CINCINNATI — Christian Kirksey had a message for his teammates in the moments following a 30-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. His passion was obvious as his voice thundered through the walls and into the next room.
“It’s a man’s game. Men don’t quit. Men don’t fold,” Kirksey, an outside linebacker, told reporters minutes after his speech. “So I was just encouraging the guys to keep grinding, keep trying to move forward, don’t get down on yourself, don’t hold your head. It’s the National Football League. You’re blessed to be here.
“There’s no time to complain about a call. There’s no time to say, oh, this could have went that way or kind of feel sorry for ourselves. This is a man’s game.”
Kirksey said he didn’t sense any quit in his teammates but wanted to make it clear it’s not acceptable. The Browns are again in the danger zone of a season in which relevance was lost long ago.
The Browns became just the second team in NFL history to start consecutive seasons 0-11, joining the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bengals (5-6) have won a record seven straight in the in-state rivalry, including a season sweep.
The Browns haven’t won a road game since Oct. 11, 2015, in overtime at Baltimore. They haven’t won on a Sunday since Dec. 13, 2015. They are an NFL-worst 4-44 in their last 48 and 5-45 since last beating the Bengals on Nov. 6, 2014, with Brian Hoyer at quarterback.
Coach Hue Jackson fell to 1-26 with the Browns, tying John McKay from the Buccaneers teams for the worst start with a team in NFL history.
“Hue’s a good coach, and I wouldn’t want to play for any other person,” Kirksey said. “We’re all in it together. It’s not just Hue. It’s the Cleveland Browns. So we’re not putting it on one man’s shoulders. It’s on all of us. I’ll forever have his back. And that’s what the men in this room do. We have his back.”
Jackson tied McKay in the city where he spent four years as an assistant before joining the Browns. He dropped to 0-4 against good friend and former boss Marvin Lewis.
Jackson again lamented the lack of playmaking in critical spots and was frustrated with a late penalty on safety Jabrill Peppers for hitting a defenseless receiver that extended the Bengals’ final touchdown drive that put the game out of reach.
“You hear the emotion and passion about this group that they keep fighting and wanting to get this right and how important it is,” Jackson said of Kirksey. “Because we put a lot into this. Every week we’re out here grinding trying to win and we don’t get it done.”
Both offenses entered ranked near the bottom of the league in many statistical categories but consistently moved the ball, as the Browns led the yardage battle 405-361. The difference in the game was the Bengals were able to finish three times with touchdowns while the Browns managed one.
Rookie DeShone Kizer finally crossed the goal line with a 3-yard quarterback draw with 6:57 left to cut the deficit to 23-16. Penalties and missed assignments in the red zone killed previous opportunities.
“We’re just not good enough yet to overcome these things,” Jackson said. “We have to continue to get better that way. It’s tough when we get down there. That area of the field shrinks, so we’ve got to make some special plays and we’re not on top of that just yet like we need to be.”
The best chance for an earlier touchdown went by the wayside when receiver Corey Coleman dropped a perfect Kizer pass in the end zone. Coleman was open on a post route but let the ball hit his face mask and get away on second-and-20 from the 29-yard line.
“Obviously it’s unfortunate,” Jackson said. “Corey knows he’s got to make that play. It’s so important, because that changes the game.”
Kizer missed a series in the first half as he was evaluated for a concussion and cleared. He told the medical staff he didn’t feel right after an early hit.
“I just took a good hit. I felt a little off, and figured rather be safe than sorry,” said Kizer, who was sacked three times, hit eight more as a passer and tackled after eight of his nine carries. “I didn’t necessarily think I was going to go through the full concussion protocol, but obviously that’s mandated by the league to protect us. Went through that, cleared and good, and got back out there.”
Kizer went 18-for-31 for a career-high 268 yards and an 86.5 rating. He rushed for 39 yards and the score and didn’t have a turnover for the second time in four games.
“He showed me a tough dude,” said rookie tight end David Njoku, who had four catches for 47 yards. “For him to fight his way through and come back out here for the team, he does it for us, risking his body every play for us. We really appreciate that.”
The performance was a significant improvement over the 31-7 loss to the Bengals in Cleveland on Oct. 1, when Kizer didn’t manage a score and passed for 118 yards and an interception for a 43.5 rating.
“For me I don’t think it’s about the development anymore,” he said. “Obviously it’s about making myself better and feeling like I’m performing better, but when you see a group of 60-something guys out there every day putting their bodies on the line, you’ve got to reward them with a win. It’s about doing whatever it takes to win.”
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tyler Boyd in the first quarter and a 1-yarder to tight end Tyler Kroft in the third. Dalton and the play calls kept the defense off-balance all day, finding the right combination of runs and passes to defeat the defensive personnel. Dalton went 18-for-28 for 214 yards, two touchdowns, a sack and a 111.3 rating.
Rookie Joe Mixon had his first 100-yard rushing game, carrying 23 times for 114 yards, a 5.0 average and the clinching touchdown from 11 yards. The Browns have allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushers after nine games without one and gave up 152 rushing yards to a Bengals team that entered last in the league at 68.0 yards a game. The Browns will surely slide from their ranking as the No. 6 rush defense.
Jackson was surprised it didn’t stand up.
“We’ve done a good job thus far stopping the run,” he said. “Today was a good day for them, and not a great day for us.”
It hasn’t been a great couple of years for Jackson and the Browns.