Fine, we’ll do it live. Let’s talk about this game.
For my money, this is without a doubt the most interesting “measuring stick game” for the Cleveland Browns at least this season, and maybe in my lifetime. There are far too many takeaways from this game to fully dissect it right now, and I’m sure that as the offseason carries on for Cleveland, even more short and long-term consequences will show themselves.
As I wrote last week following their Wild Card win over the Steelers, Cleveland skipped a step this season. That was always evident. From week one to week seventeen to divisional weekend, the Browns showed just how much a team can improve throughout a season. Under a rookie head coach, with a young team, in the middle of a pandemic where they had to install their system over Zoom, Cleveland did just about the best they could, considering the circumstances.
It’s hard to see this game, and perhaps even this season, as anything other than a double-edged sword. So let’s stab each end in, and see which is sharper.
The Dark Side
The Browns’ defense was always going to be the thing that kept them from getting to the promised land. Sure, it was possible that Cleveland’s exposive offense could have dragged the entire defensive unit to Tampa kicking and screaming, but it was far more likely that the Achilles heel of this team would eventually get struck by the proverbial arrow.
It’s shocking that the proverbial arrow had “Chad Henne” etched into the head, and not “Patrick Mahomes.” As the best player in football, Mahomes leaving the game with a concussion creaked the door open for the Browns, who would capitalize later with a Karl Joseph interception off backup quarterback Chad Henne. After an empty position from the Browns’ offense, Henne would get the ball back with the game on the line. Up 22-17 on a 3rd and 14, Henne somehow escaped the pocket and eluded Cleveland’s defense for about thirteen and a half yards.
Andy Reid had the guts to go for it on 4th and 1, and to his credit, Henne and wide receiver Tyreek Hill delivered on his gutsy play call. The fourth down conversion would seal the game for Kansas City, sending them to their third AFC Championship game in just as many years. Unfortunately for Cleveland, this loss exposed a few ugly facets of their team in the long term.
Is it fair for me to say that Cleveland may have won a couple too many games this season? I know that sounds awful, and as a Browns fan, the last thing I want to do is be ungrateful for what ended as a 12-6 season. But if I’m trying to play the long game here, I can’t help but to look at the No. 26 pick in the draft, and feel that it simply is not good enough to get a true difference-maker on defense.
Looking ahead to the 2021 NFL Draft, there are quite a few linebackers I love watching in this class. Specifically, Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame, and Zaven Collins out of Tulsa are the three prospects I keep coming back to. The draft board can fall in any number of ways, but it’s becoming less and less likely that any of the three of them will be there for the Browns.
That…really stings. In 2021, the Browns will be seeing Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit back on the field, as well as whoever they will almost certainly draft on defense. Outside of Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Ronnie Harrison, the defense has to get better, and hopefully for Cleveland, it will with all these new additions. Going back to the 4th and 1 call for Kansas City, there’s another facet of that play that I’d like to dissect.
The Bright Side
Andy Reid called that play to keep the ball out of the hands of Baker Mayfield.
Despite an interception by Tyrann Mathieu which, to his credit, was a beautiful defensive play, Mayfield had caught fire inside Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. The 25 year old quarterback was searing hot, especially so in the second half, attempting to will the Browns to what would have been one of the great upsets in NFL playoff history. I wrote earlier that Mahomes going down with an injury creaked open the door for the Browns in the late stages of the game. Keeping Henne and the offense on the field for a fourth down conversion rather than punting the ball away assured that Mayfield and the Browns couldn’t kick that door down.
What I am about to say is probably going to sound like a reach. And I don’t care.
See, Baker Mayfield has developed this unique “Brady-ness” over the last half of a season. It started with the Bengals game in week seven, after throwing his fifth touchdown of the day to Donovan Peoples-Jones to take the lead over Cincinnati with under a minute left. Despite the empty possession that came before, Andy Reid and I had the same feeling about Mayfield: an utmost confidence that he would take the ball down the field for a touchdown to win the game. This confidence is nothing but a byproduct of the season the Cleveland Browns have had as a whole.
The Browns came into the 2020 NFL season facing so many questions. Is Kevin Stefanski finally the right choice at head coach? Is Baker Mayfield really a franchise quarterback? Can Andrew Berry man the ship as GM, and put together a roster that can compete with the NFL’s big boys? And perhaps most interestingly, was Paul DePodesta, the guy who wanted Stefanski last year, and who wanted to bring in both Stefanski and Berry to run the Browns as “The Nerds.” Was he right all along?
Cleveland found answers to all of these questions and more this season, all of them nothing short of a thunderous, resounding, “YES.”
Organizing Our Thoughts
This is a very tough loss for the Browns, and in a league as unpredictable as the NFL, it’s hard to say they’ll be back in the postseason in 2021 with total confidence. There is still so much to unpack with this game, and over the spring and summer, I’ll be watching the season back to see what worked and what didn’t (and I’m sure the Browns will be doing the same). It’s up to every fan individually to decide which end of this double-edged sword is sharper, but at the very least, I know which one hurts less.