The Browns have been back in Cleveland for 10 years. Each of those seasons, they have opened at home. The Browns have sent the fans home happy just once.
The Cowboys are one of the better teams in the NFL. The Browns, while anointed media darlings in the offseason, have yet to prove they are in that category. In fact, this game did a lot to disprove it. Let's briefly review what happened, then look into why it happened.
Let's start with what went right. The offensive line played well against a very tough Dallas front. Derek Anderson rarely felt pressure from a tough Dallas pass rush. While the running game was inconsistent, I chalk some of that up to trying to run at the strength of the defense at times. I think early on, the Browns were trying to gauge if they could run up the middle or not. Unfortunately, it was mostly not. Holes were there sometimes, though, and there was some success. An early screen pass was run very nicely by the line and led to a 14-yard gain.
Despite many saying Jamal Lewis was a step slow, you cannot fault him for his effort. I felt he set an example and was playing hard to the very last possession.
Derek Anderson was rusty, but he still made some great throws. In true Derek Anderson style, though, his inability to throw on target cost the Browns some plays. For example, a seam pass to Steve Heiden in the second half would've moved the chains if it had been on target at all. Browns receivers were open much of the day.
Kellen Winslow had an excellent first half. He was reliable and consistent. Heiden made a great catch to convert a third-and-one play.
Jason Wright had an excellent change-of-pace run near the goal line. In their first game action, both Steve Sanders and Syndric Steptoe made catches. Steptoe made a very heads-up play to recover and advance a fumble.
Braylon Edwards, though, had a terrible game. Let's move past the obvious dropped passes, but he lined up wrong, jumped offside, you name it. I was left wondering if the big drop took him out of the game. He's going to have to learn to shake off a bad play, though that drop was a play that simply has to be made. This was very disappointing. I am going to be watching closely to see if Edwards can bounce back.
Once again, when quickness might have helped, the Browns left Jerome Harrison on the sidelines except for one busted screen play in the second half.
I've yet to hear what happened on the botched snap at the beginning of the game. This was inexcusable. The Browns were moving the ball. If they go on to score even three points on that series, the game might have unfolded very differently. A confidence builder early can do big things for a team's psyche.
The Browns supposedly improved the defense in the offseason. It sure didn't look that way. This looked like a warmed-over rehash of 2006.
Before panning the defense completely, though, I thought Shaun Rogers did well. Robaire Smith made an occasional play. While I'll grant that Corey Williams was largely invisible, the 3-4 is about the linemen eating up blocks.
It was the second line of defense that was, well, horrendous. About the only one of them I can be positive about is Andra Davis. He was active and around the ball. But even his performance was marred by dropping two potential interceptions. The first, right before halftime, would have been a momentum changer. Instead, Dallas scored to go up 21-7.
The rest of the linebackers were completely ineffective. Willie McGinest did not make plays and the one he had a chance to make, he missed. That led to a first down. I'll grant that Kamerion Wimbley was going up against one of the best linemen in the NFL, but when he made a tackle in the second half, it was like it was surprising that he actually was in on a play. D'Qwell Jackson was awful despite leading the team in tackles. He's never been the fastest, but he used to a least hit people. He looked lost in the preseason, and that continued here. Leon Williams was toasted by Jason Witten at times. Alex Hall got in the game and looked like he gave good effort, but he is inexperienced.
If the defensive line is truly better, then our linebackers should be making plays. That did not happen. It's time to ask some hard questions about the personnel the Browns have at the linebacker position and how they are being used.
Then, there is the secondary. If you watched on television, let me tell you that as bad as it looked, it was actually worse. Dallas receivers were wide open on nearly every play. I was noting when Terrell Owens was open, and he was wide open many more times than Tony Romo threw it to him.
I knew everything I needed to know when I saw Eric Wright headed backward before the snap on most every play. This kind of strategy is why little-heralded Patrick Crayton was able to catch so many passes underneath. There was talk about whether Brandon McDonald was our top corner last week. He made some good plays here and there, but two devastating hands to the face penalties really hurt. He was toasted on the Owens' touchdown, but Romeo Crennel has stated that someone else was out of position and created the problem. Sean Jones was ineffective and had very little impact on the game. I was worried about Witten matched up with Mike Adams, and with good cause.
