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The Browns Are Still A Nightmare. But Maybe Not For Long.

Back before the NFL season started, I dived into the Cleveland Browns’ miserable plight since the franchise was resurrected in 1999: One playoff bid in 19 years (and counting) … just two seasons above .500 … nine different head coaches … 28 starting quarterbacks … a combined 1-31 record in 2016 and 2017. You get the idea. I wondered whether it would ever be possible for the Browns to pull out of this cycle of doom, ultimately concluding that the team needed to start building a culture of stability and competency before it could begin truly laying the groundwork to compete.

But I suppose things have to get worse before they get better — because we’re eight weeks into the season and Cleveland has fired yet another coach. This time it’s Hue Jackson getting the boot, ending what was statistically the worst coaching tenure of any one coach with any one team in NFL history.1 Jackson, who probably should have been shown the door after last season’s 0-16 campaign, appears to have sealed his fate by bickering internally with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was fired at the same time. It didn’t help that Jackson also lost five of the season’s first eight games, with a tie thrown in for good measure.

The funny thing is, the Browns have actually shown signs of life this season — at least, by Browns standards. So let’s take a look at where they’ve improved — and whether there is more hope in Cleveland than usual in the wake of the team’s latest coaching shake-up.

For one thing, the Browns have been much more competitive this season than last. (Granted, it would have been a real challenge to get worse.) Their Simple Rating System (SRS) score of -3.5 ranks 24th in the league, but it’s also more than a touchdown per game better than their -11.0 rating from last season, making Cleveland one of the most improved teams in the NFL this year.

2018′s most improved NFL teams

Largest year-over-year changes in Simple Rating System (SRS) scores for 2018 NFL teams

2017 SRS Change in 2018
Team Off. Def. Tot. Off. Def. Tot.
1 Colts -6.1 -4.0 -10.1 +11.4 -0.4 +11.0
2 Broncos -3.9 -2.9 -6.7 +3.9 +5.5 +9.3
3 Chiefs +3.8 -0.3 +3.4 +8.7 -0.6 +8.2
4 Browns -6.8 -4.1 -11.0 +2.7 +4.7 +7.5
5 Texans -0.8 -5.6 -6.4 +1.7 +5.6 +7.4
6 Bears -4.6 +3.3 -1.3 +6.7 +0.1 +6.8
7 Bengals -4.1 -0.9 -5.0 +6.2 -0.9 +5.3
8 Seahawks +0.7 +1.2 +1.9 +0.9 +3.8 +4.7
9 Ravens +2.2 +1.2 +3.4 -0.8 +5.3 +4.5
10 Jets -2.9 -2.1 -4.9 +2.4 +0.5 +2.8

The Simple Rating System is a way of rating NFL teams that measures points per game (for, against and as a differential) relative to average after adjusting for a team’s strength of schedule.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Last year’s Browns did go 0-6 in games decided by one score, but they also lost eight games by at least two touchdowns. At any randomly selected moment of the 2017 season, they trailed by an average of 6.1 points. This year, they’ve trailed by an average of 3.8 points at any given moment — still not great, but at least indicative of how much more in the hunt they’ve been most weeks. Indeed, four of Cleveland’s games have ended in overtime, which already ties them for the most OT games a team has played in a season since at least 2001.2

The biggest reason for Cleveland’s uptick in performance hasn’t been the play of hyped rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield (more on him later). Instead it’s been a defense that, relative to opponent, ranks as the best in the league so far this year in terms of expected points added (EPA). Against Cleveland, Browns’ opponents are averaging 7.5 fewer offensive EPA per game than they are against all other teams, including 9.0 fewer through the air.

The Browns’ defense is cooling down opposing offenses

Offensive expected points added per game for teams against the Cleveland Browns and against all other teams, 2018 season

EPA/G vs. Browns EPA/G vs Others
Opponent Games Tot Off. Pass Off. Rush Off. Tot Off. Pass Off. Rush Off.
Steelers 2 -1.5 -1.0 +0.8 +12.2 +9.9 +1.4
Buccaneers 1 -3.1 -7.9 +1.4 +8.8 +9.7 -0.5
Chargers 1 +12.5 +4.9 +9.1 +9.8 +10.9 -0.8
Ravens 1 -10.9 -13.9 +1.3 +5.6 +6.2 -0.6
Raiders 1 +5.6 +6.4 -1.0 -0.4 -0.4 -0.1
Jets 1 -6.8 -5.6 +0.0 -6.2 -2.5 -2.9
Saints 1 -1.3 -0.6 -3.2 +15.8 +13.2 +1.9

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

That’s a big contrast to last season’s Browns, who were among the 10 worst defensive teams in the league and were particularly bad against the pass. This year, Cleveland is allowing the third-lowest adjusted net yards per attempt3 (ANY/A) of any team in football — a huge testament to the team’s pass coverage, given that the Browns have the league’s fifth-lowest rate of pressures per opposing dropback despite blitzing the third-most frequently of any team. (Stellar defensive end Myles Garrett has eight sacks by himself, but the rest of the team has only 12.) According to the grading system of ProFootballFocus.com, rookie Denzel Ward has been the ninth-best cornerback in the league so far, while safety Damarious Randall and even linebacker Joe Schobert — who ranks as PFF’s top LB in coverage this season — have done quality work stifling opposing pass-catchers.

