Folks, I've got to tell you, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 started out as one of the best sports days in my 50-something years on this earth. Think about it:
- The United States golfers, including fellow Kent State University alum Ben Curtis, completed their upset of Europe to win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999.
- The damn New York Yankees, who have long been public enemy No. 1 in baseball, were all but officially eliminated from the post-season for the first time since 1994. The best they can do is tie the Red Sox for a wild card berth, but that would mean winning all of their remaining games while Boston loses seven in a row. It ain't gonna' happen.
- The seemingly invincible New England Patriots, led by public coaching enemy No. 1, Bill Belichick, had their 21-game regular-season winning streak snapped by the Miami Dolphins.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers, public football enemy No. 1 for most Browns fans everywhere, were beaten by the Philadelphia Eagles.
- Our beloved Cleveland Indians, battered by key injuries much of the year, won their sixth straight game and climbed above the .500 mark for the first time in more than four months.
- And to top it off, it appeared our equally beloved Browns would get off the snide by beating the Baltimore Ravens, the team former public owner enemy No. 1 Art Modell stole from Cleveland following the 1995 season. The Browns led 10-7 at halftime and were playing another solid game on defense and an efficient game on offense.
But then, in a matter of minutes, it all came crashing down. On the Browns' first two series of the second half. quarterback Derek Anderson threw interceptions. The first one bounced off Kellen Winslow Jr.'s hands after a vicious hit by Ray Lewis, and the other one was a bad throw that was returned for a touchdown by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed. Those two plays ignited the Ravens and their fans and doomed the Browns to their third straight loss to open the season.
At this point in time, the Browns aren't playing well enough offensively to overcome even one mistake, much less two huge ones.
General manager Phil Savage likes to compare the Browns' early-season offensive woes to a baseball team that is going through a collective hitting slump.
"If we were a baseball team, the bats are cold right now," Savage said prior to Sunday's third straight game in which Derek Anderson and company failed to live up to their pre-season hype of having one of the most explosive attacks in the entire NFL.
It's easy to blame a rash of injuries for the offensive woes. Anderson had virtually no chance to work on his timing in the preseason, due in large part of the concussion he suffered in the second exhibition game. Running back Jamal Lewis is obviously playing hurt, and Pro Bowl wide receiver Braylon Edwards is still working on his concentration, or lack thereof. Shoulder and foot injuries have not helped his situation.
But rather that placing the blame on the physical woes and lack of timing, maybe it's time we acknowledge the quality of the opposition. The Browns are not yet among the NFL's elite.
In Dallas, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Browns hit the trifecta when it comes to facing some of the best defenses in the NFL to start the season. Going back to Savage's baseball analogy, it's akin to a baseball team having to face Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on consecutive days. Or, for those of you who are part of the thirty-something generation, we'll make it Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in their primes.
Since the opening drive of the first preseason game against the Jets, the Browns haven't had a whole lot of positive going on. The blue chip players who have to make big plays for the Browns to win simply haven't gotten the job done. Unfortunately, there is very little depth at the skill positions on offense so no one has been able to pick up the slack.
Only two percent of teams starting a season 0-3 have ever made it to the playoffs. The odds of the Browns joining that elite club are less than that of a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.
Following Sunday's butt-kicking, the Browns had to think they had just got done playing a team of giant centipedes.
It's not very often that an NFL game is over in the third quarter. This was one of the few. Anderson and the rest of the offense seemed to lose their composure. And the Ravens, as great defenses often do, pounced on the opportunity.
They pinned their ears back and humbled what is a pretty good offensive line when healthy. Sunday, the Browns were without guard Eric Steinbach. His absence was felt, although it definitely was not the only reason why the Ravens sacked Anderson five times.
The fact is, the Browns were running the ball well enough to win. That was until three third quarter touchdowns by the Ravens forced the Browns to abandon the run. From there on out, it wasn't pretty.
Now, the Browns find themselves into what is truly a "must win" situation next Sunday against the Bengals. Unlike Savage's previous "must win" declaration prior to the Steelers game, a loss to Cincinnati will end any hopes of making the post-season and might very well signal the start of the Brady Quinn era in Cleveland. And possibly the end of Romeo Crennel's reign.