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Behind scenes in Cleveland where Browns expectations are bonkers – 'There's not going to be a crash here'

Kimberley A. Martin
Senior NFL writer

BEREA, Ohio — The lighting just isn’t quite right.

A small camera crew scurries back and forth to chase the shadows that obscure John Dorsey’s face. But the Cleveland Browns general manager doesn’t seem to mind the wait.

Donning his daily uniform — a white baseball cap, collared shirt underneath a Browns sweatshirt, khaki shorts and white sneakers — Dorsey looks more high school track coach than high-powered NFL executive.

Sitting on one of the stools inside the Browns’ TV studio, he’s engaged in small talk about playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn, the old days of doing long division by hand and how he still owns a land line telephone.

He’s personable. Laid-back. Easy-going.

But above all else, he’s on a mission.

Dorsey is the man who drafted Patrick Mahomes for the Kansas City Chiefs. And he’s the man who was dismissed by those same Chiefs two months later.

The stars are out in Cleveland this season as Odell Beckham Jr. joined Baker Mayfield (R), Myles Garrett, (L) and Jarvis Landry this offseason after a blockbuster trade. (AP)

Now, he’s the man who drafted Baker Mayfield. The man who traded for Odell Beckham Jr. And the man who decided to give Kareem Hunt a second chance.

Dorsey is the architect of the most fascinating franchise in football — the long downtrodden, but suddenly relevant Browns. And this, he hopes, is just the beginning.

Then the wait is over.

The lights are properly positioned.

It’s Cleveland’s turn to be in the NFL spotlight.

“You go back to the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, the Cleveland Browns were one of those iconic, trademark NFL teams. They were up there with the best of them,” Dorsey said during a sit-down interview with Yahoo Sports. “And for the last 20 years, this fan base has suffered a little bit. Let’s see if we can be competitive in the AFC North, build this thing back to where the Cleveland Browns should be.”

Dorsey accumulated enough talent to raise the organization from perennial punch line to more than merely competitive. He has entrusted the organization to a perfectionist quarterback in Mayfield who’s not only fueled by the digs of his detractors, but determined to stave off a sophomore slump. He has acquired the type of alpha dogs necessary to weather the difficult days ahead. And Dorsey has chosen a new leader for his locker room, a first-time head coach in Freddie Kitchens, armed with a heavy southern drawl and an even thicker resolve to always be himself.

Dorsey has made one calculated risk after another in an effort to accelerate the Browns’ chances of once again being successful — signing a new running back in Hunt, who’ll presumably spend the first eight weeks of the 2019 season focused on bettering himself rather than perfecting his game, and trading for a new star wide receiver whose exceptional talent is often overshadowed by a polarizing personality.

Indeed, the wait is over.

It is the Browns’ time in the spotlight. But is it their time to win?

Awake the sleeping giant

Dorsey came here with one clear objective: “Awake the sleeping giant.”

And so far, he’s done just that.

Cleveland was on the cusp of playoff contention last season, finishing 7-8-1 with a rookie quarterback in Mayfield making 13 starts after supplanting veteran Tyrod Taylor. The Browns finished third in AFC North standings, but the signs of a franchise on the rise were there.

General manager John Dorsey on how this Browns roster might play out: "The best teams I’ve ever seen are those locker rooms where those veteran players, they set the bar high and they set those goals high and those expectations high, and they hold each and every one of themselves accountable. … So we’ll see how this thing plays out. Don’t believe the hype." (AP)

It’s only mid-May, but the outside noise has filtered into the team’s facility. And the Browns already know what you’re thinking.

Was last year an aberration?

“We’re supposed to be this dominant team now,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “And in some cases it doesn’t always work like that. Some teams add talent and they still have an unfortunate season. … But I know for us, our goal isn’t to just make the playoffs. It’s to win the Super Bowl. Not giving that as a prediction, but to be honest, that’s what anybody plays this game for.”

Expectations are at a three-decade high here. But don’t waste your time talking to Kitchens about other people’s opinions.

“As far as the pressure, that’s all fluff. It really is,” scoffed the scruffy, 44-year-old first-time head coach. “The media likes to put the pressure on you, or talk about the pressure, so they can knock you down. ’Cause everybody goes by a car wreck on the interstate, and what do they do? They slow down so they can see the crash.

