A Star-Crossed Season

Veteran sports columnist Rich Passan takes a look at the Browns most recent loss, and wonders if the Browns are somehow star-crossed. More thoughts on the 2004 from a sports journalist who has shared post-game trauma with Browns fans through-out the expansion era and before...

There are a variety of ways to lose a football game. The Browns, those lovable stepchildren of the National Football League, found another improbable way Sunday night in Baltimore.

In fact, they found two as they dropped to 3-5 and, for all practical purposes, lowered the curtain on any hopes of reaching the postseason.

A seven-yard punt? Pathetic. An NFL-record 106-yard interception return? Worse.

The Browns, if nothing else, are entertaining . . . and laughable. And they used one of television's grand stages, ESPN's Sunday Night Football, to display their latest collapse.

A lot of NFL fans around the world saw what a growing number of us already knew: The Browns are a star-crossed team. When winning is on the horizon, this crew takes sharp left turns. It's as though winning is an anathema.

Every now and then, they reach down and pull out a game they have no business winning. More often than not, what happened Sunday night against the Ravens is more inevitable.

When the Browns were driving for what would have been a game-tying touchdown in the final minutes, you probably were excited and actually thought this one was headed to overtime.

And when Antonio Bryant caught the third-and-nine slant pass from Jeff Garcia, whose extraordinary performance placed the Browns in that position, you were certain OT was dead ahead. First-and-goal at the five-yard line. Lee Suggs, a touchdown machine in college, was in the game.

What could go wrong? What in the world could go wrong?

There's that word. Wrong. Repress those thoughts. Block them out.

Uh-oh. Too late.

There were no timeouts left. Memo to Butch Davis: Timeouts are not overrated. They are to be cherished and used wisely.

Still, there was plenty of time to tie this baby. Garcia, playing with passion, was on a roll.

Only these are the 2004 Browns. Optimism comes in thimblefuls.

Red Right 88 crept into your thoughts, didn't they? So did The Fumble in Denver. Images of The Drive.

Fact is, the Browns had screwed it up a few minutes earlier when the special teams, which had played so well all evening, gift-wrapped the Ravens' go-ahead touchdown with a seven-yard punt from the end zone. A 21-foot punt? What in the name of Chris Gardocki was that? So much for the Derrick Frost fan club.

The Browns played "Can You Top This?" in one stunning, disbelieving flash. Garcia flipped a short pass toward tight end Aaron Shea at the goal line with the ubiquitous Ray Lewis hanging on for dear life.

Shea was open for an instant. His hands were on the ball. Then they weren't.

As Shea vainly made the popular he-interfered-with-me arm signal to the nearest official, Baltimore safety Ed Reed scraped the Browns' hopes for a tie off the grass top six yards deep in the end zone and trampled them with a 106-yard touchdown journey to the Browns' end zone.

Lewis was clinging to Shea, sure. But Shea should have caught that pass. It was in his hands.

That's what happens to star-crossed teams.

Browns fans are accustomed to disappointment. Too accustomed. And it stinks. It feels awful. Puts knots in your belly.

This time, though, it was worse. This latest punch to the midsection was delivered by the team Browns fans most want their team to beat. No, not Pittsburgh. And definitely not Cincinnati.

It's Baltimore. Art Modell's Ravens. And even though Modell no longer has any financial affiliation with the Ravens, this is – and always will be – the team that used to be called the Cleveland Browns.

He stole this team from you. Never forget that.

A loss like this hurts even more because the defense played so well all evening. Certainly well enough to win if not for the early ineptitude of the offense.

In a replay of the first four games of the season, the defense kept the Browns in the game while the offense wheezed and stumbled for the better part of three quarters.

Defensive coordinator Dave Campo's game plan was very simple. Stop Jamal Lewis and force Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller to make plays. It worked in the season opener at the Stadium. And it almost worked Sunday night.

Stacking nine and sometimes 10 men in the box is a prescription for disaster in the NFL. But the Browns made it work against Lewis, and Boller was only moderately effective against it.

To win this one, the Ravens needed a break. A big break. They got two.

Ravens coach Brian Billick, normally a worrisome sort, looked calm on his sideline. Why? Because he knew the Browns would self destruct. Somehow, some way, they would blow this one.

But not even Billick could predict the bizarre fashion in which they did.

A seven-yard punt from their end zone? Calling Rod Serling.

An interception returned 106 yards the other way? Billick must be into witchcraft.

The Browns played hard and their efforts went unrewarded. It will be interesting to see how this loss affects them psychologically. What better team to find out against than the best team in the NFL.

Davis should have no problem getting his men ready for a second crack at Steelers rookie Ben Roethlisberger Sunday afternoon. Then again, after what happened in Baltimore, do the star-crossed Browns really care?

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