Passan: Excitement, By Mistake

Rich Passan has been following the Browns for a long time, and has earned the right to ask for a single game where his nerves aren't frayed. He didn't get it this Sunday, and offers his thoughts on why he was denied a relaxing fourth quarter...

It didn't have to be that close, that exciting, that heart-pounding. It really didn't.

It should have been a relative romp. It should have been the kind of game where your nerves are at parade rest early in the fourth quarter.

You know, the kind of game where you kick back and smile, the kind that makes you wonder where these guys have been for most of the season.

But no-o-o-o-o, the Browns don't win games like that. They aren't good enough yet to deliver knockout blows. They take the routine and inject it with a healthy dose of excitement.

And wonderment.

Yes, the Browns beat Tennessee Sunday at CBS. Big whoop. Yes, the offense looked a lot better. Bigger whoop.

Hard to get excited about a victory they tried to give away.

The Browns beat one of the worst teams with one of the worst defenses in the National Football League. They should have rolled over the self-destructing Titans, a shadow of the solid Jeff Fisher teams of the last decade. The Titans looked so inept, one would have thought the Browns had switched uniforms.

It wasn't as though the Titans didn't try. They deserved style points for a couple of gadget plays in punting situations, but the points far outweighed the execution. A penalty and poorly thrown pass took care of them.

The Browns actually looked good at the onset of the fourth quarter with a 20-7 lead. (With an effort like that against Detroit a couple of weeks ago and Houston last week, the Browns would be 5-3 today instead of 3-5.) The defense had locked down Steve McNair and his offense and just forced a three-and-out. Time to give the defense a well-deserved rest.

Thirteen minutes remained in the game. Time for a nice, long, time-consuming drive, right? Time for the fans at home to relax, grab an extra brew and enjoy. The Titans were ready to be put away. After all, they hadn't stopped Reuben Droughns most of the afternoon. Why change now?

And the fact the ball was so deep in Cleveland territory – thanks to (surprise!) another punt-return penalty – dictated that traveling on the ground seemed the best way to seal this one.

The offensive line had worn down the tired Titans' defensive front. So why not beat 'em up even more? Punish them. Time for the vaunted smash-mouth attack to take over and put the Titans out of their misery.

One more touchdown or field goal and this one was safely in the column on the left.

So can anyone explain why offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon called for two straight pass plays at the beginning of the drive? What in the world was he thinking?

OK, so both were completed for a stunning total of THREE yards. The clock moved, but the sideline markers remained almost stationary. A short Droughns run on third-and-long fell well short.

Even if the passing plays are successful, why is he even thinking of throwing the ball?

Let's try and tap into the mind of Carthon, the neophyte play-caller. He (a) tried to fool the Titans' defense by boldly throwing the ball; (b) figured Trent Dilfer needed to pad his stats; (c) felt sorry for the opposition and tried to put some excitement back into the game; or (d) calls plays on whims.

Just like that, rest time over the Cleveland defense and it was back on the field wondering what the hell happened. New life was breathed back into the Titans, who took advantage and crept to within six points midway through the final quarter.

To Carthon's credit, he dipped into the imagination files for a couple of nice plays on the next drive even though it stalled. Solid calls on a low-risk, high-percentage shovel pass for 15 yards to newcomer Jason Wright on a third-and-7 followed immediately by a well-executed double reverse that enabled Dennis Northcutt to tack on another 31 yards.

Three-and-a-half minutes remained. Anxiety levels began to rise. What will go wrong now, some thought. How are they going to screw up this one?

That's the kind of thinking Browns fans conjure up these days. Small wonder, given the performance of this team thus far.

The nervousness intensified when Phil Dawson's victory-sealing 30-yard field goal in the final minute was wiped out by a holding penalty on Steve Heiden and the capricious winds at CBS blew Dawson's subsequent 40-yard attempt wide right.

Nothing comes easy for this team.

It all became moot, of course, when Brodney Pool picked off that McNair pass just shy of the Cleveland goal line on the final play of the game.

But it didn't have to be that way. It didn't have to come down to that. All this would have been avoided with smarter coaching.

Just another day at the well of anxiety and frustration.

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