Sunday, November 20, 2011

Improbably Probable Victory

Virtually every reason the Cleveland Browns are a bad team this year (and last year and the year before that and on and on) was on display in the waning minutes of Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. There were special team screw ups, missed assignments, stupid penalties, you name it. And yet, through it all, the Browns were able to win 14-10, giving the hopeless hope if not for the season then maybe the long term. Maybe.

But that will be a real long term unless the Browns stop doing exactly what bad teams tend to do, find ways to lose. Of course the same could be said for the Jaguars who, too, had plenty of the same thing. So in a sense, someone had to win the game that neither team seemed good enough to accomplish and on this day that was the Browns. Something tells me, though, that few fans in either city feels too good about their team.

After a mostly uneventful first half that saw the teams take a 7-7 tie into halftime, things started to get interesting somewhere around the time the Browns looked like they might assert themselves and give its defense the few breaks they deserved. As it was, it will be the Jaguars who will find themselves in the same head scratching territory the Browns coaches, players and management have been in since almost the onset of the season. Of course, with a record of 3-6 entering the game it's not as if this is unfamiliar territory for the Jaguars, either.

Let's recount it all because it really was the story of the game and the season for both teams.

The Jaguars were forced to punt on the first possession of the second half, nothing surprising there. It was a re-run of what the first half looked like. But when the Browns took over on offense, they looked positively proactive, or as proactive as a team that avoids the red zone like I avoid stores on the Friday after Thanksgiving can be.

A few completions from quarterback Colt McCoy and some timely, decent running by Chris Ogbonnaya, pushed the Browns into Jaguars territory. Of course much of it couldn't have been accomplished without a compliant Jaguars' defense and special teams doing what the Browns have nearly perfected. For example, the Browns got a new set of downs early in the drive when Jaguars defensive back Drew Coleman was called for pass interference on Jordan Norwood a full five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Yes, the Browns kept the drive alive by losing five yards and being rewarded for it.

But when McCoy took a sack with the Browns at the Jacksonville 16 yard line, it wasn't much of a surprise. That's the nature of this team. Though Phil Dawson made the 40-yard field goal, the play was nullified by a leaping penalty on the Jaguars that put the ball on the Jaguars 11 yard line. Of course the Browns then gave 5 yards back immediately when Shaun Lavauo false started (the second of the drive).

Ogbonnaya then ran for 6 yards which was followed by a McCoy scramble that was close to giving the Browns another first down. But Joe Thomas was called for holding, pushing them back even further. Still, things looked good when McCoy hit Ogbonnaya for a 14 yard pass that got the ball to the Jacksonville 6 yard line.

That's when this clusterf**k of a drive mercifully and predictably ended, with McCoy throwing late over the middle in the direction of Ben Watson. It was picked off by Dawan Landry and the chance to take the lead squelched. The Browns didn't really deserve the points anyway.

The funny thing about this incredibly inept 7 minutes of football? It wasn't even the worst of it all. That would come a bit later.

First, though, let's note here that the Browns did recover from what looked like a drive scripted by Adam Sandler on their very next drive. Playing cleanly for one of the few times all season, the Browns' offense moved down the field methodically and without error and ended it happily when McCoy hit Josh Cribbs for a 3-yard touchdown pass to give the Browns a 14-7 lead, finally.

Then the fun really started.

On their next drive the Jaguars looked like quick learners and moved the ball back down the field in a way they probably hadn't done very often this season and certainly not this game. And yet, in a way that only a 3-6 team on a roll can, it failed to close the deal when Gabbert did something positively sublime on third down. First, he took a huge sack for 15 yards. To add on, he more or less threw the ball backwards in the process and was then credited with a fumble. The official scorers at NFL central may change the ruling but for now you have to love the notion that a quarterback could be sacked (which should end the play) and yet also credited with a fumble. Even if these two concepts normally can't exist, I think they should for teams this bad.

Anyway, that forced Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio to have to try for the field goal though I'm sure his instincts were to try and convert the fourth and 23. The field goal was good and the Jaguars closed to within 14-10.

This was the exact moment where everyone knew the Browns would go into their prevent mode on offense and hope against hope that the defense would save the day. It ultimately ended up working out that way but, not surprisingly, not in the way they thought.

All good intentions were thrown out the window when Ogbonnaya ripped off a 40-yard run that put the ball into Jaguars' territory. But Browns' head coach Pat Shurmur is nothing if not consistent and despite all the criticism of a week ago did his level best to work the team into field goal range instead of a touchdown that would put the game out of reach. It had the same results of a week ago as well.

After McCoy took a sack on a play in which he really had no intention of passing anyway and it pushed the Browns back to the Jacksonville 23 yard line, Shurmur called for another off tackle to Ogbonnaya to set up the field goal that would give the Browns a 7 point lead. The snap was good this time and so too was the hold. The problem is that Dawson pushed the 38-yard attempt right and it went over the top of and not to the left of the upright, according to the officials.


That put the Jaguars in full scramble mode and the Browns defense gave them every chance to break their hearts. On a crucial 4th and 1 play defensive lineman Phil Taylor went offside and gave the Jaguars a first down at the Browns' 29 yard line. Then Gabbert missed on his next two throws and appeared to miss on the third as well but Joe Haden was called for pass interference at the 14 yard line.

A short pass to Chastin West got the ball to the Cleveland 5 yard line but Maurice Jones-Drew, a back that usually terrorizes the Browns and who had 87 yards on the day, couldn't push the ball any closer than the 2 yard line. With 8 seconds remaining, the Jaguars were able to get two plays off and while both throws were on target they were dropped, giving the Browns an improbably probable victory.

If these were any other teams playing on this day, it wouldn't be fair for either to claim the victory. But when you're fighting to not be labeled the NFL's worst team (and as long as Indianapolis is allowed to finish the season, that battle appears to be over anyway), any thing that even comes close to resembling a victory will do.

There isn't really much that the box score will tell you. McCoy was mostly accurate didn't have a lot of yards, had a really bad interception and a touchdown pass. Gabbert threw a lot more passes, had a few more completions and yards then McCoy, but otherwise wasn't anything more than a young quarterback looking to pay his dues.

The aforementioned Jones-Drew was mostly contained while Ogbonnaya actually had 115 yards on 21 carries and the Browns' first touchdown, a 1-yard run in the second quarter. Norwood had a really nice 51 yard catch and run and Greg Little added 5 receptions.

The Browns now find themselves at 4-6 on the season, which strangely doesn't sound as bad as their play seems. But they will still struggle to their third straight 5-11 season given that the remaining games all seem to be against either Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Of course, now that they have found some luck, maybe it won't be as bad as it seems. The Bengals are regressing, the Arizona Cardinals aren't that good so there is a chance, actually, that legitimate measurable progress can be charted come season's end. There's also a chance I might find myself in a store the Friday after Thanksgiving, but I doubt that, too.

No comments: