December 30, 2018
It’s a situation that has to be seen — or heard, rather — to be believed. On the final day of the NFL regular season, an entire stadium of fans is chanting “LET’S GO BROWNS!” The moment is remarkable for a couple of reasons. For one, the Cleveland Browns are doing something meaningful during Week 17. That almost never happens. But the more astonishing element is where the chant is occurring.
This isn’t Cleveland.
A stadium-wide Browns cheer is taking place in Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, an AFC North rival of the Browns. On almost any other day, Pittsburgh would be rooting against the Browns. But at this moment, the Steelers’ playoff hopes lie in the hands of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Entering this last Sunday of action, the 8–6–1 Steelers needed a win and help to keep their season alive. Trailing by half a game in the division to the 9–6 Baltimore Ravens and assuming no ties take place, Pittsburgh required a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals plus a Browns victory against the Ravens to avoid an early offseason.
Steelers star wide receiver Antonio Brown would be prepared to cheer for Cleveland. On the Wednesday before the games, he tweeted a picture of three of his own jerseys, modified with the letter S taped onto the end of the names, turning them from Brown jerseys to Browns jerseys.
On Sunday, the first half of the Steelers plan, while rocky at best, ultimately went as intended. Despite playing without Brown and trailing 10–0 late in the first half, the Steelers managed to tie things up in the third quarter before winning 16–13 on a late field goal by kicker Matt McCrane, who had been signed just two days earlier.
Meanwhile, things weren’t going as well for the Browns. After trailing the Ravens 20–7 at halftime, Cleveland was mounting a comeback, but still trailed 26–24 after scoring a touchdown with 3:24 left in the fourth quarter.
However, after forcing a three-and-out, the Browns got the ball back at their own 26-yard line with less than two minutes on the clock and one timeout left. Trailing by two points, a field goal would be enough to win the game.
The crowd at Heinz Field was acutely aware of this. Since the Steelers game finished first, the end of the Browns game was being displayed on the video screens inside the stadium. Steelers players stayed on the field, watching with their fans as their season hung in the balance.
Pittsburgh still had a shot. Unfortunately, it lay in the hands of the worst team in modern NFL history.
Over the last two decades, the Browns had been historically terrible. We’re talking two winning seasons, one playoff appearance, zero division titles terrible. Over the previous two years, the Browns won just a single game. In 2017, the Browns became just the second team in NFL history to go 0–16.
With your season on the line, this is not the team you want to roll the dice with. But the Steelers had no choice — they needed to have faith in the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that specializes in disappointment.
Luckily, things were looking up for the Browns in 2018. Just a year after going winless, Cleveland turned into one of the most exciting teams in the NFL, with a rollercoaster season that started with what I consider the most unpredictable seven weeks in NFL history.
By the time their Week 17 encounter with the Ravens came around, the Browns were 7–7–1 and playing to secure their first winning season since 2007.
Understanding the importance of this game and this season requires taking a deep dive into the history of a franchise that started out dominant before falling upon hard times, and later, total hopelessness. But sometimes, even for the hopeless, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Riches to Rags
Let’s go back — all the way back, to the founding of this franchise we’ve all come to associate with football futility.
In 1944, the All-America Football Conference was founded to rival the NFL following the end of World War II. When businessman Mickey McBride was awarded a franchise in Cleveland, his first move was to hire Paul Brown, a former National Championship-winning head coach at the high school and college levels, to coach the team. Brown was additionally given an ownership stake and control of player personnel. He became the team’s namesake, and the Cleveland Browns were born.
When the AAFC began its play in 1946, so did the Browns. Led by coach Paul Brown and quarterback Otto Graham, the Browns were dominant, winning four straight AAFC championships, including an undefeated campaign in 1948.
Following the 1949 season, the AAFC folded. However, the Browns joined the NFL and kept winning, reaching the NFL Championship Game in each of the next six seasons, winning three titles.
To recap, in their first 10 seasons in franchise history, the Browns made their league championship game every year, collecting seven championships. It was regularly scheduled destruction on the gridiron, a near-perfect dismantling of foes.
Otto Graham retired after that seventh title, while Paul Brown stayed at the helm of the team he created through 1962. The team was still successful, largely due to the 1957 drafting of Jim Brown, but Cleveland failed to win a title during the period.
That, combined with some internal feuding, was enough for young owner Art Modell, who purchased the team for just shy of $4 million in 1961, to fire the only head coach in team history.
New coach Blanton Collier brought the Browns back to their championship ways, with four championship appearances in his tenure from 1963–70, including a title in 1964.
But that 1964 victory would be the Browns’ last to date. They have never won a Super Bowl. They have never even appeared in one.
In 24 seasons, the Browns had reached 15 championships, winning eight of them. They finished under .500 just once. Those numbers were unmatched over that time span, making the Cleveland Browns arguably the most dominant professional football team prior to the NFL/AFL merger. And after that, nothing.
