It’s week 3 of the NFL season and the 1-1 Washington Football Team will be traveling to Cleveland to face a 1-1 Browns team. Cleveland will be allowing 6,000 fans to attend the game in person, so this will be the first Washington game of the season with live fans.
The Browns seem to be perpetually rebuilding under owner Jimmy Haslam, who hasn’t kept a head coach for longer than 2 years other than Hugh Jackson (who had 3 years). But there are reasons to believe this time might be different. The Browns added Kevin Stefanski as head coach in the offseason, a young offensive-minded coach who oversaw the revitalization of the Vikings offense last year. In addition, the Browns roster is loaded with talent, largely due to the draft investment strategies of former GM Sashi Brown, who built up a lot of draft picks and created cap space, and the scouting ability of former GM John Dorsey, who used the draft picks and cap room created by Brown to acquire a lot of NFL talent.
The Browns offensive line seems to be especially improved since last year, largely due to the acquisition of RT Jack Conklin in FA and LT Jedrick Wills 10th overall in the 2020 draft. The Browns offense also leans heavily on two dynamic RBs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, though WRs Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry give them weapons in the passing game. The Browns defense features a stout DL, but a few questions at LB and DB.
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature five questions about the state of the Browns and what to look for in this game.
1) What’s your scouting report on Baker Mayfield so far and what do you think he’ll ultimately be in the NFL? What do you think is behind his up-and-down performance so far?
We’ve seen a lot of ups-and-downs with Baker Mayfield: from his promise as a rookie, to his slump as a sophomore, to now his first two games of 2020. The biggest issues for Mayfield, mostly stemming from his 2019 performance, have been his bad footwork, bailing from the pocket too quickly, the low trajectory on his passes, and inaccuracy. I think the most disappointing thing is that he wasn’t a good enough quarterback to overcome those types of things by himself — but it is understandable, because in the three years he’s been in the league, he’s had a different head coach each season. Learning a new offense every year is not a trend you want a young quarterback to have to adapt to.
The good thing is that Kevin Stefanski seems to be a much better fit to set up Mayfield (and the Browns’ offense) to succeed. As soon as Stefanski was brought in, one of the first things we heard from his staff was that they were going to work on Mayfield’s footwork and mechanics, to which I looked up to the sky and said “thank you.” I’m an amateur analyst for all intents and purposes, but even I could tell that Mayfield’s footwork and mechanics were out of whack last year, and yet the coaching staff seemed oblivious to it. Another frustrating point is that last year, there was not a single play call I remember that had Mayfield rolling to his left by design. Last week against the Bengals, Mayfield did it early in the game, and it led to a 40+ yard touchdown pass up the sideline to Odell Beckham.
I’m still high on Mayfield. He has that gunslinger moxy to him, but it only works when the rest of the team is clicking. Stefanski is going to design more plays for Mayfield to bootleg and throw outside the pocket, both for efficiency purposes and to allow him to use his arm to find those big plays downfield. I feel confident it’ll work this year, thanks to the Browns’ two-back system of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt behind a strong offensive line, and I think that’ll let Mayfield grow to being an above average quarterback by the end of the year.
2) Washington QB coach Ken Zampese was QB coach for the Browns in 2018, Mayfield’s breakout rookie year. What do Browns fans think of Zampese and what kind of role did he have in Mayfield’s early success?
Ah, you’re making me dig back a little! We’ve had so many coaching staffs in Cleveland that sometimes it’s hard to remember who was here when, and what type of impact they had. However, I do remember that Ken Zampese was highly thought of by fans. Hue Jackson had been the Browns’ head coach since 2016, and then leading into Jackson’s final year with the team, he relinquished play-calling duties to the newly-hired Todd Haley, while Zampese was brought in as quarterbacks coach. Mid-way through the season, Haley and Jackson were fired, while running backs coach Freddie Kitchens became the team’s offensive coordinator.
That’s when Cleveland’s offense really seemed to take off. When Kitchens was hired the following season as the team’s new head coach, it was thought that he might retain some of the team’s offensive staff like Zampese or offensive line coach Bob Wylie. Instead, he gutted the staff and brought in all of his connections. That didn’t sit well with Wylie, who revealed in an interview that during the team’s offensive success in 2018, it was actually Zampese, not Kitchens, who “masterminded” the offense. Wylie seemed crazy at first, until we saw how bad Kitchens’ playcalling and Mayfield’s effectiveness were in 2019. That made many fans think back to say, “man, we wish Cleveland could’ve kept Zampese for the benefit of Mayfield’s growth.” Hopefully he’ll have the same impact for Dwayne Haskins in Washington.
