Can the Cleveland Browns Prove Capable of a Rebound? It’s Not That Simple

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

A simple path for the Cleveland Browns to NFL dominance doesn’t exist. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are two of the best organizations in all of sports, and the Browns must compete with each twice per season. The level they need to reach to remain competitive with either has been unattainable by this franchise for 40 years. Wins against poor outfits in Cincinnati, Washington, and Dallas, and a competent Indianapolis, show growth. In year’s past, the Browns would’ve choked 1 or 2 of those wins away with silly turnovers or inopportune penalties. But a worst to first turnaround, easier for teams in, say, the AFC South, can’t happen. Not with the mammoth shadows cast on them from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

They’re perennial Super Bowl contenders who preach continuity, have strong staffs and systems in place, and draft well. The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007. Baltimore found John Harbaugh in 2008. They’re the 3rd and 4th longest tenured coaches in the league behind Bill Belichick and Sean Payton. Notice anything? The Patriots, Saints, Steelers, and Ravens are among the best teams in the league year after year. This isn’t a coincidence. They poured the foundations for winning long ago. These franchises don’t allow bad plays, or losses, or draft picks to sway their mindsets. The system is in place. They have established the correct way of doing things through high leverage playoff games and agonizing off-season practices. They win because everyone in the organization knows how to. There’s direction. There’s accountability.

None of this has existed in Cleveland since the rebirth, but signals of change are clear. Going from 6-10 to 8-8 or 9-7 is the simple part. Sunday’s dismantling in Pittsburgh was rough to watch and all too familiar. Unprepared and awestruck, units that have played well were over matched. Pittsburgh’s defensive line mauled the Browns’ number 1 ranked offensive line. The running game failed early, the deficit swelled, and Kevin Stefanski was forced to put the game in Baker Mayfield’s hands. Myles Garrett had 1 sack, but Pittsburgh’s so-so offensive line outperformed against Cleveland’s defensive front, allowing their offense free rein against the porous back seven. 38-7. Typical result at Heinz Field.

Why is Andrew Sendejo still starting and playing 100% of the defensive snaps? Injuries have decimated the position, but he’s costing the defense play after play. He lunges at ball carriers instead of squaring up to them and form tackling. He gets beat deep by wide receivers multiple times per game, a cardinal sin for safeties. Andrew Berry must step in to fix the situation. Whether by signing a free agent off the street or scouring the practice squads of other teams, find someone better. His Pro Football Focus ranking is 76th. He’s grades out at 51 against the run, 47 against the pass. Out of 100. He’s unathletic and slow, causing him to be out of position in perpetuity. Don’t blame the coaching staff for continuing to play him. He’s their only option. It’s Berry’s job to find someone better. Not a high bar.

While Berry has avoided scrutiny as general manager, questions remain about his eye for talent. He signed Jack Conklin. Linebacker Malcolm Smith (PFF ranking= 11th of 81 linebackers) flashes and has earned more minutes; he only played 52% of the defensive snaps Sunday. No other Berry signings or draft picks have had a positive impact on this team. First-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr. is struggling more than most would like to admit (60th ranked of 76 tackles, according to PFF). Free agent signings Sendejo, Karl Joseph, and B.J. Goodson aren’t good. John Dorsey acquired the contributors on this team. Berry is young and smart, but has yet to prove he can draft well or find under the radar free agents to contribute. He has to get better. Start with finding a safety, any safety, who can play the position.

The NFL built a safety net into the Browns schedule this season, placing their two games against Cincinnati in the weeks following trips to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Bengals have improved, and Joe Burrow could become a franchise quarterback, but he isn’t there yet. Cleveland’s lines hold advantages on both sides of the ball. In their week 2 Thursday nighter, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns. The defense sacked Burrow 3 times and hit him 7 others. Against weak opponents, talented teams flex their advantages. Look for Stefanski to game plan toward his team’s strengths.

The Bengals have talent at the skill positions, but Burrow’s offensive line doesn’t allow him time to get them the football. Garrett and the defensive line can win this game on their own with pressure. Forcing Burrow into rushed decisions will lead to turnovers. Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson can control the clock on the ground, keeping injured Baker Mayfield from having to win this one with his arm.

