Out of the Factory of Sadness

The 0-16 days are over. The "horses--t" coaching is gone. The talent is real. The Browns enter the 2019 season as the NFL's most-hyped team and are aiming to be "legendary."
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterBEREA, OhioSeptember 3, 2019

Two words crossed his mind the moment he became a Cleveland Brown.

The same two words that have crossed everyone's mind for the past three decades the moment they've been banished to the NFL's unofficial landfill.         

"Oh" and "s--t."

Inside the Browns facility, Jarvis Landry's eyes widen at the memory of March 9, 2018. "At first," he admits, "it was kind of ugly." He was in Miami when the news broke, set to speak at his own cystic fibrosis event, and he didn't even have a clue who Cleveland's quarterback was. All Landry knew was that he was headed to a team that had gone 1-31 the previous two seasons. To him, it felt like the Dolphins were sending him to the place football careers go to die.

Then he met general manager John Dorsey. Then he met the owners.

Then in a span of 12 months, the Browns transformed into legit Super Bowl contenders.

It's happened so fast, so furiously, that this all feels like a dream. Any moment now, fans are sure to wake up to realize Earnest Byner still fumbled, Art Modell still stabbed them in the back, the quarterback position is still cursed and the future is still doomed.

But no. This is no dream. The Browns—the freakin' Browns!—are 14-1 to win the Super Bowl at Caesars. The Browns—the Browns!—are drawing insane ticket prices. The cheapest ticket for Sunday's season opener on StubHub is more than $150. The Browns have America's Quarterback, gnawing into a beer and shotgunning its contents in 3.85 seconds.

The Browns have the two star wide receivers worth north of $170 million, serving as alternating Evel Knievel spectacles through practice.

BEREA, OH - AUGUST 6: A view of wide recievers Odell Beckham, Jr. #13 and Jarvis Landry #80 during the Cleveland Browns Training Camp on August 6, 2019 at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Browns, in 2019, are absolutely electric.

What. Happened.

One strand of dreads dripping down his forehead, Landry leans over a lectern just outside the weight room and explains. His hoodie is a canvas of clouds in a light-blue sky—fitting considering the entire fanbase has been on cloud nine all offseason. Typically when a new regime takes over an NFL franchise, it fumigates the building. It's terrified of adding any personality, any red flag, anybody who will...

"Talk back," Landry cuts in.

But not here.

"Honestly," Landry says, "when you're building from the ground back up, sometimes you need some...some...f--king dudes."

And by God, do the Browns have those.

In Baker Mayfield. In Odell Beckham Jr. In Landry. Everywhere you look are dudes with a snarl.

Outside, receiver Rashard Higgins thinks back to being the 172nd pick and later being cut by Hue Jackson.

"That motivated the hell out of me," Higgins says. "Being cut and not knowing why I was cut."

Inside, safety Damarious Randall is surrounded by legends from another lifetime, massive banners commemorating Hall of Famers from the '40s and '50s and '60s. The Browns haven't won a championship since 1964, but Randall doesn't flinch. He thought last year's 7-8-1 team could've won it all. This year? "We plan on leaving no doubt."

That's the way they're training. That's the level of talent here.

"It sounds like a video game type of deal," Randall says, "where you trade all the good players to one team, just so that one team can win a Super Bowl. But it happened in real, real life."

He was one of those players traded, of course. The same day they acquired Landry, the Browns stole Randall from the Packers for quarterback DeShone Kizer. He can't help but laugh at that.

"I knew it'd go down as one of the worst trades in Green Bay Packers history," Randall says. "Any time I want to feel like I'm on my high horse, I still look back like, Damn, they really traded me for DeShone Kizer? No offense to him, but at the end of the day—c'mon now."

The Packers viewed Randall as immature, so off he went. For a backup quarterback they'd end up cutting.

The Giants got sick of OBJ. Goodbye.

The Dolphins tired of Landry. Peace.

So many scouts harbored fear about Mayfield's character. The Browns didn't hesitate in making him the first overall pick and face of the franchise.

