There were some among us—I won’t name names—who believed 2019 was the year for the Browns. Even if Cleveland wasn’t a Super Bowl favorite, it seemed—in the afterglow of Baker Mayfield’s spectacular rookie season and an offseason influx of talent that included Odell Beckham Jr.—like a dazzling aerial attack might finally take the franchise from the depths of the NFL to the postseason. Through five games, though, we Browns believers have looked hilariously, fantastically, wrong.
Cleveland’s 2-3 record may not seem so bad on the surface, but in reality its offense has been absolutely dreadful. Following an 8-for-22 showing in a horrifying 31-3 loss to the 49ers on Monday night, Mayfield ranks dead last in completion percentage (55.9) and interceptions (eight) among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts. The Browns are 29th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, ahead of just the Redskins, Jets, and Dolphins. The only teams that have been worse than Cleveland on offense either (a) fired their coach at 5 a.m. on Monday, (b) employ a starting quarterback who has mono, or (c) are trying to lose as many games as possible. It doesn’t get much bleaker than that.
The Browns’ misery has inspired mixed reactions from the NFL world. Mayfield’s brash personality and tendency to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants comes with drawbacks, and some have delighted in his recent failings. After taking Mayfield down on Monday night, Nick Bosa mimicked the flag-planting celebration that the QB so famously used to taunt the Ohio State crowd when both players were in college. Yet instead of jamming an actual flag into the turf, it felt like Bosa was driving a stake through Cleveland’s heart. Others have retreated into the Browns will be Browns attitude that crystallized during the organization’s two decades of despondency. Me? I’m just confused about how it’s gotten this bad.
Cleveland’s roster had noticeable holes entering the season, sure. And first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens was far from a sure bet. But outside of the team’s offseason additions, this group had already put up huge numbers together. From the time that Kitchens took over as the team’s offensive coordinator in Week 9 through the end of last season, the Browns ranked second in offensive DVOA. During that stretch, Mayfield threw 19 touchdown passes while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt. Even factoring in a reasonable amount of regression, Cleveland’s offense was still projected to be a top-10 unit with a tremendous amount of talent. Instead, this group looks rudderless, and Mayfield seems utterly lost. With all that in mind, I dug through Cleveland’s offensive plays so far this season and tried to answer one question: What the hell is wrong with the Browns?
Starting in their 43-13 Week 1 loss to the Titans, the Browns have been prone to digging themselves into holes. Cleveland finished with 18 penalties—the most the franchise has recorded in a game since 1951—for 182 yards. The penalty issues haven’t been quite as bad over the past four outings, but they haven’t disappeared, either. Cleveland still leads the league with 26 offensive penalties, and the 201 yards incurred on those penalties ranks third.
The mistakes haven’t come in just one area. The team has had 10 false starts, six offensive holding calls, a pair of offensive pass-interference flags, at least two illegal crack-back blocks, and a handful of other penalties. Along with Kitchens’s maddening tendency to run the ball on second-and-long—he does it nearly 41 percent of the time—the steady barrage of flags has left Cleveland with an average of 8.7 yards to go on third downs this season, the fifth-highest mark in the league. That has forced the Browns to use deeper routes in obvious passing situations, which has amplified some of Mayfield’s decision-making problems (more on that later).
It’s tempting to attribute frequent penalties to a lack of discipline, especially on a team with a first-year head coach, but for the most part, penalties are somewhat random. That doesn’t mean that Cleveland hasn’t suffered from a lack of attention to detail, though.
The best offenses in the NFL are built with precision. Sean Payton and Drew Brees obsess over route depths and distribution, and the spacing in their offense reflects those efforts. When the Rams were rolling in recent years, exact receiver splits and alignments played a huge role in manipulating defenses. So far this season, the Browns have looked much sloppier than an elite offense ever would. The mistakes may not be glaring, but taking a few steps too far inside on a route or screwing up the timing of a certain motion can torpedo a play, and Cleveland’s receivers have been making those kinds of mistakes all season. With 45 seconds left in the second quarter of the team’s Week 4 game against the Ravens, Beckham motioned into a stack on the left side of the formation with Jarvis Landry. That alignment is supposed to shield Beckham as Landry clears out his defender on a vertical route. Instead, Beckham drifts too far inside, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey has no trouble keeping up with one of the league’s most explosive receivers.
Even when the Browns do execute, they’ve often faltered because of imperfections in the play’s design. With 13:07 left in the second quarter against the Jets in Week 2, Cleveland faced a first-and-10 on the outskirts of the red zone. Kitchens’s scheme is heavily influenced by Bruce Arians, whom he served under on Arizona’s staff from 2013 to 2017. Both coaches love deep posts and other slower-developing routes that are aimed at attacking teams over the top. In this case, Beckham and Landry ran a variation of a scissors concept on the right side, where Beckham heads toward the post and Landry attacks the sideline. Based on the outside cornerback’s hip movements, Mayfield should recognize that Landry will be open at the apex of his route. But without a receiver attacking the flat, slot cornerback Brian Poole is able to deepen his drop and turn what should be an easy throw into a very difficult one. Making matters worse, before Mayfield can turn the ball loose, outside linebacker Tarell Basham grabs a handful of his jersey and drags him down for a sack. Like most negative Browns plays, there’s no one person at fault here. Mayfield’s drop is too deep, the play develops too slowly, and it has an inherent design flaw—the result is a 10-yard loss.
