New Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley addressed his hiring by saying that the 2017 Browns “obviously” played “a lot of close games.”
One could forgive the fans if they said it didn’t seem that way.
Such is life for a winless team whose record overcomes a final score.
The Browns finished with a point differential of minus-176, which means they lost by an average of 11 points. That was the worst in the league, by 34 points. They lost six games by six points or fewer, and Haley saw two when his former team, the Steelers, beat the Browns by three and four points, respectively.
Were the Browns that close last season? Here’s a look at the games that were out of reach and those that weren’t:
Out of reach
At Baltimore (24-10), at Indianapolis (31-28), Cincinnati (31-7), at Houston (33-17), Minnesota in London (33-16), Jacksonville (19-7), Baltimore (27-10)
Average point differential: 15 points. The Colts score looks close, but that result was deceiving because the Browns were blown out in the first half. Jacksonville was a three-point game in the fourth quarter, but the offense never moved the ball consistently. In the rest, the other team was simply better.
With some luck, maybe
Pittsburgh (21-18), Tennessee (12-9 in overtime), at Los Angeles Chargers (19-10)
A play here or there would have changed momentum in each of these games, though the Browns would have had to create their own good fortune to finish each with a win.
Two plays made a big difference in the opener against Pittsburgh. Down three and trying to hold the Steelers without a first down for another chance in the final minutes, Antonio Brown somehow caught a fly ball from Ben Roethlisberger that descended as if it had a parachute. Brown leaped and made the catch between two Browns defenders. Previously, late in the third quarter, DeShone Kizer threw a pass that was intercepted by T.J. Watt at the Pittsburgh 17 — a pass basically thrown to nobody. Either of these plays could have changed the feel of the game, given the Browns a chance and helped Kizer’s early-season confidence. At times, the Steelers seemed to treat the game as more of a glorified scrimmage, but in the end the Browns had chances.
In the overtime loss to Tennessee, the Browns could not sustain enough drives and threw three interceptions. The score was close, but the Browns never threatened to take the win.
Philip Rivers threw for 344 yards and controlled the Chargers game, but in the first half, Kizer missed a wide-open Josh Gordon for what would have been an easy touchdown. Does that play change the result? Maybe not, but it could have changed the feel of the game.
Winnable with a play or a break
New York Jets (17-14), at Detroit (38-24), at Cincinnati (30-16), Green Bay (27-21 in overtime), at Chicago (20-3), at Pittsburgh (28-24)
Each of these games warrants a closer look.
A key play in the Jets loss came when coach Hue Jackson went for a first down on fourth-and-2 from the 4 early in the fourth quarter and the Browns down 10-7. A field goal would have tied the score, but Zane Gonzalez already had missed two and Jackson thought it was time to win the game, not tie. He was roundly criticized for it when the Browns didn’t make the first down. Naturally, the Jets followed with a 97-yard touchdown drive that essentially put the game away. Two other important plays earlier in the game also affected the outcome. Kizer threw a goal-line interception to snuff out a scoring threat when he misread the coverage. He also had a poor pitch on an option play at the goal line that led to a fumble inside the 10. If any one of those plays goes differently, the Browns have a chance to win. This game counts as one that got away.
In Detroit, a couple of missed chances affected the outcome of a two-touchdown game. The end of the first half was a lesson in clock mismanagement and ended when Kizer thought he saw an opening for a quarterback sneak on second-and-goal from the 2 with 19 seconds left and the Browns out of timeouts. The Lions stuffed the play, and the Browns got no points. Later, with Kizer sidelined with sore ribs, Cody Kessler overthrew a sure touchdown to a wide-open Bryce Treggs. Earlier, Seth DeValve‘s fumble gave the Lions a defensive touchdown. The Browns actually led by seven late in the third quarter. They could have won this game.
One key play in Cincinnati still has the Browns banging their foreheads on their desks. The Bengals led by seven in the fourth quarter and faced third-and-5 from the Browns’ 40-yard line. Andy Dalton threw down the sideline to Josh Malone, who caught the ball just before receiving a hard tackle from safety Jabrill Peppers. Officials called it a hit on a defenseless player, and Peppers was flagged, which allowed the Bengals to score the clinching touchdown. The Browns were bitter about the flag, and their position seemed justified when the league rescinded a fine on Peppers. If that play goes the Browns’ way, Cleveland at least has a chance to tie.
