Never in the short history of the new Cleveland Browns has so much pre-game buildup ever been met with such extreme disappointment.
The huge letdown that was the 30-0 mauling the Cincinnati Bengals hung on the Browns Sunday falls into two camps.
On one side, there are those fans of Brian Hoyer who most likely enjoyed every minute of Johnny Manziel leading a Cleveland offense that was spanked as it had almost never been before.
Some people would call it schadenfreude, or as the dictionary defines it, the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. And the Browns’ performance against the Bengals belched a series of misfortunes.
On the other side, the Manziel groupies and supporters quietly slinked as far into the background as possible until the next game. Their man, the one they’ve been trumpeting all season, let them down just when it seemed he was primed and ready to do the opposite.
After all, hadn’t the Texas Whiz Kid relieved Hoyer in the Buffalo loss and immediately guided his offense to a touchdown? It was almost too easy. It was also too little, too late, but at least the offense showed life.
So when Mike Pettine finally anointed his rookie quarterback as the starter for the Bengals game, many supporters, except maybe for the Hoyer backers, jumped on the hype wagon and pretty much declared the future was now.
The situation was perfect. The Browns’ offense was reeling under Hoyer’s leadership. There was still a chance for the playoffs. And the Bengals, who they knocked off in early November, were next up on the schedule.
All week long, the world of professional football heralded the professional starting debut of Manziel, the mercurial and dynamic young man who played for two dazzling years at Texas A&M.
But this is the National Football League, his detractors cautioned. This is where men play the game. Let’s not get too excited about him. He hasn’t done anything yet, Merril Hoge, one of ESPN’s numerous resident critics, went so far as to call Manziel a sixth-round talent.
After the abysmal way Manziel and his offense performed against the Bengals, that might be considered a compliment. In his wildest dreams, though, the rookie never would have imagined such a performance.
It was embarrassing. It was thorough. Murphy’s Law, a frequent visitor to the Factory of Sadness over the years, spun furiously out of control. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong and not just on one side of the ball. It was a 60-minute beatdown by the Bengals.
And though he’ll never admit it, at least publicly, Manziel was embarrassed. He looked at his performance clinically after the game. “I felt like it was a fail on my part for the position and it’s tough,” he said. “It’s going to take time. It’s a process for sure.”
Notice he did not blame anyone but himself for the loss, although he had plenty of reason to. His offensive line was awful and that’s being complimentary. His receivers had difficulty getting open all afternoon.
The two interceptions? Both on him. No question about it. Both were poorly thrown, as was a third pick that was nullified by a Cincinnati penalty. He was a rookie, said Pettine, who played like a rookie.
“I’m not using the rookie excuse,” Manziel said. “It’s not me . . . I needed to play better.”
He labeled it a process. Others would call it growing pains. But he definitely has time on his side. He’s not going anywhere. He’ll be at the helm again next Sunday in Carolina and the season finale in Baltimore. The Browns want to see him as much of him as possible.
Hopefully, the coaching staff in the next two weeks will put him in a much better position to at least have a chance of competing. The game plan against the Bengals was way too predictable.
Three games is not nearly enough of a tableau by which Manziel can be judged. Just like they would not be enough even if he had stunned the pro football world and starred in a victory over the Bengals. It’s easy to rush to judgment in just one game. In this case, ‘tis better to slow down.
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It sure looked as though offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had no idea how to play to Manziel’s strengths. Rarely did he roll out the rookie and when he did, patterns run by the receivers were either well covered by the time he was ready to throw or broken down and he had to throw the ball away.
It was as if Shanahan drew up an entirely different looking offense for Manziel than he did Hoyer. None of the pass plays looked even vaguely familiar. Playing to his strengths means getting rid of the ball quickly. We saw maybe one naked wide receiver screen, and no slants, crossing patterns or seam routes.
Even on the 10 throws he completed, Manziel did not look comfortable and in rhythm. He used his feet to escape a few sacks and extend plays, but in general made the Bengals’ defense look better than it was.
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Microcosms of a victory . . .
When the Bengals’ stalled at the Cleveland 37-yard line on their second drive of the third quarter, they faced a fourth-and-1. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis eschewed a 55-yard field-goal attempt by Mike Nugent or a short punt by Kevin Huber and decided to play big-boy football. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson called for a sneak by quarterback Andy Dalton, who gained a couple of yards with ridiculous ease on the tiring Cleveland defense.
And to show you how everything rolled the Bengals’ way all afternoon, consider this: When Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball at his 31-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the ball rolled perfectly to Bengals center Clint Boling as if it was a magnet.
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The Browns did not record their initial first down of the game until 4:18 remained in the second quarter. It was actually a fourth-down run of two yards by Isaiah Crowell on a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 39.
At that point with the Bengals leading, 20-0, and his team showing no life whatsoever, Pettine must have figured, “What the hell. I’m going for it. What do I have to lose? I’m already behind, 20-0.”
Four plays later, Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga picked off Manziel, but Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry was offside on the play and the Browns retained position on what turned out to be their longest drive of the afternoon. Two plays later, Adam Jones picked off Manziel in the end zone when the quarterback’s throw to Taylor Gabriel floated in and arrived late.
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This is how mindlessly the Browns played Sunday. Following the two-minute warning in the first half, they had to take a timeout because they had only 10 men on the field. Turns out fullback Ray Agnew was the missing Brown. That is on the coaching staff. It was embarrassment upon embarrassment upon embarrassment.
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Notebook: The Browns wore their all Brown uniforms against the Bengals. Here’s a suggestion; Burn those unis and never ever wear that combination again. And not because the Browns lost. I’d say that even if they had won. That combination conjures up too many dirty thoughts. Use your imagination. . . . Didja catch the look on Jimmy Haslam III’s face when the television cameras zeroed in on the owner in the second quarter? Couldn’t tell whether it was extreme glum or abject anger on his face. . . . Considering how often the Bengals mocked his famous money rub, Manziel should strongly consider retiring it. Too juvenile for the NFL. . . . Barkevious Mingo played his best game as a Brown. The outside linebacker had six solo tackles among his eight overall. But it was his roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-down incompletion on the first series of the game that prolonged the drive that ultimately led to the Bengals’ first touchdown. Good call, too. It was a helmet-to-helmet hit and didn’t have to be.