Browns

Brick by Brick

AP Photo/David Richard

When they ran the reverse, I instinctively reached for the brick. I don’t remember where it came from or even what color it was, but when I was little I remember we had a foam brick in the family room. Maybe you had one at your house too.

The idea, I suppose, was that when you got good and mad at the Browns because they made a bad play, you threw the foam brick at the TV. You did this because throwing a foam brick was preferable to throwing a real brick, but if the Browns were going to do something dumb, and the Browns were going to do something dumb, then you’d better have something to throw at the TV. (As far as I know, there was never any incident involving a brick going through the tube, but who’s to say.)

So, yes—when the Browns, starting at their own 16 with 2:57 to play, needing some points, any points, to wrestle a win away from a good Ravens team, dialed up a reverse(!) to Rod Streater(?), I reached for the brick. No disrespect to Rod or any of his 127 career receptions, but who in the name of Pat Shurmur would come up with such a thing? The Browns deserved that 11-yard loss. And any TV showing the play deserved to have a brick through it.

Of course, that play was not the beginning of the end, at least not in the way we’ve grown accustomed to. In years past that reverse might have been followed by an incomplete pass, or perhaps a dead-on-arrival draw play. Then would come a desperate third-and-21 heave that ended in another incompletion—at best. Fumbles and interceptions are more often on the menu at the Cleveland Browns Third and Long Café.

But not this time. Not this Sunday. Not with this quarterback.

The Browns have a talisman. A leader. A fountain bubbling with reasons to believe.

In Baker Mayfield, the Browns have more than a quarterback. They have a talisman. A leader. A fountain bubbling with reasons to believe. At times he looks tiny back there, but more than small he’s undeniable. In overtime on Sunday, with a fierce Ravens pass rush hunting him every play, with Terrell Suggs using all of his old man strength against rookie left tackle Desmond Harrison, Mayfield did not flinch.

Faced with second-and-21 after that Streater reverse, Mayfield broke contain on the left side and scrambled for an essential 13 yards. He used his legs to good effect all day, and this time it was enough that you could actually see the yellow first-down line on TV when they huddled up for the next play.

On third down Mayfield conjured another bit of magic, throwing across his body from a collapsing pocket to undrafted rookie Derrick Willies, perfectly in stride. Willies scampered into enemy territory, Duke Johnson picked up 24 crucial yards on three carries, Greg Joseph banged through the triumphant walkoff field goal,* and the Browns won.

*A word on that final kick: The point has surely been made elsewhere, but let me say it again because it’s worth saying—what a Brownsy goddamn kick that was. I couldn’t believe it went through. It looked like if you stomped on a tube of Colgate.

That last, decisive drive wasn’t Baker’s only shining moment. He showed toughness and poise, skills and guts, throughout. He took a shot as he delivered a touchdown strike to Rashard Higgins, punctuating a gorgeous 2-minute drive at the end of the first half. He slipped out of would-be sacks and kept plays alive. He navigated through the muck time and again, turning negatives into zeroes and zeroes into positives.

And yet, Baker wasn’t at his best. He had miscues. He threw an interception on the Browns’ first drive, the result of a miscommunication with Higgins rather than an out-and-out bad throw. He missed a couple passes he should’ve hit. He was responsible for at least one of the five sacks he took. The offense struggled enough for Britton Colquitt to log nine punts.

So yeah, it wasn’t a great day for Baker, which says more about what’s expected of him than anything else. Consider what his not-great day resulted in: 342 yards (11th most for a Browns quarterback since 1999) and a game-winning drive against a division opponent. And, at least from my couch, zero bricks thrown.

AP Photo/David Richard

Still, it wasn’t easy. The penalty discrepancy was significant, which felt particularly insulting after last week’s con job on that JV baseball field in Oakland. The Ravens looked dangerous late in the game, and with Justin Tucker waiting in the wings, it felt like anything near midfield qualified as field goal range.

But the defense. My god, that defense. They came through all day.

Denzel Ward came away with another interception in the red zone. Joe Schobert forced a fumble. The linebacker trio of Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins and Schobert combined for 33 tackles. Jabrill Peppers played perhaps his best NFL game to date. E.J. Gaines and T.J. Carrie performed admirably in Terrance Mitchell’s absence. The pass rush was only intermittent, but Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi and company pressured Joe Flacco when it mattered. The defense stood.

It’s only been five games, but the Browns have forced more turnovers than anybody in the league. You’ve surely heard it and read it elsewhere by now, but let me say it again: THE BROWNS HAVE FORCED MORE TURNOVERS THAN ANYBODY IN THE LEAGUE. They turn one in five possessions into a takeaway.

The Browns defense turns one in five possessions into a takeaway.

It’s a small sample and there’s always a bit of randomness involved with turnovers, but this is insane—especially considering how young this defense is. Everybody who’s registered a tackle this year is 26 or younger, except for 28-year-olds Jamie Collins and T.J. Carrie.

Denzel Ward is 21. Myles Garrett is 22. Genard Avery and Jabrill Peppers are 23. Larry Ogunjobi and Joe Schobert are 24. Not all of those players are proper cornerstones, but at least four have shown the chops to be, at the very least, legitimate NFL starters.

You watch the Browns defense and you understand what it’s supposed to be good at, how it’s supposed to work. You can see Garrett and Avery steaming around the corner while Ogunjobi punctures the pocket. You can see that pressure forcing quarterbacks into bad decisions that become turnovers with the likes of Denzel Ward and Damarious Randall lurking in the secondary. We’ve witnessed it firsthand.

Same goes for the offense. You understand how the skill players should complement each other. You can picture how Antonio Callaway running deep ought to clear space for Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, David Njoku and Duke Johnson underneath. You can see how Baker’s passing attack should soften up defensive fronts, enabling Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb to work between the tackles.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the Browns roster is a perfect one. Holes exist and depth is a question. An injury to a starter or two would be tough to take. A trigger warning should appear on screen when the special teams take the field.

But for the first time perhaps in my life, the Browns appear to have multiple foundational players. A roster is built piece by piece, but you need something strong enough, reliable enough, to hold it all together. Thus far it appears that Mayfield, Garrett and Ward—who together man three of the most important positions in the sport—are up to the task. Maybe Ogunjobi will take that step, if he hasn’t already. Perhaps Peppers can be an impact safety yet. One of Higgins, Callaway or Njoku might be for real.

The Browns have a long way to go, no doubt. But for once, they’re long on talent. They make mistakes but can win despite them. They have the players who can truly change outcomes, who inspire, who elicit joy rather than anger. The foundation is in place, and it could be a great one. Now they just need to keep building. Brick by brick.