Browns shift from salvaging this season to saving this era

Stephen A. is sick of Freddie Kitchens' excuses (1:57)

Stephen A. Smith blames Freddie Kitchens for the lack of discipline in the Browns organization. (1:57)

BEREA, Ohio -- Cleveland's season all but ended Sunday where Cleveland seasons typically go to die anyway.

The junior varsity Pittsburgh Steelers, headlined by a once-fourth-team quarterback who couldn't defeat Youngstown State while in college, defeated the other team in Northeast Ohio, which fell in Pittsburgh for a 16th consecutive time. That's the third-longest road losing streak to a single opponent in NFL history, tying the Browns' other ignominious losing spell against the Steelers from the 1970s and 80s.

Mathematically, the Browns' playoff hopes aren't quite toast yet. At 5-7, the ESPN Football Power Index still gives them a 5.2% shot of somehow sneaking into the AFC's sixth wild-card spot. People win the lottery, too. Effectively, Cleveland's season is over, barring the type of luck that hardly befits a history of bad breaks.

And so, the Debate by the Lake rapidly shifts from how the Browns can salvage this season, to how they can save this era -- ignited by Baker Mayfield's exhilarating first pass against the New York Jets in Week 3 of last year.

For all their talent on paper, the Browns have a long way to go.

They've inexplicably lost to a pair of who-are-they quarterbacks in the Broncos' Brandon Allen and the Steelers' Devlin "Duck" Hodges. They own only two victories over teams that will make the playoffs this year in the Baltimore Ravens (how did that happen?) and the Buffalo Bills -- and maybe a third if "The Duck" lights up future opponents the way he torched the Browns on Sunday.

Fourteen weeks later, they still can't consistently protect the face of their franchise in Mayfield -- who this past week, for the second time this year, had to go to the locker room after taking a hit (he's now been sacked 32 times this season).

That in turn has prevented Cleveland from unlocking its highest-paid offensive weapon in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who too often Sunday was still in his route downfield as Mayfield's pocket was collapsing.

Yet even when Mayfield has had the time, he and Beckham haven't had the chemistry the Browns envisioned when general manager John Dorsey made the blockbuster trade with the Giants for Beckham in the spring, as OBJ has now gone a personal-record six games in a row without a 100-yard receiving performance.

That lack of synergy has even extended to Cleveland's other star wideout -- and in reality, its actual No. 1 receiver -- Jarvis Landry, who didn't run the route that Mayfield was expecting, which ultimately led to the game-clinching (season-clinching?) interception in Pittsburgh.

"Anytime you have a big play like that in a game, the first thing people want to point to is miscommunication and stuff like that. ... we are going to continue to work on our communication," coach Freddie Kitchens not-so cryptically said Monday.

The little things have been killing Cleveland all year. And that, of course, starts with the head coach.

Monday, Cleveland sports talk radio couldn't stop pontificating about the "Pittsburgh started it" T-shirt that Kitchens wore to the movies Friday -- a reference to quarterback Mason Rudolph and the brawl with the Steelers from their first meeting -- which predictably surfaced on social media. Kitchens repeatedly defended wearing the shirt, even saying he would wear it again, as it was a gift from his daughters (for any father, a sympathetic justification).

Kitchens also stated that the shirt had nothing to do with Sunday's result -- as if the Steelers were going to be any less motivated in exacting revenge on Cleveland had Kitchens not worn it.

Yet what Kitchens seemingly has been unable to grasp is how the shirt is rather emblematic of a team so undisciplined, it continues to lead the NFL in penalty yardage.

What's more, in perhaps the biggest game for the franchise in years, it was minus yet another defensive starter for reasons other than injury. This time, Kitchens decided he had to leave veteran safety Damarious Randall in Cleveland, after Randall skipped practice, as ESPN earlier reported.

The Browns were already without another starting safety in Jermaine Whitehead, whom they summarily cut after he issued threats over Twitter from the visitors locker room in Denver. And, of course, they were without Myles Garrett, their best defensive player, whom the NFL suspended indefinitely after he swung a helmet on Rudolph's head, which led to the T-shirt Kitchens was wearing in the first place. Anytime the Browns do anything positive, like win three in a row, the past comes full circle to metaphorically bonk them on the head.

Kitchens will have the final four games to prove to Dorsey that he should be given a second season to try and turn things around in Cleveland. Whatever Dorsey decides, he will have to take his own look in the mirror. After all, he's the one who's prioritized talent above all else, leaving Kitchens with a locker room of individuals clearly devoid of enough leadership to police itself.

On top of that, Dorsey has essentially built his team from the outside in, which is why the Browns continue to get dominated in the trenches, limiting the effectiveness of all that skill-talent star power while stunting the development of his franchise quarterback in Mayfield's second season.

Dorsey recently signed reliable center JC Tretter to an extension, which is a solid start. But Dorsey will also have to address left tackle, right guard and right tackle, no easy task, as Cleveland's inability to land a deal for help up front at this year's trade deadline underscored.

Despite those challenges, all hope for this era is certainly not lost.

Mayfield is hardly the first NFL quarterback to struggle in his second season. Many who struggled in that year, including fellow undersized Austin, Texas, native Drew Brees, have gone on to prolific careers. With better pass protection, Mayfield could still take off, too.

Nick Chubb, already one of the league's top backs, will be around Cleveland for a long time, and the Browns should be able to re-sign his productive wingman, Kareem Hunt, this offseason. Beckham and Landry are both under contract. Garrett will eventually return to the field.

That can still be the core of a playoff team -- especially if the Browns can augment it with a healthy dose of mature and reliable complementary additions this offseason.

It won't help this season. One that began with so much promise. And yet ended where so many have before.