At the start of last year, the excitement for the Cleveland Browns was off the charts. Their quarterback, Baker Mayfield was coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent memory, they had rid themselves of head coach, Hue Jackson and had just traded for star wide receiver Odell Beckham.
However, the season didn’t go as planned. Baker Mayfield had a rough year, their new head coach Freddie Kitchens struggled, and Odell Beckham had the second worst statistical season of his career, behind only the 2017 season in which he was limited to four games due to injury. Needless to say, the disastrous 6-10 season ended in both Kitchens and the General Manager, John Dorsey losing their jobs.
However, now under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, the Browns look how they should have looked last season. In a heart-breaking loss in the final minute to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the Ohio outfit looked like something they haven’t looked like in a very long time: a contender.
Sitting at 9-4, they only need to win two of their last three games to secure themselves a place in the postseason, something that shouldn’t be too big of an ask as they still have to face the New York Giants and the -still winless- New York Jets.
So, what has changed from last year?
Well, the biggest and most obvious is the head coach. There’s no getting around the fact that Kitchens was, frankly, a bad hire from the get-go. He was inexperienced and found it difficult to keep control of a team full of high-maintenance stars. Hiring Stefanski, on the other hand, was a stroke of genius. Having made his name at the Minnesota Vikings as the offensive coordinator, he has experience of coaching Kirk Cousins, who is a very similar quarterback to Mayfield stylistically. Stefanski has expertly utilised the former first overall pick’s skillset to turn the Cleveland offence into one of the most efficient in the league.
The offensive line has also been dramatically better this year than it was last year. Huge credit has to go to the Browns front office for noticing a problem and fixing it in the course of a single offseason. They went out and landed the best tackle in free agency in Jack Conklin. On top of that, they took advantage of the best tackle in the draft, Jedrick Wills falling to them at pick 10. Now, with the top tackle duo, and guard, Wyatt Teller emerging as one of the best in the league, Mayfield now has elite pass protection.
Cleveland has also benefited from Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett having the best seasons of their career. It really is time for Browns fans to get excited, as they’re staring down their first playoff berth since 2002. And, as we all know, in the playoffs, anything can happen…
Sub-edited by George Overhill
Click here to read the previous edition of Onside Kick.