The Cleveland Browns took a significant hit on Wednesday when it was announced that quarterback Deshaun Watson had suffered a shoulder injury that would.
Watson hasn’t been particularly good this season, or since arriving in Cleveland. He’s completed just 61.4% of his passes this year at an average of a mere 6.3 yards per attempt, with seven touchdowns against four interceptions. Among 33 qualified quarterbacks, he ranks 21st in passer rating (84.3), 23rd in ESPN’s QBR (44.7), and 28th in Tru Media’s EPA/play (-0.16).
But as we have seen this season, there is still a significant gap between him and his backups, P.J. Walker (who is expected to start) and Dorian Thompson-Robinson. As noted by Matthew Betz of Fantasy Football Ballers; among the 37 quarterbacks with 100 or more dropbacks this season, Walker ranks 37th in Pro Football Focus passing grade, 37th in adjusted completion rate (which accounts for drops), 37th in NextGen Stats’ completion percentage over expected, and 36th in EPA/play.
Accordingly, our friends at SportsLine project Cleveland’s chances of winning the AFC North, making the playoffs, winning the AFC, and emerging as Super Bowl champions to drop precipitously (you can check out every team’s chances).
|w/ Watson Healthy||10.7||62.9%||32.2%||85.2%||9.4%||3.9%|
|Watson out for Season||9.9||58.2%||15.3%||63.5%||3.5%||1.1%|
I’m perhaps even more skeptical than that, due to the crowded nature of the conference. Right now, the Browns hold the No. 6 seed in the AFC with their 6-3 record. But there are 12 teams in the conference with either 4, 5, or 6 wins. That is a whole lot of contenders for three division crowns (the Chiefs have the AFC West pretty much wrapped up) and three wild card spots.
Cleveland probably has to go at least 4-4 (to finish 10-7) to earn a playoff berth, and may even need to go 5-3 and get to 11 wins, depending on how the tiebreakers shake out. And that’s going to be difficult to pull off — even with a relatively easy schedule. (They have the 19th-ranked strength of schedule the rest of the way, with games against the Bears, Rams, Broncos, and Jets offset by matchups with the Jaguars, Steelers, Bengals, and Texans.)
The Browns have probably been somewhat fortunate to get off to their 6-3 start given how poorly their offense has played, but they’ve gotten there on the strength of what appears to be one of, if not the single-best defense in the NFL. The Browns check in first in yards allowed per game and sixth in points allowed per game, as well as first in plays and yards per drive, second in points per drive, first in DVOA (overall, as well as against both the pass and the run), and first in EPA/play. It is without a doubt a championship-level defense.
But it’s also been very slightly less dominant over the last four weeks than it was earlier in the year.
This might not seem like a massive gap. The defense, after all, has still been VERY good during this more recent stretch. But the overall numbers are inflated by a game against the Clayton Tune-led Cardinals, and in any event, there is a significant difference between being “very obviously the best defense in football and perhaps one of the best in recent memory” and “one of the best defenses in football.” The former can make up for almost any offensive shortcomings, as the Browns did earlier in the year. The latter could have some more difficulty doing that.
If the Browns are merely one of the best defenses the rest of the way, that could present a problem, because the offense is almost certainly going to be even worse than it has been to date. Walker may be 5-4 in his career as a starter, but his play, on its own, has decidedly not been starter-quality. Remember Watson’s numbers from earlier? Well, Walker has been much worse. He’s thrown 326 passes in his career, and he’s only completed 54.9% of them at an average of 6.4 yards per attempt. He has thrown just 6 touchdowns against 16 (SIXTEEN!) interceptions, giving him an astronomical 4.9% interception rate. His success rate is a pitiful 35.3%, his passer rating is just 60.1… you get the idea.
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
How Cleveland managed to go 2-1 in his starts this season makes almost no sense, especially considering that the Colts put up 458 yards and 38 points in one of them. Since 2000, NFL teams are 226-1,274 (0.151) in games where they get out-gained by at least 140 yards, but the Browns managed to capture one of those victories. They also saw the 49ers miss a last-second field goal from just 41 yards out to get the other. Needless to say, that’s not quite a sustainable recipe for victory.
And if the Browns were to turn to Dorian Thompson-Robinson instead? In his one start, Thompson-Robinson was even worse than Walker: He went 20 of 37 (54.1%) for 130 yards (3.5 YPA), 0 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 36.6% success rate, 28.0 passer rating, 26.4 QBR, and took a sack on 9.8% of his dropbacks.
As for the Browns’ game this week, they went from being 4-point favorites at home against the Steelers to 2.5-point favorites as of early Wednesday at Caesars Sportsbook.
To win at least half of its remaining games, Cleveland needs to recapture the defensive form it showed earlier in the season, and perhaps even improve on it. It will need the defensive to score points, and it will likely also need Walker to play far better than he has to this point in his career. That’s not to say it can’t be done — the Browns have already banked six wins, and they all count. But it’s going to be far more difficult than it seemed it would on Wednesday morning.