The Cleveland Browns are 4-1! Say that out loud and savor it for a minute. It may not be uncharted territory, but it’s close.
The last time the Browns started off 4-1 was 26 years ago, a time when many of the current players had not been born. The year was 1994 and Bill Belichick was the coach and Nick Saban was the defensive coordinator.
Leroy Hoard was the leading rusher and Derrick Alexander the top receiver. So, yes, it has been a while. But forget all that.
The Browns are riding a four-game winning streak in which they have racked up at least 30 points in each game. ESPN projects the Browns as having a 76.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. Heady stuff to be sure. I can remember, and It wasn’t that long ago (2015-2017) when the Browns won a total of four games in three years. Put another way, Kevin Stefanski has more victories as head coach in five games than Hue Jackson had in his ill-fated 40 game tenure.
Sunday’s 32-23 win over the stubborn Indianapolis Colts may not have been a thing of beauty, but it was a complete team effort. Just enough big plays on offense, just enough big plays on defense. On the strength of Baker Mayfield’s grit and arm the Browns hung 20 first half points on the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense, leading 20-10 at the break.
The offense stalled in the second half, but the defense came up with the big plays they needed. The lead was briefly extended to 27-10 at the start of the second half when second-string safety Ronnie Harrison strutted into the endzone on a 47-yard Pick 6.
When Harrison ended up concussed, third-string safety Sheldrick Redwine stepped in and made a crucial 4th quarter interception. With a multitude of injuries on the defensive side it was truly a case of “next man up,” and the subs delivered bigtime.
I would be remiss if I didn’t cite probably the most consequential play of the second half, delivered yet again by the prodigious Myles Garrett. It was 27-20 in the 4th quarter, Colts ball. Colts QB Philip Rivers had faded back to pass in his own end zone when Garrett’s bull rush almost got him down. Instead he flung the ball way down the field, out of bounds and with no receiver in sight. Safety! And just like that it became a two-score game. Check out these Myles Garrett stats through five games: Sacks-6, QB hits-12, strip sacks-3, fumble recoveries-2 and one safety created. MVP numbers.
As Browns fans we are by nature and experience plagued by doubt and distrust; we’ve been teased too many times in the past, only to see the bottom fall out. But this is a different feeling; it feels like this team is legit. During this current winning streak they have played with efficiency and discipline. The play calling has been crisp and spot on. In other words, the complete opposite of last year’s circus.
When is the last time the Browns were flagged for a stupid personal foul or unnecessary roughness call? When did they last have a fumble that killed a drive or flipped field position? None that I recall. False starts or delays of game? Not this season. Clock mismanagement? Nope.
Yes, they are playing smart football, but the elephant in the room is Baker Mayfield. We all love the guy, and he makes funny commercials, but questions linger as to his decision-making and his penchant for killing drives with ill-advised throws into coverage. The jury is still out on whether he will seize the mantle of championship quarterback.
The Indy game brought out the best and the worst of Baker Mayfield, it was truly a tale of two halves. In the first half he was Joe Montana — 19-28, 224 yards, 2 TD’s and a QBR (quarterback rating) of 116.4. In the second half he was Duck Hodges — 2-9, 19 yards and two ugly interceptions, QBR 0.
Mayfield called his performance against the Colts his worst of the year, and his harsh self-assessment was at least half right. His ribs are banged up, but he vows to play against Pittsburgh, asserting that, “My Mama didn’t raise no wuss.” To be blunt about it, if the Browns are to extend their winning streak against the Steelers, they’ll need a sharper, more consistent Baker Mayfield. I’m still high on the guy, and I’m confident that he’ll bounce back with a monster game.
Looking ahead to Sunday, the Browns are traveling to Heinz Field, their personal House of Horrors. The Browns haven’t won there since 2003 when Tim Couch faced off against Tommy Maddox, another dubious streak that the current regime is hellbent on obliterating.
The Steelers are 4-0, but how good are they? The combined record of the teams they’ve beaten is 3-15. I haven’t watched the Steelers games that thoroughly, but Ben looks like he’s rounding into form, although his lack of mobility is evident. James Conner is not yet on injured reserve. And boy, you’ve got to hand it to the Steelers, they sure know how to draft wide receivers.
The defense is an enigma. They lead the NFL in sacks and are yielding only 21 points per game. But it seems like every time I watch I see a rather pedestrian quarterback hitting on big plays and piling up the yardage. It will be a tough game, but I think the Browns will win. I just think they are better. Browns 33, Steelers 24. The final points fittingly come when Myles Garrett sacks Ben in the end zone for a safety, sending 5,500 dejected fans to the exits.
5-1? I wouldn’t know how to act.
Browns trivia: I had two questions the last time. My old buddy Jimmy McAnalley from Espyville correctly answered that prior to Kevin Stefanski, the youngest head coach to win a Browns game was Bill Belichick. The other winner was the legendary and venerable Jim Hunter from Meadville who somehow figured out that prior to Jarvis Landry, the last Browns receiver to make the Pro Bowl in consecutive seasons was Paul Warfield, (1969-1970). Congrats to the winners.
This week’s question is a bit of a toughie and it brings back a truly ugly episode in Cleveland Browns history. The year was 1993 and Bill Belichick was the coach. On November 8 he abruptly cut from the roster the beloved Bernie Kosar, citing “diminishing skills.” The city was devasted. With Vinny Testaverde injured, the Browns wound up starting their third-string quarterback in the next game against the Seahawks, and it didn’t go well, losing 22-5.
Who was the poor fellow who started that game at quarterback in place of a Cleveland legend? Please email me your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. The winner gets a prize and will be recognized in these pages as a Browns Trivia Savant.