CLEVELAND (AP) — When fans tune in to watch this week’s NFL draft, they’ll see picturesque shots of Lake Erie, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a city climbing back after a rugged year.
Stifled by the pandemic, Cleveland’s getting on its feet.
The Browns are already standing.
Last season’s playoff appearance — the first since the 2002 season — has ratcheted up expectations for the Browns, who over the past two decades have been recurring losers and therefore one of the first teams on the clock in almost every draft.
Not this year, as a 12-6 record, which included the franchise’s first postseason win since 1994, has slotted Cleveland in the No. 26 spot in the first round, among the game’s elite.
This is new, exciting territory for owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who after so many bad hires, wasted draft picks and losing seasons since taking over the team in 2012, feel they’ve got the right coach in Kevin Stefanski, quarterback in Baker Bayfield and general manager in Andrew Berry.
It took trial, error and patience on a sometimes painful journey. But the Haslams believe the Browns are finally positioned for sustained success.
There’s a cost to the new-found success, however, as Browns fans, who have endured more than their share of suffering over the ears, are excitedly pointing toward a Super Bowl visit in the not-too-distant future.
Jimmy Haslam is taking a much more cautious approach when discussing the upcoming season and beyond.
“Everybody wants to get to the Super Bowl, that’s the ultimate goal and to win the Super Bowl, but I think we probably more than anybody understand how competitive and hard the NFL is,” he said on a Zoom call.
On Tuesday, in advance of the Brown hosting this week’s draft, the Haslams met with the media for the first time since August to discuss an array of topics, including the team’s progress, the Berry-Stefanski pairing and Mayfield’s potential contract extension.
As the world works it way back to normalcy, Cleveland is the center of the football universe for a three-day event that will not only pump money into the local economy but also showcase a region often offered little national attention.
It’s a proud moment for the Haslams, who have adopted Northeast Ohio as their home away from their Tennessee home.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, this won’t be the draft Cleveland hoped to be hosting. Heath officials capped daily capacity at 50,000 fans, half of what would be expected under normal circumstances.
But this is a chance for the city to shine, and Dee Haslam thinks Cleveland will do that and perhaps host another draft in the next few years.
“Our hope is that it opens up Cleveland, not just for the draft, but people see what a great place it is for all kinds of events,’ she said. “We think it just showcases Cleveland terrifically.”
Before getting to this point, and landing on Stefanski and Berry, the Haslams’ track record for hiring coaches and front-office executives was abysmal. They fired five coaches and GMs while stringing together eight consecutive losing seasons.
They continually brought in quality people only to have relationships undermined by conflict.
In Berry and Stefanski, the AP’s Coach of the Year in 2020, they seem to have the right mix.
“What is so great about those two individuals is just how well they work together, with all of us and with everybody in the organization,” Dee Haslam said. “They are very collaborative, and they are just great to work with.”
Jimmy Haslam chuckled when asked if he and his wife “almost” sleep better knowing Stefanski and Berry are in charge.
“Just take out almost and you got it,” he said.
The Haslams can also rest easier knowing they’ve found their long-sought franchise quarterback with Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick three years ago.
The team exercised the fifth-year option on Mayfield’s rookie contract last week, and the Browns are expected to begin talking with the QB’s representatives in the coming weeks about a long-term deal.
“We are all pleased to see the growth in Baker last year both as a player and as a leader,” Jimmy Haslam said. “We all understand how important quarterback is in the NFL.”
For the first time since they took over the Browns, the Haslams aren’t apologizing for an error or asking for their fans’ patience or forgiveness. These are good times in Cleveland — for the city and its team.
“We could not be more fired up,” Dee Haslam said.
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