PITTSBURGH — The grass inside Acrisure Stadium has served as 100 yards of graves to Cleveland careers for more than two decades. For 22 years, we’ve witnessed countless head coaches and quarterbacks wearing brown and orange wither to dust on the shores of the Ohio River.
Nevertheless, this one is different.
For six years, Chubb has been both the right and left ventricles of this wobbly franchise. Whenever the quarterback is (often) faltering, hand it to Chubb. Near the goal line, hand it to Chubb. When it’s cold, wet, snowy or sunny, hand it to Chubb.
He is the sanctuary of calm in the calamity of Browns football.
And now he’s gone, maybe forever. Stefanski acknowledged the obvious: that Chubb’s season is over and imaging will likely confirm Chubb’s entire knee was shattered on a hit by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the second quarter. His contract status and the “forever” part of all this can wait for another day, but it’s fair to wonder whether Chubb’s Cleveland career ended at the 3-yard line in Pittsburgh.
In the Browns locker room after their hard-fought 26-22 loss, players found themselves coping with more than yet another miserable defeat in their own personal mausoleum. The loss of Chubb weighed heavily.
Ultimately, there is only one player who will determine whether the Browns win or die this year. That was always going to be true of Deshaun Watson, but the safety net was officially cut when Chubb went down 33 seconds into the second quarter, and now the winds are starting to blow.
Browns fall to 1-23 under Kevin Stefanski in games they trailed by 4+ points in 4th quarter.
Since his 1st season in 2020, that's the 2nd-worst win pct (.042) in such games across the NFL. Only the Panthers (0-31) have been worse.
— Jason Starrett (@starrettjason) September 19, 2023
Watson was awful against the Steelers. Absolutely dreadful. He held onto the ball too long, seemed slow to process what he was seeing and missed badly on sideline routes throughout the night. He finished 22 of 40 for 235 yards, a touchdown and an interception that resulted in a pick six on the very first play of the bloody game.
Watson was responsible for four touchdowns Monday — two touchdown drives for the Browns and two for Pittsburgh’s defense.
At some point, we have to start having an honest conversation about what we’re seeing, and through eight games in a Browns jersey, Watson looks broken.
He was sacked six times Monday and was under duress all night. Some of it was poor play out of the Browns offensive line, particularly the tackles, and some of it was his own doing by holding onto the ball too long and not getting it out quickly enough.
Steelers defense powers MNF win over Browns
Holding onto the ball and delivering something magical is what made him great in Houston. To this point, there’s no magic left in the cape.
I spoke to one member of the Browns recently who recalled how Baker Mayfield beat the Steelers in the playoffs on this same field: By getting the ball out on time and on target. I was no fan of Mayfield and approved the idea of moving on from him. I still believe it was the right move and I’m not going to run from that now. But it’s clear Watson struggled to see the field Monday night.
During one play in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had too many men on the field and couldn’t figure out who to get on and who to get off. Two players kept switching on and off the field. All Watson had to do was see it and call for the ball. He never saw it. It’s one microcosm of a recurring theme.
If Watson’s six games of struggles last year were the result of rust following two years away from football, and if it was the rain in the opener against the Bengals that caused him to struggle, then what’s left on the excuse list for Monday night?
He was tripping over all the tombstones?
“As far as my part, it’s not good enough,” Watson said. “I put that on me.”
So do we.
Watson’s advanced metrics this year are nearly as gruesome as Fitzpatrick’s hit on Chubb’s knee.
Through the first two games of the season, Watson’s EPA is -0.44, which is the second-worst mark in the NFL, according to rbsdm.com. That means players like Zach Wilson and Justin Fields, along with the entire rookie class, have been better than Watson.
EPA is a concise comparison of what an average quarterback should do on a certain down compared to what actually happened, and how it positively or negatively impacted his team’s chances of scoring. It even accounts for defenses and penalties, while punishing a quarterback for sacks, fumbles and interceptions.
Watson’s -0.44 is ahead of only Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, who has been an abomination at -0.61.
Pickett and the Steelers’ offense was so horrific Monday that their total yardage for the fourth quarter was minus-7. And that’s the team that won the game. It’s the fewest yards gained in the fourth quarter by a team this century, according to TruMedia, that overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win a game.
Think about that.
The Steelers began the fourth quarter trailing 22-19, lost 7 yards on offense for the entire quarter, and still managed to win the game.
Watson’s legs, which bailed him out in the win over Cincinnati, accounted for 22 rushing yards. Unfortunately, he gave back 30 on not one but two face-mask penalties. I’ve never seen a quarterback get flagged for one face mask and Watson managed to get called for two in one night.
Browns general manager Andrew Berry and his staff are due for some difficult conversations in the coming weeks. Jerome Ford will get the first opportunity to replace Chubb and even flashed at times on Monday. But Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is elite and readily available by trade. There are complications to completing a deal, such as the contract Taylor seeks and the cap space he’d occupy this year after the team spent all summer reworking deals in an effort to roll over cap space while accounting for Watson’s massive cap number next year.
Taylor would help, but he can’t take snaps from under center, read the defense and deliver throws down the field.
“I told everyone on the offense, the whole team, I’m going to do better for this team, for this organization, so we can win games like that,” Watson said. “I’m fine with taking the criticism and I will be better.”
It’s time, Deshaun. Right now. This is why you’re here. The three first-round picks, the $230 million guaranteed, the reputation of an organization that gambled on you and the public relations beating they took for you. All of it was for right now.
The locker room was hurting Monday night. From corner to corner, veterans on both sides of the ball shook their heads in disbelief. The ventricles have stopped pumping. Another grave was dug on this field Monday night, another tombstone has been placed. It’s up to you now, Deshaun. A city is waiting, rather impatiently, on a quarterback to take his rightful place.
(Top photo of Nick Chubb: Lauren Leigh Bacho / Getty Images)