The Browns have been the butt of the joke for much of the last decade. But 2019 was supposed to be their year.
Baker Mayfield is coming off a breakout rookie season. Odell Beckham was brought in to run side-by-side with Jarvis Landry. Myles Garrett is on the verge of stardom as one of the top defensive players in the game. The touts were all picking the Browns as AFC North champs, and the Browns got three of their first five games on “Sunday Night Football” or “Monday Night Football.”
And then, well, the Browns turned back into the Browns.
Their 2-3 record entering Sunday’s home game against the Seahawks is bad enough. But they were embarrassed on national TV last week, looking disorganized and feckless in a 31-3 loss to the 49ers.
“To say we didn’t play well Monday night is an understatement,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “Very embarrassing the way the defense performed, and I take full blame and responsibility for that.”
The Browns’ defense certainly played poorly in San Francisco, and is ranked 21st in points allowed (24.4 per game).
But the offense looks dysfunctional under first-time head coach Freddie Kitchens. Mayfield has just four touchdown passes against eight interceptions this year, his 55.9 completion percentage ranks 33rd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks, and his 68.5 passer rating ranks 32nd.
And Beckham has been shockingly quiet, with 23 catches for 335 yards and just one touchdown. Beckham has had a career-low two catches in each of his last two games, and the Browns are struggling to get him unleashed.
“Here is the key takeaway: Everybody wants to win, and we do not care how we do it,” Kitchens said. “I am frustrated and disappointed in the loss, not any kind of production from anybody. Of course, when production picks up, wins usually pick up. It goes hand in hand. I am about winning and losing the game. That is it.”
Mayfield seems to be falling back into bad habits this season — locking onto reads, missing open receivers, and bailing on the pocket early, and always to the right. It’s a far cry from his performance as a rookie, when Mayfield threw 27 TD passes against 14 interceptions.
“I will reiterate, just because you are coming back another year does not mean you are going to pick up where you left off,” Kitchens said. “Everything changes. Everything is different. Baker knows what he needs to work on, and he is doing a good job of working on it, and he will continue it.”
Meanwhile, the Browns are having a terrible time getting the football to Beckham, their $17 million receiver. Beckham and Mayfield can’t get on the same page. Beckham’s 43 targets are 11th most in the NFL, but he has caught just 23 of them — a 53.5 percent catch rate that ranks 85th out of 103 qualifying wide receivers and tight ends.
Beckham is on pace for a respectable 73 catches and 1,072 yards, but only three touchdowns. He isn’t getting the opportunities — just three red-zone targets, with only one catch for 7 yards.
Mayfield acknowledged that Beckham is frustrated.
“I mean, why not be?” Mayfield said. “You can’t blame him. That’s one of the best receivers in the league and if he’s not getting the ball, he always has that in the back of his mind of, ‘What if I did get the ball and changed this game?’ ”
In last Monday’s loss to the 49ers, the Browns went out of their way to get Beckham involved. Five of Beckham’s first six touches in the game were gimmicks: a trick play in which he threw a 20-yard pass, two designed screens, and two end-arounds. He ran a few fly routes and deep outs but was not at all involved in the flow of the passing game. Of course, Mayfield only completed 8 of 22 passes, so there wasn’t much flow.
“The way that it’s been going, we haven’t really been making enough plays without [Beckham] touching the ball,” Landry said. “So we’ve definitely got to find a way to include him even more in the offense and be intentional with it. It doesn’t matter if the defense knows it. Getting playmakers the ball, period.”
And Kitchens put Beckham back to return a punt late in the fourth quarter, even though the Browns were trailing, 31-3. Beckham, trying to do too much, fumbled the ball away.
“No regrets on having him back there,” Kitchens said. “If he returned it for a touchdown, it would be the best move since I don’t know when, but it would have been a great move at that point. That was hindsight.”
But the Browns’ inconsistent play, and the struggles of Mayfield and Beckham, have intensified the spotlight on Kitchens. He had never been an offensive coordinator until the middle of last season, and he was a surprising choice to get the head coaching gig this offseason.
