Here's something definitive we learned from the Cleveland Browns on Sunday: before you swagger, you have to learn to walk, or throw, catch, or tackle, or, for the love of God, line up correctly.
In the run up to what would become their 10th straight loss (a period that spans 5 years or roughly longer than most celebrity marriages) to the Baltimore Ravens, all the talk around Berea was that the team had a new found sense of confidence and swagger, that they were closing the gap on their AFC rivals.
It's hard to imagine a team that has won 5 or more games just twice in the last 10 years, a team that goes through regime change like a banana republic, a team with a 29 year old rookie quarterback, a team that once again leads the league in dropped passed and blown coverages, a team so irrelevant that its highlights are relegated to 30 second blips on SportsCenter and Football Night in America, a team that is so shaky
fundamentally that it routinely burns time outs because it can't get the right players on the field or line up correctly, a team that is penciled in as a win on every opponent's schedule when it is released each off season, and a team that hasn't been favored to win but a small handful of times in the last 10 years, home or away, swaggering or confident about anything, let alone a match up against a team that specifically targets its visits to Cleveland as an opportunity to support its own flagging confidence.
That anyone suggested that the Browns' had some sort of renewed purpose because they beat a poorly coached San Diego team and a poorly coached Cincinnati team while losing to an interim-coached Indianapolis team in between, is tantamount to journalistic malpractice. It's akin to simply making things up, which is far easier than actually researching things I'll grant you that.
The Browns are full of young players, most of whom don't even know what they don't know, so if they faux swagger around the Berea complex like they've accomplished anything it's probably understandable in the same way your kid thinks you should buy him the latest version of Call of Duty because he only missed 3 on his 10 question spelling test. But that irrational exuberance by players who entered the game, yes entered the game, at 2-6 doesn't mean that the team is suddenly better or that it has, in fact, actually closed the gap on its AFC rivals.
We already know that the Bengals aren't a very good team because the only thing keeping them off the radar even somewhat for the last decade is the fact that the Browns have been worse. The Steelers looked pretty solid against the New York Giants on Sunday, that same Giants team that handled the Browns like Ohio State handled the Miami Redhawks. The Ravens are a team in transition, particularly on defense, but they still have more than enough to treat the Browns like little more than pests. So if there's been gap closure, it was hard to tell through the fog of 5 lousy field goals on Sunday.
But if anything signifies how ill-conceived and misplaced this confidence it gained by barely handling two other lousy teams in the last three weeks it was the massive deuce the Browns' defense and offense dropped in its own punch bowl during the first two offensive and defensive possessions of Sunday's game.
The Ravens started the game by ramming it down the Browns' defense's collective throats in what basically served as a reminder as to who the daddy really is in the relationship. The Browns' offense responded with a three and out, outsmarting itself on a third and short. So that the message wasn't lost apparently, that exchange was repeated in nearly identical fashion on the next Ravens' and Browns' possessions which ended up giving the Ravens a 14-0 lead.
In addition to reinforcing the pecking order between these two teams, this tidy little exchange x 2 took the helium out of whatever balloons the fans carried in. Even when the Browns had a 15-14 lead relatively late in the game (and any lead by any Browns team that extends beyond the first quarter would be considered relatively late in the game), the fans never really bothered to re-inflate. They knew, just knew, that Phil Dawson's fifth field goal of the game would quickly be answered by a touchdown that would give the Ravens an insurmountable lead mainly because it would be more than a 3-point gap. It was and it was and frankly the 2-point conversion was just piling on for good measure.
Which brings us to what's become a weekly feature called "what will Pat Shurmur do on 4th and short late in the game with his team trailing?" This week it was the Browns facing a 4th and 2 from their own 28 yard line with under four minutes remaining. They had just two time outs because, no surprise, they had needlessly burned one earlier because the play clock was about to expire, again because they couldn't get a play into Weeden in a timely fashion. Seizing a moment that he's never seized before, Shurmur kept the offense on the field. Quarterback Brandon Weeden fired prematurely as if he was the high school geek that had somehow convinced the homecoming queen to make out with him in the back seat of his parents' Caddy and the last remaining shred of a potential threat had ended. It wasn't a real threat anyway because the Browns had no chance of scoring a game-tying touchdown so it's not like the Ravens' field goal thereafter actually put the game out of reach.
But let's not second guess the decision on 4th down to go for it. It's the decision Shurmur should have been making all season. Having seen it blow up in his face doesn't make the decision wrong. The play call was fine as well. The execution was awful. It was awful all day
If you want to fault Shurmur, then fault him for the call on third down or fault him for not putting that decision in the context of Weeden's miserable performance, but don't fault him for trying to put a 2-6 team in a position to win the game with under 4 minutes remaining. If the Browns punt there's no guarantee, particularly coming off a drive where the defense looked horrible while allowing the Ravens to go ahead for go in the first place, that they get the ball back, even with two time outs remaining and the two-minute warning available to stop the clock. If that had happened, the same goofs who felt that the Browns' confidence in themselves was justifiable would be bitching that Shurmur once again failed to take a chance with a 2-6 team late in the game.
