After a 1-15 season in 2016, Browns’ Head Coach Hue Jackson joked that the team could not get any worse – he was wrong. An abysmal 0-16 season the following year has led Cleveland natives to dub January 31, 1-31, “Hue Jackson Day”.
If you have peeked at the NFL over/under win totals, you will see that the Browns are listed at 5.5 this year. More surprisingly, the odds, which started at -110, are now at -170 on the over. This means the betting majority thinks the Browns will win at least six games in 2018.
This intrigued me and it should intrigue you. I had to break it all down and give my take. Here goes:
Searching for a Trend
In this section, I broke down the 2017 splits on the Browns. Kind of sad I could just put “games” because they were all losses, huh? One note is that the Browns played one of their home games in London last year, which accounts for them being a game short in that department. Take a look:
|Games||Avg Margin||One-Score L’s||ATS Record|
|After Bye||1 (Lions)||-14||0||0-1|
* Games in which the Browns scored at least 7 4th quarter points the week prior
At least the Browns were consistent. Home field did not matter. Opponent did not matter. I even tried the “P4≥7” stat just to see if maybe they played better after finishing strong the week before – they did not. They seemed to lose by the same amount no matter the scenario.
Directly following their bye week, the Browns were leading the Detroit Lions well into the third quarter before they imploded and lost by two touchdowns. Good teams use the extra rest and gameplanning time to capitalize after bye weeks. The Browns lost by more than usual. This does not speak highly of Hue Jackson’s coaching ability.
The final big thing that stood out to me was how the Browns were 4-12 against the spread. This means that Vegas continually overestimated them. If oddsmakers were wrong in 2017, what makes me think their 5.5-win mark is attainable in 2018?
Reason for Hope
New roster additions in 2018 have generated plenty of optimism in Cleveland. Below are the Browns’ 2017 ranks in several major categories:
|Rank (of 32 NFL teams)|
|Passing Yards Allowed||19th|
|Rushing Yards Allowed||7th|
Being dead last in points scored, giveaways, and takeaways is not a good recipe for success. Browns’ fans are optimistic in 2018 because they have a couple of new quarterbacks and their defense, their only solid unit in 2017, is projected to be better.
The former Buffalo Bill Tyrod Taylor will most likely start at quarterback for the Browns this year. His main objective will be to secure the ball. The Browns’ strength is their defense, but they need Taylor’s help to perform at a high level. If he puts them in a bunch of short-field situations, we may see a repeat of last year’s numbers.
On defense, explosive lineman Myles Garrett is expected to blossom in his second NFL season, while the Browns’ biggest weakness, their secondary, has received some attention. The Browns acquired corner Damarious Randall and then drafted fellow corner Denzel Ward with the #4 overall pick. Jabrill Peppers will now move to linebacker which is expected to improve his production.
I am not going to focus much on the defense because Cleveland’s success does not hinge on that side of the ball. Even if the Browns’ defense improves slightly from a yards allowed perspective in 2018, Tyrod Taylor will need to be a good game manager and hold onto the ball. If and only if this happens can the Browns move up from 31st in points allowed to the middle-of-the-pack.
Even with solid defensive play, the Browns will still need to improve their offense from horrendous to sub-par if they wish to win six games. The team added running backs Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb this offseason, but their O-line is not amazing and is not going to create gaping holes, especially with every opponent routinely stacking the box.
We’re Counting on This Guy?
It all comes down to Tyrod Taylor. Can he be the guy? His play will dictate the success of both the Browns’ running game and their defense. There is a lot on his shoulders this year. Take a look at what he has done in the starting role in Buffalo over the past three seasons:
|Year||QB Record||Completion %||Pass Yards||INT||Passer Rating||Sacks|
For starters, Taylor has been remarkably consistent. The Browns know exactly what they are getting with him. He rarely throws interceptions, which is probably the main reason that Cleveland wanted to acquire him. He is a very conservative quarterback. Judging by high elevated sack numbers, Taylor is a guy who would rather eat the ball and take the sack than force a pass and turn it over.
