The Cleveland Browns, ever since their rebirth as an expansion team before the 1999 season, have been the NFL’s resident enigma.
Now, after many mediocre and awful seasons, it is the league’s sleeping giant.
And that giant has just rubbed the sleep out of its eyes.
Currently, after hanging on for a 27-25 win over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, the Browns under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski are sporting a handsome 8-3 record, and find themselves in prime position for an AFC wild card berth with five games to go.
A playoff berth, the Browns’ first since 2002 under Butch Davis, would be enough to serve as a cause for celebrations. And if team officials went straight for the Dom Perignon even without the benefit of playing a post-season game first, for themselves and Stefanski and his players, no one could blame them.
How much ineptitude have Browns fans had to endure since 1999? Let’s unveil the dirty list of laundry…
Worst out of the way first: they had to watch the Baltimore Ravens, the rebranded Browns that then-owner Art Modell relocated from Cleveland after the 1995 season, win Super Bowl XXXV after the 2000 season
They are one of three teams never to have played on Super Bowl Sunday – with the Jaguars and Detroit Lions being the others
Nine general managers, starting with the late Dwight Clark and currently with John Dorsey, have roamed the hallways in the Browns’ front office
Had not had a winning season since 2007, under Romeo Crennel as coach and Derek Anderson as quarterback
Crennel was one of 12 coaches employed by the Browns in this 21-year span, including Stefanski as its latest
And speaking of quarterbacks, 31 different signal-callers have taken snaps in games since 1999
In the career of offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who retired last year after an 11-season career which featured the contrast of ten Pro Bowl honours, only one winning season (2007), no playoff games, and having had to block for 20 different quarterbacks in what is likely a Hall Of Fame career
No Browns coach in this current incarnation of this franchise has had a winning record – not even six-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick had a winning career mark as the last coach of the old Browns – and one would have to go back to Marty Schottenheimer’s five-year 1984-88 stint as the last Browns coach with a winning tenure
And the Browns finished with a winless season as recently as 2017, in the middle of coach Hue Jackson’s run where he ultimately won only three games in two-plus seasons
The fact that Stefanski has already led the Browns to eight wins so far in 2020 – even as quickly as Jackson’s winless season has come and gone in recent memories – lies as a testament to the Browns’ rebuilding and how Stefanski isn’t afraid to make tactical adjustments.
The rebuilding under Dorsey’s planning came most notably in drafting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield out of Oklahoma and running back Nick Chubb out of Georgia, as well as defenders such as defensive lineman Myles Garrett out of Texas A&M and cornerback Denzel Ward out of Ohio State, and also acquiring players like wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry as well as strong safety Karl Joseph in trades and running back Kareem Hunt as a free agent.
While that represents the nucleus of the Browns team amid Mayfield’s development as an NFL quarterback, and with the conventional wisdom on Stefanski perhaps at the start of the 2020 season to start taking greater advantage of Mayfield’s strong arm by throwing downfield to Beckham and Landry more often, a season-ending torn ACL injury to Beckham in late October chucked a spanner into those works.
Instead, Stefanski shifted focus to the Browns’ running game, with Chubb as the feature running back.
Which lies as Stefanski’s strength as an offensive-minded coach – versatility in run-blocking schemes that benefit key backs.
That wouldn’t entail abandoning the passing game via Mayfield, who did complete 19 of 28 passes for 258 yards and touchdowns to Landry and Austin Hooper, with no interceptions, against the Jaguars.
What Stefanski instead has is a state of balance within the Browns’ offensive output – in addition to Mayfield’s 30 dropbacks, with Mayfield suffering two sacks, the playcalling also accounted for 29 rushes as Chubb rushed 19 times for 144 yards and a touchdown and Hunt adding 62 yards from ten carries.
Not only are the passing and rushing numbers as nearly equivalent as they are prolific, accounting for 464 yards of total offence, but that allows the Browns to control time of possession and keep their defence off the field.
“We have played in a bunch of different games… We have had to find a way to win a bunch of different ways, and that is not going to change,” Stefanski said after the win.
Flexibilities in strategies such as these should serve to give Browns fans a sweet taste of the playoffs, and put Stefanski on a short list for the NFL’s coach-of-the-year honours.
They won’t catch the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North title, but a playoff berth even as a wild card will serve as a justified reward for a good season and continued improvement.
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