As Cleveland Browns Broke Playoff Drought, Princeton Alum Carlson Made Special Impact
SPECIAL EFFECT: Stephen Carlson gets ready for a special teams play this past fall for the Cleveland Browns. Former Princeton University standout Carlson ‘19 played in all 16 regular seasons, helping the Browns make the NFL playoffs for the first time in 18 years. Tight end Carlson excelled on special teams, making nine tackles over the season and recovering an onside kick late in the season finale to help clinch a 24-22 win over Pittsburgh and secure a playoff spot for Cleveland. (Photo provided courtesy of PU’s Office of Athletic Communications/Cleveland Browns)
By Bill Alden
As an undrafted and unheralded free against coming out of the Ivy League in 2019, Stephen Carlson was a long shot to make the Cleveland Browns.
But former Princeton University star receiver turned tight end Carlson beat the odds, making the team’s practice squad and then getting promoted to the active roster midway through the campaign, ultimately seeing action in seven regular season games.
After that promising start, however, Carlson felt like he was starting over a year later when the Browns brought in a new head coach, Kevin Stefanski, and then COVID-19 hit and halted in-person activities.
“In a lot of ways I thought of it as like my rookie year again with a new playbook and a new coaching staff,” said the 6’4, 240-pound Carlson, 24.
“I had to make good first impressions with the last coaching staff. They learned to know who I am and know what kind of player I am. I had to prove myself all over again. In a lot of ways, I was pretty nervous because of the offseason stuff. I was doing everything on my own, I didn’t know how everyone else is treating it.”
As fellow Ivy Leaguers, Carlson bonded with coach Stefanski, a former Penn standout defensive back.
“There was a lot of banter back and forth, especially at the beginning,” said Carlson with a chuckle.
“There were a lot of Ivy League coaches and staff. A lot of the high up positions are Ivy League guys so we must be doing something right. It is good to see.”
At training camp, Carlson did things right, making the team’s active roster from the start of the season.
“I felt like it could go either way, the decision of whether I made the team, get cut, or make the practice squad,” said Carlson.
“I was really excited, there is no other way to put it. I was hyped up to know that all of those worries that I had, making a good first impression and learning the playbook that I overcame all of that and picked up right where I left off. It helped my confidence and my mindset just knowing that I am good enough to be on the team.”
Displaying that confidence, Carlson played in all 16 regular season games, helping the Browns make the NFL playoffs for the first time in 18 years. Carlson excelled on special teams, making nine tackles over the season and recovering an onside kick late in the season finale, helping to clinch a 24-22 win over Pittsburgh that secured the postseason spot for Cleveland.
“Special teams wise I felt really confident; that was my second time around in the same system because coach Mike Priefer stayed from the last staff,” said Carlson, who also made one reception for 11 yards on the season.
“I was confident in the schemes we ran there. Coach Priefer had a lot of trust in me to move around in different spots. I was making some big tackles. I didn’t know necessarily if I would make as big of an impact as I ended up doing.”
Carlson’s biggest impact was unquestionably the onside kick recovery against Pittsburgh. With 1:23 left in the fourth quarter and the Browns clinging to their two-point lead, Carlson’s catch, which saw him handle a tricky bounce by squeezing the ball between his legs, allowed Cleveland to run out the clock and seal the victory.
“As soon as the Steelers kicker lined up, he was facing right at me and they put all of their speedy guys on my side so I knew it was coming,” recalled Carlson.
“The kick that he kicked was a very odd one. I didn’t really look for that big bounce, I was surprised a little and I pushed it on ground and fell on it and it fell between my legs. It was like being a goalie a little. As people ran into me and hit me, luckily I just fell right on it.”
Carlson’s clutch play, though, was the product of preparation not luck.
“Every Friday during the year, I would recover 10 or 12 kicks after practice from the Browns kicker,” said Carlson.
“I have got to thank coach Priefer for even trusting me to be in that position, with what is on the line, going to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. I am sitting there with the whole franchise on my back.”
The win triggered a raucous post game celebration for a Browns team that last made the NFL playoffs in 2002.
“It was awesome for the older guys who have been on the team for a while and to see them so excited,” said Carlson.
“It is crazy to think about, I can’t really explain the feeling. You are relieved because of all of the work that you put in during the season but next week you have another game.”
A week later in a rematch with the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round, Carlson did it again, grabbing an onside kick late in the contest as the Browns won 48-37 for their first postseason win since they defeated the New England Patriots 20-13 on January 1, 1995 in a Wild Card contest.
“Definitely the preparation into the week was so much more, watching so much more film,” said Carlson, reflecting on the intensity of the playoffs.
“Everything is a little more serious and a step up from the regular season. The intensity of the game while the plays are going on was higher. It was a great experience and hopefully I can have some more of those.”
While playoff run ended the next week with a 22-17 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round, Carlson takes pride in what the Browns achieved this season.
“It was a great year, I have nothing but joy looking back on it,” said Carlson.
“It didn’t end our way but it’s not all bad. We accomplished a few of our goals, some things that people probably thought we weren’t going to do after the season before. Some guys, including me, really fell into our roles and solidified a certain role. It will help us going forward.”
By carving out a vital role on special teams, Carlson believes he is laying the foundation for a long NFL career.
“I think it was mindset and confidence, especially on special teams,” said Carlson.
“It was just having the confidence that I have the ability to compete with all of these guys in the NFL and have the ability to go out here and make these plays and do exactly what I need to do to help the team. It gives you confidence that I am a guy who could have a solid career in the NFL, not just a guy who fizzles out after a year or two.”
Over the offseason, Carlson is focusing on becoming more of a force at tight end.
“There is a lot of stuff I have got to work on,” said Carlson.
“I obviously feel good in the special teams game. It is getting fast and stronger and that stuff. I have got to work on some technique in the run blocking game at the tight end position. That would really propel me forward. I am already a decent receiving tight end. If I do some little things in the run game and am able to be a more stout one-on-one blocker, it would really propel me into a role that I think the coaches want to me to be in.”
With the Browns slated to begin their OTAs (organized team activities) this month in preparation for the 2021 season, Carlson and his teammates see another postseason run on the horizon.
“We will have a new confidence, not arrogance, that we should be a playoff team,” said Carlson.
“We should be able to make a run as long as we did the things we did last year to get us there in the first place, keeping our heads down, working hard and doing the right thing. It is a credit to the new coaching staff who put everything together.”
Having kept his head down and put in the work over the last two years, Carlson figures to play an even more pivotal role in Cleveland’s future success.