Cleveland Browns: What Next?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Mack Wilson, Mitchell Trubisky

The Cleveland Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. The record against their rival since returning to the league is 7-34-1. For the first time, Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season. The sheer insanity of that statement is mind-boggling. A talented team that stumbled through the first half of the season is kind of, maybe gaining some momentum. The Cleveland Browns don’t do normal or successful all that well, however. They do lunacy and absurdity.


Social media has beat the Myles Garrett situation into the earth’s core. My thoughts are here. In the meantime, the Browns started a winning streak against two above .500 teams. Can they keep it going?


The offense, while still struggling to manage any consistency, has cut out the penalties and turnovers. Baker Mayfield hasn’t thrown an interception in three games. In those games, he’s tossed 5 touchdowns and completed 62.5% of his passes. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they represent an improvement. And while the team racked up 8 penalties for 121 yards on Thursday, the offense only accounted for one of those, an intentional delay of game before a punt.


Mayfield and Odell Beckham still can’t connect with any regularity. A long completion on an inside post route set up the first touchdown, but they weren’t on the same page on a second half third down. Beckham was open on an out for a first down, but Mayfield overthrew him, expecting a deeper route. When will it click for these two? Beckham is getting open, but too often he either drops a pass or Mayfield misses him. It may take another off-season before the duo becomes as dynamic as expected.


The same problems aren’t occurring for Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. Nineteen catches and three touchdowns in the last three games, Landry has taken over the number one receiver post, regardless of where he lines up. When in the slot, Landry is too good for the safeties and linebackers matched up on him. On his touchdown Thursday, the entire Steeler defense bit on play action, all breaking right while Landry and tight end Demetrius Harris scampered open to the left. Nick Chubb drew the defenses’ attention, leading to the easy touchdown.

Impossible to be more open in the end zone. Defense bites on the play action


The strength of the offense, without question, are the two running backs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are most talented duo in the league. Chubb is third in the league in rushing, already with 1011 yards. Hunt is a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield and has become Mayfield’s safety valve. He converted two long third downs on athletic receptions Thursday and has added a dimension rarely afforded to any offense. Freddie Kitchens must take advantage of his backfield wealth. Get creative with the play calling. Run some Wildcat. Try the option, with one back taking the snap. For the Browns to continue winning, they need to throw early to Beckham and Landry, then bleed clock with Chubb and Hunt.


Though the defense has forced turnovers in recent weeks, issues lurk. Garrett will miss the rest of the season, as will starting safety Morgan Burnett after tearing his Achilles on Thursday. The NFL also suspended Larry Ogunjobi for the Miami game. Backups on the line and in the secondary, the strengths of the unit coming into the season, are stepping into a pressure cooker. The late hits, holding, and pass interference calls haven’t subsided on the defensive side, and with a lot of talent sitting at home or on the sideline, the defense has to become more disciplined. This offense hasn’t proved it can win a shootout.


The overlooked position on defense, expected to be a weakness, has shined all season. Only playing two linebackers in most situations to get more defensive backs on the field, Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson are the most consistent forces on that side of the ball. Schobert is the defensive MVP, and it isn’t close. He beat the Steelers almost single-handedly, recording 7 tackles, a sack, 2 interceptions, and 4 passes defended. Whether stuffing the run, rushing the quarterback, or dropping in coverage, Schobert is dominating. A free agent at the end of the season, Schobert is adding zeros to his bank account each week.

Outstanding coverage by both LBs. Wilson(51) takes the check down away(33). Schobert with the INT


Mack Wilson has excelled as the other linebacker in Cleveland’s base defense. An injury replacement when Christian Kirksey went on IR early in the season, Wilson has established himself after some rookie indecisiveness. He struggled against San Francisco by over pursuing himself out of position. Wilson’s become more disciplined in recent weeks, however, and is now the best run stopper on the team, along with Sheldon Richardson. He’s handled himself in pass coverage. On a big third down early in the 4th quarter, Wilson made a huge breakup of a Mason Rudolph pass to Jaylen Samuels, reading the play perfectly. Thought to be a position of weakness, the Browns’ linebackers are the most consistent unit on defense.


Not much needs analyzed concerning the Dolphins. Miami is a horrible team, tanking for draft picks. They’re in the early stages of a long rebuild and have no desire to win games. The Browns are at home and an eleven point favorite. Despite the drama of the week, the team has prepared themselves to deal with the outside noise by creating soap opera level story lines since March. They’ve had amble opportunity to learn how to deal with the circus.


Ryan Fitzpatrick could get hot and cause problems if the defense is lackadaisical. Fitzpatrick is 12th in the league in QBR (ESPN.com), and is intelligent enough to take advantage if the Browns are unprepared. He’s thrown 8 picks in 9 games, however, and has no discernible weapons around him. For a banged up and suspension-heavy defense, no opponent could be a more welcome sight. No excuses this Sunday.

