That the Browns trailed the New York Giants by only a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter Sunday was surprising. What followed was not.
On several occasions this season, the Browns have been within striking distance in the fourth quarter only to fall victim to a play or series of plays that have kept them on the winless path this season.
Perfect example was how the Cleveland defense, which played a relatively decent game up to that point, played after the offense scored its only touchdown of the day to creep within seven points of the Giants.
A little more than eight minutes remained in regulation and the defense needed a play. Made no difference who made the play. Getting the ball back for the offense was mandatory. Someone had to step up and make that play.
And as has been the case all season, no one stepped up. Three minutes, six plays and 73 yards later, the Giants regained a 14-point lead and that, for all practical purposes, doused whatever fire the Browns had left.
That’s among the numerous maladies the front office must address in the offseason. When the defense cannot pick up the offense, when the offense cannot pick up the defense, when plays that need to be made are not made, that’s a formula for losing.
This edition of the Browns lacks a playmaker on both sides of the football. Missing is the kind of player who will step up when no one else does and make vital contributions. They need someone to take charge. There is no one on this roster who fits that description.
As has been pointed out before, no one from the 2016 college draft class can honestly raise his hand and proclaim to be that player. With 14 selections, one would figure the odds of getting one or two impact players would be favorable.
Judging from what emanated from Berea during the draft, it appeared as those in charge placed a great deal of importance on production, figuring that production at the college level would translate well to the National Football League.
Thinking like that is foolhardy. The step up to the NFL from college is as different as the manner in which the two styles differ. The pro game is faster, quicker and much more violent. It figuratively separates the men from the boys.
Not every college star or superstar can waltz right into the NFL and immediately fit in. Because of the bellicose manner in which the game is played on the pro level, attitude and passion are more important ingredients than production.
The sooner the Browns’ scouting department realizes this, the quicker it will be able to select players who eventually make a difference. As will adhering to the notion that good teams are built from the inside out, not the other way.
If this scouting department continues to seek out productive players on the collegiate level, they can expect results similar to what they are receiving from the most current draft classes.
It’s trite, but it bears repeating and is so true. Games are won and lost in the trenches. The good offensive and defensive lines make those who work behind them even better. Without talented plug uglies performing the grunt work, the end result is not pleasant. Just look at the trenches for the Browns.
Personnel boss Andrew Berry and his men have an awfully deep hole from which to extricate themselves. It will take time. In the Browns’ case, it will take a long time. You don’t build offensive and defensive lines in one draft. Or two drafts. It might take as many as three drafts to get it right.
But at least it’s the correct direction to take and the payoff will be well worth the wait. That’s if they choose to head in that direction.
* * *
So how close are the Browns to setting the record for the longest losing streak in NFL history? Not as close as you think, although they are starting to get warm. The 15 straight losses still pale somewhat to the record of a couple of pre- and post-expansion teams.
The Chicago Cardinals in the World War II years between 1942 and 1945 lost 29 games in a row for the pre-AFL-NFL (1970) expansion mark. Post expansion, it’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976-77 when they began their NFL adventure by losing their first 26 games.
That recalls one of the greatest quotes of all time uttered by Bucs coach John McKay after one of the losses well into the streak.
“What,” he was asked by a reporter, “do you think of your club’s execution?” Replied McKay, “I’m in favor of it.”
* * *
Remember Taylor Gabriel, who caught 64 passes for 861 yards for Cleveland in 2014 and 2015? The little wide receiver was cut by the Browns just before the start of this season and picked up by the Atlanta Falcons a day later.
He languished on the Atlanta bench behind some pretty good receivers until Sunday, when he surfaced in a big way in a victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The 5-8, 165-pounder turned a pair of short screen passes from quarterback Matt Ryan into touchdowns, giving him four scores on the season.
He is with the Falcons because Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who coordinated the Cleveland offense in 2014, remembered Gabriel and recommended him to the Falcons’ front office. He averages 17.8 yards on his 17 receptions.
The Browns cut Gabriel and instead kept Andrew Hawkins, who is five years older. Hawkins averages 10.8 yards on his 25 receptions. That move remains a head scratcher.
* * *
Rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah suffered a woulda, coulda, didn’t pivotal moment with 4:16 left in the third quarter in the Giants loss. It’s one of those moments that tend to get lost in the big picture.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, nursing a 14-6 lead, dropped back to pass on a third-and-8 at his 16-yard line. At the same time, Ogbah dropped into short coverage on a zone blitz from his left end position and was in the way of Manning’s pass at the 16.
He had a clear path for a pick 6. All he had to do was catch the ball and run. No one would have caught him. Maybe it was because he wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the ball that caused Ogbah to drop a pick he should have caught.
Woulda, coulda, didn’t. It would have brought the Browns to within a point of the Giants at that point and there’s no telling how much momentum it would have generated. We’ll never know of course.
* * *
Terrelle Pryor is one very, very unhappy young man. Who can blame him? The former Ohio State quarterback has through hard work and dedication become a bona fide NFL wide receiver. And it frustrates the hell out of him that his contributions are being wasted.
Television cameras have caught his displeasure with either some of his teammates or coaches or maybe both. Nothing wrong with that. That displeasure no doubt stems from the fact the Browns have failed to establish any kind of relationship with discovering how to win games.
What makes this important is Pryor is a free agent after this season. The Browns naturally don’t want him to leave. Certainly not after developing him into one of the NFL’s most dangerous wideouts.
He is on pace to catch 83 passes for almost 1,150 yards, figures that could land him numerous votes for the Pro Bowl. At the same time, other clubs surely have taken notice on what Pryor has accomplished and will be interested.
The big question, though, is whether Pryor wants to stick around with the Browns. If body language is any indication, he couldn’t get out of Cleveland quickly enough and have the opportunity to hook up with a team that provides a winning culture, something that hasn’t existed in Cleveland for a long time. This one bears watching.
* * *
The constant losing has given birth to the possibility of yet another dubious record the defense is closing in on. The 1990 Browns under Bud Carson and Jim Shofner, who took over following Carson’s dismissal midway through the season, allowed a club-record 462 points.
The 1999 expansion team was bad, but not that bad, permitting 437. But unless there is a sudden and dramatic turnaround, the current crew is on pace to allow 469 points. But the point-differential mark of minus-258, set in 2000, is safe.
* * *
And finally . . . There were 28 possessions between the Browns and Giants and 17 ended in punts, nine by Giants punter Brad Wing, who hung five of his nine boots inside the Cleveland 20. The Browns' Britton Colquitt landed only two of his eight that deep in New York territory. . . . Of Colquitt’s 61 punts this season, only 17 have landed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. The low number probably means he is kicking much closer to his goal line than he would like. . . . Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey continues to be a tackling machine with 11 more against the Giants. That gives him 114 on the season, second in the NFL to Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, who has 118. His 70 solo tackles are tied for seventh. . . . Nose tackle Danny Shelton had another strong game even though the stat sheet credits him with only two tackles. . . . The Cleveland defense held the Giants to only 13 first downs, a season low, and just 26 minutes in time of possession, another season low. . . . The three offensive touchdowns by the Giants took only four minutes and 19 seconds off the clock. . . . The Browns have scored more than 20 points in a game only three times this season, a broadside to Jackson’s reputation as an offensive guru.