Playing the stats game
There are those in Browns Nation who firmly believe the 2014 season, in spite of the five-game losing streak that concluded it, was much more rewarding than anything it has seen since 2007.
After all, the club finished with a 7-9 record when most pundits believed it was a mortal lock to win no more than five. That right there tells you all you need to know about the progress the Browns made under new coach Mike Pettine.
Isn’t the most important statistic a team compiles the won-lost record? Of course it is. It’s the ultimate bottom line and is considered reflective of a team’s worth from a talent standpoint.
But what goes into the record is just as important and allows one to see a little more clearly whether progress was, indeed, actually achieved. Here’s a close look at some of those important stats, some of which might leave you scratching your head wondering just how the Browns could wind up 7-9.
Before we get started, it’s important to note the Browns knocked off only two teams with winning records this season – Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – and defeated five of the seven teams they played with losing records. Their only stumbles were Jacksonville and Carolina, the latter winning its division championship with a 7-8-1 record.
Now then, here’s a breakdown of stats, comparing this season with last season’s 4-12 team. You might be surprised at some of them and wonder just how much this season’s team really wasn’t that much different than last season’s.
For example, the 2014 team registered seven fewer first downs and yielded only 20 more than last season’s team. This season’s club converted an anemic 29.5% of its third downs, a 5.5% drop, but improved by 7% its ability to stop third-down conversions.
Last season, the Browns’ pass rush racked up 40 sacks. Not a great number, but certainly not an embarrassing one like the 31 this season’s team posted. When you don’t pressure the quarterback, the secondary normally suffers.
Not this season. That secondary, arguably the strongest part of 2014’s defense, surrendered only 60 more yards through the air, but gave up seven fewer touchdown passes. The overall defense gave up seven fewer touchdowns.
The run defense, hampered by an injury-ravaged defensive line, produced the biggest shocker. Last season, the Browns allowed just 1,781 yards (111 yards a game) on the ground. This season, that number skyrocketed to 2,265 yards (141.5 a game). You do the math.
Along the way, that run defense held the opposition under 100 yards in only four of the 16 games and under 75 just once. The Browns won three of those four games. In the overall picture, though, it had all kinds of problems getting off the field.
Getting back to the offense, which eventually became very offensive in the final 11 games (averaging just 15 points a game), it produced about 240 fewer yards than last season even though the ground game was substantially better.
Rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West gave the Browns their best tandem of running backs since the return in 1999. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took full advantage, rushing the ball 130 more times than last season (eight more per game) and the results were extremely positive.
Crowell, West and the departed Ben Tate scored 16 of the club’s 17 touchdowns via the infantry route, shattering last year’s mark of four scores. It was also the most rushing touchdowns the Browns have scored since the 1986 season, when the team that eventually moved to Baltimore posted 20.
But it was the Cleveland passing game, which looked so strong in the first five games, that proved the offense’s undoing. Brian Hoyer was front and center in that regard.
He accounted for all 12 scoring passes, the third-lowest figure in that department since 1999. He completed only 55.3% of his passes and threw 13 interceptions after throwing just one in the first five games.
There was also a 700-yard dropoff in passing yardage. That’s because Norv Turner, last season’s offensive coordinator, put the ball up about 70% of the time, which also accounted for the lack of production on the ground.
The biggest change, however, was in the important turnover ratio. The Browns improved from a minus-8 last season to a plus-6 this season. The offense, which stagnated as the season wore on, did not take advantage of the sizable swing, scoring three fewer touchdowns than last season.
Even though they won three more games than last season and improved their home record from 1-7 to 4-4, the Browns still scored nine fewer points than 2013. They also gave up 69 fewer points.
One more stat that is easily overlooked and contributed heavily to the Browns’ final record. They had the good fortune this season to play the NFC South in inter-conference play. They were 3-1 as the AFC North battered their NFC rival division with a 12-3-1 record.
So what can be gleaned from these statistics? This season’s club was marginally better in some areas, somewhat worse in others, but took much better advantage this time of playing a last-place schedule. The good news is they’ll be playing the same kind of schedule next season.
Now it’s up to General Manager Ray Farmer and Pettine to make certain the 2016 schedule does not fall into the same category.
Tomorrow: More interesting statistics and other stuff in Monday’s leftovers (Tuesday edition)