I hope everyone tried their best to enjoy that exhilarating Super Bowl on Sunday! I remember when I was growing up it seemed like the Super Bowl was a blowout every year. There were a few good ones here and there, such as the 49ers over the Bengals in 1988 or the Scott Norwood miss as the Giants beat the Bills in 1990. But mostly, it seemed like the games were typically uneven (usually involving John Elway and the Broncos getting blown out…just pointing that out for no apparent reason).
We’ve been fortunate in the past 20 years, though. From the Titans coming up just short against the Rams, to Tom Brady setting up an Adam Vinatieri game-winning FG against the Rams, Santana Holmes’ winning catch, the David Tyree miracle catch, the Malcolm Butler interception, the Tom Brady comeback against the Falcons, and so many more, we’ve been blessed to have so many memorable Super Bowl moments.
This year’s game didn’t give us any kind of singular moment that anyone will remember. And most observers felt it was a pretty boring game. And it was, to a certain degree. But I’ll take a close game any year as opposed to the blowouts we used to see so often. And although it’s the popular thing to hate the Patriots and Brady and Belichick, I’ve gotta tip my hat to them. We’re seeing unprecedented greatness in the modern NFL and while we don’t have to like them, it’s hard to deny their greatness. So congrats to them, and with that, we put a wrap on the 2018 NFL season. Sad face.
We now turn our eyes next to the 2019 season, and in particular, in this corner of the world, we look to see if the Cleveland Browns can build on the momentum they started in the second half of this season. For clues to the answer to that question, perhaps we need to stick with the Super Bowl a little longer. Only, it’s not the Patriots I’m talking about, but the Los Angeles Rams.
I watched a lot of Rams games this season. I would guess I probably saw them more than any other non-Browns team. It wasn’t really intentional. I don’t consider myself a fan of theirs. It just seemed like they played a lot of 4:00 games that were on TV here in Columbus, along with a couple national games as well. The thing that strikes me the most about the Rams is that they feel like an actual blueprint for how the Browns should build and improve.
It’s hard to believe in some ways, but just three short years ago the Rams were a mess. Back in the early 2000s, the Rams were a powerhouse. The “greatest show on turf”, with Kurt Warner, Orlando Pace, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, and Isaac Bruce among others won one Super Bowl and lost another (the previously mentioned last-second Vinatieri FG). After that, they fell into a complete mess. Under coaches Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo, they suffered consecutive seasons of three wins, two wins, one win, seven wins, and two wins.
The team then turned to long-time veteran coach Jeff Fisher, which yielded a bunch of middling six-win and seven-win seasons. By 2016, they were bottoming out. They were a lifeless 4-12 and despite having players like Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff, they were going nowhere. The offense was a mess. Case Keenum began the year as the starting QB before Goff took over and looked lost. Fisher was fired toward the end of the season and there was little room for hope with the Rams.
But then the Rams made a perhaps curious hire at head coach, as they made 30-year-old Sean McVay the youngest coach in modern NFL history. The next season, McVay found a way to get more out of Goff and the offense sparked to life. The combination of innovative coach and a stable of young players the Rams drafted turned the Rams into a surprise 11-5 team and they made their return to the playoffs.
Is any of this sounding a little familiar? The Browns were a team going nowhere. They drafted a QB with the first overall pick but began the year with a veteran starter before turning to the rookie. Despite some flashes and moments, the offensive staff seemed to not be getting the most out of Baker Mayfield. Eventually, the Browns replaced Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, replacing them with Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens, respectively. Kitchens began to get more out of Baker and the offense began to click. Now, Kitchens is the new head coach, hired in large part because of the innovation he showed.
The Rams are loaded with solid, young players they drafted, such as Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, and Robert Reynolds. When they began to gain some momentum, however, they didn’t rest on those laurels. They weren’t satisfied. They traded for guys like Aqib Talib, Brandin Cooks, and Marcus Peters. They looked to free agency and brought in players like Andrew Whitworth and Ndamukong Suh. The Rams realized that with so many quality young starters on team-friendly rookie contracts, they could capitalize on their cap space now and go big. And for their efforts, they wound up in the Super Bowl.
The Browns are so similar with so many quality young players that they drafted in recent years such as Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, David Njoku, Antonio Callaway, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Jabril Peppers. The Browns are sitting on a mountain of cap space and they know they have a couple of years before they start having to pay a lot of these guys big money.
There’s a stat going around many may have seen already, but the six highest-paid QBs in the NFL (Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr) all missed the playoffs. Of the teams who made the playoffs, Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, and Lamar Jackson were all on rookie deals.
It seems to get significantly harder to build a team once you have to start paying your QB superstar money. So what’s the point, here? The Browns are heading into this offseason with the cap space to get creative. They can use free agency, trades, and the upcoming draft to bolster their roster by addressing what they feel are their biggest weaknesses. But above all else, the point is that now is the time to be aggressive. The Rams provided a pretty useful model on how to strike when the time is right and to go for it. I hope the Browns follow suit. If nothing else, this should be a pretty exciting offseason for the Browns.