Josh Cribbs may be a disgruntled member of the Cleveland Browns but give him credit for being the team's best analyst. Calling the Browns a team that "almost always almost wins," Cribbs not only captured the essence of the Browns' latest road loss, this time a 23-20 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, but really the story line of most of the other 8 losses this season and the dozens of losses over the last 10 years.
The Browns almost always almost do something well enough to win but it's their abiding commitment to failure that ultimately puts them in the position to lose week in and week out. This week it was the crappy play of the crappy defensive backs, a phrase that really contains a sort of double negative so, if my algebra is correct, the simplified version comes down to the play of the defensive backs. Two weeks ago it was crappy play calling or whatever. It really doesn't matter much anymore. If there's a game to be played, rest assured that the Browns will do their level best to find a way to come up just short of success.
Yet there may still be something to learn from Sunday's near win. But how you feel about the Cowboys actual win and the Browns actual loss and whether it taught you anything new about this team depends mostly on how you come out of some of the key questions underlying the game.
For example, was the apparent competitiveness of the game a reflection of Pat Shurmur's ability to well utilize the bye week or of Jason Garrett's incompetence as a play calling head coach in Dallas?
Shurmur is 0-2 now following bye weeks so he's not exactly Urban Meyer. He hasn't necessarily shown much growth as a head coach but yet the team seem well prepared, at least during the first half, following the bye week. There was a crispness to the offense that had been missing in recent weeks. A healthier defensive line was certainly taking the measure of a make shift Cowboys offensive line. The Browns put themselves in a position to score at least 3 times and ended up taking a 13-0 lead into the locker room.
And while the first half was fun and made the Cowboys look more like the Browns than the Browns, the highlight for me was the following exchange that occurred between Greg Gumbel, a usually reliable play by play guy, and Dan Dierdorf, the world's best color commentator but only if the only person in the competition with him is Matt Millen, when the Browns approached the red zone for the first time:
Gumbel (noting that the Browns are 31st in the league in scoring touchdowns when in the red zone, and probably at least 31st in the league in scoring touchdowns from wherever they are on the field): This is where the Browns struggle. I wonder why it is that some teams do better than others when in the red zone?
Dierdorf (salivating at the inane question like my dog salivates just before I finish pouring his food in his dish): Better players. Better play calling.
Precisely. The Browns had a chance to have a commanding rather than pedestrian lead at the half and didn't because they don't have good players and then they combine that deficiency with poor play calling. Shurmur is more concerned with not getting three points then he is with trying to get seven and Brandon Weeden is worried about throwing still another interception and hurting his chances to be named best rookie quarterback not named Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck. Wasn't that exactly the issue against the Ravens when the Browns didn't throw even one pass into the end zone when they were in the red zone? Thought so.
All that said, let's face it. The Cowboys knew prior to the pre-game warm ups that the Browns' defensive secondary was pretty suspect and that's with a completely healthy Joe Haden. Once Haden showed up in Arlington dressed more for raking leaves than doing battle with Dez Bryant, the Cowboys should have been lighting up the scoreboard. They didn't. It was almost as if they wanted to prove that they could beat the Browns by deliberating playing to their weaknesses rather than their strengths, such as they are.
If I was Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones during his post-season meeting when he fires Garrett because the Cowboys again missed the playoffs, he should walk him through the first half of Sunday's game each painful second at a time so that Garrett understands that instead of trying to establish a run game that they don't have he should have had quarterback Tony Romo throwing on damn near every play. The worst thing you can do is let an inferior team believe it can play you straight up, but that's exactly what Garrett and the Cowboys did by strangely ignoring exactly what they were being given in the passing game.
Buster Skrine didn't get the title of worst defensive back in the league through mere chance. He's a fidget of a player with modest speed who probably couldn't cover Brian Robiskie, let alone Dez Bryant. Yet it took the Cowboys all of the first half to figure out that when the Browns defensive backs weren't giving 10-15 yard cushions they were interfering. The Cowboys had 10 freaking first downs on penalties, which has to be some kind of record. It would be hard to envision a more inviting passing scenario for any quarterback and yet the Cowboys acted as if the Browns had Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon in their primes back on every play.
On those plays were Skrine could establish contact with a receiver, he did, usually well beyond the 5-yard zone off the ball that defensive backs are allowed by rule. A flag inevitably followed. If Skrine wasn't getting a penalty then it was only because he couldn't even get close enough to the receiver to commit the foul in the first place.
If was actually quite fascinating when the CBS camera crew would focus on Skrine's mug after a penalty. He didn't look sheepish. He didn't look indignant. He looked like a kid who knew he shouldn't have been out there, like LeBron James at a Cavs fan party or Rush Limbaugh at a NOW convention. That the Browns had no other effective choice, or at least felt that they didn't, than Skrine speaks more about how undeniably thin the team's roster really is then it does about Skrine's lack of talent.
It wasn't just Skrine, though. Sheldon Brown did nothing more Sunday then demonstrate that he's at least a year, probably more, past his expiration date. Because he's been in the league as long as he has, let's just assume that at one point in his career he had the speed and skill to cover a legitimate receiver. Not any more.
