If you squint your eyes, scrunch your forehead and furl your brow, you could see a way the Cleveland Browns end up ending what was once a 9-game losing streak by beating the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday evening. If the third quarter sequence in which quarterback Brandon Weeden threw an ill-advised out pass that turned into a 63-yard touchdown for the Ravens and then the always reliable Greg Little doesn’t hold on to a sure touchdown pass doesn’t happen, then that 14 points swings in the Browns direction and next thing you know the Browns leave victorious.
But Weeden did throw a pick 6 and Little proved once again that he can’t catch when it matters most and now the Browns have their 10th straight loss, their 9th straight loss to the Ravens and their 293rd straight loss in the AFC North, or something like that. But since we established in week 2 that some losses are half wins, this one even more so because the final margin was only 7 points and was competitive, the Browns stand 1-3 instead of 0-4, or should, right? Not right.
While Weeden continued the up and down existence of a NFL rookie quarterback, Thursday he was trending toward the good, the pick 6 notwithstanding. He showed composure. He stood in and took hits. He showed he can throw on target while being blitzed, even though Little can’t catch.
In that sense, optimism. But let’s be honest. You probably can attribute at least some of the Browns’ more up than down performance on Thursday to that same ebb and flow of young player development that Weeden is experiencing. But let’s not overlook perhaps an ever greater equalizer that made the game closer than the talent levels would otherwise suggest: a short work week.
Here are the two things I noticed that had nothing specifically to do with the Browns. First, both teams looked tired, Baltimore even more so than Cleveland having played Sunday night. Three days of rest isn’t enough in the NFL. The Thursday night games are too quick of a turnaround. But on the other hand, the lack of rest does more for parity than the reverse order of the NFL draft.
The second thing is that while the regular NFL referees are back on the field, the calls aren’t automatically going to improve. The blow to Cribbs’ cranium that caused his helmet to fly about 20 feet looked pretty helmet-to-helmet to me, particularly on the replay. We’ll let Commissioner Roger Goodell figure that one out. But once the helmet flew off the play should have been blown dead, meaning the fumble should have been nullified. The refs reviewed it and didn’t reverse themselves, apparently feeling that a play that’s always going to be bang-bang was bang-bang and thus too difficult to tell if the fumble and the helmet flying was simultaneous. Why have the rule? (Here’s my theory on that: do the “real” refs, for all their bluster, really want to start off their rebirth by reversing a call on themselves so soon out of the gate? As Gob Bluth would say, “c’mon on.”).
After the game Thursday, in that way that opposing coaches have toward their counterparts who are besieged with calls for their jobs, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh had nothing but praise for both Pat Shurmur and the Browns. He called the team well coached and talented and a team that is not only getting better but will be something to contend with for years to come. I wonder if he knows something.
Anyway, that does beg the overarching question coming out of Thursday’s loss: are the Browns getting better?
Wins are the measuring stick ultimately and on that most important benchmark the answer is surely no. But, you say, they look better than a year ago. Maybe. Last season the Browns opened against the Bengals and played pretty much the same game they played against the Bengals a few weeks ago with pretty much the same result, a competitive loss. They followed that up with a win against woeful and Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis which gave the fans some comfort that at least the Browns weren’t the worst team in the league. Then they won again, against Miami, a lousy team as well. Then they were pasted by the Tennessee Titans. They followed that up with a competitive loss to Oakland, a game they actually should have or at least could have won (like Thursday night’s against Baltimore) and followed that up with an ugly win against Seattle.
So after 6 games last season the Browns were 3-3 and in week 7 had another competitive loss to the San Francisco 49ers. My only point is that the Browns had a horrible record last season but in most cases the losses were the kind of losses like Thursday’s and on a week-by-week basis the fans kept finding reasons for optimism even as they were pulling out their hair from another loss.
In other words, even in the context of last season there’s scant evidence that the Browns are a better team this year than last. That doesn’t mean they aren’t it just means that there’s nothing more than the overly optimistic gut feelings of Browns fans to make that claim.
All that said, the Browns’ touchdown drive last night was a better, more professional drive than any drive the team put together last season. Down 9-0 and backed up in their own territory early in the second quarter, the Browns were at the precipice of letting the game get out of hand and sending everyone in Cleveland to bed early. They had just gone 3-and-out on their two previous possessions and another 3-and-out would have been fatal, a few first downs hopeful and a touchdown seemingly impossible.
