Are the Cleveland Browns a Playoff Team? The Bottom Line on their Second Half

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

A disappointing, wind hindered loss against the Oakland Raiders Sunday took the Browns to their bye week, halfway into the 2020 season. Five wins, three losses, and perched in playoff position, any rational Browns backer knows to enjoy the moments, and the victories. Seven teams now make the playoffs in each conference (with a report that the NFL may consider 8 entrants if games get canceled because of COVID). The schedule is favorable. Houston, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville await after the bye (combined records: 5-16-1), and they’ll face both New York teams in December. Is this a playoff team, and can they compete against Super Bowl contenders?

The losses are bad. Cleveland has averaged 37.4 points in wins, just 6.3 in losses. Any playoff run hinges on the offense scoring. Baker Mayfield again regressed in the wind on Sunday, a bad sign for the rest of the season. Four home games, plus two road games in New York, promise erratic weather. Mayfield has to find consistency. 12-25 for 122 yards Sunday, regardless of the conditions, won’t get the Browns into the playoffs. Receivers dropped passes. Jedrick Wills Jr. was awful. The running game produced little. Excuses, all of it. Quarterbacks lead their teams on poor weather days and during games when the rest of his teammates are struggling. He must deal with the elements for the balance of the season. He’s succeeded when conditions favor him, against poor defenses and lackluster opponents. Baker has to show up when he’s off, against playoff worthy opponents, to prove he’s capable of winning games in January. His flaky play is concerning.

Nick Chubb is close to returning, however, so Mayfield’s effect will lessen if Chubb and the offensive line re-establish the number 1 rushing attack in the league. But the defense isn’t getting better, and no one returning from injury can save this unit. The razor’s edge Cleveland plays on each week is further sharpened if the defense isn’t sacking the quarterback and forcing turnovers. No miscues by Las Vegas Sunday, and only 2 sacks, both by Olivier Vernon, isn’t good enough. A Vernon sighting was refreshing. He needs to do more over the second half of the season. Myles Garrett injured a knee, and while he’ll be ready when the team returns from the bye, he’s too often been their only resistance. Vernon has to help.

Ronnie Harrison has settled into one of the safety roles, providing stability (7th ranked safety via Pro Football Focus). But Mack Wilson has been abhorrent since returning (81 out of 82 linebackers, via PFF), and the corners, save Denzel Ward, can’t cover. Opposing offenses overcome penalties and lost yardage plays as the Raiders did on Sunday, digging out of a 3rd and 18 to get a first down, because the defense plays on their heels. The young guys are thinking too much and the veterans aren’t athletic. Josh Jacobs punished them on the ground Sunday. Joe Burrow has shredded them twice through the air. They can’t stop either attack, and offenses know it.

An alarming defensive stat? The Browns have the league’s 18th best sack rate, 6.06%. The heart of the defense, the only way they can control games, and they’re middling. Pittsburgh’s defense gives away yards, but their sack rate (11.54%) is almost double of Cleveland’s. The Browns defense is 26th in the NFL, allowing teams to convert 48% of their third downs. Long drives are becoming the norm. If Kevin Stefanski hopes to run the ball and control the clock when Nick Chubb returns, his defense must get themselves off the field. Otherwise, it’s on Baker.

Something went missing after the victory against Indianapolis. Chubb’s injury occurred the week before, sure, but the confidence has waned. A come from behind win against feisty Cincinnati didn’t provide the elixir. The bravado shown against Dallas and Indy has disappeared. They seem unsure as a team, wanting to contend, yet unsure of how to do it. But again, the schedule is their friend. Houston coming into Cleveland after the bye week is pivotal. The Texans are 1-6, yet won a playoff game last season and pushed the Chiefs, in Kansas City, for 20 minutes in the divisional round. Deshaun Watson will carve the secondary if given time. Their offensive line again is a weak link, however, allowing Watson to be sacked 8% of the time, 28th in the league. Playoff teams can’t lose to bottom feeders at home in November. We will draw a line of demarcation when Houston leaves Cleveland on November 15. Are the Browns playoff contenders, capable of competing against the top tier of the AFC? Or are they still early, searching for an identity and more talent?

