This has been in so many ways a coming of age season for the Cleveland Browns. A year removed from 0-16, 2 years removed from 1-15, the speculation coming into this year was all about how long it would be before the Browns won a game, how long coach Hue Jackson would last, and about whether or not the woebegone franchise would ever find themselves a franchise quarterback. Within a matter of a few months, all 3 questions were answered, and oddly enough, the latter two of those questions came back to meet each other on the field in Cincinnati this past weekend. What happened at Paul Brown Stadium was epic.
For those of you who don’t know me, I cannot claim to be an out and out Browns diehard like some of us here at Living off the Land. In my youth I grew up supporting the Miami Dolphins, not picking up rooting interest in the Browns until the team’s return in 1999. More recently I became disgusted with the team’s constant struggles on the field and embarrassments off it (such as Ray Farmer “textgate” and the Pilot Flying J rebate scandal), and proceeded to follow members of my family in Philadelphia in supporting the Eagles. In many ways I’ve been a bad fan with regard to the Browns, unlike the Cavaliers and Indians who have always earned my undying support. So perhaps I’m not as worthy to share in the team’s current and probable future success as some. That all being said, this situation that came to a head Sunday in Cincinnati is vastly interesting regardless of what color glasses you wear on Sundays.
The Browns opened the 2018 season at home against Pittsburgh. On a wet, windy day, the Browns rallied from 14 down in the 4th quarter to tie the game, but that’s how it ended. A week later in New Orleans, the Browns gave the Saints everything they could handle. Were it not for some awful kicking by Zane Gonzalez, they likely would have won, which could have sent the trajectory of the 2018 season in a vastly different direction. As it was, the Browns and coach Hue Jackson were still looking for that elusive first win. As fate would have it, starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor would stink it up in the first half of Game 3 against the Jets before getting injured. Enter Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick from this year’s NFL draft. The kid lit up the so-called “Factory of Sadness,” injecting it instead with the energy and euphoria not seen since the Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn era. Mayfield was 17/23 with 201 yards and also caught a 2-point conversion pass in the 21-17 win. Browns fans drank themselves into hysteria on that thirsty Thursday, in no small part to Anheuser-Busch’s impeccable “victory fridge” marketing campaign.
After this, it was clear that the Browns were Mayfield’s team. But there was a weird dynamic happening above the rookie QB on the organizational flow chart. Coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley weren’t getting along. The two butted heads constantly, and made it difficult for the team to stick to a game plan, in particular on offense. This was most evident in the way the coaches were calling plays for Mayfield, and leaving other key pieces of the offense, like running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson, standing on the sidelines for most of the snaps. The Browns bumbled along, shaking off a blatant refereeing screwjob in Oakland to win a hard fought game against Baltimore. But then the LA Chargers came calling and pounded the Browns in a 38-14 blowout.
Then came the nadir in Tampa. Despite 3 turnovers forced by the defense as well as a safety, the Browns found themselves down 16-2. The Browns were hampered by 2 questionable calls by Jackson, one to go for it on 4th and 2 from the Tampa 11 late in the first half, the second to go for it on 4th and goal from the 1 with 6 minutes remaining. The Browns failed on both, and had they elected to take the points in either situation, Jarvis Landry’s diving catch and crawl into the end zone with 2:30 left could’ve been the game winner. Instead, it merely tied the game, setting up more overtime heartache thanks to Chandler Catanzaro’s 59-yard walk off field goal for Tampa. The next day, Jackson was gone.
What happened over the next few weeks was something that nobody could have ever expected. The Browns, under interim head coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, proceeded to turn the Browns’ inconsistent offense into a juggernaut, resulting in back to back victories for the first time since 2014. The change has been particularly profound on Mayfield. In the three games since the coaching change, Mayfield has thrown 9 touchdowns to just 1 interception and had a passer rating of 151.2. More than ever, Browns fans have reason to believe that Mayfield is in fact the franchise QB Cleveland has waited nearly two decades for.
But what about Jackson? That was even more unexpected. Jackson departed Cleveland and was almost immediately hired by his former employer, the Cincinnati Bengals. This was unusual in many ways. First of all, NFL coaches are almost never hired by another team after being fired by their current team within the same season. Secondly, such a move could be perceived as being underhanded and full of potential legal issues, much like a corporate executive leaving Coca-Cola and the next month ending up in a similar capacity at Pepsi. Situations like these are the reason why companies have non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses in contracts, something the Browns oddly must not have had in Jackson’s head coaching contract.
This set the stage for the showdown in Cincinnati, new star quarterback Baker Mayfield leading the Browns into Paul Brown Stadium for the battle against the Bengals and former coach Jackson. The result was a beat down so bad that had it been boxing or mixed martial arts, the fight would’ve been stopped by the second round. The Browns scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, and would not punt until late in the 3rd quarter. Mayfield ended three of those early drives from touchdown throws, eventually adding a 4th touchdown pass following a Bengals’ botched snap on their opening drive of the second half. Undoubtedly the highlight, or perhaps the microcosm of the game and season, came with 9 minutes left in the second quarter. Andy Dalton’s pass toward the near sideline was intercepted by Damarious Randle, whose momentum carried him out of bounds near to Jackson. In a moment that was reminiscent of Denzel Washington tossing his opposite number a banana in Remember the Titans, Randle went and handed the picked ball to Jackson. Savage.
If that was the end of it, you’d already have a very juicy story. But it continued after the game, when Jackson sought out Mayfield for a post game handshake. Mayfield shook Jackson’s hand quickly and completely rebuffed his attempt at a hug. When asked about it afterward, Mayfield said what doubtlessly many Browns were also thinking, saying, “Left Cleveland, goes down to Cincinnati. I don’t know. That’s just somebody that’s in our locker room asking for us to play for him and then goes to a different team we play twice a year. Everybody can have their spin on it, but that’s how I feel.” Perhaps not surprisingly, members of the sports media took exception to Baker speaking up, most notably Damien Woody and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN First Take.
Woody said on Monday’s broadcast, “Baker Mayfield needs to grow up. This is pro football. You’re dealing with grown men. Things happen in pro football. People get fired, go to other teams, players get cut, they go to rivals. It happens all the time. Coach gets fired, he decides to pick up a job, an available job that Marvin Lewis obviously reached out to him about.” Woody then hit harder saying, “What I find funny about the whole thing, Baker Mayfield, didn’t he go from Texas Tech to Oklahoma? You went from Texas Tech to Oklahoma — two teams in the Big 12…You went from rival to basically another in the same conference.” Mayfield then shot back at Woody, writing on Instagram, “Not even comparable … I didn’t lose 30 plus games be fake and then do that … I wasn’t gonna have a scholarship. Good try though buddy.”
In the end, Mayfield has an excellent point – if Hue Jackson was such a proper coach, trying to get the Browns to play a certain way and win for the better part of 3 years, what is he doing on a sideline in Cincinnati just weeks later, scheming to beat his former employer (and failing, as he so often does)? After having done everything to blame others and not take any responsibility for the franchise’s sorry situation for so long, it is rich to see Jackson get his comeuppance on the field.
The best part is that this story isn’t over yet. As Mayfield so eloquently pointed out, the Browns and Bengals play twice a year, and that second meeting is December 23 in Cleveland. With the Bengals at 5-6 and the Browns 4-6-1, both teams are fighting on the fringes of the AFC playoff race. It’s not out of the question that the game 2 days before Christmas could mean elimination for the loser, meaning that even more could be riding on the rematch. And even if the playoffs aren’t on the line, Hue Jackson is bound to get a reception that’s colder than the lake he failed to jump into last January.