BEREA — A strong case can be made the Browns' remarkable progress heading into their 2018 finale points to a 2019 thrill ride.
As Myles Garrett put it Friday in advance of flying to Baltimore for the season finale, “It's been a fun ride, and it's something to build off of. We now have the pieces to control our own destiny.”
This is different than Bill, Butch and Romeo, the faces attached to the Browns' only winning seasons in the past quarter century.
Bill Belichick's 1994 Browns reached the playoffs at 11-5, then won a playoff opener. Then the '95 team went 5-11 and packed for Baltimore.
Butch Davis' 2002 Browns reached the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Even a postseason loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers inspired hope (the Browns led by 17 points in the second half). Then the 2003 team fell into a 1-8 slump that led to a 5-11 finish. Davis quit during the 2004 season.
Romeo Crennel's 2007 Browns used a crazy win over the Ravens in Baltimore as a springboard to a 10-6 finish. The excitement prompted the NFL to schedule the Browns for five prime-time games in 2008. The 2008 Browns went 4-12 and fired Crennel a day after the season finale.
Now the Browns have everybody talking, with a chance to finish on a 6-1 hot streak. How can this apply to next year the way the other examples did not?
Start with quarterback.
Belichick had Vinny Testaverde, a former No. 1 overall pick who wound up with a 90-123-1 career record. Davis had a former No. 1 pick (Tim Couch) he didn't love pitted against Kelly Holcomb (career record, 8-16). Crennel's starter, Derek Anderson, kept looking over his shoulder at 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn.
No one who has followed Baker Mayfield's rookie year needs to be told why he is different
Mayfield says he is “absolutely” convinced the Browns' 5-1 hot streak and 7-7-1 record, coming off an 0-16 year, represent a bridge to somewhere.
“This is such a new team with so many new faces,” Mayfield said. “We would love to get this one and end the season on a very, very high note. The motivation is making sure everybody knows exactly the standard around here. Winning is that standard.”
John Dorsey, the general manager who drafted Mayfield, represents another large difference. He is by far the most accomplished personnel man to step into Berea in the expansion era. That the team can go from 16 losses without him to seven with him speaks volumes.
Safety Damarious Randall, acquired by Dorsey in a trade for DeShone Kizer, is part of the roster upgrade.
“We're just starting to win,” Randall said. “We lost close games. To still have a chance to finish 8-7-1 is a really big step.
“Guys have just started putting stuff together. Guys are starting to trust each other. Things can get really special around here.”
Jarvis Landry has provided 76 catches for 874 yards in a career that will get him past 5,000 with 89 or more yards against the Ravens.
“We're constantly growing, constantly figuring out who we are,” Landry said. “Last week, a lot of guys touched the football, and we were very effective on offense. It all starts with the quarterback.”
Left tackle Greg Robinson, a fifth-year pro and first-year Browns player, said the team is “only scratching the surface.”
“If the pieces had been put together a little earlier, maybe we'd be better off, maybe in the playoffs,” the former No. 2 overall draft pick said. “I feel like guys will come back next year with the same energy we built this year. I'm really encouraged.
“If we keep going, I feel like nothing's gonna stop us except us.”
Second-year Brown Kevin Zeitler, who was a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012, is aware how past Browns built and crashed. He was a Bengal in 2014 when the Browns improved to 6-3 with a 24-3 win in Cincinnati. From that point through the end of the 2017 season, the Browns were 5-50.
“Something always happened,” Zeitler said.
How can this be different?
“We've got a group of young guys who are hungry,” said Zeitler, a guard. “We have some good pieces. We've had people who have been together. The O-line has been together this year. The interior of the line has been together two years.
“Those kinds of things will be big no matter what happens here over the offseason.”
The 2019 Browns inevitably will be different in some important ways. Dorsey faces many big decisions, starting with what to do about a head coach.
Landry is signed through 2022 but Robinson can be an unrestricted free agent. Randall is signed through 2019, as long as the Browns are willing to meet his $9.1 million salary. Zeitler will enter the third year of five-year deal, with a base salary of $10 million for 2019.
Zeitler smiled about one thing that won't be changing.
“My guess,” he said, “is Baker is going to be around.”