CLEVELAND — In early January last season, the Cleveland Browns were playoff-bound for the first time in 17 seasons and about to win their first playoff game in 26 years. After the 2020 season ended, fans and experts expected a Super Bowl contender in 2021. But with Cleveland officially eliminated from playoff contention a day before the team played it's second-last game of the season, it's time to look at what went wrong in what began as such a promising year.
It's probably best to start off addressing the most divisive subject of the Browns first, the quarterback who entered the season as the clear future of the franchise and ended it with a fan base split between wanting to keep him and ready to restart the ever-exhausting search for a new quarterback.
To say Mayfield's performances throughout the season created doubt about whether he is the franchise quarterback the Browns have been looking for is fair, because, well, there were times Mayfield was flat-out awful. His accuracy declined severely, his decision-making seemed the worst of his career and his mechanics suffered tremendously.
But that's all without mentioning—not as an excuse, but as a matter of fact—the shoulder injury.
Mayfield tore his labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder in the second week of the season in the game against the Texans. He played through the injury, and the Browns won their next two games and were a score away from winning the third, and then the injury was made drastically worse in Week 6 against the Cardinals.
To his credit, Mayfield was never going to give up.
"I'm a fighter. If anybody every questions how much I want it, just turn on this tape. It wasn't pretty, but I kept swinging. That's who I am, and that's who I'll continue to be. That's who I've always been," Mayfield said after the Week 17 loss to the Steelers. "Now it's time for me to start looking at what's in the best interest for me and my health. I've continued to lay it out on the line. I haven't been healthy and tried to fight for our guys. Right now, I'm pretty damn beat up, to be honest with you. There's no way around it. I gave it everything I had tonight."
Now, the shoulder injury only explains the mechanics issues Mayfield has displayed this season, sailing the ball high after throwing off platform, not getting enough behind cross-body throws, struggling with roll-outs. Mayfield has had other issues with reading the field, finding open receivers, anticipating windows rather than waiting for a purely open target—all mental and possibly made worse with a lack of confidence after the injury, but not directly related.
Mayfield has been a roller-coaster of a quarterback for the Browns but has played with the cards stacked against him for much of his career, so getting a good read on who he is with true certainty has proved to be difficult.
The Browns exercised Mayfield's fifth year option and—barring any major trade for a proven quarterback to take full advantage of the window they're in now—he'll get another chance to prove himself in 2022.
Mayfield will have surgery to repair the damage in the left shoulder, and he and the Browns will hope for a fresh start after he's fully healthy for what could be Mayfield's last chance to prove he's the guy the Browns have been looking for, if he returns to Cleveland next season.
Last season, head coach Kevin Stefanski earned Coach of the Year after helping end the Browns playoff drought. He showed a much-needed respect for the run game that was effectively married to the pass game while boasting the most wins by a first-year Browns head coach since Paul Brown in 1946.
This year, Stefanski's Browns were unable to reach the playoffs, and while the Browns lead the league in yards per carry and are fifth in the league in total rushing yards, the electric offense we all saw in 2020 looked stagnant and stale this season.
The Browns are 23rd in rushing attempts, which is the most baffling part of the situation with Stefanski's play calling. Sure, the one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt has been missing for much of the season with both missing time throughout the year with injury or COVID-19. And sure, the run game works best when there is a threat of a pass game behind it, which has not been the case with a hindered quarterback and inconsistent receivers. But there have been games where the threat of the run has appeared simply non-existent.
Stefanski also struggled with going for it on fourth down all season. Cleveland has converted just 12 of its 28 fourth down attempts this season—ranked 26th in the league. Analytics play a big role in the Browns' aggressiveness on fourth down, but when the offense has been failing for most of the season, it might be time to adjust that. In-game adjustments are another area where Stefanski could improve.
Highlighted by Mayfield's comments after the Steelers game, it appears there are some decisions not being made in-game that perhaps could and would help the Browns in real time.
Monday night against the Steelers, Mayfield was sacked nine times, with T.J. Watt accounting for four of them. Watt is the NFL sack leader and a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in addition to being a Pro Bowler, so stopping him is a tough task for anyone. But on Monday, Stefanski had rookie tackle James Hudson up against Watt one-on-one, which proved to be a recipe for disaster.
"Just a matter of looking at the game plan and what we like and seeing if some of those players are adjustable to be able to bring just a little extra help—chipping [T.J. Watt] or staying people in protection," Mayfield said. "Just discussions on the fly, which, this is the NFL, you have to be able to adapt mid-game, and we didn't do a good enough job, as you can tell."
But Stefanski said his game plan did attempt to provide Mayfield help along the o-line.
