No doubt about it, last year’s version of the Browns was horrible and very disappointing. 2019 was supposed to be the year that the franchise righted itself, made a run for the division title, and finally a playoff appearance. But in the end, it was same-ole, same-ole.
What is the expression? Same ole Cleveland Browns.
If you are a Browns’ fan, you have said this multiple times over the years. Admit it. If you cheer for another NFL club, you have said it at some point or another after seeing Cleveland highlights. If you are a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens or Cincinnati Bengals, you probably have a t-shirt that has this saying imprinted on the front – and on the back.
The Browns just seem to find ways to lose games - especially contests they should have won. And even when they do take a victory, often it feels like a loss. Remember beating the Steelers handily last year, and then the Myles Garrett fiasco occurred in the waning seconds of the game? Did that feel like a win when it was finally over? Admittedly, another tick was added to Cleveland’s win column in the official standings, but the aftermath felt like a depression.
But think about it, the bad football that fans pay good money to see, or go visit their favorite sports bar to watch, or congregate at home among friends with viewing parties, is not an isolated season but a succession of seasons.
Counting last season’s meltdown, the Browns are 101-234 since they became the “new Browns” in 1999.
Officially, it has been 17 years since the Browns were in the playoffs; which is currently the longest streak of any NFL club.
The last time they were in the playoffs, Cleveland went 9-7-0 in 2002 under head coach Butch Davis and qualified as a Wild Card team. Then, in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, they faced the Steelers - a team that had defeated them twice already during the regular season. The Browns built a notable 24-7 lead into the third quarter only to lose a heartbreaker 36-33. Since then, it has been all downfield.
That means the Browns are in a serious funk, and every season just adds to the grand total. Officially, call this period in Browns’ history as “The Wasteland Years.” And if something doesn’t change sooner than later, you can change the word “Years” to “Decades.”
Same ole Cleveland Browns
Since the end of that 2002 playoff season, Cleveland has gone 80-203-1 for a .282 win percentage. The win-loss average during the Wasteland Years calculates to approximately a record of 4-12-0 annually.
During this period, the Browns have finished in the cellar of the division 13 times and produced just one winning season. 2007 was OT Joe Thomas’ rookie season and the franchise went 10-6-0 under head coach Romeo Crennel but failed to make the playoffs. The reason was because both the Steelers and Browns tied for the division with identical records. However, Pittsburgh once again had beaten the Browns in both contests that year thus securing the first tie-breaker rule.
Same old Cleveland Browns. Lose even when you win.
During the Wasteland Years, Cleveland has finished with five or fewer wins in 12 of the 17-year time period, including going 1-15-0 in 2016 and the infamous 0-16-0 season of 2017.
Year-after-year, the Browns lose games in which they were winning, have leads going into the fourth quarter and lost, or had strange things occur that eventually flipped the outcome.
Last season was a great indicator. Against the Tennessee Titans opening game, the score was only 15-13 late in the third quarter as the Titans held onto a slim lead. Then a barrage of penalties, interceptions and big plays by the Tennessee offense allowed the visitors to rip off 28 unanswered points to beat Cleveland 43-13.
The Browns led very good teams such as the Seattle Seahawks 20-9 at one point only to lose 32-28. Two pick sixes against the New England Patriots was the difference in a 27-13 loss. Were up 10-0 against an ailing Steelers team and eventually beaten 20-13 by the play of Pittsburgh’s third-string quarterback. Another three interception output allowed the worst team in the league, division foe Cincinnati Bengals, to win their second game of the season as they ousted the Browns 33-23.
Same old Cleveland Browns. Cannot finish.
If a year-by-year profile was researched, this article would be searching for a publisher.
A coaching carousel
Over the years, the Browns have exhausted themselves in an attempt to find the security of a good head coach.
Currently, Kevin Stefanski occupies the head coach’s office. His name is not routed into the door, nor is it painted right onto the door’s surface. There isn’t a pretty glass front with his name etched into the surface of the glass. Nope, his name is on a tidy nameplate screwed to his office door that reads “Kevin Stefanski – Head Coach.”
Stefanski is just one in a long line of Cleveland head coaches during the Wasteland Years. What the organization should do instead is simply attach the nameplate with “Office of the Current Head Coach” to the door. That would save time and printing costs.
