Browns’ Own Mistakes Spoiling Baker Mayfield’s Rookie Season
TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 21:  Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns walks off the field during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on October 21, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Just two wins.

The 2018 Cleveland Browns have a different look. a different feel. They’ve gone to overtime four times in seven games. They’ve held the lead or been tied in the fourth quarter in six of those games. Defensively, they entered Week 7 ranked sixth in the league at Football Outsiders in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), and through seven outings they lead the NFL with 20 takeaways.

And yet the Browns have won just two of those seven games after again falling short despite an abundance of opportunities to beat the self-destructive Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in Florida.

They might look and feel different, but with that 26-23 overtime loss in Tampa, they’re once again buried in last place in the AFC North. They have contender-worthy talent on both sides of the ball and tremendous promise with rookie No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield at quarterback, but little has changed in the win column. 

The Browns have won just three games in two-and-a-half years. It’s been longer than three calendar years since they last won a football game outside of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. 

A better-coached, more disciplined, more focused team with the same roster could be 6-1 right now. But the Browns aren’t well-coached and aren’t disciplined or focused, which is why changes might be on the horizon despite obvious improvements and soaring potential. 

The league’s most penalized team was flagged a ludicrous 14 times against the Bucs. One of those—a hold on offensive tackle Desmond Harrison—put the offense in a hole before it had run a play on what was eventually a three-and-out to start overtime, while another—an offside on linebacker Genard Avery—gave the Bucs a free first down on the game-winning drive. 

Ultimately, seven of their 14 penalties came in the fourth quarter and overtime. 

It was par for the course, and it spoke to the job Browns head coach Hue Jackson has done at preparing his young team for critical moments. 

The football gods weren’t on Cleveland’s side when Tampa Bay kicker Chandler Catanzaro improbably hit a 59-yard field goal for the win late in overtime, but it shouldn’t have come to that. 

The Browns were forced to play catch-up after failing to score on offense in the first half against a defense off to a historically bad start. The Bucs D entered Sunday having allowed 6.9 yards per offensive play—on pace to be the worst rate in modern NFL history—and yet an offense run by Jackson and Todd Haley mustered just 2.6 yards per play in the first half. 

Their first touchdown came after the Buccaneers fumbled inside their own 30-yard line. Their next one was abetted by a 24-yard Tampa Bay pass interference penalty that resulted in a 1st-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Their third came after a 32-yard punt return from Jabrill Peppers put them inside the red zone. 

With that in mind, the Browns were on one hand lucky to take the Bucs to overtime. But on the other hand, how do you possess that much talent, get lucky against an inferior opponent and still lose? A Peppers fumble led to Tampa Bay’s game-winning field goal, but Mayfield had the first turnover-free start of his career while completing a solid 23 of 34 passes with two touchdown throws for a 104.4 passer rating.

And the Browns still lost. 

Jackson and the coaching staff deserve a large portion of the blame for all the on-field mistakes, just as Jackson and Haley deserve a large portion of the blame for the offensive ineptitude. Being an offensive expert, Jackson said after the game—per ESPN.com’s Pat McManamon—that he now felt the need to become more involved in the offense, but that unit was no better when he was deeply involved and Haley was employed by a competitor in 2016 and 2017. 

At this point, you have to wonder how the man still has his job. 

Against an imploding, slumping opponent that just fired its defensive coordinator, it shouldn’t have come to a long-distance overtime field goal on Sunday. This was Cleveland’s game to win.

Ditto for a Week 1 overtime tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, when the Browns became just the fourth team this century to fail to win despite going plus-five in turnovers (penalties and a missed field goal in overtime did them in). 

And for a Week 2 loss to the New Orleans Saints, when they missed an extra point that would have given them the lead with just over one minute left and allowed 18 fourth-quarter points. 

And for a Week 4 loss to the Oakland Raiders, when they turned the ball over four times and inexplicably ditched hot running back Nick Chubb late as they choked on a 28-14 lead. 

Mayfield hasn’t been perfect, but those charged with supporting him have done more harm than good. He was bound to experience growing pains while transitioning to a pro-style offense, but those pains have been magnified by poor decisions on and off the field. 

As the future of the NFL’s hungriest franchise, Mayfield is generally exceeding expectations, but Jackson and the Browns have completely wasted his encouraging rookie campaign. 

Different look, different feel. Same old Browns.

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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