There's no denying the Cleveland Browns falling short of the playoffs in 2021 is a disappointment, but the season was destined to disappoint long before the team got to needing the Kansas City Chiefs to beat the Cincinnati Bengals to stay viable in the playoff race - the rest is simply a matter of degrees. As someone who predicted the Browns to finish 13-4, which in itself warrants having an independent neurologist check for a concussion, there's no getting away from what this team was capable of achieving heading into this season contrasted against what circumstances the 2021 season reduced the team.
There was no shortage of failures both between individual players and specific game situations, but injuries limited what this team was capable of accomplishing before the discussion went from seeding and potential matchups in the postseason to whether the playoffs were even possible, handing out blame.
Four key injuries on offense the first two weeks of the season set the tone for the inconsistent year that followed, challenges the team could not overcome.
In the opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, left tackle Jedrick Wills suffered an ankle injury that has limited him the entire season. Backup Chris Hubbard, a key to the team's success success in 2020 suffered a season-ending tricep injury in the same game after replacing Wills. The Browns were forced to play musical chairs on the offensive line the remaining 16 games of the season, starting with their fourth option at tackle, a guard in Blake Hance who had recently played center in the preseason.
That may have produced further evidence why Joel Bitonio should definitely be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame once his career concludes, but it's not conducive to consistency.
The following week against the Houston Texans, wide receiver Jarvis Landry suffered a sprained knee two snaps into the game, erasing the exhaustive efforts he put into changing his body during the offseason. He would miss games due to injury for the first time in his career and then sustain another injury to the same knee in the first game he returned against the Denver Broncos.
That was followed up by quarterback Baker Mayfield tearing the labrum in his left shoulder. As soon Mayfield's shoulder dislocated, the team's viability as a contender ended. Mayfield returned to the game, but the damage was done and the rest of the year mounted to a weekly pep talk convincing ourselves they could reclaim the greatness they displayed at times last year. They even did it against the Cincinnati Bengals.
None of those factors change the fact the Browns had an opportunity to beat the Los Angeles Chargers on the road. It's not ignoring their chance to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore in their first of their two divisional matchups with their division rivals. Even under ridiculous circumstances due COVID-19, the Browns could have won games against the Las Vegas Raiders and the Green Bay Packers. In four of those five games, the offense warranted the lion's share of the blame.
And the Browns still have two regular season games games left.
But that wasn't the goal for this team. The Browns were supposed to be a contender, vying for the Super Bowl or at least taking another meaningful step toward one. Mayfield was supposed to be a top 10 quarterback, form he showed the second half of last season and six quarters into this one.
Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., both finally healthy in their third season together, were supposed to flourish together in this offense, reminding everyone of their days in the purple and gold with the Bayou Bengals. Injury compromised what was possible for Landry, but Beckham chose to make a spectacle of himself, quitting on Landry as well as everyone else on the Browns.
That left the Browns requiring a major impact from second year wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, expected to be an up and comer this season as well as contributions from their rookie third round pick Anthony Schwartz, who was viewed as a developmental role player this year. They weren't ready for it nor were they expected to be.
Consistent offense simply wasn't going to happen under these conditions. They also lost their All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin for season and their wildcard playmaker Kareem Hunt missed half the season due to separate injuries to his calf and ankle.
Disappointment? It was nothing short of a catastrophe.