When it looked like Lamar Jackson had scored yet again, bringing the Ravens a 26-7 lead, I, ironically, felt a sense of relief. “Ok,” I thought, “the Browns are better, but they aren’t quite there yet.” Then came the comeback and Baker Mayfield being inches away from avoiding that last minute interception and giving the team a chance to kick the winning field goal. After it was over, I sat in reflection. Are the Browns good? Is this finally happening? A nagging notion brewing since I saw this quote from Nate Burleson brought pangs of anxiety. All these years, I assumed hearing a former player turned commentator declare confidently “the Browns are going to be a top-10 team next season” would bring me peace, joy even. But, alas, no. Just anxiety.
A non-Browns fan may be perplexed by the utter irrationality of my reaction, and I don’t blame them. They know not the pain and suffering during these past decades. At a certain point, the Browns seem to have become so comically inept other fans got caught up in the humor and they stopped imagining what it must be like to be a Browns fan. It’s impossible to blame them. How could I when every significant move the Browns have made since starting Tim Couch as a rookie have not only failed to improve them, but have often contributed directly to their relentless quest to lower the bar? So many times I’ve believed the Browns were turning a corner and told people about it, only to be humiliated by mid-season. This is the war raging inside me. How many times can I get burned and keep coming back?
As I struggle to shuck the disappointments of seasons past and believe once more, daring even to imagine the Browns are ready to make a playoff run in 2019, I thought it would make sense to focus on what happened in 2018 that brought this about. So, let’s take a look at how the Browns managed to take some steps forward in 2018 and how they can be used in this critical building period. Since I cannot prevent myself from rambling whenever I get going on the Browns, I’ve decided to divide this story up into three parts. In Part One, I’ll provide the general overview of my thoughts (a stream of conscience dribble if you will), before delving heavily into the X’s and O’s in Part Two, concluding in Part Three with a look at some players in 2019 draft who John Dorsey should target.
The Coaching Staff
I’m not very good at crafting memes, but if anyone wants a great idea for one, personally I would find it funny to see 2018 Browns highlights with “The Island of Misfit Toys” playing over it. Think about it. The team was lead by the most unlikely of head coaches, his son was the defacto defensive coordinator, and the offensive coordinator was relatively unknown before the start of the season. As I first considered this coaching staff, it once more looked like a desperate attempt to limp to the finish line. Yet I’ll be darned if I didn’t watch the press conference after the Atlanta game and for the first time understand what the Bills saw in Gregg Williams all those years ago. He was brutally honest, refused to take credit for the turnaround, and provided the leadership so lacking during the Hue Jackson Era.
After “Bountygate”, I thought there was no way Williams could be a defensive coordinator again, let alone a head coach. He’ll be coaching elsewhere next year, but as Browns fans we owe him gratitude. Not just for the job he did down the stretch, but also for providing a blueprint for future success. A young team with talent requires a steady hand at the wheel, not drama and bickering.
Fortunately for the Browns, their new coach not only had a front row seat for this transformation, but, arguably, had just as big an impact as Williams. I, like most Browns’ fans, had never heard of Freddie Kitchens before Todd Haley hired him to coach the running backs. When it was announced he would take over as offensive coordinator, I still knew little about him and could only hope he would abandon Haley’s obsession with 7-step drops. From the first drive against the Chiefs, I started to get excited. Duke Johnson reappeared after a hiatus on the bench and Baker Mayfield finally looked comfortable (as anyone would when they’re no longer under siege). At the end of the season, I wanted to see Kitchens stick around as the coordinator.
Now he’s the head coach and I’m not completely sure how I feel about it. Eight games as a coordinator, no matter how well they went, are still only eight games. That being said, Dorsey has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. If he feels Kitchens can do the job, I’ll keep an open mind. The only nagging concern I have is the possibility of him calling his own plays. I know Doug Perderson and Sean McVay were also first time coaches who have succeeded calling their own plays and this model is being copied all of the league, but, again, eight games. Kitchens has only done this for eight games. I want Kitchens to succeed. I like how he collaborated with the players when crafting his game plans and I admire his honesty. We’ll see what happens in 2019 and if he’s ready to be the head coach. Though as Kitchens said:
Who the hell is ready to be a head coach?
Over the years, the defense has shown far more flashes than the offense. 2007 has long stood as the golden standard, with only 2014’s ground-and-pound offense coming close. Like the coaching staff this year, the offense is a hodge podge of risky picks, underrated grinders, and players long since written off as busts. I keep looking at my own notebook, perplexed I carved out multiple pages for notes on Greg Robinson and Breshad Perrimen this off-season. If you’d told me that would be a thing this past summer, I wouldn’t have been surprised, necessarily, I’d have just assumed this was a typical late season desperation move. Never in a million years would I have imagined they would be potential building blocks for the 2019 roster.
Of course, it makes little sense to discuss the 2018 Browns’ offense without rejoicing that the franchise has finally found its quarterback. Up until a few weeks before the draft, I was certain the Browns were going to draft Josh Allen or Sam Darnold. I believed Baker Mayfield was the most complete quarterback in the draft, I couldn’t shake Hue Jackson’s assertion he only wanted tall quarterbacks. At the time, I foolishly thought his preference would persuade John Dorsey to take Allen. It wasn’t until I binge watched Mayfield highlights on a Saturday afternoon that I saw what Dorsey had already seen. Every time Mayfield escaped the pass rush, he never, ever took his eyes away from his receivers. More than that even, he continued to read his progressions. Even on the plays where he threw a rare incompletion, it was the right read. Having endured a love/hate relationship with both the spread offense and the Big-12 teams that have perfected it, I’m not surprised I missed this the first time around. I knew the stats, namely completing 70 percent of his passes for an adjusted average of 12 yards per completion two years in a row, and I’d seen the big play highlights. Now I saw how it all happened.