Once the 70s hit, the Browns turned into an unremarkable, run of the mill franchise. Some years were good, but most were pretty average, if not worse.
In 1990, now more than a quarter-century after their last championship, things hit rock bottom in Cleveland. The team finished 3–13, marking the worst record in franchise history. That year, the Browns allowed 462 points, more than any other team in the entire 1990s.
The abysmal season prompted Modell, who remained the owner of the team, to nearly completely overhaul the coaching staff, including signing a new head coach and defensive coordinator. Their names were Bill Belichick and Nick Saban.
Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Since 2000, Bill Belichick has been the head coach of the New England Patriots, where he has won six Super Bowls, more than any coach in NFL history, and led the greatest dynasty post-merger.
Meanwhile, Nick Saban has won six college football National Championships between his time at LSU and Alabama. The two are widely considered to be the best NFL and college head coaches in the modern era.
But even these two football geniuses, and friends, now with a dozen titles between them, couldn’t bring back the glory days in Cleveland. In their four seasons together, 1991–94, the Browns had a regular-season record of 31–33 with just one playoff appearance. Nick Saban would refer to the period as the worst years of his life.
Following the 1994 season, Saban left the team to become the head coach at Michigan State. Belichick would stay one year longer, going 5–11 in 1995 before being fired by Modell.
During that season, the Browns’ 50th overall, Modell announced his intention to move the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, citing a lack of both funds and will from the city of Cleveland to build a world-class stadium.
Following a lawsuit by the city of Cleveland, a settlement was reached that allowed Modell to move the team but guaranteed that football would return to the city in 1999, along with a new stadium.
Officially, the Browns name was “deactivated” for three years, while the team owned by Art Modell was reborn as the Baltimore Ravens.
When the original Browns left Cleveland, they did not do so without repercussions. For a franchise with such remarkable beginnings, they had become entirely irrelevant. Even with two men who would become the greatest coaches of their era, the franchise squandered an opportunity to get back on track. Then, they simply moved away, leaving their history behind to start anew.
This angered the football gods. When the time came in 1999 for a new team to bear the same name, the gods began to exact their cruel revenge.
The Cleveland Browns are cursed. Since their 1999 return and leading into the 2018 season, the Browns had completed 19 of the most hopeless seasons in the history of professional sports.
Over this span, the new Browns had won just under 29% of their games, with an all-time record of just 88–216. It’s normal for an expansion team to struggle in their first few years before gradually joining the rest of the pack. The Browns had done the opposite. In their most recent 10 seasons, they were just 38–122, for a winning percentage of 23.75%. Over time, the Browns were only getting worse.
The statistics to describe the Browns’ futility are never-ending. Through 19 seasons, they made the playoffs just once (a first-round exit in 2002), finished with a winning record just twice, and won five or fewer games 14 times. In 15 of 19 campaigns, the Browns finished last in their division.
For comparison, during the same period, the Ravens made the playoffs 10 times and won two Super Bowls. Of course, neither iteration of the Browns has even played in a Super Bowl. From 1999–2017, the Browns finished with a better record than the Ravens just twice. Head-to-head, the Ravens led the series 29–9. Since the teams were both in the AFC North, the Ravens got to play Cleveland two times a year. For the Browns, it was a twice-annual reminder of what could have been.
Perhaps Art Modell was a visionary who knew he needed to get out of Cleveland at all costs. Either way, the Ravens became an NFL success story while the city they left behind continued to suffer.
In their first 19 seasons, the Browns started 29 different quarterbacks, unable to find sustained success with any of them. In fact, the winningest quarterback at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland isn’t a Brown at all — it’s Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers! Despite not being drafted until 2004 and only getting to play in Cleveland once a year, he has 11 road wins over the Browns, more than any Browns QB has at their home stadium.
Losing leads to top draft picks, but for Cleveland, the NFL Draft has been a continuous disaster, one bust after the next.
They had a chance at Tom Brady. Back in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, the Browns were thinking quarterback. However, they decided on Spergon Wynn, who lasted just one year for the Browns, starting a single game. 16 picks later, the Patriots selected Brady, and their league domination commenced soon after.
The Browns have been victorious in a Week 1 matchup just once. In 2008, they went the final six games of the season without scoring an offensive touchdown.
However, none of this compares to what the Browns accomplished in 2016 and 2017, the first two seasons under the tenure of the team’s ninth head coach, Hue Jackson. In 2016, the Browns nearly went winless, picking up their first and only victory of the season against the Chargers in Week 16, on Christmas Eve. An early present, indeed.
In 2017, the Browns one-upped themselves, losing six one-score games, including twice in overtime, on their way to the second 0–16 season in NFL history.
Things were looking up for the team after drafting defensive end Myles Garrett #1 overall, and also grabbing safety Jabrill Peppers and tight end David Njoku in the first round. They even went a perfect 4–0 in the preseason.
