BEREA, Ohio – Baker Mayfield said it. Then his teammates began to tweet it.
“We will be back.”
Sunday in Kansas City, Cleveland’s magical run finally came to an end with a 22-17 loss to the defending Super Bowl champs. The Browns nearly pulled off the biggest postseason comeback in franchise history. But Cleveland couldn’t get one final stop to give Mayfield a last chance at a game-winning drive.
“It sucks because so many people have sacrificed so much during this process and this very strange season and overcome adversity,” Mayfield said. “But trying to find the positive out of it, we’re setting a new standard here. Everybody was saying it in the locker room. … That we will be back.”
Cleveland’s breakthrough 2020 season will be memorable for many reasons. The Browns finally snapped the NFL’s longest playoff drought, punching their ticket to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. Cleveland then won its first playoff game since 1994, while also snapping a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, despite playing -- and coaching -- short-handed. And though the Browns couldn’t deliver the upset Sunday against top-seeded Kansas City, they proved they belonged.
Given what they have coming back, the Browns are not going anywhere anytime soon, either.
“Y’all have seen that we have a hell of a team all around,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We showed that we can go to the AFC Championship [Game]; we were just one play away. We just have to make that play. They were able to get it done. But I like our odds next year, just because we have a lot of guys here that are young -- and we can keep getting better.”
Indeed, the contending window for these Browns appears to be wide open for the foreseeable future, with former No. 1 overall picks Mayfield and Garrett anchoring an enviable young core that’s now playoff-tested.
“It sucks when you come up short, but you get that taste of it and realize you learned lessons,” Mayfield said. “This is going to leave a bad taste. … But we’ve come a long way since I first got here. We’re not done yet, either, and that’s the best part.”
The best part, moving forward, is what the Browns now have at quarterback and head coach.
For two-plus decades, Cleveland meandered through losing seasons without long-term answers for either. Until Mayfield, the Browns cycled through 29 different starting quarterbacks since rejoining the NFL in 1999. They also tore through 11 different head coaches, including three in Mayfield’s first two seasons in the league.
Cleveland, however, finally hit a home run in hiring first-time head coach Kevin Stefanski, who could very well win NFL Coach of the Year after navigating the Browns to their best season in 26 years despite facing unprecedented obstacles related to COVID-19.
Under Stefanski, Mayfield enjoyed a resurgent season, while emphatically quashing any lingering doubt about whether he’s Cleveland’s franchise quarterback of the future. Mayfield finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in the league QBR, then shined in his first two playoff appearances. In fact, from the first-quarter play Odell Beckham Jr. was injured on in Week 7 through the Browns' two playoff games, Mayfield tossed 20 touchdown passes with just two interceptions.
“He fought like he always does. He rallied,” Stefanski said of Mayfield’s performance in Kansas City, which wasn’t perfect, but definitely valiant. “That’s what he has done all season long steering this ship, being out in front and leading this group.”
General manager Andrew Berry is likely to rubber-stamp Mayfield’s fifth-year option this offseason, and all signs point to Berry attempting to lock up Mayfield long-term, a year after doing the same with Garrett. Keeping Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward, also both extension-eligible this offseason, in Cleveland should be paramount for the Browns as well.
Though Cleveland has the goods to bring back the entire offense that started against Kansas City and ranked sixth in efficiency, the Browns will have decisions to make on a defense that struggled at times, even with Garrett and Ward.
Getting their last two second-round picks, cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder) and safety Grant Delpit (Achilles), back to form after season-ending injuries suffered in training camp would help. But really, Cleveland could use a boost of talent at every level of the defense.
The Browns will enter the offseason with more than $20 million in cap space. And they’ll have the No. 26 overall pick in the NFL draft -- to take place in Cleveland -- to add another piece defensively.
“Each year is unique and different. Even among the best teams, there is turnover. There is high turnover year over year in the NFL,” Berry said last week. “But we think that we do have a pretty strong foundation in place with young players. That is something that we are looking forward to talking about and fortifying as we get into the offseason.”
Of course, whether that foundation includes Beckham will be the elephant in the room. There’s no avoiding how the Browns' offense – and more to the point, Mayfield -- excelled after Beckham’s season-ending knee injury Oct. 25. Then again, trading Beckham while he’s still rehabilitating could prove to be impracticable, especially with his $12.79 million base salary set to become fully guaranteed in March.
OBJ is still a fabulous talent, underscored by his three-touchdown performance in the Week 4 win over the Dallas Cowboys. But ultimately, Berry will have to decide if that talent -- and contract -- is a fit on this team going forward.
Either way, the Browns have many reasons to be bullish about the future. Mayfield, Garrett, Ward, Chubb, rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and running back Kareem Hunt are all 25 or younger. The offensive line, which dominated the opposition this season, should return intact. Berry has cap flexibility to maneuver, as well.
The Browns should be back and primed to go even further.