Sunday, October 19, 2008

Back to the Drawing Board--Again

If last week’s game awoke a sleeping giant within the Cleveland Browns, it didn’t stay awake too long.

Slumbering most of the day, the Cleveland Browns rallied but fell short on Sunday losing to the Washington Redskins, 14-11. The loss and a modest two-game win streak ended when Phil Dawson’s potential game-tying 54-yard field goal went wide right in the game’s waning moments.

It was an outcome the Browns probably deserved anyway.

For most of the game, all the Browns managed to demonstrate was what fans feared most, that last Monday night’s game was a mirage. Whatever chemistry had existed had dissipated as the team reverted perfectly to their early season form. But a semi-furious fourth quarter rally, sparked in no small part by a fumble from the Browns’ nemesis all day, Redskins’ running back Clinton Portis, kept the game in doubt until the final seconds.

Until that late surge, the game had the pace and feel of a high school chess match, without the intrigue. Both teams managed to set offensive football in the NFL back three or so decades, trading punt after punt after punt. When the Redskins finally broke through the scoring drought on a 4-yard Clinton Portis run early in the third quarter to take a 7-0 lead, it looked like it would hold up. Eventually it did. The Browns answered with a 37-yard Dawson field goal only to see the Redskins’ push the lead to 11 on an 18-yard pass from Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell to Santana Moss. At that point the game looked mostly over.

Things then got interesting, just not interesting enough for the Browns. With just under six minutes to go and the Browns in a fourth and goal at the Redskins’ three-yard line, head coach Romeo Crennel decided not to attempt a field goal that would have put the game to within one score. In context, it was a questionable decision. When quarterback Derek Anderson’s pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage so too, seemingly, were the Browns’ chances.

But on the Redskins next play, Portis bailed out Crennel by scampering for 24 yards and then fumbling into the arms of safety Brodney Pool. Finding an offensive rhythm that had eluded him all game, Anderson then was able to move the team quickly, finding Edwards for 20 yards and then tight end Kellen Winslow for another 8 yards. On fourth and goal from the one yard line, Anderson found Josh Cribbs in the end zone to bring the game to within five. Anderson then hit Edwards for the two point conversion to bring the Browns to within three with 2:44 left in the game.

Opting not to try the onside kick, a risky call given how well Portis had run all day, Moss returned the ball to the Redskins’ 35-yard line. But the Redskins couldn’t coax one more first down out of Portis and were forced to turn the ball back to the Browns. A Ryan Plackemeier punt, his eighth of the game, put the Browns at their 29-yard line with 1:51 and no time outs left and needing only a field goal to send the game into overtime.

Anderson then found Donte Stallworth on an 18-yard out and a defensive holding penalty on Villa Angela-St. Joe grad London Fletcher gave the Browns the ball at the Redskins 49-yard line. Another pass to Winslow and an Anderson sneak put the ball at the 37 with only 45 seconds remaining. Three straight Anderson completions set up the 54-yard attempt by Dawson. Though plenty long enough, it stayed right and with that, the Browns, despite a valiant comeback attempt, had their fourth loss of the season.

The excitement of the fourth quarter belied some pretty awful play by Anderson and the Browns that reminded no one of the team on the field against the Giants Monday night. Anderson, to that point, was as bad as he’s ever been. Missing his targets both short and long, Anderson seemed mostly to be sleepwalking through the game. Only the running of Jamal Lewis, who had 80 yards rushing on 19 carries, kept the offense from being completely embarrassed.

The Redskins weren’t a whole lot better, but were good enough, relying mostly on Portis, who was busy all day shredding a defensive line that had been revamped in the offseason for just this reason. But neither Shaun Rogers nor Corey Williams, nor anyone else in the defensive front seven for that matter, were much of a match for Portis. Even with the Browns knowing that Portis would get the ball, they were mostly helpless to stop him, except on the Redskins’ final drive. On the day, Portis ran for 175 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown.

Before the rally, the Browns seemed on the brink of a complete implosion. Facing a third down from their 9-yard line, Anderson was forced to call time out in order to avoid a delay of game penalty. Walking to the bench, he and fullback Lawrence Vickers seemed to exchange words, with Anderson twice grabbing at Vickers and Vickers twice pushing Anderson away in apparent anger.

It was symptomatic of everything that’s plagued the team to that point in the game and since preseason in fact, the Giants game notwithstanding. At the same time, though, it also seemed to have awoken Anderson. It was after that dust up that Anderson found his game.

Until then, though, there was virtually nothing to distinguish either Anderson or the Brown’s offense from any of the team’s first four games. For as much as the Browns defense and special teams were able to push the Redskins deep into their own territory early in the game was as much as the Browns’s offense wasn’t up to the field position they were handed in return.

The same can be said for the Redskins, particularly in the first half. Either it was a great defensive display by both teams or a really bad offensive display by both teams, take your pick. But as you’re choosing, remember this, midway through the second quarter, the teams had combined for more punts (9) than pass receptions (8). In all, each team had an amazing six possessions in that first half, which has to be some kind of record.

The Browns’ offensive ineptness (59 yards total in the first half; 236 for the game) was fostered by the usual gremlins, particularly in the first half. Anderson and tight end Kellen Winslow weren’t on the same page on third down on the Browns’ first drive, leading to a quick three-and-out. The second drive featured a few first downs, mostly on the hard running of Jamal Lewis, but stalled out quickly as well. It did demonstrate one thing, however, and that is that whatever magic Anderson had last week disappeared somewhere between Cleveland and Washington D.C. or in offensive lineman Ryan Tucker’s bulky shoulder that kept him out of the game.

The Browns did have opportunities in that first quarter, twice getting the ball in Redskins’ territory. But they went three-and-out once, with Anderson missing both Lewis and Winslow with what could have been long gains, and went quickly away the second time. It was eerily similar to the kind of offense the team showed in its first four games, right down to the three dropped passes by Edwards. On the plus side, there were no false starts. Maybe the offensive line was just too tired.

The Redskins likewise were having issues, just not quite as many as the Browns thanks to Portis. In that first half, the Redskins had far more yardage and came far closer to scoring but fittingly for that first half Shaun Suishman missed a 36-yard field goal, hitting the upright as time expired in the first half. It was an attempt they probably shouldn’t have had. On second down with 17 seconds left and no time outs, Redskins’ quarterback Jason Campbell slipped going back into the pocket and was sacked. With time running down, defensive linemen Shaun Rogers was a bit slow getting up and was flagged for the delay of game. Okay, he wasn’t just slow. He was lying on top of Campbell. The penalty gave the Redskins the opportunity to kick, which they squandered. The rest of their six possessions were a mixture of poor field position, penalties and a whole lot of poor passes from Campbell.

In some sense, the fact that Anderson was able to rally both himself and the team was some measure of success, but not nearly enough. On the day, Anderson was 14-37 for 136 yards and no touchdowns, with most of that yardage coming in the fourth quarter. It was setback, certainly, from last week’s game, but only if last week is the expected level of performance. In actuality, Anderson’s game was to a lot of games he’s had lately, which isn’t comforting.

With this loss, the Browns and Anderson now are in more desperate a search for an identity as ever. Both know they have the ability to play well. They just don’t know whether they have the ability to play well often. Meanwhile the defense demonstrated that it can hold a team out of the end zone, even if it can’t stop a team from running all over the field. With another game lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the standing, it may not matter whether the Browns ever solve this puzzle this season. They’ll have a long offseason to figure that out.

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