There never seems to be an end to the long, dark tunnel for the Browns

There never seems to be an end to the long, dark tunnel for the Browns

Photo Courtesy of Dave Spano

Another season of Cleveland Browns football has almost faded to black, leaving behind a list of questions and a fan base that is split on whether a new quarterback needs to lead the charge in the future.

Now that quarterback Baker Mayfield has shut down his season to have surgery on a torn left labrum, those that think he’s not the answer are hoping the team doesn’t re-sign him in the offseason. There are equally as many that want to see more of a “healthy” Mayfield with a better cast of receivers and better play calling by coach Kevin Stefanski.

None of us knows exactly what impact the shoulder injury had on Mayfield’s throwing mechanics. The injury occurred in a week two game against the Houston Texans, forcing Mayfield to play the rest of the season with a harness.

Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said recently that the harness definitely affected Mayfield’s mechanics. He said they did their best to work around it, but you get the idea that it was far from a perfect scenario.

Mayfield also had ankle and foot injuries that made him immobile. As a quarterback that thrived the preceding season on rollouts, much of what Mayfield does best was taken away from him.

If all that wasn’t enough, the offensive line (supposedly among he best in the NFL) became a weak spot, much of which was out of its control. It was essentially a lost season for right tackle Jack Conklin, who missed time with an ankle injury, Covid and finally a season-ending Achilles injury.

Just a few weeks ago there was so much promise to the season for the Browns

The loss of Conklin for most of the season was huge. Stefanski tried Blake Hance and rookie James Hudson III, but both struggled predictably. Mayfield couldn’t enter a game expecting much protection from the right side.

Left tackle Jedrick Wills also missed time with Covid and an ankle injury. Again, the pivotal blind side of Mayfield was a concern. It didn’t help that Stefanski inexplicably relied on Mayfield’s passing instead of the ground game led by Nick Chubb. Defenses had a field day pressuring Mayfield into mistake after mistake.

It reached a climactic point in the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Monday when Stefanski gave Hudson no help against the league’s best pass rusher — linebacker TJ Watt. Mayfield was sacked nine times and pressured numerous other times.

Lost in this analysis is the inability of the receivers to get open and make catches. Yes, Mayfield often missed wide open receivers on short routes, but the number of those instances pales in comparison to the number of drops. There were anywhere from seven to 10 drops against the Steelers.

The best guess is that management will re-sign Mayfield at an affordable cost. A quarterback will likely be added via the draft to provide a potential long-term answer if the Mayfield project ultimately fails. That won’t sit well with the anti-Baker crowd, but it’s a common-sense way to deal with a player that a year ago was viewed as the long-term answer. He couldn’t have dropped that far in production in such a short time without a little push over the edge (i.e poor play calling, poor receivers and a leaky offensive line).

The Browns need to regroup and avoid a redo of their look.

Not much makes sense about the way the AFC has transpired this season, including the Browns

Not much makes sense about the way the AFC has transpired this season, including the Browns

Not much makes sense about the way the AFC has transpired this season, other than that change is inevitable.

Several weeks ago the New England Patriots looked like an also-ran, while the Buffalo Bills were rampaging their way to what appeared to be the East Division title. Through week 14 the Patriots are now 9-4 and two games ahead of the 7-6 Bills.

The Kansas City Chiefs looked rather ordinary earlier this season, showing perhaps a hangover of two consecutive Super Bowl appearances. They’re now working on a six-game winning streak and are atop the West Division with a 9-4 record.

Then there’s the North Division, where the Baltimore Ravens (8-5) are clinging to a one-game lead over the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals. It wasn’t long ago that the division looked like the Ravens to

win easily and for the Browns, Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers to fight for the other three spots. It’s now a toss-up with four games remaining in the 17-game schedule. A deeper look at the coming month actually plays out favorably for the Browns.

The Browns have an opportunity to make another upward move in the division this week with a home game against the struggling Las Vegas Raiders. The Bengals are at the improving Denver Broncos, the Ravens.