If the NFL has learned anything from the Patriots, it's that players must be transformed into cyborgs, reconfigured and operated by a singular mastermind. That's the Belichickian model. That's what most all coaches and GMs have adopted as standard operating procedure. When establishing culture, while following a process, thou shalt eliminate all possible red flags. Yet here are the Browns, gladly accepting your rejects and malcontents and headaches and prima donnas, because, damn it, these players are really talented.

The Browns want players to be themselves. In fact, they encourage it.

Randall chuckles again.

"Keep those fourth-round picks around," he adds, oozing with sarcasm. "You'll probably get a superstar with them." 

Randall and his teammates know you think this experiment is going to spontaneously combust, that they'll be at each other's throats by October.

But where others see cockiness, they see confidence. Loads and loads of confidence.

"It might rub some people the wrong way," Randall says, "but we do not care."

CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 08: Strong safety Damarious Randall #23 of the Cleveland Browns during the first half of a preseason game against the Washington Redskins at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty I
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Randall promises everyone that he'll keep tweeting and Instagramming whatever the hell he wants. That Mayfield will keep trading barbs with Colin Cowherd. That players here will be unapologetically authentic. He believes it's to their own detriment that players in the NFL so often do as they are told, that they sit up straight and spew cliches—unlike the personality-driven NBA. It's bad enough that they have helmets on, their faces covered with facemasks. He could wander around any other NFL stadium and nobody would know who he is.

Not surprisingly, there was Randall sporting a "Daaaamnnn"-themed visor from Friday early in training camp and a "Feeling Dangerous" visor with Mayfield's mug later in camp.

There is no daily demand to spew cliches here.

"We are who we are," Randall says. "We have a lot of people who are comfortable in their own skin. Some people judge us and want us to respond to them judging us. We just don't care. And we're not going to care when we raise up that Lombardi Trophy. People are going to say, 'Oh, that team was cheating because they had Odell, they had Jarvis, they had Baker.' ... They're going to say we were cheating at the end of the day."

Certainly they'd change everything we thought we knew about team-building.

Now, all the Browns need to do is get there, and no, they're not belligerently stumbling into this 2019 season, either. They have a plan. And they know the only players saying "Oh s--t" about Cleveland from here on out will be those on the other sideline.

Says Landry: "We aim for legendary. We aim for the Super Bowl."


The Browns' proximity to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, a quick two miles, is a friendly reminder that at any moment you could be gone. There's next to no margin for error anymore.

This stifling August day, Mayfield rifles a back-shoulder throw to 6'4" Derrick Willies, on the money, and Willies drops it. Twenty minutes later, Willies drops another easy ball, and as he trudges back to the huddle, an airplane roars overhead.

Dorsey, in a heavy crew sweatshirt, aggressively chews gum nearby.

Head coach Freddie Kitchens, hard on everyone from the waterboys to the practice officials, stares Willies down.

Soon after, Willies answers, going deep on corner T.J. Carrie and cradling a Mayfield bomb with one free arm. He's ecstatic. He pops to his feet with one shoulder pad out, dropkicks the ball toward fans and hip-bumps a teammate.

Three weeks later, he'll be cut anyway.

That's life in Cleveland these days. Urgency is high. There's no room for any BS anymore...when BS was all this franchise knew just a couple years ago.

Where to even begin?

Through that 1-31 stretch, any semblance of a foundation in Cleveland crumbled. Multiple Browns staffers recall "silos" and "factions" and never-ending "I have nothing to do with this!" finger-pointing that only made a bad situation worse.

Under former top exec Sashi Brown, the plan was to lose. And lose. And that helped the Browns land a pair of top overall picks—but the losing was extremely difficult on families (see: mass firings), and the big-picture thinking behind an unprecedented tank was flawed. As one Browns front-office source puts it bluntly, "It's not baseball." You're not replenishing a minor league system via 14 draft picks a year. In football, you're always one player away: a quarterback. And the Browns, under Brown and Hue Jackson, traded out of the Carson Wentz pick in 2016. (Their top pick that year, Corey Coleman at 15th overall, has already been on four teams.) The next year, they never seriously considered taking Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes with the No. 1 overall pick or using their other two first-round picks to trade up and take one of them, though one staffer remembers former quarterbacks coach David Lee banging the table for Mahomes.

Instead, Jackson flip-flopped between Myles Garrett and Mitchell Trubisky for months, eventually selecting Garrett.