3) Washington fans have had to deal with a terrible owner in Dan Snyder, but Browns fans have also had a rough go with Jimmy Haslam. How would you describe Haslam’s ownership style, do you see signs of him growing as an owner, and do you ultimately think the team will find success without an ownership change?
I think you’ll get very different opinions from fans on this. Fans were irritated by the team’s previous owner, Randy Lerner, because he was so absent from the team. Jimmy Haslam is the opposite. He’s not quite Jerry Jones, but he is definitely visible and wants the team to succeed. In Haslam’s early days, he was criticized for firing head coaches and changing front offices too quickly. He also bought into the analytical approach. And then when he tried to be patient for once, he hired Hue Jackson, who was viewed as a “big score” for the team. Haslam stuck with him for three years, and he was terrible.
Last year, he took the temptation of hiring Freddie Kitchens because we tasted a bit of winning in 2018. Then we saw how ill-prepared Kitchens was to be a head coach last year. What should Haslam do? Keep his reputation of not giving coaches enough time to succeed, or realize his mistake and cut it loose? One of the crazy things is that the team, in the past, has tried to mesh “pure football guys” and “analytical guys” together, with respect to coaching and front office hires. The current structure — with Andrew Berry as GM and Stefanski as head coach, while Paul DePodesta’s analytics linger in the background — is the closest we’ve had to uniformity in philosophy.
My assessment of Haslam is that I have never been frustrated with the decisions he’s made to shake things up, because he’s like me as a fan: I’ve bought in to a head coach or GM, but then before long, I start to see, “dammit, unbelievable, this isn’t working again.” And he has been frustrated by it. You have to think that one of these times, even by dumb luck, we’ll get it right...right?
4) Over the first two weeks of the season, the Browns lost to the Ravens in a blowout, but won a hard-fought, well-played game on a short week against the Bengals. What do you think you’ve learned about your team from those two games and what questions are you looking to get answered this Sunday?
Heading into the first game of the season, I figured it would be bad news for the Browns. Facing Baltimore was the absolute worst match-up Cleveland could’ve had, because the team has a new head coach, new systems on offense and defense, and had a very short offseason due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, a team like Baltimore is not only electric on both sides of the ball, but Lamar Jackson can run that offense in his sleep. One little mistake, and before you know it, it’s a blowout. That’s what happened in Week 1. Cleveland was down 17-6 with about a minute left in the first half, but were driving for a field goal or touchdown. Beckham dropped a wide open short pass on third down, and then our kicker (who has since been cut) missed the field goal. Baltimore quickly marched down and added a touchdown before the half ended. Instead of being down 17-13, Cleveland was down 24-6. Game over.
Most teams aren’t going to capitalize so easily, so I was much more confident heading into the Week 2 game against Cincinnati. The Bengals had big issues on their offensive and defensive lines, which are Cleveland’s strengths on the opposite sides. Sure enough, the running game dominated and closed out the game. The Browns’ defense had some big question marks due to injuries, and Baltimore and Cincinnati both picked on three positions in the passing game: our nickelback (who is a special teamer filling in for an injury), our safeties, and our linebacking unit. Cleveland could be getting three defenders back from injuries this week to patch things up a tad, so that’s what I’m most looking forward to this Sunday: to hopefully get a more complete glimpse of what this defense is supposed to be.
5) If you were in charge of gameplanning for this matchup, how would you attack the Browns on offense and defense?
As I alluded to in the previous question, attack the Browns’ defense via the passing game in the middle. The linebackers and safeties haven’t been able to catch up to crossing routes, and are a tick slow in coverage. On offense, that’s a tough question. Cleveland’s offensive line has been very good though two games, and I think the team has the best running back tandem in the NFL. If Washington can drop their defensive linemen into passing lanes or get their hands up, though, that has been an easy way to kill red-hot drives: Mayfield will think he sees an opening and want to rip it, but he’s still a bit short compared to most quarterbacks, and that low trajectory over the line is prone to tips and picks.
Thanks again to Chris Pokorny for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Browns.
As of right now, Vegas has Cleveland as 7 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Cleveland wins by 7 or more points
Cleveland wins by fewer than 7 points
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 45 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
45 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 45 total points are scored (both sides combined)