Serenity Now: How the Browns’ Zen Masters Transformed the Team’s Fortunes
Browns general manager Andrew Berry thinks head coach Kevin Stefanski is funny.
And not just funny in the kind of way that mutual work acquaintances consider each other slightly more than tolerable, but actually, endearingly funny; funny like when your friend says something that still makes you laugh a few days later.
An example: Last week on a Zoom call Stefanski was sitting in his basement, forced to quarantine both from his team and his family due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis that would prevent him from coaching that against the Steelers in the opening round of the playoffs. During a lull in the conversation, Stefanski looked up and said out of nowhere in a perfect deadpan: “Man, I feel like Sloth from the Goonies in this basement. Like, my wife is just leaving me food at the top of the stairs.”
“He’s just … he’s got this … he’s hilarious,” Berry says through a chuckle.
We present this relatively banal tidbit as a small piece of evidence why the Browns are here, playing on Sunday against the Chiefs for the chance to reach the AFC title game. Of course, they are well built, well coached, talented thanks to years of high draft picks and cap space and, like most postseason teams every year, have gotten some of the requisite in-game breaks and bounces along the way (one cannot plan and execute a snap being launched over the opposing quarterback’s head and into the end zone, after all). But they are also here because they seem to really like and care about one another, both in the locker room and at the highest rungs of the organization, which any scholar in modern NFL palace intrigue—or anyone with an internet connection—will tell you is not always the case in Cleveland. In the past, across various regimes and power structures, the team has been associated with a yearly ritual of hiring, firing and bracing for the salacious article about why and how it all fell apart. Football people vs. personnel people. Analytics vs. scouting. So, on and so on.
Now they feel, in corporate football speak, aligned, and while that might not seem like a big deal for anyone not preparing a TED talk on management theory, the success of this very purposeful endeavor led by Berry, Stefanski and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta has helped make Cleveland a force to be reckoned with in one of football’s toughest divisions and in a most unpredictable, pandemic-rattled season.
“It’s something we feel internally, and if that emanates externally that’s pretty cool,” Berry said just after practice on Wednesday. “I also think that we were all pretty conscious of the fact that we could say one thing, but ultimately that would just be words on a page if we’re not able to execute it.”
Through a virtual off season with a first-time head coach, a virtual draft with the youngest general manager in NFL history and a virtual week of practice leading up to their first playoff win in more than a quarter of a century (in which some of their top coaches and players could not participate), the Browns believe they have a grasp on what keeps their group of people together during one of the most outwardly chaotic times in modern American history. Cleveland was the only team with a head coach who had never held the position before to make the playoffs in 2020.
Time will tell if a calculated effort to foster mutual respect and admiration will survive in the notoriously cold-blooded, ego-dominated world of the NFL, but for now the team’s journey appears to be an instructive one.
This is how the Browns arrived at a moment of inner peace.
When the team closed its facility doors on March 13, those at the top of the Browns’ organization did not fear the logistics of pivoting to a virtual, work-from-home setting. Their coach and GM were comfortable with computers. There was a push dating back a few years to update the organization’s technology infrastructure.
The task was fostering togetherness, both between a head coach who had only spoken to a few of his players during casual, one-off meetings and between players who may not have met one another, either. This was the subject of meetings between Stefanski, DePodesta and Berry, who had been workshopping ideas to maximize the team’s in-person time together before the shutdown. Their initial plan centered heavily around the idea of spending meals together as a way to forge bonds, along with some other planned activities, like bowling, that are typical training camp staples. During the pandemic, with players scattered across the country jumping in on calls between spartan backyard workouts and childcare responsibilities, this was not only impossible, but illegal.
I laughed about the comment by coach S feeling like "Sloth" while doing quarantine in basement of his house. Well, finally we are now "Relative" in the NFL and have to continue to improve in certain areas to maintain that status-quo. Mainly, we have to fix that defence would be my major target; secondly, upgrade the WRs with speed and more players with better hands, even if we don't trade Odell. jmho