"When you don't accomplish what you want to accomplish, people are certainly frustrated," the coach said. "We'll always look at what we could do better. There were plenty of times we did have a person in location to chip and those type of things and other times protection held up and ultimately whether it was we didn't get the ball out or guys weren't open or whatever it was...that's our job to look at and try to find a way to be better."
Many fans have called for Stefanski to hand over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, hoping for some fresh and exciting changes. But the two are very collaborative, and the plays that are used would likely look the same. The benefit to handing over play-calling, however, could be that Stefanski could focus more on the in-game adjustments and on-the-fly decision-making.
It didn't help that the quarterback was injured for most of the season, but even with Mayfield's injury, the receivers had issues of their own.
The Browns enter their final game of the season ranked 29th in receptions and 25th in receiving yards. While they've had the challenge of adapting to Mayfield's struggles this season, the Browns have also struggled with on-target drops as well.
Per PFF data, Austin Hooper has dropped six on-target passes with a 13.6 on-target drop percentage. Rashard Higgins has dropped four on-target passes with a 14.3 drop percentage, Donovan Peoples-Jones has dropped three on-target passes with an 8.8 percentage and Odell Beckham Jr., when in Cleveland, dropped three on-target passes with an on-target drop percentage of 10.5.
Entering the season, Odell Beckham Jr. was supposed to bring a spark to the Browns after he spent months rehabbing a torn ACL he sustained in the 2020 season. Beckham looked explosive through training camp, and in his press conferences seemed to be in a good place, excited to get back on the field with Cleveland and show that he still has elite talent.
Unfortunately, the Beckham-era in Cleveland did not work out. After a sudden decision not to play Week 1, the Browns decided to hold him out another week. Once he was back, the drama began.
After the Halloween game against the Steelers that saw Beckham get a career-low one reception for six yards, his dad took to social media, posting an 11-minute compilation video of moments his son appeared to be open but wasn't passed to by Mayfield and ripped the quarterback in the comments. Mayfield spoke out about it in a following press conference while Beckham was excused from practice.
The discord could not be reconciled and the Browns and Beckham agreed to terms that saw him released from the team, becoming a free agent and signing with the Los Angeles Rams.
Beckham was popular among his teammates, with many either close friends with him, like Jarvis Landry, or players who looked up to him. His departure certainly caused some fractures that the Browns had to try to mend for the remainder of the season.
"These are always difficult because there are real relationships that have been formed over the past three years since Odell has been here. Look, these difficult decisions exist every year, and we try to be as empathetic as we can and we try to communicate as best we can with the appropriate information. That is just something that we have to continue to work at every day,” general manager Andrew Berry said following the decision to release Beckham.
Missing not only production but bodies and talent at the position proved to be something that hindered the Browns until the very end. It will be a position of dire need of attention heading into the offseason, through free agency, the draft or both.
This season was riddled with injuries for the Browns. One of the more impactful injuries was already addressed, but there were a number of others that changed how the Browns' season played out.
On the offensive line, Jack Conklin had been placed on the Injured Reserve list with a dislocated elbow he sustained in the Halloween game against the Steelers. In Conklin's absence, the Browns started backup Blake Hance, who was a guard playing out of position. He held his own at times but had moments of struggle as well.
After missing the required three games, Conklin was activated from IR, but in his first game back, he suffered a ruptured patellar tendon on the second drive of the game. With surgery required and another stint on IR, Conklin's season was ended and the Browns began starting rookie Hudson in his place.
Last season, Conklin's injury might have been better able to be addressed, with the versatile lineman Chris Hubbard there to be called upon. But Hubbard also was injured Week 1 against the Chiefs, suffering a triceps injury that required surgery and took him out for the remainder of the season.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills has also dealt with injury throughout the season, missing two games with an ankle injury and then playing through the injury for much of the season.
The offensive line requires cohesiveness among all five players on the field, and with the constant plug-and-play due to injuries, the o-line, which was the No. 1 ranked line in the league headed into the 2021 season, struggled through many games.
But it wasn't just the line that saw a rash of injuries. Across the roster, the Browns lost key pieces to injury. Running back Kareem Hunt was placed on IR for a calf injury in October, and a more recent ankle injury kept hunt out eight games this season. Missing his complementary style to Chubb's was felt throughout the season.
Jarvis Landry missed four games with an MCL sprain that sent him to IR early in the season. Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah missed time on IR with a high ankle sprain, while veteran linebacker Anthony Walker also had a stint on IR with a hamstring injury, and linebacker Jacob Phillips spent the entire season until being activated on Dec. 22. Defensive end Takk McKinley saw his season ended after rupturing his Achilles during the Week 15 game against the Raiders.
Every team has to deal with injuries, but for the Browns, some of them were too much to overcome.
The Browns, like other teams across the league, were hit hard by a resurgence of COVID-19 and the new omicron variant.
