Brown is the new Brown
At approximately 1.10pm ET on Sunday, September 10th 2017, the Pittburgh Steelers blocked a punt that led to them scoring their first touchdown of the new NFL season. As the seconds ticked away and the play unfolded on the gridiron, an icy chill ran up the spine of every single opposing fan sat in the stands watching the game. The location? First Energy Stadium, Cleveland. It was at that precise moment that the fragile pack of cards – built during a seemingly promising offseason – that those same fans had climbed so precariously began to teeter towards oblivion.
The Cleveland Browns were, after all and for umpteenth time, themselves once again.
You’d think that, by now, the Browns fans – long-suffering, some too young to be able to cling to the memories of Sipe, Kosar, AFC Championship games and winning seasons – would be used to this. The last winning season for the team came in 2007, the last playoff appearance five years prior to that. In a sport that is balanced to try to avoid prolonged periods of excellence or failure, the team have done a remarkable job in recent times of somehow still managing to stay true to their unfortunate identity as the NFL’s worst team. They are, in many ways, the yang to the New England Patriot’s yin.
It’s unlikely that Bill Belichick, ensconced in his Foxborough office surrounded by trophies and accolades, cares too much about the plight of the Browns. He was the coach in charge when the lights went out on the original Browns in 1995, and for many the team ceased to exist at the end of that season. They say the new Browns aren’t Cleveland’s NFL team; they’re an embarrasment in a city where the Cavaliers and Indians are such a source of pride. Any momentum and prestige that the original Browns had went to Baltimore with Art Modell over the summer of 1996.
But (and there are a plethora of buts in recent Browns history, and we’re not talking about the Mark Sanchez type either here) things were meant to change this year. The Browns had resisted the urge to trade down or take a quarterback first overall in the draft and had instead gone for Myles Garrett, a pick that was already looking very sensible after a handful of excellent preseason snaps. Deshone Kizer, somewhat of an exciting mystery with big potential, had been taken in the second round and shown some thrilling bravado in his first snaps. We’d made three picks in the first and somehow still accrued another first rounder for 2018, and before any of these even happened we’d strengthened the O-Line with two very astute free agency pickups.
Even an injury to Garrett as the new season approached failed to dampen a palpable sense of intrigue and anticipation amongst the faithful. As mentioned, the team had looked lively and exciting in the four preseason tilts, with Kizer making some excellent connections to his receivers and the defense playing as if their lives depended on making big hits and tackles. The buzz was that, after years of failure, the Browns were about to emerge from their cocoon and flutter towards success at long last.
So, what went wrong? There is no single answer that could ever approach being the main reason, but whilst the fans and media pore over Kizer’s late-night antics – no-doubt a hangover from the Manziel era – and the front office’s use of analytics, the spotlight has begun to swing over the past month towards the man we, as fans, had all been behind as soon as he arrived in Cleveland just over a year ago. That man is Hue Jackson.
Regarded as a ‘quarterback whisperer’ (a term I loathe), Jackson’s importance to the Bengals is something most won’t deny. His creative playcalling when allowed to focus purely on the offense took the Bengals to the playoffs, made Andy Dalton play out of his skin and, for a time, let the Bengals threaten the Steelers for the crown of best of the AFC North. His somewhat average time as head coach of the Raiders had been forgotten, and he was now ready – it seemed – to take the reigns again.
Despite going 1-15 in this first season, Jackson managed to help the Browns’ running game reach a level we thought we’d lost along with Alex Mack and Kyle Shanahan. A good running game is absolutely complicit in helping any quarterback, let alone a 21-year old rookie, find his feet. As of Week 7 of the current NFL season, the Browns stand 25th in the league in terms of rushing yards, with both Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson no doubt both wondering why their numbers haven’t been called more often, especially with the much-vaunted improvements to the line of big guys opening lanes for them.
Compounding this situation is what can only be described as a barn fire at wide receiver. Corey Coleman, missing for most of 2016 with a broken hand, flashed promise and then broke his hand again. Kenny Britt, whom was solid if unspectacular in his NFL career up until this season, suddenly seems to have been possessed by the spirit of Dwayne Bowe and become a total liability, bailing out of routes and dropping balls as if he’d suddenly regressed even beyond his college years.
