If there were no surprises in the National Football League this season that would be a surprise.
Teams entering the 2022 season that are not considered prime candidates for meeting at Arizona’s State Farm Stadium next February in Super Bowl LVII might surprise this year’s standings like the Cincinnati Bengals did last year. Before the 2021 season kicked off, many were surprised that Jerry Jones had not pulled the plug on head coach Mike McCarthy. In his first season as the Cowboys head coach, McCarthy directed a disastrous 2020 campaign in which the Cowboys won only six games.
“I wouldn’t want anything to do with the shitshow going on in Dallas,” one radio announcer said on the eve of the 2021 campaign while producers scurried for the bleep button.
How did Dallas actually do last season?
They won twelve games, captured the NFC East title and had the best point spread record in all of football.
Because, their problems in 2020 were exacerbated by injuries and the disappointing campaign produced two positives entering last season. First, injured quarterback Dak Prescott, one of the key injuries from 2020, was back behind center. Second, the team prepared for the 2021 season with the sting and motivational boost from their 6-10 campaign the prior year.
What we have here is textbook motivation. It is as predictable as a doctor identifying a medical problem based on tests and proven practices. So, who do we have this year poised to enter into the “surprise” category based on what has come before?
Both the Bengals and Cowboys cashed all their chips last season, and both will struggle this year. For Cincinnati and Dallas, this year’s expectations exceed actual talent, which is in stark contrast to what they benefited from in 2021 when expectations in both cases were below actual talent levels.
While two of the mighty will fall, which teams are underestimated right now and poised to excel at a “surprising” level?
My Super Bowl pick, we will reveal it next Wednesday, has odds near 20 to 1 to win Super Bowl LVII, and by my charts they are the favorites. Another team with long Super Bowl odds, 20-1, are the Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland is one of the four NFL franchises to never advance to a Super Bowl. Two off that list have short histories, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, while only the Detroit Lions are a long established franchise, like Cleveland, that has failed to crack a Roman Numeral game.
For Cleveland, the bite runs deep. They have had teams seemingly good enough to play for the final leg of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but were twice upended by John Elway and his Denver Broncos in AFC Championship Games that earned names. The Browns were on the wrong side of “The Drive” and “The Fumble.”
In 1986, Cleveland had the Broncos backed up to their goal line late in the fourth quarter and the hometown fans were ready to celebrate their first Super Bowl trip. Then, Elway guided the Broncos on a length of the field drive that resulted in a touchdown and set up the Broncos overtime win. The following year, the Browns staged a furious second half comeback that was on the doorstep of being completed when runningback Earnest Byner fumbled the ball as he dove for the endzone.
Then, more salt into the Browns wounds, their team is moved from Cleveland to Baltimore, and twice the newly named Ravens have won the Super Bowl. Baltimore beat the New York Giants to complete the 2000 season and downed the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
In 2016 and 2017, the Cleveland Browns compiled the worst two year record in league history, 1-31. Their winless campaign five years ago was rock bottom, and their dismal play during the regular season for a number of years in a row offered the Browns high draft picks. Even an inept team can’t help but collect some talent when drafting at the top of the selection process for years on end.
The Browns didn’t miss every opportunity to add talent, even though they gave up on what they had hoped would be their franchise quarterback, Baker Mayfield. Cleveland had made Mayfield the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, yet the Oklahoma product had produced only one winning season, and the Cleveland brass made the brash move of signing a top flight quarterback that had caused problems for his previous team.
This offseason, the Browns added Deshaun Waston to their roster with knowledge that he was still confronting league sanctions based on some ill advised practices he employed during massage sessions. With legal problems looming, and the league looking to show support at the height of the “Me Too” movement, Watson became a pawn in the public relations game. He didn’t play at all last season while still on the Houston Texans roster, and the team from Texas was only too happy to unload his baggage this year when the Browns offered to take on his weight.
Once on the Browns roster, Cleveland moved to take his primary competition out of the equation, and off to the Carolina Panthers went Mayfield.
So, what are we left with in Cleveland?
A very talented roster with a respected head coach, Kevin Stefanski, and a career backup quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, in charge of the Cleveland offense for at least the first 11 weeks of the season while Watson serves the final leg of his league punishment.
Cleveland did not earn a winning record in Mayfield’s first two years behind center, they were 7-8-1 in 2018 and 6-10 in 2019. In both those seasons, the Browns expectations exceeded their actual talent level. Then, in 2020, the Browns enjoyed a breakout season, winning 11 games and advancing to the AFC playoffs. In his first postseason action, Mayfield led the Browns to an upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 48-37. The following week, at Arrowhead Stadium, the Browns season ended with a narrow loss to the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, 22-17.
What, by my account, was surprising about the Browns 2020 season, was that they had their first winning campaign in more than a decade and yet they were overrated week-in-and-week-out on the point spread. I had never before chronicled a team that had their first winning season in years and did not also have a winning point spread record. In 2020, the Browns 11-5 straight-up record resulted in a 6-10 point spread mark.
In my more than 40 years of chronicling NFL results, this was the first time I encountered a team to even have their point spread record less than their straight-up mark in their first winning season after years of losing. How did the Browns become overrated before they ever won? How did this team have their point spread mark come up four games below .500 while their straight-up record was six games over?
Expectations versus actual talent.
But now, after they had their inevitable decline last season, they were 8-9 straight-up in Mayfield’s final season playing for the Dawg Pound and 7-10 against the number, the Browns have reached a fork in the road.
And, in the words of Yogi Berra, when you reach a fork in the road, “Take it.”
For the first time, at least for the first 11 games this season, the Browns are both talented and underrated. Brissett is not the guy they think is going to lead them to the promise-land, but at the helm of a motivated team with a rock solid defense he is in a perfect position to excel.
I’d be willing to bet that the success the Browns enjoy out of the gate this year will have some questioning whether they should even immediately shift to Watson when he becomes available in November.
What does this mean?
For the first time in years the Browns become a good bet, both week-to-week and on the season win total that has them pegged at 8½.