The Browns were the clear-cut, no-questions-asked hype-bunny team heading into the 2019 season.
Sure, there were some detractors but don’t revise history here; the vast majority of NFL media was in a full-blown fever over the Browns prospects after they traded for Odell Beckham Jr.
One clown even went so far as to predict that Cleveland had good odds to be the No. 1 offense in the NFL last season. Of course, that dunce was me.
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We all know what happened next. The passing game wildly underperformed. Baker Mayfield’s play cratered as he stacked mistakes upon bad habits brought on by a debilitating offensive line. Odell Beckham Jr. struggled with injuries and getting on the same page with his quarterback. Players like Jarvis Landry made no bones about their lack of faith in head coach Freddie Kitchens. The running game, led by Nick Chubb with a late-season sprinkling of Kareem Hunt, was the lone bright spot. It was not enough to keep this offense from being a true eyesore all year.
The Browns cleaned house once again when the season ended. Freddie Kitchens had to go and the team elected to let the overly aggressive architect of a failed roster, John Dorsey, follow him out the door. Chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, however, was retained as a key lieutenant for team owner Jimmy Haslem.
Haslem and DePodesta reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to an analytically sound approach and poached former Browns vp of player personnel Andrew Berry from the Eagles and tapped Kevin Stefanski to be the franchise’s next head coach.
Cleveland has turned over a new leaf … again.
It’s easy to dismiss all things Browns heading into this season. The team was an overwhelming letdown as a pure football operation and several of its big-name fantasy players, Beckham and Mayfield, were roster cloggers all year. No one can blame you if you’re sick of them, too. Drama followed their losing at every turn last year. A tedious club that can’t stop underperforming is quick to draw the ire of the football collective.
At the same time, they could be the ultimate buy-low outfit; a post-hype sleeper team now rid of its biggest hindrances and ready to fulfill the promise a talented roster carried into 2019.
The key really is head coach Kevin Stefanski, and his offensive vision. He can unlock this team.
Freddie Kitchens came from the Bruce Arians’ coaching tree, famous for an aggressive dropback vertical passing game. That worked during Mayfield’s rookie season, as he finished with the sixth-most yards (1,008) on throws of 20-plus yards despite not playing a full season, per Pro Football Focus. It was clear from the jump it wasn’t a good plan in 2019. Mayfield still attempted those throws at around the same rate (14 percent) but was 10th in yards, produced a paltry 71.7 passer rating, and hurled seven picks, trailing only Philip Rivers. Yet, the Browns brass never truly adjusted for a woeful pass protection group. The entire passing game was bogged down as Kitchens refused to alter his approach, much less pass the play-calling sheet to offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Mayfield’s play eroded every step of the way.
Making life more difficult for your young quarterback is the unforgivable sin in the NFL. The Browns committed it wire to wire during the 2019 regular season.
Stefanski’s offense could be exactly what Mayfield needs to rehabilitate after a lost sophomore season. For starters, going by what Stefanski did in Minnesota last year, we can expect far more layup throws for Mayfield.
It will start by de-emphasizing the vertical passing game. Mayfield averaged 8.5 intended air yards per pass attempt, ranking 13th among relevant quarterbacks. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ranked 25th.
We can also expect to see more play action. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was top-six in the play-action rate at 31.9 percent of his pass attempts. He tied with Lamar Jackson for the league-lead with 14 play-action touchdowns. Mayfield was in the top-12 of the league with 28.7 percent of his passes coming on play fakes. Considering how effective he was on those plays, you could argue the 2019 Browns still should have used it more. Mayfield’s completion rate was 10.1 percent higher on play-action throws vs. those without last year. Only one other quarterback (Gardner Minshew) saw a more dramatic jump among players to start five-plus games. His yards per attempt also jumped 2.6 on play-action throws, eighth-most in 2019.
Saying “Use more play action” is easy. And while it is the correct answer, the reality is, not all play action is created equal. The type of fakes Stefanski will bring to Cleveland should be even more beneficial to Mayfield.