But it looks like Kitchens has too much on his plate, especially for a first-time head coach. He has to develop Mayfield, and find ways to get Beckham the ball, and find ways to get Landry the ball, and call the plays on offense, and, oh yeah, fulfill all of his head coaching duties.
Kitchens was asked this past week if his lack of experience is holding the team back.
“I would not say that at all,” Kitchens said. “Of course, that can be the narrative. That is the easy thing to say. Just look at the tape.”
The tape says the Browns aren’t getting the most out of their talent. And the preseason darlings are on track to have another typical disappointing Browns season.
CLOSE TO HOME
Michel not off to running start
A handful of Patriots notes:
■ Though Sony Michel finished with 86 rushing yards and averaged 3.9 yards per attempt against the Giants, he had a tough night. Seven of his 22 attempts went for zero yards, and he got stuffed on consecutive runs on third and 1 and fourth and 1. Later in the game, the Patriots took Michel out of the short-yardage role in favor of Brandon Bolden and Tom Brady. And take out a 26-yard run on his final carry of the game, and Michel rushed 21 times for 60 yards (2.9 average).
It continued a troubling trend for Michel this season. Michel entered Thursday’s game ranked 21st among 44 qualifying running backs in yards after contact, 35th out of 44 in average yards after contact, and had zero broken tackles all season.
There’s no question the Patriots’ offensive line isn’t opening up big holes for Michel. But he’s not making anyone miss or getting yards on his own, either.
■ Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ union representative, this past week voiced a popular opinion among players about his distaste for “Thursday Night Football.”
“I think when you talk about the rigors of playing in an NFL game, and then what it takes to recover and be able to do it again the following week, to do a Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround is tough,” Slater told reporters. “It doesn’t fit under the umbrella of player safety, as far as I’m concerned.”
He’s right, of course — playing two football games in five days is not good for anyone’s body. But “Thursday Night Football” is probably the reason Slater still has a job with the Patriots.
Fox is paying $600 million a year for five years of “TNF,” of which 47 percent goes toward the players. A big reason the Patriots can afford to pay $2.4 million to someone who only plays on special teams is because “Thursday Night Football” boosts the salary cap.
■ The Patriots controlled the ball for 39:36 against the Giants, their eighth-best time of possession (non-overtime games) in Bill Belichick’s 20 years. It was the longest the Patriots had possessed the ball in a 60-minute game since a 2010 win over the Bears.
■ And how good has the Patriots’ defense been on third down this year? Consider: Since 1991, the top third-down defense has been the 2017 Vikings, which allowed opponents to convert just 25.2 percent of opportunities. Through six games this year, the Patriots are at nearly half that — 13.7 percent.
■ If Rob Gronkowski does come back this year (and I don’t think he will), he has to do so before Dec. 3 — the Tuesday after the Patriots’ Week 13 game at Houston. Per NFL rules, that is the last date that a player can return from the reserve/retired list and play in the same season.
■ Brady was asked about his young receivers and tight ends after Thursday night’s game, and for the second time in a week, he reminded everyone that when he was a rookie, he didn’t play.
“I always said when I was young, I just was trying to be on time and not forget my playbook anywhere,” he said. “These guys are kind of in a different role than that. They’re playing in games and contributing.”
This sure sounds like Brady telling his coach and owner, “Get me some more experienced targets, please.”
Challenging times for new rule
Giants coach Pat Shurmur threw a challenge flag over a pass interference non-call on Thursday night, and you’ll be shocked to learn that he did not win the challenge.
The NFL passed this controversial rule in the offseason at the behest of the league’s head coaches, who were adamant that the league have a remedy for egregious mistakes such as the one in the Rams-Saints NFC Championship game.
But that level of mistake is pretty much what it will take for director of officiating Al Riveron to overturn a call. Through Week 5, only 7 of 39 (18 percent) replay decisions regarding pass interference were reversed.
