Sunday, October 30, 2016

Two games, one more loss

To paraphrase the great Charles Dickens (and with a deep apology): It was the best of (first) halves, it was the worst of (second) halves. Sunday’s Browns’ loss to the New York Jets was, indeed, a Tale of Two Games.

The 31-28 loss will go down in the record books as yet another Cleveland loss to begin the 2016 season. If you’re keeping count—and that likelihood probably disappeared long ago – the losing streak now stands at eight this season, 11 overall.

After watching how much the Browns dominated the first half, taking a 20-7 lead into the dressing room, hopes the losing streak would finally end crested. The offense hadn’t looked that good since dropping 20 points on the Baltimore Ravens on their first three possessions in the second game of the season. Lost that one, too

The offense, with Josh McCown back at quarterback, racked up 274 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes. He hooked up with Andrew Hawkins for a five-yard score on the first possession of the game and watched Isaiah Crowell ram the final yard to cap a nine-play, 70-yard drive late in the second quarter.

And when the offense bogged down, Cody Parkey was there to bang home field goals of 41 and 26 yards. Everything, it seemed, worked. Terrelle Pryor schooled Darrelle Revis for six catches and 101 yards. McCown, showing no effects from his broken collarbone, threw for 226 yards.

Everything worked, that is, except the run game, which coach Hue Jackson conceded to the tough Jets defense, which shut down all running lanes the entire afternoon. It was McCown or bust as the coach dialed up pass plays three out of every four snaps.

Then an entirely different team emerged from the same Cleveland dressing room, looking suspiciously like a team that should have a long losing streak, and those hopes of taking a one-game winning streak into next Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys cratered, then vanished.

The Cleveland defense that limited the Jets to 106 first-half yards yielded 287 more in the second half as the visitors scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. It took them 33 plays on scoring drives of 78, 84 and 81 yards that consumed 17 minutes and 30 seconds to grab a 28-20 lead with 9:38 left in regulation.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, failed to pick up the defense, owning the ball for just four minutes and 50 seconds on their first three second-half possessions, which ended in a pair of Britton Colquitt punts and the first of McCown’s two interceptions.

No sooner had the defense hit the bench, then it was right back out on the field playing sloppy, almost embarrassing football. The tackling was atrocious in the final 20 minutes. I lost count of the missed tackles..

A perfect example was Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa’s 24-yard touchdown run that narrowed the Cleveland lead to 20-14. The big wide receiver caught Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass at the Cleveland 12 and shook off tackle attempts by Ibraheim Campbell, Derrick Kindred and Tramon Williams en route to the end zone.

The Jets’ defense atoned for its poor first half performance with a lot of help from Jackson’s play calling, relying almost exclusively on McCown to dig the offense out of a hole. The veteran quarterback put the ball up 11 times out of 15 plays that gained only 51 yards in the first four possessions of the second half.

Two passes wound up in the hands of Jets safety Marcus Gilchrist and linebacker Lorenzo Maudlin. The latter, set up by a Calvin Pryor deflection with 5:13 left, resulted in a Nick Folk field goal that made it a two-score game at 31-20.

The Browns, at least theoretically, still had a chance to tie the game with 4:04 left with some up-tempo football. No huddle, get the play in quickly, everyone hustle type football. What followed was a microcosm of why this team isn’t anywhere close to being even competitive.

They went no huddle, but there seemed to be no sense of urgency. They had only one timeout left and the two-minute warning and failed to take advantage. McCown was slow in getting the play either called or executed.

It took the offense 14 plays (one fewer than the total for the previous four possessions) and 3:52 to negotiate 84 yards against a prevent defense. It should have not taken that long. Jackson’s clock management was terrible.

With a minute remaining, McCown and Crowell hooked up on a 16-yard pass that took the ball to the New York 2, resulting in a first and goal. Twenty-nine seconds remained when the next snap was made. That’s way too much time between snaps. McCown could have spiked the ball to stop the clock. Someone wasn’t thinking.

What made it even more maddening was Jackson calling a Crowell run on the next play. The running game hadn’t worked all day. What made the coach think it would work this time? It gained only a yard and forced him to take his final timeout with 19 seconds left.

Why run the ball? Why burn 10 seconds and the last timeout? Critical thinking seems to be AWOL on the Cleveland sideline.

Hawkins’ second touchdown catch of the game with 12 seconds was rendered moot, as was Terrelle Pryor’s catch for the two-point conversion. It was his only reception of the half. All it did was make the score seem more respectable.

It didn’t do anything to soothe the anger, embarrassment and perhaps resentment that have been built up in Browns Nation. The losing continues to fester. Coming close in no way makes it any easier to take.

Next up, the Cowboys with rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott invading the former Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Cowboys have played three games on the road this season . . . and won them all.

One more loss and these Browns tie the record of the 1975 team that lost its first nine games. Losing the last 11 in a row, including the final three last season, ties the club mark for overall futility with Sunday’s setback.

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