Browns notes: Players reflect on what went wrong: 'The football gods do not like Cleveland. What the heck?'
Injuries to quarterback Baker Mayfield and other key players.
Questionable officiating in key moments.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. forcing his way out of Cleveland in early November.
A COVID-19 outbreak that wrecked the roster for two games in December.
All of those factors contributed to the Browns finishing the 2021 season Sunday with a disappointing record of 8-9 and a third-place finish in the AFC North after they entered the season with Super Bowl expectations.
The talent level and execution of players along with the play calling and game planning of coaches reign supreme, but they aren't the only reasons an NFL team succeeds or fails.
“We didn't get a lot of breaks this year,” right guard Wyatt Teller said Monday on Zoom. “What the heck? The football gods do not like Cleveland. What the heck? I'm kidding. We just need to get a couple breaks like that, stay healthy and hopefully play well.”
“Each day, each week, in and out, it was always something that was coming up for our team — injuries or COVID or some other things that we couldn't really control,” running back Nick Chubb said.
But the Browns didn't play complementary football well enough, either, and the offense and defense failing to develop adequate cohesion and chemistry proved to be a major theme of the players' season wrap-up interviews with reporters.
“I think it’s just building relationships with guys and trusting one another,” safety John Johnson III said, “and that goes with the coaches as well.”
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With Mayfield and the passing game struggling mightily for most of the season, the Browns went 0-for-5 on potential game-winning drives in crunch time.
“This year, we didn't meet up to the hype,” Teller said. “At the beginning of the year, we were talking about the Super Bowl and playoffs, and I feel that we underachieved. ... It just shows you the power of finishing, right? Last year, we were one of the best finishing teams in the NFL.
“In the fourth quarter, it's not only getting the lead, but keeping the lead till the clock hits zero. That's something that I think that we need to control what we can control, and that's something we can do.”
Of the Browns' nine losses, six were by six points or fewer.
"It's a bunch of different things," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said, "but ultimately, we just didn't take advantage of some of our opportunities.”
“I don't think that we have to invent the circle here,” Teller said. “I think that we have good things in Cleveland and a good team behind us. It's just we have to finish.”
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Left guard Joel Bitonio said he thought the Browns were “a few pieces away from really having a chance to compete for a championship this year” after they went 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs, in the 2020 season, Stefanski's first as a head coach.
“Obviously, that did not come to fruition, but I have faith in the people in the building that we’re going to make it right,” Bitonio said. “It’s never easy, but it was definitely a frustrating season, and I don’t think there was one thing you can point to.
“There were injuries. There was COVID. There was things that happened this year. But we had the guys to make the playoffs no matter what regarding those things, and we didn’t execute well enough to really do that.”
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The longest-tenured Browns player, Bitonio said he finds solace in the team having continuity with its offensive and defensive schemes.
“I think we're all very confident in Coach Stefanski,” Bitonio said. “I couldn't tell if we won the Super Bowl with that guy or we missed the playoffs. He's so even-keeled, and he's so day to day with his processes and figuring things out that we're going to be in a good spot.
“He talks about he looks in the mirror first and foremost. What can he do better to put us in a better position? And when the head coach is doing that, the players have to do that as well. You're looking at yourself. What can we do to improve as a person, as player and kind of take that to the field? I think we have all the confidence in the world in him and we know next year we're going to come back with a little bit of fire.”
Rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II said the Browns have fuel for that fire.
“We’ve got to remember what it felt like to not make the playoffs,” he said, “remember what if felt like to go 8-9 after coming from a season where they won a playoff game.”
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Kevin Stefanski does not expect major changes to Browns coaching staff
NStefanski, his coordinators and the vast majority of his assistant coaches are expected to return next season.
"Yes, I don't anticipate any major changes," Stefanski said.
There could be schematic changes, though.
Stefanski said improving the passing game "is going to be a huge part of our offseason," and he vowed to adjust accordingly.
“We definitely will go into it with an open mind," Stefanski said. "What that manifests itself in how major the changes are and how obvious they are remains to be seen. I've been in different offenses, and I've worked with different coordinators with varying philosophies, so I do think you can pivot from year to year in terms of certain schemes and certain types of offense that you want to run."
