The Cleveland Browns trudged their way to a victory Sunday in Jacksonville, unimpressive yet important. A loss to a one win team on their 3rd string quarterback is a grim look for a team with realistic, for once, playoff aspirations. The Browns own the first wild card slot after 11 games, poised to break an embarrassing 18 year absence from the NFL playoffs. Two wins get them in, and with games against each New York team ahead, only a Cleveland-like implosion will keep them out of the bracket. But how they fare in their three tough match-ups -Tennessee and Baltimore the next two weeks, Pittsburgh in the finale- will show what they are, and who they can become. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran well Sunday (surprise!) and the defense, missing their two stars Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett, struggled, unable to affect vagabond quarterback Mike Glennon (Olivier Vernon mustered the only 2 hits on Glennon all afternoon). The wins have become predictable, even boring. An unenviable description of a football team in most cases, but in Cleveland, a welcome over the usual disarray. The Browns are 8-3 because of head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Settled. It describes the franchise now, no longer weaving from ineptitude on the field and tabloid controversy off it. A team full of personalities has pulled back, the focus only on winning. While Baker Mayfield litters his press conferences with rap lyrics and pop culture references, and referees have flagged Jarvis Landry a few times for taunting after big catches, the drama fog that hung over Berea has lifted. Their turnovers are low (6th in the league in turnover margin) and they’ve dropped from 29th in penalties last season to 16th in 2020. A grown up, professional organization has sprouted.
I was against hiring Stefanski, not because I doubted his coaching ability, but felt the unending dramatics, constant upheaval, and tiresome blame shifting ever present in the organization couldn’t be mitigated by a green coach. Stefanski only called plays as an offensive coordinator in Minnesota for 20 games, and even then had veteran Gary Kubiak’s help. The steady hand, respect, and NFL knowledge needed to blunt the Haslam’s meddling seemed unattainable so early into a career, but I was wrong. Stefanski has led, something no other Cleveland coach has done since the return. His personality forgoes an ego, and his intelligence and demeanor have a positive effect on his team. This season, with the havoc caused by COVID, it’s been more important than ever. The Browns have dealt with a shortened off-season, rising cases, practice facility closures, and injuries with aplomb. Whatever decisions Stefanski makes between the lines, they’re minuscule compared to his leadership qualities. His team is smart, disciplined, and unaffected. No qualities are more important.
The next 5 weeks will show their growth, however. Baker Mayfield is a yo-yo, too inconsistent to count on in the most important situations. Cleveland relies too heavily on too few; Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb, and Jarvis Landry do a disproportionate amount of the work. Are they talented enough to beat the heavyweights remaining on the schedule? Is a January win out of the question? Chubb and Garrett make anything workable, but without good coaching and strong quarterback play, wins in the playoffs are impossible. The Browns finally have the coach.
After failing their early season tests against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Browns go to Nashville this week, catching the Titans at an inopportune time. Tennessee struggled in late October, early November, but has regained the swell that earned them a spot in the AFC title game last season. A beat down of division rival Indianapolis on Sunday reaffirmed their identity. Derrick Henry rushed for 178 and 3 touchdowns. Ryan Tannehill was efficient and didn’t turn the ball over. The Titans are tough; they know who they are. They proved as much in last season’s opener in Cleveland as underdogs, drilling the cocky Browns. Cleveland’s attitude has since changed. Are they ready to compete in this setting?
If Baker Mayfield is to prove himself a steeled, top end quarterback, this is the week. On the road against the sixth best scoring offense in the league, the Cleveland defense is over-matched and under-manned. Henry will have a big day, and the Browns can’t expect Tannehill to give them the ball with turnovers. Tennessee’s defense is the weak link. They rank 20th in scoring, and 25th in yards allowed. With a respectable run defense, however, they give up the fifth most passing yards in the league. Chubb and Hunt will get yards, but the offense has leaned on them all season. This is Mayfield’s game.
If the organization, the coaching staff, the fan base, and his teammates are to count on Baker for the next decade to lead the franchise deep into the playoffs season after season, he must show that capability. The Browns have done an exceptional job of remaking the air around the franchise in one turbulent off-season. To win a championship, a Pro Bowler must line up each week under center. The coach is in place. What about the quarterback?
The Whip Around
1.Just when the Colts seemed poised to make a move on the Titans atop the AFC South, Tennessee’s efficient offense reappeared, possessing the ball for over 35 minutes, running for 229 yards, and not turning it over in a 45-26 thumping of Indianapolis. During their 3 loss in 4 game swoon, Tennessee had the ball on offense for only 25 minutes per game. If your game plan is ball control, well, controlling the ball becomes important. The Titans can score, but are they built to match touchdowns with the Steelers or Chiefs? Tennessee’s running game is elite, and Ryan Tannehill is in any top ten QB discussion. But they aren’t prepared to shoot it out with the big boys, and that defense can’t stop the pass.
