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Three Ways Businesses Can Learn from the Success of the 2020 Cleveland Browns

Three Ways Businesses Can Learn from the Success of the 2020 Cleveland Browns

After a disappointing 2019 Cleveland Browns season, where a team full of expectations underperformed, I reflected on the season and shared some parallels between success (or lack thereof) in business and success on the field.

The Browns entered 2020 with somewhat tempered expectations – a new GM, new head coach and a quarterback and team trying to come back from a disappointing season. Throw in Covid-19 and the challenges of building a winning football program become daunting.

As a lifelong Browns fan, the 2020 season was one for the ages. The Browns had their best record at 11-5 since returning to the NFL in 1999. They won their first playoff game, beating their rivals, the Steelers, convincingly. Kevin Stefanski, the Browns first-year head coach, won NFL coach of the year.

So what did the 2020 Browns do that the 2019 Browns didn’t do? Why did both teams enter the season with similar talent but different results? How can businesses learn from this turnaround story?

Here are three reasons the 2020 Browns outperformed the 2019 Browns and how we as business owners can take important lessons away from their success.

Alignment of the leadership team

Head Coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry

In 2020, the Browns set up a core leadership team of three people – Kevin Stefanski as Head Coach, Andrew Berry as GM and Paul DePodesta as Chief Strategy Officer. The Ivy-league grads with collegiate football experience all believed in leveraging analytics and had a “shared vision of football, team culture and servant leadership”, according to Berry.

The 2019 leadership team lacked a cohesive vision and had personalities that did not mesh well.

In business, the leadership team may not always agree on every decision or action. However, leadership must be fully aligned around the big things – the vision, strategy and culture

Playing to the team’s strengths

RB’s Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt

NFL teams can struggle to align their offensive and defensive schemes with the strengths of their players. This is very apparent when comparing the 2019 and 2020 offense of the Cleveland Browns. In both years, the Browns boasted one of the best running back tandems in the league – Nike Chubb and Kareem Hunt. In 2019, they ran the ball only 36.7% of the time, 13th least in the NFL (out of 32 teams). They didn’t leverage the strength of their offense as the coaches got to pass-happy.

Coach Stefanski changed that in 2020. The Browns ran the ball 47.8% of the time, the 4th most in the NFL, and had a 4.8 yard per carry average, 5th
in the league. The Browns also built their offensive line through the draft and free agency to strengthen both their run and pass game. As a result, they wore teams down on their way to 11 regular season wins.

In business, leaders can get caught up in their own beliefs on how the team should be managed, or what direction the business should go. It is important for leaders to step back and evaluate the strengths of both the team and operations and pivot the approach to maximize results. This might require putting people in different roles, refocusing on products that are selling well, or investing more in areas that are proving to be more successful.

Creating a winning culture

Browns defense celebrating a turnover

The 2019 Browns were a mess. Players bought into their own hype even before winning anything. Kevin Stefanski and the leadership team approached the 2020 season with a “Prove It” mindset. The 2020 coaching mantra was to WORK. The entire team has bought into the idea that every day, you come in to put in work and get better.

Businesses can benefit from establishing their own mantra, and getting the team to rally around it to enhance the team’s culture. Some themes that companies can rally around include community/social impact, teamwork/collaboration, and driving results/getting the job done.

As we all know, it’s not enough to have one successful season in football and in business. To continue to achieve success and grow, we have to continually develop our skills, learn and adapt. 2020 has proven that the ability to adapt is more important than ever. The Browns spent the offseason getting ready for 2021 by improving their talent, staying connected with each other virtually, and continuing to train and get better.

So one last tip – in order to stay on top and continue to grow, business leaders must continue to stay up on trends, learn and invest in people, processes and other areas.

Nevin is a business consultant that works with leaders to help them tackle their biggest challenges and growth goals. Go to to learn more about his services.

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