Sunday, October 29, 2017

A tale of two halves

With apologies to Charles Dickens, the Browns’ 33-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday in London brought to mind the great English author's classic “A Tale of Two Cities.”

It was the best of times for the Browns in the first half, lugging their first halftime lead of the 2017 season, 13-12, into the dressing room.  And it was the worst of times for them in the second half when all that went right in the first 30 minutes went terribly wrong in the final 30 minutes.

The misery that has encompassed this franchise for the last nearly two decades produced another first – the club’s first regular-season loss on another continent. And it unfolded much like numerous others in the last 19 seasons.

It extended the Browns’ latest losing streak to eight games this season and nine times overall. It was also their 41st loss in the last 45 games stretching back to the 2015 season.

The Browns in the first 30 minutes of this game looked a lot like the team that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers all kinds of fits in the season opener before succumbing.

Middle linebacker Joe Schobert picked off a Carl Nassib deflection of a Case Keenum pass on the sixth play of the game. Two plays and 29 seconds later, Isaiah Crowell cashed in with a 26-yard ramble for a touchdown.

Zane Gonzalez’s missed extra point was a portent of what was to come, but the Browns still had something they had not owned for about 98% of the season – the lead. It happened so blinkingly fast, Browns Nation probably thought it was a dream.

It looked even better when good transition defense after a Bryce Treggs muffed punt was recovered by the Vikings on the next series limited Minnesota to the first of Kai Forbath’s four field goals.

The defense, which played superbly until it flat ran out of gas in the second half because the offense had disappeared and couldn’t stay on the field, gave the Vikings, who owned the football for nearly 38 minutes, all kinds of problems until late in the second quarter.

That’s when free safety Ibraheim Campbell blew a coverage and allowed a wide-open Adam Thielen to score from 18 yards out. The wide receiver was open from the time he left the line of scrimmage and caught the ball flat-footed in the end zone.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, looked steady, if not dull compared to what fans have witnessed the last several games. It never allowed the good Minnesota defense to draw a bead on quarterback DeShone Kizer.

Kizer, who racked up his first game, complete or otherwise, without an interception, unloaded the ball on quick-developing plays before the Vikings’ pass rush could reach him.

The rookie quarterback directed an eight-play, 82-yard drive that regained the lead at 13-9 with 40 seconds left in the half, wedging his way into the end zone from a yard out. A 38-yard desperation shuffle pass to Crowell was the key play in the drive.

But then Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, known for his aggressive approach to defense, mystifyingly called for his men to play prevent defense and virtually handed the Vikings a gift Forbath field goal with no time left, but the Browns still took the one-point lead into the dressing room.

Then because they had to, they played the second half. And it was definitely the worst of times. It didn’t take long for the momentum to shift.

As quickly as it shifted to the Browns on the opening series of the first half, Crowell returned the favor, regurgitating the football on the first play of the second half. And the rout, although no one saw it coming at the time, was on.

More solid transition defense held the Vikings to just another Forbath field goal, but it put the Vikings in front temporarily at 15-13. But the Cleveland offense, the one fans were used to seeing in the first seven games of the season, returned.

It squandered a 72-yard kickoff return by rookie Matthew Dayes and came up empty when the inconsistent Gonzalez was wide of the left upright on a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 12 minutes left in the third quarter.

One possession later, Gonzalez finally connected from 23 yards to give the Browns their last lead with 5:34 left in the quarter after driving to, and stalling at, the Minnesota 5.

And that is when the Cleveland offense, with the exception of a loosely defended drive late in the game with the outcome no longer a mystery, all but vanished.

Three straight three-and-outs, sandwiched around Minnesota scoring drives of 75 yards and 84 yards, which consumed 17 plays, gave the Vikings a 14-point lead (with the help of a successful two-point conversion) in the next 15 minutes and secured their fourth straight victory.

The first of those three-and-outs produced a sneak preview of what was to come. Rookie tight end David Njoku dropped what would have been a 39-yard gain to the Vikings’ 36-yard line on the first play.

It was a beautifully designed and almost perfectly executed misdirection play with Kizer rolling right, stopping and throwing back to his left. The pass arrived on time and hit Njoku’s outstretched hands perfectly. His failure to pull it in blew it up.

The next eight plays on offense produced a six-yard run, two completed passes for nine yards, four incompletions, a sack, eight net yards, three Britton Colquitt punts and took only three minutes and 16 seconds off the clock. That’s how much rest the frazzled defense by this time had to recover.

The Vikings offense almost literally wore down the Cleveland defense to the point where it moved the ball almost at will in the second half because their defense shut down just about everything the Browns tried and got the ball back.

The only breather was when the Vikings loosened their defense in the final moments when the outcome was well in hand and all they wanted was the clock to move faster.

So now the Browns, for a record second straight season, and for the first time in their illustrious (prior to 1999) history, take a winless record into the second half of the schedule.

The bye next Sunday allows this franchise to lick its first-half wounds and no doubt spark all kinds of speculation as to whether Hue Jackson will be the head coach when the season resumes Nov. 12 in Detroit.

Jackson’s record in Cleveland plunges to 1-23, a mark of futility unlikely to be duplicated in this or any other lifetime by a Browns head coach. Whether he gets a chance to better that mark most likely will dominate the Cleveland sports scene until then.

After the game, Jackson said he was not worried about losing his job. "I totally have the full support of Mr. and Mrs. Haslam," he said assuredly of owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam.

Time will tell on that one. Bye weeks occasionally produce surprises around the National Football League with regard to coaching changes.

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