Sunday, September 22, 2013

That was not an illusion

OK, who were those football players masquerading as the Browns Sunday in Minnesota?

The uniforms looked the same. The names on the backs of those uniforms appeared to be the same. They seemed to look different, though. In a good way, of course.

They sure didn’t look anything on offense like the Browns who lost the first two games of the season against Miami and Baltimore. And they sure ran a bunch of different plays than those Browns.

The 31-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on an afternoon full of special-teams surprises didn’t have your typical Cleveland Browns feel, especially the late fourth-quarter comeback. The real Browns would have somehow, some way gagged this game. Fourth-quarter comebacks are not them.

So when Brian Hoyer connected on his third touchdown pass of the game – and second to Jordan Cameron – to give the Browns the lead with 51 seconds left, eyebrows all around Browns Nation shot up in amazement.

These things don’t happen to the Browns. The real Browns. C’mon now. Were those really the Browns? You know the ones I mean. The hapless, can’t-make-a-play-if-their-lives-depended-on-it Browns? Did they miss the flight to Minneapolis?

What, you say? Those were the Browns? No way. Couldn’t have been. They scored more points in the first half (24) than they did in the first two games. Combined. It was truly a where-in-the-world-did-that-come-from kind of performance.

Yeah, I know the Vikings entered the game at 0-2, but this was their home opener and that building can get kind of loud and has been known to throw off the timing of some very strong teams.

The Browns were starting their third-string quarterback in Hoyer, had a running game that was missing their star running back because he had been traded and operated with an offensive line that had sprung more leaks that an old hose.

What most fans had hoped for, but didn’t realistically expect, was a surprisingly solid game from Hoyer. Yes, he threw three interceptions to neutralize his three touchdown passes, but one was not his fault.

The most pleasant aspect of his game was the poise he showed throughout the afternoon, especially in the second half when the Vikings began overwhelming the Cleveland offensive line with a variety of blitzes.

You could see that three years playing backup to Tom Brady in New England paid off for Hoyer,  He never looked flustered in the pocket, was confident with his throws and got the ball out quickly. His head was on a swivel all afternoon. He looked like a veteran, not someone making only his second National Football League start.

On several occasions, the Cleveland native managed to escape the pocket and keep the play alive just when it looked as though he was going to get sacked. That’s something the injured Brandon Weeden still hasn’t learned to do.

After connecing with the returning (from a suspension) Josh Gordon on a 47-yard scoring toss on the second series of the game after Gordon put a sweet double move on Minnesota cornerback A. J. Jefferson, one could sense this was going to be a solid partnership. Gordon wound up with 10 receptions for 146 yards.

Shannon Sharpe, one of CBS Television’s co-hosts at halftime, brought up what appeared to be a good point while commenting on the Browns’ 24-17 lead at the break.

After watching Hoyer complete one of his scoring passes to Cameron, Sharpe said, “Brandon Weeden on the sideline must be writing,  ‘Where was this play when I was playing?’ “

What Sharpe didn’t know was the play in question has always been there for Weeden. He just has trouble making it. Besides, offensive coordinator Norv Turner is not going to call the game differently because someone else is under center.

And then there are the special teams of coach Chris Tabor, who emptied the fake-play package. The first, a fake punt that punt protector Josh Aubrey turned into a 34-yard run, led to a second-quarter field goal. On the next series, punter Spencer Lanning, who holds on all placements, rose up and threw an 11-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Cameron.

The Cleveland defense, the true strength of the team, was another co-star for the afternoon, virtually shutting down the peerless Adrian Peterson, who scored once, but needed 25 carries to accumulate 88 yards. His longest gain was nine yards. It might be time to declare that the Browns have finally learned how to stop the run.

Those runs made by running backs, that is, because they had no answer for Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder, whose fans in the stands carried on a love-hate relationship with him all day. The Browns sacked him six times, picked him off once, and were well prepared for Ponder the passer.

Ponder the runner, however, gave them fits. He ran five times, four on scrambles, for 46 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including an eight-yard scamper that tied the game at 24-24, cashing in on Hoyer’s third interception of the afternoon.

It was at that point that the Browns’ luster on offense picked up plenty of tarnish, due mainly to a Minnesota pass rush that began overwhelming the Browns’ offensive line. They basically disdained the Cleveland running game, rendered impotent by Richardson’s departure, and targeted Hoyer.

The Browns had one last chance, starting at their 45-yard line with 3:21 left following a poor Jeff Locke punt. Hoyer, channeling Brady’s fourth-quarter heroics, was clutch when he had to be. He hit Gordon with three of his six completions in the drive, including a 12-yard slant on third and 10 to keep the drive alive.

Cameron, who contributed an important 13-yard grab on a second and 10, caught his third TD pass of the afternoon in the far left corner of the end zone on third and goal at the 7. It culminated an improbable afternoon.

If nothing else, the game proved Gordon and Cameron have stepped up and become solid playmakers for an offense that was on life support in the first two games. Hoyer’s performance was a pleasant revelation. And the defense, forced to play in transition mode a lot because of four turnovers, still came through when needed.

Only the diehards thought the Browns would win this one. Too many negatives to overcome, said the doubters. The skeptics remain skeptical despite the victory, however. All they would say about this victory would be something like, “Well at least they won’t go winless this season.”

Now it’s back home for the next three games against Cincinnati, Buffalo and Detroit. And there is no question who the Cleveland quarterback is going to be in at least one of those games. For the real Browns, that is.


  1. I told a friend of mine before the game started, with all of the criticism they had received and the shock of the 3rd pick in the draft traded that this team would either rise to the occasion or fall flat on their face. This is what Browns fans have wanted to see more than anything, a team that doesn't quit, a defense that can stop the run and give the offense a chance to win.

    One of the most refreshing aspects of the game was how aggressive the coaching was. A fake punt and fake field goal on the same series! Can't say I ever seen that before. It is going to be pretty tough to win without a running game, but if today is any indication, at least Monday mornings won't be boring.

  2. It's only one game, Marc, but it definitely is encouraging that the team can play like that. They've got a tough Cincinnati team next Sunday. How they play against the Bengals will be a better barometer by which to judge this team. The Bengals are loaded.

    In your excitement, you overlooked the fact that the two fakes were on successive series, not the same. Still, it was heartening to see some creative coaching.

  3. It was a fun game and Hoyer seemed to have better command of the offense. Mingo plays fast and may be a dynamic defender before too long. Bryant adds pop to the DL. And Gordon is the most talented offensive player on the roster. His presence changes defensive schemes and coverages. Too bad his days appear to be numbered in Browns uniform. He may be among the most dynamic Browns players in many, many years.

    That all said, I'm still expecting a 4-5 win season. If Hoyer remains the starter, teams will increasingly test his arm, will throw more blitzes at the o-line, and without a running threat, the passing lanes will get clogged. While I'm on the fence about the Richardson trade, placing all the pressure on the passing game with so many questions at QB is a recipe for disaster this season. Browns will lose a lot of games like the first 2, including this Sunday. I was really surprised they won yesterday. I'll be truly shocked if they win this Sunday.

  4. So will I, anon. Be shocked, that is. The Bengals are much better than the Vikings, especially on defense.