Opinion: Time to recognize Browns are legitimate after 4-1 start

CLEVELAND — For the Browns, legitimacy is no longer a mirage.

It has always been a goal seemingly within reach for all but the lovable losers from Cleveland, one of four teams that have never been to a Super Bowl.

But it feels as if the franchise that has been more adept at hiring coaches and paying them not to coach is leaving that dubious past behind.

With a 32-23 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, the Browns turned back the clock to the Bill Belichick era, starting 4-1 for the first time since the mastermind coach was cutting his teeth with the Browns in 1994.

After five weeks, the Browns have won as many games as they did in 10 of their first 21 seasons in the expansion era.

First-year coach Kevin Stefanski has posted more victories than Hue Jackson did in 40 games, a 3-36-1 era when the Browns reached the depths of despair with an 0-16 record in 2017.

That seems like a lifetime ago, especially considering the horrors of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

But it represents a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that parted ways with General Manager John Dorsey and fired one-and-done coach Freddie Kitchens after a 6-10 campaign in 2019.

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Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) riles up the crowd during the second half against the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium. (Photo: Ken Blaze, USA TODAY Sports)

It took arguably the biggest safety in Browns history to secure the triumph. Defensive end Myles Garrett saved the day for the fourth consecutive game, tackling Philip Rivers in the end zone and forcing an intentional grounding call with 14:39 remaining.

It took a ‘Wow’ moment from backup running back D’Ernest Johnson, who dashed for 28 yards with two minutes to go.

It took a clock-killing 40-yard drive to a 46-yard Cody Parkey field goal with 21 ticks left.

Since a 38-6 loss at Baltimore in the season opener, the Browns have gone 4-0 and averaged 37.5 points per game. They have survived with an opportunistic defense that led the league in turnover margin coming in and produced two more interceptions Sunday from safeties Ronnie Harrison and Sheldrick Redwine. They ran up 385 yards on the Colts’ top-ranked defense, 124 on the ground in their first game without Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, on injured reserve with a sprained MCL.

Afterwards as 12,000 fans filed out, the song “Here We Go Again” played, a tune perhaps not heard on the shore of Lake Erie since Bernie Kosar was side-arming the ball to Brian Brennan.

Those 12,000 had no idea that quarterback Baker Mayfield was headed to have his ribs X-rayed. They were negative, but the injury still raises the question of whether the Browns will have backup Case Keenum under center next Sunday in Pittsburgh.

On top of that, the Browns still have plenty of concerns.

Their special teams allowed a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Isaiah Rodgers. Injuries continue to mount. The linebackers and defensive backs are extremely banged up. Mayfield still has accuracy problems, although he wasn’t helped as five-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry uncharacteristically dropped two second-half passes.

The true test of legitimacy will come next week against the 4-0 Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, who holds a 23-2-1 career record and a 93.9 quarterback rating against the Browns. But even a setback at Heinz Field may not stunt what the Browns are building under Stefanski.

Expecting the Browns to succeed no longer feels delusional. Even against the Colts when it felt like victory was slipping away after Rodgers’ kickoff return, the Browns found a way to win ugly.

“I'll take a win no matter how ugly it is,” Garrett said. “Just putting it together one game at a time. That’s all you can do. It’s not perfect, but we are making the best of it. We are coming together as a team and doing it all in every phase.”

There have been times in the past when the Browns’ success felt real. They were 7-4 under coach Mike Pettine in 2014, then finished the season with five consecutive losses. They went 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs under Romeo Crennel in 2007, when they relied on quarterback Derek Anderson’s magical connection with receiver Braylon Edwards.

But those teams didn’t get big plays from their third-string running back or players who had been healthy inactives the week before. They didn’t feel as close, as willing to fight for each other as do the 2020 Browns.

Mayfield mentioned the Browns’ resilience, which has become a particularly valuable calling card in a COVID-19 world.

Asked where it comes from, Mayfield said, “I think it is a little bit of everything. I think the culture that we have been working on building about the winning mentality, that no matter what happens, move forward and try and get better and counting on everybody. It takes everybody. We said at the very beginning, at some point this year, we are going to need everybody in the building.”

Plays like Johnson’s unexpected dash down the left sideline with the Browns holding a shaky six-point lead and a safety by a quarterback who should know better used to happen to the Browns. Whether it’s luck or team chemistry or capable coaching or all of those, that script is flipping.

The Browns are no longer the laughingstocks of the league. They’re a gritty team that can take every punch and find an oftentimes unexpected hero to punch back. They seem credible challengers for an AFC wild-card berth.

Even with a four-game winning streak, no one wanted to make declarations about the future. Nor did they want to talk about the past, even if it emphasizes how far they’ve come.

“I don’t recall ever going 0-16," Garrett joked. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

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