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host the Green Bay Packers and the Steelers host the Tennessee Titans. The Browns will face a difficult game at Lambeau Field against the Packers on Christmas Day, before finishing at Pittsburgh and home to the Bengals.

The Bengals have home games against the Ravens and Chiefs before closing with a trip to Cleveland. After hosting the Packers, the Ravens play at Cincinnati and close with home games against the Los Angeles Rams and the Steelers. Pittsburgh, after hosting Tennessee, finishes at Kansas City, home to the Browns and at the Ravens.

There are many working parts at play, but the bottom line is the Browns would likely be in a good spot to make the playoffs with wins in three of their final four games. Their schedule appears to be a bit easier, but, as this season has shown, the most predictable thing is unpredictability.

A legitimate concern for the Browns is the consistent poor play of the offense, which managed just 17 of the 24 points in the 24-16 win over the Ravens last Sunday. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is struggling in getting on the same page with his receivers, a problem that can be shared across position groups.

The good news is that the defense has put together three straight outstanding efforts after the 45-7 debacle in a loss to the Patriots in November. The defense is relatively healthy for this time of the season, and the offseason additions are playing as expected.

Nothing is more important as the weather turns winter cold than to have a stout defense. That might be the Browns’ ticket to a second straight trip to the postseason. Maybe?

If the decision is to make the leap, do so at your own risk with the Browns

The bye week was kind to the Cleveland Browns

The bye week was kind to the Cleveland Browns

The bye week was kind to the Cleveland Browns, a team on the brink of falling from relevance in the 2021 NFL season.
The rival Pittsburgh Steelers helped greatly with their win over the Baltimore Ravens. Entering the games of the coming weekend, the Browns are 6-6, two games behind the Ravens and one game behind the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers inched ahead of the Browns with a 6-5-1 record.

With three of their final five games against AFC North Division opponents, the Browns could control their destiny. It starts Sunday at +First Energy Stadium with a rematch of their 16-10 loss to the Ravens on Nov. 28.
To say the game is vital is an understatement. This is the exact definition of a “must” win. As rocky as this season has been, a win Sunday will put the Browns in a decent chance of qualifying for the playoffs.

If the decision is to make the leap, do so at your own risk with the Browns

The Browns haven’t fared well in these types of games for a long time, with the exception of last season. This season has been especially frustrating because of the lofty expectations after what occurred last season and an offseason when attractive pieces were added to the defense. Now is the time for it all to come together. Now is the time for the Browns to silence the growing and non-stop complaints of disgruntled
fans.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield obviously needs a big game, but it’s not that simple. Pass protection has been an issue, and it won’t improve with the loss of right tackle Jack Conklin for the remainder of the season.
Coach Kevin Stefanski needs to adjust the offense to compensate for the issues up front and a receiving corps that lacks big-play talent. Getting the ball to the backs and tight ends on a regular basis is key.

Another good idea might be to follow Bill Belichick’s plan in New England’s Monday night win in Buffalo by sticking to the ground game(Patriots quarterback Mac Jones attempted just three passes). For that plan to have success, the defense, which played so well against the Ravens, needs to duplicate that effort.

It’s all sitting there in front of the 2021 Cleveland Browns. Either the players start making tee times for January next week or they can begin thinking about playing
football deep into the month. Fans are too often calculating where the Browns will slot in the draft at this time of the season. Some hope the team loses to improve its draft position.

It’s time for that silliness to stop. Go win a game.

If the decision is to make the leap, do so at your own risk with the Browns

If the decision is to make the leap, do so at your own risk with the Browns

Photo by: Dave Spano

Any new fan of the NFL should think seriously about a decision to follow the Cleveland Browns.

The lack of long-term success for decades makes people act strangely, and that’s the situation surrounding the Browns. Social media lights up like a Christmas tree during and after each Browns loss, which have been far too many in a season that was among the most anticipated in a long time.

Entering the bye week with a 6-6 record, the odds of winning the AFC North Division are just about off the books. The only realistic playoff hope with five games remaining is to earn one of three wild card berths.

