A Reason to Hope
By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports columnist
You’ve heard the news by now, but the Browns are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
On Sunday, Cleveland ended the NFL's longest active playoff drought — 17 seasons, 18 years — when they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The year 2021 is already treating the Browns better than 2020 did. Here’s hoping we can all say that next December.
The Browns won in Browns fashion, of course.
Cleveland came dangerously close to blowing a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, but managed to stop the Steelers’ attempt at a two-point conversion, before barely recovering an onside kick with 1:22 left.
Baker Mayfield then converted a critical third-and-1 to give Cleveland a fresh set of downs that allowed them to run out the clock.
Mayfield, Cleveland’s No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, is finally panning out and paying dividends, and he hoisted the Browns over the hump with the help of first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Stefanski used to be a quarterbacks coach for the Vikings, and has proved to be somewhat of a QB whisperer, which is what the Browns needed, because they’ve gone through — are you ready? — 27 QUARTERBACKS SINCE 2002.
Oh, and Stefanski is the team’s 11th head coach in as many years.
So it could’ve been Mayfield. Or Stefanski. Or star defensive end Myles Garrett. Or running back Nick Chubb (who had 12 rushing touchdowns this season, the most by a Browns player since Leroy Kelly in 1968).
Maybe it was the team’s chemistry.
Perhaps it was the quotes Mayfield has been sneaking into press conferences after wins.
Whatever it was, someone or something pulled the lever on the carousel of coaches and quarterbacks. The ride to nowhere has stopped. A new one, one that might lead somewhere — instead of going around and around in a futile circle somewhere deep in sports hell — might begin.
Fans could, for the first time in decades, have real reasons to hope.
It’s hard to say what hope has looked like this year for Browns fans – because, well, we can’t see them.
Thanks to COVID-19, the stands weren’t packed, since Cleveland only allowed a few fans in. The municipal lot near the stadium in Cleveland that’s usually jammed with drunk revelers sat silent beside the highway, wondering why the asphalt has stayed free of empty beer cans and cars, and why the air doesn’t smell like smoked meat and weed.
Last year, I went to the "Muni Lot" to see what hope looked like for the Browns before their first game of the season against the Titans. The organization finally had Mayfield in a position to succeed after firing head coach Hue Jackson, whom Mayfield famously didn’t get along with. Freddie Kitchens, the offensive coordinator Mayfield liked, was at the helm. They’d just signed Odell Beckham Jr., and things were looking up from the days of hosting a parade for a 0-16 season.
Think about how bad you have to be to lose every game. Not even this year’s New York Jets were able to pull that off.
I witnessed a desperate but upbeat scene. People danced on top of RVs, crushed beers on their heads, sprayed White Claws into the September air.
I wrote this at the time, but it reminded me of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road – unsettling, entertaining, and exhilarating. The scene exuded a certain kind of hope, for sure, but one that fans didn’t quite dare trust.
When you’ve been hurt so many years in the row, it’s emotionally safest to set your expectations on the ground and douse them in Fireball.
But one fan believed.
As I walked to the stadium, a guy named Anthony Sirna jogged by me. I stopped him to ask how he felt about the season.
"The city’s electric," he said. "We got Baker Mayfield, we’re waking up feeling dangerous. We’re gonna win this whole Super Bowl. I think our record is gonna be 11–5. We’re gonna win the division and go to the Super Bowl.
"We’re gonna win the Super Bowl."
The Browns didn’t win the Super Bowl. And they probably won’t win the Super Bowl this year, either. But at least they’ve taken the first step to getting there, so Sirna’s hopes seem a little more in-line with reality.
That guy believed the way only a Browns fan can, because I have to admit — I didn't. They’re the Browns! Mayfield seemed erratic early this season. The offense wasn’t quite gelling.
They didn’t pass the eye test.
But they passed the record test.
Quietly, Cleveland just kept winning. The Browns crept up in the standings and into their first playoff game with a solid record of 11-5. The last time the Browns won 11 games in one season was 1994.
Mayfield was born a year later.
This was a big year for dynasties ending (*cough* Patriots *cough*) and what could be the beginning of a few new ones. Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. The Browns haven’t even won a playoff game yet. But there’s something shifting. The Bills won the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The last time both the Browns and Bills were in the playoffs was 1989.
This season was by no means easy — COVID-19 has thrown everything out of whack. It’s been hard and painful. Last week, the Browns played without Mayfield’s top five targets, who were all out on the COVID-19/reserve list. It’s almost a miracle the season finished at all. Not just making it through the chaos of this year, but succeeding through it, is an unfortunate necessity, but an impressive feat nonetheless.
Cleveland used to celebrate being the best at losing. Now, the city celebrates wins. So while I don’t know what that hope looks like this year, fans know what it feels like.
And that’s all that matters.