Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett won't be denied

MYLES GARRETT COULDN'T lift his left arm high enough to put on a shirt.

After wincing through several attempts, the Cleveland Browns' All-Pro defensive end went searching the Denver Broncos visitors locker room for help. He finally found a trainer, who pulled the long-sleeved white shirt over Garrett's head before placing his ailing shoulder -- the cause of his troubles -- in a sling.

Five days later, Garrett walked across UCLA's practice field, able to lift the shoulder enough to sip on a protein shake. He hadn't missed a game all season. And he wouldn't miss the next one against the Los Angeles Rams, either, despite the pain he was experiencing.

"Don't find an excuse, find a way," Garrett told ESPN. "At the end of the day, there's going to be a winner and a loser. No one's going to look back and say, 'Oh, he was hurt, or he felt like this, or he was going through that.' All they see is the box score and who came out on the right side of things."

This year, the Browns have taken on Garrett's resilience, shaped by a string of promising seasons thwarted -- from the notorious 2019 helmet swing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, to the car accident that left him with a shoulder sprain that never fully healed last season.

Garrett had been derailed enough. He wasn't about to allow it to happen again. And he vowed that this season, he wouldn't be denied, no matter what.

"Not allowing anything to stop me," Garrett said of his mindset this season. "It's all about being relentless."

One snag after another prevented Garrett from reaching his ultimate potential in past seasons. But Garrett also came to the realization that, in some ways, he was holding the Browns back from reaching theirs, too. Sacking the quarterback alone wasn't enough. Past teammates grumbled about Garrett's lack of leadership, both privately and publicly. He showed up late to meetings, which affected his ability to lead.

To become a true contender, the Browns needed their introverted and laidback superstar to set the tone off the field, as well: Mentor younger players; become a vocal leader; be the example for the locker room; show up on time; speak up in the meeting room; elevate the play of teammates. He knew he had to be relentless in that, too.

On Saturday, the Browns will make their third postseason appearance in three decades when they visit the Houston Texans (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC). After season-ending injuries to several key players, including Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb and quarterback Deshaun Watson, and while starting five different quarterbacks, Cleveland finished with 11 regular-season wins, tied for the most by the franchise since 1986.

Ask nearly anyone in the organization -- players, coaches, front office personnel -- and they will say Garrett is the biggest reason the Browns are in this position and have been able to overcome so much.

Garrett had always been a dominant individual pass-rusher. But according to those same people in the organization, this year he's grown into that leader who has helped transform the Cleveland defense into a dominant unit. In turn, the Browns have emerged as a legitimate threat to reach their first Super Bowl.

"He's taken that next step as a leader and foundational piece for this franchise," said linebacker Anthony Walker, whom, along with Garrett, the players voted a defensive captain in the preseason. "You see it now. A lot of guys stepping up and making plays. That's a testament to him. ... That's the difference.

"And nothing stopping him now."

IN JULY, RETIRED defensive tackle Malik Jackson called Garrett out on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football."

"I don't think his leadership skills were the best," said Jackson, who played for the Browns in 2021. "He needs to take that bull by the horns and just lead more by example as far as in the classroom because we all know what he can do on the field. But to be able to go in the classroom, command that respect, and tell guys what to do is really where I think he really needs to take that jump. ... [But] some guys just don't have it."

Leading into last year's final game, then-Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney told Cleveland.com he wouldn't be re-signing because the team was "trying to get [Garrett] into the Hall of Fame instead of winning games."

According to multiple sources, Garrett was late to meetings, which irked veterans like Jackson. He once blew off a meeting altogether, which especially bothered Clowney and Jackson. Garrett's casual approach ultimately affected his ability to lead.

"I didn't have a mentor to teach me how to lead, and most of the guys I talked to were out of the league or upper management, and they were trying to tell me that there was a certain way to lead," Garrett said. "They had this picture in their mind of how a leader should go about his business. I was like, 'Well, that's not me.' It really took me time. ... [Finding] the wisdom to understand what kind of leader that I am and how to elevate others in a way that suits me."

Early in his career, Browns left guard Joel Bitonio, now an offensive captain, had Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas to apprentice under. Garrett didn't have anyone like that on the defensive side.

"People look up to Myles because he's such an elite player," said Bitonio, a six-time Pro Bowler who is the only current Brown who's played for Cleveland longer than Garrett. "I don't know if he ever needed to be that vocal leader because he just was like, 'I play good. I'm a good player for us.' And when he came in the league. ... we never really had a guy be his leader."

