Less than a year ago, the Cleveland Browns had wrapped up their best regular season in decades.
They fought valiantly in their first playoff appearance since 2002, beating the rival Pittsburgh Steelers for their only postseason victory in the last 25 years before going down swinging against Kansas City Chiefs in the next round.
The franchise went into the 2021 season full of hope. It was poised to build upon that 11-5 campaign and subsequent playoff exit to the team that was, at the time, the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Browns returned one of the best running back platoons in football with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a No. 1 overall pick under center who seemed to have taken the leap in Baker Mayfield and a defense that improved significantly in the offseason, adding several complementary pieces around superstar pass-rusher Myles Garrett.
Since then, the Browns have won just three games and are sitting at .500, tied for last place in the AFC North.
Injuries certainly haven't helped the cause. Jarvis Landry, a five-time Pro Bowler, has spent the last month on the IR after suffering a knee sprain. Odell Beckham Jr. began the season sidelined as he finished recovering from a torn ACL and didn't return until Week 3. He still hasn't had a chance to share the field with Landry—his former college teammate—in 2021.
Mayfield is struggling without his top wideouts. The fourth-year signal-caller has slumped out of the gate after having his best season as a pro in 2020. He's completed a respectable 67.1 percent of his passes for an average of 245.7 yards per game and six total touchdowns, but has a concerning three interceptions and three fumbles through six games. His trio of turnovers this past Sunday cost Cleveland a chance to become the first team to topple the Arizona Cardinals this season.
With Mayfield dealing with an injury of his own—a torn labrum he claimed he'd be able to play through—it's hard to envision the Browns passing game improving much. The team ranks No. 26 in passing yardage per game, is tied for No. 28 in total passing touchdowns and only three squads have allowed more sacks than Cleveland.
It's easy to point to these ailments and lack of elite wideouts to explain Mayfield's issues, but the best quarterbacks still find a way to succeed.
In his fourth season as a starter, Tom Brady made a Pro Bowl while leading the 2004 New England Patriots to a Super Bowl with guys like David Givens, David Patten and Deion Branch serving as his top wideouts. Even Matthew Stafford carried the 2016 Detroit Lions, a team with a negative point differential and zero Pro Bowl receivers, to a playoff appearance.
Mayfield has the pieces around him to get the job done—he just hasn't maximized his own talent or that of those surrounding him.
Things got worse for the club in Week 6, when Hunt was forced into the starting lineup after Chubb was ruled out with a calf issue. Hunt was then carted off with a calf injury of his own—of the concerning non-contact variety—and will reportedly miss at least three games while going on the IR.
While Chubb could return soon, the league's leading rushing offense is still taking a major hit, with its change-of-pace and pass-catching specialist going down for a significant stretch.
Even Cleveland's defense hasn't lived up to expectations. The team seems to be employing a break-but-don't-bend strategy at times, allowing the second-fewest yards in the league but giving up over 25 points per game, a mark that ranks a paltry 22nd going into Week 7.
The defense hasn't had much help in the form of seven offensive giveaways but has done a poor job of creating turnovers of their own. The Browns have a lowly negative-three turnover differential, coming up with just two interceptions and two fumble recoveries across six contests.
The secondary has been surprisingly weak. This was a unit that had the potential to become one of the NFL's best in 2021. While the Browns have allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for 220.7 yards per game, they have already given up 14 total passing touchdowns.
Even with the additions of safety John Johnson III on a bargain free-agent deal and rookie first-round pick Greg Newsome II—plus the return of 2019 second-round cornerback Greedy Williams following a lost sophomore year—this secondary has consistently failed to keep pass-catchers out of the end zone. The Browns are tied for the third-most receiving TDs allowed in the NFL.
After earning an elite 85.6 grade from PFF with the Rams last year, Johnson has scored an unsightly 53.4 to start his Cleveland career while giving up eight receptions on 12 targets. Newsome has been decent in the NFL—garnering a 67.3 PFF grade—but has still allowed five catches on eight targets and hasn't exactly lived up to his lofty draft position.
Even No. 1 corner Denzel Ward has fallen off, with the 2018 first-rounder conceding 18 receptions on 28 targets. If the season finished today, Ward's 66.6 PFF grade would be the lowest of his career.
The potential for this defense to get exposed will only heighten during Cleveland's upcoming schedule, which has some tough opponents on tap over the final three months of the campaign.
The Browns still must face each of their AFC North rivals twice, including back-to-back matchups with the Baltimore Ravens sandwiched around a Week 13 bye. Cleveland gets its first look at the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals this season in Week 9 and finishes out the 2021 campaign by hosting them in Week 18.
Some of the Browns' most winnable games might even end up being tougher than expected.
While they are still favored against the Broncos on Thursday Night Football, the short week comes at a terrible time. With Hunt sidelined, Chubb nursing his injuries and Landry potentially remaining on IR, the offense may have to lean on unproven backs like D'Ernest Johnson and Demetric Felton to shoulder the load.
The situation isn't hopeless. Cleveland still has a chance to turn things around if it can get healthy for a late-season run and Mayfield can get the turnovers under control. However, the club's chances of winning its first divisional title since 1989 are rapidly slipping away.
If the Browns miss out on the playoffs with this roster, the front office needs to make major adjustments to salvage Cleveland's Super Bowl window. Whether it's swinging a blockbuster trade, hiring new coordinators or shaking up the chart, the team has options. It's not time to blow it up just yet, but changes have to be on the horizon to get this talented squad competing at a high level again.
All stats taken from Pro Football Reference prior to Monday Night Football.