The ghost of Bud Carson can pop the champagne corks one more time. Continuing an ignominious streak that dates back to the '80s, current Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur started his career like so many before him, with a loss.
And it wasn't just any old loss. It was the kind of dispiriting loss that tells you that this team still is so far away from being good that a third straight yearn of 5-11 looks like the most likely outcome for this season.
Two late Cincinnati Bengals touchdowns, premised as they were by complete defensive breakdowns, allowed the Bengals to first take the lead and then seal a 27-17 victory. In some ways the game was closer then it looked, but mostly it wasn't.
The arc of the game was that of a team that looked unprepared at the start, found its bearings, but ultimately confirmed the initial impression that indeed it was unprepared. Boy did it show.
The Browns started the game with one of the most miserable first quarters to begin any season ever. It featured almost every kind of penalty imaginable, including an improbable interference call on some Browns' assistant coach who got too close to a side judge and tripped him up. This series of mistakes allowed the Bengals to race, sort of, to a 13-0 lead, and they seemed in control of the game in the same way that Notre Dame seemed to be in control of Michigan on Saturday night.
In need of someone, anyone, to step up, Joshua Cribbs, the team's one true play maker did so as if on cue by getting his hands on a Mike Nugent kick off and running it back 51 yards. To that point, it was an almost nauseating series of Browns' offensive ineptness followed by special teams ineptness followed by Bengals scores followed by Nugent touch backs. It made one wonder if there are NFL-branded barf bags out there. (Note to self: create some.)
It was only the Bengals' inability to punch it in twice, once from deep in Cleveland territory, that forced them to kick field goals and keep the game far closer than it should have been at that point at 13-0. But following the Cribbs kick off return, the entire team seemed energized, no one more so than quarterback Colt McCoy, as the team ripped off two quick touchdowns, the first a 34-yard pass from McCoy to tight end Ben Watson and the second a two yard pass from McCoy to a slanting tight end Evan Moore.
It gave the Browns a 14-13 lead and more importantly the momentum the team needed to overcome enough mistakes to make you wonder whether the team even bothered to practice during the pre-season. Phil Dawson added a 20-yard field goal on the Browns' second series in the third quarter to make it a 17-13 lead.
While a 4-point lead certainly isn't safe in the NFL, it was one of the safer 4-point leads you might see as the Bengals were forced to bring in backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski for starter Andy Dalton who was injured just before the first half ended. Gradkowski looked like he had taken perhaps 12 reps during his pre-season as he consistently overshot receivers and couldn't seem to quite figure out the Browns' pass rush.
And that's maybe where the game might have ended, with each team moving the ball almost imperceptibly for one boring series after another. But with just over 4 minutes remaining and the Bengals seemingly stuck in neutral and looking at a 3rd and 11 from the Cleveland 41-yard line, Gradkowski caught the entire Browns team napping.
And let me just stop there for a moment because napping doesn't quite do justice to what really took place. The CBS third-string announcer squad of the week, in the form of Solomon Wilcots and Kevin Harlan, said that Gradkowski quick-snapped the ball. Not true.
Gradkowksi brought the Bengals up to the line of scrimmage as he had done for the last 20 previous plays, sporting the kind of look that seemed to confirm that he knew the play called might yield, at most, 5 yards and force his team to punt once again. But as his team got set, and I mean, set as in they methodically each took their positions and looked in while Gradkowski signaled the calls, a funny thing happened.
The Browns defense inexplicably was still in its huddle. Whether they were talking about post-game dinner plans or what sort of clever tweets they might send after the game, isn't known. What is known is that Gradkowski simply said “hut”, rookie receiver A.J. Green took off with absolutely no one covering him and it was an easy throw and catch for any quarterback outside of Joe Bauserman. Green could have hopped on one foot into the end zone and still arrived well before anyone on the Browns bothered to show up. The 41-yard touchdown gave the Bengals a stunning 20-17 lead.
The closest pursuer was Browns' cornerback Joe Haden who, to that point, had turned in a devastating performance, knocking down one pass after another and frustrating his former college rival Green all day. But Haden was one of the more guilty parties staying in that huddle too long and by the time he realized it Green was already 20 yards down field. Game Basically Over.
Haden went to the bench shaking his head. He knew he blew it. Hell, everyone knew he blew it. There was no place he could possibly hide anyway.
Now this being the Bengals it's fair to suggest that the game shouldn't have been over at that point. After all there were still over 4 minutes remaining. If McCoy was going to show he had progressed, this would have been as good a time as any to demonstrate just that.
I would opine that the series McCoy ran at that moment was his worst of the game but sadly that wasn't true. The worst series was the next time the Browns got the ball. But let's take them sequentially.
One the first play of the series, McCoy dumped off to Peyton Hillis for a 11-yard gain and a first down. What a tease. McCoy then threw to Watson underneath but Watson couldn't hold on. McCoy threw to rookie receiver Greg Little and he couldn't hold on in traffic, either. The McCoy threw mostly wildly to Mohamed Massaquoi and the ball fell innocently away.
Now this being the Bengals, Shurmur made the right call and punted. And the Bengals dutifully complied with an exceptionally quick 3-and-out. The highlight occurred when the Browns defense whiffed on a tackle of running back Cedric Benson in the backfield only to then have Benson step out of bounds instead and stop the clock and preserve a Cleveland time out.
It should have been a sign to the Bengals. It wasn't because then came the actual worst series of the game that McCoy would run. With plenty of time (there was still over two minutes remaining) and decent field position (the Cleveland 44-yard line), McCoy looked hurried and harried as he repeatedly tried to move the ball through the clever use of the 1-yard pass. Each time said pass was dutifully dropped. On 4th down, McCoy was under severe pressure and threw (seriously) to center Alex Mack. The Bengals took over on downs.
Showing all the professionalism of Browns' teams past, the defense essentially mailed it in on the Bengals' next possession as Benson took a harmless hand off designed to run out the clock and turned it into a barely touched 39-yard touchdown run to give the Bengals their final score of the game.
With only 46 seconds remaining Shurmur should have just had McCoy take a knee and admit to himself, the team and the fans what was painfully obvious—a winnable game had been instead handed to a very mediocre team by a woefully unprepared team. But these plucky Browns fought all the way until the inevitable late interception that basically ended the game.
It really isn't worth running through the stats at this point to demonstrate exactly why the Browns lost. But what is worth running through are all the little things that should make fans more concerned then they should be after the first game of a long season.
First of course were the penalties. Say what you want about Eric Mangini, but his teams didn't commit many penalties. The Browns had 11 official penalties, most of them in the first half and most of those in the first quarter. There were actually at least 3 more penalties that the Bengals declined. Then was the fact that there was no rushing game to speak of or, more accurately, no firm commitment to a rushing game to speak of. Then, of course was the usual ineptness in the form of the Browns being a miserable 4-15 on third down. And finally the only good thing to be said about punter Richmond McGee is that he didn't have a punt blocked. If Shurmur isn't auditioning punters come Monday morning then I'll be surprised.
But the real story all of this tells is that this team, for whatever reason, simply was not ready to play on Sunday. Sure there were spurts where you thought “this team may actually be improved” but mostly it was the same turgid team that fans have seen for the last several years.
If Shurmur didn't realize it at about noon Sunday, he certainly knew by 4:30 p.m. He has his work cut out for him and perhaps the hardest sell job will be to an impatient fan base that is sick of seeing its teams consistently out coached and out played. Turn it around and quickly and this game is easily forgotten. If it turns into a marker of more to come then the ghost of Bud Carson might have to wait only another year or two before popping open the champagne again as the next head coach of the Browns inevitably loses his first game as well.