The Cleveland Browns suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Chargers—not even so much because they lost, necessarily—but because they were so close to pulling out the win.
A shootout of a game, the Browns and Chargers combined for 89 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense. It was a thriller of a game that the Browns could have—and should have—won, if not for these four things:
Kevin Stefanski won the NFL Coach of the Year award last season for a reason. He's talented, calm, cool and collected at any given moment and has shown brilliance and boldness in his schemes and play calling.
That wasn't the case on Sunday, unfortunately.
Stefanski botched his duties with the game on the line and three minutes on the clock.
In the second-to-last offensive drive for the Browns, Stefanski made head-scratching decisions while up one point against the Chargers on Cleveland's 14 yard line. Needing to eat some clock up and extend the drive as long as possible to secure the lead, Stefanski ran with Kareem Hunt, who gained one yard.
On second down, Stefanski moved away from the run game and called up a pass play, which ended with an incompletion to Rashard Higgins. But then, on 3rd-and-9, Stefanski opted to run the ball again. Not surprisingly, the Browns came up short and had to punt.
Is it weird I think the #Browns win if LA doesn't miss that PAT? At 42-all they would've had to be aggressive...this felt like a surrender. After the decision to throw on 2nd down, how do you not throw again on 3rd, knowing the 2-minute warning stops the clock for LA anyway... pic.twitter.com/53gel7uAFZ— Jon Doss (@JonDoss) October 11, 2021
The Chargers turned that punt (we'll address that part later) into a touchdown to take a 47-42 lead, leaving just a minute-and-a-half left on the clock.
With the ball back, Stefanski and the Browns completed several short passes up the field, but failed to use the sidelines to stop the clock. Eating away at the time left and not getting very far up the field, the Browns only managed to gain 21 yards and the game ended with an incomplete Hail Mary attempt.
Stefanski said that the decision on the second-to-last offensive drive came down to where they were at with injuries, but took accountability for the failure.
"We obviously wanted to score, ran it on first down. Second down tried to get a double move on their corner—we really wanted the clock to run there as well and then that was incomplete—and then just where we were at our tackle position, quite honestly, just didn't felt like I wanted to give a chance of something bad happening there," Stefanski said. "All these things, I would tell you, I need to do a better job and I share in that loss just like everybody else does. We're going to win these games together, we're going to lose these games together and that's certainly—I need to do a better job."
That wasn't the Stefanski of last season and he'll have to be better, like he said.
The Browns were riddled with injuries Sunday and at every turn the Browns could not catch a break.
Cornerback Greedy Williams left the game early Sunday, coming back in before being injured again later. Cornerback Denzel Ward left the game with a neck injury. Safety M.J. Stewart left the game with a hamstring injury and right tackle Jack Conklin left the game with a knee injury and was unable to return. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation after the game as a precaution after suffering a throat contusion during the matchup.
Cornerback Troy Hill, defensive tackle Malik McDowell, defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback A.J. Green were among players that at some point left the field with injury. All four returned, but any time off the field was not good for the Browns.
The Browns were already down Jadeveon Clowney, who was listed as a surprise inactive ahead of the game with an elbow injury. Cornerback Greg Newsome II was out again, still dealing with a calf injury. Offensive lineman Chris Hubbard has been out with a triceps injury. Blake Hance and rookie James Hudson III were filling in, for much of the game together, at the tackle positions.
At every turn Browns players were dropping like flies, especially the defensive backs and the offensive line.
While the Browns have done an excellent job at preaching the "next man up" mentality, there's only so many hits you can take to your depth before it starts impacting the game.
A healthier Browns team would have likely looked more cohesive and been better at executing the coverage and game plan to help get the win Sunday.
Williams, Ward, Stewart, and Conklin will undergo MRIs on Monday and the Browns will monitor Owusu-Koramoah. Hopefully, the Browns didn't suffer any long term injuries to the roster, and will see players like Clowney and Newsome return next week.
