BEREA, Ohio — After a recent training camp practice, Cleveland Browns inside linebacker Christian Kirksey paused when asked to recall a moment that encapsulated the agony of last year’s winless campaign. After a few moments, the grin dropped from his face, and his corner of his lips pursed. With somewhat of a faraway look on his face, he gave a slight nod and began.
It was last September, he said, the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns trailed by 11 points early in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers had the ball deep in Cleveland territory, primed to put the game out of reach.
Then, a break. Rookie Browns safety Derrick Kindred caught a tipped deflection at the 1-yard line and returned it 30 yards, giving the Browns new life. Kirksey, a fifth-year pro and team captain, couldn’t have been more excited. He recalled celebrating with Kindred, the energy on the sideline and the optimism of what could be … until cold, hard, reality struck.
The Browns’ offense — which would go on to average a league-low 14.6 points per game — did absolutely nothing.
“I remember sitting down on the bench, talking to the linebackers coach and looking at the Jumbotron,” Kirksey said. “And before I knew it, the special teams coach was yelling, ‘Punt team alert!’ which means it was third down [for our offense].
“And I’m like, is it third down that fast? We just got off the field — what’s going on?”
It’s called a sudden change, something the Browns experienced far too often last season. After the Kindred pick, the Browns went sack, incomplete, 6-yard gain, punt over a series of plays that took only a minute and 30 seconds off the clock.
The Browns, of course, would go on to lose the game 21-18, and every other game after that in 2017, becoming only the second team since the 2008 Detroit Lions to go 0-16 in NFL history. While that Lions team was felled by a historically awful defense, one that surrendered a pathetically robust average of 404 yards per game, last year’s Browns did it with one of the most turnover-prone offenses of the modern era.
New Browns general manager John Dorsey, hired to clean up this mess last December, quickly identified the Browns as a team that, more than anything, needed a veteran quarterback that players could rally behind, someone they could believe in. Dorsey, the former GM of the Chiefs, had seen the effect a veteran quarterback can have on a team first-hand his first season in Kansas City, when Alex Smith — whom he had just acquired for two second-round picks — led the Chiefs to an 11-5 record in 2013 after going 2-14 the year before.
Appropriately enough, the Browns were one of the teams interested in Smith as the Chiefs sought to make room for promising 2017 first-round pick, Patrick Mahomes. But when the Chiefs locked in on a deal with Washington, the Browns eventually turned to another player Dorsey has long sought, someone whose character, mobility and ability to protect the football reminds many scouts of Smith: Tyrod Taylor, the starter in Buffalo for the past three seasons.
Dorsey never forgot that Taylor’s college coach at Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer, once told him that Taylor was the greatest leader of men he’d ever seen.
“Guys kind of gravitate to him — he’s a natural-born leader,” Dorsey said. “Guys believe in his ability to move the chains, and when you don’t turn the ball over — and God knows in 2017, we turned the ball over a lot — this franchise needed stability like that.”
Buffalo, however, was ready to move on. Though Taylor’s mobility and ability to protect the football had long been appreciated — Buffalo has finished no lower than ninth in turnover differential during his three years as the starter — Taylor, 29, has long been criticized for taking too many sacks and being an inconsistent deep-ball thrower.
What’s more, the 6-foot-1, 217-pounder was not deemed an ideal fit for the Bills’ system implemented by first-year head coach Sean McDermott, who even benched Taylor at one point despite the Bills’ 5-4 record at the time, in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman. He proceeded to hand the job back to Taylor after throwing five interceptions in his first start.
Taylor eventually led the Bills to a 9-7 record and their first playoff berth since the 1999 season, only to see his season end when he suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of Buffalo’s 10-3 loss to Jacksonville in the wild-card round. The Bills, who had their sights set on taking a young quarterback in a QB-rich draft, were ready to move on.
And Cleveland, which desperately needed someone at the game’s most important position who already understood what it takes to win — he completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions with 427 yards and four more touchdowns coming on the ground in 2017 — was ready to pounce.
So in March, the two consummated a swap of a 2018 third-round pick for Taylor, who wasted no time making a positive impression on folks in his new organization when players arrived for offseason workouts in April.
“It’s 5:30 or so one morning, and I’m usually the first one in, but I go in the locker room and guess what — there’s Tyrod Taylor, putting clothes on, getting ready to go to the indoor facility to work out,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey remembers grinning and quietly saying “yes.” Ever since that moment, he says, Taylor has consistently been the first one in, last one out, a notion independently backed up by head coach Hue Jackson.
“He’s the first one here every day — he even beats me here sometimes,” Jackson said.
That has continued, even when Dorsey and the Browns invested the No. 1 overall pick in Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, whose moxie, accuracy and pocket presence makes him the Browns’ long-term answer at quarterback.
Shortly before camp began in late July, Taylor — whose $16 million salary is guaranteed this season — paid for many of the Browns’ offensive skill players to join him in Los Angeles so they could start bonding and get a jump on practice.
“We were just out there trying to get work, work with each other and build chemistry,” Taylor said. “It was not about the cameras or anything — I just wanted to get everybody on the same page and get out there and get some work before we got back for training camp.”
That kind of leadership is why a team coming off a winless season cannot be too worried about the long-term, hence Jackson’s commitment to Taylor as his No. 1 quarterback for 2018.
“I’m not gonna back off of that,” Jackson said. “I made that commitment to [Tyrod]. We have a young player [Mayfield] who I think is gonna be a tremendous football player, who I think is chomping at the bit to play, and I get that — that’s why we drafted him.”
Dorsey agrees, and believes Mayfield stands to benefit from watching Taylor for a while — a luxury rookie DeShone Kizer never got before he was jettisoned to the Green Bay Packers for safety Damarious Randall and a swap of fourth and fifth-round picks,
“You look at [Tyrod’s] confidence level,” Dorsey says, “then you watch him extend the play … he’s got a good enough arm and the guy makes plays.”
In 2017, the Browns finished dead last in turnover differential with negative-28, the worst mark since the San Diego Chargers posted the same awful total in 2000. And much of that had to do with the play of Kizer, a big, athletic and strong-armed second-round pick who was expected to sit a year to work on his decision-making and accuracy but ended up being fast-tracked due to a lack of reasonable alternatives.
The end result was ugly, as Kizer ended up having a Hugh Millen-like season, completing only 53.6 percent of his passes for 2,894 yards and 11 touchdowns. Even worse, the overmatched rookie accounted for 28 turnovers — a league-high 22 interceptions and six lost fumbles — as the mental toughness of the Browns’ defense, which ranked a respectable 14th in the NFL in 2017, was stretched to the limit on a weekly basis.
“As a defense, you’ve got to clean up the [mess],” Kirksey said. “You [need] time to sit down, go over plays that didn’t go your way and scheme up different plays you may be gearing up for.
“But when you’re having sudden change all the time, you can’t do that the same.”
Through several practices, Taylor has been a hit with teammates, many of whom are thrilled to have a quarterback who is going to help them control the clock and not consistently put the defense in tough spots.
“It was embarrassing to go 0-16,” Kirksey said. “It’s definitely going to be exciting just to see our quarterback, like, manage the game.”
Even Taylor’s former teammates in Buffalo appreciate his strengths. On the day the Taylor trade leaked, March 9, Kirksey was hanging out in San Diego with Bills safety Micah Hyde, a good friend and former teammate from the University of Iowa. After the news alert
popped up on their phones, Hyde said, “Y’all got yourselves a good quarterback. He’s gonna keep y’all off the field.”
Kirksey grinned and nodded.
“That’s what we need,” Kirksey said. “That’s exactly what we need.”
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