The Cleveland Browns began the Kevin Stefanski era by getting stomped 38-6 by the division rival Baltimore Ravens. There were plenty of issues on both sides of the ball, and legitimate reasons for concern. However, it is still just one game, and there are other reasons to think that the Cleveland Browns will begin to get on track in Week 2.
The offense needs time to settle in
Stefanski has been tasked with perhaps the most challenging transition in NFL history. Because of the wild offseason resulting from the current global situation, the Browns were forced to conduct most of their activities virtually, and have essentially been together for about six weeks. It’s a monumental hurdle to overcome for a first-time head coach.
When the game was close in the first half, you could easily see what the Browns wanted to do offensively. They were running the ball well with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and the revamped offensive line protected Baker Mayfield very well. At one point late in the second quarter, Cleveland was putting together a lovely drive that could easily have ended in a touchdown and would have sent them into halftime down only three or four points. Instead, Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a pass that would have moved the chains on third down. The Ravens took advantage to score another touchdown, giving them a 24-6 lead. That’s a lot different than the potential 13-17 the Browns could have got back to.
Mayfield didn’t have a great game. He looked uncomfortable and indecisive, patting the ball and double-clutching instead of trusting his eyes and his arm. He was also off-target on some throws that would have led to big plays had they been placed better. Losing David Njoku to a knee injury won’t help matters, and neither will both Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin missing practices this week.
The Stefanski offense seems perfect for Mayfield, but it will take some time for him to gel in it. Last season, Kirk Cousins spent the first four weeks struggling before having the best campaign of his career. If Mayfield is still having significant issues by Week 10, then there is likely a big problem. However, one game of subpar play against one of the league’s best defenses is hardly a reason to bail on this coaching staff.
The Browns defense is going to struggle until they’re healthy
Giving up 38 points to the Ravens looks terrible on the surface, but the Browns did what they needed to do when looking at the gameplan abstractly. They held the Ravens to just 107 rushing yards on 30 carries, which is an impressive feat considering that team broke the NFL record for single-season rushing yards last year. The defensive line kept Lamar Jackson contained, limiting him to just 45 rushing yards. They forced Jackson to beat them through the air.
The problem is, Jackson is now an elite passer to go along with his incredible running ability. He completed 20 of 25 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns while making no significant mistakes. When he was flushed from the pocket, he consistently kept his eyes downfield and found the open man, rather than defaulting to taking off and running himself. The Brown defense was soundly beaten by one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Week 2 won’t get much easier. Joe Burrow is as accurate a passer as there is, and he has some reliable weapons to throw to in A.J. Green, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, among others. If the Browns defensive line can get consistent pressure on Burrow, Cleveland could skate to a comfortable victory. However, if Burrow is given time to throw and survey the field, the Browns beat-up secondary will get picked apart. Until Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson return from injury and gel with the other members, that’s just a fact of life for the team.
It’s only been one game
For years, Cleveland fans have been told to give new coaching staff time, and it’s never worked. Stefanski’s debut performance didn’t do much to inspire confidence, but the team’s history over the past 20 years doesn’t change the principle of the issue. It’s difficult to understate how difficult a job Stefanski was given, and expectations should have been tempered, to begin with. Now, of course, no one should have been expecting to get boat raced by 32 points, but that’s what happened.
Now, as the Browns prepare for Week 2 against the Bengals, a win is far from a sure thing. It’s also far from the most important thing that the team needs to show. What is more important, is consistent improvement. The Browns nearly beat the New England Patriots, who boasted the best defense in recent history last season, based on talent alone in 2019. The problem with the Freddie Kitchens coaching staff was that players and coaches repeated mistakes. There was no learning from missteps, no week-to-week progression. That’s what Stefanski and his group need to show over the next few games, whether that results in wins in the short term or not.