The Browns charged toward a Hollywood finish.
Baker Mayfield’s late, long completion to Rashard Higgins set up a touchdown that cut a Baltimore lead to 26-24 in the 2018 season finale.
It was two days before the new year, and Browns fans were partying like it was 1989 when the defense got the ball back. Mayfield moved the offense into Baltimore territory inside the two-minute warning.
Incredibly, a team that had gone 0-16 the previous year seemed to be willing its way to an 8-7-1 final record.
It was such a rich moment. Yet, even though Andrew Berry was still working for the Browns, in attendance at Baltimore, he was at a very different place than Browns fans.
It was his last game as a Browns employee before he left for Philadelphia.
“I do not know if (the aura at Baltimore) really resonates with me,” he said Saturday. “I do remember anxiety during the game because we were driving down at the last minute, hopefully for a go-ahead score, but it did not quite work out, and we had a turnover at the end.”
Mayfield threw an interception. The first winning season since 2007 was prevented. The 2019 team ground into reverse. The magic at Baltimore vanished in the mist. John Dorsey, who replaced Berry’s old boss in 2018 but kept Berry, disappeared.
Berry was brought back in a powerful new role largely to reconnect the whole karma to where it was that December day at Baltimore.
He declined to humor that theme Saturday, though, as he pulled away from his first draft as an NFL big boss.
“We are excited about what we have done so far this spring,” Berry said. “We like the guys we have added in free agency. We like the guys we traded for. We like the guys we have added in the draft.
“We are also not naive that we still have work to do and we still have several months until we are playing. That all being said, we are certainly hopeful and optimistic. We also know it all has to play out in the fall.”
The 2018 season played out wonderfully. A win at Baltimore would have given the Browns a 6-2 record in the second half.
It can be argued that the roster Berry is rolling out for 2020 is better than the one that caught fire in 2018.
The starting tackles in ‘18 were John Dorsey pick-ups Greg Robinson (a Rams draft bust) and Chris Hubbard (a former Steelers backup). The starters in 2020, both acquired by Berry, will be Round 1 pick Jedrick Wills and accomplished free agent Jack Conklin.
Mayfield is still the quarterback, but he was a rookie then. Now he has experience and those new tackles. And brother did Berry get busy getting Mayfield help at tight end.
Free agency pickup Austin Hooper was outproducing Travis Kelce and George Kittle in 2019 before he got hurt last November. Fourth-round pick Harrison Bryant is likened to Kittle by NFL Network scout Lance Zierlein. It almost doesn’t matter if 2017 Round 1 pick David Njoku, who had 62 receiving yards in that Baltimore finale, rebounds from his awful 2019.
On defense, it is imperative (and likely) Denzel Ward lives up to his 2018 draft status (No. 4 overall). Berry was a tremendous cornerback at Harvard and at 32 is from Ward’s generation. Berry’s return is of obvious psychological value for Ward.
Losing 2018 starters Kevin Zeitler (right guard) and Jabrill Peppers (safety) to a 2019 trade were factors in the collapse. Zeitler’s position is less an issue because the guards now will be playing next to good tackles. Berry took a big step at safety when he spent a second-round pick on LSU’s Grant Delpit.
There has been some lamenting over losing free-agent linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, and not replacing them with a high draft pick. Yet, it should be remembered that Kirksey and Schobert arrived in Cleveland as No. 71 and No. 99 overall picks.
Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson were John Dorsey picks at No. 80 and No. 155. Berry drafted LSU middle linebacker Jacob Phillips at No. 97 Friday. Lots of teams fill their linebacking groups with picks in that range.
On the defensive line, the 2018 Browns came close to winning at Baltimore with a starting group of Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Trevon Coley and Emmanuel Ogbah. The best two, Garrett and Ogunjobi, are still around and in their prime.
Strong D-line play seems likely if 2019 Dorsey pick-ups Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon stick around, if Chad Thomas (a high draft pick in 2018) keeps improving, and if Berry’s additions contribute. Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott shapes up as a good draft value at No. 88 overall. Berry also added free agent veterans Adrian Clayborn, a former first-round pick who has 37 NFL sacks, and Andrew Billings, who with the Bengals last year took the second-most D-line snaps behind Geno Atkins.
Berry and his people must nicely splice Dorsey’s 2018 and ‘19 acquisitions with his new guys. This is most apparent in the secondary where Berry has brought in the new starting safeties, Delpit and Karl Joseph, who must work with corners drafted by Dorsey, Ward and Greedy Williams.
Berry came away from his draft week spouting the process stuff.
“We feel good,” he said, “about adding a number of individuals who embody the tough, smart and accountable culture that we are trying to build upon.”
He was there in Baltimore when the Browns came so close to magic.
Getting back to that would resonate with a few million Browns fans.