Rookies make mistakes. So do veterans. But the story of the Cleveland Browns’ latest loss isn’t just about rookie and veteran mistakes. One of the great things we know about that loss is that it’s as much, if not more, about the story of head coach Pat Shurmur’s increasingly shaky grip on his current job than anything else. Shurmur demonstrated once again that for all the mistakes of the players he leads, it’s his own mistakes that hurt this team even more. The simple truth is that the fans shouldn’t expect the players to get better until the coach gets better.
The Browns 17-13 loss to the Colts has many parents. It was mistake-filled, from the botched hold by Reggie Hodges (who had a miserable day overall) on an extra point that put the Browns in a position where a field goal wouldn’t be enough to the two holding calls on veteran Ray Ventrone on two kick returns to even the Billy Winn offsides penalty and the various false starts that serve as drive killers. The cumulative weight of all these little indignities usually spells defeat, as they did Sunday, and yet it wasn’t as if the Indianapolis Colts were playing mistake-free. They were practically begging the Browns to win the game. I turned on the radio broadcast from the Colts near the end of the game and their announcers were almost apoplectic about how the Colts were surely handing the game to the lowly Browns; bold talk from a team that rightly should have lost all its games last season.
Sure you can put the blame on wide receiver Josh Gordon who dropped what would have been a potentially game winning touchdown for the ultimate loss. But that too would miss the larger point. Shurmur’s lack of nerve, his “let’s not seize the day” approach to decision making continues to reinforce among his charges that he doesn’t have their backs. So why would they have his?
There’s been plenty of written already about Shurmur once again eschewing a 4th and 1 late in the game in favor of Jim Tressel’s favorite play, the punt. But what the heck, let’s pile on as well. Shurmur’s lack of guts reveals a very bothersome and ultimately debilitating flaw in his makeup as a head coach. It deserves to be examined and re-examined.
We all know the scenario by now because, hell, it was the same scenario as a few weeks ago. It was late in the game, the Browns needing a score and Shurmur deciding that the best way to get a touchdown was to put the game in the hands of his shaky defense and, what, hope they recover a fumble?
Shurmur doesn’t get a chance to demonstrate his cowardly streak if Gordon catches that pass on what was a 3rd and 1 play. And some credit to Shurmur for trying to catch the Colts flatfooted by throwing long when the run looked like the safer play. But the second it’s time to give him credit, Shurmur invalidates that faith.
I don’t know exactly why the Browns’ offense couldn’t get their asses moving quickly enough to run a play before the time clock expired, I just know that they didn’t and when quarterback Brandon Weeden saw that only 3 seconds remained he panicked (rookie) and burned a very critical time out.
Let’s talk a little about that time out and how it fit into Shurmur’s warped thinking. First, it caused Shurmur to ignore what looked to be a gut instinct to go for the first down and try to win the game right there. That gut instinct would have been solidly backed up statistically. It’s been well chronicled by this point how head coaches, particularly in the NFL, often ignore the higher percentage play of fourth down out of loss aversion. But here, Shumur shouldn’t have even been suffering from loss aversion. The Browns never had this game won in the first place. They weren’t on the verge of losing anything because what’s another loss for a team that has cornered the market on competitive losses? Instead of recognizing that bit of circumstance Shurmur decided to make it that much more difficult to win the game, which was the last thing this team needed. If anything Shurmur suffers from win aversion.
Second, because the time out was stupidly burned, it actually made the decision to go for it on 4th down that much easier, or should have. The problem with the “pin ‘em back” strategy that Shurmur trusts more than his offense is that it also requires all of your time outs for it to work best. When you can’t stop the clock, opposing NFL teams are pretty good at bleeding it well. Why Shurmur saw this as a more compelling reason to punt and not less is perhaps the biggest mystery in trying to figure out how his brain works.
Now of course Shurmur defends the decision by noting the after-the-fact result. The defense did hold the Colts and the Browns did get the ball back. The key there though is that he’s relying on the after-the-fact outcome to justify a decision that had to be made when he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, except of course the kind of hindsight that comes with having made the same decision previously with the same, predictable dispiriting result just two weeks ago.
