|Photo Courtesy of ClevelandBrowns.com|
When a team has been on the same unending stretch of rough road for as long as the Cleveland Browns have, it would be easy to miss the subtle improvements that occur along that route, let alone the moment that a meaningful corner was turned. And while fans have had to endure other false positives, perhaps the Browns really are a team on the come after overcoming a historic deficit on the road to beat a woeful Tennessee Titans team, 29-28.
There may have been no exact moment on Sunday where one could say that the road got smoother or an actual corner was definitively turned, but there are plenty of candidates for consideration. The one that stood out though was the precise moment in the 4th quarter when Titans coach Ken Whisenhut channeled his inner Brady Hoke in an all-or-nothing call in which careers tend to be either made or broken.
With just over 3 minutes remaining in the game, Whisenhut decided that his defense could be trusted less than his offense and called for a quarterback sneak at the Titans’ 42-yard line on 4th and inches. It wasn’t successful and it put the ball in the Browns’ hands and set them up for the go ahead touchdown that gave the team its first road win since, I think, LeBron James first left Cleveland for Miami, maybe longer.Let’s pause on this particular moment because it really is what could be a key moment in the entire season.
Whisenhut was forced into making the call in the first place because tight end Delanie Walker caught a Charlie Whitehurst pass on 3rd and 6 and carried the ball on his right hip instead of his left as he went out of bounds. The difference in inches from one hip to the other ended up being the difference between 1st down Tennessee and 1st down Cleveland.
Initially the referees signaled first down and in another small but pivotal moment a Browns assistant, secondary coach Jeff Hafley watching from the press box (in order to get the best view of the Browns awful secondary?),noticed that Walker’s body but not the ball had crossed the plane for a first down that could have allowed the Titans to likely run out the clock and win the game. Hafley signaled to head coach Mike Pettine and the red flag was thrown.
It was probably the single best use of the challenge flag you’re likely to ever witness, at least by someone affiliated with the Browns. It was only a half yard but as Al Pacino said in “Any Given Sunday” you have to fight for every inch at every moment. Those were the most critical inches in the long death march that has mostly marked the Browns’ return to the NFL over a decade ago. The first down call was overturned setting up Whisenhut for his make or break moment.
It was both a risky and curious call in the same way Michigan’s Hoke decided to try a two-point conversion to win the game against Ohio State last season instead of tying the game in regulation and moving on to overtime.
The risk was obvious. But the reason it also was curious has to do with how Whisenhut viewed his own defense at the moment, similar to Hoke. He didn’t trust them. He didn’t think his defense could stop the Browns! Roll that around in your head for a moment. He decided at that moment that punting and putting the Browns’ offense deep in its own zone ultimately still held less chance for a Titans victory then gaining those few extra inches on a Whitehurst sneak and running out the clock.
Such are the decisions of head coaches who end up having to append the term “former” to the front of their title. The objective of course is to win but going for the quick money and ignoring the long game is a sign of desperation and the Titans and Whisenhut were clearly desperate to win a game they seemed to have won have 30 minutes of play. Whisenhut now has to face the rest of the season with players who already know their coach doesn’t trust them.
The Browns are only 2-2 at the moment and aren’t yet in anyone’s objective conversation about playoff teams. But there are a fair number of positive signs. For example, the Browns have a legitimate running game at the moment. Ben Tate had 123 yards on 22 carries, demonstrating while he’s a starter. Still the Browns already were establishing a running game with Tate’s rookie replacements Terrence West and Isaac Crowell. Tate at the moment just makes it a little better.
It also looks like Brian Hoyer wasn’t just last year’s premature flash in the pan. However else Hoyer looked in preseason, he is a gamer. He’s a little gawky at times, his throws a little wobbly at times. But he plays with poise and generally makes smart decisions. In all candor, he’s the first Browns quarterback in the 2.0 era about whom you can say anything positive. He’s kept the team moving forward and is certainly a key reason that it is clicking. What all that says about Johnny Manziel in the near or far term is hard to say. Just know that at some point Hoyer likely will get hurt and then we’ll see if Manziel can get to at least a similar level.
