For the first time since 2002, the Cleveland Browns reached the wild card round of the NFL playoffs. If this wasn’t a huge surprise to any NFL fan, the Browns won their Wild Card game against the Steelers and secured a place in the AFC Divisional Championship game and inch ever closer to a Super Bowl appearance.
However, it wasn’t to be and the Browns were beaten by the Chiefs, arguably the best team in the NFL right now.
So how did the Browns go from being 0-16 to reaching the play-offs in a little under 4 years?
John Dorsey begins the Cleveland Browns rebuilding process
In 2017, the Browns were the worst team in the NFL after they held the dubious honour of going 0-16 during the regular season. Under the leadership of then general manager John Dorsey, they started to rebuild a team that was constantly mired in defeat. Building on their outstanding DE Miles Garrett, whom they drafted with the Number One overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft following the disastrous 2016 season, Dorsey went on to draft Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in 2018 as well as Denzel Ward with the fourth pick and Nick Chubb in the second round.
This would go on to form the back bone of the new look Cleveland Browns. It was in 2018 that he would also trade for star wide receiver Jarvis Landry from Miami.
The 2018 season ended with a 7-8-1 record, meaning the Browns missed the playoffs that year. Not to be deterred by this, the Browns made huge moves in the 2019 off season, with a huge trade for Odell Beckham Jr from New York, adding running back Kareem Hunt in free agency and adding star safety Greedy Williams with their second round pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Their number one pick Baker Mayfield showed flashes of absolute brilliance in his rookie year, and as the 2019 NFL season dawned, the hype train was really gaining momentum.
After appointing Freddie Kitchens as Head Coach following his success with Baker Mayfield, the Browns entered the 2019 regular season with high hopes. But the opening game against the Titans showed that the problem with the Browns wasn’t a lack of talent or a coaching problem – it was discipline and maturity.
Baker Mayfield was making a name for himself on social media by swiping at his critics and gaining more commercial deals than he did touchdowns. During their game against the Titans, the Browns gave up over 100 yards in penalties, something that would cost them their opening game and force NFL pundits to reconsider their appraisal of the new look Cleveland Browns.
This pattern would continue for much of the 2019 season, with the Browns giving up a ridiculous amount penalty yards and failing to impress on the field. The lack of chemistry between Beckham, Landry and Mayfield was clear to see, as was the gaping holes in their offensive line. It also seemed that Freddie Kitchens was not the right man for the job, calling plays on fourth down when they should have gone for a punt instead and even called a few fake punts, much to the bewilderment of the NFL community. It seemed he was out of his depth and was the wrong man for the job.
The 2019 regular season ended with 6-10 record and once again the Browns missed the playoffs. As a fellow Browns fan, this felt worse than it did in previous seasons. Although it was nothing new, the Dawg pound and the NFL pundits had huge hype for the Browns and in typical Browns fashion, they failed to deliver. Following the 2019 NFL season, both Freddie Kitchens and John Dorsey were fired by the owners of the Browns and were replaced by General Manager Andrew Berry and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski. This would be the turning point for the new look Cleveland Browns.
It cannot be understated what John Dorsey and his team did for the Browns. Arguably, they laid the foundation for the young, competitive team that we have seen in the 2020 season. It was the combination of poor head coach choices and the pressure of needing to reach the playoffs that caused the Browns to fail at the first hurdle. Although some would say that that is what they get paid ridiculous amounts of money for, we have seen it before in other industries such as the video games industry what hype can do to a product or a franchise.
The new era begins
Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry moved quickly to address the many needs facing the Browns roster by adding TE Austin Hooper and OL Jack Conklin to help protect their young QB and add further weapons for him to use on the field. They also drafted OL Jedrick Wills Jr with their first round pick and Safety Grant Delpit with their second round pick in that years draft, adding some much needed help to the offensive line and the back field. Stefanski doubled down on Baker Mayfield and he duly went to work, remaining off social media (for the most part) and focusing on learning.
The 2020 NFL season has been a strange season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in a long time we did not have any preseason games building up to the regular season. Although may fans feel the preseason is a waste of time, it allows coaches to test put new plays and experiment with different players that would never usually make the cut to the regular season. To some, it is deemed as an essential part of the NFL season. Kevin Stefanski did not have this option open to him and so was effectively heading into his first season as a head coach blind.