But the winning ended there. DeShone Kizer, a second-round draft pick and the newest in a line of Browns quarterback hopefuls, had a disastrous rookie campaign, starting 15 games and completing just over half his passes to go with 11 touchdowns and a league-leading 22 interceptions. The team would finish that season with a -28 turnover differential, the worst margin in the Super Bowl era.
There was some bad luck involved, though. Legendary offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who had never missed a snap in his career while making the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons, suffered a torn triceps in Week 7. It would be the final play of Thomas’ career.
In Week 17 against the Steelers, the Browns had one final chance to avoid going winless. Down 28–24 with less than two minutes to play, Cleveland faced fourth and two from the Pittsburgh 27. Kizer avoided the sack, scrambling and finding an open Corey Coleman on the left sideline near the 11-yard line. The pass was on point. The ball went through Coleman’s hands — incomplete.
The Cleveland Browns never had possession of the ball again. 0–16. Any Browns fan that thought it couldn’t get any worse back in 1990 or 1995 had now endured 19 years of constant disasters, capped off with a zero-win season.
By the end of 2017, Cleveland was no longer located in Ohio; it resided at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
At least in part, the Browns’ ineptitude on the football field had been masked by the success of basketball in the city. Led by LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers made the NBA Finals four consecutive seasons from 2014–15 to 2017–18. By winning the title in 2016, the Cavs snapped an over half-century title drought in Cleveland dating back to the Browns’ last championship in 1964.
If the Cavaliers allowed the Browns to escape responsibility for their failures, there would no longer be a place to hide. On July 1, 2018, LeBron agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a move that crippled the Cavaliers (they would go 19–63 the following season) and left the city of Cleveland without a star.
On the football side of things, the only point of stability over the last decade had been at left tackle, where Joe Thomas had played 10,363 consecutive snaps across 167 games. Thomas was now retired. This offseason would be critical, as the Browns needed to find a face for their franchise and keep fans interested in the team.
After all, there simply isn’t much else to do in the city — just ask Joakim Noah his thoughts on Cleveland.
General manager John Dorsey and the Browns would make the most of their offseason moves before LeBron’s announcement, but to their credit, they knew they needed to get to work.
DeShone Kizer was not the quarterback of the future. So, they sent him to Green Bay for corner Demarious Randall. In his place, they got three-year Bills starter Tyrod Taylor for their third-round pick. Then, they called up the Dolphins and picked up Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry for a 2018 fourth-rounder and a seventh in 2019. When former 49ers running back Carlos Hyde signed with the Browns in free agency, it seemed to complete a new-look offense for the team.
But they weren’t done yet. In fact, the team’s biggest moves came from the draft. Once again with the #1 overall pick, Cleveland selected Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield was a somewhat controversial player in college, and in a QB-heavy draft, many thought USC’s Sam Darnold would be the first man off the board.
Still, Mayfield was a leader — a passionate, high energy guy that could play. While he wouldn’t be slated to start immediately, this was a guy for fans to be excited about. A guy that could become the face of a franchise the Browns so desperately desired.
With the fourth overall pick, the Browns selected cornerback Denzel Ward. Early in the second round, they took running back Nick Chubb. It appeared to be a strong draft for Cleveland, but little did anyone know, Mayfield, Ward, and Chubb would exceed all expectations in their rookie seasons.
The Browns were gaining momentum and had the opportunity to showcase it to the world by appearing on HBO’s Hard Knocks, where the Browns got even stronger with the news that oft-suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon would be hopeful to be ready to play in Week 1.
After going 1–31 in his first two seasons at the position (the worst two-year stretch in NFL history), the pressure was on head coach Hue Jackson to translate all the new talent at his disposal into wins.
Many were surprised to see Jackson return for a third year. Among those was probably Jackson himself. In his only prior head coaching gig, the Raiders fired Jackson after a single 8–8 season in 2011. The Browns were certainly giving him a longer leash.
It’s hard to make judgments before the regular season, but entering 2018, the Browns looked like a different team — literally. Of the 53 players on the 2017 Browns Week 17 roster, only 19 remained by Week 1 of 2018. That’s an incredible amount of turnover. Many of the players that did stick around were part of a defense that was actually decent, finishing 14th in yards allowed per game the year prior.
With all their new signings, draft picks, and existing young talent, the Browns became a trendy surprise playoff pick despite having an over-under win total set at 5.5, joint-lowest in the league with the Arizona Cardinals.
Fans clung to the storyline of the lovable losers finally looking competitive, and Bud Light hopped on board too, introducing the “Victory Fridges,” chain locked refrigerators of Bud Light in Cleveland bars, only to be opened when the Browns won their first game of the season.
Browns players only added to the hype. Tyrod Taylor predicted that Cleveland would “shock the world”, while Jarvis Landry said the team had potential to win the Super Bowl and score 40 points per game.
For a team coming off just the second 0–16 season in NFL history, the Cleveland Browns entered 2018 with the swagger of a Super Bowl contender. There was just one thing left to do — prove it. With Week 1 looming, the new-look Browns would finally get that chance.
