Sunday, December 21, 2014

And the nightmare continues

The 2014 National Football League season can’t end quickly enough for the Browns, on the cusp of a season-ending five-game losing streak following Sunday’s 17-13 road loss to the Carolina Panthers.

This team is in such disarray on both sides of the football, going back to the drawing board for the last game of the season next Sunday in Baltimore would be an exercise in futility.

This team has trouble moving the football, trouble preventing other teams from moving the football and generally fails time and again to make clutch plays when they are most needed.

Right now, it is not a good football team. Not even close. It hasn’t been good, with one notable exception, since winning three of the first five games featuring an offense that captured the attention of the rest of the NFL.

The defense took five games to catch up to the offense and when it did, the offense punched the AWOL card and hasn’t really returned. With that one exception.

Since knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals in humiliating fashion on that Thursday night on national television in game nine, the bottom dropped out. The defense kept the Browns in games, but the offense disappeared. And then the defense collapsed under the weight of spending too much time on the field.

That’s basically the story of the Carolina game. The Cleveland offense, first with Johnny Manziel and then Brian Hoyer, couldn’t stay on the field for long periods of time. The physically spent defense futilely turned the ball over a couple of times to an offense that snubs its nose at opportunity.

Manziel, coming off his awful starting debut last Sunday against the Bengals, looked better. Comparatively speaking, that is. Just showing up and not making mistakes constitutes improvement in this case.

The rookie went down with a hamstring injury with 1:49 left in the first half after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Carolina safety Colin Jones while losing a yard on a designed run around left end. He never returned after running just 16 plays for 56 yards, half of them on a 28-yard hookup with Andrew Hawkins.

Hoyer, still looking tentative in the pocket, beat the blitz, connecting with Jordan Cameron on an 81-yard scoring play five minutes into the fourth quarter to give the Browns their only lead of the afternoon at 13-10.

The tight end split the coverage, gathered in the ball at the Cleveland 40, and outraced the Panthers’ secondary to score the Browns’ first offensive touchdown in more than nine quarters, a span of about 140 minutes.

It was also the perfect time for the defense to rally in support of the sudden – and, as it turned out, brief – awakening of the offense. The Browns needed a stop to maintain momentum and gain an emotional edge. But this was game 15 and the defense, more cumulatively than anything else, was cooked. Worn out. Nothing left.

Tasked with something as important as protecting a lead with 10 minutes left in regulation was asking way too much for this defense. Case in point: The Panthers racked up just one three-and-out in 10 possessions. The Browns had four in 10, the first two orchestrated by Manziel and No. 3 split between Manziel and Hoyer.

The winning Carolina drive was helped along by a successful replay challenge by Panthers coach Ron Rivera on a 14-yard pass reception by wide receiver Brenton Bersin at the Cleveland 9 that was initially ruled an incomplete pass.

Replay correctly overturned the call and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who had runs of six and 13 yards on a naked bootleg (on third down) along the way, found running back Jonathan Stewart all alone in the end zone after what seemed like 10 seconds.

The Cleveland pass rush, absent most of the afternoon, failed to put pressure on Newton, playing just 12 days after fracturing a couple of transverse processes in his lower back. He was sacked only once and picked up 63 yards (in addition to his 201 yards through the air) on the ground.

The Panthers were 9-of-16 on third down – the Browns were 3-of-12 – and controlled the ball for 38 minutes. In last week’s loss to Cincinnati, the Bengals owned the ball for 39 minutes. When your offense has the ball for only 43* out of a possible 120 minutes, winning not only becomes impossible, it becomes improbable.

Once the Panthers grabbed the lead, the ultimate outcome became inevitable even though the Browns received a massive break on the first play of the ensuing possession.

Hoyer attempted to connect with Travis Benjamin on a deep route and was picked off at the Carolina 38 by Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who returned it 33 yards to the Cleveland 29, only to fumble it right back to the Browns.

Benjamin, to his credit, did not give up on the play and peeled back in an effort to make a play. He caught up to Norman, punched the ball out of the corner’s grasp and recovered for a net gain of nine yards on the play. No truth to the rumor the Browns immediately put that play in their playbook.

Still, it made no difference. The offense, which registered only eight first downs (up from last Sunday’s five), went back into dormant mode and advanced to only midfield six plays later, the big play a seven-yard sack of Hoyer by defensive tackle Kawann Short.

With about 3:30 left in regulation, Mike Pettine chose to punt on fourth-and-13. It is easy to second guess and suggest he should have gone for it, but conventional wisdom says punt on fourth-and-13 when you can pin the other team deep in its territory and you have two timeouts in your pocket.

Unfortunately, Spencer Lanning’s sixth punt of the afternoon landed in the Carolina end zone. Still enough time left (3:24) and fairly decent field position from a defensive standpoint. Can’t second-guess the coach even though his defense was in collapse mode. A solid stop, a punt and the Browns would be right back in business. Just one time.

But for the umpteenth time during the game, the defense could not come up with a big play, giving up a 34-yard pass to tight end Ed Dickson on a second-and-9 and a 30-yard run by Stewart on a third-and-5 from the Cleveland 40 right after the two-minute warning.

All Hoyer and Pettine could do was watch hopelessly from the bench as the Panthers, who grabbed a 10-3 halftime lead largely on the arm and legs of Newton, who scored on a naked bootleg from the 2-yard line in the second quarter, put the game away.

What at one time looked like a promising 2014, when the Browns were 6-3 and in first place in the AFC North, is descending into just another one of those nightmarish finishes this franchise has been used to for most of the last 16 seasons.

Mercifully, it ends next Sunday in Baltimore.

* (In the paragraph stating the Browns' time of possession the last two games, I initially erred in the actual number of minutes. It has been corrected to 43. I was never good at math anyway.)


  1. You could have saved a lot of words by simply saying: " Different year, same story...end of the year meltdown." Aren't you glad we hired a defensive guru for a head coach? 200+ yards rushing per game given up, nice. I thought Romeo Crennel proved that defensive coordinators should remain just that, evidently this organization doesn't have much regard for history lessons. Pettine is in over his head(ala Romeo) and his team repeatedly lacks the fire we also witnessed during Crennel's tenure. Never really ready to play and by the time they are, its too late. Too many penalties and failures to execute this late in the year = poorly coached team. Whoever Josh Gordon was last year has disappeared into the nether world.

    1. Defensive coordinators: Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, John Fox, Marvin Lewis, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Pete Carroll to name just a few who have been successful head coaches. For every one of these guys, there are four or five who are terrible head coaches. Let's see if Pettine does things differently in his second season.

      As for the penalties and time management, that's definitely on Pettine and the coaching staff. We now have a frame of reference in regards to his style of coaching. Again, let's see what adjustments he makes in year two.

      Gordon has been misused. Last season, Norv Turner relied on him almost exclusively on offense and it showed in his numbers. This season, different system and philosophy that do not appear to connect with Gordon's talents.