Last year was a good year for the Cleveland Browns – Baker Mayfield’s coming out party, a defense that could make plays and keep the Browns competitive, and a lot of close games, some of which they actually won. There were some hiccups (what was the name of that quarterback from Buffalo who got hurt? It started with a “T,”), and some disappointments (Josh Gordon!).
We also had a pretty good offseason, with some key additions (like our new head coach, pass rushers like Olivier Vernon, and one of the best wide receivers in the game) and a few departures (Duke! And Kevin Zeitler.).
So, now, the Browns are suddenly tied for the fifth-best odds to win the Super Bowl, according to Oddsshark.com. Who are they tied with? The Bears, who have an outstanding shut-down defense, and the Eagles, who won the Super Bowl only a few seasons ago.
While the Browns finished solidly in the middle of the standings, and drafted in the middle – not at the top – for once, they might not quite deserve odds like this. I think everyone in Cleveland wants to see them win the Super Bowl this year, but they remain unproven. It might be premature to rank them among the best in the league. It’s true that they’ve improved significantly, but let’s calm down a little. I’m not saying that things are going to slide back into what they were before. But we might not run the table this year.
Of course, when people are excited about your team, things start to happen that didn’t happen before. The most obvious thing is that people are talking about the Browns. I mean, like, everyone. ESPN is having regular conversations with itself about them, and several anchors (like Mike Greenberg) have said they are excited about the Browns and expect great things. Some, like Colin Cowherd, are a bit more realistic. Cowherd isn’t predicting that the Browns will fail utterly, or that they will win the Super Bowl. He makes a reasonable prediction that the Browns will struggle early in the season, “get hot” in the middle, and then “crash” in the playoffs. Cowherd, though, appears to be more the exception than the rule.
While it’s true that sportswriters and people like Colin Cowherd are going to talk about football all day and probably never affect the outcome of anything, some of this hype can have real consequences for the Browns. Their improved record and reputation has earned them a harder schedule than last year (their two games based on their previous record will be the Broncos and Titans), and they play the NFC West and AFC East. This means that they have to play the Patriots and Rams, as well as the Seahawks. (Fortunately, so does everyone else in the AFC North.)
But this hype has also given them many more nationally-televised games. The Browns have two scheduled Monday Night Football games (against the Jets and the 49ers), a Sunday night game against the Rams, and a Thursday night game against the Steelers. They played an important game on Thursday night last year (it was their first win of the last two years, so it was a big night against the Jets), but they didn’t play ANY Monday Night Football games in 2018, 2017, or 2016.
While playing Monday Night Football doesn’t make them a great team, there’s definitely a different atmosphere on a Monday Night. Perhaps most importantly, some players shine in the national spotlight. Players who crave attention and drama. I’m thinking of Randy Moss, Tom Brady, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice, and perhaps, Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham, Jr.
The September 16th Monday Night Football game is almost a story in itself. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Monday Night series, and it will feature the two teams – the Jets and the Browns – who launched the program in 1970. It will also feature a former New York Giant, returning to his home stadium (MetLife Stadium), with a huge chip on his shoulder. And, the last time Beckham played on Monday Night Football, he had over 140 yards in receiving and set a record for the fastest receiver to reach 5,000 yards in his career.
I don’t think I’m off base in saying that Baker Mayfield, who has never played on Monday Night, might also want to make a statement.
The hype helped the Browns get two shots at Monday Night Football this year. I suppose it helps that they also played several nail-bitingly close games last year, and won or lost in spectacular fashion several times. (How many missed field goals were there again?)
The national spotlight gives the Browns a chance to make a strong statement about their new identity. They are a team that can win. There are lots of people who doubt their consistency and their experience (maybe even me), but they now have a venue where everyone can see who they are.
I think what Browns fans really want, maybe even more than they want a Super Bowl, is to have a team that has a chance every year. Okay, maybe not more than a Super Bowl, but I’m pretty sure Browns fans wouldn’t be very happy about a Florida Marlins-style win (winning the World Series, then having the worst record in baseball the following year). Browns fans want a dynasty – old-school Otto Graham style (six straight NFL Championship games, and three titles), and the young core of this team has a chance to become exactly that.
So I think this is the year that the Browns change their reputation, permanently. It might be a stretch to say that they will win the Super Bowl this year – although I would absolutely love to see them do that. It’s not a stretch, though, to say they have a good shot at winning the whole thing two or three times in the next five or six years. When you’ve been winning for a few years, it’s no longer hype. It’s who you are.