6 Games in, Cleveland Browns Aren't Elite Team, But They Are Pretty Good
After six games, the Cleveland Browns find themselves 4-2 with a pair of beatings at the hands of divisional opponents on the road, so where does that leave this team? Probably the playoffs.
The Browns aren't an elite team, but it's not realistic to expect them to be. Coming into the season, the Browns were a team coming off a hugely disappointing season hiring a firs year head coach and general manager in the most tumultuous offseason the NFL has seen in decades. All things considered, things are going really well.
After getting their doors blown off by a very prepared Baltimore Ravens team, more than a few people were ready to write this season off as another failure. The Browns then proceeded to rebound against the Cincinnati Bengals, an expected out come. They ran off four wins in a row, including a difficult win in Dallas against the Cowboys and a physical victory against the Indianapolis Colts, who are themselves 4-2. That was not expected.
With those wins in the rearview mirror, many are quick to minimize them. The Cowboys complete lack of defense now the Dak Prescott injury have left them an afterthought, but it didn't change how big that performance felt in the moment.
They haven't had a breakthrough performance like the 2019 season where the Browns took the Ravens apart 40-25 in Baltimore, rising to the challenge of taking out a giant in this league. Likewise, they aren't likely to finish 6-10 again.
The expectations for this team went from wanting to see steady progress to getting carried away with each victory, pronouncing the Browns a contender despite a number of obvious warnings signs. Now, after a lopsided loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's worrying about their legitimacy.
Yes, they got killed and no one is asking you to be happy about the performance. It's simply about understanding that the Browns aren't one of the top five best teams in the league, but are still in line to make the playoffs, which was the goal entering the season.
So much of this year was about learning how to win, building a solid foundation while evaluating what the team had and then figuring out where they needed to go to take the next step. 2021 and 2022 should be seasons where the Browns are a legitimate contender. Their first offseason under Kevin Stefanski will have the entire offseason under contract and the biggest players on defense under contract with the team in a position to add more.
The Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the offensive line of the Browns. That's where the game was decided. The Browns don't win many games where they lose the battle up front. It's their identity and they have poured significant resources between salary cap dollars, draft picks and coaching to be one of the best units in the league. They were manhandled by the Steelers.
It's also likely the worst game that unit will have this season. They have been dominant in every other game this season. Missing Wyatt Teller and having to go with Chris Hubbard play right guard is not a good situation, but when Jack Conklin, Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter are all playing uncharacteristically poorly, the Browns are going to lose.
Baker Mayfield had a terrible game and there are increasing concerns about his long term viability. They aren't unfair questions, but pronouncements that he is a bust or the Browns need to make plans to replace him after this season are premature and likely not going to produce the answers they would like to hear.
There's no question Mayfield has to play better. The two interceptions were inexcusably bad football. He has clearly shown capable to make great throws and deliver big plays, but makes some incredibly boneheaded plays that can lose games. He didn't make enough of the former and made too many of the latter, which also contributed to the loss.
The last time Mayfield played poorly against the Ravens, he bounced back to play better against the Cincinnati Bengals. Mayfield needs to bounce back from this game and not just play well against the Bengals again, but he needs to play more consistent football. There's simply too much obvious ability in him to be as bad as he has been at times this season.
He doesn't have enough sweat equity in terms or proven results to be able to shake off a terrible game the way Aaron Rodgers can, who had an equally forgettable Sunday at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense on the road.
So criticisms and questions when it comes to Mayfield are neither surprising nor unfair. The four wins are good, but the stagnation of Mayfield has many understandably wondering if he's basically topped out in terms of development.
The answer to that is no, but that stagnation and a poor game and at least questionable trend to start this season doesn't immediately quash those concerns as unwarranted.
It's also not surprising to see the head coach scoff at the notion of switching quarterbacks or his teammates back him up, because they believe in Mayfield the person in addition to the leader and passer. They know he can be a better quarterback, but he has to reward their faith.
He's got ten more regular season games to get out of this stagnant streak of and make some progress both in avoiding critical mistakes, but also make more high level plays. He's a middle of the road quarterback that veers toward the bottom third when he makes these types of mistakes.
Mayfield has shown flashes of top ten quality play. They don't need him to be a top ten quarterback consistently to be a great team, but he cannot cost them games.
There is less reason to be confident this will be the worst performance of Mayfield's season like with the offensive line, because he has been volatile and inconsistent so far this season.
The Browns will get Nick Chubb and Wyatt Teller back and assuming no delays caused by COVID-19, they will benefit from the bye week. Players like Mayfield and Jarvis Landry need to heal and will take full advantage of that time to recuperate and catch their proverbial breath.
The other piece of good news is the Browns don't see another defensive heavyweight for maybe six weeks, so between the schedule and the bye, they can get some momentum going.
Defensively, this team has been awful in terms of giving up points, but they actually looked better against the Steelers. They didn't force turnovers and Myles Garrett didn't take over the game, though he did get a sack and had a huge impact on what the Steelers did when they had the ball.
There were fewer defensive breakdowns and less bend but don't break style football. They got stops and forced plenty of punts, generating opportunities for the offense to get their footing. It was simply playing assignment sound football. The offense never did enough to get back into the game, but the defensive effort never waned.
This does not necessarily represent a turning point for the defense. Much of it was simply being healthy at some key positions like corner, but it at least showed the group has the ability to improve, but maybe they aren't doomed to be an albatross hanging from the neck of the offense.
There are plenty of players getting significant snaps that won't be on this unit for the long term and probably won't even be on the team next season, but the key players are producing and some of the younger, promising talent, will hopefully continue to get more opportunities to see the field like Sheldrick Redwine.
After six games, the Browns might well get blown out in the first round of the playoffs. The Browns will have played sixteen regular season games (fingers crossed) and will have hopefully improved accordingly.
And making the playoffs matters. The fact they haven't been to the playoffs since 2002 isn't the reason why it's important, but since they're crossing relatively mundane accomplishments off the list this season, they can add that one to it. It's about this team, both coaches and players getting to experience the stakes and the higher level of intensity, getting to feel the pressure of win or go home while playing in front of a national audience.
This team needs to get a taste of that and hopefully be inspired to get back and do more with the opportunity, seeing what it's going to take to win a Super Bowl. It'd be far better if the Browns don't have to wait until they are truly a great team before they get into playoffs only to trip and fall for lack of experience. Get it now and learn from it now, even if it's just the one game.
It would also earn the the Browns some badly needed credibility when it comes to attracting free agents. There have been players that want to play for a contender and written the Browns off as a result. Getting that credibility would be one more tool at their disposal have in terms of recruiting prospective free agents to want to play the best years of their career in Cleveland.
The Browns aren't an elite team now and they probably won't be by the end of the season, but they can still improve, make the playoffs and set themselves up for 2021, which was the plan all along for this season.