The Browns played a game of what-if with the Baltimore Ravens Saturday and lost in spectacular fashion.
The 20-14 final score was more a product of the Ravens trying to lose a game against a decidedly inferior football team than that same inferior team trying to win it.
A number of questionable coaching decisions by Cleveland’s Pat Shurmur ultimately paved the way for the Ravens to sweep the season series, move one step closer to clinching the AFC North championship and nail a first-round bye in the playoffs.
We’ll deal with them one at a time as we dissect why Shurmur is in way over his head as a head coach in the National Football League.
Most egregious of the blunders was the inexplicably poor clock management at the end of the first half that left Shurmur with a perplexed look on his face as the clock ticked off the final seconds and the Browns, with no timeouts left, just a few yards from the Baltimore goal line.
The Browns, down 17-0 at the time, reeled off their best drive of the first half and found themselves at the Baltimore 5 with less than a half minute left in the half. A Seneca Wallace to Evan Moore connection moved the ball to the 3, but Moore failed to get out of bounds to stop the clock.
For some reason, Shurmur called for a Peyton Hillis run. No timeouts, the clock winding down to the final 15 seconds and he calls a run, which, of course, was stuffed with seven seconds left.
What in the name of stupid coaching is wrong with this picture? The only worse call would have been a quarterback sneak. Is there any question this man should not be allowed to making command coaching decisions and call plays at the same time?
And then to make matters worse, if that was possible, Shurmur wondered why Wallace couldn’t get his team lined up with mere seconds left and spike the ball to stop the clock to get at least a field goal out of the drive.
Failure to accomplish even that played a large role in the outcome later in the game, forcing Shurmur to make another bad decision.
After the game, Wallace took the blame for losing track of the time, and talked about “everyone not being on the same page . . . and it’s not the head coach’s fault.” Brownie points for that one. Never blame the head coach.
Shurmur said he “never would have called a run in that situation with that much time (left),” then blamed himself for the “communications breakdowns.” Someone has to take the blame and we all know where the buck stops.
If Mike Holmgren, who was watching from his ivory tower seat, doesn’t seriously begin to question his choice of Shurmur as the coach of the Browns, then there’s something wrong with the team’s hierarchy.
Not that this one would have wound up in the victory column, but better coaching decisions would definitely have given the Browns a chance to win.
Another instance of stupefyingly dumb play calling took place on the opening drive of the game. The Browns resolutely marched from their 20 to the Baltimore 34 mostly on the strong running of Hillis, who gained 30 yards on six carries. He ran hard, looking more like the Peyton Hillis of 2010.
So when the Browns had a third and inches at the Ravens’ 30-yard line, Shurmur inexplicably called for a pass. Not a Hillis run or a sneak by Wallace. A pass. Element of surprise? No, element of stupidity.
Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb read it perfectly, jumped the route of Mo Massaquoi and snuffed out the Cleveland scoring opportunity. Once again, Murphy’s Law triumphs.
The Ravens went on to score on three straight possessions to take the 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter and the romp was on. Only one problem. The Cleveland defense began to stiffen, and Joshua Cribbs ripped off an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter to swing some of the momentum the Browns’ way.
The Ravens’ offense had seven possessions in the second half and scored on just one, due mainly to a poor Brad Maynard punt that gave them good enough field position to get close enough for the second of Shayne Graham’s two field goals.
Their longest possession lasted seven plays, ending in a Sheldon Brown interception in the end zone when Joe Flacco got greedy. The Browns converted that turnover into seven points with a Wallace-to-Moore TD hookup with 8:22 left in regulation, culminating an 80-yard drive that saw Wallace convert three third-down plays.
What got lost in the shuffle was the two timeouts the quarterback took during that drive. And that would come back to play a big part in what turned out to be a another disappointing outcome with Shurmur again in the starring role.
So here were the Browns, down by just six points – it would have been just three if Shurmur hadn’t botched the final seconds of the first half – with more than eight minutes left and a Baltimore team back on its heels.
The Ravens cooperated and went three and out on the ensuing series and the Browns had the ball back with 6:50 left and a gigantic upset looming. But they couldn’t overcome a Shawn Lauvao holding penalty and faced a fourth-and-5 at their 45 with 4:03 left.
They still had one timeout left and the two-minute warning timeout. Two timeouts, decent field position and still plenty of time left to get the ball back. With the defense playing well, pin the Ravens back deep in their territory and play the field-position game.
Instead, Shurmur panicked. He did not foresee any of the above and made his third critical mistake of the afternoon. After taking his final timeout to discuss the situation, he inexplicably went for it. What in the world was he thinking?
Hillis was drilled by linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo after taking a swing pass from Wallace. A swing pass on fourth-and-5 in your territory with no timeouts left? Are you kidding me? Aren’t many plays worse than that in that situation.
Still, the Browns believe it or not had a chance. The Ravens went conservative, played it safe on three straight running plays and found themselves in a fourth-and-2 at the Cleveland 37. Nearly two minutes remained.
Now what do you suppose the Cleveland coaches told the players in the defensive huddle before going out for the fourth-down snap? We now take you into that huddle for what we think might have been said.
“Nobody moves,” says defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. “Stay onside. Do not move until you see the ball move. When the ball moves, you move. Is that clear? Any questions? Does everyone have that straight? Do not move until the ball moves.”
So what happened? What happened is what happens to dumb teams: Murphy’s Law.
It was obvious Flacco was trying to draw the Browns offside. Even Browns fans watching on television were screaming, "Don't move."Flacco tried a head bob. He appeared to change the inflection and rhythm in his cadence. As the play clock wound down to the final several seconds, the Browns didn’t budge. Good discipline.
And then inexplicably (there’s that word again), rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor charged before the ball was snapped. The Baltimore offensive line applauded the move and then ran out the clock. Take a bow, Mr. Taylor.
Just another disappointing Cleveland Browns loss? Yeah, but one has to wonder what the outcome would have been if Shurmur hadn’t called that first-series pass on third and inches; if Shurmur had a better handle on time management at the end of the first half; and if Shurmur had punted instead of going for it on fourth-and-5 with four minutes left in the final quarter.
We’ll never know, of course. And that’s what makes it so frustrating.