The euphoria Cleveland fans are probably feeling at watching the Bill Belichick-coached New England Patriots get their comeuppance in Sunday's Super Bowl will probably be replaced by frustration as soon as it occurs to them that the New York Giants had a record of 10-6, the same as the Browns, entering into the playoffs.
The big difference, of course, is that the Giants got a chance to parlay its 10-6 record into a Super Bowl ring while the Browns were left once again watching from the sidelines.
This isn't to suggest that the Browns could have made it to the Super Bowl. Hardly. The Browns, even at 10-6, were a seriously flawed defensive team that would never have survived the AFC playoff meat grinder. But on the other hand, the Giants win, coming off an 8-8 season the year before and a bad start that almost got its head coach, Tom Coughlin, fired three weeks into this season, demonstrates that indeed anything can happen come playoff time. This year, anything did happen.
The Giants playoff march was instructive for the Browns and their fans. Playing as underdogs on the road for three straight weeks, the Giants disposed of three supposedly superior teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers win was particularly impressive coming as it did in such frigid weather and adverse conditions.
What's interesting about the Giants 10-6 record is that they lost only one game on the road and five at home. Having become road warriors during the regular season it served them well for the playoffs. Compare that with the Browns. This past season, the Browns failed to reach the playoffs as much as for their inability to win a few very winnable games on the road as anything else. A victory in Oakland, Arizona or Cincinnati would have put them in the playoffs. Two or more victories would have given them a home playoff game. Having finally figured out how to win at home, the next step for the Browns is to win on the road. It's hard to get to the Super Bowl otherwise, let alone win it.
The other point about the Giants playoff success is that it demonstrated exactly why the worst thing a franchise can do is listen to the insane demands of fans when their ill-conceived and outsized need for instant gratification is not met. If the Giants fans had their way earlier in the season, Coughlin would have been canned during week three and Manning would have been benched. In fact, when it comes to Manning, it's charitable to say that this year's Super Bowl MVP had an uneven season, at least until the regular season's final game. Manning was no better, and in some ways worse, than his previous seasons.
Maybe it was because there were no immediately available viable alternatives or maybe it was because Giants owners tend to be old school, meaning they prefer to make such dramatic changes in the off season. Whichever it was, or even if there was another reason, patience ultimately prevailed and the team and its fans were richly rewarded.
As much as many Browns fans dislike it, that's the exact message that Browns general manager Phil Savage has been preaching since he arrived and at every opportunity since. The recent extension he gave to head coach Romeo Crennel was done to drive home that point to the team and its fans. Argue all you want about whether or not Crennel deserved the confidence, but from Savage's perspective he did and he now has the example of the Giants to point to when fans continue to call for Crennel's ouster and not his coronation. There is something to be said for stability, even mediocre stability.
The faith that Coughlin continued to show in Manning even as he struggled is also helpful context to understanding the Brown's current quarterback conundrum. Coughlin really didn't have a viable Plan B at quarterback so in some ways he had no choice but to stick with Manning. But Manning also had a decent pedigree so it made sense that the team would wait as long as possible for him to develop. And when the light finally went on for Manning in the regular season's final game against New England and then stayed on throughout the playoffs, that patience was richly rewarded as well. Now Eli Manning is as solid in New York as his brother is in Indianapolis. That is something that no one would have imagined even halfway through this season. Again, there is something to be said for stability.
The Browns have two reasonable candidates in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn but it is simply unrealistic to expect that there won't be struggles, irrespective of who, ultimately, is anointed the quarterback for the future. But if those kinks are to get worked out eventually, and if stability is to be achieved at that position, it will take an unwavering commitment to allowing the process to take its natural course. Keeping that commitment with young quarterbacks is difficult under the best of circumstances and can be nearly impossible for the coach to keep and the fans to understand when there is another viable quarterback just licking his chops in the background. It introduces a dynamic that Manning, for example, didn't have to contend with.
Despite what Savage says publicly, it is difficult for any NFL team to tolerate having two starting quarterbacks. It's true that a team needs depth, but what it really needs is a situation where it has a starter and an established back-up. There is simply no way that either Anderson or Quinn at this point in their careers will be happy carrying a clipboard and waiting for an injury much longer. The Browns may be able to maintain peace, love and harmony with this situation for another season, but not beyond. Given that, it makes more sense now to commit to one, move the other, and find an established back-up who is more than happy to collect a paycheck for taking a few snaps during the week and running the scout team. It's also the example from the Giants that Savage has to internalize to move this team forward.
One of the keys to the Browns success this season was the rebuilt offensive line, anchored by Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach. Savage is to be commended for the improvements made and the results were dramatic. That being said, the Giants victory underscored the importance of the defensive line and highlighted one of the biggest differences between the Browns and the Giants, despite the teams having the same regular season record.
In the regular season, Tom Brady, like Anderson, was one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the league. The Giants, on the other hand, led the league in sacking the quarterback. When the irresistible force met the seemingly immovable object in the Super Bowl, the object moved. The pressure that Brady felt from the first play forward disrupted the Patriots rhythm and was the main reason history's most prolific offense could manage only two touchdowns instead of the five they had averaged throughout the season.
Having a top offensive line will continue to serve the Browns well. But watching the performance of the Giants defensive line, Savage now knows beyond any doubt where he must concentrate his efforts this off season for the Browns to really take the next step.
Complain all you want about Belichick, but give the man his due when it comes to the rules. Until yesterday, you'd be hard press to find anyone, in or out of football, who knew that you could challenge a non-call.
Facing a fourth and two with 11 minutes left in the third quarter, the Patriots were in punt formation. As the ball was snapped, the Giants Chase Blackburn still was in the field of play, but just barely. Belichick threw the challenge flag, the replay confirmed, and a retroactive penalty was called. The five-yard penalty gave the Patriots a first down and allowed them to continue a drive. It didn't result in any points, but had it made the difference you can bet that this move would be hailed near and far as the call of the game. You can bet just as much that the NFL's competition committee would have worked to change the rule for next season. For now, it will probably just remain an interesting footnote.
The Browns' Anderson and tight end Kellen Winslow II ought to send the Patriots Brady and Randy Moss postcards from Hawaii. It's easy to see how the loss on Sunday soured Brady and Moss on playing in the Pro Bowl next Sunday, allowing Anderson and Winslow to make the trip instead. Sounds like a nice vacation for the two, but it also emphasizes how absolutely meaningless the Pro Bowl is and always will be. The players don't care and the fans don't watch. With nothing on the line and only injuries to be avoided, one wonders why the league even bothers with this charade. But on the plus side, at least the few fans that care won't have to put up with Paula Abdul lip-syncing her way through another dreadful song in order to watch the game.
And finally, since this is the last "lingering items" for the season, a question to ponder this off season: If Danny Ferry was the GM of the Browns, would that mean the Browns would have to stand pat going into next season?