What Shurmur can’t seem to grasp is what is becoming his fatal flaw. He simply can’t see how the lack of confidence he exhibits in his own decision making infuses the players with the same inevitable sense of doom and loss.
Let’s roll the tape further and see what really happened. Hodges punted 21 yards, which was nearly as big a disaster as when he botched the hold on the extra point early in the game. The inability of a punter at a crucial moment to put the ball inside the 10 yard line from the 50 yard line suggests that Shurmur and his staff should spend quality time this week auditioning new punters.
Then the defense did hold the Colts to a 3-and-out and forced the punt. But Holdges’ lousy punt ensured the Browns would start in worse position, which they did, about 30 yards worse, then they voluntarily gave up. If that weren’t enough, the Browns now had 2 ½ minutes less time and that much more yardage to get the touchdown it still needed. (And as an aside, why is it that Shurmur seems to have enough faith in his defense to force a 3-and-out with the Colts backed up further but not the same faith that this defense can perform that trick if the Colts are starting from their own 41-yard line, which is where they would have started from had the 4th down play not been successful? If you can figure that one out then congratulations, you’ve just been elected president of the Pat Shurmur fan club.)
But football is as much emotion as talent and at that point all things were not created equal. The offense that felt a little surge of confidence with a deep throw on 3rd and 1 that almost worked was now not even close to the offense now on the field. In the interim they had been publicly embarrassed by their own coach who concluded for the entire world to see (or at least those few small corners that cared) that he didn’t believe his offense was good enough just a few minutes earlier to get 1 yard. It begs the question, doesn’t it, as to how the hell it was now going to move most of the length of the field and grab a touchdown? Not surprisingly, they didn’t come close.
If the reaction of Jimmy Haslam III from the owners’ box is any indication, this telling sequence of the events was harder for him to digest then a 3-day old brat from a street cart vendor.
It makes me wonder too what Haslam would do if this week were a bye week. Would he live up to his promise not to make any changes midseason? I know the temptation would have to be to move beyond Shurmur now and at least send the message to the troops (fans included) that it’s no longer business as usual.
No one is suggesting that Shurmur needs to be an unnecessary risk taker just to prove his mettle. But in a business context he needs to understand what appropriate risks there are to take. The Browns are 1-6, the worst team in the NFL, and have offered precious little to their fans for years to suggest that now, finally, this team is on the right path. Shurmur doesn’t come across as a person who even understands context or risk, which makes him ill suited to coach a team run by a businessman who clearly understands both. Shurmur may not get fired midseason but there’s no doubt that after Sunday’s game, this will be his last season in Cleveland.
To go back to where we started, one of the things fans had to expect when they saw how general manager Tom Heckert put this roster together was that most games would be mistake-filled messes. The fact that it’s turned out that way shouldn’t surprise.
The Browns, by virtue of their mistake-plagued record, most certainly lead the league in competitive losses. Other than the manhandling at the hands of the New York Football Giants a week ago, the Browns have basically been competitive all season.
But let’s not use that as some sort of evidence that the ship is righted. The truth that was revealed again Sunday is that Browns 2.0, now in its 14th season, probably leads the league in competitive losses for the entirety of its existence. Eric Mangini managed to keep games close. So did Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel. And just like the competitive losses under prior head coaches didn’t end up translating into actual wins, there’s no reason to believe that the competitive losses like Sunday will magically translate into wins anytime soon either.
It’s a little jarring that Heckert hasn’t adequately explained, or really explained inadequately for that matter, why he put so many kids on the roster. Indeed, one of the reasons Mike Holmgren is enjoying retirement with Randy Lerner’s money stems from the disconnect between him and his general manager over this issue. Holmgren admitted he hadn’t realized that Heckert had constructed the roster as he did, thus demonstrating that if he had his hand on the pulse, it wasn’t the pulse of this team. Ouch.
