5 Reasons It’s Time to Believe in the Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns moved to 3-1 on the season with a wild shootout victory that resulted in a 49-38 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. This is the first time they've been 3-1 since the 2001 season, but it's not hard to think the record could be an illusion.
Cleveland was the league's most heavily hyped team last offseason before things fell apart in the games that mattered. Baker Mayfield regressed, Freddie Kitchens proved he was in over his head as a head coach, and the Browns stumbled to a 6-10 record.
At no point in 2019 were they over .500.
This year is different, though. While the season kicked off with a blowout loss similar to last year's opener, Cleveland has ripped off three wins since and has scored at least 34 points in each of them. This is far from a perfect team, but a year after the Browns were supposed to be good, it's finally time to believe they are.
Kevin Stefanski Is Not in over His Head
One of the biggest reasons for Cleveland's collapse in 2019 was the ineptitude of head coach Freddie Kitchens. He never seemed to have a reliable game plan, he too often put his offense on the shoulders of second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, and he forged a culture completely devoid of accountability.
"The Browns of 2019 often played undisciplined, even dumb football. They didn't seem especially accountable to each other or the coaches," Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote before the 2020 season opener.
After one week, it seemed like new head coach Kevin Stefanski might bring more of the same. He abandoned the run far too early against the Baltimore Ravens, took too many early risks—including a failed fake punt attempt—and steered his team to a 38-6 beatdown.
However, Stefanski has steered a steady ship since.
The offense has leaned heavily on the running game, allowing Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the rest of the passing offense to be complementary pieces, albeit extremely talented ones.
Perhaps most importantly, Stefanski's Browns have learned how to close out games rather than fumble them away as Cleveland did too often last year.
The Offense Is Loaded with Firepower
The Browns have been racking up points, in part because Stefanski has been putting them in position to do so. Of course, it's helped that the offense features weapons like Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
It's a talented and deep group that can survive the rigors of the NFL season. When Chubb went down with a knee injury against Dallas, the offense didn't miss a beat. Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson (13 carries, 95 yards) took over and continued pounding the Cowboys defense.
And while Beckham and Landry may not be getting force-fed the ball as they were last season, they're still capable of taking over games. Landry had five catches for 48 yards Sunday, while Beckham had a vintage against-the-Dallas Cowboys performance. He caught five passes for 81 yards, rushed for 73 yards and had three total touchdowns.
"Oh and [Beckham] is THAT dude in case y’all forgot," defensive end Myles Garrett tweeted after Sunday's win.
This is truly a pick-your-poison offense, one few teams will be able to stop when things are clicking as well as they have been in recent weeks.
The Offensive Line Looks Like One of the League's Best
New Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry invested heavily in the offensive line this offseason. He signed right tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal in free agency and drafted left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall pick.
Those investments have paid immediate dividends in the pass-protection department. Mayfield has been sacked just six times through four games and hasn't been taken down more than twice in the same contest.
However, the real strength of this line might be at the interior. Center JC Tretter is a seasoned pro, while Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller might be the best guard duo in the game. According to Pro Football Focus, Teller came into Week 4 as the third-ranked guard in the league, and Bitonio was ranked fifth.
Not only has Cleveland's line made life a lot easier on Mayfield, but it has also allowed the running game to be one of the most potent in the league even when backups like Johnson have to be called upon.
Cleveland's offense can impose its will in the trenches, and that's tough for any opponent to overcome.
Baker Mayfield Is Becoming the Ultimate Game-Manager
Smart play-calling, a strong running game and a tremendous offensive line have allowed Mayfield to be more of a game manager than a gun-slinger in 2020.
"[Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt] and Stefanski have said many times to trust that their play-calling will get the ball in guys' hands to get them going, and I just do my job," Mayfield said, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
While he is still capable of delivering accurate passes and jaw-dropping downfield strikes, Mayfield the Game Manager has been far more efficient than Mayfield the Field General.
Over the past three weeks, Mayfield has completed 51 of 76 pass attempts (67.1 percent) for 540 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception. While those certainly aren't eye-popping numbers, they represent the efficiency and dependability that had been missing from Cleveland's quarterback position for what seemed like an eternity.
Mayfield has limited Cleveland's offensive miscues and has the Browns positioned to do something they struggled to do in 2019: not beat themselves.
There Are Playmakers on Defense
Right now, the Cleveland defense is the most suspect aspect of this team. While the offense has racked up 118 points over the last three weeks, the defense has allowed 88 points in that span. It came into Week 4 ranked 22nd against the pass and 24th in points allowed.
Against Dallas, the Browns surrendered 566 yards of offense and nearly allowed the Cowboys to overcome a 27-point second-half deficit.
They didn't, though, as cornerback Denzel Ward put an end to Dallas' comeback hopes with an interception. This is indicative of the defense's strengths. While the Browns will give up yards, they have contributors capable of making game-changing plays.
In Week 3, Cleveland forced five turnovers against the Washington Football Team, which helped it secure the win after losing the lead in the fourth quarter. The week before that, consistent quarterback pressure, three sacks and a strip-sack of Joe Burrow helped deliver the win over the rival Cincinnati Bengals.
Timely defense will lead to victories when a team has as much offensive potency as Cleveland possesses. With players like Ward, Myles Garrett and Sheldon Richardson on the defensive side, that's well within the realm of possibility.