Week 2: Cleanup Time

Browns 31, Houston 21

Summary: Browns dominate the third quarter after playing a meandering first half.

The key moment: Being honest, the key moment probably happened at the end of the first half, when the Texans couldn’t decide what to do, and starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor pulled a hamstring throwing the ball out of bounds.

Happiness level (scale of 1-to-10): 7. The Browns really didn’t play nearly as well in this game as they did in the loss to Kansas City, but a win is a win is a win … and Baker Mayfield, after a scary moment in the first half, seems healthy.

Before we get into the awesomeness of Nick Chubb, the discovery of Demetric Felton and the search party we sent out for Myles Garrett, I want to talk about a play in the first half that really had little to do with the game. I want to talk about it because it still doesn’t seem real.

It happened early in the second quarter with the score tied at 7. The Texans has the ball and were moving it a bit when a false start pushed them back. On third and 15, former Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor — who looked pretty fantastic for the second straight week — threw a short pass to Brandin Cooks, and he weaved through the Browns defense for 13 yards, making it fourth and 2 on the Browns 49.

But there was a flag on the play — the Browns had jumped offside.

So, obviously, the Texans were going to accept the penalty, face third and 10 and try to keep the drive going— that’s automatic. Only Texans rookie coach David Culley seemed pretty confused by the whole thing. The officials talked with him for a very long time. I guess they couldn’t believe what they were hearing either.

Culley decided to decline the penalty.

What in the world? Why would he decline the penalty and face fourth down … oh, and then it hit me. This David Culley, 66 years old and a head coach for the first time in his more than 40-year career, was actually a sly old fox: He was going for it!

Wow, that was a bold move, exactly the sort of thing I think coaches should try — especially if those coaches happen to be David Culley leading a Houston team that everybody expects to be terrible. The Browns were 13.5-point favorites in this game. So why not? Fourth and two from midfield is a go situation, and Culley decided that was a better option than facing third and 10. I’m not sure on the math, but I liked the daring of that move.

Kind of genius. Decline the penalty so you can go for it on fourth and short.

I found myself feeling some real appreciation for David Culley.

And then … Culley sent the punt unit on the field. He sent the punt unit on the field. No, I’m serious, he sent the punt unit on the field. He sent the punt team on the field. If I were a Houston Texans fan, I probably would have been muttering those words “He sent the punt team on the field” all night.

Culley had decided punting was a better choice than third and 10.

Repeat, a coach in the National Football League decided that PUNTING WAS A BETTER CHOICE THAN THIRD AND TEN.

You wait 43 years to become a head coach and then you decide to punt rather than face third and 10? Heck, maybe the Texans can start a trend and always punt on third and long? It might be the new Moneyball.

I always liked Tyrod Taylor. You will remember that the Browns picked him up after their oh-so-delightful 0-16 season, and it felt like a step forward — an actual professional quarterback. Taylor started three games for the Browns, and while he wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, he played with guts and he ran the ball well, and he just seemed one of those players everybody else liked and admired. Even after he got hurt and replaced by Mayfield, he still was a team leader. He worked with Mayfield to make him better.

So I was pretty happy when Taylor had a fantastic game last week against the putrid Jacksonville Jaguars. I didn’t see any of that game, of course, or even watch the highlights, but the numbers — 21 for 33, 291 yards, 2 touchdowns, 40 yards rushing — spoke for themselves.

That said, I kind of chalked that up to the Jaguars being a dumpster fire.

But you know what? After watching his first half against the Browns, I can say this without hesitation: Tyrod Taylor is GOOD. He’s 32 years old now, and he has been through a lot in his five-team, 11-year NFL career. His body has taken plenty of hits. And now, he makes quick decisions, he gets rid of the ball quickly, he knows how to elude rushers, he locates weaknesses in the defense.

I am thoroughly impressed with the guy. In the first half, he completed 10 of 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, and he also ran for an impressive 15-yard touchdown, and he had the Texans tied at halftime 14-14, even if they have a coach who does not seem to have any earthly idea what he’s doing.

But then, Taylor pulled a hamstring throwing the ball away late in the first half.

And, honestly, the game was over right then.

I don’t know what would have happened in this game if Taylor had not gotten hurt. The Browns were a mixed bag. Mayfield — other than a weird lull in the second quarter when he seemed a little out of sorts — was perfectly efficient. I mean PERFECTLY efficient. During that lull, Mayfield way overthrew tight end David Njoku* and on the next play threw a bad-looking interception that, in retrospect, was probably more the fault of rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz. Mayfield got hurt on that play too, and there was a scary moment or two when he went to the locker room.

*Every week, it seems, I hear a different pronunciation of Njoku’s name. The two big ones are “EN-joke-oo” and “NUH-joke-oo.” I prefer the first, it sounds cooler, but I’m actually really curious which one is right. Don’t the announcers ask?

But Mayfield came out and, other than that, he did not miss a pass the entire game — 19 for 19 for 213 yards, a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown, like I say, perfectly efficient.

The Browns also ran the ball brilliantly — Nick Chubb is a god, as we know, and he averaged 8.6 yards per carry.

