CLEVELAND, Ohio – “How will the Browns handle adversity?”
That was one of the big themes of my Thursday interview with general manager Andrew Berry as his Browns open the 2022 season in Carolina Sunday.
The purpose of our talk was not a go over the the disappointing 8-9 season in 2021 once again, or to rehash the Deshaun Watson trade. In the past, Berry made it clear they wanted an upgrade at QB. The Browns also were willing to ride out some type of suspension this season because they view Watson as a long-term answer at the position.
But what about this season?
How do the Browns handle trying to make the playoffs with Watson suspended for 11 games and Jacoby Brissett starting at QB? What can be learned from last year and what needs to improve?
“How well a team handles adversity is a signature for probably every team that makes it to the playoffs,” said Berry. “It doesn’t matter who you are … a 3-14 team or a 14-3 team … you are going to have it.”
In 2020 under COVID-19 conditions and with a rookie head coach in Kevin Stefanski, the team remained poised. The Browns were 11-5, made the playoffs and beat Pittsburgh in the first round. Stefanski was the NFL Coach of the Year.
The Browns were correctly praised for how they bounced back from the controversy and emotional problems of their 6-10 season in 2019 under former coach Freddie Kitchens. For example, the Browns were penalized for 1,106 yards in 2019. They cut it to 870 in 2020.
PROBLEMS AROSE IN 2021
But in 2021, there were times when QB Baker Mayfield and coaches were at odds. There were some fractures in the locker room between Odell Beckham Jr. and Mayfield about Beckham not being targeted with enough passes.
When I asked Berry about adversity issues, he first talked about games the Browns did win under less than ideal condition such as a victory over Denver with Case Keenum starting in place of Mayfield and D’Ernest Johnson taking over for the injured Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back. He also mentioned a victory in Cincinnati “when a lot of attention was focused on the Odell situation.”
As I pressed Berry on the adversity issue, he admitted, “On the flip side, late in the season in key situations and moments, we didn’t respond favorably … so overall, it was mixed.”
A revealing statistic is penalty yardage: In 2021, the Browns were penalized for 1,035 yards. Yes, there was one more game in 2021, but the increase of 155 more penalty yards is a problem for the Browns.
“(Cutting down penalties) was a major emphasis for Kevin and the staff this training camp and preseason,” said Berry. “Several team meetings have had that as a central focal point to address that very issue.”
Berry said the coaches spent time in the offseason studying the penalties and how to improve.
“Kevin has implemented a few position-specific things in practice,” he said. “The intent is to decrease the penalty types that were most frequent for us. We also looked at the ones that officials will have as a point of emphasis this season. We realize it is the type of hidden yardage that can have a significant impact on the outcome of games.”
THE BIG DECISION ON BRISSETT
Berry had a verbal agreement with Brissett to replace Case Keenum as the backup QB even before the Deshaun Watson trade was finalized. Brissett is Berry’s guy for that job – and as a starter when needed.
He decided against trading for Jimmy Garoppolo. He has made a commitment to Joshua Dobbs as the backup QB.
“Jacoby is smart and a good decision maker,” said Berry. “He takes care of the football. He has strong leadership skills. We believe his skill-set on the field, in the locker room and within the organization is something we can win with.”
Brissett has a 14-23 record as a starter. More recent, it’s 9-11 in the last three years with Indianapolis and Miami. In those 20 games, he threw 23 TDs compared to 10 interceptions … completing 61% of his passes.
“(Before signing Brissett), we put a lot of work into finding out what kind of guy he was in the building and how he has been able to navigate some very tough circumstances,” said Berry. “He also fits very well with the things we emphasize most on offense.”
That means staying away from turnovers and having the offense look organized and crisp.
As for Dobbs, he has thrown only 17 regular-season passes in five NFL years. He became one of the most pleasant surprises in training camp.
“He’s come a long way in his career,” said Berry. “His intelligence, his mobility and his play-making skills are why he’s truly won the backup quarterback job – as opposed to someone giving it to him. Sometimes, you have to give a guy an opportunity and watch him run with it.”
HOW TO WIN IN 2022
Part of the reason for dwelling on penalty yardage is the need for the Browns to play cleaner, smarter football in 2022. That’s especially true with Brissett as the starter.
“In 2020, we won by primarily out-gunning opponents – playing really well on offense, and being opportunistic on defense,” said Berry. “Last year, it often was the defense that carried the water for us.”
Berry kept returning to his “every year is different” theme. He is happy the Browns have most of their starters back on defense. A year ago, they opened with eight new starters and it wasn’t until midseason the defense truly came together.
“We have a good young core of players,” he said. “But we have to go out there and do it. Last year, we had all the starters coming back on offense. We were optimistic that group would take off. But it wasn’t as productive as we’d hoped.”
The Browns defense ranked No. 4 in efficiency according to Pro Football Focus. They were No. 5 in fewest yards allowed. But the offense ranked No. 20 in points per game.
“As we look at this season, we have the players to win games in a variety of ways,” said Berry. “It can be on offense, defense or the kicking game. In the past, we were more lopsided. Now, we’re more versatile.”
