If the entire story feels too Hollywood, too contrived to be the actual narrative of an NFL football team in a singular season, remember all the people standing to benefit from its goodwill.
The Browns fans and alumni—who have endured years of gross administrative incompetence, wasted draft capital, blown games, organizational infighting, regime changes and one emotional Sunday chinlock after the next—could not just simply have a team that turned things around and one day found themselves on the sunny side of competence. It wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t level out the kind of mental tax that was paid year after year. It wouldn’t properly answer the question everyone who loves this team has inevitably asked themselves at one point over the last two decades: Why the hell am I doing this?
It had to be big. It had to be the Steelers in Pittsburgh. It had to be without the head coach, who was isolated in his basement with his cellphone turned off, unable to contribute to the team due to an untimely contraction of the novel coronavirus. It had to be without one of its best offensive linemen and one of its top defensive players, also on COVID reserve. It had to be with a game-management coach filling in to run the offensive line and a special teams coordinator helming the entire operation after a week without practice. It had to be with the backup offensive linemen getting hurt and his replacement having just met a majority of his teammates before the game. It had to be after a week of them getting teased by their far more successful divisional counterparts. It had to be right when everyone thought the small morsel of goodwill that the franchise had finally stumbled upon was just a desert mirage.
It had to be a 28-point lead that throttled everyone like a shot of Patrone on an empty stomach before the whole thing eroded over the course of three hours, becoming more reminiscent of the anxious, white-knuckle affairs that this franchise has made its calling card over the years.
It had to be epic, and it was.
“This was a difficult week,” Mike Priefer, the team’s interim coach, said after the game. “And they never batted an eye.”
During his introductory words following Sunday’s win, Preifer, a Cleveland-born Navy veteran, said that he felt great happiness for the people that care about the Browns and admitted that he grew up one of them. He had to collect himself for a moment to keep himself from crying.
“I know what this means,” he said.
The Browns’ path out of their darkest days was never going to be subtle. During the season that meant ill-timed losses like the one to the Jets in December, which forced them into a Week 17 de facto play-in game. It’s meant untimely injuries and lingering doubts. Ultimately, it meant that a collective group of people would finally need to stand up and confront an organization’s past through their own inherent confidence and attitude.
While an NFL team is a fluid organization that is never together long enough to develop a collective identity, it’s difficult not to see the Browns in a different light. Two decades of downtrodden, wasted talent tends to tell a certain story. It tends to make people believe they are less than the moment they walk into the facility or throw on a replica jersey to hang out in the stands. Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster said it best earlier in the week, describing the team with the kind of disgusted indifference one might use to talk about an insect infestation or a neighborhood package thief during the holidays.
“I think they’re nameless gray faces,” he said. “They have a couple good players on their team, but at the end of the day, I don’t know. The Browns is the Browns.”
Before the game, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield posted the latter part of that quote on his Instagram page and yelled it again as he ran into the tunnel and back into the locker room, where teammates were dancing and connecting with all of their injured, or sick counterparts via FaceTime to join in on the celebration. Years ago, at the beginning of this journey when the Browns were an expansion team playing the Steelers for the first time, they bucked convention, introduced themselves over the stadium loudspeaker first and then got throttled by a Pittsburgh team that felt they weren’t given the proper amount of respect. Bullies being bullies. Now, Cleveland’s franchise quarterback was essentially flipping the Steelers a middle finger as he danced off the field (as were a slew of Browns players imitating Smith-Schuster’s signature dance on the sideline during the game’s waning moments).
It must have been cathartic to know that this was now a rallying cry for the continued dismantling of said identity. Finally, a group of people had come together strong enough to laugh at the past instead of feeling it perpetually creep up on them. The Browns is the Browns, and for one day it doesn’t mean what it used to.