There’s about a million different ways you can couch the Browns’ thud of a debut against the Titans.
The poet will point to perpetual darkness, and how the universe always finds a different way to lure a fan of this team down the road of hope, only to blindside them, rob them of their keys and wallet and leave them stranded in the football desert.
The lazy man, who desires to only think and speak in platitudes, will point to the idea that this team had a lot of “hype” coming in and that their star players also did things like interviews, commercials and public appearances—and we all know that players can’t enjoy themselves off the field and still be successful on it.
The football man will make a point about culture, and how one win somehow solidifies the fact that one team has handled their business in a more appropriate way than the other.
But a pragmatist might look at Sunday’s 43-13 loss and think that many of the weaknesses exhibited by the Browns against Tennessee were things that were a concern heading into the regular season, anyway. The offensive line is a weak spot, and their replacement level left tackle, Greg Robinson, was ejected from the game for kicking an opponent in the head. They committed penalties at an exhaustive pace, which is sometimes the mark of a team with a new, first-time head coach and a younger roster. They were forced into a horrendous pass-run ratio, which made covering this talented group of wideouts much easier—especially considering the fact that Tennessee has a tremendous secondary.
The Browns were never going to immediately be the sort of curse-busting super team we willed them to be this offseason—not right away, anyway. If you break apart our collective bullishness on this team into parts, the equation would look something like Strong Finish to 2018 + Maturation of Baker Mayfield + Addition of Odell Beckham, Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon = Super Bowl. Let’s dive into that a little bit, though.
In the final five wins of 2018, Cleveland faced the doomed Bengals twice, a Panthers team playing out the string with the shoulderless Cam Newton at quarterback, a spiraling Broncos team about to change head coaches and the 4–5 Falcons. There was an inevitable lift because the Browns got rid of one of the most internally toxic head coaches in recent memory and finally opened up the playbook. There was a built-in advantage in having Freddie Kitchens, who proved to be a talented play-caller with no track record or tendencies for which defensive coordinators could plan. Some of that advantage is now gone, as Kitchens is still calling plays and the team is running an offense that was utilized in Tampa Bay last year with the Buccaneers.
Add in the fact that Beckham is still reeling from a hip injury that, by his own admission, leaves him like a car out of alignment, and that Mayfield’s confidence from a year ago avalanched into his comfort in moving about a pocket that was going to inevitably be a little more trafficked. Many of the things that we got deliriously excited about seem a little more measured now.
There’s a high probability that the Browns will be a good football team. But they were never going to be the team that the entire NFL world collectively forced their wildest imaginations on—at least not right away.
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