April 15, 2024

PITTSBURGH — The Cleveland Browns lost their best offensive player Monday night to what’s expected to be a season-ending knee injury.

In the grand scheme of an all-in season that’s off to a horrendous offensive start, I hesitate to call Nick Chubb the team’s most important player. That’s debatable, as are many things involved with a Browns team that followed a dominant Week 1 win with a bizarre and avoidable 26-22 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Chubb is pretty much irreplaceable, and now the reeling Browns have to figure out how to make the offense go without him. Early in the second quarter, Chubb carried the ball on first-and-goal and was barrelling toward the end zone when he was blasted on his left knee by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Chubb’s knee buckled, and Steelers defenders near the play immediately signaled to the sideline for assistance. It was clear that Chubb had suffered a significant injury, one that was so bad that he had to be taken to a local hospital as a precaution.

The Browns led Monday night into the fourth quarter, and there’s a lengthy list of alarming reasons why they eventually didn’t win. But in many ways, it felt like they lost the moment the cart came out for Chubb — and that it well could be a lost season, too. Deshaun Watson can freelance and threaten defenses both via the run and pass, but he’s struggling to turn the threat of the pass into anything resembling consistent results. Second-year back Jerome Ford immediately scored after replacing Chubb and later showed that he has some real juice. But he’s not Chubb.

Few are. No one is, really. Chubb’s rare blend of power and explosion makes him hard to tackle and makes Cleveland hard to defend. He’s a respected player in the locker room who rarely says much but always delivers. Always. For an organization now on its third decade of fighting for relevancy and respect across the league, Chubb had earned both. He’s a low-maintenance superstar and high-volume producer.

All spring and summer, we listened and guessed when it came to the shape of this new offense that had Watson with less rust, more input and full availability. The Browns brought in Elijah Moore, Marquise Goodwin, Cedric Tillman and Jordan Akins to help become a more versatile and dangerous passing team. We heard Watson promise “fireworks” after the final preseason game.

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When the real games began, it was Chubb who was the spark. It was Chubb cutting back to extend drives and exhaust defenses. In the first quarter Monday night, Chubb rushed nine times for 59 yards — and there weren’t anywhere near 59 yards available to the average running back on those plays. Then came the nasty collision and the immediate realization that Chubb’s season was over. The Browns scored on their next play, but they ended up netting just three yards on the 10 plays that followed. Of the 36 yards the Browns posted the rest of the second quarter, 29 came on one Watson pass to David Njoku. The Browns went 0-for-4 in trying to convert third downs the rest of the half.

Ford ended up rushing 16 times for 106 yards. He had one huge run and two other impressive ones to keep the Browns going. Watson had a couple of hits and a bunch of misses. The Steelers scored a defensive touchdown via an Alex Highsmith interception return on the game’s first play, then got the winning points when they turned a Highsmith strip-sack into a fumble return touchdown by T.J. Watt with 6:58 left. The Browns had two more chances but didn’t really threaten to score. Their defense was good, but the Steelers’ defense was dominant, sacking Watson six times and drawing four holding penalties on Cleveland’s offensive linemen.

The Browns’ offense has much to clean up, as is the case across the NFL at this early point of the season. But in five quarters this season before Chubb’s injury, we were reminded — again — of Chubb’s importance, explosiveness and ability to turn standard runs into significant gains. The Browns’ blueprint for this season was to score a bunch of points with a more open offense, turn the pass rush loose, then let Chubb serve as one of the closers with his punishing running style and ability to drag would-be tacklers past the chains.

Two games in, the Browns have a nasty pass rush and major questions about every area of the offense. Two games in, the Browns have lost major sections of the first and last parts of that blueprint.

Chubb, 27, has one year left on the contract he signed ahead of the 2021 season. He’s currently set to carry a 2024 salary-cap number of $16.2 million, but the Browns would incur just $4 million of dead money if Chubb is not on the team. It’s not the time to fully explore Chubb’s future with the Browns, but it’s clear Cleveland isn’t the same team without him and fair to at least wonder if it punted on Chubb’s last great season in 2022 to get Watson. At this point, the Browns are only sure that the aforementioned blueprint was done on really expensive paper.

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Chubb entered the game averaging 5.3 yards per carry for his career, and last season he became the only running back in NFL history to average at least 5.0 yards per carry in each of his first five seasons. Only Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Chubb have logged 1,000 yards, an average of at least 5.0 yards per carry and at least eight rushing touchdowns in four different seasons. Chubb over the last few years has put himself second to Brown in almost every major Cleveland rushing category, and Chubb had surpassed Brown’s 5.2 yards per carry career average.

Last season, Chubb had a career-best 1,525 rushing yards and tied a career-best with 12 rushing touchdowns. In Week 1, he ran for 106 yards on 18 carries and would have been in line for more carries had the Cincinnati Bengals kept the game a little closer. They didn’t, so the Browns saved Chubb for what all involved hoped would be bigger situations and games.

At a time when Chubb looked to be certainly as valuable as ever and likely more needed than ever given the stakes of the season, the Browns now have to go forward without him.

That Ford was ready to produce is one of the few bright spots of a miserable night for Cleveland. On the first play after Chubb’s injury, Ford caught a touchdown pass from Watson. In the third quarter, Ford cut back across the field and got free after the Steelers cut off his initial path. He kept going toward the goal line but had to settle for a 69-yard run after officials ruled that he was tripped up inside the 1.

Ford has big-league speed. The Browns trusted Ford despite rarely using him last season, and he missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury. Prior to Monday night, he had 23 career carries — and 15 of them came in the previous week.

Watson was near tears after the game in talking about Chubb’s importance to the locker room. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said the Browns lost “a great football player and even better person.” Myles Garrett said it “f—ing hurts” to know that Chubb’s season is over.

“We have to keep pushing,” Garrett said. “That’s what he would want us to do. That’s what he would do.”

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Stefanski essentially said the same, acknowledging that Chubb’s injury shook up the players.

“Guys knew what they had to do,” Stefanski said. “You feel for the people, and in Nick’s case, you feel for Nick. But I know Nick, and his teammates know Nick, and you have to move on in football. You have to go win games. We didn’t do enough things that contribute to winning today.

“It’s hard (losing) Nick. It’s no excuse for performance. Nick would be telling the team they have to keep going. There’s no licking wounds. You have to move on.”

The Browns have to move on quickly. But it will be difficult to even come close to replacing what Chubb gave them, and they exit their second game of the season not only having squandered a chance to win but having lost a player who made their offense unique — and consistently made a positive difference.

(Photo: Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)

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