BALTIMORE — Rarely in sports is anything crystal clear. That’s why sports debate TV has been the go-to for network programmers for two decades. We need a show, what do we do? Let’s throw two windbags on the set and let them yell and scream at each other for hours on end. After all, so many things we see in sports have two distinct sides. There’s plenty to holler about.
One topic we won’t see debated anytime soon is the Cleveland Browns' offense. I mean, you can debate “what” is wrong with it -- but there’s no debating the fact that it’s busted. Broken. Anemic.
All you need to do is look at the last seven results. The team has scored more than 17 points just once during that span. In the other six games, the Browns have scored 14, 17, 10, 7, 13 and 10 points. You will not consistently win games in the NFL when you score less than 17 points per outing. It can’t be done in today’s game, and that’s why the Browns are on the outside -- the way outside -- looking in at the playoff party.
Sunday night’s loss in Baltimore drove home the sad state of affairs for the Browns' offense as much as any game this year. The Browns' defense forced Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson into throwing four interceptions. Four! And that’s where the excitement died. Time after time the Browns' offense squandered one opportunity after another. Fumble, three and out, stalled drives. All the Browns were able to muster from four interceptions were three measly points.
It’s incredibly difficult to intercept a team four times in a game and lose. The Browns did it. You couldn’t have asked the defense to do anymore than it did, but it wasn’t enough, because the offense is just broken.
The Ravens made it very clear from jump that the Browns, with their third-ranked rushing attack in the NFL and both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt healthy, would not be able to run it. They could not. Play after play the Ravens loaded the box with black jerseys daring the Browns’ passing game to beat them over the top. They did it a few times, but not enough to force the Ravens to honor the aerial attack. Game. Set. Match. There was no secret what Baltimore wanted to do. They showed their hand from the very first play. The Browns’ offense and the coaching staff were just unable to adjust to make anything work.
This essentially makes the rest of the season meaningless. At 6-6 and with losses against Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City and New England, the Browns lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with all of those contenders with one to play still against Pittsburgh. Winning the division now while trailing the Ravens by 2 1/2 games with five to play is too big an ask.
So what happened to the team that broke camp in August with so much hope and enthusiasm? The offense never materialized. Plain and simple. The reasons? You could fill a book. Injuries played a major role. So did the OBJ drama. But something was missing. Productive wide receivers would have helped. The run game is awesome until it isn’t. And when the opposing defense’s sole mission is to take that away, you have to be able to adjust and beat them through the air. This team hasn’t been able to do that.
At the top of the shopping list for next season, a wide receiver that can stretch defenses. Sounds easy, but nothing they’ve tried in the past few seasons has worked. We thought Beckham could be that guy. That didn’t work. We thought drafting a world-class burner like Anthony Schwartz would work. It hasn’t yet. Of course, keeping players healthy has been a major issue this season. Too many key players have missed too much time for us to get a real sense of how far away this team is. But right now, it’s painfully obvious they aren’t there. The Browns have played eight teams that are .500 or better. They are 2-6 in those games. They have played four games against teams with a losing record. They are 4-0 in those games. What’s the takeaway from that? It’s pretty simple. The Browns are beating the bad teams, but losing to the good ones.
You are what your record says you are. 6-6 is perfectly mediocre. Middle of the pack. Not great. Not awful. Just blah. When you consider the talent on this team, that would make them, at least right now, under achievers. This is not a .500 roster. There are still five games left. Time to tinker. Time to try things. Perhaps this is the time to change things up. Kevin Stefanski has called the offensive plays to this point. As they hit the bye week this may be the perfect time to give offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt a chance to see what he can do. There’s a nice control to the experiment. The Browns’ next game is their mulligan against the Ravens. Let’s see what a fresh set of eyes can do. What do they have to lose? The path they’re on has led them to 6-6. The final five games are all against teams .500 or better. If Van Pelt knocks it out of the park, he’s the guy moving forward. Let’s make the last five games useful and try to figure something out for the future.
Oh, and two more things I hope we never have to see again. One, Jarvis Landry at quarterback against a rabidly blitzing defense. Wow! And secondly, I hope we never have to watch a Browns player give a congratulatory handshake ever again to an opponent seconds after what turns out to be the game-winning touchdown pass in the third quarter. I’m all for the display of good sportsmanship, but let’s save that for when the game is over.