As they walked through the hallways Monday at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus the day after their season officially came to a close, Browns players expressed disappointment about how the year ended but voiced confidence about where they'd pick up in 2022.
Those points especially permeated on the offensive side of the ball, where the Browns never consistently clicked the way they imagined at the beginning of the season. The Browns, who finished the year with an 8-9 record and ranked 18th in total offense, struggled to replicate the same offensive success that took them to the playoffs in 2020, but several leaders from the group believe improvement will come next season.
"It was definitely frustrating," G Joel Bitonio said. "I thought after the Kansas City loss in the playoffs, we were a few pieces away from really having a chance to compete for a championship this year. Obviously, that did not come to fruition, but I do have faith in this building and I have faith in the building that we're going to make it right."
The other offensive players who spoke to local media Monday echoed a similar belief — the Browns are looking forward to a fresh start next year. They'll carry the same offensive line, same pair of stud running backs and will look for better years from many of the offensive playmakers who perhaps had their moments in 2021 but will be eager to push for better results in a new season.
QB Baker Mayfield, who was sidelined for the final game Sunday as he prepares for surgery on the torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, will be one of them. Mayfield played through the injury since Week 2 and admitted at points of the season that the injury was difficult to ignore.
He didn't, however, use it as an excuse for some of the mistakes that resulted in him compiling his lowest passing yardage total and touchdown total in his four-year career. Mayfield completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,010 yards with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Mayfield expressed his belief all season that he can be better, and his coaches and teammates have expressed similar remarks. Those beliefs partially stem from Mayfield's 2020 season, when he passed for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. It's also worth noting that Mayfield completed all but seven of his first 37 pass attempts to open the 2021 season before he suffered his shoulder injury.
The Browns need Mayfield to return to a similar form in 2022 for the entire offense to reach the level they hoped to climb this season. Head coach Kevin Stefanski believes a healthier Mayfield will help them achieve that.
"He's pushed through it, and I know he wants to perform better," Stefanski said. "I've seen him perform better. He's played winning football for us, so I fully expect him to bounce back next year."
In addition to Mayfield, the Browns attempted to fight through several injuries to key players on offense. RB Kareem Hunt missed nine games due to calf and ankle injuries. RT Jack Conklin was sidelined for all but seven games with elbow and knee injuries. Nearly every offensive starter also spent at least one game inactive on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Yes, injuries and positive COVID-19 cases occurred for just about every NFL team this year, and the Browns rarely turned to those points as an excuse for poor results.
Now, the Browns will be even more prepared moving forward to handle the unexpected obstacles that arise throughout the year. Depth will be added via the draft and free agency to positions that struggled when starting players were sidelined, and Stefanski and Executive Vice President of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry will work to build a roster even more capable of upholding production when top guys are inactive.
"Injuries are a part of this game," Stefanski said. "Every single team faces injuries in some form or fashion. I don't think we're any different. It's not ideal, but I think that's our job as coaches and players to get the next man up and adjust whatever we're doing based on who's in there."
Even though the offensive results didn't meet expectations, there were a few bright spots — RB Nick Chubb finished second in the league with 1,259 rushing yards, for example. He was one of three Browns players voted to the Pro Bowl, joining Teller, a first-time Pro Bowler, and Bitonio, who's earned Pro Bowl nods the last four years. TE David Njoku built his best season since 2018 and was constantly involved in the pass game, and RB D'Ernest Johnson rushed for over 500 yards and was one of the best feel-good stories to emerge from the season.
But despite what the stats say, the Browns aren't content with how their overall offense performed and know improvement is imperative for them to return to the playoffs next season.
"We're all on the same page still," Bitonio said. "We all want to win. We all want to get to the point of being the last team standing eventually. The guys in the locker room bought in. I think the guys are close in this locker room, and the guys who come back are going to learn from this and really, truly fight for each other next year."