To be fair, there is still a chance the Browns can make the playoffs, especially if both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers lose on Sunday. But in all likelihood, the Browns will miss the playoffs in a year when they should not. Cleveland has the talent to make the playoffs — they always have. The Steelers are extremely vulnerable, and the Ravens are a solid team but are not a dynamic one. Under poor coaching, the Browns stumbled to start the season, which put them in a hole they couldn’t overcome.
The Browns are 4-2 since firing Hue Jackson. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cincinnati Bengals are 0-4 since hiring Jackson. Coach Gregg Williams, who rose from his role as a defensive coordinator, has turned around the Browns’ season. It’s not totally clear what’s made the biggest difference: Williams’ competence or the absence Jackson’s profound incompetence.
The defense is allowing 23 points per game without Jackson (including games against Houston and Kansas City). In the eight games under Jackson, they allowed 26.3. The offense is scoring 23.3 points per game in their six weeks under Williams. They scored 21 points per game under Jackson. A five point differential is tremendous. The Browns tied the Steelers, a division rival, in Week 1. The Browns lost by three points to the New Orleans Saints in Week 2, the Oakland Raiders in Week 4 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7.
How many games could have gone in the Browns’ favor under different leadership?
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is thriving without Jackson, with his statistics popping since Jackson departed Cleveland. Admittedly, Mayfield is likely getting more comfortable as his first NFL season goes on, but the improvements in recent weeks are drastic, including his 8.7 yards per attempt under Williams which is up from 6.6 under Jackson.
Mayfield’s performance against the Broncos in Denver wasn’t his best, but few quarterbacks perform well at Mile High Stadium (in large part because it’s at a mile-high altitude). Mayfield’s 188 yards, two touchdowns and one interception proved enough for the Browns to hold off the Broncos, whose playoffs chances — which were about as low as the Browns’ — are now caput.
Cleveland’s win included a touchdown from Breshad Perriman, a Ravens’ first-round bust. Despite joining the Browns midseason, which can make learning the offense complicated, Perriman has looked better than he ever looked in Baltimore. That kind of reclamation project is what teams used to do to the Browns. A team like the New England Patriots would steal away a former Cleveland draft pick, and turn him into a solid contributor. It’s one of the many reversals happening for the Browns.
It’s a shame that these reversals are happening at the end of the season. Cleveland deserves a playoff team, and the 2018 Browns are proving they would have delivered, if not held back by Jackson.