Before I further expand this thought, I am going to throw one more table at you. I will explain how these stats are relevant below. Here’s a hint: I am going to argue that Taylor will not be a great fit for the Browns.
|Year||BUF Pass YDS Rank||BUF Rush YDS Rank||BUF INT Thrown Rank||Taylor Sacks Ranks||CLE Rush YDS Rank|
Taylor Will Not Be a Good Fit for the Browns
This is where I argue that Tyrod Taylor will not be a good fit for the Browns. I know that on the surface a guy who does not throw picks seems like the perfect answer to the Browns’ problems. I will admit that I thought this way at first, too. After looking deeper I saw that it is not going to be that easy.
If we look at the chart, we see that the Bills have been top-ten in avoiding interceptions each of the seasons Taylor has started. This is good, but that conservative mindset has resulted in few yards through the air. If we look at the first column, we will see that the Bills have been right toward the bottom of the league in passing yards with Taylor under center.
It seems that Taylor’s first instinct is to avoid messing up rather than trying to make something happen. This may be his personal preference or a philosophy instilled by his coaches, but either way that is going to be problematic for the Browns.
If the Bills’ coaches did not say anything to Taylor and he is just naturally an ultra-conservative quarterback, the Browns’ offense will continue to struggle in 2018. The reason Taylor had the luxury of not forcing passes was because, as you can see by the chart, the Bills have been amazing at rushing the football lately.
Taylor did not need to pass the ball much in Buffalo because his offense could move the ball on the ground. The Browns do not have this luxury. Their running game has ranked in the bottom half of league the past three seasons in part because they have not had a strong passing game for quite some time and defenses routinely stack the box against them. Sure, the Browns added a couple of running backs for 2018, but their rushing attack will not approve unless they can beat teams deep with the pass.
Now I will go back and explore the possibility that the Bills’ coaches told Taylor to play conservatively and that he is not naturally one who holds the ball under pressure. The Browns are likely going to give him the green light to air it out now.
This could lead to some improvement over time, but Taylor is still a quarterback who is used to eating the ball when he feels the rush. Now he may feel like he needs to make things happen in the Browns’ offense, forcing him to make quicker decisions and take more risks.
This is not something that is easy to do. If Taylor’s main objective when faced with defensive pressure over the past three years has been to protect the ball at all costs, it will be very difficult for him to readjust and throw downfield.
If Taylor remains conservative, the Browns’ offense will remain stagnant. If Taylor takes risks, he will most likely struggle early on as he adjusts to the new play style. Either way, I do not see the Browns’ offense playing well until Taylor has several games under his belt.
2018 Schedule Analysis
It is easy to claim that the Browns will win six games this year, but that means you must look at the schedule and pick out six teams they will beat. I will conclude by going through the schedule and splitting the sixteen games into three categories: games I would be shocked if the Browns won, games I would be mildly surprised if they won, and games I actually expect them to win. This should be fun.
|1||September 9||1:00 pm||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|2||September 16||1:00 p.m.||at New Orleans Saints|
|3||September 20||8:20 p.m.||New York Jets|
|4||September 30||4:05 p.m.||at Oakland Raiders|
|5||October 7||1:00 p.m.||Baltimore Ravens|
|6||October 14||1:00 p.m.||Los Angeles Chargers|
|7||October 21||1:00 p.m.||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|8||October 28||1:00 p.m.||at Pittsburgh Steelers|
|9||November 4||1:00 p.m.||Kansas City Chiefs|
|10||November 11||1:00 p.m.||Atlanta Falcons|
|12||November 25||1:00 p.m.||at Cincinnati Bengals|
|13||December 2||1:00 p.m.||at Houston Texans|
|14||December 9||1:00 p.m.||Carolina Panthers|
|15||December 15||TBD||at Denver Broncos|
|16||December 23||1:00 p.m.||Cincinnati Bengals|
|17||December 30||1:00 p.m.||at Baltimore Ravens|
Week 1 vs Steelers – I’d be shocked: When you are as bad as the Browns, you can sometimes catch a team sleeping on you and steal a win. This is not going to happen in Week 1. The Browns will get the Steelers’ best shot. Pittsburgh’s backups beat the Browns in Week 17 last year so I fully expect them to handle business in this one.