The Whip Around

1.Until Lamar Jackson sticks a big throw in a tight game or on a game winning drive, we cannot consider the Ravens Super Bowl contenders. Jackson is dynamic. One of the most fascinating players in the league, he brings a skill set unlike anyone we’ve seen. But he’s reached his ceiling. The Ravens have wilted the past two years in the playoffs, and he’s struggled in marquee games against the Chiefs and Steelers. Talented teams, whether by scoring with the Ravens offense or utilizing ultra athletic defenders, have slowed Jackson, forcing turnovers and stalled Baltimore drives. The Ravens sat on teams last season with shock and awe early in games. Lamar’s skills cannot be simulated. But the league is coming around, and if Baltimore isn’t dominating opponents, Jackson’s talent is muted. Pinpoint passing to lead a team down the field late in games isn’t his forte. Can he develop that? For the Ravens to advance deep into the playoffs, he must.

2. Tampa’s ceiling may depend on their playoff draw. Defensive pressure with four rushers, and not having to blitz, has cost Tom Brady one Super Bowl, and while he’s been outstanding after three subpar performances to start the season, his movement at 43 years old is waning. The greatest to move inside the pocket, Brady can’t make the half steps and slides that were once his trademark, and the pressure on Tampa’s offensive line to keep him clean in January will be immense. The crappy Giants hung with the Bucs on Monday Night by hitting Brady and making him rush throws. Who can make him uncomfortable in the playoffs? While Seattle may be the best team in the NFC now, their pass rush stinks. The Rams and Saints (sixth and seventh in the league in sack rate), may cause Brady more problems.

3. When you punch someone in the helmet, you’re telling on yourself.

4. Among the myriad of reasons Dallas has fallen over a cliff is the poor play of linebacker Jaylon Smith. His Pro Football Focus rankings have cratered this season. He graded out at 70 overall last year, 81 against the run. In 2020 his rankings have dropped to 52 and 53, respectively. His tackles are high, but it deadens his impact when he brings down ball carriers 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys always underwhelm, yet this year seems different. This group should have competed for a Super Bowl already, but Dak Prescott sits injured while in line for a mega contract, their once great offensive line is struggling, Ezekiel Elliott’s contract extension looks bad, and Smith is regressing. How ‘bout them Cowboys?

5. It’s hard to tell if Carson Wentz is bad now, or if Philadelphia’s injuries and inept offensive line play is dragging him down. Two picks and two lost fumbles on Sunday night are a bad look against an awful Dallas squad, and his 12 interceptions on the season lead the league. Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Miles Sanders have all missed most of the season, or significant time. The division is so bad, the Eagles should make the playoffs by default. Then they become a tough out. They’ll have a home game as a division winner, and most of the injured guys should return. Doug Pederson’s a Super Bowl winning coach. So how good is Carson Wentz?

6. Justin Herbert keeps making plays, and the Chargers keep blowing leads. Herbert is a star; throws like this one are impossible. But when does the constant losing of three touchdown leads affect his psyche?

7. Atlanta’s undisciplined, personal foul ridden win against Carolina last Thursday showed why they’re bad. Two late hits out of bounds, double flags on a kickoff (they kicked off!), and a late hit by Charles Harris on Teddy Bridgewater (which led to an ejection) are dumb fouls made by unthinking players. The Falcons aren’t snake bitten by bad luck. They’re getting what they deserve.

8. Cam Newton just drops the football with New England in the red zone against Buffalo with 30 seconds left. What gives? Newton was fantastic early in the season, but over his last 3 games has no passing touchdowns, 5 picks, and the lost fumble. The Patriots are losing, a switch flipped on them after two decades of dominance. With Miami playing well, only the Jets offer easy wins for the Patriots and a chance to regain their footing. If they lose in New Jersey Monday night, they’re done, with an off-season like no other coming for New England.