While other teams experienced outbreaks as well, the Browns' situation was so bad it prompted the league to change its protocols.
As the Browns were preparing to play the Raiders in Week 15, with their record not where they expected it to be but still in a solid spot to fight for the AFC North title, an outbreak brought things in Berea to a grinding halt.
At one point, there were 22 players and three coaches out, including Mayfield, Case Keenum, Wills, Landry, Hooper, Hudson, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik McDowell, Troy Hill, Ronnie Harrison, Grant Delpit, Phillips, Mack Wilson, Jamie Gillan and Stefanski.
The outbreak continued to grow over multiple days after the Browns went into enhanced COVID-19 protocols and began testing every day. The team confirmed all of the players who had tested positive for the virus had been vaccinated and most were asymptomatic.
After standing firm on the decision to keep playing the game, which was already on a short week, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, the NFL and NFLPA eventually decided to postpone it two days. The delay didn't see many players return from the COVID-19 list, and the Browns ultimately lost the game, despite being in good position to win until a game-winning field goal by the Raiders.
The situation in Cleveland, along with other outbreaks on the Rams and the Washington Football Team, ended up being the catalyst for COVID-19 testing and quarantine changes across the league.
What started off as one of the strongest areas of the team turned sour by the final stretch of the season with the Browns once again in the hunt for a reliable kicker—a task that most teams in the league struggle with (besides the Ravens, of course).
After Cody Parkey injured his quad during the preseason, the Browns released him and went with Chase McLaughlin at kicker, who showed out during training camp. Things looked good for McLaughlin, who had a very strong start to the season, making all of his extra point attempts and field goals up to Week 7, when he missed a field goal. Once November hit, McLaughlin's struggles really began, missing a field goal attempt in each game he played in.
With McLaughlin on the COVID-19 list, the Browns turned to practice squad kicker Chris Naggar, who missed his first extra point attempt in the game against the Packers. He was released afterwards.
The Browns also experienced punting issues this season, with Jamie Gillan struggling to start the season after an already noticeable drop off from his 2019 season to the 2020 season. A few games in, Gillan appeared to find his stride, but the inconsistencies arose again, and after spending time on the COVID-19 list, the Browns brought in Dustin Colquitt, who earned the role and prompted the Browns to release Gillan. Colquitt, 39, had some rough punts of his own, and the Browns will likely address the position in 2022.
Returning was also an area of concern for the Browns this season. Muffed punts were a too-frequent issue with the Browns, and with Demetric Felton as the primary punt returner and sharing kick return duties with Anthony Schwartz, there hasn't been much to rave about. Felton's longest punt return was 24 yards, while Schwartz held the longest kick return with 35 yards.
The one area on the special teams unit that shined was in kick coverage with guys stepping up during kickoffs and allowing the fifth fewest average yards to opponents.
At the start of the 2021 season, it appeared the defense could be the team's downfall. With the new additions of John Johnson III, Anthony Walker, Troy Hill, Jadeveon Clowney, Takk McKinley, Malik Jackson, Malik McDowell in free agency and the selections of Greg Newsome II and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the Browns had basically overhauled the whole unit.
With all of the new additions, the players needed to gel and learn each other's ins and out, going through growing pains as they worked on communication and learning their new playbook. It took a few weeks but the Browns were able to develop into the strongest part of the team, keeping the Browns in numerous games that they ultimately lost due to offensive struggles.
Hope for 2022
This season was nothing like anyone expected. From a banged-up quarterback struggling to perform, to a roster decimated in crucial moments by COVID-19, to key pieces of the team lost for the season, the Browns faced a slew of issues they just couldn't overcome.
But as the offseason approaches, there is one thing that Browns fans can be hopeful for, and that's the approach to the roster and staff by the front office. Now it's general manager Andrew Berry's time to shine as he works out deals to keep some players in orange and brown or bring new players in through free agency, and, of course, do what he does best and look for the best value in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Perhaps that means exploring trades for a quarterback. More than likely it simply means once again revamping areas that failed this season—adding talent in the receivers room, looking at depth on the offensive line, finally finding a reliable kicker.
Berry showed his capabilities last offseason in the draft, getting lockdown rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II, who in his first year showed skill and coverage technique with the ability to grow, and second-round steal Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who made a massive impact to the defense with his patience and closing speed to go along with his agility and versatility.
Despite the desire of one player to want out and the discord throughout the season, Cleveland has grown in terms of becoming a landing spot for players rather than a wasteland where careers go to die. If Berry can continue building upon that culture change, and he and Stefanski make sure this season's disappointments don't fester into long-term issues within the team and organization, then the Browns should be in a good place to bounce back and be the team they were expected to be.
Because there's always next year.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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