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Stop Laughing, It Might Be Time to Take the Browns Seriously

Cleveland is pretty good in 2020 and also a bit boring. It’s not clear which is the more remarkable accomplishment.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Sunday, with a 27-25 win in Jacksonville, the Browns improved to 8-3 and clinched their first non-losing season since 2007. That is both a basic statement of fact and an impressive feat in the franchise’s long-standing effort to change its narrative arc. “Non-losing” might not seem like a high bar until you remember that, for decades, the Cleveland Browns have turned losing into a Technicolor art form. By that standard, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their 2020 season is that their success has come in shades of muted gray. The Browns are pretty good and also a bit boring. It’s not clear which is the more remarkable accomplishment.

Take Sunday’s win against the Jaguars as a prime example of non-losing football. With 1:37 remaining in the game, the Browns led by two points and faced a third-and-12 when quarterback Baker Mayfield tossed a short dump-off pass to running back Nick Chubb, who ran it just past the 1-yard marker and plopped himself down inbounds. It was a subtler version of the play Chubb made against the Texans two weeks earlier when he broke off a 59-yard run with a minute to play and, instead of scoring an easy touchdown, went down at the 1-yard line so the Browns could take a knee and end the game without Houston getting the ball back. By definition, that is a non-losing play.

Earlier in the game, Jacksonville blundered a scoring opportunity the way past Browns teams might have. Minutes into the third quarter, the Jaguars scored a touchdown to go up 19-17. Jacksonville kicker Aldrick Rosas made the extra point, which would have put the Jaguars up by three, but Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon jumped offside on the play. Instead of simply adding the 5 penalty yards to the ensuing kickoff, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone opted to accept the penalty, take the point from the extra kick off the board, and try for a two-point conversion. It failed.

Marrone might have made a sound decision, analytically, but you don’t need sophisticated data analysis to know that bad teams have a way of screwing those situations up. The Browns went on to win by two points, which happened to come on a day when two other AFC wild-card contenders—the Raiders and the Colts—lost resoundingly. As a result, the Browns increased their odds to make the playoffs to 78 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Again, if you don’t see the significance in that, I invite you to a stroll down to the intersection of memory lane and Lou Groza Boulevard.

The Browns are an organization that once accidentally projected pornography onto walls in its headquarters when trying to display a social media campaign. I covered a game in Cleveland in 2016 when the Browns, already missing starting quarterback Robert Griffin III and backup Josh McCown, had three more quarterbacks injured during the game. They’ve had seven general managers and eight head coaches since 2009 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2002. The Browns made the disastrous hire of Freddie Kitchens last year even though many in the team’s front office reportedly preferred Kevin Stefanski, the man they hired this year to replace Kitchens, because—you may have heard this one before—ownership intervened. In a game last October, the Browns turned the ball over on three consecutive snaps. They had to cut a safety, Jermaine Whitehead, after he threatened a Twitter user with the name “Does Jermaine Whitehead Still Suck.” It feels quaint to note that they committed the fourth-highest number of penalties in 2019.

And while it’s fun to reminisce on such an unglamorous history, most of this is likely not news to you because Browns’ misery has been an object of fascination for years. That was supposed to change after the franchise selected Baker Mayfield no. 1 overall in the 2018 draft, a move that was the culmination of a strategy of asset accumulation that mirrored the Philadelphia 76ers’ Process. Hard Knocks chronicled Mayfield’s rookie training camp in 2018, adding to his lore. Mayfield broke the touchdown record for a rookie quarterback that season and, before the 2019 season, sat for a GQ profile at a restaurant with a steak named after him. It was part of a media blitz in which the Browns were the preseason darlings of the NFL. Then they went 6-10 that season, Mayfield regressed, and the notion of a superteam built on a foundation of analytics and an improved organizational culture did a public face-plant.

The 2020 Browns are not a superteam. They lost wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for the season and were without edge rusher Myles Garrett, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list (he came off the list Tuesday and is expected to play in Week 13). Cornerback Denzel Ward is expected to miss Sunday’s game against the Titans, his second, with a calf injury. They are 22nd in DVOA, middling on both offense (16th) and defense (19th), and bad on special teams (27th). They are docked in the DVOA system for having played the fourth-easiest schedule thus far.

Mayfield has been OK—better than last year—though he hasn’t been asked to do much. He’s completed 61 percent of his passes and has mostly avoided mistakes. For the first time in his career, Mayfield has a positive completion percentage over expectation, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which incorporates the difficulty of the throw a passer makes when accounting for his completion percentage.

Still, he’s averaging the fewest yards per game in his career—192 this season, down from 239 last season and 266 in 2018. He’s attempting fewer passes—27 per game, down from 33 per game last season and 35 in 2018. Instead, the Browns are relying on Stefanski’s solid coaching, their offensive line, and their running game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who are averaging 103 yards and 64 yards per game, respectively. The most important thing Mayfield has done is avoid mistakes. He has missed some easy throws—see: badly overthrowing Rashard Higgins with 10 yards of separation in the end zone Sunday—but he’s lowered his interceptions. Mayfield had 13 interceptions through 11 games last season and has seven so far this year.

The Browns will play the Titans, Ravens, Giants, Jets, and Steelers to close out the season. That’s the 14th-hardest remaining schedule, according to Football Outsiders. Cleveland will be tested by three good teams and a fairly good Giants defense before the playoffs begin. We will get a better understanding of who these Browns are as they navigate that final slate. We already know who they aren’t, though: The Same Old Browns, who found new and creative ways to lose games, didn’t make it to 2020. What a year.