The Browns were one scoring possession from potentially dethroning the reigning Super Bowl champions Sunday.
They didn't do it, but the fact that they reached that moment gives the franchise more optimism and hope for a bright future than it's had since it returned to the NFL in 1999. While the disappointment was still evident in the tone of the players speaking Monday, the prevailing sentiment was the same from all: These Browns are just getting started.
"I think we established our identity this season," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said, via Browns senior staff writer Andrew Gribble.
The Browns' shift from also-ran to true contender began with the play of Baker Mayfield, who assembled his best professional season in 2020, completing 62.8% of his passes for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. His 95.9 passer rating was the best of his career, as was his touchdown-to-interception ratio, with Mayfield registering a career-low in interceptions in 2020, his first professional season under double-digits in picks.
Mayfield's boost in performance was just as important as his maturation as the team's franchise quarterback, one that wasn't lost on any of his teammates.
"I think Baker showed this entire year the type of player and leader he is," center JC Tretter said, "and that's what you need out of the quarterback room.
"He continues to get better since he came here as a rookie. Continues to grow as a player and as a person and as a leader. And that's what you need. Baker, I think his growth is not yet done. He is not a finished product and I think he'd be the first one to tell you that. But you continue to see him get better and better each and every year."
Mayfield caught fire down the stretch of the 2020 season and rode that hot streak into the playoffs, where the quarterback completed 44-of-71 pass attempts for 467 yards and a 4-1 TD-INT ratio. His Browns jumped out to a 28-0 lead over the rival Steelers in the wild-card round, riding that advantage to a stunning upset win for Cleveland's first playoff victory since the 1994 season. The triumph also gave the Browns their most wins in a season since that same 1994 campaign, back when Bill Belichick was the team's head coach.
Now, it's Stefanski patrolling the sideline while directing an offense that found a consistent rhythm in both running the ball (Cleveland finished third in rushing yards per game at 148.4) and throwing. Even after losing Odell Beckham for the season to a knee injury, the Browns maintained their pace, finishing 14th in scoring and showing they're capable of matching almost any opponent on the scoreboard.
Cleveland nearly did exactly that on Sunday, possessing the ball while facing a five-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter before ultimately falling short of upsetting the Chiefs.
"I think the next step for Baker, I'd characterize it for all of us: Continue to get better," Stefanski said. "I think you saw growth from him as a player from the first game to the last. Really pleased with his progress and I think he recognizes that he has room to grow, like we all do. I think it's just having that mindset that he's going to constantly improve."
Mayfield's improvement confirmed what most Browns fans had hoped they'd see in 2020: He is their guy under center for the years ahead. The Browns could run out and sign Mayfield to an extension immediately based on what they saw from Mayfield in 2020, especially with the added confidence of knowing Mayfield won't have to spend an offseason memorizing another system under a new coach and coordinator next season.
"I can tell you that he's very excited to not have to learn a new offense," Stefanski said of Mayfield.
Cleveland can also decide to pick up Mayfield's fifth-year option before his fourth season begins, of course, and get even stronger confirmation that Mayfield is their quarterback of the future. After all, flashes in the pan have happened at the position in Cleveland before (see: Derek Anderson in 2007). The Browns' performance in 2020 doesn't feel like a fluke, though, but a sign of possible things to come.
Amid that aforementioned disappointment was also an even more important feeling from the players who were still processing the pain of a playoff loss: We'll be back.
"I appreciate that from the guys," Stefanski said. "I think it's very hard not to be game-planning today. ... You get in the rhythm of the season and I think all of them really wanted to keep it going."
They'll get a chance to pick up where they left off in the fall. But for now, Browns fans have plenty of reason to be proud of their team for what they accomplished in 2020 -- and what might be ahead.