If the Cleveland Browns are going to pull themselves off the mat, they’re going to have to do so with what they have. With the breaking point on this season from hell at their doorstep.
At 2-5, the margin for error has been wasted away, like so many challenge flags thrown by coach Freddie Kitchens. The turnaround must come now for the NFL’s most disappointing team to date or it won’t be coming at all.
"If we don't correct these mistakes, we are going to be the ‘if team’ or 'could've,' 'would've,' all those things," Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "So s--- has to get corrected."
It’s hard to believe that has yet to happen for a team that once held so much promise. That optimism for the most anticipated Browns season in decades was quickly doused in Week 1, as Cleveland committed 18 penalties and three turnovers while getting run out of its own stadium by, of all opponents, the mediocre Tennessee Titans.
Two months later against the New England Patriots on Sunday, it was more of the same. The Bad News Browns, inconceivably, turned the ball over on three consecutive offensive plays. They were flagged 13 more times. And despite otherwise playing well in moments, never gave themselves a chance against the defending Super Bowl champs.
"We know exactly what's wrong," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "It's not something like we're looking at, ‘Wow, why didn't we win?’ We know exactly why we didn't win. We know the problem."
This far into the season, can it even be fixed?
The Browns are the NFL’s most penalized team through seven games since 2015, averaging 10 a game. If not for the New York Giants, Cleveland would be leading the NFL in turnovers, as well.
"We can’t continue to do the things that get you beat," Kitchens said. "It’s very evident that that’s what is getting us beat. It’s turnovers and penalties. That’s it, turnovers and penalties."
Though Cleveland’s offensive line is in desperate need of a makeover, Williams alone wasn’t going to cure those ills. That’s probably in large part why general manager John Dorsey reportedly refused to put a first-round pick -- one that, for the moment, would actually fall inside the top 10 -- on the table for Williams.
To be sure, Williams would have helped the Browns, who have guard Justin McCray manning left tackle after having benched Greg Robinson last week. But Williams wouldn’t have saved a team seemingly so hell-bent on its own destruction, either.
Though Dorsey should be accountable for the collection of players he’s compiled, the mounting miscues ultimately fall on Kitchens, who now has to be coaching for his job, even as dizzying as the previous Cleveland coaching carousel has been.
The Browns didn’t lose Sunday because Kitchens challenged a pair of calls that had no chance of being overturned. And they didn’t lose because Kitchens inexplicably had to take a delay of game on fourth-and-11, because his offense didn’t realize it was supposed to stay on the field. But those miscues have been magnified by all of the other mistakes, which keep resurfacing despite Kitchens’ weekly declaration the Browns are working to eliminate them.
"We are going to do the things to speed up that process, which we have been doing," he said Monday. "Everybody understands the problems. We are going to work to fix those problems."
The Browns might seem hopeless now, but all hope is not lost.
To date, Cleveland has played the second-toughest schedule in the NFL, which has quietly amplified all of the struggles. The rest of the way, beginning this weekend at discombobulated Denver, the Browns have the second-easiest schedule, with only two games left against opponents with winning records. After the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens, whom Cleveland has already defeated on the road, the Browns’ remaining opposition has a combined record of 10-41-1.
"I still think we can turn it around," Mayfield said. "There's no finger-pointing going on, that's not the type of team we are. We just need to be harder on ourselves. … making sure everybody's locked in each and every play."
Anything short of that will leave Cleveland outside of the playoffs, as the "if team", that could've and would've, but never was able to fix itself.