For the first time since 2001, the Cleveland Browns are 3-1. Many thanks are owed to Odell Beckham Jr. Just ask their superfans, like LeBron James and CJ McCollum.
Cleveland watched a 41-14 lead against the Cowboys on Sunday dwindle to three points with less than four minutes remaining in the game. The Browns recovered Dallas’s onside kick, setting them up at midfield with no momentum on their side—Cleveland had failed to score on three of its previous four possessions. So, on first-and-10, Kevin Stefanski dialed up a reverse to Beckham, his offense’s most explosive player. The result: a game-cinching 50-yard touchdown. Beckham evaded Aldon Smith, who seemed to have Beckham trapped in the backfield for a huge loss, before turning upfield, breaking a tackle, and outracing the Cowboys defense for the score to cap a 49-38 victory.
OBJ to the house on a reverse!!!— #RingerNFL (@ringernfl) October 4, 2020
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/gw8nX0X625
“We needed to move the rock there,” Stefanski told reporters afterward. “We had done a good job prior to that. It was a play we ran earlier in the ball game, figured we’d come back to it. Didn’t look good to start, looked good at the end. Nice job by 13.”
This is why Cleveland traded for Beckham before the 2019 season. Though the three-time Pro Bowler’s initial output last year was somewhat forgettable—74 catches, 1,035 yards, and four TDs would be a career year for most NFL wideouts—Beckham is still one of the best players in the NFL. Beckham’s showing Sunday is a reminder of what general manager Andrew Berry set out to accomplish when constructing this Browns roster; he’s filled it with some impressive talent that was on full display against Dallas.
Jarvis Landry, whom the Browns traded for after he led the league in receptions in 2017, ripped a perfectly thrown 37-yard touchdown pass to Beckham off a reverse for the game’s opening score.
Jarvis Landry has a flamethrower for an arm.— #RingerNFL (@ringernfl) October 4, 2020
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After Dallas rattled off 14 consecutive points late in the first quarter, Beckham took his first reverse handoff for a 23-yard gain to open a series that ended with Baker Mayfield connecting with Beckham for a 4-yard touchdown, kick-starting Cleveland’s 34-0 scoring run.
Beckham’s involvement was clearly integral to the Browns’ success Sunday beyond his touchdowns. In Cleveland’s three series that ended with punts, Beckham was targeted just twice. On six scoring drives, Beckham recorded each of his five catches (six targets) for 81 yards and ran the ball twice for 73 yards. “He was making plays all over the field,” Stefanski said.
Beckham keyed the Browns offense Sunday, but his highlight plays were buoyed by another impressive outing from Cleveland’s rushing attack. Even as starting tailback Nick Chubb was knocked out of the game due to a knee injury, backups Kareem Hunt (11 carries, 71 yards, and two TDs) and second-year backup D’Ernest Johnson (13 carries, 95 yards) were very effective. The Browns entered Sunday with the 10th-most efficient rushing game in the league, based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. Cleveland finished its win Sunday with 40 carries for 307 yards (7.7 yards per carry) and three TDs. The passing game, aside from Beckham’s 37-yard score, didn’t produce many fireworks—tight end Harrison Bryant’s 16-yard catch was the team’s second-longest passing play. But Mayfield didn’t turn the ball over for the second game in a row, and completed 19 of 30 passes for 165 yards and two scores. It was enough to get the job done, particularly as the quarterback leaned on his exciting playmakers outside.
“We’re four games into this,” Stefanski said. “We’re at the quarter mark. We’re finding different ways to win, which I think is important because there’s really good opponents out there and they run different styles of defense, and we’re gonna have to tackle them in different ways.”
At 3-1, there’s reason for optimism with Cleveland’s performance. Even if the results have come against opponents with a combined 3-8-1 record, the Browns have done enough to handle business. The clear concern is that in each of Cleveland’s three wins, it has allowed opponents to stay in the game. Joe Burrow helped pull the Bengals within five points with five minutes remaining in Week 2. Washington went from 10 points down to take a three-point lead going into the fourth quarter before the Browns scored 17 unanswered points in the final frame to pull away. Late in Sunday’s win, Cleveland had a 99.3 percent winning probability, according to ESPN. But the Browns didn’t solidify the result until Beckham’s late score.
Cleveland’s wins haven’t been pretty. But the Browns have put themselves in a favorable position to compete for a playoff spot, even in a competitive AFC North boasting the 3-1 Ravens and unbeaten Steelers.
“Finishing the first quarter [of the season] 3-1 is well-done by the guys,” Stefanski said. “But it’s a four-quarter game, it’s a four-quarter season.”
Mayfield said that he felt the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s win was that the Browns need to be more consistent. Despite putting up 49 points against Dallas, he said Cleveland left points on the board. The Browns will need to continue to exhaust all of their star power to avoid the situation again. Last year, through four games, Beckham tallied 21 catches (37 targets) for 308 yards and one TD. This year, Beckham has recorded 16 catches for 236 yards for three TDs, and now has two carries for 73 yards and one score. The yardage might be down, but the scores are up. And that’s paid major dividends thus far.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Mayfield said. “We’ve just got to go out there and execute.”