Executive Vice President, Football Operations & General Manager, Andrew Berry (1.22.24)
“Morning, everyone. All right, so before we get going with all the questions, I actually want to just share a few, I guess call it reflections from the year, and then I’ll kind of go into just a little bit of detail in terms of our process moving forward as we go into the offseason and then I’ll open it up for questions. So probably the NFL storyline that I followed most since our season finished is really what’s going on with Detroit, and part of that is just my friendship with Brad Holmes and really excited for him and happy to see what they’ve done up there. But it’s been pretty cool to see and follow them, given the fact that they’ve hosted their first home playoff game in 30 years. And watching the game against the (Los Angeles) Rams, watching the game against the (Tampa Bay) Buccaneers, seeing the energy in the stadium, seeing the team feed off of it, it’s been pretty cool to watch just honestly as an NFL fan. And it kind of got me thinking, what’s it going to look like or sound like or feel like when we’re hosting a home playoff game here in Cleveland? What’s the energy going to be feeding into the week? What’s it going to sound like on the opening kickoff? And as I thought a little bit more about it this weekend, I thought probably maybe the closest parallel to that would have been our last home game against the (New York) Jets this year. I think about that night and how much it meant for me, really our entire organization, our city, our fan base, and there are a number of memories that kind of stick out. It’s the electricity in the air pregame as our players are warming up. There probably wasn’t an empty seat. I remember Nick (Chubb) whipping out the Batman mask and putting it on and smashing the guitar and kind of working the crowd into a frenzy. I remember the roar of the crowd when we scored our first touchdown and when the game was in hand. I remember walking down to the field level and sensing this palpable anticipation because everybody knew what was about to happen as were bleeding out the clock. The other thing that kind of stands out to me is kind of this concept of family. I remember kind of surveying the field and seeing Kevin’s (Stefanski) kids at the sideline in the waiting moments. JW’s (Johnson), Paul’s (DePodesta), I have my oldest son with me, seeing Joe Flacco’s kids in the locker room after the game, but not just in the literal sense, seeing kind of the familial bond between our players and our fans. I remember Jim (Schwartz) telling our defensive players, ‘Hey, take a lap around the stadium. Go enjoy this with the fans.’ I remember David (Njoku) sharing a couple of drinks or two with some of the tailgaters [laughing], and that was all really special and cool and memories that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. But the thing that actually stands out to me most from that week happened the next morning. That morning I got a text from Tom Telesco. And Tom, as some of you know, he was my first boss in the NFL. Tom, he was a very demanding boss. I’ve told this story a couple of times that when I started off in scouting, I would always have to submit my reports to Tom and they would come back marked up in red pen or red marker with essentially all this constructive feedback about this needs to be changed. And I would just get so frustrated because I was like, ‘I can never please this guy. Like, he’s so demanding. Am I ever going to get this right?’ Until the one day that you get the report back and it’s like, there’s no red pen. I actually got this right. Like, I actually hit the standard. And so Tom, he sent a text that said, ‘Your team had every excuse available to you to be a ten loss team, and your players, coaches and staff never flinched. Good job and congratulations.’ And the reason that memory is so strong for me is for two reasons. One, it was kind of like the no red pen moment, right? From like, your first boss in the NFL. But the second part of it is, it was really cool to me to see that there were people externally that had sensed, saw, felt, what we all had internally on a week-to-week basis with this team. The thing that I’m most proud of with this group of players, coaches and staff is all the adversity that they overcame throughout the season. I talked a lot the last time I was with you all about turning challenges into opportunities for this organization. And I thought the men and women within the building, our players in the locker room, did a phenomenal job of that throughout the season always getting up off the mat, dealing with every challenge, and really accomplishing something that was noteworthy and special this season for the organization, for our city, and for our fan base. And this kind of next man, or next woman up mantra, I think it’s probably strongest embodied by our QB room. You think about P.J. (Walker) leading a go-ahead drive against San Francisco and then a game-winning drive against Indianapolis the next week. You think about Deshaun (Watson), on one leg and with the hurt shoulder leading us from playing a perfect second half and leading us down from two scores to beat the (Baltimore) Ravens. Then Dorian (Thompson-Robinson), the next week, leading us on a game-winning drive against Pittsburgh. And then obviously, Joe (Flacco) playing really well through the last quarter of the season to lead us