Turnover is common in the NFL; of last year’s 12 playoff teams, eight hadn’t made it the year before. There is a growing sense that it’s finally Cleveland’s turn. But the anticipation surrounding the Browns, feverish even outside of northeast Ohio, suggests more than just the standard appetite for a long-awaited event. NFL convention holds that champions are born of hierarchy, careful planning, and individual sacrifice. These Browns were built quickly, and built on stars. They amount to a bet: that sheer talent, not institutional practice, can win the day.
During Cleveland’s hot stretch to end the season last year, the former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams acted as interim head coach. But when it came time to select a full-time replacement in January, the Browns promoted Freddie Kitchens, who after Jackson’s firing had stepped into the role of offensive coordinator for the first time in his NFL career. Kitchens’s resume, made up mostly of stints as a little-known position coach, didn’t match those of fresh hires around the league. “It takes some guts to do what they did,” Kitchens himself said, adding, “I know that I am not a popular choice.”
Kitchens was popular, though, with his young quarterback, whose gutsy temperament and downfield accuracy jibed with Kitchens’s air-it-out attack. Over the eight games in which Kitchens called plays, Mayfield threw 19 touchdowns. “Baker Mayfield wanted Kitchens,” the NFL reporter Mike Florio said of the hire, “and Baker Mayfield gets Kitchens.” It was a rare amount of sway for a team to grant any player, much less one entering just his second professional season.
The move was also in keeping with what has become an organizational trend of prioritizing the acquisition and development of skilled players over team doctrine. Beckham was available for a trade likely because of his history of missteps in New York, where he had left the field early, questioned his coach’s play-calling, and skirted an off-season drug scandal; the general manager John Dorsey jumped at the opportunity to add him. After the new coordinator Steve Wilks installed a liberating defensive system this off-season, Garrett anticipates career-high sack numbers. Dorsey puts his philosophy in straightforward terms: “You can’t have enough competitive football players.” The general manager has been accused of taking the ethos too far; in February, the Browns signed the running back Kareem Hunt, a former Pro Bowler who was dismissed from the Kansas City Chiefs last season after a hotel surveillance video showed him shoving and kicking a woman. The league has suspended Hunt for the first eight games of the upcoming season.
Offering second chances to perpetrators of violence is, controversially, a familiar move in the NFL. But in other ways, the Browns stand in contrast to league orthodoxy, old and new alike. The Patriots remain the standard-bearing franchise, and Belichick’s “do your job” mantra—wherein a player is useful to the degree that he enacts, not transcends, the game plan—has become the template for team-building. The 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, whose Los Angeles Rams lost to the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, has an offensive approach so potent that analysts have wondered whether he can simply cycle through quarterbacks in perpetuity. The power afforded to both coaches, and to their imitators and offshoots across the league, reflects a distasteful reality of pro football. Games are grueling, and players’ careers contingent; the way to lasting success is by having the right person calling the shots.