PITTSBURGH — It was a lost season distilled to one play, filled with hope and achingly familiar anguish for a franchise that’s known little else over the last two decades.
Fourth down. Trailing by four. One last shot at avoiding NFL infamy. Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer somehow escaped pressure. He worked to his left and flicked the ball to receiver Corey Coleman all alone on the sideline, well past the first-down marker.
The ball smacked off Coleman’s hands then fell harmlessly to the frigid Heinz Field turf. Two minutes later, the clock hit zero. Pittsburgh 28. Cleveland 24.
Woe and 16.
The Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go winless during a 16-game season when they couldn’t overcome Pittsburgh’s backups or the kind of mistakes that have become their trademark during a turnaround that’s been stuck in neutral for 10 years, yet one owner Jimmy Haslam remains positive will come if his organization just keeps at it.
“I’m not going to say this is going to be easy but I am confident we’ll do this,” Haslam said. “Some of you don’t know us that well. We don’t give up easily. We’re not going to give up. Is it disappointing? Hell yeah it’s disappointing. Is it discouraging? To a certain point but we’re going to get this done.”
And Haslam remains intent on doing it with head coach Hue Jackson. Haslam reiterated Jackson will return in 2018 despite a 1-31 record through two seasons. Cleveland is 4-48 since Week 12 of the 2014 season, has dropped 21 straight road games and 17 straight games to AFC North opponents.
“You can say a lot of things about us this year, but down to the last minute or two minutes, our guys played hard,” Haslam said. “I think the primary job an NFL job has to do is provide leadership. I think Hue’s provided great leadership.”
What Haslam knows new general manager John Dorsey needs to get Jackson over the next eight months are NFL-caliber players. The Browns have some, but not enough to compete with the likes of the AFC North champion Steelers, who improved to 13-3 despite sitting healthy stars Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and others to rest them for the playoffs.
Cleveland has the first and fourth picks in the 2018 draft, and it’s the future — and not the present — that Jackson would prefer to focus on.
“This part of the journey is over with,” Jackson said. “The two years of this has been tough. But I think we’re at the end of that road. I think our players know it. I think the organization knows it. I know our fans don’t.”
There were signs of progress, as there has been all season. Just not enough to produce something resembling consistently competent football. Kizer finished with 314 yards passing and two touchdowns to Rashard Higgins but also threw a fourth-quarter pick, his NFL-leading 22nd of the season.
While there were bouts of competency, including a pair of takeaways by the defense and long Kizer hookups to Higgins and Josh Gordon, the Browns simply could not get out of their own way. Twice in the first half they drew third-down defensive penalties that extended Pittsburgh drives. Three times in the fourth quarter they had the ball and a chance to go ahead.
The first two ended with turnovers, giving Cleveland an NFL-high 41 on the season. The third ended with Kizer somehow escaping pressure on fourth down at the Pittsburgh 27 only to have his pass clank off Coleman’s hands and fall to the frozen turf, one last missed opportunity in a year filled with far too many.
“This is a tough scenario, a historic scenario but it will never be like this ever again,” Gordon said. “What it’s really going to take go through a full offseason and make sure it never happens again starts today.”
While Jackson, who will jump in Lake Erie at some point in the near future to fulfill his vow the Browns wouldn’t go 1-15 as they did in 2016, is expected back in 2018, another offseason filled with searching awaits. Jackson plans to be along for the ride.
“I don’t think we’re way, way off as many people think we are,” Jackson said. “I think it’s making right decisions, doing the right things, having trust in what we’re doing, having people to do it day in and day out, and this thing will get turned. I truly believe that.”
The Steelers never trailed while beating their closest rivals for a seventh straight time. Landry Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught nine passes for 143 yards and a score. He also returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown .
Pittsburgh sacked Kizer six times, boosting its season total to 56, a franchise record. Despite the victory, the Steelers will be the second seed in the AFC playoffs. New England clinched home-field advantage with a victory over the New York Jets.
Browns: “With the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select …”
Steelers: Will enjoy a week off before hosting the divisional round the weekend of Jan. 13-14.