Just having a defense that puts the team in a position to compete represents a huge improvement for Cleveland. But the scoring attack hasn’t kept pace, despite the pedigrees of Jackson and Haley as offensive coaches. The Browns are 26th in offensive SRS; they’ve produced the fifth-fewest offensive EPA per game in the NFL and the fourth-fewest yards per play; they own the league’s third-worst third-down efficiency mark.

(We’ll set aside a conversation about Cleveland’s horrid special teams, which has already produced nine missed kicks4 between two different kickers.)

Although it’s better than last year’s DeShone Kizer-led disaster, Cleveland’s passing game still ranks just 30th in adjusted net yards per attempt, with Mayfield sitting 29th out of 34 qualified QBs in ANY/A. It isn’t necessarily Mayfield’s fault: Being a rookie quarterback is hard enough, and the Browns have made it even harder on their new QB. Mayfield lost prospective top target Josh Gordon when Cleveland dealt the receiver to New England in mid-September, and then he said goodbye to starting running back Carlos Hyde, whom the team traded to the Jaguars a month later. Meanwhile, his offensive line is allowing the league’s fifth-highest rate of pressures per dropback, and Cleveland’s receivers currently have the highest drop rate in the league.

Mayfield himself has fought through the team’s situation to tie New York Jets QB Sam Darnold for the best ANY/A of any blue-chip rookie this season. He’s shown better accuracy and more composure under pressure than any of his rookie-class compatriots, with a lower interception rate to boot. However, none of the passers in this year’s rookie crop have played at an average level, or even that of a high-level backup QB — which is pretty much to be expected from a collection of signal callers making their debuts on below-average teams.

Comparing the 2018 rookie QB class

Key passing statistics for 2018 rookie quarterbacks (min. 25 attempts)

Quarterback Team Comp% Yds/C TD% Int% Sack% ANY/A YABQ
S. Darnold NYJ 55.2% 12.4 4.4% 4.0% 6.4% 5.1 -181
J. Rosen ARI 55.6 11.4 3.0 3.6 8.6 4.3 -322
B. Mayfield CLE 58.3 11.3 3.6 2.7 8.2 5.1 -348
J. Allen BUF 54.0 11.1 1.4 3.6 13.1 3.0 -424
NFL average 64.8 11.6 5.0 2.4 6.6 6.5

YABQ = Yards Above Backup Quarterback, a statistic that summarizes a QB’s passing and rushing production (after adjusting for strength of schedule), relative to that of a typical backup QB in the same number of plays.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

To be sure, Mayfield has been far from perfect. His performances look even worse after adjusting for the quality of his competition, since he has put up subpar numbers despite facing what is by far the easiest slate of opposing pass defenses of any quarterback in the league this season.5 After synthesizing all of that into our Yards Above Backup Quarterback (YAQB) metric, Mayfield has been less valuable than either Darnold or Josh Rosen, though Rosen has compiled his numbers in fewer attempts. (On a per-dropback basis, Mayfield pulls ahead of Rosen, though he is still far behind Darnold.)

But while it would have been ideal for the Browns to see Mayfield burst out of the gates with a statistical season like the ones produced by recent rookies Dak Prescott (1,199 YABQ), Robert Griffin III (990) and Russell Wilson (934), it’s entirely possible to emerge from a rough rookie season unscathed as a young passer. Donovan McNabb (-350), Troy Aikman (-374), Matthew Stafford (-569), Terry Bradshaw (-586) and Jared Goff (-660) all debuted with the types of performances Mayfield is tracking for, and they all rebounded. (That said, plenty of bad quarterbacks — Ryan Leaf, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, etc. — also had similarly bad numbers. Judging QBs is hard!) And according to ProFootballFocus, Mayfield is tied for the 16th-best grade of any QB in the league, so the stats may just be penalizing him for the poor performance of his teammates.

Either way, the Browns are banking heavily on Mayfield’s potential — and that was one of the reasons Jackson had to go as head coach. In the big picture, they’re hoping the combination of a promising young QB, an emerging defense and a die-hard fan base proves enticing for whomever Cleveland’s next coach will be. Just the same, though, this week’s move has tacked even more points onto the Browns’ CHAOS (Cumulative High-Activity Organizational Strife) score, which already was the highest in the league over the past two decades. Setting aside the reasons for the change, it’s fitting that the Browns would have made the first coaching swap of the 2018 season, though that’s not overly encouraging for a team dragged down by so much instability over the years.

