In the wake of Week 4, Marc Sessler dishes on what’s hot — and what’s not — in the NFL:
The sensation is surreal.
After so many lost autumns, Browns fans of a certain age are still pondering what they witnessed in Sunday’s 49-38 explosion — and near implosion — against the Dallas Cowboys.
Count me among the contemplatives. I knit myself to the Browns way back in 1986, allowing Cleveland’s anti-adventures on the gridiron to ruin a thousand weekends since.
Sunday felt close to decimation, too, with Dallas turning a 41-14 deficit into a 41-38 nail-biter. I could already see the headlines and hear the Monday morning talking heads undressing a Browns team responsible for one of the league’s more devastating collapse jobs.
Just another way to play the fool. Like so many times before.
As the Browns took over with 3:37 on the clock — endless time for the Cowboys to continue their comeback — the cynic within wondered where this would rank among previous embarrassments.
Would it supersede the September Sunday in 2003, at a family wedding, when I convinced a flock of aunts, uncles and cousins to come see what I described as an “upstart Browns squad” under the watch of Butch Davis? My analysis was questioned minutes into a bludgeoning by the Ravens that saw an agitated Jamal Lewis blast Cleveland for an NFL-record 295 yards on the ground.
Or would it feel closer to a moment later that fall, in which I watched those same fading Browns crushed to bits by Kansas City before delving into my own personal nightmare?
After [the 41-20] hammering by the Chiefs, I wandered to a nearby restaurant in a foul mood. The place doubled as a Bills bar, and I soon found myself in the corner of the room monitoring a tight tilt between Buffalo and Dallas. A particularly mouthy Bills fan was nestled at the bar, boasting about his 4-4 squad inevitably laying siege to the AFC playoff race. The Buffalo faithful quickly irritated my senses, chanting team poems and songs in unison at every first down. This was the Drew Bledsoe-led outfit that opened the year by shocking the Patriots 31-0, but subsequent weeks had revealed them to be a half-baked cadre destined for the scrap heap. “Bills are half-baked!” I shouted to the room, eliciting curious, annoyed looks. “You’re wasting your time! Bills are a fraud!”
“How about keeping it down, pal?” the Buffalo fan at the bar hissed appropriately.
“Who’s your team, ace?” a weathered woman in a Thurman Thomas jersey asked loudly.
“You’re a joke,” the guy at the bar chuckled, eliciting laughs from around the room.
I didn’t say another word — I was outnumbered and now reviled — but I sat there until the final whistle of that 10-6 Cowboys win, believing I had accomplished something valuable in this completely dim barroom joust.
When you follow a loser, you pay the price. Browns fans have been giggled at for decades while wandering around in Bernie Kosar jerseys. Hoping for a ray of sunshine but expecting a power outage. At some point, it chips away at one’s dignity — and the ability to hope.
That’s where I found myself with the Browns up 41-38 with 3:37 left: in silence, staring at the screen as Baker Mayfield flipped the ball to a swinging Odell Beckham Jr. The star wideout buzzed right into the form of Cowboys edge terror Aldon Smith — certain doom! — but somehow bobbed past him, looping deeper into negative territory, then toward the edge and into the fray. Weaving between defenders, behind blockers and suddenly into a track meet with Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith, who faded into the rearview mirror as Beckham found pay dirt on a 50-yard scramble as unlikely as any Browns snap this century:
Hat trick @obj! 🎩🎩🎩
📺: @foxsports pic.twitter.com/czMPjIpuS8
When Next Gen Stats plugged the play into the Expected Rushing Yards model, the data suggested Beckham would gain no more than 2 yards. The NGS supercomputer tabbed him with a touchdown probability somewhere below 1 percent.
Below 1 percent is where the Browns have hovered spiritually since their return to the league in 1999. For a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since Jan. 1, 1995, this year’s early-season romp puts the team in rare air. Under coach Kevin Stefanski, the club is averaging the most points, rushing yards and yards per carry through four games since 1963.
