Bitter cold loss leaves Browns outside playoffs once again
CLEVELAND (AP) — There’s nothing left for the Cleveland Browns to accomplish this season, another failed one in a long line of malfunctions for one of the NFL’s most inept franchises.
Since 1999, they’ve had three winning seasons. Count ’em, three.
They are masters of dysfunction, however, and coach Kevin Stefanski revealed Monday that star defensive end Myles Garrett didn’t start a bitterly cold 17-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Saturday because of a “team thing,” implying it was a disciplinary move.
“My decision,” Stefanski said.
Stefanski declined to elaborate on Garrett’s violation, but that Stefanski had to bench his best player for any time with the Browns still mathematically alive in the playoff chase underscores the team’s sorry state.
And now that the playoffs are no longer possible, the last two games — at Washington and at Pittsburgh — have been reduced to little more than players trying to show they’re worthy of being on the 2023 roster.
Sure, quarterback Deshaun Watson will have eight more quarters to refine his game for next season following his nearly two-year layoff and an 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct allegations. Also, Stefanski can erase any doubt that owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam might have about whether he deserves to return by having his team prepared and polished.
But while the rest of the AFC North jockeys for playoff positions, the Browns (6-9) will watch from their familiar last-place perch.
“Extremely frustrating,” said right tackle Jack Conklin, who signed a four-year, $60 million contract extension agreed upon last week. “We play this game to go to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Not having that chance the last two years is frustrating.
“We really need to take a look at ourselves and figure out what we can do better at and what we are good at and move forward with those things and really just come together as a team. ... We can’t go into the dumps and leave these out here.”
Stefanski’s future appears safe. Watson gave him strong support last week, and the fact the Browns have continued to play hard is a positive indicator that he still has his players’ attention.
However, Garrett’s actions — though minimal— could be viewed in a larger frame as a sign of a damaged culture that needs fixing. If that’s the case, the Haslams could be prompted to do something rash, which is essentially how they’ve operated (see coaching changes, Watson signing) for a decade.
For now, Stefanski’s focus is on getting his team through two more games.
“We do want to finish strong,” he said. “You want to finish everything you do.”
At least the running game still functions. Everything else seems in disrepair.
Cleveland rushed for 124 yards against the Saints, who outgained the Browns on the ground and won despite completing just eight passes.
Nick Chubb ran for 92 yards but was conspicuously off the field for some key plays in the second half.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Stefanski’s curious play-calling was on display again against New Orleans.
With a penchant for getting excessively complicated at critical moments, Stefanski had Watson attempt a deep throw on fourth-and-2, when a simple handoff to Chubb could have worked in gusting weather conditions. Watson’s pass sailed in the wind, and although the Browns forced a quick punt, the change of possession killed valuable time.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper hasn’t let a core muscle injury slow him.
Cooper had a game-high six receptions for 72 yards and went over 1,000 yards for the sixth time in eight seasons. He has been hurt the past three weeks but has continued to contribute at a high level.
While so much has gone wrong this season, Cleveland’s acquisition of Cooper via trade from Dallas has been one of the few positives.
Running back Kareem Hunt appears to have run out of time in Cleveland.
After serving as Chubb’s understudy, and sometimes as a complementary piece to the four-time Pro Bowler, Hunt has seen his usage drop along with his production.
He gained just eight yards on seven carries against the Saints. The 27-year-old still has some prime seasons left, but after failing to get a contract extension from his hometown team, he’ll have to catch on elsewhere.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains in concussion protocol. He was injured in the first half of the Dec. 17 against Baltimore. ... Stefanski said conversations about sitting Chubb (foot) and Garrett (shoulder) in the final two games so they don’t aggravate existing injuries have not happened yet.
17 — Passing attempts for Watson in the fourth quarter while the Browns were only down by 7 points.
Playing for pride. The Browns can be a spoiler in a New Year’s Day matchup against the Commanders (7-7-1), who need to win their final two games to make the playoffs.
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