During the Wasteland Years, there have been 11 head coaches, two of which were labeled with the “interim” status.
With every new coaching search, there is probably two lists formulated: “Head coach candidates” and “Interim head coach candidates” as a contingency plan in case the new guy gets canned mid-stream. Ironically, the only guy to have a winning record during this span was Gregg Williams, an interim who went 5-3-0. Instead of keeping him, the team hired the offensive coordinator, Freddie Kitchens; who subsequently turned a plausible playoff team into a 6-10-0 gutter squad and found a pink slip in his locker after losing to the one-win Bengals.
Despite Butch Davis’ playoff year, he lasted just four seasons before interim Terry Robiskie took over and lost five of six games. Crennel also stayed four years as Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Mike Pettine each would only stay two stanzas. Despite the two worst seasons in Browns’ history, Hue Jackson lasted two-and-a-half seasons. Rob Chudzinski and Kitchens were shown the door after a single collapse.
Several of these men have something important in common: until they took the helm of the Browns, they had never held to title of head coach at any level. That list includes Kitchens, Crennel, Shurmur, and Chudzinski. And all of these head coach first-timers had coached at the college level at some point; but were never hired as the head guy in order to get their bearing on what a head coaching position is like and receive the experience needed to run a successful program. Until they landed in Cleveland, that is.
And add another name to the head coach first-timers at any level club: Kevin Stefanski.
Are the lessons learned in our midst once again? As usual, only time will tell.
Failed first-round draft picks
Coaching hires and firings are only part of this putrid equation. Have you seen the list of the bad draft picks taken in the first-round during the Wasteland Years?
Myles Garrett (2016)
Joe Haden (2010)
Baker Mayfield (2018)
David Njoku (2017)
Alex Mack (2009)
Denzel Ward (2018)
Jedrick Wills, Jr. (2020)
Joe Thomas (2007)
Jabrill Peppers (2017)
Brandon Weeden (2012)
Kamerion Wimbley (2006)
Danny Shelton (2015)
Brady Quinn (2007)
Justin Gilbert (2014)
Jeff Faine (2003)
Corey Coleman (2016)
Phil Taylor (2011)
Trent Richardson (2012)
Johnny Manziel (2014)
Kellen Winslow, Jr. (2004)
Barkevious Mingo (2013)
Braylon Edwards (2005)
Cameron Erving (2015)
As you can see, with 23 picks in the first-round of the Wasteland Years, only nine panned out. And out of that nine, Haden was eventually cut, Peppers was traded, Mack was allowed to sign away in free agency after a brutal leg injury and went on to a fine career in Atlanta, Ward and Mayfield each had a sophomore slump, Wills is untested, while Njoku has yet to prove his worth so much that the franchise signed the best tight end candidate in free agency and then drafted a blue-chip tight end prospect this year.
So, on the good list, that leaves basically Garrett and Thomas? Geez.
As far as the others, to be fair Richardson had a very good year the one season he was in Cleveland and then petered out in pro football. Edwards had that one special season in 2007 where he was absolute gold, but was a rookie training camp holdout, developed a staph infection, had a knee injury, led the league in dropped passes, and went from 16 TD catches to just three before being traded off.
And then there is a completely different list of players of when the Browns traded their first-round picks and could have had, or passed on completely:
RB Alvin Kamara, QB Lamar Jackson, RB Larry Johnson, QB Ben Roethisberger, RB Steven Jackson, DE DeMarcus Ware, QB Aaron Rodgers, C Nick Mangold, RB Joseph Addai, RB Adrian Peterson, CB Darrelle Revis, LB Clay Matthews, S Earl Thomas, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Cameron Jordan, LB Luke Kuechly, WR DeAndre Hopkins, RB Le’Veon Bell, DT Aaron Donald, RB Melvin Gordon, S Landon Collins, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, RB Saquan Barkley and G Quenton Nelson.
In 2007, Cleveland traded their 2008 first-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys in order to take QB Brady Quinn. In 2008 when their pick came up, they could have selected instead at the number 22 slot RB Chris Johnson, WR Jordy Nelson or DE Calais Campbell.
In 2016, the Browns owned the second overall pick and traded it to Philadelphia who selected QB Carson Wentz. The next five players taken were DE Joey Bosa, RB Ezekiel Elliott, CB Jalen Ramsey, OT Ronnie Stanley and DE DeForest Buckner. Any of these players would have been helpful.
