For most of the past two decades, the Cleveland Browns have exemplified what it means to be an NFL bottom feeder.
Between 2001 and 2019, the Browns enjoyed just two winning seasons and one playoff spot behind a rotating cast of quarterbacks, coaches and front office executives. Fans attended games with paper bags over their heads in disgrace.
But that changed last season under the direction of Andrew Berry, who became the youngest general manager of the NFL of all time at the age of 32 in January 2020.
Berry’s clever signings and squad management helped the Browns advance to the playoffs and made him a rising star among his peers. Now, in Berry’s second season, the Browns are considered contenders for the AFC, an expectation the organization hasn’t felt in years.
He spoke to the New York Times about how he goes about his job and the key to a strong relationship between quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
For the sake of clarity, the interview has been shortened and edited slightly.
You took the job shortly before the pandemic broke out. How was it in the beginning to manage your employees and get things rolling?
In all honesty, I think the fact that we were a new football operations group played a little in our favor. For the most part, we were still in the process of defining our processes and really how we would design them in spring and summer. So I think that with a small, undescribed approach we were pretty flexible and adaptable.
How did the leadership try to change the culture away from the lost reputation that the Browns had in the past?
I think the biggest thing was just having a narrow focus. We cannot control the outside narrative, but what we control and what we can focus on is how we work and how we improve daily. It really was [Coach Kevin Stefanski’s] Mindset and the mindset of our players from the start. And I think that narrow focus was helpful because you are right, there is a lot of history around the organization that people like to bring up. But in the end I don’t know if this is completely relevant for our boys.
Why did you manage to win free agents when you consider that Cleveland is not necessarily a top destination like Los Angeles, New York or Miami?
Usually, in my opinion, the two most attractive levers for free agents in most professional sports are the ability to contribute to a winner, and then of course the financial component. These guys are professionals. They want to win and be able to support their families in a meaningful way.
What does a typical day during the regular season look like for you?
It varies a little, but I get up at 5:40 a.m. every morning. I go to a CrossFit class in the morning before going to the office. And then I have my daily briefing with our player personnel coordinator every morning, and then the races really start to deal with various team or squad problems until training in the afternoon. Then I usually try to get home between 6:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. to get my kids to sleep. I think the challenging and fun part of the job is the fact that there is a lot of variety both weekly and daily. No two days are the same, but that is also the attraction of a position.
How do you try to balance work and parenting?
I just think it’s really a priority. At the end of the day, nothing comes before my family. In these jobs, the goal may not necessarily be to really call it balance, but making sure you prioritize the things that are really important in both phases. And also the realization that with the demands of the family first and then of a job that runs almost around the clock means cutting back on other areas of leisure and hobbies, which is fine. But raising a family is probably the most rewarding experience of my life. And then, at the very top, being the general manager of an NFL team.
You are the youngest general manager in NFL history and only four of your colleagues in the league are black. Do you feel additional pressure?
As for the pressure, I don’t focus that much on it. These jobs are stressful, and there are enough things to deal with without adding additional stress or pressure to yourself. I’m just trying to be myself. I think in terms of the idea of diversity. I think that, by and large, the league is enriched when you have people from different backgrounds and, probably more importantly, different experiences with different mindsets. That’s good because then you see other – and sometimes better and more creative – solutions to solve different problems and, in the case of the managing director, put together a team.
Many people say that the way to attract more diverse candidates is to give them more exposure and opportunity. How did you experience that in your career?
I think it’s exposure to different decision makers. I am very happy that I have had a number of my bosses over the course of my career, be it now [former General Manager] Ryan Grigson in Indianapolis, who introduced me to the Indianapolis Ownership Group or [Eagles General Manager] Howie Roseman in Philadelphia who introduced me to the ownership group there. or [former Browns General Manager] Sashi Brown, who really brought me closer to the Haslam family here on my first run. I think having people, be it in the league office or at your current club, who are willing to mentor your career and enable people who are or will be making those hiring decisions to get acquainted with the candidates, both at on a personal as well as a professional level. I think that can only improve the process.
They didn’t deal with vaccine headlines like other teams. What did you do to make the players either comfortable about being vaccinated or not openly saying that they refused to be vaccinated?
I think it’s really two things. I think # 1 we have done our best to help not just our players but everyone across the organization on the health and safety benefits of vaccination, as well as the benefits the league offers for vaccinated people over non-vaccinated people, to enlighten. I think the second point is that we didn’t want it to be an issue that divides our team either. The spring and training camp should be a unifying experience as a team, and as much as we have recognized that the question of whether the vaccine is available or not can be politicized, where people have strong opinions on these sites, that’s not something we wanted to tear our group apart. But we really did our best to educate as well as possible. And we started very, very, very early in the spring.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t seem as efficient as people expected last season before Beckham was injured. Do you expect them to improve this season since Beckham is healthy?
I think they already have a very good relationship. I think part of the challenge last year is that you are putting a whole new system in place with a range of different people. I think our passing game in general probably picked up momentum around the middle of the season. I think only part of it is just time for the task, right? Where the guys get to the point where they really understand the offense and it’s much more instinctive how they deal with them. They are working with the offensive scheme instead of having to think about the concept or how they are going to execute it. And I think that brings a little more natural synergy and unfortunately we didn’t have Odell for this track. But we feel really good about Baker’s relationship with him and all of our other recipients.
How does the renewal of Buffalo Bill’s quarterback Josh Allen affect your negotiations with Mayfield’s agency over a new deal?
I’m really not talking about contracts or personal situations, but we know all contracts in all position markets and how they can affect a particular situation and how that applies to each of our individual players.
What is the biggest thing you learned in your first year on the job that will prepare you for the future?
I don’t know if I really know that much more about what to expect. But I think that was actually the greatest. I find the amount of unexpected happening over the course of the year, especially crisis management or making decisions in an uncertain environment, enormous. I think the most important thing is to keep a higher degree of flexibility. You can try and plan the weeks, months, days or different situations, but no two days are the same. To be able to be flexible and adaptable and to really take things as they come – that was probably one of my greatest experiences during the first year and really having the mindset of being a problem solver every day.