The Browns scored 31 points, which is obviously terrific.

So where’s the mixed bag? Well, you have a quarterback who literally missed two passes all game long and your star running back gaining nine yards a pop — how in the WORLD do you end up punting four times in the game?

It’s a good question … and I think the answer largely comes down to two things:

1) An injury to Jarvis Landry left the Browns without a go-to recevier.

2) Coach Kevin Stefanski seemed just a little bit off with his gameplan and play-calling.

The first is obvious; losing Landry to an MCL injury is devastating, especially until Odell Beckham Jr. can return. As I write this, the Browns are still waiting on the MRI but, obviously, it looks pretty grim.

The second: I don’t particularly like second-guessing Stefanski, who has given us our Cleveland Browns back, but the whole feel of the game just seemed slightly off-center. For one thing, Kareem Hunt got more carries than Chubb. It’s quite amazing to me how many people in football — announcers, former players, coaches — seem to think of Chubb and Hunt as equal and even interchangeable players. Hunt is an outstanding change-of-pace back, and he runs super hard. But he’s no Nick Chubb.

And, yes, it’s good to use them both so that you can keep Chubb fresh.

But let’s not kid anybody here: Chubb is a true superstar. He’s the epitome of what a great running back — and great football teammate — should be. Yes, he did fumble in this game (in addition to his many other glorious talents, the guy almost never fumbles). And yes, this game was pretty much in the bank after Tyrod Taylor got hurt. But 11 carries for Nick Chubb is simply not enough. And the entire offense, while certainly effective — nobody’s complaining about 31 points — felt like it was working at about 80% capacity.

The defense, meanwhile, was a real disappointment. This is not a good Houston offense at full strength, and it was nearly helpless after the Taylor injury — and yet, the Browns defense really did not take over the game at all. The Texans moved the ball with some consistency.

Specifically: Myles Garrett was all but shut out — no sacks, no solo tackles, no quarterback hits, no anything. He’s simply too good to ever have a game like that. The Browns are so relying on him and Jadeveon Clowney (who did not have a sack but did make some impact plays) to dominate. I think, the Browns, in many ways, will go as far as those two take them.

Can we talk for a moment about Demetric Felton? Wow. I do realize that rookies come and go in the NFL — last week, Anthony Schwartz looked like an exciting big-play receiver and this week he looked entirely overmatched.

Still, that Felton 33-yard touchdown was something else. He had another 18-yard catch where he showed some serious moves. He flashed some stuff on a punt return and a couple of kickoff returns. Felton is 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, he was a sixth-round pick after being a good but not especially noticeable running back/wide receiver blend at UCLA (though he did have a massive 206-yard rushing game against Arizona). Nobody would have predicted that he would be a factor on this year’s Browns team.

But he had a good camp, proved himself to be versatile enough to use in a dozen different ways, and when given the chance on Sunday showed himself to be a difference maker. I love when players like this emerge. With Landry potentially out for a little while and nobody entirely certain when OBJ will return, Felton could be asked to do more. We will see if he answers.*

*I will say that Stefanski definitely seemed more excited (relative term) to talk about Felton than he was last week talking about Schwartz. I’m not saying that he or the Browns are down on Schwartz, but you definitely get the feeling that he has not overwhelmed the coaching staff in practice while you do get the feeling that they really like what they see with Felton.

Let’s check in on this week’s Kevin Stefanski press conference!

“I thought the crowd was outstanding,” he said. “In their seats right at the kickoff. … They helped affect the game. They did a nice job!”

I truly hope he kicks off every single press conference this way from here on in, where he rates the fans’ performance before he ever even talks about the team. I love this so much. I hope he takes this new segment to high levels:

“I thought the fans in Section 101 were particularly lively. We could use a little more out of Section 130 but the effort was there. I thought the fans were excellent on third down, really cheering loudly when the other guys had the ball while staying quiet when we had it. That’s the sort of performance we expect from our fans week in and week out. I noticed that there wasn’t anyone in the crowd with a large “D” next to anyone with a large representation of a fence — I’m not sure how we can be expected to play defense without the D and Fence fans doing their job, but I’m sure they’ll be back next week. I definitely thought the barking from the Dawg Pound was convincing and so helpful. …”

And as for the rest? Our guy Kev is pleased with a team win, but it’s probably fair to say that he thinks there’s stuff to clean up.

“There’s a ton to clean up,” he said. “Offense. Defense. Special teams. There’s a ton to clean up. Certainly we’ll look at those things and what to do better. But it’s all something that, early in the season, we’ll look at all of it and make sure we made it, or I thought so till today, until you were there, everywhere, and I could taste was love the way we made it. Love’s so strange, playin’ hide and seek with hearts …”

Oh, yikes, it happened again, first time in in the new season, I blacked out in the middle of a Stefanski press conference because it was so boring, and this time I woke up in the middle of the Barry Manilow song “Looks Like We Made It.” Whew. Disturbing.

The point, I think, is that the Browns have some things to clean up.

But all in all, you take solid wins whenever you can get them. The Browns were never at risk of losing this one. And it’s on to next week and the Bears.