The state of the Cleveland Browns and where to go from here

Are the Browns going to be okay?

By: Michael Welsh

The 2021 season has not gone as expected for the Cleveland Browns. The expectations coming into the season were division winners and Super Bowl Contenders. Despite the week one loss to the Chiefs, the Browns still appeared to be a team that would be reckoned with this season. That hasn’t been the case. They sit at 4-4 with a lot of questions moving forward. All hope isn’t lost, but adjustments must be made quickly. But before we dive into that, how did we get here?

From injuries to questionable play calling to not being able to close out games, there are multiple issues with the Browns at this point. It all began in week two against the Texans when Baker Mayfield made a tackle on defender Justin Reid after an interception. What appeared to be a dislocated shoulder turned into something much worse in the coming weeks. It was revealed that Mayfield has a completely torn labrum and an additional fracture in his non-throwing shoulder.

This isn’t an injury that will heal over time, Surgery is needed. Baker can play through the pain with a brace on, but as explained by analysts on several networks, it will affect how he plays this season because it is overall uncomfortable. Plus it clearly has messed with Baker’s mental state. There have been several injuries to the offensive line and it has made Baker appear jittery and bail out of clean pockets for fear of potentially taking a big hit. Because of this it is leading to even more issues, such as Baker not going through progressions, seeing the field, and missing open receivers. It is without a doubt costing the team points at times and possibly even wins. Despite all of this, Baker has done enough in certain games to come out with wins. But football is a team sport, and several key players are failing to do their jobs at critical moments. Plus the officiating has been atrocious, but that’s another story.

Both sides of the ball have lacked consistency this year. Joe Woods has been very puzzling on the defensive side of the ball, often failing to make any in game adjustments or dialing up any pressure. There is way too much talent on defense to be as inconsistent as they are. Reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski hasn’t been bad by any means, but he’s had several struggles that we didn’t see in 2020. He is far too conservative at times, far too aggressive at going for it on fourth down, and some believe the play calling has become stale and predictable. The Browns are a run heavy team, but in 2020 we saw a lot of play action bootleg plays where Mayfield through the ball down the field. This year that is all but gone and instead we get countless screen passes a game and overall a boring offense. So what changed? The obvious assumption is that Stefanski is protecting Baker and his injury by drawing up simple plays that take no time to develop. Be that as it may, eventually you have to take some shots down the field. Baker used to be a gunslinger, taking risks and pushing the ball down the field. For better or worse, it seems that this coaching staff has killed that part of him because he seems terrified to make any mistakes. Of course you wanna be mistake free, but it is okay to let the ball rip from time to time. Opposing defenses aren’t respecting Cleveland’s passing game at all and they won’t anytime soon if nothing the changes. The truth is, wide receivers have never flourished in a Stefanski offense. Catches per game drop substantially for them and number one receivers are often decoys so other players can get open. A Stefanski team can be good overall, but top wide receivers aren’t game changers in his system. You just have to wonder if he makes some changes in his thought process as the season goes on.

Speaking of receivers not being a huge factor in a Stefanski offense, things have become tense with superstar Odell Beckham Jr and the Browns. The narrative that Baker and OBJ do not have chemistry has been well documented since 2019. Fans and analysts alike were optimistic that they would finally figure it out this season, but that hasn’t been the case. Beckham leads the team in targets at 34, but only has 17 receptions for 232 yards and no touchdowns. He is coming off the worst game in his career against the Steelers where he only had 1 catch for 6 yards. There is no one person to blame for OBJ not putting up numbers. Some of it comes back on him with slipping on routes, running the wrong routes, and dropping key passes. Some of it comes back on Baker Mayfield for not throwing him the ball when he’s open and being inaccurate with it half the time when he does pull the trigger. There have been multiple times this year where OBJ is open down the field, but Baker doesn’t see him and instead throws underneath or bails out of the pocket. Lastly, some of it falls on Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt for not drawing up plays for Beckham and not getting him involved early in the game. They all need to be better, period.

OBJ’s dad took to YouTube Tuesday morning with an 11 minute video showing that Beckham is open very often, but Baker fails to get him the ball, and then proceeded to bash the quarterback in the comment section. It got even more hectic when LeBron James tweeted out #FreeOBJ with his thoughts on the situation, and other athletes followed. It is a terrible look for your dad to take to social media to complain about the quarterback, even if he does have a point. It only divide the locker room and causes a distraction that will be dissected on every talk show for the coming days. Nonetheless. the trade deadline came and went and OBJ is still a member of the Browns, so this will be something they will have to deal with for the remainder of the season.

So where do the Browns go from here? Is this all fixable? The good news is that most of it is. At 4-4, the season is far from over and they could easily turn it around to make a playoff push. But it will not be easy. Stefanski and the coaching staff need to sit down and hash out the problems and start fixing them ASAP. There is way too much talent on this roster to be underperforming this bad. Baker needs to see the field and start making better decisions, including getting OBJ more involved early in the game. Execution is crucial in the NFL and that is something this team has struggled with. The players have to do their jobs and the rest will fall into place.

No one is sure what it is, but this team has an anti-clutch gene and they cannot close out games or come back to win one. Stefanski needs to keep the foot on the gas and bury teams, instead of letting up. There have been a few games this year, most notably the Chargers game in week 5, where Stefanski coached scared, even saying in the press conference that he made decisions at the end of the game because he was nervous to make a mistake. Coaching scared will never get you far in a season. Trust the players and talent you have. If you want to be a Super Bowl contender, you have to beat good teams. Unfortunately, the Browns cannot do that right now. It will be interesting to see how Stefanski pulls together the locker room with the drama that unfolded on Tuesday. In the coming weeks, we will learn a lot about this team and see what they’re made of. Hopefully they can come together instead of fall apart.

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