CLEVELAND – Throughout training camp and the preseason, as the open competition for the Browns starting quarterback job dragged on and on and on without a winner being announced, head coach Eric Mangini insisted that Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson were each getting enough reps to establish the timing with their wide receivers.
That was difficult to believe since Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, in order to be fair, were splitting the reps as evenly as they could. There are only so many reps to go around in a two-hour practice, so how could either quarterback be getting enough? The intent of camp and the preseason is to get one quarterback – the starter – ready for the regular season, not two quarterbacks. You can play only quarterback at a time.
But the fact of the matter is that on the play of the game in Sunday's regular season-opening game against the Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the timing – or lack thereof -- between Quinn, who got the job last Monday, and his No. 1 wide receiver, Braylon Edwards, was key. The interception that resulted was, in essence, the final nail in the coffin in the Browns' 34-20 loss.
The Vikings, taking advantage of a 41-yard kickoff return, scored at the start of the third quarter to erase a three-point halftime deficit and go ahead by four points, 17-13.
But the Browns had come back in the first half after trailing by seven points, so they seemed fully capable of rebounding from such a deficit.
Starting at the 28, following Joshua Cribbs' 27-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, running back Jamal Lewis rumbled 14 yards on the first play and then for eight on the next one, setting up the Browns with a second-and-two situation at the 50. Like a good starting pitcher in baseball, it usually takes Lewis a while to get into a groove and find his rhythm, but once he does, he seems to get better and better with every carry thereafter. He's at his best at the end of the game, when the defense is wearing down.
Thus, everybody in the stadium – and probably the Vikings as well -- expected Lewis to get the call again, but instead, for some reason, the Browns dialed up a long pass play down the left sideline as they headed toward the Dawg Pound.
Edwards took off straight down the field and made a move toward the sideline to get cornerback Cedric Griffin to go that way. Griffin had had trouble covering the wideout in the second quarter, drawing a 28-yard pass interference call after he had been beaten down the left sideline as the Browns headed toward the opposite end zone. Griffin bit on Edwards' fake, and then the receiver cut back to the middle of the field, where he was wide open.
But Quinn threw to where Edwards had been, to the sideline, and Griffin was only too thrilled -- and relieved -- to pick it off. For if Quinn had recognized the change in the route and gotten the ball to Edwards, the receiver still would be running. He'd be to about Ashtabula by now, headed for Erie, Pa. and points farther east as he headed up I-90.
You could feel the air start to go out of the Browns' balloon at the point. Actually, it was squeezed out little by little in agonizing fashion over the next 7:32, as the Vikings took over and put together a marathon 13-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that made it 24-13 with 1:06 left in the third quarter. The Browns, as mentioned, knew they could overcome a four-point deficit, but not one of 11 points. That's two scores, which is too much against a team as good as the Vikings. The game was over – a little over a quarter too early.
Afterward, Mangini said the interception was not as a result of miscommunication between Quinn and Edwards.
"I don't agree that they were on different pages on that play," he said. "We just needed to make better throws at times, and to run sharper routes at times."
However, less than 15 minutes later, Quinn said it was indeed miscommunication between him and Edwards that caused the pick.
And Quinn said the miscommunication was his fault. But Edwards said it was.
"It's simply that I made a mistake," the receiver said.
But possibly the real mistake is that the whole thing could have been averted if the two had had more reps in training camp and the preseason, which would have resulted had Quinn been named the starter much, much earlier and gotten the majority of the work with the No. 1 offense.
That play was a microcosm of a lot of things that were concerns in camp and the preseason, and remained that. Along with the sharpness of the starting quarterback working with his receivers, there was the fact Daboll was in his first game as a coordinator at any level. How would his play-calling be? Would he have a good feeling for the game? He called the plays from the sideline, so you would expect he'd be in the flow of things.
But if so, then why did Daboll call for a pass when Lewis, who averaged 5.2 yards a carry on the day, rushing 11 times for 57 yards, seemed to be finding himself? The Vikings weren't stopping the run at the time, so why go away from it? The game is pretty simple. Don't make it complicated. Just go with what's working until the opposition stops it.
These – and many, many others -- are questions the Browns have to answer before they play next Sunday against the 1-0 Broncos in Denver, where they've struggled forever. They have to hope there are enough reps in practice – and enough hours to get into the film room – this week for Quinn, Edwards, Daboll and the rest of the offense to get the kinks worked out.