After watching the Cleveland Browns end their 17-year playoff win drought I was reminded of the fact that ex-Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will be just another one that got away. Of course, getting rid of Mike Zimmer for the unproven first-time head coach Stefanski would have been unreasonable, but there are other parallels between these two teams that make me think the Browns are what the Vikings wanted to be in the 2020-2021 NFL season.
I’d have never thought I’d be jealous of Browns fans, but for the first time in a long time, things aren’t looking too shabby for Cleveland’s franchise. Thanks to the Vikings, the Browns seem to have finally found a coach worth keeping. I may be a little jealous, but it’s good that Stefanski is getting the job done and turning the Browns into a playoff team in the loaded AFC.
You can attribute much of the success to the improved play of third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield who, much like Kirk Cousins, started the season a little rocky, only to close out the year with a solid performance. Coincidentally, Pro Football Focus rated Mayfield as the 10th best passer in the NFL, only one spot ahead of Cousins. Kirk may have thrown more, but both ended up with similar stats.
Taking age out of the discussion, it would be difficult to choose between the two quarterbacks, exhibiting how the quarterback position is in a similar spot in both franchises — somewhere between great and franchise quarterback.
Both Cousins and Mayfield also play on teams that are dependent on the running game. It’s no secret that Zimmer wants an offense that is focused on managing the clock so the defense can rest, but the Browns were one of the best rushing teams in the NFL this past year due to the ability of their two-headed monster: Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Both Minnesota and Cleveland ranked in the top-7 in PFF’s rushing grades to no one’s surprise, meaning that both teams’ success can mostly be attributed to the running game. They are among the few teams left in the league that force their opponents to load their defensive fronts and sell out to stop the run, leaving opportunities for the quarterbacks and receivers to make plays.
The Vikings and Browns also have two dynamic wide receivers and reliable tight ends to keep defenses guessing. In fact, their offenses are incredibly similar until you take a look at the offensive lines, which is the biggest difference between both teams.
Cleveland has successfully put together the best offensive line in football through both the draft and free agency, something the Vikings need to follow if they want to have a more consistent passing game. Outside of maybe another pass rusher, Minnesota’s biggest need is to get some offensive guards — the Browns’ performance against the elite Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense was evidence of that.
Will the Vikings use the 14th pick in the 2021 draft to take an offensive lineman? Probably not. But if they can get another stud like Brian O’Neill or Ezra Cleveland later on I think it would fill a glaring need. Hopefully it is supplemented in free agency as well, but the draft would be the cheapest option and the Vikings don’t have a lot of cap space.
And rest assured, I’m not going to overlook the defense. Obviously they were not up to snuff this year, but it was due to the lack of depth, injuries, and opt outs. I think it’s safe to say that the Vikings’ defense is much better than Cleveland’s when it is at full strength, but there are still some similarities between the two.
Myles Garrett is the Browns’ Danielle Hunter, and they have incredible secondary players in Denzel Ward as the Vikings have in Harrison Smith. The Vikings have an edge at linebacker but overall their philosophies on defense are bend but don’t break and try to hit the quarterback — at least when your top three pass rushers are able to play.
Had it not been for the injury bug and opt-outs, the Vikings would have had a much more successful season this past year. The Browns were a template of what a successful run-first team with talent at all levels of both offense and defense — something Zimmer can emulate. While Stefanski is being praised for his new-school offensive play-calling it’s essentially what the Vikings were doing this year on offense. A playoff run is possible when the defense comes back to form, just like the Browns are experiencing this year.