Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ
The Browns have been saying they’re a different team from the one that won a single game over the past two seasons.
On Thursday, they sure looked like a different team.
True, it was only the first preseason game. And they won all four of them last season, which didn’t mean anything in the long run.
But the 20-10 win over the New York Giants Thursday night in MetLife Stadium felt different.
“Yes, it did,” said coach Hue Jackson. “I’m being very honest with you, I think it’s the quarterback play.”
Taylor produced a touchdown drive on his second series, zipping the first-team offense 66 yards in four plays without huddling. Taylor’s last two throws were pinpoint – a back-shoulder beauty to Rashard Higgins for 21 yards, followed by a bulls-eye to tight end David Njoku beating linebacker Alec Ogletree down the middle seam for a 36-yard score.
Taylor finished the night with a perfect score – 5 of 5 passing for 99 yards, one touchdown, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
Higgins, who continued his fine third training camp with 66 yards on four catches, said the difference in the quarterback play from his previous two years was “night and day … you guys see it.”
“The way those guys take leadership of everything, that’s amazing. That’s the big difference.”
He included Mayfield in his praise because the franchise quarterback-in-waiting was impressive, too.
Mayfield (11 of 20 for 212 yards, and three runs for 13 yards) produced two touchdowns in seven possessions in relief of Taylor.
Mayfield also connected with Njoku, for a 10-yard touchdown on which the tight end had his signature catch at the back of the end zone between two defenders, and also contributed to a second-half metamorphosis of embattled rookie receiver Antonio Callaway.
Callaway, who was cited for marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license early Sunday morning and didn’t tell the team about it, received a second-chance reprieve from Jackson and GM John Dorsey.
Callaway started the game with the first team and was 0 for 3 on targets in the first half with all three balls glancing off his hands. But he settled down in the second half and had three catches for 87 yards from Mayfield, including a 54-yard touchdown on a short slant, perfectly thrown by Mayfield, during which Callaway accelerated past the Giants second-team defense as if it submitted.
“I kept him telling him to fight through it, keep pushing through it, because I would need him,” Mayfield said. “When you’re tired, you need to focus. I think it showed well in the second half.”
The encouraging play of Higgins and Callaway came as ex-Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant tweeted sincere interest in joining the Browns. Bryant has exchanged messages with Jarvis Landry (two catches, 36 yards) and tweeted during the first half of the game that he intended to finally accept Dorsey’s invitation to visit the team. Dorsey said before the game he would try out a few receivers this week.
“That would be awesome,” Taylor said. “I said before, I know what type of talent Dez brings. [He’s a] very, very good player. I hope it can get done. It’s up to management.”
The resurgent offense was the story of the night, though the defense was impressive, too.
It was hit for a 39-yard run by Giants No. 1 pick Saquon Barkley on the first offensive play of the game, but surrendered only a field goal to Eli Manning’s starting unit and then a touchdown after a Browns punt return team turnover in the second half.
There were plenty of things for Jackson to grouse about – stupid taunting penalties early in the game by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward and Landry, a non-existent running game (50 yards on 33 attempts), and 13 total penalties.
But Jackson now will leave for Los Angeles to bury his mom, who died recently, with encouragement that things are very different at the early stages of his third season.
Jackson was uncharacteristically subdued after the uplifting preseason win, his emotions drained from the personal losses – also the passing of his brother – he has suffered in the last three weeks.
“It’s a tough deal for anybody,” Mayfield said. “I would imagine this helps a little bit. I hope it did. I think it was important for us to go out and play well. The way he’s been able to come to work every day and lead this group of men, kudos to him. I don’t think I’d be able to do it.”
Jackson said, “It’s been tough. At the same time, there’s no place I’d rather be than with my team and my staff, the organization, and all of you, even our beat writers.
“The one thing my mother taught me is you have to finish what you start. That’s why I’m standing here, because of her.”