Opinion: Cleveland Browns end playoff drought as joy, hope, respectability return

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal
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CLEVELAND — Of course, the Browns’ 18-year wait would be excruciating in its final eight days, in its final three hours, in its final three minutes.

Of course, wrapping up their first playoff berth since 2002 would require players reaching into their wells of toughness and resilience that the challenges of COVID-19 might have seemingly dried up.

But a day long anticipated, surpassed in the dreams of Browns fans and current and former players only by a Super Bowl parade, finally arrived Sunday.

Midway through the third quarter, the Browns shook off their lethargy — or was it their fear? — and hung on by the nubs of their nails for a 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield signals victory in the final seconds against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio, at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns won the game 24-22. [Phil Masturzo/Beacon Journal]

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The Browns are back in the postseason and one could almost hear Kelly Holcomb and Tim Couch, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, Dennis Northcutt and Kevin Johnson cheering from their couches.

The result sets up a rematch between the sixth-seeded Browns and the third-seeded Steelers (12-4) next weekend in Heinz Field.

"I'm very happy for Northeast Ohio, for Browns fans all over the world," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said afterward on Zoom. "They are not far from our minds when we win. The 12,000 strong, they got to see it live. We know that many people around the country and the world are watching and we feel their support. We are in the dance, but I feel we have a lot of work to do this week and we want to keep this thing going.”

Before kickoff, Eric Metcalf tweeted he felt like he was about to play, “juices are flowing!!!” Now-Florida International coach Butch Davis, who directed the Browns in their last postseason appearance, sent his well-wishes via social media to “some of the most loyal and great fans in sports!!!”

This wasn’t just the Browns’ biggest game since 2002, when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff berth, then suffered a 36-33 wild-card loss to the Steelers. Arguably this was the franchise’s biggest day since the 1980s, when Bernie Kosar was throwing to Reggie Langhorne, Webster Slaughter and Brian Brennan.

That’s how long it’s been since the Browns maintained a level of respectability they cemented Sunday by completing an 11-5 regular season. There have been years of futility since 1999, 10 general managers (counting Davis in a dual role), 10 full-time head coaches and two more interim coaches. Now comes the hope of competency and professionalism and sound, calm judgments from the triumvirate of Kevin Stefanski, General Manager Andrew Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta.

The culture change is no longer a goal, but a reality.

Asked how that happened, left guard Joel Bitonio, the longest-tenured Brown along with long snapper Charley Hughlett, gave multiple reasons.

"Honestly, just the top-down structure, everybody’s pulling in the same direction," Bitonio said afterward on Zoom. "Coach Stefanski does a good job of taking it one day at a time, one week at a time. Playing for each other. We set a standard and win, lose or draw, if you don’t play to a standard, there’s corrections to be made, things to be done to benefit the team and we’re all trying to work to those goals. We have the talent now. Now it’s just about execution and we’ve done enough this year to get into the playoffs."

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry (80) celebrates after scoring a 3-yard touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

The feeling that the Browns were building something special was there in 2002, when Davis put together a talented roster despite some questionable decisions in the 2001 and ’02 drafts. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren at No. 3 over future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson at No. 5 in 2001? Running back William Green at No. 16 over future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, whom Davis coached at the University of Miami, at No. 24 in 2002?

But in February 2003, Davis got rid of five veterans — center Dave Wohlabaugh, linebackers Dwayne Rudd, Jamir Miller and Earl Holmes and cornerback Corey Fuller. They came under the guise of cost-cutting, but smacked more of ego.

Davis stepped down in 2004 after a panic attack, and the franchise has been in panic mode ever since. The questionable hires since owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam took over in 2012 made a mockery of continuity and front office leadership.

It now appears the days of dysfunction are over. Although the road to respectability turned out to be a mirage in 2002, this seems different. It feels like Stefanski and Berry have formed the type of partnership that can succeed for years to come.

Browns receiver Jarvis Landry, acquired in a March 2018 trade with Miami, gets that sense.

"It felt good. This is a special time for this organization, for these guys that come here and work day in and day out, but we have more to do," Landry said.

Headed to his car to call injured Browns star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Landry said he would most remember the look on the faces of those who endured so many painful days and seasons to get to this point. 

"The moment that was the most special to me was seeing the smile on JC Tretter’s face, Myles Garrett, Joel Bitonio, Jimmy [Haslam]. Seeing those smiles throughout these hard times that have been here in Cleveland," Landry said.

This season, moments to savor have come with more regularity.

Beckham's scream-inducing 50-yard touchdown run during his three-score day at Dallas. Safety Ronnie Harrison’s 47-yard pick-six against the Indianapolis Colts, when the Browns survived without Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb. Chubb and running back Kareem Hunt both going over 100 yards in Chubb’s first game back from a knee injury against the Houston Texans. A thrilling 41-35 victory at Tennessee when Baker Mayfield threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns.

Then the best of all, the COVID-19 depleted Browns turning back the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey and defensive stars T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. The victory wasn’t assured until tight end Stephen Carlson recovered a Steelers onside kick, grabbing the ball between his legs, and Mayfield rushed for a 3-yard gain and a first down.

“Here We Go Again!” played over the stadium’s loudspeakers in a throwback to past glory and fans took selfies in the stands, hesitant to leave.

It’s now time to forget about Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss and Bottlegate, about Johnny Manziel’s swan and Josh Gordon’s missteps, about a coach or GM being fired hours after the season finale almost every year. It’s time to burn that jersey bearing the names of the 30 Browns starting quarterbacks since 1999.

All of that may make what happened Sunday sweeter.

Now it’s time to embrace joy. It’s time to embrace the hope of a promising, more stable future. This time it feels real.

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