The Whip Around

1. A play toward the end of the first half against the Rams encapsulates Mitchell Trubisky’s ability as a quarterback. With the Bears on the edge of field goal range, Trubisky couldn’t find an open receiver, scrambled outside the pocket with the sideline open to him, then took a sack instead of stepping out of bounds or throwing the ball away. Plays like this highlight his lack of awareness on the field and understanding of what his team needs from him. Chicago will be quarterback hunting once again this off season.

2. Frank Clark set the tone for Kansas City’s defense Monday night, recording a sack, forcing a fumble, and batting down a Philip Rivers’ pass. A mild disappointment so far in K.C., if Clark hits his stride in time for December and January football, Chiefs fans will forgive the slow start. With a defense that ranks 26th overall in yards allowed and 30th against the run, K.C. can forget about a Super Bowl run if those numbers don’t improve. Despite Patrick Mahomes’ greatness, even he won’t be able to put up 40 a game in the playoffs.

3. An offensive lineman celebrating a (overturned on review) rushing touchdown? Would have loved John Madden in the booth for this call.

4. Pass interference is so broken that the league should trash the entire rule and go back to the drawing board. It’s too subjective. In Baltimore-Houston, DeAndre Hopkins was interfered with in the end zone, an obvious call missed on the field and then upheld via replay. During Baltimore’s opening second half drive, the receiver and corner hand fought during the route, the ball was overthrown by 10 yards, and, after booing from the crowd, the referee threw a flag, resulting in a 30 yard gain for the Ravens. While Baltimore dominated and would have won regardless, these were two huge plays, both going against Houston and resulting in a 14 point swing. Too many NFL games are being decided by the whims of the refereeing crew.

5. After a hot start to his career, Kyle Allen is cooling off. He threw one of the most bone headed interceptions you’ll ever see on Sunday, handing the game to the Falcons in the first quarter. A 3-9 touchdown to interception ratio over the last 4, Carolina is 1-3 and slipping out of the playoff race. The turnaround for Allen has been drastic. 4-0 with 7 TDs and 0 picks after replacing an injured Cam Newton, the Carolina front office may want to wait before cutting ties with the greatest player in the franchise’s history.

Ugh. What was the plan here?

6. Houston’s offensive line gets raked over the coals in the media, but their quarterback does them no favors. Deshaun Watson is 22nd in the league in release time, at 2.79 seconds (nextgenstats.nfl.com). While he makes spectacular plays when scrambling around, too often he’s stuck with the ball and takes a huge hit. The Texans would do well to design some quick hitting throws to get Watson in rhythm when the offense is stagnant. No one should ever hold a team with him and DeAndre Hopkins to 7 points.

Too much dilly dallying in the pocket

7. There has to be a better way to guard elite receivers when they line up in the slot. The Panthers were in zone on 3rd and 16 Sunday while Atlanta lined 5 wide with Julio Jones in the slot. Carolina tasked Luke Kuechly with covering the deep middle of the field. While Kuechly is an All-Pro, he has no shot against Jones. Matt Ryan recognized the mismatch and burned Carolina for 48 yards down the middle of the field. It continues to baffle me why defenses spend the week devising plans to stop the game’s best receivers only to allow them to get matched up with linebackers, especially on third down. Carolina needs more corners and safeties on the field in that situation. It’s an unfair ask of Kuechly to guard that much turf.

8. 60% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Jared Goff has cratered this season, just in time to cash the 25 million signing bonus check the Rams gave him before the season. He’s due another 21 million on March 20 of next year. While the Rams wouldn’t admit it, is anyone involved with the franchise happy about that extension? Goff is an average quarterback, untradeable because of that contract, on a team built to win in the next 2-3 years. Sean McVay has his work cut out for him. Suddenly the Rams look very average.

9. New Orleans or Green Bay? Though San Francisco and Seattle will have a say, would there be anything better than a Brees-Rodgers matchup in January? Both are nearing the end and have never faced off in the playoffs. The Saints in snowy Green Bay for a chance to exorcise their haunting playoff exits over the past two years versus Aaron Rodgers, the king of playoff miracles? What could be better?

10. Indianapolis-Houston
Seattle-Philadelphia
Dallas-New England
Green Bay-San Francisco
Baltimore-L.A. Rams
An exceptional slate of games this week. If Indy wins in Houston, they’ll give themselves a de facto two game lead in the division with two victories over the Texans. Philly needs a signature win after a so-so performance against New England. Dak is posting huge passing yardage numbers, but New England’s number 1 defense is a different animal. If San Francisco is a contender, they must win at home against Aaron Rodgers. Can Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey slow down Lamar Jackson? If they can’t, will anyone?

