Hey Cleveland Browns fans, are you enjoying today? No, you weren’t dreaming on Sunday night. Your Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 47-38, in the Wild Card Playoff Game. Remember, I told you last week they’d be okay! They were more than just okay, they were fantastic and destroyed, in one ballgame, all those demons the Browns carried with them when it came to playing the Steelers and have now helped start a new standard of winning football.
I’ve mentioned before that I was a schoolteacher coming out of college. If I were ever absent from my job and couldn’t teach the students that day, I’d have a substitute teacher fill in for the day. I would worry that my class would act up and misbehave for the sub since I wasn’t there. But I also had practiced standards and expectations of the classroom on a regular basis. So, when I’d return from my absence, I’d always be relieved when the sub would tell me the students were well-behaved and demonstrated those skills we’d practiced countless times.
In the wake of the Browns coach Kevin Stefanski being gone Sunday night, restricted to his house basement because he’d tested positive for Covid earlier in the week, the Browns, like my students, took those season-long expectations and new standards of a winning culture and put them on full display for the rest of the world to witness. It was a thing of beauty and I haven’t stopped smiling since the Browns defense recovered that bumbling, fumbling Steelers opening offensive play in the endzone for the quick lead.
Of course, it all starts with Stefanski. I’ve talked up Stefanski all season long because of what I started to see very early on in the year. He coaches with such detail and care, always trying to analyze results and make the next time better. Stefanski always takes accountability and protects his players, always deflecting the problem away from them when he talks of his team. But he then puts attainable goals and expectations in front of his players. And those players have responded because they believe in their coach and trust him. I call Stefanski “Steady Eddy” because of his calmness and control. That ability to keep his emotions in check has had an amazing effect on his players. And along the way, these players have learned accountability.
The key player, QB Baker Mayfield has taken all that study of his coach to heart. Where some have described Mayfield as a hothead on an emotional rollercoaster, his coach would rather describe Mayfield as one of the most authentic players he’s ever coached. Stefanski said today about Mayfield, “I think one of the best things about Baker is that he’s so very much himself at all moments, he’s an authentic person, and I think that rubs off on his team, I think the way he leads by example, the way he leads vocally, the guys respond to him, and I think again that speaks to him being himself…”
Sunday night, when Mayfield was asked about the upcoming game the Browns will play against last year’s Super Bowl Champs the Kansas City Chiefs and how the world will be against them again and no one will give them a chance at winning that game Mayfield said, “It sounds pretty normal to me…” Today, coach Stefanski responded to Mayfield’s stigma of always being considered the underdog, “That’s right, Baker’s been counted out a bunch in his life.” And there is where the bond between Stefanski and Mayfield has really taken off. Stefanski knows he has a young kid with a chip on his shoulder but at the same time a kid that connects to his teammates because of that authenticity. The two leaders trust each other the most. And in turn that energy that Mayfield exudes, with the more subdued approach by Stefanski, sprinkles down to the rest of the team.
Part of that team is their defensive unit.
Sunday night, the Browns won the turnover battle, 5-0, something I’ve contended all season was another key to the Browns’ success because the Browns defense wasn’t built this season on shutting other teams down. Instead, it was on seeking to get takeaways and put the ball back into the hands of their offense. Mayfield reiterated that point after the game Sunday night, saying, “The things that you emphasize during the week tend to come true…we’ve talked about it, ball security and taking care of the ball, and us taking away the ball on defense…Kevin(Stefanski) said on Saturday night that he envisioned a tipped ball that someone was going to pick off, and Porter Gustin(DE) was the one to get that tipped interception… it’s just the things that you emphasize wind up coming true because if you put your importance on it and focus on that, it happens.”
When I heard Mayfield share that idea, it got me thinking about what we do as coaches when we are trying to teach skills. That idea of envisioning the outcome is not always mastered by many because it starts with believing in the source that is preaching that type of coaching. As a basketball coach, I always worked with my players on envisioning the ball going through the hoop when they’d practice their jump shot. Though many shots wouldn’t hit their mark, many would and that built into my players’ mentality a trust in themselves and that’s more than half the battle when you want to have success at something you’re practicing.
So what happens Sunday when the Browns battle the Chiefs?
That’s up for much debate today, but most out there in the world don’t think the Browns have a chance at victory. But none of that matters because the Browns are trusting in themselves and that is all you need to keep moving forward. Stefanski, was asked about his team’s chances, and he said, “We’re one of eight teams…. I’m not a math major, but we’ll take those chances.”
So you say I have a chance? Those are some dangerous words to dangle in front of this new and improved Browns team thanks to their leader Stefanski and his pupil Mayfield!