This season was supposed to be different for the Browns. It was supposed to show the progress being made by the brain trust of executive vice president Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, who orchestrated a full-scale teardown of the roster they inherited upon arriving in Cleveland in 2016. This regime cut pricey veterans Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby, and Donte Whitner and let free-agents-to-be Tashaun Gipson, Alex Mack, and Mitchell Schwartz walk. It quickly turned the Browns roster into the blankest slate imaginable, purging older pieces in favor of embracing the most analytics-adherent team-building strategy the league had ever seen.
The foundation of this approach was hoarding draft picks as if they were Earth’s most valuable resource. Starting with the trade that sent the Eagles the no. 2 pick in the 2016 class, the Browns amassed a war chest of draft capital that included Philadelphia’s 2016 first-round pick, 2017 first-round pick, 2018 second-round pick, and more. The front office’s decision to pass on the chance to take quarterback Carson Wentz doubled as a declaration that Cleveland intended to bottom out again in 2016. Taking a glance at the Browns’ Week 1 starting lineup from last fall might as well have prompted a reenactment of that classic scene from Major League—“Cross him off then.” The team went 1-15, ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and secured the no. 1 overall pick in this spring’s draft.
When the 2017 offseason began, though, Cleveland’s front office made a series of moves indicating that this year wouldn’t bring more of the same. Rather than driving every veteran to the edge of town and kicking them out of the car, the Browns spent big. The front office doled out $58.5 million in guaranteed money to free-agent signings Kenny Britt, J.C. Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler. It handed linebacker Jamie Collins and guard Joel Bitonio extensions worth $50 million in combined guarantees. Rather than deal the no. 1 pick for a fortune of future assets, the Browns used it to snag pass rusher/Marvel superhero Myles Garrett.
After a season of purposeful tanking—and a track record of winning five or fewer games in eight of the past nine years—it felt as if the franchise was finally ready to take a step forward. These Browns were supposed to be at least somewhat competitive, not a five-alarm fire at the city dump. And yet, here we are.
Seven games into the 2017 campaign, Cleveland is winless. Second-year head coach Hue Jackson has benched his rookie quarterback more often than most people do their laundry. With the season’s midway point fast approaching, the Browns look as lost as ever, and it’s fair to question whether this front office’s plan will ever bring brighter days.
For Browns fans, watching this week’s Monday Night Football must have felt like a three-hour version of the Fight Club scene when Edward Norton kicks his own ass. This was Carson’s smirking revenge. Wentz was brilliant in Philly’s 34-24 victory over Washington, throwing four touchdown passes (including a 64-yard missile to Mack Hollins), showcasing a healthy dose of scrambling magic, and vaulting to the front of the MVP race.
Taking in the body of work from Wentz and Houston’s Deshaun Watson this season has to be nauseating for the Cleveland faithful. It’s not just that the Browns passed on both quarterbacks. It’s that they traded the picks that the Eagles and Texans used to draft both guys. That would be a little much in even the most twisted black comedy. Instead of cracking an easy joke and lampooning Cleveland for its decision-making, though, it’s worth digging deeper into both cases. Because moves that look misguided now seemed to fit into a larger strategy when they happened.
The Browns’ 2016 roster was more of an experiment than an NFL team. Dropping Wentz into that environment would have meant placing him in about the worst possible situation for a young quarterback. In that scenario, an already thin Browns receiving corps would have lacked Corey Coleman. Cleveland allowed 66 sacks last season, the highest mark in the league by far; the Eagles, by contrast, entered last fall with a stellar offensive line consisting of Jason Peters, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson. And while Philly’s 2016 receivers were suspect, the offense featured versatile back Darren Sproles and 6-foot-5 tight end Zach Ertz. It was a welcoming home for a young passer, and as we’ve seen this year, only a few tweaks away from being complete.
In passing on Wentz to fill out the rest of their roster, the Browns were trying to create a similar setting for whichever quarterback they chose to bet on down the road. It’s telling that Wentz landed on a team that had to trade its way up the draft to get him, rather than a team that owned a pick in the top two. The Eagles were willing to hemorrhage assets to make a play for a quarterback who could tie their plan together. The Browns wanted to gather talent to get their plan started.
Shelling out cash for offensive linemen and stockpiling receiving talent like Britt, Coleman, and rookie David Njoku was supposed to create an infrastructure that would allow the franchise’s eventual QB of choice to walk into favorable surroundings. Even if the prudency in some of the team’s individual moves is up for debate, the plan is understandable. In theory, Wentz may have been the type of transcendent talent who could’ve instantly lifted the Browns by virtue of his presence alone; in reality, he’s emerged as the league’s best young quarterback with the help of proper coaching, an enviable supporting cast, and a system that’s let him thrive.