It's time to have a conversation about Jamie Gillan.
The "Scottish Hammer" has struggled all season. On Sunday, Gillan punted three times. His long was a 53-yarder, but resulted in a touchback. His other two were a dismal 42-yards and 39-yards.
Gillan was phenomenal in 2019 with the Browns but has declined over the past two seasons. His yards per attempt has declined, his distance has declined, his hang time has declined. His overall game is not what it was before.
This season has been tough to watch. From the fumbled punt attempt to the numerous punts under 40 yards that leave the opposing team with great field position, things have gotten ugly. Two of his punts Sunday turned into touchdowns on the Chargers' offensive drives, including the aforementioned final punt that helped the Chargers take the lead and win.
Last week, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said they were working with Gillan on his technique to try and improve his hits on the ball.
“His technique, it was like he was rushing for some reason and going too fast. We always talk about being quick and smooth as a holder and as a punter. He was quick, but he wasn't very smooth on that. That has been kind of our focus this week of getting back to not slowing him down per se because you don't want to be too slow with your get off, but you want to go ahead and be more smooth. That's what we have been working on," Priefer said Thursday.
That work hasn't produced results yet, and they'll need to either double down on Gillan's work to improve or consider looking at bringing in another leg to give the team more options.
On the plus side, kicker Chase McLaughlin and the special teams kick coverage unit have been excellent and only need to keep up the good work they've been doing all season.
There's a saying common among Cleveland sports fans.: "Cleveland against the refs."
It's irresponsible to put games on the officiating because a game shouldn't come down to a missed call or bad call, a team has to own their wins and losses. But sometimes a call is so egregious that it warrants blame.
In the game against the Chargers, the refs made several inexcusable calls that changed the game entirely.
The worst coming on a defensive pass interference call with under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. What was clearly offensive pass interference on Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams was instead called against Browns cornerback A.J. Green.
Green was being held and pulled down by his jersey but somehow drew the defensive pass interference flag.
At the time of the call, it was fourth down for the Chargers and the Browns would have taken over at Los Angeles' 41 yard line. Instead, the refs horrible call gave the Chargers the first down on Cleveland's 26 yard line, helping them score and taking it from a 35-28 Browns lead to a tied game.
The continuation of that drive also resulted in Myles Garrett leaving the field momentarily with an injury sustained in plays he shouldn't have been on the field for anyway.
"It was terrible. You've seen pictures, you've seen videos. It was a terrible call," Garrett said of the play after the game. "It is what it is. Refs are human and they make mistakes but we get held to a high standard and high degree of excellence and so should they."
The refs also missed countless holds on Garrett throughout the game, failing to throw their flag for it on the most obvious of calls.
There were also missed illegal contact and pass interference calls on the Chargers as the Browns approached the end zone on the final Hail Mary that quarterback Baker Mayfield was none too happy about.
"Might as well forward the fine letter now," Mayfield said after the game."We asked the ref on the sideline how the hell he missed that call. They were shoving Donovan Peoples-Jones out of bounds and then Higgy [Rashard Higgins] gets grabbed so there's two PIs on the one play."
Mayfield, like the rest of us, knows its futile to blame the refs for a game and took accountability for the loss, saying "We left it in the hands of somebody else. We have to be better on that."
But the point remains, the refs also needed to be better.
There were multiple reasons why the Browns lost Sunday, and they'll focus on those things as they travel back to Cleveland and prepare for another tough challenge against the Cardinals next week. But there were also reasons why the Browns almost won, like Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt running the ball to perfection, the offensive line blocking and pulling well, —even with backups in—Mayfield bouncing back from last week's rough outing against the Vikings and the defensive line still getting pressures despite being down a key player.
If the Browns can continue building on the positives while fixing the issues from Sunday and earlier, they'll be in a good spot as they continue through the season. With the amount of positives they have to work with, things seem very promising for the Browns.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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