CLEVELAND — Hue Jackson walked to the center of the field as the final seconds ticked off the clock Sunday afternoon in a near-empty FirstEnergy Stadium.
He was met by Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who gave him a long hug. A quick hug followed with good friend, former boss and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who delivered a succinct and telling message.
“Don’t let them quit on you,” Lewis said he told Jackson.
It was that kind of afternoon for the Browns and their coach. It’s been that kind of season. It’s been that kind of tenure for Jackson.
The Browns were humiliated 31-7 by the previously winless Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns dropped to 0-4 and remain the only NFL team not to lead this season. They are 1-19 under Jackson and have lost 38 of 42 since starting 6-3 in 2014.
The Browns have lost a record six straight in the Battle of Ohio. The Bengals have outscored the Browns 121-20 in their last four trips to the lakefront.
“We wake up to play the Browns like we wake up to play Pittsburgh,” Jones said. “It’s the Battle of Ohio. People don’t think it’s big, but it’s for the state of Ohio.”
The Browns are bad against anyone from any state.
They are 0-9 inside the AFC North under Jackson, including losing to all three rivals within the first month of this season. They’ve lost 14 straight in the division dating to 2015.
“I am not going to let this team go backwards,” Jackson said. “We did today. There is no question about that. I think to a man in there, we will go back to work. We will put our heads down and get better.”
The Browns avoided a shutout on a 1-yard Duke Johnson run with 1:54 remaining. The Browns were last blanked 30-0 by the Bengals on Dec. 14, 2014, in Johnny Manziel’s first start at quarterback.
The scoring drive Sunday was helped by a pair of pass interference penalties in the end zone. It came with Kevin Hogan at quarterback after Jackson removed rookie DeShone Kizer with 6:30 left to save him from any more physical punishment. Kizer was only sacked once but hit numerous times as he tried to play catch-up.
“DeShone Kizer is the quarterback. I believe what this guy is going to be so I didn’t want to take a chance of leaving him in there and all of the sudden getting him injured,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want him to get hit anymore. I don’t think his spirit is broken or anything. He wanted to stay in there, trust me. I just knew it was the right thing to do at that time.”
Kizer said he made it through completely healthy, even after linebacker Vontaze Burfict was called for roughing the passer in his return from a three-game suspension for a dirty hit in the preseason.
“Those guys are big. You are going to feel every hit you take,” Kizer said. “Got out of there with no bumps or bruises.”
He went 16-for-34 for 118 yards, an interception and a 43.5 rating. For the season, he’s completed a league-worst 51.4 percent with three touchdowns, a league-high eight interceptions, 11 sacks and a league-low 50.9 rating.
His second-quarter interception against the Bengals went through receiver Kenny Britt’s hands, bounced off his pads into the air and was picked by safety Clayton Fejedelem at the Cincinnati 7-yard line.
“We put a lot of time and effort into this,” Kizer said. “We try to do whatever we can to execute our jobs. When we come out and do not execute it, that does become frustrating.”
The defense was just as bad as the offense.
The Bengals didn’t score a touchdown in their first two games, yet had four against a Browns defense without defensive end Myles Garrett, outside linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive tackle Danny Shelton. The Bengals (1-3) blew open the game in the second quarter with touchdowns on three straight possessions.
The Colts, who were winless before beating the Browns, scored touchdowns on four straight first-half possessions last week.
“Things sometimes get heading downhill the other way, and we couldn’t get a stop,” Jackson said.
Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton entered as the league’s 30th-rated quarterback (69.6) but went 17-for-18 for 215 yards and three touchdowns for a 156.0 rating in the first half. He finished 25-for-30 for 286 yards, four touchdowns and a 146.0 rating
A poorly timed cornerback blitz on third down left rookie safety Jabrill Peppers in one-on-one coverage with Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green for an easy 7-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.
Another poorly timed blitz allowed a simple screen pass from Dalton to Giovani Bernard to go for a 61-yard touchdown with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. Bernard went untouched, running through a wide lane down the right side.
The Gregg Williams-led defense has allowed 11 touchdowns in 13 possessions that reached the red zone.
“In the preseason I thought we were dominant in the red zone, now we’ve just got to turn it up a notch and understand that it’s the regular season, people are going to give their best down there,” said linebacker Christian Kirksey, who had eight tackles.
The loudest cheers were for Brian Sipe, who hasn’t played for the Browns since 1983. Those cheers were nothing compared to the boos that started early and continued for much of the game.
Jackson heard them and saw the stadium empty early on an otherwise beautiful autumn afternoon.
“It pains me. It does. I see it all,” he said. “We all want to give them what they deserve. We didn’t today. I understand our fans leaving. I probably would have, too. We weren’t playing good enough. I respect that.
“Hopefully, they will be back next week. We need to give our fans and our football team what they deserve, which is an opportunity to win. That is what we are trying to do.”