You’ve heard the clichés.
“If you ain't first, you’re last.” (I stole that one from Ricky Bobby)
“Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
“Second place is the first loser.
“There are no moral victories.”
All of these are true in a macro sense. Unless you lose in stunning, heart-gripping fashion like the Falcons, Seahawks or any other team the Patriots have soullessly annihilated in years past, odds are, you won’t be remembered. If your name’s not on the trophy, then it never happened. Runner-up is a gentle synonym for “not good enough.” Quick: who did the Steelers beat in Super Bowl XL? That’s what I thought. After all that, all the blood, sweat and tears that led to Seattle’s first-ever Super Bowl appearance, the 2005 Seahawks will merely go down as a footnote, the clue for 5 down in the New York Times crossword, the answer to a question that stumped almost everyone at Bar Trivia. Winning isn’t enough. Winning everything—well that’s different.
Let’s get one thing straight. The Browns are dead in the water. They’re done-zo. Finished. Kaput. Sayonara. Thanks for playing. And yes, technically they have not been eliminated yet. But come on. We all know the playoffs start in two weeks and when they do, you can bet the Browns will be watching them from home, just like all of us. Or maybe at Buffalo Wild Wings (shameless plug for our sponsor).
Like all those teams that never quite did the deed, those lovable chumps that came up painfully short in their pursuit of NFL glory, this year’s Cleveland Browns team likely won’t register in the league’s rich tapestry of champions. The forever realists over at Fivethirtyeight.com, the internet’s perennial cold-water pourers, have crunched the numbers and according to them, Baker and the boys have less than a one-percent chance of playing January football. Put it this way—Markelle Fultz has better odds of beating Steph Curry in a three-point contest than the Browns have of making it to Wild Card weekend.
Forget “almost.” This Browns team never was. Seriously, what is our sick fascination with a team that won’t even sniff the postseason? From a journalistic integrity standpoint, it seems ludicrous, maybe borderline irresponsible, to allot this much page space to a six-win, non-playoff-bound also-ran led by the crown prince of self-delusion Gregg Williams and 80s ski movie antagonist Baker Mayfield.
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Now here’s where the article takes a turn. Despite everything I just wrote, I’m still of the strong belief that Cleveland, playoffs or not, DESERVES to be celebrated, even if they don’t win another game because this, folks, is progress. No, the Browns haven’t made it to the top of the mountain yet, but at least after years … no, decades of heart-aching failure, the climb has finally begun.
In the iconic South Park episode, “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” the plot revolves around the four main characters—Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny—joining forces to defeat a troll in the computer game World of Warcraft. After completing this mission, Stan asks Cartman, “What do we do now?” Which renders the response, “What do you mean? Now we can finally play the game.” It’s a perfect metaphor for where the Browns are in their development.
You know that frustrating “stream buffering” icon that flashes when your computer can’t load? That’s been the Browns forever. For generations, we’ve watched the Browns flail uselessly, drowning in their ineptitude with poor coaching hires, wasted draft picks and an endless carousel of underachieving quarterbacks. The recipe for disaster is in Jimmy Haslam’s top drawer. If you want it, just ask.
But one by one, the Browns have gone about putting out their various fires, first by selecting Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 pick in April’s draft and later by cutting the cord with their ceaselessly incompetent head coach and card-carrying cocoon member, Hue Jackson (or as I like to call him, Jeff Fisher Lite). It’s a little early to be comparing Cleveland to the prestigious New England Patriots, but at least the Browns, after years of beating around the bush, have finally found a blueprint that works. How have the Patriots sustained success for so long? Simple—they have the greatest quarterback who ever lived, Tom Brady, and a diabolical genius of a head coach, monotone hoodie enthusiast Bill Belichick. The Browns still need a coach to call their own—Bruce Arians, Mike McCarthy, Josh McDaniels and Lincoln Riley have all been linked to the vacancy left behind by Jackson—but Cleveland’s quarterback Rubik’s Cube has finally been solved.
We’ve all seen the famous jersey, with taped-on names ranging from Ty Detmer to Brady Quinn. It looks like a hastily put-together school project, a rush job symbolic of the Browns’ clumsy approach to team-building. Waiting at quarterback is the way to go in fantasy, but not in real life. You don’t skimp on the most important position in pro sports, you reach for the top shelf. Josh McCown and Brian Hoyer were Band-Aids. Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel were mega-busts. So were DeShone Kizer and Cody Kessler. But Baker Mayfield—now that’s what a star looks like.
The quarterback-needy Browns were widely panned for passing on Carson Wentz in the 2016 draft and drew even harsher criticism the following year for missing on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. But this time, they got it right. In my pre-draft evaluation, I had Mayfield as the second-best quarterback in a loaded draft class, ahead of Sam Darnold and Josh Allen but behind UCLA standout Josh Rosen. I was wrong. Baker had the goods.
What’s funny about Mayfield is that he wasn’t even supposed to play this year. The plan was for Mayfield to red-shirt behind bridge quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Naturally, the Tyrod Era in Cleveland lasted less than three weeks. Baker made sure of that by massacring the Jets in his NFL debut, ending the Browns’ 19-game winless streak with an electric display of second-half heroics. He hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since, leading all rookies in quarterback rating (92.6), completion percentage (63.9), touchdowns (21) and passing yards per game (255.4), among other accomplishments. We all have things to do, so I won’t bore you by going through the whole list, but name a category and you can pretty much guarantee he’s the best at it.
