Sunday, September 14, 2014

Not this time

The emotion on Brian Hoyer’s countenance said it all as he watched the football sail through the air Sunday in the final seconds of the Browns’ home opener against the New Orleans Saints.

When Billy Cundiff’s placement sailed cleanly between the uprights from 29 yards with three seconds left to give the Browns a 26-24 victory, Hoyer, on his knees watching almost pleadingly, pitched forward in a combination of utter joy and relief.

He rolled, it seemed almost helplessly, onto his front side with his feet rising up behind him. It was as though an enormous weight had been lifted, not only on him, but his teammates, who celebrated with unbridled joy.

The Browns’ quarterback had never before led a team from behind in the final moments of a National Football League game. Until now. And the importance of what he eventually accomplished welled up inside and finally escaped.

The kid from Cleveland started what turned out to be the winning drive from his 4-yard line with just 2:36 left and a one-point deficit. All he needed to do was get close enough for a field goal. Now you have to understand that Browns fans are conditioned to think something is going to go wrong in the final stages of a game and their team in a position win.

Sometimes, it’s a fumble. Other times, it’s an intercepted pass or a penalty at the wrong time or the coaching staff working its magic with clock mismanagement. You name it and the Browns, at least the Browns since 1999, unfailingly find a way to blow it.

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, Hoyer had seen it many times. This time, though, he could finally do something about it. But he had to do it the hard way, starting the final drive with his back scraping his goal line and three timeouts in his back pocket.

In what seemed like an eternity, Hoyer masterfully engineered an 85-yard drive in 14 plays and, with a little help from replay and a large dose of good fortune on third and fourth downs, put his team in a position to win.

It started poorly with an incomplete pass and a one-yard loss for running back Terrance West. But the Browns caught a break on the latter play as the Saints were penalized for a neutral zone infraction. So instead of third-and-11 at the 3, they had second-and-5 at the 9. A four-yard run by West and a four-yard third-down completion to Miles Austin opened up some room.

Another third-down completion to Austin, who scored the Browns’ first touchdown in the first quarter, kept the chains moving. And without a 10-yarder to tight end Gary Barnidge on fourth-and-6 at the Cleveland 38 with 26 seconds left, we are not talking about a victory.

On the next play, with just 19 seconds remaining, Hoyer and Austin hooked up on a 13-yarder when the veteran wide receiver smartly came back along the left sideline to help out his scrambling quarterback. The clock wound down to eight seconds as all of Browns Nation screamed for a timeout.

The replay official called for a review, upheld the call on the field, reset the clock to 15 seconds and the Browns did not have to take the timeout. Then it happened. But this time, it happened to the opposition.

On second-and-10 at the Saints’ 39 – well out of Cundiff’s range – with 13 seconds left, the Browns needed a miracle. It arrived in the form of a blown coverage by the Saints' secondary and Hoyer found a stumbling, bumbling, I-can’t-believe-I’m-this-wide-open Andrew Hawkins by his lonesome around the New Orleans 20.

Browns Nation held its collective breath as the slightly underthrown pass floated toward Hawkins. Just catch the damn thing, they thought. He did and was brought down at the 11.

But then came the negative thoughts again. After all, the reason the Browns trailed by a point was due to a bad snap by long snapper Christian Yount following Tashaun Gipson’s 62-yard pick 6 late in the second quarter that gave the Browns a 16-3 lead. Cundiff never got his foot on the ball as punter/holder Spencer Lanning tried to run it in and failed.

Instead of going for two points after West gave the Browns a 22-17 lead late in the third quarter with a nine-yard scoring run, coach Mike Pettine opted for the placement, so the missed extra point loomed larger and larger as the game progressed.

And with Brees dissecting the Cleveland defense after a slow start (the Saints ran just 18 plays, gained a measly 33 yards and punted four times in their first four possessions), playing pitch and catch with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, that point looked huge.

Beginning with the final drive of the first half, the Saints scored touchdowns on three straight possessions to take a 24-23 lead with 12 minutes left in regulation. They smartly took advantage of Graham’s size and speed and created mismatches all over the field.

No one could keep up with the 6-5, 260-pounder with strong, massive hands. Not Joe Haden. Not Buster Skrine. Not Donte Whitner. When he lined up wide as a wide receiver, Graham was unstoppable. Brees found him 10 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

It was an unfair fight when Graham lined up outside. They did the Browns a favor whenever they kept him in to block.

The Browns, as well and aggressively as they played in the first half, could not stop the Saints until Karlos Dansby came up with, in retrospect, what might be considered the play of the game on that side of the ball.

The Saints, driving yet again late in the fourth quarter, reached the Cleveland 31 when Brees dropped back to pass on third-and-5. Dansby stormed up the gut untouched on a middle blitz and sacked Brees for a seven-yard loss.

So instead of fourth and 5 at the 31 and the possibility of a Shayne Graham 49-yard field goal, it was fourth-and-12 at the 38 and the improbability of a 56-yarder by Graham. Thomas Morstead’s punt pinned the Browns back at their 4 and the rest is history.

Murphy’s Law hovered over Cleveland several times Sunday, but this time decided to leave town. 

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