Earlier, I mentioned that the 2018 Browns started their season with the most unpredictable seven weeks in NFL history. To show you what I mean, let’s take it one week at a time.
In a game where the Steelers turn the ball over six times, the Browns find themselves trailing 21–7 in the fourth quarter. It’s not a promising opening for the revamped offense, led by Tyrod Taylor, the 29th Browns starting QB in 20 seasons. They do manage to tie things up at 21 all, though, when Taylor connects with Josh Gordon on a 17-yard touchdown at the two-minute warning.
And following a Pittsburgh three-and-out, the Browns get the ball back with a chance to win it in regulation. Unfortunately, facing 1st-and-10 at the Steelers’ 43 with 23 seconds left, Taylor throws a pick. Overtime.
The extra period starts with a Browns punt, followed by a Steelers punt, and another Browns punt. Finally, the Steelers have a drive going, needing only a field goal to win the game. Chris Boswell gets a shot from 42 yards out but puts it wide left. The Browns are still in this one but will go a third straight overtime drive without picking up a first down, sending things back to Ben Roethlisberger.
It’s Steelers ball, looking to make something happen in the game’s final plays. Instead, the Browns get a strip-sack and return the fumble to the Steelers’ 12…almost. Myles Garrett gets called for an illegal block on the return, sending the ball back to the 24 with 36 seconds left. After a run loses a yard, Browns kicker Zane Gonzales trots out for a 43-yarder.
Once again, a field goal for the win. But this kick doesn’t even get a chance. It’s blocked by T.J. Watt, and the game ends in a tie.
Let the jokes roll in. The Browns managed to snap a 17-game losing streak without winning. They also managed to tie their average win total from the past two seasons with half a win. Hey, at least it’s already better than last year!
The game was statistically remarkable for the Browns’ inability to win with a +5 turnover differential. As Bill Barnwell later pointed out, since the Browns returned in 1999, teams with a +5 or better turnover differential had gone 132–4–1. After Week 1, the Browns accounted for two of those losses and the tie. Rest of NFL: 130–2. Browns: 2–2–1.
To make matters worse, after the game, the NFL’s head of officiating admitted that the refs blew a roughing the passer call on Myles Garrett in the second quarter which led to a Steelers touchdown on the very next play.
There were still some positives to be found, though. Denzel Ward had two interceptions in his first career game and would win the Pepsi Rookie of the Week award. Plus, a tie against the Steelers isn’t a bad result at all.
Still, what a way to begin the season. And we’re only getting started.
The Browns’ quest to unlock the Bud Light fridges brought them to New Orleans, where, somehow, they managed to hold Drew Brees and the potent Saints offense to just a field goal through three quarters. Browns 12, Saints 3.
Alas, it wouldn’t be that simple. Brees proceeded to throw two touchdowns to Michael Thomas. A two-point conversion gave the Saints an 18–12 lead with 2:40 left.
But the Browns strike quickly. With 1:16 remaining, Taylor hits Antonio Callaway for a 47-yard score. 18–18. With the PAT, Zane Gonzales can put the Browns back on top.
It’s his second missed extra point of the day to go along with a missed field goal. We’re still tied.
On the second play of the following drive, Brees finds Ted Ginn Jr. for 42 yards to the Browns’ 25. A few plays later, Wil Lutz connects on a field goal to give the Saints a 21–18 lead. Crucially though, the Browns still have 21 seconds to work with.
Miraculously, the Browns need just two plays to set up Gonzales with a 52-yard try to send the game into overtime. However, Gonzales misses his fourth kick of the game, and the Browns lose by three.
After the game, the team would cut Gonzales, who, unbeknownst to coach Hue Jackson, had been playing with a groin injury. In his place, the Browns signed undrafted rookie Greg Joseph.
They would also trade Josh Gordon to the Patriots. Gordon had missed the game with a hamstring injury sustained at a promotional shoot, marking a disappointing end to his tumultuous time in Cleveland.
In what looked like a mistake on the part of the schedule makers, the Browns hosted the Jets in Week 3 on Thursday Night Football.
It was an intended matchup between the top two quarterbacks taken in the 2018 NFL Draft: #1 pick Baker Mayfield and #3 pick Sam Darnold. The Browns weren’t intending to play Mayfield, but after Tyrod Taylor, who had been struggling, suffered a concussion in the second quarter, Mayfield got his first taste of NFL action with the Browns down 14–0.
Mayfield’s impact was immediate. In his first possession, he ran the two-minute drill effectively, leading to a Greg Joseph field goal before halftime. Joseph would add another field goal in the third quarter before Mayfield led his first touchdown drive, with Carlos Hyde punching in a one-yard score. The Browns ran some trickery on a two-point conversion, with Mayfield catching a pass from Jarvis Landry to knot things at 14.
After a long Jets drive resulted in a field goal, Mayfield led an equally long touchdown drive of nearly seven minutes, giving the Browns a 21–17 lead late, which they hold onto, following a pair of Darnold interceptions in the final two minutes.