The Browns’ decision to bypass Watson in order to move down 13 spots in April’s draft and acquire a 2018 first-round pick from the Texans is tougher to defend. There’s a chance that Cleveland never envisioned the former Clemson star emerging as a viable long-term answer, which already looks like it would have been a severe miscalculation. It’s also possible that the Browns’ regime thought Watson and DeShone Kizer had similar outlooks, and thus jumped at the chance to net a future first-rounder and Kizer in a trade. Seven games into the 2017 season, that gambit looks foolish, although the quarterbacks’ disparate early paths have been as much about their teams as they have been about their talent.
Jackson’s handling of Kizer to this point has been … puzzling, to say the least. Kizer has been undeniably atrocious, especially in high-leverage situations, as he has four red zone interceptions while no other quarterback has thrown more than one. On third down, Kizer has completed 46.7 percent of his passes, the worst mark in the league among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts, and his 2.96 adjusted yards per attempt is the 14th-worst mark since the merger among players with at least 175 pass attempts. That’s the worst clip since Derek Anderson’s in 2009, when he was a member of the—you guessed it—Cleveland Browns.
After naming Kizer as the starter prior to Week 1, Jackson waited four and a half games to yank him midway through a 17-14 loss to the Jets in Week 5. Following one game on the bench (and one disastrous showing by Kevin Hogan), Kizer was reinserted into the starting lineup going into last week’s matchup with the Titans—only to get the hook again, this time in favor of Cody Kessler. This week, after skewering Kizer for being out on Friday night, Jackson named the 21-year-old the starter for this Sunday’s game against the Vikings. Please explain how any of that makes sense.
The 52nd overall draft pick isn’t some throwaway asset, and after using it on a quarterback, the Browns have spent the first half of this season trying to Jedi-mind-trick a first-year starter into becoming the player they want, all while giving Kizer every reason to believe that he’ll be pulled the moment that he makes a mistake. That’s been compounded by myriad other on-field factors: Kizer has rarely gotten play-action looks that could simplify his decision-making (he ranks 27th in play-action usage at 16.3 percent, per Pro Football Focus; Watson is third at 28.2 percent). On the season, 60.8 percent of his dropbacks have lasted 2.6 seconds or more—the highest mark in the league, which negates the impact of Cleveland’s expensive new offensive line. And it doesn’t help that all-world left tackle Joe Thomas was just lost for the season to a torn triceps injury, ending his streak of 10,363 consecutive offensive snaps.
Slamming the Browns for passing on Watson and Wentz as each thrives elsewhere feels warranted, but ignoring the external factors that have contributed to those players’ successes means overlooking why things might have gone differently in Cleveland. The Browns are preaching patience when it comes to finding a franchise quarterback at the same time as Jackson and the coaching staff are damaging the team’s ability to determine if Kizer could ever fill that role.
Cleveland’s quarterback problem will remain a leaguewide focal point until it gets fixed, but the Browns’ issues go far beyond their approach at the position. One of the reasons the passing game has struggled is that Cleveland’s receiving corps is barren. Losing Coleman (broken right hand) for the entirety of his sophomore season is a gut punch, but even worse for the Browns is what they’ve gotten from Britt. After signing a four-year, $32.5 million deal this offseason, Britt has caught 10 passes on 28 targets. Among receivers with at least 25 targets in 2017, only Bills rookie Zay Jones has a worse catch percentage, and Britt has nearly $5 million more in guaranteed money on his deal than the rest of the bottom eight combined.
The returns from Britt’s deal speak to a larger problem that has sabotaged this Browns season. Collecting a surplus of assets is only worthwhile if those assets eventually turn into usable players. Two of the Browns’ biggest bets this offseason were on Britt and Collins, who signed a four-year, $50 million contract that made him the sixth-highest-paid outside linebacker by guaranteed money in football. Nearly halfway through the season, Britt has been a ghost and Collins (24 tackles, including one sack) has been a total nonfactor.
The coaching staff has also proved a poor fit to develop an extremely young roster. From the outset, the franchise’s choice to hire a retread like defensive coordinator Gregg Williams felt strange, and despite his solid work as the Bengals offensive coordinator, Jackson has once again stumbled as a head coach.
Some of Cleveland’s young pieces do look promising: Garrett already looks like the star many expected him to be, and could prove that Cleveland is not a bizarre wormhole where even a generational talent is doomed. Fellow pass rusher and 2016 second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah has picked up two sacks on the season, and it’s too early to say much about 2017 first-round picks Njoku and Jabrill Peppers. Even if that core of high picks has a tantalizing future, it’s doubtful that Jackson will be around to see it through. He now sits at 1-22 in his tenure as Cleveland’s head coach. Even in an organization that’s built for the future, that may not be good enough to allow him to keep his job.
What’s so disheartening about all this is that the Browns were hoping they wouldn’t have to ask these questions in 2017. The hardest part of the rebuild was supposed to be done. The first signs of resurgence were supposed to shine through. Brown and DePodesta entered a bleak situation and deserve more than two years to make good on their vision, but what’s become clear through seven games this fall is that something about the current approach needs to change. The bold move made by Cleveland’s ownership to bring in Brown and DePodesta was supposed to radically change the franchise’s approach and usher in a new age of Browns football. Yet all it’s wrought so far is a different plan with the same results.