For Part 2 of my week-long 2019 NFL preview, in which i’ll be reviewing 10 of the teams that intrigue the most this upcoming season, next up is the Cleveland Browns — aka the winners of the 2019 NFL offseason.
Human beings are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the success of others.
Our favorite stories involve the underdog to overcome insurmountable adversity and achieve success. But just as soon as they reach prosperity, we grow tired and loathsome (if not jealous) of their success, and eagerly await (if not relish) their eventual downfall.
It kinda reminds you of what Harvey Dent (portrayed by Aaron Eckhart) said in The Dark Knight:
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
And that brings us to the Cleveland Browns, who may very well have emerged as everyone’s favorite “underdog overcoming adversity” story in the NFL.
After going .500 over the last 14 games of 2018, including a 5–2 record from mid-November through the end of the year, the Browns are the team that:
- features two former #1 overall picks in the NFL Draft — one of who may have already become one of the very best players at his position, and one who might be one of the most talked about ones (more on him later)
- added a premier wide receiver and a premier running back to an already highly promising roster
- the television networks will feature on national television four times this year, including three times in the first five weeks of the season
- is the favorite to win their division, despite the fact that it’s been 29 years since they’ve done so.
But lest we all forget, they’re also the team that had a record of 1–36–1 between December 14th, 2015 and September 19th, 2018. “Success” is not exactly a part of this team’s lineage nor DNA. The Browns have literally anything but “a culture of winning” — at least not yet.
Meaning that, with one (additional) misconstrued public comment from Baker Mayfield, one (additional) anonymous report about friction between Head Coach Freddie Kitchens and Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, one public tantrum from highly volatile receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and/or Jarvis Landry (captured on video of course), or one three-game losing streak (Cleveland has a very unenviable slate of match ups between late September and mid-November), the “Browns to the playoffs” bandwagon is just as likely to crash and burn on the side of the road — with fans looking at the wreckage and saying “good riddance to that mess” — as it is to reach its postseason destination.
Let’s be clear: there are plenty of valid reasons to believe the Cleveland Browns can be really, really good this season.
- If you’re comparing pass rushers to villains from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett is Thanos (ie, he literally requires a team of the world’s most gifted people coming together to stop him … and even then, it’s very questionable as to whether they’ll succeed). In my opinion, Garrett is the pound-for-pound best player on this team — and it’s not particularly close.
- All the “sexy” names on offense (more on them momentarily) will capture the headlines, but Cleveland’s defense, as a whole, has a ton of talent. Their defensive line of Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Olivier Vernon should be one of the best groups in the league. Linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey are tackling machines. Cornerback Denzel Ward is coming off a season in which he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. And despite not having a first round pick, cornerback Greedy Williams (Cleveland’s second-round pick from LSU) has looked awesome in training camp, making him a formidable building block next to 2nd-year cornerback Denzel Ward.
- The Browns have two running backs who finished in the top 20 in the NFL in rushing yard: Nick Chubb (who ran for 966 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie last year), and Kareem Hunt (who’s one year removed from leading the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards). Obviously, Hunt is suspended for the first 8 games of this year because of the well-documented off-the-field stuff. But that just means that Cleveland will be adding a Pro Bowl-caliber running back — who’ll be coming in “fresh” — midway through the season; imagine what that could do from an offensive balance perspective, especially against weary defenses in the 2nd half of the season?
- Beckham, by nearly any account, is one of the five best receivers in the NFL. In fact, as of this moment, you could have a rousing debate as to whether you’d really take DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Davante Adams, and/or Antonio Brown, over Beckham. Over his first five years, on a 16-game basis, Beckham averages 106 catches for 1,485 yards and 12 touchdowns. Read that stat line again, and let that fully sink in. And now, consider the fact that he averaged that stat line with Eli Manning throwing him the football. Beckham upgrading from Manning throwing him the football to Mayfield doing so is like upgrading your automobile situation from a riding lawnmower to a Tesla. If he accomplishes literally nothing else in Cleveland, Beckham will at least open a drastic amount space underneath for his former-LSU-teammate-and-current-teammate-and-bestie in Landry.
- Cleveland’s offense, which ranked 8th in overall offensive efficiency (when weighted with games earlier in the season — when hapless Hue Jackson was the coach — counting for less), now adds the swashbuckling Todd Monken to Freddie Kitchens’ staff.
- And last, but not least, how can we forget the guy that the Browns have under center in Mayfield?
