NFL expert A.C. Boyle weighs in on the rollercoaster NFL team that has been rising and falling in their odds to win the Super Bowl.
“You are a factory of sadness,” came the famous cry of one embittered Cleveland Browns fan, shouting towards FirstEnergy Stadium in Ohio as if it were alive and sentient. The message of fan frustration seems to have gone unnoticed so far.
Anyone who follows America’s most popular sport, even casually, will tell you two things when pressed for information on who’s who in the NFL: the New England Patriots are on top, and the Cleveland Browns are on bottom, and it’s been that way since the start of the 21st century. The Browns, since their franchise reboot in 1999 (after a complex relocation saga) have been absolutely terrible, accruing 18 losing sea- sons in 20 years, with 29 different starting Quarterbacks in that time, none lasting longer than four years.
They’ve missed out on superstars in the draft like Ben Roethlesberger, Rob Gronkowski, Le’Veon Bell, and instead drafted busts like Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, and Johnny Manziel.
They have lost games in fashions so tragic that Shakespeare could sue for plagiarism if he were alive today. Take for example the time they could have beaten the Kansas City Chiefs if they hadn’t drawn a taunting penalty on the last play of the game, gift-wrapping an easy game-winning field goal to their opponent.
Or the time they lost to Jacksonville after one of the most controversial referee mistakes in NFL history, prompting enraged fans to throw glass bottles out onto the field, injuring stadium attendees and birthing the scandal now known as Bottlegate.
Even when the Browns have been good, it has been marred with bitter disappointment. In 2007, they had a ten win season, their most recent winning season (yes, it’s been twelve years), and yet they still missed out on the playoffs, even though 83.5% of teams with ten win seasons make the playoffs.
The last time they made the playoffs at all was in 2002, where they blew a 13-point fourth quarter lead to their rivals in Pittsburgh to lose 36-33. To reiterate, the last time the Browns made the playoffs, Drake was a high schooler in Ontario.
This long standing suffering, which is extremely unlikely in the NFL due to the fact that most teams rebound and win sporadically at the very least, reached its crescendo in 2017, when the Browns became only the second team in modern football history to go 0-16, a perfectly winless season. Two of those 16 losses were in overtime, by the way.
In spite of all this failure, there was still hope. In 2018, the Browns drafted Heisman-winning Quarterback Baker Mayfield from the University of Oklahoma, and they started performing well once he took over as starter, going 7-8-1 on the season, with many of those losses being close, hard fought games that could have easily gone the other way.
Mayfield has already endured himself to Cleveland fans, taking advantage of the void left by LeBron James to become Cleveland’s most famous athlete, and some hope he will be the franchise Quarterback to give the team (and the city) stability and leadership for a change.
But that’s not all. In the offseason, they made big splashes in free agency. They acquired star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants, picked up Kareem Hunt after he was let go by the Chiefs, and they improved their defensive core by acquiring players like Oliver Vernon, Morgan Burnett, and Sheldon Richardson.
In short, their team seemed to be the champions of the offseason, primed for a turnaround, a change of luck headed into 2019.
That change of luck hit its first major roadblock in the season opener.
The Browns were at home against the Tennessee Titans, a mediocre team slated to miss the playoffs by most analysts. The Browns went into the game as heavy home favorites, driving down the field quickly to score a touchdown and go up 6-0. Then they missed the extra point, and it was all downhill from there.
Three interceptions, penalty problems and risky pass selection were cited as main contributors to their poor performance.
Not only did the Browns lose to the Titans, they gave up 43 points to a team that averaged 19.4 points per game the season prior. It was a disaster, one that angered the fans who thought they’d finally witness the turning over of a new leaf. If the fans were mad then the pundits weren’t much nicer.
Shannon Sharpe of FOX Sports said, “their heads were not where they needed to be.”
Stephen A. Smith of ESPN called them, “overhyped,” adding that he expected a Browns loss but that he “did not expect 43- 13.”
The hype, as is common in the NFL, did not match up with reality, leading many to question whether the Browns were just not ready for the season yet, not mentally tough enough yet or just not improved enough.
Many were left wondering if the offseason moves were all glamor and no substance, or if the moves did nothing to improve their culture as a team.
Emphasis quickly turned to their next game, a Monday Night Matchup against the New York Jets, as a chance for the Browns to prove that their week 1 performance was a fluke. Since the Browns are not used to primetime matchups, being featured in primetime games less frequently than any other NFL team since the early 2000’s, this game was very important to them.
Their opponents have had it rough too, with their starting quarterback Sam Darnold out indefinitely after coming down with mono, of all things. Their replacement QB is the mediocre Trevor Siemian, which is another reason why the Browns were -6.5 favorites, even after their blowout loss.
The Browns started the game with all the momentum, capitalizing on an incredible one-handed catch from Beckham Jr. to set up a field goal. They quickly forced a stop, got the ball back and kicked another field goal to go up 6-0.
In the second quarter, the Browns went on a drive where they went for it on 4th and two, getting a defensive flag for the first down, followed by a 19-yard touchdown run by RB Nick Chubb.
Down 13-0, the Jets finally managed to get some momentum going on the subsequent drive, but Siemian had to leave the field with an apparent leg injury, being replaced by 3rd stringer Luke Falk. They kicked a field goal to get on the board, but the Browns managed to get one of their own before the end of the quarter, heading to the locker room up 16-3.
The 3rd quarter saw the Jets finally driving down the field and into the red zone for the first time the whole game.
Instead of kicking a field goal on 4th and short, they decided to go for it, a field goal not being of much help anyways. With no one open downfield, Falk went for his checkdown option, who wasn’t even past the line of scrimmage, on a terrible play call, ending up about a few feet short of the first down marker, a costly turnover on downs.
On the very next play, Mayfield and Beckham Jr. burned the Jets defense for an 89-yard touchdown catch, effectively put- ting the game out of reach. Neither team scored again, and the game’s final score was 23-3.
The biggest story of the night is the Browns’ defense. They pulled a complete and total 180 from their sordid Week 1 performance, manhandling the Jets offense at virtually every turn. They acquired sacks that killed drive momentum and morale, and they made the Jets Offense seem tired and depleted.
What’s more, the Browns’ passing game clicked. It was born-again piety, a textbook case of bipolar disorder and a major statement all in one. For the Browns so far, it’s been a tale of two weeks, and it’s hard to tell which game is more indicative of their skill level.
For a team so starved of success, Cleveland fans can only hope they’ll see more of this.
But with this big win coming against a rebuilding team with a rookie coach, a sick QB and an injured backup, one can imagine that this win was just a case of a team beating up on a team who is lower than them on the food chain.
The Browns play the Rams at home next Sunday, a game that could prove if they are contenders or pretenders.