into the playoffs. But it wasn’t just players, it was the coaching staff, too. And that starts with Kevin. Kevin, the way that he was able to lead and manage through challenges in adversity this year was absolutely phenomenal. And we have a smart, adaptable, emotionally intelligent leader who the crazy part is, he’s not even close to his ceiling. And this is a guy who hopefully in the next month should earn his second Coach of the Year award in his first four years as a head coach. And I know that our organization is in really good hands both now and for the foreseeable future with him. And I really would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bubba (Ventrone) and Jim (Schwartz), who did a phenomenal job of revitalizing the kicking game for us, revitalizing the defense. They were phenomenal additions to the organization and really pleased with really the work that those staffs did. So. moving forward, this is the point in the year where the next few weeks, it’s really reflection and self assessment. We look at everything that we did ‘A to Z’, on the field, off the field, with the goal of improvement. And it’s really not just improvement, but positioning the organization in a way where we can have our first home playoff game in 29 years, where we can consistently produce playoff teams and deep runs. And ultimately the goal is to bring the franchise its first Super Bowl. So, all the decisions moving forward will be with that goal in mind. And at times that may lead to hard and uncomfortable decisions, but everything will be with that mindset for improvement. And it’s because we know that our fans will appreciate it. We owe it to our fans, we owe it to the city. We owe it to the players, coaches and staff in the organization. That’s really our fiduciary responsibility. So with that, I’ll open up for questions.”
Since you mentioned Joe Flacco, just your takeaways on how he played. And I guess going forward, given all you guys had to deal with at the quarterback position, have you reevaluated maybe just that roster spot as a priority, the backup quarterback?
“Yeah. So starting with, you know, Joe, he played winning football for us. He did a great job of coming in and really playing at a high level that allowed us to go on a run at the end of the year. Played really good football in December, even if maybe we ended a little bit with a thud against Houston in the Wild Card round, but really pleased with what Joe did on the field, pleased with who he was as a teammate. In terms of the quarterback room, we’ve always valued the quarterback position and I think probably if you look at our history over the last four seasons, we’ve always been towards the top of the league in backup quarterback expenditures or resources, whether it was Case (Keenum) for the first two years, obviously Jacoby (Brisset) last year and then even this year coming into the year with (Josh) Dobbs and Dorian. So it’s something I believe that backup quarterback really is a top 30 position on the roster, Tom (Withers), and we do believe in carrying three, and that’s something that we’ll probably do moving forward.”
So, more directly, will you bring Joe Flacco back?
“Look, I should say this. I should start by saying this – we’d absolutely love to have Joe back. He’s a good quarterback, but I guess, maybe a little bit similar to Jacoby last year, it depends, right? I want to bring all of our good players back, but there are constraints to that on really kind of both sides of the aisle, but would have no problem having Joe back.”
Would the plan be, if you don’t bring Joe back, Deshaun is the starter and then DTR as the number two guy?
“It’s probably too early to say, Jake (Trotter), honestly. We’re a week after the season and we’ll go through the roster and part of it does depend on availability and cost. What I can give you is, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll have three quarterbacks on the roster. What that looks like can be a little bit variable just based on how the marketplace bears out.”
How much of a consideration would it be with Flacco to have the appearance of a guy who took your offense to different heights versus Deshaun, the possibility of division, polarity around the team?
“Zero. Zero consideration. Zero considerations, because of how both individuals are, it’s not a concern internally at all.”
Can you explain the decision to part ways with Alex Van Pelt?
“Jeff (Schudel), I understand that’s a topic of interest, the coaching staff in general. Quite honestly, we’re not going to comment on that in detail until the ’24 coaching staff is finalized and then all those questions will be answered at the appropriate time.”
As a follow up, what are you looking for in the next offensive coordinator?
“Again, Jeff, every coaching staff question we’ll address that when the staff is filled. There’s still too much influx.”
Even with the OC change, the plan is for Kevin to still call plays next season, correct?
“Yeah. So, it’s a good question, Jake. I’d say number one, that’s something that we always talk about every offseason and kind of the self-assessment part. Part of that depends on where we land with staff and what Kevin’s preferences are. Ultimately that’s going to be his decision as he constructs the staff. We’ve mentioned multiple times, I think that’s one of Kevin’s strengths, but how that operates from year to year, that’s ultimately something that we recess.”
