Browns enter season of big expectations amid heightened challenges

Stephen A. blasts OBJ for comments about NFL season (2:05)

Stephen A. Smith expresses his disgust with Odell Beckham Jr. saying the NFL season shouldn't happen when OBJ could opt out of the season. (2:05)

With a revamped front office, a first-time head coach, a mostly new staff and a third-year quarterback attempting to rediscover himself -- while learning yet another system -- the Cleveland Browns already faced one of the NFL's steepest learning curves.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, wiping out minicamp and the three OTAs the Browns would have had with a new coach in Kevin Stefanski, who as of the weekend had still not yet met most of his players in person.

Now, given all the new pieces and moving parts in Cleveland following a busy offseason, the Browns enter training camp operating at a disadvantage, with little margin for setbacks, viral or otherwise, relative to most of the league.

But unlike the Cincinnati Bengals or Carolina Panthers, who are debuting a rookie quarterback (Joe Burrow) and rookie NFL head coach (Matt Rhule), respectively, the expectations remain unchanged for a talented roster in Cleveland. Anything less than a playoff appearance would constitute a massive disappointment.

"Having less football makes it tough," said tight end Austin Hooper, one of the Browns' prized free-agent signings -- something that only raised Cleveland's ceiling. "The only way to get better at football is by playing more football, and without as much, especially with a new system, could there possibly be some growing pains?

"Who knows?"

That could be a common refrain over the next few weeks in Cleveland.

Being a first-time head coach in normal times would present challenges. This fall, Stefanski also has to worry about where positional meetings will occur, whether to huddle during practice -- the Browns won't -- and crucial players being sidelined for days, if not weeks, on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

The NFL agreeing to cancel all four preseason games only added to the curve. Previously, Stefanski had been planning to audition offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt as playcaller in preseason games before deciding whether he or Van Pelt would call plays this season. Now, Stefanski -- who has already discussed with his assistants the possibility of scaling down the offense given the limited time together with the players -- will have to make that decision without the benefit of a preseason game.

"That's certainly something, like with everything else, you have to have a plan for," Stefanski said. "Missing preseason games, sure, [they're] an opportunity for players and it's an opportunity for our fans to get in the building and see these players. It's definitely unique. I think it's our job to create as many moments in training camp and as many times as we can in practice to mimic gamelike settings and put the players in some situational football."

Nobody will that matter more for than quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is already playing for a fourth head coach going into his third season. After finishing second in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, Mayfield slumped last season as the Browns finished a woeful 6-10. To Mayfield's credit, he has impressed the new regime this offseason. He even showed up to camp in excellent shape, according to first-year general manager Andrew Berry, who noted that Mayfield added four pounds of lean mass while cutting body fat over the offseason.

"Baker has really been outstanding this entire spring and summer -- level of engagement with the coaching staff, getting up to speed mentally with the system and his interaction with his teammates," Berry said. "I know he's really excited about the upcoming season, and he has done a really nice job of what I would call almost creating community and really bringing guys together, as difficult as that can be as everybody has really been trying to function virtually. We are all really excited about him."

With Hooper and new tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr., Mayfield appears to have the supporting cast, which still includes star wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, to deliver a big bounce-back campaign. But whether the quarterback does so figures to hinge in part on how quickly the offense, with new schemes and starters, jells around him.

Despite all of their hype going into last season, the Browns struggled out of the chute, especially offensively, and tumbled to a 2-6 record. With a heavily backloaded schedule this time around, highlighted by late-season showdowns against divisional rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Cleveland can ill afford another slow start.

The Browns do have the pieces to finally snap the NFL's longest playoff drought, which is now up to 18 years. But first they must overcome challenges of a preseason unlike any other before it.

"We have to make every day count, even those off days," Stefanski said. "We will be efficient. ... I go back to our offseason program -- I was really impressed with the amount of work we were able to get done back in the spring, so then that is something where I feel like we have built a foundation. Now, we get to build upon that foundation here in training camp."