Rich's Rant: A Distinctly Familiar Aroma

Rich Passan has never been known as a man exceedingly tolerant of bad football. He shows that tendency again today.

It began with Braylon Edwards and ended with Braylon Edwards.

In between, the 2006 edition of the Cleveland Browns, at first blush, doesn't look a whole lot different than the 2005 bunch that was 6-10.

Some of the faces were different. But the results, if their performance in Game 1 of the new season against the New Orleans Saints is any barometer, remain the same.

From the 74-yard touchdown pass to Edwards that wasn't on the opening play of the game to the pass that slithered through Edwards' hands and settled into the waiting arms of Saints safety Josh Bullocks in the final minute, this one had a distinctly familiar aroma: Acrid.

The long afternoon was fraught with the same kind of mistakes and breakdowns that hampered the team last season. If it wasn't a penalty at the wrong time (Kevin Shaffer's tackle of Saints defensive end Will Smith on the Edwards "touchdown" was the most egregious, followed closely by Cosey Coleman's hold on a Joe Jurevicius 20-yard reception), it was a poorly thrown pass by quarterback Charlie Frye.

If it wasn't a dropped pass by Dennis Northcutt, it was the defense dishing out some of the same-old, same-old against the run. If it wasn't a poor Dave Zastudil punt (his 16-yarder in the second quarter conjured up fond memories of Derrick Frost and Kyle Richardson), it was poor tackling.

If it wasn't some bizarre playcalling by offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon (quick pitch to a rookie fullback on third and inches at the New Orleans 45 in the first quarter that resulted in a slight loss), it was the inability to come up with a big play on defense. If it wasn't the offensive line seriously underachieving (five Saints sacks and only 85 yards rushing) . . .

It was a litany of mistakes. Interceptions, fumbles, penalties. The grand trifecta.

One right after another. Just enough to lose a game they had no business losing.

Not to mention Romeo Crennel's strange decision to decline an illegal formation penalty early in the first quarter and allow John Carney to kick a 43-yard field goal. Acceptance of the penalty would have forced a third and 12 at the Cleveland 32. Crennel must not have trusted his defense.

It was football's version of Murphy's Law. What can go wrong will go wrong. All you had to do was wait and the Browns would self-destruct. They didn't disappoint.

If this had happened against a better team, the final score wouldn't have been nearly as close and the Browns wouldn't have had a chance to win in the final two minutes.

So where was the improved defense against the run? For the most part, Saints center Jeff Faine performed well enough to neutralize Browns nose tackle Ted Washington. Even without a fullback, both of whom were injured in the game, the Saints punctured hole after hole in the Browns' defensive line, which got handled to the tune of 150 yards.

If this is any indication of how the Browns are going to stop the run this season, it's going to be a long and hard road with the likes of Rudi Johnson (on deck this Sunday in Cincinnati), Jamal Lewis and Lamont Jordan dead ahead. Not to mention LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker, Lewis (again), Rudi Johnson (again) and whatever Denver throws at them down that road.

And where was the improved pass rush? Where were Willie McGinest and Kamerion Wimbley? Drew Brees was clean all afternoon. Zero sacks.

The defense had a chance to redeem itself in the fourth quarter after the Browns pulled to within 16-14. But it allowed the Saints to bleed nearly six minutes off the clock en route to a field goal that removed the possibility of a game-winning field goal. Couldn't get off the field. Sound familiar?

The offense looked sluggish, almost disinterested in the first half. Fifty-six yards in six possessions and 43 of those yards came on the final drive, which was aborted when Frye and Jerome Harrison couldn't execute a simple handoff deep in Saints territory with time running down.

Six possessions, five three-and-outs. Brilliant.

The Saints put eight men in the box and effectively shut down the Browns' running game. Dared Frye to beat them. And when Frye dropped back to throw, he had to run for his life just about every time and wound up as the team's leading rusher.

It's pretty sad when the top ground gainer is the quarterback with 44 yards on six carries. Make that six scrambles.

Some might claim that the Saints didn't really win the game; the Browns lost it. That's only partially true because the Browns had a great chance to win the game in the final two minutes when they had the ball at midfield and the Saints hanging on.

But they failed to make the big play when it counted the most. Perhaps they are incapable.

As a disgusted Crennel said following the game, "When the regular season starts, the intensity goes up and we didn't turn it up."

Why not? Hopefully, that's a question Phil Savage would like to know the answer to.

In a season that presents a much tougher schedule than last season, the Browns had a chance to get off on the right foot against one of the teams it should beat. The Saints are among the dregs of the National Football League.

They are the plug-uglies of the rugged NFC South and a sure-fire candidate for the division basement. But they played like anything but that against the Browns Sunday.

Sure, it's only one game. But it's one of the games on the schedule that you looked at when it first came out and said, "Well, at least they'll win this one."

Here were are just a game into the new season and it's already safe to say the Browns are a team looking longingly for a direction. The right direction. Any direction.

They are wallowing aimlessly in a sea of mediocrity. And that's being kind because they might not be capable of rising to mediocre status.

To be fair, there were some positives that came out of this one. Sean Jones intercepting a pass and recovering a fumble; Kellen Winslow Jr. finally showing why the Browns drafted him; Leigh Bodden shutting down Saints wideout Joe Horn. Washington and Andra Davis making key stops behind the line of scrimmage.

But they were far outweighed by the parade of mistakes by a team that was not well prepared to play, to win.

So who gets the blame? Three guesses and the first two don't count.

Here's a clue: He doesn't wear a uniform.


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