How far have they come? Have Stefanski and Berry changed the culture in their short time together enough for the Browns to move away from Sunday’s beating, or will the embarrassment linger? These are the games competent franchises win. They aren’t Pittsburgh or Baltimore yet. It will take years for Cleveland to walk into each season as a bona fide Super Bowl contender, but it starts here. Professional, organized squads pounce on the Cincinnatis. Winnable games against Jacksonville, Houston, and both New York teams remain. If this franchise has changed, we’ll see the signs this weekend.

The Whip Around

1.Evidence of rust showed on Cam Newton Sunday as the Patriots lost a curious one at home, 18-12, to the Broncos. We don’t know enough yet about the coronavirus to determine how it affects athletes, both short and long-term. Russell Westbrook contracted it, recovered, then struggled in the NBA bubble. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had it in June, but starred in the playoffs. The Patriots need a healthy, engaged Cam for their eleven year playoff streak to continue. One pick was a lazy throw batted by a lineman, the other placed well behind his intended receiver. The clock in his head was off when he took a blindside sack too; he should have felt the pressure and bailed before taking the hit. After an exemplary start, New England now sits at 2-3, weary from starts and stops because of the virus, and in third place in the AFC East. They need Cam’s athleticism and Bill Belichick’s genius to end their slide.

2. Monitor Las Vegas. David Carr has the second best passer rating in the league behind Russell Wilson. They’re the sixth best scoring offense in the league and the fifth best passing unit. They have a win over the Chiefs under their belt and are in a weak division. The defense is the problem. They’re giving up 30 per game and are second to last in the league in creating turnovers. Games remain against the Jets, Falcons, and Dolphins, plus 2 each with the Chargers and Broncos. The AFC is a muddled mess after Tennessee, K.C., Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. They almost have to make the postseason. Raider shootouts are must see 4:00 affairs for the rest of the season.

3. I can watch Kyler Murray throw footballs all day long.

4. Because they play in a trash heap of a division, the Cowboys will remain in the playoff hunt throughout the season. They’re 2-4 and lead the NFC East. It’s true. But Dallas is an awful team and Andy Dalton looked washed on Monday night against Arizona (2 picks, sacked 3 times, 65 rating). However, Ezekiel Elliott’s night was most concerning for Cowboy fans. Only 49 yards rushing against a middling Arizona run defense, Elliott also lost 2 fumbles, a first for him in an NFL game, exposing a lack of concentration on his part. Is he a leader? Can he carry them into the playoffs? Backs age fast, and Elliott is no exception. Only 26, he’s averaging the few yards per carry of his career, least amount of yards per game, and has fumbled almost twice as much already as he did all of last year. Zeke was dynamic coming out of Ohio State, but the shine wears off ball carriers overnight. He’s a classic example of why it’s unwise to give out large contracts to running backs when replacements exist late in the draft (see Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones). Note to teams with backs on rookie deals, let someone else pay that big second contract.

5. No corner combines run stopping ability and coverage skills like Jason Verrett. And no one in the league deserves success more. Verrett entered the league in 2014, got selected for the Pro Bowl in 2015, and has been through injury hell since. A torn ACL in 2016 didn’t heal properly, causing him to miss 2 seasons. Then a torn Achilles, costing him a third straight year. He returned last year, only to tear a patellar tendon in Week 3, ending another season. Recovered to start training camp this year, he suffered a hamstring injury, costing him the 1st two games of this year. Finally healthy, Verrett is a force in the secondary. PFF’s third rated corner through 6 weeks, his pick in the end zone against the Rams and Jared Goff shuttered the Rams momentum on Sunday night and gave San Francisco a much needed home victory after two abominable losses against Philadelphia and Miami. Jimmy Garoppolo’s struggles are real. The 49ers need their defense to carry the water if they hope to defend their NFC title, and Verrett’s work in the secondary is key. He’s a fun guy to root for.

