In previous weeks, I’ve worked to create a theme for these articles, something to circle back to. Appreciating a victory, staying positive in defeat, live thoughts from an away game. As I sat down and prepared to write this, I realized that I couldn’t find anything to draw from, not because there wasn’t something to talk about, but because there were too many.
The Browns played terribly on Monday Night Football against San Francisco, ending in a 31-3 defeat that felt almost three times more lopsided. Even when the score was close early, Cleveland never seemed competitive. I’ve heard fingers being pointed in various directions, attempting to single out what aspect of their performance caused the routing. But in reality, it wasn’t one or even two things. It was nearly everything.
The Browns elected to go against the grain and receive the opening kickoff. A drive would follow that ended in a punt, followed by a rushing touchdown by San Francisco that spanned over eighty yards. Cleveland’s first legitimate chance at reaching the end zone came shortly after the beginning of the second which ultimately led to a field goal and their only impression on the score board. I bring this up because it reinforced a disturbing pattern we’ve seen in the red zone.
On first and goal, Nick Chubb was given the ball on a play that was intended to run off the left side of the offensive line. The right side of the hole was to be sealed by a tackle, while the left side was to be sealed by…Jarvis Landry? Cleveland’s 5’11 196-pound leading receiver was put in a position to push out rushing 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt, who measures in at 6’1, 215 and had the first step against his blocker. To his right was Nick Bosa, who exploited his matchup against Cleveland tight end Pharaoh Brown as he would continue to do throughout the night. The play ended in a loss.
On third and goal, Cleveland failed to convert with Mayfield overthrowing Callaway. On the other side of the end zone, Landry and Beckham ended their routes by nearly running into each other, drawing the tight coverage they were already under together.
Later in the quarter, Cleveland’s play-calling began to show shades of the creativity that Freddie Kitchens was known for during the second half of last season. At 7:21, Mayfield faked a pitch to Odell while giving Nick Chubb an inside handoff, leading to a large gain. The next play was a screen pass back to Chubb, also resulting in a first down.
Cleveland’s next chance at a score came two minutes later, ending with a bobbled pass in the end zone by Antonio Callaway. There’s been a lot written and much more said about this play. Is Callaway at fault? Absolutely, and his failure in this moment was devastating to a team trying to claw their way back into contention. But we would be ignoring the obvious by not commenting on the inaccuracy of the pass. Mayfield sat the ball low and against his receiver’s backside thigh. More on his inaccuracies in a moment.
I’ll end any specific review of the game here because there’s not much more to say. The Browns continued to make mistakes and execute poorly. And at the close of the third quarter, I began asking myself the question I’d been avoiding since the debacle against the Titans in week one: Are the Browns in trouble this season? And the answer was even more terrifying because all I could come up with was yes. The Browns are absolutely in trouble.
31.25%. That’s how far we are through the 2019 regular season. Yes, I am aware that there is a good chunk of football left to be played, and yes, I am aware of the opponents the Browns will face down the stretch, but I don’t care. We all know that there are several games later in the season that Cleveland should win, so my focus is less on stacking wins and more on showing signs of improvement, which is a reason why Monday night was so devastating.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines failure in both A. micro and B. macro terms.
A. Omission of occurrence or performance.
B. Lack of success.
In a short term sense, the team failed to perform, as they did in week one. They also struggled against a far inferior New York Jets team on their third-string quarterback and offensively in a close loss against the Los Angeles Rams.
What I am most afraid of is definition B. If this is truly a playoff team, it will be critical to show at least gradual improvement as the season progresses. Did they turn in an impressive performance against the Ravens a week ago? They certainly did, historic even. But instead of capitalizing on this they regressed and continued to show the themes that have haunted them.
The most evident is Mayfield’s performance, and the statistics are ugly. Cleveland’s second-year quarterback has seen an 8% drop in completion percentage since last season, a figure that’s second-lowest in the NFL. Mayfield has also accumulated the fourth-lowest QBR, in front of only Cam Newton, Luke Falk, and Eli Manning. For those keeping score, that’s an injured quarterback, a third-string quarterback, and a benched quarterback.
The question of why this is occurring can be mostly answered by the eye test. Baker is running for his life. A lot of the time this is warranted, but there are also several examples of him evacuating the pocket prematurely, spooked by the opposing teams rush. The kindest way to put it is that this offensive line has been difficult to watch. Lackluster blocking combined with discipline issues have destroyed many opportunities before they begin. Game planning around this is an obvious difficulty, but Kitchens and his staff need to make adjustments if they want to find consistent success.
Another reason that I ended my game review where I did was because of something I never thought I’d see this season. The Browns quit. There was an obvious change in body language after the interception off Callaway’s bobbled reception. Coming out in the second half, as soon as the team reached another point of adversity, they faded. You can attribute some of this to fatigue on the defensive side of the ball, but that only goes so far. There’s not much to analyze here other than the disappointing truth. Good teams don’t quit, and leaders push those around them to always keep fighting. That presence was not felt in Santa Clara.
There are those who will reiterate that a 2-3 record is not devastating to the season, and they would be correct. Others point to last year’s Indianapolis Colts who began with a record of 1-5. But on the latter point, I would say this: Out of those first five losses, Indianapolis’s largest margin of defeat was 14 points on the road in Foxborough against the eventually Super Bowl champions. Losing by nearly thirty is not a positive sign in any argument.
My purpose in writing this was not to say that the Browns are doomed. As mentioned above, there is still an opportunity to come away with several wins as the season progresses. But the performance turned in was miserable and did not reflect well on the team’s character. Things will continue to be difficult against Seattle and later New England, and there will be games against inferior opponents that will get closer than expected. Cleveland got hit in the mouth in both the Tennessee and San Francisco games, folding in both scenarios. It’s time for Freddie Kitchens to earn his keep as a head coach in the NFL. There are plenty of holes to fill in the ship, and we’re just hoping that there are enough patches. As for those who think I’m ranting, I’ll leave you with one final definition below.
Pontification: to speak or express opinions in a pompous or dogmatic way
So sue me.