Photo via Ron Schwane/Associated Press
This time last year, the Cleveland Browns’ fanbase was full of optimism. The Browns fired head coach Hue Jackson after a dismal 2-6-1 start to the 2018 season and then would finish the season on a high note as they finished 5-2. The Browns finished 2018 7-8-1 and with a great rookie quarterback in Baker Mayfield, the future seemed bright. On January 12, 2019, they made a puzzling decision by hiring interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, who had never been a head coach at any level before. However, there was still optimism as he and Mayfield worked very well together.
In the offseason, the Browns’ optimism meter went up as they traded for New York Giants’ superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and acquired pass rusher Olivier Vernon from the Giants. They also acquired suspended but talented running back Kareem Hunt. The Browns on offense had young and promising players such as Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb. They had college teammates and established stars in Beckham and Jarvis Landry to bolster their receiving corp. On defense, they had young star defensive players in cornerbacks Denzel Ward and defensive end Myles Garrett. With all this talent, many predicted the Browns would win the AFC North or at least earn a Wild Card spot. What happened instead was a disastrous 6-10 season full of dysfunction, ineptitude, underachieving, suspensions and the eventual firing of Freddie Kitchens. Before we get into why the season was a colossal failure, let’s get into what exactly happened.
The first four games perfectly set the tone for the season and summed up a lot of the issues this team would have. Week 1 was huge for the Browns. They opened at home against the Tennessee Titans, who are a good but not great team. Despite the hype, the Titans absolutely dominated the Browns 43-13, a rout that saw the Titans intercept Mayfield three times in the second half and the Titans finished the game with 28 unanswered points. The Browns also committed 18 penalties for 182 yards, their highest since 1951, their second year in the NFL.
Then the next week on Monday Night Football, the Browns dominated the New York Jets, who had a backup quarterback, Trevor Siemian. He was knocked out of the game by Myles Garrett, who also committed two personal fouls in the game. That would foreshadow later events.
Then the Browns were thrust in the national spotlight on Sunday Night Football against the defending NFC Champions, the Los Angeles Rams. The Browns lost due to failing to score a touchdown in the red zone in the final two minutes of the game when needing a touchdown and early in the fourth quarter, Kitchens made perhaps the most foolish call of the season when he ran a draw play on fourth and nine. That was the first time that call had ever been called on that down and distance.
Optimism went back up after a dominant win at Baltimore 40-25, showing just how talented this team was. But then the Browns would lose their next four games to fall to 2-6. They rebounded to beat the 6-2 Buffalo Bills and would beat the Steelers 21-7 a few days later. However, that was tainted as Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph in the head with his own helmet and was promptly suspended for the rest of the season. The week leading up to their rematch several weeks later, Kitchens was seen wearing a shirt that said, “Pittsburgh started it.” Not a good look for the leader of the team. This left a black mark on the rest of the season as the Browns would finish 2-4, including a loss to the 1-14 Cincinnati Bengals, after that and miss the playoffs. So, what happened to this team, filled with so much promise and talent?
To start, hiring Freddie Kitchens as coach was a terrible decision. He had never been a head coach at any level and was placed in control of a team full of alpha males and electric personalities such as Mayfield, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Landry and Beckham. Controlling a team like that and making them successful is a hard task for even veteran coaches but for an inexperienced coach like Kitchens to do it is nearly impossible. As a result, Beckham told other teams to come get him and Landry was seen yelling with Kitchens during their 38-24 loss at Arizona. Kitchens lost control of the team, culminating in the Browns leading the NFL in penalty yards and penalties most of the season before finishing fourth in both categories. Kitchens’ play-calling was also confusing. The Browns were 22nd in rushing attempts but were fourth in the NFL in yards per rush. One really must wonder how much better this offense, which ranked 22nd in yards, would have been if they emphasized the run more instead of forcing the issue with an inefficient quarterback.
The next reason is general manager John Dorsey made some questionable moves and Mayfield could not adjust accordingly. Not only hiring Kitchens as coach, but also trading starting guard Kevin Zeitler for Olivier Vernon was not a good move. At the same time though, Mayfield really did not adjust well with the offense. Vernon had 3.5 sacks, the fewest since his 2012 rookie season and the Browns were 20th in sacks. The Browns’ offensive line ranked 11th in value and was middle of the pack when it comes to amount of sacks given up with 41. However, Mayfield was the most hurried quarterback in the NFL with 85 hurries but was only was sacked the seventh most among quarterbacks. This means Mayfield got a lot of pressure and was trigger happy as a result, but he wasn’t very efficient with his passing as he was 31st out of 32 quarterbacks in passer rating. That is below the highly-scrutinized Mitchell Trubisky, Joe Flacco, Mason Rudolph and Kyle Allen. Mayfield was hurried a lot, but poor decision making and a trigger-happy style resulted in 21 interceptions, which only Jameis Winston had more with 30.
Overall, this was a team filled with promise and hope, but was hampered by a lack of control, discipline, wise play-calling and a quarterback that never got into a rhythm. Browns’ fans now are now just hoping that this season was a fluke and are trying to cling on to hope for a better future.
The Browns have hired Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their head coach. I like this hire as he has a lot of great success with the Vikings this season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had the fourth-highest quarterback rating in the NFL and the Vikings had the sixth-best rushing offense. Under Stefanski, the Browns’ offensive personnel should be utilized much more efficiently and Mayfield should show signs of improvement next season. Browns fans have reason to be somewhat optimistic about this hire and should have hope that 2020 will be much better than the disaster that was the 2019 Cleveland Browns’ season.