One exec with the team now describes that coaching staff as "horses--t." Even in 2018, it was obvious to anyone watching Hard Knocks that Jackson and then-offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn't get along. But they more so passive-aggressively ignored each other than outright clashed. Which was probably worse. Haley had some support in the building, though as one source explains, he'd handle a problem that was a 1 (on a scale of 1 to 10) with the same ferocity as a 10.

The roster was laughably bad in 2017. The fact that, the following year, one starting tackle (Spencer Drango) was on a practice squad and the other (Shon Coleman) was inactive pretty much says all anyone needs to know. Future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, a Brown from when he was drafted third overall in 2007 until he retired after being on injured reserve much of that 2017 season, understood the plan. He calls it "taking your medicine" for the shot at a franchise quarterback. But, of course, the Browns had botched that same opportunity countless times before.

If John Elway and Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset, Thomas more so lived a nightmare.

"Believe me, it wasn't a lot of fun," Thomas says. "You look at your talent, you look at your roster, you know it's going to be a tough go. Week after week, it's brutal to deal with that."

Thomas insists players were buying in through that 1-31 stretch. The team was so young, so green, very few of them just shut it down. And that's what hurt most: Players actually were pouring everything they had into every week. Higgins remembers so many questioning themselves, thinking, "Damn, what are we doing wrong?" Center JC Tretter, who joined the Browns for that 2017 season, knows people looked at 0-16 and assumed, "Oh, they didn't care." Not true, he insists. All 16 losses in 2017 devastated the locker room. Sundays make this sport worth it, he says. The grind, the violence, the commitment.

You do it all to win one game, and, as Tretter puts it, to "feel like a king" for six hours.

That feeling never came. Loss after loss, no heroes emerged.

Instead, the Browns had players like No. 1 wide receiver Kenny Britt. Many in the building say he was the worst locker room problem they've ever encountered. Many days, Britt would simply tell the team he wasn't going to practice. Coaches would tell him he, uh, needed to. And then, one source says, he'd "literally just walk."

Even Higgins doesn't hold back. That kind of attitude from that kind of player—a former first-rounder on a $32 million contract—set a terrible standard.

"Coming out here and not wanting to practice and then expect to go to the game and play at full speed?" he says. "It's like, 'Damn, man, you didn't even practice, and you're wondering why you dropped the ball? You might've had it in practice.' Little stuff like that, man."

A total makeover was needed, and as if descending from the heavens, in came football messiahs with the knowledge to actually put all these picks and all this cap space to use.

Out was Brown. In were Dorsey and Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith.

First thing was first—finding a QB—and multiple sources credit Wolf for pinpointing and pushing for Mayfield very early in the process. Long before most anyone deemed Mayfield worthy of a No. 1 pick.

A generation prior, Wolf's father fell in love with Brett Favre, made an extremely unpopular trade for Favre and forever changed the Packers franchise. Now, son was trying to do the same as assistant GM for the Browns. Mayfield had Favre-like red flags in the eyes of evaluators around the league, but the Browns never viewed those flags as actual weaknesses. Height wasn't a concern. His brash style absolutely was not a concern. So what if he planted an OU flag in the middle of Ohio State's field and grabbed his crotch against Kansas? Cleveland found it bizarre that Mayfield was considered risky and Darnold safe when everyone the front office talked to at Oklahoma, from the athletic director to teammates, raved about Mayfield's character—and Darnold was the one with a whopping 36 turnovers in 27 college games.

Mayfield didn't only make all the throws; he had the courage to make all those throws. And that's what they loved. "He played with no fear," as one Browns scout puts it. The moxie was not toxic to them, nor manufactured. They knew teammates would fight for Mayfield because, as another Browns scout says, "Guys like to play with ballers."

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

As for OBJ? Dorsey is always making exploratory, "Hey, if you're ever..." phone calls to teams.

After a few lengthy chats with the Giants, he landed arguably the league's best wide receiver. As far as the Browns heard, New York simply didn't want to deal with Beckham anymore. To them, sure, there's some "WR1 stuff" and "a tiny bit of selfishness" but nothing that could come close to overshadowing the fact that they were adding a certifiable star at a premium position...at 26 years old.

