Even though there is a chance he might not ultimately be the quarterback in the Browns' offensive future, Derek Anderson passed an important litmus test Sunday in Baltimore as the season spiraled closer to its abysmal conclusion.
Sure, the Browns completed a winless season against the AFC North. Sure, Anderson was intercepted twice, fumbled once and was 0-for-11 on third down in the loss to the Ravens. And sure, he hung Joe Jurevicius and Jason Wright out to dry and was sacked five times.
But there was something different about the Cleveland offense against the Ravens on this afternoon. There wasn't an "I wonder what will go wrong next" feeling whenever the Browns had the ball.
The Ravens threw a lot of crap at Anderson and, for the most part, he handled it well in just his second start as a pro. On three of his sacks, Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan cued the eight-man blitzkrieg and Anderson had absolutely no chance. Had no time to even set up.
Should he have seen it coming and looked for his hot receiver? Probably. But that'll come with more games under his belt and when he gets more familiar with his receivers.
Two sacks could be blamed on indecision and one was a direct result of solid Baltimore coverage in the secondary.
And yet, Anderson has not convinced his head coach, who might be on a slipperier peel than his quarterback. "He still threw some interceptions and missed some guys and got trapped into sacks trying to make a play," Romeo Crennel said following the game. "And that's not good enough."
Throwing 13 straight completions against that defense not good enough? I suppose not if you're a bottom-line guy. But to pin this loss on Anderson, even obliquely, is foolish.
Crennel wasn't nearly as harsh on Charlie Frye after his second start as a pro. "The young kid, Charlie, did a pretty decent job overall," the coach said after the Bengals beat the Browns in Cincinnati last season on a field goal in the final seconds. "He handled himself well in situations where he was in trouble. He was able to get out of trouble and maintain his cool."
I guess it wasn't good enough that Anderson, who made just one bad throw in 32 attempts, was a key factor in the Browns catching up to the Ravens at 17-17 in the third quarter. In scoring two touchdowns on long scoring drives in the middle two quarters against one of the best defenses in the National Football League, the Browns never had a third down. In 15 plays, they had only four second downs.
That's it. That's the secret. Stay out of third-down situations and convert second downs. Once the Browns get to third down, odds on succeeding fall dramatically.
The third-down play calling of Jeff Davidson is the chief culprit here. On all 11 third downs, Davidson called for a pass even though four were of the short-yardage variety – two of one yard and two of two yards. Two resulted in sacks when Ryan, channeling his daddy's hell-bent approach to defense, dialed up his kitchen-sink pass rush.
So far, Anderson has proved he is the anti-Frye. He looks more confident, doesn't rattle nearly as often and generally makes smart decisions. He looks like a quarterback.
Happy feet? Not those size 17s.
He isn't afraid to throw to a spot before his receiver makes his break and trusts his receiver will arrive at that spot just as the ball gets there. That's what most good passers do.
That's what got Anderson into trouble against the Ravens. His third-quarter throw, intended for Braylon Edwards but picked off by Chris McAlister, was right on money. Only problem was Edwards rounded off his route instead of cutting it off. The ball was in the right place. Edwards allowed McAlister to get there first.
Frye isn't capable of making throws like that. He doesn't trust himself or the receiver. He waits for the receiver to make the break before unloading the ball.
Frye also can't make the kind of play Anderson made on the touchdown throw to Edwards that lifted the Browns to the tie midway through the third quarter. On that one, Anderson play-faked, pumped left and threw a 14-yard strike to his wide receiver running the opposite direction in the end zone.
After watching Anderson for two-plus games now, Frye can't help but be more than a little concerned that his erstwhile backup appears to have more chops to play the position on a regular basis.
The fair-haired golden boy of the Browns, the kid from Willard, the quarterback a lot of fans desperately wanted to succeed now might have a rather sizable fight to reclaim his starting job.
When history examines the 2006 Cleveland Browns, it won't look on Anderson as harshly as it will on Frye. And that's a bit unfair because Frye was rushed onto the field before he was ready to play. Anderson was ready.
Even though the first shots have not been officially fired, the controversy that is Frye vs. Anderson is heating up and in the offseason could become as controversial as Couch vs. Holcomb.
But still, that's not why the Browns lost this game, Crennel's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
No, blame this one in large part on the defense, which repeatedly failed to deliver the big play, gave up three big ones (including the 77-yard tiebreaker) and has achieved total collapse in the last five games, allowing 133 points in the last 17 quarters. To put that in perspective, the Browns' defense allowed 187 points in the first 39 quarters of the season.
A strong contributor to that stat and even more telling is the club's inability to stop the opponent on third down. In the last five games, the opposition has successfully converted 39 of 70 third downs. That's shameful.
The litany remains the same.
Can't stop the run. Can't rush the quarterback. Can't get off the field on third down. Can't create enough turnovers for the offense.
And there's only a shred or two of evidence that it's getting any better.
If offensive and defensive linemen are not high on his agenda when Phil Savage takes his seat in the war room in Berea for the NFL college draft next April, then he is being seriously derelict in his duties as general manager of the Browns.
This time, he should not rely on the wishes of his coaches and scouts. He has to make up his own mind based on what he sees and what he believes.
He's got to trust his instincts. That's what got him to where he is right now.