When Mayfield came off the bench against the Jets, I was at peak rage. I was on my way to a wedding that weekend (#Finnski) and for once I wanted to discuss football without the nagging need to complain about the Browns. Or, selfishly worse, good friends feeling that poking fun at the Browns was now just cruel. That they had been so bad for so long, it was no longer funny to these kind souls who could do nothing but shake their heads and offer condolences. After the tie with Pittsburgh and Zane Gonzalez’s zany (get it?) adventure in New Orleans, a win would have alleviated the stress. Unfortunately, there I sat, the team down 14-0. The Baker came in and never allowed Tyrod Taylor back on the field. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in my kitchen writing an article about a Browns quarterback who holds the rookie touchdown passing record.
Now that the quarterback quandary has finally been solved, it’s time to build the team around him. As I watched the game against the Ravens, I was shocked to find myself content with the skill position players. Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson are the perfect duo for a modern NFL offense. Outside of a late round steal, there’s no reason to add another back. The tight ends are set for years to come. David Njoku and Mayfield are deadly on the red-zone fades that are ever en vogue, with Darren Fells providing a fantastic second option as both a blocker and a second target. Even the wide receiving corp blended together nicely. On the final drive, it occurred to me how well they complemented each other. Perrimen and Rashard Higgins are taller targets, one (Perrimen) has elite speed and the other (Higgins) a reliable possession receiver who is dangerous in space. Likewise, Jarvis Landry and Antionio Callaway have the same dynamic. Both are smaller receivers, but Callaway has deadly speed and Landry catches everything (and can do everything). Again a late round steal or a bargain deal in the free agent market could be pursued. It is not, however, a priority.
This leaves the offensive line. Robinson stabilized the left tackle position far better than anyone could have hoped and Chris Hubbard improved as they transitioned out of Todd Haley’s “Close my Eyes and Pretend Big Ben is Still my Quarterback” offense. I still would like to see them add another tackle in the draft. Even if it’s a swing tackle with potential, they need to add here. Robinson and Hubbard showed enough to be starters next season, they just need an insurance policy.
In order for the Browns to maintain the progress they have made on defense, they must preserve scheme consistency. For the first time in recent memory, all 11 defenders on the field at any given time are actually playing their best position. Sounds crazy, right? Alas, it is not. Over the past two decades, the Browns have not only switched coordinators almost every season, they’ve brought in new coordinators who ran completely different schemes. The most egregious folly came between 2012 and 2013. Lost in Brandon Weeden’s horrendous first start as a rookie was an epic performance by the D’Qwell Jackson-led defense. In two seasons under Dick Jauron, the Browns made real progress developing a traditional 4-3 scheme. Naturally the next season Jauron was replaced with Ray Horton, who ran an attacking 3-4 defense. Several players, as it should have been expected, were unable to make a smooth transition.
In 2018, the Browns once more have made real progress in Gregg Williams’ attacking 4-3 defense. Myles Garrett has been a terror off the edge and Larry Ogunjobi has reliably pushed the pocket inside. Two of the most underrated players on the 2018 defense have been Emmanual Ogbah and Genard Avery. Fans still upset the Browns passed on Bradley Chubb in the draft will often point to Ogbah’s low sack numbers this year. To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand both his and Avery’s role. In passing situations, the Browns have excelled in sliding Ogbah over to defensive tackle, subbing in Avery, and asking them to rush into the quarterbacks face. If the quarterback tries to roll away, they roll right into the arms of Garrett or Ogunjobi. This action also allows the Browns to send their linebackers into holes in the pass protection. Yes, Ogbah’s sack numbers may not be the best, but before you dismiss him in the offseason, please take another look at this win-clinching sack against the Broncos and note who opens the lane by engaging the guard.
The Browns’ defense gives up a lot of yards. It’s not the best, but they offset all those yards with turnovers and sacks. At times it works, at times it makes me want to throw my TV through a window. When these TV tossing moments come along, I force myself to remember that we are in the midst of an offensive revolution in the NFL right now. Teams are faster and getting more creative with concepts designed to get that speed in space. Right now the Browns’ defense can stop the run when they need to (even against the Ravens, they were able to figure it out in the second half) and has the ability to disrupt the passing game. Too often, however, both their tackles for loss and quarterback hits come from blitzes. This means that when the offensive player with speed catches the ball, they have too much space to run. Though the versatility of Jabrill Peppers and Derrick Kindred will serve them well in the coming seasons, they haven’t quite figured out how best to stop screens and crossing routes.
If they can, then this can be a solid defense in 2019. In order to do so, the Browns should invest their first pick in the biggest, meanest defensive tackle they can find. In the first half of the Baltimore game, they were getting killed on runs up the middle and by Jackson following pulling guards to the edge. It wasn’t until they adjusted and pinched their linemen before the snap, blowing up the gaps, that they were able to slow Baltimore down. When this happened, the guards could no longer pull. The same concept would be much, much easier with a bigger tackle in the middle. Outside of that, the Browns could really use another corner to play opposite Denzel Ward. In the second half of the season, teams started passing away from him, putting pressure on T.J. Carrie and Terrance Mitchell. Though they both had their fair share of great plays, one more cover corner would go a long way. Most teams have to play four to five corners a game, so adding one more would allow Carrie and Mitchell more time in the slot. This would make it far easier to play the Cover-0 scheme in crunch time, as is the trend in game today.