Attempting to crawl into the mind of Mike Pettine, an adventure all by itself.
Never mind the game-to-game strategy and adjustments by the Browns’ head coach. That’s the easy part. It’s the little things that seem to baffle him.
When it comes to certain essential parts of coaching a game, he is a difficult man to figure out. In this case, time management.
Most smart coaches think ahead all the time. They are never in the moment because to them, that is past tense.
Thinking about what happens three, four plays from now is what separates the ordinary, slow-thinking, occasionally successful head coaches from those whose prescient approach to coaching elevates them above the crowd no matter the talent on board.
Coaches like Bill Belichick, the Harbaugh brothers John and Jim, Pete Carroll are examples of National Football League coaches who place maximum importance on the finite aspects of the game.
Case in point, the end of each half of the Browns’ weird victory Sunday over the Falcons in Atlanta.
At the end of the first half with the Browns trailing, 14-13, they launched a drive with 55 seconds left until intermission with three timeouts. Plenty of time to move the ball, get into position for at least a field goal and regain the lead.
After a deep Brian Hoyer pass to Josh Gordon fell incomplete, the Cleveland quarterback hooked up with Gordon for 19 yards to the Cleveland 39-yard line. Remember Pettine still had three timeouts in his back pocket and demurred.
Twenty-two seconds – and still no timeouts yet – later, Hoyer failed to hook up with Miles Austin. With 23 seconds left in the half, Hoyer and Andrew Hawkins collaborated on a 14-yard completion to the Atlanta 47. Still no timeout.
With 14 seconds left, Hoyer and Hawkins again teamed up for a five-yarder to the Atlanta 42. That’s when Pettine used his first timeout. Following an incompletion to Gordon, he burned No. 2
Three seconds left. Plenty of time for a brain cramp.
Browns placekicker Billy Cundiff, whose long-distance accuracy is suspect at best, especially from more than 50 yards, was called on to attempt a 60-yard field. What in the world was Pettine thinking?
Well, Cundiff told his coach he hit a 60-yarder in pregame warm-ups in Atlanta’s indoor dome. Good enough, Pettine must have thought. He failed to factor in Cundiff would also get a rush from the Falcons’ defense this time.
Why not try for a Hail Mary pass instead of a ridiculously long field goal and hope for something as lucky as a pass interference call? Naw, that’s too risky.
Never mind that Devin Hester, the NFL’s all-time return leader, was stationed in the end zone for the Falcons in the likely event Cundiff was short. Damn it, Cundiff was going to try it anyway. What could go wrong?
If not for the heads-up play of offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, Hester would have turned a one-point Cleveland deficit into eight points. Bitonio chased downs Hester and was the last Brown between him and a 107-yard return for a touchdown.
So many mistakes here.
If you’re serious about putting points on the board in the final 55 seconds after just having lost the lead, then show it. By eschewing his timeouts, Pettine did no such thing. And why burn 22 seconds after the first completion before running the next play?
Saving those timeouts was passive football. In holding them back, he showed absolutely no trust in his offense. And his ludicrous decision to attempt a 60-yard field goal deserves a place in the Hall of the Not Very Smart.
Now at the end of the second half, Pettine caught a huge break from Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who rivaled the Cleveland coach in brain cramps.
The Falcons trailed, 23-21, when they took possession at their 45 after Dezmen Southward picked off Hoyer’s third interception of the afternoon with 2:42 left in regulation.
Pettine had three timeouts again. So did Smith. Keep that in mind.
The Falcons moved to the Browns’ 43 four plays later as the clock wound down. No timeouts by either coach. Smith did not have to. His team was moving into field goal territory. The more the clock ran, the less time Pettine and his men would have to retaliate if the Falcons took the lead. Still no timeouts as the clock wound down to 63 seconds.
And that’s when Smith reached out and helped Pettine. He surprisingly called a timeout following a short pass that placed the ball at the Cleveland 35, close enough for Matt Bryant to eventually kick a 53-yard field goal.
Had Smith not called that timeout and bled the clock even more, there is no way the Browns get the ball with 44 seconds left and win the game on a Cundiff field goal with no time left.
On both occasions, Pettine got lucky. If he keeps up this wacky clock management, he eventually will get burned much more often than he has.
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One more red-zone screw-up near the Atlanta goal line that didn’t make it in the game story.
Opening series of the second half. The Browns trail, 14-13, but move the ball smartly – with one notable exception – 75 yards and reach the Atlanta 5-yard line. Fans envision a touchdown, but fail to take into consideration the red-zone on this day is the dead zone.
Austin dropped a touchdown pass on second-and-goal and Kroy Biermann sacked Hoyer for a nine-yard loss on third down. Cundiff’s third field goal of the afternoon gave the Browns the lead at 16-14, but it could have been so much more.
So make that three drives that landed deep in the red zone and were squandered, ending up with field goals. That’s a 12-point swing.
During that drive, the Browns botched a double reverse with Gordon on the business end. The pitch back by Terrance West was high and bounced off Gordon’s hands. The ball rolled about 20 yards backward.
The wide receiver, who played so spectacularly in his return, had the presence of mind to attempt a forward pass after retrieving the ball, making sure it traveled beyond the line of scrimmage. Fortunately, no offensive lineman was downfield, which would have drawn a flag.
The following play in the possession was a 40-yard pass reception and run by Hawkins that moved the ball from the Cleveland 35 to the Atlanta 25.
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Hoyer shouldered the brunt of the blame for the closeness of the game. “I’ve got to play better,” he said, “especially going forward. If we really want to do something, I can’t play like that and I can’t even believe we won.”
He’s absolutely right about that. But the big question is whether he is capable of playing as well as he wants on a consistent basis. He showed flashes of being the Browns' quarterback of the future in the early part of the schedule, but his inconsistency in the last half dozen games brings that into question.
If he can establish that consistency, there’s no telling how far this team can go this season. And that’s the conundrum the Browns face. They really don’t know whether this is as good as Hoyer gets or there is a higher ground.
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If he can hold onto the ball with more regularity and learn to pass block, there is no way the Browns can’t think of Isaiah Crowell as anything but their No. 1 running back. He’s got power, speed, finds and hits the hole with sudden quickness and is a load to bring down.
The coaching staff needs to use him more down near the opposition goal line because he seems to take it up a notch when the club is that close. He has scored half of the club’s 14 touchdowns on the ground and is thatclose to overtaking West for the team lead in yards gained. He averages nearly five yards a carry.
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Notebook: Hawkins had a perfect afternoon Sunday. Five targets, five catches, 93 yards. The little guy has been the most consistent receiver through the first 11 games. . . . Bitonio, on his touchdown-saving tackle at the end of the first half: “Pretty cool.” . . . Twenty-nine first downs represent a season high in that category. . . . Craig Robertson, filling in for injured Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker, played a solid game, leading the club in tackles with nine. . . . The Browns were 1-for-6 in the red zone. . . . The Browns said pregame Gordon would play 20-25 plays. He played 23 in the first half and wound up closer to 50. . . . Outside linebacker Paul Kruger was on again Sunday, checking in with a pair of sacks, a quarterback hit and numerous hurries. . . . This is how effective and generous the Browns’ offense was against the Falcons: Spencer Lanning had to punt just once. That was on the opening series of the game. For the record, it was a 41-yarder. Hoyer’s three interceptions helped keep the Cleveland punter on the bench.