When you push against the established order of the universe, the universe pushes back hard.
For most of the 21st century, the Cleveland Browns have floundered in a sub-basement of purgatory, eliminated from the playoffs before October and a near-guaranteed W on the schedule of every other team. When you finish fourth in your four-team division 14 times in a 16-year period, expectations aren’t just low, they’re subterranean.
Now, though, we’re looking at a Cleveland Browns team that’s — well, you can’t even call them “resurgent,” since there’s nothing to surge back to. This surgent team went 11-5 last year — the most wins for a Cleveland team since 1994 — and reached the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades. Hopes were high that this year’s model could be not just a playoff contender, but a conference challenger.
It hasn’t worked out that way, and not just because the Ravens, Chiefs and Bills have found their footing. Cleveland’s suffering through an astounding wave of injuries, leaving the team’s injury report looking like a roster that — if healthy — could challenge for the AFC North.
The supreme cruelty of that avalanche of injuries, arriving just as the Browns had crossed past respectability and well into the realm of legitimate threat, is so perfectly Cleveland it hurts. Not as much as a dislocated shoulder, true, but painful all the same.
Baker Mayfield, the epitome of this new-look Cleveland team, has struggled through a recurring shoulder injury. He injured the shoulder in Week 2 against Houston, tearing his labrum, and has worn a harness to keep the shoulder from popping out of the socket. But Sunday against the Cardinals, while getting sacked five times, the shoulder popped out again, leaving Mayfield prone on the field for several minutes.
Mayfield, who has made 50 consecutive starts, insists he’ll be fine for Thursday’s game against Denver. “It feels like s—,” Mayfield said of his shoulder, but he said he’ll “absolutely” be back on the field Thursday.
Elsewhere on the roster, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have missed time. Fullback Andy Janovich and wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry have also missed action, and the offensive line is down three tackles: Jedrick Wills, Andy Conklin and Chris Hubbard. On the other side of the ball, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will also miss significant time.
That’s not just a challenge. That, in the aggregate, is an existential threat. Cleveland faces Denver later this week on short rest, and then two crucial divisional matchups against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. There’s zero room for error in the AFC North.
There’s also zero room for excuses, and this is where it gets tricky for Cleveland. The Ravens have weathered torrents of injuries and yet are on a five-game winning streak. The Cardinals lost a swath of players and coaches to COVID protocols … and then managed to whip Cleveland on the road 37-14.
Stefanski, to his credit, isn’t using injuries as an excuse. “We are a 3-3 football team, and we played like it,” he said after the Cardinals loss. “We were just very, very average, and that is my responsibility to get it fixed. That is what we have to do because we have to turn right around and come back in here Thursday night and find a way. Really disappointed. Again, we just have to find a way to clean this stuff up.”
Still, it’s going to be a tough go for Cleveland without the dual-threat running attack of Chubb and Hunt, or the O-line protection for Mayfield up front. Mayfield is still something of a question mark, playing well in the fourth year of his rookie deal but not quite well enough that Cleveland has committed to a Josh Allen-esque extension. He’ll have to survive the next few weeks not just with his own injuries, but those of key teammates.
“We are going to see what we are made of,” Mayfield said. “Our backs are up against the wall right now, and I like our chances.”
The universe has punched the Cleveland Browns in the face. It’s now up to Cleveland to get up and punch back.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected].