You can now add “spike the damn ball” and “stay on side” to the list of things that Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren now will attribute to another Browns' loss. This time, he might just be right.
Down 17-0 and the clock winding down near the end of the first half against the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns, specifically head coach Pat Shurmur and quarterback Seneca Wallace, squandered a golden opportunity with the ball on the Ravens' 3 yard line and the clock ticking away. With no time outs (the last had been inexplicably squandered with 57 seconds remaining) and confusion the order of the day, Wallace didn't spike the ball but instead handed off to Peyton Hillis. The run went for naught, the clock expired and the Browns walked into the locker room without any points.
It was the lost touchdown that ended up being the difference in a 20-14 loss to the Ravens.
Less egregious but still ridiculous was defensive lineman Phil Taylor biting on a hard count by Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco with 2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Flacco and the Ravens were slightly out of Shayne Graham's field goal range, sitting at 4th and 2 at the Cleveland 37-yard line, when Flacco decided to see if he could get the Browns to jump offside. He did and with that first down the Ravens were able to run out the clock and complete an undefeated season at home. Had he not, of course, the Browns would have likely had one final possession and one final attempt to win a game that started out unwinnable and ended up very winnable.
That this was the case so late in the game was attributable mostly to the level of confidence and indifference that overtook the Ravens, just as it has overtaken many Browns' opponents this season, after opening up a 20-0 lead against a team that really did look like it was going through the motions.
But Josh Cribbs finally broke free on a punt return and scampered 83 yards for a touchdown that on the scoreboard at least put the Browns back into the game at 20-7. It brought some needed life to the sidelines while the Ravens just yawned.
When the Ravens were forced to punt on their next possession, Wallace and the Browns put together one of the more impressive drives of the season that ended with Wallace hitting Evan Moore for a 6-yard touchdown that closed the gap to 20-14.
The Browns could get no closer, however. On what turned out to be their last possession of the game, the Browns were sitting 4th and 5 at their own 45 yard line with just over 4 minutes remaining. Having blown two of their time outs on the previous drive, Wallace and/or Shurmur picked that moment to use the last timeout. It didn't help.
The play as called was a simple screen that went for no yards and gave the Ravens the ball. That led directly to the Taylor offside penalty that ultimately allowed Flacco to take a knee to end the game and begin to ponder the playoffs in earnest.
The close loss was rewarding in a way that the game ended up being more competitive then it started out to be. Then again most of this season has been rewarding in that same way. Little moments where some sun peeks through the perpetual cloud that hangs over this franchise.
The problem is that there is never enough sun to allow anything to grow. Shurmur is just the latest coach to walk the sidelines with the same bewildered look that overcomes every Browns head coach at some point. At least Shurmur got a chance to ask the question that the fans have been asking for years just at the conclusion of that aforementioned squandered opportunity at the end of the first half.
Apparently thinking he told Wallace to spike the ball instead of handing off to Hillis, Shurmur for all the world to see, mouthed “what the hell is he doing?” I wish we knew.
That the question could apply to Wallace or Shurmur, or certainly Holmgren or Tom Heckert speaks volumes about where this team is at it puts the finishing touches on another wasted season. Fifteen losing seasons in their last 17 is more then a trend. It's a way of life.
The reason it's a way of life, of course, is that the Browns at no point in that 17 years could answer Shurmur's simple question. Think about it. How many times as a fan sitting there watching one mind numbing loss after another, one mind numbing season after another, have you asked that same question? You've asked it of Randy Lerner when he hired his next flavor of the month. You asked it of any number of general managers who made questionable draft choices or ridiculous free agent signings. You've asked it of any number of head coaches who have made one puzzling decision after another. And you've asked it of any number of players, and there have been plenty, who have made one bonehead play after another.
That the Browns sit there now, 16 weeks into a season and just as clueless as the day training camp opened, and can't even figure out how to conserve time at the end of the half in order to give themselves a chance to score would be astonishing if it wasn't so commonplace.
Ah, but I digress.
The Ravens raced out to a lead like so many before them. It was aided at the outset by an interception Wallace threw on the Browns' opening drive just as that drive was starting to get interesting. It was actually lucky that the interception by defensive back Ladairius Webb didn't go for a touchdown. Wallace telegraphed the throw from the second he took the snap. It was just a matter of time anyway.
On their first play from scrimmage, Flacco threw deep for Torrey Smith. Mike Adams, defending the play, was flagged for a questionable interference call that gave the Ravens the ball at the Browns' 5 yard line. Flacco then calmly hit Ed Dickson for the 5-yard touchdown pass and a way too easy 7-0 lead.
A Graham 48-yard field goal on the Ravens' next possession made it 10-0 and then on the Ravens' third possession Flacco led running back Ray Rice beautifully dropping in a pass in coverage that Rice turned into a 27-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead.
When the Browns' finally got on track late in the first half, they blew the opportunity. Still as a measure of incompetence it's worth going through the sequence, especially if you didn't get a chance to see it live.
Following a Baltimore punt, the Browns took over at their own 16 yard line with 3:21 remaining in the half. A completion from Wallace to Greg Little on second down took the ball to the Baltimore 27 yard line. Two plays later Peyton Hillis picked up 14 more yards and just that quickly the Browns were at their own 41 yard line.
Where things got interesting is when defensive back Chris Carr was flagged for a 30-yard interference penalty of questionable origin on Cribbs. That put the ball on the Baltimore 29-yard line with 1:51 remaining. That's not a typo. There were nearly two full minutes remaining and 29 yards to cover. There were also two time outs remaining.
After two incomplete passes and the clock not running, Shurmur inexplicably burned the Browns' second time out. There was 1:42 remaining. It was not in vain, however, as Shurmur then had Chris Ogbonnaya line up wide left with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis covering him. Wallace hit Ogbonnaya as Lewis backed off coverage. The gain covered 12 yards putting the ball on the Ravens 17 yard line with 1:15 left. In other words, there was plenty of time, even for your average CYO team.
After Wallace completed a 9-yard pass to Greg Little that put the ball on the Baltimore 8-yard line, Shurmur weirdly called for his last time out with 57 seconds remaining. It was a head scratching decision then and remains one now.
After the time out, Hillis ran up the middle for 3 yards, forcing the Browns to scramble to keep ahead of the clock. Wallace then through a short out patter to Evan Moore whose progress was stopped in bounds, thus keeping the clock running. This apparently flummoxed both Shurmur and Wallace and 20 more seconds went casually ticking off the clock. With 11 seconds remaining but Wallace not watching the clock, he ran a play instead of spiking the ball. The play? A handoff to Hillis that had no chance of getting into the end zone. With that the clock expired with Shurmur on the sidelines gesturing how to spike the ball and mouthing the words that still resonate throughout the land.
The loss wasn't embarrassing as so many have been this season. Indeed there were a few bright spots. Hillis, for example, had 112 yards on 24 carries, something that will probably ruin Ray Lewis' evening. The defense gave up just a field goal in the second half and Cribbs had the 83-yard punt return.
But as usual it wasn't nearly enough for a team that is simply out manned at nearly every position when they play against the better teams in the league.
With a week remaining and all the mystery sapped long ago from the season, the Browns still can give their fans a “if only” moment by beating what looks like will be a resting Pittsburgh Steelers team. And if the Browns do find a way to win it will give Holmgren even more ammunition for the specious argument he advanced last week that if only they could snap the damn ball, catch the damn ball, spike the damn ball or stay on the right side of the damn ball they'd be in the playoff hunt.