Entering the season coming off a 7-8-1 campaign that generated a good deal of optimism about what the team could accomplish in 2019, the Cleveland Browns emerged as a trendy Super Bowl pick in the offseason. In fact, they were bet on to win the big game more than any other NFL team.
Fourteen games later, the Browns are a listless 6-8 and staring down the barrel of yet another losing season. Clevelanders, of course, have grown famously used to their team’s knack for futility: with an overall record of 42-115-1 over the last decade (by far the worst in the NFL), the Browns are the only NFL team that will fail to post a single winning season from 2010 to 2019. The last time they finished over. 500 was 2007, when they went 10-6 thanks to a pair of surprising breakout seasons from receiver Braylon Edwards and quarterback Derek Anderson.
So, where did it all go wrong for Cleveland this season? Look no further than Week 1.
Playing the Tennessee Titans at home to start the season, the Browns got embarrassed as the visitors put up 43 points while QB Baker Mayfield took five sacks and threw three interceptions while piloting the Cleveland offense to a measly 13 points. Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is now riding the bench behind Ryan Tannehill, carved up Cleveland’s defense to the tune of three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 133.3 passer rating. Undisciplined to a fault under first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens, the Browns committed 18 penalties for 182 yards, and also saw starting left tackle Greg Robinson get ejected for kicking Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro.
“We lost our discipline and we lost our composure, but it is one game and we are going to be tested,” Kitchens said after the loss. “You either take adversity and run toward each other or you run away. We have a bunch of guys who are going to run toward each other and we are going to be fine. It is one game. I do not care. It counts on the scoreboard, but each game counts one time.”
Kitchens probably should have cared: the same problems that cropped up in that game would go on to plague Cleveland throughout the season.
Through 14 weeks of play, the Browns have been flagged for the second-most penalty yardage in the league, trailing only the putrid Jacksonville Jaguars. Interceptions have continued to be an issue for Mayfield, as well: he now has 17 of them on the season to go with just 17 touchdowns. For a guy who threw 27 scores in the same amount of games as a starter last season, it appears the addition of pass-catching playmakers Odell Beckham and Kareem Hunt to an offense that already had Jarvis Landy and Nick Chubb has proven counterproductive.
Prior to Sunday’s blowout loss to the Cardinals in Arizona, Mayfield ranked 33rd in the NFL in passer rating (behind less-heralded prospects Mason Rudolph and Kyle Allen), and only mercurial interception machine Jameis Winston had thrown more picks.
As bad as his season on the field has been, things have been even worse for Mayfield off the gridiron, where he’s been involved in a number of spats with teammates and even the team’s medical staff, to whom he was forced to apologize.
Between Mayfield’s regression, Kitchens’s inability to get his team to play with any discipline, and the way Beckham and Hunt have failed to integrate into Cleveland’s offense (to say nothing of the ugly helmet attack that earned the Browns most talented player a historic suspension from the NFL), it’s actually fairly easy to build the case for why Cleveland’s once promising season went off the rails so spectacularly.
What’s harder to determine is if Mayfield, Kitchens and the rest of the team’s leaders are the right people to get Cleveland back on track. Even if they are, it won’t happen this decade.