The OC change is not connected to that potential?
Is it challenging to evaluate the roster and not fall in the trap of, ‘Well, we just had so many injuries. When we get them guys back, we’ll be fine.’ Or can you really identify some disparities and some weaknesses on the roster?
“Yeah, it’s not hard. You have injuries every year and also there’s no perfect roster in the NFL, so there are always things that you’re able to improve. And then probably the last thing I would say to that, is I talk oftentimes about every year is unique. It’s not like you just pick up and week one next year is like the 19th game, for instance. Things really do change. And I think one of the traps that teams or organizations can fall into is just seeming like, ‘Okay, here’s where we were at the end of the year. That’s going to be our base case, our baseline level of the roster going to next season.’ We don’t really look at it that way. We try and remove ourselves from the emotion this season, take an objective analysis of it, and then really project moving forward. So that’s probably the best way I can answer it.”
How is Deshaun coming along and where do things stand in terms of moving forward with him, and is there any precedent for an NFL quarterback or another athlete that you’re kind of going along their timeline for having suffered a fracture like his?
“Mary Kay (Cabot), more generally, Deshaun’s progressing well. He’s doing everything in his power in terms of rehab. He’s coming along well. We anticipate him being on a normal or potentially ahead-of-schedule time. I hesitate to say that because it still is early, but we’re really pleased with this progress so far and certainly looking forward to getting him back when he comes in the spring.”
Do you have anybody that you have looked at that has suffered this same kind of fracture?
“It’s probably a better question for our medical staff, but probably the bigger takeaway is we feel really good about the recovery. There’s nothing that would suggest that there should be some type of limitation or anything like that moving forward.”
Off of that, Deshaun, it seemed like every time he would seem like he was turning a corner, it was the rotator cuff and then Baltimore game and the broken shoulder. Do you feel comfortable with how much you’ve been able to evaluate of him in game settings kind of going forward?
“Yeah, we’d all love to have him on the field more often. I think that’s safe to say, himself included. I do feel really good about him, happy with the progress that he’s made within our organization, both on the field and off the field, and we’re looking forward to getting him back next year. We think he’s going to have a really big year and have a ton of confidence in him as our starting quarterback.”
How would you characterize the trade, almost to the halfway point? He’s played 11 games since 2020. He’s coming off right shoulder surgery now. How would you characterize the way the trade has gone to this point? And then what gives you optimism that he’s going to get to the level of (Patrick) Mahomes, (C.J.) Stroud, Lamar (Jackson) and (Josh) Allen, who hosted the first-round playoff games to get where you want to go?
“Jake, I honestly haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about that. When we made the trade, we really looked at it as, ‘Hey, this is something that we’ll evaluate like a ten-year time horizon because these guys play.’ Obviously, we want him on the field more often than he’s been. He can’t help the shoulder injuries this year, but we’re really pleased with him. He’s very talented, he’s very hardworking, he’s adaptable and we really feel good about him moving forward.”
Andrew, I know you mentioned Jim earlier, the defense was obviously so good for so much of the year. There were a few key lapses, obviously, including in the Wild Card. How are those thought about, talked about and going forward here what’s the plan regarding those and some of that sack production especially?
“Yeah, so I guess maybe two separate questions there, Ashley (Bastock). In terms of the Wild Card round, I think just as a team, we picked a bad day to have a bad day against a good team and a good quarterback. We made a lot of errors that up until that point hadn’t been characteristic of our team, but also give Houston a ton of credit. They had a good plan, they played well, and when you’re in the playoffs, the margin of error is even slimmer than what we talk about in the regular season. As we go into the offseason, I’m not necessarily overreacting based off of one game. We really do look at the body of work. In terms of the sack production – I didn’t know this until JW mentioned it, I think you guys may know this something like we set the franchise sack record this year or something along those lines. So, I don’t have really a problem with that. But I would say probably the bigger picture is we’re actually probably a little bit more focused on how much pressure we create because ultimately that’s what leads to negative plays for an offense and advantageous plays for a defense. And we were really pleased with that this year.”
You mentioned Kevin has a really high ceiling. What makes you think that? And what are those areas, I guess you think he can still grow?
