BEREA, Ohio — Despite being mostly outplayed, the Cleveland Browns had a chance to steal a win from the defending NFC champions on Sunday. Instead, they botched their opportunity in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams with inexplicable playcalling and erratic offensive execution.
For all the hype coming into the season, Cleveland was never going to eradicate the NFL’s longest playoff drought in September. But now, after a discombobulating 1-2 start, underscored by Sunday night’s wobbly finish, the Browns face the real possibility of their playoff dreams being all but extinguished in October, with a daunting stretch to their schedule on deck.
“Don’t hit the panic button,” answered quarterback Baker Mayfield, when asked how Cleveland can weather this ongoing storm. “I think we improved in a lot of areas, but when you play a team like (the Rams), the little mistakes will get you. We have to eliminate that, and next week we have another good opponent that’s playing well right now.”
After that, Cleveland goes to undefeated San Francisco for Monday Night Football. Following a home bout against the Seattle Seahawks, who went to the playoffs last year, the Browns have a bye before traveling to New England to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
As a result, other than maybe against Seattle, Cleveland figures to be an underdog in every game until November, when the schedule mercifully softens.
“Nobody is panicking,” said besieged first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens on Monday after a night of contemplation. “We’re not panicking. But we also understand the shortcomings we’ve had. I understand the shortcomings I’ve had. I’m going to get better. Our team is going to get better.”
Contrary to popular television debate show and sports talk radio opinion, these Browns are too talented to be written off just yet. As Kitchens rightfully suggested, they have the capacity for significant improvement.
Led by defensive end Myles Garrett, who’s making an insurgent case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Cleveland defense quietly has been stout the last two games. Despite being down five starters, including their entire starting secondary, the Browns frustrated Rams quarterback Jared Goff, forcing him into three turnovers.
The offense, meanwhile, continues to show flashes, highlighted by the frenetic final drive.
“I don’t want to give an excuse that we’re a young team and we’re fresh and new together, but we’re still trying to find ourselves and find our identity,” said wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. “We’re going to put it all together. We’re just finding the pieces right now, and I feel like once we discover exactly who we are and this team and everyone knows exactly who we are, we’ll be able to close games.”
The question is, can the Browns unearth that identity before it’s too late?
Even though the offense continues to sputter, Kitchens on Monday shut down any possibility of relinquishing playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Kitchens also took much of the onus off Mayfield, who now ranks all the way down at 32nd in passing efficiency.
“I like Baker because he takes ownership in things,” Kitchens said. “But I need to put Baker in a better situation.”
Whether Kitchens and Mayfield can quickly rediscover the sparkling chemistry they uncovered during the back half of last season will ultimately determine Cleveland’s fate.
Rex Ryan admits he bought into the Baker Mayfield hype, but now questions what Mayfield is doing right to help the Browns win football games.
Consistently unlocking Beckham, who was only targeted once during the entire fourth quarter Sunday, including when the Browns had first-and-goal from the 4-yard line during the final sequence, would help.
So would getting the ball out of Mayfield’s hands sooner. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mayfield was 13-of-18 passing for 114 yards and a touchdown when he took 2.5 seconds or less to pass Sunday; when he took longer, he was 5-of-18 for just 81 yards with an interception.
Some of that is on Mayfield, who all too often again bailed out of the pocket too early, usually to his right, instead of sticking and trusting his protection.
But some of that is on Kitchens, too.
“I need to do a better job of making him more comfortable in the pocket,” Kitchens said. “There are several things offensively we can do better, and we will continue to. The first thing we can do better is I can start calling better plays. I can start doing a better job in the course of the week of putting our guys in better situations so that will happen.
“I just want to see constant improvement. If we are better next week … then that’s improvement. I want to be playing our best football at the end of the year. That’s the way all good teams do it.”
The Browns will have an opportunity to surge down the stretch, the way they did last season. After all, following the New England trip, they’ll have seven games against teams that have yet to win a game.
That won’t matter much, though, if the Browns sink all the way to 2-5 or even 1-6 before then.
“I think we realize how close we are, but that’s the frustrating part,” Mayfield said. “We can’t have continued mistakes, the same thing over and over again.
“We have to do our job and have to hit the reset button, look at the film, learn from it.”
The time for that is now. OtherWISe, this once promising season for Cleveland could effectively be over — long before it’s actually finished.