Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
How good are the Browns?
The question has become a national obsession, it seems.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh stirred up the narrative at NFL owners meetings in Arizona recently when he said to Cleveland.com, “They’re just so darn talented. They’re the most talented team in the division. There’s no question about that right now.”
To which Browns coach Freddie Kitchens replied, “Yeah, our roster looks great on paper – whoopty-hell, alright?”
Later, Kitchens called out Harbaugh for gamesmanship.
Kitchens told SI.com, “Hell, that’s just trying to set you up for failure. We understand the games that are played. We understand that people want to put you up, so they can knock you down. It’s a hell of a lot more fun seeing somebody fall when the expectations are high. Everybody knows that. I’m from Alabama and I know that.”
It’s more than a rival coach touting the Browns, though.
Analyst Dan Orlovsky, who has no dog in this fight, pronounced on ESPN’s GetUp on Wednesday morning, "This is a team that doesn't have a lot of flaws. This team’s going to be really, really hard to beat.”
“Everybody is going to say that we could be and should be Super Bowl contenders,” Mayfield said. “Yeah, we know that.”
The wisest guys: If it were just rival coaches throwing bouquets and Browns players touting themselves, that would be cause for concern. We’ve heard it before (though not for a long time).
But the real authority figures on predicting team strengths are the NFL schedule-makers and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas. And both entities are driving this Browns bandwagon as hard as anybody.
The league schedule still is being formulated and might not be released for a week or two. But at NFL meetings last week in Arizona, speculation was the Browns will be featured on at least three prime-time TV games in the coming season and quite possibly could max out at five.
“Every network wants us,” a team executive exclaimed in wonderment.
The sentiment was backed up by an industry insider with knowledge of the league’s inner workings who professed, “Networks are fighting over the Browns.”
The wise guys in the desert have spoken loudly, too.
Sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com lists the Browns third among AFC teams to win the Super Bowl. New England and Kansas City are at +700 and the Browns are next in the AFC at +1200.
In the six weeks from Feb. 4 to March 18, BetOnline moved its odds on the Browns winning the Super Bowl from 25 to 1 to 14 to 1. Among AFC teams, only New England and Kansas City had shorter odds at 8 to 1.
South Book Race and Sportsbook listed the Browns fourth among AFC teams behind New England and Kansas City (5 to 1) and Indianapolis (12 to 1). It had the Browns at 15 to 1.
The fact is the Super Bowl champion Patriots and AFC runners-up Chiefs both suffered significant losses in the offseason while the Browns improved.
The Patriots watched the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady’s all-time favorite playmaker, unfold after the best tight ends in free agency were spoken for. Coach Bill Belichick also lost his top defensive coaches.
The Chiefs, whose defense was their downfall last season, allowed their top two pass rushers to leave. Dee Ford was traded and Justin Houston departed in free agency. Further, the Chiefs will transition to a new defensive coordinator and won’t have franchise running back Kareem Hunt from the start of the year.
Oh, yeah, Hunt, the NFL rushing champion as a rookie in 2017, is now with the Browns – at least if he complies with terms of his eight-game suspension.
Dealing with it: Can these lofty expectations crush the Browns?
It happened to a much different Browns team in 2008. The quarterback was Derek Anderson, the playmakers were fragile personalities Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr., and the coach was Romeo Crennel. Injuries also crippled that team before the starting gate opened.
These Browns seem more mature, with Kitchens and Mayfield taking the lead in getting ahead of the situation.
“Our expectations have nothing to do with the outside world,” Kitchens said. “Our expectations are set in our room, in our team room. Our expectations are going to be on how we prepare every day and approach every day from a business perspective and on what we want to get accomplished on each day on a day-in and day-out basis.
“The outside predictions, we are not in that business. We are going to let other people do that. We are just going to be happy with our performance and how we prepare.”
Mayfield said his expectations “were changing drastically” after the trade for Beckham. He then talked about not being satisfied with a rookie quarterback record for touchdown passes.
“I am not satisfied with setting one record. I want to win Super Bowls,” he said.
Mayfield’s message to his team seemed to be don’t be afraid of the hype. Seize the opportunity. Dare to be great.
“This is real,” he said.
And who's to doubt the man who said he's the only quarterback who could turn around a team from 0-16, and then do it?