Super Bowl road for Falcons, Patriots took detour through Cleveland
HOUSTON — So the road to Super Bowl LI actually went through ...
“Some of it did, that’s for sure,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted.
While it’s time to hail the NFL's best, we can’t forget the worst. The Cleveland Browns' connection to this season's Super Bowl was one of the strange twists for the league's grand finale — and certainly enough to turn many stomachs in the Dawg Pound.
The Browns had the NFL’s worst record, finishing 1-15 in 2016, yet had an undeniable imprint on the battle for the Lombardi Trophy. Let us count some ways.
Belichick, who came to town seeking his fifth Super Bowl triumph with New England, had his first head coaching shot with the Browns more than two decades ago.
Kyle Shanahan? Before running the Atlanta Falcons' high-flying offense, he was Cleveland's coordinator in 2014.
SUPER BOWL COVERAGE
And let’s not forget about Shanahan’s most lethal weapon. Julio Jones never played for the Browns, but the Falcons traded five picks to Cleveland in 2011 — including two first rounders — in order to select Jones sixth overall. None of the five players the Browns wound up with remains on their roster.
Funny, too, that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who orchestrated the Jones deal, spent some of his formative scouting years in Cleveland. Ditto for Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli.
“We had a lot of good people there,” said Belichick.
Then there are the players.
Falcons center Alex Mack and No. 3 receiver Taylor Gabriel are former Browns who reunited with Shanahan in Atlanta this season.
“It’s been a long, hard road,” said Mack, a Pro Bowl selection who'd never played in a postseason game (nor had a winning campaign) during his seven years in Cleveland.
“It’s been tough to get to this stage,” Mack told USA TODAY Sports. “But the more adversity you face in your career from previous seasons, it teaches you how tight it can be. You have to use that opportunity to grow as a player. To have it pay off now and be in the Super Bowl is fun.”
Some Patriots can relate. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo entered the NFL in 2013 as Cleveland’s first-round pick. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard was a second rounder of the Browns in 2011. Running back Dion Lewis, a major weapon in the Patriots passing game, was cut after spending the 2013 season in Cleveland.
“A lot of talent went through there,” Sheard, who signed with the Patriots in 2015, told USA TODAY Sports. “You go through the hard times. I’m a New England Patriot all the way now. It turned out great. I never thought I’d be here in the Super Bowl.”
At least he didn’t think that while wearing a Browns uniform.
“They’ve got Jamie (Collins) over there now,” Sheard added, referring to the linebacker whom the Patriots shipped to Cleveland in a midseason trade. “They’ll get it together.”
Truth is, it’s going to take a long time for the Browns to build a contender. In the meantime, this is as close as they will get to a Super Bowl.
“We’ve trained a lot of talent here,” former Browns tackle Doug Dieken, now a longtime local radio analyst, told USA TODAY Sports from Cleveland during a phone interview. “You can go all the way back to Don Shula. He played and coached here, and they let him, go, too.”
Dieken certainly noticed the Browns’ imprint on Super Bowl LI and hopes there’s a lesson to be learned as yet another new brain trust, headed by coach Hue Jackson and general manager Sashi Brown, try to change the franchise’s fortunes — like so many others before them.
“We had a handful of guys that we just let slide through our fingers,” Dieken said. “Yeah, we’ve got to get better talent. But we’ve also got to keep the talent that we get.”
The ex-Browns in Super Bowl LI would form a nice nucleus for most teams. And it’s not unfathomable to think they could have been retained, seeing that Cleveland will enter the offseason with more than $50 million in salary cap room, again situated among the teams with the most spending power heading into free agency.
“There’s so much turnover in this league, it’s bound to happen,” Shanahan told USA TODAY Sports. “But that’s more than usual. I know the guys we have — Alex Mack and Taylor Gabriel — have been huge for us.”
The Browns have never gone to a Super Bowl, which on Sunday served as a stage to further underscore Cleveland's suffering.
As Mack put it, “It’s kind of the nature of the business.”
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell
PHOTOS: Falcons' road to Super Bowl LI