Besides, the underlying suggestion of those second-guessing this particular Shumur decision is that it was the essential reason the game was lost. Hardly. The game was lost each and every time the Browns settled for 3 points instead of getting 7. And make no mistake about it, they settled for 3 points. That's where Shumur's coaching went off the rails on Sunday, not on the 4th down call. The Browns were in the Baltimore red zone several times on Sunday, indeed more than the Ravens were in the Browns' red zone, and yet not one pass was thrown in the end zone.
It didn't even look as if one pass play for the end zone was even called and that includes the touchdown pass-that-wasn't to Josh Gordon. Shurmur showed no confidence in Weeden at any of those critical moments and while there's no guarantee that more aggressive play calling would have resulted in a touchdown, at least there was a chance it might have. That is the only context in which I'll consider the 4th down call a mistake. If Shurmur won't show confidence in his quarterback throughout the game, it gets a little tricky changing course late in the game.
And while we're talking about Shurmur's tentativeness as a play caller and a head coach, let's not forget the context. It was clear from almost the first snap that Trent Richardson was going to have a good game. The Ravens don't play great run defense anymore and Richardson had good drive in his legs that was apparent from his first carry. Instead of going to Richardson to get the tough yards on 4th and 2 or 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 1 or..., the Browns tried to be too cute by half by calling for a pass each time. That too is a measure of Shurmur's lack of confidence in himself or his team.
A team that thinks it can't compete attempts to win by surprise and deception instead. This Browns team isn't going to be competitive with anyone until it has enough confidence and swagger to run Richardson into the middle of the Ravens defense that is surprisingly poor against the rush. For all the talk going into the game it was this actual crisis of confidence in Richardson, in the offense generally, that told the real story of this team and ultimately set them up for failure later in the game. It's no surprise they failed.
While the Browns aren't closing the gap on anyone at the moment, it is kind of fun to watch the Ravens struggle. While they've placed much faith in quarterback Joe Flacco, he appears to be nothing more than Weeden, except younger. Flacco has a big arm and has amazing bouts of accuracy. He also gets flatfooted and dumbfounded at times, except when he plays Cleveland. That's when he looks like precisely what he is, a quarterback that is 10-0 against the competition.
One of the reasons though that Flacco can play with almost reckless abandon against Cleveland is the flip side of exactly why Weeden can't play that way against the Ravens. Baltimore has Ed Reed and Cleveland does not. Reed is a ball-hawking defensive back and he literally scares the shit out of Weeden. So afraid is Weeden of Reed that it wasn't until he was forced to at the very end of the game did Weeden even throw in that direction.
Meanwhile Flacco had no such concerns about anyone in Cleveland's defensive backfield. This has been my point all along about Joe Haden. Until team's game plan against him in the same way that Cleveland, for example, game plan's against Reed, Haden won't amount to anything more than a younger version of Sheldon Brown.
Haden's weaknesses were fully exposed on Sunday. He can't be trusted to cover Baltimore's receivers one-on-one. If I was Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh I'd be wondering why Ravens' offensive coordinator Cam Cameron abandoned what was so clearly working for them early in the game.
That said, some credit should go to Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron as well. After seeing his defensive exposed for two quick scores, adjustments got made and until the defense once again fell apart at exactly the wrong time it was keeping the Ravens in check. Running back Ray Rice ended up with 98 yards rushing but it was one of the quieter 98-yard rushing days you'll see. The damage the Ravens did was done early and late and the middle of the game looked like just about every Cleveland Indians game from this past season, tedious when it wasn't being outright boring.
Rarely if ever do you hear of a team saying that its bye week is coming at the wrong time. Such as it is with the Browns at the moment. It seems like every player yesterday that wasn't dejected about the loss was just plain pissed. The source of the angst seemed multiple but mostly stems from all the losing. Most of these players have enjoyed nothing but success until they ended up with the Browns and when the best you can say about your team is that it has a lot of really competitive losses that doesn't count for much.
When a team is struggling like this and changes are imminent, the bye week represents the best time during the season to make key changes. Yet as frustrating as Sunday's loss was for players and fans alike, there wasn't anything particularly unique or telling about it either. That's why new owner Jimmy Haslam will stick to his prior statement about not making any changes until the season's over.
Shurmur didn't do himself many favors in the way he coached against the Ravens, but then again he's been his own worst enemy all season anyway. Again, nothing about Sunday's loss was any more telling or unique with respect to Shurmur then any one of the other 21 losses he's coached this team through.
What would be helpful, at least viscerally, is if Haslam displayed some of the emotion that is on display during the game at a press conference, soon Fans who would only be satiated by a change might at least be placated for the next several weeks if they heard Haslam say that he's tired of seeing this franchise dick around and actually start accomplishing something. The fans have supported this team above and beyond what fans should be called on to do and if Haslam truly wants to win them over, the time is now and with an appropriate or even inappropriate display of anger at the all too predictable outcomes faced each week.