Longest-tenured Browns players cherish win-and-in opportunity after years of darkness
Charley Hughlett stood outside his house shirtless with a wash cloth wrapped around his head as the Browns long snapper put his spin on Baker Mayfield's classic underwear advertisement circa 2018.
You know the one featuring the headband-clad quarterback leaning against a Rolls-Royce with a tiger beside him.
Hughlett's wife wasn't home to photograph him on this day in the spring of 2020, so he set a timer on a camera, placed it on a tripod and began posing.
“The neighbors definitely thought I was crazy standing out in my driveway doing that,” Hughlett said.
Who played the part of the tiger?
“I have a pit bull,” Hughlett said. “It probably would have been better if I had a Shih Tzu, but I was working with what I had.”
Hughlett's reenactment of the Mayfield ad became his submission for a poster contest orchestrated by Kevin Stefanski.
With the Browns conducting a virtual offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stefanski used a series of competitions as team-building exercises in his first year as an NFL head coach. Players bonded through those activities and the personal stories they shared with each other and coaches in another exercise known as the “4 H’s” — history, heartbreak, heroes and hopes.
“He's done a great job of bringing us together as a team,” Hughlett said of Stefanski. “That's something I can tell he really focused on.”
Hughlett and three-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio are the longest-tenured members of the Browns. Hughlett signed with the Browns during the 2014 season. Bitonio had been drafted by the organization in the second round earlier the same year.
During recent phone interviews with the Beacon Journal, the two players who best understand the pain and suffering their fan base has endured went out of the way to credit Stefanski for turning the franchise around this season and discussed the opportunity they have as a result.
The Browns (10-5) would qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and end the NFL's longest active postseason drought if they defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) on Sunday in the regular-season finale at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“It's basically a playoff game for us now,” Bitonio said. “We haven't actually had that opportunity. It's been a journey.
“You go through so many teammates and coaches, and to get to this opportunity, it's one game, but there's a lot that has gone into it to get to that one game.”
Hughlett, Bitonio and wide receiver Rashard Higgins are the only players still on the roster who were with the Browns when they went 1-31 from 2016-17. Only four more Browns players — defensive end Myles Garrett, tight end David Njoku, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and center JC Tretter — were with the club in 2017 when it went 0-16.
“I talk about the fans deserving [a winner], but those guys and 1-31, you know how tough that is being that they worked so hard and knowing the type of players that they are?” receiver Jarvis Landry, who joined the Browns in a 2018 trade, said on Zoom. “To be in this position now, it's definitely gratifying to see the smile on their faces and see that everything that they went through was not in vain.”
Bitonio has repeatedly admitted he tricked himself into thinking winning would be easy in the NFL when the Browns began his rookie season with a record of 7-4. But the club lost its final five games of 2014, beginning a dreadful period of 4-50-1, which ended when Mayfield came off the bench on Sept. 20, 2018, to lead the Browns to a 21-17 comeback victory over the New York Jets.
“It was all downhill for like four of those years, until Baker showed up and we started winning some games,” Bitonio said.
The Browns went 634 days without prevailing. Then Mayfield helped halt a 19-game winless streak in his regular-season NFL debut.
“I knew we had a real one in Baker,” Hughlett said. “Obviously, he had to keep doing it, but I thought, 'All right. It's there.' He came out slinging the ball like nothing I'd seen since I've been here. So you could tell that was the beginning of a turning point.”
Hughlett added he thought the real turnaround would happen in the 2019 season. The Browns were loaded with talent, but they flopped en route to 6-10 under one-and-done head coach Freddie Kitchens, leading them to hire Stefanski in January 2020. Later the same month, they also hired General Manager Andrew Berry to succeed John Dorsey, and the Browns now appear to have the organizational alignment owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam had sought but failed to achieve for many years.
“You've heard stories from everybody, but I don't know the nuances of what was going on upstairs. I just know there was too much going on upstairs before," Bitonio said. "Now it seems like they're cohesive. Everybody's on the same page, and I think that starts from the top down in the organization.”
None of it guarantees success, though.
The Browns could have clinched a playoff berth last week, but they instead lost 23-16 to the Jets (2-13).
Mayfield's top four receivers — Landry, Higgins, rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge — didn't play. On the eve of the game, starting middle linebacker B.J. Goodson tested positive for COVID-19, and the receivers were identified as high-risk close contacts along with rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips.
The close contacts were activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, but Goodson, cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Denzel Ward, starting free safety Andrew Sendejo, linebacker Malcolm Smith and rookie tight end Harrison Bryant are on the list and won't face the AFC North champion Steelers, who have three players out with the virus and will rest some stars, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
Three of Stefanski's assistants — offensive line coach Bill Callahan, assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters and passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea — won't coach Sunday due to COVID-19 protocols. Contact tracing caused schedule disruptions throughout the week, and the Browns didn't hold a full practice until Friday.
“But [Stefanski has] always been the same guy,” Bitonio said. “Win, lose, if we have a COVID thing or if we don't, just the same guy every day. He set a standard for us of what we need to do. We need to work, we need to be about the team and put the team first. That's how he acts every day.
“The standard never changes. No matter what's going on outside the building, we have a standard to play to, and if we don't play to that, we're held accountable for our actions, and we're coached up and coached hard.”
Hughlett and Bitonio are convinced Stefanski's effort to unite the players in the virtual offseason has translated to them supporting each other amid adversity.
In training camp, right tackle Jack Conklin defeated cornerback Terrance Mitchell in the final round of the series of competitions Stefanski held. Conklin won a trivia contest about teammates and coaches — information gleaned through the “4 H's” and other activities — to capture the title.
Players learned about one another along the way by sharing photographs and videos tied to the contests.
A slam dunk competition included Hughlett jamming his newborn's diaper into a trash can, Tretter dipping a cookie into a glass of milk, Garrett showing off with what Bitonio called “one of the sweetest dunks you've ever seen” and guard Drew Forbes dunking on a makeshift hoop surrounded by cows in a pasture.
Running back Nick Chubb won an autograph contest by incorporating a drawing of a Batman symbol.
“If he was to sign his name like that every time,” Bitonio said, “it would take him 10 minutes a pop.”
Neither Hughlett nor Bitonio could recall who won the poster contest, but Hughlett expressed disappointment about his homage to Mayfield falling short. Perhaps another tribute involving a big cat triumphed. In June, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt revealed Kevin Davidson, who spent training camp with the team, used Photoshop to fuse his fellow quarterbacks into a “Tiger King” parody.
“There were things [Stefanski] was doing through Zoom sessions starting back in April that were bringing us together,” Hughlett said.
Ever since the Browns went 1-31, Hughlett made it a goal to stick around for better times. He and Bitonio both said one winning season will never be enough to compensate for those dark days. Bitonio said he still dreams of winning Super Bowls with the Browns.
“Hopefully it's a culture change where you have Andrew Berry and Coach Stefanski and the Haslams, [Chief Strategy Officer] Paul DePodesta, all those people making the decisions, they're all on the same page, and we turn into a team that it's like, 'Hey, winning 10 games and competing for division titles is the norm,'” Bitonio said. “We're obviously not there yet, but that's hopefully what it is.
“Hopefully I'm here for my whole career, and I can say, 'Hey, the last three, four, five, six years of my career, we were a contender. We fought for it, and we changed that culture where Cleveland's a winning culture.' That would be something that you could look back on and be like, 'That is something very special.'”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steelers at Browns
Time: 1 p.m. Sunday
TV: CBS (Channel 19)