Snapping a losing streak the hard way
The way the Browns and their fans celebrated after knocking off the San Diego Chargers Saturday in the home finale of the 2016 season, one would have thought they had won some sort of championship. In a small way, they did.
Players exploded off the sidelines and onto the field to revel in the wake of the 20-17 victory. All manner and variety of high fives were exchanged as Josh Lambo’s 45-yard field goal attempt to tie the game drifted wide right, seemingly in slow motion, as time ran out.
Joy spread all over the field, a season of pent-up emotion caused by the distinct possibility of a winless season released in one huge celebration.
Two losing streaks were quashed, finally putting to an end the most embarrassing and frustrating period in the history of this once-proud franchise. Players danced and leaped excitedly, caring not a whit what the other team thought.
Gone, finally, are the 14-gamer this season unveiled and the 17-game overall streak stretching back to the final three games of last season. The day after a Browns game won’t taste this sweet for everyone in Browns Nation since Dec. 14 of last year. That was the day after the last victory, a 24-10 decision over the San Francisco 49ers.
Yes, it was only one game and means absolutely nothing when bringing into focus the big picture. But it has been a way-too-long drought between celebrations; 377 days to be exact. And celebrating like it was a championship game is understandable and perfectly acceptable to fans of the team.
No longer will the 2016 Browns be mentioned in the same breath as the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went all 16 games without emerging victorious. Cancel that order.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Browns beat writers sat at their computer screens for a few minutes after the game, trying to remember what it was like to write about a Cleveland victory.
The way they played in the first half on both sides of the ball strongly suggested the losing streaks would be history as early as the beginning of the third quarter when they grabbed a 20-10 lead.
Robert Griffin III looked nothing like the bewildered quarterback of the last two games, confidently operated the Cleveland offense with a fair degree of precision, mixing in short passes with a few freeze-option runs. That’s the kind of quarterback he needs to be with this team.
He is not a good pocket passer with flaws that include the inability to get rid of the ball quickly and inability to escape the pass rush. He was sacked seven times by a San Diego rush that made the Cleveland offensive line look inept and had to leave the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit on a scramble early in the fourth quarter.
The Browns scored on their first three possessions – a season first and probably last – with Isaiah Crowell scoring twice, capping drives of 72 and 75 yards, and Cody Parkey booting a 49-yard field goal. If offset an Antonio Gates scoring pass on the first series of the game and a 43-yard Lambo field goal on the second possession.
The first Cleveland score was gift-wrapped by the officials,, who flagged the Chargers for 36 yards in penalties (pass interference and roughing the passer). But when you’re a winless football team, you’ll take all the outside help you can get.
When the Browns took the second-half kickoff into the Chargers’ red zone before settling on a 27-yard Parkey field goal, fans began wondering whether this was going to be the day. The day the nightmare ended. The day the Factory of Sadness would turn into the Factory of Joy for at least one day.
The 20-10 lead quickly evaporated when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers marched his men 75 yards in 11 plays, wide receiver Tyrell Williams making a spectacular one-handed grab on a third-and-goal from the 1.
Even so, the 20-17 margin was the first time since game four against the Washington Redskins – and only the third time this season – that the Browns took a lead into the fourth quarter.
Five subsequent Cleveland possessions, including a trio of three-and-outs, ended in Britton Colquitt punts as the offense completely shut down. Rookie Cody Kessler replaced The Third and was totally ineffective as the fans naturally began trying to suppress negative thoughts.
No such thoughts rested with the Cleveland defense. It had limited the San Diego ground game (minus Melvin Gordon) to just 34 yards on 19 carries and forced Rivers to throw the ball on virtually every down.
When a short Colquitt punt enabled the visitors to begin a drive at the Cleveland 33 with 4:49 left in regulation, it wouldn’t have been surprising to think Browns fans wondered “how are they going to blow this one, too?” Again, the defense had other ideas.
Rivers and Williams nearly collaborated on a second scoring strike with four minutes left, but Cleveland cornerback Jamar Taylor stripped Williams of the ball in the end zone and Rivers subsequently misfired with Dontrelle Inman.
That’s when it got interesting.
Lambo, one of the most accurate kickers in the National Football League (he had missed only two field-goal attempts coming into the game) was brought on to tie the game from 32 yards out. Cleveland defensive lineman Jamie Meder got enough penetration, however, and stuck out his big right paw enough to deflect the attempt.
What is going on here? That usually doesn't happen with this team. A genuine clutch play.
The Browns took over with 3:45 left and managed to burn off two minutes, forcing Chargers coach Mike McCoy to use all his timeouts, It gave Rivers, a seasoned veteran in these types of situations, some wiggle room against a tiring defense. It would also hamper him.
He moved his offense 51 yards, hooking up four times with Gates for 54 gross yards, converting a fourth-and-10 with the tight end for 25 yards when incredibly no one picked him up off the line of scrimmage. That's the kind of play a winless football team makes.
The Browns needed a big break, any kind of divine intervention, and got one when Rivers on a second-and-10 at the Cleveland 35 inexplicably fumbled the shotgun snap and had to fall on the ball as the clock resolutely wound down to 25 seconds.
Instead of throwing toward the sideline in an effort to stop the clock, Rivers instead found Gates for an 11-yard reception – his eighth grab of the afternoon – with 18 seconds left and the ball at the Cleveland 27 in the middle of the field. No timeouts left and fourth down and short loomed.
The Chargers somehow managed to scramble their field-goal team on the field and that’s when fans, even those who still had faith in their team, thought they discovered how the Browns would blow the opportunity to win this one.
The snap from Mark Windt was perfect. The hold by punter Drew Kaser was perfect. Overtime was a certainty. Lambo sent the football airborne with exactly one second left. And the ball drifted right. Lambo stared, almost unbelievingly, at the ground after the miss as if it wasn’t his fault.
The Browns bounced and danced joyously all around him. It seemed like a surreal moment to some of them. They weren’t used to it. How does one behave after a victory? After four exhibition losses and 14 in the regular season, the memory dulls.
It was only one victory for sure. But it was one that very well might be remembered as the one that not only got them off the schneid, but one that might launch them toward brighter, more productive days. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than the last 377 days and nights.
After the game, coach Hue Jackson succinctly put it in perspective. “Today was a good day for the Browns,” he said.