When Weeden completed a 3rd and 4 pass to Ben Watson that took the ball to the Cleveland 18, it mostly eliminated the Ravens getting great field position on what seemed like an inevitable punt. Then Weeden threw deep to Little who defied all odds and made a nice catch for 43 yards, to the Ravens 39 yard line. At this point a Phil Dawson field goal seemed within reach and suddenly the adrenalin returned to the blood stream. Another Weeden pass, this one to Travis Benjamin, got the ball to the Baltimore 27 and things were now rolling. Trent Richardson ground out a 7 yard carry, taking one of the game’s biggest assholes, Ray Lewis, with him for the last 3 yards. A pass two plays later to Benjamin got the ball to the Baltimore 1 yard line and then Richardson finished off the drive by showing the kind of NFL speed necessary to turn the corner on defensive backs, waltzing in the end zone for the touchdown.
In every sense of the word it was a professional drive. It was extremely well executed throughout and even though I know that every Browns’ fan feared it would end in a turnover, it didn’t. It really was the kind of drive that justified that aforesaid overly optimistic gut feeling that the Browns are a better team this year.
The third quarter pick 6 by Weeden, which even Scriff the dog saw coming on such a slow developing out pattern, was the cold slap in the face that fans ultimately expected, but still, if Little doesn’t drop the pass later in the quarter, it wipes out that mistake and the game is much different. See, even I can get sucked in by irrational exuberance.
Let’s talk about Little, again, although briefly. If Shurmur is a man of his word or, forget that, if he has any hope of keeping the respect of the rest of the team, he’ll send Little to the bench just as he said he would earlier in the week.
Little did have 4 catches for 77 yards including the critical catch during the Browns’ touchdown drive that accounted for the bulk of his yards, but it was the catches that he didn’t make that stand out more. In the first half he literally let a ball go through his hands in an amazing display of a lack of hand eye coordination. The ball was through his hands a split second or two before he moved them together to try and make the catch.
The bigger miss was the one late in the fourth quarter that would have brought the Browns to within 3 with plenty of time left. Weeden was under extreme pressure yet still found a wide open Little at the end zone and Little inexplicably dropped the pass. Phil Dawson kicked a 51-yard field goal that got the Browns within a touchdown, meaning they were technically still in the game, but the Little drop was every bit as deflating as Shurmur’s decision last Sunday to punt at midfield with 6 minutes left and his team down by 10. Some things just can’t be overcome.
It is true, of course, that you can’t punish someone into competence so benching Little won’t in and of itself make him a better player. But if there’s a better player inside of Little that needs some coaxing then a benching would do some good. Little lacks focus and the only way to foster a better approach is not to sanction that conduct by continuing to play him and simply hoping he wakes up.
Travis Benjamin, on the other hand, showed a few things Thursday night that make you think that he can actually be a significant contributor. His inside route that got the Browns down to the Ravens 1 yard line and led to the Richardson touchdown was a revelation. It’s clear that opposing defensive backs respect his speed and thus give him a slightly bigger cushion. Benjamin recognized the advantage and made a nice fake out and then back in leaving him wide open for the pass that Weeden delivered on time and on budget. It was the kind of play that few receivers wearing Browns’ uniforms have been able to make in the last 14 years and the kind of play that could make Little’s deserved benching irrelevant.
In the version of the Browns that is 2.0, has there been a player more missed than Joe Haden? His suspension for testing positive for a stimulant and violating the league’s drug policy has caused about as big of a drop off at a position as I can recall seeing in the last 14 years.
Now, charitably, that may not mean much in the context of this team, but Haden’s loss is still pretty noticeable. Teams are clearly picking on Buster Skrine and will until he can show that he’s a credible presence. He’s running out of time. Haden has one more game to sit out and thus fans have one more game to watch opposing receivers run wild, run open and run free.
Indeed Skrine’s days could be numbered if Haden comes off and is able to demonstrate that the drop off from him to Skrine is as big as it appears at the moment. I’m not saying that Skrine is the worst defensive back the Browns have had in years, but he’s starting to make long for Brandon McDonald.
The Browns get a much needed break to reassess the season at its quarter post. Fans that were stupidly optimistic have been slapped back to reality. Others, meaning the majority, meaning the edgy cynics, feel justified in their pessimism. Then there is the rest who know that nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems and that holds true even for the Browns.
What we know now, four games into a season that seems longer by the minute, is what we knew all along: this team will struggle. This team is struggling. And while it’s what happens on the feel that we react to most emotionally, it’s what’s about to happen off the field, the transfer of ownership, that should have the most impact on this team.
Jimmy Haslam III has been ever present since his deal. He’s put in more time with this team in just the last few weeks then Randy Lerner has since he inherited the team from his dad. The Browns need a more active owner and that time is nearly at hand. Haslam is a successful businessman who knows how to build and while the Browns will clearly present the biggest challenge of his life, there’s more reason than not to think he’s up to it.
The transition to Haslam begins in earnest in October. That’s when the Browns 3.0 begins and our long, national nightmare hopefully comes to an end.