Paper Champions: 2021 Cleveland Browns
Nearly two decades have passed since the last time the Cleveland Browns were actually relevant. The loyalty is not to be questioned, Cleveland Browns fans have long suffered multiple losing seasons, unhappy players departing to other teams, and a disarray of a quarterback carousel that spiraled into a laughingstock in the annals of the NFL.
Cleveland has been bad; very bad. Before the 2020 season, the Ohio football club had only tasted the playoffs once in the millennium; that took place in 2002. Due to a tie from the Pittsburgh Steelers, it forced the Browns to play their division rival on wild card weekend. They lost.
Browns fans with a certain type of selected memory will quickly speak of the 2007 season, in which the Cleveland Browns had a winning record at 10-6. However, due to the New England Patriots going undefeated, and by the standings and on the strength of schedule, the Cleveland Browns were on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff picture.
Since then, Cleveland hasn’t been rocking. The team went 4-12 in 2008, then 5-11 in 2009. They finished third in the division in 2010 with a 5-11 record, then took firm control of the basement from 2011 to 2013 (going 4-12, 5-11, 4-12, respectively). The entire division was competitive in 2014, as the Browns were still in the basement, but held a 7-9 record. But the rest of the division battled it out in the playoffs.
The Cleveland Browns digressed in the 2015 season, still occupying the basement but diminishing their on-field product to a 3-13 record. Things got worse in 2016, as the Cleveland Browns actually celebrated not going winless by dancing on the field after their lone victory that year. Many thought that 1-15 was as low as this once-proud franchise could go. They were wrong.
Just four years ago the Cleveland Browns made history by becoming only the second team to go 0-16 in a 16-game regular season. Yes, Detroit stole the record by being the first to do it, but we know Detroit to be a city of fighters. There wasn’t any fight in this ball club. DeShone Kizer was the aforementioned leader of this Brown’s squad; amassing 2894 passing with a 53.57% completion rate. He was also the second-leading rusher behind Isaiah Crowell (853), with 419 yards.
Not every team has a Michael Vick, or Cam Newton, or Donovan McNabb at their disposal. They carried the stigma of being a mobile quarterback: a quarterback that would run first and throw to reads later. In 2017, mobile quarterbacks were rare and didn’t produce results in the AFC North. Duke Johnson, the third-down back was a 1000 yard back between rushing (348) and leading the team in receiving yards (695). Myles Garrett, the rookie out of Texas A&M, led the team in sacks with 7. The team had 34 total for the season. For a team that was once enriched in football history, this was an era of time that they, and the city, didn’t wish to claim.
Enter the 2018 draft, where expectations and hope loomed bright for the Cleveland Browns. Armed with the first and fourth pick in the draft, the Cleveland Browns selected their future quarterback in Baker Mayfield.
Baker was a controversial figure in college; being flamboyant and edgy as the outspoken leader of the Oklahoma Sooners as a walk-on. Although he had a troubled past with arrests, and despicable gestures of crouch grabbing and poor sportsmanship, it somehow didn’t affect his draft stock. Ironically, it boosted his status as a can’t miss top draft pick.
Fresh off of a loss in the first round of the Bowl Championship Series, all of his past transgressions were swept under the rug from major sports and media networks. There were 5 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, only four are worth mentioning. Mayfield selected 1st, Sam Darnold, now on his second team with the Carolina Panthers, selected 3rd. Josh Allen selected by the Bills with the 7th pick, while Josh Rosen rounded out the top 10 by being selected by the Arizona Cardinals.
The last selection in the first round was a bold move by Ozzie Newsome to trade back into the 1st round and selecting Lamar Jackson out of Louisville to be the future signal-caller of the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson would be the only rookie quarterback to see the playoffs in 2018-19. Mayfield was the only Big 12 player selected in the 1st round in 2018. Jackson was the 6th selected from the ACC. Draft class, success, and division intertwine permanently their careers.
Baker Mayfield knew he had to be the savior for the Cleveland Browns. The franchise had long suffered an alarmingly ineffective pattern of quarterbacks that couldn’t get the job done: Here is the list.
Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin III, DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan.
Mayfield would eventually take over the starting position from Tyrod Taylor…..
That’s a lot of jerseys.
The 2018 season showed promise for the Cleveland Browns, as they were no longer in the basement; finishing with a 7-8-1 record. While they drafted Denzel Ward fourth in the 2018 draft, the real steal was Nick Chubb, out of Georgia; he was just a handful of yards away from being a 1,000-yard rusher his rookie season. The addition of Jarvis Landry coming over in free agency was huge not only for the team but for Baker’s confidence. Both David Njoku and Myles Garrett improved from their dismal rookie season, and the Browns had gained something that they were lacking for 11 years; R E S P E C T.
Covid has allowed us as football fans to appreciate the game a little more than before the epidemic. Football Sundays and Thursdays became a chance to escape from our everyday duties of masks, quarantine, and scare tactics from news stations. Monday night Football has and always will be Prime Time television. The 2020 Browns had some debts to pay; considering that the previous year they went 6-10, finished 3rd in the division, and saw Mayfield draw comparisons to Jameis Winston in the interception category (22TDs to 21 INTs).