“Well there’s not going to be a crash here. We’re going to prepare and our expectations are going to be a hell of a lot higher than anybody from outside the building can put on us.”

Synonymous with instability for decades, the Browns are aiming to break the mold of what they’ve been for so long. The epitome of futility. The embodiment of irrelevance. The benchmark for incompetency.

“The only thing I knew about was Josh Cribbs, and then before then was my boy Jim Brown. Seriously,” said new defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. “And the quarterback — the last good quarterback they had. I can’t think of his name right now.”

Richardson looked to his new teammate Olivier Vernon for help.

Ten seconds.

Twenty seconds.

Finally, the breakthrough.

“Bernie Kosar!” they said in unison with a laugh.

The Browns have had 30 different starting quarterbacks since 1999, the same year they took Tim Couch No. 1 overall.

Since 2009, they’ve had seven coaches and lost 118 games — including a 1-31 stretch under former head coach Hue Jackson, who was dismissed in October with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, amid reports of a toxic power struggle between the two.

Last year’s 21-17 Week 3 win over the New York Jets snapped a 635-day losing streak.

Even Greedy Williams, Cleveland’s rookie cornerback, knows how bad it used to be here.

“They sucked,” the former LSU defensive back said, smiling. “It’s just the honest truth."

Mayfield’s arrival last year was the first major step in the Browns’ dramatic rebuild. And their sudden transformation from NFL laughingstock to potential AFC North powerhouse has been nothing short of remarkable.

The lowest point for the Browns was an 0-16 campaign in the 2017 season. Fans commemorated the run with a "Perfect Season" parade in frigid Cleveland. (AP)

Kitchens likened Dorsey to a “barracuda” because they’re “relentless in nature and his relentless pursuit of putting together the best team possible is unmatched.”

But for everything the Browns have accomplished in the past year — drafting the new face of the franchise, purging the building of internal discord and raising the bar on football expectations in Northeast Ohio — the Browns aren’t far removed from their record of ineptitude.

Dorsey denied the characterization of an “aggressive” rebuild, noting that “it’s going to take three years to get this thing up to relevance.” But his offseason signings signal a win-now mentality vs. a gradual restoration.

“We’ve accelerated here a little bit,” Dorsey acknowledged. “When you have a quarterback like Baker Mayfield going into his second year, why not surround him with some offensive weapons to take the onus off him a little bit and let these playmakers really allow him to be more relaxed?”

The hope, he said, is that Mayfield uses Year 2 to learn what it means to “master” the quarterback position.

“Give him pieces around him to make this offense more exciting,” Dorsey said. “And then on the flip side, on the defensive side of the ball, go get some pass rushers. Go get some corners. … That’s why you go out and get Olivier Vernon, that’s why you get Sheldon Richardson. Pair them up with Myles Garrett. Now you have a formidable front four that can apply pressure to quarterbacks in those 16 weeks.”

A killer demeanor

The physical gifts were there.

So was the mental makeup.

But it was the Jets, in part, who helped convince Dorsey that the quarterback he drafted No. 1 overall in 2018 was ready for the NFL stage.

Mayfield entered that Week 3 prime-time matchup without the starting role, without the benefit of first-team reps and without a lead. But he showcased the most difficult attribute to ascertain, Dorsey said: “The intangible within … What truly, passionately drives him.”

From the moment Mayfield replaced the injured Taylor in the Browns’ come-from-behind victory, all of Cleveland began to believe.

“He is who we thought he was,” Dorsey thought that night.

No one has thrown more touchdown passes (27) during a rookie season than Mayfield. And yet, despite his impressive first-year stats — 3,725 passing yards and a 63.8 passing percentage) — he still carries himself like the college walk-on he once was. No slights go unnoticed. Not even “Madden” ratings.

“I know I was pretty mad about my rating last year, but it should go up a significant amount,” Mayfield said, though he admitted he doesn’t play the video game. “At the rookie premiere, they gave us the rating. I think my throw power was pretty weak, which made me kinda really mad."

He’s well aware the rest of the league has studied him in hopes of exploiting a weakness. He assumes you’re waiting for him to falter. He knows critics are expecting a sophomore slump.

