NFL winners and losers: Why the Browns absolutely suck

We’re one month in to the NFL season and if anything is certain it’s that the Browns are going to stretch the believability of excuses this season. Cleveland finds itself 2-2, which isn’t bad in isolation — until you consider that they’ve had the softest start to the season of any team in the league.

The perception entering 2022 was that the Browns were only a QB away from pushing for Super Bowl contention, but at this rate it’s difficult to imagine them even being a playoff team. Baker Mayfield was a deserving punching bag, but he’s not there anymore — and the issues prevail. If you want to pivot that and turn Jacoby Brissett into the reason Cleveland is losing right now, you’re welcome to be wrong. The issues here run far deeper.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Yes, the Browns were without Myles Garrett and Jadaveon Clowney on Sunday, and that’s significant — but it’s not significant enough to hand-wave away a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns gave up 13 points in the fourth quarter to seal the game, but let’s focus on one key play that’s endemic of everything wrong with the Browns right now.

With 3:35 left in the game the Falcons began their drive at their own nine yard line. After an unproductive run the offense dials up a deep pass, and what happens is like something out of a magic act — because everyone in the secondary vanishes. Seriously, look at the coverage when Olamide Zaccheaus is about to make this catch.

I’ve seen punt returners face more pressure with a lofting ball coming down to them.

At the snap Denzel Ward is tasked with covering Drake London, as you’d expect — and Greg Newsome is across from Zaccheaus. Ward takes away London’s shot at a deep ball, but nobody is even paying attention to Zaccheus, despite him lining up as the Z receiver. Newsome’s eyes are locked on Marcus Mariota, and doesn’t even glance at the second receiver.

This would suggest the defense was concerned with Mariota scrambling for a first, as he’s want to do — so Newsome could have been a spy on this play. However, this still doesn’t make any sense. It’s far better to use an outside linebacker in that role, who can then drop into coverage if the threat of a run isn’t there. Instead the outside backers immediately drop into soft zone, parking themselves about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, while the middle linebacker blitzes.

Zaccheaus runs a slow, meandering drag that takes him across the entire field, and at no point does a single defender pick him up. Mariota does good work to keep active in the pocket, but the throw itself is basic as can be. The quarterback lofts the ball over the linebackers, who are playing too close to the line — and in front of the secondary, who are a solid 15-yard away Zaccheaus, all concerned with stopping a deep pass. It’s caught 28 yards downfield, and the receiver picks up another 14 in YAC before being tackled, with a facemask from Ward for good measure, just to make sure this hurts even more.

So, why is this one play so significant? Because it’s the coalescence of three separate problems:

  1. Poor play calling: This defensive play makes zero sense. At best it’s too cute in a pressure situation, and it’s made overly complicated at a very simple down and distance
  2. Bad preparation: Absolutely ignoring Zaccheaus shows the Browns didn’t do their homework. He’s the second-most targeted receiver on the Falcons after Kyle Pitts. This offense loves to try and use him, and he needs to be accounted for.
  3. Lack of discipline: Ward with the unnecessary face mask flips for the field for an offense that really struggled to move the ball.

It resulted in a field goal to take the lead, forcing Brissett to try and need to win a two minute drill with his arm. He throws an interception, and that’s ballgame.

Sure, on the surface you can say “this is just one play, it happens” but everything the Browns are doing right now is a team desperately trying not to lose, rather than trying to win. It’s boring, predictable, sad football that reeks of a team just looking to squeak across the line until their presumed franchise QB returns, rather than looking to assert its dominance over lesser competition.

Thus far the Browns have faced the hapless Steelers, the dumpster fire Panthers, the Jets (who require no adjective) and now the Falcons. Cleveland should be 4-0 right now, there’s no excuse for them not to be — and yet they’re 2-2, with their next seven games coming against the Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, Bills and Buccaneers. There is a very real chance the Browns will welcome back Deshaun Watson with a 2-9 record. Even the most generous reading gives them wins against the Patriots and … one more? So, 4-7.

Contrast what the Browns are doing with Dallas. The Cowboys lost their franchise QB for multiple weeks to start the season, but they’re playing unafraid football and doing everything they can to win, not just coast along. Yes, their 3-1 record looks only slightly better right now, but they’ve played much better teams. If we look at their next seven games they’re likely to be 7-4 or even better over the same period.

It’s not even like Dallas should be a paragon of virtue to aspire to either, but they’re just a much better coached, organized and disciplined organization. There is no excuse Cleveland couldn’t play like that. So congrats Browns, you’re a loser this week.

Losers: Concussion doctors

This is a really serious issue, and I don’t want to make light of something which is an actual existential threat to the future of the NFL. If you don’t believe me, look at plummeting youth football numbers due to concerns over head injuries.

