Kevin Stefanski has to put the Browns' offense back together again. (Cleveland Browns)
Second thoughts: Browns were a collection of talented players, but not a complementary team
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Second thoughts on the Browns’ disappointing 8-9 season …
1. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah expressed the sentiments of most everybody when he said, “I think anybody would agree that on paper, we are better than dang near any of the teams that you are really seeing in the playoffs.” The precocious rookie from Notre Dame then bulls-eyed the demise of the Browns’ season. “It is just those teams that can come together as one and be a unity, those teams that can do the right things at the right time and those teams that have 11 people who do the job when it is called for [that advance into the postseason]. That is the biggest lesson that I really took, just in terms of the brotherhood really matters. That is something that I would really like to see, is just this team to be a team, the brotherhood to be a brotherhood and just the unit to be a unit. That is the biggest thing that I really learned, just in terms of what we should look towards next year in terms of the unity.”
2. Several players trotted out by the Browns in the post-mortem Zoom interviews had a similar theme. Safety John Johnson spoke of the lack of complementary football being the result of the offense and defense being “separated.” “We have to try to kind of mesh a little bit more together to understand that complementary football really has to come into play if we want to be a good team,” he said. Cornerback Greg Newsome spoke of the lack of cohesiveness. “I think in order to be a great team to get to where we need to go, we need to all be more cohesive, be more together and hold each other to high standards all of the time instead of just focusing on our side of the ball and they are just focused on their side of the ball. I think next year we will definitely do a better job at just getting everybody involved,” Newsome said. Running back Nick Chubb spoke of a “lack of consistency and lack of focus. That is pretty much it. We have all of the tools we need.” When tight end David Njoku was asked why the team did not meet expectations, he had an interesting response. “I can talk to you about this all day. I can just list a bunch of things, but I do not really want to point fault at whatever the case may be,” he said.
3. When you add Baker Mayfield’s past references to “internal noise” and having to repair “relationships” in two national TV interviews, it’s beyond obvious that the team concept broke down in Kevin Stefanski’s second year as head coach. Stefanski pointed to the COVID protocols as a problem in traditional team-building. “It is harder than ever with having two locker rooms, everybody wearing masks and those type of things,” he said. “I think a little bit of it is, it is frustrating. You go 8-9 and you do not make the playoffs, and guys are frustrated with that. In terms of day to day and watching how this team played, I did not get that sense [of a team divided].” I disagree. I think everybody saw the plays that were left on the field by the offense. Certainly, Odell Beckham Jr.’s father’s retweeted Internet video of Mayfield’s misconnections with the popular receiver at the mid-point of the season exposed the quarterback’s failings and highlighted them in a way Stefanski never would. It changed everything.
4. I believe Mayfield’s shoulder injury – which first occurred in Game 2 against Houston and then was aggravated in Game 6 against Arizona – affected his game physically. But I also believe Beckham’s public betrayal and his messy divorce from the Browns affected Mayfield’s game mentally and his support in the locker room. The quarterback never recovered from either setback. Confidence and trust in him gradually waned. And this is where Stefanski failed.
5. Mayfield’s strong personality is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. His head coach has to stand up to him. Hue Jackson didn’t do it, Freddie Kitchens didn’t do it, and, this season, Stefanski didn’t do it. (I wonder if 2018 interim head coach Gregg Williams was the only one to do it, actually.) Except for the Thursday night game against Denver – following the Game 6 shoulder aggravation – Stefanski continued to play Mayfield even though his performance continually regressed. Worse than that, Stefanski did not make necessary adjustments to compensate for Mayfield’s limitations due to the shoulder injury. Instead of committing to the running game – his team’s overall No. 1 strength – as he did in the three games Mayfield did not play, Stefanski game-planned and play-called games with Mayfield at quarterback as if he were totally healthy. I don’t buy the conspiracy theory that the Browns – Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry, specifically – set up Mayfield to fail. I just think Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt over-estimated Mayfield’s ability to play the position adequately in the wake of the shoulder injury and the Beckham fallout. The inescapable conclusion is that Stefanski did not do everything possible to win games. Because he never took the ball out of Mayfield’s hands and left it up to Chubb and the offensive line to make the key plays in the key one-score games that determined the Browns’ fate.
6. There is hope. Stefanski is as ego-less as any Browns coach I’ve covered. I think he realizes he put far too much trust in Mayfield. “Like I mentioned earlier, any time you fall short, you second-guess everything. You really do,” he said. “Having said that, I just felt every single week I tried to make the best decision for the team with the information available. That is really all I can do week in and week out. In general, obviously, there are a ton of things we have to look at and learn from.”
7. Will this introspection lead to Stefanski handing play-calling duties to Van Pelt in 2022? I tried to pose this possibility a different way to Stefanski. I asked him, “Are you at all curious what it would be like to coach a game without the burden of calling plays on offense?” The Browns were terrible in situational football in 2021 – two-minute drives, clock management, fourth-down decisions, run v. pass, etc. My point is Stefanski could be a better coach as a CEO-type unencumbered by the pressure of calling the offensive plays. His response was less than I’d hoped. “All of that is stuff that we will reflect on and we will talk about,” he said. “I will tell you just from a coaching staff communication standpoint, I thought the guys did an outstanding job throughout the year of making sure that on those headsets that we are communicating and throughout the week that we are communicating, making sure that we are all on the same page. I think [Van Pelt] deserves a ton of credit in that regard.”