JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2020 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Tony Grossi of 850 ESPN Cleveland on the Cleveland Browns as they enter Sunday's game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville …
Question: The Browns are 7-3 and currently holding the No. 6 seed in the AFC. They're on the verge of their first winning season since 2007, so they must be pleased with the season so far.
Answer: Absolutely. This is a first-year coaching staff [under Head Coach Kevin Stefanski]. With all the obstacles everyone was presented [in the offseason], you figured a first-year staff was at a disadvantage. On top of that, the Browns had four or five key freak injuries in training camp – and then they were blown out in their first game [of the season] in Baltimore. Now, they're 7-3. They've recovered well. The coaching staff is doing a fantastic job. They're right in it. They know they can even be better. They're still playing with injuries, and key players are out, but they've found an identity and they're doing the right things to win games.
Q: The Browns went 6-10 last season after a lot of preseason expectations. What's the difference this season?
A: Coaching has everything to do with it. Aside from overcoming a lot of challenges, they've been really good at identifying what they're best at and doing it to win games – and that's the running game. The offensive line is an unbelievable strength, and you have two great backs, which is a dynamic I don't think anybody else in the league has right now. Instead of worrying about other things like developing 'this position' or looking to see in the future what they do with contracts, they're just concerned with winning games on Sunday. If that means handing the ball off 30-to-35 times, they'll do it. They know what their strengths are, and they know what their weaknesses are and they try to manage the game according to their strengths.
Q: This is strangely positive for you. You like everything you're seeing or are there any negatives?
A: I actually do like everything I'm seeing. In the recent past, through all the coaches, on Sundays I found myself questioning why they did things – why they threw the ball 40 times instead of running the ball and being happy with that. These guys see what they're best at. He (Stefanski) inherited a pretty good roster, and he has made them more of a team. They weren't much of a team last season. They were a collection of big names. I like what I'm seeing. They're far from perfect. They need a lot of upgrades on defense. But they play smarter and they're tougher because of the emphasis on the running game. I think that just makes everybody feel tougher – mentally tougher and physically, too.
Q: Where is quarterback Baker Mayfield in his development?
A: One of the things the coach has done is reinvent Baker from a gunslinger in college to a game manager. The offense is more run-oriented – rollouts and bootlegs. A lot of this is new to Baker. To his credit, he hasn't fought it. I don't think he's totally comfortable in it, but the aim is for him to protect the ball and … I don't want to say "not lose games," because he's more than that. But the coach has been able to win without outstanding performances from the quarterback position. That's a big change in Baker's personality. He has been accepting.
Q: You mentioned the defense needing to add pieces. Where are the Browns defensively? Is this a defense that can carry them forward?
A: They have two superstars on defense. That's [defensive end] Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward. Both of them are having fantastic years. It so happens Garrett's on COVID[-19/Reserve] and Denzel is going to miss time with a calf injury. They have carried the defense. The Browns led the league with 14 takeaways about five games ago. That was a big reason they won games. Even though they gave up a lot of points and gave up a lot of yards, they were making key plays at key times. They had four takeaways in a victory over Philadelphia Sunday, but prior to that there had been a drought. That's one characteristic of the defense coaches love, because turnover margin has been in the plus column all year.
Q: What needs to happen in the last six games for this team to be a better team as the end of the season approaches?
A: They're coming off three consecutive games in Cleveland, all of which had really bad weather. So, that affected everything. After a loss to the [Las Vegas] Raiders, they conquered the weather with a game plan to suit it. Now, they go down to Florida, so they're back to normal – and who knows what the weather will be beyond that. They have yet to win a game on the road against a winning team. They play Tennessee (7-3) up ahead and that's about it on the road. Beating a legitimate playoff team is still something we haven't seen from this team. They get Baltimore (6-4) and Pittsburgh (10-0) later in the season – both at home. You would expect to see growth in those games and we'll see. I guess we could see more balance offensively, but they've kind of fallen on the San Francisco and Tennessee formula from last season. Their defense is not as good as those two defenses were.
Q: What does success look like for the Browns the rest of the season? What do they have to do?
A: I think they've raised the bar. I think a successful season at the beginning was finally turning the corner and getting over .500. That has only happened twice in 22 years here. But now I think playoffs. They're so much into it and they've come so far that just getting into one of those seven [postseason] spots would be hugely successful. If they come short with a 10-6 record, it definitely would be still considered a success. Even if they go 9-7 and get shut out [of the postseason], I think after the dust settles everyone would see this as a successful season.