The Cleveland Browns Are a Cautionary Tale of How NFL Teams Don’t Win Super Bowls on Paper After Missing the Playoffs

The Cleveland Browns are no longer in the contention for the 2021 NFL playoffs. Baker Mayfield and company got the news before even suiting up for their Week 17 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Kevin Stefanski’s squad failed to meet lofty preseason expectations even with a loaded roster. Cleveland’s disappointing season is a stark reminder not to crown teams before they prove themselves.

The media regarded the Browns as preseason AFC contenders

The Cleveland Browns finished the 2020 NFL season with an 11-5 record and a berth to the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The front office re-tooled and appeared to be fielding an even stronger football team heading into 2021. The Browns added some star power, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

Cleveland brought in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and defensive tackle Malik Jackson to bolster its front seven and take pressure off Pro Bowler Myles Garrett. Former Los Angeles Rams defensive backs John Johnson III and Troy Hill added proven talent to the secondary.

General manager Andrew Berry and the front office also put together a solid 2021 draft class, featuring Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II.

After a strong 2020 campaign, it was easy to assume that the Browns would turn things up another notch with more talent on the roster. However, it wasn’t quite that simple for Kevin Stefanski.

Cleveland boasted one of the NFL’s most talented rosters on paper. This team had Super Bowl aspirations but squandered a rare opportunity to return the franchise to greatness.

Cleveland’s flaws exposed despite immense talent

Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield leaves field after loss to the Packers
Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns reacts after game against the Green Bay Packers | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

While the Cleveland Browns had all the talent in the world on paper, the on-field production didn’t match for much of the 2021 season. Cracks started to show early and only got worse as the season progressed.

The Browns lost multiple games they should’ve won, including the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland jumped out to an early lead, but turnovers and penalties cost them in the second half. Those miscues here and there start to add up and can cost even the best of teams.

The Browns have also battled turmoil within their locker room. Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr.’s relationship was on display for the world to see, and it ended in divorce. Somehow, OBJ is flourishing in a new system with Sean McVay’s Rams. Meanwhile, Mayfield is still struggling.

The fourth-year quarterback has played through multiple injuries in 2021, so you have to credit his toughness. However, he’s not helping the Browns by playing hurt. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing just 62.4% of his passes.

Cleveland has one of the most dangerous rushing attacks when healthy, but the offense has severely underachieved. The defense is a top-10 unit despite a slow start. Still, it hasn’t been good enough to make up for the offensive struggles.

This failed season proves that you can’t just load up with big-name talent in the NFL and expect to win. It takes a winning mindset for it all to come together, and the Browns lacked in that department.

How the Browns can turn things around in 2022

With all hope lost for the 2021 season, it’s time to look forward to 2022. It will be interesting to see how the Cleveland Browns approach the offseason. The front office will have several important questions to answer.

Baker Mayfield will be entering the final year of his rookie deal, and it’s difficult to imagine that the front office is completely buying that he’s the quarterback of the future.

The Oklahoma product enjoyed the best season of his young career in 2020 but didn’t take a step forward in 2021. Injuries have certainly factored into the diminished returns, but they also don’t tell the entire story. He hasn’t lived up to the No. 1 overall pick Cleveland used to draft him. Still, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky thinks the Browns want Mayfield to be their guy.

General manager Andrew Berry will also need to make some tough decisions on the free agents they acquired to help them to a Super Bowl run. Jadeveon Clowney, Anthony Walker Jr., Takkarist McKinley, Malik Jackson, and David Njoku will be unrestricted free agents.

This team needs to adopt a winning mentality regardless of who’s on the field for Cleveland. That’s from the top down. The Browns have lost five one-possession games. The team’s outlook would be drastically different if they found ways to win those close games.

Pieces are in place for the Browns to be in the mix again, but that means nothing if they can’t put it all together. Unfortunately, paper championships don’t exist.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

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