Browns Diary: The Goal Line
It is an odd thing to give up football. For the first 50 or so years of my life (and especially the first 30 or so years of my life as a sportswriter), football governed my autumns. Every fall weekend, I had to go -- physically go sometimes, yes, but more often mentally and emotionally go -- to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Foxboro, Massachussetts., to Manhattan, Kansas, to Oakland, to Austin, to Cincinnati, to Ann Arbor, to Athens, to East Rutherford, to Pasadena, to wherever the kickoffs mattered most.
All those years, I could not imagine life without football. The sport was as much a part of me as the music I listened to, the books I read, the friends I made, the air I breathed.
And now ... it's gone. I'll tell you when it hit me. On Sunday, I went to a wonderful event celebrating my friend Tommy Tomlinson's new podcast, Southbound. It was mainly a Charlotte radio legend named Mike Collins interviewing Tommy; at one point Collins mistakenly said Tommy was from Alabama when he is actually from Georgia. When he did that I wondered if Tommy would correct him becuase Tommy is a supremely nice person who doesn't like making people feel uncomfortable.
Tommy did correct him but in the nicest way; he said that he had to admit being from Georgia because there were a couple of Alabama friends in the crowd who went to Auburn, and they deserved to gloat after Auburn's destruction of Georgia over the weekend.
THAT was how I found out that No. 1 Georgia lost to Auburn the day before.
The idea that a No. 1 college team could lose, and I wouldn't even know about it until it came up in some unrelated conversation (if Tommy hadn't said it, I don't think I would know even now) would have been ludicrous even two years ago. But I really have checked out. I don't know who the new No. 1 team is, and I don't care. I don't know who is leading any of the NFL divisions, and I don't care. I have not seen Tom Brady throw one pass this year.
Yes, I do follow enough NFL people on Twitter to sort of know what's going on in a larger sense -- I have gotten all the major injury updates for instance, and I am up on the Papa John thing -- but I basically have trailer knowledge (new JoeWord!) of the NFL now; I know about this year's NFL roughly what I know about "The Big Bang Theory," a show I've never seen but the trailers have probably taken up 700 hours of my life.*
*I believe I've made this point before, but I want to reiterate it: I have trailer knowledge of many television shows. I have never seen a CSI, never seen Survivor, never seen Bull or Scorpion or Empire or Gotham or Bones, but I've seen so many trailers that I'm pretty sure I know what those shows are about. If forced to write a paper about any of these shows, I could probably bluff my way through it and get like a C-.
But I have no idea -- absolutely no earthly idea -- what "Kevin Can Wait" is about. None. I have seen 10,000 trailers, and I have no clue. I don't CARE what it is about, let me make that clear. If I wanted to know, I could be sedated and watch it -- something that will never, ever happen unless something goes horribly wrong. Still, it is disoncerting that I have seen so many of these soul-crushing "Kevin Can Wait" trailers, and I still have no idea what that show is about. Is he an astronaut? A robot? A fun-loving chef? Is that his wife? Was that always his wife? Didn't he have a different wife? Did he kill the other wife? Does he have kids? With his first wife? Is he paying child support? Is he a deadbeat dad? No idea. I only know that this week he spills cheese dip on the floor and someone slips in it and even this limited knowledge will haunt me for the rest of my days.
Ditto all this for that Matt LeBlanc apocalpse of a show -- no idea what that thing is about either. That show, though, does have the added bonus that even though I've seen countless trailers, I don't know the name of it.
Sorry, back to the NFL. My football checkout has been even more complete than I expected when the season began. I believed that, sure, I'd watch a lot less football, but I'd probably end up in front of the television watching snippets of various games just out of habit. And it just hasn't happened. Maybe I will on Thanksgiving. Maybe when the bowl and playoff season rolls around, I'll watch some. But I have to be honest: I don't think so. I'm not watching football. And I don't MISS football.
That's the strangest part of all. I don't miss football one bit.
All of which brings me back to the Cleveland Browns. I still watch the Cleveland Browns religiously. And I write this diary. Why? No idea. I did think about stopping the diary (and stopping to watch). I even did a little Twitter poll in the hopes that people would TELL me to stop.
I could use that poll to say that I should stop since only 43% want me to continue. But realistically that poll tells me that I have to keep it going. Of the people who know what this diary is, 86% say that want to keep it going. These are my people. You are my people. Thank you for being here.
So I'll watch the Browns, and I'll write about them, and all of it will be entirely disconnected from the rest of the football. That's strange. But, I guess anyone who voluntarily would write a diary about this football organization has to be strange.