6. The Tennessee Titans are Super Bowl contenders, and Ryan Tannehill is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Sure, Derrick Henry’s combined 264 yards rushing and receiving and 2 touchdowns in their overtime win against Houston was impressive, but Tannehill is the orchestrator of the offense. His passer rating (113.5) ranks third in the league after he led the category a year ago. 70% completions, 13 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions, they’re 5-0 because Tannehill pushes the ball downfield without turning it over. Henry’s career took off only after Tennessee acquired the QB from Miami for a 4th rounder to back up Marcus Mariota last season. Can he go throw for throw with Patrick Mahomes? Tannehill’s weapons are inferior to Mahomes’, except for Henry. He’d need an otherworldly performance from his defense in a rematch of last season’s AFC title game. But Tannehill belongs, something few could foresee after his career in Miami.

7. That Pittsburgh defense. Their back seven struggles, but they apply so much pressure that is hasn’t hurt them. Their 24 sacks lead the league. Add to that 36 hurries, 83 pressures, and 182 blitzes. That’s some heat. Offenses are too good in today’s game, and the rules are bent to favor them. Defenses will give up points. Pressure forces turnovers and negative plays, however. The only way to slow modern offenses is to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and the Steelers do that better than anyone.

8. Robert Woods is the fulcrum of the Rams offensive attack. He catches everything, blocks downfield, and forces defenses to obey their assignments because of their tendency to hand him the ball when he’s in motion. For L.A. to regain their offensive consistency from 2018, Woods needs the ball in his hands more.

9. The Philly wide receiver corpse is just that, and Carson Wentz is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. A barrage of injuries have hurt their chances in a putrid division, but led them to a gem in Travis Fulgham. Drafted in the 6th round of 2019 by the Lions, Fulgham was waived and cut before landing on Detroit’s practice squad last September. Cut by the Lions, Packers, and Eagles during training camp, Philly signed him on October 3 as a last resort. Alshon Jeffery remains unable to play, Marquise Goodwin sat out 2020, and DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor can’t find the field because of injury, either. Enter Fulgham. Through 3 games, his 18 catches, 284 yards, and 3 touchdowns has added some spunk to Philly’s offense. They’ve scored 25, 28, and 29 with him in the lineup, and Wentz has been average instead of a complete dumpster fire. If the Eagles can have any health related luck, they are the best team in the division, and Fulgham gives them a downfield threat that Jackson seems incapable of because of injury and age. The NFC East everybody.

10. How are the Chicago Bears 5-1 and leading the NFC North? Yes, the schedule has helped (wins over Detroit, NY Giants, Atlanta, and a Thursday home game against Tampa), but Nick Foles can’t throw the ball past the line of scrimmage (31st in the league at 5.8 yards per pass attempt). With Allen Robinson stifled by Foles’ pop gun arm and David Montgomery averaging less than 3 yards per carry the past 3 games, their weapons on offense lack punch. Three games await against the Rams, Saints, and Titans. Chicago’s time perched atop their division will be short-lived.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

On to Cincinnati

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

This early in the season, one can only hope the Cleveland Browns get better. Nothing on Sunday was surprising. Baltimore employs the reigning MVP and has Super Bowl aspirations. Cleveland is on their fourth head coach and offensive coordinator in three seasons. Baker Mayfield is regressing at an astonishing rate, and the defense has little talent in the back seven. Regardless of the hope that’s present at kickoff of a new season in Cleveland, a realistic look at this team, and the season they’re headed for, is a hard pill for the fanbase to ingest. This long, painful process is far from over.


Judging Mayfield on one game played against a superior defense, after an off-season with no preseason and a coach and coordinator switch may not be fair, but it’s year 3. He’s started 30 NFL games. No longer can some mistakes be overlooked. For instance, this third down throw to Odell Beckham:

This ball is late and behind the receiver. Mayfield gives Beckham no chance. When he’s coming out of his break on the in route, Mayfield has to have the ball in the air. He waits an extra half second and throws it behind Odell, giving Marcus Peters time to bat the ball down.

And this:

How do you miss 6’8”, 300 lb. Calais Campbell dropping into coverage? Campbell slips into the defensive backfield, reads Mayfield’s eyes, and tips the pass, causing an interception on the opening drive of the game. Three years in, Mayfield must see these things. He’s gun shy in the pocket, afraid to throw the ball, yet in a hurry to do so. He’s in his own head. Here’s hoping Kevin Stefanski can save him from himself.

