Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bottom of the barrel redux

Just when you thought the season couldn’t get any worse for the Browns, it did Sunday.

Practically no one thought the Browns could – or would – lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The game was at home. The Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the National Football League. And the Browns, 1-5 in their last six games, were due.

The Jags have one of the worst offenses in the NFL and the Browns, at least until recently, have one of the best defenses. There’s no way Cleveland could – or would – lose this game.

And yet, it found a way to lose, 32-28, to a very bad Jacksonville team, now 3-9 after an 0-8 start, and add further embarrassment to a season that has come completely apart in the last two months.

The Browns played fast and loose with Murphy’s Law against the Jaguars and paid a heavy price. If it was meant to go wrong, it did.

Such as three turnovers, including two Brandon Weeden interceptions on consecutive throws and a strip sack in a 2½-minute period late in the second quarter. They turned a 14-7 lead into a 20-14 deficit in a relative blink.

A quick scan of the final statistics shows Weeden was 24-for-40 for 370 yards and three touchdowns. So make that three touchdowns, two interceptions, one fumble and a partridge in a pear tree for the afternoon.

The Cleveland offense racked up 439 net yards and 24 first downs against a porous Jaguars defense. Those are gaudy numbers for the Browns and usually spell victory. Not this time.

The afternoon was typical good Weeden, bad Weeden. When he threw the ball to anyone not named Josh Gordon, he was his usual mediocre self. But when he targeted Gordon, as he did 15 times, he was nothing short of spectacular.

Except for a brief period in the third quarter when he was held out of the lineup and checked for a possible concussion following a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit by Jags strong safety Winston Guy, Gordon was amazing for the second week in a row.

For the second straight game, the second-year wide receiver set a team record for most yards receiving in a game with 261 in addition to his two touchdowns. His 14-catch, 237-yard effort in a losing cause against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday gives him 24 receptions for an incredible 498 yards in the last two games.

For every other receiver on the Browns, that’s a season total. Maybe.

Gordon makes the spectacular look routine. About half his yards against the Jaguars were gained after the catch. His 95-yard catch and run for a score with 3:55 left in regulation gave the Browns a 28-25 lead and appeared to be the game clincher.

He broke loose after Guy went for the interception and missed around the Cleveland 35. The deceptively speedy Gordon outraced two defenders to the end zone as the relatively small crowd rejoiced.

There was no way the offense-challenged Jags could recover from such a blow. Surely the Cleveland defense, which effectively shut them down without a first down in the third quarter, would continue to come through.

Not this time. The luster that covered the Cleveland defense in the first half of the season is rapidly disappearing when it can’t stop a team like Jacksonville. When a stop had to be made, when a big play had to be made, that defense came up empty.

It took Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne slightly more than three minutes and 10 plays to move his team 80 yards. When the Cleveland pass rush was needed, it vanished. (It had only two sacks after two consecutive games with no sacks). Henne was afforded ample time to throw the ball.

Alternating his throws between Ace Sanders and Cleveland native Cecil Shorts III, while mixing in the tough running of Maurice Jones-Drew, Henne drove his team relentlessly down the field as Browns fans moaned, “Here we go again.”

Someone, anyone, make a play, they pleaded. For once, make a play. It never came.

Instead, Shorts made a play, a sweet double move on the usually reliable Joe Haden, who bit on an inside move before losing him outside. Shorts caught the 20-yard scoring throw cleanly and tapped both feet before landing out of the end zone with 40 seconds left.  

The Browns managed to get to the their 48-yard line before Weeden’s desperation Hail Mary was not answered and yet another embarrassing loss was logged.

As it turned out, the margin of victory was a result of a wild shotgun snap by center Alex Mack midway through the fourth quarter with the Browns clinging to a 21-20 lead. It led to five Jacksonville points.

The snap, from the Cleveland 14-yard line, sailed well over Weeden’s head and skidded to the front edge of the end zone, where Weeden kicked it out of bounds. It resulted in a safety followed soon after by a Josh Scobee field goal.

Sanders returned the subsequent Spencer Lanning punt 31 yards to the Browns’ 43. Six plays later, Scobee booted his third field goal of the game from 25 yards to give the Jags the three-point lead (28-25), moments before Gordon’s dazzling 95-yarder.

The Browns now have managed to dive bomb their way into solidifying yet another basement finish in the AFC North. They look nothing like the team that played well enough in the first half of the season to be considered somewhat relevant.

They stand now at 4-8 with three of the final four games on the road, where they have won just once this season. What looked like a promising season at one point has devolved into just another season of misery. The only things that change are the faces and names of the players and coaching staff.

Cleveland fans have been sick and tired of such teams for so long, it’s a wonder apathy doesn’t set in. Maybe the lack of people in seats at the Jacksonville game is an indicator that might be the initial stage of such a feeling.

At this point, the Browns might as well tank the rest of the season, try and get that really high choice in next year’s college football draft and start anew.


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