Wins are the thing
After 1-15 and 0-16, the Browns needed victories to signify a true turnaround. They got three in the 10 games before the bye week and had chances for a few more.
The 19-game winless streak was broken in primetime in Week 3 when Baker Mayfield came off the bench to beat the Jets. The Browns added an overtime victory over the Ravens and a convincing and encouraging 28-16 win against the Falcons to enter the bye with momentum.
When the opening tie against the Steelers is added to the wins, the Browns have already secured their best record since going 7-9 in 2014.
Plenty of promise
Mayfield was pressed into service earlier than planned and didn’t flinch. He suffered the first four-game losing streak of his football career and kept a stiff upper lip. The start of Mayfield’s career hasn’t been perfect, but he’s met every expectation on and off the field.
The sample size is small with only eight games played, but he’s done nothing to make the organization second-guess the decision to take the undersized passer with the No. 1 pick. He leads rookie quarterbacks with a 61.8 completion percentage, 1,984 yards, 13 touchdowns and 87.5 passer rating, and is coming off his best game against Atlanta. He went 17-for-20 for 216 yards, three touchdowns and a 151.2 rating.
Mayfield has competition for the team’s best rookie, which should have fans and ownership feeling good about general manager John Dorsey.
After years of first-round flops by his predecessors, Dorsey appears to have hit on Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward, the No. 4 pick out of Ohio State. He’s faced a rugged lineup of receivers and more than held his own. He has three interceptions, 10 passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
Dorsey didn’t stop in the first round. Running back Nick Chubb, the No. 35 pick, has quickly solidified himself as the workhorse following the surprising trade of starter Carlos Hyde. Chubb has rushed for 579 yards, a 6.2 average and five touchdowns, including a 92-yarder against the Falcons.
Receiver Antonio Callaway, linebacker Genard Avery and left tackle Desmond Harrison have also gotten a ton of playing time and shown potential despite inconsistency.
Defensive end Myles Garrett has stayed healthy and the numbers have followed. After seven sacks in 11 games as a rookie, the No. 1 pick in 2017 has nine in 10 games this season.
He’s still looking for a game in which he dominates and walks away with four sacks and a couple of takeaways, but he’s come close. He had two sacks and two forced fumbles in the opener against the Steelers, then added two sacks apiece against the Jets and Buccaneers.
Garrett won’t meet his goal of being Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s laid the groundwork to make the short list of contenders for the next several years.
The Browns have been competitive in seven of 10 games, and the No. 1 reason is the avalanche of takeaways from the defense. After getting only 13 all of last year, they lead the league with 25 — 13 interceptions and 12 fumbles.
The defense has playmakers at every level, including Garrett, middle linebacker Joe Schobert, Ward and defensive back Damarious Randall.
The breakthrough finally came in Week 10 on a 28-yard pass from Baker Mayfield to receiver Rashard Higgins. The Browns needed that long to score their first first-quarter touchdown of the season.
They’ve scored only 24 points in the first quarter, which has consistently put them in a hole and created undo pressure. “Internal discord” was cited by owner Jimmy Haslam as the reason for the firings of coach Hue Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley, but the ineffective early game scripts of Haley cost the Browns dearly.
The Browns overcame the slow starts to get into a position to win seven times, including four trips to overtime. They’ve gone 1-2-1 in the extra sessions, destroying any realistic shot at the postseason.
Their only points in overtime came on a deflected 37-yard Greg Joseph field goal to beat the Ravens 12-9. The Browns were blanked against the Steelers, Raiders and Bucs despite numerous chances to turn a tie and two losses into victories. The failures make for an easy what could’ve been.
Kicks in the gut
Zane Gonzalez kept kicking and kept missing.
The seventh-round pick in 2017 got himself cut with one of the worst kicking performances imaginable in Week 2. He missed an extra point wide left, a 44-yard field goal wide left, an extra point wide left and a 52-yard field goal wide right in the span of 21:43 of game time. They came in a 21-18 loss to New Orleans in the perfect conditions of a dome, and the final miss robbed the Browns of another chance at overtime.
Gonzalez was cut the next day.
A bundle of breakdowns
The special teams problems go way beyond one bad day for Gonzalez.
His winning attempt at the end of overtime in the opener was blocked when Joel Bitonio got pushed back. Punter Britton Colquitt had two punts blocked because of bad protection. Jabrill Peppers’ fumble in overtime set up Tampa Bay’s winning field goal.
Those are the huge mistakes. The special teams, under new coordinator Amos Jones, has also had numerous penalties on kick returns and allowed a number of long returns at critical times.
Lots of pain
Injuries happen, but a rash of them really hurt the Browns at a couple of key positions.
Cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell (broken wrist) and E.J. Gaines (two concussions) were placed on injured reserve, leaving the secondary short-handed for much of the pre-bye action. On the other side of the ball, receivers Derrick Willies (broken collarbone) and Rod Streater (broken neck) went on IR and Higgins missed three games with a knee sprain.
The depth is better this year but not good enough to handle multiple injuries at one spot.
The midseason firings of coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley look bad enough for the organization. That owner Jimmy Haslam cited “internal discord” as a primary reason let the world know that dysfunction is still a problem inside Browns headquarters.
Jackson and Haley were never a good fit, and that became increasingly obvious as the season progressed. Haley wouldn’t listen to Jackson, and Jackson waited too long to try to take back control. Haslam and general manager John Dorsey were left with no choice but to clean house.
The bad look for Jackson continued when he quickly went on a media tour in which he made excuses for his 3-36-1 record and tried to rewrite history.
The Browns were too patient with troubled receiver Josh Gordon for his time with them to end the way it did.
After being supported through repeated drug suspensions and rehab stints, Gordon finally appeared to be on the right track when he rejoined the team in time for the start of the season. The good feelings lasted less than two weeks.
He was late to a walkthrough the day before the Saints game, complained of a hamstring injury not suffered in practice and the Browns were done with him. He was traded two days later to New England for a fifth-round draft pick.
The Browns deserved better from Gordon.
The Browns didn’t get many breaks from the officials.
Just ask the Browns.
A popular storyline from the first 10 games was controversial calls going against the Browns, and their vocal reaction to them. Many of the players continue to bring up officiating when talking about how the record should be better.
The most pivotal call came late in the fourth quarter against the Raiders. Carlos Hyde’s third-down run for a first down would’ve ended the game, but a replay review determined he was short. The Browns punted, the Raiders tied the game and won in overtime.
Against Tampa Bay, the officials insisted a helmet-to-helmet hit on Baker Mayfield wasn’t a penalty. The league announced they missed two infractions that should’ve been 15-yard penalties.
Safety Jabrill Peppers revealed to The Chronicle he gets harassed by fans in public, including on trips to CVS, and called them “wishy-washy” for their quick criticism. He blamed his time at the University of Michigan for a segment of the rough treatment.
He later told reporters he quit going out alone but still loves the city of Cleveland.