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2014 AFC North Postmortem: Cleveland Browns

Evaluating Cleveland's season by advanced metrics

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It would be easy to really hammer Cleveland Browns despite their seven-win finish — their best since 2007.

Here's just a few of the things to befall the Factory in 2014:

  • Front office personnel texting sidelines during games with play call suggestions
  • Moving up for Johnny Manziel based on the recommendation of a homeless man to the owner, trading away a third round pick in the process
  • The owner's company settling with the Federal Government for $92 million for defrauding customers which somehow enabled the owner to avoid personal accountability
  • Offensive Coordinator opting out of his contract due to pressure from the front office to start Manziel
  • Josh Gordon's season long suspension that he was extraordinarily lucky to return early from thanks to a renegotiation of the drug policy between the NFL and NFLPA

Cleveland's problems would be a bigger story except for how typical they've become over the years.

Cleveland did some things well though. Mike Pettine seemed to be fairly competent. Brian Hoyer had a hot stretch to start the season (though it came against the easiest slate of opposing defenses through the season's halfway point). The Browns had won games despite missing their best player in Josh Gordon, notably blowing out Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. However, the numbers show that Cleveland's 5-game losing streak to end the season at 7-9 was not a huge surprise either.

Cleveland's performance drops precipitously after Week 6

Through 13 weeks, sitting at 7-4, Cleveland began exhibiting the mirage of a possible playoff team. Unfortunately, a deeper analysis revealed cause for concern. Not only had the Browns played one of the easiest schedules in the league, but they had also presided over the second largest drop off from the first six weeks to the next six.

From Weeks 1-6 Cleveland was eighth in DVOA and produced the second best offense in the league. From Weeks 7-13, Cleveland's DVOA dropped by 28%. As DVOA's accuracy improved with each passing week, not only did their offense become exposed as one that feasted on poor defenses, but their defense fell off heavily. The remaining four weeks would go no better.

Cleveland finished 2014 with the second worst run defense in the league. However, their pass defense finished second best. Pettine is a defensive mind after all, and there is at least some reason to believe that their defense could be rather good in 2015 with good draft picks.  Thanks to Buffalo's crazy decision last year, they have two shots on goal in the first round. As long as Jimmy Haslam keeps the homeless man draft hotline disconnected, they might be OK in the draft.

More problematically for Cleveland is, as always, their quarterback situation. Manziel was an unmitigated disaster in his short time on the field and Hoyer collapsed heavily down the stretch.  Josh Gordon was a non factor in his return, Jordan Cameron started appearing on milk cartons, while Terrence West was perhaps the lone bright spot.

Alex Mack's injury not the negative turning point some would have you believe

Cleveland fans chalked up their late season swoon to the loss of Alex Mack but that is a significant exaggeration of the situation. Not only does every team suffer injuries, but teams like San Diego lost five centers and were still competitive late in the season. Baltimore lost BOTH tackles and won a playoff game and came up one play short of a second. Arizona finished 11-5 with a backup quarterback starting half their games. No one player, especially an offensive lineman, accounts for a five game losing streak to end the season unless it's the quarterback.

The truth is, Cleveland overachieved because the NFC South and AFC South were really bad. That schedule helped all the AFC North teams, but DVOA already accounts for strength of opponent, which is part of why it is a better indicator of team strength than counting stat like yards.

The numbers proved unequivocally that Pittsburgh and Baltimore above average teams with each finishing in the top 10 and top 5 respectively. Cleveland's DVOA was below league average.

As always though, the real kryptonite for Cleveland is their own internal dysfunction. That seems strange since Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine don't come across as the types to let that go on but it happened this year nonetheless. Cleveland has to prove it can first operate with some semblance of competence before they escape the purgatory they've been long banished to.

Fortunately, in the NFL, hope forever springs eternal.