Much about what you get out of the holiday season depends on what you believe in. It's a bit like the last line of I Believe in Father Christmas by Emerson, Lake & Palmer where Greg Lake sings "the Christmas we get we deserve." The Cleveland Browns got beaten down 34-12 on Sunday by the Denver Broncos and there's no question they got exactly out of that game what they deserved.
The team played just as a team who knows its head coach is on the way out tends to play, indifferent, distracted and dispirited. We know this because we've seen it out of various forms of this team just about every other year at season's end. To be fair and perhaps in a show of strength and faith for the players that stopped listening to him about 10 minutes after Jimmy Haslam III took over officially as owner and Joe Banner took over as president, its head coach, Pat Shurmur, coached Sunday's game like someone who knows that he'll soon be looking to latch on somewhere else next season as a quarterbacks coach. For the second straight week the offensive looked untethered, random, clueless and confused.
Every year when I watch the Browns play out the string of another failed season my mind starts to drift to the pity I feel for players like Phil Dawson and D'Qwell Jackson. Like the fans, they have been through so much crap with this franchise that it makes you wonder why they do it. But week after week, year after year, through every next savior and every next great plan, they just stick to their assignments, don't make waves and get their work done. The money is good in professional sports and it sure beats regular work but it still takes a special type to grind through season after season with the Browns and come out smiling at the end.
Peyton Manning, playing as if he has finally found both his sea legs and his second wind, carved up the Browns' secondary from literally the first play of the game until the Broncos essentially took mercy on them early in the 4th quarter and stopped passing the ball. By then the Broncos had 31 points and were still able to add 3 more thanks to a defense that couldn't stop the run even though they knew what was coming next. Meanwhile, Shurmur was in full panic mode from the outset once again treating first round pick Trent Richardson like a decoy while entrusting the increasingly erratic Brandon Weeden to find open receivers downfield. It worked every bit as well as it did the previous week.
If Richardson was pissed last week because of the lack of carries, he must be apoplectic today with his 9 carries. What's more, and as last week, Richardson seemed to be running hard early. He amassed a number of nice runs and still couldn't find his way into the offensive flow that Shurmur had in mind. Shurmur at this point has hitched his star to Weeden and it's proved to be about as bad a choice as he's made all season and it's not like there haven't been a hundred other bad choices by Shurmur to choose from. Anyway, Richardson ended the game getting hurt when the game was long out of reach, which is another reason on the ever expanding list that new club president Joe Banner keeps in his pocket entitled "What Was Pat Shurmur Thinking?"
I thought I knew this team and yet its capacity to surprise is mystifying to me. On the one hand, the outcomes, particularly at this time of year, are utterly predictable, like the plot of any episode of any version of Law & Order. On the other hand, the ineptness, the abject idiocy employed to get to the outcome is never less than fascinating.
The Browns' first offensive series, which started about 3 minutes into the game or, said differently, about 2 minutes and 50 seconds after Manning schooled the Browns in how to run an offense, perfectly captured everything you'd want to know or think about this team. It had the ebb and flow of the entire season, really. It was turgid often, interesting sometimes and self-defeating at exactly the wrong times. The aforementioned Richardson had two early carries, one for 8 yards, the other for 7 while Weeden was doing his usual routine of running through his progressions with the panic of a 16 year old in driver's training class surveying a four way stop for the first time. Like the 16 year old hesitant to enter traffic, Weeden was hesitant to try anything more then the outlet pass. Once in awhile those short passes turned into decent gains but ultimately the drive fizzled when the Browns had it first and goal at the Broncos 8 yard line and just as quickly found themselves at the 13 yard line because of another friggin' false start penalty. Phil Dawson eventually was called on to kick a routine field goal to make it seem as though the Browns still had a chance in a 7-3 ball game.
Manning then came right back running essentially the same series as he did the first time the Broncos had the ball and ended up with the same result, another touchdown. At this point I figured that the Broncos could score 50 points by halftime if they wanted and I'm sure they could have. That they didn't shouldn't be viewed as any sort of moral victory by the Browns. They were handled from the opening series on and were never in the game.