“That’s alright,” Mayfield matter-of-factly said. “I think, if anything, in my story, it says that I haven’t really been satisfied ever.”

His doubters are nothing more than kerosene — necessary fuel to ignite the fighter within.

“If you watched Baker, even through college, he loves that,” Landry said. “He feeds off of that.”

Sounds like Baker Mayfield is still feeling dangerous heading into the 2019 season. (AP)

It didn’t take long for Richardson to get a read on Mayfield: The perfect elixir of perfectionism, playful bravado and practice trash-talk.

“He’s talking to us right now in OTAs and we can’t even hit him,” Richardson said with a laugh.

“He’s got that swag, that killer demeanor,” Williams added. “He’s just one of those quarterbacks that wants to win at everything he does.”

Dorsey often notes that Mayfield is wise beyond his years, but the second-year starter also has the unenviable task of managing the collection of egos and expectations within the locker room. Including his own.

“Everybody’s gotta realize they’re not going to get the touches they want,” Mayfield said. “You’ve got to feed whoever’s open. They know that. We’ve got a great group of guys that are all about winning. … Everybody’s a lot happier when you win.”

Building a brotherhood

Chemistry is key.

Forming a new identity is crucial.

Building a brotherhood is paramount.

In this building, they believe that personalities aren’t to be dulled, that “passion” isn’t a detriment and that past transgressions are an opportunity for betterment.

Dorsey acknowledged the one-year deal he gave Hunt — the running back he drafted in 2017 and later released by the Chiefs in November after video of him shoving and kicking a woman went public — was a calculated risk. But defended the person he knows Hunt to be.

“He’s extremely remorseful,” Dorsey said, five days before he and Kitchens attended Hunt’s baptism in Cleveland. “…There’s no guarantees that he’s on the 53-man roster. He’s got to earn it, day in and day out. Not only with his presence in the building but also with his presence outside the building; trying to better himself as a man. And that’s all you can ask for. And he’s taken that and he has run with it and I’m so proud of him and where he is today.”

“I told [Dorsey], ‘You can trust me,’” Hunt said during his first media session with Browns reporters last week. "I've got to earn his trust, and I've got to earn everybody's trust in the whole organization. I'm not willing to mess that up."

Beckham arrives with his own baggage. The blockbuster trade that brought him here was universally lauded as a coup for Cleveland, who surrendered their 2019 first-round pick, a third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers in exchange for the former Giants phenom. But Beckham’s notable absence from OTAs on the first day of media access made headlines. Still, he has plenty of defenders here.

He’s a star that craves attention, a gifted athlete who has yet to win a playoff game in his past five seasons, and a wide receiver who felt his talent was being wasted in New York.

Some see him as a malcontent. Others believe he’s a fiery competitor who can’t stomach losing, no different than Mayfield or his best friend Landry.

“You’re getting a guy that loves winning and he just wants to help the team any way possible,” said Landry, adding that “it means everything” having his LSU teammate by his side again. “It comes down to letting his passion show and being embraced for that. Not trying to be on a leash or held back. Obviously, in the means of not hurting the team, but letting him be himself. I think that’s the best thing and you’re going to get the best out of him. And the town will see that, the Browns fans will see that.”

The goal in Berea is for every man to understand that team needs supersede individual gains. But can that message be heeded by an entire locker room over a 16-game season?

Kitchens gladly encourages individuality, insisting on having an environment where it’s OK for players to be themselves. But how successful the 2019 Browns will be is dependent on them.

“I know how you’ve got to get there, and if they want to buy in and get there, we will. And if they don’t, we won’t,” Kitchens bluntly said. “But it’s their team. I’m just kind of the front man for it. We’ll go as far as they want to go.”

On paper, the Browns have the makings of a perennial playoff team. Time will tell if this collection of alpha dogs — each of them with something to prove — can collectively become something special.

The rebuild is underway.

And all roads lead back to Dorsey, the architect of this new Browns era.

“The best teams I’ve ever seen are those locker rooms where those veteran players, they set the bar high and they set those goals high and those expectations high, and they hold each and every one of themselves accountable,” Dorsey said. “… So we’ll see how this thing plays out. Don’t believe the hype.”

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