Paul DePodesta likes the direction the Browns are heading toward after their Week 9 bye.
He's not just being optimistic for the sake of it, either. DePodesta, the Browns' Chief Strategy Officer, spent last week reviewing swaths of data with the rest of the front office as part of the Browns' "self-scout" process, which they conduct in-depth during every bye week as they look for ways to improve the team mid-season. The offense, ranked seventh in the league in efficiency, has been strong and has even more room to grow. The defense, which has begun to climb out from a slow start and has advanced from 31st in the league in efficiency to 24th in the last two games, is in a good position to keep improving, too.
The bye week gave the Browns extended time to find solutions for a strong second half, and that process, unlike the last two seasons under the front office regime of Executive Vice President of Football Ops and GM Andrew Berry, started weeks ago.
The reason? DePodesta said it's because the Browns learned a lesson from last season, when the bye was in Week 13. They realized then that they needed to begin the self-scout process far earlier, which is what they carried over into this season, even though the Week 9 bye was perfectly wedged into the middle of the schedule.
"This year, as a consequence, we've actually been sort of doing that same analysis we would normally do at the bye week, we've been doing that now every week since about Week 4," he said in an interview Wednesday on Cleveland Browns Daily. "Once you have a meaningful amount of data in all three phases, you can start looking at those things and saying, 'OK, what are some early trends in terms of what we're doing well and what we're not.'
"We had already started making changes the last few weeks, so while this week was certainly busy like every other bye week and also giving us a chance to dive deeper than we normally would be able to do when we have a game coming up that weekend, we got sort of a jumpstart on it this year."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams regular season game against the Miami Dolphins
At 3-5, the Browns have a lengthy, but manageable climb back into the thick of the playoff race, and it starts by picking up their second straight win Sunday against the Dolphins. Miami (6-3) will be a tough matchup, but the Browns have a knack for performing well after the bye week under head coach Kevin Stefanski — they're 2-0 after the bye since Stefanski took over.
To bump that to 3-0, the Browns need their defense to slow down Tua Tagovailoa, which means blanketing Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the NFL's top receiving duo this season. Hill has already crossed the 1,000-yard mark nine games into the year and leads all receivers, while Waddle ranks fifth in the league with 812 yards.
It's a big challenge, but the Browns have slowed some of the league's other top weapons the last two weeks in QBs Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow.
That last performance against the Bengals, a 32-13 win which DePodesta called "our most sound game of the year," provided proof of how good the defense can be when all 11 players are executing as planned.
"So much of it for us on defense is just having everybody on the same page," he said. "We know that when all 11 guys do their job, we're really good. We just have to have that happen more often, right? That's easier said than done, but earlier in the season, we had some busts that cost us. Those really went away after the first couple weeks, and then I think as we've been able to understand the different concepts that we run more efficiently, when we have a better chance of all 11 guys doing their job.
"I think those are the things you're probably going to see more and more as the year goes on."
Offensively, the Browns have been relatively consistent — and successful.
They rank 16th in the league in the passing department and third in the run game, which amounts to fourth overall in total yards per game. That speaks plenty about the pace RB Nick Chubb has set this season, but it also shows just how strong QB Jacoby Brissett has played.
Brissett has been mostly effective in delivering the ball to the top wideouts and giving the Browns a chance to win each week, which is all they could've expected of him once he became the starter for QB Deshaun Watson as he serves an 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Brissett is seventh in the league with a 61.5 QBR, graded by ESPN, and sits one spot behind Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts (63.1).
"Kevin's said it all along and we've said it, but we had a ton of confidence in Jacoby," DePodesta said. "We felt like he was a great fit for our scheme. Also, just in terms of his leadership ability, his play style, we just really felt it fit with what we were trying to do. I don't know that any of us would've predicted we would've done that well, especially right out of the gate, but we're certainly very happy with it.
"I hesitate to say surprised because, again, because I think, internally, we had high expectations for what we would be able to do, but I think we at least feel gratified that we're on-course."
One other player who has driven the offense to an excellent level has been Amari Cooper, who has solidified his status as one of the top steals of the offseason — remember, the Browns only had to give the Cowboys a fifth-round pick and swap sixth-round picks with them to complete the deal.
Cooper has been nothing short of marvelous. He's caught touchdowns in five of the first eight games and leads Browns receivers with 553 yards.
His value so far has far surpassed that of what the Browns gave up for him, especially when compared with other trades around the league. The Steelers, for instance, traded Chase Claypool to the Bears for a second-round pick before the league's trade deadline on Nov. 1. The Giants traded Kadarius Toney, a 2021 first-round pick who had played in just 12 career games, to the Chiefs for third- and sixth-round picks.
Cooper, a four-time Pro Bowler, has fulfilled every expectation the Browns have had for him and has shown no signs of slowing down in his eighth season.
"If you had asked us at this time last year, 'Do you think there's a chance Amari Cooper will be a Brown in 2022?' We would've said 'that seems highly unlikely,'" DePodesta said. "We wouldn't have envisioned him as a natural fit. Naturally, what you're doing is you're looking at the draft and you're looking at upcoming free agents and things like that, but you never know. You never know what might come available. We investigate all of those opportunities as they come and try and try to be opportunistic and be in a position to be able to jump on those, and we were. That's why we were so diligent in having the cap space that we do, so we can take advantage of those opportunities when they do arrive.
"We've been able to do that with Amari, and so far, it's paid off."
Now, the Browns have to keep things rolling — sustain the momentum built a week ago on defense and continue riding everything that's gone well on offense.
The bye week provided a great time to dig deeper into how the Browns can do both, and DePodesta is confident that it can yield big results in the final nine games.
"I think there are going to be some good things coming out of this week that'll help us here in the second half of the year," he said. "Hopefully, we've already seen a glimpse of some of those things in the last couple weeks."