Sports

The Browns Were Supposed to Be Good. Instead, They Are Bad.

Demetrius Harris lying on his back on the field, covering his face with his hands in frustration.
Demetrius Harris of the Cleveland Browns reacts after dropping a pass against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Sunday.
Billie Weiss/Getty Images

If you’re just waking up from a years-long coma, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Cleveland Browns are a mess. Once you say a quick hello to your loved ones, take a look at the standings to confirm that the Browns are 2–5. You may think this was to be expected from the NFL’s most hapless franchise, but you have been locked inside a prison of your own unconscious. I, on the other hand, have used these precious moments of waking life to watch football and can tell you that Cleveland was actually supposed to be good this year. Crazy, right?

Coming into 2019, it was difficult not to get carried away about the Cleveland Browns Experience. Last season, the Browns shrugged off a slow start to become one of the most entertaining teams in the league. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was a revelation, and in just 13 starts he threw for 27 touchdowns—a rookie record. The Browns added to an already talented offense in the offseason by trading for one-man highlight reel Odell Beckham Jr. Oh, and Cleveland also has a defense full of young stars. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots of things!

The Browns’ 27–13 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday featured an updated, recalibrated, and frankly quite retro Cleveland Browns Experience. Mayfield, who less than a calendar year ago appeared to be an irresistible force, added to his league-leading interception tally (11) with this slapstick pick.

That was the third of three turnovers by the Browns on three consecutive offensive snaps. The first, a Nick Chubb fumble, resulted in a New England touchdown.

In the first half, this counted as a Cleveland highlight:

The Patriots’ defense has smothered everyone it’s faced this year, though New England has benefited from playing a succession of ludicrously bad teams. Sadly, that includes the Cleveland Browns. Going into this weekend, Football Outsiders had the Browns ranked 25th in the league in team efficiency. A lot goes into that statistic, but just know that this means Cleveland is bad on offense and bad on defense. For comparison’s sake, the Denver Broncos are ranked 23rd, and they are the Denver Broncos.

The case of Baker Mayfield is especially curious. It’s not unheard-of for players to regress, but this season has been like the opening scene of Cliffhanger. He’s thrown five touchdowns in seven games, and his completion percentage of 56.6 percent is nearly the worst in the league among qualified starters. Last year he was a brash, devil-may-care quarterback who buttressed his swagger with skill. In 2019, he can’t even back up his trash talk against Daniel Jones.

First-year head coach Freddie Kitchens will get much of the blame for the Browns’ 2019 failings, and … kind of rightly so. Kitchens has a knack for making baffling decisions, the latest of which occurred on Sunday with Cleveland down 17 points late in the fourth quarter. Facing fourth-and-11 deep in their own territory, the Browns sent out their punt crew, then committed a false start. Now facing fourth-and-16 from their own 19, Kitchens sent the Browns’ offense back on the field. This was actually by design! (The results of that design: Mayfield got sacked. Hard.)

We beat ourselves,” Kitchens said after the game. Unfortunately, that won’t count toward their win total.

Things may look bleak, but you can still find reasons for measured optimism if you look hard enough. The Browns have faced an incredibly tough schedule so far, and the combined record of their next nine opponents is 19–44–1. A playoff run in Cleveland is still possible. And really, what reason could Browns fans possibly have not to be optimistic?