Fans assumed that adding the all-world talent of Odell Beckham Jr. would make the offense a contender. As usual, goals and expectations were spoken of but not met. Mayfield threw for 3827 yards and had two 1000 yard receivers (Beckham and Landry), a premier back in Nick Chubb (1494 yards), and the coach that the organization hand-picked for him in Freddie Kitchens.
One could argue, that the 2019 season was more disappointing than 2017. To add insult to injury, the 32nd pick from the 2018 draft, Lamar jackson, became the 2019 Most Valuable Player, and lone playoff representative of the AFC North with the best record. People soon forgot that the Browns defeated Baltimore that season. 2020 had to materialize as a bounce-back year; not only for Baker Mayfield for the keys to the franchise, but for his endorsement deals, and his many Progressive commercials that outnumbered his win total.
They compared him to Peyton Manning his rookie year, passing for 3,725 yards, 27 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, to becoming a victim of his own hype; passing for 3827 yards as the 16 game starter, completion percentage dropping from 63% to 59%, and his interceptions increasing by 50%. The coach that coddled him had to go. They needed more help on the offensive line. The defense was improving but was missing one or two pieces. 2020 became the perfect storm for the Cleveland Browns.
The decrease in his personal numbers led to more victories for the Cleveland Browns, as Baker Mayfield learned how to play a game under a system that was more game management than standout. Distribution led to wins, and a revenge victory against the Tennessee Titans; an actual contender for the AFC Championship the year before. A 3-3 record in the division wasn’t questioned, as the Browns swept their Ohio native Cincinnati Bengals, and split with the eventual division champion Pittsburgh Steelers. However, we must note that the Cleveland Browns have an issue with the Baltimore Ravens.
Since Baker Mayfield became the starter, he is 1-3 versus the Baltimore Ravens when led by Lamar Jackson. The quarterback that many of his rivals will still belittle, and shame him by calling him a running back on social media and sports channels, seems to have the formula to beat a Mayfield-led Browns squad. While the Monday night matchup was arguably the best game of the regular season, one quarterback looked pressured; trying too hard to make something happen to will his team to victory. While the other quarterback and former MVP was calm and poised: even returning to throw the game-winning touchdown to “Hollywood” Brown after suffering “cramps”, in the fourth quarter.
Cleveland needed to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in order to get into the 2020 playoffs. The numbers are not in the Cleveland Browns favor in regards to history against the Steelers. The Steelers are the Big brother of the Cleveland browns. Call them bullies, call them what you will, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had the Cleveland Browns number for more than two decades.
A depleted Pittsburgh Steelers squad that had ran out of juice at the end of the regular season basically conceited a victory to the Cleveland Browns in week 17 to end the 2020 season, choosing to play Mason Rudolph instead of Ben Roethlisberger. Mike Tomlin had had an immaculate record against the Cleveland Browns, but underestimating your opponent could prove costly. These were not the same Cleveland Browns.
As we all well know, the Cleveland Browns shocked the NFL world by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild card round. Some saw the change of the guard coming; considering the state that the Pittsburgh Steelers were in. However, the next week, in Cleveland fashion, they fumbled away a golden opportunity to take out the defending world champions in the Kansas City Chiefs, who were without their $500 million quarterback in Patrick Mahomes because of injury.
Career-defining moments don’t come often, especially for the once prominent Cleveland franchise that had hit every stick on their Fall From Grace. Though ye the faithful, have anointed The Browns a future champion with the current squad bearing the orange and brown.
On paper, the Cleveland Browns are a team to be dealt with. They can effectively run the football with a one/two tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The wide receiver core is going to be special this year. Jarvis Landry is hungry, a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. returns, an underrated talent in Rashard Higgins, a Michigan alum in Donovan Peoples-Jones, and a future star from Auburn by the name of Anthony Schwartz, will demand not only fantasy, but competitor attention.
They burden the fresh additions on defense with being game-changers. The addition to Dave and Clowney may slow down or speed up the sacking process for the defensive line. Still signing multi-million dollar contracts off of one famous playing college has become a mercenary in the NFL; selling his services to the highest bidder. His addition meant the departure of Sheldon Richardson, who was a solid may stay on the defensive line. Greg Newsome, the giant corner out of Northwestern, and the rangy linebacker out of Notre Dame Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will bring speed and coverage to a secondary that was suspect at best in 2020.
We can’t control what a fan base thinks, or says. When it comes to football we all become indentured to the moment, and we allow expectations to overtake our perception of common sense. The Cleveland Browns will never be hotter than what they are right now, as the hype machine could cause an earthquake with hopes and aspirations for the Rock-and-roll Hall of Fame City.
Cleveland hasn’t been a champion since LeBron James. Cleveland is starving for validity, and for that one thing that they gained in 2007, that they hope to grasp again: Respect. Some should be skeptical of a team that has only produced a winning season three times in 20 years. Maybe the recent success of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the league’s lowest winning percentage team, has brought a new sense of courage to the one-toned helmet franchise.
As the season slowly creeps into a visual projection, let’s watch and see if Stefanski, Mayfield, and their band of merry characters can meet or exceed expectations, find a formula to defeat the Baltimore Ravens, and keep the conversation as a Super Bowl contender ‘relevant.’
Covering the shield,