That fact has been a major disappointment to what has become a disgruntled fan base. It lead to tweets and posts that don’t always make sense. Like Baker Mayfield is an awful quarterback. Kevin Stefanski needs to be replaced, etc., etc., etc.

It seems obvious by now that Odell Beckham Jr. was more of a hindrance to offensive success than he was a help. The impact that had on the struggles in the passing game can’t be overlooked.

A trickle-down effect of Beckham’s former employment was that the front office basically turned its back on receivers in the draft and free agency. The highest a receiver has been selected in the last five drafts was in the third round this year (91st overall) — Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz.

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Schwartz, who was touted as among the fastest receivers in the draft, has been a non-factor. Take away his speed, and Stefanski is left with a noticeably slow and inefficient corps of receivers, which is why he often uses sets with three tight ends.

Mayfield is clearly hurt, which is having an adverse effect on his performance, but he has few options in the passing game. The Baltimore Ravens, a 16-10 winner over the Browns last Sunday, knew that and loaded the box to stop the runs of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

The good news in the loss in Baltimore was the total effort of the defense, which played as advertised. Myles Garrett had perhaps the best game of his career, and it wasn’t all about sacks. Garrett harassed quarterback Lamar Jackson most of the game, as did Jadeveon Clowney.

Then there was rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah who looked like the best linebacker the Browns haven fielded since the days of Clay Matthews. Koramoah is more than just a speed freak. He’s a head hunter that isn’t afraid of filling a gap and making a hard hit.

That defense needs to show up every week for the rest of the season if the Browns have any serious hopes of making the playoffs, because the offense will likely remain stuck in neutral until help arrives at the receiver positions.

The Browns are in great shape heading down the stretch drive of the regular season

The Browns are in great shape heading down the stretch drive of the regular season

Photo by: Dave Spano

The problem is that they’re in great shape.

It sounds confusing because the Browns have been a confusing team in posting a 6-5 record with six games remaining to determine if they advance to the postseason for a second straight season, something that hasn’t happened since a five-year run from 1985-89.

Glass-is-half-full fans are confident that coach Kevin Stefanski can put the ship on a steady course, but those that know history all too well know that the odds aren’t promising.

After a lackluster effort in a 13-10 victory over the winless Detroit Lions, the Browns control their destiny. Four of the final six games are against AFC North Division rivals — two against the Ravens and one each against the Bengals and Steelers. Take care of business, and the Browns will be playing deep into January.

What is ugly to some eyes can be a thing of beauty in the eyes of another for the Browns

Taking care of business likely means wins over the Ravens in the next two games (a bye separates the games). Wins over the Bengals and Steelers could be necessary also. The other two remaining games are at Green Bay and home to the Raiders. If you’re counting on a road win against the Packers in December, good luck with that one.

The playoff road is more like a bumpy path with twists and turns everywhere. Given the way the offense and defense aren’t able to post solid performances at the same time makes the challenge more daunting.

Stefanski might need to check his job title and realize that as the head coach he’s allowed to sit down an injured player, despite the fact the injured player wants to give it a go each week. That’s been the case with quarterback Baker Mayfield, whose performances have been less than optimal because of injuries to a hip, ankle and shoulder.

Maybe it’s time for Stefanski to sit Mayfield and go with Case Keenum Sunday in Baltimore, which will give Mayfield three weeks of rest when factoring in the bye next week. It’s never been easy for the Browns in Baltimore, and having a healthy Mayfield would give them their best chance of a win, but common sense should tell Stefanski to start Keenum.

The Browns aren’t where they had hoped to be 11 games into the season. Most preseason picks listed them as a probable playoff team with an outside chance of advancing to the Super Bowl. Quite honestly, that can now be considered wishful thinking.

There’s a need for the defense, which has been wildly inconsistent, to step up and carry the load for the wounded offense that lacks playmakers at receivers. Stefanski also has to rely on the tight ends and hope that running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who may return this week from an injury, can carry a bigger portion of the load.

It can be argued that the Chubb-Hunt tandem is the best in the NFL. Let’s see if that’s true.

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