The season is now half over, and the Browns are sitting pretty at 5-3. The record never tells the whole story though. It has been a roller coaster ride all year, and the Browns might be one of the most difficult teams in football to figure out. No one is sure whether we're looking at a legitimate playoff contender or a team poised for collapse. I'm going to take a look back on the season so far and try to get a feel for where we are, how we got here, and where we're likely headed from here on out. I'll be pulling numbers from everywhere to try to get a complete and balanced picture, and I'll try to explain what some of these things mean as I go along. This will be split into two articles, one for each side of the ball. The focus will be on the team as a whole or specific phases of the game, but inevitably some individual analysis will have to enter the equation. Let's get started.
Part One: Offense
Talk about Jekyll and Hyde. After trotting out one of the most efficient offenses in the league through five games, things seem to have stalled a bit the last three weeks. Perhaps the biggest reason for this sudden change is the run game. After going over 120 rush yards in four of the first five games, the Browns have failed to get more than 69 in the past three. Part of that is certainly due to an injury to All-Pro center Alex Mack, but no one player is that important. Other explanations could be that teams are simply stacking the box more or that starter Ben Tate might be playing hurt. Whatever the reason, over the full season most rankings aren't so fond of the rushing attack. The Browns are 21st in Advanced Football Analytics' EPA (expected points added) rankings, which is exactly what it sounds like. Every spot on the field corresponds to a certain number of "expected" points, based on statistical models and historical data. EPA is how many points are expected after a play minus how many were expected before the play. The Browns are actually giving up expected points every time they run the ball. Football Outsiders has the Browns at 22nd in the league at running the ball by DVOA, which measures how much above or below average a team performs. Pro Football Focus' game charting is even more unkind, with the Browns down at 31st in the league.
It seems hard to believe that after such a hot start, the run game could be that bad overall. I believe the primary culprit here is an insistence on running the ball even when it isn't effective. Most teams would simply throw more when the ground game wasn't working, but because of the offensive system the Browns run, this isn't really an option. The threat of the run must always be present, so we have to prove we will stick with it no matter what. In the future, look for some more early down passes or perhaps gadget plays like reverses to alleviate some of this pressure. The return of Josh Gordon should also help a good deal. I think it's reasonable to expect the Browns to run the ball better over the remaining eight games, but I do not think we should be expecting anything close to the steamroller we saw through the first five games. Opposing defenses have simply adjusted.
The pass offense is a much more confusing animal. Even during the offense's rough patch these last few weeks, the overall pass numbers look pretty good. AFA has Cleveland 13th in passing and both FO and PFF rank them 8th overall. And yet the Browns have struggled to score points. So what gives? The problem lies in consistency and situational football. The Browns are second to last in the NFL in third down percentage, which obviously isn't good. AFA has a metric called Win Probability Added, which calculates the odds of winning a game after every play accounting for things like time remaining and score differential. In general, teams with a lower WPA than EPA are performing poorly in high-leverage situations. The Browns currently have the 16th ranked pass offense in terms of WPA, which is far below their ranking of 8th in EPA. The Browns simply haven't been throwing as well when they needed to. This may seem counter-intuitive, because we've seen Brian Hoyer make some big throws when the game was on the line. The point being made here is that there are chances for guys to make plays that would render late-game heroics unnecessary, and they aren't taking advantage. Receivers are dropping big third downs, linemen are getting beat too quickly in big situations, and Brian Hoyer isn't connecting as often as he needs to.
Speaking of which, let's talk a little about consistency. The efficiency of the Browns passing offense is through the roof, at 8.0 YPA for the year. That's very good. However, the team's success rate through the air is only 43.9%, good for 24th in the league. Similarly, Football Outsiders' variance metric has the Browns as the third most inconsistent offense overall. What this means is that the Browns are making huge plays when they connect, but they aren't making a lot of the little plays that help keep the chains moving. There's a lot of blame to go around there but I believe the primary culprit is passing accuracy. The Browns have the fourth best drop percentage in the league, so while there have been a few costly drops, it's not enough to swing the pendulum much. The offensive line deserves some blame of course, as they haven't been giving Hoyer quite as much time with Mack out. However, The Browns are right in the middle of the league in terms of allowing pressure, suggesting that while they haven't been amazing, it isn't really a big problem either. Accuracy, on the other hand, has been. Brian Hoyer's overall accuracy percentage (which accounts for things like drops, spikes, throw aways, etc.) is the third worst in the league. Things get even worse when we look at Hoyer's performance under pressure, where he only beats out Geno Smith. Conversely, his accuracy percentage on balls over 20 yards is the best in football. These two facts together account for both the ability to create explosive plays and the lack of consistent ball movement.
What should we expect going forward? Well, there are some good and some bad things at play I think. In three weeks the Browns get Josh Gordon back, and that could really change the complexion of the offense. Hopefully the big play threat will help open up the running game, which in turn leads to easier third down conversions. The team will benefit from the offensive line getting more reps with their new center as well. On the other hand, I don't think Brian Hoyer's accuracy is likely to improve, and the Browns have faced the third easiest schedule in the league in terms of opposing defenses. Starting Thursday, things really heat up. If they can continue to connect on big plays and maybe get the running game going again, I think the offense can still put points on the board. Early in the year, the offense was killing it, bailing out the defense and special teams in many instances. That type of play is probably gone for good, and the Browns are going to need to play complete, complementary football if they're going to make a push for the playoffs. It's going to be an exciting end to the season, so enjoy the ride.