In this aspect, the analytical nature of the Browns’ front office can be criticised. Britt was a numbers and stats pickup that Jackson apparently held no real interest in, as Mike Pettine held no real interest in Bowe when Ray Farmer forced him upon him in 2015. The difference here is, Pettine had the conviction to bench Bowe and run the offense he wanted to work. Jackson, who has – if you read his comments carefully – never been particularly supportive of Britt, still plays him week in, week out, leaving one to wonder how much of a say in game-day decisions Sashi Brown has.
With no running game to fall back on, and a lack of receivers who can get open and reliably catch balls, any young quarterback is going to struggle. Plug Deshaun Watson or Carson Wentz into our offense and you’d arguably see improvement, but neither would be anywhere near as succesful or lauded as they are currently. It’s into this situation that Deshone Kizer has been thrown, relying on his coach to call plays around him that help build his confidence. In that respect, it’s clear to many that Jackson has left Kizer to be consumed by the wolves.
Now, don’t get me wrong here: Kizer is not entirely blameless in this situation. However, I personally don’t care that he chose to go out for an evening with some team mates no matter how much the Cleveland media and the growing portion of angry, despairing fans crucified him for it. Kizer being out late days before game day isn’t the reason he’s thrown over ten interceptions in his scattershot starting role to date. Consistent reliance him to make throws into tight windows across packed linebacker corps and safeties, all completely expecting the guy to be passing and not handing it off to a running back, is the main issue. He’s been benched a handful of times, only for Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, the two other unfortunates on the Browns’ farcical quarterback ferris wheel, to throw plenty of picks in his stead. Kizer is not a dreadful quarterback hamstringing his offense – he’s a rookie being seemingly encouraged to make rookie mistakes at every opportunity by his own team’s playcalling.
This situation, above all else, is why the Browns are 0-7. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the games against the Colts and Jets. Both of these games could have been won had the offensive play-calling been better (and safer) when we’d moved ourselved into the opposition’s red zone. Instead, points went begging and with them our chance of victory. Heading into week 8’s game in London, the rot has set into the locker room and from this point onwards it’s an increasingly slippery, and steep, slope for the Browns to manage to climb back up.
Jackson, weighed down with the duties of managing a floundering team, desperately needs to take one on the chin and bring in a dedicated offensive co-ordinator. The problems besetting the team are so widespread and deep-rooted that trying to look after all of them whilst calling plays on a Sunday afternoon is now, quite clearly, a task beyond him. A likeable, knowledgable man he may be, but a super hero he is not. Time will tell if he sacrifices some of his pride before he sacrifices his job.
Until he does, the Browns will wallow in what is, undoubtedly, a new kind of frustration. There are good things about this year’s Browns if you look carefully; Myles Garrett has been a force of nature when he’s been healthy this season, and David Njoku looks like a man who, in a better situation, could turn into one of the league’s better pass-catching Tight Ends. Jabrill Peppers has flashed some promise too, although Gregg Williams’ insistance that he plays 40-yards from the line of scrimmage as a last-line-of-defense type safety completely masks the assets most feel he could better provide the defense with.
This season was meant to be the Browns’ coming out party – their own version of the Raiders’ 2015 season once Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper got rolling. Instead, all fans are left with now is a feeling unlike previous years. Previously, Browns fans knew they were going to be bad and a deflating sense of being proved right played out as yet another losing season played out in front of them. This year, though, there’s distinct anger, and a feeling that things shouldn’t be this bad. A brighter, more exciting Cleveland Browns raised their head above the trenches in August and led everyone to believe that better times were on the horizon. Make no mistake, either: the new Browns were there.
That was, unfortunately, until the same New Browns fooled themselves into believing the one thing they could never allow themselves to believe: that they were, underneath the promise, the old Browns after all.
Matt Hughes is a long suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Show him some love on Twitter!