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The Browns Are A Hot Super Bowl Pick For 2019. (Wait, What?)

Heading into last season, I wrote about the Cleveland Browns’ staggering run of futility since their pro football reincarnation in 1999. It didn’t seem possible that a team in the NFL, which devotes so much energy to promoting parity, could be so very bad for so very long. And yet, the Browns were coming off a 1-31 record over the 2016 and 2017 seasons — the worst two-year stretch by any team in league history. The ongoing fiasco in Cleveland had essentially left the franchise exactly where it had started off as an expansion team, nearly 20 years earlier.

But as it turns out, even the Browns couldn’t stay bad forever. The 2018 edition was markedly improved from a roster standpoint, was far more competitive on the field and — after a midseason crisis that saw coach Hue Jackson fired — finished strong with a 5-3 record to complete a 7-8-1 campaign, the team’s best showing in over a decade. And then Cleveland spent the offseason grabbing even more talent, trading for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and controversially signing former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who was suspended for the first half of the 2019 season after attacking a woman at a hotel last February. A Browns Super Bowl run, nigh-unthinkable a year ago, now has the ninth-best odds in the league according to the Vegas books.

So is it possible that the Browns are now … overrated?

Those top-10 Super Bowl odds might be a bit too favorable. Back in May, the indefatigable Chase Stuart measured the implied strength of every 2019 team by looking at game-by-game point spreads released by the oddsmakers at CG Technology. Cleveland is expected to have a per-game scoring margin of +0.8 points next season, but it also plays a schedule 0.5 points per game easier than the average NFL team. The resulting Simple Rating System score of +0.41 points above average per game is an improvement over the -0.3 produced by last year’s Browns … but it also projects to rank just 17th in the league. Cleveland has improved — but only into the NFL’s middle class alongside teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens.

The same goes for top-to-bottom assessments of the Browns’ roster. When Pro Football Focus graded each team’s roster last month, Cleveland ranked just 18th in the NFL, sandwiched between the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. Beckham rightly grades out as “elite,” and the Browns boast four other players — QB Baker Mayfield, RB Nick Chubb, DE Myles Garrett and incoming edge-rusher Olivier Vernon — who rate as “good.” But the rest of the team’s starters are all considered either average or below-average according to PFF’s grading system.

The 2019 Browns look like a middle-of-the-pack team

Composite ranking for 2019 NFL teams based on implied Simple Rating System (SRS) scores using Vegas lines and total team talent as ranked by Pro Football Focus’s grading system

Team Exp. SRS rank PFF Rank Avg. rank
New England Patriots 1 1 1
Los Angeles Rams 2 2 2
New Orleans Saints 4 3 3.5
Kansas City Chiefs 3 7 5
Los Angeles Chargers 5 6 5.5
Chicago Bears 6 5 5.5
Philadelphia Eagles 7 4 5.5
Indianapolis Colts 8 10 9
Minnesota Vikings 11 9 10
Pittsburgh Steelers 13 8 10.5
Green Bay Packers 9 14 11.5
Seattle Seahawks 10 13 11.5
Dallas Cowboys 12 12 12
Atlanta Falcons 16 11 13.5
Houston Texans 14 15 14.5
Baltimore Ravens 15 17 16
Cleveland Browns 17 18 17.5
Tennessee Titans 20 16 18
Carolina Panthers 18 21 19.5
Jacksonville Jaguars 21 19 20
San Francisco 49ers 19 24 21.5
Denver Broncos 22 22 22
Detroit Lions 25 20 22.5
Washington Redskins 26 23 24.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 26 25
New York Jets 23 31 27
Cincinnati Bengals 30 25 27.5
Buffalo Bills 27 29 28
Oakland Raiders 28 28 28
New York Giants 29 27 28
Miami Dolphins 31 30 30.5
Arizona Cardinals 32 32 32

Sources: FootballPerspective.com, CG Technology, ESPN, Pro Football Focus

It wouldn’t be too shocking if the Browns’ seemingly elite offseason haul doesn’t quite live up to expectations. In the past, my research has suggested that net offseason talent added2 has much less of an effect on a team’s performance in the following season than we might think. For every case in which a team adds a significant amount of talent and immediately improves (such as the 2001 Patriots or 1997 Chiefs), there are plenty of counterexamples (like Carolina in 1998 or Washington in 2000) in which a team picked up big names only to founder on the field. The NFL’s unforgiving salary cap and general unpredictability make it especially difficult for improvements on paper to translate into actual success — perhaps even if a team adds one of the league’s top offensive weapons to an already improving core.

