Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for 850 ESPN Cleveland.
On Thursday, the Browns begin the third decade of their expansion era when players report to the 2019 training camp.
In their previous 20 seasons, the Browns produced two winning seasons and one playoff appearance.
Now they are considered on some fronts to be favorites to win the AFC North division, third-favorites to win the AFC Championship, and fifth-favorites to win the Super Bowl.
How did this come to be?
In honor of the Browns’ 21st season since expansion rebirth, here are 21 events that brought them from there to here.
1. Owner Al Lerner dies; Oct. 23, 2002.
After he assisted friend Art Modell in moving the original Browns franchise to Baltimore, Lerner sought to atone by sparing no expense in building a championship organization to replace Modell’s departed team. Both revered and feared in the business community, Lerner was instantly considered a mentor to NFL owners and was appointed head of the powerful finance committee. In only their fourth season, Lerner’s Browns were on path to a playoff berth. He died in the middle of that playoff campaign – the only one for the Browns in 20 years.
2. Butch Davis passes on drafting Ben Roethlisberger; April 27, 2004.
Seizing the power vacuum resulting from Lerner’s death, the coach replaced quarterback Tim Couch in March with aging free agent Jeff Garcia, a dink-and-dunk passer/runner with the 49ers. By the time of the draft, Roethlisberger was not a consideration. Davis chose former Miami recruit Kellen Winslow at No. 6 and never flinched when the Steelers took Roethlisberger at No. 11. The Findlay, OH, native proceeded to go 23-2-1 against the Browns – winning more games in FirstEnergy Stadium than any Browns quarterback -- and took the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles.
3. Mike Holmgren hired as president; Dec. 21, 2009.
In the midst of a sixth double-digit loss season in seven years, Randy Lerner, the reluctant heir to Browns ownership, lured the ex-Packers and Seahawks coach out of retirement with a $40 million/five-year contract to be the organization’s “credible leader.” A well-meaning hire. But Holmgren’s laughable work ethic – he didn’t have the energy to coach or even put in eight-hour work days -- quickly soured the Lerner family.
4. Lerner Family Trust sells Browns to Jimmy Haslam; Aug. 2, 2012.
It turned out that on his death bed, Al Lerner requested his family try for 10 years to make the Browns winners. When that timeframe expired, the family unloaded the franchise to former Steelers minority partner Jimmy Haslam for a then-record $1.005 billion. The Tennessee truck-stop and diesel fuel magnate strutted into town as a knight in shining armor.
5. Haslam hires Joe Banner as CEO; Oct. 17, 2012.
This marriage arranged by the NFL seemed well-intentioned at the time. Banner had a long, successful run as president of the Eagles. Critics at the time, however, questioned Banner’s reported desire to oversee football operations – something he did not do in Philadelphia.
6. Mike Lombardi named VP of player personnel; Jan. 18, 2013.
As Bill Belichick’s bag man in Cleveland in the 1990s, he hatched the lowlights video of Bernie Kosar to convince Modell to fire the quarterback in 1993. His return to the Browns was so unpopular, Banner conceded on the dais introducing Lombardi, “Listen, I understand that I'm going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike.”
7. Haslam fires Banner and Lombardi; Feb. 11, 2014.
This bombshell came about a month after Mike Pettine was hired as coach. During the coaching search, Banner and Lombardi feuded in front of Haslam as Lombardi tried to usurp authority. Haslam held Banner accountable for the pettiness. Banner later confided his biggest mistake was hiring Lombardi, who had a history of undermining bosses. Banner’s assistant GM, Ray Farmer, was put in charge of personnel.
8. Browns draft quarterback Johnny Manziel in first round; May 8, 2014.
Lacking confidence in just-promoted GM Farmer, Haslam took an active role in the quarterback selection process. Manziel’s partying was well-known to everyone in the NFL except the Browns, who were blinded by his star power. This was a low point in the Haslam ownership, but not the lowest point. In an interview years later, Manziel said, “If Cleveland did any of their homework, they would have known I wasn't a guy who came in every day and [watched] film. I wasn't a guy who really knew the X's and O's of football.”
9. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan uses a power-point presentation to ask out of his contract; Jan. 8, 2015.
An offensive savant, Shanahan was disgusted by the organization pressure to play Manziel ahead of veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer.
10. Ray Farmer suspended four games for violating NFL electronic device rules; March 30, 2015.
As early as the second week of the 2014 season, Farmer texted a subordinate on the sideline during a game to tell the coaches to play Manziel in the second half of a game being won by Hoyer. Incredibly, Haslam allowed Farmer to continue in his role as GM.
11. Farmer fired and replaced by general counsel Sashi Brown; Jan. 3, 2016.
Brown was the team’s salary cap specialist and chief contract negotiator. Haslam gave him full authority of the draft and the roster.
12. Browns hire Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer; Jan. 6, 2016.
A former intern with the Cleveland Indians, DePodesta achieved notoriety in Major League Baseball as assistant to Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane. DePodesta’s expertise in analytics was depicted in the motion picture “Moneyball,” and DePodesta went on to executive positions with the Dodgers and Mets. His hiring was hailed by some as a progressive move that would change the NFL.
13. Browns hire Hue Jackson as coach; Jan. 13, 2016.
For the first time in three head coach hires, Jimmy Haslam snatched his first choice for the job. Jackson interviewed with the 49ers and was on his way to interview with the Giants when Haslam hired him.
14. Browns trade No. 2 overall pick to Eagles, April 21, 2016.
Using DePodesta’s analytics and logarithms, Brown began collecting future draft assets by trading down and passing on higher-rated players. The Browns traded down twice in this draft, passing on quarterback Carson Wentz and winding up with Baylor receiver Corey Coleman.
15. Browns trade for quarterback Brock Osweiler, take on $16 million guaranteed salary, for second-round pick in 2018; March 10, 2017.
Awash in salary-cap room, DePodesta and Brown executed an NBA-like trade, taking on salary of an undesirable player to gain a future asset. Fans of analytics hailed the move as a game-changer. “We're really excited to acquire a second-round draft choice in this trade,” Brown said. The intent was to then move Osweiler for an additional pick, but nobody bit.
16. Browns trade No. 12 overall pick -- passing up quarterback Deshaun Watson – for Houston No. 1 pick in 2018; April 27, 2017.
After eschewing a second franchise quarterback in successive years, this act was wearing thin.
17. John Dorsey hired as GM; Dec. 18, 2017.
Dorsey lost a power play and was let go by the Chiefs in June after helping to build a team that made four consecutive playoffs. Haslam wisely hired him to get a jumpstart on rebuilding the Browns. Brown, who had expected to stay on, was fired.
18. Jackson hires Todd Haley as offensive coordinator, Freddie Kitchens as running backs coach, Jan. 22, 2018.
Let go by the Steelers, Haley had to be talked into taking the job as Jackson’s offensive coordinator. He took it partly on the belief he might be the next head coach. He was the one with a relationship with Kitchens and Jackson green-lighted his addition.
19. Browns draft Baker Mayfield; April 27, 2018.
Dorsey was scouting Mayfield on his own prior to taking the Browns job. By the time of the draft, he had formed a consensus among his top aides, Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith, along with consultant Scot McGloughan.
20. Browns fire Jackson and Haley and name Gregg Williams interim head coach and Freddie Kitchens offensive coordinator; Oct. 29, 2018; and then name Kitchens head coach; Jan. 9, 2019.
Jackson departed with records of 1-15, 0-16 and 2-5-1 (3-36-1). The meteoric rise of Kitchens came as he earned the respect and trust of Mayfield – and the organization -- during eight productive games as coordinator.
21. Browns trade for Odell Beckham Jr.; March 12, 2019.
After about 12 months of speculation, the bombshell trade occurred when the Giants decided to part with a star play-maker frustrated with losing. Beckham rejoined childhood friend Jarvis Landry and former position coach Adam Henry and called it “the biggest blessing of my entire life.”