Browns Out Of Excuses As Season Of High Hopes Begins

Browns out of excuses as season of high hopes begins

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.

Four downs on Browns (0-0) v. Cincinnati Bengals (0-0)

First down: No excuses, Part 1.

The Browns embark on Kevin Stefanski’s fourth season as head coach in a good state, flying under radar as a bona fide division contender. Their own expectations are higher than they’ve ever been in the 12-year ownership era of Dee and Jimmy Haslam. This week, guard Joel Bitonio, the longest-tenured Brown in his 10th season, admitted it’s the best roster he’s seen. Yet nobody outside the organization is pegging the Browns as a playoff favorite, much less a threat to capture their first-ever AFC North title. “No one’s saying the Browns [will win the division],” Bitonio said. “They’re saying we’re coming in fourth place in the division, third place in the division. So we have our own expectations, but I don’t think the outside world has put those expectations on us.” The pressure on this Browns team indeed is being applied internally, not externally. After a second successive losing season, Stefanski replaced his defensive and special teams coordinators. In spring, the coach spent countless hours huddling with Deshaun Watson to revamp the offense to suit the $230 million quarterback. GM Andrew Berry then led an aggressive transaction season to support Watson with speedier and more experienced receivers and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz with a totally reconstructed defensive line. For Stefanski to return for a fifth season – possibly with a contract extension – he’s going to have to pay dividends on ownership investment by returning Watson’s game to an elite level and molding the loaded roster into a playoff team. Or come real close.

Second down: No excuses, Part 2.

It’s been 18 months since the Browns moved the stars and planets to acquire Watson and anoint him the new focal point of the organization. Yet at the onset of training camp at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, Haslam said he considers this the true beginning of the Watson era after last year was disrupted by an 11-game NFL suspension. Since April, Watson has said and done everything right in taking ownership of his responsibility. Teammates voted him an offensive captain over Nick Chubb, the ultimate teammate. Watson is determined to put his name back into the conversation of NFL elite quarterbacks. He said he wants to be better than he ever was as the NFL’s leading passer with the Houston Texans in 2020. Well, it’s time to end the talk and do the walk.

Joe Burrow's 1-4 record against the Browns can be traced to Myles Garrett's dominance at the line of scrimmage. 


Third down: Joe Burrow’s kryptonite.

It would appear the NFL world is Joe Burrow’s oyster. He has a record-breaking $275 million contract in hand from the penurious Cincinnati Bengals. A calf injury that kept him out all preseason is healed. He’s stalking an unprecedented third consecutive AFC North title. But can he win in Cleveland? Burrow is 0-2 in Cleveland and 1-4 overall against the Browns. It’s no mystery why. Burrow has flatly stated two words for his lack of success against the Browns: Myles Garrett. In five games, the Browns’ defensive end has sacked Burrow eight times, stripped two fumbles and pressured the quarterback into two interceptions. Garrett’s a large reason the Bengals invested $64.1 million in a new left tackle, Orlando Brown Jr. It’s the biggest contract the Bengals ever have given to a free agent. Brown’s arrival moved former left tackle Jonah Williams to right tackle. So Garrett’s overmatched foil now must contend with Za’Darius Smith, who was Berry’s last major pickup of his busy transaction season. Smith’s 36 sacks in his last three full seasons make him the most accomplished pass rusher Garrett ever had as a complementary end. “Well, we added Ogbo [Okoronkwo] also, and Dalvin [Tomlinson], so let’s not overlook those guys too,” said Schwartz. “No player stands alone. We have to have a good team effort, but we need our good individual players to play good also.”

Fourth down: Ja’Marr and the elves.

Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase incited the Browns’ fan base and locker room this week by deriding the Browns as “the elves” – a shot at the team’s mythical mascot that earned a return as the mid-field logo via fan vote. “That was disrespectful,” Garrett said. “He didn’t have to go there. The elves was probably … he knew better. We might have to have a discussion before or after the game, maybe during if I see him. But yeah the elves is a little bit too far.” Chase probably is still chafing at the defensive clampdown the Browns did on him in his rookie-of-the-year season. Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome took turns pressing, hitting and intimating Chase in a 41-16 Browns romp. Chase was the intended receiver on two Burrow interceptions – one being Ward’s 99-yard Pick 6, on which Chase slipped and failed to chase Ward – and also fumbled after a hit by John Johnson. Chase also dropped two balls that should have resulted in Burrow touchdowns.

The pick: Browns 33, Bengals 30.

My record: 7-10 (2022).