Lake Street Blues
One of the worst incidents to ever occur during an NFL game took place in November 2019. The Cleveland Browns were losing with the clock running down to their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Browns edge rusher Myles Garret tackles Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph,and a nasty fight breaks out, ending in Garrett pulling off Rudoph’s helmet and clubbing him over the head with it. Garret, in turn, gets kicked on the ground by another Steelers player. Up in the Fox booth, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman struggle to make sense of what they’re seeing, with Aikman declaring; “This is barbaric, that is what this is.” The incident was symptomatic of an ugly mess the Browns were undergoing again in 2019, with first year head coach Freddie Kitchens in office, but hardly in control. To demonstrate his unfitness as a head coach after the debacle, Kitchens wore a t-shirt that said ‘Pittsburg started it’. The sky was already falling in. Then, he allowed himself to become a figure of ridicule inside and outside the Browns facility. Weeks later, Kitchens was fired. Cleveland craves stability. It wants a team it can be proud of, and one that can ultimately deliver success. Browns fans are known for their monumental forbearance and optimism. But even they must be struggling with their football team. I’ll chart the history of the Browns and profile how Lake Erie’s NFL franchise is shaping up for the 2020 season.
Dominant Brown Leaves Town Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, LeBron James’ 2017 NBA World Champion winning Cavs, and the lovable, downtrodden Cleveland Browns football team. It wasn’t always this way. When Paul Brown ran the team, first as decorated head coach and then a hugely successful owner, Cleveland was the toast of the league in the 1940s through to the 1960s. They won championships, and in Jim Brown, running back and civil rights activist, they had one of the NFL’s all time great players.
Later, Browns owner Art Modell caused resentment among fans and tremendous heartbreak when he announced the team was to leave for Baltimore towards the end of 1995 to become the Baltimore Ravens. With a last act of defiance, the Cleveland fans ripped apart
the stadium seats, row by row, while Bill Belichick ran off the field in his last game as head coach. The result of a legal battle meant Cleveland could retain the Browns' colors, logos and heritage for a reactivated Browns franchise that would take the field no later than 1999. For four long years, there was no football team in town. Since resuming in Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have had 12 head coaches and 30 different starting quarterbacks. In that time they have only had a winning record twice, and made the playoffs once. They have the longest playoff drought in the NFL at 18 years, and lost all of their games in 2017. There has been a lot of blame to share around.
Mistakes By The Lake Once again as we move within weeks of a new season, we’re talking about Cleveland requiring a major cultural shift to break from another failed head coach and management regime. Former head coach Freddie Kitchens was notoriously loose in terms of the rope he gave the players. Alongside him, general manager John Dorsey also left the building in December 2019.
The Browns have several superstars on their roster, including Odell Beckham, Jnr., who do not need the kind of leash Kitchens was offering. Talented players need to apply themselves. Last year, they struggled to be competitive. Incoming head coach Kevin Stefanski needs to get his top players to understand that the detail of how they do things is significantly more important than their talent. He needs to get them to believe that hard work and process matter. Otherwise, these players think their talent alone will carry them. He has to connect the team, not just focus on young, talented quarterback, Baker Mayfield.
There’s a suspicion held by the media and other NFL teams, that the Browns are overly keen on using analytics to run their football team, and data has informed too much of in-game thinking. In other words, they favor placing the emphasis on statistics informing decision-making at all levels. Analytics have their place, no doubt, but it is naive to think they can substitute for the right scheme, coaching or football strategy. Paul DePodesta, Cleveland’s chief strategy officer, helped the Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane devise a sophisticated way to put a team together based on the numbers. The A’s went on a historic 20-game winning run in 2002 immortalized in Michael Lewis’ bestseller, Moneyball.
If they want a tip, the conventional methodology of hiring a competent head coach to mesh your quarterback with the offense, and get the best out of a talented defense, has worked before.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is no wallflower. After his first season in the league, he told NBC’s Mike Tirico that he was not ‘going to apologize for being me.’ And there’s no doubt Mayfield is a more interesting quarterback than most, and the NFL benefits from having him. Intelligent and funny, the former Number 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft pick provides good color for interviews. In his rookie season, he let his football do the talking and enjoyed a record of 27 touchdowns in just 13 games, and sparkled in the face of some of the NFL’s best defenses. He displayed great accuracy and touch on his passes. Some of the timing with wide receiver Jarvis Landry was exquisite. The 2019 season was different. Mayfield threw 21 interceptions, and he appeared to be floundering in an organization where no one seemed accountable, and events spiraled out of control fast.
Incoming head coach Kevin Stefanski and Mayfield need to be joined at the hip after Mayfield’s first two seasons with different play callers. Schematically, they appear a good fit for each other. Stefanski has spent his entire career in Minnesota working with similar offenses. Mayfield has had a lot of success using play action, particularly because of his mobility.
Mayfield came out of Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid scheme in Oklahoma. When Riley was asked about what Baker needed for his third NFL to go well, Riley was direct about the situation in Cleveland; “He knows he has to play better and he will. Having an organised surrounding cast and a system that fits will help. He needs more continuity with players and coaches.”
This is a top ten offense. With an improved Mayfield under Stefanski, the Browns are strong elsewhere with Nick Chubb one of the best young running backs. In the passing game, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jnr. offer a lot. Acquired in free agency, tight end Austin Hooper will allow Stefanski to use multiple tight end sets.
Defense Myles Garrett was banned by the NFL for his role in the aforementioned fight against the Steelers, but now that he’s reinstated we can focus on football. Garrett signed a five-year, $125 million extension this summer making him the highest ever paid non-quarterback in football.
The contract reflects the immense impact he’s had on the game in a short time and where the Browns see him evolving. Retired Cleveland Browns player and future Hall of Famer, Joe Thomas, gave an example of Myles Garrett chasing a running back sixty yards in practice, with an incredible change of speed for a defensive end. With more experience, Garrett will have a wider variety of pass rush moves, and understanding of when and how to use them. Believeland Even if the Baltimore Ravens don’t run the board like last season, they are comfortably the best team in the AFC North. On paper, Pittsburgh’s mean defense and the return of Ben Roethlisberger should see the Steelers finish second.
The Browns have something in common with the Rams in the NFC West. They have talent, but there are two better teams in the division that should advance to the playoffs first. And let’s face it, the Rams are built on better foundations.
I mentioned how Browns fans are charismatic, loyal and desperate for a turnaround in their teams’ fortunes. They’ve been to hell and back over the past 20 years and each September they return in their droves to their beloved Dawg Pound - the end zone bleachers full of passionate fans - in expectation.
For a town unfortunate to have the moniker ‘The Mistake on the Lake’, there’s enough to suggest Cleveland is on the verge of something decent.
The Browns fortunes mimic much of America in 2020 - on the ropes, with a pandemic and another Great Economic Depression raging. And yet, hope springs eternal. Just ask the Dawg Pound.