Sunday, November 4, 2012

Decisions, decisions

There are times when making command decisions as a head coach in the National Football League is easy. No brainers.

Then there are times when making those decisions can be the difference between winning and losing a ball game.

They are decisions that do not necessarily require immediate attention, but certainly must be given some thought well ahead of actually making them.

Such was the case for Pat Shurmur, who had a miserable day in the decision department Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

With about four minutes left in regulation and the Browns trailing the Baltimore Ravens, 22-15, after having just squandered a 15-14 lead, the Browns’ head coach was faced with one of those nasty command decisions.

With nearly four minutes left in regulation and facing a fourth-and-2 at his 28-yard line, it was decision time. Punt and get better field position or gamble?

The situation was somewhat similar to a decision he made a few weeks ago in the loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In that one, Shurmur ordered Reggie Hodges to punt on fourth down and a foot from the Indianapolis 41 with 6½ minutes left. He played surrender football and angered his new owner in so doing.

This time, he gambled. And lost when Brandon Weeden’s pass for Greg Little fell harmlessly to the ground, gave the Ravens a short field with which to work and paved the way for a Justin Tucker field goal that sealed the Ravens’ 25-15 victory.

Shurmur twice has had to make that kind of decision and twice he has failed to be correct. In large part, an argument can be made that is one of the reasons the Browns are 2-7 today instead of 4-5, arguably 5-4.

The big difference between what happened Sunday and the Indianapolis game was down and distance and ball position. The Colts scenario begged for a gamble. The Ravens scenario demanded a punt.

No second-guessing in either case.

The Browns still had two timeouts (and the two-minute warning timeout) left and a decent punt by Hodges would have put the Ravens that much farther from the Cleveland goal line. The decision to go for it showed a shocking lack of confidence by Shurmur in the defense and misplaced confidence in the offense.

Not only should Shurmur’s time management skills and decision making be held in question, so, too, should his ability to adequately prepare his team for the start of games.

After the first 15 minutes, it looked as though the Ravens were playing against their scout team on both sides of the ball. Their 14-0 lead was built on two drives that consumed 12 minutes and 17 seconds of the quarter.

Twenty-two plays, 136 yards and touchdown runs of eight and 12 yards by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce produced that result. The Cleveland defense looked like the wrong end of a tackling sled.

The Browns’ offense, meanwhile, came out throwing even though the Baltimore defense had surrendered 622 yards on the ground in the last three games. Some time between last Sunday and the Ravens game, offensive coordinator Brad Childress and Shurmur, who calls plays, swallowed a bottle full of stupid pills.

What do you do when your opponent has trouble stopping the run, especially with Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata out with injuries? In Shurmur’s and Childress’ world, why you throw the ball, of course. 

Six plays, four passes, 18 yards and two punts. Third-and-1 on both series and Trent Richardson does not get the ball. What does the rookie have to do to get the coaches’ attention that yes, he can gain a yard when needed.

Richardson already had 18 yards of offense on a nine-yard run and nine-yard pass reception. Ignorance is bliss on some occasions. But not when you’re an NFL coach. In this case, ignorance is ignorance.

Browns fans, stunned at what the first 15 minutes had wrought, steeled themselves for the inevitable onslaught. Gonna be a long afternoon against the hated Ravens.

Then something strange and unusual happened. The Ravens started acting like a normal team and Weeden, whose afternoon could charitably be called uneven, began taking advantage.

The coaches, to their credit, did not abandon the run and starting calling Richardson’s number. The Browns then started playing the horseshoes/hand grenades game. They began creeping closer and closer to the Baltimore goal line.

They visited the red zone on three straight drives in the second quarter, but all they came away with was a trio of Phil Dawson field goals. The Ravens finished off drives with touchdowns. Therein lies one of the big differences between these teams.

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, began to stuff the Ravens’ running game, shutting off the flanks and funneling everything to the middle. It forced seven straight punts and six three-and outs in a row.

The offense failed to take advantage of wonderful field position to start drives (at their 49, 44, 46 and 43), but managed to squeeze two more field goals out of Dawson to take that 15-14 lead with 8:48 left in the game.

And if Chris Ogbonnaya had not illegally covered tight end Jordan Cameron on the play and drawn a penalty flag, the Browns would have taken a 19-14 lead on a Weeden to Josh Gordon touchdown pass.

But holy cow, from the depths of despair to a one-point lead! What’s going on here? With the Cleveland defense playing shutdown football, the Ravens’ nine-game winning streak against the Browns dangled precariously.

Then that old axiom about good teams finding a way to win and bad teams finding a way to lose kicked in.  The Ravens entered the game at 5-2 for a reason. And the Browns were 2-6 for a reason.

In this case, the Baltimore offense stopped chugging Sominex pills and remembered what got them that early 14-0 lead and flipped the switch. Nine plays and 81 yards later, wide receiver Torrey Smith made Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden feel as though he was on a merry-go-round with a wheel move at the Browns’ 10 that left the Cleveland cornerback flat-footed as he scored on an 18-yard pass play.

It was as though the Browns’ defense had stolen those Sominex pills from the Ravens.   

To make matters worse, the Ravens’ two-point attempt was ridiculously easy as Anquan Boldin, who made only five catches all afternoon but every one moved the chains, caught a Joe Flacco pass in the far right corner with the closest Brown about 10 yards away.

Then came that awful decision as Shurmur made certain he had snatched certain defeat from the jaws of possible victory.

Weeden, uncertain all afternoon, looked dazed, confused and unable to find open receivers. He wound up with two interceptions and was lucky it wasn’t double that as the Ravens dropped at least two others.

And yet, despite all his problems, the Browns still had a chance to win this game. That seems to be the theme with this team this season. So close and yet, so far.

Smart coaches almost always seem to win a majority of their close games. The Browns need a coach like that. They certainly don’t have one now.


  1. Thanx, Elf. Frustrating as hell, isn't it? Oh well, don't worry. Shurmur won't be here next season. And if this crap continues this season, he may very well be gone long before then.

    This team, with a better coach, would not have lost this game. Nor the Indianapolis game. Nor the . . . oh never mind.