Most of you (I’m guessing) imagined that the Browns’ first win in 635 days would look a lot like their last. When they beat the San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve, 2016, they did so in incredibly Browns-ian fashion.
That day, the offense gained just 251 total yards, and was out-gained by more than 100 as Robert Griffin III absorbed nine sacks. It was 38 degrees in Cleveland. Philip Rivers threw a bad first-down pick deep in Browns territory, and kicker Josh Lambo had a 32-yard field goal blocked and pushed a 45-yarder wide right as time expired. The Browns won by three points and had no reason to feel any better about the actual quality of their very bad football team afterwards.
And even that sort of Play Dead And Pray They Bite The Gangrene End Of Your Ass sort of win would have been sweet release after 19 games and nearly two years worth of Not Winning. We now know the shape of the Browns’ patronus. It’s an opposum, and it manifested in the stands as a projection of what has historically been the Browns’ form hope: Play football at such an unappetizing level that your opponent forgets you’re alive and somehow scurry away, victorious and filled with shame.
Update: there’s an opossum in section 101 with security trying to corral it. Tonight is the night.— Mike (@BlueMike5577) September 20, 2018
For a while on Thursday night, the Browns were much sadder than that. They were just the dead thing. Tyrod Taylor was 4-for-22 for 19 yards on the night, and after three sacks the Browns’ passing game had netted negative-3 yards before he left the game late in the second quarter with a head injury. The defense started well, but even it began to give in to the slow creep of resignation. The Jets’ best drive of a night went 10 plays and 63 yards, gaining gobs of yards on the ground against a good front seven to go up 14-0 midway through the second quarter.
The saddest part was that it felt so normal. That acceptance of defeat was the opossum succumbing to the fact that, yep, the trade-off to being so committed to a pathetic way of life is that sometimes you get mauled. Often, in fact.
That can’t be emphasized enough in light of what actually happened Thursday night. The script for Browns losses and wins has been exactly the same for most of the team’s existence. No matter what, you rarely left a Browns game thinking they were on their way to a better place. The Browns never won; they escaped.
After Baker Mayfield stepped in at quarterback, the Browns won Thursday’s game against the Jets. In fact, they kicked ever-loving hell out of them.
The Mayfield-led Browns outscored the Jets 21 to 3, and out-gained them 239-151. Mayfield was a cool 17-for-23 for 201 yards and one easy reception to complete a two-point conversion. Suddenly, hand-wavingly open wide receivers were being delivered passes right in the numbers. Suddenly, the ground game took hold and birthday boy/new dad/rejuvenated running back Carlos Hyde gained two touchdowns and the bulk of his 98 yards. Suddenly, the defense was alive again, forcing three turnovers, three punts, and allowing just three points.
None of this is to besmirch the yeoman’s work that Taylor did, by the way. He was chewed up and spat out like dozens before him. You’d look shell shocked too if your OC’s pregame offensive game plan included letting unblocked outside linebackers scream off the edge. And in Taylor’s example is a warning that Browns fans don’t really need to hear, but: Yeah, this is still the team that has never not found a way to ruin a good thing, and an organization that is still rotten at its head.
But for God’s sake let them have this: A taste of the one thing every other NFL franchise has at least nibbled at in their existence. A quarterback. A potentially honest-to-golly good one who can do more than roll over because he’s got Grit and Moxie and is the type of Jackass Who Grabs His Crotch Against Kansas And I Mean That In A Nice Way I Swear. Mayfield is confident, brilliant and nimble in the face of danger, and has a hell of an arm to boot.
He is exactly what a No. 1 overall pick should be, which doesn’t sound like high praise necessarily except that the Browns have only ever screwed up supposedly surefire things. (And while we’re on the subject, Myles Garrett is becoming exactly the player that the Browns hoped he would be, too).
On Thursday, the Browns did more than put a tick in the victory column. Through Mayfield, they glimpsed a way forward, something in the far, far distance — maybe not even reachable, but still — that didn’t resemble one of the same dozens of missteps they’ve made over the years. The found a way to survive independent of what their opponent did or didn’t do. They discovered that — yeah, actually — you can win on your own terms.
I’m not sure their first win in 635 days could have possibly come in a better way. For once, the Browns stayed on their feet and got to feel what it’s like to bite back.