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Instead, they were eliminated from postseason contention with two games left and finished the 2021 season with a record of 8-9.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield's poor performance in an injury-plagued season is the No. 1 reason for the franchise's flop.
The completely torn shoulder labrum Mayfield endured since Week 2, the fractured humerus bone he suffered in the same left, non-throwing shoulder in Week 6, the shoulder harness he wore for virtually the entire season and the lower-body injuries (left heel, right knee, groin) he dealt with in parts of the back half of the schedule clearly affected his accuracy as a passer.
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But injuries weren't the only reasons Mayfield regressed from the previous season.
The team's unmet expectations aren't all Mayfield's fault, either.
Here's a snapshot of what went wrong.
The Cleveland Browns fielded a broken passing game
Mayfield struggled with decision-making, field vision, pocket awareness, timely releases and comfort and confidence in coach Kevin Stefanski's offense. His footwork and other mechanics lapsed. Batted passes, interceptions and sacks happen. They happened too often for him, with defensive coordinators well aware of how to bottle him up in the pocket, attack with pressure and disguise coverages.
Mayfield finished 30th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks in ProFootballFocus.com's grades. The previous season, he was eighth of 38.
Pro-Football-Reference.com tracks the percentage of on-target throws per pass attempt, excluding spikes and throwaways. Mayfield ranked 27th in the NFL at 73.6%. Only three quarterbacks had more batted passes than his 11 and just three took more sacks than his 43. He tied for ninth-most in interceptions with 13 but played 14 of 17 games. The only QBs who threw more interceptions played at least 16 games.
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Even when Mayfield was accurate, Browns pass-catchers let him down by dropping 5% of his targets. Only 10 quarterbacks had it worse in that category.
The Browns had more dropped passes (25) than broken tackles on receptions (21).
No. 1 tight end Austin Hooper led the team with six drops (9.8% of his targets).
No. 1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry had just two drops, but the passer rating of Browns quarterbacks when targeting him was 62.9, worse than everyone on the team except for rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz (59.1).
Schwartz stopped short while running a route in Week 2 against the Houston Texans, and the pass intended for him was intercepted by safety Justin Reid. Mayfield suffered the torn labrum while attempting a tackle on the interception return.
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Odell Beckham Jr. divorced the Browns
Landry wouldn't have been in the top receiver role if close friend Odell Beckham Jr. hadn't given up on Mayfield and the Browns in early November.
With Beckham out due to a torn ACL, Mayfield got hot in the second half of the 2020 season and helped the Browns go 12-6, including 1-1 in the playoffs.
There was no repeat.
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With Beckham forcing his way out of Cleveland in 2021, the void in the receiving corps proved to be crippling.
In OBJ's six games with the Browns in 2021, he caught 17 passes on 34 targets for 232 yards without a touchdown. In his seven regular-season games with the Los Angeles Rams, he caught 25 passes on 43 targets for 287 yards and five touchdowns. He added four receptions on four targets for 54 yards and a touchdown to go along with a 40-yard pass Monday night in the Rams' 34-11 win over the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
— NFL (@NFL) January 18, 2022
No Browns player caught five touchdowns in 2021. Tight end David Njoku led the team with four.
Landry led the Browns in catches (52) and receiving yards (570).
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Injuries and COVID-19 hit the Cleveland Browns hard
We all know every football team has injuries. The Browns certainly did, and they had their roster decimated by COVID-19 for a 16-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 20 and a 24-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day.
They had 22 and 15 players missing due to the virus against the Raiders and Packers, respectively. Mayfield and backup quarterback Case Keenum were among the players who were sidelined for the Raiders game, leaving third-string QB Nick Mullens to start.
As for some of the key injuries ...
• Mayfield will undergo shoulder surgery on Wednesday.
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• Two-time All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin missed 10 games and had surgery on a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee.
• Swing tackle Chris Hubbard missed 16 games and had triceps surgery.
• No. 3 defensive end Takk McKinley missed six games and had surgery on a ruptured Achilles tendon.
• Star running back Kareem Hunt missed nine games with calf and ankle injuries.
• Linebacker Jacob Phillips missed 13 games because of a torn biceps and COVID-19.
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• Five-time Pro Bowl selection Landry (knee, COVID-19), rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II (calf, concussion, COVID-19), safety Ronnie Harrison (ankle, COVID-19) and nickelback Troy Hill (neck, knee, COVID-19) missed five games apiece.
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• Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (ankle, COVID-19) and linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (hamstring, COVID-19) both missed four games.
• Three-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb (calf, COVID-19), receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones (groin) and Schwartz (concussion), three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (knee, COVID-19) and rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (ankle) missed three games apiece.
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Browns offensive tackles were in and out of lineup
Notice the top three offensive tackles — Conklin, Wills and Hubbard — missed significant time. That contributed to seven different starting offensive line combinations being used. The Browns had their regular starting five on the O-line — Conklin, Wills, guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller and center JC Tretter — in only six of 17 games.
Furthermore, ankle injuries Wills suffered prevented him from finishing any of his first four games.
ProFootballFocus.com still ranked the Browns' offensive line as eighth-best in the league, but it was obvious Mayfield didn't trust the protection of Blake Hance and James Hudson III, the tackles down the depth chart who were forced to play quite a bit. Conklin finished 18th among 85 qualifying tackles in PFF's grades. Wills was 55th, Hudson 74th and Hance 76th.