It tells you a lot about our secondary when Dallas used a run-run-pass approach to running out the clock. They knew they could let the clock run on first and second downs, then pass to convert on third down.
Syndric Steptoe and Gerard Lawson did OK returning kicks. I thought Steptoe was better on punt returns. Lawson had the best kickoff return of the afternoon, but he also muffed a kickoff at the end of the first half.
The coverage teams were OK. Given how bad they were in the preseason, it could have been a lot worse.
I know a lot of Cleveland fans are out on the ledge right now. Those that are trying to be the voice of reason are saying things like, "It's only one game", "Last year they went 10-5 after opening day", "Give the new guys time to gel", and so forth.
But, folks, it isn't one game.
The themes we saw played out here are themes that have been consistent flaws throughout the current administration, and they don't appear to be getting better. Even those of us who tend to discount the preseason have to admit that the flaws the Browns showed when the games didn't count carried over to the one that did. And even in a 10-6 season last year, many of these themes were present then.
I know the injury bug left some key performers rusty, and it showed. I know the Browns went up against a team that doesn't have a lot of holes. I know they did not play at the level they could have, and that isn't good enough to beat a top-tier team.
Despite personnel upgrades on defense, we see Browns defenders both physically and mentally outplayed. Not only were our players not fast enough or strong enough, but we have coverage breakdowns because people don't know their responsibilities. We were told that these were the fault of departed defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Uh-huh. I bet he very much enjoyed being there to see his new team running up 500 yards on his former team.
Crennel was brought in because he was a defensive guru. The Browns' defense got worse once he arrived, and it has stayed among the bottom-five ever since. This has to stop. The 3-4 has been a bust and after four years, we evidently still don't have the players to run it.
Once again, we saw a Crennel-led team ill-prepared to play. This was a problem much of last year, but in many games, the Browns were able to overcome poor starts. I even noted my concern about coming out flat in this space last week. That's not because I'm gazing into a crystal ball, it's because it's a pattern: uninspired play topped by too many penalties.
Finally, the field goal. Some of you will say I am making too much of it. This wasn't just bad strategy (it was), but it sent a message to the team. Crennel gave up on the game and his players. Look at it this way: if you go for it, make it, and score a touchdown, you get to within 28-14 with around 10:00 left against a very good team. Maybe there is a 5% chance you could come back and win the game under those circumstances. But by kicking the field goal, you still need three scores and you effectively end any chance to win. There isn't enough time to come back, plus you put the ball in the hands of a Dallas team that had rarely been stopped all day.
You don't think it sent a message? The fans sure got that message. About half the stadium emptied at that point. I'd argue the players got it as well because they pretty much gave up at that point. I read that Dallas got something like 62 yards rushing alone after that point, and that was with the Browns knowing they would run out the clock.
I don't care how many Super Bowl rings you have, if you give up before the game is over, you're a loser. The fans pay big money for 60 minutes of football, not 50. They deserve better.
One last thing: The whole situation with Donte Stallworth is also puzzling. Stallworth was out running when I arrived at the stadium, which was very early. He was the only player out there. It seems a tad bit coincidental to me that the Browns activated Steve Sanders on Saturday. I'm not sure who is trying to fool whom or why, for that matter. When you have no experienced receivers after Edwards, it hurts.
When the Ohio State marching band is the highlight of the entire day, you know how things went. The only thing I can hope is that this mess of a game will serve as motivation for next week. It is a must-win game or the Browns will have a very hard time living up to the expectations of fans and media alike.
The coaching staff and players all need to get their respective acts together. The front office may need to make a move or two, and not anything nearly as bold as what they did last year after an opening-day debacle.
If the Browns lay another egg on national television, things will get very interesting.
The Browns take on the hated Steelers in a Sunday night contest.
The season is short. Bark hard!