It’s been almost 20 years since the Browns were resurrected via the NFL expansion process. Since 1999, the Brownshave won 88 of their last 288 games, started 28 quarterbacks, hired 9 head coaches, and drafted 26 first round picks, half of which were top ten picks. For a franchise full of disappointing seasons, last year the Browns hit rock bottom by failing to wina single game in the 2017 season. Two years into the Hue Jackson era and all the Browns have to show for it is a 1-31 record and a lot of questions as to who will step up in all three phases of play. Let me throw some more numbers at you real quick:
The Browns ranked dead last in points scored per game at 14.6/g, while while ranking 31st in the league in points allowed at 25.6/g. As a whole, the Browns quarterback corps threw 15 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions. Their leading scorer was their kicker Zane Gonzalez, who made 15 out of his 20 field goal attempts. Their leading rusher Isaiah Crowell rushed for 853 yards but scored only two touchdowns. The team leader in rushing touchdowns was neither Crowell nor Duke Johnson, but DeShone Kizer with five rushing touchdowns on the season. As a whole the Browns fumbled the ball 25 times and recovered 15 of them.
To fix these issues, the Browns retooled their entire offense. First, they hired Todd Haley off the Steelers coaching staff, making him maybe the best coach on that staff, or at the very least the most capable of getting handed the keys to the offense and calling the plays. Then they cleaned out their QB inventory out and get rid of DeShone Kizer, Cody Kessler, and Kevin Hogan. Third thing they did was trade for Miami wideout Jarvis Landry and Bills QB Tyrod Taylor in a 24-hour window. Fourth thing they did was sign running back Carlos Hyde to a three-year deal. Fifth thing they did was draft Baker Mayfield, the stud QB out of Oklahoma, with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, along with Georgia running back Nick Chubb later in the draft.
As of right now the Browns starting quarterback is Tyrod Taylor, who would be far and away the most capable QB the Browns have had under center in a very long time. Don’t let the clear disdain of Taylor by the Bills organization fool you: when he had the right weapons at his disposal, Tyrod Taylor was one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and even when he was passing to some no-names while being protected by a suspect o-line, he played a clean, smart game, never throwing more than ten interceptions through an entire season or having a completion percentage below 60%. He may not break any passing records, but he’ll be a stable option at QB that the Browns desperately needed in order to avoid turnovers on the offensive side.
Of course, his tenure at QB also serves as a placeholder while the Browns groom their Quarterback of the Future Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, for the uninitiated, was an electric passer at Oklahoma, which earned him the coveted Heisman trophy in 2017. He also oozes swagger, which manifested itself in some good and bad ways (depending on who you talk to), but still entertaining nonetheless. He’s a work in progress, but he’s showed some flashes of what made him so good at Oklahoma during the preseason, which bodes well as he continues to learn how to play at the pro level. And if it pays off, having a QB with dynamic playing skills to go along with that personality could go a long way to eventually changing the soul-crushing environment that is the Cleveland Browns football team.
Carlos Hyde may not have had a banner year with the 49ers last year, but even still he put up more rushing yards and rushing touchdowns than either of the Browns’ leading rushers or leaders in rushing touchdowns. The 28-year-old back also came off his first season where he was healthy enough to play all sixteen games. In theory, a finally healthy running back in his prime could bust through the 1,000 yards rushing plane, and even more than that in multi-purpose yards, which is something Hyde has talked about being hungry for achieving with Cleveland. He’ll have some help too from one of the best interior offensive line units in the NFL (as per Pro Football Focus). Nick Chubb probably won’t be as explosive out of the gate, but his skill set would facilitate him getting a fair amount of touches and provides good insurance should something happen to Hyde. Throw in a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver like Jarvis Landry and on paper you have a pretty well-balanced offense that shouldn’t rank dead last in points scored. There is one slight problem, which actually dovetails into breaking down the Browns defense, so I’ll do that first.
The real standout on that defensive unit is Myles Garrett, and my god is that dude a beast. Last season the first overall pick in the 2017 draft did about as well as you could hope, racking up 31 tackles, seven sacks, and one forced fumble/fumble recovery. He’s good enough to make you forget that Denzel Ward, the shiny new corner drafted this year, is hurt, that the Browns are one of the worst defenses against the passing attack, and that, for reasons known only to god, Jabrill Peppers is STILL being played too far off the screen to make any meaningful impact on defense or big plays. If you want to take a look at why the Browns are so sorry against the pass, look no further than defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Gregg Williams really believes in his 4-3 base defense package. He liked it so much last year that the Browns were using their base defense personnel 66% of the time, and this year wants to run it even MORE frequently than last year. To be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with running the 4-3. It’s better than the 3-4 scheme the Browns WERE running before Williams came to town, and it’s still proven to be quite effective in some cases, but the more often you do it, the more likely your opponent is gonna get at you with their slot receivers who are more than likely going to beat your linebackers in a footrace when they inevitably drop back into coverage. To alleviate this problem, you run nickel or dime packages that stress having some extra defensive back personnel. In today’s NFL and all its offensive schemes, it’s been proven that the nickel package is the most effective defense you can run, yet the Browns only ran it 31% of the time last season, which ranked them 27th overall in terms of usage. I think therein lies a sort of façade of aggressiveness that is betrayed by the anachronism of Williams’s playstyle. Aggressiveness without the ability or willingness to freely adapt is all bark and no bite. Being old school will only teach you how to lose.
So, with the first Sunday of the NFL season fast approaching, the Browns need to ask themselves how they’re going to redefine their culture. Can they use the right balance of smart, seasoned veterans and young dynamic threats to forge an offense that isn’t prone to causing more turnovers that scoring touchdowns? Can the defense build and improve upon their young core and be a force that belongs in a gritty division like the AFC North? It goes without saying that going 0-16 is incredibly hard, and the Browns had plenty of opportunities to win that were swept away through bad luck or a few fatal mistakes in the endgame. If they can stay disciplined and focused through all four quarters, maybe they won’t have to rely on luck to win, and maybe the Hue Jackson era may not be as lost a cause as it looks right now. Maybe the culture can change.
Expect 4 to 5 wins.