Obviously the headlines this week will surround Tua Tagovalioa, which is its own fresh hell — but this wasn’t the only example of doctors acting disgustingly negligent when it comes to head injuries. In Sunday Night Football a national audience got to see Buccaneers’ TE Cameron Brate take a traumatic hit to the head, appear to be out of it, get put back in the game, only to be pulled a few plays later and ruled out due concussion.

If this wasn’t all bad enough, footage showed Brate on the bench squinting, and looking out of each eye one at a time in an effort to gain his bearings. What makes this so concerning, aside from the obvious, is that the time immediately following a brain injury are the most critical to take care with a player. Any further subsequent hits can lead to dangerous post-concussion syndrome.

How we can have another player get put back on the field following a hit by a negligent medical staff is beyond me. Simply disgusting stuff from all involved.

Winner: Miles Sanders

A lot has been made of Jalen Hurts this season, and rightfully so — but Hurts not being perfect against the Jaguars allowed another player to shine, and it’s time for Miles Sanders to get his flowers.

Hurts is thriving in Nick Sirianni’s offense sure, but Sanders is having a mammoth season too, and Sunday he was at his best. Putting the offense on his back, Sanders rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 22 yards in the receiving game. Finding that second reliable option means the Eagles have a more varied attack when the passing game isn’t getting it done, and the Jaguars are not slouches on defense at all in 2022.

Sanders is on pace for 1,513 rushing yards and rushing 13 touchdowns. A career second option producer, he’s shining as a feature back. This is huge for Philadelphia, and something to watch for the rest of the season.

Loser: Conference expectations

Is the NFC better than the AFC? That’s mostly a rhetorical question. If you asked that entering the season it would have been a laughable concept. Here was a conference with the Chiefs, Bengals and Bills as the established top tier. The Titans, Chargers, Ravens, Raiders and Colts all good teams in their own right. Then you had Russell Wilson moving to the Broncos and the power of the NFL was all coming out of the AFC.

One month in and that’s really not the case. The AFC are all playing below their potential, while the NFC is surging. That’s largely an anecdotal argument, but it’s statistical as well.

Pro Football Reference has a “simple rating system (SRS),” which is a measure of offensive and defensive success, factoring in margin of victory and strength of schedule. It’s essentially a metric that normalizes every team in the league to show how much better, or worse they’re performing than expectation. A team with a 0 rating is doing exactly what models predicted prior to the season — and in the SRS the results are staggering.

There are five NFC teams with positive SRS of 10.0 or more, compared to two AFC teams. In raw ranking of the Top 5 teams in the NFL, four teams come from the NFC. The difference between the top team in the NFC (Eagles) and top in the AFC (Jaguars) isn’t even close — with Philadelphia being at a +39.0 on the season to Jacksonville’s +17.3.

All this, and seven teams in the NFC have a positive strength of schedule ranking, compared to five in the AFC.

This means that NFC teams are playing better, against better competition, and being fare more surprising in the process. Meanwhile the AFC is playing drastically worse than they should.

Push aside your preconceived notions about 2022 and it’s clear the balance is firmly in favor of the NFC, which is totally wild.

Winner: Everyone who got to watch Seahawks vs. Lions

Now that was a hell of a football game (unless you like defense). Sometimes it’s nice to just forget one side of football exists and indulge on the junk food of football offense like watching two new players take the sticks in Madden.

To be fair, it’s not like either team wasn’t trying to play defense — they just couldn’t. In the end the teams combined for over 1,000 yards of offense, 93 points, and it was an agent’s dream. These are the kind of games that stuff the stats so much that they are mentioned in contract negotiations.

I know what I’m about to do is a very silly exercise, but if T.J. Hockenson played the Seahawks every week like he did on Sunday he’d finish the season with 3,043 receiving yards, smashing Tony Gonzalez’s tight end record by over 1,700 yards.

Loser: Everyone who played quarterback in Jets vs. Steelers

I’m obsessed with what happened in Jets vs. Steelers when it comes to quarterbacks. It’s not even worth singling out any one player in this factory of sadness, because everyone was so ass.

So, let’s just stick their entire stat lines together to create a single game.

35-for-62, 460 yards, 1 TD, 6 INT — 45.83 passer rating

This is THREE QUARTERBACKS COMBINED AND EVERYONE WAS BAD! There was a 17 percent chance that any time a pass would be completed it would actually go to the other team instead.

I love the idea of two fanbases with storied histories sitting down and watching absolute garbage for three hours. Congrats to the Jets though, because even a pyrric victory is a victory.

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