By Tony Grossi
Is that the sound of the shop-vac being taken to the Browns’ football operations? It looks inevitable now. One player said to me that he thinks a complete overhaul is a done deal.
A 38-21 beat-down at the hands of Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins, making his first NFL start in place of injured Robert Griffin III, likely verified in the minds of the new men in charge that changes are not only justified but necessary.
The only question after Sunday’s eye-opener was whether quarterback Brandon Weeden will be spared his starting job in the long-term makeover.
The up-close comparison between Weeden and Cousins on the same field was a revelation.
Cousins executed a masterful game plan in place of Griffin. He baffled the Browns’ defense with a dazzling display of play-action fakes and bootleg passes so consistently on the mark that you wondered if RG3 himself could have done much better.
“We knew they ran the boot, but not that good,” said defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who had one of the Browns’ two sacks of Cousins. “They had a great disguise. They ran the stretch (run) and the play-action.”
And then there was the Browns’ offense – showing negative growth in design and execution, especially at quarterback. After a late second-quarter touchdown drive gave the Browns a 14-10 halftime lead, they owned the ball in the second half and threw themselves right out of the game.
Weeden’s two interceptions in the second half were turned into Washington touchdowns by Cousins. And that was that.
“I just think we got out of our gameplan,” said running back Trent Richardson. “I thought it would be a good day for our running game.”
Richardson had 24 yards on his first four runs, one for a 6-yard touchdown. By halftime, his production was stalled at 28 yards on nine carries, including another TD of one yard – his 11th on the ground. But he carried only two times in the second half for zero yards.
“It was shocking,” said Richardson, who said he was not affected by a migraine headache that hit him on Saturday. “But the game is bigger than me. Coach has to do what he does.”
Weeden finished with typically medicore numbers – 21 of 35 for 244 yards, one TD and two interceptions – against a defense ranked 28th overall and 31st against the pass. Worse than those numbers were these: four more passes deflected or tipped and a pass thrown out of bounds on fourth down after having all day to find a receiver.
“I’ve never had so many batted balls,” pleaded Weeden, whose league-leading number rose to 21.
Both Weeden and coach Pat Shurmur attributed the deflections to the fact the Browns throw a lot of short crossing routes over the middle. Knowing this, defensive linemen are reading Weeden’s eyes, stopping their rush and going for the shot blocks. But not all of Weeden’s deflections have come on those routes, of course.
Weeden made a few good throws on a 75-yard TD drive before halftime. But other than a 69-yard TD bomb to Travis Benjamin in the fourth quarter, his second half was a dismal reminder that the quarterback carousel might be turning again in Cleveland.
On the other hand, there are the Redskins – 8-6 after their fifth win in a row, and sporting two rookie quarterbacks who look, frankly, better than what the Browns have.
Cousins overcame a slow start – three three-and-outs and an interception in his first four series – and then was magnificent in executing the same play after play. And he didn’t get a lot of help from running back Alfred Morris, who had only 18 yards at halftime and finished with 87 and two touchdowns.
Cousins posted a 104.4 passer rating on 26 of 37 passing for 329 yards. He had TD passes of 54 and 2 yards to Leonard Hankerson.
“What hurt us was not only the play-fake, but the space that was created for Kirk Cousins,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “It gave him options. They just ran it to perfection. This is the first time I’ve seen that many boots (throws on the run after a play-fake) in one game.”
Cornerback Sheldon Brown, whose outstretched deflection of a pass accounted for Cousins’ only interception by safety T.J. Ward, agreed.
“It reminded me of Jake Plummer in the Denver days,” Brown said of another Mike Shanahan prodigy from 10 years ago. “Run the ball, run the ball, boot.
“We knew he was a very accurate passer. The thing that was impressive was he didn’t let those first (four) drives get under his skin. A lot of times, he was outside the hash marks with nobody in his face.”
The Browns insisted the change-up thrown by Shanahan on Saturday, when he announced that Cousins would start, had nothing to do with the outcome. Indeed, the defense came out sharp, swarming Cousins and Morris. It just never adjusted to Cousins’ confounding bootleg throws.
The loss broke the Browns’ three-game winning streak over Big Ben-less Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City coming off a team tragedy. The Browns concluded their home schedule with a 4-4 record and fell to 5-9 overall with games at playoff-contenders Denver and Pittsburgh left.
“Today, we let ourselves down and we let the whole city of Cleveland down,” Richardson said. “Everybody, especially season ticket-holders, I feel bad for them and I want to say as a man, I just want to come to them and apologize.
“This was the last home game. We were supposed to go out with a blast. It was a big ballgame for us and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
It may have been a very uneventful last game in Cleveland for Browns free agents-to-be Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs. Dawson had no field goal attempts and Cribbs had no returns of note, though his 16-yard run out of the Wildcat set up one of Richardson's touchdowns.
Dawson said it was an emotional day for him, even though he has been through two previous season finales which he thought were his last in Cleveland. Cribbs exited the locker room without talking to reporters.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.com
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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