With AFC wide open, Browns blew a golden opportunity, but an 8-9 season is not the apocalypse

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal
Browns running back Nick Chubb signs autographs for fans on Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Sunday’s playoff chaos drove the point home — the AFC is wide open and the Browns blew a golden opportunity.

Ask Bernie Kosar how that will feel in a few years.

Potential ties and kneel-downs and overtime and the madness surrounding the conference’s final postseason berths should ignite the Browns’ ire and disappointment as they seek sun-splashed solace after an 8-9 season. The empty seats at FirstEnergy Stadium and a stunningly small crowd in the Muni Lot for the finale indicated the devoted fan base had already gone there.

The underachieving Browns finished with some semblance of pride with a 21-16 victory over the Joe Burrow-less Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns finished third in the AFC North, tied with the Baltimore Ravens but winning the tiebreaker by virtue of a 3-3 division record to the Ravens’ 1-5.

But the Browns had the reigning NFL Coach of the Year in Kevin Stefanski. They had one of the best offensive lines in football. Their rebuilt defense was loaded with young talent. They had an unstoppable one-two punch of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was coming off an 11-5 regular season, with the Browns making the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and winning their first playoff game since Jan. 1, 1995, to finish 12-6.

That’s why 8-9 feels like the apocalypse.

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After all the drama, the Instagram posts, the critical fathers chiming in on social media, the stunning Odell Beckham Jr. saga, multiple COVID-19 outbreaks and Mayfield’s shoulder injuries, it’s a wonder the record wasn’t worse.

There were many self-inflicted wounds, but also bad luck.

Mayfield regressed after completely tearing the labrum in his left shoulder in Week 2. In terms of receivers missed and uncatchable throws, Mayfield’s 2021 performance was worse than under one-and-done coach Freddie Kitchens in 2019, no matter what the statistics say. Three Case Keenum completions during a second-quarter possession Sunday that hit receivers Jarvis Landry and Anthony Schwartz and tight end David Njoku in the hands showed the Browns faithful what they had been missing.

Twenty-two players, at least nine of them starters, and three coaches, including Stefanski, tested positive for COVID-19 and missed what turned out to be a heartbreaking and costly 16-14 home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 20.

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A sprained ankle suffered by left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. derailed his second season. Right tackle Jack Conklin tore the patellar tendon in his right knee Nov. 28 at Baltimore, throwing the offensive line into patchwork mode down the stretch.

Landry showed only flashes of his old self after going on injured reserve on Sept. 21 with a sprained medial collateral ligament.

Then there was the internal turmoil of Beckham forcing his way out of Cleveland, a firestorm ignited when his father posted an Instagram video of the times his son had been open and Mayfield failed to find him. Kareem Hunt’s father wrote on Facebook that Mayfield was “scared to throw the ball” after the loss at Baltimore.

Some teams would have totally tanked in the midst of such madness.

For the disgusted and disgruntled, there will be changes.

The 2022 offense may look completely different, not in terms of scheme, but in terms of personnel.

Center JC Tretter could be let go. Five-time Pro Bowler Landry could be a salary cap casualty. They must sort out what to do with the tight end corps. They need receivers — Ohio State’s Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson in the first round? — even if the Browns don’t elect to address the defensive line with their top pick in the April 28-30 NFL Draft.

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The Browns will surely bring in competition for Mayfield, although Mayfield being able to hit targets in stride — worthy of applause when that happened in 2021 — could change the dynamic.

The defense may also see new starters, with several holes filled last offseason with players on one-year contracts, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney the most notable.

But during the Browns' postgame interviews, there was not an air of despondency.

Starting in April, Stefanski did his best to warn the Browns that 2020’s success assured them nothing in 2021.

Even Jim Nantz, the voice of CBS who owns a home near his in-laws in Northeast Ohio, had the same message for fans.

“Don’t make it Super Bowl or bust. That’s craziness,” Nantz said in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal on Sept. 2. “There’s a lot of good teams out there and the Browns happen to be one of them. I think there’s a good chance that one of these years soon it’s going to fall their way. Is it this year? Maybe. I wouldn’t [say] it has to be. Is it next year? Great chance. The next year after that? Another great chance.”

Yes, 8-9 was a gut punch, especially with the AFC in disarray. Yes, it was a setback for Mayfield and the team.

But it was only the seventh time in the expansion era’s 23 seasons that the Browns have recorded seven or more victories. They are only five years removed from 0-16.

Although that feels like much longer in dawg years, other professional sports teams have taken a decade to recover after hitting rock bottom. That the road to recovery hit a speed bump should not obscure the promise of 2022.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at Read more about the Browns at Follow her on Twitter at