The Difference Maker In This Cleveland Browns Winning Season

How a message is delivered and by whom makes a world of difference and that is especially apparent this season with the Cleveland Browns and their current ride of success.

Years ago, when I was learning to become a teacher, I had an awful experience working in one of my final teaching practicum placements with a group of young students. The students weren’t the problem. It was the teacher I worked for, who was a harsh and rude individual and had no sense of how to guide practicing teachers like myself. Fortunately, I had many other more knowledgeable and kind veteran teachers who taught and promoted my strengths as I ventured into the educational profession. And those voices are the ones I focused on moving forward. I like to think my leadership as a school educator wasn’t built on the guidance of one person but on the many more professional and caring individuals in the field.

I bring this experience up because I’ve been thinking about the beauty of the Cleveland Browns’ 7-3 record and comparing it to last year’s debacle of a season. The team itself is the same as last year (with a few upgrades) and that team finished at 6-10. The most significant difference is that the Browns now have a much better head coach in Kevin Stefanski. His message is like those that came before him, but how he’s delivering that message is the key.

Last season, then Browns coach Freddie Kitchens talked about taking the games one game at a time, saying, “We need to approach every week the same, to be 1-0.“ He said that after a 5-7 record and a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-13. At that point in the season, but in the same breathe, said “I told these guys the other night, this was the first time we had been in a playoff-type atmosphere…” The message Kitchens sent to his players last season was one of confusion oftentimes.

This season, coach Stefanski often preaches the same message of winning the week and going 1-0. Browns players like G Wyatt Teller have laughed in interviews about having a bunch of 1-0 weeks sixteen times. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was discussing the success of Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in their recent win against Philadelphia, and mentioned the winning mentality, “…I don’t care if that’s handing the ball off every single time. We are happy to go 1-0 each week.”  Browns linebacker Mack Wilson, after the recent victory also said on his Twitter account, “Just Win….Just Won!!! #1-0”.

So here you have two head coaches saying the same thing to virtually the same team. Last year’s team was a disaster. And this year’s Browns are winning like we haven’t seen in 25 years.

The difference is Stefanski.

Like my teacher disaster experience, the difference often times comes down to personality, skill and a nag to understand what’s in front of you and work with those around you to make them take accountability and have a level of respect for what they are doing.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is an example of how the message is different when Coach Stefanski is delivering it. A year ago, coach Kitchens wanted Mayfield to be a “gunslinger” and forced Mayfield into dozens of forced offensive sets where he relied on Mayfield to try and win games with his arm. The sports media world continually ripped Mayfield for losing his confidence and being a shell of himself from his stellar rookie season. This year, coach Stefanski talks about putting Mayfield in better situations offensively, trying to understand his quarterback’s strengths and helping Mayfield learn how to manage games, rather than relying more on an outstanding Browns running game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Penalties! Do you remember how often you were annoyed by the countless penalties the Browns were called for a year ago? How about the 18 penalties in the Week 1 season-opening loss to the Tennessee Titans? Or how about the game last season where the Browns lost to the New England Patriots and coach Kitchens purposely had his team take a penalty late and took a 4th and 11 play to 4th and 16 and still had his team go for it on downs inside their own 30 yards which they didn’t convert only to save a timeout. The Browns had 122 total penalties called against them a year ago. After 10 games this season, the Browns have only 57. Why? Stefanski! The message was the same a year ago, but Stefanski’s team has bought into his message of accountability, trust, and a belief in the team. When the Browns played the Houston Texans a few weeks ago, Stefanski left his offense on the field for a 4th down play late in the game, not to save his team a timeout, but forced the Texans to call the one which then allowed the Browns to run out the clock in that victory.

A year ago, coach Kitchens wore a “Pittsburgh Started It” t-shirt to show his loyalty to his players, especially Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who had been recently suspended for hitting then-Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Mason Rudolph with his helmet. The message was ok, but how it was delivered was all wrong and once again showed how Kitchens wasn’t a leader of men but wanted to rather be part of the group. So many other distractions a year ago also showed the glaring holes in leadership from the top. From the players getting in trouble for trying to wear various gear that was not allowed by the NFL, to players threatening sports media personalities in social media spats.

This year, I’m hearing crickets? Aren’t you? There aren’t those on and off-field distractions. Obviously, winning games helps. But the Browns are winning because they are listening to their coach. And why do people listen to someone? It’s because they believe that they are being heard and that’s the difference this season.

I’m a movie buff. When I think about where the Browns are this year compared to last season and all those miserable seasons prior to that, I can’t stop and think about that great classic comedy “Groundhog Day” with comedic legend Bill Murray. In the film, Murray’s character Phil, repeats the same day over and over again, seemingly forever. But along the way, every repeated day Phil learns something new, finds happiness and is eventually able to move on to the next day. We all hear things every day that seemingly are the same, but once you determine that the message is different this time, mostly due to you changing your mindset, then you are free to move on in time.

I’m not sure how this Cleveland Browns season will end, but I’m more assured than ever that this season is different and moving in the right direction because you have a Browns team that is tuned in to a coach and believing in themselves. And that message is worth it this time.

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