The Cleveland Browns open the 2021 regular season on Sunday with the most realistic expectations the team has faced since the late 1980s.
The game against the Kansas City Chiefs will be a nice early season benchmark to gauge how the Browns have progressed since their season-ending loss to the Chiefs in the Divisional Playoffs last January.
This season’s expectations are fueled by a return of every key player on offense; the second consecutive year of the team playing in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offensive system and defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ defensive system; the work that general manager Andrew Berry did in rebuilding the defense from front to back; and what appears to be a very favorable home schedule, which is potentially a nice boost to building a double-digit win season.
Despite all that, are the Browns in danger of regressing from last year’s 11-5 season?
Barnwell does not dislike the Browns - an important point to remember here — as he credits the offseason work to fix the issues at linebacker and safety, and calls Stefanski and Berry “two of the smartest minds in the game.”
So this is not one of those “why does (fill in the blank media) hate the Browns” pieces, but rather one using historical data to try and determine potentially why the Browns could take a step back.
Barnwell uses three metrics that stand out:
- Point differential: The Browns finished last season with a point differential of minus-11, making them the only team out of a group of 91 candidates since 1989, to win at least 11 games with a point differential between minus-1 and minus-25.
- Record in close games: Cleveland was 7-2 last season in games decided by a touchdown or less. A few of those close games came against bad teams, including the Houston Texans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals, to name a few. The implication being if you can barely beat bad teams, how good can you really be?
- Red-zone efficiency: After struggling in the red zone in 2019, Cleveland’s offense in 2020 was among the league’s best, averaging 5.6 points per trip in the red zone, which was No. 3 in the league. Barnwell credits much of that to the improved play and health of the offensive line, which was the NFL’s best, but cautions that red zone performance is “inconsistent” from year to year (but without providing any data to back that up).
So what does it mean and is there a counterpoint to all this?
For starters, the point differential issue is skewed by the fact that the Browns lost big to both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers early in the season while they were still figuring things out. A first-year head coach, no traditional offseason program, an altered training camp and no preseason games left the Browns a bit befuddled in the early going, and those losses to the Ravens and Steelers by a combined 63 points went a long way toward explaining why Cleveland’s point differential was minus-31 at the midway point of the season.
But once the offense got rolling, Cleveland’s point differential was plus-20 over the final eight games of the season, which is a positive sign that could be the norm again this fall.
What about the record in close games? You can only play the teams that are on your schedule, and the sole goal is to win the game. And it is not as if the Browns only beat bad teams — they did go 4-3 against teams that made the playoffs, which is a positive.
There are also a few additional caveats as the Browns would have beaten the Texans by 10 points as opposed to three if running back Nick Chubb did not intentionally step out of bounds near the goal line to preserve the win. And the Browns would have beaten the Jets (and scored more than 16 points) if their starting wide receiver room had not been wiped out by COVID-19 just days before the game. Add in seven points from the game against Houston and a winning margin against the Jets, and suddenly a few of those close games have a bit more breathing room and the point differential looks better.
There is also the fact that while the Browns have an offense that can score with any team in the league, they also have one built to grind down the opposing defense in the fourth quarter with Chubb and running back Kareem Hunt operating behind the offensive line. There are times where they could potentially put more points on the scoreboard at the end of a game, but if they have the lead the clock is more important than the scoreboard.
The last point, about red-zone efficiency, is harder to counter because Barnwell did not provide any examples of how a team’s performance varies year to year. However, there is one area that we can quibble with.
Barnwell points out that right guard Wyatt Teller was the only starter on the offensive line to miss more than one regular-season start last year. But that overlooks the fact that the Browns only had their full starting offensive line together for eight full games in 2020.
While you can’t predict health on a year-to-year basis, you also can’t ignore the fact that the Browns dealt with injury issues on a regular basis along the offensive line all last season. The injuries may not have been season-ending ones, but they still impacted the team for half the season, so there is optimism that the pendulum will swing in Cleveland’s favor this year with good health along the offensive line.
This brings us back to the original question of whether or not the Browns are a candidate for regression in 2021.
Unless they are hit hard with injuries at key positions, it is difficult to see the Browns taking a step back this season. The offense has spent training camp building on the successes of last season as opposed to learning yet another new system. The defense appears to be improved, maybe not Top 10 level improved, but the talent level has increased to the point where fans may not have to fear the likes of Trace McSorley or Chad Henne on a key third down.
There is also a mental toughness to this team that has been lacking in the past. Stefanski runs a professional ship, the roster’s key players are growing up and learning how to win together, and everyone now has the success of last season to lean on when things get rough.
We’ll start finding out how much of this is true come this Sunday against the Chiefs, but for now, regression does not appear to be something that is in Cleveland’s vocabulary.