Are the Cleveland Browns Secretly Really Good?

It's no mystery that the Browns have been scarily efficient this year. Are they for real?

“The field still smelled of sweat, blood, and tears, the kind of tears cried only in victory. The sun beat down on the men and women gathered there, but all I could think about was that beautiful dame… I mean, game.”

Like Walter Neff from Double Indemnity, a film noir from 1944, I’m going to reveal the answer to the mystery right at the beginning: The Cleveland Browns are absolutely this good.

The course of this article is going to explain why. How have the Browns, who seem to have been terrible since Hollywood released Sunset Blvd. in 1950, put together a season where they are still in the thick of the competition? After six weeks, most Browns fans will tell you that they are putting on their brown bags and writing the season off. But this year feels different, like Cleveland can feel the ground under its feet again. What’s led to this Maltese Falcon taking flight in 2014?

The Big Sleep

Let’s start with the big picture. Sitting at 3-2, the 2014 edition of the Cleveland Browns aren’t hard-boiled vigilantes on the hunt for vengeance. Their goal, however, remains the same: to catch that elusive, seductive femme fatale who has tempted and toyed them for so long. Her name? The Super Bowl.

We can find out just how legitimate this Cleveland team’s chances are through the use of our signature numberFire metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure that shows how many points above or below expectation a player performs. The bigger the play and situation, the more effective it is at influencing the outcome of a drive, and the more it will add to an NEP score.

Since 2000, the Cleveland Browns have ranked in the top half of the league in Adjusted Total Offensive NEP just once, when they hit 12th place in 2007. In that same span of time, they've ranked in the top half of the league in Adjusted Total Defensive NEP a mere three times, their best rank coming at third in the metric in 2001. Needless to say, this franchise has been awful for a long time.

2014 is therefore a historic moment for this club. Cleveland currently ranks ninth in the NFL in Adjusted Offensive NEP, its highest rank ever in the metric. The defense is still pretty bad right now, ranking 27th defensively when adjusted for strength of opponent, but in a league driven by offense, a “bend-don’t-break” philosophy on the other side of the ball is feasible.

But with the offense clicking on a level that must seem completely foreign to Clevelanders, how have the Browns attained top-10 status in this metric?

The Dark Before Dawn

The Browns have had 20 different starting quarterbacks since 2000; they are by a fair margin the least stable team at this position in that span of time. Only three of those who had more than 100 drop backs in a season even finished with a positive score in the Passing NEP metric (NEP gained on all drop backs by the quarterback). Now, however, it seems that they have found something that works. By installing a “caretaker-plus” kind of player under center in hometown boy Brian Hoyer, the Browns are playing safely in the passing game (7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio). They're protecting the ball by relying on a quick-hitting possession style of West Coast passing (60.4% completion rate, despite just 8.22 yards per attempt).

This has translated to a very solid number by NEP standards, however. Hoyer ranks 13th in Total NEP among quarterbacks, 10th in Passing NEP, and 5th in Passing NEP on a per drop back basis (minimum 100 drop backs). The Browns may not have a high-powered vertical attack, but by playing to the strengths of their personnel and maximizing ball protection, they are putting together a very impressive aerial game.

Of course, efficient quarterback play leads to efficient, though not prolific, production among the receiving corps as well. With the team having only 150 drop backs combined between Hoyer and backup Johnny Manziel, there isn’t a large volume to go around in the passing game. What is there, however, is a myriad of dependable receivers, such as slot machine Andrew Hawkins – team leader in Reception NEP – and tight end Jordan Cameron, who has been hampered by injury and yet remains a highly potent target – top-12 in Reception NEP on a per target basis (reception efficiency; value per opportunity).

It should be no surprise that there isn't one Cleveland pass-catcher (wide receivers and tight ends) in the top 50 of Reception NEP. However, there should also be little surprise that there are three in the top 40 of Reception NEP on a per target basis; only San Francisco and San Diego can also boast this feat. The unheralded corps of Travis Benjamin, Miles Austin, and Taylor Gabriel are providing explosive production every time they touch the ball. Benjamin currently resides in the top five in per target Reception NEP, having broken off three of his nine receptions for 20 or more yards. This Browns passing game isn’t star-studded, but it’s playing safe and making the big plays count. Don't forget, too: suspended star wide receiver Josh Gordon returns in Week 12.

A Simple Plan

The real engine that makes these Browns go is their backfield unit. Despite being headed by an injury-prone career backup in Ben Tate and filled out by two small-school rookies in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, this may be the deepest and most versatile running back cadre in the league.

Starting at the top, Tate has never been an elite back, but he has been very good. Running as a frequently-used change-of-pace back behind Arian Foster in Houston, Tate ranked 11th in 2011 in Rushing NEP (minimum 50 rushes), 19th in 2012, and 45th in 2013. This year is proving his 2013 campaign to be a fluke, as Tate is 6th in Rushing NEP (minimum 20 rushes; prorated to average 50 rushes over 16 games). Tate is one of the most talented rushers in the league, and this is showing quite clearly.

West and Crowell aren't far behind, coming in at 10th and 13th in the metric, respectively. All three also fall within the top 13 in per attempt Rushing NEP, proving their NEP production to not simply be a product of the Browns’ 11th-ranked rushing attempt total. None are exceptional receivers out of the backfield; only West has a positive Reception NEP. Yet, the total rushing production the three of them have provided eclipses other league leaders in the metric by an immense margin. Their 17.60 Rushing NEP is only rivaled by fellow AFC North tandem Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, who have combined for 16.00.

All in all, this Browns team looks like a throwback to its halcyon days in the 1950s in more ways than one: not only are they fighting hard and grinding out ways to win in every way possible, they are relying on the run and playing smart, efficient football through the air. This is not the most complete team in the league, nor the most dangerous to go up against, but it’s the best one Cleveland has seen in 15 years. In a wide-open AFC North, the Browns may be knocking on the postseason’s door sooner than we expect.