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When the Browns traded back into the first round in the 2007 Draft to take Brady Quinn, after having secured Joe Thomas with the third pick, waves of euphoric optimism cascaded over me. This was it, I thought, after 8 seasons of futility, dysfunction, and false hope, the Browns have finally turned the corner. They have their franchise quarterback and a left tackle to protect him. The future is now. Though Quinn had nothing to with the success of the 2007 season as Derek Anderson rose from obscurity to the Pro Bowl, my optimism continued to rise. 2008 off-season trades for Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams brought me to what I thought at the time was just the next level of belief, but I now see was the peak. I doubt it will surprise anyone to hear my faith in the Browns crashed not long after that and has only seen tiny blips over this long and cruel decade of drama and stupidity.
One of the lower points came after the Browns’ 2018 Week 8 loss to Pittsburgh. The offense looked terrible, the defense disgruntled, and the overall team undisciplined. When they fired both Todd Haley and Hue Jackson, I desperately needed catharsis and vented out my feelings about Jackson here. Now I’d like to revisit that article as not only are the Browns coming off a dismantling of Jackson’s new team in Cincinnati, but, more importantly, I am now feeling as optimistic about the Browns’ future as I did in 2007. So let’s delve into what has changed since Jackson was replaced by Gregg Williams and Haley by Freddie Kitchens. Plus, let’s speculate on the what the future holds in Cleveland and whether the dreams of 2008 can be realized in 2019.
Drastic Offensive Improvement and Much Needed Discipline
Even though the defense could not stop the Chief offense, what I remember the most about the Browns’ performance against the Chiefs was how much better they looked on offense. As I sat there, I kept thinking, “This. This is the offense the Browns should have been running all season”. Baker Mayfield looked far more comfortable as Kitchens, unlike Haley, called plays that utilized his quick release, pin-point accuracy, and ability to move in the pocket. Nick Chubb finally got more than 20 carries and Kitchens, again unlike Haley, integrated Duke Johnson into the passing game. As I said in my last article, Haley’s inability to do those things were unforgivable. All the signs of improvement were there against Kansas City, they were just hidden by a 37-21 final score. With Denzel Ward lost to injury, the Browns were forced to sit in a zone and watch as the Chiefs picked them apart. As the points piled up, the Browns had to abandon the run and ask Mayfield to throw 42 passes. Still, there was improvement. After improvement against the Chiefs came unexpected progress against the Falcons. With the pressure to score gone, Mayfield finished 17-20 for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns. Chubb had a monster game, even going so far as to set the franchise’s all-time record for longest run. The Browns headed into their bye week with an offense that looked not only competent, it looked confident.
Then came the Cincinnati game. The Browns scored in their first 5 possessions (not counting running out the clock at the end of the first half). Mayfield completed passes to 8 different receivers. As the points piled up in the first half, I sat stunned. At the half I started taking extensive notes and crossed referenced them with the visceral venting many pages earlier from the Steelers game. From this I drew three key differences between the Browns’ offense under Haley and Jackson and the offense under Kitchens.
One, the Browns’ are finally playing to their strengths. Against Pittsburgh, it made no sense to leave Mayfield in the pocket and try to throw deep passes. He looked frazzled as the line struggled to keep the pass rush at bay. Replacing Desmond Harrison with Greg Robinson and facing teams with less daunting pass rushes has helped, yes, but like I said above, the ball is coming out much faster.
Two, the Browns are embracing their personnel, not trying to force things. So far under Kitchens they have played with two tight-ends a lot more and have been using Duke Johnson and David Njoku in their spread sets. It’s fine to be thin at wide receiver, so long as you deal with problem creatively. Rolling out 5 wide receivers with three who won’t scare anyone makes no sense when there’s a running back and a tight-end on the sideline who are superior receivers.
Three, the Browns are running everything through their running backs. As someone who played in a Wishbone system in high school, I was floored seeing the Browns roll it out against the Falcons. Seriously. I never thought I would see an NFL team run it. But, why not? The running backs are the best weapons on the roster, use them. And more than just in surprise formations, Mayfield has learned to dump it off to Chubb and Johnson when there’s nothing open down field.
As I read these notes, once more I found my mind wandering back to the 2007-2008 team. They were the last offense in Cleveland to have achieved this level of confidence. There are some similarities. Derek Anderson and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski also had a good working relationship. Those Browns also worked from their area of strength and embraced the roster for what it was, not what they hoped they could make it. And those Browns were also, at times, exciting to watch. However, it was the differences that offered comfort.
Unlike Anderson, Mayfield is the quarterback of the future in Cleveland and there is no other option on the roster. Mayfield is also far better than Anderson at protecting the ball. The play-makers are also younger than they were in 2007-2008 and the team should have time to grow together. Most importantly of all, the Browns of the last three weeks are far, far more disciplined than they were earlier in the season and have been since returning to the league. While they may still commit penalties, the unforced errors have not occurred. Additionally, the defense is far better than it was under Romeo Crennel a decade ago. They are younger, faster, and have two developing leaders in Joe Schobert and Myles Garrett.
All of this should make me feel confident. Yet, these Browns have one potential problem percolating off the field. The same problem that sunk the 2008 team and every other blip of competency (2002, 2011, 2014): unnecessary drama.
The Handshake Heard ‘Round the Internet
The Browns impressive performance against the Bengals has been at times overshadowed by Mayfield’s less than cordial handshake with Jackson at the end of the game. It was followed by an Instagram spat with Damien Woody in which he called Jackson “fake” and took issue with him accepting a role with the Bengals this season.
