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

Winning in March

Cleveland Browns, NFL, NFL Free Agency

Whether they’re declared the winners of free agency after the first week, the Cleveland Browns and new general manager Andrew Berry staked their claim to yet another off-season champions trophy. Berry attacked three positions of weakness, signing two of the top 15 players available in tight end Austin Hooper (4 years, 42 million) and right tackle Jack Conklin (3 years 42 million). Case Keenum (3 years, 18 million) signed to back up Baker Mayfield, then they acquired fullback Andy Janovich for a 2021 seventh round pick, sent to Denver. The big, early moves were upgrades to the offense, a nod to new head coach/offensive genius Kevin Stefanski and franchise QB Mayfield. Headlines in March are nice, but did the Browns get better?

Let’s start with Hooper. As with most first day free agent signings, this was an overpay. Hooper is now the highest paid tight end in the league. He isn’t George Kittle or Travis Kelce, but he has made two straight Pro Bowls and is a force down the seams in the middle of the field. He’ll drag linebackers with him, allowing Jarvis Landry space on crossing patterns and Odell Beckham one-on-one coverage on the outside. Stefanski was offensive coordinator in Minnesota for just one year and leaned on two tight end sets. 56% of Minnesota’s plays occurred out of multiple tight end formations, 2nd in the league. Given the dearth of quality tight ends in free agency and the draft, along with the inconsistency of David Njoku, signing Hooper was a necessity. Stefanski’s offense depends on the position; they’ll still need growth from Njoku. Hooper gives the offense reliability, but the large contract points to desperation by Berry and Stefanski.

Though Freddie Kitchens garnered most of the blame for last year’s failures, his offensive line shared the fans’ wrath. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 23rd in the league. They gave up 2.6 sacks per game (15th) and anchored the 12th best rushing attack (118.8 per game). Not outstanding numbers, yet not the abomination some made them out to be. Enter Jack Conklin. Another upgrade, Conklin is a good, not great, right tackle who will, at worst, improve the gap size for Nick Chubb to run through. PFF ranks him as the 12th best run blocking tackle in the league over the past four seasons. His passing grades, however, aren’t stellar. The 37th ranked pass blocking tackle in the league last season, Conklin is average in pass protection. He’ll need help in some one-on-one match-ups, particularly against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, another reason for the need to upgrade the tight end position.

Throw in the trade for Janovich, along with the 2nd round tender given to Kareem Hunt, guaranteeing he’ll be with the team next year, and it’s obvious the new Browns regime wants to run the ball. Stefanski has served under run-first dictator Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and had running game guru Gary Kubiak looking over his shoulder in 2019. For those worrying about analytics taking over in Cleveland, this isn’t it. The numbers say the only down and distance where it’s more beneficial to run than pass is 3rd and 1. Playing a fullback and using two tight ends condenses the field, allowing teams to better control Landry and Beckham. Teams that run the ball don’t trust their quarterback (see the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo). What do Berry and Stefanski think of Baker Mayfield?

Which brings us to the Case Keenum signing. The Browns needed a backup quarterback. Keenum’s one successful NFL season occurred in Minnesota in 2017 with Stefanski as his quarterback coach, making this signing inevitable. Keenum knows the offense, and can step in and lead if Mayfield gets injured. What if Baker struggles, however? Imagine a 1-3 start, and Mayfield swimming against the current as he was last year. This coaching staff and front office didn’t draft Baker Mayfield. He has two years left on his rookie deal; teams normally try to do extensions one year before contracts expire. If Baker doesn’t pop this season, think Andrew Berry wants to hand out a 35-40 million dollar contract to an average quarterback next off-season?

On defense, the Browns filled holes with linebacker B.J. Goodson, safety Karl Joseph, and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Joseph is a former 1st round pick who has battled injuries. The weakness at the position in Cleveland’s secondary all but guarantees him a starting spot; he, Sheldrick Redwine, and J.T. Hassell are the only safeties on the roster. Billings adds depth behind Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, while Goodson will compete for time with last year’s rookies Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki.

The defensive signings are underwhelming. Expecting anything other than replacement-level production is foolhardy. The loss of Joe Schobert, last year’s QB on defense, hurts, but the contract he signed in Jacksonville (5 years, 53.75 million) was exorbitant. The front four remains strong; behind them, however, there are questions. Denzel Ward struggled overall and with injuries after a Pro Bowl rookie year. Greedy Williams was just okay. The holes at safety are glaring. Mack Wilson showed promise, but no other linebackers on the roster affected games in 2019. The front office must go heavy on defense during next month’s draft. Cleveland’s brass may want to pound the running game, but that strategy works only with a top 5-10 defense. Unless the defensive line is as dominate as San Francisco’s last year, this approach won’t work.