Dilly Dilly, open the fridges! The Cleveland Browns have won a game of football! It’s the team’s first win in 635 days, since December of 2016. It also appeared to be a changing of the guard. Baker Mayfield stepped up and played a great game, going 17/23 for 201 yards in just over a half of action, leading a big comeback victory.
In front of the home fans, Mayfield’s message came loud and clear: I’m not the future — I’m the right now. Mayfield had won the starting job and was set to become the Browns’ 30th starting quarterback since 1999.
As a reward for their first win in a football game in two years, the Browns got to play in a baseball stadium. No, seriously — the Oakland Raiders play in a baseball stadium. There’s a lot to tackle here, so I’ll move quickly.
Baker Mayfield throws an early pick-six, but the Browns respond with 28 of the game’s next 35 points to take a 28–14 lead midway through the third quarter. Over the next 12 minutes of game time, the Raiders scored 20 points on four separate drives to go back up 34–28.
Not to be one-upped, the Browns scored touchdowns on consecutive series and led 42–34 with four minutes and 20 seconds left. Because of course they do. Talk about a back-and-forth affair. They could have scored even faster but a Derek Carr fumble which would’ve been returned for a touchdown by Larry Ogunjobi is blown dead early for forward progress, making the play non-reviewable. After the game, the league will once again admit they made a mistake.
Trailing by eight points, Derek Carr marches his team all the way down to first and ten at the Browns 11. They reach as close as the six-yard line but turn the ball over on downs.
No, we’re not done yet.
The Browns fail to pick up a first down to seal the game. Carlos Hyde appears to do so on 3rd & 2. However, review overturns the play, forcing a punt.
And since this is how Browns games work, the Raiders score a touchdown in less than a minute and get the two-point conversion. 42–42. Mayfield is intercepted on a deep ball to put the Browns in chip-shot field goal range, and another game heads to overtime.
In OT, Raiders kicker Matt McCrane (yes, the same McCrane who would later kick for the Steelers in Week 17) misses a 50-yard field goal, giving the Browns good field position at their own 40. But just like overtime against the Steelers, the Browns can’t get anything going. The Raiders get McCrane another chance from 29 yards out, and he converts.
It’s a heartbreaker for the Browns — a game they absolutely should’ve won. Yet, the final score reads Raiders 45, Browns 42.
Bad news: the Browns are only 1–2–1. Good news: Nick Chubb broke off a pair of long touchdown runs, finishing the game with three carries for 105 yards and two scores. It earns him Rookie of the Week, marking the third time a Browns rookie has won the award, following Denzel Ward in Week 1 and Baker Mayfield in Week 3.
By the end of the season, that trio will win the award an unbelievable 11 times, with Mayfield winning seven times, and both Ward and Chubb doing so twice. The other 31 NFL teams combined would only win six times, with one coming on the Browns’ bye week.
Baltimore enters this game with a franchise-record streak of 13 straight games with 20 or more points. Considering the Browns allowed 45 points in their last game, that streak should be pretty safe, right?
Somehow, despite both teams going for over 400 total yards, only one touchdown is scored in the entire game, and Greg Joseph misses the extra point. The Browns make up for this by blocking a 48-yard attempt from Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, before the half, meaning the Browns hold a 6–3 lead at the break.
After the Browns extended the lead to 9–3, Tucker got redemption with two second-half field goals, including a 32-yarder with 52 seconds left to tie it at nine. Joseph got a shot from 55 yards out to give the Browns the win in regulation, but you know how this goes by now — he misses. The Browns find themselves in overtime for the second consecutive week and a third time in five games.
Following a couple of punts, the Browns find themselves with 4th-and-5 at the Ravens’ 39. A conversion would give them a great chance at the win, but to make things even more dramatic, the Browns turn the ball over. Luckily, they get it back in no time, and drive the field, giving Joseph another crack from 37 yards for the game as time expires. It’s one of the ugliest game-winners you’ll ever see, but the kick is good. Vindication. The Browns avoid a tie and take it, 12–9.
Believe it or not, this was the first time in a Browns game all season that the team ahead with three minutes left actually won the game. And even this one took overtime.
Congratulations, Cleveland! That’s a multiple-win season for the first time in three years! The victory also marked the Browns’ first win on a Sunday since Week 14 of 2015.
It was at this point that I really began to take notice of the insanity going on with this team. To recap, five weeks into the season, every Browns game had been decided by four points or less. Three had been to overtime. They had even tied!
Since the NFL instituted overtime in 1974, no team has tied twice in a season. The 2018 Cleveland Browns had already gone into the last two minutes of overtime three times.
All five games had been absolutely ludicrous. Missed kicks, turnovers, lead changes — things had been completely unpredictable. During the week following the Ravens game, I wrote an article where I hypothesized that the football gods were confused.
After two decades of relentlessly torturing the Browns, maybe they felt they had gone too far? Now that the Browns had become a competent team, and fan favorites, should they continue to force Cleveland to suffer, or turn the Browns into champions?
