With snow falling — in the second week of May — and no rookie minicamp in Berea to cover, there’s plenty of time to sit inside and study the Browns’ schedule, which was released Thursday night.
Their season isn’t slated to start until Sept. 13 in Baltimore — if there’s no delay due to the coronavirus pandemic — so I’m sure it’s a topic that will be revisited time and again. To get started, here are five not-so-quick thoughts.
The first game gets the bulk of the attention for obvious reasons.
The coaches have a tangible target to give their players months in advance while being able to stay true to the one-game-at-a-time mantra. The fans also have something to focus on throughout the long offseason and into training camp. The opener also holds disproportionate importance, as it can set a tone for the other 15 games.
For the Browns, that tone has been overwhelmingly negative. The Browns are a hard-to-believe 1-19-1 in Week 1 since returning to the NFL in 1999. The win came in 2004 against the Ravens, and the tie in 2018 against the Steelers.
Just because the Browns have been unable to bounce back from the opening setback — 2002 was the lone playoff appearance — doesn’t mean an opening win is necessary for a successful season. But given their history, a fast start would go a long way.
That won’t be easy with an opening trip to face the defending AFC North champion Ravens, who will have plenty of added motivation. Not only did the Browns handle them 40-25 in Baltimore in Week 4 last season, the Ravens were upset by the Titans in their first playoff game, wasting the home-field advantage they earned with a 14-2 regular season.
Seeing the Ravens pop up first surely sent shivers through plenty of Browns fans. But drawing the rival on the road for starters isn’t necessarily the worst thing.
While the history of the expansion Browns would scream otherwise, Week 1 in the NFL is the most unpredictable. Rosters have been reworked, coaches have changed and scouting the opponent can be a mystery.
So even though the Browns were installed as an eight-point underdog by BetOnline, an upset isn’t unthinkable. And if the Ravens hold serve and win at home, that’s to be expected — and it shouldn’t crush the Browns or their fans.
But it would make Week 2, at home against the Bengals on Thursday night, just about a must-win.
IN THE SHADOWS
The NFL is such a year-to-year entity.
A year ago, the Browns were given four games in primetime and two more in the late-afternoon showcase window. This year, it’s a pair in primetime (Week 2 vs. the Bengals and Week 14 vs. the Ravens on Monday night) and one late Sunday afternoon (Week 4 vs. the Colts), all at home.
The Browns just aren’t as sexy, even if they will win more games. That’s life in the NFL, where the addition of Tom Brady instantly turned the Buccaneers into media darlings.
The buzz around the Browns has taken a big hit. Quarterback Baker Mayfield couldn’t duplicate his promising rookie season in 2019 and was lapped by fellow Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who was the unanimous MVP in his second season. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. needed 16 games to reach 1,000 yards and four touchdowns and will need to return to his Pro Bowl form to regain his must-see status.
The step out of the spotlight is a good thing for first-year coach Kevin Stefanski and his team. The players, as a whole, proved too immature to handle the attention and the pressure last year under first-year coach Freddie Kitchens.
The expectations haven’t vanished — the win-loss over/under has been set at 8½, and BetOline has the Browns favored in 10 games and a pick ’em in another — but they’ve been reduced. That should give Stefanski, Mayfield, Beckham and the rest the chance to find their footing in 2020.
IN THE MIDDLE
The bye week is a bummer for many fans, but it’s a welcome respite for coaches and players. The timing is out of a team’s control but plays an important role in the season.
The Browns got a break this year, with the bye sitting right in middle of the 17-week schedule on Nov. 8. A lopsided number of games before or after the break leads to fatigue.
The midseason bye also works for the Browns, as they have perhaps the toughest stretch of the schedule after the break. They play four 2019 playoff teams in the following five weeks — Houston, Philadelphia, Tennessee and Baltimore.
Holding their own in the month after the bye would give the Browns the chance for a strong finish.
The final four games are Baltimore in Cleveland on Monday night, at the Giants, at the Jets and home vs. the Steelers. If the Browns are .500 or better through 12 games, they will be in position to make a run to the postseason, especially with an extra playoff team in each conference this season.
The back-to-back games in New Jersey are certainly a weird scheduling quirk. The matchup vs. the Giants is Dec. 20, with the game vs. the Jets either Dec. 26 or Dec. 27.
I can’t imagine Stefanski keeping the team on the East Coast for the week between — the flight’s quick and there are a lot of distractions in the Big Apple — especially during Christmas. But the double dip in New Jersey is a good opportunity for a sweep in the push to the playoffs.
The Browns made official Friday the previously reported re-signing of receiver Rashard Higgins.
To make room on the roster, the Browns cut defensive tackle Brandin Bryant. He played in four games last year with three tackles.