It is late December in Northeast Ohio and the Cleveland Browns are once again playing out a lost season.
It is a familiar situation for the Browns, who have missed the playoffs in 27 of the past 30 seasons they have played and are on the brink of finishing in fourth place in the AFC North Division for the fourteenth time in 21 seasons.
Joel Bitonio, who has seen just about everything imaginable since being drafted by the Browns in 2014, perhaps summed it up best after Saturday’s game against the New Orleans Saints, yet another disappointing loss in a long string of them (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“It is the NFL, (so) games are close. Good teams find a way to win those close ones and find a way to close the door, and we have not done that enough this year, which you see in our record.”
Bitonio was talking about this season, but his quote would have fit into just about any season from 1990 forward.
This leads one to wonder if the Browns will ever figure it out. Or is there something about this franchise that precludes them from being a consistent winner – even when they seemingly do things the right way?
The last time the Browns had any sustained success came in the late 1980s when the club won four division titles in five years and made the playoffs every season from 1985 to 1989.
That club was built over time, with crucial players arriving as early as 1977 (tight end Ozzie Newsome and linebacker Clay Matthews) and continuing through 1989 (running back Eric Metcalf), with some key additions from the USFL sprinkled in (linebacker Mike Johnson, cornerback Frank Minnifield and kick returner Gerald McNeil).
Once the Browns got the right quarterback and head coach in Bernie Kosar and Marty Schottenheimer, the franchise was a legitimate Super Bowl threat until injuries and former owner Art Modell got in the way.
Of course, today’s NFL is different, especially regarding player movement via free agency. Still, the current Browns have followed a similar path to building the team as they have added vital players starting with Bitionio and continuing up through this year with cornerback Martin Emerson Jr., who has flashed his ability at times as a rookie.
That work has provided the Browns with one of the game’s best running backs in Nick Chubb, an offensive line that, when healthy, is among the league’s best, a game-changing defensive end in Myles Garrett, and a cornerback room that is talented enough to hold its own when on top of its game.
But they have fallen back into their old ways just two years after it looked like the Browns had broken through when they won a playoff game for the first time since 1995. Rather than build off that playoff win and continue to grow together, the team is back to trying to learn how not to lose games rather than finding ways to win.
A few logical reasons can help explain things, starting with the lack of continuity the franchise has shown over the past three decades. Firing head coaches and general managers leads to new philosophies, which in turn undo any positives the previous regime may have had as everyone starts over again. Making the right hires in the first place is preferable but hitting the reset button every three years has proven no way to run a franchise.
Browns fans hate it, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have shown what a consistent philosophy can do for a franchise. No matter who is sitting in the general manager’s chair or walking the sidelines as head coach, the Steelers know what they want to do as a team and continue to select players that fit the philosophy. They don’t always hit on 100 percent of their selections; no team does, but having a clear picture of what you want in a player and not deviating from that every three to four years is beneficial
Not having a quarterback, especially in today’s NFL, is also problematic. Those Browns in the 1980s would not have been the same without Bernie Kosar at quarterback (you had to be there to know to look beyond just raw stats) and the Browns have been searching for a player like that ever since releasing Kosar.
Cleveland likely has found such a player in quarterback Deshaun Watson, but no one will know for sure until next season, at the earliest, after he goes through an entire offseason program and takes the field as the starter in Week 1 than Week 12. But, given that these are the Browns, nothing is guaranteed (see Mayfield, Baker, 2021), although there is reason to be optimistic about the position for the first time in a long time.
It would not hurt, either, if the Browns started to adopt a “less talk, more production” philosophy going forward. This is not a “get off my lawn” take as there is absolutely nothing wrong with players celebrating or expressing emotion after a big play. That is all fun and should be a part of the game, even if the NFL higher-ups disagree.
Instead, certain players should simply stick to the basics and stop talking about all the things they can do, but often don’t. It’s one thing to have Chubb, Garrett or wide receiver Amari Cooper talk up their game since they continually back it up. It’s another when a player like tight end David Njoku, to use a recent example, talks about how he and Watson can do “similar things” as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, only to turn around then and drop a critical pass that Kelce catches 100 times out of a 100 in the same situation.
That might be a small item in the grand scheme of things, but when you have a franchise that can’t get out of its way as often as the Browns, all those little things add up.
The Browns are just two weeks away from heading into another offseason filled with exhausting talk of changing the head coach and front office again, speculation of lost locker rooms, players wanting out, and an ownership group that is continuously fascinated with its “beloved Tennessee.” (Although they have never done anything to back up that particular narrative.)
In some ways, the franchise deserves all that, given how it continues to play, even though much of it is nonsense driven by a disgruntled and restless fan base. Changes are coming – that much is certain – but hitting the complete reset button yet again should not be an option entertained for even the slightest moment.
After two more games, everyone gets a much-needed respite until the allure of training camp brings everyone back in a positive mood.
Until then, we’re still left to ponder if this franchise will ever find a way to get things right.