Week 1: Good News and Bad News

Kansas City 33, Browns 29

Summary: Chiefs score two four-quarter touchdowns and come all the way back from a 12-point halftime deficit.

The key moment: Cleveland punter Jamie Gillan dropped the snap and was tackled on the Browns 15-yard line, leading to the Chiefs’ go-ahead touchdown.

Happiness level (scale of 1-to-10): 4. The Browns could have won and maybe even should have won. But there was also a lot to be excited about.

The Cleveland Browns have not won a season opener since 2004. If you’re like me, when someone says, “OK, I have good news and bad news,” you will ask for the bad news first. I think this goes back to something I saw on television when I was a child, perhaps on the old “Electric Company,” where someone was telling the story about a person falling toward a haystack that had a needle in it.

The good news: He missed the needle.

The bad news: He missed the haystack.

So load me up with the bad news first every single time. The Cleveland Browns have not won a season opener since 2004. That year, they pounded the Baltimore Ravens 20-3 behind the passing wizardry of Jeff Garcia. Do you know who Jeff Garcia’s first NFL pass was intended for? Jerry Rice. That’s how long ago this was.

In the years since, the Browns have lost season openers to the Bengals, the Saints, the Steelers, the Cowboys, the Vikings, the Buccaneers, the Bengals again, the Eagles, the Dolphins, the Steelers again, the Jets, the Eagles again, the Steelers yet again, the Titans, the Ravens and now the Chiefs. Their highlight season opener came in 2018 when they followed up an 0-16 season by tying the Steelers. What a joy that was.

It is all but impossible in the NFL to go 17 consecutive seasons without winning your season opener. But, this gets at the heart of what it has been to be a Cleveland Browns fan: This team has been almost impossible in so many ways. They have been almost impossibly bad. They have been almost impossibly unlucky. They have been almost impossibly absurd. They have been almost impossibly frustrating.

And, yes, it would have been nice, as this season of unlimited promise begins, for the Browns to shed all of that all at once, to simply become a different team.

Alas, I guess that’s not how it works. There are still a few Browns demons left to be cleared out, like those last leaves in the gutter. This one included a Browns punter simply dropping a snap. This one included a critical Nick Chubb fumble; that guy almost NEVER fumbles. This one included the Browns blowing a nine-point fourth-quarter lead against the class of the AFC. This one ended with Baker Mayfield lying flat on his stomach and pounding the ground, so that can’t be the best.

But … like I say, good news and bad news.

And we should definitely get to the good news now: The Browns are for real.

There was this moment late in the fourth quarter when the Chiefs had the ball close to midfield and seemed ready to put the game away. It was third down and 10, which looks like third and long to most of us and looks like peanut M&Ms to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. At the time, Mahomes and the Chiefs were nine of 12 on third down, and stopping them in that key moment seemed unlikely at best.

But here’s what happened: Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett sprinted right by his would-be blocker and sacked Mahomes to force a punt.

It was a great play at a pivotal moment, but that’s not what struck me about it. No, two other things struck me. First was that Garrett KNEW he was going to sack Mahomes. I was watching him closely from before the snap, and certainty was practically glowing off of him. He had not gotten to Mahomes all game — his timing had been off, he was twice called for jumping offside — but you sensed that he had been saving something special for when the game was on the line.

And his burst off the line was mind-blowing. He was by the left tackle before the snap had reached Mahomes’ hands. He was on top of Mahomes before he could even make a move. This was the play of a defensive whirlwind.

So that was the first thing.

The second thing? The Browns’ other defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, hit Mahomes at almost exactly the same time.

This Browns defense has a chance to be pretty special.

No, they didn’t always look that way on Sunday, but they were playing Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City in September. Do you even know about Patrick Mahomes’ crazy numbers in September?

In 11 games, he has completed 277 of 406 for 3,641 yards with 35 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.

It goes without saying that the Chiefs are 11-0 in those 11 games.