In Jay-Z’s Lost One (a Dr. Dre-produced hit that, in my opinion, remains one of Jay-Z’s most underrated songs), he states:
“Fame is the worst drug known to man/it’s strong than, heroin/
when you can look in the mirror and say ‘here I am’/
but still not see what you’ve become…”
In case you didn’t get the memo, after setting the NFL record for most touchdown passes by a rookie (27), and setting franchise records for most consecutive games with at least two passing touchdowns in franchise history (5) and highest average passing yards per game (266.1), 2019 is “Baker Mayfield SZN” (as the kids like to say).
Mayfield went from being the crotch-grabbing, flag-planting, slick-dancing, Mia Khalifa-rejecting, Heisman Trophy-winning #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, to perhaps the most marketable young star the NFL has today, and easily the beloved athlete among anyone who plays for a professional sports team in Cleveland.
Personally, i’m a big fan of Mayfield myself. In fact:
- I think the three most important traits for a quarterback are accuracy, grit, and athleticism (in that order), and he has one of the most ideal combinations of all three in the NFL.
- I’m impressed by the fact that he doesn’t necessarily go looking for the spotlight; instead, the spotlight naturally finds him.
- I enjoy his lack of “political correctness,” especially in a world where professional athletes — when being interviewed — will often speak for a prolonged period of time, without actually saying anything of meaning or substance at any point in that time.
- I believe that he’s one of those guys who is just as consumed by achieving success on the field as he is off of it (perhaps with a heavier skew towards the former than for which we give him credit).
But one of the hardest things in sports, if not in life, is to put in that work to go from good to great, when everyone tells you you’re already great. And as we’re apt to do, in today’s hype-centric world, so many are already drenching him in the anointing oil.
Mayfield already dons a diamond-crusted “6” (his jersey number) around his neck, has a steak named after him (with his namesake dish being listed alongside entrees named after LeBron James and Urban Meyer), and is being given the sixth-best odds (12:1) to win the NFL’s MVP award in 2019 (as of mid-August), and in the pièce de résistance, was the subject of the now-infamous GQ magazine profile — a piece in which he’s modeling pants that cost as much as a two weeks-worth of pay for your average fast food restaurant employee.
Maybe we can chalk up Mayfield getting into pissing matches with Colin Cowherd and University of Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger as “that’s just Baker” and/or “millenials being millenials.”
(For the record: I actually do think the quote stating his disbelief of the New York Giants taking Daniel Jones was interpreted out of context … especially seeing as how that almost 99.9% of the NFL world expressed such disbelief when the Giants made that pick)
But from an NFL perspective, everyone shoving another microphone and media opportunity in front of Mayfield is the devil’s tool.
On one hand, such attention only serves to accentuate the idea that Mayfield is already a star — and the more it happens, the more Mayfield is more apt to believe it at some level. After all, he’s still a human being who turned only 24 years old this past April.
And anything he ends up saying can and will be used against him — serving as the kerosene which ignites the 24/7 news cycle fire, and keeps the Browns — and Mayfield — in the public eye, for better or for worse.
Over time, that spotlight begins to shine with more glare and intensity, like sunlight through a magnifying glass — especially when potentially amplified by all the things going on around him, from his teammates.
To say that Kitchens has his work cut out for him is almost as much of an understatement as saying the field of Presidential candidates from the Democrat party is uninspiring. Former NFL General Manager Michael Lombardi, on his GM Shuffle podcast, said it best (i’m paraphrasing): most NFL coaches want a team with high character; Kitchens has a team filled with high-maintenance characters.
So what happens if (or when?) the Browns stumble a few times during the aforementioned absolutely miserable first half of the season?
Or how about if Mayfield has a clunker of a game, where he throws something like four interceptions in a tough loss, and the talk show media buzzards — led by Colin Cowherd — start circling this team, amplifying the scrutiny that already exists?
And what about, as the figure out where to carve out the 160-ish targets that Beckham has averaged during his time in the NFL, the other receivers on the Browns — namely someone like Landry — start getting grouchy about their diminished workload?
Or what about if (or when?) new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who isn’t exactly coming off a stellar coaching performance in Arizona, doesn’t do much to improve a Cleveland run defense that was ranked 25th in DVOA last year?
Or looking at the other side of the ball, how about if a slower-than-expected start by the team’s offense only fans the flames of the rumored Kitchens-Monken rift?
Few “monsters” are tougher to slay in the NFL than the “hype monster.” And again, there isn’t a long track record for the guys in Cleveland being able to navigate the ebbs and flows of the NFL season, especially amidst the level of visibility and scrutiny they’ll have.
Meaning that while the Browns might have the 10th-toughest strength of schedule entering the 2019 NFL season, the truth is that their biggest challenges, largest obstacle, and toughest opponent might come in the form of themselves.