Browns show progress, still in AFC playoff hunt at bye week

·4 min read

CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield's evaluation to determine if he's the Browns' franchise quarterback was a primary objective heading into this season.

Halfway through it, Cleveland has another surprising goal: the playoffs.

At 5-3 under new coach Kevin Stefanski, the Browns are in position to possibly end an 18-year absence from the NFL's post-season . It's the longest current drought in the league, and it would have been hard to imagine the team being in this spot after going 6-10 last season, firing another coach and overhauling the front office — again.

Well, add the Browns' resurgence to the list of 2020 oddities.

As the team reached a welcomed bye week that will allow injuries to heal while alive in the playoff chase, Andrew Berry, the club's first-time general manager and executive vice-president , expressed optimism about the Browns' present and future.

“We are feeling encouraged but incomplete,” Berry said, using a phrase that blankets Mayfield's situation and Cleveland's roster as well.

The offence , without star running back Nick Chubb for a month and which won't have deep threat Odell Beckham Jr. the rest of the way, has been plagued by inconsistency. The defence may force turnovers, but it allows too many points, and if not for standout end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, is a mess.

Like so many other teams this season, its difficult to predict how the Browns will look week to week.

Stefanski didn't want “to go there” earlier this week when asked about his team's strengths, weaknesses or progress. Suffice to say, the Browns have plenty of room to grow.

“I know there are certain areas that I think we are good at, but we need to get better at those things,” Stefanski said.

It's been a long time since the Browns, who didn't win a game three years ago and haven't won more than seven since 2007, were in this position. The opportunity isn't lost on Berry, but he's preaching patience and perspective.

“I am not naive to the fact that really a playoff appearance for any franchise is special because each season really is sacred and the chance to compete and ultimately get in the tournament," he said. "That all being said, our focus is really on attacking our opponents one week at a time and taking care of the little things on a weekly basis, because if we are able to successfully accomplish that, the big things will take care of themselves.”

Mayfield qualifies as a “big thing.”

The third-year quarterback has shown some growth after a rough 2019 season, but it's still not a given that the Browns are sold on Mayfield as their long-term solution.

He's been up, down and sideways.

Mayfield has made better decisions with the ball, but there are still too many times when he forces throws into tight spaces and pays the price. His statistics (15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 61% completions) are pedestrian, but the bottom line is that he's led the Browns to five wins.

“Baker has done a nice job,? Berry said while making other measured comments about Mayfield. ”He’s done a nice job of learning the system and getting more comfortable in the system, and again, ultimately putting the team in a position to win. We are certainly pleased with him from that perspective.”

But Mayfield didn't play well — none of the Browns did — in two blowout losses against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which outscored Cleveland by a combined 76-13 and showed there's still a sizeable gap between the top and bottom of the AFC North.

Those performances raised concerns about Mayfield, but Berry attributed some of the QB's overall inconsistency “to unprecedented year within the NFL.”

Once the season ends, the Browns will have decisions to make on Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. He'll be eligible for an extension, and the team will must choose by May 1 whether to pick up his guaranteed fifth-year option, worth $25 million or more.

Mayfield can make his case over the final eight games. Berry, though, insists he doesn't look at the remaining games as an audition to cement Mayfield's future.

“I really do not get too caught up in that type of narrative,” he said. "All I know is that I think Baker has played well and he has done a nice job during these first eight weeks. He has allowed us to play winning football. We’ve had winning football from (the quarterback) position. Expect him to keep doing that over the second half of the year.

“And look, we’re going to be in a good place as a team and organization if that is the case.”

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Tom Withers, The Associated Press