Dorsey is OK with anything extra that comes with Beckham, and Giants GM Dave Gettleman was not.

By surrounding Beckham with Landry and WR coach Adam Henry (who coached both at LSU) and Mayfield, the Browns believe they're threading the needle. One Browns scout is frank—"The dude's not a criminal"—and compares Beckham to Deion Sanders in that no one is going to "manage" Deion. Once you make the commitment to Beckham, you're committing to everything that comes with Beckham because "he's not a normal person, not a normal talent."

Those temper tantrums in New York, to the Browns front office, were rooted in a manic desire to win.

Transaction to transaction, pick to pick, this has been a theme. Players this competitive—like Mayfield, like Landry, like Randall—are not scorned. They're coveted. Embraced. The Browns knew Randall wanted to play safety and knew the Packers viewed him as high maintenance, so when GM Brian Gutekunst reached out and offered Randall for Kizer with a flip of fourth- and fifth-round picks, Cleveland pounced.

Browns coaches and execs say repeatedly that they want players to be themselves. They see players building personal brands, walking through the facility with their own names on their shirts, and they think, in the words of one source, "Why not let them have fun?"

They're not talentless like so many of Sashi Brown's whiffs. They're not quitters like Britt.

Take it from Thomas, the man who knows what's ailed this team better than anyone.

"The guys they picked up," he says, "like OBJ and Damarious Randall, or even Jarvis and Baker, they were almost pushing people too hard. They were almost too competitive. And teams didn't know how to handle them, because they were emotional."

Which was exactly what the Browns needed. A lightning strike of energy.

Thinking back to the stories he heard about veterans not practicing, Landry cringes.

"Just soft and entitled," he says. "I know for me, it was like, 'Yo, you all ain't done nothing.' Nobody here has done anything that where you can pat anybody on the back or take a break or take plays off or whatever. And that culture changed."

Bleeping dude to bleeping dude.

"With a mindset."


So ready or not, here they come. That impassioned speech Landry gave on national TV—"If your hamstring ain't falling off the f--king bone … you should be f--king practicing"—has come to life. This is a team in that merciless vision.

There's Mayfield, strutting around the practice field—back arched, head bobbing, yapping. When he's not unleashing rockets here, he's chugging beers. He's still saying whatever he wants. He's rocking a thin strip of hair above his lip because, in his words, there's "elegance" in a mustache. "You just do not know what is going to happen."

There's Beckham, putting on a show. And Myles Garrett box-jumping with 50-pound dumbbells in his hands. And defensive end Olivier Vernon swinging a sledgehammer at a tractor tire inside. And tight end David Njoku, cut like a bodybuilder, saying the Browns need players "who aren't afraid to get into someone's face."

And Landry. Any wide receiver who whines and complains and acts like Britt these days is called out on the spot. "Quit Drake'ing!" Landry or another receiver will shout, as in don't be "in your feelings." Shut up, get back in line, kick ass. Landry still sounds pissed at the Dolphins, at anyone who thinks he wanted anything other than this kind of atmosphere, one that pushes everyone to their maximum potential.

"Winning is everything," he says. "It's like having the best writer in your building, but you don't let him write. Then, you're like, 'Damn, when I do write, I do good s--t.' ... My sole goal is to win. If you label me like I'm the best player on the team, let me help you win. Passion, confidence, energy, all of that stuff is misplaced."

And standing here, Landry makes it clear it'll take a lot more than him and Beckham and Mayfield to hoist that trophy. This passion must be contagious. Other dudes are just as important—and he lists off their names: Nick Chubb. Higgins. Antonio Callaway. Njoku. As Landry speaks, teammates walk by, and he shouts their names aloud, too, as if blown away by the Browns' talent.

He's right. To win, it will take more.

It'll take a playmaker setting the tone on defense, a player following the example of the greatest athlete of all time. Randall recently heard that Michael Jordan's most famous shot, in Game 6 at Utah, was the product of Jordan practicing that exact same shot again and again and again. He heard that Jordan felt more pressure in practice taking that shot than he did with the clock dripping from nine to eight to seven to six seconds in the Finals. Right then, Randall knew he needed to put pressure on himself like never before.

For his moment. One he's ready for. He wants to be a Brown for life.

