5-7 is not where the Cleveland Browns expected to be heading into Week 14 of the 2019 NFL season. The team has been the definition of an underachiever, dropping games they had no business losing, and now, shy of an incredibly unlikely multi-team parlay for the remainder of the season, Cleveland is out of the playoff race.
Much of the blame has fallen at the feet of rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens, who has certainly made his fair share of mistakes. Kitchens is by no means blameless, but the roster was constructed by general manager John Dorsey, Cleveland’s darling last offseason after swinging a trade for Odell Beckham Jr. The Browns personnel issues are obvious, and Dorsey is at fault for them.
When Sashi Brown was promoted to vice president of football operations back in 2015, he told owner Jimmy Haslam not to hire him if Haslam wasn’t willing to fully commit to “The Process”. Haslam assured Brown that he was all in, but that proved to be false when Cleveland hired Hue Jackson as head coach, instead of the front office’s preferred candidate, Sean McDermott.
In the midst of an 0-16 2017 season, Haslam was done with The Process. He attempted to expedite his team’s rebuild by replacing Brown with Dorsey, the architect of a Kansas City Chiefs team that went from 2-14 to a consistent playoff team in one season.
Because of Brown’s work, Dorsey was armed with perhaps the greatest treasure trove of assets in NFL history. The Browns had a massive surplus of cap space, the first and fourth overall picks in 2018, and three second-round selections. It was a perfect opportunity for Dorsey to build whatever team he wanted. He traded for veterans Jarvis Landry and Tyrod Taylor, and drafted Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb, among others.
Fast-forward to the 2019 offseason. The Browns were coming off a good end to the season, which saw them finish 7-8-1, their best record since 2007. Dorsey decided to once again accelerate things, trading for a superstar wide receiver in Beckham. After that, Cleveland received endless hype from the media, including some Super Bowl talk.
How misguided that was. The Browns were anointed as “back” before they had even played a single game, then promptly got blasted in the home opener, 43-13, by the Tennessee Titans, who aren’t exactly a great team. They were also wiped on Monday Night Football by the San Francisco 49ers, 31-3. They’ve lost to two first-time starting quarterbacks, including last Sunday’s disaster against the Pittsburgh Steelers, essentially the nail in the coffin for Cleveland’s playoff hopes.
On paper, the roster can contend with any other team in the NFL as far as pure talent. But there are major issues that will prevent this group from going anywhere if they are not addressed.
Baker Mayfield broke the rookie record for touchdown passes last season with 27, despite starting only 14 games. He was sensational. But for the first half of 2019, he was bad. He was inaccurate, indecisive, paranoid, and displayed atrocious field vision. He’s been much better as of late, but still not as good as he was as a rookie. It’s unclear what was or is wrong with Mayfield, but there is at least one major contributing factor.
That factor is not the quality of his weapons. Nick Chubb leads the NFL in rushing yards. Kareem Hunt has been very good since returning from suspension, and gives the offense an added dynamic that is difficult for opponents to counter.
Beckham and Landry are arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league (or at least, they should be). Rashard Higgins had a great 2018, but injuries have made him largely ineffective. Antonio Callaway was suspended for the first four games of the season, returned and played horribly, then was released after failing another drug test and earning a 10-game suspension. Tight end David Njoku has been out since Week 2, but the team appears to have found something in both Ricky Seals-Jones and Stephen Carlson.
The offensive line, however, is a different story. In 2018, the Browns had arguably the league’s best interior OL in Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler. Dorsey traded Zeitler to New York in exchange for defensive end Olivier Vernon, who was starting to play very well before suffering an injury against Denver.
The team felt confident in trading Zeitler because of second-year player Austin Corbett, the 33rd overall pick in 2018. Corbett was a left tackle in college, but was expected to move inside in the NFL. Because of the talent in front of him, he barely saw the field as a rookie. During training camp, he was given every chance to take the starting right guard spot, but quickly fell behind free agents Eric Kush, Kyle Kalis, and Bryan Witzmann, as well as rookie sixth-rounder Drew Forbes. Corbett ended up functioning as the backup center, playing the rest of the preseason games after Tretter checked out.
A few days before the trade deadline, Corbett was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2021 fifth-rounder. Not a great return on investment for the first pick of the second round. There were so many other players Cleveland could have taken, including at least four better guard prospects. A massive bust and missed opportunity that is now harming the team. Kush began the season as the starting RG, and was not very good. He was replaced by Wyatt Teller, traded from the Buffalo Bills in the preseason, in Week 9, and while Teller has been better, he still hasn’t been good.
Mayfield no longer has the confidence to step up into the pocket to make strong throws when pressured, something he did a lot of in 2018. This leads to him fading back in the pocket and scrambling around, which makes his tackles, who are already bad, even worse. Greg Robinson is playing the best football of his career, but that’s not exactly saying much. Chris Hubbard, who was signed to a big contract prior to 2018, has been a consistent problem. It was foolish to think the duo would be adequate.
Defensively, things are very similar. The starting defensive line is very good (although Myles Garrett is suspended, Vernon is still injured, and Larry Ogunjobi has regressed), but the depth is nonexistent. Chad Thomas, selected at the top of the third round in 2018, has been invisible, save one or two cleanup sacks.
The line was unable to generate pressure on Devlin Hodges, even with Maurkice Pouncey suspended. Because of this, cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams had their worst games as pros. The secondary was already weak with the absence of Damarious Randall, Morgan Burnett, and Eric Murray. Jabrill Peppers was traded to the Giants as part of the Beckham package after an excellent 2018. Randall also played well last season but has taken a step back, when he’s been on the field.
Even after he traded for Beckham, Dorsey stated that the Browns were still a young team, with a long way to go. This is true. But you can’t simultaneously be rebuilding and making moves to win immediately. Dorsey has missed multiple opportunities, taken risks that haven’t paid off, and ignored important areas of the team.
Kitchens may end up taking the fall, but the problems go further than the coach – ultimately, they lead to the person who hired him.