 

Typical Cleveland Browns Problems, Typical Cleveland Browns Solutions

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Mitchell Trubisky

Time to step back and take a breathe. The Cleveland Browns aren’t making the playoffs in 2019. A winning record doesn’t seem attainable. Over and again, each member of the organization has proved incapable of handling the pressures of the expectations placed on them before the season. A weak schedule can no longer save them. What good are wins over Cincinnati and Miami? They’ll be empty calories, leaving fans hungry for something more significant.


The owner, the general manager, and the fans need to exercise patience. There are a myriad of problems with the roster and the coaching staff, but sweeping changes are not the answer. How often does a coach have to get fired, replaced, then fired again before they end the cycle? The Browns franchise returned in 1999 and has employed 11 head coaches in that time. Eleven coaches in 21 years. That’s obnoxious. The blame is placed at the feet of the wrong people.


Jimmy Haslam and Randy Lerner before him deserve criticism for the incompetence of this franchise for the past two decades. Would you blame the success or failure of General Motors on the line workers? They are the most important cog in the machine to be sure, but workers cannot succeed if they don’t have the correct tools, a safe work environment, and the proper training and education to flourish.


The owners of the Cleveland Browns have provided nothing but a toxic work space for their employees. Haslam hasn’t a clue what it takes to run an NFL franchise. He possesses neither the patience nor the wherewithal to put people in positions to succeed. His bravado and false sense of accomplishment allow him to brush his massive failures aside and place blame on others’ shoulders. A leader holds themselves accountable. Haslam has shown no sign he’s capable of self reflection.


The problems in Cleveland are deeper than the quarterback and coach. A systemic failure at the top of the organization oozes below, infecting the entire system. It’s a pitiful situation, and the fans are the ones who suffer. Firing a coach or replacing a general manager provides the masses with hope but does little to solve the overarching issues. The Cleveland Browns franchise will never win consistently until Jimmy Haslam sells the team, a depressing but true realization of the state of the franchise.


Baker Mayfield and Freddie Kitchens do look lost, however. The defense is regressing. The pressures of the NFL are mounting and no one involved has shown the capability to handle them.


On Sunday, the offense moved the ball and committed zero turnovers. The refs penalized the team only five times. Yet in pressure situations, they failed.


6-15 on third downs.
0-2 on fourth down.
One touchdown in five red zone appearances.


When the moment intensifies, Mayfield and the offense cower. On the season Mayfield in completing 35.9% of his passes inside the 20 yard line, throwing 4 touchdowns compared to 3 interceptions. Last year the numbers were 64.8% completions, 20 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. What happened?

Mayfield even struggles with a clean pocket


The talent is there. Mayfield has succeeded at every level, including the NFL. Not so long ago, he was the savior. He’s a quarterback with zero confidence. Bad plays have piled up. The expectations and pressure have buried him.


It’s time to give this group a chance to exhale. The final two months of the season may give them that chance. Can they find themselves somewhere under the rubble of the 2019 season?


The record will be a disappointment. Next off-season will offer less distraction. The national media will find the next big thing somewhere else. The Browns will be an afterthought. Is it possible for them to improve under those conditions? Cleveland’s was the third youngest roster entering the season. Contrary to popular belief, young NFL teams don’t make huge leaps from year to year. San Francisco is an exception in 2019, though Jimmy Garoppolo returned after missing all but 3 games last year, and they added the Defensive Rookie of the Year (presumably) in the draft.


Turning players and front office personnel over every other year hasn’t worked for twenty years. The team has won 18 games in 5 years. It can’t get any worse, right?

Buffalo arrives Sunday in Cleveland as one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season, sporting a 6-2 record and the third-ranked defense in the league. Josh Allen is unspectacular, however, a middling quarterback who’ll turn the ball over. He’s thrown 7 interceptions and fumbled 10 times on the year. He’s dangerous outside the pocket and will use his feet at the first sign of trouble. Cleveland’s defense must force Allen to throw, especially in the red zone. He’s run for 4 touchdowns, and the Bills offense, though they rank 23rd in the league, excel in the red zone. They score touchdowns on 71% of their red zone chances, best in the league, because of Allen’s legs and an efficient running game.

Frank Gore and Devin Singletary split carries in the Buffalo backfield, though Singletary may overtake Gore as the year progresses. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry and is coming off his best performance of the year, tallying 95 yards against Washington. Quicker and younger than his counterpart, watch for Singletary’s carries to rise in the coming weeks.


Defensively the Bills lack stars yet continue to dominate. Third in the league in passing yards allowed, Buffalo shuts down opponent’s passing games. Yet to allow a 300 yard passer on the season, Mayfield faces an uphill battle to find any success this week. Quarterbacks complete only 60% of their passes against safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and corners Levi Wallace and TreDavious White. They’re in the top five in the league in opponents’ QB rating and passes defended.


