Good, bad, worst
First the good news: The Browns are 5-3 after eight games following their 22-17 victory Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Now the bad news: For the first time this season, they have strung three less-than-ordinary games together and are fortunate to have won two of them.
And the worst news: The easiest part of the 2014 schedule is history. Five of the next eight games are against teams with winning records and two of those against losing teams are on the road, where the Browns have won just once this season and it took a record comeback to accomplish that.
Three of the next four outings, starting Thursday night in Cincinnati in front of a national television audience, are away from home, where they are a dizzying 4-1 this season.
Considering how the Browns have played in the last three games against teams that have a combined victory total of two, better buckle up because the rest of the journey is going to be very interesting.
Unless the Cleveland offense can somehow remember how well it performed in the first five games of the season, the next eight games will be a character test for the defense, which has lacked consistency all season.
It took the anemic offenses of Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay and made them look like All-Pro attacks. The Bucs, for example, accumulated 100 yards of total offense last week in the first three quarters of a loss to Minnesota. Against the Browns, they racked up 126 yards in the first quarter alone and wound up with 365.
The Cleveland defense has been pushed around by three struggling offenses the last three weeks, although it has managed to blunt the opposition with timely turnovers. Such as a couple of interceptions against the Buccaneers Sunday.
The special teams threw in a blocked field goal by Billy Winn and partially blocked punt by Craig Robertson and translated them into the first of Billy Cundiff’s field goals and a Terrance West touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Four positive plays by those two units and all the offense could put up was 22 points.
That offense is gone. It has disappeared. It vanished against three of the worst teams in the National Football League. It flashed every once in a while, such as the 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive that opened the second half against the Bucs.
But it took a small slice of fortune to accomplish even that. Mike Pettine called on Cundiff for the fourth time when the drive bogged down at the Tampa Bay 7. Cundiff made the 25-yard chip shot to give the Browns a 12-10 lead, but Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy jumped offside.
There’s an axiom in football that you don’t take points off the board in the event of a penalty that doesn’t give you at least a first down. In this case, it didn’t because it was a half-the-distance penalty that placed the ball a foot shy of the first down at the Bucs 4.
Pettine chose to ignore that axiom. So instead of leading by a pair, the coach gambled and won when West gouged out a couple of yards over right guard and then scored on a nice play-fake misdirection pass from Brian Hoyer all alone in the right flat.
That was one of the few bright spots for the offense, which received a mediocre performance again from the bug guys up front. West and Ben Tate accumulated just 50 yards on 28 carries – you don’t have to be a math wizard to know how embarrassing that is – and the very busy and active Tampa Bay defense harassed Hoyer all day. Tate had 10 carries for three yards.
Hoyer had precious little time to make decisions when dropping straight back, whether from under center or in the shotgun. His release was slow and recognition of the Bucs defense and coverage even slower.
It was only when the quarterback rolled out on misdirection plays and fired throwback passes did he and the offense look reasonably efficient. But on one of them, the first play following Donte Whitner’s 54-yard interception courtesy of a tip by Joe Haden late in the opening quarter, his weak arm took center stage and prevented as touchdown.
Throwing across the field at the Bucs 25, Hoyer’s pass to Tate arrived as a dead quail. This one died during the flight. It was all Tate could do to haul it on while stumbling out of bounds at the 5-yard line. Two Tate runs produced one yard and a seven-yard Hoyer sack brought in Cundiff for field goal No. 2.
With any kind of decent throw by Hoyer, who checked in with 21-of- 34 for 300 yards and two touchdowns, that pass to Tate would have been on time and in time for him to score. His numbers look impressive, but lurking under those numbers is a disturbing inconsistency.
Often times, Hoyer either threw too high or behind his intended targets. After consecutive three-and-outs following the opening second-half drive, restless fans began voicing their displeasure as television cameras zeroed in on Johnny Manziel. But the backup quarterback remained tethered to the bench.
Hoyer rewarded his coach with a 34-yard scoring strike to rookie Taylor Gabriel on a busted play two plays following the Robertson’s blocked punt midway through the final quarter to give the Browns their final margin.
Once again, it was on a misdirection rollout with Hoyer throwing across the field, this time far enough for Gabriel to run under it and score with ease. A rather lame 2-point attempt – a naked screen to rookie fullback Kiero Small in the right flat – was blown up by the Bucs defense. It was his only touch of the day.
The Buccaneers stayed in the game mainly due to the inability of the Cleveland secondary to stop rookie wide receiver Mike Evans, who caught seven passes for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His second TD catch gave the Bucs a 17-16 lead late in the third quarter.
Manziel’s favorite collegiate receiver, who flashed his Texas A&M quarterback’s trademark money sign with both hands following his second score, abused Buster Skrine and Justin Gilbert all afternoon.
With the second half of the season looming, there are those who believe a significant amount of relief for the beleaguered Cleveland offense will be provided with the return of wide receiver Josh Gordon, whose 10-game suspension will be lifted in time for the visit to Atlanta on Nov. 23. That remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the standings say the Browns are 5-3. That cannot be argued. But their shaky performances the last three games are – and will continue to be – items up for debate as the season rolls on.
What does it portend for the future? Who knows? Maybe it takes playing against superior opponents to bring out the best in the Browns. We’ll find out starting in a few days.