Despite a desire to find a single reason to explain why the 6-6 Cleveland Browns offense has only exceeded 17 points five times so far this year, the reality is that there are a multitude of reasons that have contributed to a massive failure on that side of the ball.
While the issues the Browns have simply cannot be fixed in the 2021 season, there is plenty of reason to believe a productive offseason can put them right back on track in 2022.
1. Baker Mayfield
Unfortunately, there's simply no way to avoid the fact the trajectory of the 2021 season was altered the second he tore the labrum in his left shoulder against the Houston Texans. It's an injury that will require surgery and could take three to four months to recover from in the offseason. Adding injuries to his knee and heel did not help, but once Mayfield could not be the player he showed capable the last ten games of the 2020 season and the first game of the 2021 season, this offense was not going to be able to reach their potential on that side of the ball.
That does not excuse mistakes Mayfield has made in games, the most recent of which includes a ghastly fumble against the Baltimore Ravens, an opportunity that may have yielded the points necessary to win the game. However, a major reason the Browns were able to play so well down the stretch in 2020 is because Mayfield was playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Going from that to a compromised version, at times a complete shell of himself, has been a substantial challenge to the Browns as a whole. He did not go down for the year, but in a number of ways, he may as well have.
Looking ahead to 2022, Mayfield needs to get healthy. Beyond the imminent surgery on his shoulder, he's going to have to get rid of some bad habits that creeped into his game in 2021. He did not trust his protection (we'll get to that) and dropped his eyes too often in an effort to try to escape pressure for example. Mayfield's feet have also been troubling at times.
Earlier in the year, Mayfield held onto the ball too long in hopes of making hero plays and subjected himself to avoidable punishment, creating turnovers in the process while also suffering a broken humerus in his shoulder. That much has been corrected as Mayfield has started to play within his physical limitations to better results.
Nothing that has happened to Mayfield in 2021 prevents him from being able to return to the form he showed capable in 2020. Given that Mayfield has fought and continues to fight through this season with everything he has, the hope is he find ways to use the struggles of the season to help him for the future.
It's simply not realistic to compete for a championship with a starting quarterback in the physical state Mayfield has been in this season.
2. Wide Receivers (And One Tight End)
The wide receiver position was not great in 2020, an issue that was completely exposed in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Browns were hopeful that Odell Beckham Jr. being healthy and available this year would provide the difference maker that would open up the offense. They were half right.
Beckham did open up spacing in the offense, which provided a notable difference for the Browns when he was on the field. The Los Angeles Rams are seeing a similar impact with Beckham on the field. It did not translate into production for Beckham, which proved to be unsustainable for him to continue with this team.
Jarvis Landry, so excited for this season, finally able to be healthy, playing with Beckham, changed his body to make himself quicker and have a more defined role. Two snaps into the second game of the season, Landry suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the first games for injury in his entire career. That knee has been aggravated on multiple occasions and he's a shell of himself.
Landry was able to turn in a 111-yard game against the Ravens, That is more than any two games he's had since sustaining the injury. Unfortunately, he also had a costly fumble in the game.
Forever a zone beater, Landry consistently struggles beating man coverage, which is the biggest issue that group faces across the board and the Chefs exposed in the playoffs, the Browns have been unable to get past it in 2021.
Landry is giving everything he has to the point where he might be trying to do too much which has led to some of the costly mistakes he's had this season.
Landry's struggles look minor compared to Rashard Higgins. The best receiver on the team in 2020, Higgins has gone from the most reliable and efficient option for Mayfield to being so ineffective, he was benched in favor of practice squad option Ja'Marcus Bradley.
Higgins simply has not been able to get open this season and he's dropped passes, something he did not do in the entirety of the 2020 season. Maybe there's more to why Higgins has experienced such a disappointing year, but his room for error has always been thin given his underwhelming physical attributes.
With what were three of the top four options not being anywhere near the Browns would have hoped, they have been left with second year talent Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie third round pick Anthony Schwartz.
Jones, a 2020 6th round pick has flashed immense talent, but he was available that late because he was such an unfinished product. As a rookie, he shined in part because he was a fourth or fifth option, able to capitalize against favorable matchups.
Jones has missed multiple games due to ongoing groin issues, but in the two games he's most recently been able to play, the Ravens and New England Patriots, he often found himself against Marlon Humphrey and was shadowed by J.C. Jackson, two of the best corners in the NFL.
He had a critical drop early in the Ravens game, but the Browns are counting on production from a player that is suddenly the focal point of how opponents game plan for defending the Browns.
All of this has suddenly made Anthony Schwartz an integral part of the offense. The third round rookie, who was selected as a project and entered the season fifth on the depth chart, he was never intended to be anything more than a player peppered into the offense this year.
Schwartz is the one remaining receiver who can consistently stretch the field and force opponents to keep defensive backs deeper. Having gone out early against the Patriots with a hellacious hit that resulted in a concussion and then missing games against the Lions and Ravens, defenses are lining up almost every single player near the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the run and force the Browns to beat man coverage in the air.
