Catch Joe Thomas TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. when he co-hosts "Browns Live" powered by FirstEnergy with Nathan Zegura. The 100 percent fan-focused show, which will stream on all of the Browns social platforms, will feature multiple segments with Coach Kevin Stefanski, interviews with players, film breakdowns and more.
Each game week, Joe will share his insights, memories and more in this weekly column, "Cup of Joe."
Going into last weekend, there was a narrative in the NFL that worked in the Browns' favor. All you'd hear was "the Browns are not for real. They haven't beaten anybody. You don't have to worry about them."
Now, after the thumping they put on the Titans, they can't sneak up on anybody anymore. The Browns are going to start getting people's best shot.
Let me make one thing clear: Yes, everyone plays very hard every week in the NFL, and any team can win on any given Sunday. But there's some real things you can see and feel on the field that let you know whether or not you're getting your opponent's best shot.
What it means is that the preparation from the players is more focused during the week. A more focused preparation leads to better execution. You're also going to get the opposing coaching staff's best plays, best concepts and they're not going to save it for a bigger game down the road, especially when you're playing top quality opponents. You become the big game that they are now saving that blitz that they haven't shown but have been practicing for four weeks. You get that trick play that they maybe practiced in training camp and they've been waiting for the right moment to pull out. You are going to get their best pass rushers maybe playing an extra 15 snaps because they're willing to empty the tank a little bit more against you because the game means more.
When you think about watching big-time games, big moments like the Super Bowl, everything's on the line and you're emptying the playbook. I think back to Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints vs. Colts, when Sean Payton decides to do an onside kick coming out of halftime. That's something you can't do every week. You have to save that pretty much almost once in your career, at least once every two to three years, because you lose the element of surprise if you're doing it all the time. And you're not going to waste a good opportunity or a good play on a team that you don't need it to beat them. And the Browns have not been that team that you need one or two or three big plays or trick plays or special plays that you haven't shown before to beat.
Now, they are, and I don't see them repeating the missteps of teams from the past.
In 2014, we went down to Cincinnati for Thursday Night Football and we thumped them good to move to 6-3 on the season. We ran the ball really well, we played great defense, we jumped on them fast and we coasted to victory. We were having a lot of fun in that game, we had a lot of fun with the TV cameras, we had a lot of fun with the opposing fans because we were on the road. In the days after, I think everyone got a little bit too comfortable and kind of forgot what it took to get there. And then the next week, we come back home to play a Houston Texans team that we didn't think was all that good. They beat us soundly.
In the NFL, most games come down to two or three plays and whether you make them or you don't make them usually reflects back on the preparation and the attention to details that you have during the week. It's those 30-second conversations you have in a meeting about "what if this happens and then that happens." Overlooking those coaching points are usually the causes of something bad that happened at the end of the game because you missed a coaching point because you were just a little bit too lackadaisical in meetings.
The difference between that team and this current Browns team is a three-headed beast.
I'll start with Kevin Stefanski. His level headed approach and his hatred of Cedar Point roller coasters emotionally have kept this team level through early failures against the Ravens to a little bit of a hot streak recently. He's the same guy every day and that's what you need from a coach. You need a coach that's going to stress the details and stress the fundamentals and prepare and demand preparation the exact same way each and every week. You want a coach that's going to come in every single Monday and be just as critical after a win and a loss. And that's who Stefanski is. He is the rudder that will keep the Browns ship, which is full of a lot of younger players, headed and focused, no matter how good everybody's feeling about the season so far, or the accomplishments that you're checking off that the team hasn't done in how many decades. He's the most crucial element.
Then there's Joel Bitonio being the veteran leader, being a captain, being a voice on that team that's respected in that offense. Usually in the offensive line meeting room, you have to have one of those old heads who's willing to play whack-a-mole on any of the players in the locker room that get a little too comfortable, gets a little bit too full of themselves. And when you see somebody kind of falling off the ship in practice, you grab him and pull him back on and keep everybody focused.
Then I think Kareem Hunt is vital because of his experience playing for a successful team like the Chiefs. Understanding how to handle success, being the emotional leader — one of the two emotional leaders on offense after Jarvis Landry — and having the experience of understanding how to handle success the right way. He knows how to continue focusing on the job and the preparation that has to happen during the week, showing and telling everybody on that offense and in that locker room how the Chiefs did it, what he learned from his experience playing for Andy Reid and learning how to handle that success.
Almost every team left on the Browns' schedule has something to play for, and they're going to be emptying the tank. That's the Browns' new reality and I wouldn't have it any other way.