The Cleveland Browns’ dewy preseason vainglory wouldn’t be especially bothersome had it not (a) convinced people that sucking for a long time is shrewd and reasonable; and (b) compelled whoever’s in charge to slot the Browns in four primetime games this season. Monday night, the joke was on them. The Browns were left thoroughly exposed by the undefeated (and perhaps for real?) San Francisco 49ers, for all the nation to see.
Cleveland’s offense was anemic in the 31-3 loss, which ended Baker Mayfield’s 17-game streak of touchdown passes. The Browns are sorely missing wide receiver Rashard Higgins, out four weeks with a knee injury, and had to make do instead with Antonio Callaway, who looked like someone who had not played professional football in a while. (He is, in fact, coming off a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and has not played football in a while.) With just under five minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Browns trailing 14-3, Mayfield was about to connect with a wide-open Callaway in the end zone. But Mayfield’s pass was a little low, and Callaway bobbled the ball right into the hands of Niners defensive back K’Waun Williams, who made a nice 49-yard interception return out of it.
The receivers were not doing him any favors, and neither was his line, but Mayfield might have had himself the worst game of his career here, completing just 8-of-22 passes for 100 yards; his first completion didn’t come until under a minute left in the first quarter. He threw two interceptions, fumbled twice, was sacked four times and had a 13.4 stinker of a passer rating to show for it. In the fourth quarter, Mayfield was benched and replaced with Garrett Gilbert so he wouldn’t have to keep taking hits.
It certainly did not help things that Mayfield seems to have been the target of a merciless revenge campaign masterminded by Niners defensive end Nick Bosa, who, by the sound of it, has been painstakingly preparing this for years. At the end of the first half, Bosa punctuated a hit on Mayfield with a mock midfield flag plant, a nod to the former Sooner’s flag-plant at Ohio State after Oklahoma beat Bosa’s Buckeyes in Columbus in 2017.
Why Odell Beckham Jr. was on a punt return down 28-3 in the fourth quarter is a question for the brilliant football mind of Freddie Kitchens, but this play seemed to tell the story of the game—carelessness that left the door open to being throttled:
In fairness to the Browns’ offense, the Browns’ defense sucked too. There’s something a little special about what Kyle Shanahan has the Niners’ offense doing; it’s old-school, run-heavy, a pleasure to watch and it completely confounded the Browns from the very beginning. On the first play of the game, some efficient blocking from fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle cleared the lane for running back Matt Breida to speed right up the middle—at 22.3 miles per hour, per the NFL’s stats provider—and into the endzone for an 83-yard touchdown. Lovely. San Francisco outgained Cleveland 446-180, with an enormous 275-102 advantage in yards rushing.
Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t anything special, going for 191 yards and two touchdown passes, but he did what he needed to do, staying poised while Mayfield flailed. The Browns were so utterly listless in every way, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the Niners just got lucky here. But they kept their cool in the spotlight, improved to 4-0 and looked exceptionally sharp and fun doing it. If that’s not real, what is?