Browns by the numbers: Breaking down Cleveland’s best season in more than a decade

In a year of expecting the unexpected, the Cleveland Browns consistently winning football games has to rank pretty high on the list.

The Browns enter Week 14 of the 2020 NFL season with a 9-3 record, good for second place in the AFC North and currently sitting pretty in the top AFC Wild Card spot. Cleveland has already guaranteed its first winning record in more than a decade, and now it’s trying to secure its first playoff berth in even longer. 

Maybe some analytics would point to luck being on Cleveland’s side, but even that in itself is remarkable. Baker Mayfield has found a happy medium as the Browns’ quarterback, often content to hand off to the dominant rushing duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Put it all together and you’ve got a Cleveland Browns season for the ages.

MORE: Baker Mayfield quotes Dwight Schrute to explain recent success

When was the Browns’ last winning record?

The last time the Browns finished with a winning record was 2007, when Cleveland went 10-6 but missed out on the playoffs due to losing a tiebreaker with the 10-6 Tennessee Titans.

The 2007 Browns were coached by Romeo Crennel and quarterbacked by Derek Anderson (pictured below). Charlie Frye started the season-opener against the Steelers and struggled enough to be replaced by Anderson, who started the final 15 games of the year. Anderson made the Pro Bowl on the back of 29 touchdown passes and 3,787 passing yards.

Other standouts on the 2007 Cleveland roster were running back Jamal Lewis (1,304 rushing yards), receiver Braylon Edwards (1,289 receiving yards), tight end Kellen Winslow (82 catches), linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (101 tackles) and cornerback Leigh Bodden (six interceptions).

And for a bit of further perspective for if Cleveland keeps winning games in 2020: The last time the Browns had more than 10 wins was an 11-win season in 1994, a year before the original franchise left for Baltimore. 

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When was the Browns’ last playoff appearance?

You have to go back to 2002 to find the last season the Browns made the playoffs. They went 9-7 that year to grab a Wild Card spot behind coach Butch Davis and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

Cleveland lost in the wild-card round to divisional rivals Pittsburgh, 36-33. The Steelers scored the game-winning touchdown with 54 seconds remaining. 

Tim Couch quarterbacked Cleveland for most of the 2002 season but broke his leg on Dec. 30, meaning Kelly Holcomb started the playoff game. That Browns team also featured running back William Green, receivers Kevin Johnson and Quincy Morgan, linebacker Earl Holmes and defensive end Mark Word.

Two-headed rushing dominance

There are plenty of reasons the Browns have been so good in 2020, but if you’ve got to point to one area, it’s the backfield. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have formed arguably the best 1-2 punch of running backs in the NFL.

Through Week 13, Chubb leads Cleveland with 799 rushing yards, and Hunt is right behind him with another 737 yards on the ground. Those marks rank fifth and 10th in the NFL, respectively. The running backs have prevented Baker Mayfield from feeling he has to do too much, and instead have made the play-action passes called by Kevin Stefanski that much more dangerous. 

The Browns enter Week 14 at No. 2 in the league in rushing offense. The last time they finished a season second or better in rushing yardage was 1967, when their backfield combination was Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green and they rushed for the most yards in the NFL. Cleveland actually led the league in rushing three-straight years culminating in 1967, a streak started when Jim Brown was still the Browns running back.

To put in perspective how long ago 1967 was, that was the year of the first Super Bowl, gas was 33 cents per gallon and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

So Cleveland literally has its best backfield in generations. No wonder the Browns are having an unusually great season.

Winning close games and holding leads

The Browns enter Week 14 of the 2020 season with a negative-15 point differential, meaning their opponents have outscored them by 15 points this season. That’s really attributable to Cleveland’s three losses, all relative blowouts — 38-6 to the Ravens, 38-7 to the Steelers and 16-6 to the Raiders.

But what that also means is that Cleveland has had to hang on in close games. In a city associated with things like “The Drive” and “The Shot,” there’s almost an assumption that leads will be blown. But the Browns have held firm in 2020.

Six of Cleveland’s nine wins have come by less than a touchdown, including all four in the Browns’ four-game winning streak from Weeks 10 through 13. There’ve also been two huge early leads, against the Cowboys and the Titans, which nearly were blown, but instead were finished off by Cleveland. Ask a Browns fan and they’ll say that in the past, those opponents would’ve come all the way back to win.

Maybe this all means that the Browns are getting lucky. Analytics would say that a team with a negative point differential should have a losing record, or at least something closer to it. But don’t tell that to this year’s Browns, who continue to defy recent franchise history and find ways to win.

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Baker Mayfield’s growth

When the Browns took Mayfield with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma, he was supposed to be the savior. His rookie season was encouraging, too, as he closed strong and more often than not overcame his gunslinging tendencies to make winning plays.

But 2019 was a step back for Mayfield and Cleveland despite the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. Mayfield’s 21 interceptions would’ve looked a lot worse if not for the season Jameis Winston had for the Buccaneers. Mayfield regressed in completion percentage, yards per attempt and sack percentage. All of a sudden, questions were raised about whether Mayfield could be the Browns’ franchise quarterback.

Mayfield hasn’t answered all the haters in 2020, but he’s done a pretty good job bouncing back. Some of his success has come from simplifying things and not trying to do too much. First-year head coach Kevin Stefanski has called on Mayfield to frequently manage the game and hand the ball off to Chubb and Hunt.

When Mayfield has been called on to do more, he’s delivered. He threw four touchdowns in the first half against the Titans in Week 13 in maybe his best NFL performance. Afterward, he summed it up with a Dwight Schrute quote from “The Office,” remarking that he thinks about what an idiot would do and tries not to do that. 

Considering Mayfield’s reputation as somewhat reckless, he might’ve provided more insight into his new mindset than he even meant to. As currently constructed, the Browns don’t need Mayfield to be a savior. They just need him to keep the hype train on the tracks.

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