Rob Oller | Cleveland Browns take another step forward instead of two back

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski is about as even-keeled as a science professor, but his personality and ability to call a good offensive game make him a good fit in Cleveland.

The Indians are not the only Cleveland team to get a new name. The Clowns are now the Browns again, back to what they were called before 1999.

The change has been a long time coming, a journey full of embarrassing failure, including games lost by a thrown helmet, games marred by a swung helmet and games where the quarterback wearing the orange helmet changed nearly every year — 30 different starting QBs since 1999.

Frankly, the Factory of Sadness may be closed for renovations but is not yet shuttered. One close game against Baltimore, in which Cleveland played entertaining football but still lost to the Ravens in typical Charlie Browns fashion — the final fumble-bumble safety held the odor of mishaps past — does not a full comeback make.

Neither does a single 9-4 season. It takes a few of those to impress the skeptics. These Browns are on the come, at least offensively, but the defense remains a work in progress, having surrendered 123 points (a 41-point average) in two losses to Baltimore and one to Pittsburgh. The Brownies must beat those AFC North opponents before penciling in the brown and orange as anything but markedly improved.

Still, I predicted Cleveland would be lucky to win five games. Like Santa with Rudolph, I realize that maybe I was wrong. I wouldn’t put the Browns at the front of my sleigh, but at least they’re legitimate enough to be part of the team.

I’m not ready to concede that Jimmy Haslam’s ownership is suddenly lollipops and rainbows, but the Haslams, led by Dee’s deft touch behind the scenes, did just win a MLS Cup as co-owners of the Crew. Credit where due.

The legitimacy that Browns fans long have sought is here. One fewer interception thrown by Baker Mayfield, one fewer dumb penalty, one fewer blown coverage in the secondary and one longer bathroom break by Lamar Jackson — whose return from “cramps” saved the Ravens in the nick of time — and Cleveland wins on Monday night instead of losing 47-42 in a heartbreaker.

(Regarding Jackson’s fourth-quarter exit to receive an IV to fight cramping, much of social media was not buying his explanation. As former Washington safety Will Blackmon commented on Twitter while posting a video of Jackson half-hobbling up the tunnel to the locker room, “I know that kind of run and it ain’t because of cramps. lol.”)

Jackson’s quasi-Willis Reed impersonation (Google it, kids) was mere sideshow to an MNF game that had a little of everything, and most of it involved Cleveland positivity, for a change. Unlike past seasons, when the most entertaining part of Browns games was predicting what bizarre beginning, middle and ending would occur, the game against the Ravens offered only a bizarre ending. Progress.

Where the most improvement shows is at quarterback, coach and in overall talent. For two decades, when Cleveland had a semi-capable quarterback it lacked the talent to surround and protect him. Going all the way back to the team’s return in 1999, Tim Couch might have succeeded if his offensive line resembled something other than Charmin. As previous Browns ineptitude would have it, when the line was at least average the quarterback was a dud.

Mayfield has his faults, and is not the quintessential franchise quarterback — too short, too jumpy in the pocket, not enough of a company man — but somehow he makes it work. Perhaps because his skill, when combined with his antics and chutzpah, is exactly what this beleaguered organization has needed.

What it does not need is a coach who mirrors Mayfield’s shoot-from-the-hip-and-lip personality. We saw how that worked with Freddie Kitchens. Kevin Stefanski strikes me as someone as comfortable doing his taxes as putting together a game plan, which is to say his low-key, analytical approach to coaching nicely complements the big personalities on offense.

Fortunately, those big personalities also have talent, beginning with Mayfield and extending to Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt and injured Odell Beckham Jr. Then there is Nick Chubb, whose personality fits more with his coach’s. Myles Garrett is an introspective beast at defensive end. The roster is a nice mix of loud and quiet with just the right combination of creative and crafty.

Stefanski’s postgame victory speeches sound like something from a mechanical engineering seminar, but look around. For every Vince Lombardi and Mike Ditka there is a Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick. Stefanski is the right guy for the time. And he calls a smart game, too.

Add it up and no wonder the Browns are becoming the Browns again. They’re not all the way there, but compared to what fans are used to this bunch is the 1968 New York Jets, 1986 New York Giants and 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers rolled into one. Now all they need is beat the 2020 versions of those teams the next three weeks to help make the name stick.