Over the last decade Cleveland Browns fandom has produced so few moments of pride that fans can recall them with near vivid description. There’s the Monday night win over New York. There’s the Phil Dawson stanchion game. There’s even Hue’s first win and the team giving him the game ball. But for many, the game of the last 10 years was the frigid mid-December win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009. The 1-11 Browns, then under the watch of Eric Mangini, hosted the Steelers on an evening where the 25-mile-per-hour wind chill off of Lake Erie equated to a “feels like” temperature of minus-6 degrees.
The game was won by two Dawson field goals, a touchdown run from Chris Jennings (yeah—Chris Jennings), and eight sacks from the defense. Marcus Benard had two. Corey Williams had two. Brian Schaefering was credited with 1.5 sacks, while Hank Poteat, David Bowens, and Kaluka Maiava rounded out the rest. The Steelers were 10-point favorites heading in, and the Browns were utter garbage, but the next 10 days (this game was of the Thursday night variety) would be consumed with what transpired in front of a national audience.
Benard, at the time, was 24. Maiava was 22. Schaefering was 26, playing in one of the five games he would dress that season. That, however, was where it would end. Bowens and Poteat were 32, and on the waning days of their respective careers. Williams was 29 and overpaid. The rest of the Browns defense, as built by Mangini, consisted of guys like Abe Elam (29), Mike Furrey (32), Robaire Smith (32), and Mike Adams (29). A team that was to be rebuilding, coming off of a 4-12 season, was littered with players approaching or having already turned 30 years of age.
Contrast this with today. Not necessarily today as in Monday, August 28, but today as in present day Browns where the average age of the starting 11 — for lack of wanting to actually do the math — feels like nearly 10 years younger. Myles Garrett? He’s 21. Jabrill Peppers? Also 21. Joe Schoebert? 23. Christian Kirksey? 24, the same as Danny Shelton. Old-ass Jamie Collins Jr? He’s 27.
If we’re going to watch two teams flail in the night as the rest of the NFL runs circles, you’d much rather have the team where the flailing is from inexperience as opposed to too many miles coupled with an immense lack of talent. I remember how much fun it was watching that rag tag group of Browns beat the Steelers, sending Pittsburgh to a 6-7 record. But it’s going to be much, much more fun watching a bunch of kids with incredibly high ceilings already doing work.
WINNER: DeShone Kizer
The numbers — especially the ones rooted in efficiency — were not good. There was a ball along the left sideline that Ryan Smith should’ve picked off and returned for six. A few passes, especially ones across the middle, were thrown just a bit too high. But Kizer, in all senses of the word, won. The kid is the starting quarterback for Week 1.
Everything that appeared to go against Kizer in Week 3 universally falls under the “fixable” category. For every pass that was just a bit off of the sideline, there were third-down passes delivered as if Kizer was on his fourth year in the league. While that Smith ball was one he’d one back come film study, there were others — one to Kenny Britt in the red zone, for instance — that hit receivers square in the hands only to fall to the turf.
When you watch DeShone Kizer, you don’t get the deer-in-headlights vibe like with Brandon Weeden. You don’t get the woefully under prepared and overmatched vibe like with Johnny Manziel. You get the appearance of a kid willing to step into the pocket and sling the ball down the field, opening up defenses, as well as one who plants and drives, releasing the ball quicker than almost any quarterback to wear orange and brown over the last three or four seasons.1 Of his 16 passes, 14 were for more than 10 yards. He’s showing improving chemistry with Corey Coleman. While he won’t remind anyone of Tom Brady on September 11, the Browns could be in a much, much worse situation. Just ask Houston.
WINNER: Hue Jackson
It seems silly to put so much into a 3-0 start, but culture is culture. The Browns just look to be playing so much harder than we’ve come to know over the years, and this starts with Jackson. They’re tackling. They’re not giving up on plays. They’re getting open when things break down. In a word: They look like a real NFL team. Certainly, they’re incredibly young and raw and when live action starts, they may get exposed by older, wiser teams. But it’s tough to not look at these kids and see they’re trending in the right direction. Bonus points to Hue for not wasting any time in naming Kizer as the man for 2017.
LOSERS: Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler
It wasn’t that long ago where PFF darling Cody Kessler was going to be the starting quarterback heading into Week 1. The Browns did everything in their power to see if they could squeeze any juice out of that $16 million lemon in Osweiler, only to find that Denver and Houston had already taken a tack hammer to it. There’s no doubt in my mind that the front office is trying mightily to move Brock to one of the desperate teams out there, but for as good of a preseason as Kizer has had, these two both took the opposite route. The good news is Kessler will be a solid second or third quarterback. It’s only when he’s starting that your team is in a not-so-good place.
WINNNER: Myles Garrett
Twenty-three more snaps, four more quarterback pressures with one of them registering as a hit. Most NFL quarterbacks release the ball quickly, but in the event the Browns find themselves against one who hesitates for even a second, No. 95 will be there waiting.
WINNER: Jabrill Peppers
I know I should be most excited about Garrett, but man is Jabrill Peppers fun to watch. Most interesting, however, is Gregg Williams using the rookie as a free safety in 35 of the 37 snaps he was on the field—and the kid thrived. We know he can play in the box, helping the run. There are even rumors of Williams using Peppers as a linebacker at times. It’s pretty cool, however, that Williams is using preseason as if Peppers was a pitcher in the NFL, working exclusively on pitches rather than attempting to replicate regular season action, putting Peppers deep — in total — 77 out of 81 snaps. Even cooler: It’s working.
WINNER: Corey Coleman
The kid caught balls in tight windows, he pulled a fantastic double move for a first down (video above) and even elevated his Odell Beckham Jr.-like frame along the sideline to make a spectacular grab on third down. It feels like forever ago when we thought Coleman had his coming out party, one which was quickly derailed by a broken hand. On Saturday night, Coleman showed why the Browns took him with their first pick last season, and is quickly setting himself up for a solid sophomore season.
WINNERS: The HBT
Any time Garrett, Peppers, and Coleman are listed among the winners, it’s a huge boost for the current front office. Hitting on first-round picks shouldn’t be as hard as previous regimes have made it appear, but the fact that these three play makers are making plays at such an early age speaks very, very well for not only their process, but their future as a collective unit in making this team competitive once again.
LOSER: Duke Johnson
This may sound over simplistic, but you simply cannot fumble the ball in the red zone. Kizer had mustered a nice drive to stretch the lead to two scores, but a textbook handoff resulted in the Buccaneers obtaining possession. Rookie quarterbacks need help. Fumbling scoring opportunities is the opposite of help. Plus: Matthew Dayes.
WINNER: Joe Thomas
Go watch the Kizer-to-Coleman video above one more time, but focus on Joe Thomas. He engages his man who attempts a variety of moves to shake his way to the quarterback—with no avail. Even the pass that was eventually picked off, Thomas appears to lift his man completely off the ground while his legs flail in the air like he was jumping off a high dive. No. 73 is a wall with legs, and we’re lucky to have him.
LOSER: Kenny Britt
Please don’t be Dwayne Bowe please don’t be Dwayne Bowe please don’t be —
- I’m willing to make an exception for Brian Hoyer here. [↩]