I mean seriously take a look at all the videos in the link above. How is the handshake a bigger deal than the marked improvement on the field? I mean, when was the last time the Browns dominated a game like this? And really as far as drama goes, this is ridiculous. Why is it so hard to believe the coach who blamed everyone but himself for his 3-36-1 record would be considered “fake” by his team? Or that the team would be unhappy to learn he ran off to join another team in the division who they still have to play twice this season?
Look, when I’m not writing for Inside the Pylon, I’m an HR Generalist. So, if anyone understands that a terminated employee is within their right to look for gainful employment once a contract has been rendered null and void, it’s me. I have no problem with Jackson taking a job from an HR perspective. However, there appears to be an unwritten rule in sports that coaches take the rest of a season off when they have been fired. Why not? They’re still being paid by their original employer. So, I see no reason why it’s a shock Mayfield was upset by this decision, which when added to his own frustration at being a pawn in the Jackson vs Haley argument, makes it completely understandable he wouldn’t want take give Jackson a big hug at the end of the game.
Furthermore, it was clear watching the game, Mayfield is not the only one who felt that way. But, having said that, Mayfield needs to be careful. Even though what he said was entirely logical and I respect him for his honest candor, he must realize he’s in the NFL now. Commentators who predicted he would be a bust are going to continue to look for controversy. He already had baggage following him into the league, he cannot get into arguments over social media with everyone he disagrees with. Doing so may cause him to fall into the “arrogance” trap commentators have set for him. I thought Kitchens stepped in and put the controversy into perspective, preventing it from further spiraling. I really just hope Mayfield takes this point from Kitchens to heart:
“When you start winning people want to find other stories. I’ve told you guys this in the spring: Players chase stats and media chases controversy, because both of them equal money. It’s about how many hits you get on the internet; it’s about how many viewers you have”.
This leads me to my great fear: Mayfield without Kitchens. John Dorsey may find himself in an impossible situation. What if Mayfield requests, or dares to demand, Kitchens be back next season? Can he sell that to a new coach or does that mean he has to bring back the current coaching staff? Either option is rife with drama that could derail what the Browns are building. By firing both Jackson and Haley because they were impeding Mayfield’s development, Dorsey has established said development is paramount. If the team struggles with a new coach and there is a problem with Kitchens, does he keep the guy who Mayfield has bonded with or does he run the risk of replacing him? And if he keeps the current coaching staff, what happens if Gregg Williams says something controversial? He’s held it together so far, but you know at the first sign of trouble, the “Bounty Gate” tapes will be ready to roll.
Between this and one more game against Jackson and the Bengals, drama could tear things apart leaving Dorsey dogged by controversy the entire off-season.
Is 2019 Next Year?
Assuming the Browns get over the Jackson controversy and solidify the coaching staff, there is still work to be done. The Browns have been so painfully bad since returning to the league, that “next year” doesn’t even mean a deep playoff run like it would for most franchises. No, for the Browns “next year” is a term better applied to simply being in contention for a playoff spot. So, let’s return to those 2007 Browns as, at 10-6, they were the last team that seemed to be transitioning into “next year”. Unfortunately for the 2008 team, while the quarterback controversy between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn proved detrimental, an off-season spending spree sunk them. The Browns entered the off-season needing to solidify their 3-4 front and add a reliable receiver to play opposite Braylon Edwards. The Browns brought in Rogers and Williams to anchor the line and gave Donte Stallworth a huge contract. Somehow GM Phil Savage, and fans like myself I will admit, overlooked two astronomical problems with those guys. Rogers and Williams had been successful against the run in 2007, but that success had come in a 4-3 alignment, Both were poor fits in their new roles, particularly Williams who lacked the strength to hold his own as a 5-technique defensive end. And Stallworth? As had been the case throughout his career, he was anything but consistent. The Browns imploded and all three players played active roles.
Similar to 2008, the Browns will enter the 2019 offseason with holes they have to address. They need another corner to play opposite Ward, they desperately need a receiver who can stretch the defense vertically, and it would seem wise to add another offensive tackle. Chris Hubbard has been better off late, but seems better suited for the “swing tackle” role. When the Browns make these moves, they must find players that fit both their need and their scheme. Doing so will allow players like Jarvis Landry (slot receiver) and Terrance Mitchell (slot corner) to return to their natural positions. It will also leave them with the one thing they have not had since 1999: a complete team.
So, ultimately, it will fall to John Dorsey to succeed where all the past GM’s have failed: he must stabilize the coaching staff, while adding the right pieces to an almost complete team. If he decides to keep Williams, he must stick with him for at least 3 seasons, more coaching controversy will sink the franchise. And if he replaces Williams, but keeps Kitchens, he must hire a defensive minded coach. He cannot run the risk of another Jackson vs Haley spat. Doing so puts Mayfield at risk on the field and drastically increases the risk of Mayfield being drawn into drama off the field. As Kitchens said, Mayfield will tell anyone who asks how he really feels. I admire that about him, I just hope he isn’t put in that situation again.
Baker Mayfield is the best quarterback the Browns have had since they returned to the league in 1999. The franchise cannot mess this up by falling into the same traps. While they have remedied the traps on the field, they cannot celebrate anything yet. The off-the-field traps remain set and ready to snare anyone who ventures too close.