It's time for a confession: I thought the Browns would go 8-8 this season.
I figured that Baltimore and Pittsburgh would probably be the two teams at the top of the division and we would kind of be a game or two behind them. I thought this season was all about learning a new offense, a new defense and getting all of these different guys comfortable. When you lose the whole offseason, I assumed — maybe wrongly so — that most of the season, especially the first half, would be kind of like that spring and summer training camp, where guys are just trying to learn where they fit in and try to learn the offense. I assumed they would be competitive, but they weren't going to be polished enough to be able to pull out wins against some of the better teams in the NFL.
Never have I enjoyed being so wrong!
I figured it would be at least until Week 8 or 9 before they kind of looked like a semblance of what this offense was supposed to be. And you know, that first game against the Ravens, they didn't look good, so I guess I was right about that. But after that point, it was like a light switch went on so much quicker than expected. They learned really quickly what the expectations were for every position in this offense. A ton of credit needs to go to the coaching staff that put together a plan and a way of implementing and teaching this offense without doing it on the practice field, which is something that probably has never been done before.
The Browns proved if there is a problem, but there is enough determination to solve that problem, the human mind is incredibly flexible and able to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles — like learning an offense and a defense over Zoom meetings, or with hardly any practice time. The Browns proved time and time again there are other ways for the human brain to learn besides doing. It's harder, but if you are able to commit to it and focus on the details and get the legitimate mental reps where you are closing your eyes and you are actually putting yourself into that position and running yourself through those plays, you can learn them just the same as you would if you were on the practice field taking a rep.
Just like Browns players and coaches, I still have a little bit of a bitter taste in my mouth with how the season finished because I felt like we were right there with the Chiefs. Just a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes and miscues and the game is different. But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that so much was accomplished this season, so much more than everybody expected, including myself. I would think maybe the only people that expected the potential of this outcome would be the guys that were in Berea, the coaching staff and the players.
When I reflect back on how enjoyable and productive this season was, the first thing I think about is that Baker Mayfield solidified himself as the leader of the franchise. He started out a little bit shaky, a little bit up and down, but the way he finished, he proved he is a perfect fit for Kevin Stefanski's offense. He meshes well with the head coach, the offensive coordinator, the pieces that the Browns have on offense. And the coach and quarterback relationship is the most important relationship on any football team and this is a coach-quarterback duo you want to keep around for a long time.
Defensively, I thought Joe Woods proved with all the injuries he dealt with this season that he can be a flexible coordinator that can call a scheme and a game plan to try to eliminate the offensive strengths. And he can also call a game plan to minimize his own weaknesses, which is incredibly important down the road as you're adding new players and hopefully coming back next season with the guys that had to step up this year.
It can't be overstated how important actually experiencing all of this winning was for a locker room filled with players who largely had not gone through a season as successful as this before in their careers. Winning is the proof to the theorem. It gives the players on the team a reason to believe and trust this coaching staff when they tell them something in the future.
And that future? It's so bright, but the Browns will have to carry the same mindset, no matter the expectations bestowed upon them from esteemed analysts like myself. The expectations have changed. The bar has moved up. It's about beating the Bills, the Chiefs, the Ravens, maybe the Steelers, in the AFC to try to get yourself in position to make the Super Bowl.
Expectations can be the most dangerous dagger for a team in every offseason because they are constantly changing upward as you have success. And if you ever forget the work that was put in to get you to the position that you're in, which is human nature, that's how you regress, that's how you slide back as a team. Once you get to that 11 wins you think, "oh, this is who I am at baseline now." And you don't remember the incredible struggle and the chip on the shoulder that you had to get you to that position.
I, for one, won't be doubting this team. I'm confident the Browns won't forget what got them here after a season I and millions of other fans won't ever forget.
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday by the Browns photo team