So when fans and the local writers bemoan how the officials made suspect calls late in the game and again in overtime against the Browns' defensive backs and that this as much as anything is why the Browns lost, let's keep that delusion in context. Browns defensive backs were committing so many legitimate penalties leading up to those situations that they had long since given up any hope of getting the benefit of the doubt during crunch time.
I'm not saying that the game wasn't nearly as competitive as the final score and the fact that it went into overtime might indicate, but I'm not going to argue with anyone who feels differently. I suspect the Cowboys took the Browns too lightly early on. And I think that the Cowboys have their own set of issues to deal with, starting with the offensive line and their running game and moving on up to a lousy coaching staff. And while I'm at it, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called a strangely passive game until late. Put all that, the Browns players, the Cowboys various dysfunctions, in a stock pot, bring to a boil and stir occasionally and you have the full range of reasons that the game ended as it did.
So ultimately what we learned is that teams either play down to their level of competition when facing the Browns or the Browns players play up, again depending on your perspective. The reason it doesn't matter ultimately is that while teams with lesser talent occasionally eke out victories at every level of play, it's not the norm and that is why the Browns may be one of the better worst teams in the league, they're still one of the worst teams in the league.
If there was an encouraging sign at all from Sunday's loss it was the noticeable change in attitude of Shurmur while in aforesaid red zone. The Brown's first touchdown, which was a 10-yard pass from Weeden to tight end Ben Watson, was a ball thrown in the end zone. Because it was early in the game, it serves as a far better measure of Shurmur's relative increase in boldness when measured against his fear against the Ravens two weeks ago then the second touchdown pass Weeden threw, a 17-yard pass also to Watson.
It could be that the difference is simply that the Ravens have Ed Reed and the Cowboys don't. But I think it's more than that. The pass to Watson was thrown directly into coverage. Indeed, Watson was surrounded by three Cowboys defenders. Two weeks ago both Weeden and Shurmur specifically mentioned not wanting to throw into coverage in the end zone for fear of the interception, which is why Phil Dawson again is the Browns' offensive MVP. In that sense, this was a big step.
Then again, when the team is 2-7 and the head coach is a lame duck and the latest regime isn't yet sold on the decisions of the last regime, maybe it was more an example of flying by the seat of your pants. When you have nothing to win, you have nothing to lose and if anything describes Shurmur's fate at this point it's that.
It's far harder to measure Weeden's progress. Unquestionably he's better now then he was earlier in the season, which is a positive. He doesn't lock on receivers nearly as much, unless he's throwing deep in which case he still locks completely on that receiver, and he can generally find the outlet guy. But Weeden is still awfully late on too many passes, which is a sign that he's still reacting first and then throwing instead of anticipating as he throws.
This too is explainable since Weeden is still pretty raw and he's not throwing to the most accomplished group of receivers. Ultimately, though, when new president Joe Banner and offensive coordinator Brad Childress talk about having to evaluate Weeden at year's end, this is what they'll look for. Does Weeden make the correct reads? Does he have the kind of trigger that is more instinctive than mechanical? Those are hard things to judge and nothing about the Dallas loss added much insight except one thing.
Weeden still has horrible touch. He not only missed a wide open Josh Cooper (though in fairness, Cooper did drop a pass right in his hands earlier) and he threw about the worst pass you're ever likely to see on 4th down near the Dallas one yard line. Not knowing if the Browns would see the ball again and needing a touchdown on what could have been their last effective play, Weeden absolutely had to give his receiver a chance to catch the ball. He didn't. The throw to Jordan Cameron was well out of bounds.
As it is, Weeden wasn't helped much by the play calling. I can understand trying to force Richardson down the Cowboys' collective throats but what I can't understand is why there was no play action on that 4th down play. The Cowboys had 42 players in the box and had completely sold out on the rush. It was the exact time to fake the dive to Richardson and have the tight end on the right side release to what surely would have been open field on the right side of the line. Instead the Browns went all in on an iffy fade route to the left side of the end zone. Weeden had virtually no room to work the play and to prove it and his lack of touch, he lofted the ball at least 5 yards out of bounds.
Weeden was helped, too, by his receivers all day. Here's the place where it's time to say something nice about Greg Too Little. He made two very fine catches on poorly thrown balls and then didn't stop to celebrate either one. That's significant progress actually. How that translates to the rest of the season is hard to say although Jeff Schudel at the News-Herald seems to think that Little has completely matured and is now a leader on the team. If that's the key, no one needs Clarissa to explain it all. It explains itself.
The Browns next take on a wounded Pittsburgh Steelers team. With Ben Roethlisberger out, this simply isn't the same Steelers team that has owned the Browns like the Buckeyes own the Hoosiers. This also isn't exactly the same Steelers team because defensively it's more suspect then it has been in years. It would be nice to imagine that the Browns go all Ralphie on the Steelers and unleash a few year's worth of frustration on the bullies that torment them and it could happen that way. But past being prologue all too often with this team, they're likely to add another chapter to the almost always almost victories they've compiled against that team and the rest of the league for years.