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Finger-pointing hard to do when everyone shares blame for Browns struggles

Posted at 3:26 PM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 15:26:22-05

CLEVELAND — During a bye week press conference on Wednesday, Browns general manager Andrew Berry told reporters, "Quite honestly, with the offense, we haven't been consistent enough in the passing game. I want to be clear here, that's not necessarily a one-player or a one-person problem."

That statement reflects a point that tends to get lost amid the conversations about the team's offensive struggles this season—a point that, when forgotten, destroys any semblance of a nuanced conversation about what the team needs to do to improve.

Sitting at 6-6 on their week of rest, with five games ahead of them, the Browns are not what anyone expected them to be. Breaking a playoff drought and clicking at the right time last season, the Browns thrived in their first year under Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski's leadership.

This season has been a different story. Injuries have taken out key players for stretches at a time and impacted others playing through them. A key offensive weapon was released from the team. The defense has been hot and cold throughout the year. Once bold and innovative play calling has looked stale in many games.

All of those issues go to prove Berry's point in a scale broader than simply the passing game being inconsistent—all of the Browns issues are bigger than just one player or person.

Offensively, when things go awry, many are quick to point their finger directly at quarterback Baker Mayfield or Stefanski. The quarterback and the head coach are at the helm of it all, of course.

It's fair to criticize Mayfield's performances this season because there have been some real stinkers. He's had some of his most inaccurate games in his entire career this season, has made some questionable decisions in the passing game and has appeared to lose a sense of comfort in the pocket while injured.

Now, injuries can be addressed in evaluating Mayfield but can't be used as an excuse. The team, in collaboration with medical staff and Mayfield himself, have deemed the quarterback healthy enough to play in all but one game. He's going to start, even with a hurting shoulder, foot, knee and groin. The Browns say he's healthy enough to play, and so does he.

Said Berry, "For any player, in terms of whether they are on the field or not, it's really three separate things. No. 1, are they medically cleared from the perspective that they can’t do anything harmful to their health or significantly harmful to their health? No. 2, are they medically cleared in a manner that would allow them to function in their role on the field and play at a winning level in their role on the field? Then No. 3, does the player both by feel and honestly by evidence throughout the practice week, can he perform all the requirements of his role on game day? We'll never put a player on the field that does not pass those three criteria, whether it is our quarterback, an offensive lineman, a member of the secondary, a punter or a kicker. That holds through for Baker."

Through the injuries, Mayfield is still showing his ability to put the ball in tight windows, find his receivers and even scramble to extend drives—albeit not in the way he'd likely be able to do if he wasn't injured. But the fact that he has shown ability at times while playing through injury is why a finger can't be pointed just at Mayfield in regards to the offensive issues.

"The passing game is all about coordination, realistically. It starts from the play call from the sideline that hopefully has the right solutions for whatever the defensive strategy is. Then it goes to the protection for your offensive line, your running backs and your tight ends, at times. It goes to your receivers being in the right place at the right time and winning their match-ups. Then it goes to your quarterback getting the ball to the right location at the right time accurately," Berry said. "Quite frankly, there have been different pieces within the passing offense that maybe have functioned at a very efficient and high level at times during the season, and other pieces have not necessarily been there."

And Berry is right. The offense running on all cylinders is a process. It involves Mayfield's production and Stefanski's play-calling, sure. But Mayfield's production is impacted by his receivers running their routes correctly, creating separation and, most importantly, catching the ball. It's impacted by the offensive line, which has seen starters come and go from injuries all season, and their ability to create running lanes for the backs and protection in the pocket. Stefanski's play-calling is impacted by his player's execution each game, by offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and his staff's input and by the opposing team's defensive looks each game.

The offense was the Browns' strength last season, and they kept nearly the entire core together this year and extended many pieces through the next several years. But just because there was continuity at head coach, coaching staff, and personnel doesn't guarantee the same results as the year before.

"Every year is different and unique – I know I've said that a couple of different times. I don't get a sense that there's a level of entitlement or that we've arrived because, quite honestly, we haven't. We haven't gotten there yet," Berry said. "We haven't had the sustained success as some of the great teams and organizations in our sport. I think everybody's hyper-aware of that. You really do have to work on it a yearly basis.”

That work starts with everyone. Not just Mayfield. Not just Stefanski. Everyone has a hand at getting things back on track, this week and beyond.

In their bye week, the players will have off until Monday, unwinding, spending time with family and friends, and getting a week to themselves. Some will use that time to travel, others to relax. Some of the workaholics will probably use some of the time to study film and the playbook. The staff will continue to have meetings throughout the week. Stefanski and his coaches will remain hard at work to break down the first 12 games of the season in the most detail they've had time to do all year and get a better look at how to correct the mistakes of this season, both on an individual level and on a team level.

Talk is cheap, and the weeks of communication about fixing the issues now come down to putting that talk into action and finishing out the season strong, with playoff hopes not entirely lost, but reliant on the corrections that must be made during the week off.

“The bye week gives everybody time to have a little bit of a breather, slow down and really kind of work on some of those challenges even more aggressively. I think that is something that our staff has and will continue to do a really nice job with and do expect that to be clean as we come out of the bye," Berry said. "I expect and I'm looking forward to seeing our guys work through this tough stretch, and that's not just Baker; that's our entire team. At the end of the day, we want to be playing our best football in December, and that's really our mission. That's our charge.”

With December upon us, the Browns' best football of the season has to start against the Ravens next Sunday and continue for the next five weeks. Only time, and their hard work, will tell if they have it in them to come out of the bye improved and strong enough to salvage the season.

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.

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