Born from that uncertainty, the gods found a compromise — make every game chaotic. Five weeks into the season, the Browns were 2–2–1, but that record could have easily been either 5–0 or 0–5.
What would happen next?
Perhaps all the overtime had finally gotten to the Browns. Maybe the Chargers were simply a better team. Either way, the Browns were simply smashed in Week 6. The Chargers opened the scoring early and coasted to a 38–14 victory, the outcome never in doubt.
It would be Carlos Hyde’s final game as a Brown. On the Friday following the loss, Hyde was shipped to Jacksonville in exchange for a 2019 5th round pick. The trade made Nick Chubb, who had been averaging an absurd 10.8 yards-per-attempt in limited action, the new starting running back. Despite only 16 carries in his first six games, Chubb would go on to finish the season with 1,145 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns.
If Week 6 was a chance for fans to catch their breath, Week 7’s encounter with the Bucs saw the Browns dial the insanity back up to 11. Let’s do this one last time.
Despite opening up the scoring with a safety, the Browns trailed 16–2 at halftime. But as we’ve learned, no lead in a Browns game is safe. After each team put seven on the board in the third quarter, Cleveland scored two touchdowns in the fourth, tying the game at 23 shortly before the two-minute warning.
This gave Jameis Winston a chance to embark on a game-winning drive. Right on cue, he marched the Bucs offense to the Browns’ 22, setting up Chandler Catanzaro with a 40-yard try to snap his team’s three-game losing streak and atone for his missed extra point earlier in the game.
His attempt was from farther away than the 33-yard extra point but had the same result. As it would turn out, Catanzaro was still too close. His second miscue of the day sent the Browns to their fourth overtime in seven weeks.
Take that in. A fourth overtime. In case you were wondering, the record for most overtime games played in an entire season is five, set by the 1983 Packers. But now joining the group of teams in second place was the Browns, who needed only until October 21st to reach their fourth extra period.
And just like the first three, the Browns punt on their first possession. Luckily, Cleveland gets the ball back just yards outside of field goal range when Jamie Collins intercepts a Winston pass at the Bucs’ 45. However, on the ensuing 3rd-and-3 from the 38, Baker Mayfield is sacked, losing the seven yards the Browns had gained on the previous play. Punt.
Similarly, the Bucs go three-and-out. It seems no one wants to win this game. Perhaps a bit of a push is required. At the end of a strong punt return, Jabrill Peppers fumbles the ball. Tampa Bay gets it back in Browns territory, on the 48-yard line.
Now, for one of the most heartbreaking sequences I can remember. On 3rd-and-3, Genard Avery is called for a neutral zone infraction, gifting the Bucs a first down at the 36. The Browns bear down. On first down, Myles Garrett sacks Winston for a huge loss of 12 yards. On second down, Larry Ogunjobi and Emmanuel Ogbah combine for another sack, bringing up 3rd-and-29 from the Bucs’ own 45. Cleveland should get the ball back one last time.
Instead, Jameis Winston fires to DeSean Jackson for 14 yards, setting up Catanzaro with a 59-yard try, his second opportunity to end the game.
Money. It’s the longest field goal ever kicked in overtime. When you’re cursed like the Browns, not only do you lose — you do so in the most devastating ways possible. Bucs 26, Browns 23.
2–4–1. After everything — the opening tie, Mayfield heroics, and four overtimes, that’s where the Browns stood. Last place in the AFC North, a game and a half behind all three other teams. If the first seven weeks of the 2018 season were a rollercoaster, the ride had broken in the middle of a loop, leaving the Cleveland Browns stranded upside down.
Out of the Dawg House
When a team loses, they make changes. After going winless the year before, the 2018 Browns arrived as a remarkably different team. However, despite all the alterations to the roster and coaching staff, one position was still curiously untouched — head coach.
Hue Jackson now stood 3–35–1 in his tenure with the Browns. Without a long leash to begin with, Jackson needed to turn things around immediately. His opportunity came in the form of a trip to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, a team the Browns had tied less than two months prior.
This meeting would not be as close. A couple of first-quarter field goals gave the Browns an early 6–0 advantage, but outside of a fluke play where the Steelers forgot the rules and allowed the Browns to recover an onside kick off a safety punt, it was all Pittsburgh, who won 33–18.
That third straight loss would prove to be the nail in the coffin for Jackson, who was fired after the game along with his offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Unbelievably, Jackson became the sixth consecutive Browns head coach to be fired after his team’s second game of the season against the Steelers.
Even when they aren’t getting coaches canned, the Steelers have long aided the cause of Browns suffering. Who knocked the Browns out of the playoffs in their last postseason appearance after the 2002 season? The Steelers. What about their prior trip to the playoffs after the 1994 campaign? Also the Steelers. And of course, who beat the Browns in Week 17 of 2017 to set Cleveland’s winless season in stone?