Then there are the receivers, perhaps everyone’s pick as the weakest link on the team. General Manager Ray Farmer stood steadfast in his statement that the receivers on the roster were good and the fans and the media were counting them out just because they didn’t know anything about them. There is something to be said for having players with established reputations on the roster, but at the moment Farmer seems to be more right than wrong. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is making good use of the no-names on the roster and it has kept the Browns mostly moving in the right direction.
Speaking of Shanahan, he’s been another of those positive signs. Play calling always looks better to the naked eye when the players are able to execute what’s called. So to a certain extent even Pat Shurmur would have looked brilliant calling the plays had the players he had been able to execute. But Shanahan also is demonstrating great patience.
If you’re being honest you’ll admit to wanting to throw a shoe through the television midway and late in the fourth quarter when Shanahan kept calling for running plays with the Browns still more than a touchdown behind and the clock moving in the wrong direction. But because Shanahan had been able to establish the run earlier, sticking with it at the moment was the right call. The Browns needed to score but also manage the clock because, let’s face it, this defense can’t be trusted either. Those runs allowed the Browns to do both because it kept the Titans from selling out on the pass. Their linebackers and defensive backs had to stay closer to the box in order to prevent a long run and that ultimately loosened up the secondary.
Another positive is the man who hired Shanahan. Mike Pettine may have dropped into the Browns’ laps reluctantly but at the moment it seems to be working well if only because Pettine has the exact right temperament for a head coach in this city. He is no nonsense but self-deprecating. Intense but with a sense of humor. It also helps that physically he looks like about 75% of the guys who hang out at the tailgates before the game. In other words, he may not have been born here but he looks and acts like he could have been for all the good and bad that means.
Pettine has done a nice job of both understanding the paradigm in which this franchise has operated and embodying the commitment it takes to really alter it. The only way to change is to actually change. Shut up and do something. Sometimes having a rookie head coach has its advantages.
But before we enshrine Pettine, he needs to fix the defense. There’s a reason why the Browns look better when they’re playing from behind. It’s because opposing offenses in the NFL playing with a comfortable lead rarely go for the jugular. Instead they’re usually content with managing the game from that point forward. They stop taking chances and that feeds right into the strengths and weaknesses of the Browns’ defense.
Looking at both the Pittsburgh and Tennessee games, the similarities are fascinating. Both teams have very average offenses. Not great, certainly, but not New York Jets level bad either. And both had their way with the Browns’ incredibly weak secondary in the first halves of those games. Then both teams buttoned up in the second half, playing mostly not to lose. That played into the relative strength of the Browns’ defense, its defensive line. By short circuiting their own offenses prematurely, both Pittsburgh and Tennessee allowed the Browns’ offense to get into gear.
In the Pittsburgh game the Browns still lost because ultimately once the Browns did come back, the Steelers were forced to open the offense back up, sort of like putting the starters back into a game that had been a blowout but now was getting uncomfortably close. The Steelers moved the ball well enough in that last moment to get into position to kick the game winning field goal.
Tennessee however couldn’t manage the clock nearly as well. With less than a half a field and playing against a defense its own head coach didn’t believe in, all that was left for the Browns to do at that moment was use just enough clock to ensure that the Titans couldn’t get into field goal position to win the game. It helped that Whitehurst was at quarterback as his lack of mobility and experience led to his being sacked on first down. The clock ran out for good on a pass that couldn’t get to the sideline and the Browns had the most improbable comeback and win in the last dozen years, at least.
But what to make of the future? While it holds promise the team won’t find the Promised Land with that secondary. Joe Haden, the putative leader, isn’t the lock down corner he thinks he is. Justin Gilbert is playing less and less each week. He hasn’t adjusted to life in the NFL and that doesn’t look to change in the near term. And Buster Skrine is Buster Skrine.
The secondary might be better if the defensive line could put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks when the game hangs in the balance. But for a variety of reasons that isn’t happening under Pettine. If anything, the defensive line has regressed in that regard from last season! Still it is the least poisonous part of the defensive tree at the moment.
This team is far from a complete product. Heck it’s not anything close to playoff ready. But after four games it’s proved itself to be competitive and interesting, something no other Browns team has been in a very long time.