A couple years ago, I foolishly dreamed up a scenario where both teams got good at the same time. Baker Mayfield and Maserati Mitch in the Super Bowl. Sometime about a year after those jokes amongst friends, I stared week after week at a Matt Nagy team with no answers and a Freddie Kitchens squad that did even know there was questions. However, this story is not about my history, but it is clear that having two good teams at once is not possible in my life. It may be possible to have one and I might just be Jerry in the famous "The Opposite" episode from Seinfeld. If you are not aware, this is an episode where George Costanza (The Browns) starts doing the opposite of his instincts. Things turn around for him. Elaine Benes (The Bears), usually competent, starts making bad decisions. One goes up, the other goes down, and Jerry just continues to be "even Steven."
Let's start with the bad news first. The Bears are now the new Browns, but the situation is even worse than the Browns job was during all those years of regime changes. If I wasn't cheating just by having two teams, I did bend the rules here because the Chicago story is really about a series of mind-boggling plays and decisions from yesterday's game.
With less than 5 minutes left, down 10, and starting from their 5 yard line, the Lions had about a 0.9% chance to win the game. The Bears defense has turned into swiss cheese lately, and Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack each managed to not record a stat in the box score. The Lions scored on six plays, with the Chicago secondary not bothering to cover a guy streaking for the end zone on the last one. The touchdown began a series of confusing events. For some reason, with 2:18 left, with all three time outs, and Detroit only down a field goal, the Bears expected an onsides kick, and then told Darnell Mooney to get down as soon as he touched the ball, costing valuable field position. The next two plays led to a 3rd & 4 with Mitch Trubisky in the shadow of his goal posts. The next call was a deep drop play that was meant to "beat all coverages (according to Nagy himself)" where Pinto Mitch was stripped while winding up to throw. It was a straight drop, not a roll, or a quick hitch. It wasn't anything that the offense does decently well. Anthony Miller was about to be open, but it was too late.
The Lions scored quickly when Adrian Peterson ran over Roquan Smith into the end zone. Smith is supposed to be turning into a star, but Peterson just looked like he did every other time he scored against Chicago in his long career. However, hope was not lost. BMW M3 Mitch starting driving the down the field. For some reason (Nagy has never really handled his 2 min drill TOs well), they let tons of time come off the clock when they were in the range of end zone shots and had downs to work with to spike the ball if needed. Then, on 3rd & 4 (It is not lost on me that this fateful down spells out 3..4..). Allen Robinson, who wasn't given an extension because they gave a huge contract to Robert Quinn (still waiting on sack #2 this year) and traded for Nick Foles (offense looks better with Mitch) , caught a ball, but ran the route so awkwardly that he stepped out a yard short of the marker (not the first time he has done that exact thing this season -- he is so checked out on this team). The final call was a run into the shaky offensive line. It was stuffed with no hope for gaining yards. It was unclear if they even planned to throw for the end zone after that play. It was that bad and they still would have been 17+ yards out even if he had fallen forward for the line on the play.
It was fitting because Matt Nagy loves to get angry at the run game before forgetting about it for 2+ quarters. Don't get me wrong, he still did that in this game, but David Montgomery had 2 TDs (team had 3) and the team ran for 106 yards in the first half. Montgomery had six carries total in the second half. Adrian Peterson had more and the Lions faced a deficit for most of the second half.
The Bears front office is notoriously passionate, but also bad at making football decisions. The team President is a great financial guy. The GM throws away draft capital as if they were actual losing lottery tickets. He doesn't even scan them into the app for points. Matt Nagy is a great leader, but cannot coach games on Sunday. The GM and the coach have a year left on their deals. Unfortunately, any new regime cannot really put their stamp on the franchise next year. Trading or cutting Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Nick Foles, or Eddie Jackson would all cost more than it is to keep them. They can get rid of Kyle Fuller, Jimmy Graham, or Akiem Hicks to save some money, but which group would you rather have right now? At least all those new regimes in Cleveland had cap and picks to screw up.
Yesterday's game, and one particular play that most people have seen already, showed why there is a new era in Cleveland. Bad luck can still intervene, but the Browns are a well-coached, prepared football team. They're ready to cook in the kitchen.
The Titans are good football team who normally score a ton of points at home (33, 42, 42, 27, 24, 17 so far this season) and the Browns usually win a road game per year. In fact, they had exactly five total in the previous five years. The eventual win yesterday gave them three already this season. Mike Vrabel and company are a respected team who came out dominating the AFC Championship before Patrick Mahomes II decided to remind the league who he was again. Despite the respect and the feelings around the league for Tennessee, Kevin Stefanski thrashed them. The bad Cleveland defense (actually, they can pressure and do force some turnovers) forced the first fumble by Derrick Henry in almost a year. They had also stuffed him on a 4th & 1.
The Titans had just made it 17-7 in quick fashion (4 plays). The Browns, full of good play early (save for one drop that actually cost them a TD), had a chance to wilt like they did against the very same Titans team last season. Most people forgot that the Freddie Kitchens tenure began with a march down the field for an easy touchdown against the Titans. Instead of failing like they had in the past, they called the best play that defines the new reality. The Browns came out of 13 (1RB, 3TE) personnel that they've run all year and more often than anyone else. The lone receiver was a rookie that had been struggling thus far (Donovan Peoples-Jones). It was 1st & 10. I didn't think much of it. They had run out of this formation all year for either 3 yards or a chunk play from Chubb or Hunt. The Browns are comfortable at 2nd & 7. Mike Vrabel, the entire defense, and the cardboard cut-outs all thought the same thing. Light blue pants and navy blue helmets creeped towards the line in a way that showed ten defensive players in the TV picture. Eleven seconds and seventy-five yards later, Peoples-Jones had burned his lone defender to make it 24-7 Browns. The rest of the first half continued the clinic as they shot out to a 38-7 lead before a fluky end of the game made it a 41-35 victory for Cleveland.
So, why was that play so important? It was all in the details. First, Browns coaches don't outcoach the other guy. It just hasn't happened since the team returned to the league. Stefanski zigged when Vrabel zagged. I love how the play was to DPJ and it wasn't somebody like Jarvis Landry on the field. That could have given it away. Secondly, Baker did something that he has secretly gotten good at. He has used his stature as an advantage on the play fakes. The ball hide saw three defenders freeze, leaving them helpless for the remainder of the play. They had no idea who had the ball.
QUICK ASIDE: Despite the inconsistency that he still has and Dalton-like feet when getting pressured, Baker Mayfield has gotten really good at some of the details of the position. He also leads the league in defensive penalties forced with his hard count. It's not close, either, I think it's something like 11 for him and 6 for second place. The ball fake on this play is another example.
Okay, back to the play. Finally, Peoples-Jones absolutely has to run the route well for the play to work. The only other read for Baker was a drag route from behind the play. Peoples-Jones had lost kick return duties recently and dropped a TD earlier in the game. He has had shaky hands and been indecisive at other times. Instead of reminding everyone why he is a rookie, he sold the out route with a perfect drop of the hips before releasing into the go. It's the coaching, stupid. Cleveland finally has it.
The Browns will make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and are 9-3 for the first time since 1994. The Browns are guilty of having two huge regression stats for next season (turnovers forced, and a 6-0 record in close games), but still have a nice cap situation despite already paying Myles Garrett. They are 11th in expected cap space. Expect them to pick up Baker's option and see if Stefanski can keep developing him. It kind of figures that they are finally good when no one can go see them, but it's a great time to be alive in Cleveland.