The defense was atrocious, as expected. The linebacking core is young and unathletic. Hard to see the second line getting much better. It’ll take a draft and free agency period focused on the position to see much improvement, unless Mack Wilson developed over the off-season. The front office thrust their resources into the offense, with little help given to the defense, save for cheap, uninspired signings at safety and linebacker. B.J. Goodson had 9 tackles. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo combined for 9 tackles at safety, with zero passes defended. Baltimore wide receivers ran free in the Browns secondary all afternoon. The defensive line, the one unit with talent, combined for 2 quarterback hits. This isn’t good enough. Myles Garrett accounted for 1 tackle. If the line doesn’t manhandle opposing offensive lines, the opposition won’t be able to keep themselves from scoring.

Kevin Stefanski looked lost. Not much of a surprise. The fake punt was an awful call, and one first-year head coaches make when they’re trying to outsmart the room. Both sides of the ball seemed unprepared. He doesn’t have experience running an NFL team through a week of practice and a game day. He needs reps. Of everyone associated with the Browns, Stefanski needs permission to fail all season. They should consider 2020 a red shirt year for the coaching staff, a chance to learn the machinations of head coaching. If the front office puts too much on every decision he makes, he won’t grow into the job. No more coaching changes, please.

With the Bengals in for Thursday Night Football and the home opener, improvement is imperative. Number 1 pick Joe Burrow led a decent last drive against San Diego, but had to settle for an attempted game tying field goal which kicker Randy Bullock shanked. Otherwise, Burrow was middling against an average San Diego defense, throwing for 193 yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception. He took turns looking comfortable and jumpy. His offensive line did him no favors, allowing a pressure rate of 33.3%, fourth worst in the league. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It’s a must for the Browns on Thursday. Cleveland’s front four needs to hit the rookie QB again and again. They cannot allow him to get comfortable. Cincinnati has weapons. Tyler Boyd, A. J. Green, and Joe Mixon are dangerous with the ball. Myles Garrett and company cannot let Burrow have time to sit in the pocket. If they allow him any confidence, the Bengals have enough weapons to pull the upset.

The Browns offensive line played well Sunday. They provided Mayfield time to throw and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt large holes to run through, gaining a combined 132 yards on 23 carries. Look for more of the same Thursday. Cincy’s defense generated little pressure (2 sacks, 4 QB hits) and the Chargers ran for 155 on the ground. A steady ground game should be enough against the Bengals. Chubb and Hunt can win this game on their own. Stefanski should also use the weak Cincinnati defense to get Baker confidence in the pocket. If the Browns struggle, or cannot win at home on Thursday, this season jumps the tracks in a hurry.

The Whip Around

1.Tampa and New Orleans are each trendy NFC Super Bowl picks, but the fossilized quarterbacks they employ should worry fans of both outfits. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are two of the greatest to take snaps, but at the ages of 43 and 41, the hands on their clocks, if not broken, are rusted and rickety. Both have trouble stretching defenses and Brady threw two interceptions in this game, the first time he’s done so since the end of the 2018 season. The Saints won because Brees didn’t turn it over and had a better running game with Alvin Kamara behind him. New Orleans’ defense applied steady pressure on Brady throughout, and Sean Payton is used to calling short, middling passes, as Brees’ arm has regressed the last two seasons. These two are Hall of Famers and think the game better than any QBs in history. But if they can’t make the throws, their chances of playing in February are slim.

2. His conditioning level was lacking, but otherwise Aldon Smith impressed for the Cowboys on Sunday Night. Smith hadn’t seen a football field in five years, circumstances of his own doing. His past is littered with multiple arrests, most stemming from alcohol abuses, and he deserved the punishments the NFL dispensed, but has worked to turn his life around on the insistence of his grandmother before her death from ALS. Smith recorded 11(!!) tackles Sunday, along with a sack and 2 other quarterback hits. Add in 3 other QB pressures, and Smith showed the talent that launched him to stardom with 42.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. Dallas needs pass rush help, and if he can put heat on opposing defenses as he did on Sunday, the Cowboys defense will be stout. Here’s hoping Aldon Smith has changed his life and can reclaim his place as a superior pass rusher in the league.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo’s record as a starting quarterback is 21-6. Anyone want him taking snaps for their Super Bowl contending team? Garoppolo has succeeded because of the schemes given to him by Kyle Shanahan. He struggles to push the ball downfield and is reliant on his backs and receivers to make plays for his offenses to sustain drives. Shanahan proved he didn’t trust him in last year’s playoffs, taking the ball away from him as much as possible. San Francisco’s loss at home to Arizona portends a drop off from the Cinderella season the team enjoyed last year. A slight regression from the defense or the running game will mean missing the playoffs in the tough NFC West. Expect the 49ers to shop for a quarterback next off-season.

