By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 7:23 p.m.
These are the kind of conditions the Browns must conquer if they want to dream of the playoffs some day.
Bitter cold. A biting December wind knocking down passes. A frozen, slippery field. An opposing defense susceptible to the run. A slumping defense desperately needing time off the field in the fourth quarter.
Until the Browns are willing to run the ball at this time of year, they will go nowhere but back to their draft room, where they can sketch scenarios to land their elusive franchise quarterback.
They pulled down the curtain on another home season at the Icebox of Sadness with a 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears.
It was their fifth loss in a row and eighth in nine games. They reached double digits in the loss column for the sixth year in a row and 12th time in 15 years. At 4-10, the Browns have games left in New Jersey against the Jets and in Pittsburgh. The 14-day forecast for both regions do not call for warm and sunny skies.
The lesson of this loss was not that Jay Cutler could throw through the wind and Jason Campbell could not. Yes, Cutler rewarded the faith put forth in him by coach Marc Trestman and threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns. But it was the balance of a running game that enabled the Bears to pile on with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Or, rather, the absence of one – or unwillingness to run – that ultimately prevented the Browns from helping its faltering defense to hold a fourth-quarter lead.
They entered the fourth quarter with a 24-17 lead, built on defensive touchdowns by safeties Tashaun Gipson (44-yard interception return) and T.J. Ward (51-yard fumble return), and one good offensive drive climaxed by runs of 18 and 12 yards by Wildcat runner MarQueis Gray, and 2 yards to the end zone by jackrabbit running back Edwin Baker.
Campbell was having a terrible time of it trying to get the ball to play-makers Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. Gordon finally tacked on a 43-yard TD at the end to elicit the faint hope of an onside kick under the final minute. But a successful one was not to be.
Gordon was frustrated all day – not getting a single pass in the first half and ending up with three catches for 67 yards. Only the Browns themselves cooled off the hottest player in the NFL.
“It was just a basic defense, cover 2,” Gordon said, dismissing Chicago’s defense as the reason he failed to be a factor. “There could’ve been more plays made. The (shutout) the first half … seeing that carry over the second half was very disappointing.”
Campbell said, “Some of the downfield throws we like to get to (Gordon), it was tough to do because of the wind.”
The game appeared right where the Browns wanted it as the fourth quarter dawned with them possessing the ball at the Bears’ 33-yard line. But a holding penalty on Shawn Lauvao on an 8-yard run by Chris Ogbonnaya sabotaged any thought of mashing out the remainder of the distance. Campbell threw incomplete to Gordon and Greg Little to force a punt, which was downed at the Bears’ 5.
By then, cornerback Joe Haden was in the locker room with a hip pointer injury, leaving Cutler to take aim at Buster Skrine, Leon McFadden and Julian Posey. First, Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery drew a 30-yard pass interference on McFadden. Then Brandon Marshall drew illegal contact on Skrine.
A few plays later, Cutler faced third-and-11 from the Browns’ 45. Cutler reared back and launched a moon ball for Jeffrey. He was aided by the wind as a result of a tactical blunder by the Browns that saw them defer the ball to start the game and Chicago to opt to force the Browns to drive against the wind in the fourth quarter.
Jeffrey somehow got behind Gipson running downfield and Posey was behind Jeffrey. Cutler was hit by Jabaal Sheard as he threw and the ball hung up, but Gipson mis-timed his jump and Jeffrey came down with it at the 2, and leaned over the goal line for the tying touchdown. It was the play of the game.
“I truly have to come down with that play. I absolutely thought that was an interception,” said Gipson, who had two picks in the first half, instigating Bears’ fans nationwide to decry Trestman’s decision to start Cutler ahead of the hot Josh McCown. “Maybe I timed the jump wrong.”
Sheard was penalized for roughing Cutler. The mark-off on the kickoff – and Fozzy Whittaker’s weak, 13-yard return to the 14 -- buried Campbell deep in his end. Spencer Lanning had to punt from his own end zone after three plays. All-time return record-holder Devin Hester returned the punt 21 yards to the Browns’ 36.
From there, the Bears used one pass and then slammed Matt Forte (24 carries, 127 yards) four times to set up a 4-yard Cutler TD pass to Earl Bennett.
After another ill-fated series of Campbell incompletions, Chicago put it away with more Forte running and then a 40-yard breakaway TD run by Michael Bush.
Gordon’s 43-yard TD with 1:02 to play was so anti-climactic that not even Gordon enjoyed it. His streak of 125-yard receiving games ended at four games.
Gordon played the game after a scary winter-time car accident on Saturday left him uninjured. Gordon was a passenger in his SUV when a car in front of him lost control and the driver of Gordon’s vehicle swerved to avoid it and crashed.
“Whenever it’s life-threatening, it’s scary,” Gordon said. “It had nothing to do with the game.”
In the end, Campbell threw 39 times, completing 23 for 273 yards and was intercepted twice by cornerback Zac Bowman – once for a touchdown. The Browns ran 17 times.
Cutler threw 31 times, too, and was intercepted twice. The Bears ran 31 times for 179 yards.
The Browns’ defense blew a fourth quarter lead for the third game in a row. That’s a fact. But winning in December takes a more complete offensive team in these parts.
|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 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
Return to: Grossi Stories Blog