JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2023 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 Browns as they enter Sunday's game against the Jaguars at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio
Question: The Browns are 7-5 with two consecutive losses, including a 36-19 road loss to the Los Angeles Rams this past Sunday. They are 5-1 at home this season, with their last two losses on the road. They are currently the AFC's No. 6 seed – two games behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Assess the season to date.
Answer: For what they've been through, they feel OK even though they've lost two in a row. It still seems like the finish line is far away with five weeks to go. Nothing's assured. They're on their fourth quarterback, their defense is springing leaks and they're still getting hit with injuries on offense. It's going to be a "whoever's standing" type of season. The attrition has just been amazing with this team.
Q: The Browns started the season with Deshaun Watson at quarterback and also have started Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker there. Longtime NFL quarterback Joe Flacco started against the Rams after signing to the practice squad November 20 and was impressive…
A: Flacco just fell from the sky to them and he is the perfect guy to be behind center right now with all his experience. He's healthy. He's not a broken-down 38. He never has been hurt. I think they're in better shape now at quarterback maybe than they've been all year, believe it or not, because Watson's never been right. He always had something. There's a strained rotator cuff, then it became worse than that with a fracture. Flacco hadn't played since the last game of last year [with the New York Jets]. He hadn't been in anyone's camp. He has been with the team two weeks. He practiced with the team for one week and he went out and made some of the best throws I've seen from the Browns all year long. The problem now is they lost Amari Cooper, their No. 1 receiver. and everyone after that has not been productive. So, he (Flacco) doesn't have a lot of targets all of a sudden. But he made every throw [against the Rams]. He threw the ball away smartly. He avoided sacks until the end when it got out of hand. He looked great. Everyone was totally impressed. He was calm and poised.
Q: The Browns rank 21st in the NFL in total offense at 321.2 yards per game and 17th in scoring at 21.5 points per game. Aside from the quarterback issues, what are they offensively?
A: Even though they lost [running back Nick] Chubb [to a knee injury] in Game Two, they're still a run-based offense because their run system is fantastic. Bill Callahan, the offensive line coach, is in charge of it. Their offensive line is outstanding, especially the interior. Although it wasn't what they envisioned with Deshaun Watson, it kind of reverted back to what they were doing last year. [Browns Head Coach] Stefanski loads up extra tight ends. Sometimes he has three extra heavy offensive linemen. When they do that, they start taking control of games. At the same time, they'll get greedy at times. They'll get to the red zone and they start throwing and not completing drives. They're in between identities. Their true identity is still to be a power team, yet Stefanski still wants to take shots and the shots are what get them in trouble. But they can control a game. The running backs are still good enough with Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt and Pierre Strong Jr. They just can't resist trying to take shots. And maybe with Flacco as time goes on now, they'll be able to complete those shots.
Q: Defensively, the Browns are No. 1 in the NFL allowing 260.5 yards per game and they rank 10th in scoring defense at 20.4 points per game. Are they as good as they look here?
A: They've been outstanding, but there are leaks. Cornerback Denzel Ward, who was having a fantastic year, missed the last two games with the shoulder. Now it's guys who have to come on the field in three-receiver situations. Smart quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson [of the Denver Broncos] and Matthew Stafford [of the Rams] the last two weeks just picked on them. Without Ward, you have to go down to your fourth corner. That guy has been picked on by the smart coaches and the smart quarterbacks. So that's one leak that's sprung up. The other is upfront. [Defensive end] Myles Garrett suffered a left shoulder injury in the Denver game. He finished the game, didn't practice all week, said he was fine, went out there against the Rams and didn't record a tackle or an assist – much less a sack. And he played like seven 80 percent of the plays. Without him as being the kingpin up front, nobody else took up the slack. On paper, they dominate up front. They terrorize a quarterback into mistakes. The problem is they've been like Heckel and Jeckel. They have bene great at home and have struggled on the road. Now they're coming back home and they've been consistently good at home for whatever reason. Nobody can explain it.
Q: You've covered this team for more than 35 seasons. Is this a postseason team? Can it get there?
A: I think with Flacco's presence, his poise, his experience they can if they just acknowledge, "Hey, a 15-play drive is OK. It serves the purpose of keeping your defense off the field, too." If they can just acknowledge that and grasp that, I think they can get there – especially now with Flacco. He's amazing. He looks great. He looked in his prime. They've been [the AFC's No.] six [seed] for two weeks in a row now. They've lost two in a row, but they've maintained the sixth spot. So yeah, they can still get there, but it's not going to be easy.