If Wile E. Coyote added some weight and picked up a good ol’ boy accent while keeping that same dazed look after yet another failure, he would have been Freddie Kitchens on Sunday afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Whether you are a cartoon character and have the Road Runner unexpectedly dropping an anvil on your head episode after episode or you were the Cleveland Browns coach and just had the Tennessee Titans dump a 43-13 drubbing on your team, the reaction was the same.
Kitchens responded like The Coyote during his postgame comments when he said, at least three times, “I didn’t see this coming!”
In what had become the most anticipated pro football season in Cleveland in decades, the Browns opened the year with an embarrassing thud.
Considering the expectations so many had for this team – Las Vegas oddsmakers have made them the sixth overall pick in the league to make the Super Bowl, Sports Illustrated trumpeted them from its cover with the headline that read: “The Browns Are Back”—this was one of the worst season opening losses in franchise history.
Kitchens took issue with that line of thinking afterward: “This just counts as just one game. The world is not ending today. Contrary to popular belief.”
While Kitchens said he believes his team will be just fine after this fiasco – and his quarterback Baker Mayfield said he knew the kind of backbone his team had — Titans tight end Delanie Walker wasn’t nearly so complimentary after the game.
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“We had circled this game…and they were who we thought they were,” he said in the Titans dressing quarters. “Y’all can crown them all you want, but you still gotta play the game.”
And the Browns didn’t play the game as it’s supposed to be played. That’s why fans – so exuberant before the game – were booing in the third quarter and why many had deserted the stadium long before the final gun.
It wasn’t just that the Browns lost, but more galling was the way they lost.
They committed a whopping 18 penalties for 182 yards. That’s the most infractions by a Browns’ team in 68 years.
They were whistled repeatedly for holding and being offside, but more disturbingly, they had several personal fouls for unnecessary roughness, late hits, kicking an opponent in the head and mouthing off to an official
“We lost our discipline and our composure,” Kitchens admitted in what is an indictment of him as well as his team.
The most stunning foul — and one that would hamstring the Brown for the rest of the game — came late in the second quarter when veteran left tackle Greg Robinson, who was already flat on his back at the end of a play, kicked Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro in the face mask.
Robinson was assessed a 15-yard penalty and thrown out of the game.
The Browns replaced him with back-up Kendall Lamm, who then got hurt. After that the team was left floundering. They had deactivated two offensive linemen before the game and were caught shorthanded, forcing them to play other back-ups out of position.
“We don’t tolerate that, that’s unacceptable,” Kitchens said of Robinson’s kicking incident.
As the penalties repeatedly sent the Browns’ offense in reverse and the Titans began to pad their lead, Mayfield, who banged up his hand in the second half and had trainers check it, began to press and threw three fourth-quarter interceptions.
Two were converted into touchdowns off Marcus Mariota passes and the last was a pick six by cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Mayfield’s collapse was especially surprising.
He’s considered the franchise savior after coming in last season in the third game of his rookie year and leading the team to seven victories. In the 37 games before he took over the Browns had won just once.
Since the team was reborn in 1999 – after owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 and left Cleveland without pro football in the interim – the Browns have been the most dysfunctional outfit in the league.
In two decades they went through nine general managers, 11 head coaches and 29 starting quarterbacks. They won just 29.8 percent of their games and made the playoffs only once.
The swaggering Mayfield — who set an NFL rookie quarterback record with 27 TDs last season — was going to change that especially after the team made several bold offseason moves and brought in several new players, including Odell Beckham to team with fellow receiver Jarvis Landry.
Before Sunday’s game, the hottest selling T-shirt outside the stadium was the one that read in big bold letters: “Baker(Expletive) Mayfield” on the front. On the back it said “Shake and Bake.”
Sunday Mayfield didn’t shake and bake, but he did simmer and at times seem ready to boil after the game.
“Everybody’s gonna throw us in the trash and that’s good,” he said curtly. “I know what type guys we have in the locker room and, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn what happens outside of it.”
He was right about one thing.
After the game, piled around many of the trash cans leading out of the stadium. were several signs fans had waved so glorious early on and beer cans that had lubricated the early celebration.
Like Kitchens, the fans too had not seen this coming.