Sunday, October 2, 2011

A large dose of reality

There is no other way to put this. The Browns got spanked Sunday by the Tennessee Titans. Big time spanking.

They looked like a college football team by comparison, They did not belong on the same field as the Titans clearly demonstrated a decided talent gap between the two clubs.

The 31-13 loss extended to eight the number of consecutive ugly quarters of football the Browns have managed since knocking off the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts in week two.

The Titans won this one from the moment they emerged from their bus. That’s because for the second week in a row, the Browns were not prepared to play a game. They were not ready physically, mentally or emotionally.

They were burned by big plays on both sides of the ball. The Tennessee offense stung the Cleveland defense for plays of 25, 80, 57 and 21 yards. The Titans' defense produced a 97-yard pick six.

Included in this slapping was a couple of incredibly poor coaching decisions by Pat Shurmur, whose supposedly improved offense leaves a whole lot to be desired. (More on that tomorrow.)

Down, 14-6, with about six minutes left in the second quarter, the Browns ran a pitch play to rookie running back Armond Smith on a fourth-and-1 at the Titans’ 41. It came up short. Whatever happened to the quarterback sneak? Or Peyton Hillis?

That paled, however, compared to what happened early in the second half. Trailing, 21-6, Shurmur faced a fourth and a blade or two of grass at his 21-yard line after a four-yard pass to Mo Massaquoi came up that short. The measurement was so close, referee Pete Morelli had to lean in to get a closer look.

The strategy screamed for the Browns to go for it. They were down by 15 points and playing poorly against the Titans. They needed an emotional and psychological pick-me-up.

Colt McCoy could have leaned for at least five blades of grass and picked up the first down. Shurmur had nothing to lose by going for it. It would have been a small confidence booster.

Instead, he called for punter Brad Maynard. Interesting insight into just how conservative Shurmur will be as a head coach. He had so little confidence in his offense, he opted to give the ball back to the Titans.

Terrible decision. Unforgivable.

What in the world was this man thinking? His defense was not playing nearly as well as it did in the first three games. His offense was sputtering. His team needed an injection of confidence.

This is something Eric Mangini or Romeo Crennel would have done. There's nothing wrong with being bold. They play a man’s game in the National Football League. Shurmur sent the wrong signal to his team by punting. It somehow fit into the afternoon scenario.

Sure, the Browns put up 416 yards of offense. Sure, McCoy attempted a team-record 61 passes and completed a team-record 40. And sure, the Browns owned the ball for nearly 37 minutes, running 87 plays to Tennessee’s 50, recording 25 first downs to Tennessee’s 13.

But they were also eight of 20 on third down. Yes, that’s right; an almost unheard-of 20 third-down opportunities. Eighty-seven plays netted the Browns 13 points, while Tennessee’s offense put up 24 in 50. Jordan Babineaux’s 97-yard pick six on a pass that should never have been thrown was just sugar for the scoreboard.

McCoy was chased practically the entire game as he struggled to find open receivers– does that sound familiar? – all afternoon. That sounds strange considering he hit on 40 throws. But not when you consider most of them were of the dump-off or check-down variety. Much more often than not, his primary receiver was either not open or not in position to catch the ball.

And the most incredible stat of all? In those 61 passes, not once did McCoy throw the ball downfield. Not once did any of his receivers travel more than 25 yards downfield.

Somewhere along the line, you’d think the Browns had a play in their playbook that at least attempts to stretch the opposing defense. It’s hard to believe Shurmur has so little faith in McCoy that he basically does opposing defenses a favor by limiting his quarterback to short- and medium-range passes.

Then again, it could be a lack of faith in his wide receivers, the corps team President Mike Holmgren says he likes. Now that he’s seen these guys in action for four games, it might be a good time to ask Holmgren again what he thinks about his wideouts.

This team has all kinds of problems on offense. It has a tough time protecting its quarterback; it has a tough time running the ball; and it has a tough time negotiating the field through the air.

Until Sunday, the defense hadn’t played that badly. Yes, there some bumps along the way like poor tackling and questionable coverage by members of the secondary not named Joe Haden.

And then a game like this one comes along where the blemishes stick out like sores. Where reality rises and slaps them silly. Where the tackling gets worse, if that’s possible. Where the bye week looks pretty good.

The Browns did not play solid fundamental football against the Titans. Check that. They did not play anything resembling fundamental football against the Titans. They were embarrassed before the home folks.

That’s three home games and two losses. Without that little miracle against Miami last week, the Browns would be zip for the home schedule thus far.

No question the better team won this game. But it also opened up the eyes of the Browns and their coaching staff that there’s still a long way to go before this team is ready to be competitive.

It’s becoming apparent, too, that Shurmur is unwilling to try something different to shake his team out of its offensive doldrums. (A little no-huddle maybe?) He seems willing to stay vanilla and somewhat predictable as opposing teams hone in on his conservative tendencies.

Unless he dares to open up the offense, unless he dares to become a lot more creative than he’s been thus far, the season could become very long very shortly because the defense can’t bear all the weight much longer.

It’ll be interesting to see how fast the offense explodes from the gate in two weeks when the Browns travel to Oakland to face the much-improved Raiders in the first of three road games in the next month.

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