It was ultra-clear to anyone watching the Browns last year that dropping Mayfield back in the pocket left him far too vulnerable to instant pressure, exacerbating his bad habits. Well, apparent to everyone but the coaches, apparently. The Browns rarely designed plays for Mayfield that got him on the move. He threw just 19 boot or rollout passes last year, ranking an absurd 29th among all passers. Conversely, Kirk Cousins threw 66, trailing only Jared Goff, and posted a 136.7 passer rating and a league-high seven touchdowns.
If you liked Mayfield as a college prospect or were enthralled with his strong play during a record-breaking rookie season, the adjustments Stefanski will make are just a coach playing things smart. If you didn’t like Mayfield much coming into the NFL, this is all just window dressing in the hopes of hiding a player’s problematic flaws. It doesn’t really matter. Taking these steps will take Mayfield from being one of the absolute worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL last year to making him a quality point guard for an efficient offense.
The Stefanski effect isn’t just for Mayfield
Stefanski fixing Mayfield in this fashion will have a tremendous trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense.
Jarvis Landry, already an excellent zone-beater who thrives on interior routes, would pile up catches over the middle on boot throws. He’s an ideal fit to slide into the flanker/slot role Adam Thielen held in this offense, which includes more deep routes than Landry usually sees. Despite coming off his best season as a pro, Landry hovers around WR30 in early fantasy ADP.
Stefanski will also certainly install a pristine rushing game. That’s a massive boom for the Browns’ already studly backfield of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Odell Beckham Jr. is the big-ticket item. A wildly disappointing Browns debut still stings. However, it’s impossible to watch Beckham last year and come to any other conclusion that he was not right physically. The results from my Reception Perception tracking would also back up that sentiment:
From 2014 to 2018, Beckham looked like a legendary talent whenever he was on the field, one who wouldn’t just rule the roost of the position during his playing days, but possibly go down as one of the most storied to ever play wide receiver. That came to crashing halt last year. Such a precipitous drop in Reception Perception is nearly unheard of. It’s easy to say he will get right back to his usual form in 2020 but it may not be that simple. We have to ask ourselves whether he’s lost a step forever and may never return to the player we knew. Given that the injuries are mounting at this stage of his career, that could be possible.
Personally, I’ll keep the candle lit for a rebound from one of the most explosive athletes and refined technicians at the receiver position. But I could easily be wrong to do so. Knowing the right answer here is impossible.
Even if I’m wrong, Stefanski can still make his life easier, too. Along with health and overall fit with the team, a problematic route assignment was another huge hindrance to Beckham’s production. As you can see from the chart above, Beckham was still strong on the slant route and we’ve all see his Giants’ highlights where he puts on those long YAC plays following a quick slant. Yet, for some reason, the Browns cut his slant routes back a noticeable degree last year, opting to over-emphasize low-percentage, downfield targets.
yea pretty consistently high in RP’s double coverage rate, for sure. The lack of slants is a great point too. Can see the drop off here: pic.twitter.com/6026lNqH5z
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) July 29, 2020
A compromised form of Beckham could still be a productive player for the Browns on the layup quick throws that will be a part of Stefanski’s offense. Even if he isn’t in his prime alpha form, Beckham can help this team. Nevertheless, at an ADP of WR14, it’s well worth taking the plunge in fake football. You’re risking little that Beckham reverses course after an outlier year and gets back to his transformative play. And if he doesn’t, this new offense is still designed to help him be more efficient than he was last year.
Kevin Stefanski and the successful installation of his offense won’t fix all of the Browns’ problems. There is still plenty to be done in terms of organizational function and tweaking other problematic areas on the roster.
However, based on what we know about Stefanski’s approach to offense, his system will go a long way to altering the course of two of the Browns’ most important players. The main reason for the Browns hype of last year was the positive vibes around Baker Mayfield and the effect adding an elite talent like Odell Beckham Jr. would have on the passing game.
All of that went astray in 2019. Stefanski’s offense can set it right.