The fact the Browns now desperately need Schwartz just to try to create space for their offense illustrates just how badly the wide receiver position has turned out to be in 2021.
Austin Hooper may not be a wide receiver, but he has been one of the most frustrating pass catchers on the team not just this year, but last year as well. Because he's 250 pounds and can block at a high level, there's reason to give him a little slack, but it's increasingly difficult.
He drops or is otherwise unable to catch too many passes that he should make. It's that much more apparent when contrasted against David Njoku and Harrison Bryant, who have been cleaner in that aspect of the game this season.
Hooper is clearly capable of playing better than he's shown, but at some point it simply has to happen. Tight ends are a critical component within this offense, especially as the Browns are so devoid of receiver talent and Hooper has an opportunity to be so much more than he has been in Cleveland to this point.
Looking ahead to 2022, the Browns need to take a similar approach to the wide receiver position that they did with their secondary last year. Outside of Jones, Schwartz and Felton, who functions as a three-position player, the Browns have to bring in talent that fits what they want to be.
This position needs to improve drastically if any quarterback is going to have sustainable success for the Browns.
3. Offensive Tackle
Even though the Browns offensive line did its share of juggling in 2020, they were able to get by playing just six guys for the majority of the season and were legitimately seven deep.
Chris Hubbard was deservedly hailed a hero, stepping in at both tackle spots as well as right guard, allowing the Browns to continue to excel in that area, even if it wasn't quite as dominant. After he dislocated his kneecap against the New York Giants and their accursed turf, Kendall Lamm was able to step in and keep that going.
When they got to the playoffs, the Browns got a huge game out of reserve Michael Dunn in the wildcard round, taking over for Joel Bitonio, who missed the game with COVID-19. Blake Hance made an appearance and left guard and had to play a significant amount of tackle against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
Not only were the Browns incredibly well prepared for 2020, they also had an element of magic that year with their line. Bill Callahan was the offensive line coaching equivalent of King Midas and everything he touched turned to gold.
Going into 2021, the Browns had countless reasons to be confident. Jedrick Wills was wholly focused on improving at left tackle in a normal offseason where he could really improve in a more orthodox fashion. This really stood out in the running game where he could get hands on people actively resisting him.
The first game of the season on a touchdown run by Jarvis Landry against the Kansas City Chiefs, Wills went down grabbing his ankle. He had to come out of the game and there was a worry that he would be lost for far longer.
In fact, Wills missed virtually no time immediately and was right back out there the next few weeks doing everything he could on a bad ankle. He left multiple games after aggravating the injury including once on a cart before the Browns sat him out for weeks five and six.
Even if the ankle injury isn't as debilitating as it had been, Wills continues to play with it and it has continued to impact his play. Against the Patriots and Ravens, he struggled and it led to a number of big plays for the defense.
Wills is still just 22 years old and has plenty of room to grow. Ankle or not, he might have had some hiccups this year just with the challenges of the NFL, but the ankle has only exacerbated those issues.
On the other side, Jack Conklin's 2021 season has been a nightmare. When he was on the field, Conklin has been a terrific run blocker and largely solid pass blocker. He may well have ended up in the All-Pro conversation again.
The problem was that Conklin entered the season with a nagging knee injury. He played through it before missing games six and seven. When he returned in week eight, he suffered a dislocated elbow against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which caused him to be placed on injured reserve, missing three more games. Returning for the Ravens game, Conklin's knee gave out due to a torn patella tendon, which ended his season.
Chris Hubbard, the heroic sixth man of 2020, stepped in for Wills the first game of the season, playing out the rest of the game. In the process, he suffered an injury to his tricep. Inactive for the next three games but still on the active roster, Hubbard reached a conclusion that he would not be able to contribute and he needed to have the surgery, ending his season. The Browns offensive tackle depth was burned up after just 39 offensive snaps.
The Browns had drafted James Hudson III in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he was picked as a developmental project. He demonstrated in the preseason just how far away he was from being ready. He was never supposed to see the field this year.
Nevertheless, Hudson did get on the field at points out of sheer necessity, including a game where he and Blake Hance were the team's two tackles, producing terrifying results. Hance, meanwhile, had been practicing at center as an emergency option in case they needed him. He even played a game at center in the preseason. The Browns needed Hance to play tackle, so once again, he went out there and did the best he could.
Initially, Hance had some decent performances. Unfortunately, a combination of bad habits and opponents studying him for weakness have rendered him completely inadequate to the task. He has been a massive liability and limited what the Browns could do. Teams fearlessly send extra pressure off the right side knowing they will get through to disrupt the run or attack the quarterback.
Looking ahead for 2022, it starts with Wills and Conklin getting healthy. Wills should continue to grow, getting cleaner with his technique, getting more comfortable with how opponents will attack him while also continuing to get more powerful.
The Browns may want to re-sign Hubbard as a swing option. Hubbard really likes the Browns and they really like him, having restructured him to keep him on the team for two years. If not Hubbard, they will need to find someone else that can contribute, whether that's looking at options that have been with the team in the past, including Alex Taylor and Greg Senat, or finding someone else either in free agency or the NFL Draft.