That speaks to the deep oblivion the organization has wallowed in, but this group of players and coaches aren’t responsible for the past. Might disaster lie ahead? Smackdowns from foes who won’t be caught off guard and defenses less horrific than what Dallas has propped up?
It seems assured.
For one day, though, accustomed-to-doom Browns fans can hit pause on the woe. Football is allowed to be — supposed to be — fun. Especially when the players morph into god types:
Oh and @obj is THAT dude in case y’all forgot
WHAT ELSE IS HOT
I’m allowing myself the rare gush-job over Cleveland, knowing this might never happen again. Still, Week 4 brought a flock of enjoyable storylines:
- Few brighter than Justin Herbert, who came across as a bashful rookie on Hard Knocks, only to rise up as a must-watch, 6-foot-6 slinger who can do it all. The loss to Tom Brady and the Bucs stings, but Herbert overcame a thin roster and stirred the imagination to find no-namers Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson and Donald Parham Jr. for touchdowns.
- Speaking of Tampa, Bruce Arians said it best of a 38-31 win that saw his team down 24-7 in the first half: “I can honestly say, had this been last year, we would have gotten our ass beat by 20. [With] Tom — he’s never behind in his mind, so we can always make plays to win games.”
- Round of applause for Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, who notched his first win as a pro in a game that saw the Bengals (mostly) protect him while leaning on the legs of Joe Mixon. It’s a credit to Burrow that we already expect him to play with confidence, flinging darts and looking like a five-year veteran.
- The Buffalo Bills are more than a lovable plaything destined to be bounced offstage by Bill Belichick come Act 3. General manager Brandon Beane went all in on Josh Allen, making him the seventh overall pick in 2018 when half the football world saw flaws. One of the more divisive quarterback prospects of the past 20 years, Allen has buried his critics in a seaside grave, showing Sunday the growth he’s captured in areas of accuracy and chemistry with his wideouts. It’s chic to slam passer rating, but Allen’s has risen from 85.3 a season ago to 122.7. His brilliant 49-yard strike to Stefon Diggs was tracked by Next Gen Stats as having a completion probability of 30.3 percent. He’s making throws he couldn’t before — and he’s making a lot of them. It also goes back to Beane and coach Sean McDermott rapidly adding talent beyond Diggs in the form of John Brown, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis and do-everything back Devin Singletary. If the season ended today, Beane and McDermott would earn my votes (if I had votes) for Executive and Coach of the Year honors.
- In Minnesota, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has patched over the departure of Diggs sooner than expected via Justin Jefferson, who buried whispers of a low-wattage camp with a 175-yard yard outburst in Week 3 and another 103 yards in Sunday’s win over the Texans.
- Pegged by Football Heads as a likely 2-14 rebuilding effort, the Panthers are suddenly 2-2 after dropkicking the Chargers and hyped-up Cardinals. Takeaway: Matt Rhule can coach football.
- Ugly loss to the Eagles, but the Niners aren’t finished. Their lengthy list of walking wounded won’t last forever, as Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert and a gaggle of defenders will make their way back. They’ll be met by a healthy-again George Kittle, who absolutely savaged Philly’s defense for 183 yards off 15 grabs. The average dude off the street would struggle to make that happen against a defense comprised of a middle school chorus.
- Bill O’Brien won every power struggle ever — and then he didn’t. His time in Houston was doused in drama and ended that way, too, with owner Cal McNair firing the seventh-year head coach Monday in an early-season stunner. For reeling Texans fans, it’s more of the same. The league year opened with O’Brien putting on his general manager hat to ship DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals for a suspicious bundle of return goods. Seven months later, BOB is a Force ghost.