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Questionable coaching decisions hurt the Cleveland Browns
The defense and running game were certainly the strengths of the team, as evidenced by the Browns ranking fifth in fewest yards (311.5) and tying for 13th in fewest points (21.8) allowed per game. They finished fourth in rushing yards (145.4 per game) compared with 27th in passing yards (195.3). They were 20th in points scored per game (20.5).
The individual accolades of players supports this, too.
Pro Bowl selections went to left guard Bitonio (fourth time in career), defensive end Myles Garrett (third), running back Chubb (third), cornerback Denzel Ward (second) and right guard Teller (first). Bitonio and Garrett were voted first-team All Pro and Teller second-team All Pro.
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But there were times the Browns' strengths transformed into weaknesses.
Broken coverages and miscommunication crushed the defense in 47-42 and 37-14 losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Cardinals in Weeks 5 and 6. Garrett pointed to a lack of adjustments by defensive coordinator Joe Woods for the reason the Browns had no chance in a 45-7 blowout defeat against the New England Patriots in Week 10.
The running game produced fewer than 100 yards six times. The Browns were 0-6 in those games. Only two of them were lopsided.
And don't even get Mayfield started on the plan to block Pittsburgh Steelers star edge rusher T.J. Watt without providing adequate assistance to Hudson in a 26-14 loss in Week 17.
The Cleveland Browns' play calling fell short in big moments
The debacle in Pittsburgh brings us to the play calling of Stefanski, especially late in games.
On third-and-9 from the Cleveland 15-yard line, he called a draw against the Chargers, and Hunt picked up only 3 yards. After a punt, the Chargers took over at the Cleveland 48 with 2:02 left to play and marched for the game-winning touchdown.
Stefanski was out versus the Raiders due to COVID-19, so offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt stepped in as the play caller and went with three consecutive Chubb runs after an interception by cornerback Greedy Williams had given the Browns possession at their 23 with 2:47 left and a 14-13 lead.
On one hand, Chubb is the offense's best skill player. On the other hand, the Raiders were convinced Chubb would run the ball on third-and-3 — star end Maxx Crosby said so afterward — and they stuffed him for no gain and a three-and-out. Mullens had just gone 6-of-7 passing for 56 yards and a touchdown on the previous possession, but he got no opportunity to throw when the Browns needed to move the chains and wind down the clock. The Browns punted, and the Raiders marched for a game-winning 48-yard field goal.
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With Stefanski back five days later against the Packers, he took the opposite approach from Van Pelt on the offense's final three downs, calling three consecutive passes from the 50, even though the Browns had three timeouts left, had been gashing the Packers on the ground (219 yards on 25 carries — 8.8 average) and just needed a field goal to pull out a huge upset in the final minute.
Mayfield had already thrown three interceptions, and he threw a fourth interception to end the game. In Stefanski's defense, an errant Mayfield pass missed a wide-open Njoku for a would-be first down on the first play in the sequence.
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Execution in the clutch was a problem for coaches and players.
The Browns went 0-for-5 on chances to produce a go-ahead score in the final minutes, and they lost six games by six points or fewer.
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Chase McLaughlin slumped and the Browns suffered from kicking woes
Kicker Chase McLaughlin struggled after a strong first half of the season and missed a 47-yard field goal just before halftime in the two-point loss to Raiders.
His successful 46-yard field goal in a 16-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens gave the Browns their only points off four Lamar Jackson interceptions, but he missed from the same distance on the game's opening series in Week 12.
With McLaughlin out due to COVID-19, Chris Naggar was summoned from the practice squad to face the Packers, and Stefanski felt pressure to pass in crunch time partly because he didn't want to leave the game in Naggar's hands. The Browns cut Naggar five days later.
McLaughlin finished the season 15-of-21 on field goals and 36-of-37 on extra points.
Blown calls by officials haunted the Cleveland Browns
There is no doubt the 0-for-5 stat pertaining to potential game-winning drives hangs over Mayfield more than anyone.
At the same time, it's true Landry lost a fumble and dropped a pass for a turnover on downs with the Browns threatening to score on two separate drives late in a 15-10 loss to the Steelers in Week 8.
And the decisive interception versus the Packers? The officials should have flagged cornerback Rasul Douglas for interfering with Peoples-Jones before he intercepted Mayfield's pass with 43 seconds remaining.
— Jon Doss (@JonDoss) October 10, 2021
The craziest call, though, happened against the Chargers.
When the Chargers went for it on fourth-and-4 from their 41, receiver Mike Williams blatantly grabbed and pulled Browns cornerback A.J. Green's jersey on a deep incomplete pass. Somehow, Green was penalized for pass interference instead of Williams, and the Chargers were granted 33 yards and a first down. Five plays later, they scored a touchdown and tied the score 35-35 with 7:24 left to play.
Later, on the Browns' penultimate possession, they thought the officials missed two pass interference penalties on the Chargers defense during the same play.
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The adage about not leaving it in the hands of the officials rings true.
If Mayfield and Njoku had connected on first down from the 50 at Lambeau Field, there would have been no missed pass interference on the third-down interception. If the Browns hadn't blown coverages on touchdown passes of 72 and 42 yards to Williams earlier in their five-point loss to the Chargers, they could have survived awful officiating.
Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve ...
The bottom line is the Browns are watching the playoffs from their couches when they expected to have Northeast Ohio in a frenzy.
What a waste of talent.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: More than Baker Mayfield, poor play-calling doomed the Browns