After the Broncos took the 14-3 lead, things settled down a bit and then the Browns avoided near total disaster when Manning was intercepted in the end zone by Usama Young just as the Broncos were looking to take a 21-3 lead at the half. So with the game still technically well within reach, the Browns needed to come out in the second half with a plan. For the second straight week they had none. I'm not sure exactly what Shurmur and his coaches talk about at halftime but it doesn't seem to be football related. The Browns added a 53 yard Dawson field goal, which was notable and which I'll discuss in a moment, and then Manning followed it up with another touchdown and at that point the game was over, completely unequivocally read at the meat thermometer over.
That's the point where Weeden went down on a relatively light sack and left the game and Colt McCoy came in, got sacked right out of the gate and then the Browns punted. I don't want to dismiss the viciousness of professional football, especially as I watch it from the comfort of a heated home where the biggest threat to my safety is a potential short in a string of Christmas tree lights. But the sack that put Weeden out of the game seemed almost benign. I'm not questioning his resolve. He's been beaten pretty thoroughly throughout the season. It was of no great concern anyway. Weeden was a robust 12-19 for 104 yards at that point and wasn't about to get any better. McCoy played lousy, but it's not like he had much of a chance. He did put together a late touchdown drive that ended with a nice little pass to Greg Little. But even that couldn't be celebrated fully. With the score 31-6, Shurmur oddly had the Browns attempt a two-point conversion that failed. Nice coda, there, Pat.
As I said at the outset, though, the manner in which the Browns get to where they inevitably should be is probably the most entertaining aspect of a game that was less entertaining than "rap week" on The Voice. Here I pick on Weeden again but more to illustrate the absurdity of it all. In the Browns' first drive of the second half, you know, the one where they had to come out strong so that they could remain in the game, Weeden actually got the team down to the Broncos 28 yard line. From there he had Josh Gordon wide open near the goal line, about 25 or so yards downfield. Weeden short-armed the pass and it ended about 5 yards short of the target.
At that particular moment I had the radio broadcast on as well and Doug Dieken said, seriously, that this was the end of the field where the wind was blowing pretty hard. That would be some mighty wind, Doug. I understand that part of the business of the home team broadcasting crew is to find the rainbows and silver linings in the perpetual storm clouds that envelope the Stadium, but even this was a bit much even for Dieken's partner, Jimmy Donovan, who wasn't buying it. That Weeden missed another open receiver at just the exact moment that could have put the Browns back in the game isn't anything new. It's been going on all season. But what was particularly delicious and delightful was what came next. On third down, Weeden got sacked for 7 yards. On fourth down Dawson calmly almost routinely nailed a 53-yard field goal that would have been good from 63 yards. It made Dieken look ridiculous for his prior comment while elevating the sympathy factor for Dawson even higher. That too is the Browns' season in a nutshell.
One other thing about the game worth noting and, honestly, there isn't all that much to note, was the fact that the Browns' secondary was particularly depleted. What makes that interesting is that going into last Sunday's game against Washington the secondary was completely healthy. During the course of this past week, two defensive backs got injured in practice and Shurmur mysteriously released another, Dmitri Patterson.. It's pretty unusual for two players on non playoff teams to get hurt in practice this late in the season. But this is the Browns where there is no script, no playbook and thus no usual mode of operation. That left the likes of Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine to pick up the slack and they did just exactly what you'd expect. Brown spent the first quarter just a step behind any receiver he was recovering. Skrine spent the game committing penalties. Brown was hurt on a particularly cheap shot and will be lost for the last game of the season. Tough luck on the injury, of course, but at least he doesn't have to suit up. Dawson and Jackson won't be so lucky.
The Browns season comes to a merciful end next week in a game with absolutely no meaning to it. The team visits the Pittsburgh Steelers who were knocked from the playoffs on Sunday and for the first time in years have likewise nothing to play for. It will be interesting to see how they handle the experience. If they need some pointers they have a whole library of Browns' film from the last decade they can watch.