9. If only Daniel Jones could stick to throwing beauties like this, instead of turning the ball over……………….

10. He doesn’t dominate opposing offenses, but Emmanuel Ogbah is the style of signing teams like the Dolphins make which speed up turnarounds. Ogbah had one tackle Sunday, a huge strip sack fumble of Jared Goff that teammate Andrew Van-Ginkel housed in the Dolphins upset of the Rams. Ogbah already has a career high with 6 sacks, tied for seventh in the league. He’ll never be a star, but consistent pass rushers are gold in the NFL. Miami’s rebuild is impressive. If Tua hits, they’re a problem, and soon.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

A One Week Improvement. Is Baker Mayfield Emerging as a $40 Million Man?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

A decision faces the Cleveland Browns organization next off season, one the team hasn’t confronted in their history. They haven’t been good enough as a team, or at the quarterback position, in the salary cap era (it started in 1994) to face such a choice. Baker Mayfield has changed that. Is he good enough? Mayfield, after a brilliant rookie season, faded last year and in the early stages of this season. But then Sunday happened. The confident, swaggering QB returned, unlocking Cleveland’s offense. That Mayfield raises their ceiling. That Mayfield can win playoff games. Where has he been? Will he remain?

Except for his height, Mayfield has the tools. What separates him has always been his cocksure attitude. It returned Sunday after a year and a half hiatus. Mayfield was unsure of himself in the pocket and afraid to make mistakes. He’s been fantastic on the move this season, advancing the offense on play action and designed rollouts and bootlegs. But he’s questioned his reads when sitting in the pocket, leading to turnovers and inaccuracy. Not so against the Bengals. He threw receivers open instead of waiting for them to create their own space. Mayfield wouldn’t have made this throw to Rashard Higgins a week ago.

He hits his back foot on the drop and the ball is out. That hasn’t happened since his rookie season. The ball pops. Look at this touchdown throw to David Njoku. The confidence is there. He knows where he’s going in an instant and places the ball where only his tight end catches it. Beyond gorgeous.

Where has this been? Did the hype, and failures, of last season sap his nerve? How much pressure did he feel to resurrect a miserable franchise? And what of Odell Beckham Jr.? The Pro Bowl receiver tore his ACL Sunday and will miss the rest of the season. A talent like his is irreplaceable. But we must ask, why did the old Mayfield return once Beckham exited? Has he recognized pressure to feed the superstar since the trade brought him and Super Bowl expectations to the Browns from New York? Was Mayfield intimidated by Beckham’s presence? If Baker continues to feast on opposing defenses without one of the best wideouts in the league, we’ll have answers.

Mayfield’s four-year rookie deal expires after the 2021 season, with a fifth year team option available in 2022. Teams in Cleveland’s position like to extend, or pick up the option, with a year remaining on the contract, or next off-season. With their history at the position, are the Browns prepared to declare Mayfield their franchise quarterback? Jared Goff makes 33.5 million per year, Kirk Cousins 33. That’s where negotiations will start. He’ll ask for the 40 million per that has held up Dak Prescott’s negotiations in Dallas. If he plays the rest of the season as he did on Sunday and the Browns make the playoffs, the team will have to pay him. They can’t afford to let the best quarterback the franchise has employed since Bernie Kosar to walk because of money. Is he good enough to devote 20% of the salary cap to, however? What does that contract do to their finances? Myles Garrett’s making $25 million per season now, and Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward are due soon. The new GM’s decisions next off-season will shape the Browns for the next decade.

Cleveland GM Andrew Berry didn’t draft Mayfield. What are his thoughts concerning John Dorsey’s pick? Kevin Stefanski inherited Baker, too. Are they prepared to marry their careers to the sporadic quarterback? The 5-2 start is terrific, especially for this organization. But the Baker decision looms. It’s a career definer for all involved. Mayfield makes the choice easy by playing the way he did on Sunday. That Baker is a top ten quarterback, someone deserving of a huge, long-term contract. But is the indecisiveness gone? Will he continue to fire darts? Has Stefanski unlocked his most important player? The Browns offense is unstoppable, with or without Beckham, with an accurate, resolute Mayfield. To become a perennial playoff contender and AFC North juggernaut, the reborn Baker Mayfield from Sunday must be the new norm. Do you trust what you see? Would you bet your job, and $40 million, on him?

The Whip Around

1.What was Anthony Lynn thinking, starting the season with Tyrod Taylor as his starting quarterback? Justin Herbert is impressive. He’s completed 67% of his passes and thrown only 3 interceptions. Taylor is a pro, and getting stuck in the lung by a doctor with a needle is awful, a cruel way to lose a starting QB job. But Herbert is a star, and the Chargers organization benefits from their doctor’s malpractice. L.A.’s future looks sensational. Funny how superb quarterback play changes the dynamics of a franchise. Perhaps Chargers stock is more valuable than their co-tenant’s, the Rams, with their future salary cap problems.

