Clear and obvious, what a wonderful phrase. It means absolutely nothing to NFL officials, apparently.
Whether it’s poor officiating, a colossal defensive meltdown, or a rash of second-half turnovers and confusingly stupid and increasingly conservative play-calling, there’s more than enough blame to dish out for the Cleveland Browns’ 45-42 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
With the loss, the Browns have still not won a Sunday football game since their Week 14 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 13, 2015. That’s over 1,000 days ago. Yes, coach Hue Jackson is still winless on Sundays.
But they certainly had their chances on this Sunday. They blew 10-point, 14-point, and eight-point—with under a minute to play—leads to give the Raiders a shot at winning in overtime. And win the Raiders did while surviving the Browns’ big-play second-half onslaught.
And yes, the referees, one of the most experienced crews in the league led by chief Walt Anderson, did not do the Browns any favors in Oakland. They overturned what looked like Carlos Hyde gaining first-down yardage on 3rd-and-short, and the game should have ended.
Here’s the standard of review for replays, according to Rule 15, Sect. 2, Art. 3 of the NFL’s 2018 Rulebook:
All Replay Reviews will be conducted by a designated member of the Officiating department at the League office. During the review of on-field rulings other than player disqualifications, the designee shall consult with the Referee, who will have access to a hand-held, field-level device. A decision will be reversed only when there is clear and obvious visual evidence available that warrants the change.
You can cry foul right now, and you should. Scream it from the highest mountain you can climb. Call the NFL offices like you did when the Browns moved to Baltimore. But none of that’s going to change the outcome. The Browns are going to remain 1-2-1, and their faults that allowed their win to slip away are still going to be there.
It’s really not debatable, though, that Anderson’s crew and the NFL League office replay official blew this one, robbing the Cleveland Browns of a win. The standard of review for overturning replays requiring “clear and obvious visual evidence” was not met.
If the officials had given Hyde his spot at the 19, which was the referees’ decision on the field that was unconvincingly changed by the visual evidence that existed, Baker Mayfield would have hopped into the Browns’ victory formation cockpit for three straight kneel-downs.
You also have to wonder whether Jackson should have went for it on 4th-and-miniscule, which would have also ended the game despite that atrocious call. A quarterback sneak up the middle isn’t guaranteed to work, but Jackson could have at least lined up his offense to try to draw the Raiders offsides. Worst-case scenario—with the clarity hindsight provides, of course—is Mayfield gets stuffed and the Raiders evened the score more quickly, giving the Browns even more time to get in position for a game-winning field goal.
There were several other blown calls throughout the game, too, including a plethora of missed holding penalties on a Raiders offensive line that knew they could get away with it.
It happened all day long, and right in front of the officials’ faces.
If you forgot, let me remind you there was an equally egregious miss by the refs a few minutes before the Hyde play. The Browns strip-sacked Derek Carr with just over six minutes left in regulation, the officials didn’t see that the ball was loose, and they then inexcusably blew the play dead to protect the wrapped-up quarterback. The Browns missed out on a potential scoop-and-score by Larry Ogunjobi, which would have put them ahead by eight points.
Yes, the Browns still ended up scoring on their ensuing possession to add to their lead, but those types of plays change game dynamics. Both teams would have approached things differently after that, so hold onto those thoughts.
But the referees, as mentioned, weren’t solely to blame for the Browns squandering multiple leads. They had chances to put the Raiders away, and they blew it. They blew it collectively, as a team, from the head coach all the way down to the rookie special teams coverage player.
Let’s go back to Jackson for a minute. The coach’s peculiar decision to go for a two-point conversion with a 9-7 lead and almost three quarters left to play is the first thing that jumps to mind. That came after some odd-ball play-calling, including the “cute” Antonio Callaway in-motion shovel pass play—a formation from which they ran several plays throughout the game to mixed results—that was blown up on 3rd-and-goal.
That goal-line meltdown was an early sign that things may not have been heading in the right direction. Todd Haley’s curious play-calling and his unit’s poor red-zone execution prevented the Browns from putting seven points on board after Carlos Hyde made it 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The Browns made up for it later on subsequent two-point tries, but that was a rough start for a young team that can’t afford to be hindered in any way by its coaches.
Terrance Mitchell made a great play to break up what could have been a third-down conversion, but it may have cost him his season. E.J. Gaines entered as his primary backup, and he played well enough to keep things in front of him. But like Mitchell, Gaines was hurt and went down on the field after his interception before halftime. That meant former Raider T.J. Carrie would have to play more snaps than you’d like to see at outside cornerback. We’d prefer he didn’t play any, honestly. Just as we saw Carrie struggle significantly throughout training camp and preseason when playing outside, his woes continued.
And we don’t need Pro Football Focus grades to tell us that the former Raider was abysmal in every way once entering the game. His poor play, coupled with Gregg Williams’ insistence on pressuring quick-release wizard Derek Carr, led to a multitude of easy completions with Carrie floundering in isolation coverage.
This tirade won’t be complete until addressing Baker Mayfield’s miscues. Look, everyone gets it, he’s a rookie quarterback. Nobody in their right mind was expecting perfection. But with a 14-point lead, and his pocket collapsing near his own goal-line—hat tip to Chris Hubbard who was bull-rushed into Mayfield’s lap—the rookie held the ball too long and was stripped, leading to a momentum-shattering Raiders score.
With time running out in the fourth quarter and his team driving at the Raiders’ 49-yard line, Mayfield’s first real rookie decision-making mistake came at the worst time. Reggie McKenzie easily snagged a puzzling prayer ball to Callaway with only seven seconds to play. That turnover squandered what could have been a possible game-winning field-goal attempt if he had thrown a safer pass, or just thrown that one away and lived to play another down.
His receivers didn’t do him any favors, either, dropping what seemed like every other pass. Callaway absolutely should have caught the ball that turned into a pick-six, Mayfield’s first interception of his career and one of two in the game. By my count the Browns had 10 drops, and it could have been more. That’s such an embarrassingly high number that it pretty much speaks for itself. Mayfield had 20 incompletions, but he didn’t throw 20 poor passes.
So, while you can chalk some things up to rookie mistakes—like the fumbled under-center exchange with J.C. Tretter that helped complete the Raiders comeback—it wasn’t all bad for Mayfield. Considering everything that went wrong for the Browns, it’s unfair to put too much blame on the rookie quarterback’s shoulders. He made some incredible throws and played escape artist all day in the pocket. His 295 passing yards were also the fifth-most by a No. 1 pick in an NFL debut in the Super Bowl era.
Before I leave you to wallow in this mess, I can’t let the Browns defense off the hook for what was one of the most pathetic tackling efforts I have ever seen—Myles Garret and Joe Schobert excluded. With absolutely no mercy, Marshawn Lynch punked the Browns defense repeatedly, and Browns defenders were visibly timid and shied away from contacting the 32-year-old power-back. His play juiced his teammates, and the Raiders’ intensity level skyrocketed throughout much of the second half once he got rolling.
The Browns made plenty of mistakes and could have done more to win in Oakland, but they did do enough to win, and I’m comfortable saying they earned a victory. They just didn’t get one.
But, between you and me, Hyde made the 19-yard line, and there’s nothing definitive in the footage that shows otherwise.