The NFL season starts in a little over a week, and perhaps everyone could use a reminder that Cleveland has a team. You know, the Cleveland Browns.
Don’t be embarrassed if you forgot. This summer, the Browns have been easy to forget about. They’ve generated almost no news. There has been almost no drama. If you’re going to sit through their Zoom sessions with reporters, you might want to pour yourself a coffee first.
The team that seemingly spent the 2019 offseason yapping, boasting and appearing in photoshoots might be the boringest, or at least quietest, team in the league this time.
No Super Bowl talk. No insulting opponents. No overstating talent. Heck, Baker Mayfield hasn’t even appeared shirtless next to a tiger while leaning against a Rolls Royce (at least as far we know).
“I’d love to sit here and say, ‘Oh the offense is going to … ,’” said wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. “[But] until Week 1, 2, 3, 16, until you’ve seen what it does, I can’t sit here and tell you what is going to happen.”
Last year, the Browns’ bravado was hailed as a positive. Las Vegas odds were as bullish as 7-to-1 to reach the Super Bowl.
It didn’t work out. Cleveland finished 6-10, undone by too many penalties and miscues, and too little execution and fundamentals.
To now argue that this mostly business approach will work out better would be just as disingenuous. Who knows?
That doesn’t mean it isn’t noteworthy. Under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, the entire mood surrounding the franchise seems calm and collected. While a lot of the hype came from outside the building, there weren't a lot of players just declining to speak up on the potential of the team.
It’s just none of them are making much noise. Neither is the coach.
Stefanski, 38, arrived from Minnesota. He's an Ivy League grad (Penn) who has been around professional sports his entire life; his father, Ed, is a longtime NBA front-office executive. Stefanski replaced Freddie Kitchens, a likable, jovial guy whose team lacked discipline. Stefanski may be hysterical, but you wouldn’t know it through his news conferences, which have settled into a routine of polite two-deep talk, injury reports and basic team development.
“We wrapped up [the] install last week,” Stefanski told reporters the other day. “So we are really streamlining our systems on offense, defense and special teams. We’ll start implementing some schemes we think might be good for us in the first couple of weeks.”
It’s not too exciting, but August headlines and talk show topics won't help win the AFC North.
“His organization, his focus on those issues have been top notch,” said offensive lineman Joel Bitonio. “ ... He’s really stressed to us, ‘We’ve got to hit the curveball this year. What are they going to send at us? Whoever handles these circumstances better is going to have a leg up on the competition.’”
So it might be the coach. Or it might be the humbling that 2019 delivered — nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Or it might be COVID-19 protocols or social unrest that has focused players on the more important tasks in front of them.
Beckham’s strongest comments this offseason have centered on police accountability and reform. Mayfield is right behind him, trying to use his platform for that, not magazine articles that run down potential opponents.
“I would say it is within our locker room, getting around the guys and realizing that I have to do much more than just let my play on the field to be the quarterback for this team,” Mayfield said. “I have to put my arm around these guys, lead them and show them the way, and especially during these uncertain times … I’m very passionate about it.”
Whatever it is, the team says it’s focused on basic preparations, understanding game situations and, perhaps most important, avoiding easily avoidable mistakes. Only three teams were called for more penalties last year.
“We’ve been really harping on that,” Stefanski said.
The summer of 2019 will be remembered for the euphoria of the fans, who felt for the first time since Bernie Kosar was around that they had a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The fall will be remembered for the fall.
Now comes 2020, and if nothing else, Cleveland is flying well below the radar and quite happy to be there. No magazine spreads. No controversial comments. No hype.
“Not even going to speak on last year,” Beckham said. “As far as life, I feel like you get older. Life happens, things happen. You get different perspectives, you see things differently. I know that I am in a great place.”
Out of the spotlight, at least for now.
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