Once again, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As fate would have it, In just over two months, the Steelers would need a Browns victory on the last day of the regular season to make the playoffs. But for now, the Browns were focused on salvaging their season with Gregg Williams, former defensive coordinator and newly promoted interim head coach, calling the shots.
In Williams’ Week 9 debut, his Browns ran into the 7–1 Chiefs and the highest-scoring offense in the league, averaging over 36 points per game behind breakout star and eventual MVP of the league Patrick Mahomes. The game was the highly-anticipated rematch of a 2016 contest between Mahomes’ Texas Tech Red Raiders and Baker Mayfield’s Oklahoma Sooners which broke the NCAA record for combined offensive yards in a game.
Mayfield threw for 545 yards and seven touchdowns in that 66–59 Oklahoma victory, while Mahomes accounted for over 800 total yards by himself in a losing effort.
Mahomes would get revenge in their first NFL meeting. After the Browns kept things close through the first half, the Chiefs broke away in the third quarter and went on to win 37–21. It wasn’t quite the legendary shootout of two years prior, but both quarterbacks had strong performances, looking like the future of the league.
That’s all well and good, but the Browns were now 2–6–1 and in danger of wasting away in another lost season. Week 10, the team’s final matchup before their bye week, was against the streaky Atlanta Falcons, who had won three straight coming in.
The Browns were six-point underdogs at home and staring at a potential fifth-consecutive loss. Yet, just as the league was ready to write them off, Cleveland put together their most impressive win of the season in a 28–16 triumph. It was an ultra-efficient day from Baker Mayfield, who finished 17/20 for 216 yards and three touchdowns.
Asked about it after the game, Mayfield delivered one of the most memorable quotes of the season, one that would come to define the team’s mentality going forward.
Dangerous indeed. Led by a confident Mayfield and following their first November win in four years, the Browns would be able to rest and refuel on their bye week with hopes of making a late push.
But even on their bye week, the Browns didn’t fail to entertain. On Sunday morning of Week 11, the NFL was stunned by a report from Adam Schefter that the Browns were interested in interviewing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their head coaching job.
The rumor was eventually shot down, but both general manager John Dorsey and Rice herself had to issue statements on the matter. Say what you want, the Browns have a remarkable ability to stay in the headlines.
They were back in action in Week 12, with their first matchup of the season against the Bengals. Divisional rivalries are always a little more important, but this one was extra special. After being fired by the Browns, Hue Jackson had joined the Bengals as an assistant to head coach Marvin Lewis.
Unsurprisingly, the Browns didn’t take kindly to that. Cleveland was already leading 21–0 in the second quarter when Damarious Randall intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s pass.
When time ran out, the Browns had won 35–20. It was a road victory, something Hue Jackson couldn’t produce in two and a half seasons. It was also the franchise’s first time winning back-to-back games in over four years.
With four more touchdowns from Baker Mayfield, Baker-mania really began to take over. By this point, even babies were being named after the promising young quarterback. Cleveland needed someone to believe in. Mayfield was that someone.
Turnovers led to a relatively uneventful loss in Houston the following week, but it wasn’t enough to slow down the Browns’ rhythm.
In Week 14, a late goal-line stand preserved a 26–20 win over the Panthers. The following Saturday, Cleveland won again, this time in Denver, snapping an 11-game losing streak against the Broncos dating back to 1990, before Art Modell relocated his team to Baltimore. Most of the modern Browns hadn’t even been born then.
The game marked four wins in five weeks, equaling Cleveland’s win total from 2015, 2016, and 2017 combined, giving Gregg Williams more wins as a Browns head coach in six games than Hue Jackson could manage in 40.
Speaking of Jackson, his Bengals came to FirstEnergy Stadium for a Week 16 rematch. With Jeff Driskel at quarterback for an injured Andy Dalton, the Browns entered as 8.5 point favorites, their most favorable spread since 2007.
Although Cleveland was officially eliminated from playoff contention the day before the game, their rematch with Cincy went almost exactly like the first meeting, with the Browns scoring the game’s first 23 points before a late Bengals run brought the final score to 26–18,
It was a bad beat for gamblers, but a result that brought the Browns to .500, with a 7–7–1 record entering the final week of the season. Incredibly, the Browns had managed to turn it around.
Perhaps it had something to do with Hue Jackson’s firing. After a strong start to the season, the Bengals had fallen apart in the second half of the year, their year an almost perfect inversion of the Browns’.
Without Jackson on their team, the Bengals and Browns had combined to win 10 games. With him, they won just three.
Week 17 would be symbolic. At 7–7–1, the Browns were going for their first winning season in 11 years. More than that, they had a chance to play spoiler. The AFC North race was down to two teams: the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Only one could make the playoffs. The Ravens held a half-game lead, but with the Steelers heavy favorites to beat the Bengals, the Browns had an opportunity to defeat the Ravens, the former Browns, and the team that left Cleveland, ending their season in the process.
It wouldn’t make up for all the suffering caused by the relocation 22 years prior, but it would be a start. The Browns could finally escape their demons and emerge as a force to be reckoned with.
