CLEVELAND - Butch Davis said the fans needed to be a factor if the Browns are to make a run at a playoff berth.
Several times in the week leading up to Sunday's visit by the Titans, the coach called out the Browns' faithful. He talked about how crowd noise can make a difference in a big game. He talked about how a hostile environment can make life difficult on a visiting team.
When gametime arrived, the Browns' fans were ready. The Browns were not.
Davis' team gave its fans little to get excited about in an embarrassing 31-15 loss to the Titans.
"It goes without saying how disappointed I am in not only the fact that we lost, but that we played so poorly," said Davis. "We started the game right off with a horrible mistake by fumbling the opening kickoff, giving them great field position and taking the crowd right out of the ballgame."
Quincy Morgan's fumble on the opening kickoff started a slide that ended with the Browns' worst performance of the season.
"It's the first time all year we did not play any of the phases of the ballgame particularly well," said Davis. "We gave the ball up on offense. We took sacks and just couldn't get anything really going. We turned the ball over on special teams. You just can't win games by playing the way we did."
The most discouraging factor in the loss was the play of the Browns' defense, which avoided giving up big plays in the team's 6-4 start.
"The Titans had a lot of big plays against us," said cornerback Daylon McCutcheon. "We hadn't given up plays like that all year. At the same time, we didn't make any big plays of our own, which is something we've done all season ... In our first 10 games, we played this same scheme and the sacks and interceptions would just come. In this game, we weren't getting to the quarterback, we weren't getting our hands on the ball in the secondary. Some days you are going to be on. Some days you are going to be off. We were really off."
In the season's first 10 games, the Browns recorded 29 sacks and forced 29 turnovers, including a league-high 25 interceptions. Against the Titans, the Browns failed to post a sack or create a turnover.
Instead, the Browns watched Steve McNair dominate the game through the air. In a little over one full half of action, the Titans' quarterback rolled up 244 passing yards while completing 11-of-17 passes. A big chunk of that yardage came on touchdown passes of 43 and 71 yards to Derrick Mason.
With the Browns shutting down Titans' running back Eddie George (23 carries, 51 yards), McNair knew it was up to the passing attack to pick up the slack.
"We had to put pressure on the passing game because the running game was struggling," said McNair, who missed most of the second quarter after Browns linebacker Jamir miller stepped on his arm. "Derrick Mason, Drew Bennett, and Kevin Dyson are doing a great job of catching the football and separating themselves from the defenders. When you have that and guys are wide open, it's easy to hit those guys."
"We didn't make any plays, and on top of that I had a couple chances where I could have at least knocked the ball down," said Fuller. "I went to make a play on (a 42-yard, first-quarter pass from McNair to Dyson), and it just didn't happen ... Teams know we are going to play an aggressive style of defense and they try to take advantage of that. We try to make plays, and we just didn't make them."
The 42-yard hookup between McNair and Dyson set up a 29-yard field goal by Joe Nedney that extended the Titans' lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter. The Titans built a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Eddie George and McNair's 43-yard scoring connection with Mason.
George's scoring run, which came just five plays after Morgan's fumble of the opening kickoff, was the first touchdown surrendered by the Browns in the first quarter all season. Not only did the Browns fall behind on George's touchdown run, they lost arguably their best defensive players when defensive end Courtney Brown suffered a high left ankle sprain.
The Browns' offense had just as much difficulty making plays as the defense. Tim Couch (17-of-26, 110 yards) gave the fans a glimmer of hope midway through the second quarter, engineering an 11-play, 61-yard drive that ended with his 10-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson. The score cut the Titans' lead to 17-7 with 5:57 left in the first half.
"We had one real spark to get it to 17-7 at halftime," said Davis. "We had a really promising, well-executed drive that we took down to score our only (first-half) touchdown. It was very efficient. We converted some third downs and we made a fourth-down conversion to keep the drive alive. It's disappointing that we don't make plays on a more consistent basis."
