We jumped the gun. Everyone and their mom thought the Browns would be good this year, especially us here at The Ringer. Our bad. It turns out that institutional rot cannot be cleansed overnight by trading for a star receiver and booking Baker Mayfield into a bunch of Progressive commercials. The Tennessee Titans crushed the Browns 43-13 in a game where Cleveland looked good, and then looked out of their element, and then spiraled back into time until they were playing like the old Browns with cooler names. It’s time to reassess how good this team will be in 2019.
All the usual and annual caveats apply here. Overreacting to Week 1 is even more unwise than assuming a perennial loser will immediately turn things around. Teams bounce back after Week 1 all the time. This Titans team may have one of the league’s better defenses, and getting rocked by it may become a pattern for their opponents. And everything people were excited about with the Browns is still true. Odell Beckham Jr. is still amazing, Baker Mayfield could still win the MVP, and the Browns could still win the AFC North.
With those caveats out of the way: Holy cow, the Browns were bad. They looked undisciplined and underprepared, a terrible combination for a hyped team. Cleveland had 18 penalties for 182 yards. To put that in perspective, the Titans had just 727 penalty yards all of last season. Their 18 penalties were the most Cleveland has had in a game since 1951. Baker Mayfield threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter as a 22-13 game turned into a 43-13 blowout. The Browns offensive line did Baker no favors, as he was sacked five times and crushed by a defender while throwing too often to count. Odell Beckham Jr. finished with seven catches for 71 yards in his Browns debut but looked like he was back with the Giants while trying to run around the entire Titans defense on third-and-28 (he did not convert). The defense, which was expected to improve with Steve Wilks replacing Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, allowed the most points Tennessee had scored since the week after Donald Trump was elected.
The penalties were inextricably linked to the blocking, which was the biggest area of concern for Cleveland entering the year. Second-rounder Austin Corbett was unable to win a starting guard spot after the team traded Pro Bowler Kevin Zeitler to the Giants. That created a question at guard for an offensive line that was already relying on two unproven tackles in Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard. On Sunday the group couldn’t protect Baker Mayfield. Cleveland’s first drive ended in a touchdown (after which they missed the extra point), but their second drive ended after Mayfield was sacked twice (though one was called back). Later in the first half, Mayfield was sacked in the end zone for a safety. He finished with 25 completions on 38 attempts for 285 yards, good for 7.5 yards per attempt, but factor in the five sacks that lost a whopping 41 yards and Mayfield had just 5.7 yards per attempt. All those hits may have taken their toll on Mayfield: According to Ian Rapoport, the quarterback left the stadium Sunday with his right wrist wrapped, though the injury was not considered serious. Mayfield is the beating heart of Cleveland sports, and his offensive line is a ribcage as likely to impale him as protect him.
But the terrible performance wasn’t just on the blocking. Baker made some bad decisions too, whether out of desperation or not seeing the field properly.
There’s reason to believe this could get worse in the next few weeks. Robinson, the left tackle, was ejected midgame for kicking an opposing player in the face (another example of being undisciplined) and could be suspended. Backup left tackle Kendall Lamm hurt his knee and was ruled out of the game. Hubbard, the overwhelmed right tackle, moved to Mayfield’s blind side while Justin McCray, the third-string left tackle, entered the game at right tackle. This could help explain how Mayfield threw three fourth-quarter picks, but it also means more picks may be in Mayfield’s future. The Browns struggled against the Titans’ front of defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and defensive end Cameron Wake, and it won’t get much easier. The Browns’ next games are against the Jets, Rams, Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, Broncos, Bills, and Steelers, all of whom have an above-average defense, unusually talented defensive line, or both. Browns fans can hope for the caveats, though Browns fans and hope don’t usually hang out in the same crowds.