The lack of communication from Browns’ management is a given and Heckert and his silence about this mess of a roster is in keeping with that grand tradition. So we’re left to surmise. At the very least, whether or not you agree with how the roster was put together, you can surmise credibly that Heckert doesn’t suffer from the same lack of confidence that plagues Shurmur. If nothing else, putting together a roster that almost certainly would be prone more to mistakes than wins was essentially a statement that Heckert was willing to stand behind his skills as a talent evaluator. Heckert obviously felt that the short term pain of the coming year would be worth it in the long run or even later in the season.
Well, a loss like Sunday’s is another reminder of just how much that pain can actually hurt. At 1-6 this Browns team is running out of games in which to put together an even respectable record, forget a winning record. At some point soon and well before next season, this team is going to have to turn these competitive losses into wins to justify the faith Heckert has in himself and some of the suspects he’s allowed on this roster.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Finding new or even more competitive ways to lose as the season comes to a close isn’t going to save Heckert’s job. Nothing short of actual winning will accomplish that. Yet there’s only so much the players can overcome and the one thing they can’t for now is the tentative nature of their head coach. Having gone all in on this roster the one thing Heckert apparently missed and what could ultimately undo his entire strategy is the weak link that Shurmur has become.
For as much attention he garners, one could be excused for thinking that as Greg Little goes so goes the entire team. That will never be the case.
It was nice to see Little finally hold on to the football but one game does not make a trend. Weeden clearly was not throwing much in Little’s direction the last few weeks, sending a message in the process. Maybe Precious Little got the message, if 6 catches Sunday means anything. Maybe he didn’t, if all the missed blocks mean anything.
Nonetheless, while blocking is a core competency for a wide receiver, Little needs to catch the ball to stay on the field and took a step in the right direction Sunday, even as the rest of the team was taking a step back.
Speaking of run blocking, the Browns looked clueless in their quest to establish a consistently feared running game. The New York Jets absolutely shredded the Colts run defense the week before and yet the Browns of Sunday looked like any other version of the Browns 2.0, you know the ones that would send Travis Prentice or James Jackson into a mass of humanity and then wonder why the run game never worked.
Trent Richardson was a bit confusing on his own health, saying both that he was fine and more hurt then he was letting on. What was true was that he was ineffective so sitting him down for the second half and trying to catch lightening in a bottle again with Montario Hardesty wasn’t among Shurmur’s worst ideas. That said, Shurmur decided not to actually use Hardesty all that much. Shurmur called the game as if the Browns were down by 20 and essentially needed to pass every play. They didn't.
In any event, let's be honest about Hardesty. He's only demonstrated that he’s a very average running back and Richardson demonstrated that it’s hard to be physical when your ribs are broken. Maybe that's why Hardesty acted as mostly a decoy. That put the game on Weeden’s shoulders. He delivered a credible performance. The pass that Gordon dropped was damn near as perfect of a pass as you’re likely to see. And he didn’t add to his league-high number of interceptions, either.
But putting any game solely on Weeden at this point isn’t among Shurmur’s better ideas. Weeden may resemble Randy Lerner facially but he has much more guile. Yet Weeden still doesn’t know everything he doesn’t know at this stage of his career. It falls on Weeden for calling that ill-advised time out. It’s his job to get the players in a position for the next play. That failing, as I noted above, gave Shurmur enough time to revisit a decision in the most unfortunate way.
Weeden has made dramatic improvement since week one and is playing as well as any rookie quarterback not named Robert Griffin III. Given that it is reasonable to expect that Weeden will someday be able to maintain calm while all others around him, including an overmatched coaching staff, are losing their heads. But that time is not just yet and Sunday more than proved that as well.
Next up is the San Diego Chargers, a mercurial team that perfectly matches the mercurial nature of their head coach, Norv Turner. Nonetheless, it will be another game where the road team is favored in Cleveland. If that doesn’t inform Haslam’s thinking about the team he just overpaid for, nothing will.