The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Despite the hiring of a new coach, an installation of fresh offensive and defensive systems, an early commitment to a starting quarterback and a roster purged of aging veteran talent, the Browns began 2011 in much the same manner that they ended 2010.
That ultimately hopeless feeling manifested itself in the form of Cedric Benson running untouched off right tackle for a game-clinching score. By the time Colt McCoy's last minute flailing comeback attempt was intercepted, it was clear that despite all previous narration to the contrary – these 2011 Browns looked all too familiar.
With the exceptions of a laughable string of first quarter penalties and a brief frenzy of second quarter scoring, the Browns fell prey to the exact symptoms of their 2010 demise.
Dropping the Ball
On the surface, any hopes of a late game revival were dashed thanks to the slippery hands of Ben Watson, Mohamed Massaquoi and others. However, the significance of these select plays were enhanced by the idea that Pat Shurmur – the Browns' offensive play caller – called a second half game that made Brian Daboll look exotic in comparison.
With the Browns claiming a 17-13 lead and the Bengals offense mired in a deep slump, Shurmur continually fed running back Peyton Hillis on early downs, which set up unmanageable third and long situations. Facing a mismatched offensive line, the Bengals defensive front crowded McCoy's pocket and eventually collected some game-altering sacks.
Yet, in a nod to the game preserving tactics of Daboll and Eric Mangini in recent years, Shurmur continued this approach for the entirety of the second half. Disdaining the first down passing and play action that proved successful earlier, the Browns' offense became predictable and impotent during the third quarter – and dangerously inept in the fourth.
Once Shurmur realized that the Browns had to start throwing the ball, the combination of weather and a leaky offensive line proved too much to overcome.
The Ghost of John St. Clair
Speaking of which, have you heard this one before?
A Browns right tackle gets continually beat by a more athletic defensive end.
Or, how about the one about Tony Pashos staying healthy?
Anyway, for the third year in a row – or perhaps the thirteenth – the premium placed on securing a quality right tackle in Cleveland has again skyrocketed. Pashos, who was scratched from the game with an ankle injury, was replaced by Artis Hicks and O'Neil Cousins – two recently signed free agent castoffs.
At times, Hicks proved successful – at least in terms of run blocking. During the Browns' first scoring drive, Hicks helped to open some holes for running back Montario Hardesty. However, Hicks struggled during on third downs in trying to gain a quick first step. Although Hicks' earlier performance did little more than crowd McCoy's otherwise clean pocket, his fourth quarter play proved devastating to the Browns' slim chances.
Against Carlos Dunlap, Hicks couldn't backpedal in time to catch up to the charging 6'6 second-year defensive end. Despite his best efforts, Hicks was simply overpowered in his attempts to grab a piece of Dunlap. The results were reminiscent of Denver's Elvis Dumervil's 2009 domination of John St. Clair – including that inevitable feeling of hopelessness that more sacks were coming.
But of course, no analysis of an expansion-age Browns team can be complete without a reference to an always shaky roster depth – one that offers inconvenient hints toward the future.
Reflecting a seemingly eternal truth, the Browns defense yet again wore out in the second half of a game. Much like the painful final month of the 2010 season, the Browns' defense simply tired in the face of a physical Bengal running attack. Of course, the preservation tactics enacted by the offense didn't help matters.
As for easy scapegoats, "The Huddle" has now become another unfortunate chapter of Browns' folklore. Yet, Sunday's game was not lost thanks to miscommunication and a quick snap. Instead, the Browns defense simply couldn't get off the field when it most needed to. Adding to the defense's dilemma were the continued second half respites by young defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin.
While both players turned in solid performances, neither was on the field for much of the late third and early fourth quarters. In Taylor and Rubin's place were Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering, which was a clear regression from the team's top two defensive linemen. Neither Paxson or Schaefering have the size to compete against NFL talent – which proved taxing to the likes of a winded Scott Fujita and over pursuant Jabaal Sheard.
That Same Old Feeling
For a few select moments on Sunday, everything recounted above didn't seem likely to occur. After the Browns survived a horrific plague of penalties and touchback-infused poor field position in the first quarter, the promise of Shurmur – and even that of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert – appeared to manifest itself on consecutive second quarter touchdown drives.
However, that lingering feeling of Browns dread – the kind that immediately pulses when things seem perfectly placed – returned as the Bengals continually punted away their second half possessions. Silently clinging to a soon to be lost momentum, the Browns simply couldn't shut the door on an opponent – one who can easily claim to be NFL brethren in agony.
And while familiar refrains of panic and dread are yet again sweeping across Browns Nation – much like last year, and the year before that, and so on – these results were probably to be expected. After all, the 2011 Browns are probably a more pure form of last year's mismatched crew of Mangini veterans and Heckert rookies.
And just like last year, the same problems still linger.