“Yeah. So. I think probably two areas. I think, one, we talk a lot with employees across the organization of hiring people with a growth mindset. People that are continuous learners. And I think you see that in not even just great coaches, but probably high achievers across industries. If you even think about – Andy Reid, might be my favorite. Here’s someone when he was a 40 something year old, first time head coach in Philly, and you look at how he’s evolved as a coach or leader and offensive mind to where he is in Kansas City. He never stays stagnant. And we see those same characteristics in Kevin. And I would suggest that probably everybody in this room has seen him grow and evolve as a leader and coach over these past four years. How he led and managed the year, this year where I don’t know how he wouldn’t win Coach of the Year, this year versus his first year were different. And I think the second part of it is, I always say Kevin is like, he’s the best of us on just a human level. He truly is the best of us. And I think that authenticity really allows him to be an exceptional leader for our organization. So it’s really those two things combined that make me excited for the next several years.”
You mentioned those tough decisions that you’re going to have to make going forward. Probably one of the most difficult is Nick Chubb coming off that injury, cap savings versus being loyal to a fan favorite and an outstanding player. Where is he at in his recovery here? And just your thoughts on that particular situation.
“Okay, so with Nick. I probably came into this year, let’s say on a scale of one to ten in terms of respect for Nick Chubb, it was a ten. And probably coming out of this year, it’s now a 20. Nick – you would have never guessed that Nick was out for the season with how he operated within the building. It was like he was doing two a day practices for rehab. And I remember – quick story, we were in LA for the Rams game and he was in the player suite and I happened to pop up in there. The suite, it’s like humongous, first of all, it might be like 30 yards in length and he was walking to go get food, but it’s a pretty long walk. But he wasn’t using his crutches. And I was like, ‘Nick, are you being stubborn?’ And he’s like, ‘No, it actually feels pretty good.’ I was like, ‘Nick, if you’re supposed to be on your crutches, be on your crutches.’ Well, we come back from the trip and then the next day, Dr. (James) Voos, they had put out this tape because they were going to just test where he was and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, officially, he doesn’t need to be on his crutches anymore.’ He had walked the whole thing. It was normal. And I share that, he’s still very early in his rehab process, but the tenacity at which he has attacked his rehab. He did everything in his power this year to heal himself, but also make a positive impact with the team and it’s culminated. You guys know, he’s not like a super talkative person, but for him to do the whole, you know, in front of the Jets game, it’s like he wanted to do everything in his power to help the team win. I would, in terms of Nick moving forward, obviously, I understand that’s a little bit the elephant in the room. Nick, I can say for myself, no one in the organization, I understand, our family, nobody wants to see that carry in Pittsburgh, be the last time he carries the ball for the Cleveland Browns. And obviously there are things that we’ll have to work through, but that would not be our intention as well. We obviously will work to keep him on the team.”
Andrew, as you just look at roster management in general. What’s your top priority?
“Probably a better combine question, but even then, I probably won’t answer it quite directly, if I’m just being honest. But we’ll spend the next few weeks working through all that and then ultimately we’ll set a strategy to execute at the start of the league year.”
Andrew, similar to that, though, you’ve done such a good job of signing players to one-year contracts. I know you say you want everybody back. That probably won’t happen. So how do you keep doing that? Like Za’Darius Smith, (Maurice) Hurst, Shelby Harris, all those guys. How do you keep finding these guys for one year?
“Jeff, I think one of the things that you realize is the NFL – the only constant is change. I think when I talked with you, when I met with you guys after 2020, I mentioned that even for the top teams or teams that have a lot of their guys under contract, there’s typically like, on average, a third of your team turns over, and that’s regardless of your record. And it could be more depending on the health of your roster. I mean, more like long term health as opposed to physical health. So I think as a general manager, you really go into the offseason understanding that running it back really isn’t an option. It’s just not with the economic realities of our sport. So I’d say one, acknowledging that reality going into it and then trying to make the best decisions that you can to improve the club, it’s really as simple as that.”
The way that you are raving about Kevin, is it safe to say that an extension is in order sometime fairly soon?
“I understand the question. I have to say though, Mary Kay, if I don’t talk about players in this, you guys probably don’t have a great shot of me talking about that as well. But we’re really happy with Kevin.”
