CLEVELAND (AP) — Deshaun Watson's lengthy suspension shaped this season for the Browns, and it has taken on a familiar form — ugly, disappointing, irreparable.
A penalty-filled 23-10 loss in Cincinnati essentially extinguished any chance Cleveland had of putting together a late playoff push, triggering another December tradition in Northeast Ohio: fans screaming for sweeping change.
“Goes with the territory,” coach Kevin Stefanski said of the heated criticism during his Zoom call on Monday.
Stefanski, who has made some questionable plays calls since Week 1, opened himself for more second-guessing early Sunday, when his gamble on a fourth-down play backfired while Watson, the team's $230 million QB who played much better in his second game back, stood on the sideline.
With Cleveland facing a fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 25 in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Stefanski chose to go for it rather than kick a field goal. He pulled Watson for Jacoby Brissett, who started Cleveland's first 11 games.
Brissett has been successful with sneaks in similar situations this season. But this time he chose to pass out of a tight, power formation and overthrew wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in the end zone.
The failure set the tone on a day when the Browns had nearly as many penalties (nine for 98 yards) as points.
Stefanski defended the decision — the Browns lead the NFL with 33 fourth-down tries — in a game he figured would be high scoring.
“It's just trying to put our guys in position to make a play, stay on the field and convert potential threes into sevens,” he said. “It's a philosophy that I believe in. We are going to try to be aggressive, and I think our players understand that we are trying to be smart while being aggressive.”
The aggressiveness is acceptable. Taking Watson out is not.
The Browns waited 11 games for him to play following his league-imposed ban for alleged sexual misconduct, and with all due respect to Brissett, Watson's skills as a runner and passer make him a better option in that situation.
Plus, if the final weeks of this lost season are aimed at getting Watson caught up and ready for 2023, then it's imperative for him to be behind center in the game's most crucial moments — early and late.
Watson did get a chance on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter, and it also malfunctioned.
On fourth-and-goal from the Cincinnati 6 and the Browns trailing by 13 with 5:29 remaining, Watson floated a pass toward the front corner of the end zone for Peoples-Jones, who had good position on rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt but couldn't make the catch.
Peoples-Jones laid on the turf after the incompletion before rolling over and screaming at the ground in frustration.
Another maddening moment.
It's been a season of them for the Browns.
Hard to get excited about much. Watson was so bad in his debut last week in Houston that the bar was low. The three-time Pro Bowler looked much more like himself in his second game in nearly two years.
He finished 26 of 42 for 276 yards and a TD, his only one with Cleveland's offense in eight quarters.
“I thought he definitely made strides," Stefanski said. “I did think you saw some improvements in decisions and improvements in technique, footwork and all of those type of things.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Browns have offense balance but no identity. One of the biggest knocks on Stefanski is his inability to stick with the running game.
Granted, star Nick Chubb wasn't having much success (14 carries, 34 yards) and Cincinnati's defensive front was playing well. But Stefanski struggled to find ways to get the ball to Chubb or Kareem Hunt in space.
Linebacker Deion Jones stepped up, getting seven tackles and an interception in his third start. Jones was forced into the lineup after injuries to linebackers Anthony Walker Jr., Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki.
Cleveland's offensive line is breaking down, from a strength to a weakness.
Injuries have taken a toll on the unit, but Sunday's issues were self-inflicted as the group was whistled for five penalties. Right tackle Jack Conklin was called for two holding infractions.
The Browns were awaiting more test results on linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who injured his foot late in Sunday's game. Owusu-Koramoah has been solid since returning from a knee injury that cost him two games. ... WR Amari Cooper (hip) is day to day with an injury sustained in practice last week. Cleveland's leading receiver had just two catches on seven targets.
16 — Total points scored by Cleveland's offense in Watson's two starts.
Watson makes his home debut on Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens (9-4), who aren't expected to have Lamar Jackson for a few more weeks because of a knee injury.
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