Schizophrenia, thy name is the Cleveland Browns.
Seriously, the emotional toll the 6-10 Browns must inflict on their fans has to be wearying. Granted, the Cleveland fanbase has had little to cheer for football-wise for nearly a generation, and the Browns’ 2018 finish lifted expectations to unsustainable levels. The 2019 version of the Browns remains a talented overall roster still lacking in some key areas and without proven direction, as the Freddie Kitchens coaching experiment ended in decisive failure. The Browns’ season was tumultuous at best, culminating in a mid-November Thursday night win that felt rather like a loss, as Browns DE forcibly removed Steelers’ QB Mason Rudolph’s helmet and assaulted him with it. The Bonk, as I’ve come to refer to it, provides a perfect simile for the Browns – talented players doing horribly misguided things. Needless to say, the Browns front office has a lot to atone for.
The delineation of responsibilities on a football field is pretty clear. As former Ravens coach Brian Billick once opined, “Players play, coaches coach.” Problems tend to occur when the coaches don’t provide adequate direction or leadership to the players, which is pretty clearly what happened here. With no head coaching experience, the aforementioned Freddie Kitchens was named to the position largely on the strength of his relationship with QB Baker Mayfield, and when the season began heading downhill, Kitchens seemed ill-prepared to make any in-season adjustments or tweak his often-questionable game plans. He showed an awkward feel for press conferences, which only served to deepen the scrutiny of the team when inadequate answers to legitimate questions were provided, often with a chippy arrogance unbecoming of a long-time veteran coach, let alone a newcomer seeking to make a name for himself. In the end, that attitude, coupled with a lack of offensive cohesion, served to get Kitchens and GM John Dorsey – the roster’s chief architect – ousted. The Browns have since hired a new head coach in former Vikings assistant Kevin Stefanski, but the question needs asking – why hire another first-time head coach after last season’s debacle?
The players, of course, bear a heavy share of the blame, with a few notable exceptions. RB Nick Chubb actually exceeded expectations as the NFL’s second-leading rusher, and WR Jarvis Landry maintained his quiet consistency with another Pro Bowl berth. Until his Bonk-induced suspension, Myles Garrett was having an excellent season and seemed to be a lock for postseason honors. But with the standouts, of course, are those that came up a little wanting, and the Browns seemed to have a wealth of those. Mayfield, both on and off the field, regressed as his offensive line struggled at times, and his lack of pocket awareness and poor reaction to pressure served to produce a subpar year in which Mayfield led the AFC in interceptions (21). WR Odell Beckham Jr. provided his share of headlines through his wardrobe, decidedly odd statements to the press, and reduced stats – for him, anyway. The tight end position, plagued by injuries all year, produced little.
Other than Garrett, the defense didn’t show too many bright spots, although LB Joe Schobert deserves some mention for a yeoman’s effort. The defense seemed a step slow and off point most of the season, which can probably be attributed to the schemes of recently-fired, formerly well-thought-of defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Wilks’ zone designs and reliance on the secondary often left gaping holes in the middle of the front seven, which rushing teams were only too happy to take advantage of – the Browns finished 30th in the NFL against the run. The secondary fared much better overall, limiting teams to 217 yards per game through the air, good enough for seventh in the NFL. Based on these dramatic splits, recommendations for improvement seem pretty obvious.
So where to now? As of this writing, the Browns hadn’t hired a GM, so without a stated philosophy, no one’s quite sure what the Browns will do this offseason, but roster needs alone will dictate quite a bit of their draft and free agent pursuits. The Browns could use a couple of starting-caliber offensive linemen, some defensive line interior help, lots of linebackers, and perhaps some depth at safety. Browns fans are undoubtedly cringing at hearing this, but with a few tweaks and well-targeted roster improvements (not to mention a capable head coach), this could be a 2020 playoff team.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before…