NFL insider notes: 2020’s top new head coach has Browns looking playoff-caliber, Houston has problems and more

It was not that long ago that the Browns looked like the Browns. Recall: Week 1 featured dropped passes, Odell Beckham, Jr. trying to catch the ball after running out of bounds, missed extra points and field goals (and a fired kicker, to boot), a botched fake punt, and a third-and-41 sequence in the second quarter. After that 38-6 defeat in Baltimore, rookie coach Kevin Stefanski opined, “It’s hard to say we did anything good.” And if you watched the game, you had to believe him.

But my, this looks three weeks later like a different operation all the way around. Stefanski’s team is no longer suffering mental meltdowns and beating themselves. They have developed a distinct road-grading identity on offense, their best players are performing like their best players, and it’s fair to say the stink of the Freddie Kitchens and Hue Jackson eras have been thoroughly fumigated.

Stefanski has been the best of the new class of head coaches to this point, with his team’s systematic beatdown of the Cowboys in Dallas a sterling example of their growth. After absolutely pummeling Dallas in the first half, and surging to a 41-14 lead in the third quarter, they withstood the inevitable garbage-time Cowboys run (it’s their signature faux-hope-inducing rouse) to put the game away late on a wild OBJ endaround.

Should they have let the Cowboys back in the game? No. Do I have concerns about their linebackers and secondary? Damn skippy.

But is this a team that has sufficient talent to beat bad teams and hang around against most good ones. With an expanded playoff field, don’t think they can’t get back in the postseason after this 3-1 start. For the first time in forever, there are overt, obvious positive vibes flowing from the huddle and locker room and sidelines. Give Stefanski abundant credit for getting this done despite putting in a new system with no OTAs and no preseason games, and after walking into a building that has been rife with toxicity and a losing culture for a long, long time.

Stefanski’s bunch has gotten better each week. He had OBJ and Jarvis Landry throwing, catching and running for TDs, when he wasn’t just soul-crushing that pathetic Allas defense (yeah, they don’t deserve that “D” in Dallas right now) with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and even D’Ernest Johnson on the ground. I sense a little bit of “the little engine that could” in this group.

With the Colts and Steelers looming, we’ll learn a little more about how the Browns size up with some decent teams in their conference soon enough, but I bet they at least split these games. They have scored 30 points in three straight games for the first time in over 50 years, they are breaking records on offense by the week and they have their best collective offensive line in years.

Even with Chubb not 100 percent and held to six carries (at eight yards a carry!), the Browns rolled up 307 yards on the ground and had three guys not named Chubb run for 70 yards or more. They averaged 7.7 yards per carry on 40(!) carries. That ain’t easy to do, even against the Cowpokes. The Browns just might finally be on to something. 

Houston has a lot of problems

I don’t think Bill O’Brien is doing enough for the Texans. Why stop at taking over offensive play-calling for like the 10th time during his regime? Maybe call the defense too, because they stink (coordinator Anthony Weaver is actually doing all he can, I believe, but O’Brien, who is also the GM, has almost no young talent on that side of the ball).

Maybe he could cook the team meals and drive the team bus and play quarterback, too, since with him at the helm Deshaun Watson managed to go 6 of 15 for 79 yards at the half as the Texans ended up having to chase the game again. The trade for David Johnson has done nothing to spark a dormant running game, primarily because half the offensive line still is not very good and they gave away their best player to the Cardinals in a salary dump. Will Fuller rarely shows up anymore when it matters without DeAndre Hopkins there, and at 0-4 this is clearly one of the worst teams in football.

O’Brien has crafted a scenario where he has to wear all of this as a GM and head coach and offensive play-caller, and after losing to an equally desperate Vikings team it’s fair to ask if it’s already too late to salvage this season. I suspect they beat the Jags next week, but then face the Titans and Packers. I could see 1-6 at the end of October; I wonder how many hats O’Brien will be wearing by then.

Chargers gonna Charger

You can change the names on the back of the jerseys, but the Chargers just know how to lose games. It never changes. They had the game under control at the end of the first half, with Justin Herbert looking like a future All-Pro and Tom Brady rusty and throwing pick-sixes.

It was 24-7 with a minute left in the half and the Chargers backed up near their own goal line … so they promptly fumbled. And Brady converted, and the L.A. defense completely fell apart in the second half, and the Chargers suffered yet another vintage Chargers defeat. No one does it like them.

Herbert has been nothing short of a revelation, though he came up a little short and threw a late pick, as kid passers are prone to do. This team just continues to do complete Jekyll-and-Hyde routines from half to half and week to week. You wonder if or when it’s ever going to end.

More Week 4 notes

  • No one has more thoroughly hollow 500-yard passing games than Dak Prescott. It can’t even be close. Mop up time starts early with this outfit, and he tossed a signature late pick as well. He is to 500-yard games what Blake Bortles is to 300-yard games. And with the Cowboys always behind and all about the garbage time passing stats, Zeke Elliott is wasted money at this point. He was a passenger, once again.  
  • You know the NFC East is a total joke — which we told you in this space way back in Week 2 — when the biggest play in the entire division through a month of the season is the Falcons forgetting how to field an onside kick. Take out that bogus Allas win, and the fact the WFT’s only win was against another division team (the Eagles), and that NFC East record looks like even more of a failure. Take out those wins and, factoring in the eventual Giants loss to the Rams (game in progress as I write), the NFC East would enter the Sunday night game 0-12-1. Yikes.
  • The dirty little weakness with the Ravens roster is backup QB. RGIII is not good. In fact, he showed Sunday he is quite bad, quickly throwing a pick in the fourth quarter. If he had to play for any period of time, Baltimore would be in deep trouble. I’d have been all over Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton or a number of other guys who are an upgrade over Griffin this offseason. They also still can’t get a pulse on the pass rush without bringing numbers, and they got screened to death yet again. Against top QBs, that will remain a problem.
  • Dwayne Haskins has issues for sure, but if he is benched for Kyle Allen so early in his tenure, that’s an organization failure more than an individual one for him. His clock is still too slow, and his decision-making in the fourth quarter was a problem. But he has no cast around him. Coach Ron Rivera keeps sending mixed messages both in the media and with his bizarre timeout and fourth-down decisions. That kid hasn’t had close to a fair chance, and the only way to get better is to play.
  • Great day for Joe Burrow, and it was better than the stat sheets. He made some great throws negated by penalties, he hit seven different pass catchers in the first quarter alone and had a potential beauty of a TD throw taken away by Jags linebacker Myles Jack, who yanked it away from his tight end. Future is bright with that kid.
  • From the point the Bucs recovered the fumble with less than 30 seconds left in the first half through the end of the game, Brady’s drives went TD pass, TD pass, TD pass, TD pass, field goal, victory formation. I think he’s still alright.
  • Huge bounce-back game for the Saints, who were starting to scare me. They overcame a quick 14-0 deficit — the Lions offense seems to go skittish once they get off their initial script — to go up big and get back to 2-2.

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