Judgment Day, Part II
The Steelers had done their part. And now, following their victory, the team stayed on Heinz Field, united with their fans, eyes glued to the video boards in the stadium. Chants of “LET’S GO BROWNS!” sounded loud, cheering on their divisional rivals playing in Baltimore, four hours away.
Cleveland had trailed by 13 points at halftime, but now, with less than two minutes to play, that deficit was just two. Ravens 26, Browns 24. The ball was in Baker Mayfield’s hands, with his team needing only a field goal to win their fourth-straight game, sending them above .500 and their opponents out of playoff position.
The drive started at the Browns’ own 26. After an incomplete pass to Breshad Perriman, Mayfield went to Perriman again on second down for a 19-yard pickup, which stood after a lengthy review.
The next two plays went almost the same way. An incompletion to Jarvis Landry, and then a 16-yard gain to Landry. This one was initially ruled incomplete as well but was reversed after another tension-building review. When the dust settled, the Browns had 1st-and-10 from the Ravens’ 39.
Incomplete pass. Incomplete pass. Incomplete pass.
Three straight missed connections brought 4th-and-10. Cleveland had two options: send out Greg Joseph for a 57-yard try or go for it. Joseph had missed a 46-yard attempt at the end of the first half, and due to either lack of confidence, lack of leg, or trust in Mayfield, the Browns offense stayed on the field.
Unsurprisingly, the Ravens brought a blitz. As six men in purple and black rushed Mayfield, the Browns QB was forced to get rid of the ball quickly. He threw in the direction of Duke Johnson, who was on a slant route, but Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley made a great read on the play, tipping and intercepting the ball before it could reach its destination. From that point on, all the Ravens had to do was kneel.
The #1 defense in football had gotten their stop and earned themselves a division title and a spot in the postseason. For the Cleveland Browns, redemption would have to wait once again.
A New Cleveland Browns
Perhaps disappointment would be an apt initial reaction to the loss in Baltimore, but after taking a step back and evaluating the Cleveland Browns’ 2018 season as a whole, it would be impossible to label it anything other than a resounding success.
Just one year after being the absolute laughingstock of the league, a team that failed to win a single game, the Browns went 7–8–1. It was their best overall record since 2007 and the first time they finished outside of last place in the AFC North since 2010.
However, that third-place division finish doesn’t tell the whole story of just how close to really making waves the Browns actually were. If they had only beaten the Steelers instead of tying in Week 1 and closed out that final drive against the Ravens in Week 17, the Browns, Steelers, and Ravens would have all finished at 9–7. With a 5–1 division record, Cleveland would have won the tiebreaker, made the playoffs, and hosted a game on Wild Card Weekend. They were that close.
Throughout the season, the team’s rookie core had shined. Baker Mayfield set a new rookie record with 27 passing touchdowns, even after missing the first two and a half games of the year. Corner Denzel Ward was a Pro Bowler in his debut season, and Nick Chubb accounted for well over 1100 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns despite backing up Carlos Hyde until Week 7.
Second-year pass rusher Myles Garrett finished with 13.5 sacks, turning into one of the league’s most feared men. He, along with guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, joined Ward in the Pro Bowl.
In 2017, the Browns finished with a -28 turnover differential, the worst such mark in the Super Bowl era. In 2018, the Browns were +7, and second in the league with 31 takeaways.
By the second half of the season, this team was rolling, and the momentum didn’t stop there.
After promoting new head coach Freddie Kitchens and signing a highly-desired coordinator tandem of Todd Monken and Steve Wilks, the Browns made perhaps the biggest move of the 2019 offseason by trading for Giants star wideout Odell Beckham Jr.
This paired Beckham with his college teammate and best friend in Jarvis Landry to catch balls from a rising star in Baker Mayfield. And for just Jabrill Peppers, a 1st rounder, and a 3rd rounder, most saw the trade as a steal for the Browns.
Cleveland also signed running back Kareem Hunt, although he would be suspended the first eight games of 2019 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy from a domestic violence incident. The Browns kept adding on talent, while the divisional rival Steelers lost both of their stars, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
As the offseason continued, the hype around the Browns only kept building. All of a sudden, they were not only divisional favorites, but among the list of projected Super Bowl contenders. Entering training camp, the Browns had jumped all the way to 12–1 title odds, tied for fifth-best in the entire NFL and trailing only the four teams that reached the Conference Championships in 2018.
Perhaps this was taking things too quickly for a team that had still never won a playoff game in franchise history post-relocation or even produced a single .500 season in the last decade.
Then again, maybe not. If they could turn around the entire attitude surrounding a team which had lost for nearly two decades straight in one season, who’s to say they can’t win the Super Bowl in the next?
There’s something undeniably amazing going on in Cleveland right now, and it has the whole football world watching. The Browns have fielded great teams before, and they Mayfield a great team again soon.
Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium. During the college basketball season, his bracketology is featured at bracketmatrix.com. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.