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2021 in review: Browns underachieved in season with high expectations

Watching the playoffs from the couch is nothing new for the Browns. They’ve missed the postseason in all but two years since returning in 1999 — 2002 and 2020.

This time feels different.

No one on the coaching staff or in the front office was fired. Nobody’s calling for a total rebuild. The frustration is from unmet expectations and unrealized potential.

“There was injuries, there was COVID, there was things that happened this year, but we had the guys to make the playoffs no matter what regarding those things and we didn’t execute well enough to really do that,” All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio said.

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Right guard Wyatt Teller butchered the quote but got his point across. The Browns underachieved by going 8-9 but don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

“I don’t think that we have to invent the circle here,” he said. “I think that we have good things in Cleveland and a good team behind us — it’s just, we have to finish.”

The feelings of fans are still raw after the season opened with Super Bowl talk and the playoff hopes weren’t extinguished until Jan. 2 despite four months of inconsistency. While the organization isn’t satisfied with the failure to build on the postseason win of a year ago, there doesn’t seem to be a belief that drastic measures are needed.

“We are never going to overreact,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “I think that knee-jerk reaction never works anyway, and that is certainly not who our leaders are. Our head coach and our general manager do not react that way. They are very intelligent men who think through things, and I think we have a good staff, personnel staff and coaching staff that work extremely well together.

“I think that is going to benefit us going forward.”

The Browns can’t do anything about 2021, but they can use it to make sure the same disappointment doesn’t happen again. The confidence they remain on solid footing would be eroded or erased with a repeat performance in 2022.

“We do believe that we have a lot of core pieces on the roster and within football operations that would allow us to have success moving forward,” general manager Andrew Berry said. “We all wish that 2022 could start next month because I think the toughest part of today is the fact that we are not going to play meaningful football games for another nine months, and I think that leaves a pretty sour taste in all of our mouths. That is something we really want to work hard to eradicate and again make sure that we are playing meaningful football this time of year.”

The roster doesn’t require a reconstruction, but the passing game must be fixed.

The pressing question is whether that includes finding an upgrade to quarterback Baker Mayfield. Berry said he “fully expects” Mayfield to be the starter next year and bounce back, but his struggles, especially in the fourth quarter, were a huge reason the Browns lost six games by six points or fewer and averaged 17.3 points over the last 12 games.

Coach Kevin Stefanski’s system and play calling were also issues, as well as the play of the wide receivers. But wideouts can be drafted and signed in free agency, and Stefanski is smart, dedicated and there’s optimism the reigning NFL Coach of the Year will be able to solve the problems.

That will be a theme of the offseason.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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