As a rookie, Garrett led the Browns with seven sacks, but Cleveland finished 0-16.

"He was so dominant from Day 1. ... that we just automatically said, 'Oh, well, you're the best player on the team. You should be a leader,'" said Thomas, who played with Garrett in 2017 before retiring. "And sometimes you're just not ready for that role right away."

This year, Garrett was ready.

Multiple sources said Garrett is never late anymore. More than that, he's the one now holding others accountable and trying to enhance team chemistry. Garrett helped put together a weekly defensive line dinner, either at restaurants or players' houses.

"An amazing guy," defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said. "Off the field, you could say he's blossomed out of his shell a little bit more."

Players also say Garrett is teaching and speaking in position meetings, the way former Browns say Thomas once did. Garrett has also taken younger players under his wing, most notably rookie defensive end Isaiah McGuire, who recorded his first career sack in Sunday's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. McGuire told ESPN that Garrett is constantly working with him, whether watching film or practicing technique.

"I've seen Myles mature over the time that I've been with him," said Kevin Stefanski, in his fourth season as Cleveland's head coach. "Obviously a very intelligent player and intelligent person, great off the field. But I think in his leadership is where I've seen a huge jump. And I think his teammates would tell you that, as well.

"We're very fortunate to have really good leadership on this team. When it comes from Myles, and the caliber of player that he is, that's just a greater driver."

PAST SETBACKS HAVE added fuel to Garrett's desire to not be denied this season.

In 2019, his third season, Garrett seemed on his way to winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Garrett had 10 sacks and Cleveland was on the verge of defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep its postseason hopes alive. But in the waning seconds, an enraged Garrett tore the helmet off Mason Rudolph and smashed it into the Pittsburgh quarterback's head. Garrett later said Rudolph incited him by using a racial slur. Rudolph called the allegation "totally untrue." The NFL suspended Garrett six games, ending his season -- and, effectively, Cleveland's playoff hopes.

Garrett doesn't like to relive that moment. But he admits it hurt knowing he let the team down.

"The years I didn't win Defensive Player of the Year, or something derailed me or took me out [of] the game or for multiple games off the field, it wasn't that I wasn't winning the trophy that hurt," he said. "It was more I wasn't there for my teammates. I didn't have the opportunity to give my all to them or give my best for them. I wanted to be there for them to give us the best chance to win and bring success back to Cleveland. Those are the things that really mean a lot to me."

Garrett was making a case for Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, but he was never the same after catching COVID-19. When he returned after two games, he struggled to breathe and suffered from constant coughing fits. Later that season, Cleveland won its first playoff game in 26 years by upsetting Pittsburgh but couldn't knock off the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round.

Then last September, Garrett was speeding on his way home from practice when he flipped his Porsche in a single-car crash. Garrett, who was cited for failure to control a motor vehicle, suffered shoulder and biceps strains that forced him to sit a Week 4 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. He had to play through the shoulder injury the rest of the season and the Browns missed the playoffs again.

Garrett doesn't want to revisit those experiences, either. But he said he's learned from them.

"Molded me into the man I am," Garrett said. "Fighting through adversity really kind of shapes who you are and the kind of player you will be. How you choose to react to those things and those obstacles in life, it really is telling who the man is inside."

Garrett has been there for his teammates all season.

Despite being hurt, he played in Week 13 against the Rams, though failed to record a tackle in a game for the first time in his career with the shoulder injury clearly hampering him.

But he roared back the following week. In the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Stefanski grabbed Garrett and told him, "Let's go eat. It's time, OK?" Garrett, who was wearing a microphone, responded, "I'm going to end this game for us."

Moments later, he fought through two Jaguars to sack quarterback Trevor Lawrence and foil Jacksonville's 2-point conversion try. The Browns would go on a four-game winning streak, culminating with a playoff-clinching victory over the New York Jets on Dec. 28.

During that stretch, Garrett was dominant, delivering 35 pass-rush wins; only one other edge rusher had more than 20 (Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt had 26).

"Go put the tape on and watch how [opposing teams] try to block him," Stefanski said.

"He won't be denied."

GARRETT'S NEWFOUND DEDICATION has prompted comparisons to some of the NFL's all-time greats.

Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said he's coached only two other players who are comparable difference-makers -- former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

"The definition of a great player is when an opponent starts their game plan with, 'We're going to take care of this guy, right? Like, we're not going to let this guy beat us, right?" Schwartz, who's in his first year in Cleveland, said. "And every week that player still makes plays. Myles fits in that category. A lot of guys can make plays when they don't see attention. He affects the game and helps other people make plays."

