A meaningful game against a tough opponent in mid-November.
The Browns haven't had many of these since The Return. That's why I think the level of discourse following this game, especially one lost by the barest of margins, is so strident.
The Browns had a meaningful season in 2001. They started well, but with their toughest games at the end, they finished 7-9, but with promise for the future.
In 2002, the team started with a thud losing to Kansas City on a freak play. After a slow start, the team found a running game and began to believe in itself. There were lots of close victories down the stretch. They squeaked into the playoffs as the sixth seed, then melted down after taking a commanding lead in Pittsburgh. During the offseason, the team was torn apart and the Browns returned to the bottom of the division.
After being thumped on opening day, the Browns had a magical run in 2007. But we found out even during that season that the success of that team was built on a shaky foundation at best. Despite winning 10 games, the Browns missed the playoffs. It was fun, but you had the feeling that the other shoe was yet to drop. The team reverted to form in 2008 and never recaptured that success.
The 2010 Browns now have won three games and lost six. We've been here many times before over the last 11 seasons. Usually, at this point, people are talking draft and looking forward to next year.
Not this time.
There is a different feeling. A feeling like the team is on an upward trajectory. A feeling that maybe, just maybe, this time there is a solid foundation under what we are seeing. This is a team playing over its head, exceeding the sum of its parts. We are seeing smart, effective game plans that take advantage of the weaknesses of opponents in a way that cover over the talent and skill deficits of our players.
That's why I think the buzz after this tough loss is so different.
I'm not talking moral victories here. I'm just as sick of that as anyone. This wasn't a victory in any sense of the word. But, it was a slugfest between the Cleveland Browns and a much more talented and established New York Jets team. The Browns held their own and came just 16 seconds from a stalemate. The Browns could easily have won.
For the first time since 2001 and 2002, the Browns seem to be building something will lead to something.
Because this game was meaningful, there is a lot of second guessing. Players like Chansi Stuckey and Eric Wright are being singled out for missed plays. That will happen in a close game. But I submit that in a game like this, a dozen things could have changed the outcome, not just those two plays. Let me list a few:
•How big was the failed onside kick? It's hard to say. Perhaps if the Browns had gotten the ball, they would not have moved it anyway. But the coaching staff dialed up the right play and it was there for the taking. The players failed to pull it off.
•What might have happened if the Browns got touchdowns instead of field goals on two first half possessions? The second one in particular with a first and goal from the three was a huge missed opportunity.
•Dropped interceptions by the secondary have been a theme throughout this season. If Ward and Elam hang onto those, who knows what might have happened?
•If the defense had managed to get off the field in the second half, things might have been very different. The inability to stop the Jets on third down was a huge part of this game. Granted the Jets got just three points in the second half, but handling the ball to our offense more might have made a difference at a time when the offense wasn't moving.
•From the fourth quarter on, the defense had Sanchez on several plays, but did not get him down. If any one of those becomes a sack, things might have unfolded differently.
•You live by the sword, you die by the sword. It was ironic that the Browns were unable to stop the wildcat, and it hurt.
•If Josh Cribbs doesn't leave the game, the Browns would have had a lot more options on offense and in the punt return game.
•Likewise, losing Sheldon Brown and Scott Fujita from the defense hurt. They are veteran leaders and they were missed. People wanted to run Brian Russell out of town when he was here, but we saw how much his on-field direction was missed when he left. Might the defense have stopped the Jets in the second half with one or both of them in the game?
•Was the deep pass to Benjamin Watson on the last possession a bad call? I don't think so. Watson was open, McCoy just failed to hit him.
Call me crazy, but this game was encouraging for many reasons. Once again, the coaching staff put the Browns in a position to win. You can debate some of the play calling, and I have some real questions about the play selections in the second half. You can criticize Rob Ryan for some of the defensive approach. But if you look at the list of plays above, there is a common theme.
The players failed to make plays.
I'm not laying this one at the feet of the coaching staff for a change. I think the team was in a position to win, and the players just could not quite pull it off. When you look at what this staff got out of our team, with four starters out (including Billy Yates), and with very little contribution from the starting wide receivers, you can't blame the coaching staff. One play here or there, and the outcome is different.
I will not fault this coaching staff for playing to win in overtime, and not for the tie. How does a tie help this team? They went down swinging, playing aggressive. I'd rather have that than the alternative. I'd have even supported a two-point conversion attempt at the end of regulation.
We also saw another step in the progression of Colt McCoy. Yes, he missed some throws here and there. But he also made some great plays with his feet again. He didn't make big mistakes. The final drive in regulation was worthy of a veteran NFL quarterback. His throws to Watson and Even Moore were great plays. He even managed the clock well.
Between McCoy and Peyton Hillis, the Browns have some excellent building blocks. Imagine what this team could be doing if it had a big play receiver to open up the middle. Or if it had a big time pass rusher. Or if it had a star linebacker.
There is a lot of talk that 2010 is over now. Far from it. First of all, it's unlikely, but the Browns have games lying ahead in which they should be very competitive. If they could run the table in the next five games, they could be 8-6 heading into two big division games at home. That's a tall order, but it is not impossible. The Steelers have some serious injury problems and are looking vulnerable. The Ravens have been up and down at times.
This team needs some pieces it won't get during 2010. But there are changes that could be made now. The coaching staff has to decide if they should give up on Brian Robiske, at least for this year. I'd rather see Evan Moore out there, or perhaps Carlton Mitchell or Demetrious Williams are reedy to contribute. I've defended Eric Wright, and though he isn't as bad as some people are saying, he is playing so tentatively now that he is a liability. Can that be fixed?
But, the difference is that the Cleveland Browns are playing like a contender despite their record. They may have found the key building blocks for the future. Things are looking up.
I, for one, can't wait for Sunday!
The Browns travel to Jacksonville to face a plucky Jaguar team.
The season is short. Bark hard!