There’s very little binding the Browns’ offensive plan together right now. Kitchens has found plenty of exciting ways to get the ball in Beckham’s hands—with tosses, reverses, and even pass attempts—but too often the offense has looked like a series of individual plays rather than a collection of linked concepts that complement one another. There’s no flow whatsoever, and a good chunk of that falls on Kitchens. But it’s difficult for things to run smoothly with a quarterback who’s completely out of rhythm.
As a rookie, many of Mayfield’s best plays came when he took deep shots down the field. His aggressiveness was a strength that helped fuel one of the league’s best deep passing games. This season, though, that tendency has been a detriment. On Cleveland’s opening play of the season, the Browns called a play-action pass with a simple slant-flat concept to the left. After taking a quick look at the slant route and deciding against it, Mayfield shifted his eyes all the way to the other side of the field and ripped a flat-footed throw to Rashard Higgins that was deflected by Titans linebacker Jayon Brown. Rather than check the ball down to running back Nick Chubb for an easy 6-yard completion, Mayfield decided to make an off-balance throw into traffic that nearly ruined a drive before it could even get started.
Cleveland’s offense also gets progressively worse the longer that Mayfield holds on to the ball. On throws that take more than 2.5 seconds, Mayfield is completing a horrendous 44.9 percent of his passes, the lowest mark in the league by nearly 7 percentage points. The overaggressive mentality that Mayfield showed last season isn’t the worst trait for a quarterback—in fact, it’s one of the things Kitchens likes about him. “He won’t ever shy away from fitting it in windows,” Kitchens told me over the summer. “I want him to try to fit it in windows. The good ones do that.” The issue is that this season, Mayfield has alternated between pushing the envelope and exercising too much caution. For a quarterback who seems so comfortable in his own skin, Mayfield has been noticeably uncomfortable in the pocket all season. At his best in 2018, he was delivering quick, on-time throws into tight lanes just as he finished his drops. He was accurate, but more importantly, he was decisive. That conviction has been absent recently.
With 8:06 remaining in the first quarter against the Jets in Week 2, the Browns faced a second-and-8 from midfield. The play call—a variation of a drive-dig concept—is designed so that a short crossing route (the drive) lures the linebackers up while a deep dig route works in behind them. In this case, it works precisely the way it’s supposed to. Tight end David Njoku draws the linebackers forward, Beckham settles into the space, and Mayfield has enough room to fit in a well-placed throw for a chunk gain. Instead, he pulls the ball down, drifts to his right, and lofts a late pass to Njoku along the sideline, where the tight end is promptly crushed by cornerback Nate Hairston. Njoku also broke his wrist on the play and was subsequently placed on injured reserve.
Those issues pale in comparison to Mayfield’s most concerning habit, though: His propensity for drifting to the right, out of his protection and into harm’s way when pressured. That tic started in college and crept up again during his rookie season, but for the most part, Mayfield’s knack for extending plays was a net positive for Cleveland’s offense in 2018. A disproportionate amount of the Browns’ explosive plays came late in downs, with Mayfield freelancing outside the initial structure. And, possibly because of that success, he’s spent the first five games of the season chasing similar throws. Only this time, teams are ready for it.
On a third-and-3 with 4:09 left in the first quarter against the 49ers, the Browns motioned to an empty set with three receivers to the left. At the snap, the San Francisco defensive ends crashed inside while the tackles looped out. That approach—which is somewhat standard in obvious passing situations—served a purpose beyond just confusing the offensive line. When Dee Ford (no. 55 in the clip below) slants inside, Mayfield initially thinks that he’s free to go to his right and find a better window—which plays right into the 49ers’ hands. Mayfield drifts out of the pocket and directly toward the defensive tackle. His tendency to float that direction at the first sign of pressure is so ingrained that defensive coordinators have started planning for it.
Mayfield had his share of ugly moments against the 49ers, but no play better exemplifies the Browns’ misadventures this season quite like his first-quarter interception to Richard Sherman. It’s hard to write about this clip without turning into Bill Hader’s SNL character Stefon. This play has everything: bad routes; an overambitious, predetermined throw; a poor design that asks a tight end to block Bosa one-on-one. Sherman’s pick is a perfect encapsulation of the Browns’ struggles because it shows that no one party is at fault. Mayfield may deserve the most blame, as he seems to decide before the play even starts that he’s throwing to Antonio Callaway. But Callaway makes his break about 5 yards too early, the safety doesn’t bite on Landry, and Kitchens should know that a design that asks a tight end to block the league’s most dominant young pass rusher should never see the field.
The Browns have shown flashes of pulling things together. Mayfield was much quicker with his decision-making against Baltimore, and the offense has run much more smoothly when using play fakes that help streamline his thought process and open larger throwing windows. But all of the solutions that Cleveland has found so far have been temporary. The Browns’ struggles to this point are symptoms of broader afflictions that need to be addressed. Until Kitchens can clean up this group’s lack of attention to detail, and until Mayfield can begin to trust the scheme around him, Cleveland’s offense will be stuck in neutral. And that’s just not something I could have imagined saying before the season began.