For the past decade, the Cleveland Browns have been the black sheep of the Cleveland sporting trilogy. In comparison to the Indians and Cavaliers, they have been downright awful. From 2008 to 2017 they had a losing record every season. And of recent things were historically appalling, with the team starting 0-14 in 2016 before winning on the penultimate week of the season, and then not winning a game at all in 2017.
A year ago at this time, the franchise made the unpopular decision to retain Hue Jackson as head coach
despite going 1-31 the two years prior. Given his past history and the history of team owner Jimmy Haslam, there was no reason for optimism. Fast forward to the NFL Draft, which is largely seen as the most consequential 3 days of the football year in Cleveland, the Browns went big, drafting quarterback Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Immediately, Mayfield was seen as the QB of the future, that mystical pigskin unicorn that has eluded the CLE for the past 2 decades. Yet despite this, many of the slightly less rabid and more rational fans hoped that he wouldn’t see the field right away, instead getting to sit and learn behind starting QB Tyrod Taylor, whom the team signed in free agency. Also of note, the Browns picked cornerback Denzel Ward and tailback Nick Chubb with the 4th and 35th picks in the draft respectively.
These players, along with 4th round pick Antonio Callaway, would become key players in 2018
The Browns’ 2018 season began against their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. On a rainy and
windy September Sunday, the Steelers held a 21-7 lead early in the 4th quarter, and the day looked to be another predictable Browns loss. But in a microcosm of the season that was to come, the script was
flipped. Cleveland scored two touchdowns in succession to send the game into overtime, upon which
kickers Chris Boswell and Zane Gonzalez proceeded to make Charlie Brown look like Adam Vinatieri. Once all the missed kicks were registered, the game ended in a tie.
Week 2 saw the Browns tangle with what would ultimately be one of the league’s top teams, the New Orleans Saints. The Browns defense played outstanding football for most of the day, frustrating Drew Brees and the Saints’ powerful offense. Of note, TJ Carey had 6 tackles including a sack, and Larry Ogunjobi had a pair of sacks. Unfortunately, Zane Gonzalez’s extremely poor form continued, as he missed two field goals and a pair of extra points as well. The points left on the field ultimately cost the Browns, ruining a marvelous defensive performance and a steady-handed game from Tyrod Taylor. At 0-1-1, Browns players and fans had to be wondering how they weren’t 2-0.
Week 3 featured the Browns in one of their two national nighttime slots of the season, this one a home game against the New York Jets. Unlike the Saints’ game, this one started poorly, and saw the Browns down thanks to a pair of touchdowns by former Brown Isaiah Crowell. Late in the 2nd quarter, Tyrod Taylor was injured and had to exit the game, setting up a narrative so many Browns fans had hoped would
finally come. Baker Mayfield was in, and he immediately led the Browns from 11 points down, finishing
a touchdown drive with a handoff to tailback Carlos Hyde, and then catching a pass on a trick play for
the tying 2-point conversion. After falling behind again 17-14, Mayfield again led the team down the
field, and it was again Hyde who scored the go-ahead touchdown. A few stops by the Browns defense that included a few interceptions of fellow rookie QB Sam Darnold of the Jets, and the Browns had their first win in over a year. The celebrations lasted long into the night as fans poured beer from Bud Light’s “victory fridges” that were strategically stationed throughout the city in a brilliant marketing move.
Next came the game that had virtually everybody decrying the values and competency of NFL officials. In what was a wild offensive shootout in Oakland highlighted by two spectacular touchdown runs by Nick Chubb, the Browns held a 42-34 lead late in the fourth quarter. After a goal line stand by the defense, the Browns appeared to have a first down on a 2 yard run by Chubb that would’ve iced the game. However, upon review, the officials overturned the call on the field, forcing the Browns to punt. A touchdown and 2-point conversion by the Raiders sent the game into overtime, and then the Raiders went on to win the game in overtime. Many Browns players, coaches, and fans found this one particularly hard to swallow.
Following an offensive shootout came a defensive struggle in week 5 against Baltimore. And in what was quickly becoming a theme, the Browns found themselves in overtime. This time, after playing nearly the whole ten minutes, Baker Mayfield led the team down the field for a game winning field goal, giving the Browns a 12-9 win. Getting their first win against an AFC North opponent for the first time since 2015 was a big step in the right direction for the Browns. The Browns were unable to build on their momentum at home against the LA Chargers in week 6, losing 38-14.
