After 12 years without a winning season, this was supposed to be the Cleveland Browns’ breakout year.
But the only thing that appears broken is the Browns. Again.
Let’s see, Cleveland last had a winning season in 2007, finishing 10-6. And the Browns haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002, the same year President George W. Bush described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil” at his State of the Union address.
But this year was going to be different. The Browns had their quarterback of the future in second-year player Baker Mayfield. They acquired All-Pro, All-World receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to complement Jarvis Landry and give them highly skilled players at the top offensive positions, including running back where they had Nick Chubb.
On defense, Cleveland signed tackle Sheldon Richardson and traded for end Olivier Vernon to go with rising star lineman Myles Garrett. The Browns already had a young, promising shutdown cornerback in Denzel Ward.
According to some Cleveland fans, it was Super Bowl or bust.
After three games, the air is slowly starting to leak out of the balloon.
Instead of a breakout season, Cleveland needs a breakout game, which is what the Ravens (2-1) will try to avoid Sunday when they host the Browns (1-2) in their first AFC North game of the season.
The Browns’ hype? Who cares?
“It’s just what it is. It’s hype,” Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “You can’t really buy into it. You really don’t know what a team is until you see them on Sunday. So, once somebody gets hit in the mouth, what’s the plan then?”
Said Ravens safety Earl Thomas III: “I’m expecting a dog fight, man. In the NFL, it’s always hard to win. But I’m expecting us to put out some good tape, correct our mistakes from last week and see where that leaves us at the end of the game.”
Both the Ravens and Browns were on the upswing at the end of last season, and their plans for 2019 seemed similar. Like Cleveland, the Ravens wanted to build around their own young quarterback in Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens, though, didn’t make many changes. John Harbaugh remained head coach and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was replaced with Greg Roman, but most of the other staff remained intact.
In Cleveland, Freddie Kitchens replaced interim Gregg Williams as the full-time head coach and he brought in many others, including offensive coordinator Todd Monken. The Browns might still be a team in transition, especially with Kitchens as head coach.
He only had to deal with his offensive personnel a year ago. Now he has to oversee offense, defense and special teams. Plus, in these days of social media, a head coach has to be a consultant as well as counselor. Worse yet, when a team has head cases such as Mayfield and Beckham, and they score only 13 points in each of the first two homes games, there will be whispers of a first-year head coach being overmatched.
It didn’t help that Kitchens called a draw on a fourth-and-9 play in Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Nor did it help that he didn’t attempt to get Chubb or Beckham the ball on four plays from the 4-yard line in the final 43 seconds against the Rams.
In Kitchens’ defense, he was playing without seven starters including his two best cornerbacks. But that shouldn’t have caused brain failure on the goal line.
But Mayfield has struggled, too, mostly because of an offensive line that can’t pass protect, particularly the tackles. He has completed 62 of 109 passes for 805 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions. He has been sacked 11 times and has a severe case of nervous feet in the pocket.
While the offense has been struggling, averaging only 16.3 points and 330.3 total yards, Cleveland’s defense has been good in holding teams to 315 yards and 22 points per game. The Browns have one of the strongest defensive fronts in the NFL, led by Garrett, Vernon, Richardson and tackle Larry Ogunjobi.
The group will help keep the Browns in the game Sunday. They have a lot of big names on their roster, and sooner or later they are going to put a big game together against a quality opponent.
“We’re getting into a stretch of division games, starting with the Cleveland Browns at home. That’s always very important,” Harbaugh said. “The division is where it starts. We know these teams. They know us, and Cleveland has done a great job. We’ve watched them on tape — very talented, very hard-playing football team, very physical, and it’s going to be a heck of a matchup on Sunday.”
It could be the much-talked-about breakout game. Or the Browns could continue to be broken.
Latest Mike Preston
Again. So much for the hype.