Just to be clear, when you say carry three quarterbacks on the roster, do you mean the 53 or is that kind of a practice squad spot?
“We’ll get to those details when we get to the season. But typically, I don’t have a problem with that on the active if we have the right mix.”
Andrew, every year we ask you about the cap space. We know the circumstances you’re in, but do you still feel like you can do whatever you need to do in free agency and to make the move you need to do given the restraints you face?
Just the ability to shift things around or why do you feel so confident?
“As we look at the contract management space, it’s not something that we think about just at the time or one year at a time, Scott. It’s something that you really do spend multiple years planning for. That’s an area that we’re very confident in, and we view it as a strategic advantage for us and we’ll continue to operate in a way that allows us to maximize the team.”
There were a lot of young guys on the team this season, guys having to step up for that next man up role. As a whole, how do you feel like the development of those guys went and what’s the aim as you head into next season?
“Yeah, Cam (Justice), we’re really pleased with our coaches and our player development staff in those areas. It’s something that we’ve poured a lot of resources into operationally so let’s say non roster considerations, and it’s really rewarding to see the fruits of those investments pay off on a year-to-year basis. So I can’t give enough credit to the assistants. Our player development staff, our performance staff headed by Shaun Huls, our player development group headed by Carson Walch, you know, those individuals have done a really nice job.”
Brian Callahan’s receiving head coaching interviews. Can you retain Bill, his dad, at all costs or what are your plans?
“Yeah, that would probably fall into the bucket of – it’s a good question, Tony (Grossi). I definitely understand the interest there. We obviously value Bill very highly. He’s done a great job with us the past four seasons, but I probably don’t feel comfortable commenting on that until we address the coaching staff.”
How much did Myles’ (Garrett) shoulder injury impact him down the stretch? He got hurt in Denver. Kevin has talked about that, but the sack numbers just completely disappeared after that injury. So I’m just wondering how much did he really play through down the stretch to keep himself on the field?
“Yeah, I think regardless of how much he played through, he played at a really high level for us down the stretch. So he does a really good job of managing his body. He’s very proactive. He does a lot that is not visible in the building. He’s a lot outside the building to make sure that he can perform at a peak level and he’s always done that. That’s not just even a recent occurrence, but probably the larger point for me is I know the focus is on sack numbers, but the reality of it is that really doesn’t tell the whole story or even enough of the story to be honest, Daryl.”
So you think he has another level still that he can get to though in terms of everything in his career?
“I hope all our players do. But also, if I’m being honest, this guy is a guy who’s been a first team All Pro and will hopefully take away his first Defensive Player of the Year award this season. I think at times we hold Myles to like a Superman standard, which look, he deserves. He looks like Superman and he’s played so well now the first six or seven years of his career, but we’re really pleased with him.”
When you watch these games and you just see Patrick going to the AFC Championship game year after year and so many Super Bowls. Do you feel like, this is obviously a very pivotal time for you and your organization. Are you going to be able to get past Patrick and some of the amazing quarterbacks in the AFC?
“Mary Kay, It’s a very competitive league and it’s a very competitive conference, right? The AFC has a number of really strong teams and I feel like we have three of them in our division. And so we realize how competitive it is and it’s a big reason why as we look forward, every decision has to be made with the understanding that we play a zero sum game. You either win or you lose. And we want to best position our organization to be playing deep in the playoffs, because you’re right. If we’re going to reach our goals, we’re going to have to beat the Patrick Mahomes of the world and it’s not going to get any easier anytime soon.”
Andrew, speaking of the growth mindset, how are you a better GM today than you were a couple years ago? Three, four years ago?
“I think, you know, I mentioned this. Experience is a very hard teacher because you have the test first and the lessons afterwards. I’ll share with you. Every year we keep kind of a decision diary and it’s a decision diary that’s based off of roster transactions. It’s based off of not just on field decisions, but off field decisions. And it’s something that both organization, but me individually, I reflect and learn off of. And that could be draft free agency trade. It can be different crisis issues, it can be management issues within football operations or with the coaching staff. And quite honestly, the things I learn from most are the ones that where we make mistakes. Whether it’s a draft pick, whether it’s a contract decision, you name it, a trade. And I really try and carry forward those lessons with decision making. I’d say probably the biggest thing is if you ask my staff, I am not a very patient man. And while I would still not maybe characterize myself as patient, I’m a lot more patient now than I was four years ago. And I’d say that patience is with transactions, decisions, whatever. I am very aggressive, but that comes with a little bit of a double edged sword. And so that’s probably the biggest thing that as I see more cycles in my own role, there’s a little bit more pattern recognition and there’s a little bit less of your staff having to maybe pull your coattails to slow you down and make sure you’re not quite ready, fire, aim all the time. So that’d probably be the biggest area of growth for me.”
