Each week between now and the Super Bowl, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things — events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious filled with wise men and anti-heroes — that burn bright on his radar.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
The first Sunday arrives like a hammer.
Smashing through fables, Soviet-level propaganda and dreamy what-if scenarios built around teams with more real-life issues than answers.
The hammer fell hard Sunday on a pair of second-year passers tied to great expectations — Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold — jolting two toyed-with fan bases who spent the past eight months telling themselves THIS YEAR WILL BE DIFFERENT.
Different is on hold.
On hold in Cleveland, where Mayfield’s on-field magic act was short-circuited by a gaggle of pass protectors doubling as thru-hikers snoozing in a summery field along the Appalachian Trail. Fellows like Greg Robinson, slapped with two penalties in the first half, the second of those — a vicious kick to the head of Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro — triggering his ejection. While Robinson has long ridden the struggle bus as a left tackle, his dismissal helped set the table for Tennessee’s 43-13 domination of the much-ballyhooed Browns.
Robinson’s backup, a human named Kendall Lamm, was quickly lost to a knee injury, forcing overwhelmed right tackle Chris Hubbard onto the left side, while the recently acquired Justin McCray attempted to bottle up chaos on the right. Nothing worked, as Cleveland offensive tackles accounted for three sacks allowed and a whopping six infractions during a meltdown act that saw the team generate five fewer points than penalties — a ridiculous 18 of them — the most in a game by the franchise since 1951.
The chaos up front gave us a different brand of Baker. Tennessee’s stifling, underrated defense flipped the switch in the final quarter, turning Mayfield’s line, which had been acceptable to that point (22 of 29 for 264 yards with a touchdown), into a B-grade slasher film flush with a gory three interceptions in the final reel, highlighted by Malcolm Butler’s soul-crushing pick-six. Mayfield spent the game running from masterfully drawn-up Titans pressure — or falling victim to it — leading to glossy closeups of the passer wincing in pain on the sideline before leaving the loss with a wrap on his right wrist.
Mayfield is surrounded by starry skill-position playthings, but they were reduced to misfit toys on Sunday by a crumbling line and the team’s unquenchable thirst for killer mistakes — some of them Baker’s when it mattered most. Fantastical images of Cleveland chasing an AFC title now give way to genuine concern over an offensive line that must contend with the Rams, Ravens, 49ers and Seahawks before a Week 7 bye.
Before all of that, though, the Browns must go on the road to face a Jets team still stinging in the wake of an ultra-collapse at home to a division foe from Buffalo. Gang Green loyalists have been harboring high hopes of their own, with Darnold breathlessly and confidently mentioned all offseason as the league arm most likely to make a massive jump in Year 2.
Fifteen contests remain for that leap to happen, but Darnold refused to break out against a stellar Bills defense, guiding the Jets to seven punts and only one score at a troubling 4.3 yards per pass. The offense was tugged along by a defense that generated points off a pick-six and safety while harassing Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen — another imperfect second-year starter — into three additional turnovers that gave the ball to Darnold in excellent field position. The young passer, though, could muster only one touchdown drive from all those gifts under the tree.
After New York’s 16-0 lead morphed into a 17-16 comeback tale for the feisty Bills, Darnold was given the chance to author memories, facing first-and-10 at his own 40 with 1:29 left on the clock. Instead of heroism, the green-clad passer unfurled four straight incompletions, an inglorious mixture featuring two batted balls, a deep shot to zip codes unknown and a final fourth-down arc that fluttered through the air after Darnold was hit making the toss. The offense never found its way inside an air attack that, by design or against it, defaulted to a beehive of darts thrown short of the sticks.
"We were just inept on offense, making mistakes we can’t make to consistently move the ball," Jets coach Adam Gase later said, refusing to take it easy on his young signal-caller. "We have a lot to clean up there."
Darnold and Mayfield slept in their beds Sunday night as two quarterbacks staring down 0-1 starts. Granted, early September football resembles the Mesozoic Era by Thanksgiving, but what comes next can’t be dismissed as meaningless: a nationally televised rematch against each other on "Monday Night Football" a year after Mayfield led the Browns to a comeback win in prime time over the Jets in relief of starter Tyrod Taylor.
Whether or not it’s fair, the tilt will serve as a loose public referendum, with the defeated quarterback left to peer down the business end of a nasty start to the new campaign.
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Darnold — the perfect size and build for greatness — was drafted two picks after Mayfield last year to save a Jets team flirting with end-game irrelevance. Mayfield, the top choice in the 2018 NFL Draft, was hoisted up as the NFL’s new leading man. Brash and courageous and more media savvy than the media itself. A Favre-ian offshoot sent here to rattle awake Cleveland’s sleeping giant. The quarterback of NOW.
Darnold issues team-friendly quotes that both align with his quiet-leader demeanor and keep him out of the tabloids. Mayfield has made himself an unapologetic target by speaking his mind, saber-rattling with coifed talking heads and responding to Sunday’s loss with a whiff of defiance, saying: "Everybody is going to throw us in the trash. I think that’s good. I know what type of men we have in this locker room. Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn what happens on the outside. I know how we’re going to react. I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to bounce back."
Confident tones noted, but the Cleveland team we saw Sunday was comprehensively beaten down by a better prepared, more disciplined Titans squad that found fuel and fury in the praise being heaped on the Browns, with tight end Delanie Walker saying after the final whistle: "I’m gonna tell you again, man. They were who we thought they were."
Both Darnold and Mayfield can take heart in the NFL’s affinity for realms of the surreal: Week after week, reality shifts at a dizzying pace; we are flung into time tunnels; proud predictions become salt as hero journeys play out faithfully every Sunday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET — and Monday nights below the moon — reducing last week’s ugly fate into a fading picture show yanked from theaters for good.
Mayfield and Darnold desire the same thing — and so do their desperate teams. Only one can have it.
The quarterback left wanting come next Tuesday morning will begin to learn some of the NFL’s more arcane and age-old lessons on the subject of pain.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.
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