Randall first rips the Packers for using him as a cornerback, kindly pointing out that they drafted a safety (Darnell Savage) in the first round a year after shipping him off—"so obviously they didn't do something right—tell 'em I said, 'I appreciate you.'" Then, he rips Gregg Williams, Cleveland's defensive coordinator in 2018, for lining him up "about a mile-and-a-half" from the quarterback at safety. The player who handed a football to Hue Jackson hints he may have something in store for Williams when he picks off Williams' new team, the Jets.

Very rarely will you meet players this liberated, speaking this freely.

When players on other teams speak out like this, they're shamed on Twitter, scolded by their coach, put on mute the rest of the season.

Not in Cleveland, where Dorsey told Randall, Day 1, to be himself.

Randall believes his swagger manifests itself on the field, too.

"I don't have to hide in a shell to pretend anything," says Randall, who had 85 tackles and four picks last season. "Dorsey likes whenever I talk trash, because he knows I'm going to back it up. Whenever you have people like that in your corner, you can play more freely. You can play more loose and with a lot more chemistry.

"I'm a guy who believes. And when your core players on a team believe, that spreads to the 53rd man on the roster."

That's happening. Everywhere. Not just in the stars whose names you know. The excitement touches the whole roster. Especially where it matters most—around Mayfield, right to the wide receiver starting alongside Beckham and Landry.

This August day, Higgins—nicknamed Hollywood, or Wood for short—is sitting atop his helmet, on an empty practice field, thinking about his friend Peanut. Five days ago, Peanut called Higgins to say how excited he was about this Browns season. He raved about all the weapons on this offense, and then the convo soon turned to Higgins' new car. Higgins bragged about how fast it gets.

Two days later, at 8:45 a.m., Peanut was found dead from an apparent motorcycle crash. Higgins says he's going to fly south the next day for the wake. He can't shake a feeling of guilt. Growing up, the two of them loved fast cars, with Higgins actually selling Peanut his first car, a Mercury Marauder.

"I asked him, 'What's the fastest you've been on your bike?'" says Higgins, staring ahead, holding back tears. "So it's crazy. And he just got the motorcycle. It's like, 'Damn, man.' I wish he wouldn't have gotten that bike."

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

It's not the first friend he's lost. Higgins recalls his family of five stuffed into a one-bedroom apartment growing up in the extremely violent Oak Cliff neighborhood southwest of Dallas. Many nights, he didn't even know if his family would be able to eat. Other nights, he didn't know if he or his friends would live. So many of his friends were swallowed by drugs and gangs, and Higgins says aloud he wishes he told them all: "You don't have to sell drugs. There's a better life for you."

He thinks back to losing his dad. He thinks back to the night he could've died. Taking a friend to a girlfriend's house, he drove too far, turned around, pulled into a driveway, parked, turned his lights off and all he remembers are sparks. So many sparks. As someone sprayed his car with bullets, Higgins sped off, somehow unharmed, to a nearby gas station. He assumes someone on that dangerous street thought he was doing a drive-by shooting himself.

You better believe all of this makes him exactly the competitor Landry wants. Higgins says it's all turned him "into a dog," adding, "S--t, you don't know what I've been through."

Higgins heads back inside and it begins to downpour, thunder crackling throughout Berea.

A storm is coming in 2019. For better or worse.

Is it only a matter of time before someone goes berserk? Beckham possesses the uncanny ability to piss off every type of cornerback. The loud ones, like Josh Norman, can't stand him. As Norman told B/R in 2017: "I hope I don't catch him outside. Let's just say that." The quietest of the quiet corners can't, either. Stephon Gilmore, way back in 2015, was the first pro to really go after Beckham, calling him a "prima donna."

Told about these exchanges, word for word, Landry hardly flinches. 

"His passion is construed as something other than what it actually is," Landry says. "You see the same things from other players, other sports—and it's 'true passion.' You see it from him and it's 'prima donna, diva, this and that.' ... He is a person that if he has to kick your ass, he'll kick your ass. But he's not looking for that.

"On the field, his passion is very, very, very, very passionate."

