For all intents and purposes, the Cleveland Browns’ 2021 season ended on the right elbow of Case Keenum. With 1:16 left in the fourth quarter, Keenum dove up the middle on a quarterback sneak to finalize the Browns’ 21-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. After one more kneel from Keenum, the win was finalized, setting off the start of an uncertain six months for Cleveland brass. Here are our takeaways from the win and final game of the 2021 season.
A season of disappointments ended with positive vibes.
While the second half of the Browns’ season didn’t go according to plan, head coach Kevin Stefanski and Co. can head into the offseason with a little bit of a positive momentum thanks to the win. Sure, the win came in a meaningless game against an opponent that was resting plenty of starters, but winning in the NFL is hard no matter who the opponent has or doesn’t have. There’s no telling how different the Browns will look in eight months, but this year’s group made the most of its last opportunity.
Running back D’Ernest Johnson closed out a stellar season.
Johnson — one of the Browns’ few bright spots this season — closed out his third NFL season in a big way, rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts. Nick Chubb had 58 yards on nine carries. The soon-to-be free agent finished the year with 534 yards and three touchdowns rushing to go along with 137 yards receiving. Johnson’s usage has been confusing at certain points this season (most noticeable last week), but he’s set himself up for a nice payday this offseason, whether that’s from the Browns or someone else.
Case Keenum did his job.
It wasn’t a perfect game from Keenum, but the backup did just enough to lead the Browns’ offense to the win. In his second start of the season, Keenum completed 17 for 24 in the air for 176 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and one lost fumble. Keenum’s first touchdown pass came in the first quarter when he hit wide receiver Jarvis Landry in stride in the red zone (a novel idea, we know) before Landry made a man miss and found the end zone. The second came on a bubble screen to running back Demetric Felton. With one year left on his contract, Keenum should be back in Berea next year. Who he’ll be behind (or in front of) in the quarterback pecking order is a whole different question.
Jacob Phillips made the most of his opportunity.
For the second straight year, Phillips had a strong season finale. After coming in with six tackles on the season, the second-year linebacker from LSU finished with nine tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and two passes defended in a game that showcased his speed and flexibility at the linebacker position. After missing the first 14 weeks of the year with a torn biceps tendon, Phillips spent Sunday afternoon showing the decision makers in Berea why he deserves part of the team’s long-term plans.
The off-season of change is here.
Sunday’s win sets up what could be one of the more raucous and uncertain off-seasons in recent Browns history. After taking a huge step forward in 2020, quarterback Baker Mayfield regressed this year, finishing the year with 3,010 passing yards along with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while playing hurt for most of the year. Despite that regression, NFL Media reported Sunday morning that the Browns were “planning” on going forward with Mayfield as their starting quarterback in 2022. He would be playing on the final year of his rookie contract at $18.8 million. He’s set to have surgery on his left shoulder this week. No matter who is behind center, the Browns’ other off-season priority should be surrounding their quarterback with one or two explosive pass-catchers, whether that’s through the draft or a transaction.