Garrett ranks sixth in the league with 14 sacks, his lowest total since 2020 when he had to sit the two games with COVID-19. Garrett, however, is second in pass rush win rate (30.5%) despite facing the third highest double-team rate (28.8%).

With Garrett commanding attention, the rest of the Browns' defense has thrived. Cleveland leads the league in defensive efficiency, yards per game allowed (267 yards) and three-and-out rate (32.9%), among numerous other categories.

"Say whatever you want about sack numbers," Schwartz said. "We're the best third-down defense in the league by a pretty good chunk, and he has everything to do with that. Our corners [Pro Bowler Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson Jr. and Greg Newsome II] are really high in their coverage percentages. Every single one of them can attribute some of that to Myles Garrett."

Shortly after taking the job with the Browns, Schwartz, who won a Super Bowl in 2017 as defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, met with Garrett and set "very strong" expectations for him, according to one team source. In 2022, Garrett was selected to a third straight All-Pro team, but the Browns' defense struggled on the way to a 7-10 finish. Schwartz wouldn't detail his early conversations with Garrett. But he did note that Garrett "has been everything that we expected."

Garrett's drive for greatness has extended to his diet and exercise program as well. This offseason, he added Pilates and yoga to his routine. Despite his love for big breakfasts, he gave up pancakes, waffles, French toast and, most begrudgingly, Cap'n Crunch cereal.

That commitment has paid off at the line of scrimmage. According to Next Gen Stats, Garrett on average is getting off the line in 0.66 seconds, the quickest jump of any player in the league and best of his career.

The added burst was evident from the first week of Browns training camp. Though he wasn't allowed to touch Watson or the other quarterbacks, he repeatedly blew up plays, blowing past Cleveland's offensive linemen.

"He was locked in," Bitonio said.

In a harbinger of what was to come, Garrett didn't produce the first sack of the year in Cleveland's opener against Cincinnati. But he forced it. Mimicking a basketball crossover, Garrett juked Bengals center Ted Karras and forced quarterback Joe Burrow to scramble into the arms of Browns defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo, wrecking Cincinnati's only promising drive of the day in a 24-3 Cleveland win.

"Now it's more about, how can I elevate my teammates?" Garrett said. "If they're going to send two or three [blockers] my way, that means I've got to make sure that those two, three [blockers] are continuously occupied, continuously fighting me. That allows those other guys to get one-on-ones, that helps them make a play."

Garrett has still found ways to make the play himself, too.

On Oct. 22, he became the first player this century, according to ESPN Stats & Info, to force two fumbles and block a field goal in a single game. All three plays led to 17 points, propelling Cleveland to a 39-38 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Browns have won five games with a winning score in the final two minutes of regulation this season -- a franchise record. A key defensive stop set up each of those comebacks. The Browns put other teams away with overwhelming fourth quarter defense.

"The reason why they've been able to overcome all the injuries they've had is because I've yet to see anybody able to block Myles," said Thomas, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. "If you get any sort of lead towards the end of the game, he's going to close the game for you. It's kind of like in baseball, having a dominant relief pitcher who as soon as he comes in, the game's over."

Buoyed by Cleveland's team success, Garrett ended the regular season as the betting favorite to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Garrett, who turned 28 last month, confessed that it would've consumed him in his younger years. Now, he's fixated on another goal: finishing his career with the Browns and delivering Cleveland a title.

"I want to be viewed as the best. I want to be respected as the best," Garrett said. "But that's not as much on my mind anymore. The opinions of my peers or analysts or experts, those things don't really weigh on me anymore. It's all about wins and losses. You want to be the last winner at the end of the year. That's who's remembered. ... and I want to make Cleveland a winner."

As he took another sip of the protein shake, Garrett admitted that after seven seasons in the NFL, he's begun to ponder legacy. Garrett grew up in the Dallas area, where Basketball Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki played his entire career. In 2011, Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to their first and only NBA title.

Garrett can't think of a sports legacy any better.

"I'm not judging or trying to demean anyone else on their journeys. But for me, being with the team that drafted you your entire career and winning a championship with them is the most special thing you can do in your career," he said. "That's why I'm always going to be committed to this city. As long as they have me, I'm going to be here trying to do my best to elevate this team, elevate this community, this city. ... and bring it all home."