Expectations were through the roof for the Browns entering the 2021 season. Following a season where the team won its first playoff game in over two decades, were a Chad Henne escape from the AFC Championship Game and added talent on both sides of the football, the Browns were expected to not only contend for the AFC North crown, but they were even pegged to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl by some.
However, expectations do not equal reality, and the unfortunate reality for the Browns is they were one of the biggest disappointments in the whole league in 2021. After a 3-1 start that saw three straight victories over three non-playoff teams in the Texans, Bears and Vikings, the team only won four ball games, putting their record at 7-9 as they head into the final game of the season Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, the 2021 AFC North Champions. The 7-9 mark puts the Browns in the basement within the division.
When a season doesn’t go the way everyone anticipates, there’s always blame to go around. Most of the blame for the Cleveland football team seems to center around signal caller Baker Mayfield, who has played mediocre at best throughout the majority of the campaign. Yes, Mayfield has played with a dinged up shoulder and a multitude of other injuries throughout the season, but he did only miss two games through the first 16 games of the season (one due to injury and one due to COVID-19), so he has to be judged like a quarterback that played 14 games. In those 14 games, the Browns had a 6-8 record and only defeated one team that currently has a winning record (Cincinnati).
While Mayfield’s play left a lot to be desired, this season in this writer’s opinion for the Browns falls mostly on head coach Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski is in charge of the entire operation on the football field. If his team is not playing well, it’s on him to get them to play better. At the end of every loss this season, Stefanski has stepped up to the podium and responded to the media’s criticism of the team with a remark along the lines of, “We have to do better. We know that, and it starts with me.”
The 2020 Coach of the Year had the fan base in love with him at the end of the 2020 season. After all, it had been a long time since the Browns have had a playoff team, a lethal offense and stability at the head coaching position. Stefanski also seemed to never get rattled, and it seemed to resonate with the team. No matter the situation, they remained calm and believed they could win any football game they played last season because they believed in their coach.
The same could not be said this season. The Browns are not a playoff team, the offense has only scored over 20 points once in a game since the Week 9 victory at Paul Brown Stadium (Myles Garrett’s score in the Ravens game Week 14 put the team over 20 points), there’s been a mysterious usage of running back Nick Chubb every since Kareem Hunt went down, and the players seem to no longer believe in their coach.
A sign of a well-coached football team is the amount of penalties they commit. Entering Week 18, the Browns have had the sixth most penalties accepted against them in the entire NFL with 108 per NFL Penalties. Including flags that were accepted, declined or offsetting, the Browns have had 130 total flags called this season, the fourth most in the whole league. Whether it’s been lining up offsides too many times, not getting set at the line of scrimmage before the snap or committing dumb personal foul penalties like throwing an opponet’s shoe, the undiscliplinary nature of a team falls 100% on the head coach. Teams that lead the league in penalties may sometimes make the playoffs, but they likely don’t go far. Penalties do catch up to you.
From the Week 1 loss in Kansas City, something felt off about the 2021 Browns. The dropped punt by Jamie Gillian was more of a sign of things to come rather than a highlight that the fans could laugh about on a blooper reel later in the season.
Good football teams mean high expectations. The elite football teams, the true Lombardi Trophy contenders, separate themselves from the rest by meeting those high expectations. Browns fans can blame referee’s for bad calls. They can blame players for mudding up the locker room and not doing their job and performing at their very best, but the bottom line is this team and the fan base need to look at the head coach first when discussing what went wrong with the 2021 Browns.
Stefanski came from Minnesota, a team who has consistently disappointed over the last half decade. Much like the Browns, the Vikings are a very talented football team that always falls short of expectations for one reason or another.
Let’s hope Stefanski learns from his mentor Mike Zimmer and pushes the right buttons for the Browns to get back to the postseason in 2023. If he doesn’t, it may be his last in the CLE.
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