The ball hung in the winter air at Cleveland Browns Stadium early Sunday evening as the snow swirled about it and the clock wound down to triple zeroes. With its descent hung the fortunes of the Browns.
If a Cleveland receiver in the end zone catches the Hail Mary pass by Seneca Wallace, the Browns miraculously defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers but lose several spots in the college football draft next April. If the pass falls harmlessly to the ground, the Browns finish the season 4-12 but draft fourth.
Fortunately, the ball fell incomplete. Why fortunately? Isn’t beating the Steelers important anymore? Not on this day it wasn’t. All the loss meant was the Browns finished the season oh for the AFC North. It meant nothing more.
The 13-9 setback was just another heaping helping of futility as the club concluded yet another extremely forgettable season.
To wit: The 2011 Browns compiled 218 points in 16 games, one more point than the 1999 expansion Browns. The current Browns scored seven touchdowns at home in eight games. That’s not a misprint. Seven visits to the end zone in 32 quarters. The expansionists doubled that total at CBS.
That’s how much progress has been made in the last 13 seasons. It’s almost as though the Browns are right back where they started when the National Football League allowed the club’s rebirth.
But now that they are back in the top four come draft day, the significance of that incompletion will become clear as the Browns get a crack at three of the top 36 players in what is expected to be a talent-rich class. Unless, of course, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. have another massive brain cramp and trade down.
When Holmgren and Heckert enter their bunker on draft day and make command decisions concerning the direction of the club, the offensive side of the ball should be considered priorities 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. This team’s offense passed awful around mid-season.
And if the two top men don’t recognize that and draft accordingly, Browns fans will be in for a whole lot more very bad football and the president and general manager lose whatever credibility they’ve been able to build.
The Browns finished 4-12 this season because they deserved to finish 4-12. This is a team devoid of talent in too many vital areas. It is slow, does not play smart and lacks playmakers on just about every level.
Except for a defense that did not embarrass itself, the Browns bottom-fed most of the season as coach Pat Shurmur failed spectacularly to live up to expectations. Maybe it was because he was his own offensive coordinator.
Shurmur’s version of the west coast offense was not of this planet. Its stuttering and sputtering belied the very foundation on which it has been successful elsewhere. The late Bill Walsh would have blanched in astonishment if told this was the offense he perfected. It would have been totally unrecognizable.
That’s why it is imperative Holmgren and Heckert do not screw up the draft this time. If Shurmur insists this will be the road traveled on offense next season, then it practically mandates rounding up the talent that will help to make it successful. Right now, that talent is AWOL. It certainly is not wearing the Seal Brown and Orange.
Even though he looked overmatched most of the season, Shurmur deserves one more crack at this head-coaching gig. At the same time, he needs to stop trying to put the square peg in the round hole.
He should start by looking for a coordinator who fits his offensive philosophy. Doubling up as his own coordinator was a mistake almost from the beginning of the season.
By concentrating strictly on being the head coach, maybe we’ll see a different, hopefully smarter, Pat Shurmur next season. That’s where his bosses enter the picture. They must furnish him with the pieces and parts necessary to start crafting at least a competitive team.
Right now, the Browns are anything but competitive. They play hit-and-miss football. Just when it appears they show signs of elevating their game, they make dumb mistakes. That’s the M.O. of a bad team.
It’ll be interesting to see if Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur try to sugarcoat this season as they wrap it up and start prepping for the 2012 season. Fans have seen enough bad football by the Browns to know when they’re being conned.
The glass-is-half-full routine doesn’t work when you lose 12 games in a 16-game season. The best approach is to be honest. Admit there’s more room for improvement than originally believed. Then do something about it.
A good start will be wise moves in free agency followed by the college draft. This team needs a lot of fresh blood. And with the fourth pick in every round, the Browns stand a much better chance of improving than with the sixth or seventh choice.
That’s why it was so important that Wallace’s pass that floated down toward the end zone through the swirling snow fell incomplete.
It’s a start.