A third-string quarterback getting his second start of the season. The former starter, concussed, and maybe not even in town. A safety playing cornerback. A multi-million dollar receiver (yet again) a healthy scratch, while a former quarterback converted to the position attempts to play a bigger role. And the Pittsburgh Steelers are in town. Yes, it sure sounds like Week 17 for the Cleveland Browns.
Even though the Steelers made mistakes—including two interceptions thrown by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a fumble lost by receiver Antonio Brown—the Browns made more. Austin Davis had two interceptions of his own and the team turned it over four times. The Browns converted a mere four of their 16 third downs and were zero-for-five in the red zone. Field goals were all they could muster—four of them, to be exact—in the 28-12 loss that brought Cleveland’s record to 3-13 on the season. They were 7-9 to close 2014.
Nothing worked. The Browns offense averaged a measly 3.5 yards per play—3.3 passing and 3.7 rushing. Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense marched down the field at will, with 349 of their 379 yards earned by passing. Davis was sacked seven times. The team’s leading receiver in the game, tight end Gary Barnidge, had only 66 yards on the day. While the Browns had the opportunity to spoil the Steelers’ playoff hopes, instead things went much as they have when these two teams meet to close out the year—with a Browns loss.
And now another fate seems certain for the Browns after the loss—the customary tradition of ditching coaches and the general manager for someone(s) new. As of this writing (late Sunday afternoon), nothing had yet been made official about head coach Mike Pettine’s fate, nor his staff’s. General manager Ray Farmer was fired on Sunday morning fired on Sunday morning according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. But the writing has been on the wall for a while. Pettine is 10-22 as the team’s head coach, and has presided over 10 losses in their last 11 games. Farmer, meanwhile, has whiffed on draft picks and free agency signings—most notably in the latter category, the big-money contract given receiver Dwayne Bowe—and the two men have created rifts in the organization not warranting either keeping their jobs.
Even a win over the Steelers would not have likely changed the situation. But another 7-9 season would have. And now the much-sought after continuity the Browns have so desperately needed since 1999 seems again destined to be a goal reached at some later date, to be determined. And as it’s taken its toll on the Cleveland fanbase, so has it for the Browns players, most notably left tackle Joe Thomas who said after the game that he “no longer certain,” he’d like to remain with the team, citing “too much uncertainty.” https://twitter.com/scottpetrak/status/683768154640793601
And there’s no doubt that the younger players, those brought aboard at Pettine’s and Farmer’s request, have questions of their own about their respective futures in Cleveland and in the NFL. The reverberations of not just Sunday’s loss, but all of them, echo into every corner of the team’s roster. Losing to Pittsburgh in Week 17 was not the Browns’ biggest loss of the season. But the losses to follow—the loss of the coaching, the continuity, of players’ trust and of the fans’ loyalty—will make it all but forgotten in a few days’ or even hours’ time. Cleveland’s season is over but the intrigue has only just begun.