Are the Browns legit?
By Calvin K (Twitter: @Calvin_SGF)
On the surface, the Cleveland Browns appear to have a great opportunity to contend for the AFC title this year. The Browns retained most of their key players from 2020, and they had a very successful offseason, both in free agency and in the draft. This team certainly has an opportunity to make a playoff run, but in this article, I’ll play devil’s advocate and make the case against them. Here are three reasons why the Browns won’t take a step forward in 2021.
1. Quality of Victories
The Browns finished 11-5 in 2020, losing in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs after defeating the Steelers in the Wild Card game. However, five of those victories came against teams with four or fewer wins, and they also had an embarrassing loss to the 2-14 New York Jets. Eight of their victories came by single-digits, and they had three double-digit losses, including two coming by over 30 points.
Granted, the Browns did get some big wins throughout the year, with a win over Indianapolis and narrow victories over Tennessee and Pittsburgh. They also rebounded from their earlier 32-point loss to Baltimore, losing by just five, and they also came within one score of the Chiefs in their divisional-round game. However, most of their wins were extremely close games, and they were in one-possession games against Houston, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Cincinnati (twice). They managed to get the job done in those, winning all five, but a little bit of variance in just two of those could’ve completely changed the landscape of last season. A 9-7 (or even 10-6) Browns team would’ve missed the playoffs last season, which leads nicely into my next point: the tough competition in the AFC.
Even if the Browns have a great year, it could still be difficult to take a step forward and reach the championship game in 2021. The AFC had seven teams with records of 11-5 or better last year, which caused the 10-6 Dolphins to miss out on the playoffs despite the postseason expanding to seven teams per conference.
The Browns themselves had to deal with this tough competition last year, playing a grueling game against the Steelers in the Wild Card matchup before facing the juggernaut Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes was injured for nearly half of that game, but Kansas City’s supporting cast was still good enough to hold off the Browns, exemplifying how elite they really are. The Bills, Ravens, Titans, and Colts are also teams that range from very good to dominant, and we can’t forget about the threats posed by the Patriots, Chargers, Dolphins, and Broncos, who will all have a chance to take a major step up this year. It just doesn’t seem feasible that the Browns would be able to defeat a healthy Chiefs team, and even if they could, the Bills’ high-powered offense and improved defense is in a much better position to do so anyway. The tough AFC competition will make a playoff run difficult for Cleveland, and while they could contend with most NFC teams, it isn’t smart to bet on the Browns as anything more than a Super Bowl long shot.
3. Quarterback Play
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is hardly a bad QB, but it is possible that he won’t be consistent enough to take this team to the top. The Browns have very few weaknesses on their overall roster, but quarterback is such an important position that even a slight disadvantage can derail a Super Bowl chance.
Mayfield certainly displayed plenty of brilliant flashes last season, but his overall body of work was mediocre, at least statistically. His worst stat last year was completion percentage, where he actually finished 30th among qualifying passers. He was also just 18th in passing yards and 15th in passing touchdowns, although those totals can be partially attributed to the run-heavy nature of the Browns’ offense. Mayfield was also 10th in ESPN’s QBR (Total Quarterback Rating), so he’s certainly not a bad player by any means, but he has struggled with decision-making at times. It’s certainly possible Mayfield is able to be a great QB, but his statistics don’t match up with elite passers in the NFL, and that could potentially become a hindrance for Cleveland’s Super Bowl hopes.
All of the reasons given paint an unfavorable picture for the Browns, but we shouldn’t forget the many positives that this team has as well. The Browns made many depth signings to improve their defense, and they added an edge-rushing playmaker in Jadeveon Clowney, who has the physical traits needed to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines. The NFL draft additions of CB Greg Newsome and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will also be vital for this defense, and those two players could both make immediate impacts for the team.
Overall, Cleveland will enter the 2021 season with a very strong roster, and there’s no arguing against the talent that the team possesses. On paper, this team looks like a borderline Super Bowl contender. However, due to the reasons stated above, there are major obstacles standing in the way of a big next step. These obstacles are ones that can be overcome, but even so, the end of the 2021 season may not come with as rosy of a picture as Browns fans hope.