But even if Cleveland’s title chances are somewhat overblown, this remains the most promising Browns team in a long time. According to our new quarterback-adjusted Elo ratings (which we’ve been working on over the summer and will explain in full depth soon),3 the Browns will enter this season with an effective rating of 1523 after adding in Mayfield’s adjustment. That still ranks only 16th in the league, but it is above the NFL average (of roughly 1505) and is easily the Browns’ rosiest outlook going into any season since the franchise was restored to existence:

This looks like the best team in New Browns history

Effective Elo ratings (including an adjustment for the opening-day starting quarterback) for the Cleveland Browns going into each season, since 1999

Elo
Rk Season Starting QB PPG vs. Avg* Base QB Adj. Effective
1 2019 B. Mayfield +0.2 1517 +6 1523
2 2003 K. Holcomb -1.5 1510 -6 1505
3 2008 D. Anderson -0.4 1501 0 1501
4 2004 J. Garcia +1.6 1465 +23 1489
5 2002 K. Holcomb -4.2 1484 -26 1458
6 2009 B. Quinn -1.5 1442 +4 1446
7 2015 J. McCown -2.5 1434 0 1434
8 2006 C. Frye -1.5 1434 -4 1430
9 2011 C. McCoy -2.1 1436 -6 1430
10 2013 B. Weeden -1.6 1415 -1 1414
11 2010 J. Delhomme -2.0 1409 0 1409
12 2007 C. Frye -1.2 1397 +1 1398
13 2012 B. Weeden -1.6 1398 -2 1396
14 2014 B. Hoyer -3.9 1420 -25 1395
15 2018 T. Taylor -1.1 1379 +9 1388
16 2005 T. Dilfer -2.1 1396 -13 1382
17 2016 R. Griffin -1.5 1368 -2 1366
18 2001 T. Couch -0.5 1358 +7 1365
19 2000 T. Couch -1.2 1350 -4 1347
20 2017 D. Kizer -3.1 1348 -14 1334
21 1999 T. Detmer -0.4 1300 -1 1299

* The amount we expect an average team’s point spread to change with the quarterback starting, relative to with an average NFL starter.

A quarterback’s Elo adjustment is based on how much his own rating exceeds a rolling average of the team’s QB performance (including passing and rushing stats).

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

As a rookie in 2018, Mayfield had one of the best quarterbacking seasons in Browns (old or new) history, across a number of metrics. His quarterback rating in our new Elo model (the equivalent of +0.3 points added above an average QB per game) was the best season-ending mark of any Cleveland QB4 since 1999. His 2019 season-opening rating of +0.25 will be the second-best of any opening-day Browns starter going into a season since 1999, trailing only Jeff Garcia’s mark of +1.6 from 2004.6 And Mayfield’s projection probably understates how much his performance should improve when throwing to an elite receiver such as Beckham.

In other words, Mayfield looks like the Browns’ most competent option under center in many years — and he represents a truly massive leap forward for a team that had previously suffered the worst quarterback production in the NFL under its current incarnation. Mayfield’s development is a big part of what’s driving Browns fever, and not without some justification: The Rams, for example, followed the same model (draft a young, productive QB and then load up on supporting talent) to reach the Super Bowl last February.

Throw in a diminished Pittsburgh Steelers squad that lost top receiver Antonio Brown in March, another division rival (Baltimore) that appears to be no better than Cleveland talent-wise, plus a Cincinnati Bengals team trending in the wrong direction, and it’s not hard to imagine the Browns’ path to an AFC North title … or beyond. But even so, the team may not quite be ready for that Super Bowl run yet. No longer a nightmare, Cleveland’s next step is to build on last year’s promise and outperform those middle-of-the-pack projections. If a championship parade alongside Lake Erie happens to come in the process, it would be a remarkable bonus — even though it’s not exactly something to make concrete plans for.

Footnotes

  1. It comes out to that number, rather than +0.3, because of rounding.

  2. As measured by incoming minus outgoing Approximate Value)

  3. In short: Each QB has a rolling rating based on his performance according to an estimate of his yards above replacement, adjusted for strength of opponent. The difference between the starting QB’s rolling rating and his team’s rolling rating is added onto the team’s base Elo to get an effective rating for each game.

  4. Minimum 12 starts.

  5. Under our new system, quarterbacks with between 10 and 100 career starts (Mayfield has 13) are reverted toward a league-average QB by one-fourth after each season.

  6. Garcia — who seemed like a huge upgrade over the team’s previous duo of Kelly Holcomb and Tim Couch — largely disappointed, going 3-7 as starter in 2004 and posting what was then a career-low passer rating of 76.7.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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