Catch Joe Thomas TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. when he co-hosts "Browns Live" powered by FirstEnergy with Nathan Zegura. The 100 percent fan-focused show, which will stream on all of the Browns social platforms, will feature multiple segments with Coach Kevin Stefanski, interviews with players, film breakdowns and more.
Each game week, Joe will share his insights, memories and more in this weekly column, "Cup of Joe."
October 12, 2014, was one of my best days on the football field playing for the Cleveland Browns. Not only did we beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, but we also dominated them in a way I never experienced in my 11 years with the team. To top it off, we did it in front of our fans on a perfect sunny day at FirstEnergy Stadium.
It was a day I'll never forget, but the reasons why aren't all positive.
Early in the game, Alex Mack, my best friend on the team, went down with an injury that would end his season right on the spot. Alex left the field in an aircast, so you knew it was probably really serious and, well, it was. Out for the year.
In the heat of the moment, there are conflicting emotions because you're looking at a friend, a leader, a great player, a great teammate on the ground, and you're wondering about his future. Because of the focus of the game, you don't dwell on it much. It's a downer, and then all of a sudden, you get back into playing the game. And then after the game, you find the bad news and you hear, "All right, we're going to have to go on without him.' So, the question becomes, "Who's going to step up?" And, "Who's going to accept that challenge?"
A lot of times it has to be everybody on offense.
That's what will have to happen to this version of the Browns, who will be without superstar Odell Beckham Jr. for the rest of the season. Like Alex, Odell is an integral part to this team's offense, and it's going to take the entire group to rally together to overcome his absence.
Losing Odell is demoralizing from two standpoints. One, obviously, you're losing the talent itself, and you lose the section of the playbook that specifically is for that player. You're talking about a star receiver that probably has a package of plays specifically to highlight what they do well. For Odell, he's so explosive, takes the top off of a defense and make every catch. There was probably a large segment of the passing game, especially in those play-action passes, that were designed specifically to get Odell the ball. Although the Browns seemingly did a nice job replacing him from what we saw last weekend, nobody's going to be able to replace Odell. You kind of have to start specializing in the other parts of the playbook to feature the guys that are left.
The Browns also — and this is important — have to overcome the emotional letdown that you have when you lose a leader. For the most part in the NFL, if you want to be a leader, it's first and foremost about performance. You have to be a great player that makes great plays. Then, people look up to you and then follow your lead. Odell has been that, especially this season for the Browns. Losing that emotional part of the team leaves a void. There's a vacuum there, and it becomes a matter of who's going to step into that void.
The Browns are really lucky because they have Jarvis Landry, who is a tremendous leader and a great player, and he can help fill that void. But it's going to be on the whole team to replace a guy like Odell, especially the whole offense. Everybody has to lift their play and bounce back. The question of how quickly they're going to be able to move forward is how quickly they accept the reality of Odell is not coming back this season and how quickly they try to make the most of the current situation and move forward.
Some fans might be feeling like the Browns are cursed, especially when you think about Nick Chubb's injury earlier in the season. That's fine for fans, but the players absolutely can't think that way. I always kind of consider that a loser's mentality because if you look at the NFL, if you follow all 32 NFL teams, everybody has some stuff that they have to deal with throughout the season. It's easy to look at negative things that happen to you and play the woe-is-me game like, "Oh, why does this always happen to us?" and to get yourself in this little sadness bubble thinking you're the only team that has to deal with adversity and injuries. But it happens to every team. The difference is how those teams are able to adjust and accept their reality and move forward and not dwell on the fact that they lost somebody.
I love the Browns, I'm not a player anymore and I'm just as guilty of this as anybody, but whenever a team is struggling at a certain position, or you have a big-time injury, the fans are always like, "Oh, we got to get somebody. We need to go out and find a replacement." But the nature of the NFL is if you have good players, you're not going to get rid of them. And for the most part, most of the good players are already signed. It's best for the team and the players to not wait for the cavalry to arrive and to focus on the guys that are in the building and the guys that have been groomed for their opportunity.
We saw it last weekend with Rashard Higgins and the great job he did stepping in being the first Browns receiver this season to go over 100 yards. We saw with Donovan Peoples-Jones making the most of his opportunity. KhaDarel Hodge is going to be able to come back and play an impact role.
It's important for everybody on the team to put the emphasis on himself to do what they can to be at their best, to raise their level to try to make up for the loss of a great player.