The Cleveland Browns etched their name in the record books last season for all the wrong reasons. Coach Hue Jackson failed to steer his squad to a single victory, joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to go winless in a 16-game season. Even worse, the Browns have just one win since he was hired before the start of the 2016 campaign.
As a result, the expectations for 2018 are mild, at best: The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas set the team’s over/under win total at 5.5 games and MGM has the Cleveland’s Super Bowl odds at 60-to-1. Still, sports bettors remain bullish. According to ESPN’s David Purdum, two-thirds of the bets on the Browns’ win total at Caesars Palace have been on the over of six or more wins. Jay Rood, MGM’s vice president of race and sports, says the Browns have garnered more bets to win the Super Bowl than the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars.
“The Browns are our only liability right now,” Rood told ESPN’s Purdum. “We’re sitting pretty well on every other team except Cleveland.”
The action on the Browns’ Super Bowl chances is likely more telling of the payout value than any belief Cleveland could hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Odds of 60-to-1 imply a 1.6 percent chance of succeeding at the ultimate goal, which sounds a bit high considering Cleveland only wins the AFC North in four percent of the simulations run using the point spreads released by Cantor Technology for every NFL game in Weeks 1-16 to determine week-by-week outcomes. (Note: Week 17 is excluded because players sitting out the final week and teams jockeying for playoff positioning make projections fairly erratic.)
Those same point spreads can help us project each team’s win-loss records, and by this method the Browns are estimated to win between three and four games in 2018, with an 11-percent chance of winning six or more games during the season. There is a 27 percent chance they win two games or fewer.
Cleveland’s first win of 2018 is most likely going to be in Week 3 against the New York Jets at home in FirstEnergy Stadium, a matchup where the Browns have a 40 percent win probability, their best chance of the year. The Jets won five games last season, finishing last in the AFC East, and have yet to finalize who will be their starting quarterback this season. However, the Jets’ improving defense hasn’t surrendered a single passing or rushing touchdown in three preseason games (for whatever preseason data is worth), so it’s no lock Cleveland walks away with a victory in this matchup, but it is their best chance — no other regular-season matchup has the Browns with a win probability greater than 29 percent.
There are some reasons the Browns could surprise and outperform these expectations, starting with their play on the defensive side of the ball. For example, in 2017, Cleveland allowed 3.35 yards per carry to opponents, the second-best mark in the league after the Denver Broncos and nearly two-thirds lower than the league average (4.08).
Offensively, veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor and rookie Baker Mayfield could finally provide some stability to a position that has experienced historic turnover over the past two decades. Taylor ranked 14th with the Bills in 2017 per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (52.7 QBR), a huge improvement over last year’s starting quarterback in Cleveland, DeShone Kizer (29.4 QBR, 28th). Mayfield is the second-highest rated passer this preseason by the game charters at Pro Football Focus. If either one of them could provide even an average-level of performance under center, the Browns’ win expectation could improve by one or two games.
“Very excited,” Jackson told Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com when discussing his team’s prospects. “Probably more excited than I’ve been the first two years because I truly believe that winning is in this group, in this coaching staff, in this group, in the plan that we’ve laid out. I think there’s a chance. Now, we have to go do it. We have to coach well. We have to improve our players, and the players have to buy into what we are all selling.
“At the same time, I’ve never been more confident about a group having the opportunity to have success.”
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