The Packers loss remains toothache-style painful, especially because the Browns blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. Any of three plays makes this a Browns win. First, David Njoku dropped a third-down pass with 2:59 left and the Browns up seven that would have meant a first down and an opportunity to run out the clock. On the ensuing punt, the Browns gave up a 65-yard return on a Keystone Cops effort that gave the Packers the chance to tie the score on the second-to-last play of the game.
That was the seventh-longest punt return in the NFL last season. In overtime, Kizer held the ball too long — Gordon could not get off the line for a quick slant — and was hit as he threw. The resulting pass turned into a pop fly that the Packers intercepted. They scored the game-winning touchdown soon after. This loss was a teeth-gnasher.
A 17-point loss in Chicago shouldn’t have had any meaningful plays for the Browns, but in this game one defensive play could have altered the outcome. On the first play of the second half, defensive end Myles Garrett returned an interception for a touchdown that would have put the Browns up 10-6. It was the kind of uplifting big play that energizes a team, but it turned out that Carl Nassib was flagged for offside, negating the interception and touchdown. It’s not inconceivable to think the Browns win if the play stands.
The season ended in Pittsburgh with a crushing mistake, as Corey Coleman dropped an easy catch at the Steelers’ 10-yard-line with 1:46 left. Kizer had played by far his best game, and he was guiding what appeared to be a last-minute, dramatic, game-winning drive. Instead, Coleman’s drop turned into a play that will live in Browns lore. The Browns had two turnovers on their previous drives on a Kizer interception and a Duke Johnson Jr. fumble, but the Coleman drop stands out as almost excessively cruel.
That adds up to six games when a play or three could have swung things for the Browns.
Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott takes blame for blowout loss to Arizona Cardinals
“I don’t think we can use that as an excuse,” Elliott said of not having Prescott because of a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle. “I’m just going to keep saying it over and over — I started the game out with two fumbles, gave the ball away and gave them all the momentum they need to go take off. I want to say I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.”
Elliott finished with 49 yards on 12 carries and caught a team-high eight passes but for just 31 yards. However, it was fumbles on back-to-back drives in the first and second quarters that changed the complexion of the game.
The first fumble came after catching a short pass from Andy Dalton on second down, but safety Budda Baker stripped the ball free and Jordan Phillips recovered. Eleven plays later Kyler Murray and Christian Kirk hooked up for a 6-yard flip for a touchdown.
Two plays into the next possession, Elliott fumbled again with Phillips poking the ball free at the Dallas 30. Five plays later, Kenyon Drake scored the Cardinals’ second touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
“I mean, when you’re fumbling every game obviously teams are going to lock in on it and go for it even more,” Elliott said. “That’s even more of a reason I need to figure it out, man. I don’t want to keep talking about it, but I’ve got to figure out a way to figure it out.”
When the Cowboys took the field after Elliott’s second fumble, Tony Pollard was the running back. When Elliott returned to the field after eight snaps, there was a murmur among the crowd.
“Every player that plays in this league, no different on our football team, if you don’t take care of the football, it does affect your opportunities,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Tony got an opportunity and I thought he did some really good things with his opportunities.”
Elliott has lost a career-high four fumbles in six games and the opponents have turned every takeaway into a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the other top-10 rushers have combined for three lost fumbles in nearly 900 fewer touches this season. Elliott has 133 touches, while the nine other backs have 1,014 touches.
“I’m giving the ball away,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t helping my team. I think they did the right thing and gave some of those reps to TP, but I can’t do that. I have to be a guy this team can lean on, especially at times like right now with so many of our starters hurt and not playing. So it’s not acceptable and I need to figure it out.”
Elliott said he focuses on keeping the ball tight in practice. The Cowboys do ball-handling drills every day in practice.
“I just got to have a short memory,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to get that behind me and play some good ball and get on a roll.”
Elliott has gone a career-long six games without a 100-yard outing. He had a five-game drought in Weeks 10-14 last season. He had not gone more than two games to open a season without a 100-yard game to his credit.
Some of that can be pinned on a defense that has struggled, but 84 of the 218 points the Cowboys have allowed this season have come off turnovers.