Stefanski was asked again whether he would consider ceding his play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
“All of that is stuff that we'll reflect on and we'll talk about," Stefanski said. "I'll tell you just from a coaching staff communication standpoint, I thought the guys did an outstanding job throughout the year of making sure that on those headsets that we're communicating and throughout the week that we're communicating, making sure that we're all on the same page. I think AVP deserves a ton of credit in that regard."
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Browns front-office executives Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Glenn Cook on Chicago Bears' general manager interview list
The Chicago Bears requested permission to interview Browns front-office executives Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Glenn Cook for their general manager vacancy, a person familiar with the situation confirmed.
Adofo-Mensah and Cook are two of Browns GM Andrew Berry's top lieutenants. Adofo-Mensah's title is vice president of foootball operations. Cook's title is vice president of player personnel.
John Johnson III says Kevin Stefanski joked with him about 'RUN THE DAMN BALL' tweet
As Johnson sat out a 24-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day because of a hamstring injury, he tweeted “RUN THE DAMN BALL” after Mayfield threw one of his four interceptions in the game.
On Dec. 30, Stefanski said he talked to Johnson about the play-calling critique but opted to keep the details of the conversation “internal.”
Johnson shared his side of the story Monday.
“It was jokingly,” Johnson said. “[Stefanski] said something to me about it. He just didn’t really like that it was kind of public. He kind of wanted to keep comments like that in-house. But it wasn’t anything bad.
“Everybody has opinions and feelings, and I was watching the game as a fan and it was just kind of like, it was early in the game, Chubb had six touches for 80 yards, that’s all I saw. So I was just like, 'Get him the ball.' I think he’s one of the best running backs in the league, if not the best, so it wasn’t anything personal or bad. But we chopped it up.”
John Johnson III wants to do yoga at Cleveland Browns headquarters
Johnson revealed he offered specific suggestions in his exit meetings with Browns coaches and officials.
"The biggest thing for me was just being proactive about our health, our bodies, like soft-tissue stuff, Johnson said. "... I think we can get a yoga instructor in here to work on our flexibility. I think our relationship with the [athletic] training staff could be a whole lot better. Just staying proactive about things, getting guys in there who probably wouldn’t until they’re hurt. Just try to implement a plan for each individual guy on the team. I think that goes a long way. I think sport science is huge, just like doing vision training, hand-eye coordination, balance. I think all that stuff plays a part in staying healthy and just being a better overall team.”
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A Browns spokesperson said COVID-19 protocols have limited who the team can bring into its training facility, but the club has an athletic trainer on staff who is a certified yoga instructor. The team's specialists did yoga with the athletic trainer throughout the season, the spokesperson said.
"I think you are a limited there in terms of who you can bring in with protocols, and we are always going to be searching for new and better ways to do things. We'll want to look at some of the soft-tissue injuries that we had and prevent the ones that are preventable, if you can. So certainly we'll look at all those things, and I'm always looking for our players to chime in on suggestions."
Browns' Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah absorbing kick to shin another bizarre moment eliciting 'giggles' in hindsight
Browns rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah suffered a shin injury early in the second half of Sunday's 21-16 win over the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (10-7) in Cleveland's season finale at FirstEnergy Stadium. Owusu-Koramoah walked to the locker room with medical personnel with about seven minutes remaining in the third quarter and never returned to the game.
“Man, buddy kicked me something crazy yesterday,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Put me out of the game. My shin’s feeling better. Got up and I was feeling a little better. But yesterday, I was bad. I never had nothing freaky like that happen before.”
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Owusu-Koramoah had a few odd setbacks in his first NFL season. A weightlifting accident led to stitches in his forehead during training camp, and he went to the hospital with a throat contusion after a Week 5 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“This year was a good experience year to be able to see all these freak things happen and say, ‘OK, well, if I get off of this pull-up bar this way, or if I push this guy out of bounds this way, I can maneuver a certain way,’” Owusu-Koramoah said. “So it's just all a learning lesson.”
Owusu-Koramoah doesn't think missing games is funny, but he conceded he can now maybe have “a couple of giggles” while thinking about the bizarre moments.
Cleveland Browns sign eight players who ended season on practice squad
The Browns signed the following players to reserve/future contracts: tight ends Miller Forristall and Nick Guggemos, guards Hjalte Froholdt and David Moore, cornerback Nate Meadors, fullback Johnny Stanton IV, offensive tackle Alex Taylor and defensive end Curtis Weaver.
All of them finished the 2021 season on the Browns’ practice squad.
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.