By Tony Grossi
It had the feel of a big game for the Browns leading up to Sunday. Beating the Baltimore Ravens would have been a watershed – for Pat Shurmur and for his young team.
Unfortunately, the way Shurmur and his offensive staff responded could end up being their Waterloo.
Egregious breakdowns in communication, confusion on substitutions, lollygagging out of the huddle and a costly mistake in alignment submarined five trips to the red zone for the Browns. Something was definitely amiss in the play-calling process because quarterback Brandon Weeden issued “no comments” two times when asked about it.
But the most baffling occurrence in the Browns’ 25-15 loss to the Ravens was Shurmur’s decision – and explanation – to not punt at a critical time in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens had just taken a 22-15 lead on a Torrey Smith touchdown, on which he made a short catch and then spun Joe Haden into a hole en route to the end zone, and a two-point conversion. It was Joe Flacco’s first extended drive after seven consecutive Ravens possessions ended in punts, the last six of which they failed to get a first down.
After the kickoff, the Browns completed two short passes and faced fourth-and-2 from their 28-yard line. There was 3:53 left in the game. The Browns had two timeouts.
Two weeks ago in Indianapolis, Shurmur drew the ire of everyone, including new owner Jimmy Haslam, who reacted like any fan, when Shurmur punted on fourth-and-1 from the Colts’ 41 with 6:38 to go and two timeouts.
This time, Shurmur decided to go for it on his end of the field. The players didn’t exactly stalk out of the huddle and line up confidently. Weeden’s short pass for Greg Little sailed way over his head, one of many terribly misfired passes among his 37 attempts.
Weeden was wild all day, finishing 20 of 37 for 176 yards, with two interceptions, good for a passer rating of 44.4.
“That’s not my decision,” Weeden said of going for it on fourth down. “Whatever is in my headset, that’s what I run.”
Shurmur knew the decision would be among the first questions asked in the post-game press conference.
His immediate response was, “Went for it this time, yeah. I wanted to get the first down. We felt we had a play that we liked and we didn’t execute it well. That’s why.”
Two questions later, Shurmur was asked why he went for it there when it seemed against his nature, given the punt in Indianapolis under more favorable circumstances.
“What do you mean?” he responded. “It’ll be a fun thing for everyone to talk about this week, just when we lost the game (in Indianapolis) and I didn’t go for it. I don’t know what you’re talking about, my nature? I don’t know you that well. You probably don’t me that well.
“You know what, in both situations, the decision didn’t lead us to a victory, did it? So that’s why we talk about it. Had we converted it and we moved forward, then it would’ve been talked about on what a gutsy move it was. Right? That’s all. I think it’s fair. And I’ll join into it.”
Shurmur didn’t have much explanation for burning three timeouts in the game because of play-calling or substitution snafus, though he owned up to it.
“There was some sloppiness in there. Of course, I’ll take responsibility for that,” he said. “We had a couple of times when communication just wasn’t right. All plays are critical enough where we felt we needed to call timeout and talk about it. We need to get a little smoother than that.”
It was on this issue that Weeden responded “no comment” on two occasions. Never heard that from him before.
Then there was the illegal formation penalty. All that did was wipe out an 18-yard Josh Gordon touchdown on a short pass from Weeden with 9:33 left in the fourth quarter. It was nullified when the Browns lined up five potential receivers and third-down back Chris Ogbonnaya “covered” the tight end at the far right side of the line of scrimmage and was flagged. He said later that he tried to communicate to the official that he was one step back, but the official ignored him.
The five-yard penalty presented third-and-11 from the Ravens’ 23. Weeden handed off to Trent Richardson out of the shotgun formation and he was stuffed for no gain, resulting in Phil Dawson’s fifth field goal.
Early in the game – on the Browns’ first two possessions – they threw on third-and-1, failing both times. These failures led to two Flacco scoring drives and a 14-0 lead.
At that point, it appeared the Browns were flat as usual in a game that was as “big” as possible for a team with a 2-6 record. Shurmur denied it, saying his team “was ready to play … they played hard.”
Richardson toned it up several notches after the dreadful first quarter. He ran angry thereafter, amassing 63 yards rushing alone in the second quarter when the Browns strung three field goals to close the gap to 14-9 at halftime.
Richardson wound up with 105 yards rushing (on 25 attempts) and 31 receiving on six catches. The 31 “touches” exceeded counterpart Ray Rice’s 27 (25 rushes for 98 yards). But Rice had an 11-yard TD and backup Bernard Pierce added one from 12 yards.
And Flacco was able to beat Haden with throws four times – two to Anquan Boldin for 22 yards, and two to Smith for 45 yards, including the game-winning play. Haden was one of several players who were pumped up during the week, believing this would be the day the team took a major step and beat one of the major nemeses.
Instead, the Browns fell to 2-7 after their 10th straight loss to the Ravens, who found a way to win and stay in first place in the AFC North with a 6-2 record.
“It’s definitely deflating,” Haden said. “We felt we had a chance to come and get it. You have to click on all cylinders against a good team like this.”
Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson called the squandered opportunity “the tale of the season so far.”
“We get so close and we start the week off with so much confidence and, for whatever reason when the game’s on the line, whether it’s defensively (or) offensively, we can’t seem to make that play,” Jackson said. “When the game was on the line and they needed to make, (the Ravens) made it. It’s that simple.”
|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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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