Through five games, who and what are the Browns? Nobody knows.
They have suffered two of their biggest blowout losses of the past four years. And yet they have posted their biggest divisional win in 21 years.
If you think it’s hard to get a feel of whether the Browns are true playoff contenders or not, you are not alone.
They don’t seem to know, either.
This week, their vibe is not quite panic but high urgency.
“Our sense of urgency is at an all-time high right now,” said slumping quarterback Baker Mayfield, the face, voice and conscience of the team.
“Right now, the season can go either way. We’re at that fork in the road,” said frustrated wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The Browns are 2-3. The Baltimore Ravens are ahead of them at 3-2. But if you believe the shortest path to the playoffs is winning their division, the Browns are in good shape by virtue of their big win in Baltimore.
Yet they’ve talked this week as if their season hinges on winning Sunday in a non-conference game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Last year, Houston started 0-3 and made the playoffs.
Indianapolis started 1-5 and made the playoffs.
Dallas, Seattle and Philadelphia started 2-3 and made the playoffs.
“It’s funny we’re all having this conversation because I feel like in the past this team might be 1-4, 0-5, and now we’re all upset because we’re 2-3,” Beckham said. “So that’s a good mindset that we have that we’re all upset that we’re 2-3 and we know we’re capable of doing more. It’s about doing more.”
Relax is not an option: One of the flaws of the team assembled by GM John Dorsey is its lack of playoff experience. There is an art to managing a season – managing emotions through the inevitable ups and downs -- and the experienced teams naturally have a feel for it.
The Browns have only 14 players out of 53 who have been on a playoff team. Beckham is one. Center JC Tretter was on three playoff teams in Green Bay.
“I was on the famous Aaron Rodgers R-E-L-A-X team,” Tretter said. “I’ve been through it. We had some not-great starts in Green Bay and eventually we found ourselves back in the playoff picture.”
In 2014, the Packers began their season 1-2 and were floundering offensively, ranked 28th, and Rodgers was on pace for his worst NFL season. Rodgers calmed the waters when he famously said, "Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packerland: R-E-L-A-X,” Rodgers said. “Relax. We’re going to be OK.”
“That wasn’t for us in the locker room,” Tretter said. “That was more to the outside world – the fan base and the media.”
The Packers would win 11 of their next 13 games and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
That Packers team was in a different state of evolution, of course, than these Browns. They had made the playoffs in six of the previous seven seasons and were piloted by a veteran quarterback whose achievements already were approaching Hall of Fame-worthy.
The Browns have a struggling second-year quarterback overseeing an offense that is consistent only in beating itself.
“I think we all understand [where we’re at],” Tretter said. “It’s not panicking, but there is a sense of urgency because you let a few [games] go that you’re not supposed to let go. Then you can’t come back from it.
“I think it’s a balance of ‘there’s no reason to panic, we’re not out of it,’ but also we need to dial in and make sure we win the ones we’re supposed to win.”
Let’s go streakin’: The best barometer on the psyche of the Browns is Jarvis Landry. The wide receiver was the one who predicted after the loss to the Rams, “We’re going to be a great team.” Then he had a career-game in Baltimore and propelled a 40-25 win.
Since Landry was traded to the Browns in 2018, he has been a beacon of positivity. His demeanor on Thursday was different.
He is frustrated with the offense, with the inexplicable trouble Mayfield is having getting the ball to him and Beckham, with play-calling, and with losing.
“Even though it’s early, it’s definitely a point in our season where we have to hit the ground running. We have to get going right now,” Landry said. “No more peaks and valleys.
“I think the biggest thing about teams in this league -- great teams, playoff teams -- is they put streaks together. At some point during the season, they put a couple 4-5 game [win] streaks together. We have to find a way to do that.
“We can start with it before the bye [next week]. Come back against New England, Denver and Miami and divisional game against Pittsburgh and get some things going. Panic button is not the thing.
“I think our focus has to be on, like, we may not be as good as we thought we were. We need to find ways to play to our potential. We just haven’t been playing to our potential.
“We haven’t been a disciplined football team like we’d like to be. We haven’t been making enough plays, whether we’d be in position or not. Our playmakers haven’t been given a lot of opportunities to make plays. We’re 2-3. Easily, a couple of these games, our record could be flipped, 3-1 or 4-1.”
I believe the biggest flaw in this Browns team is immaturity. It constantly beats itself with dumb penalties, missed opportunities, and lack of character. The fact they keep happening five games into the season is a troubling sign.
They are not resilient. They wilt when bad things happen to them instead of overcoming them.
That has to change for the Browns to be the team they can be.