If not for a suspect kicking game, the Cleveland Browns could easily be unbeaten heading into Thursday night’s matchup against the visiting New York Jets.
Instead, the Browns (0-1-1) will be seeking to end a 19-game winless streak dating to December 2016 following a short week in which the team has already released its kicker and traded troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon.
New York, meanwhile, has split its first two games, following a resounding 48-17 victory at Detroit by losing its home opener to the Miami Dolphins 20-12 on Sunday.
Despite Cleveland’s long run of futility, the Jets are understandably wary of the Browns, who played to a 21-21 tie in their season opener versus Pittsburgh before losing at New Orleans 21-18 on Sunday. Kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals and two extra points Sunday and was released the following day.
Greg Joseph, a rookie out of Florida Atlantic, won a four-way competition Momday and a spot on the active roster.
“They’ve been tough. They’ve added some more talent,” New York coach Todd Bowles said of the Browns. “They’re well-coached, they’re a tough football team. They’re definitely not an easy out. The pass two games they lost were nail-bitters at the end of the ball game. It’s going to be tough.”
Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, won the starting quarterback job in the preseason with the Jets. He was taken two spots behind Baker Mayfield, who went No. 1 overall to Cleveland, but Browns coach Hue Jackson said his prize rookie is better served watching starter Tyrod Taylor.
“I like our quarterback,” Jackson said of Taylor. “I like our young quarterback a lot, but it didn’t change my mind in anything. Baker has been really good in practice. I’ve done for him what I said what I was going to do, getting him some reps at the end at times. I think he’s still growing.”
Taylor has completed 37 of 70 passes (52.9 percent) for 443 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. An interception he threw in New Orleans led to a Saints touchdown, but he redeemed himself with a 47-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway to tie the score at 18.
Players in the locker room believe in Mayfield, but they are 100 percent behind Taylor, who has completed only 52.9 percent of his passes.
“Tyrod put us in position twice to try to win (in New Orleans),” Browns left guard Joel Bitonio said. “That’s character. He works his (expletive) off. We all can play better. We have to start winning these games.”
Cleveland will be looking for Callaway to build on his performance at New Orleans, particularly after trading Gordon to the New England Patriots.
Callaway had his own troubled past at the University of Florida that caused him to tumble to the fourth round of the draft, but fellow wide receiver Jarvis Landry expects the rookie to step up.
“It’s big-boy football, and that’s what we expect out of him to do,” Landry said of Callaway, who had three receptions for 81 yards and a TD against the Saints. “You’re going to hear a lot more out of him this year.”
Darnold has completed 41 of 62 passes (66.1 percent) for 532 yards with three touchdown passes and three interceptions. His top target has been Quincy Enunwa, who missed the entire 2017 season with a neck injury but is off to a fast start with 13 catches for 155 yards and a TD.
New York’s leading rusher is a familiar face to Cleveland fans. Isaiah Crowell, who did not miss a game in each of the past four seasons with the Browns, was held to 35 yards by the Dolphins after rushing for 102 yards on 10 carries against Detroit.
Carlos Hyde, brought in to replace Crowell, leads a Cleveland ground game that ranks fourth in the league with an average of 135 yards per game. Taylor has boosted that total, rushing for 103 yards in two games — only two fewer than Hyde.
“They got three great running backs obviously and then the quarterback can run as well so that’s extra yardage that you don’t count for that’s hidden,” Bowles said. “You try to stop the running backs and the quarterback is going to hurt you and vice versa.”
The Browns, despite their lengthy winless drought, are favored at home for the first time since the 2015 season. Jets wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who had more than 1,000 yards with Cleveland during the 2016 season, said his team’s underdog status would provide no added motivation.
“It means nothing to Cleveland; it means nothing to the Jets,” Pryor said. “Paper is paper. There are so many teams that are underdogs and they’re coming out and beating guys. It really doesn’t matter.”