CLEVELAND — The Browns spent months ahead of the regular season surrounded by hype and high expectations. But who are the Browns now that the season has begun? With a rookie head coach and a team learning to connect, the mistakes the Browns are making might be helping them figure that question out.
The Browns have beaten two teams this season, the Jets and themselves.
On Sunday, the Browns lost by a score to a Super Bowl contender. They kept it close. Even an injury-riddled secondary held its own, keeping the Rams to just two touchdowns and two field goals—a task many didn’t think would be possible. What hurt the Browns, and is turning into a cause for concern, is the offense and the play-calling.
Head coach Freddie Kitchens has made some questionable decisions that have exposed his inexperience, none worse than those that came late in the game on Sunday night.
With less than 10 minutes to go, the Browns were only down four points. Cleveland had the ball, and after three unsuccessful plays, they were sitting at fourth-and-9 on the Rams’ 40. Rather than using Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry on a fourth and long, Kitchens ran a draw, feeding running back Nick Chubb a delayed handoff that felt way too much like “Metcalf up the middle.”
When Kitchens was asked about the decision to run a draw, he said "Bad call. Yes, I wanted that call, it just didn't work. It was a bad call."
The bad call only brought more attention to Kitchens, who was already front-and-center earlier in that same drive when he didn’t challenge a pass interference that wasn’t called against the Rams. Had he challenged and won, he would have offset the illegal formation penalty called against the Browns and saved them a down, making it second-and-9. When asked if he considered challenging the no-call, Kitchens seemed to have gotten faulty information.
“I did, and I was told if I would have challenged and won, they would have accepted the penalty. They would have been offsetting. It would have been a repeat of the down. I just did not know if it was worth it. The way the percentages go with getting that call and not getting that call, to have an offsetting [penalty] and not an automatic first down, I did not think it was worth it,” Kitchens said.
As we now know, it would have been worth it. An extra down in Rams territory would have given them another shot at gaining back the lead.
The defense gave the Browns a final chance at a win when Juston Burris intercepted a Jared Goff pass that was tipped by linebacker Joe Schobert. After getting into the red zone with seconds left in the game, Kitchens made another questionable decision by not using time outs and running Chubb in the red zone. Fans were also left wondering why the offense couldn’t figure out a way to get Beckham the ball in the end zone.
Kitchens’ struggle to set the offense up for success is hurting the team. Baker Mayfield hasn’t looked himself, struggling to find open receivers and holding the ball much longer than he did last season.
The offensive line, which has been a point of weakness for the team, is causing Mayfield to move anxiously around the pocket and take his eyes off his receivers as he looks for the oncoming pass rush. There’s too much focus on the deep ball and not enough on the checkdown.
The new head coach has owned up to his mistakes and taken full responsibility.
“I have to do a better job during the course of the week of putting these guys in better situations and then on game day. If you are looking to blame somebody, blame me. Do not blame any of our players. Do not blame any of our other coaches. Just blame me because I can take it. Just blame me,” Kitchens said.
As worrisome as this team has looked so far this year, they’ve also shown talent, and, most importantly, the ability to adapt and grow.
Becoming the Browns
In the season opener, the Browns racked up 18 penalties for 182 yards, most of which were acquired by the defense. Through the next two games, the Browns have reduced the number of penalties, and the defense has shined.
Kitchens has shown us glimpses of the up-tempo offense that worked so well for Mayfield last season and has begun to utilize Chubb more. In the first game of the season, Chubb had 17 carries, in Week 2 he had 18 and Sunday night he had 23. The increase in Chubb’s production will help the Browns become an all-around threat to any team they face and highlight the wealth of talent in the roster.
Fans have seen the threat of having Beckham and Landry catching passes. They have watched the Browns’ front four, led by Myles Garrett, dominate o-lines and obliterate quarterbacks. From Austin Seibert to Jamie Gillan, the Browns special teams has done nothing but impress.
While it’s frustrating to see the Browns beat themselves, this team is far from the Cleveland Browns of the past.
Unlike so many teams from the past, this Browns team has the pieces. Monday has been a big huge bummer for Browns fans, but there’s another way of looking at last night’s game other than as a close loss – they could be close to pulling it together, maybe closer than we all think.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.