Brandon McDonald was able to restore his dignity late last season.
And now, with Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos, he has an opportunity to redeem himself for one of his worst games of his first starting season.
It can't come soon enough.
McDonald, who, along with Eric Wright, gives the Browns the two best young cornerbacks they've had since All-Pros Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield two decades ago, generally performed well in 2008. Playing his first full season as a starter after coming on in the second half of his rookie campaign the year before, he had a team-high five interceptions, tying him for fourth in the AFC and sixth in the NFL.
Not bad – not bad at all -- for someone taken on the second day of the 2007 NFL Draft. In fact, if a team can get that kind of production so early in the career of a fifth-round pick, then it considers itself fortunate.
But there were two dark moments – actually one big dark moment connecting two separate incidents – that shook the Memphis product to the core of his being. It put him at the first real crossroads of his career.
Fighting to stay in playoff contention and save their once-hopeful season after a nightmarish 0-3 start, the Browns seemed to be in good shape in a nationally-televised Thursday Night Football game on Nov. 6 at Cleveland. Rebounding from a 7-0 deficit, they had moved to a 23-10 lead over the Denver Broncos with just a little less than 10½ minutes left in the third quarter.
Then the roof caved in – on the Browns and McDonald. The Broncos came roaring back, doing so via the pass. Time and time again, McDonald was victimized as Denver marched up and down the field. Jay Cutler threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including a 93-yarder, as the Broncos rallied for a 34-30 win that hushed the Cleveland Browns Stadium crowd and effectively ended the home team's season.
All young corners are tested like that. Dixon was. So was Minnifield. It's just the nature of the position. You're going to get beat from time to time. It happens. It's how you come out of it that indicates the measure of the man.
McDonald stewed in his disappointment and frustration, and to make matters worse, he had 11 days to do so as the Browns did not play again until two Monday nights later, on Nov. 17, when they were on national TV once more with a game at Buffalo.
But that wasn't the end of it. To make matters worse yet, and to make a point with McDonald – not a "We've completely given up on you and you'll never see the light of day again as long as we're here" point, but rather a "You let your team down, us down and yourself down and we want you to understand that's unacceptable for a player with your ability in a performance-based league like the NFL" point – the Browns coaches sat him down against the Bills.
For one play.
Travis Daniels, a journeyman at best, started, and when that one play was over, he trotted off the field and McDonald trotted on. McDonald remained there for the rest of the game, and in fact for the rest of the season.
McDonald had gotten the message, but in essence, the Browns didn't need to "bench" him for that to happen. Long before that, he had fully comprehended the situation – more so than anyone could imagine.
"I had embarrassed myself and my family," he said, the smile on his face disappearing and the words coming out of his mouth slowly and with difficulty as he recalled the pain of that time. "It was horrible. I felt terrible."
And it had all happened on national TV – the defeat to Denver and the benching against the Bills. A double-whammy.
"I knew I was better than that," McDonald said. "I knew it couldn't happen again. I couldn't let it happen."He didn't. In fact, he made it better.
And, fittingly so, the redemption happened a month later in the Browns' final national TV appearance of the year. McDonald intercepted the great Donovan McNabb twice, returning one 98 yards at the end of the first half before he ran out of gas and was tackled at the 7, and brought the other one back 24 yards for a TD for the final points of the game, providing the only two Browns highlights in an otherwise forgettable 30-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football.
While the game got McDonald back in the saddle again, so to speak, it didn't completely rectify things. The Denver game meant something – something special. It was a playoff atmosphere for the Browns that night, and McDonald didn't hold up his end of the bargain. And while robbing McNabb not once but twice was commendable, the Browns were playing for nothing but pride by that point of the year. It meant so much less than the Denver contest.
But that was then and this is now, and McDonald vowed in training camp that he had learned his lessons from the Denver game and put it behind him. He was instead looking forward to 2009, and a big step in that process will come Sunday with a game against the team that burnt him so badly last year. The Browns will be looking for the first win of the season, on the road in Denver. Winning on the road in the NFL is tough and to do so, McDonald and the rest of the pass defense will have to play well.
Last year at Philadelphia doesn't count. With everything considered, this is Brandon McDonald's real second chance, and since second chances don't always come along, you had better take advantage of them.