TAMPA — Not long ago, Bruce Arians was asked if he would consider ending his retirement to coach in the NFL again.
“I would listen to the Browns,” Arians said. “And only them.”
Well, everyone is listening to the Browns now. You can’t escape the noise.
If it’s not quarterback Baker Mayfield ripping the Giants’ drafting of quarterback Daniel Jones in GQ, it’s receiver Odell Beckham Jr. telling Sports Illustrated the Giants “thought they’d send me (to Cleveland) to die.”
The Browns are bold, brash and barking louder than the Dawg Pound.
Given their 7-8-1 record a year ago and a stacked roster, the Browns are the popular pick to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season. If they do, the would end the league’s longest active playoff drought.
That could be bad news for the Bucs, who own the second-longest postseason absence, 11 years and counting.
It’s hype versus hope when the Bucs meet the Browns in their third preseason game, tonight at Raymond James Stadium, with starters from both teams expected to see their most extensive preseason playing time.
As for Arians — who says now he was really lobbying for Chuck Pagano to get the Cleveland’s coaching job when he made that comment in November (Freddie Kitchens got it) — he believes the noise about the Browns is justified.
“(Because of) what they did in the offseason,” Arians said. “They’ve got a great young quarterback. I think he’s one of the best young guys to come in the league in awhile. He brings a lot of confidence (and) a lot of energy to that team. … It fed off to their defense. They’ve got some really good young players on defense, too.
“That’s a heck of a group of guys. You add the guys they added in the offseason, and yeah, I think they’re a contender right off the bat.”
Last year the Bucs beat the Browns 29-26 in overtime on Chandler Catanzaro’s 59-yard field goal.
But Mayfield rallied the Browns from a 23-9 deficit in the fourth quarter with the help of a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry. Mayfield finished 23-of-34 for 215 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Only a fumbled punt by Jabril Peppers allowed for the heroics by Catanzaro, who had missed a 40-yard field-goal try at the end of regulation.
The Browns won five of their last seven games last year and narrowly missed a wild-card playoff spot.
Former Bucs defensive back Ronde Barber called several of the Browns games for Fox last year and said to believe all the good things you hear about Mayfield and company.
“The hype for Baker is real,” Barber said. “He’s an uberconfident dude, too. Because it’s so loud sometimes, the noise, you think it’s manufactured and fake. But that’s who he is. When you sit down in a meeting with him, that’s who he is.
“I was laughing at those comments the other day about (Jones), but if you read into them, (Mayfield is) really being self-deprecating. He said, ‘I can’t believe they drafted me No. 1.’ That’s who he is. He rubs off on guys, unlike many guys, because they’re a young team. … But it’s in a very good way.”
In addition to Beckham Jr., acquired in an offseason trade, the Browns traded for defensive end Olivier Vernon and signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson as a free agent to go with end Myles Garrett and tackle Larry Ogunjobi.
“When I go through a flip card (for broadcasts), I always circle the guys I want to talk about or put a star next to their name for star players,” Barber said. “I counted 19 guys on either side of the ball (for the Browns). Their front four now, with Myles and Olivier coming in and then Sheldon Richardson and then Ogunjobi, I’ve always loved him. The linebackers, the corners are good. There’s no reason they shouldn’t succeed.
“I think the culture changed last year and pulled out their potential better.”
By far, this will be the biggest measuring stick of the preseason for the Bucs’ offensive line, which has only one new starter, right guard Alex Cappa.
“Myles Garrett and those guys are solid,” Arians said. “They’re big time, so yeah, this is a good test.”
Kitchens — hired in January to replace fired Hue Jackson — was an Arians assistant with the Cardinals from 2013-17. The first-time NFL head coach knows his team is young and brash. But he isn’t about all the noise that surrounds it.
“You guys create noise; (the players are) going to block it out,” Kitchens said. “GQ creates the noise; they’re going to block it out. Sports Illustrated creates the noise; they’re going to block it out. I have total confidence they’ll block out the noise.
“We’re going to give our best effort each week. I hope we get (the players’). And we’re going to see who’s best. That’s all. The expectations (the media) set doesn’t matter. Our expectations are to perform our best.”
What if the Browns do reach the playoffs and the Bucs do not? Well, then they would take over the dubious distinction as the worst team in the NFL.
Barber doesn’t know if Arians will get the Bucs to the postseason, but he also doesn’t think they will be far from that goal.
“I think they’re better than they were last year,” Barber said. “I don’t think they stack up talentwise with the Browns just because of some of the experience with the Cleveland team. But they’ve got some young, good players that could easily be that.
“It’s got to manufacture itself. A lot of their guys have already proven themselves.”