CLEVELAND — Before the 30-point loss in the opener, before first-year Freddie Kitchens revealed he was in over his head or Baker Mayfield’s second-year slump or Myles Garrett swung a helmet at Mason Rudolph, the Cleveland Browns collapsed under the weight of external pressure.
The hype swallowed them in 2019. They went from cool playoff pick to picked on.
The Browns enter 2020 with more reasonable goals.
“We, probably all of us, including ownership, learned a lesson last year about tempering expectations,” owner Jimmy Haslam said as training camp opened this summer. “I don’t think we managed that as well as we should have. You have to be realistic.”
Here’s reality: the Browns haven’t made the postseason since 2002 — the NFL’s longest drought — and it’s hard to imagine them qualifying this season given the challenges of starting over with new coach Kevin Stefanski in one of the league’s most brutal divisions amid a global pandemic.
Cleveland’s roster, though, is loaded with undeniable talent. And who knows, maybe 2020 and all its craziness could include the Browns finding their way back to relevance. Maybe. Probably not.
Last year’s 6-10 finish was worse than disappointing as all of the positives from 2018 either eroded or vanished.
Mayfield didn’t look anything like the record-setting rookie from the previous season, and it didn’t help that Cleveland’s tackles didn’t protect him or that star wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were slowed by injuries.
Mayfield only had one more touchdown pass (22) than interceptions (21), and he recently acknowledged that some of his swagger was sacked by self-doubt.
“I wasn’t able to be who I am for these guys on the team,” he said. “I have told them that, and I told them that if I am not doing that, hold me accountable.”
All eyes will be on Mayfield, who spent the offseason trying to get his body as tight as one of his spirals. The Browns still believe he’s their franchise quarterback.
It’s time to perform like one.
Cleveland has surrounded Mayfield with talent, and it’s up to Stefanski to bring out the best in his young QB.
If he struggles, Mayfield’s critics will be ready to pounce.
He’s ready, too.
“The doubt and all that, I expect it considering what has been going on with going from Year 1 with having some success to last year of what we thought was going to be and it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s nothing new to me, and our guys are ready to get out there and prove what we have been doing this offseason because that is all that matters is this year.”
He’s healthy, happy and finally feels at home in Cleveland after the trade from New York. The three-time Pro Bowler played through a core muscle injury last season that required surgery. Beckham said he’s physically fine, mentally stronger and ready to roll.
Beckham joked that he has the plan for Stefanski to get the Browns’ playmakers (he and Landry, RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and TE Austin Hooper) ample touches.
“Just throw for 600 yards each game and rush for 200,” he cracked. “Everybody will be happy.”
MILLIONS OF MYLES
Garrett’s six-game NFL suspension for his helmet-swinging attack on Rudolph didn’t dissuade the Browns from giving the star defensive end a five-year, $125 million contract extension. It’s on him to prove he was worth the investment.
A scary sight for QBs when he’s coming off the edge, Garrett will set the tone for a Cleveland defense already decimated by injuries in training camp.
The Browns have something no other team can boast: a former NFL rushing champion and runner-up.
Hunt, who played in just eight games last season after serving his league suspension, won the rushing title as a rookie in 2017 for Kansas City, and Chubb was in line to win it last season before Tennessee’s Derrick Henry ripped off a long run in the season finale to pass him.
Expect Mayfield to give his backs plenty of carries.
The Browns have their share of weak spots, and the team’s linebackers are the most frail.
The decisions not to re-sign Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey cut deeply into the group’s experience and leadership. B.J. Goodson signed as a free agent and Sione Takitaki should have a larger role in his second season after expected starter Mack Wilson went down in camp with a knee injury.
RIGHT TO LEFT
There have been some expected growing pains for rookie offensive tackle Jedrick Wills, who has shifted from the right side to the left, where he’ll protect Mayfield’s blind side.
The All-American from Alabama has the benefit of going against Garrett every day in practice, allowing him to sharpen his skills.
Garrett isn’t holding back.
“I’m going to introduce him to the NFL,” Garrett said. ”I’m going to give him everything I’ve got to give him a feel for what it’s like in games.”