Week 2 at Saints – I’d be mildly surprised: If this matchup occurred later in the season, I might predict a Browns victory. The Saints open at home in Week 1 and then have a big matchup in Atlanta in Week 3. That makes this Week 2 game a classic “trap game” in which the Saints will probably take the Browns lightly.
I could see the Browns remaining competitive here and possibly beating the spread, but for reasons I mentioned above, I do not see the Browns’ offense playing well enough this early in the season to outscore the high-powered Saints offense and win the game.
Week 3 vs Jets – I’d be shocked: Maybe I am getting too cute here or am just being stubborn, but I fully believe the Jets will win this Thursday night game. Here is why: The Jets open in Detroit and will probably lose and start 0-1. They then host the Dolphins, a team they feel they should beat.
If they lose to Miami, they will be very angry and will use the Browns as their collective punching bag. If they beat Miami, they will be inspired because only the Browns are standing between them an a 2-1 start. Either way, they will be pumped up to go into Cleveland and feast on a weak team.
One of the biggest intangibles the Browns have on their side in 2018 is constantly occupying the underdog role and playing without high expectations. The problem is that this is a game the Browns feel they should win. Playing in a game in which they are not huge underdogs might take away the edge and aggressiveness that they need to cover their lack of talent.
Week 4 at Raiders – I’d be mildly surprised: I see the Browns coming into this game on one of two notes. Either riding the high of their first win since December 24, 2016 or feeling the sting of an 0-3 start. Travelling out West is tough and, coming off a Thursday night game, the Browns’ practice and sleep schedule will be in disarray.
Ten days is a long time to let an 0-3 start fester but it also too long to maintain momentum from a big win. I do not see the Browns coming out particularly strong in this one. The reason I would only be mildly surprised if they pulled off the win is because the Raiders are in a tough stretch of playing four out of five games away from Oakland and could easily come out flat.
Week 5 vs Ravens – I expect a win: Week 5 is where I bite and finally predict the first Browns’ victory of the year. The Ravens handled the Browns easily in both contests last year, but that may cause them to underestimate Cleveland in this one.
Baltimore travels to Cleveland in the middle game of a three-game road stretch. Sandwiched between tough matchups against the Steelers and Titans, Baltimore may view this matchup as a chance to catch their breath, which is exactly the type of mindset that teams like the Browns need to feast on.
Week 6 vs Chargers – I’d be shocked: Two in a row? Nope. If you remember back to 2016, the Chargers have the wonderful distinction of being the last NFL team to lose to the Browns. That memory, but most importantly the fact that the Chargers are a very talented and well-rounded team, will fuel them past Cleveland.
Week 7 at Bucs – I expect a win: It appears the NFL schedule makers are trying to help the Browns out this year as the Bucs are the second team Cleveland plays that is in the midst of a four-out-of-five-games-on-the-road stretch. I did not see the Raiders faltering in Week 4, but the Bucs cannot match the talent and coaching of the Raiders. I have the Browns winning this one, their first road victory since October 11, 2015. If you’re keeping count, that makes the Browns 2-5.
Week 8 at Steelers – I’d be shocked: Mike Tomlin is too good a coach to let his team stumble, especially at home. He knows you must take each opponent seriously and resist altering your preparation. The Steelers will sweep for the fourth consecutive season. The Browns are 2-6 at the halfway point. They are really going to need to get hot to reach six wins.
