Beautiful. Just beautiful.
The weather set the tone for an unusual and special game against the Miami Dolphins in Cleveland today, as the Browns shut out Nick Saban's club, 22-0. Underneath the clear and sunny Cleveland skies, Reuben Droughns started things in excellent fashion with a powerful seventy-five yard run on the Browns first play from scrimmage following an initial three-and-out by the Dolphins.
Droughns, who wound up with 166 yards on the day, took a hand-off from QB Trent Dilfer at the Browns 25-yard line and rolled to his right behind Ryan Tucker and Cosey Coleman. Cutting back across the field after the line of scrimmage, Droughns out-ran the Dolphins front seven and rambled nearly fifty yards before having to dodge the grasp of CB Sam Madison. Droughns headed towards the left sideline as Madison caught up to him downfield. Rather than running out of bounds, Droughns suddenly planted, and juked his way past Madison to the end zone.
With a minute and thirty-three seconds gone in the game, the Browns suddenly found themselves up 7-0, an unexpected position for a team whose conservative offensive strategy and red zone issues have led to many struggles getting the ball in the end zone.
After Droughns set the tone, the home team did not let up. Not even a rare missed extra point by K Phil Dawson could slow down the Browns.
The Dolphins second offensive series under substitute quarterback Sage Rosenfels was even less successful than their initial three-play drive. After allowing an 11-yard run by Ronnie Brown, the Browns pressured the Dolphins QB into throwing up a tremendous mistake pass intended for WR Marty Booker. LB Matt Stewart, who dropped back in coverage, broke to the ball and picked off the pass at the Browns forty.
Keyed by a twenty-eight yard pass to Antonio Bryant, the Browns took advantage of the turnover to push to the Dolphins five, ultimately settling for a Phil Dawson field goal which put them up 9-0.
The Dolphins made their most focused comeback attempt immediately after getting the ball back following Dawson's field goal. Wisely opting out of Rosenfels' mistake-prone passing, running plays by the powerful RB two-some of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown carried Miami to the Browns 28-yard line. It appeared that the close contest many had predicted was going to come to pass.
The Browns running defense, which keyed the team's first shutout of the Crennel era, then solidified. Runs by Brown and Williams netted only five yards on two plays, forcing the Dolphins into a third-and-five passing situation. On Rosenfels' first pass, it appeared that he had completed a 23-yard touchdown route to TE Randy McMichael, only to have the score overturned and the ball moved back ten yards due to an illegal touch on the part of McMichaels. Rosenfels then took the Dolphins five yards further back on the next play, and out of field goal position, by losing five yards on a pass to Sammy Morris.
With the 9-0 lead and shutout preserved at the end of the first quarter, Browns fans got a chance to finally see rookie QB Charlie Frye play in a regular season game.
While Romeo Crennel had suggested the Frye would be given an opportunity to play if the Browns had a three-score lead, he saw an chance to get Frye into the game against the sputtering Dolphins.
"We talked about getting Charlie a series or two in the second half of the season", Crennel told the media after the game. "Today we thought it was a good time to go ahead and get him a couple series to see what he could do and get his feet wet."
Regular starter Trent Dilfer wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about Frye's opportunity. In a brusque and uncharacteristically short set of comments to the media, an emotional Dilfer emphasized the importance of a quarterback's rhythm and his strong disagreement with rotating quarterbacks.
In his first series of downs, Frye showed an intriguing mix of potential and rookie mistakes as he marched the Browns to a field goal while put them up 12-0. On one hand, Frye looked impressive on a couple of quick passes to TE Steve Heiden. More impressive still was a scramble when his protection broke down on a first-and-ten at the Browns 45. Rolling to his right, Frye initially stumbled, but picked himself back up, continued his roll out and planted in traffic. Fifteen yards downfield, the Browns rookie found the team's first-round choice, WR Braylon Edwards, who took to the air to pull down the pass.
Fans couldn't help but groan a bit as Frye made a rookie mistake downfield to Braylon Edwards which came close to being picked off. The wobbly pass, thrown under pressure, fell harmlessly through the hands of cornerback Sam Madison. Frye recovered nicely, however, and took the Browns down to the 23 to set up another Phil Dawson field goal.
During the second half, the Browns continued their dominance of the error-prone Dolphins. Starting with the opening kickoff at their own eighteen, a mix of conservative passes and steady Droughns running allowed the Browns to drive to the Miami 40, aided along the way by a defensive pass interference penalty on Sam Madison.
Another penalty, having twelve men on the field on an excellent Kyle Richardson punt, cost the Dolphins even more. With new life, the Browns gained an additional first down and burned another two minutes off the clock before having to give the ball back to Miami. By the time the Dolphins finally got their offensive unit onto the field, there was only a little more than eight minutes left in the third quarter.
The Dolphins offense responded their opportunity by throwing twice in three plays, yielding another three-and-out for Miami.
The ensuing punt created a rare sight for Browns fans. On a day when nearly everything went right, the most unexpected event of the day was next.
Punt returner Dennis Northcutt took a nice 46-yard punt at the Browns thirty-five yard line and squirted through a hole in the wedge to the left side of the field, ultimately heading to the Browns sideline before being pushed out by Dolphins punter Donnie Jones at the Miami 28.
Even a close examination of the field by disbelieving fans and media could not turn up a yellow flag, meaning that Northcutt's excellent run would stand.
The Browns took advantage of the ensuing shock on the part of all concerned to march the remaining 28 yards to the end zone, capped by a stunning one-hand grab by fullback Terrelle Smith in the end zone, which put the home team up 19-0.
S Chris Crocker then answered the Browns offense by ending Sage Rosenfels day thanks to an interception of a pass intended for WR Chris Chambers at the Browns 47-yard line. Crocker, who played one of his best games of the year, took the ball to the Miami 42 before being tackled by Ronnie Brown.
After adding a Phil Dawson field goal to end the third quarter, the Browns defense rallied to preserve the shutout for Crennel and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
The Dolphins tried to respond by swapping in regular starting QB Gus Frerotte for the inept Rosenfels, but the somewhat hobbled Dolphins starter wasn't much more successful than his predecessor, and began by throwing four incomplete passes.
While Frerotte was able to manage a sustained drive in the middle of the fourth period that went to Cleveland's eleven-yard line, Nick Saban decided to go for the end zone rather than an easy field goal. Oft-maligned nickel back Ray Mickens kept the Dolphins off the scoreboard by breaking up a pass intended for Marty Booker.
The Dolphins had one more chance to score with three minutes remaining thanks to a 39-yard pass from Frerotte to Bryan Gilmore, which took the Dolphins to the Cleveland seven-yard line. Again, Grantham's defense rallied to preserve the shutout, with stiff quarterback pressure and tight coverage resulting in three straight incompletions from Gus Frerotte.
As a mostly full Cleveland Browns Stadium watched the clock tick down, a beautiful day began to fade into darkness. With the 4-6 Browns winners by a final score of 22-0, the future looked as sunny and bright as an unexpected clear day in late November.