Takeaways from the biggest week yet in the Browns’ Season of Great Expectations …
I’m having trouble putting the Browns’ epic win in Baltimore in my rear-view mirror because I think it was a season-changer. And, by extension, an era-changer.
No matter the final score against the 49ers on Monday Night Football, whether the Browns win or lose, the reasons the Browns are on track to meet, if not exceed, expectations are these:
1. They pummeled the defending division champions on their home field and made them quit (watch Earl Thomas on Nick Chubb’s 88-yard touchdown run).
When the Ravens awoke from their beating, they had to shudder at the thought, “And they’re more physical than us, too?”
I believe Ravens coach John Harbaugh was absolutely honest and sincere when he opined in March that the Browns were the most talented team in the division on paper.
But I also believe that Harbaugh was secure in feeling that the Browns weren’t tough enough mentally and physically to dethrone his team – especially in Baltimore.
That 40-25 shellacking had to be a huge wake-up call to him.
Like his predecessor in Baltimore, Brian Billick, and like Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, and Bill Cowher before him, and also like Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Harbaugh has made a career on feasting on the Browns – counting on two wins against them – to bolster his record in division games. Two easy wins against the Browns were the bare minimum each season for the other division teams to seriously compete for the AFC North title and automatic home playoff game.
Those days are gone.
The six games within the AFC North are more important than the 10 games outside it. The Browns are 1-0 with a big asterisk – beating the champs on their home field.
Anything can happen over the next five division games, but the win in Baltimore makes 5-1 overall, if not 6-0, realistic for the Browns. That would guarantee a home playoff game.
2. Certainly the performance of the offense had to convince Freddie Kitchens that he was on the right track last year, and that too many Air Raid concepts are ill-advised for this team, in this division.
He can’t take back the first three games – when Kitchens forgot what got him here. But it’s not too late to admit that what the Browns tried to do offensively in those games was just wrong.
The coaches like to say they’re running “the Cleveland Browns offense.” Well, the one on the field in Games 1-3 was anything but that.
Baker Mayfield needs to be under center more often for the running game to operate at top efficiency. The offensive line needs to have help from the tight ends to give Mayfield more protection, and more options. Creativity – not to be confused with gimmickry – needs to continue in both the run game and pass game.
And when in doubt, put the ball in the hands of Chubb.
Throwing the ball from empty formation inside the 5-yard line is a sign of weakness. Never, ever do it again.
3. The symbiotoic relationship between Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. is such a unique asset to the Browns and was on full display in Baltimore.
You think it’s coincidence that Landry set a career record with 167 yards receiving in only his fourth game with Beckham as an NFL teammate? As Kitchens excitedly pointed out several times throughout the week, Beckham was fully engaged blocking downfield on Landry’s runs-after-catches.
Much has been made of Beckham’s frustration during the Baltimore game. Was it because he had only two catches, while Landry had eight? Hardly.
Beckham was frustrated by the physical nature of the Ravens’ coverage, which boiled over in the altercation with cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
Many in the league – especially in New York – are waiting for Beckham’s frustration to boil over when he is limited to just two catches. I don’t see that happening as long as Landry’s getting his opportunities and the Browns win.
Beckham didn’t record a catch in the first half for only the second time in his career. He wasn’t a decoy, but Baltimore’s undivided attention on him affected big games for Landry and tight end Ricky Seals-Jones.
“We beat a very good team,” Beckham said on Friday. “Of course, any receiver in the National Football League, you can ask them, and you all know what we want to do. We want to catch touchdowns and we want to catch passes …
“But just drawing attention over here … I run a hitch and two people will jump on me and you hit Ricky right up the seam for 70 yards. If teams are going to focus on that, it will be a long day for me, but we will come out with what we need.
“Like I said, it is just about putting us in position to get to the playoffs. Stats are only stats, but the memories you have of going to the playoffs and winning championships, nothing is going to ever supersede that for me. I just want to get back to the playoffs. That’s really it.
“I didn’t have my best game and it is still something I think about to this day so my only goal is to win the division, and it starts with Baltimore, it starts with the Bengals and it starts with the Steelers. If teams are going to do that, we’ll hang 40, and we will walk out of there with a win and get back to work next week.”
Would Beckham be a little more frustrated about his personal day, say, if still on the Giants? Probably so. But with Landry as a teammate, Beckham shares in his soulmate’s success.
“That’s something I’ve been waiting to see,” Beckham said of Landry's big game. “When we were on opposite teams, I remember him not being able to do what he wanted. The day I came here, I said, ‘That’s not going to happen anymore.’
“If they’re going to play like that, hopefully, [Landry will have] a 2,000 yard season. I love seeing him catch the ball. That’s just something I love to see. I want to see him succeed, want to see him happy and want to see us win.”
It’s coincidence that the Browns play the 49ers next. That’s the team that tried even harder than the Browns to trade for Beckham, and Beckham knows it. That’s why in one of his off-season interviews Beckham said that he knows for a fact the Giants could have gotten more for him than what they did from the Browns.
In the interview, Beckham reiterated Landry’s line a year earlier when he said, “They thought they’d send me [to Cleveland] to die.”
In truth, Beckham should send a thank you to Giants GM Dave Gettleman for declining a better offer from San Francisco and reuniting Beckham with Landry.
Being teammates in Cleveland will bring out the best in both and may result in them finally sharing team wins that will be far more meaningful than they experienced at LSU.