Several coaches have complained that they don’t understand why certain calls aren’t being reversed.
“I have no idea what it is going to look like moving forward,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the competition committee that drafted the rule. “If anybody does, I’d appreciate it. I don’t think any of us have a feel on what that looks like.”
But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has it right. Coaches expecting Riveron to use replay to overturn questionable calls are just wasting their time.
“Replay, in my mind, should be there for a very egregious situation that just was blatantly missed,” Jones said on his weekly radio show. “I think the one in New Orleans, the one that started this recent rule, was egregious and should have been reviewed. But to have it on every play and have it at the will of the coach to make those calls, to have it done that way, is really kind of not as succinct as I like to see officiating.”
Fresh approach by interim coaches
When the late Tony Sparano became the Raiders’ interim coach in 2014, he ceremonially buried a football. When Dan Campbell became the Dolphins’ interim coach in 2015, he had the players do the Oklahoma drill on the first day.
This past week, it was Bill Callahan’s turn to become a Hollywood coaching cliché. At his first practice as interim Redskins coach Wednesday following Jay Gruden’s firing, Callahan cut off the music at practice, brought in officials to call practice tightly, and had his players run sprints at the end.
“Just really trying to get back to some really hard-core fundamentals,” said Callahan, formerly the head coach for the Raiders and Nebraska Cornhuskers. “I think that’s the name of the game. If you’re not good in your fundamentals, you’re not going to have them later in the game. That mental toughness about fundamentals is important.”
Future is now in this matchup
The future of the NFL will be on display Sunday in Kansas City for the first matchup between Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the 10th and 12th picks of the 2017 draft, respectively. Watson faced the Chiefs as a rookie, throwing for five touchdowns and no interceptions in a 42-34 loss. But Alex Smith started that game for Kansas City, while Mahomes rode the bench.
Watson is second in the NFL with a 115.9 passer rating this season, while Mahomes is third at 114.7. The two have combined for 22 touchdown passes and one interception.
With Peyton Manning retired, Eli Manning on the way out, and Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger reaching their golden years, the NFL needs young stars such as Mahomes, Watson, and Russell Wilson to carry the torch into the next decade. Mahomes and Watson are both just 24 years old, and could face off as AFC rivals for years to come.
“I know Pat pretty well,” Watson said this past week. “We go back to our early college days. We worked out in Southern California together with Jordan Palmer. We attended some camps. We’re real good friends, and we have a lot of mutual friends.”
This is one game Bears fans shouldn’t watch. In 2017, the Bears traded up to No. 2 to draft a quarterback — but chose Mitchell Trubisky over Watson and Mahomes. Bears general manager Ryan Pace would probably like a mulligan on that one.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey hasn’t been shy about expressing his displeasure with the Jaguars, and has tried his best to work his way out of Jacksonville. But it appears the situation will be resolved with Ramsey returning to the Jaguars’ secondary. Owner Shad Khan told The Street this past week that “you gotta balance what’s good for the team and what the individual wishes may be. I met with [Ramsey] a couple of days ago, had a heart-to-heart, and I think we’ll be able to come to whatever makes sense for all.” Ramsey, under contract for 2020 at $13.7 million, wants a new long-term contract. And he’s probably realizing that the best way to get it is to suit up and play hard for the Jaguars . . . The Patriots aren’t the only team dealing with injuries. The Chargers have injuries to seven starters: safety Derwin James (foot), tackle Russell Okung (pulmonary embolism), safety Adrian Phillips (broken forearm), kicker Michael Badgley (right groin), tight end Hunter Henry (knee), defensive end Melvin Ingram (hamstring), and center Mike Pouncey (neck) . . . JuJu Smith-Schuster is a phenomenal young receiver, but he has a penchant for fumbling at the wrong time. His late fumble in Week 16 last year led to a loss in New Orleans that basically eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention. And last week, he fumbled away the ball in overtime, leading to a winning field goal for the Ravens. “I feel terrible. It’s literally the worst feeling ever,” Smith-Schuster said.