Short (the Browns list him at a generous 6’1”) and hot-headed with subpar measurables (47th percentile SPARQ score) and questions about whether his college stats were inflated from playing in the defense-optional Big 12—Mayfield arrived in Cleveland with plenty to prove. And it seems like he wanted it that way. America may run on Dunkin’ but Mayfield is fueled by doubt, driven by the boulder-sized chip on his shoulder.
Leading up to the draft when ESPN’s Mel Kiper made his case for Josh Allen going first overall despite underwhelming college stats, his argument centered around one key trait: winning. “Stats are for losers,” he chided. “The guy won.” Turns out, Mayfield knows how to win too. In a year’s time, he’s taken the Browns from zero wins to six, all while enduring, among other obstacles: 1) the pressure of being a No. 1 pick, 2) being thrown into the fire after beginning the year as a backup, 3) a mid-season coaching change and 4) a makeshift receiving corps featuring Jarvis Landry and not much else (Exhibit A: Breshad Perriman started last week’s game in Denver). Sure, Mayfield has gone through a rough patch or two—his Week 13 performance at Houston wasn’t his best—but that’s nothing compared to the growing pains Peyton Manning and Jared Goff endured as rookies. Baker is WAY ahead of schedule and so are the Browns. If not for the existence of a certain Saquon Barkley, the Rookie of the Year award would be Mayfield’s to lose.
Mayfield is the leader of Cleveland’s youth movement, but it’s certainly not a one-man operation. In fact, if anyone is going to win Rookie of the Year from the Browns, it will probably be Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward. Like Mayfield, Ward wasn’t the most popular selection at fourth overall—many would have preferred the Browns pair NC State product Bradley Chubb with established pass-rusher Myles Garrett. But instead Cleveland chose to shore up its secondary with Ward, who has done nothing but impress since arriving in the Rock and Roll Capital. The former Ohio State Buckeye has delivered 48 tackles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries over his 800 snaps this year while also earning PFF’s No. 6 coverage grade among cornerbacks, ahead of perennial powerhouses Patrick Peterson, Darius Slay, Casey Hayward and Jalen Ramsey. The Browns have still yielded the third-most passing yards in football this year, but they also rank third in interceptions with 17 due in no small part to the emergence of Ward, trade acquisition Damarious Randall (team-leading four picks) and 2017 first-rounder Jabrill Peppers (No. 9 safety grade out of 83 qualifiers).
In retrospect, throwing $15 million at Carlos Hyde didn’t make much sense, but to their credit, the Browns were quick to self-correct, shipping Hyde to Jacksonville for a fifth-round pick at the trade deadline. That paved the way for Nick Chubb, a second-round rookie (and member of one of the greatest college backfields in recent memory at Georgia), to soak up workhorse responsibilities. And he’s been more than up to the task, surging to a downright preposterous 837 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns over his last eight appearances. He’s even proven to be an effective pass-rusher (16 grabs for 150 yards and two touchdowns over his last seven games), a trait that mostly eluded him during his time at Georgia.
It seems everything newly-promoted offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens touches turns to gold. The Browns have won four of six with Gregg Williams at the controls, only falling to playoff-bound Kansas City and Houston. This Browns always had talent but now that they’ve been freed from Hue’s tyrannous reign, Cleveland is finally cashing in on that potential.
While it’s unlikely the Browns will be playing beyond Week 17, let’s not downplay their accomplishments. This is real, tangible progress and the start of something special. The Browns aren’t a Super Bowl team or anywhere close, but they’re at least relevant and after all they’ve been through, that’s worth applauding.
What’s the fantasy rub?
Coming off arguably their biggest win of the season—a one-point victory at Denver in Week 15—the Browns return home to host a Cincinnati team that has seen better days. The depleted Bengals have dropped five of six including a humiliating loss to Cleveland in Week 12. Baker Mayfield was near-perfect in that game, shredding the hapless Bengals for 258 yards and four touchdowns on 19-of-26 passing (73.1). Mayfield has been scorching hot of late, cruising to a blistering 113.5 quarterback rating over his last five showings. Cincy’s leaky secondary (fourth-most passing yards allowed) is ripe for the picking and surely Mayfield will be plenty motivated going against his former coach Hue Jackson, now a Bengals assistant.
It’s a golden matchup for the Browns, who enter Sunday’s action as 9.5-point favorites over their struggling division rival. However, in a game the Browns should win going away, Mayfield may not have as many chances to throw, limiting his volume and perhaps capping his fantasy upside. That’s why the sharp move would be to go all-in on Chubb, who smoked the Bengals for 128 yards and two touchdowns when these teams squared off on Thanksgiving weekend. Chubb has kept busy since Hyde’s departure, averaging a robust 20.5 touches over his last eight contests. Mayfield is a fine play in a plush matchup, but if you really want to go for the jugular on DFS sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, Chubb’s your man.