Lost Opportunities, Opening Loss

Ineffectiveness in the red zone resulted in a 9-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in a mistake-filled opening game for the Browns on Sunday. Art Bietz provides a recap of the game...

Back in ancient times, which to my children means the 1970s, Saturday Night Live ruled the weekend airwaves. One frequent skit was "Bad Theatre", a show hosted by Leonard Pinth-Garnell (Dan Ackroyd) where inept stage productions were displayed and invariably shut down by Mr. Ackroyd's character declaring: "That was truly bad. Awful. Almost unbearably putrid".

While there were hopeful moments for the Browns on Sunday, most notably on defense, Mr. Pinth-Garnell would have fit right in with the Browns red-zone offense on Sunday, where the team let opportunities pass them by repeatedly en route to a 9-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Mike Vanderjagt officially won the game with one second remaining by kicking a 44-yard field goal.

Unofficially, the Colts won when they twice stopped the Browns from scoring touchdowns on first-and-goal opportunities from inside the five yard line.

In the early going, it appeared that the display of offensive firepower predicted by most NFL pundits would come to pass. The Colts took the opening kickoff and marched effectively down to the Browns two-yard line, and were poised to score on their initial drive.

Then, the unexpected happened.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw the first of two interceptions as he attempted to force the ball to TE Marcus Pollard. Browns linebacker Kevin Bentley grabbed the pass two yards deep in his own end zone and rumbled out to the Colts 23 yard line.

Following the turnover, the Browns mounted their own long drive. The Browns first shot at the ends zone came at the end of that drive as a 21-yard Kelly Holcomb to Kevin Johnson completion pushed the Browns to the Colts 11 yard line. Following a neutral zone infraction by the Colts and a five-yard run by William Green,  the Browns found themselves with a first-and-goal from the Colts one.

The Browns tried two runs to the right side by Green and had a pass batted away before it could reach an open Steve Heiden in the end zone. Playing it safe, Head Coach Butch Davis elected to kick a field goal to make the score Browns 3, Colts 0.

The Browns ran primarily to the right side all afternoon long. Out of 21 runs by William Green, only three were to the left side, where Barry Stokes and Melvin Fowler were adjusting to new roles following the season-ending injury to Ross Verba.

Poor decision-making by quarterback Kelly Holcomb led to a tying Colts field goal prior to the half. Throwing into tight coverage on WR Dennis Northcutt with less than two minutes left to play, Holcomb was picked off by Colts CB Nicholas Harper giving the Colts possession on the Browns 44. Peyton Manning gave it right back, however, tossing an interception to linebacker Ben Taylor as he attempted to connect with RB Edgerrin James.

With the clock ticking down towards halftime, Holcomb attempted to force another pass. This time Holcomb's target was TE Steve Heiden, who was well-covered. Once again the pass was intercepted by Harper, who this time ran the pick-off back to the Browns ten. Fortunately, the Colts were no more effective than the Browns at converting the scoring opportunity, which yielded only a short Vanderjagt field goal. Colts 3, Browns 3.

Browns play-calling turned conservative in the second-half, and Bruce Arians attempted to assert the team's running attack, running William Green right-tackle on five of the first six offensive plays. The ground-game halted at the Indianapolis 40, after which time Manning and James led the Colts on a 57 yard drive which yielded a go-ahead field goal, Colts 6, Browns 3.

After the ensuing kick-off, the Browns mixed the run and the pass effectively and moved the ball against the Colts defense. Starting from their own twelve, the Browns ran William Green to the right and Kelly Holcomb completed passes to five different receivers. The long drive provided the Browns with another first-and-goal opportunity from the three yard line.

Again, however, the Browns were unable to punch the ball into the end zone.

Two William Green runs netted only a single yard and Kelly Holcomb and Green were out-of-sync on an attempted swing pass. Again being conservative, Davis called for the field goal unit once more and the score was tied at six with a little over eight minutes to play. Colts 6, Browns 6.

Following an exchange of punts, the Colts had the ball back on their own eight with a little over two minutes left.

With the experienced Manning at the helm, the Colts were able to effectively execute their two-minute offense. Taking what the defense gave him between five and fifteen yards, Manning fired ten consecutive passes out of the shotgun, completing eight, and took the Colts all the way down to the Browns 27 yard-line, where Vanderjagt kicked the winning field goal. Colts 9, Browns 6.

Despite the Colts effectiveness in their game-winning drive, Butch Davis was happy with the way his defense played, particularly the young linebacking corps.

"I've told people for five or six months that those people are not going to be the weak link of this football team.", Davis told reporters, "They're smart. They're instinctive... Indianapolis threw a ton of stuff at them today. They moved Marvin Harrison around. They moved Edgerrin (James) out of the backfield and did everything they could to confuse those guys. They held up pretty well."

After the game, both players and coaches expressed their frustration with being unable to score inside the red zone.

"It's very frustrating.", WR Kevin Johnson offered, "We just have to keep our heads high and hopefully come back next week and beat Baltimore."

"Obviously it's a disappointment having two first-and-goal [chances] inside the three yard line and having to settle for field goals.", Butch Davis told reporters, "It makes it extraordinarily difficult to try to win when you have situations like that and can't capitalize on them."

The Browns now look forward to the Baltimore Ravens, who were soundly beaten by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

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