It’s difficult to see a path to victory for the Browns this week. They’re facing a confident team while living in a constant state of turmoil. Buffalo possesses the resiliency needed to win the low-scoring game likely on Sunday. The Browns’ offense has shown no propensity to overcome themselves, let alone a top five NFL defense.

The Whip Around

1. Josh Gordon got cut last week by the Patriots and claimed by Seattle, followed by reports of Seahawk players and fans gushing over their newest signing. Gordon is a special talent, but it’s difficult to imagine him succeeding in the NFL, regardless of the situation. He’s led a troubled life and deserves to find the help he needs to sort through his problems. An NFL locker room isn’t that place. Here’s hoping he finds that help.

2. Each week, defensive coordinators scheme to keep from getting beat deep by Tyreek Hill. Each week, they fail.

Chasing down an NFL running back with a 10 yard head start is unthinkable. How much for a Tyreek Hill-Usain Bolt 100M dash?

3. The vaunted Colts offensive line got schooled by the Steelers defensive front on Sunday, giving up 5 sacks, the most on the season. The Colts suddenly look average and injuries are piling up. A month removed from their upset of the Chiefs in Kansas City, Indy needs victories over Miami and Jacksonville over the next two weeks to right the ship before a mammoth trip to Houston in Week 12. Are the Colts a contender fighting through injuries or a team that peaked too early?

4. Speaking of the AFC South, the Texans defense looked the part in London against Jacksonville, but did not pressure Gardner Minshew until he needed to throw late. With a tough schedule that includes Baltimore, Indianapolis, and New England upcoming, the Texans must generate a pass rush. Will J. J. Watt’s injury and the trade of Jadeveon Clowney doom their playoff chances? Or will Deshaun Watson put up so many points that it won’t matter?

5. Philadelphia seems to have righted the ship, posting victories at Buffalo and Chicago after losing 4 of 6. Carson Wentz has regained his accuracy, completing at least 66% of his passes the last two weeks after posting sub 62% percentages in 5 of the 6 weeks preceding. With the 6th best rushing attack to complement Wentz, the Eagles seem poised to begin their yearly chase down of the Cowboys for the NFC East title.

6. The pitchforks are out in Chicago, hunting for the head of Mitchell Trubisky. A year after winning the division, the Bears are 3-5 with an offense unable to score points. While it’s looking likely the Bears will move on from the 2nd pick in the 2017 draft, who could be available to right the ship? Andy Dalton is an option. How many playoff victories does he have? Cam Newton is intriguing if Carolina hands the reins to Kyle Allen, but injuries have mounted for Cam and he’ll be 31 when next season kicks off. The loser of the Gardner Minshew/Nick Foles battle could be available, but Jacksonville would benefit by keeping both since Minshew is cheap. Eli Manning? Please. The best option may be Teddy Bridgewater. He held his own while Drew Brees healed, protecting the ball and allowing the Saints’ extraordinary defense to win games. Sounds like a perfect fit.

7. Lamar Jackson is what happens when an ultra-talented but flawed player falls into the right situation. Only a few organizations are savvy enough to put Jackson in a position to be an MVP candidate. Baltimore has proved again that smart teams win the draft, not because they unearth gems, but because they advance the abilities of their players instead of hindering them. Surrounded by a strong defense and elite running game, the Ravens are making the rest of the AFC North look like fools.

8. Halfway through the season, Josh Jacobs has the Offensive Rookie of the Year award wrapped up. Seventh in the league in rushing yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns, the Raiders’ back is the most impressive rookie in the league this side of Nick Bosa. On some runs, he’s a one cut back, putting a foot in the ground, hitting the hole, and showing off his speed. On others, he flashes an array of moves, jukes, and spins, leaving defenders flummoxed. An ideal combination of speed, power, size, and shiftiness, Jacobs will light up Vegas next year like, well, Vegas.

9. Browns, Jets, Redskins, Bengals. If you were to hitch your wagon to one of these franchises for the next decade which one’s the pick? Jimmy Haslam, Woody Johnson, Dan Snyder, Mike Brown. Maybe just pull the wagon yourself.

10. San Francisco vs. Seattle on Monday Night is the game of the year to this point. An undefeated 49ers squad at home with the best defense in the league against the presumptive MVP Russell Wilson. Richard Sherman squaring off against his old team. Seattle’s defense is the weak link in the matchup; can Pete Carroll scheme a way to slow down the 49er running game? The schedule toughens for San Francisco from here. A loss at home against a division rival could snowball on them. Prediction: the winner of this game wins the NFC West.

All stats courtesy of http://pro-football-reference.com