The tailspin that was the story of the 2021 Cleveland Browns was about more than just Baker Mayfield’s injuries.
Those ailments did play a large role, though, in the on-field performance. So did the internal division in the team’s locker room, according to one veteran who first joined the team in 2021 and sees a better situation developing in 2022.
“Last year it was a little standoffish and this is professional football, so I get it,” linebacker Anthony Walker said this week, via Cleveland.com. “But to be a great team you’ve got to have that camaraderie, you’ve got to have that team mindset because when you go through the dark days, sometimes you may lose, or the dog days of camp, the dog days of this grind and minicamp and everything like that, you need that team brotherhood, that team bond to keep bringing you together, and I’m glad that we’re building that.”
In fact, it seemed the displeasure with the environment in Berea extended beyond the locker room. Another 2021 addition, safety John Johnson, openly requested more options for physical maintenance following the end of the season, and admitted the players’ “relationship with the training staff could be a whole lot better.”
Despite the locker room divisions — which arose primarily because of an internal conflict between Mayfield and the since-departed Odell Beckham — Walker returned to the Browns on another one-year deal. After a trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday, Walker believes the Browns have moved past such problems, starting down a path reminiscent of one his former team, the Indianapolis Colts, once followed.
“I’ll be completely honest, when I was in Indy, I thought that we established that culture there,” he said. “And when I came here, it was a little different. And I’m starting to feel what I felt in Indy when I was there. Just the brotherhood that we had, all the guys coming together, the team camaraderie.”
The locker room issues weren’t solely related to the Mayfield-Beckham problem, Walker said. The persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting health-and-safety measures meant the team wasn’t able to spend as much quality time together, limiting their ability to build important bonds.
“You’re coming off COVID and guys are so spread away,” Walker said. “We had two locker rooms, I think I had five lockers to myself last year. Now it’s everybody in one locker room, you see the guys every morning. Everybody’s here. As voluntary as [the offseason program was], a lot of guys were here to get those workouts in in phase one, phase two and everything like that. So just to have the whole team together I think will be the biggest difference.”
It also helps that both halves of the Mayfield-Beckham divide are now no longer in the building. Cleveland released Beckham in November, and he eventually moved west to join the Los Angeles Rams. Mayfield has stayed away from the team since the Browns acquired Deshaun Watson, and Cleveland excused Mayfield from mandatory minicamp while continuing to wait out the trade market to send him elsewhere.
Addition by subtraction, some might say. Walker seems to agree, even if he doesn’t outright state it. And while the potential for distraction certainly remains with Watson and his ongoing legal situation, it hasn’t caused locker room issues that were all too prevalent last season.
If anything, that’s better than where the Browns stood a year ago.
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