Monday, December 9, 2013

Monday leftovers

Normally, I’m not one to gripe about the officiating in a National Football League game.

As a general rule, I believe teams cost themselves more with mistakes than the mistakes of officials and thus have a tendency to even  out.

But if the officiating crew of referee Jerome Boger does not receive a stern rebuke from Dean Blandino and the rest of his NFL officiating office for their work in the Browns-New England Patriots game Sunday, something is wrong.

Boger and his men took the game out of the hands of the players with some bizarre late-game calls and virtually assured the Patriots that their unbeaten streak at home this season would remain intact.

The Browns had played a superb game until the final two minutes and 39 seconds of the game, even winning a couple of replay challenges by coach Rob Chudzinski on calls that were obvious to everyone except the officials.

To penalize the Browns – and that’s exactly what it was – with a couple of calls that should have been overlooked because they weren’t anywhere near being considered egregious to warrant a flag was an injustice that only further substantiates claims by conspiracy theorists that the NFL is fixed. (I don’t believe that to be the case.)

The Browns deserved to win the game. They outplayed the Patriots on both sides of the ball for the first 57½ minutes with a shocking (for them) display of solid football. They looked nothing like the team that had lost embarrassingly to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars seven days earlier.

They took on one of the premier teams in the league in their home stadium and outplayed them. They answered every Patriots challenge. Looking very unBrownslike, very little went wrong as they played their best game of the season.

To take that victory away from them was a miscarriage of justice. Yes, it’s only a game and in the grand scheme of life, this pales by comparison to other more important facets of every-day living.

But for the loyal following this club has maintained despite an incredibly long period of bad football, this was a blow that was much harder to take because the team deserved better. The players felt the same way.

“I have never been a part of a game like this,” said veteran Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, who has had more than his share of misery as a member of this team. “This one hurts for real.”

Visceral feelings such as Haden’s emerge in games like this. Forget the blowout losses. Forget the close games that are lost because of stupid mistakes. And forget those games where the Browns arrived not ready to play.

This was one game where the Browns, in spite of a smaller talent quotient, played like the team with the larger talent quotient. Their David was beating up on Goliath. And still did not win.

The Patriots needed help. And it arrived in the form of Boger’s officiating crew, most notably the field judge. His name is not as important as the two calls he made that severely tilted the game in New England’s favor.

To call unnecessary roughness on Cleveland rookie cornerback Jordan Poyer for a shoulder-to-chest hit on Julian Edelman’s touchdown catch was bad enough. It showed that some officials have no clue in interpreting the difference between a clean hit and dirty hit. There’s an alarming inconsistency that needs to be addressed.

And then after the Patriots recovered the ensuing onsides kickoff (blame the Browns here for not executing better), that same official called pass interference on Leon McFadden, another Cleveland rookie corner, while hand-fighting wide receiver Josh Boyce into the end zone two plays later.

At best, that’s a no call because both men could have been flagged for interference. In that case, you swallow your whistle and keep your hand away from the yellow laundry.

Boger and his men also messed up a couple of grounding calls that would have penalized the Patriots. New England quarterback Tom Brady intentionally grounded three passes, but Boger penalized him only once. Brady successfully lobbied the referee out of flagging the other two.

As for the field judge, the NFL knows his name and hopefully will act accordingly. However, any admonition he and the rest of Boger’s crew receive will not reverse the final score. It will forever be recorded as a New England victory with no asterisks to indicate officiating incompetence.

It’s possible the league might send a note of apology to the Browns for that incompetence, but it would serve merely as salve for a wound that might take a while to heal.

~ Folks are running out of adjectives to describe Josh Gordon. The second-year Cleveland wide receiver now has the full attention of everyone in the league, including the media, which is belatedly extolling his accomplishments.

His remarkable performance the last four weeks is now part of the NFL record book. He became the first receiver in league history with four straight 100-yard games . And with Sunday’s 151-yard effort against the Patriots, he smashed the league record for most receiving yards in four consecutive games (774). In the last three games, that figure stands at 649 yards or 216.3 yards a game. Incredible.

On the season, he has 71 catches for 1,400 yards (127.3 a game) and eight touchdowns in just 11 games, and averages 19.7 yards a reception. He has seven games of at least 100 yards in those 11 outings. He was relatively shut down by Cincinnati, Buffalo, Green Bay and Baltimore.

Gordon is just a baby in terms of professional football growth. There is so much more he will learn as the game slows down for him and becomes easier. Right now, he’s relying on his enormous raw talent to put up some of these astounding numbers.

As he grows, the sophistication of the game will become more apparent to him. And if he’s as smart as I think he is, what he’s doing now will pale in comparison to what the future holds.

His biggest enemy is not an opposing defensive back. It’s his stage three status with regard to the NFL’s drug program. One slip is all it will take to remove all that wonderful talent from the league landscape and sit him down for a full season.

~ One Patriot the Browns didn’t pay nearly enough attention to was running back Shane Vereen. As it turned out, he was the piece that was missing as the Patriots stumbled around on offense in a scoreless first half.

It was obvious he was a large part of the Patriots’ second-half strategy since nothing else worked in the first 30 minutes against a Cleveland defense that blunted every New England effort.

Vereen touched the ball only three times (two passes and a run) in the first half. Halftime adjustments helped create 12 more opportunities (10 passes and a couple of runs) in the second half and the Browns couldn’t stop him. He was the key factor that got the Pats’ offense started.

Following Gordon’s 80-yard catch and run that gave the Browns a 19-3 lead late in the third quarter, Vereen was a one-man gang that enabled New England to get back in the game, figuring in all three plays as the Patriots negotiated 72 yards that took only 1:19 off the clock.

His 50-yard catch and run with a Tom Brady pass on the first play of the subsequent series triggered the drive. He caught a 16-yarder then that set up his TD on a six-yard draw play. Vereen wound up with 10 catches in the second half for 141 yards. The Browns never adjusted.

~ Red zone defense has been a problem most of the season for the Browns. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is aware of it and probably harps on it on a daily basis.

Didn’t work against the Patriots, who didn’t reach that territory until late in the third quarter, when the Browns held and forced Stephen Gostkowski to kick a 33-yard field goal. The next three trips resulted in touchdowns. The last one was made easy with the McFadden interference call that placed the ball on the 1-yard line.

~ Notebook: When a team leads the turnover battle and time of possession, odds are that team wins the game. Not so Sunday. The Browns forced two turnovers and had none, and had a 31:40-28:20 edge in owning the ball. . . . Nice to see that Paul Kruger is still on the team. The linebacker played his best game of the season against the Patriots with a couple of sacks – he had only 2½ in the first 13 games – a couple of quarterback hits, forced a fumble, batted down one pass and hurried Brady on several other occasions. . . . Other solid performances were turned in by D’Qwell Jackson with a pick , T. J. Ward and nose tackle Phil Taylor. . . . Brady was 7-of-19 for 95 yards in the first half; 25-of-33 for 323 yards in the second half. . . . The Browns need a kick returner. They really miss Travis Benjamin. 

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