How the Browns radio crew has navigated the team's unforgettable moments in an unprecedented season

In a year unlike any other, Jim Donovan and Doug Dieken have provided Northeast Ohio with all the sounds from a Browns’ season that will be remembered for years

Jim Donovan raised both arms in the air and leaned forward as he prepared to announce his final words on one of the biggest moments in Cleveland Browns franchise history.

Donovan, the Browns' radio play-by-play broadcaster, was standing on both feet and had spent the last three hours in awe. The Browns, playing their first playoff game in 18 years against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, were going to do the unthinkable. 

They were going to win. They were going to stun the NFL. They were going to advance to the next round of the playoffs without their head coach on the sidelines, without their starting left guard and without so many other valuable pieces to one of the best Browns teams in two decades.

"Mayfield takes the snap, and that's going to do it from Pittsburgh! From Heinz Field! Sit back and watch and listen to this one! They will beat the Steelers!"

Donovan had been waiting to make that call since 1999, the first year the franchise was brought back to Cleveland and the first year Donovan became the voice of the Browns. No other NFL radio broadcast had called as many losing games as Donovan and Browns Legend Doug Dieken since the Browns returned to Cleveland. 

Now, after more than two decades, the group is preparing to go live from the AFC Divisional Round for the first time.

"It's been so much more enjoyable," Dieken said. "It's so much fun going down to the stadium knowing, 'Hey, we can win this one.'"

But there is one caveat.

They will not be at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. They were not at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. They haven't been at a road game all season.

This season, as it has been for all football fans, coaches and players, has been far from normal. Donovan, Dieken and Jason Gibbs, the team's radio producer, have called and produced all 17 games from an empty — or, during home games, sparsely-filled — FirstEnergy Stadium. The stadium has been the only space available for them to safely and efficiently conduct their gameday broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the group has still managed to deliver the sounds for a Browns season that will be remembered for years.

"It's been a challenge from Day 1," Gibbs said. "Even going back to when training camp was supposed to start, and, all of a sudden, we didn't have any preseason games. So we're starting Week 1 and we're in this new world of long-distance cabling and stuff we have no idea about. We've been learning on the fly."

Nearly all of the logistics and routines from the radio crew have been different. Media members are no longer permitted in locker rooms for interviews with players. Press box suites must be adjusted to accommodate social distancing. Gameday procedures no longer include any person-to-person interactions between coaches and reporters — save for virtual press conferences.

All of those wrinkles affect the game day routines that make a radio broadcast. For each game, Gibbs has typically arrived five hours before kickoff to work with Dave Spano, the radio team's audio engineer, to plug in cables and arrange the crew's setup. When the Browns are on the road, Donovan and Dieken have called the game by watching two TVs. The TV on the left has the All-22 angle, which always shows the full length of the field and replicates what they'd see from the press box. The TV on the right contains the standard network broadcast. 

Donovan and Dieken arrive about two hours early to conduct pregame mic checks and mentally prepare for the call. In previous seasons, Dieken usually takes a pregame lap around the field to chat with players and coaches, but that pregame routine wasn't possible this year — only in-game personnel from each team have been allowed on the field.

"It makes the job a little harder," Dieken said. "You don't have some of the insights that you normally would. You're just there to talk football and get an idea, but those relationships just haven't been able to be developed this year."

Even though the settings have been different and stadium atmospheres have been tamed, the season has been nothing short of special from the perspective of the crew. They haven't forgotten about the sorrows of calling the 0-16 season in 2017 and how painful it was to provide audio throughout the longest playoff drought in the NFL. 

Now — after a wait all Browns fans endured with them — they've embraced the opportunity to provide Northeast Ohio with a call from the playoffs.

"I've always wondered what it would be like when they do win," Donovan said. "I've always wondered what it would be like when they are in a big games or when they're in a big playoff game. To be able to finally experience that, it's been great. It's been fulfilling. I'm very, very happy."

For Dieken, who played left tackle with the Browns from 1971-1984, the significance of the playoff run extends beyond his contributions to the franchise as the team's color commentator, a position he attained the first year after his retirement as a player. 

He didn't foresee long stretches of losing seasons after the successful 80s era of Browns football faded. He's always missed seeing how Cleveland comes together when the Browns reach the postseason, and even though it's not as easy to see the celebrations this year due to COVID-19, Dieken can sense the excitement every time he's left FirstEnergy Stadium after a win.

"It's been great, for the limited number of people who have been in the stadium, to see them walk out and see people high-fiving each other," he said. "You can even see it in the way they drive. If they lose, they might not let you pass. But if they win, it's 'Oh, come on in!'"

Just like many Browns fans have felt all season, Donovan and Dieken have both experienced the emotional rollercoaster of the 2020 season.

First, there was the Week 1 loss in Baltimore, where the Browns scored just one touchdown and gave up five of them. The Browns had their Week 2 game just four days later and flushed their season-opening struggles away with a 35-30 win and offensive explosion.

That game was when Donovan had a hunch this Browns team was different.

"That's when I went, 'Wow, this offense is a lot of fun,'" he said. "In my job, it's a lot of fun to call plays when they're going up and down the field. That's when the light came on for me."

The light never went off. It only shined brighter after the Browns continued to flip their themes from the past, when large leads were blown or early deficits snowballed into blowouts. Close games started to turn in the Browns' favor, such as Cleveland's Week 7 rematch with the Bengals.

That game, albeit against the same opponent, was when Donovan saw the playoff potential of the Browns. The result, a 37-34 win, was completed by a last-minute touchdown reception from quarterback Baker Mayfield to Donovan Peoples-Jones and concluded a wild fourth-quarter that featured four lead changes.

Donovan, who shouted "He got it! He got it!" after the touchdown, called that moment one of his favorite calls of the season.

"That was really something," he said. "A lot of times, a quarterback can be judged on whether he can lead a team back. Can he lead that last drive? I thought Mayfield, he really needed to do that, and he did it perfectly."

Donovan's favorite call, though, came 10 weeks later.

The Browns were in the final minutes of their playoff-clinching win versus the Steelers. They faced third-and-2 and needed a first down that would allow them to drain the clock, and the play-call was a quarterback draw.

Mayfield took the snap, ran to the right sideline and slid past the first down marker. Ballgame.

"And the clock is running with 52 seconds left! It's a first down, and the bench area is starting to feel it! … The Cleveland Browns have made it into the NFL playoffs for the first time in 18 long years!"

Then, after a brief summary of the final minutes and another proud declaration of the Browns' playoff entry, Donovan paused and delivered one of the best lines of the season. 

"And the only thing that's missing? All of you."

"There were a lot of people that said, 'Hey, did you have that in your head?'" Donovan said. "I really didn't have it in my head. It really just hit me."

But the line was what Cleveland needed to hear. Yes, thousands of fans were the only thing missing from FirstEnergy Stadium in one of the greatest moments in franchise history — and Donovan wasn't going to forget about them — but he delivered the call the city deserved.

And it was a call he had waited so long to make.

"It would have been a very, very emotional scene," he said. "That was a pretty special call."

Now, Donovan and Dieken have at least one more special call to make. They'll make it from an empty FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday at 3:05 p.m., but they'll ensure all listeners in Northeast Ohio feel as though they're at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Browns will battle the reigning Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs.

No matter the result, Donovan, Dieken and the rest of the Browns' radio team have been thrilled to provide the sounds of an extraordinary season. They've waited just as long as anyone in Cleveland to experience the return of winning football, and even though the year has provided more obstacles than any other, they believe more unforgettable moments are on the way.

"This," Dieken said, "is the team that probably turned the corner."