Lesson of Browns' disastrous 2019: They were truly on to something a year ago, they just didn't realize it
There is a winning formula out there that works, even in Cleveland, and it was evident at the end of last season
The Cleveland Browns stumbled into something last season. They finally had an identity besides lovable losers. They were disciplined. They played with purpose. They played as a team. Their best players led the way.
Believe it or not, for half a season the Browns were a formidable outfit under interim head coach Gregg Williams. They didn't beat themselves. They didn't act out. They actually strung wins together once unburdened of former head coach Hue Jackson and all of that baggage, and they actually flourished, finishing 5-2 down the stretch and pushing the AFC North champion Ravens to the brink in Week 17 before finally watching their improbable playoff dream die.
The team's brass had, on the fly, concocted a coaching model that for the first time under Dee and Jimmy Haslam's ownership, was professional grade. The combination of a grizzled, no-nonsense, gruff-but-respected defensive-minded head coach (Williams), teamed with an affable, eager, younger, first-time offensive play caller worked wonders on both sides of the ball, with first-overall pick Baker Mayfield responding with a historic rookie quarterback campaign, and all signs pointing toward greater things to come in 2019.
The Haslams and the front office hadn't had weeks to plot and plan and meander their way through a prolonged coaching search. This process couldn't get bogged down with too many ideas or too many candidates or too many variables, because it was an immediate in-season reaction to the lingering malaise and dysfunction of the Jackson regime. Couldn't over think it. Only had a few viable options.
Turns out, Williams was precisely what the franchise needed. He led the Browns to an unprecedented run of good form and quality play the likes of which had never been seen before under the Haslams. There were firm rules, there was clearly one voice in charge, and it didn't matter whether you were the hotshot top draft pick or the 53rd guy on the roster – you knew what would and would not be tolerated, and the days of guys showing up late to meetings or late to the team plane or skipping treatment were over.
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Finally, there was order. And this is a franchise and locker room – as evidenced by the near weekly transgressions of this season –that badly, badly, needs order. Just consider a bevy of fines and an ejection in Week 1, constant penalties, Mayfield's on-field regression and tendency to speak out on matters best left to others, Odell Beckham and others asking opponents to "come get me" before and/or after games, their best player getting suspended for the second half of the season for nearly cracking Mason Rudolph's head open with his helmet, Dee Haslam wearing a winter hat in Myles Garrett's honor the following week and then Freddie Kitchens' ridiculous wardrobe decision after that … and that's just off the top of my head.
There are lessons to be learned from yet another lost Browns seasons, but you have to wonder if the proper introspection is in order from ownership on down. Yet again, they find themselves as bizarre outliers in the NFL – not a single winning season this decade – engulfed in one self-made crisis after the next. The focus, seemingly, is always on a T-shirt or a beanie or a quarterback's facial hair. The circus remains in town.
I'd suggest they look back to what went right last season for clues to the future. They were on to something with the division of labor a year ago. The paradigm of bad cop defensive head coach and good cop rising coordinator might make a heck of a lot of sense to the Browns as they assess why they are once again left as playoff outsiders despite all of the renewed expectations. They must consider what steps might finally get them on the other side of this perpetual misery.
In many ways promoting Kitchens to head coach, and then letting him take on the Herculean chore of also devising the offense and calling the plays, was the path of least resistance. He wouldn't make a fuss if others wanted to have a voice in constructing the staff around him. He wouldn't have a whole lot to say about personnel and, well, wouldn't be rocking the boat about virtually anything. Going from running backs coach in Arizona to head coach of the Browns in a few short years, out of almost complete obscurity, basically ensures as much.
You wouldn't get pushback on pretty much anything. You'd make Mayfield super happy and content (and, probably, far too comfortable as a second-year QB). You'd have a novice head coach, a player's guy, in charge of a young team in an environment where, if anything, the pendulum has tending to swing way too far to "player friendly" in the first place. It was that way with first-time head Rob Chudzinski, who was overmatched for the job, and ditto with first-time head Mike Pettine and same with Jackson (to the extreme). And they ended up with a head coach/play caller who has seemed, far too often, overwhelmed, to say nothing of his quarterbacks coach and others.
Williams, a former head coach with the Bills who is doing great things under duress with the Jets defense this year, wasn't going to be anybody's pushover and he isn't inclined to tell the owner what he wants to hear whenever he wants to hear it. He's nobody's yes man and he's never been one to suffer fools – with players or assistant coaches or owners or anyone else. But now, even more in hindsight, it seems like Williams – or someone like him – was exactly what this team needed. And now they might need it more than ever.
After another year of constant tumult and drama, with players seemingly over-empowered to say and do whatever they want whenever they want, the powers that be in that organization had best think long and hard about why they find themselves back in this spot in December yet again. Why do they keep repeating the same mistakes? What can they do differently in their decision-making realm to try to prevent this from happening again next season?
Being the most penalized team again in 2020, and the most talked about for non-football reasons yet again, probably isn't the way to go. Having your quarterback on every other commercial during an NFL Sunday, but ranked 30th in the NFL in passer rating (78.7, with as many INTs as TDs), behind the likes of Mason Rudolph (benched), Kyle Allen (benched), and far, far behind the likes of Gardner Minshew (who was also benched this year) would not be the way to go.
Enduring another year of pre- and post-game on-field trade requests (allegedly) from some of their best players would be silly. Watching their best player get hit with repeated fines and then an indefinite suspension would be brutal. Enduring more wardrobe follies would be ridiculous. They remain starved for that ever-eluding culture change – the kind Williams provided a year ago – to say nothing of the overhaul of ideas and concepts and play calls likely required as well.
To pretend all of this is not a big deal would be disingenuous. To expect things to merely sort themselves out with the same staff and players next year – just roll the balls back out, nothing to see here – would be epic folly, even by recent Browns standards. It would, I suggest, set them up for inevitable mid-season upheaval and another round of big changes.
But there is a winning formula out there that works, even in Cleveland.
Perhaps, the coupling of the old-school, taskmaster defensive head coach, with an analytically based, quarterback-savvy, younger offensive coordinator might hold the stars accountable and establish some necessary standards and protocols. Maybe that might help the Haslams finally get it turned around. Maybe they truly were on to something a year ago, and just didn't realize it.
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