Opinion: Browns have lost their 'smart, tough, accountable' ways

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Defensive end Myles Garrett’s comments about Cleveland's lack of adjustments Sunday that reflected poorly on defensive coordinator Joe Woods obscured a larger Browns issue.

Smart, tough and accountable has left the building, and coach Kevin Stefanski’s mantra applies to him and his staff as well.

Left guard Joel Bitonio, the longest-tenured Brown, realized that after a 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Bitonio has seen the inconsistent Browns (5-5) slip from 2020, when they took those three words to heart and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

“I think when we win the turnover battle, we're 10-1 as a team. We didn't win that today, we lost,” Bitonio said. “Penalties, pre-snap penalties. All things that have affected us throughout the year.

“Smart is the first word coach [Kevin] Stefanski wants to describe our team as. I think we've had a number of plays this year as a group that we haven't been smart enough on. We can't accept it because it's losing football when you do those things.”

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Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski watches during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski watches during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Going into Monday night, the Browns were tied for the third-most penalties (70 accepted) in the league. They ranked second in terms of yards (644) behind the Minnesota Vikings (688 in nine games) and ahead of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (623 in nine games). According to NFLpenalties.com, 29 of the Browns’ flags have been pre-snap.

Lining up offside, illegal motion and 12 men on the field — which happened with 5:28 remaining against the Patriots — recall the 2019 season, when the 6-10 Browns were as undisciplined as their coach, Freddie Kitchens. In terms of per-game numbers, the Browns’ 7.0 penalties for 64.4 yards in 2021 aren’t that far off the 7.6 penalties and 69.1 yards under Kitchens. Last season, the Browns averaged 6.3 and 54.4, respectively.

Those are the tangible numbers, but “smart, tough, accountable” isn’t just measured that way.

After virtually every loss, Stefanski has said the Browns were outcoached. While laudable, it keeps happening, and the disparity was magnified with the Browns facing future Hall of Famer Bill Belichick.

The Browns played without running backs Nick Chubb, Demetric Felton and John Kelly, on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and Kareem Hunt, on injured reserve with a strained calf. Yet there was no creativity on offense except for a too-cute direct snap to fullback Johnny Stanton IV on first-and-goal from the New England 2. Baker Mayfield’s 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper on fourth down bailed out Stefanski.

Jarvis Landry didn’t get a carry. JoJo Natson didn’t go out for a swing pass. The Browns remained married to their 13 personnel package with one receiver and three tight ends, and the trio caught 7 of their 11 targets for 54 yards. Explosiveness remains a constant and largely elusive goal.

Stefanski said last week lots of players wanted to carry the ball, but D’Ernest Johnson took 19 of the 20 attempts. He picked up 58 yards on his first four carries in an 84-yard touchdown drive, then when the Patriots went ahead 14-7 and stacked the box, the Browns threw on four of their next five plays despite having one of the best offensive lines in football. The first two passes each went for 11 yards, but the Browns abandoned what they do best way too soon.

Belichick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would have found a way to surprise with their available personnel had the roles been reversed. Belichick won 11 games and a division title in 2005 with 45 different starters, so imagine who might have been called to the forefront with one true running back.

Nov 14, 2021; New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) runs the ball while Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Mack Wilson (51) and cornerback Denzel Ward (21) defend during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA;  Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 14, 2021; New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) runs the ball while Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Mack Wilson (51) and cornerback Denzel Ward (21) defend during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots virtually succeeded with the unexpected, anyway, as running back Rhamondre Stevenson had his first 100-yard game. Missing practice all week while in concussion protocol and subbing for Damien Harris (out with a concussion), Stevenson played 37 offensive snaps and averaged 5 yards per carry after totaling 29 snaps in the previous two games.

The Browns continue to show their Jekyll and Hyde tendencies as Bitonio observed Sunday, but the coaching staff is aiding that, stuck in its ways. With the jumbled AFC North still winnable, it is time for a shakeup.

Woods’ defense is rarely aggressive enough, especially against a rookie quarterback like the Patriots’ Mac Jones, but Garrett shouldn’t be publicly questioning Woods’ capabilities. Stefanski said he and Garrett discussed that, but revealed nothing further.

New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) dives for a ball fumbled by Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30).
New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) dives for a ball fumbled by Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30).

The face of the franchise, Garrett needs to keep pushing those points, but not in front of the cameras. Garrett wants to be "legendary" on the field, but he is taking some unflattering liberties off it. After a 31-21 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 2, Garrett said he had never been chipped so much in his life and again mentioned the lack of adjustments.

“Games, stunts, blitzes, just trying to mix up the front so that they can’t just get a key on me on one side or the other. Cause no matter where I was, they were having someone sitting, waiting for me,” Garrett said on Sept. 19.

The Patriots tweaked that, running screen passes to Garrett’s side.

Safety John Johnson III said Sunday the Patriots used several screens and reverses the Browns had trouble stopping earlier this season. Middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said the same Monday.

“Yeah, 1,000%. Teams are going to dress it up and do it a different way, but at the end of the day what you put on tape is what teams are going to try to attack. We have to be better all around, man. It starts with me. I really take a lot of accountability when it comes to that … I have to know what’s coming, I have to put us in better situations awareness-wise.”

Walker blamed himself, but it’s not just the players who have lost sight of Stefanski’s mantra.

Stefanski’s play-calling has regressed like his team’s performance, but he doesn’t sound willing to entertain the notion of turning it over to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, even temporarily, likely because Stefanski feels there would be no going back. If the sideline operation isn’t calm enough to allow for adjustments, perhaps duties need to be delegated.

“We just need to talk as a staff and make sure we’re all doing our parts, during the week, during the game, making sure that we’re giving our guys a chance to succeed in what we’re putting them out there to do,” Stefanski said in regard to game-day changes on both sides of the ball. “Just like in any week, we’ll have those conversations.”

Walker didn’t seem inclined to try to fix things with another players-only defensive meeting, with Garrett having already called at least two.

“There’s a lot of talking that we can do … but at the end of the day, you have to do it. And I think we’re at that point," Walker said. "We’re 5-5, seven games left in the season, let’s play ball now. There’s nothing that needs to be said.

“I’m pretty sure Joe’s gonna say, ‘I need to do this better.’ No, we all need to be better. We all need to come in locked in every day and understand that we’re in the playoffs now.”

The Browns can’t fix this mess with words, either in public or private. It is time to stop doing what they’ve always done, what worked in 2020, to cruise on through the season believing they will put it together like they did a year ago.

When asked Monday what happened to smart, tough and accountable, Stefanski said, “I think we need to be better there, truly.”

In his second year in charge, “we” has taken on a broader and much more urgent scope.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns lose sight of 'smart, tough, accountable' mantra