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The Continuity Paradox for the Cleveland Browns

Dave Kolonich takes a look at the Browns’ struggles, investments, and how that conflicts with the approach continuity Cleveland wants to have.

NFL: OCT 21 Broncos at Browns Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Browns enter the heart of their 2022 schedule after sleepwalking through three consecutive losses. Each result has revealed a new layer of dysfunction and exposed the rotting morale of a team supposedly built both for the present and future. The common refrain among fans and media - those often intertwined entities - is “it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

The collective offseason narrative idealized the Browns as a 4-2 team heading into a gauntlet of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Tampa Bay before Deshaun Watson galvanized the team into a playoff contender. At the worst, we could at least taste a late season preview of a prime Watson running a Kevin Stefanski offense into the future.

Yet, the Browns are a wobbly 2-4 and neither of the above scenarios appear tangible. Instead, the kinds of deep organizational cracks that have permeated the franchise since 1999 are again visible. The last several games have highlighted both coaching and personnel faults, as Joe Woods’ defense - fully stocked by Andrew Berry’s draft picks and free agent signings - has cratered.

Stefanski’s offense has proven more resilient - at least before getting undressed by a master coach in Bill Belichick. The offensive flaws are too familiar - the Browns feature a limited QB and lack of playmakers beyond Nick Chubb. You can sense the frustration growing in the otherwise stoic Stefanski - he alternated 11 and 13 personnel with empty backfield sets, attempting anything to chase the points his defense and special teams allowed the Patriots.

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

While the Patriots game could be isolated as a one-off butt-kicking, it’s also a microcosm of the Berry-Stefanski partnership. The pairing has provided the Browns with rare continuity, as the organization has burned through 9 different general managers since its 1999 return. There is a big picture goal in mind as evidenced by the Watson trade. Yet, as the season begins to spiral out of control, the big picture question has to be asked:

Are Berry and Stefanski a good GM/Coach pair?

After the 2020 playoff run, asking such a question would be laughable. Last year, the drama of Baker and Odell masked whatever truths may lie underneath. However, the past few games have raised some important questions.

While the Browns have been characterized as a run-first offense, Stefanski has taken his shots downfield. Despite his struggles, Jacoby Brissett ranks 9th in the league in Average Intended Air Yards (IAY). Similarly, Baker Mayfield ranked 6th (8.7) and 7th (9) in the same category during Stefanski’s first two seasons. Yet, the team’s ultimate downfield success suffers because of their mismatched personnel. Brissett struggles with downfield throws, while Berry picks Donovan Peoples-Jones has established himself as an intermediate threat and Anthony Schwartz barely sees the field.

Defensively, the Browns are both are an exact personnel/scheme fit and complete disaster. Joe Woods’ Cover 4 based, multiple safety scheme has essentially failed with Grant Delpit and John Johnson III as the anchors. The front seven, basically designed to funnel ballcarriers to the linebackers, has struggled to both anchor and tackle. Jacob Phillips is routinely lost on the field, while any Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah missed tackle proves deadly.

In the event of a potential coordinator change, you have to imagine there will be considerable roster turnover. Even the popular opinion of bringing in Mike Zimmer would completely transform the defensive line and safety room. This idea is definitely not lost on Berry - who has been religious in his devotion to his draft picks.

In defense of Berry, the Browns field the league’s youngest roster and certainly, some players develop faster than others. David Njoku is an excellent example, as he is finally reaching his potential in his sixth season. Of course, given the Browns’ often short-sighted ownership, Berry and Stefanski won’t be afforded such time.

Who knew continuity could be such a problem?

Dave Kolonich has written for Fox Sports Ohio, The Orange and Brown Report and created Cleveland Reboot.