Foggy in London
The last time the Browns – the original Browns – played in London, it was an exhibition game against Philadelphia in 1989. Bernie Kosar was the quarterback, Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne were his prime receivers, Eric Metcalf was the main running back and Ozzie Newsome was in the twilight of his career.
The defense featured the likes of Bubba Baker, Clay Matthews Jr., Michael Dean Perry, Mike Johnson, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. That team went into Pittsburgh in the 1989 season opener and drilled the Steelers, 51-0, in Bud Carson’s heading coaching debut.
Kind of makes you feel good to read that, doesn’t it? That’s when football in Cleveland was really football.
The Browns lost that 1989 exhibition to the Eagles, 17-13, at Wembley Stadium, but went on to finish 9-6-1 that season and advance to the AFC title game before losing to the Denver Broncos for the third time in four seasons.
Now that we have completed that brief nostalgic and wistful trip back in time when the Browns were actually a force in the National Football League, we unfortunately return to the present Browns, who are anything but.
The current iteration of the Browns – same name, same colors, far less talent – returns to London as the worst team in the NFL for a Sunday date with the Minnesota Vikings, who own a three-game winning streak with their starting quarterback and running back shelved with injuries.
They arrive looking more like a M*A*S*H unit than a professional football team with 10 players, including six starters, listed on the injury report. That doesn’t include offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who is done for the season with a torn triceps muscle.
Of the 10, the only one ruled out is rookie defensive end Myles Garrett with a concussion. He did not make the trip. Of the nine others, only sparingly used wide receiver Sammie Coates was a full participant in practice.
The Browns are bad enough when they are healthy, but when defensive backs Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty and Jabrill Peppers; defensive linemen Trevon Coley and Larry Ogunjobi; linebackers Jamie Collins and James Burgess; and wide receiver Kenny Britt are either not practicing or limited, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Eight of the names on that list play defense, clearly the side of the ball that has provided fans a modicum of hope the Browns might have a chance at pulling off the biggest upset of the season and ending a losing streak that has reached eight games, seven this season.
Despite the absence of quarterback Sam Bradford, who has missed a large majority of the season with a bum knee, and rookie running back Dalvin Cook (gone for the season with a torn ACL), the Vikings are sitting pretty atop the NFC North Division.
Case Keenum has more than made up for Bradford’s absence with relatively mistake-free football, completing 64% of his passes. He has thrown only five scoring passes and a couple of interceptions in a Pat Shurmur offense that averages 356 yards a game and runs the ball 46% of the time.
Four of Keenum’s scoring passes have gone to wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is back after missing the last two games with a groin injury. Wideout Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph have been Keenum’s go-to receivers in Diggs’ absence.
The last time the Browns faced a backup quarterback was game three at Indianapolis when Jacoby Brissett strafed the Cleveland secondary for 259 yards and led the Colts to three second-quarter touchdowns en route to a 31-28 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score.
After Cook went down in game four, Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray stepped right in and improved the Vikings’ ground game that averaged 108 yards a game before the injury and 147 yards a game since.
The balanced offense makes it difficult for opposing teams to key on one aspect. It should prove a stern test for a Cleveland run defense that has stunned just about everyone around the NFL with its tenacity.
The Cleveland pass rush, however, will be without its best player in Garrett with no appreciable pressure coming from anywhere else along the line. Unless defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up numerous blitzes against an offensive line that has surrendered only nine sacks, Keenum should be clean at the end of the game.
Over the last four games, the Vikings’ defense has allowed only 57 points. To put that in perspective, the Browns have scored just 47 points in their last four games, 14 of them produced by Kevin Hogan, who probably won’t even suit up for this one.
The stingy Minnesota defense allows 17 points a game, has sacked opposing quarterbacks 21 times and limited the opposition to a 27% conversion rate on third down. This might be the best defense the Cleveland offense has faced this season.
DeShone Kizer returns to the huddle again for the umpteenth time this season for the Browns and the rookie had better be mindful of that pass rush, which is led by defensive right end Everson Griffen, who has nine sacks, including at least one in every game.
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem for the Browns. But now that Thomas is gone for the season, Shane Drango draws the assignment at left tackle to halt, or at least slow down, Griffen and end his streak.
He will need a lot of help, which means coach Hue Jackson probably will go with at least two tight ends, perhaps three, with Randall Telfer, the club’s best blocking tight end, staying home to help Drango in the event he has trouble with Griffen.
On paper, this is no contest. One of the best defenses in the NFL against one of the poorest offenses portends the kind of game that could get out of hand early and force Jackson to yo-yo his quarterbacks again. Stand by, Cody Kessler.
Technically, this is not a road game for the Browns, keeping intact their 16-game losing streak away from home. It also signifies the halfway mark of a season that is seriously threatening to be worse than last season’s 1-15 showing.
The Vikings, to the surprise of no one, will take the mystery out of the outcome quickly with early strikes by Keenum to Diggs and Rudolph, while the defense picks off Kizer early for a pick six and drops him four times in the first half.
Jackson ponders switching to Kessler in the second half, but sticks with the rookie because he threw only one interception. Kessler remains tethered to the bench. Bad move.
Kizer is sacked three more times in the second half and fails to reach the red zone all afternoon. A good defense almost always beats a good offense. A bad offense has no chance. Make it:
Vikings 30, Browns 6