With that preamble, I really only have time to talk about one thing in the game ... but there is really only one thing worth talking about. Sure, if you are young and fullhearted and in desperate need of hope -- as I once was with the Browns -- I can tell you that DeShone Kizer had his best day as a Browns quarterback, and first pick in the draft Myles Garrett showed that he can dominate when he's not jumping offside, and Browns scored 10 points in a first quarter for the first time since 2016.
That last statistic is not a joke.
And now, young hopeful one, you can stop reading because the rest of this will be about one of the most amazingly awful things I've seen in recent Browns memory. The Browns lost to Detroit 38-24 -- this after having a 10-0 and 24-17 lead -- but you expected that.
You probably didn't expect this: With 3:55 left to go in the first half, the Browns got the ball trailing by a touchdown. They still had a timeout too. Now, you know how much time 3:55 is in NFL terms. By the NFL clock, you could see all seven Rocky movies in 3:55. You could read a Russian novel. You could write a Russian novel. Here's how much time 3:55 is, and let's see if you can follow this algebraic thought.
You have two teams, A and B.
Team A get the ball with 3:55 left.
Team A is worried about giving Team B the ball back with too much time ... not on this possession but on the next one, AFTER the two teams exchange points.
So, tons of time left. The Browns picked up 19 yards on a pass interference penalty. Kizer hit receiver Rashard Higgins on an 18-yard pass. Duke Johnson Jr. ran for nine. The Browns had moved the ball to the Detroit 26 just as the two-minute warning sounded.*
*I guess the two-minute warning doesn't really "sound." People say that all the time, but there is no two-minute warning sound, like a horn or whatever. The two-minute warning doesn't "sound." It warns. And what does it warn? That there are two minutes left.
So, let's reset. The Browns are already well in field goal range by the two-minute warning. The Browns are facing a third-and-one. Two minutes is a near-infinite amount of time. Oh yeah, they also have a timeout. I want you to think about this for a second: What's the worst thing that could happen for the Browns. Think about it.
OK, what is it? Interception, right?
The Browns did not throw an interception.
The Browns did not fumble.
So, let's see, they went for it on fourth down and didn't make it?
Nope. No fourth downs.
So, um, OK maybe the drive stalls, and they miss a field goal?
Buzz! The Browns did not miss a field goal.
They got a penalty and a sack and it knocked them out of field goal range?
Nyet. The Browns never left field-goal range.
So, pray tell, none of those things happened: How could the Browns not score a point when they had the ball on the Detroit 26 with two minutes left and a timeout?
It was a work of art. To start, they got the first down; Crowell ran up the middle to the Detroit 24. The Browns at this point did what they should do; they took their sweet time because they really did not want to give the ball back to the Lions with too much time.
With 1:29 left, DeShone Kizer dropped back to throw, could not find anyone open and was sacked for a three-yard loss. Then came the first blunder. A panicky Kiser called the Browns third and final timeout.
Why did he call the timeout? I have absolutely no idea. There was still roughly 1:20 left. Even if they took 25 or 30 seconds to set up the next play -- it should be much quicker than that -- there would still be almost a minute left, lots and lots of time. You always keep a timeout in case of emergency. Always.
Still, it seemed a relatively minor mistake. He called the timeout with 1:17 left; you can't blow 1:17 when you are already on the other team's 27 yard line. Right? Kizer hit Higgins for a seven-yard pass. He stayed in bounds, naturally, and the Browns took forever to get lined up again and this time that made a lot less sense ... do they practice this stuff? No, seriously, do they practice this? Because it doesn't look like they practice this.
The ball was finally snapped with 40 seconds left --- sheesh. Still, doesn't matter: 40 seconds is a long, long time in the NFL. Kizer dropped back and saw no one open -- so he took off running. He had a lot of open field. One of the big knocks on Kizer this year has been that while he was supposedly this great athlete coming out of Notre Dame, he had not shown any talent for running the ball.
This time he plowed ahead for 18 huge yards, all the way down to the Detroit 2, a big play. A big run. The clock was ticking, but plenty of time left. Kizer got the Browns lined up quickly for the spike, so quickly that the Lions were forced to call timeout with 19 seconds left because they were so badly offside.
OK! Nineteen seconds left, time for two or three quick throws to the end zone, a field goal if it doesn't work. And the Browns were getting the ball to start the second half. Like Kate Hudson says in "Almost Famous: "It's all happening!"
On first down, Kizer throws a fade pass to rookie David Njoku, who catches the ball but cannot quite get his second foot down in bounds. So close. The play took four seconds. Perfect.
Second and goal from the two with 15 seconds left.
I don't know exactly how to describe what happened next. You would think after watching the Cleveland Browns play week after week -- and before that watching the 2000s Kansas City Royals play day after day -- I would grow numb to those "Kevin Can Wait" plays that take away just a tiny piece of your lifetime joy supply. But no, you never fully numb yourself to that sort of dopiness.
