Hey babes, I’m back, but not for the usual Real Talk content you’re all used to. No, I’ve gotten bored with constant disappointment from the food items I review, so I’ve moved on to something even more soul crushing: figuring out why the Cleveland Browns have been so very mediocre this season, despite having a relatively spectacular season just the year prior.
Yes, the jump from food critic to sports reporter is a large one, but after rediscovering my love of football this year, I need to talk about why my favorite team is once again in the depths of idiocy and bleh. Disclaimer: this may be boring for non-sports fans, sorry not sorry – still read my article xx.
We started the season off hopeful, with Kevin Stefanski at the helm as Head Coach for the second year and a talented quarterback, Baker Mayfield, as his right hand. Coming off of a very successful 2020 season by Browns standards with a record of 11-5 and the first playoff run since 1994, nearly every fan was certain the momentum would carry through to the current season.
*skip to the bottom if you’re a fake fan, but still wanna see what I concluded*
NFL Preseason Highlights:
Preseason is the time for wildcard teams to present themselves as threats in the regular season and for opponents to size each other up for future match-ups. The Browns did just that, beating out the Jacksonville Jaguars (23-13), then the New York Giants (17-13), and finally the Atlanta Falcons (19-10). With 3/3 wins in the preseason, the team gained public opinion and furthered the confidence that the Browns would likely make another playoff run, possibly reaching the AFC Championship for the first time since 1989.
NFL Regular Season Highlight Games:
Cleveland Browns v. Kansas City Chiefs:
Upon reaching their first regular season game against the previous year’s Divisional winners and Superbowl runner-ups, a win for the Browns would cement their ability to reach the offseason. Unfortunately, the Browns would ultimately fall to the Chiefs (29-33), marking their record as (0-1).
Cleveland Browns v. Chicago Bears
A few weeks later, this match-up seemed doomed from the start – for the Bears. With rookie QB, Justin Fields, making his debut for the Chicago team, the Bears offense quickly found themselves overpowered by a dominant Browns defense. Myles Garrett, a defensive end for Cleveland and well known as one of the best to ever play his position, made a record 4.5 sacks against Fields, coupled with CLE DE Jadeveon Clowney’s 6 hits against the same QB. This explosive defensive performance added to the momentum of the offense with 418 yards gained compared to the Bears measly 47. At the end of the 4th quarter, the Browns sealed their beat down with a decisive (26-6) win, building their record to (2-1).
Cleveland Browns v. Los Angeles Chargers
This game was quite the shootout. With a combined final score of 89, these two teams had lead change after lead change, only securing a victory for the Chargers when their powerful defense was able to make the stop against the Browns offense in the last minutes of the 4th quarter. Although this match-up does not display any particular vulnerabilities of the Cleveland team, it does represent a trend that the Browns struggle to convert in the 4th. Exiting the 3rd quarter with the lead at 27-21, this would’ve been where CLE should have run away with the game. Instead, they allowed the Chargers to make an immense 26 point comeback in 15 minutes, winning the game by 5. After this, Cleveland’s record was reduced to (3-2), as was their confidence as a cohesive organization.
Let’s fast forward to the mid-season. After a blowout loss against the Cardinals, a narrow victory versus the Broncos, a 5 point loss against the Steelers, then a massive W against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns were reaching a sort of stall. With their record now (5-4), gaining momentum almost felt impossible. After defeating the Bengals (41-16), they had one of their last chances of the season to take the win and run with it.
By run with it, I mean literally because the Browns run game has been statistically superior to their passing over the course of the season. This is mainly due to Baker Mayfield’s torrent of injuries and leadership struggles, starting way back in Week 2 against the Vikings, when Mayfield suffered a torn labrum. Further, in Week 6, during the blowout loss against the Cardinals, Mayfield was strip sacked by JJ Watt, (strip sack: QB gets taken down, often behind the line of scrimmage by a defensive player and the football is ripped from their hands, resulting in a turnover) further injuring his already hot mess of a shoulder.
Cleveland Browns v. New England Patriots
Upon the Browns attempt to springboard off of their previous victory, they went head to head with the Patriots – and were destroyed. Mayfield left part way through the game when he was hit by one of New England’s outside linebackers in a pass attempt and had a questionable right knee injury, and the game devolved further from there. A 38 point loss destroyed much of the hope had by fans for pushing the Browns season forward.
Playoff Shot? Missed.
With playoff prayers on the line, the Browns played on, narrowly winning against the Detroit Lions (13-10), a loss to the Baltimore Ravens (10-16), a 2 point win against the same Ravens 2 weeks later (24-22), and a narrow loss to the Raiders (14-16). This is where winning would be necessary to make a playoff bid. The Browns needed to beat the Packers, alongside many other teams winning or losing, in order to go beyond the regular season. Disappointment resulted, as the Green Bay Packers came away with a field goal in the 4th to win (22-24), and a week later the Browns built another loss against our central rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-26). An essential “consolation” win against the Bengals in the final week of regular season kept our record to a measly (8-9), wholly worse than the previous season’s (11-5) record.