The Browns defense was as helpless against September Mahomes as everybody else. But there were moments, like this one, when you could see this defense’s bright future. Teams will not be able to block a healthy Garrett and a motivated Clowney. The Chiefs were pretty ineffective running the ball against the improved middle of the defense. I don’t know that this will become a GREAT defense, but they have a chance to be very good.

And with this offense, very good might be all this team needs.

Baker Mayfield looked great. That is all. He looked confident. He looked assertive. He looked calm when he needed to be calm and energized when he needed to be energized.

I cannot even begin to say how exciting it was to see Mayfield play this way. We’ve been on a crazy ride with Mayfield. I was thrilled when the Browns drafted him No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft; he was the quarterback I thought gave Cleveland the best chance of turning things around.

Then, he had an exciting first year, 2018, a season of epic triumphs and epic mistakes and epic promise. The Browns won five out of six games at one point that year, which was like seeing Charlie Brown successfully kick five out of six field goals, and the Browns were so excited that they just decided to give the head coaching job to an obscure coach named Freddie Kitchens because he happened to be there when the miracle happened.

Then, 2019, under Kitchens, everything fell apart for Mayfield. He lost his accuracy. He lost his confidence. He seemed frozen with panic in the pocket. He had a few good moments here and there, and he was brilliant in the Progressive commercials, but there was some real concern that he was not the right guy at all.

Then the Browns mercifully fired Kitchens, brought in our favorite Boring Dad Kevin Stefanski, and the team brilliantly began putting Mayfield back together again. It really was brilliant. Early in the season, they really put the clamps on him, let him throw only a few times, moved him around in the pocket, built up his confidence.

And then, as the season went only, they began to let him go, let him be himself, and it was really incredible. By the end of the season, the guy was playing really well, and then the Browns went into Pittsburgh for a playoff game and he threw three touchdown passes, and then they went into Kansas City, and while he wasn’t at his very best he did help bring the team back in the second half.

On Sunday, he was electrifying. I don’t just mean his numbers — though the numbers were there, he was 21 for 27 for 321 yards before that last interception, which I think was a bit unlucky (he had his feet taken out from under him as he was trying to fling the ball out of bounds). I just think the assured way he was running the offense — he knew exactly where to go with the ball, he made sound decisions, he had the Chiefs defense guessing badly — was thoroughly exciting.

This guy looked like one of the league’s better quarterbacks.

And he seemed to be surrounded with an abundance of weapons … even with Odell Beckham Jr. sitting out another week as he recovers from his injury. Nick Chubb is, as always, all-world. Kareem Hunt is incredible too. Jarvis Landry is as solid a receiver over the middle as they come. And suddenly — David Njoku is a big-play threat? Harrison Bryant is a big-play threat?

And, wait, who is Anthony Schwartz? I guess he was truly a world-class sprinter in high school … he sure looked it on the field. I know there has to be a learning curve for him, but wow, how could you watch Schwartz play without getting excited?

Plus Austin Hooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones … Mayfield threw the ball to eight different receivers, each of them a threat in his own way.

For a half, the Chiefs defense didn’t stand a chance.

Things did slow down in the second half — Chubb’s fumble was a blow, and the Browns’ offense did tighten up in the final 10 minutes. But, again, this was the first week of the year, the game was in Kansas City, which might be the toughest place to play, etc.

I choose to be optimistic. I think this is one of the best offenses in the NFL.

Last year for the Browns’ Diary, I would do a weekly breakdown of Kevin Stefanski’s press conferences because they were so gorgeously boring. I don’t know if I want to do that again this year. On the one hand, it’s funny to see the new ways Stefanski finds to be boring, and I see it as my homage to Stefanski, who has done an incredible job turning around this team and this organization.

On the other hand, I can’t help but think the act is a little bit spent by now.

Then again, maybe I’ll feel differently next week. You can tell me what you think.

But for now, I listed off my happiness level after this game at 4, which is the highest it can be after a loss. No, it wasn’t great watching the Browns do self-destructive things and lose another game. But I can’t wait for next week. For a Browns’ fan, that’s something.