So much has happened in the first seven weeks of the Browns’ season, which promises to continue to be busy and exciting — and very well might end with a trip to the playoffs.
The thrilling 37-34 win over the Bengals on Sunday was packed with action until the final snap, including Baker Mayfield’s third career game-winning drive in the final two minutes, the first since a 19-16 victory over the Bills on Nov. 10.
Here are four thoughts as the Browns (5-2) get set to reach the halfway point of the season Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, then head into the bye week.
Maybe I’ve been too hard on receiver Rashard Higgins. While many fans never stopped adoring the former fifth-round pick, I wrote him off as just another guy.
He admittedly isn’t the fastest, or biggest, but he does seem to find a way to get open and usually catches the ball when it’s thrown his way.
And his chemistry with Mayfield is undeniable.
That was all on display Sunday as Higgins caught six passes for a career-high 110 yards.
His ability and true value will be put to the extreme test without No. 1 receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after his left anterior cruciate ligament tore Sunday in the first quarter.
Higgins and KhaDarel Hodge (nine career catches in two-plus years) will likely split time as the No. 2 receiver. With defenses focused on stopping the run and receiver Jarvis Landry, Higgins should have plenty of opportunities against one-on-one coverage. He has to win them like he did on the final drive against the Bengals, when he caught an out and rolled out of bounds to stop the clock and made an acrobatic 30-yard catch to set up the winning pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Higgins, who signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum to return this year, had already won over the coaching staff with his hard work and attitude.
I think there’s a misconception about coach Kevin Stefanski’s tight end-friendly, run-heavy system. It’s true the No. 3 receiver isn’t that important, but the top two definitely are, especially No. 1.
So the loss of Beckham shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s not all about production, as Beckham had only 23 catches for 319 yards and three touchdowns in six games. It’s about how he affected defenses. He demanded their attention, opening the field for the rest of the offense, including the run game.
The Browns don’t have a true No. 1 without him, and that’s no offense to Landry, who inspires the rest of the team with his toughness, commitment and production. And even if I acknowledge Landry as the No. 1, they don’t have a legitimate No. 2.
The Browns can’t replace all that Beckham does to scare a defense but they can try to replace the deep threat he provided. Peoples-Jones might be able to fill that role, but one catch isn’t a large enough sample size.
That’s why I would try to trade for a receiver, but only one with enough speed to force defenses to respect it and soften their coverage. The Texans are 1-6 and looking for a general manager and coach, so Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks might be available at a reasonable price. Carolina’s Curtis Samuel and the Jets’ Breshad Perriman could also work.
Beckham should be back healthy next year — he’s a workout and rehab warrior — and the Browns can draft a receiver early as they think about the long term. But the right trade now would help stabilize the receivers room after the loss of Beckham.
The trade deadline is next Tuesday, so general manager Andrew Berry must get to work. He has the luxury of the bye next week, so there’s time to add a player and have him clear the coronavirus protocols.
He should also look for pass-rushing help (Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan) or a free safety that fits.
ON HIS SHOULDERS
If I haven’t made it clear by now, the loss of Beckham will make life difficult on everyone on the offense. Not impossible but tougher.
Mayfield is at the top of that list.
Defenses have already started to devote more resources to stop the running game, which has managed 124, 75 and 82 yards the last three weeks as it’s slipped to third in the league at 157 yards a game. That puts the pressure on Mayfield to win with his arm.
He did that against the Bengals — without Beckham — and will have to do it again and again. He’ll need to have faith in Stefanski’s play calls, work through the progressions and trust his targets and protection.
Mayfield proved he could do all those things, even if against the Bengals’ awful defense. He was perfect in the second half, especially on the final drive. For a guy whose confidence has taken hits the last two years, it should’ve gotten a huge boost.
Stefanski has provided plenty of reasons to like him, including how he accepts blame. It’s not just “the buck stops here” platitude of his predecessors, most notably Hue Jackson.
Sure, Stefanski takes hits to spare his players when they make a mistake — like when he blames the play calls for Mayfield’s struggles — but it was refreshing to hear the honesty when he said he messed up on the Bengals’ unsuccessful Hail Mary to end the game.
He misjudged where the Bengals were after the kickoff return and how far Joe Burrow could throw the ball. He thought the Bengals would throw short and lateral, so he called off the pass rush. It was a mistake, but an understandable one, even if the result could’ve been disastrous.
Stefanski is confident enough in himself to admit when he’s wrong. That’s important, and appreciated by his players and staff.