Watch out for those SIWs
The Browns found a new opponent to lose to Sunday in front of the home folks.
It wasn’t bad enough they played well enough to beat the New York Jets comfortably and convincingly and yet fell, 17-14, adding another chapter to the numbing number of frustrating ways to lose a football game.
And it wasn’t bad enough that the Jets did very little to win this game other than sit back and let the Browns commit slow-motion suicide in winning their third game in a row. To say they escaped with this victory would be understating it.
In finding yet another way to lose a very winnable game, the Browns proved to all who follow the National Football League that they, indeed, are a terrible, terrible football team.
The strange afternoon saw coach Hue Jackson replace DeShone Kizer at quarterback with Kevin Hogan in the second half and the Browns commit a parade of self-inflicted wounds, eight in all, along the way.
The optimist says take a close look the final statistics, which show the Browns with an overwhelming advantage over the Jets (419-212 in total yards and 22-14 in first downs). The realist says take a closer look at the scoreboard. That’s the only stat that counts.
Oh and one other important stat: Three crucial Cleveland turnovers.
What makes this loss so much more frustrating is this is the culmination of a three-week period during which the Browns faced three of the worst teams in the NFL (besides themselves) and emerged worse than when they entered.
Looking for a glint of hope after this one is nothing more than a study in futility and frustration because there is no hope. There is nothing more than 11 more games left on the schedule. They almost certainly will be underdogs in every one. Last season’s 1-15 record is certainly in jeopardy now of being eclipsed.
By losing in this utterly-frustrating this fashion, they have labeled themselves clearly the worst team in the NFL. They were thought of in that manner in pres-season predictions. And now they have gone out and proved it.
They had oh so many different ways to win this game. The offense was clicking in the first half, banging deep into the red zone on the second and fourth possessions of the half. Disaster awaited on both occasions.
On a third-and-goal at the Jets’ 3 on the first flirting with points, a poor Kizer pitch was mishandled by Isaiah Crowell on a freeze option and the Jets recovered with 1:16 left in the opening quarter. A well-executed 13-play, 50-yard drive wasted. Self-inflicted wound No. 1.
The next possession consumed seven plays and covered 45 yards with Zane Gonzalez wide left on a 52-yard field-goal attempt. Those are the kinds of kicks for which he was drafted.
That drive was slowed by a holding penalty on tight end David Njoku and false start on tackle Shon Coleman. Otherwise, they would have been a lot closer for Gonzalez’ failed attempt. Self-inflicted wound Nos. 2, 3 and 4.
The next possession, a 10-play, 45-yarder after a Jason McCourty interception, advanced the football to the Jets’ 4, where Kizer was picked off by rookie Jets safety Marcus Maye on a poorly thrown pass intended for Seth DeValve in the end zone, also on third down. Self-inflicted wound No. 5.
Kizer again guided the offense into field-goal territory late in the second quarter, but Gonzalez was wide left again on a 39-yard attempt. Self-inflicted wound No. 6.
The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, played lights out in the first half, limiting the New York offense to just 62 total yards. So instead of leading at least 17-0 at intermission, the Browns found themselves in what almost became the first scoreless first half in the NFL since 2011.
Jets placekicker Chandler Catanzaro took care of that with no time left with a 57-yard field goal that would have been good from 65.
Jackson then surprised everyone by benching Kizer in the second half in favor of Hogan. The Browns accumulated a respectable 171 yards on offense under Kizer in the first 30 minutes, but his indiscretions with the football added up to zero points on the scoreboard.
The difference in the Cleveland offense with Hogan in charge of the huddle could be seen right away. It seemed to function much smoother and more effectively.
Looking much more comfortable and confident than Kizer under center, Hogan immediately guided the offense on a 10-play, 75-yard journey to open the half, Njoku planting an exclamation point on the finish with a dazzling, lunging, one-handed grab on a 21-yard score and a 7-3 lead.
It was unbelievably the first time the Browns had led in a game this season. It took more than 18 quarters and 270 minutes to look up at the scoreboard and see they had more points than the opposition. They kept it for more than four-and-a half minutes before self-inflicted wound No. 7 arrived.
Hogan, perhaps feeling a little too confident, overthrew Ricardo Louis on the second play of the next possession and was picked off by Mo Claiborne, who returned it 28 yards to the Cleveland 13. Yep, No. 7. Time for the defense to step up again.
Two plays and 41 seconds later, the Jets grabbed the lead when ex-Browns quarterback Josh McCown lofted a two-yard fade over 5-11 Cleveland safety Ibraheim Campbell and into the waiting arms of 6-5 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and a 10-7 lead. So much for good transition defense.
There were still more than 19 minutes left in regulation and Hogan had not lost any confidence. Undeterred by a holding penalty on a 20-yard run by Duke Johnson Jr. with a screen pass, the second-year pro marched his offense down field resolutely with yet another date with the red zone.
Mixing accurate passing with a couple of designed quarterback runs, the Browns reached the New York 7 early in the fourth quarter. On third-and-five at the 7, Hogan hook up with Crowell, who advanced the ball to the 4. At least a 10-10 tie loomed with a Gonzalez field goal.
Jackson called a timeout to ponder his next move. What to do, what to do. Play it conservatively and let the rookie placekicker pull the Browns even? Or be bold? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t time.
Decision made. Gonzalez remained on the bench and the offense trotted back out to the cheers of the home folks. Loss of confidence in his rookie placekicker perhaps? Or more confidence in his quarterback? The coach had nothing to lose by going for it. He’s coaching a winless team. What’s another loss?
Cue self-inflicted wound No. 8.
The Browns’ strength up front is on the left side with future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio playing side by side. And yet, the crucial play called for Crowell to run behind right guard Kevin Zeitler on a straight dive, the kind of play that ordinarily nets Crowell a yard.
And that is exactly what he got. One yard when two were required. There was no surge whatsoever from an offensive line that was supposed to be improved over last season. Self-inflicted wound No. 8 and a third blown opportunity in the red zone.
Buoyed by the key stop, the New York offense overwhelmed the dispirited Cleveland defense with a demoralizing eight-play, 97-yard drive that took 4:26 of the clock. McCown was six-for-six for 81 yards along the way, connecting with Jermaine Kearse on a 24-yard scoring strike. Ball game.
Key play was a McCown hookup with Eric Tomlinson on a curl route over the middle that covered 34 yards on a third-and-two from the New York 11. The big tight end carried Cleveland cornerback Jamar Taylor on his back the final 15 yards.
The Browns made it 17-14 with a little less than two minutes remaining, Johnson taking a screen pass and magically weaving 41 yards to a score, finishing off a five-play 86-yard drive. But it was far too little and way too late.
A weak onside kick attempt by Gonzalez was recovered easily by the Jets. After three knees by McCown near midfield, the Jets booked their third straight victory and the Browns fell even deeper into the NFL abyss with their sixth straight loss.
The self-inflicted catastrophe almost certainly will stoke the fires of anger and frustration across Browns Nation. And well they should.