Downtown Cleveland bustled with energy more than four hours before the most anticipated kickoff to a season in recent Browns history.
By 9 a.m., the famed Muni Parking Lot was filled to capacity. Fans descended past busy street vendors for FirstEnergy Stadium, giddily confident they were about to witness the first Browns win in a season opener in 15 years.
What they saw was one of the most colossal eggs ever laid by the franchise, a grotesque 43-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans marred by a near-record 18 penalties, three Baker Mayfield interceptions, a team-wide loss of composure and an offensive line decimated by ejection and injuries.
All of which inspired Titans tight end Delanie Walker (two touchdowns) to warble, “Like Dennis Green said, ‘[The Browns] were who we thought they were.’”
Score-wise, the 43-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the inaugural game of the 1999 expansion rebirth was worse. But given the hype and lofty expectations of a realistic playoff contender, this mind-numbing, sloppy defeat ranks as the worst debut for a Browns coach.
A Browns team had not committed 18 penalties since the 1951 season. The franchise record is 21 in that season.
Freddie Kitchens was calm and collected afterwards, but became agitated when questions focused on whether the team was crushed by the hype – some of which was generated internally.
“That is not the way we want to be represented,” Kitchens said. “We lost our discipline and we lost our composure.
“I do not think the penalties have anything to do with believing in hype. It does not really matter to me either way. I just see the penalties, and I see the lack of execution, the lack of discipline. We have to do a better job of preparing them for that.
"I did not see it coming. We will get it rectified. It counts one time and this is the way we will approach it. The world is not falling right now."
Both sides of the ball lost composure.
First it was the defense, which committed four penalties on Tennessee’s first touchdown drive in the second quarter, starting with an unnecessary roughness call on end Myles Garrett for an open-fist slap of Walker. Tackle Sheldon Richardson contributed a roughing-the-passer penalty against quarterback Marcus Mariota and then a key offsides on third-and-4 from the Browns’ 11.
The offense lost it later in the quarter when left tackle Greg Robinson kicked a Tennessee lineman in the head while rolling off a pile. Robinson was ejected, and that ignited what would soon become a crisis for the offensive line.
The Browns had de-activated two linemen for the game – guards Austin Corbett and Wyatt Teller. Robinson’s ejection forced in the only reserve tackle, Kendall Lamm, in his place. Then on the offense’s next possession, Lamm suffered a knee injury underneath a pile when right tackle Chris Hubbard allowed a sack of Baker Mayfield in the end zone for a Tennessee safety.
Down to only five healthy linemen, the Browns moved Hubbard to left tackle and inserted newly acquired guard Justin McCray at right tackle.
Only down, 12-6 at that point, the Browns’ offense degenerated as Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee defense smelled blood in the water.
Mayfield was able to generate a touchdown on his second possession of the second half to draw the Browns within 15-13. But the hope was short-lived. The Titans responded on their first offensive play with a 75-yard touchdown by Derrick Henry off a screen pass. The defense didn’t lay a hand on him.
“It doesn’t matter how they scored or what happened on the play,” Kitchens said. “They scored, so the offense has to go out and answer. I have to call better plays to put us in position to answer. We have to execute better to answer.”
Frustrated, Mayfield then was intercepted three times, each resulting in a Tennessee touchdown.
Playing with star receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry for the first time since they were bubble-wrapped in preseason, Mayfield was 25 of 38 for 285 yards, sacked five times, including a safety, and intercepted three times. His passer rating was 64.0 and he appeared to have his left shoulder jammed on the safety.
Mayfield would not blame the lack of play time together in preseason for the sloppy offensive showing.
“No, negative plays,” he said. “Anytime you get back behind the sticks and you are letting a team that is coached very well on defense tee off on you and you are pressing too much because you are trying to make up ground, it is going to hurt you.”
So the Browns head into the practice week for a Monday night affair in the Meadowlands against the Jets – the first of three prime-time games in four weeks – with a precarious situation at offensive line and a battered psyche.
Early in camp, Kitchens said he welcomed adversity to test his team’s mettle. He has a load of it right now.
“It is one game and we are going to be tested,” he said. “You either take adversity and run together and run toward each other, or you run away. I think we have a bunch of guys who are going to run toward each other and we are going to be fine.”
Mayfield already has taken this humiliating defeat and hoisted it on his shoulder as another chip to carry into the next game.
“Because everybody is going to throw us in the trash,” Mayfield said. “I think that is good. I know what type of men we have in this locker room.
“Quite frankly, I do not give a damn what happens on the outside. I know how we are going to react. I know what we are going to do. We are going to bounce back. We have a Monday Night game coming up so we do not really care. We are ready to go.”