Nick Chubb on Browns' bad luck: 'It was always something.' Clearing away the wreckage of 2021 season

·5 min read
Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jack Conklin leaves the field on a cart during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Good riddance to the jackhammer punch in the nose that was the Browns' 2021 season.

With luck 2022 will get back to building on 2020.

For now Kevin Stefanski arose from the 2021 canvas and got hit by 20 questions about what happened.

What was up with the Baker Mayfield? With all the injuries? Why must the head coach be the play caller? Where did team chemistry go? Who's in charge of Twitter control? Etc.

"There are a ton of things we have to look at and learn from,” Stefanski said of his handling of Mayfield. That pretty much was his answer to all 20 questions.

Really. What happened?

Part of the problem was coaching. Adjustments came too slowly. Too often late strategery felt like playing scared.

Limping away at 8-9 when you are supposed to be sitting with a first-round home game results from taking punch after punch after punch, though.

More Cleveland Browns News: Browns' best chance in 2022 starts with Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski putting on their big-boy pants

It's trite but true to say injuries hurt the most. Physical issues rained excruciating consequences on the offense, more or less in this order.

1, Mayfield was loaded for bear. His end to 2020 was encouraging. His first six series of 2021 made Stefanski-Mayfield look like a dream team. It included drives of 75, 75, 81, 87 and 75 yards at Kansas City. The other drive looked as if IT would go 75 yards, before Nick Chubb fumbled.

In the next game, against Houston, Mayfield tore up his left shoulder while attempting a tackle after an interception. From that moment on, he was someone else.

2, On the second play of the second game, Jarvis Landry went down with a knee injury. His absence changed the receiver rotation and the play calling. Rookie Anthony Schwartz ran a wrong route that led to the interception that resulted in the ill-fated tackle effort that undermined Mayfield's season.

Landry missed five games and wasn't the same when he returned.

3, Right tackle Jack Conklin played every down in the first four games. The Browns were 3-1. Conklin was on and off the field in three other games and couldn't play 10 others. The Browns were 5-8 in those. Losing the first-team All-Pro was a killer.

4, The Browns couldn't shake the Bears. Mayfield and the passing game were way off. Chicago ganged up on Chubb, who had to grind for his 88 yards on 22 carries.

The difference in the game was Kareem Hunt. He ran 10 times for 81 yards. He caught six passes for 74 yards. The Bears couldn't deal with both Chubb and Hunt.

Hunt played six games before a calf injury basically wrecked his season.

Chubb was going to town in Game 5 against the Chargers (161 rushing yards) before he left with a calf injury. Without him a week later, the offense disappeared against Pittsburgh. Neither Chubb nor Hunt played in a mind-blowing 45-7 loss at New England.

Chubb-Hunt was a myth for most of 2021.

The Browns once were positioned to assemble a super roster for 2021. That came from draft position tied to three seasons in which the record was a big, fat, ugly 4-44.

The ledger since then, 32-32-1, reflects some draft hits, but also some mismanagement in the player personnel department. You're supposed to be better than .500 if you're in a real "window."

The 2021 roster was strong enough to make Cleveland a hot item last summer. It was too flawed to survive a series of unfortunate events into winter.

Depth was reasonably good on a defense that got better and could have held its own in the playoffs.

"We developed and found our chemistry," said coordinator Joe Woods. "Guys worked together, got confident and played more consistently.

"After the games we played against Baltimore last year (the Ravens scored 85 points), that was a big game on the schedule. The first game, we played them really well."

That's no exaggeration. Against Woods' unit, Lamar Jackson threw four interceptions and got rushed hard. The Cleveland offense was hard to watch, though, in a 16-10 loss.

Generally, insufficient depth at wide receiver and offensive line, along with a weak year from No. 1 tight end Austin Hooper, made an injury-influenced Mayfield look even worse.

The most important injuries were confined to one body, Mayfield's. The most mismanaged aspect of the season was him.

Coming out of Mayfield's last game, a Monday night loss at Pittsburgh, center J.C. Tretter shared a telling perspective.

“Baker was super banged up this year," Tretter said. "I give him a ton of credit and appreciate how hard he fought to be out there with us each and every week. We knew he was going through a lot physically throughout the season.

"The mental aspect of playing through injuries is very difficult. There are things you are used to doing that you can’t any more. Waking up every morning, the first thing you think about is how much pain you are in. That wears on everybody."

On maybe a month of Sundays, Mayfield should have been wearing blue jeans. Instead, he got jammed back in the huddle immediately after Case Keenum won a game against Denver.

Stefanski kept saying Mayfield gave the Browns their best chance to win. It didn't look that way while he was going 3-7 in his last 10 starts, or in a 45-7 loss at New England.

Mayfield's struggles turned into a toxic stew of anger and frustration.

Now it's time to take a deep breath. A lot of what happened to the 2021 Browns was bad luck.

"It was always something," Chubb said the day after the Browns beat Cincinnati behind Keenum to end the regular season. "Injuries and COVID, or just some other things we could not really control."

Refusing to rest Mayfield was just a bad idea, leaving a major healing project encompassing body, mind and soul.

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@gannett.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: What went wrong with Baker Mayfield, Kevin Stefanski, Browns