2. The NFL is in scramble mode with the Baltimore-Pittsburgh match-up. They’re expected to play later today, but who the hell knows? Loathe to cancel the game in fear of causing a late season scheduling nightmare, the league office is putting its players, coaches, and staffs in an untenable position. Schedules are important, but COVID-19 has shown no desire to adhere to any of our norms. If the season needs pushed back, or even the (gasp!) Super Bowl delayed, guess what? It’s not impossible. Baltimore is in the middle of an outbreak, with at least 12 players testing positive or in proximity with someone who has. The safety of the players should be priority number 1. The NFL, throughout its history, has shown no care or concern for any of its players. Why would now be different? Get that money, owners.
3. Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill. Made in a lab for each other. Mahomes’ creativity and arm strength, mixed with Hill’s speed, form the most dangerous, exciting duo in the league. How you beat the Chiefs is beyond me.
4. After a surprise start to the season, including a victory over Kansas City on the road, the Raiders’ playoff hopes are teetering. Now at 6-5 and 9th in the conference, the most disturbing fact is the drudging laid on them Sunday, a 43-6 loss to a wayward Falcon team without Julio Jones. Derek Carr threw a pick six, threw for just 215 yards, and got pulled in the fourth quarter by Jon Gruden for Nathan Peterman. Josh Jacobs managed only 27 yards on the ground. The Raider defense gives up 29 per game, Carr can’t afford to fall asleep on offense the way he did Sunday. The Jets and Broncos remain on the schedule, but tough games against Indy and Miami will determine their playoff future. They can afford only 1 more loss.
5. The NFL doesn’t care a wit about its players, Part II. How can a multi-billion dollar league allow one of its franchises to start a practice squad wide receiver in an actual game at quarterback? Kendall Hinton lined up under center for the Broncos on Sunday against a Saints team racing for the top seed in the NFC. This is how you want your product presented? Hinton went 1-9 for 13 yards and 2 picks, but what would you expect? It isn’t his fault the team and league threw him into the fire, hell bent on shoving this season down everyone’s throats while plugging their ears with their fingers and their eyes closed. The commissioner and his owners had no actual plan for disruptions for the virus this season, and it shows. An utter embarrassment, but who’s surprised?
6. Whispers had begun. Were the Rams the best team in the NFC? Could Jared Goff lead a second team in three years to the Super Bowl? Ugh. Goff cannot hang on to the football, nor his team’s championship aspirations. His 14 turnovers tie for second in the league. His 6 interceptions under pressure lead the NFL. No matter how much athleticism the Rams amass, or how talented genius Sean McVay is at masking his deficiencies, Goff’s ball skills aren’t good enough. At home against San Francisco on Sunday, the Rams could have whipped a depleted 49er squad with Nick Mullens at quarterback and become a Super Bowl favorite. But Goff’s two picks (one returned for a TD) and unconscionable fumble, coughed up instead of sliding, chucked any momentum they’d built into the Pacific Ocean. Los Angeles should be a contender, but prove again how fragile championship hopes are with a shaky quarterback. Wins in January with Goff level QB play allows for zero mistakes.
7. The Jets are going 0-16. Here’s the schedule. Home vs. Las Vegas. At Seattle. At LA Rams. Home vs. Cleveland. At New England. Belichick’s Patriots are the easiest task, think he’ll go easy on his former employer? New York deserves this, just as the other members of the 0fer club, Detroit and Cleveland, did. When trashy organizations continue to make horrid decisions, keep oafish coaches, and trade away premium talent, they deserve to run the table backwards. The Jets are an embarrassment to their city and fan base. The ownership is laughable. Here’s hoping they lose them all next year too.
8. We have underrated Aaron Rodgers on the move his entire career. His arm strength garners the headlines, but Rodgers’ movements outside the pocket get overlooked. He’s one of the greatest of all time because of this dimension.
9. Minnesota, the team that won’t die. After starting the season 1-5, the Vikings are 4-1 since, keeping them on the cusp of a playoff berth. Dalvin Cook is second in the league behind Derrick Henry with 1130 rushing yards, averaging 5.2 per clip. He’s first with 13 touchdowns. His breakaway speed is unmatched at the position. And Kirk Cousins decided not to throw the ball to the opposition anymore. Only 1 INT over their last 5 games, Cousins has tossed 12 touchdowns, completed 72% of his throws, and has a 124 passer rating. ??? Such is the state of quarterback play in the league. Cousins isn’t consistent. Has never been. Will never be. But he’ll make a lot more money because he gets hot for stretches, and those waiting behind him for jobs aren’t any good. The Vikings schedule isn’t unmanageable, but they must beat either Tampa or New Orleans on the road to get in. Doable, but Cousins is due for a dud performance. Don’t count Jacksonville on Sunday as a win just yet.
10. Kyler Murray found facing a Belichick defense a struggle on Sunday, throwing for just 170 yards and an interception. His rushing yardage total was most alarming, however, tallying only 31 yards on the ground. For as great as his arm is, Murray has to run to open passing lanes when he’s in the pocket. 5’10”, is 5’10”, no matter how athletic. Belichick has a history of curbing running QBs, and Murray won’t face him again for 4 years. But athletic defenses will learn from the Patriots, forcing Murray to stay inside the pocket and make throws to beat them. Can he do it?
All stats courtesy of pro-football reference.com