Sunday, October 21, 2012

Welcome to the club, Jimmy

The look on Jimmy Haslam III’s face said it all.

It was anger. Pure, raw, unadulterated anger.

It was a look that never would have even crossed the mind of Randy Lerner, the irrelevant minority owner of the team.

But the brand new majority owner of the Browns knows football. He has a visceral relationship with the game. It looks as though he lives and dies with teams he follows. Sunday in Indianapolis, he died a little.

Haslam knows the difference between winning and losing. And he knows what it takes to overcome one and latch on to the other.

Six minutes and 38 seconds remained in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game between the Browns and  Colts when he received his first emotional jolt in his first game as the owner of a National Football League team.

He watched Josh Gordon drop a perfectly thrown 41-yard touchdown pass by Brandon Weeden as he pranced into the end zone. Perfect as in Weeden couldn’t have thrown it any better had he walked up to Gordon and placed the ball in his hands. It would have given the Browns a 20-14 lead.

It brought Haslam to his feet in excitement as he watched the ball descend toward Gordon’s outstretched hands. All he could do was punch the air frustratingly as Gordon allowed the ball to slip through his hands.

What made it even more frustrating, the rookie wide receiver made a nice back-shoulder catch on a 33-yard scoring strike by Weeden at the beginning of the second half that brought the Browns to within 14-13.

Then Haslam was treated to another reason coach Pat Shurmur is an odds-on favorite to be looking for a job at the end of the season.

The Browns, whose defense played back on their heels most of the afternoon, had finally made a play when cornerback Sheldon Brown sacked Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck on a blitz, stripped him of the ball and recovered at midfield with 7:25 left in the game.

It was clearly the best field position at the start of the drive the Browns had all afternoon. Up to that point, their best start on a drive was their 20-yard line. Their average start in the first seven drives was the 16-yard line.

So midfield was the lap of luxury by comparison for the offense, which had previously put together touchdown drives of 90 and 80 yards.

The Browns clearly had momentum in so many different ways. Weeden connected with Travis Benjamin on a nine-yard pass play. Second and short produced an incompletion to Benjamin, followed by the Gordon drop.

So on fourth down with less than a yard to go at the Colts’ 41-yard line, Shurmur called a timeout. Six minutes and 38 seconds left in a 17-13 game and you’ve got the 13.

What to do, what to do. Go for it and give the Colts good field position if you fail? Or play it safe and make the Colts start within the shadow of their goalposts?

Most coaches, those with stones, especially those whose team had won just once in the first six games, would have gone for it. In this case, what’s to lose? Another game? You’re 1 and 5, for goodness sakes. Might as well go for it.

But the staid Shurmur, playing it by the book all the way, decided to call on punter Reggie Hodges, whose bobbled hold of a snap on an aborted Phil Dawson placement following the first touchdown proved a critical mistake. He had decided to play the field-position game. Pin the Colts deep in their territory and force a punt.

Fourth and about 18 inches at the opponent’s 41-yard line in a close game with momentum clearly on your side. Just about everyone hoped Shurmur would go for it. It should have been a no-brainer.

And that’s when we saw Haslam’s disgusted look for all the fans to see. The glare could have melted an iceberg. OK, an exaggeration, but he was clearly unhappy. Coaching from his private box, he was more than mildly irritated that Shurmur had not gambled and instead sent his punt team on the field.

Haslam knew his new team should have gone for it. He knew this moment called for something daring, something bold, something we haven’t seen from a Cleveland coach since Butch Davis.

While it is not known for certain, it would not be inconceivable that Haslam and Shurmur had a nice long talk after the game. And they were not talking about how well Weeden threw the ball.  Or how much of a difference Josh Cooper makes in the passing game. Or the fact that Greg Little somehow has learned to hold on to the ball when it’s thrown in his direction.

No, you can bet the one decision that ultimately cost the Browns a shot at a victory was the primary topic.

As it turned out, Hodges’ punt traveled only 21 yards and the Colts began their next drive with their backs nowhere near those goalposts. So much for that strategy.

To make matters worse, the Colts went three and out against a Cleveland defense that played much better in the second half, but Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee nailed a 52-yarder and the Browns began their next drive at their 31. They drove to the Indy 39 before the Colts held and took over on downs with 1:54 left.

Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, the new owner found out just why Browns fans lead the league in one dubious category: frustration.

With any kind of good coaching, the Browns today enter week eight of the NFL season next week with a record no worse than 3-4 and arguably 4-3. The fact they are 1-6 is a direct result of some highly questionable coaching.

In the bottom-line world of the NFL, you get only 16 shots in a season. You had better make the most of them. And there can be no question that Shurmur has not done that. Not with a 5-18 record in 23 games.

The way he coaches this team will make it that much easier for Haslam to drop the hammer on his coach within 48 hours of the season finale Dec. 30 at Pittsburgh.

If not sooner.

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