At what point are we allowed to be disappointed in the Browns, especially after a 45–7 blowout loss to a supposedly inferior opponent like the game we saw Sunday against the Patriots?
It’s a fair question, given that this kind of relative competence—five wins at the midpoint of the season—would have warranted a statue a few years ago. A highly drafted quarterback who started more than a handful of games would have been deified. A pass rusher drafted first overall, who actually leads the league in sacks with some regularity, would have been a stunning proposition. A coach of the year candidate, never mind the actual, in-the-living-flesh coach of the year would have been the kind of pipe dream reserved for the deepest of message boards.
What happened a year ago, 11 regular-season wins and then a thorough knockout of the Steelers in the playoffs, felt like an exorcism and permission to actually believe that this franchise could win a Super Bowl in the next handful of years. The Browns are finally built the right way. There are smart decisions being made at every corner of the organization. Only a handful of rosters in the NFL feel more complete. And so, when the developing, but still vulnerable Patriots pull them apart like a jackfruit, even before Baker Mayfield exited the game with an injury, is it time to say we expected more?
It’s O.K. to say yes, especially when looking into the near future. The Browns have the fifth-toughest remaining strength of schedule in the NFL (measured coming int this week), a slate that includes two games against the Ravens and a game against the Packers. New England was supposed to be one of the more manageable opponents remaining for the year. Now, it seems we may be looking at a situation where Cleveland has to scrape just to get into the playoffs as a best-case scenario, with or without its starting quarterback (Kevin Stefanski said he is hopeful Mayfield can play next week, though he has now been hampered by several injuries this year). According to FiveThirtyEight’s postseason prediction model, the Browns have dropped below 50% for the first time this season. A loss to the Ravens in either of their contests would drop that percentage below 25%. A loss to the Lions next week, which feels like the kind of macabre fate that would have nipped the Browns in an era of less capability, would almost knock them out altogether—according to the computers, at least.
And then, what happens to the things that Browns fans have come to accept as true? For example, the idea of a franchise quarterback, which seemed like it was cemented a year ago, will start to waiver. Cleveland was a team that, even as it toyed with the idea of extending Mayfield long term, would have been viewed as a quarterback-stable franchise. If it was forced to re-enter that pool of deep uncertainty, of palace intrigue regarding whether or not an extension will even come, of instability, how would that change the way people look at the rest of the foundation?
Would we feel the same about the coach? Would we feel the same about the roster? Would we feel the same amount of confidence in the front office, which will have to go out into a clamorous quarterback market to procure a win-now starter, or work to repair its relationship with Mayfield?
Personally, I think this feels like a team still destined for great things, but one that happened to run into some untimely injuries and a daunting schedule at the least opportune time. (It is worth noting, of course, that the offense is built around having the best rushing tandem in the league, and that neither Nick Chubb nor Kareem Hunt were available Sunday.) Inside the building this offseason, optimism was off the charts and rightfully so. One of Cleveland’s main concerns was continuing to match the constant pounding doled out by both Baltimore and Pittsburgh. That fear was well-founded. The AFC North is so dense that it’s anchoring almost all of its teams to the ocean floor, preventing anyone from truly breaking away. Baltimore’s untimely loss to the Dolphins on Thursday (and Pittsburgh’s stunning tie with the winless Lions shows that the rigors of the division are such that seemingly winnable games are slogs through delayed fatigue).
If that’s the case, maintaining optimism for another year is nothing new for the team’s loyalists. The act of delaying hope has become a common practice in Cleveland, but this time there is evidence of a payoff. None of this makes what 2021 has become more palatable, though, which places Browns fans in the strangest of scenarios. How are they supposed to feel? How long does gratefulness and gratitude for the near past last? It’s fine to expect more from a franchise that has perpetually delivered less. In fact, feeling disappointment at all this late in the season could be considered one of the greatest gifts the current regime has given its fans. Such is the curse of a winning franchise.
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