COLUMN: Inconsistency and injuries lead to a disappointing early season for Browns


Erik Drost

The Cleveland Browns wil faceoff on Sunday, Oct. 31 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC North rivalry showdown at 1 p.m.

Zachary Horvath, Staff Reporter

A Year in Review

Last season, the Cleveland Browns accomplished something they had not done in 18 years – making the playoffs.. 

Even more significantly, they overcame a 26-year winless drought in the postseason. It came courtesy of an impressive road win against the Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh Steelers. For years the Terrible Towels swung around in victory over the lowly Browns, but this time was different. 

Baker Mayfield led his team without their head coach and key players out of the lineup. The final scoreboard illuminated 48-37 in an absolute stunner. Overcoming the big brother presented them a date with previous defending Super Bowl champs, the Kansas City Chiefs. 

It was an intense, drama-filled ride. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes went down with a concussion. Crowd favorite Rashard Higgins fumbled the football into the endzone and out of bounds, causing a touchback and giving it back to the home team a momentum swinging play that could have altered everything. After the smoke cleared, the Chiefs survived 22-17.

Even with the stinging defeat, the team off of Lake Erie were not pushovers anymore. “The Browns is the Browns” mantra was finally put to rest. 

The Browns… Contenders?!

Before the 2021 campaign began, Cleveland was seen by many NFL and sport analysts as a Super Bowl contender. 

The admiration continues from analysts, and how can you blame them? 

Star wide out Odell Beckham Jr. has returned from a torn ACL. General Manager Andrew Berry spent heavy money and draft picks to bolster a weak defense. Notable additions include safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill from the Los Angeles Rams. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney from the Tennessee Titans. Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Takk McKinley signed on as well. Finally, they selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and swiss-army knife Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. 

On top of those acquisitions, they arguably possess the best offensive line. Running behind them is a two-headed monster, Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, who both provide hard-nosed running and wear out defenses. 

An embarrassment of riches continues at the wide receiver spot. One of the most reliable targets in the NFL, Jarvis Landry, lines up alongside tight ends Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant. Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie Anthony Schwartz have also been sneaky good for the orange and brown. They have depth everywhere you look.

The most valuable thing of all is that the Browns finally have stability amongst their leaders, Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski. 


May(field) of Dreams

Mayfield had the best season of his career in 2020. He increased his touchdown to interception ratio; 26 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions. That was a huge step up from his sophomore year, where he threw 21 interceptions. 

In addition to the improved statistics, Mayfield also played really well against some playoff-caliber squads. In a game where the defense did not show up, he did. The accuracy was on point all day long. He posted a stat line of 25-33 334 yards and 4 TD. It was a statement win at that point in the year for Cleveland. They moved to 9-3 and extended their win streak to four. 

The first postseason appearance backed up his case. He thoroughly outplayed Roethlisberger and went toe-to-toe with the Chiefs in the divisional round.

Stefanski was also a major splash signing in 2020 as well. The Browns brought in 11 different coaches since 2000. While it can be a double-edged sword, his aggressiveness and play-to-win strategy shows he knows what it takes to win in the NFL. You have to play to win, not to lose. 

In summary, going into this season Cleveland had all you could ever want. Coaching, quarterback, and talent on both sides of the ball. Questions have been answered with flying colors or so we thought.

Is he that guy?

Fast forward to week seven this season and it seems they still have stuff to figure out. 

Number 6 for Cleveland is one of them. His stats are solid. His completion percentage is the highest of his career so far, 67.1%. His average yards per attempt is at 8.5 and he has only thrown three picks. 

If you have not watched a single snap Mayfield has played those numbers do not sound that bad. However, they are deceiving. As the quarterback, you are the face of the franchise. The one who is supposed to lead you to success and win the Super Bowl, maybe multiple. This season, so far, it is hard to say he is that guy. 

Mayfield has beaten the teams he should beat. The Houston Texans (1-6), Chicago Bears (3-4), and the Minnesota Vikings (3-3). But anytime he has faced a playoff-type team and is needed to make big plays to win he has simply underperformed. 

Case in point the first game against the Chiefs. After the Browns blew a 12-point lead, they found themselves down 4 with just under three minutes to go in regulation. Mayfield had the ball. It was 1st & 10 at his own 48 and he threw a pick to end their chances. 

His next blunder came against the Los Angeles Chargers (4-2). Up 42-41 and the Chargers coming back from a 14 point deficit, Mayfield goes three and out with two minutes left. Chargers score again and Mayfield heaves two hail marys that are not caught. They lost 47-42.

Against the Arizona Cardinals (7-0) quarterback, Kyler Murray blew out the Browns 37-14. Murray went 20-30, with 229 yards and four TDs. Mayfield went 19-28, threw 234 yards, two  TDs, one  INT, and two fumbles lost. 

Two of those three games were on a silver platter for Mayfield and he choked in the clutch. What is even more troublesome, Mahomes, Justin Herbert (Chargers), and Murray are all outdueling him and making the necessary throws to seal the victory. 

When it comes down to the wire and Mayfield needs to make something happen, he has not delivered this season. Even when the competition was inferior there were times where he missed wide open receivers. That leads to the next issue.

No(dell) Beckham Jr.  

When Beckham was acquired from the New York Giants in 2019, he was expected to add a dynamic dimension to the Browns passing attack. In his three years here, he has hauled in seven touchdowns. Granted, he was hurt nearly all of last season, but the biggest game he had was against the Dallas Cowboys last year. They were one of the worst defenses in the NFL and he won the game for Cleveland on a jet sweep handoff. 

Since that game, it’s hard to find another game like that. There is no doubt that Beckham is a world-class talent. 

For whatever reason though, he and Mayfield cannot click. There are occasions where Mayfield tries to force him the ball and it throws him off his rhythm. 

Beckham has also had a dropping problem in the most crucial situations as well. There were a couple of fourth and short plays where Beckham was thrown the ball and he could not come down with them. He has a reputation of having some of the best hands in the league.

If they can, the Browns should look for a trade partner this coming offseason. Try to get some draft picks and maybe a solid receiver or defense piece to replace him. A few wide receiver candidates Cleveland should keep their eye on are Allen Robinson (Chicago) and Brandin Cooks (Houston). 

The Injury Bug

Besides inconsistent play from their two stars, injuries have not helped this team either. It is silly how many players have been banged up or out of the lineup for a long period of time. Mayfield is one of them. He suffered a shoulder fracture against Arizona and did not play against the Denver Broncos this past Thursday. Backup quarterback Case Keenum took his place and showed he was definitely capable of shouldering the team while Mayfield heals. 

Another key loss are the two halfbacks, Chubb and Hunt. Chubb suffered a calf injury against the Chargers and did not play in the Cardinal’s drubbing. Hunt also suffered a calf injury against the Cardinals. He was carted off and placed on the injured reserve list. He is expected to come back around week 10. 

Some other players that have been in and out including Landry, Beckham, Jack Conklin, Jedrick Wills Jr. and Denzel Ward. The list goes on. 

What’s Ahead

After the Keenum-led Browns defeated the Broncos last Thursday 17-14, they sit at 4-3. That is only good enough for third place in the division. It will be interesting to see how well Keenum can hold down the fort for the next few games, especially with a slew of key players out. Up next on the slate is Roethlisberger and the Steelers (3-3) at home on Halloween. Both teams need to win in order to keep pace in a competitive AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals have put the division on notice. They sit at 5-2 and in first place after walloping the Ravens (5-2) 41-17 in Baltimore this past Sunday.