Did Hype Ruin the Browns? Blowout Loss at Home Worst Possible Start in Cleveland

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 9, 2019

CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 08: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns walks off the field after the Browns were defeated by the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Titans defeated the Browns 43-13.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

At Caesars, the Cleveland Browns entered the 2019 NFL season with better Super Bowl odds than all but six teams. By far the losingest professional football team of the 21st century, they had finally gained respect in an offseason that was brimming with hype. 

That's a word synonymous with these Browns: hype, hype, hype, hype, hype.

For those who followed the Browns closely this offseason, it was used enough to cause semantic satiation: a psychological phenomenon whereby uninterrupted repetition of a word causes it to temporarily lose meaning for the listener.

It's easy for society to go overboard with hype and for hype to warp our expectations. It can ruin a new restaurant, a high-budget blockbuster film or a highly touted sports team. And now it's fair to wonder if the 2019 Cleveland Browns are football's version of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace or the avocado (sorry, guac lovers).

Yes, Cleveland's season is only 6.3 percent complete. But the Browns couldn't have picked a worse moment to suffer their first 30-plus-point loss since 2015. 

They were embarrassed in their home opener by a shorthanded and lowly touted Tennessee Titans team. It was a more lopsided defeat than any of the 31 they suffered when they won just one game in a two-year span between 2016 and 2017, and it was a slap-in-the-face reminder that football isn't played on paper. 

This was only the second time in four years the Browns were favored by five-plus points, and it would have been totally cool to suggest they were too large a favorite. After all, quarterback Baker Mayfield was losing the element of surprise after a strong rookie season, new head coach Freddie Kitchens had zero experience in that role, and the first-team offense spent limited time together this preseason.

Plus, they were going up against an opponent that had quietly put together three consecutive winning seasons. 

But to lose 43-13? In front of your fired-up fans in Cleveland? After scoring a touchdown on your first possession? It was a bad sign when those fans booed the team off the field when it was down 12-6 at halftime and a worse sign when it didn't react by giving those fans something—anything—to cheer for in the second half.

In hindsight, it was fitting that their game-opening touchdown was followed by a missed extra point.

Maybe this was an anomaly. Maybe it'll ground the Browns. Maybe it'll work as a wake-up call. 

"We lost our discipline, we lost our composure," Kitchens said, per ESPN.com's Jake Trotter. "But it's one game."

Still, nobody will eagerly extend the benefit of the doubt to a team that hasn't won a playoff game since Bill Clinton was in his first term as president and hasn't been to the postseason since George W. Bush was in office. 

In one of the most highly anticipated Browns games of the 21st century, they converted one third down in 10 attempts. They committed 18 penalties, compared to six for their opponent. They turned the ball over three times while generating zero takeaways. Their five fourth-quarter possessions resulted in three interceptions (including a pick-six) and two turnovers on downs. 

The pass protection was abysmal, the tackling was atrocious, and top weapons Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb were all held in check. Mayfield was sacked five times (one came in the end zone, resulting in a momentum-generating Tennessee safety), and he played the second half without left tackle Greg Robinson after the veteran was ejected for kicking an opposing player in the face. 

The dearth of discipline is a huge cause for concern because this remains a young team with a lack of experience on the roster, as well as in the coaching staff. One year ago, Kitchens was a relatively anonymous running backs coach in his first season with a new team. His meteoric rise came out of left field, and nobody knows how he'll handle sudden adversity. 

Can he rein in a team that lost its cool and took an unacceptable six personal-foul penalties as soon as it encountered that adversity on Sunday?

Nobody knows, but now Cleveland has to go on the road for a prime-time game against an improved and likely inspired New York Jets team. Then it has a five-game stretch that includes meetings with the Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. 

Kitchens spent an inordinate amount of time this offseason addressing the dynamics associated with the hype surrounding his team, which was something of a red flag. In a perfect world, a rookie head coach wouldn't have to concern himself with cumbersome outside forces.

"The media likes to put the pressure on you, or talk about the pressure, so they can knock you down," he told Yahoo's Kimberley A. Martin in May. "'Cause everybody goes by a car wreck on the interstate, and what do they do? They slow down so they can see the crash. Well there's not going to be a crash here."

That was more than a fender-bender Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.

It might be too early to call the 2019 Browns a write-off, but now all that hype has been replaced by an equal amount of pressure. Do they have the experience to handle that?

When the Browns fell behind by multiple scores against the Titans, Mayfield tried to make too much happen and dug an even deeper hole for himself. Browns fans have to hope that wasn't a microcosm of their season. 

These Browns don't want to be the 2011 "Dream Team" Eagles, they don't want to be Windows Vista, and they definitely don't want to be The Phantom Menace. But this team is famous for its failures. It's possible their next cruel trick is to build up as much hype as possible before crashing and burning so outrageously that even unabashed rubberneckers want to look away.

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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