What a pleasant surprise
It was generally believed at the beginning of the 2015 season that the Browns would be a run-first, pass-only-if-they-had-to team.
The offensive line returned intact once center Alex Mack recovered from a broken leg last season, Isaiah Crowell was back with his slashing, hammering style and rookie Duke Johnson Jr. provided third-down relief.
Quarterback Josh McCown was almost an afterthought with regard to his role with the offense. The journeyman arrived in town with the reputation of being extremely untrustworthy when it came to throwing a football. So it was easy to assume the Cleveland offense would live and die with the run.
Well, all that has changed in the last three weeks with McCown flirting with the Browns’ long and storied record book when it comes to passing the prolate spheroid.
What McCown did Sunday in the Browns’ gritty, had-to-be-seen-to-be-believed 33-30 comeback victory in overtime against the Ravens in Baltimore sent the media scrambling for the record books.
They discovered the 36-year-old McCown, playing with a busted-up throwing hand, broke Brian Sipe’s club record (444) for most passing yards (457) in a regular-season game en route to becoming the first Cleveland Browns quarterback ever to record three consecutive 300-yard games.
Bernie Kosar holds the overall club records for most attempts (64) and passing yards (489). He put up those numbers in a double-overtime playoff victory over the New York Jets in January 1987 with the old Browns.
McCown, in the face of a withering Baltimore pass rush, was brilliant when he had to be. He often steadfastly remained in the pocket and took four hurtful sacks (a fifth was wiped out by a Baltimore penalty), but started stepping up into the pocket and/or scrambling in the second half.
In his last three games since coming back from a concussion suffered in the season-opening loss to the New York Jets, McCown is 96 for 141 (a 68% completion percentage) for a gaudy 1,154 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. And all he has to show is this victory, which raised his personal road record to 5-20.
It’s a wonder his arm wasn’t dangling by his side from exhaustion at the end of this one. He put the ball up 51 times for the 457 yards in his 58 dropbacks.
This game featured just about everything, including successful challenges by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh on consecutive plays, numerous penalties that hurt and helped both teams and a miraculous circus catch for a touchdown by Cleveland tight end Gary Barnidge that defied belief.
Relying on just about anyone who could get open, McCown’s’ ball distribution was superb with nine different receivers, most notably Barnidge, who was targeted 10 times. He wound up with eight receptions for 139 yards and has become McCown’s favorite target.
His unbelievable touchdown catch, which gave the Browns a short-lived 22-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, falls into the category of odd and yet miraculous.
McCown, barely avoiding a sack by a Ravens blitz, heaved the ball toward the goal line, where the 6-6 Barnidge outjumped and outfought 6-1 safety Will Hill for the jump ball, which came down and landed awkwardly between the Cleveland tight end’s calves on the goal line.
As he worked the ball up into his grasp, it looked at one point as though he had either crapped a football or given birth to one. After maneuvering the ball up into his grasp, the officials huddled before signaling touchdown.
The Browns survived a sluggish first half where their three scores arrived in the form of Travis Coons field goals and the Ravens’ two scores arrived as the Joe Flacco Show, the quarterback running for one score and throwing for a second. He added a third touchdown midway through the third quarter with a one-yard sneak.
The defense had no answer for the Ravens’ ground game – 181 yards; shocking, no? – as little Baltimore running back Justin Forsett ran through, around and past the Cleveland defenders most of the afternoon. Ironically, he sprained an ankle in a 33-yard catch and run with a Flacco pass during the Ravens’ game-tying field-goal drive and watched overtime on the sideline.
For a while during that drive, it looked as though the Ravens, trailing by three at 30-27 following Crowell’s 22-yard scoring romp with a McCown pass and a successful two-point conversion, would win the game outright in regulation after marching easily down to the Cleveland 10 as the clock wound down to a minute.
But the Cleveland defense, which seemed to come to life in the second half, stiffened and forced a short Justin Tucker field goal with 25 seconds left.
Then the Browns did something daringly, and surprisingly, different. They actually tried to get into position to win the game with a Coons field goal even though they began the next drive at the 20-yard line. Instead of just taking a knee and taking their chances in overtime, they actually pushed the ball upfield.
Maybe it was because the coaching staff had tremendous faith in McCown that two Travis Benjamin receptions advanced the ball the Baltimore 34 before time ran out in regulation.
Then came the overtime, where the Browns’ defense, determined not to be the culprit again if this turned into yet another disappointing loss, really stepped up. The Ravens won the toss, but went three-and-out (their fourth of the afternoon) when Flacco twice was forced to throw the ball away due to solid coverage in the Cleveland secondary.
That’s when the Browns’ offense, feeding off the defense, seemed determined to hand the Ravens’ their second loss in two games at home this season. Working with meticulous ease, the Browns burned seven minutes and 11 seconds off the clock with a methodical, demoralizing (for the Ravens) 12-play, 51 yard drive.
Superbly mixing short passes in with the running of Johnson and Crowell, the Browns reached the Baltimore 20 following a five-yard blast by Crowell over left guard Joel Bitonio.
Surely well within reach for a game-winning field goal by Coons. So why prolong the agony? Kick the damn ball now and everyone will go home happy with a victory over the hated Ravens.
But no. Coach Mike Pettine wanted to prolong the agony (for Browns fans, as well as Ravens fans). A Johnson dive off guard produced nothing. Now the kick? Nope.
What was Pettine waiting for? A McCown scramble, which is a bit of an oxymoron considering he isn’t the most nimble quarterback in the National Football League, netted a yard.
Finally, Pettine had seen enough and sent out Coons, who remained perfect on the season with a 32-yarder that sent Flacco crashing to his second loss ever against the Browns and first in Baltimore.
The most notable achievement for the Browns was their grit after falling behind, 21-9 in the first half. In the past, they would have fallen apart in such situations. For whatever reason, they did it differently this time, which should make the next few days a little more enjoyable in Browns Nation.