The math will be done before the Cleveland Browns sit down to take the next test. The Kansas City Chiefs must beat the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens must lose to the Los Angeles Rams or to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After Jan. 2, the Browns will walk into Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Jan. 3 knowing if they can see a game with a playoff berth on the line in week 18 against the Bengals Jan. 9.
How did we get to this point?
It’s been a frustrating season for everybody, once again set by unrealistic expectations. Just compare the Browns and the Bengals. In Cincy, it was optimism with a tinge of wonder about future star quarterback Joe Burrow, who returned after knee surgery. It has now blossomed into “Clinchmas” against Kansas City Jan. 2. If the Bengals win, they are in. The biggest worry in Cleveland in August was would the city have enough barriers this time for a Super Bowl parade.
Reality will tell you teams that have breakout years like the Browns did last year, come back to earth the following season. Look at the San Francisco 49ers, who were 13-3 in 2019 and then 6-10 in 2020. That’s just one small example. There are so many factors that make or break a season.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski and quarterback Baker Mayfield had a perfect fit in 2020. Mayfield turned his game from risk and turnovers to conservative play and taking care of the football. This year, the pressure has been on. In a world where the last drive of the game can set the bar for a $40 million contract, Mayfield is struggling to make the right play. When the season is over, we will probably look back and say he should have had surgery after week two. He has a fully torn labrum and is wearing part of an Iron Man’s suit to play football.
I know football players play hurt all the time. When you really think about it, did ego on both sides and his contract situation set the franchise back another season?
As for Stefanski, he can’t win for losing. Against the Las Vegas Raiders, fans screamed “pass the ball” at the end of the game. I know Alex Van Pelt was calling plays. Against the Green Bay Packers, it was “run the ball” in the final minutes. The Browns’ success on opening drives and failure late in games make you feel like a human is not calling the plays. We need to remember Stefanski is just in his second season. He is still learning and I’m OK with it.
I wonder if Browns fans would have embraced Stefanski had he gone crazy on Mayfield’s fourth interception on what could have been a game-winning drive. Instead, it resulted in a 24-22 loss.
Stefanski was so upset that pass interference wasn’t called on the interception that he was willing to take a fine or be ejected. Maybe he should have broken his headset on the phantom Wyatt Teller offsides call. It’s not Stefanski’s style and I respect him for not losing his cool. I just think fans are getting tired of him saying, “It’s on me.” They want to know he’s not a robot.
While it was great to have a season like last year, the Browns benefited by playing against teams in the NFC East, a division that only took seven wins to make the playoffs. The Browns were 5-3 on the road in 2020. One of those losses came when the Browns had no wide receivers due to COVID-19 in a 23-16 loss to the New York Jets. This season, the Browns are 2-5 on the road and all but the loss to the New England Patriots were by six points or fewer.
The Browns put themselves in this position. Mayfield’s four interceptions were deadly against a team like the Packers. It’s also hard not to see how the kicking game has failed the Browns. They chased a missed extra point and a missed a two-point conversion. The difference against the Packers were two points.
The math is simple. Bring two No. 2 pencils on Jan. 3 in Ben Roethlisberger’s final home game in Pittsburgh.
Let’s hope the Browns are taking the SAT for this season and not the PSAT for next year when they play the Steelers on Monday Night Football.
OSU stars opt for NFL over Rose Bowl
Which team do you think will win the Rose Bowl?
Ohio State will be missing wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive lineman Haskell Garrett for the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl against Utah. All three players will declare for the NFL Draft.
This shows that college football isn’t what it used to be. I used to get mad when players opted out, but now it’s just another thing in college football.
Before name, image and likeness, before the transfer portal, all the money was for the schools and the bowl games. Now the players look to stay healthy for a big payday in the NFL. I don’t blame them. I’m thankful that the days of players getting cash in paper bags from donors seems to be gone, but the golden era of college sports is also in the rearview mirror.