2. The Cam Newton questions are coming fast, and after his past two weeks they’re logical. Zero touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 5 sacks, and 18 points scored won’t pacify a fan base used to dominating. Is this a typical, early season Patriots swoon, or is Bill Belichick just a good coach without the greatest quarterback ever? Something exists in between, and Newton deserves a bit of a pass. He’s only two weeks removed from kicking the coronavirus, and the long-term effects are unknown. Cam could deal with lingering symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or headaches. But to think it hasn’t caused him any problems is foolish. If Belichick can drag this New England team to the playoffs, it’ll be astonishing.

3. DeAndre Hopkins has the best feet in the history of the NFL.

4. Why is Antonio Brown on an NFL roster? The league’s love affair with the malcontent is embarrassing for everyone involved. Civil lawsuits for tossing furniture off a balcony and nearly hitting a 22-month-old. Reckless driving outside Pittsburgh at over 100 MPH. Allegedly pushing the mother of one of his kids to the ground. An unpaid $38,521 tab. Another unpaid $7,194, this time a trainer. Sexual assault allegations from a personal trainer that he’s still facing a suit for. Brown has problems and shouldn’t get rewarded for his continued misconduct with a spot on a Super Bowl contender’s roster. The league will never learn its lesson. And why do the Bucs need him? A receiver room that contains Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and an emerging Scotty Miller isn’t desperate. Head scratcher.

5. And why, while we’re discussing poor league decisions, wasn’t Jon Bostic suspended for this hit on Andy Dalton, which caused a concussion? Bostic should have to sit as long as Dalton does. This is the exact helmet-to-helmet type hit the NFL supposedly wants out of the game. The referees tossed Bostic from the game, but that isn’t enough. The leagues ‘nothing to see here’ approach to these incidents is why they continue. Player safety to the NFL is only a talking point to make them seem compassionate. They aren’t.

6. The Devin Bush ACL tear didn’t hurt the Steelers defense for at least one week. Vince Williams, tallying 10 tackles (2 for losses), a sack and another quarterback hit, already has set his career high for tackles for loss and earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’ team of the week. Pittsburgh’s defense is the epitome of next man up. They give up points, but what defense doesn’t in 2020? They’re relentless on opposing quarterbacks. Those hits take a toll. Can they get Lamar Jackson on the turf this weekend? Their toughest test so far, if they can put the nimble Jackson on his back, the Steelers will take a huge two game lead in the AFC North.

7. Looked like DK Metcalf tried to make up for his early season blunder of dropping the ball before crossing the end zone by running down Budda Baker on a sure pick six on Sunday night. Metcalf caught Baker, saving the touchdown by sprinting the length of the field to keep the Arizona safety from pay dirt. Russell Wilson’s uncharacteristic three interceptions gave the Cardinals life, however, and they look capable as any of winning the brutal NFC West. Three teams have 5 wins, and the cellar dwelling 49ers only destroyed New England 33-6 this week and are the reining NFC champs. Is Kyler Murray capable of competing at Russell Wilson’s level for the next two-and-a-half months? He did it Sunday, but continuing that for the rest of the season seems a stretch. A ruthless division.

8. Is this a great catch or a drop? Or both?

9. Are the Bucs the best team in the NFC? Back to back powerful victories over Green Bay and Las Vegas suggest so. Tampa’s plus 80 point differential leads the league. They have the eighth best defense, the third rated offense. And yeah, 43-year-old Tom Brady. 369 yards and 4 touchdowns Sunday seems incomprehensible. His arm looked shot last year and earlier this season. No one’s smarter or more hungry at the position, however. Now 6th in the league in passing yards and second in touchdown passes, Brady is on the periphery of the MVP race. Think he wants to prove a certain former coach of his wrong?

10. Tampa looks great, but they aren’t the Chiefs. A ho-hum, 43-16 waxing of Denver in the snow, featuring a pick six and kickoff return touchdown, was easy. Patrick Mahomes threw for only 200 yards, yet they hung 43 on a division rival. As the season progresses, many will pick a litany of other teams to win the title, but don’t fall for it. Barring injuries, it’s the Chiefs.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com