The most pleasant surprise of this sad season has been the emergence of veteran tight end Gary Barnidge, who today was named the Browns’ Player of the Year by the Cleveland chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.
After years of limited pass-catching production, pigeon-holed by many as a marginal blocking tight end, Barnidge has enjoyed an extremely rare if not unprecedented late-career surge in output. Heading into the final game, he has 977 receiving yards in 2015, or 62% of his career total.
He came to Cleveland in 2013 from Carolina along with Rob Chudzinski, the tight end whisperer whose tenure as Browns head coach ended all too soon. He signed a three-year, $3.75 million free agent deal Cleveland. It was a lightly-regarded signing that later proved propitious after the more athletic Jordan Cameron signed with Miami in free agency this spring. In his contract year, Barnidge has blossomed into a workmanlike playmaker, with a team-high nine touchdowns, none more interesting than the famous “butt catch” that gave the Browns a fourth-quarter lead over the Ravens.
The 30-year-old might have joined another crop of productive veterans destined to leave in free agency had he not forced the issue. Barnidge wanted to stay a Brown and met directly with owner Jimmy Haslam to press that point. He soon signed a three-year extension with a $3.25 million bonus, more than his last three years of combined salary.
If that weren’t enough to deserve the endearment of Browns fans, Barnidge has engaged with the community via social media and in the flesh, renting out a theater on Christmas Eve and inviting fans to join him and teammates for Star Wars. It’s been a stellar season in all ways but the win-loss record for Barnidge, the second-best Gary in Browns history and a force that has indeed awakened (even when he hasn’t gotten out of bed).
Congratulations to Gary Barnidge, the first player since Josh Cribbs that I’m willing to acknowledge as my favorite Brown.