The Cleveland Browns have the opportunity to simplify their offense without Odell Beckham Jr. in the lineup even if it's largely symbolic, but it also allows them to invest in their young, promising contributors.
Even though Odell Beckham Jr. was right in parts of critiques of the Cleveland Browns offense, the way he handled the situation made it impossible for the team to do anything but work to cut ties and move on without him and Beckham knew that when he coordinated a passive aggressive attack against quarterback Baker Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski.
So even though Beckham had real points to make, the fact he didn't help himself with some of the opportunities he had and didn't produce overall, it's difficult to miss him in the Browns offense. It's disappointing the potential was never realized, but particularly this year, it never felt like he was really there in the first place.
That situation is not officially resolved, but unofficially, the Browns are moving on and this has an opportunity to galvanize the team, give them a united sense of purpose as they prepare for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Coincidentally, when Beckham tore his ACL last season, which was far more devastating than the news now, it was against the Bengals and the Browns were able to come together and the passing offense was outstanding. Mayfield carved up the Bengals defense, Rashard Higgins made a few incredible catches and Donovan Peoples-Jones made a game winning touchdown catch.
Simplifying the offense without Beckham doesn't mean they are running fewer plays. It just sticks with the philosophy they've had without fear of reprisal over targets or unrealized expectations.
Stefanski's offense has consistently taken what defenses are giving them since he arrived last season. When Beckham was out of the lineup, there wasn't disappointment in simply hitting open receivers because there wasn't this opportunity cost hanging out there.
Yes, the Browns completed a 5 yard out route to a tight end, but what could Beckham have done if he got the ball? That dynamic has only ever existed with Beckham. It's never come up with Jarvis Landry despite the fact the two players have almost identical salaries.
So long as the ball was being moved and points were scored, life was good.
Beckham no longer part of the equation, that expectation removed, it's replaced by hungrier players trying to prove themselves who are bought in to what this offense wants to do, where this team is going.
Donovan Peoples-Jones might be the player who benefits the most from this transition.
Jones is a player that has shown a ton of promise in his young career. After an impressive training camp and preseason, it took him a couple games to get going. Then Jones turned in back to back games with 171 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns between them.
Jones tweaked his groin in warmups before the game against the Denver Broncos and had to miss the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which could hurt the momentum he generated. Nevertheless, Jones is a broadly built target that is getting substantially better at using his body to frame passes to make difficult catches. He's also improving as a route runner. He's always had great hands, but he's learning nuances of the game which is allowing him to elevate his game.
David Njoku is now easily the most talented pass catching option on the team. Njoku has openly lobbied for a contract extension to stay with the Browns, something the team has even more reason to do in light of Beckham situation. He's become the player the Browns believed he could be when they drafted him in 2017, so there's no shortage of motivation to get him the ball.
Njoku is an unbelievably talented athlete, who has shown to be an impact player in the passing game as well as being an excellent blocker. The Browns need to keep working to get him involved earlier and more often throughout the game, because he's not only good in his own right, but benefits everyone else around him.
Another player that really should get more targets is Harrison Bryant. In his rookie season, Bryant made some nice plays and sparked the offense in games despite being a rookie tight end. He had a few fumbles, but he was really promising.
In year two, he's stronger, getting open and has had the opportunity to make some big plays. If there's someone who is justifiably frustrated with Mayfield, it's Bryant. There have been multiple games where Mayfield missed him when he had an opportunity to make huge plays.
Rashard Higgins will likely get more targets as well. He's been a reliable target for Mayfield and helped move the chains, catching passes in the intermediate areas of the field to move the chains.
Outside of perhaps Njoku, as long as the Browns move the ball on offense and win games, the receiver getting the production won't be scrutinized. In fact, it often ends up being a pleasant surprise as to which weapon is producing because outside of Landry and Austin Hooper, this group of receivers is so young.
The offense is not going to magically improve as a result of Beckham being out of the way, but it might help this team clear the air, take a deep breath and get back to what's important.
Often this season, it has felt like players, including Mayfield, Beckham and Landry have been pressing so much to make a hero play to get the team back on track. When things have gone wrong, they press even harder and it's leading to tunnel vision, drops and unnecessary risks. When someone expects to be good at something and it doesn't happen, it can result in frustration and trying so hard to force it that it makes everything even worse, which also explains why this team doesn't look like it's having fun.
The Browns offense absolutely needs to get better on multiple fronts, but the first one may be focusing on simply executing the play called. Not worrying about plays not made or plays yet to come or outside pressures and expectations. Simply doing their job one play at a time and letting the game happen. If they do that, keeping it simple, they may be able to find the fun and get back to being the team that was so lovable in 2020 as well as giving themselves a shot to make a move in a muddled AFC conference.