Cleveland Browns need to coach to win, or they never will

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski works the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio.Stefanski1031
Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski works the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio.Stefanski1031 /
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Cleveland Browns
Dec 20, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Nick Mullens (9) throws a pass during the first half against the Las Vegas Raiders at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Browns have been hampered by injuries, poor play and lack of discipline. But nothing has hurt them like coaching decisions that must change.

The Cleveland Browns need to change their football philosophy. Their conservative approach mitigates against winning. Instead of coaching to win, they coach not to lose.

There’s something to be said about this style. Ohio State took this approach to win the 2002 NCAA National Championship. Playing conservative, kicking field goals, and playing field position is smart football. It’s the preferred approach for a team ravaged by injuries or COVID as the Browns have been recently.

Sometimes the smart move is not the best move. The Browns suffer from making the smart choice but not the right choice. The smart choice has held this team back from reaching its full potential.

These smart, but not right, decisions are best illustrated by three decisions made in last week’s game against the Raiders. Only when the Browns stopped playing smart did they give themselves the chance to win.

Cleveland Browns offense played smart

The Browns were ravaged by COVID-19 last week. With 20-plus players on the list, the Browns played new starters and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio started at left tackle. They even started practice squad quarterback Nick Mullens.

When facing this problem, the coaches made the smart choice. They opened the game conservatively running the ball. But they over-relied on the running game to the detriment of the pass. When passing, receivers dropped catchable balls early. This left the Browns with a predictable offense that the Las Vegas Raiders easily shut down.

Going conservative was the smart choice because streamlined the offense for players unfamiliar with the system and their roles. It’s smart to ask players to do what they are comfortable doing.

Unfortunately, given the number of players lost, they were not comfortable doing much. The decision to go conservative was myopic. It failed to see the situation at hand. Cleveland needed a win to stay in the playoff and division crowns race. The Browns needed to win.

The smart choice was made. But the right choice was to go all out.

The Browns needed to play aggressively. The aggressive call is the right call for two reasons.

First, it was needed at the moment. To quote Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game”. To win the game, the offense needed to open up. The Raiders sold out to stop the run. When the run game is gone, the passing game is open. When the passing game is open, you need to throw the ball.

The Browns’ offense can be aggressive. This same offense is run by the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, and others. Running a dynamic offense of running, play-action and downfield passing attacks are a part of the offense. Not being aggressive is a choice by the coaching staff.

Second, it was the right choice because it was unexpected. The Raiders expected the Browns to play conservatively. They game-planned for it. They executed that game plan.

After halftime, the Browns opened up the offense. The open offense moved the ball consistently. The open offense scored touchdowns. The open offense gave the Browns a chance to win.

But when it looked like the game was won, the conservative offense came back. They needed a first down to win the game. They ran the ball three times, failed to get a first down, and were forced to punt. The rest is history. Let’s not repeat it.

The smart choice was the wrong choice on offense. The defense played smart as well. But was that the right choice?