In a dream world, the Browns take Beckham's passion and Landry's passion and Baker's and Higgins' and Randall's and create something unheard of. One of Landry's favorite movies is Major League. That Cleveland Indians team—from the Wild Thing to Willie Mays Hayes—is so much like this Browns team to him. All of those characters aren't supposed to be in the same place at the same time, he explains, but they are. And "they build some s--t that is legendary."

Still, that doesn't change the fact that there's only one ball to go around. Keeping everyone happy, September through February, may be an impossible proposition. Running back Duke Johnson Jr. already asked for and received a trade. Maybe that's only the tip of an iceberg bound to sink the Browns.

Landry insists he and Beckham share a unique understanding, that they'd never want to hurt each other. Hell, their plan all along was to be teammates by their third or fourth contracts, and here they are.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 29: wide receivers Odell Beckham #13 and  Jarvis Landry #80 of the Cleveland Browns talk on the sidelines during the first half of a preseason game against the Detroit Lions at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Cleveland,
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Who receives how many targets, he repeats, will not be an issue. Not after so much losing.

"Now we go into the aspect of understanding how hard it is to win a damn game in the NFL," Landry says. "When you have that mindset, OK, 'You had 10 catches. I had three catches. Did we win the game? Then, so what? Let's celebrate. We're going to celebrate.'"

That's hard to believe, but when pressed, he's adamant. He says that he'd never be upset with Beckham taking center stage and that Beckham feels the same. Higgins even says Landry told him, man to man in private, that he's reached a place where he wants to see others to succeed.

That, to Higgins, hit home. That attitude, like the speech, is contagious.

Adds Higgins, "Honestly, if we're winning, there shouldn't be any complaining."

And if there is?

The head coach is ready.


The world is a beautifully blunt place when Kitchens speaks. There's no filibustering, no need to stuff words like "process" and "culture" into some Coachspeak Rosetta Stone to see what this one really means. No, when former colleague Bob Wylie criticized Kitchens, downplaying his role in the Browns' 2018 surge and claiming to hear he was fired from a hospital bed, Kitchens was ready.

When Wylie drew first blood, Kitchens responded at a press conference with devastating daggers.

Sometimes when a person says something, they have to be made to feel relevant, OK?

What about the players? Did they have anything to do with the turnaround?

I went to the hospital to see Bob every week he was in the hospital. I FaceTimed Bob before every game before we went out as a staff just so he would continue to feel a part of it. 

I had the opportunity to hire Bob. I did not want to.

End of story.

One week later, away from the podium, Kitchens begins a conversation with B/R by saying it's simple to him. He doesn't give a damn what anybody has said about any player they've added. He's going to judge each player with his own eyes. You be you. He'll be himself. And a trust will build.

The Gadsden, Alabama, native speaks in such a matter-of-fact drawl on everything. This is a man who survived an emergency surgery in 2013 to repair a tear in the inner wall of his aorta. (He was given a 20 percent chance to live. Surgery lasted 10 hours.) A man who grew up the son of a tiremaker at the Goodyear Tire Plant and will never forget the resiliency of Dad when Dad was laid off after 20-plus years. A man who then lost "Big Freddie" to lung cancer in 2015.

"Nothing's come easy," he says, "but nothing came easy in my life, either. When people tell you 'No,' you keep saying 'Yes.'"

Adversity, he knows, will strike, and the Browns, he knows, will be accountable in that moment. Because passive-aggressiveness is a poison. "There's not going to be any of that here," Kitchens says. Under his watch, problems will be met head-on.

"We're not going to close our eyes and act like it's not there. We're going to address it."

The key for that, he also knows, is strengthening relationships up to a point to handle such blunt moments. And no relationship in sports is more important than coach and quarterback. We've seen what can happen when it turns south.

To Kitchens, again, it's simple.

"Here's what I think people lose sight of," Kitchens begins. "Society in itself sometimes is just scared to say the truth. I've always heard that the truth will set you free. If I can be truthful with him and he can be truthful with me, what else do we need? Because if he can trust that I'll tell him the truth, if he can trust that I have the best interest in mind, he's going to trust me. If he trusts me, he'll listen. If he doesn't, he won't. And the same with him. ... That trust allows you to have difficult conversations to enable you to get the most out of someone. That's where we're at with our whole team. It's not just Baker."

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

He points to Vernon working out inside the Browns' practice bubble.

