Sunday, September 20, 2015

Enjoy Monday Browns fans

Every football game has defining moments. Those little slivers of time that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The Browns faced one of those moments Sunday in their victorious home opener against the Tennessee Titans, who had taken a potential Cleveland rout and turned it into yet another possible broken-heart special.

The Titans had transformed a 21-0 halftime deficit into a 21-14 nitroglycerine tablet grabber for Browns fans with six minutes and 42 seconds left in regulation and the Cleveland offense staggering.

Three of the previous four  possessions, including the last two in a row, had resulted in a three-and-out. The running game had been shut down and Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel had difficulty holding on to the football.

After the Titans crept to within a touchdown with a 15-play, 77-yard drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock and culminated with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota’s second touchdown pass of the afternoon on fourth down to fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, momentum had swung Tennessee’s way.

The Titans had another reason to believe they really had a good chance to at least tie this one and force overtime. Four plays before the touchdown strike, Browns safety Jordan Poyer intercepted Mariota in the end zone. The theft was wiped out when Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant was penalized for a hands-to-the-face infraction.

On the two Cleveland possessions before that Tennessee drive, both three-and-outs, Manziel was strip-sacked twice deep in his own territory only to have teammates Mitchell Schwartz and Duke Johnson Jr. recover. Maybe, just maybe, luck fdavored them for a change.

But the emotional barometer had swung decidedly in Tennessee’s favor. The Cleveland defense was gassed despite a withering rush on Mariota that produced seven sacks, two of the strip variety. And the offense had become virtually non-existent.

The defense, which looked solid, sharp and very much engaged in the first half, couldn’t get off the field in the final 30 minutes. The visitors ran 41 plays in the second half to only 21 by the Browns. At that point, nothing was clicking for the Browns. It looked gloomy.

Thoughts of here-we-go-again began invading the minds of Browns Nation after the great – and most unexpected – start. It wasn’t what could go wrong now. It was what will go wrong now. In what bizarre manner will they blow this one?

Then, quite unexpectedly, one of those defining moments arrived.

The Browns had built their halftime lead on a Manziel-Travis Benjamin 60-yard scoring connection on their second play of the afternoon, an 11-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Crowell and a 78-yard punt return by Benjamin. And yet, they still needed a big play to save this game.

The coaching staff clearly did not trust Manziel to throw the ball in the second half in an effort to protect that big lead. He had one completion and the two strip sacks on his four second-half dropbacks as the Browns ran only 12 plays up to that point.

They went ultra conservative on the deciding drive, alternating Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. on six straight running plays. But the Tennessee defense tightened and forced a third-and-6 at midfield. The Browns needed a miracle and Manziel, a specialist at performing miracles at Texas A&M, delivered.

On a rollout to his left, the quick-footed Manziel barely eluded the sack attempt of Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, who had sniffed out a similar play earlier in the game and forced the Cleveland quarterback to throw an awkward incompletion.

Not this time, though. Manziel beat Orakpo to the flank, stopped, set his feet and launched a 50-yard bomb to Benjamin (who else?), who caught it in stride and pranced into the end zone.

Cancel that nitro tablet grab.

It put to rest, at least on this afternoon, the notion that yet another disappointing finish was about to unfold. On this afternoon, the Factory of Sadness definitely was transformed into the Factory of Joy and Happiness.

But choosing to sit on the big lead and button down the offense was not a wise move. It’s not as though this team is good enough to protect such a large lead by going conservative. Obviously, Mike Pettine believes otherwise. Trying not to lose often times gets a lot of teams and coaches into trouble and winds up the exact opposite.

Once the boot is placed on the throat of the opponent, it’s much wiser to apply it even harder. The Browns basically allowed the Titans to stick around and eventually get back into the game.

If it weren’t for that little miracle, that little defining moment, we might be talking about an entirely different result, not a 28-14 victory that was a lot closer than the final indicates. Those miracles and positive defining moments do not come along often in the National Football League.

When Manziel was successful early – he completed six of his first nine passes – the ball was coming out quickly and accurately. Instead of staying with the program, the coaches went to the ground game, which was hit and miss all afternoon.

So now the debate begins. Who starts for the Browns next Sunday when the Oakland Raiders, who knocked off the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, invade the lakefront? Will it be Manziel, who had the first two-touchdown game of his career, or Josh McCown?

The answer to that is easy. If he’s healthy, it better be McCown. Not that he’s anyone to get excited about, but he is certainly the better of the two quarterbacks and should get the nod if fully recovered from the concussion he suffered in the season opener against the New York Jets.

Sunday was a great learning experience for Manziel. He ostensibly convinced fans he could make plays with his arm, not just his feet. He also learned his coaching staff does not quite yet trust him to be the linchpin of an offense still trying to find its identity.

But at least for one game, he gave Browns Nation a reason to be happy on a Monday.

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