On the national stage last Thursday night and in storybook fashion, the darkest of chapters in Cleveland Browns’ football history finally, mercifully came to an end. I’m not just talking about the winless streak of 19 games, or the 635 days in between those wins. I mean that this entire era of terrible, feckless, hopeless and ultimately depressing “professional” football is over. The Browns didn’t just notch their first ‘W’ in forever, they officially closed the Factory of Sadness.
I can feel your cynicism - both directed at me for being so foolish as to make such a sweeping claim and also because you just know that something is going to go wrong. It always, always does. I get that. I watched the Rudd helmet throw. I recall the Kick-Six. I remember winning ten games but missing the playoffs because the team with the best record of the decade decided to take the game off. I was at Bottlegate.
Yes, it has been to this point healthy and prudent to distance yourself from too much in the way of positive optimism with regard to anything having to do with this franchise. They are impressive in their ability to fail, spectacularly. Since the team was ripped away in 1995, there have been only two winning seasons (2002 & 2007). Two others that would be mediocre years for any other team but comparatively much more fun for us had us winning seven games (2001 & 2014), and in Romeo Crennel’s rookie year (2005) we garnered six victories. Every other year (so 14/19) saw us losing a minimum of eleven games. Of course, the last two years we had won one game total, and over the last three and a half that total raises to four. Even counting the win Thursday, our record now since week 13 of the 2014 season is 5-50-1
That’s all over now, and yes I know that you can’t let yourself believe that because you’ve been burned too many times. The thing is, you can, finally. Even the worst of times don’t last forever. We most certainly have seen the worst of times, both in terms of the immediate past and unbelievably depressing and sustained period of ineptitude which has defined the Browns re-entering the league in 1999, and to say nothing of the horrible moving of the franchise in 1995 which created the vacancy in the first place. Simply put: it’s been about as bad as it’s possible to have been in a league expressly designed for parity. Actually, it’s been significantly worse than it should have been possible to have been in a league specifically designed for parity. It’s almost statistically impossible for us to have been as bad as we’ve been for as long as we’ve been.
However, after all of that, would it be so unthinkable that things could balance out a bit? In fact, given that much time in the dark, dank wilderness would it not be fair to say that maybe fortune could actually favor us somewhat, at some point? Well whether you agree or disagree with that proposition the reality nevertheless exists that things are about to balance pretty significantly in our direction and I mean VERY soon. Of course, that is because the catalyst has arrived.
Baker Mayfield: QB Of The
It’s understandable to be shocked by the performance of the first pick in this last draft, 2017 Heisman trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Coming in off the bench, he looked as polished as could be en route to leading the Browns to a come from behind victory over the New York Jets. In fact, just his winning the Heisman is typically an indicator in an of itself, as more often than not it seems those guys don’t live up to the hype moving on to the next objectives (bowl/title games and the ascension to the NFL).
However there were other things that obfuscated Mayfield’s (very apparent) ability during the process, leading people to some odd conclusions and even causing some unnamed radio hosts to do truly stupid things. Without rehashing all of the pre-draft debates, there are plenty of others that could see that he was clearly and overwhelmingly the best choice for QB at #1 overall.
On Thursday night, the entire country was able to see it on a grand stage. It was a resounding conclusion to every debate about which of the five first-round QB’s taken in the draft should have been first. If there exists any doubt about that now it will dissipate in total over the next few weeks. Honestly, it was obvious about ten months ago or so, but now there is nothing left to do but watch the pick be validated. In what legitimately was probably the top QB draft class in at least 14 years and possibly 30, we got the best guy available.
In the Thursday night contest, there was a direct juxtaposition of what our options were as on the other side of the field for the Jets was the 3rd overall pick, Sam Darnold. Many had Darnold as the top QB in the class, and for not ridiculous reasons. In most other draft years, he could be a clear top guy, and that could also be said for Josh Rosen, Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson. It really was an unusually rich year for QBs available via the draft.
