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The Browns are at a crossroads

By DAN LABBE • Oct 22, 2018 at 3:53 PM

TAMPA, Fla. — The Browns are at a crossroads. What are they gonna do when judgment comes for them? We're about to find out.

At 2-4-1, with a game in Pittsburgh Sunday and games against Kansas City and Atlanta after that, we'll know soon if the post-Thanksgiving schedule will be at least a little interesting or just another slog to New Year's Day. Right now it's leaning towards the latter.

This season wasn't about winning the Super Bowl or even making the playoffs, but it was about leaving 1-31 behind. It was about taking an upgraded roster and getting tangible results with that roster on the field. Almost halfway through the season, the Browns have lost in ways most of us could have never imagined, but they have still lost. There are still many of the same questions about this coaching staff.

Now we're on the verge of another season spinning away before Halloween.

That's the small picture, of course. There's a bigger picture:

1. Jackson's future

If this ends with Hue Jackson getting fired — whenever that happens — Sunday felt like the day it finally turned within the organization.

It probably should have turned after 0-16, but it didn't. Jackson earned a reprieve, even after following a 1-15 season with a winless campaign. It was one of the great escape acts of our time.

There's no place to hide, now, though. Jackson is operating in the pass/fail NFL this season and the Browns have, so far, failed more than they've passed. GM John Dorsey, who has never overseen a team that finished below .500 and worked with one of the league's top offensive minds in Andy Reid during his time in Kansas City, can't be happy seeing his upgraded roster sputter towards the bye.

The Browns fought back on Sunday, and kudos to them for that. It doesn't change the fact they managed just 74 yards of offense in the first half or that they entered the fourth quarter trailing 23-9.

If 1-31 wasn't enough for owner Jimmy Haslam to consider a switch, Sunday's performance combined with what could happen over the next three weeks could finally tip the scales.

2. The structure

When Haslam fired Sashi Brown, he threw his support behind Jackson.

"Hue Jackson will remain our coach and will return for the 2018 season," the statement read in the announcement about Brown's firing last December.

A day later, John Dorsey was introduced as the GM.

Haslam continues to operate under a structure in which both the GM and coach report to him. If he is serious, though, about handing this roster over to Dorsey, he needs to let his GM run the football side of the organization, especially considering the personnel department includes the likes of Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf, two strong personnel men, the latter of whom will likely be a GM soon.

However things are structured, if the Browns move on from Jackson, the next coach needs to be Dorsey's pick.

Dorsey did not hire Reid, of course, and that worked out well until it didn't. He needs to be allowed to make his hire this time. Haslam craves stability, even though he has never created it. There needs to be a structure in place that breeds it.

3. Odds and ends

Back to the small picture:

— Jackson taking a larger role in the offense might not fix things, but Todd Haley hasn't exactly inspired confidence as a playcaller in the season's first seven games. The slow starts are disturbing, considering that the team's scripted plays almost never seem to have an impact.

— Left guard Joel Bitonio seemed as exasperated as the rest of us when the early struggles of the offense were brought up.

"I don't know what it is in the first half," he said. "We practiced well this week. We had a good first ten (plays). We were prepared for it and we just came out — it's been penalties, I think. I think every time we have a positive play we've had a hold or a block in the back or something."

— The Carlos Hyde trade was surprising, but it fits with what Dorsey tried to do this offseason. He added a layer of veterans at almost every position in front of young players. Some young players, like Denzel Ward, earned starting jobs. Others, like Nick Chubb, had to wait.

Once it became apparent Chubb needed more touches, it was time to move on from Hyde. His contract had an easy out after this season to begin with. This simply got the Browns a draft asset in moving on.

Chubb ran well on Sunday. He might be more of a boom-or-bust back than Hyde, but it's the boom you're looking for with this offense.

— Duke Johnson received four targets on Sunday and one carry. It's not enough.

— Even if this season is lost, the Browns should still consider acquiring a wide receiver. You do so responsibly — you're not giving up a pick on the first two days for Amari Cooper — but this season is about setting Baker Mayfield up to take a jump in Year 2. He needs help at wide receiver to continue his development.

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