The Browns have a strong running game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. There’s a sense more can come from using tight ends David Njoku and Harrison Bryant in the passing game. They also added three-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper.
“Our mentality is to roll with the punches,” said Berry. “Be flexible, adapt to whatever circumstances and adversity comes along. Adaptability is ultimately what helps you navigate a season.”
TIME FOR SPECIAL TEAMS
Berry said, more than ever, each week the Browns are looking at “what it takes to win that game … go 1-0, as Kevin says. It’s a specific mindset of how to win that particular game.”
That’s why the Browns spent a fourth-round pick on kicker Cade York. They had the NFL’s lowest field goal conversion rate (71%) last season. Berry signed veteran punter Corey Bojorquez. He also signed Pro Bowl return man Jakeem Grant Sr., but he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in training camp.
“Upgrading the special teams was a major emphasis for us,” said Berry. “Cade York has been excellent. Everyone who follows the Browns knows kicking at FirstEnergy Stadium is a different challenge than most others in the league. The real test will come in the regular season, but we have a lot of confidence in Cade.”
ABOUT KEVIN STEFANSKI
In 2020, Stefanski was the NFL Coach of the Year. In 2021, the Browns were one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. Stefanski has had a lot challenges preparing two QBs for this season.
“One of the things I appreciate the most in Kevin is his growth mindset,” said Berry. “It’s not just in terms of getting better in Xs and Os, but what things can I take from colleges and other NFL teams to get better in terms of leadership and communication skills.”
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam believe they have found “alignment” with the combination of chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, Berry and Stefanski. Despite the problems in 2021, there weren’t the usual reports of a split between the front office and coaching staff as has haunted Browns teams in the past.
Berry kept stressing “the growth” he’s seen in Stefanski. They are a young combination, Stefanski is 40 and Berry is 35. The GM believes in his head coach calling the plays on offense.
“He’s proven he can handle the leadership and game management demands of being a head coach alongside being the primary offensive play caller,” said Berry “He’s smart, creative and always looking for areas to improve and grow. Because of that, I think we’ll be able to adapt and evolve — and hopefully be in front of — the schematic trends of the sport.”
WAITING FOR WATSON
Berry said the Browns are determined not to view the season as waiting for Watson’s 11-game suspension to end – or that the QB will be the team savior.
“I’m not worried about that (mindset) because our locker room is strong and good,” he said. “I understand a lot has been said and written about it externally. But internally, that’s not the focus at all.”
That said, there will be this sense of “Waiting for Watson” hanging over the Browns each week. After all, the Browns gave him the NFL’s highest guaranteed contract ($230 million) and traded six draft picks (including three first-rounders) to Houston for him.
The media and fans spend a lot of time speculating on what the Browns record needs to be in those 11 games Watson is sitting out – how many wins are necessary to keep the team in playoff contention?
“Everyone realizes it’s a quarterback dominated league,” said Berry. “That’s especially true at the highest level of the sport at the most critical moments. But there are 52 other guys. Certainly the quarterback has a major impact on a team’s success, but it’s not the only thing.”
That’s another theme for this season: playing good football in every aspect of the game. It has to be more than all about the quarterback.
“I don’t think there is one person or player (who) can save a season for a team,” said Berry. “It’s still the consummate team sport.”
ABOUT BAKER MAYFIELD
After our initial conversation, I followed up with text to Berry about Mayfield.
The QB ended up being traded to Carolina in a complicated transaction where the Browns are paying $10.5 million of Mayfield’s salary. Mayfield agreed to take a $3.5 million pay cut. Carolina is paying Mayfield $5 million and sent a conditional fifth-round draft pick to Cleveland. If Mayfield plays 70% of the snaps, it becomes a fourth-rounder.
In true NFL theater fashion, the Browns open the season Sunday in Carolina against Mayfield.
“My feelings are of goodwill and the hope of success as Baker starts this new chapter of his career,” texted Berry. “He’s a quality person and player. Player turnover happens every season but it’s particularly challenging for any organization transitioning away from a starting QB with whom you shared some special memories and whose work was a big factor in the team’s success. The only time I won’t be rooting for him is Sunday.”
WHAT ARE FAIR EXPECTATIONS?
The Las Vegas odds makers have the Browns winning 8.5 games this season. That basically means they consider Cleveland a .500 team. But since the season is 17 games, they came up with 8.5.
Berry is far too smart to promise the playoffs or predict a record.
“It’s a humbling profession because you are going to get surprises in both directions,” he said. “We don’t get caught up in preseason expectations or prognostications. The margins (of winning) are so thin in the NFL. You have to go perform each week.”
But Berry does want the team to cut down on the penalties. He wants the team to handle the inevitable adversity better than it did a year ago. He believes the team can win in a variety of ways because the roster does have a lot of talent.
“We have to take care of our business and our responsibilities,” he said. “We’re not in position in Week 1 to clinch a playoff spot. But we are in position to focus on the upcoming opponent. What do we have to do to win this game … this week … that’s our mantra for the season.”
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