Intrigue is assumed with a move like this. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport noted that recently appointed executive VP of football operations Jack Easterby — the much-ballyhooed ex-Patriot who doubled as New England’s so-called “character coach” — was not seeing “eye-to-eye recently” with O’Brien. Armed with a “very long-term contract,” Easterby has grasped control of the throne. He is tight with Patriots play-caller Josh McDaniels, along with the New England’s front-office talent, Nick Caserio. Intriguing candidates for an 0-4 team with a star quarterback in Deshaun Watson, not much around J.J. Watt on defense and no first-round pick in 2021. You also wonder if the Texans might look beyond shiny Foxborough to someone like Chiefs play-caller Eric Bieniemy. The advantage to clearing house now? Getting ahead of the process before mass firings litter the landscape at season’s end. (The Panthers did this a year ago — although much later in the season — before landing Matt Rhule.) What candidates for the Texans job will want to know, though, is what sort of interpersonal struggles still exist within the building. Was BOB the sole power-hungry nuisance in Houston … or is there another?
- A 3-1 mark should suggest a frisky team worth laying eyes on. Not the case in Chicago, where the Bears’ “attack” spent Sunday in a dreamless sleep during a 19-11 crash-and-burn act against the Colts. With Nick Foles under center — and no Mitch Trubisky to kick around — the offense was no match for one of the league’s nastiest defensive units. It was an effort for Chicago to squeeze out 28 yards on the ground. If that feels familiar, it should, marking the fifth time since 2017 this offense has failed to pump out 30 rushing yards in a game. This from a franchise with just four such stinkers from 1970 to 2016. “That was a tough game to be a part of,” said coach Matt Nagy, perhaps reflecting on his club scoring fewer than 20 points in 11 of its past 20 outings. Chicago’s defense did solid work against Indy, enough for a chance to win, according to the coach: “Nineteen points [allowed] is enough for us to win a football game … This has been a theme for us.”
It’s a fair conceit league-wide, with teams that allowed 19 or fewer points winning 82 percent of those games since 2019, per Jason Lieser of the Chicago Sun-Times. During that span, though, Chicago has lost four such encounters, pointing an uncomfortable spotlight on Nagy’s efforts. In an era where offenses are exploding, the Bears — Mitch or no Mitch — seem comfortable floating from week to week, season to season, with an offense more suited to Western Illinois Tech. In his third season, Nagy has failed to flip the switch on his quarterbacks or his backfield, while general manager Ryan Pace seems no closer to finding an answer under center after a string of high-profile scouting gaffes. Blind loyalists can point to this season’s record, but 3-1 has never felt more fraudulent.
- I hated seeing Austin Ekeler carted away in Sunday’s loss to the Bucs. Suffering what @RapSheet described as a serious hamstring injury, the Chargers workhorse is out of the mix for weeks to come, stripping the Bolts of their do-everything runner who gave Herbert a precious helper in the backfield. In his absence, Justin Jackson amassed a whopping 9 yards off six carries, while rookie Joshua Kelley tricked the stifling Bucs into just 7 yards off nine totes with a killer fumble inside L.A.’s 10-yard line just before the half. Tampa flipped the turnover into a Brady touchdown strike to Mike Evans, igniting a 31-point explosion over the game’s final 31 minutes. Ekeler’s injury lit a billion fantasy lineups on fire, too, but the real-life Chargers can’t survive many more trips to the medical tent.
- CoronaTime isn’t much fun whether you’re a frazzled working parent — or an NFL coach struggling to keep your team afloat as real-life concerns creep in. “It’s just one of those games you’re proud of your team,” coach Sean Payton said after his Saints erased a 14-0 hole to knock off the Lions 35-29. The slow start might have something to do with the organization spending Saturday in a Detroit-area hotel wondering if the game would happen at all after fullback Michael Burton tested positive for COVID-19. That wound up a false positive, but a second wave of testing kept players and staff up to nearly 3 a.m. Said Payton: “That’s just the way it is this season. And so we have to understand that and then still be ready to play our best game.”
The resiliency of the Saints belongs in the HOT portion of this column, but something feels gloomy about the Patriots having to play without Cam Newton, their starting quarterback who tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Monday night’s loss to the Chiefs was a real-time reminder that playoff-hopeful rosters can be rocked at any moment. Bill Belichick coached the game of his life against Patrick Mahomes and friends, but even a gridiron legend will struggle to overcome a combined four turnovers by the happy-go-lucky duo of Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.
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