Arisen from what may have seemed the ashes of eternity, the new phoenix that is the Cleveland Browns proved itself a pleasant surprise during the 2018/19 NFL regular season. Often deemed the laughing stock of the League, the brown and orange – albeit a hideous colour scheme – played some beautiful football this year. Looking at each aspect of their season, beginning all the way back in May, will give insight as to how they achieved such prolific personal success. A brief glance at their 7-8-1 record may question the need for celebration, however expectations of a playoff berth the season of the rebuild would be absurd. Have patience, for a dynasty is being built.
Last season marked one of the worst ever seasons for the Browns. DeShone Kizer failed to ignite any spark to their previous demoralising one-win 2016/17 season. Winless the next year, the Browns had reached rock bottom once again. Encapsulating the disarray within the team, eleven-year veteran guard Joe Thomas missed his first ever snap halfway through the season, and retired at its close, leaving impossibly big shoes to fill.
The Browns were the lame horse of the NFL. Putting them out of their misery was a mercy afforded to them. As mentioned, however, the miraculous offseason resurrection began from the final whistle of the Eagles’ Superbowl victory. With the first draft pick in the bag, moves to secure Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry provided the kindling for what was soon to be a roaring flame. Doused in oil by an excellent performance at the draft, the fire only grew. First round picks QB Baker Mayfield and DB Denzel Ward, along with others such as Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, all proved to be integral to the team throughout the 2018 season.
Documented by HBO’s Hard Knocks, the hype surrounding Cleveland grew, along with their confidence. Amidst the troubles of Josh Gordon’s somewhat concerning disappearance, as well as loss of Corey Coleman to the Giants, the Browns ran through the tunnel at the FirstEnergy stadium to kick off against the Steelers reborn and reinvigorated.
With each week alternating between wins and losses, the Browns seemed as if they were going to reach .500 by the end of the season. A target that would be a great cause for celebration, the bar was decidedly set. Obstacles which would have completely dismantled last year’s Browns, Hue Jackson’s departure amongst others, were met with surprising rapid recovery. While Jackson returned to the Bengals, for what seems the hundredth time, Gregg Williams took the reins and steered the team to heroic victories over the Falcons, Panthers, Broncos, and Bengals (twice!).
Not only Cleveland, but American Football supporters have been taken aback by this climb to the position of contenders in the AFC North. While the coaching staff faced many interim difficulties, one certainty throughout the duration of the seventeen weeks was the determination of the 53-man roster. The taste of disappointment still fresh in the mouths of retained players, and the burning desire of new recruits to make their mark, the Cleveland Browns commanded respect till the very end of the season.
The receiving core boasts not only speed and strength, but also consistency. All four main receivers have been outstanding, supported by extremely athletic tight end, David Njoku. Led by the LSU graduate Jarvis Landry, the unparalleled grit and determination he consistently brings to the table is contagious. Spoilt for choice in the backfield, the Browns started rookie Nick Chubb, and to great avail. Somewhat overshadowed by Giant’s RB Saquon Barkley’s stellar 2000-yard season, Chubb was at one point looking to contend for rookie of the year. Boasting similar traits to New York’s rookie, his acceleration and lateral quickness proved to be the Cleveland’s second-best asset on offense this year.
The Brown’s coaching staff gambled in taking the Oklahoma Sooner’s Heisman-winning passer. The architect of a nearly successful championship run, Baker Mayfield was the centre of the attention coming into the 2018 Draft. Already a magnet for press coverage of his arguably over-aggressive winning mentality, all eyes were on the Texas native. With a plethora of skilled quarterbacks gracing his draft class, speculation arose as to who the QB-hungry Browns were going to take. Fast forward to the season’s commencement, Tyrod Taylor sits in the starting seat. A decision soon reneged four games in. Hue Jackson and Mayfield’s disputes did not fall upon deaf ears, so therefore upon the Head Coach’s firing, it is hardly surprising seeing the rookie blossom. Using his all-too-often criticised fiery character, he put on a record breaking rookie performance in his thirteen starts. Amassing 3,725 yards accompanied by 27 touchdowns in the air, it is safe to say the Browns have secured their position at QB. Topped with the cherry that was Mayfield’s stare-down of Jackson in the Browns’ penultimate game, a more exciting prospect in the rookie draft class cannot be named. The poise and maturity of a seasoned quarterback, combined with his abundance of swagger and determination to prove his worth as the first draft pick have birthed a leader for this motley crew of underdogs.
While the focus primarily rests on the explosive offense, the underrated Pro Bowl-featuring defence has many times rescued the team. 2017’s first draft pick Myles Garrett also decided to break a few records of his own. Posting 13.5 sacks this season, taking his total to just below 20, he holds the two-season total for QB takedowns in the backfield for the Browns. Justifying his invite to Orlando in 2019, he is also joined by a member of the solid secondary. Denzel Ward’s hard-hitting college highlight reel proved to be exactly the physicality that the Browns needed at Cornerback. Combined with Damarious Randall’s four picks and Ward’s three, Jabrill Pepper’s versatility across the field allowed the Browns to match the unforgiving physical football of the AFC North.
How does the future look for the Cleveland Browns? Retina-scorching bright. Contention with conference leaders in the Chiefs and Patriots is a long way off, but dynasty building takes time. An eager, determined, young core prophesises a promising next few seasons. Lifting the Lombardi trophy, admittedly a long way off, would make the Lebron James-led Cavaliers Championship pale in comparison. Occupying a space lower down the draft order in 2019, the Browns have some improvements to make in the off season, however this is just the start that they needed. Excitement and anticipation surrounds the reinvigorated, reenergised and reborn prospect that is the pride of Cleveland.