Then came the game that might well have been the nadir for the Browns’ coaching staff. Finding themselves down multiple scores to Tampa Bay in week 7, Hue Jackson chased points on several occasions, including going for it on 4th and 3 at the Tampa 11 late in the first half, and then again down
by the goal line in the 4th quarter. Those missed opportunities would come back to haunt the Browns in
yet another overtime thriller, as a key punt return fumble by Jabrill Peppers gave Tampa valuable field
position, which lead to Chandler Catanzaro’s game winning field goal. After another
heartbreaking close defeat, the Browns were throttled in Pittsburgh by the Steelers 33-18. That would be it for Jackson, who was fired the next day.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took over the reigns as interim head coach, while Freddie
Kitchens assumed playcalling duties. This tandem showed promise in their opening game, a loss to the AFC’s top team in the Kansas City Chiefs. And then the next week another top offense, the Atlanta Falcons, invaded FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns defense shut down the Falcons’ rushing game completely, while Baker Mayfield had a nearly perfect day throwing the ball, going 17 of 20 and throwing 3 touchdown passes. The win was probably the Browns’ most impressive in years, the Baltimore game notwithstanding. Unlike the Baltimore game earlier though, under Williams and Kitchens, the Browns were able to build on that momentum. They slayed another dragon, their 3-year long losing streak on the road by clobbering the Bengals in Cincinnati 35-20. This game was noteworthy as former coach Jackson had been hired as an assistant by Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis several weeks before. Several Browns players, including Mayfield, made very little doubt about how they felt about Jackson’s turncoat maneuver, with Mayfield refusing to hug him after the game and then showing competitive fire in the postgame press conference. Perhaps even more interesting was the trolling displayed by Browns defensive back Demarious Randall, who after intercepting a pass from Andy Dalton walked over to Jackson and handed him the ball.
To many, the humiliation of Hue Jackson was the high water mark of the Browns season, but the
winning wasn’t over yet. After a defeat to the AFC South-leading Houston Texans, the Browns played
maybe their best game of the season to date against the Carolina Panthers. Baker Mayfield was again nearly perfect, going 18 of 22 and a touchdown, while Nick Chubb and Jarvis Landry both had big days, the latter both rushing for and catching a touchdown. The Browns defense wasn’t spectacular as they had been in previous home games against Baltimore and Atlanta, but they frustrated Cam Newton and the Panthers offense enough to secure a 26-20 win. The Browns by now were becoming a national story despite their 5-7-1 record, and headed into their 2nd national nighttime game against Denver still with the playoffs in their sights.
The Browns played a tight, mostly defensive contest against the Broncos in which Jabrill Peppers and TJ Carey both intercepted Broncos QB Case Keenum. Mayfield found fellow rookie Antonio Callaway for the go ahead touchdown early in the 4th quarter. Then, up 17-16, the Browns defense faced a seminal moment, having to make a stop with the game on the line. The Broncos converted a fourth down to move the ball to midfield, but facing do or die a second time, the Browns called a safety blitz, and Jabrill Peppers capped a memorable night with a game winning sack on Keenum. The win kept the Browns alive in the playoff race and knocked Denver out.
The Browns continued their winning ways at home the next week, defeating Cincinnati a second time to move to 7-7-1. Unfortunately the other results around the AFC did not fall the Browns way, and they were eliminated from the playoff chase despite the win. However, they would factor into the playoff picture on the final weekend, as they went to Baltimore looking to deny the Ravens a spot in the tournament. In an odd turn of events, with the Browns trailing 26-24 with 3 minutes remaining, the Steelers-Bengals game went final, with Pittsburgh triumphing. With Pittsburgh needing a Ravens loss to win the AFC North, Steeler nation turned their attention to Baltimore, with 65,000 terrible towels and even the Steelers players watching on the big screen at Heinz Field, rooting for the Browns to win (Did you ever think such a thing would ever happen?). In the end, the Browns drove the ball to the Baltimore
40 yard line but were unable to make the one big play they needed to get into field goal range, and the
season concluded with Baltimore celebrating a 26-24 win.
The Browns finished 2018 with a 7-8-1 record, their best record since the “Season of Dreams” under Romeo Crennel in 2007. One could certainly argue that this Browns team was more talented on defense than the 07′ team was, though this year’s offense would struggle to compare to 07’s lineup of Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, and Joe Thomas, among others. But with major contributions from rookies like Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Antonio Callaway (and that’s just on offense), one can now conceivably see where the Browns could be very good going forward. The big question going into 2019 is, can the Browns take that next step into being great. The 2002 and 2007 teams, the only Browns teams to finish over .500 since 1999, both went backward the next season. It will be up to newly promoted head coach Freddie Kitchens and his staff to see that history does not repeat itself in 2019.