There are lessons to be learned in the Cleveland Browns 24-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at EverBank Field -- don't dwell on one game, move forward quickly and have faith that this franchise is still capable of finishing above .500s, because the evidence says that they can.
The defeat was, no doubt, as frustrating as anyone could have imagined. The previously winless Jaguars didn't just beat the Browns (3-3). They ended up manhandling them.
Denard Robinson, known more for his days as a quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines, trounced the defense for 127 rushing yards. Brian Hoyer completed 16 of 41 passes, equaling out to a completion percentage of 39. He fumbled and threw an interception both in the second half. The Browns entered the game fourth in the league in rushing, yet Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West combined for just 69 yards.
"Obviously, we took a huge step backwards," said coach Mike Pettine. "I told the team right after the game that we don't make excuses. They were the better football team today and we were soundly beaten."
"We obviously didn't execute the way we wanted to" said Joe Thomas.
Decisions to go for it on fourth down backfired in both the first and second halves. A Hoyer incompletion on fourth-and-1 gave life to the lethargic Jaguars late in the second quarter – three plays later Blake Bortles found Allen Robinson for a 31-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead that the Jaguars never relinquished.
The latter failed conversion attempt is the more mystifying of the two. On fourth-and-5 the Browns purposely trotted their punt team on the field and then ran Hoyer and the offense back out, trying to confuse Jacksonville. The plan was to either catch the Jaguars with 12 men on the field or get them to jump offsides, and if none of those happen, take a delay of game penalty and punt the ball. Somehow the ball got snapped, Hoyer started veering to the right and pitched the ball to Ben Tate. The miscommunication was the defining moment in a game full of discombobulating plays.
"We got our butts kicked," said Hoyer.
When Tashaun Gipson was asked if he knew the Browns were going to pick off Blake Bortles three times, he agreed the Browns should've won handedly. Gipson played his part intercepting two Bortles passes, even returning one for 32 yards just outside the red zone. Gipson now has picked off seven passes in his last nine games. The turnovers ended up being not nearly enough for Cleveland to overcome Jacksonville.
"At the end of the day we didn't do enough on defense, we didn't do enough on offense," said Gipson. "They made plays. Their defense played outstanding. And their offense put up points when they needed them. That's the game of football, no matter what a team's record is."
Fans and media alike were quick to condemn the Browns on social media. Cleveland's ballooning bandwagon was the talk of the NFL last week, to the point that it led Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column. Now, naysayers are gleefully waiting for the wheels to fall off the Browns, yet again.
But guess what? In a 16 game NFL schedule, teams have disappointing games and demoralizing losses. The key for Cleveland will be to not let one stinky performance impede the progress that has clearly been made so far.
"You win one game, and you are crowned as Super Bowl champions. You lose one, and you're announced as the worst team in the league," said Joe Thomas in the locker room. "I hope that we have the perspective on this team to understand that that's the way it goes in the NFL. The great part about the NFL, and the bad part, is that we have another game in seven days. It's about putting this to bed on Monday and making sure it doesn't happen again."
"You've seen when this Cleveland Browns football team is playing at a high level, we can beat any team," said Gipson.
Defensively, the Jaguars' long drive before the first half was their only true scoring source. All other Jaguars points came off of Browns miscues – two Hoyer turnovers and a Jordan Poyer muffed punt – giving Jacksonville drives where they were already starting in field goal range. These types of mistakes haven't been regular occurrences for Cleveland and seem correctable. Sure Robinson was able to post yardage, but the Browns defense is nowhere near as problematic as it was a month ago after the Ravens game.
Offensively, this has to be a throw away game. But the Browns aren't going to shift away their strategy from being a smashmouth, run the football type of team just because Alex Mack is gone. Thomas, Hoyer and Pettine repeatedly said all week how impressed they were with the Jacksonville front seven. One lackluster performance doesn't mean Cleveland is going to scrap the successful identity they've created this far into the season.
Hoyer is still a quarterback talented enough to carry the Browns to win. The Tate-Crowell-West combination is still a trio most teams around the league would love to have. Even in the loss, Andrew Hawkins set a career-high in receiving yards. There are no white flags being waved about one lousy performance from the Browns' offense.
In one week's time, another rookie quarterback and another winless team the Browns should beat will arrive in Cleveland. Just like the Jaguars, Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders (0-6) are in line to earn a top five pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. But Oakland and bring confidence into FirstEnergy Stadium. The Raiders nearly upset one of the NFL's best teams, the Arizona Cardinals, Carr has been effective for a rookie quarterback and the Raiders will see on film the Browns that will show a team that can be taken down, even on the road.
The Browns will take Monday to review their mistakes against Jacksonville. But Pettine and the coaching staff won't cry over spilled milk.
Cleveland still has 10 games left in the season to prove they are more like the team who thumped the Steelers 31-10 than the team who lost 24-6 to the Jaguars. And I'm banking on the Browns responding.