However, it doesn’t take a giant amount of deep analysis to see clear as day that the gulf is wide between the 1st pick and the 3rd pick. For a guy making his third start, I didn’t think Darnold looked too bad. For a rookie, he held his own and didn’t embarrass the team that traded a lot to move up to number 3 overall to take him. On balance thus far, he looks like a pretty solid rookie quarterback. He also looks like he’s about a year or two away from being at the level Baker Mayfield is at right now. That’s not homerism and that’s not hyperbole, and in a very short time it won’t even be a question.
Down 14-0, with Darnold having gained confidence from not having thrown a bonehead INT as he had done in both of his first two starts and leading the Jets on a long TD drive, the Browns offense led by veteran Tyrod Taylor was doing exactly nothing. The biggest (non-penalty) play with Taylor in the game was bad pass hauled in by Jarvis Landry who then made a tremendous change-of-direction-extension of the ball while landing in bounds. On that play, during a half where Taylor’s poor play clearly had put the team in the hole it was in, the camera found Mayfield on the sideline, pumping his fist that we got the first down. He wasn’t sulking or politicking to get in the game, he was pulling for his team and was excited about us doing something positive.
Of course, like most drives with Taylor this year that one didn’t end up with anything, except him getting hurt. After our defense shut down the Jets offense we got the ball back with under two minutes and after having gotten called for the (obligatory) illegal block on the punt return. So down by two TD’s and with not much time in the half stode Mayfield into the game. It was immediately apparent that a switch had been flipped.
Within two plays the Browns had already moved the ball more than they had the entire half. Mayfield was not looking like a rookie trying to figure out what the defense was doing: he came out attacking. He read the defense and set the protections which instantaneously improved the quality of play of the OL. Amazingly, that’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect the veteran to do and the rookie to struggle with, yet it’s been an issue with Taylor in the two and a half games he’s been in for us, and was solved the moment Mayfield took control of the huddle.
That first drive ended in a field goal (which in and of itself was a big deal what with the way things went down at New Orleans last week), but even down 14-3 the fans at First Energy Stadium knew it was going to be a different game in the 2nd half, and it was. Mayfield came out again throwing darts, and wasn’t just calm and collected by completely in charge of every phase of the offense. Everything from the delivery of the cadence to the pocket presence to the knowing of the defensive positioning and then (especially) the pinpoint accuracy looked like the stuff of a grizzled veteran (and one that had probably been to some pro bowls) rather than a player taking reps with the first time for the first time all year.
Oh yeah, while Darnold has been practicing with his first team for the first three weeks Mayfield was never even considered for competition of the starting role. So without having worked with his first team, and down by two scores, he just confidently chewed up the Jets’ defense. Whatever they tried to do to stop him he simply brushed aside and made plays. He made deadly accurate passes from the pocket and on the move. He scanned the field and didn’t lock on targets. He moved through his progressions and made the right decision almost every time, and the ball came out with a lightning quick release that, again, almost every time was right on the money.
He had three drops, a few penalties and also was strip-sacked on his first series. In none of those circumstances did he flinch, but instead calmly came back on the next play to make up for it and put his team in position to score, and score again. From the time Mayfield entered the game to the end Cleveland outscored New York 21-3. He finished 17-23 for 201 yards, and again three of those passes were dropped. On the whole night, there was really only one pass which ricocheted off the should pads of a Jets defender (which theoretically could have been intercepted but practically was a laser that would have required a tremendous catch by a defensive player) that you could say was off. Not too bad coming in cold off the bench.
That is the point here. What we saw on Thursday night is the most advanced rookie prospect to enter the league in many years. While his arm and his accuracy are both very much above average, his football knowledge and processing is already better than a good number of starting NFL quarterbacks. As we saw with the Jets, he’s going to be attacking defenses, and probably like the Jets there’s not going to be much teams are going to be able to do about it. While PFF isn’t exactly the end-all be-all of football analytics, it’s hard to argue with just stats:
Those numbers are impressive for anyone in any circumstance. For a rookie in his first game cold off the bench down multiple scores playing with the first team for the first time on national TV for a team that had lost 51 of it’s previous 55 games it is OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD.