The Browns' coach Hue Jackson called ran a quarterback dive.
It was not a quarterback draw, understand, one where the quarterback pretends he's going to pass and then runs instead. That would have been dumb, but at least it would have been a go-for-broke move, sort of a "we are going to take that hill or die trying" sort of thing. But that wasn't what happened.
This was not a quarterback sneak either. A quarterback sneak suggests somthing, you know, sneaky. The defense is certainly not expecting a quarterback sneak from the 2 with 15 seconds left and no timeouts so there is the one-in-a-hundred chance that it would work. Dumb, but
No, this was a quarterback dive. You know the play teams call when it is third down and like an inch to go, and the quarterback just pushes behind the center in order to get the necessary inch (and no more than the inch)? That was what the Browns called. From the 2. Kizer took the snap and just just tried to run forward and reach for the end zone. That was it. That was the whole play. It was one of the most staggering things I've seen on a professional football field.
The Lions were not ready for this because no sane person could have been ready for it ... but the play call was so bad that it didn't matter what the Lions were expecting. The Browns could run that play 10 million times against any NFL defense -- even a sleeping NFL defense -- and never once score a touchdown on it. The number of things that would have had to go wrong in the Lions' defense for that play to work would boggle the world's greatest mathematicians.
You already know what happened next. Once the shock of the sheer ineptitude of the play wore off, the Browns tried to get lined up for the spike. And the Lions players naturally held down the Browns for as long as they could. And the clock ran out on Cleveland.
And Duke Johnson threw his helmet in fury, getting a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.
Hue Jackson refused to talk about any of it other than to say, "That's on me."
That's on me. This was the Hue Jackson's full explanation of his crescendo as an NFL coach. That's on me. The boat hit the iceberg. The ball went through my legs. I am not a crook. I didn't see the punch coming. I thought the bat was a ball. I apologize to those who were offended. That's on me.
"Doesn't matter," Hue added when asked to expand on his answer. "Doesn't matter. We didn't get it done. We had a chance to score points and came away with nothing. That happens. It shouldn't happen. But it did. That's on me."
Update: At first, I thought this was just Hue refusing to talk about it ... it's now clear he didn't want to throw his quarterback under the bus because, according to tight end Seth DeValve, Kizer apparently audibled to this play.
It's still on Jackson. He can't have a rookie quarterback, one who clearly has no idea what's happening, audible out of to a quarterback dive. I have to say Hue Jackson hurts my heart. I like the guy so much. I like that he doesn't make excuses. I like that he stays positive even when there's no reason for it. I like that he has a pretty good history of developing quarterbacks. Maybe more than anything, I like the idea -- that dream of an idea -- that the Browns could keep the same coach for more than a year or two.
But this team, week after week after week, does the dumbest things imaginable. This game it's the quarterback dive. Last game, it was declining a 15-yard penalty to give the other team 4th and 1 in field goal range. They get called for more offensive pass interference penalties than any team in the league. They get outsmarted repeatedly, like in the fourth quarter when the Browns ordered up an all-out blitz that left the middle of the field wide open. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford stepped to the line and audibled. I'm not a professional lip-reader but I believe his exact call was "39, 39, um, there's nobody in the middle of the field, Omaha, Omaha, I'm going to take like one step back and quickly throw the ball to you Golden Tate, 55, 55, and you will run untouched into the end zone."
The Browns, completely fooled by this code talk, stayed in their stupid defense and Stafford hit Tate for a quick receiver pass, and he ran 40 yards untouched into the end zone. It was the same thing any kid who has ever played 12 seconds of Madden would have done.
Stuff like that happens every single week. The big defense of Hue is that his team doesn't have any talent -- announcer Spero Dedes actually said something to the effect of, "You'd have to say that no coach could have done more than Hue Jackson has," as if Jackson's 1-24 record is the pinnacle of coaching excellence.
But even though the Browns DO lack talent, it's clear: Hue Jackson is doing a spectacularly bad job. Much of this IS, indeed, on him.
Here's how bad that quarterback dive was: Color commentator Adam Archuleta, who seems like a super nice guy, almost never says anything negative about anybody. When he does criticize, it's very kind. Like when a quarterback misses a wide open receiver, he will say, "I know he wishes he had that throw back." Or when someone misses a block, he will say, "He's much better than that, I know he's kicking himself."
And after the quarterback dive, you could hear Archuleta stumbling about trying to figure out the nicest way to say, "THAT WAS THE DUMBEST THING I'VE EVER SEEN ON A FOOTBALL FIELD."
After enough stumbling, Archuleta finally came up with the right words.
"I don't love that call," he said.