TLDR: The Browns, with an entirely below average record of (8-9), missed their playoff opportunities at every turn, played a QB while injured, and overall simply could not get their issues resolved to have any real success this season.
So, ending on a mediocre note, a classic play by the Browns for nearly their entire existence, one has to wonder – if the Browns of last season are nearly identical to that of this season –
Why do the browns suck again?
The answer lies in nearly every piece of the Browns organization.
Wide Receivers (Plus, Austin Hooper, ugh.): The entire offense has struggled this season, but wide receiver spots have been a disastrous pile of inadequacy. Odell Beckham Jr, the Browns star WR, entered the season healthy and ready to open up the offense. He did just that. The only issue? An utter lack of communication. While running routes and ending up wide open multiple times, the plays he ran were entirely on the fly. With a QB, Baker Mayfield, injured and generally script driven, doing unpracticed plays only resulted in making it seem like Mayfield was purposely ignoring OBJ’s openings, rather than the underlying situation. Odell Beckham Jr was later “traded” to the Los Angeles Rams for Week 10, although it was more of a drop-off, as the Browns got nothing in return.
Jarvis Landry, OBJ’s bestie and another spectacular WR, entered the season the same way – finally healthy and ready to perform. Yet, as this season has highlighted, injury followed this Browns team. With 2 snaps into the second game of the season, Landry suffered a knee injury, pushing him out of the next several games and dropping his completion range severely. Frankly, the WR is a shell of himself who makes costly mistakes in an effort to overcompensate for what he’s lost to injury.
No matter how badly Landry has performed, nothing compares to just how atrocious Rashard Higgins has played. The breakout star WR from last year, Higgins was the most reliable and efficient receiver on the team. All of that disappeared over the course of this season, with such below average play that he was relegated to the bench and replaced by Ja’Marcus Bradley, an upgrade from the practice squad.
Finally, let’s talk about Austin Hooper. He may not be a wide receiver, but he has been one of the most annoying receivers we’ve seen in both last season and this one. The 250lb tight end may be able to block almost anything, but he also drops almost everything. He may be capable of greatness, but if he keeps falling short in clutch moments, he will not be on the Browns for much longer.
Coaching: Kevin Stefanski was a shining light in the previous season. With his debut season coming with a spectacular playoff run and confidence around team building, many were surprised, myself included, to see that KS struggled so much this season. The reason why? No change-up. After successful offensive and defensive strategy last year, KS kept the same style through to this season. That would be just fine, if other teams had not figured out how to prevent it. Coming into the regular season, the Browns offense was taken by surprise again and again by opponents’ ability to neutralize the pass and, more importantly, the run game. With talent like Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson as running backs being essentially useless, winning games became increasingly difficult. Stefanski needed to be able to pivot, altering his game plans to account for Mayfield’s decreased mobility and the fact that teams simply figured him out. He couldn’t do that, nor could he let go of calling plays, making his valuable offensive coordinator, Alex Van Pelt, sit on the coaching sidelines. Hopefully, he learns from his failures this season and can better manage the team into health and wins.
Baker Mayfield: Mayfield, the #1 draft pick from Oklahoma over 3 years ago, created high hopes and expectations for development of the Cleveland Browns pass game and leadership. Finally able to show his ability in the 2020 season, Baker Mayfield has been seen as the face and talent of the Browns over the past 4 seasons. Unfortunately, injury has not boded well for his performance on or off the field. With the torn labrum only 2 weeks into the season, Mayfield was severely impacted – resulting in abysmal pass completion ratings and an utter lack of mobility in the pocket. After Week 10’s worsening of his shoulder condition, Mayfield was out for several games to be replaced by our solid backup, Case Keenum. Upon Mayfield’s return, it was clear he had neither recovered nor been willing to end his season early to undergo the shoulder surgery needed to get him back in form. Instead, he opted to continue playing through his multiple injuries, despite a significant decrease in skill and a real risk of irreversible damage.
Despite now being in their off season, Mayfield has yet to have surgery. He is expected to do so on January 19, 2022 which should, hopefully, give him enough time over the next months to recuperate and regenerate his skill. One thing this season has shown? Baker Mayfield cannot handle the type of pressure necessary to carry his team out of a rut. When his playing is actively hurting his team and he still chooses to stay in – that’s not a team decision, that’s a Mayfield decision. Even still, the Browns have officially stated he will be kept on contract through the next season, giving the QB one more chance to show the same command of the game as in the year prior.