So close and yet . . .
How many times have we heard from football coaches that the difference between winning and losing sometimes is as infinitesimal as executing one play properly?
If one is to believe that, then, the Browns Sunday did come within that infinitesimal margin twice and didn't execute those plays properly or else they would have upset the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2012 season opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
A couple of ifs come into play here in what turned out to be a 17-16 Eagles victory in a game that should have – and could have – wound up in the victory column for Cleveland. It was a case of shoulda, woulda, coulda, didn’t.
If Owen Marecic does not drop a simple third-down (and 2) swing pass from quarterback Brandon Weeden with 49 seconds left in the first half and the teams tied at 3, the Eagles don’t get the ball back. And score.
Marecic’s drop of the easy pass breathed new life into a Philadelphia offense that had been stifled and strangled the entire first half by a remarkable Cleveland defense, which turned Philly quarterback Michael Vick into a mere mortal.
He drove his team 74 yards in five plays as the aggressive and very opportunistic Browns defense switched to conservative mode. In other words, the dreaded prevent defense. It took Vick just 32 seconds to give his team a 10-3 halftime lead. But if Marecic does not drop the pass, it’s a tie game.
Switch to the latter stages of the game with the Browns, still playing aggressively on defense, clinging to a 16-10 lead and headed for the first big upset of the National Football League season.
They had picked off Vick four times already and added a LeSean McCoy fumble recovery, blunting and parrying just about every move the Eagles tried on offense. The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, had fallen into a sinkhole and disappeared.
So it was up to the defense, which fittingly put Cleveland’s only touchdown of the day on the scoreboard (a D’Qwell Jackson pick 6 early in the fourth quarter), to step up. Just 6:25 remained and the Eagles were pinned at their 9-yard line.
Pessimistic Browns fans at this point of the game had to be wondering just how their team would lose. That’s normal for fans of this club when it has a lead late in close games. Somehow, they almost always find a way to lose.
One big play. The Browns’ defense needed just one big play to shut this one down and come up with their first season-opening victory since 2004 and only their second in the last 14 seasons. One measly big play. And they had that opportunity.
It took Vick a shade more than five minutes to take his club to the Cleveland 4-yard line. On second-and-goal, Vick attempted to hit Jeremy Maclin in the right corner of the end zone.
But rookie Cleveland linebacker A.J. Fort, who had one of his club’s four interceptions, reached up for the pass. It slithered through his hands and fell to the ground harmlessly. He makes the grab, game over. Browns win.
So close and yet so far. And so very frustrating.
The Browns got the ball back, but the way the Cleveland offense was playing, this one was over.
Weeden, whose dream of playing in the NFL turned into a nightmare on this afternoon, immediately threw his fourth interception of the day. And you can almost hear segments of Browns Nation starting a quarterback controversy.
Colt McCoy, who lost his starting job to Weeden, has a lot of supporters who probably think their man could have done a better job against the Eagles. Or better yet, no worse.
“Heck,” McCoy must have been saying to himself on the sideline, “I couldn’t be any worse than this.” And he would have been correct.
Weeden looked like a college quarterback who had no business playing in an NFL game. He was uncertain, stared down his receivers repeatedly, looked confused by some of the Eagles’ defenses and compounded that by several times overthrowing wide open receivers.
Fact is Weeden had not run a play from scrimmage since the latter stages of the first half in the exhibition loss to the Eagles on Aug. 24. That’s 16 days between meaningful snaps, a long time for any quarterback, let alone a rookie.
Coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress did Weeden a disservice by sitting him in the final exhibition game. Sunday’s performance magnified it. That’s dumb thinking.
Top draft pick Trent Richardson, who missed the entire exhibition season because of knee surgery, ran for just 39 yards on 19 carries. Blame for that should be shared equally by the coaching staff, which has the imagination of a 3-year-old (with the exception of a well-executed double reverse in the second quarter), and a highly overrated offensive line.
The holes were not there for Richardson as Shurmur dialed up conservative play after conservative play. The only trickery was the double reverse, which saw rookie wideout Travis Benjamin scoot 35 yards. Other than that, it was strictly vanilla.The only play that was there was the quick slant, but the Eagles shut that down in a hurry in the second half.
The offense, which gave a whole new meaning to the word terrible, never got untracked despite five turnovers from coordinator Dick Jauron’s well-designed defense. Vick was dropped just twice, but was up close and personal with the CBS turf on at least a dozen other occasions, throwing many passes before he wanted to.
While credit can be given the Browns’ defense for making the final score as close as it was, the same cannot be said for the Philly defense. The Browns ran just 55 plays from scrimmage, while the Eagles checked in with 88.
The Eagles offense was on the field for 36 minutes. The Cleveland defense was gassed by the time Vick began his winning march. Even so, it took the Eagles 17 plays to score the winning TD.
But still, if Marecic holds on to that little swing pass late in the second quarter and Fort, who played a terrific game, holds on to his second pick of the afternoon, we’re not talking about a quarterback controversy. And we’re not wondering if the Browns will ever again win a season opener. And we’re not talking about what’s wrong with the offensive line.
We’re talking about a Browns victory.