The Cleveland Browns are nothing but a complete mess in 2019. A roster littered with certified stars, the Ohio-based team struggled to find any consistently in a season where they were projected to reach modest heights. The Browns were aiming to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The Super Bowl — and postseason — drought has been extended another year. To say that the Browns underperformed would be to say that public transportation is a constant letdown. But are the Browns the biggest disappointment of the 2019-20 season?
It was all good in the summer of 2019. The Browns acquired wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants. It was always the crown jewel in an offseason full of headline-grabbing transactions. Cleveland general manager John Dorsey sought out talented stars — many of whom wore out their welcome in previous stops. Beckham missed a handful of games in 2018 as a member of the Giants and would request a trade at the end of the season. The two sides swapped picks — the Giants receiving a 1st and 3rd, along with safety Jabrill Peppers — gifting the Browns with football’s most dynamic receiver prior to injury.
Flash forward to December 2019, and you’re once again reading about Beckham voicing his displeasure with his current team. While a receiver venting about the lack of targets in an offense is nothing new, with the Browns assured to finish without a winning record this decade, OBJ has grown weary of the losing culture after just one season in Ohio. Not even his college teammate Jarvis Landry can change the mind of football’s Madonna from making yet another style change. Who could blame Odell? The Browns have fallen flat since their season-opening loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Browns lack a discernible identity and are struggling to find consistency on both sides of the ball.
Much of the blame has dropped on first-year head coach Freddie Kitchen. The former QB whisperer was the Browns’ RB coach prior to the team firing previous coach Hue Jackson early in the 2018 season. Kitchens was given the interim head coach tag as he strung together several wins, befriending quarterback Baker Mayfield and ushering true hope and promise. After getting the interim tag removed, the thought was that Kitchens would build off the success towards the end of the 2018 season. Instead, the Browns have regressed to the comical version of the team that became the first franchise to go winless in a 16 game season.
Kitchens does deserve a fair amount of blame. The lack of identity on offense speaks directly to Kitchens’ background and strengths. Considering his previous positions as a quarterback and running back coach it paints the picture that he is an offensive-minded coach. One of the biggest problems the team had was continuity on that side of the ball. For a roster littered with “leaders”, the Browns’ only consistent fixture in 2019 is their lack of maturity. Their habit of beating themselves has shown up week-to-week, hovering near the top of the league in penalties. For their part, the team sounds united when the cameras are rolling and the microphone is in their faces. Yet, the results don’t match the apologies, excuses and “I don’t know, we’ll have to figure it out” that has become the franchise line.
There are still those who believe that Baker Mayfield can be part of the solution in Cleveland. The brash quarterback who speaks his mind, taunts on touchdowns and stars in ridiculous Progressive commercials is viewed as the solution. The book is still being written on Mayfield’s legacy, but let’s say that we’re closer to the conclusion today than we are the introduction. Baker’s talk far exceeded his performance on Sunday, placing him under heavy scrutiny for the 2020 season. From former Browns running back Duke Johnson to superstar defensive end Myles Garrett, Mayfield has no problem publicly criticizing teammates. Mayfield’s tendency to chastise others has not endeared him to teammates and peers across the league. His condemnation of a fellow team captain drew little attention from the mainstream press — likely because of the uproar from Garrett’s actions. In a late-season contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns players got into a late-game melee with their AFC rivals. After a heated conversation, Garrett stood over Rudolph, removed his helmet, and continued to jaw with the Steeler pivot. Rudolph got back to his feet and charged at Garrett, who swung his helmet onto the exposed head of Rudolph. What transpired afterward was an ugly melee that saw Garrett get kicked in the head while on the ground by Steelers’ offensive lineman Markus Pouncey and a week’s worth of embarrassment for the NFL as a whole.
Many stood idly by as Armageddon ensued between the hashes, but the Browns appeared in no rush to enter the fray. As alluded to earlier, Mayfield did not come to the defense of his teammate, instead condemning the action of Garrett. The helmet-swinging incident cost the former first overall pick $45,623 and resulted in an indefinite suspension for the remainder of the 2019 season. Garrett accused Rudolph of uttering racial slurs that fueled the altercation. The NFL deemed there was not enough evidence to substantiate those claims.
A lack of leadership, accountability and cohesion derailed the Browns’ potential early in the year. The disconnect between the coaching staff and players leads to a fractured locker room more concerned with personal brand than on-field success. There’s no doubt that the Browns have the talent to be playoff contenders. Yet, lack of discipline — only Jacksonville’s 154 flags surpasses Cleveland’s 148 through 16 weeks — has proven that the Browns play two games each week, one against the opposition and the other against themselves.
Whether Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslem decides to retain or fire Kitchens upon the conclusion of the regular season is anyone’s guess. Over the last decade, the team has chewed up seven different head coaches, the most among any NFL franchise. Regardless of the decision, something needs to change for the Browns to reverse their fortunes. Nevermind that their roster is littered with generational talent. Underperformance has become a hallmark of snakebitten sports town.