"I want Olivier Vernon trusting that guy beside him. I want that linebacker trusting that corner. I want that corner trusting that safety. I want the right guard trusting the tackle. I want the back trusting the quarterback.

"I know it's simple. But I'm from Alabama. I can be simple."

Don't be fooled. Kitchens may come across as a good ol' boy you'd love to pound beers with, but he's a master innovator. Remember Mayfield faking a fly sweep by flipping the ball to himself before slinging a touchdown to Landry? One source says he checked with the league office before that Ravens game to make sure the play was legal. Expect more trickeration this year, even if Kitchens isn't a distant relative or part-time barista of Sean McVay's. Kitchens sure wasn't at the top of the Browns' list when their search began, but he proved he can stay at the cutting edge of today's game.

More importantly, he showed the Browns he's capable of handling egos.

One way? The "inner scorecard." Randall lets everyone in on this secret, on the fact that Kitchens has all players focused on lessons from ancient philosophy written about at length by Ryan Holiday in his book, Ego Is the Enemy. Holiday spoke at the NFL owners meetings in March, the Browns were intrigued, so there Holiday was in training camp speaking to the entire team. Everyone here, Randall explains, is now consumed by their own specific goals. He points to Nick Saban showing zero joy after winning an NCAA title. And Drew Brees smiling with his son on the field after a gut-wrenching NFC Championship loss last January. Both had unexpected emotions because both were following an inner scorecard—not whatever numbers the scoreboard spat out.

So the world can say whatever they want about the Browns. Under Kitchens, they sincerely do not seem to care.

Players will continue showing up at 7 a.m., leaving at 9 p.m., concerned with themselves and themselves only.

"We know how good we are," Randall says. "We still have to live up to our standard. Myles might have 14 sacks and make the Pro Bowl, and he's still moping around, because, by his standard, he missed three other sacks that he should've had. And that's what people don't understand. They think success is making it to the Pro Bowl, making a lot of money. No.

"Success to me and success to us is holding ourselves to a certain standard and living up to that standard."

It's so easy to view sports through the prism of wins and losses. Holiday told the entire Browns team that they need to find metrics of success that are entirely up to them. They could win the AFC North, but if they do it the wrong way, if they hate the game or hate each other, is that success? Holiday wasn't sure if talk of ancient philosophy would turn the team off, especially a team with this many personalities. But as Kitchens ripped one player for making a team cameraman pick up food he dropped, he was off and running.

Everyone, Holiday says, was locked into his speech.

His central theme? The No. 1 enemy to this team isn't the talent on other teams or rule changes or injuries or anything external. It's making sure ego is kept in check. It's how the guys in this room come together.

"There's a quote from Epictetus," Holiday says. "'It's impossible to learn what you think you already know.' So if you think you're a flawless athlete, you're not going to learn the plays, you're not going to learn the schemes, you're not going to hustle hard enough, and the talent's not going to come together.

"You can see how quickly an entitled attitude would spiral out of control. The guy who doesn't think he needs to pick up after himself is the guy who doesn't hustle back on the drill, is the guy who doesn't lift as much as he can."

This room could crumble into a hodgepodge of individuals, Holiday told them, if they don't consciously think unity over self.

"Ego is the enemy," he says, "of the things that bring talent together."

Maybe that's why training camp, in Cleveland, was different. The scorecards, for everyone, are set after a punishing summer. The days of Hue Jackson telling his staff they need to take it easy on select starters are long, long gone, with players in full pads nearly every day for three weeks. Practices lasted two-and-a-half hours. When one fight broke out, Kitchens made players run gassers.

He set up full tackling drills. Whistles weren't nearly as quick here as other camps.

Kitchens made it clear to everyone that he wanted them to practice through bumps and bruises so they wouldn't wither into December.

No, he's not Rex Ryan 2.0, not a coach who'll completely lose control of a roomful of personalities. He wants his players to be themselves, but Kitchens also repeats "Do what’s right" with "Do your job" regularity around here.

It's no shock that two of Kitchens' closest mentors are Bill Parcells and Nick Saban.

