On a team full of brash personalities, RB Nick Chubb's understated leadership has set the tone. But can the Browns finally find their footing and reverse direction?
By Nick Shook | Sept. 16, 2020
CLEVELAND -- As time ticked down on the 2019 regular season and the calendar approached 2020, well before anyone had a clue of what was ahead for humanity, the Cleveland Browns faded into the ether with a 10-point loss to the worst team in the NFL.
Long gone were dreams of playoff bliss and a meaningful January along Lake Erie. In their place were the annual questions about who would be the next coach to man the sideline while wearing brown and orange.
Months after the team exhausted any momentum that remained from a preseason that featured title predictions, one figure still had something to play for: running back Nick Chubb. The second-year ball-carrier had amassed a career year heading into Week 17, barreling through the 1,000-yard barrier he'd briefly cleared as a rookie and powering an otherwise lifeless Browns offense.
Chubb's best day as a pro became the Browns' single greatest memory of 2019: a 40-25 late-September win over the Baltimore Ravens in which he rushed for 165 yards and three scores on 20 carries. The victory stunned the NFL and stung the Ravens so intensely, they didn't lose another game for the rest of the regular season.
TNF: Bengals at Browns, 5:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network
With that triumph existing only as a fleeting sign of what could have been by the season's final week, Chubb gained just 41 yards on 13 carries as part of a team that appeared more eager to clean out its lockers than try to send Cincinnati to a 1-15 finish. Still, his 41-yard day gave him 1,494 yards on the year, enough to put him atop the NFL's rushing rankings -- at least for a few hours.
By the time the Sunday night game arrived, Chubb had been dethroned by a familiar figure. Tennessee's Derrick Henry capped a phenomenal campaign with a 211-yard outing in a playoff berth-clinching win over Houston. The outburst pushed Henry past Chubb for NFL rushing champion by a mere 46 yards, again leaving the Browns in the shadows.
It wasn't his time, some might have surmised. But the quiet finish to a stellar season was more befitting than most anyone could have imagined.
Chubb is known among his teammates and within the Browns organization as a man of few words. Even his new coach, Kevin Stefanski -- not exactly the most verbose leader of an NFL team – has called Chubb subdued.
It's a fact Chubb will readily admit -- that is, if you can get him to talk. He keeps a small circle and considers himself to be private, preferring to let his actions speak for him.
"Work ethic. [He] definitely brings work ethic," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said of Chubb, cracking a smile when considering his teammate's reserved demeanor. "Doesn't talk much. I bring conversation out of him. He'll talk if you talk to him, but he's not going to go generate conversation. He's usually in his phone or something, by his locker. But other than that, great guy. Excellent, excellent running back, and a true professional."
It's an approach that appears to be permeating the rest of the organization. One year after bluster, braggadocio and "whoopty hell" reigned in Berea, these Browns aren't making much noise at all.
The mantra from Stefanski's staff is concise: no bark, all bite. It fits none better than Chubb.
"I like not having the noise around us," said Chubb, who got off to a quiet start to the 2020 season with just 10 carries for 60 yards in Cleveland's 38-6 Week 1 loss to Baltimore on Sunday. "They can take it somewhere else. Let us focus on ourselves, let us keep playing."
One teammate has cracked Chubb's tight circle, although his identity might come as a surprise. The man to get Chubb to open up is someone who, from the outside, would appear to be his direct competitor: 2017 rushing champion Kareem Hunt. Brought in last season as a perceived risk following off-field transgressions that resulted in his release from Kansas City in 2018, Hunt has grown close with Chubb, who isn't battling against Hunt, but alongside him.
In the team's in-house video production "Building the Browns", Hunt can be seen joking with Chubb while also pushing him to improve, even teasing Chubb when replacing him during practice with a simple directive: "Get off the field, 2-4."
Chubb is not quite the yin to Hunt's yang, but they do have an apparent synergy, with Hunt (who turned 25 in August) doing most of the joking and Chubb (who will turn 25 in December) quietly smirking before running over a defender on the next play. Their friendship is a product of a match made by a daring former general manager (John Dorsey) who saw a talented player available, but likely didn't anticipate the impact Chubb would have on the troubled former star.