4. The hands it takes to catch a fastball like this. Just astonishing Allen Robinson.

5. Pittsburgh’s defense is real. Because of the pressure they put on quarterbacks, offenses are going to struggle against them. Look at these pressure stats from Monday Night:

For all the deserved accolades tossed T.J. Watt’s direction, Bud Dupree may be the better player. Two tackles for loss, a pass defended, and a key hit on Daniel Jones that forced an interception on the goal line, Dupree disrupts offenses in a variety of ways. Last year he was top ten in the league in fumbles forced, sacks, and tackles for loss. The Steel Curtain has returned to Pittsburgh, and if Ben Roethlisberger can return to form, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders.

6. Most expected sloppy play last week because of a jerky off-season with no pre-season games, but teams acquitted themselves well without the fake August games. Organizations don’t play starters big minutes in the pre-season, anyway. Give props to the players. They know how to ready themselves for an NFL season and the play in Week 1 proved as much. Holding calls were down 78% from a year ago, and total penalties numbered 199, the lowest total for Week 1 since 2001 (ESPN Stats and Info). Turnovers averaged 1.4 per game, while all games in 2019 featured 2.4 turnovers per. Don’t allow the NFL to tell you pre-season games are anything more than a money grab.

7. The MVP is Russell Wilson’s to lose. A distant second to Lamar Jackson a year ago, Wilson’s chances skyrocket this season because Pete Carroll may have come around. Married to a conservative, defensive minded approach for too long, Seattle’s brain trust came to their senses this off-season, realizing they possess one of the best weapons in the league, and it’s past time to treat him that way. Sunday’s numbers tell the story: 31-35, 322 yards, 4 touchdowns, 29 yards on the ground. Wilson wins games on his own; his teams are Super Bowl contenders by his presence on the roster. Now that Seattle’s head coach seemed to turn him loose, their championship window is again open. Watch the Seahawks.

8. The catches made in this league are insane. Chase Claypool is another weapon for Big Ben to exploit defenses with.

9. A good rule for any coach/GM in the NFL would be if you have one of the top 3 wide receivers on your roster, don’t trade him for table scraps. Bill O’Brien has dismantled the Houston Texans, and his deal to ship DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson, a 2020 second rounder, and a 2021 fourth, dumb then, is unconscionable now. Deshaun Watson, one of the best QBs in the league, at 24 years old, gives the Texans Super Bowl hope each year, and just signed a 4 year, 156 million extension. Why give away one of the best weapons in football for an oft injured running back? Nonsense. Hopkins’ 14 catches and 151 yards in Arizona’s upset of San Francisco shows how valuable he is, and speeds up Kyler Murray’s learning curve. The division is brutal, but the Cardinals are on the come. Hopkins makes them a playoff contender. Someone explain to me what O’Brien is doing in Houston. Anyone?

10. Were Cam Newton and Bill Belichick made for each other? Everyone knows Belichick wants nothing more than to stick it to Tom Brady by proving he can win his way. What’s better than taking a quarterback no one else wanted, installing a ball control, run heavy offense, and winning with defense, Belichick’s formula from years past? Newton’s 15-19 passing day, with no turnovers, along with 75 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, no doubt left Belichick smirking. Aloof concerning players, Belichick is the greatest to do it for that reason. Never married to a certain scheme, the coach has shown throughout his Hall of Fame career that he’ll use players in a way he sees fit to get results. Wide receivers playing corner. Linebackers as fullbacks. Defensive linemen as tight ends. Defensive teams, offensive juggernauts. He’s done it every way possible. Now to prove he can do it without the greatest quarterback in history.

All stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com