Football is "a tough game played by tough people," he says plainly, and "we need to develop that mindset." He'll never forget Parcells' words of wisdom: to treat everyone fairly but not everyone the same. To build trust first, and then you can ask players to do what they'd normally be uncomfortable doing.

The Browns believe they've reached that point. They have talent. They are, for now, getting along.

Now, all they need to do is win the Super Bowl.


The imagery of imminent destruction is quite horrifying. When the Browns do win the Super Bowl, when they finally exorcise decades of demons, nobody knows what to expect.

Lamenting the misery of 0-16, Higgins redirects to praise the fans. For some reason, they kept packing the stadium. And when they finally beat the Jets in 2018? They made players feel like they "won the damn Super Bowl."

So, yeah, LeBron James might've summoned approximately 1.3 million people to downtown Cleveland for the Cavaliers championship parade. Sure, that party lasted four hours, and hotels sold out, and businesses shut down, and so many children were separated from their parents that police needed to reconnect families via social media. Browns linebacker Joe Schobert knows that bash would have nothing on their bash.

City officials should prepare for something a bit more apocalyptic.

"When that was happening, people were like, 'Yeah. If the Browns win? The city of Cleveland won't exist anymore,'" Schobert says. "If the Browns win the Super Bowl, the city's gone. We're rebuilding. We're starting from scratch. Probably will be a cloud city with new technology or something. It'll change Cleveland forever.

"I'd be interested to see what they do when they rebuild. It could be the Dubai of the Midwest. Who knows?"

Adds Tretter, "Luckily, I'm living in the suburbs."

Such is the "sleeping giant" John Dorsey referred to in his introductory presser.

All camp, you could sense it: the team's sordid past bleeding into its unlimited future in the form of Couch and Bernie Kosar and Johnny Manziel jerseys blending with the growing Mayfields and Beckhams. The stands were packed. The cheers, no, roars of approval were constant. The expectations continued to soar. Only soar. When Greedy Williams leaped in front of Beckham to snare the most impressive interception of camp, there was Kitchens afterward reminding Williams of his scorecard: "I think we need to learn what to do with the ball when we get an interception." (Williams had chucked the ball in celebration.)

This is what it'll take to win.

Constant attention to the details. Constant reminders that talent alone isn't enough.

Says Schobert: "I think we have talent, on paper, to be one of the contenders for the Super Bowl. But that has to fit together in the right way. There's a thousand ways it can fit together and one way it can fit together and do it right and make it to the Super Bowl and win it."

And Tretter knows the Browns need to "earn" expectations, "earn" those thoughts of the Super Bowl because so many teams that dream—like they're dreaming—end up 6-10.

"You don't want to see the talent and say, 'We're better now! We have more talent!'" Tretter says. "The thing that got us over the hump was the work."

Winning tends to cure all, he adds. Nobody hears about any negativity behind the scenes when a team wins.

For once, in Cleveland, that's the expectation. To win. Now. The hype feels real, not overinflated by Johnny Football holding his arms in the sky and rubbing his fingers together.

Which really makes you feel for the one Canton-bound player mired in a decade of futility.

Joe Thomas never played with talent close to this through his 10,363 consecutive snaps, six head coaches and 20 starting quarterbacks. One of the best offensive tackles in NFL history never had a quarterback remotely close to Mayfield or a receiver in the same stratosphere as Beckham. He juuuust missed out on the fun, retiring after 0-16. But while the roster has completely changed, he's sure the remaining players from 1-31—the Schoberts, the Tretters—will share stories, will remind everyone, "You don't want to go back to that s--t.'"

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 01: Joe Thomas #73 of the Cleveland Browns cools off in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller /Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Thomas knows this city is ready to erupt.

Thomas knows, better than anybody, how a parade would go down.

"Nuclear holocaust," he says. "Whatever the Cavs had for their parade, just double it and make it twice as long. It's always been a Browns town. First and foremost."

He believes in Kitchens, and he believes those new bleeping dudes leading the way have a "Follow me, I know the way to the Promised Land" mentality.

So bring it on. Thomas is ready to celebrate. He already bought his Super Bowl tickets, too. Really. At a Madison NFL Alumni Dinner this summer, Thomas scooped a pair up in an auction.

He'll be in Miami.

"I plan to wear my Browns jersey," he says.

No pressure, guys.

         

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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