It’s doubtful, in the 65-year history of Sports Illustrated, that any cover story has embarrassed that respected national magazine more than this past Labor Day’s double issue.
That’s the one with wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on the cover accompanied by the headline “The Browns are Back.” Also out front was a box that read: “Bold Prediction! Cleveland’s first division title in 30 Years (Can they win SB LIV?)”
As the season has reached the halfway point, the Browns are 2-6, solidly in third place in the AFC North, four games behind leader Baltimore (6-2) and two back of the resurgent Steelers (4-4) who are playing without their former Big Three: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (out for the season injured), running back Le’Veon Bell (now a Jet) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (somewhere in NFL limbo).
Only the 0-8 Bengals are keeping Cleveland out of last place.
For the record, no National Football League team has ever made the playoffs after starting the season 2-6 and, if the Browns lose to the Bills Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, their playoff hopes will be dashed even in a down year for the AFC. They are currently behind eight teams in the Wild Card race, two of them by at least three games and there would be only seven to play.
INCREDIBLY, Cleveland has yet to win a home game. After being blistered by Tennessee, 43-13, in the opener, the Browns dropped more respectable decisions to the Rams (20-13) and Seahawks (32-28) on the First Energy turf.
Their wins have come on the road against the Jets (27-3) and Ravens (40-25), the latter one of the league’s most vexing games of the season.
Based on Baltimore’s impressive 37-20 victory over New England on Sunday night, it could be argued that the Ravens are one of the top three AFC teams. Yet the Browns went into M&T Bank Stadium and handled them decisively.
Indeed, that emphatic win made Cleveland, 2-2, and it seemed back on track after a staggering start. But, since then, the Browns have lost four straight – though the home defeat by the Seahawks was hardly embarrassing – and the chants for the dismissal of beleaguered first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens keep growing louder.
The numbers are indicting.
Cleveland ranks 25th in the NFL in points scored (19 per game) and 23rd in points surrendered (26).
The Browns have 17 giveaways (interceptions and fumbles combined) and a mere nine takeaways.
And while Beckham, late of the Giants, and Landry, from Miami, have fair numbers, combining for 75 catches (just over nine a game) and averaging over 15 yards per reception they have only two touchdowns to show for it.
Cleveland’s ground game has been better than decent – Nick Chubb is averaging 100 yards a game and has six rushing touchdowns – and will only get better when Kareem Hunt joins the team on Sunday.
Hunt, the former Chief, scored 25 touchdowns running and receiving in 27 games with Kansas City while proving to be one of the NFL’s most potent backs. But the Chiefs released him after a videotape showed him pushing and kicking a teenage girl at a party in Cleveland with the NFL suspending him for eight games. The Browns signed Hunt in the interim and he’ll play his first game this season, Sunday against Buffalo.
So what’s Cleveland’s major offensive problem?
The elephant in the room … second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The charismatic Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma who already has Peyton Manningesque commercial exposure, hasn’t come close to matching his rookie season.
Last year, he put up solid first-year numbers: 27 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a solid 93.7 passer rating.
This season, halfway through, Mayfield has thrown only seven TD passes with 12 interceptions and a substandard 71.3 rating. Worse, he’s been sacked 23 times, only two less than all of last season.
Small wonder Sunday’s game against Buffalo is such a big one for both Kitchens and Mayfield.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)