4 Reasons the Cleveland Browns' Success Has Been a Fluke
The Cleveland Browns have had a surprisingly strong showing to open the season, putting together a 6-3 record that has them atop the AFC North. Only six teams currently hold better records.
This is such a drastic turn-around from their 4-12 record last year that it's worth looking closely at how they're coming about this success. And the closer you look, the more apparent it is - the team isn't simply playing leaps and bounds better than last year. They've made some improvements but are still an unexceptional football team, and this impressive opening to the season is as much a fluke as it is anything else.
Despite drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round this year, the Browns offense has been lead by veteran Brian Hoyer. Hoyer's season-long stats don't look terrible at a glance. He ranks 13th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, but if we look at each half of Hoyer's season so far, we see a massive decline.
|Games||Comp %||Yards/Attempt||Pass NEP||Pass NEP per Dropback||Success Rate|
The Run Game
As with Hoyer's performance, we see a stark contrast between the Browns' rushing attack through their first five games and their most recent four.
Despite the strong start, even on a season-long scale the Browns run game looks pretty bad. Our algorithms have them 27th in the league through Week 10. Despite the lack of success, Cleveland has been committed to the run game and is tied with Houston as the most run-heavy team in the league, posting a pass-to-run ratio of 0.98.
Through the team's first five games, they boasted an Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry of 0.05, which ranked seventh in the NFL. The ineffective attack since, though, has been so bad that it dropped their Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry from 0.05 to -0.06 and has caused them to own just the 25th-best rushing offense on a per-play basis.
With a drastic drop in quarterback play, and an inept rushing attack, it's only natural to look to the defensive side of the ball to try to figure out where the Browns' 6-3 record is coming from.
The Browns defense has been significantly better than their offense, but they have not been strong enough to sustain the level of success the team is seeing right now.
They sit in the top half of the league defending both the run and pass, but only barely. They have our 15th ranked run defense, and 13th ranked pass defense (good for 14th overall). These rankings are serviceable, and wont cause a lot of losses, but they are far from strong enough to lead a team to a ton of wins.
What the defense has done well is go after the football; they are tied for seventh in the league with 17 takeaways and tied for second with 13 interceptions. The big takeaways numbers and run-heavy offense have lead to an impress plus-nine turnover differential.
Of these takeaways, 11 have come during the last 4 games, allowing the team to pick up some wins even with abysmal offensive play.
With these turnovers factoring into our defensive rankings, however, the fact remains that the defense has been merely average over the course of the entire season, not strong enough for an entire team to lean on.
So we have to ask again, where is Cleveland's success coming from?
Strength of Schedule
The Browns have been incredible fortunate with their schedule through their first nine games. According to our Power Rankings, which have Cleveland 19th, their schedule has been a cake-walk.
They have played only one top-10 team, and the average ranking of their opponents has been 21.1. The ranking falls if we only look at their wins, with the average ranking of opponent's they've beaten being 23.16, having only beaten two teams that rank in the top-20.
The 6-3 record is impressive at first glance, but with a miserable offense and nothing special on the defensive side, luck has played into that record as much as anything else. While they have a shot at squeaking into the playoffs due to their already high win total (our algorithms have their playoff chances at 36.3%), they simply aren't as good as their record indicates, and it would be a massive shock for them to see any extended success down the stretch.