Overall, the Browns offense managed just 282 net yards. Most of that total came in the fourth quarter with backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb calling the signals. Holcomb closed the scoring with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Johnson.
With four of their final five games on the road, the Browns know their poor performance against the Titans was a big blow to their playoff hopes.
"We can't afford to have a game like this at home, not in the middle of a playoff race," said safety Devin Bush. "It's hard enough to win when you are playing on the road. You just can't go to the playoffs losing at home."
COURTNEY INJURES ANKLE
The Browns lost Courtney Brown on the game's sixth play when he suffered a high left ankle sprain trying to stuff Eddie George on his 1-yard touchdown run.
On the snap, Brown blew Titans' tackle Jason Mathews off the ball, forcing George to cut back to his right. As he cut back, George bumped Mathews, who fell back into second-year defensive end, doubling him over on his ankle.
With Brown out and rookie DeVone Claybrooks inactive, the Browns had just two defensive ends in uniform - Tyrone Rogers and Greg Spires.
According to linebacker Dwayne Rudd, losing Brown meant losing the team's best player.
"Courtney Brown is the best player on the team, period," said Rudd. "There isn't even a close second ... Because of injuries, he hasn't had a chance to really get going. He's good now, but some day he's going to really show the fans of Cleveland something. When he's not in there, it affects everyone."
Brown's knee was re-evaluated Monday morning. The team did not know how long the second-year defensive end would be out of the lineup. Brown missed the season's first six games with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament.
HOLCOMB GETS HIS CHANCE
Kelly Holcomb relieved a battered Tim Couch with 10:49 left in the third quarter and the Titans leading 31-7.
On his first snap at quarterback, Holcomb was flagged for a false start. If he seemed a little rusty at first, he should be excused. The 5-year veteran had not taken a snap in the NFL since 1997.
Holcomb managed to shake off the rust, completing his first pass attempt in four years - an 11-yard hookup with Quincy Morgan. In fact, Holcomb looked sharp, engineering three straight drives into the Red Zone.
"I had a little bit of success," said Holcomb. "I thought I threw the ball really well. I'm sure (the Titans) wanted us to run the ball so they could get out of here and get on a plane back to Tennessee. The good thing about it was that we as an offensive group did not quit. The guys kept playing, and I think that was a real positive.
A fumble Ben Gay at the Titans' 5-yard line kept the Browns from capping Holcomb's first drive with a score. A fourth-down scramble by Holcomb, who was stopped inside the 1, spoiled the second drive.
For Holcomb, who completed 7-of-12 passes for 114 yards, the third drive was the charm. With 1:23 left in the game, Holcomb tossed the second touchdown pass of his career, lofting a 20-yard pass to a wide open Kevin Johnson in the end zone.
"That meant a lot," said Holcomb. "I've always known I could play, but Tim is the quarterback of this team, and I'm the backup. I have to be ready when I'm called on. It was fun to have a chance to get out there and play."
FROST THE NEW "SLASH"?
The Browns may have found their own version of "slash" in Scott Frost.
The second-year safety, who was a college quarterback at Nebraska, lined up at quarterback, tight end and safety against the Titans.
In his first appearance on offense, Frost played the part of option-quarterback, flipping the ball to running back Ben Gay for a 6-yard gain. The play converted a 4th-and-1, continuing a 60-yard, second-quarter drive that ended with Tim Couch's 10-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson.
"We just started practicing (the option) this week," said Frost. "I think (the coaches) saw something with the Titans' defense and thought the option would be able to work. We came up big on the first one, but they played it pretty well on the second one."
On the second option run late in the fourth quarter, Frost kept the ball, but was stopped for a 1-yard gain at the Titans 2.
Lining up at tight end on the same drive, Frost dropped back-to-back of passes from Kelly Holcomb in the end zone.
"As a defensive player, you don't get a lot of chances for those, and I would love to have them back," said Frost. "But we have more important issues and that is playing better as a team."