Clearly, Hudson needs to make massive improvements in year two, because the Browns know they cannot have him take up a roster spot while not being able to contribute anything two years in a row.
4. Kareem Hunt
Related to the issues discussed with the wide receiver position, the loss of Kareem Hunt for five weeks was pretty devastating, largely because of his ability to contribute both in the running and passing game.
In the six games before Hunt hurt his calf, he caught 20 passes on 24 targets for 161 yards. That's on top of the 381 yards rushing and five touchdowns he had rushing, averaging 5 yards per carry. Plenty of that receiving yardage was in the form of screens, but his ability to largely fill the void left by Landry in the form of underneath passing routes was useful.
Frankly, Hunt should've gotten the ball more than he did, particularly in his capacity as a space player. His threat in the passing game also helped him in the running game. His running style, going full bore into the hole, can often beat opponents to the spot. When they are concerned about him going out for a pass, it only helps him find more success as a runner.
Not having Hunt forced the Brown to be more willing to utilize Nick Chubb in the passing game, which was a small positive. Chubb continues to get better in this aspect of the game and has improved every season of his career.
But for a team getting nothing out so little out of the wide receiver spot, losing Hunt who can line up anywhere only applied salt to the wound.
5. Kevin Stefanski
After operating at an incredibly high level under terrible circumstances as a first year head coach during the pandemic, Kevin Stefanski has proven fallible in year two. He's still a talented and capable head coach, but there is more that can be criticized in terms of decisions, strategy and play calling.
Absent a true understanding of how the play calling operation works, criticizing who's mouth the call comes from is irrelevant. Undoubtedly, Stefanski has any number of plays over the course of a game he will. But given the fact Stefanski deals with other issues during the game between the defense, special teams and time management as well as the sheer amount of people involved in the offensive operation, it stands to reason he's not hand picking every play.
Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt is likely the point man, but it's an operation that includes passing coordinator Chad O'Shea, running game coordinator Stump Mitchell, Bill Callahan and a few others who work as support staff up in the box to gather and provide prudent, timely information.
Some of these play calls are coming from that group. Stefanski may be relaying the call, but a percentage of the plays are coming from that brain trust. The same is true of the offensive game plan.
Setting that fruitless discussion, opponents have had a chance to study and game plan against the offense the Browns have installed, finding the differences between what he does as opposed to the Shanahans and Kubiaks of the world. They were going to come up with ways to fluster the offense and Stefanski's staff was going to have to adjust on the fly and over the course of the year.
Combine that with the challenges this offense has faced that have been discussed already, calling plays is substantially more difficult. The most brilliant play callers almost always have a significant amount of talent. This year, the Browns are trying to figure out the right play calls effectively with a hand tied behind their back.
For example, with Hance at right tackle combined with Mayfield's limitations due to injury, designed rollouts and wide play-action calls have been almost nonexistent this season. When Stefanski took the job, one of the first things he told Mayfield to do was to get faster to run the stretch concepts.
What the Browns are running into now is being unable to run the ball to keep themselves on schedule as defenses load up to eliminate it. Running on first down often results in second and long or longer than when they started as was the case against the Ravens. Running again doesn't make a ton of sense at that point. So the result has been an offense trying to pass to create running opportunities, which has been a struggle.
There are some regrettable play calls that Stefanski has made this season. Some of the calls on fourth down earlier in the year were a mess and his handling of the last two drives against the Los Angeles Chargers stand out.
And as many coaches have been, Stefanski was completely undressed by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. It stands to reason Stefanski will learn from it and get better.
The Browns need better health and more talent to make the offense and Stefanski better. It also stands to reason that he's going to learn a significant amount from many of the failures the Browns had this season.
More frustrating given how much more time the Browns have had to prepare has been the issues with pre-snap penalties and motion. It's stunning how much smoother the operation worked for the Browns offense last year when they had less practice time and operated digitally for such a long period of time.
Illegal formation penalties.
False start penalties from wide receivers.
It's not young players making those mistakes either. It's veterans that should know better. The Browns are too often beating themselves before the opponent has a chance. And since the most effective offenses tend to employ the most motion, not being able to utilize it at the same rate is a disadvantage this team can ill afford. Seemingly, almost all the motion are Browns do employ involves their three tight ends.
It also impacts how much they can do in terms of changing plays at the line of scrimmage. Certainly, they go to the line of scrimmage with more than one play available, but when they can't just make a call at the line based on an opportunity they see in part due to the inability to trust the personnel not to botch it, that's a major red flag.
Given the talent on the offensive coaching staff, it's stunning it has gotten to this point, but they will not allow it to continue beyond this season, making changes as they deem necessary.
There's unquestionably an element of luck when it comes to being a championship team in the NFL and the Browns haven't had any of it in 2021 as it relates to injuries on the offensive side of the ball.
There are also meaningful improvements the Browns will have to make both in terms of talent as well as the operation. They have the capability to get right back on track in 2022, but that will not minimize the overwhelming disappointment that has been the 2021 offense which still has five regular season games remaining.