Week 9 vs Chiefs – I expect a win: I could totally see the Browns pulling the upset here. The Chiefs are relying on an inexperienced quarterback which makes them more susceptible to bad performances. This is an easier stretch of the schedule for the Chiefs and it is possible they get lulled to sleep and come out flat.
Meanwhile, the Browns return home in this one after two straight road games and the crowd will likely be rowdy. The Browns will be glad to play someone other than the Steelers and will feed off their crowd’s energy. If KC does not come prepared, they will lose to Cleveland for the first time since 2012.
Week 10 vs Falcons – I’d be mildly surprised: I really think the Browns are going to win at least one of these last two home games before the bye week. If they do not beat the Chiefs, I would feel comfortable betting on a win against the Falcons.
This is a trap game for Atlanta. They have a Week 8 bye which I am sure they will spend preparing for their Week 9 opponent, the Redskins. In Week 11, they face a tough matchup in the Dallas Cowboys. The Browns slide into this schedule in an awkward spot and I could see Atlanta coming in ill-prepared.
On the Browns’ side, they will be energized playing at home for the second week in a row about to enter their bye week. Let’s pretend that the Browns’ record is at 3-6 right now as I predict it will be. The prospect of entering the bye week at 4-6 would be a huge motivator. It will be hard for the Falcons to match the Browns’ energy if this is the case. Because I think the Browns win in Week 9, I take the Falcons in this one.
Week 12 at Bengals – I’d be shocked: The Browns are coming off a bye week, but Hue Jackson is not a good coach and has not shown the ability to capitalize in situations like this. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been beating the Browns for well over a decade and will have his team ready, especially at home.
Week 13 at Texans – I’d be shocked: I have the Browns at 3-8 right now. I expect the Texans to be in the middle of the playoff hunt and in total business mode. This is not a trap game as they are in the middle of a three-game home stretch and have the weak Colts up next. Texans should win and send the Browns to 3-9.
Week 14 vs Panthers – I expect a win: The Panthers have big names like Newton and Kuechly but are frustratingly inconsistent. The Browns have a shot at getting their fourth victory if they catch Carolina on a bad day.
This is a trap game for the Panthers. Just like last year, they will probably be in the thick of the playoff hunt in the competitive NFC South division. Carolina ends the year with four-out-of-five division games and the Browns are the odd team thrown in there. It might be hard for the Panthers to get up for this one. The Browns pull another upset and improve to 4-9.
Week 15 at Broncos – I’d be shocked: The Browns have a tough draw with the AFC West this year. It is probably the toughest division in the AFC. There are no easy games. The Browns do catch the Broncos in the middle of three-out-of-four road games, but I think that by this point in the season, teams have had a chance to adjust to any successful strategies the Browns have employed. Also, Baker Mayfield may begin starting at quarterback for the Browns around this time, which would decrease their chances of winning.
Week 16 vs Bengals – I’d be shocked: One of two things will happen here. Either Marvin Lewis will still be coaching and will use his experience to finish strong and win this game or an interim coach will be licking his chops to earn a win here. Either way, the Bengals prevail, especially if Baker Mayfield is playing. Browns are 4-11 heading into the final week.
Week 17 at Ravens – I expect a win: What!? A sweep of the Ravens? Yes, I believe Baltimore will be out of playoff contention and that Lamar Jackson will be under center by this point. This could be a battle of first-round rookie quarterbacks if Baker Mayfield plays. I am calling for a Cleveland win here. The Browns’ first sweep of Baltimore since 2007 brings their final 2018 record to 5-11, falling just short of the 5.5-win total set by Vegas.
I see Cleveland starting slow as Tyrod Taylor works to get comfortable in the new offense and their young defense gains confidence. I then see Cleveland hitting peak form in the middle of the season and knocking off a couple of good teams. Eventually, the league will out coach Hue Jackson and adjust, making late-season wins harder to pick up. If Baker Mayfield enters the equation earlier than expected, the Browns’ late-season results are really up in the air.
I do not feel confident choosing six games the Browns will win next year. I am all in on the under-5.5.