The never-ending battle to win
Winning football games is difficult. The Browns have proved that notion over and over and over for the better part of the last two decades. They’ve raised it to an art form.
That’s why when they entertain the Tennessee Titans Sunday they are not expected to win. It’s so bad, in fact, oddsmakers have installed the visiting team – the visiting team, for goodness sake – as a six-point favorite.
In the National Football League, where the expression “on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team” is occasionally intoned, you figure the Browns somewhere along the way would accidentally stumble into a victory.
Coaches through the years have popularized that phrase, initially uttered by former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell several generations ago, after their more talented teams had lost to lesser teams. Used it sort of as a reason they lost.
Upsets in the NFL are rare. For example, who would have believed the winless New York Giants last Sunday would go into Denver, where the Broncos lose a game as often as the Browns win a game anywhere these days, and walk away no longer winless?
Or that the woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars would pound the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens earlier this season by a combined score of 74-16? On any given Sunday . . . Yep, it works every now and then.
Browns coach Hue Jackson labors at his job with a roster filled largely with mediocre talent (and that’s being kind). It has to be difficult for him to maintain a positive attitude with his men when it seems as though the constant losing will never end.
Demoralizing losses to winless Indianapolis and Cincinnati in weeks three and four perpetuated the notion that the Browns, indeed, might be headed in a similar direction as last season, when they won just once in 16 games.
It was then thought the losing this season would finally end when the New York Jets, a team believed to be tanking the season in an effort to be in position to select a quarterback in the next college draft, arrived in town a few weeks ago. Ex-Browns quarterback Josh McCown took care of that in a hurry with a 17-14 victory.
When a team gets beat on the scoreboard and beat up on the field, as the Browns were last Sunday in Houston, winning a game, any game, becomes a challenge that is harder to achieve as the schedule unfolds. It can have an exponentially deleterious effect on a team.
Frustration mounts. Fingers are pointed. Blame is parceled out. It all falls apart quickly despite the effort. Losing begets losing.
That hasn’t happened yet with the Browns, except for the losing, of course. And that’s mainly because Jackson somehow is holding this team together. The question is how much longer can he do that?
One more season like 2016 pushes that envelope to its limits. When does the players’ patience run out, especially among the younger players not used to this in college? Losing all the time wears on them, wears them down.
Future opponents are gleeful when the Browns game appears on their schedule, especially if their season is not going well. Well maybe not gleeful, but extremely optimistic. It provides momentary relief. A victory awaits. It has become almost automatic. Pencil it in even before it is played.
It gives the opposition a psychological edge. Hang around just long enough and the Browns eventually will find a way to lose. It’s uncanny how this franchise since 1999 has improbably snatched defeat after defeat bizarrely from the jaws of victory.
And now along come the Titans, a team wallowing in mediocrity in a division filled with it. Where a 3-3 record puts you in a three-way tie for the AFC South lead.
It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for coach Mike Mularkey’s team, experiencing highs with efforts of 37 points against Jacksonville and 36 points last week against Indianapolis and lows like a 57-14 walloping at Houston.
The Browns are first up on the docket for the Titans as they journey through the AFC North the next four games.
These teams met in Nashville last season, the Titans holding on for a 28-26 victory despite a 336-yard, two-touchdown afternoon by rookie Cleveland quarterback Cody Kessler, who was sacked six times. Marcus Mariota threw for 284 yards and three scores for the Titans.
The Browns catch somewhat of a break with the Titans coming off their Monday night victory over the Colts. One less day to practice and recover from that game. At this point, the Browns will take anything they can get.
Mariota missed a game and a half with hamstring problems earlier this season before guiding his club past the Colts while pretty much tethered to the pocket to protect the injury.
Unless he is a quick healer, the pocket is most likely where the Cleveland pass rush will find him Sunday, assuming a good Titans offensive line can protect its semi-mobile quarterback. Mariota, who has thrown for nearly 1,100 yards and four touchdowns this far, has been sacked only three times in more than 150 dropbacks.
That line will have to deal with Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ multitudinous and unpredictable blitz packages. In all probability, Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie (remember him from Butch Davis’ staff more than a decade ago?) will follow last week’s script to keep his quarterback vertical.
In order to neutralize an improving Cleveland pass rush, look for quick developing plays with Mariota delivering the ball within three seconds. If successful, that in turn will put that much more pressure on the beleaguered Cleveland secondary, which has surrendered an average of 241 yards a game.
Another interesting battle will feature the Titans’ strong run game against the Browns’ stingy run defense (that feels so weird to write after all those years of futility against the run). Successfully shutting down DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry puts an entirely different spin on the situation. But that’s a pretty big if.
The Tennessee defense, under the guidance of 80-year-old Dick LeBeau, is not scary, either. It allows opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 61% of their passes (giving 50% Cleveland thrower DeShone Kizer some hope) and also permits 241 passing yards a game.
LeBeau likes to blitz on occasion, too, but his zone blitz scheme is not quite as effective as when he was designing defenses for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It provides some hope for a Cleveland offensive line that has underdelivered most of the season.
For the second week in a row, this one on paper could turn into a crowd-pleasing shootout. But Kizer has to elevate his game to levels he has never attained as an NFL quarterback in order to stay with Mariota. And Isaiah Crowell is no DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry. Nevertheless . . .
On any given Sunday this Sunday? Uh . . . uh . . . no., not this Sunday. Browns Nation mourns once again as Mariota outperforms Kizer and the Tennessee ground game prevails as the Browns’ losing streak reaches seven at the aptly named Factory of Sadness. Make it:
Titans 27, Browns 13