There’s been a lot of talk about culture, especially this year. In what ways do you feel like has led to that growth improvement and how do you kind of carry it now forward. Where does the responsibility fall to carry that forward?
“I think it falls on all of us, Chris (Easterling). I think that – as I think through each of the teams that we’ve had over the first four years here, I really do think that you really establish your culture, culture as people every year with the team. I’d like to think that you just carry over everything from year to year, but there’s just too much turnover to do it. And I think if your messaging or your approach just stays the same every year, it’s just a different group of individuals. Like, if you look at the players that are in our locker room in 2023 versus 2020, it’s just a totally different group of players and it’s a totally different group of coaches and support staff as well. So I think that’s something that’s a challenge each season. But I actually do want to share a story on this. Aside from the disappointment in terms of the loss with Houston, probably the memory that’s seared into my remember, you know, late in the game. So Joel (Bitonio) had gone into the locker room with a pretty significant high ankle sprain, and the game, for all intents and purposes, was really kind of out of hand late. And Joel came back onto the field despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been something that he really was playing through just because he wanted to be out there with his teammates. Later in that fourth quarter, Wyatt (Teller) goes down, he stings his calf again. The thing is, he has like maybe a grade two calf strain. He’s in a boot Sunday after the game, and I see him go down, I see him hobble up again. We might have been down 30 points at that point. And he gets up, again I’m like, ‘He really should come out.’ And does everything he can to will and stay in the game. And I remember in that moment thinking, that’s pretty cool because here are two of our veteran players. There’s really nothing to play for competitively because we really don’t have enough time to come back. But they realized in that moment that was the last time that specific group was going to play together forever, quite honestly, and all they wanted to do was be out there with their teammates for this player moment. And one of the things I wrote down in my OneNote moving forward was like, I think we have something here. I think we have something here with this group of players and some of the guys who are going to return. And that visual is going to be the thing that motivates me this offseason to do everything that I can to improve the team and make sure that we’re in a position playing deep into the playoffs next year.”
Do you think it’s important or a good idea with your coaching vacancy to have someone associated with Watson who coached hi before?
“Okay, I’ll answer one question. Tony, on the coaching staff you got me. I don’t. We’re going to look for the best people. We’re just going to look for the best people and it’s just as simple as that.”
Do you anticipate retaining Glenn (Cook) and Catherine (Raiche) on your staff and maintaining most of your other personnel staff?
“I think that remains to be seen until all the vacancies fill, to be honest, Mary Kay. So January really is self assessment month and see how things turn out.”
As you go through the self assessment here, you talked about big picture goal, trying to win a Super Bowl here. So how do you measure where this team is right now in the big picture, the NFL hierarchy and how close do you think you are?
“Yeah, I don’t know that I’m going to talk about all of like that’s certainly something as we evaluate the team and the organization that we talk about in depth over the next few weeks. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s not a continuation of this year. Next year is a brand new year. How many people picked the Texans to be in the divisional round this year? Realistically. We’ll attack 2024 with a fresh perspective because at the end of the day, I don’t know that this year is really going to matter or factor into next year.”
Going back to the culture aspect, but what Jim has been able to do defensively, do you think that is possible to carry over to next season, even with all the turnover on rosters?
“It’s a good question. Not fully just because you are dealing with new individuals, but I do think that there will be principles that we’ll want to carry. Like we’ll never sacrifice wanting to play with physical toughness and energy and swag and things like that. But ultimately how that gets implemented and how that gets executed will change from year to year.”
I said provided no one leaves for another job. Are you guys done making moves on the coaching staff?
“Yeah. All that stuff is still to be worked out, to be honest. Yeah, and so I don’t feel comfortable commenting on that until it’s finalized, just to be fair.”
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