As for the short term, the Browns have said they’re not giving up on 2018 quite yet. Although our Elo prediction model gives Cleveland only a 0.3 percent chance of making the postseason, Elo is probably too hard on the Browns, if we’re being honest. It still ranks them as the worst team in football, while they rank only ninth-worst in SRS, sixth-worst in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Replacement and seventh-worst in Inpredictable’s betting market ratings. Why? Elo doesn’t give teams any credit for being competitive in games they ultimately lose. And if the 2018 Browns have a calling card, that’s sort of it.

The best matchups of Week 9

Week 9 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
BAL 50.8% ±18.4 PIT 67.8% ±15.5 33.9 1584
SEA 55.0 13.1 LAC 74.5 9.3 22.4 1577
WSH 60.4 15.7 ATL 23.3 12.8 28.5 1539
MIN 50.8 15.2 DET 18.5 11.7 26.9 1535
NO 87.5 7.4 LAR 98.5 1.0 8.4 1650
CAR 68.1 11.7 TB 10.9 7.5 19.2 1529
GB 18.2 6.9 NE 97.3 1.6 8.6 1563
TEN 28.5 10.8 DAL 21.1 7.7 18.5 1503
HOU 64.2 13.6 DEN 8.9 6.0 19.6 1468
CHI 40.5 12.7 BUF 1.5 1.2 13.9 1450
KC 99.5 0.5 CLE 0.3 0.3 0.8 1469
MIA 16.7 8.7 NYJ 4.9 4.3 13.0 1426
OAK 0.2 0.2 SF 0.1 0.1 0.3 1370

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

None of that is likely to matter this week, of course, in a game against the dominant Kansas City Chiefs, where any metric you use would consider K.C. a major favorite. (See above.) But even though you wouldn’t know it from the bleak Elo and yet another spin on the NFL coaching carousel, the Browns do appear to be in a better place now than they’ve been in at least a few seasons.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

All season long, you can follow along with FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings in our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how often each team should make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. In conjunction, you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game. (What do you win? Bragging rights! And a place on our giant leaderboard.)

Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 8

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 8 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
OAK 56% IND 57% IND 42, OAK 28 +11.1
MIN 55 NO 52 NO 30, MIN 20 +5.4
NE 71 NE 85 NE 25, BUF 6 +4.3
DET 57 DET 53 SEA 28, DET 14 +2.6
CHI 65 CHI 69 CHI 24, NYJ 10 +1.1
CIN 62 CIN 64 CIN 37, TB 34 -0.3
WSH 61 WSH 63 WSH 20, NYG 13 -0.3
HOU 60 HOU 62 HOU 42, MIA 23 -0.3
KC 82 KC 83 KC 30, DEN 23 -1.4
LAR 79 LAR 74 LAR 29, GB 27 -4.5
PHI 67 PHI 63 PHI 24, JAX 18 -4.7
PIT 88 PIT 78 PIT 33, CLE 18 -5.7
CAR 57 CAR 52 CAR 36, BAL 21 -6.6
ARI 58 ARI 50 ARI 18, SF 15 -9.0

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

After notching their first collective win of the season against Elo a week ago, the field didn’t quite keep its momentum going in Week 8, losing by the narrow margin of 8.3 points (on average). Readers were smart to keep betting against Jon Gruden’s Raiders, but they gave back some points in wins by the Cardinals, Panthers and Steelers.

A quick note: We’ve had readers email to ask why the average user lost points on games in which the readers and Elo had the same average pick probability. That’s because of the nonlinear nature of the game — even when the average picks are the same, a few disastrous (or amazing) picks on either side can swing the point totals. For instance, many readers will pick matchups with 0 percent or 100 percent probabilities, causing them to lose net points when the result goes in the opposite direction. (Naturally, Elo will basically never pick with such certitude, so even when it’s wrong, it loses fewer points relative to those overconfident readers.)

Anyway, congrats to Erik de Loos and Ryan Seay, who tied for lead among users in Week 8 with 350.0 points, and to Ellis, who took the seasonlong lead with 779.6 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jackson’s .088 winning percentage in Cleveland was worse than even Bert Bell’s .185 mark with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1930s and 1940s.

  2. The earliest year I could search in the ESPN Stats & Information Group database.

  3. A measure of passing efficiency that tracks yards per attempt with a bonus for touchdowns and penalties for interceptions and sacks.

  4. Including field goals and extra points.

  5. Minimum 150 attempts.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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