Monday, November 15, 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel

Didn't see yesterday's game against the New York Jets. Family event. Nowhere near a television set. Found out the Browns lost to the Jets 36,000 feet in the air somewhere over Colorado.

So I can't comment from what my eyes did not see, but after reading accounts of the game and perusing the box score and play-by-play of the game, certain thoughts about the Browns and the direction they are heading have come into focus.

I didn't realize they had lost in overtime, and when I checked the play-by-play and discovered they had a chance to escape with a tie, the disappointment was palatable. Especially after noticing that Eric Mangini elected to call a timeout with less than 90 seconds left in OT and his men just nine feet from their goal line.

The timeout followed an incomplete pass by Colt McCoy on first down after Joe Haden intercepted a Mark Sanchez third-down pass he should have knocked down at the Cleveland 3 and forced a punt. Why call a TO there? It made absolutely no sense. The Browns had played hard and played well. There was nothing wrong with a tie in this instance.

It has been said that winding up with a tie is like kissing your sister. But not in this case. The players did not deserve to lose this game. A tie would have been a victory of sorts. At the very least, it would not have been a loss resulting in a very somber dressing room.

A deadlock would have meant you played one of the best teams in the National Football League and escaped with your dignity intact. It would have sent yet another message around the NFL that there is a resurgence of football in Cleveland.

There are those who argue that if Mangini hadn't called timeout, Jets coach Rex Ryan would have. Maybe so. But Ryan had only two timeouts with which to work -- that's all teams get in OT -- and they wouldn't have been given his team time enough time to do what they eventually did.

There are times when conservative football is wise. This was one of those times. Oddly, the usually conservative Mangini unwisely helped his coaching rival when he called that timeout. It gave the Jets the slimmest hope of winning and that's exactly what they did.

But even in defeat, the Browns had nothing of which to be ashamed, although the shock of losing the way they did might take some time to wear off. They now head into the easy portion of their schedule, playing the next five games against teams they have a good chance of defeating even though four are on the road. They have won the last three times they traveled to Jacksonville, this Sunday's opponent.

The offense is playing with a great deal of confidence now that McCoy appears to have cemented the job at quarterback. Against the Jets, he once again protected the ball, stretching to three games his streak of not throwing an interception. That despite working with one of the NFL's worst receiver groups.

And Peyton Hillis, his fumbling issues notwithstanding, is a relentless force who helps keep defenses honest and is a major factor in McCoy's ability to be successful with play-action passes. If the Browns are to have any chance of moving the ball, Mangini must swallow hard and keep Hillis in the lineup.

The defense, which had a hiccup of a game against a Jets offense that played wonderful ball control, needs to regroup and become more determined to do a better job on third down. The Jets' ability to convert on third down (11 of 21) wore down a Cleveland defense that had already lost Sheldon Brown and Scott Fujita.

There are two ways to take this latest loss. It was either a crushing blow that will have a negative impact on the rest of the season. Or it can be looked on as a positive experience because the Browns took on one of the best in the NFL and did not embarrass themselves. They proved they can hang with the best, just as they did against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and New England. A 2-2 record in consecutive games against four of the toughest teams in the league is something of which to be proud.

The Browns finally are playing the brand of football that is making the rest of the NFL sit up and take notice. Now comes the hard part. Going out and proving their performance in those four games was not a fluke.

The light at the end of this tunnel might not be that oncoming train. We'll find out in the next five weeks.

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