Andrew Berry bringing thoughtful approach to Browns' GM job

INDIANAPOLIS -- This was not the type of rebuild Andrew Berry was thinking about after being hired as vice president of football operations and general manager of the struggling Cleveland Browns last month. Only two weeks into the job, the slender 32-year-old realized his body was going through a transformation. Clothes that used to fit snuggly suddenly had some give to them.

A wiseguy could speculate that the loss of 10 pounds was tied to the stress of trying to turn around a franchise that has not made the playoffs in nearly two decades. The truth was much simpler: Berry simply hadn't had time to work out.

"You're dealing with so many elements and things involved with the transition that you're in the office from sun up to sun down," he said this week during a break at the annual NFL Scouting Combine. "I wasn't eating well and I wasn't exercising. I was just trying to get organized with a new football operation and a new football staff on the front end. When things finally got settled, it was like, Man, I've got to go find a gym to work out or I'm going to go crazy."

The weight has begun to return, thanks to 5:15 a.m. CrossFit sessions. The question now is whether the rebuild of the Browns will be as quick or easy. History says it won't: The franchise has had only two winning seasons since returning to the league in 1999, is currently breaking in its eighth head coach and eighth general manager in the last 12 years and has not appeared in the playoffs since 2002.

Berry, the league's youngest general manager and one of only two African American general managers, knows the history well after witnessing it from the inside, serving as vice president of player personnel in Cleveland from 2016 through '18, when the Browns went 8-39-1. If there is scar tissue, it's not visible. Instead, there is genuine excitement on his face when he talks about trying to reward one of pro sport's best fan bases for its loyalty and support.

"I'm really not focused on the past or trying to differentiate myself from the past," Berry said. "I'm more focused on what we can control moving forward. My focus is daily, weekly, on the things in my job that we can execute at the highest level. History is history, and I don't think it's a fruitful use of my time to talk about things that are not in my control."

Berry, a former cornerback at Harvard who has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's in computer science, is thoughtful and measured in his words and his actions. He speaks evenly and with conviction, preferring to rely on data and science over emotion and intuition.

His maturity and character caught the eyes of Tom Telesco a little over a decade ago, when Telesco, then a scout with the Indianapolis Colts, attended a Harvard-Holy Cross game and read a story about Berry in the program. Telesco was so impressed, he thought Berry would be a good fit with the Colts and wrote Berry's name as someone to track into the spring for a potential entry-level job, which came to fruition.

"The rest is history," said Telesco, now general manager of the Los Angeles Chargers. "None of us are surprised by his ascension."

Berry has used his first four weeks to create a culture that he believes will be conducive to success. The Browns seemingly have been searching for an identity on the personnel side and the football side since the Haslam family purchased the team in 2012. They've tried experienced and inexperienced, old-school and new-school. The result has been six head coaches and five general managers (or someone with that level of authority) during that time.

Berry has made it a priority to have everyone reading from the same page, and he believes this can only be achieved with open communication and synergy among what he calls the senior leadership: chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, new coach Kevin Stefanski and himself. To that end, he starts each morning with a half-hour meeting with Stefanski, to discuss the things that might occur during the day.

"You want to work through everything from a football philosophy standpoint and an organizational philosophy standpoint so you don't go off-script and there's confusion," Berry said. "You want to remove all the gray, which sets a foundation in terms of how we want to build the team, how we want to play, and how we want our staffs across football operations to interact and function on a daily basis. If we don't set a firm direction and an aligned direction, then we're going to go off and not be on the same page. So building the relationships, the philosophies and the vision were early priorities before we started doing anything tactical. Once that foundation is set, it makes it easier to operate, because you now have a common framework and a common vision for any decision or any discussion that you will have."

He and Stefanski got to know each other after the 2018 season, when Berry was part of the search staff for a new Browns coach to replace Hue Jackson. Stefanski was interviewed by Cleveland then, though Freddie Kitchens was ultimately hired. Berry and Stefanski hit it off and remained in contact throughout the 2019 season, when Berry was an executive with the Eagles and Stefanski was the offensive coordinator with the Vikings. After a hyped Browns roster floundered to a 6-10 finish, Kitchens and GM John Dorsey were both let go. Stefanski was hired in January, and Berry followed not long after.

If Berry, Stefanski and DePodesta -- who also was bullish on Stefanski from those earlier interviews -- share a common trait, it's their willingness to listen and learn from each other.

"The best piece of advice I got after taking the job was from Paul, who said: 'Now you're in a position where almost every conversation you have is the other person's most important conversation of the day,' " Berry said. "I had not heard that before, but it's something that has proven to be true over the first four weeks, because if it gets to my desk, it's of importance to that person."

Lessons such as that have helped facilitate a smooth transition. Another factor working in Berry's favor is his patience. He did not seek to make dramatic changes, such as with scouts. Members of that department have been working for nearly a year using a specific type of system, so it would be foolish to make significant changes so close to this April's draft. That doesn't mean you compromise on your non-negotiables, such as how you build your draft board or conduct your meetings, but you want to limit uncertainty and confusion.

"It's easier for one person to adjust than for 25 people to adjust," Berry said.

If changes are to come in that area, they will be after the draft. It's part of the plan Berry laid out for himself, to take things one step at a time.

"You think through what to prioritize on the front end before taking the job," he said. "That doesn't make it any easier to execute, because you have a hundred things that are thrown at you that initial week. But you just try to prioritize things, whether it's the first 10 days or first 90 days -- what is the actual important stuff? You're not going to be able to do everything, and you're not going to be able to get everything up and running exactly as you want it in the first week, the first month and, certainly, the first 90 days. So it's building the relationship with coach and staff, focusing on the draft and free agency, and helping Kevin in rounding out the assistants for his coaching staff. And then when you get to post-draft, you can deal with some of the larger football operations initiatives."

By then, Berry is sure to have regained all his weight -- and more. Because he's carrying the hopes of an entire city on his shoulders.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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