Stefanski concentrated on the run game and utilised the skill of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt whist Mayfield ironed out the creases in the passing game. Soon, the offence was churning up the yards with the run game being one of the best in the league. But injuries troubled our ailing defence and it is something that would make us pay later on (just think about the playoff game against the Steelers).
But something must have paid off as the Browns went 11-5 and into the playoffs. For the first time since 2002, the Browns had ended their playoff drought and become a legitimate playoff team.
The rise of Baker Mayfield
Baker Mayfield was drafted with the first overall pick of the 2018 and has this far turned out to be the third best QB in the stacked 2018 class. Although he continues to be my favourite player, other players such as Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have, so far, appeared to be more successful since they were drafted after him.
His rookie season was a huge success, leading the Browns to their first win in what seemed like a lifetime before breaking the record for rookie touchdown passes with 27, surpassing both Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. He also just missed out on the 2018 OROY award, being overlooked for the outstanding RB Saquon Barkley.
With high hopes, Mayfield entered the 2019 regular season as the future of the Browns franchise. But because his critics and the media as a whole were watching him closely, his many flaws started to appear. Picking fights on social media, holding onto the ball too long in the pocket which forced sacks and a 22/21 TD/INT ratio, with many of these touchdowns costing the Browns the game. But what stood out the most for many was his lack of leadership and maturity on the field. Many accused his lack of discipline setting a poor example to other players in the locker room. By the half way mark of the 2019 season, many were beginning to call Mayfield a bust.
When the 2020 season dawned, we saw a brand new Baker Mayfield, one worthy to the be the face of the Browns franchise. He had settled down in his role as a franchise QB and showed a level of maturity that we have seen from other QB’s drafted in the same year. On many occasions, Mayfield can be seen splitting up heated moments between players and can also be seen leading his team through a difficult set of down by either firing them up on the sideline of leading by example.
Although the running game has been a huge factor in the Browns reaching the playoff’s, he still managed to throw for 3,563 yards with a 26/8 TD/INT ratio. This is proof that he has kept his head down and worked hard to silence his critics. Randomly, it seems his wife has been causing more mayhem on social media than he has, but as the saying goes “behind every strong man is a stronger woman”.
It may seem that there are other QB’s from the same draft class that have received more success, for example, Lamar Jackson, however, it is now indisputable that Mayfield always was and always has been the guy for the Browns.
The run game
The Browns drafted Nick Chubb in the second round of the 2018 Draft with the 35th pick and added former Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt on the off season. This turned out to be one of the best bits of business the Browns have ever conducted. Chubb turned out to be a solid pick for the Browns and in my opinion, one of the biggest steals of the 2018 NFL draft.
The run game has ensured the Browns can move the chains up the field to the end zone with Chubb being Mr Dependable the whole time. With two 1,000 yard rushing seasons, the Browns have worked hard to establish both a legitimate run and pass game.
With both offensive tools now working like a machine, it throws off opposing defences and ensures that we have options right across the board. The partnership that Chubb has with his offensive line and his QB is a thing of beauty and with Kareem Hunt being able to both catch and run the ball, he has turned into the Swiss army knife of the Browns offensive scheme.
What can the Browns do going forward?
I think it goes without saying that the Browns are in desperate need of help on the defence. Although Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams will return next year following injury, they are in need of a linebacker and someone to possibly replace Olivier Vernon should he hit the market in free agency. The Browns defensive unit really struggled at times and brining in fresh talent and maybe signing a huge name during free agency will provide a much needed leader on the defence.
The Browns are also faced with a few questions heading into the draft. They are pretty high in the draft order this year, so the question is do they pick the best player available or do they try and trade up; a move which may prove costly.
But most importantly of all, the Browns need to maintain the performance going forward into next season. Having the same head coach and playbook for two years in a row will certainly help, as will consistency in the office. This will be the first time in Mayfield’s professional career that he has had the same head coach for more than a year, which will really benefit his growth in his fourth year.
As a Browns fan, I have high hopes for the new look Browns as we head into the off season and look towards next year. If we can maintain discipline, remain consistent and build on the formula we have, then we will surely be playoff bound next year.