Hall of Shame season
The agony of defeat was never harder to take than the Browns’ season-ending loss Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The 28-24 loss to the Steelers, which completed only the second 16-game winless season in National Football League history, was a lot closer than the two hands of Browns wide receiver Corey Coleman were at the most critical point of the game.
The Browns’ top pick in the 2016 college draft, whose relationship with success has been tenuous at best since turning pro, contributed to his growing arsenal of disappointments as the Browns were driving for the potential go-ahead touchdown in the final moments of the game.
It was reduced to potential when a perfectly-thrown fourth-down pass by DeShone Kizer, delivered after the rookie quarterback escaped a heavily occupied pocket and drifted to his left, sailed cleanly – and improbably – through the hands of Coleman at the Pittsburgh 11-yard line for what would have been a first down.
It was, as CBS-TV analyst Adam Archuleta so accurately put it, a microcosm of the season for the Browns, who join the 2008 Detroit Lions in the NFL Hall of Shame as the only teams to lose all 16 games in a season.
Moments earlier, Archuleta declared, “You’ve got to catch that ball. You’ve got to catch that ball,” as if he felt sorry for the young receiver.
It was a season full of Murphy’s Law type foul-ups at the most inopportune times with this team. When something could go wrong, it generally did. When plays were needed on either side of the ball, they did not arrive. Perfect example, the Coleman miss.
And that, in a rather generic nutshell, is why the Browns are – and will be forever – 0-16 for the 2017 season. A sad ending for what once was one of the most solid franchises in the NFL before 1999.
The last thing fans and players expected as the football sailed toward the wide-open Coleman along the left sideline was an incompletion. It was so inexplicably unexpected, it was almost as though it didn’t happen. Murphy’s Law.
It was a so-close and yet so-far moment when the football slipped between Coleman’s hands, glanced off his right shoulder pad and fell harmlessly to the ground as rookie tight end David Njoku a few yards away slapped his helmet with both hands in abject disbelief.
Coleman’s hands were at least a foot apart as the football arrived, giving him little or no chance of catching it. One would think by now he knows the odds of catching a thrown football rise considerably when the hands are virtually together.
Receivers are taught early on to connect their hands at the thumbs and forefingers in the shape of either a triangle or diamond, depending on the placement of the thumbs, in order to have a better chance of catching the ball. Coleman’s hands were nowhere near either shape. They were solidly apart. He should know better.
Presupposing he had made the catch, the Browns would have had a first down with 1:46 left in regulation and a better-than-decent chance to pull the upset. Then again, given Kizer’s season-long misery in the red zone, that is assuming way too much.
Up to that point, the Browns, mainly because of Kizer’s arm and legs, Duke Johnson’s terrific open-field talent and a defense that stiffened in the second half, actually had a decent shot at knocking off the Steelers and avoiding the infamy of a winless campaign.
The only points the Steelers put on the scoreboard in the second half came courtesy of special teams and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who weaved his way 96 yards with a kickoff after the Browns tied the game at 21-21 early in the third quarter. The tie lasted exactly 12 seconds.
Not one member of the Browns had a clean shot at the rookie wide receiver, who also knows how to catch the football as he tormented the Cleveland secondary all afternoon with a nine-catch, 143-yard, one touchdown performance.
The Steelers played this one without the quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. It may or may not have made a difference, but the Browns nevertheless played probably their most competitive game of the season.
The defense surrendered only 61 yards in the second half after Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones, making his third start against the Browns, helmed an offense that put up 287 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes..
Kizer, meanwhile enjoyed his best day statistically as a pro after a rough start, throwing for 314 yards and a pair of scoring throws to Rashard Higgins, and running for 61 yards, mosly in scramble mode, to extend drives and keep the Steelers’ defense off balance,
He hooked up with Josh Gordon, Johnson and Higgins for 13 of his 16 completions and 258 of those yards. He found Gordon four times for 115 yards, including a 54-yarder that set up the Browns’ first score, a two-yard scamper by Johnson.
But it’s the one pass that didn’t connect that will be remembered as the possible difference between a winless season and one that might have ended on a much more positive note. Coleman was targeted six times by Kizer and wound up with just one reception for 18 yards.
Kizer tried to console his disconsolate teammate, showing empathy as they sat side by side as the game wound down. He knew exactly how Coleman felt because he has felt that way on numerous occasions during a season he’s not likely to forget.
The manner in which the Browns lost this one will give players, coaches and fans something to talk about during the offseason in what could have been and, in the eyes of the more optimistic fans, should have been a victory for Hue Jackson in what might be his final game as the Browns’ head coach.