Rich's Rant: Up & Down Season Continues

Are you dizzy yet? Stocking up on Dramamine? Rich Passan takes a look at the season to date, and offers some perspective on where the Browns have been, and need to go...

When the 2008 National Football League schedule was announced, most Browns fans winced when it was discovered the club had to play the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars.

No matter how well the Browns played last season, most of them reasoned, there was no way they'd beat the defending Super Bowl champions and one of the best young teams in the AFC South. No way. Chalked them up as losses before they were played.

So what does this enigmatic team do in this elevator-style season? With one exception, lose the games you figured they'd win and win the games you figured they'd lose.

No way would they beat the Giants even though the game was at home on a Monday night in front of millions of viewers expecting a blowout. A blowout of the Browns, that is, especially after the Giants romped through their first four games of the season.

And no way would they go down to Jacksonville and beat a team that has rebounded strongly from an 0-2 start and owned three victories in the last four games. Another blowout. Of the Browns, of course.

So riddle me this? How come the Browns can beat the Giants (handily) and then go down to Jacksonville and snuff out the Jaguars? And how did they lose to Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington in very winnable games?

What a strange season.

Just when you count them out, the Browns rise up and play against Jacksonville as though they're one of the upper-tier teams in the NFL. It pushes the line of credibility to its limits.

This is such a difficult team on which to pin a label. Are the Browns underachieving in the losses that should be victories? Or overachieving in victories that were counted as losses before the season began?

Last week against the Redskins, the Browns could've won the game, should've won the game, but didn't. The Jaguars game, on the other hand, could've been lost, but wasn't.

This time, the Browns had to overcome a 10-yard punt by Dave Zastudil, a Derek Anderson interception that wasn't, a defense that almost unfailingly couldn't get off the field on third down (the Jaguars were 11 of 16 at one point) , the inability to successfully contain Jaguars wide receiver Matt Jones and his scrambling quarterback, David Garrard, an offense that mustered only three first downs on third down in 12 attempts and another goal-line meltdown by the offense on first-and-goal at the half-yard line.

When Syndric Steptoe caught a well-thrown Anderson pass with five minutes left in a tie game and pulled away from two defenders only to be caught from behind at the Jags' one-yard line, Browns fans surely believed the club would soon own a seven-point lead. Except for one important item. Redskins redux.

Last week, the Browns took seven whacks at the Washington defense after reaching the one before finally scoring a touchdown.

The Jags tried to cheat with 12 men on the first play after the Steptoe catch and run, never considering all it would take was the standard 11. No biggie. This was the 2-4 Cleveland Browns.

Is it too much to ask the offense to score a touchdown from 18 measly inches? Mano y mano from 18 inches? Apparently so.

This isn't a one-time thing. It's becoming habitual bordering on epidemic.

Even so, the Browns couldn't put the Jags away though special teams presented them the opportunity.

When Joshua Cribbs recovered the ensuing kickoff after rookie Beau Bell made his first significant contribution this season with a devastating hit on Jags rookie Brian Witherspoon that separated him from the football, the offense gagged.

Jamal Lewis dropped a screen pass on second down that would have gained valuable yardage and taken time off the clock. Good teams don't do that. They make those kinds of plays.

So instead of a possible 27-17 lead, it was 23-17 with four minutes left and had Browns fans reaching for the nitroglycerine tablets or whatever heart medication was handy.

One could only imagine what it was like around Browns Nation when the Jags managed to reach the Browns' 26 on a 36-yard pass play by Garrard and Jones during which the Browns put on a clinic on how not to tackle a player in the open field and no timeouts.

And when Jones bobbled a great end-zone throw by Garrard that ultimately bopped off the helmet of Browns safety Nick Sorenson and fell harmlessly to the ground with a second left, another massive sigh of relief.

The Browns won this game, in large part, due to the tour de force performance of Shaun Rogers, who lead a defensive effort that shut down the vaunted Jags running game and sacked Garrard thrice. Not to mention blocking a field-goal attempt and recovering it.

And for those few who still wonder whether trading a third-round draft pick and Leigh Bodden was the right move by Phil Savage, Sunday's performance by Rogers should finally put that one to rest.

They won it because for once they got lucky. Rashean Mathis' interception of an Anderson pass early in the fourth quarter was wiped out by an offside penalty. And when Anderson was stripped of the ball on the next play, Joe Thomas was there to recover the ball.

And they won it, in large part, because of a gutsy – and shocking – fourth-down call by coach Romeo Crennel near midfield that helped set up the second touchdown midway through the second quarter.

Anderson, who brought his Dr. Jekyll persona to the game with three pass plays over 40 yards, connected on a 51-yard play with the vastly underused – and underappreciated – Steve Heiden to set up the touchdown that put the Browns ahead at 14-7 and gave the offense a much-needed boost in confidence.

That's not the Romeo Crennel most us have come to dislike – trying to be kind here – when it comes to making important in-game decisions. Has the man turned a corner? We'll find out soon enough.

The Browns have an excellent chance to turn around a season that was clearly headed in the wrong direction with four home games in the next five weeks. In order to stay in contention for post-season action, they must win at least four of those five games. Anything less will not be sufficient.

And with Baltimore, Denver and Houston scheduled to visit Cleveland Browns Stadium, that shouldn't be asking too much. Denver and Houston do not travel well and the Browns should have defeated Baltimore in their first meeting.

But before you get too terribly excited about those prospects, remember the Browns were supposed to lose to the Giants and Jaguars and had a chance to defeat the Steelers (at home) and Redskins.

Just trying to put everything into perspective.



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