"Whew. That stunk, but fans should be satisfied with it."
As Jarvis Landry and Jay Ajayi put the final nail in the Browns proverbial coffin on Sunday, I breathed a sigh of relief and flashed a melancholy shrug and a smile. The sense of doom that pervades Browns fan hood was present in all its glory as the Browns found a way (per usual) to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Talk radio and twitter was full of fans lamenting the loss and chanting the "same ole' Browns" refrain, but, for once, it's anything but.
Take a breath, Browns fans. Sunday wasn't exactly a best case scenario, but it's a cause for optimism.
You are what your record says you are.
The Browns lost, and are looking up from the chasm of 0-3. The last few times the Browns have started the season 0-3, they've failed to eclipse the 5 win mark on the season. This team is young and deeply flawed, and battling injuries that they have neither the depth nor the ingrained structure to overcome. The reason teams like New England and Denver can plug and play quarterbacks is because they boast the system and depth to rest on strengths on defense that mitigate the impact of the qb, and the teams don't make mental mistakes. It's easier to take solace in the Browns beating the last two betting lines (they were getting 10 points in this game, and looked like the better team much of the day) than worry about the outcome.
Hue Jackson and co. got the most out of a young and undermanned team
After watching Cody Kessler's deer-in-headlights start and the way the staff jerked him in and out of the lineup, most Browns fans (myself included) expected a catastrophe on Sunday. It never materialized.
The use of Pryor as lightning-in-a-bottle allowed Kessler to settle in against a team that is terrible at defending the run game. The Browns game planned their way into competitiveness in this game, clearly making Miami uncomfortable and moving the ball down the field effectively all day. (Struggles in the red zone notwithstanding) Kessler was allowed to take a breath and settle in and he markedly improved as the game progressed.
The coaching staff had the team playing from start to finish with passion, and through 3 games, continues to do the two things the 2015 was incapable of doing; run the ball and stop the run. Currently, despite missing the defenses 3 best players (Des Bryant, Joe Haden, and Carl Nassib) the team is right in the middle of the pack, tied with Cincy at 20th in the league while giving up 3.9 YPC and 109 rushing yards per game. These numbers rank 13th if you just go by YPC, and the 3.9 YPC allowed is a far cry from the 2015 unit. The chunk runs Browns fans saw last season on nearly every drive have been minimized.
Despite the injuries to key personnel on offense, Cleveland is +1 in take away differential. Football outsiders DVOA (defensive efficiency adjusted by opponent) is more bearish than expected, and is progressively climbing. After week 1, Cleveland was ranked 23rd, it moved up to 19 after week 2, and may climb above that after showing flashes in week 3.
The Browns are 4th(!!) in the NFL in rushing offense, and are validating the pre-draft comments Hue Jackson made about his running backs.
Maybe we do have to trust Hue Jackson
Cody Kessler's start versus a very talented front 7 of Miami was far better than even the rosiest outlets would have expected. Kessler didn't blow the doors off, but his 85.9 rating, while under pressure on 55% of dropbacks. earned the respect of team mates and was good enough to "earn" the win. He made throws under pressure and on third down, and was victimized by some drops and a terrible day from his RT, Austin Pasztor. Kessler's game 3 performance was a blueprint of what Hue wanted to do with him; after the initial moments, he didn't give the ball away and his pocket presence got substantially better as the game went on. Cody threw quality passes on 3rd down as pressure was bearing down on him, and avoided bailing from a clean pocket early as frequently as he did in college.
Kessler will have to speed up his internal clock and take shots down field, but for one week, Kessler kept the offense moving and allowed the team to continue progressing.
The best thing going
If you are shocked by the immediate contributions of the rookie class on the game day roster, you are not alone. The biggest reason for optimism in Cleveland is the 2016 draft class, and what it signifies. It's been highly unusual to see drafted players in Cleveland contribute from day 1, and the quiet confidence both the front office and coaching staff share about their youth is the best part of the season.
Corey Coleman's week two performance stands out of as the best (Sterling Shepard aside) from the draft class, and he highlights a WR room that, with Pryor's breakout week 3 and Gordon's impending return(!), could be one of the.....best in the league.
The biggest reason for optimism is the confidence the front office is inspiring in the draft day selections. Corey Coleman, Carl Nassib (come back soon, Carl), and Emmanuel Ogbah are getting better every week behind a suddenly stabilized defensive line, due in large part to the consistency of Danny Shelton and Stephen Paea. Derrick Kindred flashes hard hitting and good football instincts, and Ricardo Louis as a ST gunner......keeps him on the roster. Jamar Taylor won the job as a starting CB and looks far less terrible than what we've grown used to. (Low bar alert)
Cody Kessler was pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected, yet he showed the "capable quality backup" label draftniks presented him with was justifiable.
Shon Coleman and Seth Devalve continue to wait in the wings as high upside athletic freaks that the team is waiting for the correct moment to unleash. (Coleman will see work as the RT when they're comfortable he's 100% physically recovered from injury and ready, and DeValve is learning a new position that is occupied by a stabilizing force in Gary Barnidge)
The offseason wish list
Browns fans typically entered this season wanting to see 3 things.
1. Draft picks contributing early (check)
2. Defense not being a roaring dumpster fire (double check)Even during the expected trials and tribulations of a youth movement and a new coaching staff, Browns fans are having a difficult time maintaining perspective and patience.
3. Coaching system looking cogent (triple check)
4. Competitive in every game (mostly check, one can only do so much with the juggernaut that is Carson Wentz)
Stay patient, my friends. Also, remember that even though the Browns kickers are a disaster, we didn't spend a 2nd round pick on them. (Cheers to you, Robert Aguayo)