Rich's Rant: Turnaround... Or A Tease?

Sooner or later, we'll figure out who those people were wearing orange helmets last night. Are those the real Browns, or one-night imposters? Rich Passan ponders deep questions such as these on a regular basis. For example, right now...

All right. Enough clowning around. Who was that team that played the New York Giants on national television Monday night?

Who were those imposters who passed themselves off as the Cleveland Browns?

You know, the ones who made the Giants look like the Browns in the first three games of this season. The ones who were humiliated by this same Giants team in an exhibition game just eight weeks ago. Yeah, those guys.

Those couldn't have been the Browns.

The precision with which their offense operated in the 35-14 victory was clearly not that of a team that had averaged a touchdown a game in its first four outings. The extraordinary aggression with which the pin-your-ears-back defense played certainly couldn't have been the Browns.

This was the team ESPN envisioned when it was awarded three Cleveland games on its 2008 schedule. This was the team that excited and entertained fans last season and took the National Football League by surprise.

And yet, when all the blinking was finished and the pre-game fears of most fans had disappeared behind a hail of points, the stark realization was that yes, indeed, those were the Cleveland Browns.

They dazzled the national TV audience and drove ESPN's telecast troika of Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser to the point where they nearly drowned the Browns with platitudes they never dreamed they'd use.

Amazingly, the Browns, not the Giants, looked more like a team that had won the Super Bowl earlier this year and entered the game with a four-game winning streak and 11-game winning streak on the road. The Giants were more used to winning games by 21 points this season, not losing them.

It wasn't a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but early on, you could tell this was going to be a different evening. One that would yield a stadium full of proud smiles, not to mention those throughout Browns Nation worldwide.

Sometimes in the NFL, games are won with more than talent. In its own hackneyed way, desire and determination can fuel a team to play beyond its capabilities. We saw that kind of game from the Browns Monday night.

The last time I can recall such a game was a Sunday night affair in Pittsburgh in 2002 when Tim Couch played perhaps the finest game of this career in a 33-13 victory over the Steelers. It was one of those "where did that come from?" games. So was this victory.

No one in his right mind believed the Browns would or could win this game. Not with an offense that has sputtered worse than a Model-T, a defense prone to giving up big plays and playing soft and an injury list that became staggering by game time.

No one believed the only time Dave Zastudil would enter the game would be to hold on placekicks by Phil Dawson. He was the most overpaid member of the Browns Monday night.

But somehow, they found a way to not only win, but thoroughly dismantle a team that appeared to have only microscopic flaws. The Giants beat teams up on both sides of the ball. They intimidate.

Only one problem. The Browns, who were 7-1 at home last season but had dropped their first two home games, were in no mood to be intimidated.

It didn't appear that way in the first quarter, however, as defensive coordinator Mel Tucker played it straight. Then he loosened the binding and threw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who wound up throwing off his back foot most of the evening. He even threw in a version of Bob Slowik's UFO defense on a third-down play midway through the second quarter.

With exotic blitzes coming at him from just about every conceivable angle on the field, Manning often was forced to throw the ball well before he intended. Just as effective as a sack. Even more so in this case with three interceptions.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the Browns have forced seven turnovers in the last two games since Tucker ratcheted up the intensity and aggression. One has to wonder why it took him so long to realize the other way wasn't working.

Nothing was going to stop the Browns on this night. Not even a basketful of stupid penalties. Before the season is over, would it be asking too much of the Browns' offensive unit to quit moving before the ball is snapped?

Other than that, no mistakes except for a couple of dropped passes, but we're all used to that by now. That's almost expected every game.

This time, it was different.

This time, it was Manning, not maligned Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson, locking on to his receivers as he did with Amani Toomer in the fourth quarter. Browns cornerback Eric Wright locked on to Toomer, too, and wound up 94 yards later with a pick six.

This time, it was Manning, whose star has risen dramatically in the NFL stratosphere, who was left shaking his head wondering what was happening. And Giants coach Tom Coughlin wearing the well-known Romeo Crennel look of befuddlement.

This time, it was the Browns' offensive line once against looking like one of the NFL's best units, keeping Anderson pristine all evening and gouging holes in the Giants' defensive line.

And this time, it was the creative play calling of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski that kept the vaunted Giants defense off balance. Quick-developing plays seemed to confuse the New York front seven.

How refreshing to see a bomb to Braylon Edwards from a tight run formation and a reverse by Jerome Harrison off an inside handoff from Joshua Cribbs and a deep post to reserve tight end Darnell Dinkins.

And it was nice to see Chudzinski discover that the underappreciated Steve Heiden, filling in for the injured Kellen Winslow Jr., can catch the football, too.

The offense, determined and relentless all evening, overcame the myriad of penalties, worked itself into very manageable third-down situations by being patient and Velcroed Zastudil to the bench.

It was epitomized by a 14-play, 87-yard touchdown drive, pockmarked by five penalties, that consumed eight minutes and 16 seconds of the third and fourth quarters. Counting the penalties, the drive covered 117 yards. Impressive.

The victory served another purpose at least for the time being. The hot button that is the quarterback controversy was chilled in somewhat spectacular fashion by Anderson, whose near-flawless performance justified the votes of confidence he received from Crennel and General Manager Phil Savage.

Anderson threw with confidence, with full motion and with a decisiveness that hasn't been seen all season. That's the Derek Anderson that helped win 10 games last season.

Some critics will suggest that perhaps the Giants came into this one a bit overconfident. Then again, maybe the Browns have rediscovered what 2007 was like and decided enough was enough. This was a victory well earned. The Giants did not hand it to them.

Now let's see what kind of a bounce it will give them this Sunday on the road against the Washington Redskins. Another performance such as the one against the Giants would validate Edwards' assertion that this is indeed "a new season" for the Browns.

Then again, it might be nothing more than a tease, the kind that leads down the path of false hopes.

We'll find out soon enough.

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