Delusions of Grandeur

Eric Christian Smith/AP Photo

It became pretty clear pretty early that the Browns weren’t going to beat the Houston Texans on Sunday. Deshaun Watson and company were sharp from the opening kick, and the Browns had a 10-point hole to dig out of by the end of the first quarter. As good as the early going was for the Browns in Cincinnati a week prior, it was as bad in Houston.

It got much worse, and quickly. In the second quarter, three consecutive Browns possessions ended in Baker Mayfield interceptions, including a pick-six by linebacker Zach Cunningham. The Texans’ lead swelled to 23 by halftime as the Browns’ offense tended to a goose egg. It barely took an hour for a week’s worth of excitement to be tamped down into mush.

Football is a fickle maiden for the observer. With teams playing just one game per week, it’s tricky trying to suss out what’s real and what’s not. Aside from the odd dominant team like this year’s Rams or the occasional doormat like the Raiders (man, that loss stings), big swings happen from week to week. We know what we know until it turns out we didn’t know anything.

What struck me the most as the Browns received the second-half kickoff was how doomed I didn’t feel.

Houston has ripped off nine straight victories after going oh for their first three. The Bengals have gone from a division-leading 4-1 to a rudderless 5-7. The Saints were unstoppable, and then the Cowboys held them to 10 points. The NFL should be sponsored by Duncan Yo-Yos.

All of which is to say, we shouldn’t exactly be shocked by what happened at NRG Stadium. The Texans have played as well as anyone over the past two months, especially on defense, and the mood in Cleveland was unsustainably high after trouncing Cincinnati (feat. Hue Jackson). We were due for some kind of regression. The Browns are more talented than they’ve been in years, but they remain unrefined. They aren’t yet a team to be trusted on a week-in, week-out basis. Disappointing, perhaps, but that’s hardly a sin. Precious few teams are.

What struck me the most as the Browns received the second-half kickoff was how doomed I didn’t feel. This one’s over, the sense was, but let’s see what Baker and the boys can come up with. Maybe Nick Chubb has another 90-yarder in him. Maybe Antonio Callaway can get loose over the top. Maybe the defense forces a turnover. Maybe the Browns can at least make this thing interesting.

Delusions, yes. But, when you have a quarterback who tossed seven touchdowns in the previous two games, they’re delusions with at least a hint of basis. And lo!—the Browns opened the second half with a touchdown, covering 75 yards in nine plays. They needed quick points, and they got them. If you squinted, you could see a path to victory.

That’s what made the next drive so gutting. Twice Callaway got open downfield, and twice Mayfield found him for what appeared to be a touchdown. Either one would have been a significant score, pulling the Browns within two possessions and bringing the result back into question.

Alas. The first, a picturesque 76-yard bomb that Callaway tracked through the air beautifully, was rightly called back on a Greg Robinson hold. The second just moments later, a would-be 77-yard catch and run, turned into a Bynerian goal-line fumble.

How many times would you have killed for the Browns to have a guy who can produce just one 75-yard TD?

It was yelp-inducing stuff, watching Callaway angle toward the last defender rather than veering out to the pylon. (In my view, he was trying to avoid the pursuing Aaron Colvin on his left side and didn’t see Justin Reid coming from his right.) Callaway had done everything right on two plays—er, almost everything—but came away with nothing. The sequence was as gut-wrenching as it gets, and effectively ended the Browns’ comeback dreams.

And yet, I was encouraged. Obviously blowing touchdowns is not good, but let’s not gloss over the fact that those touchdowns might have existed in the first place. So often the instinct is to blame, to point out who screwed up, to pinpoint who, exactly, sucks. Which, sure, whatever; fans will be fans. But how many times would you have killed for the Browns to have a guy who can produce just one 75-yard TD? Mayfield and Callaway did it twice in a minute. (Er, almost.) If that’s not something, it’s also not nothing.

Still, it was a loss, and not a particularly close one. The Browns in general, and Mayfield in particular, had a stinker of a first half. And as much as I sympathize with Callaway, that fumble is the sort of thing that Cannot Happen In The National Football League.

But if this team quit, I didn’t see it. After the worst half of his young career, one in which he committed some real rookie boners, Mayfield recalibrated, settled in and attacked. He did his damnedest to give the Browns a chance. He threw deep downfield and along the sidelines, areas a quarterback needs both brain and brawn to unlock.

Even the Browns’ last drive, when they were playing hurry-up and spiking the ball despite virtually no chance to come back, was heartening. It suggested that the team believes it can win no matter what the scoreboard says. It indicated that every second matters, that every rep is worthwhile, that every play is a chance to get better.

This is hokey, tryhard stuff, no doubt about it, a high school coach’s Facebook page come to life. But if the Browns are to be an actual contender one day, aren’t they well served by this sort of groundwork? Competing, believing, playing the full 60 minutes—aren’t these the ideals at the heart of a winning culture? Combine all that with what appears to be a talented roster, and we may indeed have a stew going.

Delusion is natural when it comes to the Browns. Often it’s the only lens through which to view them, the only way to stomach another defeat. But even in defeat the Browns have shown winning signs, mined some ore that can be refined. With every completion, every big gain, every touchdown (and near-touchdown, even), the Browns hint that our fanciful delusions are not so far from being reasonable possibilities.