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.
DeShone Kizer and the Browns had close calls in both meetings against the Steelers in 2017. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
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.