free agency. Hill followed them the next week, then Jackson.
One of the Browns' top free agent targets, however, was still on the market: Clowney. As an eight-year veteran, he could afford to be patient and evaluate teams interested in him. His biggest priority was joining a team with a realistic chance of going deep in the playoffs.
As he waited to make a decision, a few Browns players reached out to him, looking to sway him to the franchise. He heard some of the statements their new free agents were making, too, about how they felt they were joining a team built to dominate.
"I caught some of the words (Jackson) said and some of the words the safety (S John Johnson III) said about, 'He has not played with anybody in his career' and 'come and join a good defense,'" Clowney said. "That kind of caught my attention."
But he also wanted to join a team with personnel aligned in their plans on how to get there. A team that looks good on paper isn't a lock to make the playoffs. The culture needed to be just right, too.
So he made two visits. After the first visit, Clowney knew where he'd sign next.
The roster was full of talent. The culture was built to win.
The Browns had everything he needed, and he couldn't pass up a chance to join.
"I already had my mind kind of made up, regardless of what anybody said," he said. "I don't think Cleveland is like the way people think they used to be. They're hungry, I can tell you that."