“He understands that. He knows that,” Dalton said. “Zeke’s going to get this thing fixed.”
He also knows he needs to get it fixed quickly.
“At the end of the day, Zeke is our bell cow, and we need to get it right,” McCarthy said. “He’s part of the plan. He’s going to be part of the success. We have to get it right. We have to take care of the football and that’s for everybody that touches the football on our team.”
Kyler Murray’s run of success at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium continues as Arizona Cardinals roll
AT&T Stadium is 41 miles from Murray’s hometown of Allen, Texas. He went 5-0 in high school there, including three straight state championships in Texas’ highest level of prep football; 1-0 in college after leading Oklahoma to a Big 12 championship; and now 1-0 in the NFL.
Murray made another memory Monday night.
He threw for 188 yards and two touchdowns on just 9-for-24 passing, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Christian Kirk, the second of two touchdown passes to Kirk, who had 164 yards and six touchdowns in three games at AT&T Stadium while at Texas A&M. Murray also hit DeAndre Hopkins for a 60-yard pass in the fourth quarter.
“It’s special; I’m not gonna lie,” Murray told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game. “I tried to not make it about me all week, ’cause it’s not about me. It’s about my team. And we came out here and got the job done against a good Cowboys team. But … coming back home — I think anybody wants to get a win when you come back home, so I’m happy we did.
But it wasn’t just Murray who had a meaningful return to AT&T Stadium.
The last time Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury coached in AT&T Stadium was his last game at Texas Tech, a 35-24 loss to Baylor on Nov. 24, 2018.
On Monday, when the Cardinals’ offense couldn’t find its rhythm early in the game, Murray took it upon himself to make something happen.
He had runs of 15 and 10 before converting a fourth-and-1 with an 11-yard run. He finished with 74 rushing yards and a touchdown, which was his 10th rushing touchdown since the start of 2019, his rookie season. That was second most among quarterbacks in that stretch behind Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who has 12.
Monday was the fifth time this season that Murray had a passing and rushing touchdown, the most in the first six games of a season in NFL history. It was also the sixth time since the start of last season that Murray had a passing and rushing touchdown, the second most during that stretch.
Murray also became the third player in league history with 30 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in the first 25 games of his career. He did it in 22 games, tying with Daunte Culpepper for the quickest to do it.
It got to a point Monday night that the Cardinals were seemingly able to do what they pleased on both sides of the ball.
Kirk had 2 catches for 86 yards and 2 TDs. Hopkins finished with 73 yards on two catches. Running back Kenyan Drake had 169 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
The Cardinals forced Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to fumble twice and scored on both possessions, which were on short fields. The first was caused by safety Budda Baker, who also had his first career interception and a sack, and was recovered by Jordan Phillips, who forced the second one which was recovered by cornerback Byron Murphy Jr.
Outside linebacker Haason Reddick had two sacks in place of Chandler Jones, who was put on injured reserve last week after undergoing surgery to repair a torn biceps.
Dallas Cowboys right guard Zack Martin exits with concussion
ARLINGTON, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys have lost another starter on their offense with Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin suffering a concussion with 5:07 left in the first quarter against the Arizona Cardinals.
He was ruled out as the second half began with the Cowboys trailing 21-3.
Martin spent a considerable amount of time in the blue tent getting looked at by the medical staff. He headed to the locker room at the start of the second quarter.
The Cowboys are playing their first game without quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle in last week’s win against the New York Giants. The Cowboys placed Prescott on injured reserve Monday, and he faces a 4-6 month recovery period.
A once-vaunted offensive line is now gutted. Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick retired in the offseason. Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith had season-ending neck surgery last week. Right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve because of hip surgery and did not play a down this season.
Joe Looney, who replaced Frederick, is on injured reserve with a knee injury but expected to return. In the season opener, the Cowboys lost tight end Blake Jarwin to a torn ACL.
The Cowboys’ current offensive line, from left to right is: Brandon Knight (undrafted free agent, 2019), Connor Williams (second-round, 2018), Tyler Biadasz (fourth round, 2020), Connor McGovern (third round, 2019) and Terence Steele (undrafted free agent, 2020). McGovern entered the game with two offensive snaps in his career.
The Cowboys scored a season-low three points in the first half.
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