The Whip Around

1.The Tom Brady signing in Tampa is a shock. the offensive weapons are plentiful at receiver and tight end, and Tampa’s offensive line ranked 7th a year ago, according to PFF. Shaq Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks. There’s talent on Florida’s west coast, but is a 43-year-old Brady the answer? Jameis Winston stockpiled yards, touchdowns, and interceptions last season; its doubtful Brady will throw for anywhere near the 5109 yards, or the 30 picks, Winston tossed. Bruce Arians’ belief must be that fewer turnovers will equal more wins. Only two teams gave up more points than the Bucs last year, however. Tampa will make for an interesting watch, and we’ll get a heavy dose of them in prime time. I’ll bet the Patriots and Belichick win more games, though.

2. With Brady’s departure from New England, Buffalo sees an opportunity. Josh Allen progressed last year, minus the mess he made in their playoff loss to Houston. Devin Singletary averaged 5.1 yards a carry as a rookie, John Brown and Cole Beasley combined for 139 catches and over 1800 yards, and the defense ranked only behind New England’s in points allowed. Enter Stefon Diggs. Trading away a 1st, 5th, 6th, and 2021 4th for Diggs was the ultimate win-now move for a franchise sharing a division with the Brady-less Patriots, the going nowhere Jets, and the rebuilding Dolphins. Diggs is a home run hitter and Allen’s arm, though inaccurate, is strong enough to sling it to him deep. The Chiefs and Ravens make a Super Bowl run unlikely, but a home playoff game in snowy Buffalo isn’t out of the question.

3. What is Bill O’Brien doing in Houston? If DeAndre Hopkins isn’t the best wideout in the league, he’s in the top three. A second rounder and David Johnson for Hopkins? Look what Buffalo gave for Diggs, above. This is unconscionable. No one should be coaching and general managing an NFL franchise; O’Brien is proving that point in real time. With J. J. Watt suffering injuries yearly, Deshaun Watson must watch while Houston’s talent gets pillaged by the rest of the league. Watson is a top five quarterback in the league on a rookie deal. Teams with an asset that large are in Super Bowl or bust mode. O’Brien has wasted Houston’s opportunity to strike before their QB bill comes due. Stripped for parts now, what will the franchise look like after paying $40 million per to Watson?

4. The Rams released Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon can’t find a job. It sucks to be an NFL running back these days. Facts are facts, however, and teams don’t have to pay, in the form of top draft picks or high dollar contracts, to get production from the position. In 2017, Gurley and Gordon ranked 2nd and 7th in the league in rushing yards. Two years later, both are unwanted (Gurley signed a 1 year deal with his hometown Falcons on Friday). Passing is king in the NFL. Few teams win by running the ball. Those that do don’t have a workhorse running back (see San Francisco and Baltimore). Nick Chubb, beware. He has two years left on his rookie deal, then will try to negotiate a new contract with an analytics heavy front office that didn’t draft him. It would shock me (SHOCK!) if Andrew Berry gave a running back 12-15 million per year, regardless of Chubb’s production over the next two years.

5. Why are the Bears giving Jimmy Graham 16 million over 2 years? He’ll be 34 next year and has averaged 46 catches and 2.5 touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball over the last two seasons while missing 10 games. Nick Foles too? Bears fans, get ready for a prime slot in the 2021 draft.

6. Chargers fans will join them. After the departure of Philip Rivers to Indianapolis, L.A. has announced they’ll ride with Tyrod Taylor instead of pursuing Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or any other quarterback on the market. If nothing else, Newton puts asses in the seats of the new SoFi Stadium the Chargers are sharing with the Rams. Stars sell in L.A., right? Nothing like a rebuild for a team in a market already struggling to attract fans. Expect a Keenan Allen trade demand any time.

7. Good for Byron Jones, one of the most consistent corners in the league, for getting his money in Miami. 5 years 82 million, with 40 mil guaranteed over the first two years. No one will complain about living in Miami with that much cash, but don’t expect much action in January.

8. The Ravens signed Michael Brockers to a 3 year, 30 million dollar deal after trading a fifth round pick for Pro Bowler Calais Campbell. The hell? This time a year ago, Baltimore looked vulnerable. They had contemplated firing John Harbaugh and a second year running quarterback was being handed the reins. Now, they’re coming off a 14-2 season, have the league MVP, and just rebuilt their defensive line into one of the best in the league. The rest of the AFC North teams are playing for one of the three wild card spots.