The following season the Browns once again traded their pick, number 12, to which Houston then selected QB Deshaun Watson.
Worst Browns teams ever?
The Browns were born in 1946. That means that the 2020 season will become their 74th year as a pro football entity. That is a ton of American football played.
Cleveland also has won eight championships: four in the AAFC, and four in the NFL. Of all the professional football clubs, that ranks as tied for the third most behind the Green Bay Packers (13), Chicago Bears (9), and New York Football Giants, also with eight titles.
But despite being one of the sport’s all-time best, they are also considered as one of the all-time worst. Of the 10 worst Browns statistical seasons on both offense and defense, eight have been played in the “Wasteland Years;” with bad players and bad draft picks that did not pan out and horrible free-agent signings meant to plug holes. Teams either hit draft picks or made incredible trades that nobody else saw and when they didn’t pan out, your club lost on both youth and the future of the franchise.
In fact, during this time span, the Browns’ offense has finished in the bottom seven a whooping 13 times. And this includes dead last twice and in the 31st position another two times. The defense has fared somewhat better overall, but has also shown its ugly head as this unit has been ranked number 20 or worse 10 different years.
Here are the records for the worst teams in Browns’ history:
3-13-0: 1975, 1990, 2000, 2015
4-12-0: 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2013
5-11-0: 1981, 1995, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2012
Of the 19 worst records in Browns’ history, 12 occurred during the Wasteland Years. Although this period has produced some very bad rosters, no team can compare to the royal suckatude of the 2000 Browns, just outside the parameters of this desolate era in Browns history. The 1999 roster was almost as bad. Just think what this scenario would be if either of those teams were included.
What is the end-year to the Wasteland Years?
Well, obviously the answer to this question is: when Cleveland finds a winning combination and flips off a few winning seasons.
Will 2020 finally become the beginning of the end for this period?
The roster certainly has improved. But remember, that was also the banter before last season. “On paper the Browns are one of the most improved teams in the NFL.” How many times did you read that, or something similar? One publication even had the Browns in the Super Bowl.
As far as 2019 being the final year of the Wasteland Years, there are a few things to know about 2020.
Yes, the roster has improved at all positions of need. The O-Line may or may not be good this year, but at least it won’t be horrible as was the case in 2019. This isn’t basketball where you can have one or two good players and still make the playoffs and win games. The offensive line has to have continuity and work as one. The defensive backfield will also be much better as well as long as Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams do not falter.
Now for the iffy part.
Continuity. Yet another new head coach. A new offensive system. New position coaches. It is hard enough to win with minimal changes, but a new season and an almost brand new coaching staff? Add the fact that this COVID-19 business has kept the coaches and players apart is a very big deal. This isn’t bowling where you know a guy who can fill in this week.
NFL clubs with the leisure of the continuity of their coaching staff may become the favorites this year. The coaches already know each other from years of experiences on-and-off the field. Players are already on-board with their system, their schemes and have gone through the mess of the trial period. Coaches know their players, their strengths plus their weaknesses, who their families are, and have a good idea of what to expect going into the season.
These new Browns’ coaches basically know their players from highlight reels, statistical information, scouting reports, Senior Bowl interviews and spreadsheets.
And then there is the business of the off-season vexation. No off-season workouts. Zero mini-camps or OTAs. Are guys working out this off-season? If so, to what degree? What is their diet like? Are they working on strength and conditioning, or watching Ellen and re-runs of The Big Bang Theory while eating the wrong foods?
Once the NFL green-lights the beginning of camps, you are either in football shape, or you are not.
Will this become another bad season? How many years does it take exactly to finally produce a winner once the roster has been cleansed?
If a winning combination is not justified soon, these horrid seasons just keep accumulating and piling up.
The Cleveland Browns are currently in “The Wasteland Years.” Will 2020 finally be the year that breaks the curse? Remember all the Super Bowl talk of last year, and then another failing effort? You have to have more than talent on paper - and prove your worth. The reveal is what is important, not the hype.
It’s like having Optimus Prime over for dinner, and not asking him to turn into a truck.
Will 2020 finally become the year that stops the Wasteland Years cycle?
This poll is closed
Yes - will produce a winning season
Yes - will produce a playoff year
Wish, but no - 18 years and counting