Sunday, December 22, 2013

The kindred spirit syndrome

Rob Chudzinski now knows how Pat Shurmur felt. And Eric Mangini. And Romeo Crennel. And Butch Davis. And Chris Palmer.

He is a kindred spirit with all of the above. And that’s not something of which to be proud.

The current Browns head coach now knows how positively awful it feels to coach a professional football team that makes a date with disaster at the beginning of each National Football League season and keeps it.

Chudzinski, who grew up a Browns fan in Toledo, wanted to be the head man for his boyhood team. He knew the dismal history of this team since the resurrection in 1999 and still wanted to coach it.

As the saying goes, be very careful what you wish for. In this case, Chudzinski had no idea it would be this bad after watching his team drop a 24-13 decision to the New York Jets Sunday in New Jersey. It was the club’s sixth straight loss, ninth in the last 10 games and lowered the season record to 4-11.

Being such a diehard Browns fan, Chudzinski must be feeling the agony and frustration and hopelessness Browns Nation feels after yet another loss. It must be even more frustrating and upsetting for the coach since he is in a position to do something about it.

Just a few days ago, he talked about a plan the club has for the future, a plan that evoked optimism. “I believe in our plan and that’s a long-term plan for sustained success,” he told the media.

Only one problem, coach. In order to sustain success, you first must achieve success. And the Browns right now are light years away from being even close to that station in life, especially when you take into account the way your team played the final 41 minutes of the game Sunday.

Just when fans thought the season couldn’t get any worse, it did against the Jets. And once again, a gigantic second-half collapse by the defense paved the way against a team that has struggled on offense most of the season.

The rapidly fading Cleveland defense actually made Jets quarterback Geno Smith look like a veteran, not the mistake-prone rookie he has become this season. Made him look like a Pro Bowler. That’s not easy considering how poorly his season has gone entering this game.

Smith had thrown only 10 touchdown passes and a frightful 21 interceptions in his first 14 games. But let us not forget these are the Cleveland Browns, who work hard and diligently at perfecting the art of blowing leads and eventually losing games.

Smith threw two scoring passes to wide receiver David Nelson – yes, the same David Nelson who went to training champ with the Browns and then was cut before the season began – and scrambled for a third score.

As for padding his number of interceptions, he didn’t even come close as the vaunted (sarcasm dripping out of control) Cleveland pass rush produced another zero-sack afternoon and afforded him all the time he needed to complete his passes. 

The Browns actually had a 10-0 lead in this one. Yes they did, courtesy, in part, of a special teams brain fart by the Jets, whose fake punt on their first possession of the game wound up as an incomplete pass. The Browns began their second drive of the afternoon at the Jets’ 43.

Thirteen plays and just 34 yards later, Billy Cundiff kicked the first of his two field goals. Right then and there, Browns fans should have known it would be a long afternoon for the offense.

On the very next drive, the Browns needed 11 plays to march 74 yards down to Jets’ 2 with the help of roughing-the-passer and unsportsmanlike penalties on the Jets. An Edwin Baker run and two pass plays gained zip and Chudzinski was in no mood for another Cundiff field goal on fourth down.

Norv Turner called for a fade to Josh Gordon in the left corner. The normally reliable Gordon, who had trouble holding on to passes all afternoon, juggled the football as he went out of bounds. 
All that work and no points to show for it. If the Browns don’t lead the NFL in squandering opportunities in the red zone, they must be awfully close to the top.

The game turned out to be a battle of red-zone proficiency and that’s why the Jets prevailed. The Browns made four trips to -- and ran 20 plays in -- the red area and came away with a touchdown (a Davis 5-yard run in the second quarter) and the two field goals. That’s 13 points out of a possible 28.

The Jets entered the red zone three times all afternoon, ran 10 plays there and scored three touchdowns. That’s 21 points out of, hmmmm, why that’s 21 points. When the awful New York Jets offense takes maximum advantage of all of its opportunities in the red area, you are just as bad as they are. Maybe worse.

These were the same Jets whose offense was so bad in the first half, they didn’t run their first play in Cleveland territory until their fourth possession with about four minutes remaining in the second quarter.

At that point, the Browns' defense was in the process of collapsing ingloriously as the Jets subsequently rattled off one 13-play and a pair of 14-play scoring drives totaling 251 yards as the gassed Browns defenders offered absolutely no resistance.

During those three drives, that defense had the Jets in a third-down situation a staggering 10 times. Ten opportunities to get off the field. Ten opportunities to give its offense a chance to awake from its slumber. Ten opportunities . . . aw, forget it.

The Jets converted all 10. That is not a misprint. That is just plain bad defense.

The conversions ranged from third and 1 to third and 10, third and 12 and third and 13. Each time Ray Horton’s defense was asked to deliver, it failed miserably. It was almost as though no matter what the third-down yardage, it was advantage Jets.

How can any team win when the defense, for all practical purposes, shuts down? Don’t answer. That’s a rhetorical question.

Failure to score touchdowns in the red zone, failure to prevent the opposing team from scoring touchdowns in the red zone and failure to get off the field on third down is a prescription for, you guessed it, failure.

All season long, Horton has boasted about his defense and its ability to stop the run, or at least control it. Last Sunday, Chicago’s Matt Forte became the first 100-yard runner against Cleveland this season. Add Jets running back Chris Ivory to that list with his 109 yards. Overall, the Jets gouged the Browns for 208 yards on the ground and 422 total. So much for run defense dominance.

At one point early in the game, the Browns did play dominant football. They owned the ball more than 13 of the first 19 minutes. From that point on, the Jets took over, winning the time of possession battle, 27:03-14:14, the rest of the way.

Anyone who puts a positive spin on what happened Sunday in New Jersey is either dreaming or on drugs. And with Pittsburgh looming large next Sunday, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news? It’s the Steelers . . . in Pittsburgh. The good news? It’s the final game of the season and the nightmare ends.

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