When does a victory seem more like a loss? After the Browns' effort against the Carolina Panthers Sunday at CBS, that one's easy to answer.
When you allow the worst team in the league to come from way behind and have a legitimate shot at beating you with mere seconds remaining on the clock. When you watch one of the National Football League's best and most accurate kickers line up for a relative chippy for him. And miss.
When you watch as the Browns' coaching staff goes into mass brain lock just when it appeared as though they would do what most fans thought and run away with the game. And when the club's so-called starting quarterback, the man to whom they will pay $7 million this season, plays up (or is it down?) to his nickname of Captain Interception.
That's why the Browns' 24-23 victory over the Panthers seems more like a loss. When John Kasay's 42-yard field-goal attempt skimmed and then ricocheted off the outside of the left upright as the clock struck 0:00, most fans cheered. But if they were honest with themselves, they had to know this should have been a Carolina victory.
Kasay, who came into the game hitting seven of eight field-goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards this season, missed a pair from that distance on this afternoon. Now if that isn't luck, then let's redefine the word.
The Panthers deserved to win this one because they outplayed the Browns in the final 30 minutes after being overwhelmed in the first 30. Of course, they had plenty of help from Jake Delhomme, the Captain himself, who lived down to his reputation and threw two interceptions (including a pick six) in a three-play span to begin the second half to give his ex-teammates hope.
For those of you who think this is too negative, stop right here and head for the Browns' Web site and soak in the glory of their latest victory because you're not going to get it here. Plainly and simply, the Browns deserved to lose a game that had no business being as close as it was.
There is no reason in the world the Panthers, who own the worst offense in the NFL (and that's not arguable), should have been able to drive 71 yards in about 45 seconds with no timeouts left and put Kasay into position to yet again break the hearts of Browns fans.
A combination of poor tackling (will the Browns ever fix that nagging problem?) and sensational plays by Carolina's Mike Goodson and Brandon LaFell served to quiet the crowd at CBS and put the Panthers in a position to win. Poor tackling is on the coaches.
Eric Mangini and his staff nearly blew this game with some strange coaching. On both sides of the ball.
For example, with the Peyton Hillis running wild and putting on a virtuoso performance in the first half and the Panthers clearly on their heels, why come out throwing in the second half? Especially with Delhomme at the controls.
It should have been seen as a sign of things to come when Delhomme, inexplicably going back to pass from his 29-yard line with 45 seconds left in the first half and a 21-13 lead, fumbled the ball. Luckily, tackle John St. Clair fell on the ball or else the Panthers would have had a chance to score more points. Why pass there? Especially when the Browns received the second-half kickoff.
Hasn't it become abundantly clear the veteran quarterback is speeding on the downward spiral of what's left of his career? After watching how well Colt McCoy took care of the football before he got hurt, what will it take for Mangini and his offensive coaches to realize Delhomme is his polar opposite and bench him?
And when the Browns had a fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 25 early in the fourth quarter and the fans cheering because Mangini decided to go for it, where in the world was fullback Lawrence Vickers? On the bench. That's where. Best blocking fullback in the AFC, if not the entire NFL, was watching from the sideline. Hillis lined up as the lone back behind Delhomme and didn't come close to making the first down. Why did Mangini endorse that play? He could have vetoed it.
There is no way the coach comes away from this victory feeling good about his club. If he's honest with himself, he knows he got away with one and probably temporarily saved his job. Because if the Browns had lost to a 1-9 team, especially the way they might have, fans would have lined up seeking his head. Just guessing here, but that group might have included more than a few of his supporters.
And I don't want to hear about the Browns playing down to the level of the opposition. They aren't a good enough team yet to warrant using that as as excuse. In just a few weeks, they have turned into an entirely different team.
This is not the same team that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a battle in week 6, beat the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints at their home in week 7, defeated the New England Patriots solidly at home in week 8 and gave the New York Jets fits before losing in week 9.
That team gave fans what has turned out to be false hope. That four-game stretch caused many fans to seriously think their team was turning a corner. The corner has disappeared after last Sunday's loss in Jacksonville despite getting six turnovers and this latest "victory."
No, this is not a victory of which to be proud. The Browns took what should have been an easy triumph and turned it into an adventure. They allowed the Panthers to hang around. And when you allow a team to hang around, all you're doing is inviting trouble no matter how good (or bad) you are.
It'll be interesting to see how Mangini handles his quarterback situation next Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins in the first of three straight road games. Obviously, McCoy is out of the picture with his ankle sprain. That leaves Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, who takes care of the ball somewhat better than Delhomme.
Does the coach stick with his veteran captain despite his showing against the Panthers or turn to a more mobile Wallace? Inquiring minds want to know, especially those who want to see Delhomme with a clipboard in his hand rather than a football.