Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
How appropriately foreboding that the Browns are heading to Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field next. A fitting site for a pre-Halloween horror show. Perhaps the team buses will be escorted by a hearse.
Everyone else calls that geographic triangle on the map “the confluence of the three rivers.” But in Browns history, that macabre place is better known as the confluence of head coach firings, a graveyard of seasons and careers lost.
There are more Browns skeletons hanging in the Heinz Field visitor’s locker room than a haunted house in Bloodview Heights.
Three times in the expansion era Browns coaches have coached their last game in Heinz Field – Romeo Crennel in the 2008 season, Pat Shurmur in 2012, and Rob Chudzinski in 2013.
Two other Browns coaches met their fate after losses to the Steelers in Cleveland – Eric Mangini in 2011 and Mike Pettine in 2014.
What’s different this time is the calendar. In every previous case cited above, the final act came in the final game of the year, with Auld Lang Syne ringing out another wretched Browns season.
This time the Browns’ death march reaches Pittsburgh at the midway point of the season. But the bye week – the traditional point of making an in-season coaching change – is still two weeks away.
What will the Haslams do if the Browns impersonate the undead in Pittsburgh?
A line in the sand: Hue Jackson set up Pittsburgh week by announcing he will now stick his nose in the floundering offense and butt heads with headstrong coordinator Todd Haley, who knows the Steelers better than anyone in the building.
This comes after the Browns produced no points on offense in the first half and blew two scoring opportunities in another overtime heartbreak loss, 26-23, to the defensively inept Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If the offense were the only area holding back the Browns from breaking the art of blowing games, Jackson might have a leg to stand on.
Yes, the offense is underperforming. But with a rookie quarterback constantly getting knocked back by a rookie left tackle unable to hold blocks, while a rookie wide receiver frequently drops his passes, most people would consider the offense seven games into a new system to be a work in progress.
If anyone should know this, it should be Jackson, who presided over two of the worst offenses in Browns history while saddled with rookie quarterbacks, stone-handed receivers and offensive line breakdowns in 2016 and 2017.
Yet Jackson declared after the hideous overtime loss in Tampa, "I got to jump in head-first, all hands, feet, everything, and go figure it out; it's just that simple.
“I think I have to. And I want to. That's what I know. So I'm not going to continue to watch something that I know how to do keep being that way. That's just the truth.
“That's nothing against anybody in our building. I just think that's what I do. And I think I need to be a little bit more involved.”
Jackson famously pulled the “I’m the head coach” card in that telling scene in the first episode of Hard Knocks, when Haley and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens – disciples of hard-nosed Bill Parcells -- questioned Jackson’s soft approach of giving players practice days off.
They have since clashed on Josh Gordon, the left tackle position, and the usage of the running backs.
“It's not going to be about butting heads,” Jackson said in Tampa. “I'm the head coach of the football team. I will do what I feel I need to do to get this team where it needs to be.”
More of the same: But the offense hasn’t been the only reason the Browns consistently clutch defeat from the jaws of victory.
On Sunday, the undisciplined defense contributed nine penalties to the cause, prolonging its time on the field under a baking sun.
The special teams have been an infectious bed sore all year. A fumbled punt return in overtime set up Tampa’s winning field goal. And how do the Browns not get penetration on that 59-yard field goal at the end? Everyone else does it to them.
And then there were the points squandered by Jackson’s “head coach” decisions.
He eschewed a 29-yard field goal with :26 left in the first half and missed a fourth-and-2 gamble when quarterback Baker Mayfield lost the ball on a scramble and it bounced backwards and out of bounds, short of the first-down marker. And he passed on another field goal in the fourth quarter when a fourth-and-inches Mayfield quarterback sneak came up short.
That adds up to six points given up in a three-point loss.
(Incidentally, every time I hear Mayfield harp about the team needing to pay attention to details and to work on being better prepared, I interpret it as a passive-aggressive criticism of the head coach.)
The fact is, the Browns have been manufacturing losses under Jackson for three seasons.
There is a lot more talent on this team than in 2016 and 2017. But the Browns play the same way, save for a remarkable run of defensive turnovers. They are undisciplined, mentally fragile, unable to manage critical situations, and inordinately leave the game in the buttery hands of incompetent game officials.
Despite 31 new players – at season’s start – there is a cloud hanging over the Browns that is not passing by. The habit of losing has been unbreakable.
Sunday’s loss was the cruelest only because it was the latest. Another coach might blow it off by saying, “We’re on to Pittsburgh.” For Hue Jackson, that’s the worst news of all.