Now most assuredly my exuberance is over the top and my vision marred by (r)orange-colored glasses, you rightfully and skeptically will point out. As I have had to admit to my wife on more than one occasion: I’ve been wrong before. However, this time is different because we’ve never seen anyone like this. As in, maybe really ever. Who do you recall looking that polished and that ready to go one game in? I’m drawing a blank.
Again, I’m not proponent of PFF, and have found myself at odds with their conclusions many times. At the same time, I can say that about pretty much every other evaluation-entity pertaining to professional football. As it happened, PFF was as adamant that Mayfield be the #1 overall pick as I or anyone else was, and as with I and many others it wasn’t especially close. They also do reviews of individual game performances, which of course are more subjective than are the numbers cited up top. Still, do you disagree?
It’s not always going to be perfect and no doubt he’ll have a bad(ish) game from time to time, but considering the level play he is starting at there is so much to be excited about with respect to just how good he can become. On that, we’ll of course just have to be patient and see what happens. However even if he never advances beyond the level he’s currently at, that still probably makes him a top-third-of-the-league QB right now.
Time will tell, and of course if I’m wrong than I have no problem with you or anyone else metaphorically chucking rotten tomatoes in my direction, but I’m not going to have to face those (very real) consequences.
Oh yeah, there’s also this guy
It’s probably not fair to be dedicating only this relatively paltry portion of the HYPE’ness to Myles Garrett. While all the attention is (and should be) focused now on our talented new gun-slinger, it’s also good to notice the incredible talent we took #1 overall at the top of the 2017 draft. Garrett so far in his career has been everything he was advertised to be. In twelve professional contests Garrett has eleven sacks. That puts him on pace to become roughly the greatest defensive player of all time.
His combination of size, speed, strength, motor and work ethic tilts the field for Cleveland. Offenses either have to gameplan around him or incur his wrath. Against the Saints, they were so preoccupied with stopping him that they singled up interior bad-man Larry Ogunjobi, who made them pay. The combo of Saint Myles and Showgun (both in their 2nd year) figures to be harassing opposing offenses for some time to come.
The defense as a unit, probably inspired greatly by Garrett’s presence, has played well this year. There are also contributing efforts from #4 overall selection Denzel Ward, the new FS Damarious Randall, and our only pro bowler last season: Joe Schobert. They were playing pretty well before with bad offense. Now, things look very much to be in our favor.
Even if Mayfield makes no significant improvement as the season progresses (which I’m pretty positive he will) where he’s at right now will at very least allow us to keep more drives alive, which will keep the defense from being put into rough spots and also not on the field as often. That’s a huge deal, and probably good for a half dozen or so wins irrespective of any other dynamic.
However if Mayfield, with some actual first team reps and improvements with experience continues attacking defenses and putting points on the board, our defense will be in the enviable position of pinning its ears’ back and going after opposing QB’s, which we’ve got more capability to do than we possibly ever have before. That combination, really the absolutely nailing of the first pick(s) in the last two drafts, have set the Cleveland Browns on a trajectory for success that it hasn’t experienced in many decades.
My personal experience with this franchise dates back to 1991. Over the first four years I watched Bill Belichick (who everyone hated btw) build up a winner. In 1994 I was in attendance at old Municipal stadium when the Browns played and beat the New England Patriots in what is our last playoff win. It was a good team, one that was poised for success, and in the stadium that day there was a sense of optimism and expectation that was palpable. Of course the following week it all ended but the thought was that we’d get right back at it the following year and make our run. Well, the following year that didn’t happen, and in what followed that didn’t deliver either. I finally, now, feel like that span of time has been bridged. With this young QB and this talented defense (and oh by the way, a coaching staff in it’s third year with the team for the first time in a decade) there really is a reason to be hopeful. You don’t need to talk yourself into it, it’s actually happening.
Get HYPE, because we are good now.