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Browns, Mayfield expect to build upon 2020

CLEVELAND — On their wild ride of an unforgettable, almost unimaginable 2020 season when Zoom calls, masks and contact tracing were daily fixtures, the Browns discovered two things that point to a bright future for an awakened franchise.

They’ve got the right coach and the right quarterback.

After years of being beaten and beaten down, the Browns have climbed back.

While Sunday’s 22-17 loss in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs — and Rashard Higgins’ costly fumble on a controversial play at the goal line — felt like so many other painful playoff moments and losses for the Browns and their fans, this one is different.

Not an ending but a beginning.

“We’ll be back,” quarterback Baker Mayfield claimed after the Browns, who won 11 games in the regular season and their first playoff game in 26 years, pushed the defending Super Bowl champions to the limit. “We aren’t done yet, and that is the best part.”

Mayfield’s maturity in his third NFL season, and first working with rookie coach Kevin Stefanski, gives the Browns reason to believe they have entered a period when they should contend for years.

Mayfield improved as much as any player in the league, ending any discussion about whether the Browns should commit to him long term.

“He’s continued to grow as a player and as a person and as a leader,” Browns center JC Tretter said Monday. “That’s what you need, and Baker’s growth is not yet done. He’s not a finished product and he’d be the first one to tell you that.”

The Browns are expected to exercise Mayfield’s fifth-year contract option this offseason, and the team will explore an extension over the next few months with the 25-year-old quarterback who finished with 30 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and 4,030 yards in 18 games.

Stefanski’s role in Mayfield’s development while guiding the Browns (12-6) through a season shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, can’t be overstated.

One of his first objectives after coming to Cleveland was to connect with Mayfield, knowing the QB/coach dynamic is essential to success. Stefanski bonded with Mayfield right away and they grew tighter as the year progressed.

Stefanski brought out the best in his young QB, who threw 20 TD passes and only three picks in his last 12 games.

“Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, he really started playing at a high level,” said Stefanski, among the leading candidates for Coach of the Year honors. “I am proud of the progress he made.”

Stefanski, perhaps knowing negotiations will be upcoming, stopped short of calling Mayfield a franchise QB.

“He did the things we asked him to do,” he said. “He definitely led this football team from Day 1. We have a bunch of ball games to look at with him and find out ways that he can get better, but in terms of the ‘franchise quarterback’ thing, I do not even know necessarily what that means.”

It means everything for a team that went through 29 starting QBs before Mayfield arrived.

Before landing Stefanski, the Browns cycled through six coaches in the past decade.

But the unflappable 38-year-old Stefanski seems perfectly suited for a team with young core stars — Mayfield; defensive end Myles Garrett; running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt; left tackle Jedrick

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