Anderson's Results Against Bengals Mixed

While there are many fond memories of DA's first game in 2007, the final game was far different.

When Browns head coach Eric Mangini announced Wednesday that Derek Anderson will start against Cincinnati on Sunday, it led everyone to recall when the quarterback got his first start of the 2007 season against the Bengals in Week 2 at Cleveland Browns Stadium and looked like the reincarnation of Otto Graham.

He was 20-of-33 passing for 328 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception in a wild 51-45 victory whose final score more resembled a high school basketball game than an NFL contest.

But no one – no one – went the next step and looked at what happened to Anderson and the Browns in the return match at Paul Brown Stadium. Just as the Pittsburgh Steelers ruined the Browns' Christmas with a 41-0 shellacking on Christmas Eve in 2005 at Cleveland, the Bengals did it as well two days before Christmas two years later by pulling off a 19-14 stunner, keeping the Browns from clinching a playoff spot.

In Tuesday's column, we asked the question, "How did it go so badly so quickly for the Browns from the start of the 2008 training camp to now?" Now we ask the question, "When did that process start?" The answer is, quite simply, that 2007 game in Cincinnati. It was a clear demarcation point in the history, especially the recent history, of the expansion Browns. It was a snapshot of everything that was wrong with the team at the time, and as such, it was the day that the coaching staff got fired, even though it didn't officially happen until a year and a week later.

The Browns went into that game roiling, having won two in a row and four of the last five to improve to 9-5, their best mark after 14 games since 1994. They were coming off an 8-0 home win over the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard in which Phil Dawson kicked two of the most amazing field goals you'll ever see, and the team, overall, handled the cold, slippery and windy conditions like they were Abominable Snowmen – or from Buffalo.

The Bengals, on the other hand, were floundering. The loss at Cleveland a little over three months earlier shocked them so much that it sent them into a tailspin, turning their once-hopeful season into a nightmare. Their record was the opposite of that of the Browns record-wise at 5-9, and it was that good only because they had split the last six games after a 2-6 start. They had seemingly hit rock-bottom the week before, losing 20-13 on the road to a 49ers team that would finish just 4-12 after having gone 2-14 the previous year.

On paper, it looked like a mismatch.

But it did not turn out that way.

The Browns moved the ball deep into Cincinnati territory on their first two possessions but did not score, fumbling the snap on a field-goal attempt and getting stuffed on a fourth-and-one run.

The Bengals hit two second-quarter field goals to go ahead 6-0, but the two biggest plays of the game didn't occur until later in the quarter. Taking over at the Cleveland 43 with 1:27 left following a Bengals punt, Anderson's short pass across the middle intended for running back Jason Wright was intercepted and returned 44 yards to the Cleveland 5. Cincinnati threw a TD pass on the first play to make it 13-0.

Taking the ensuing kickoff at the Cleveland 20, Anderson once again was intercepted on the first play on a short attempt across the middle, this time intended for wide receiver Braylon Edwards. It was returned 12 yards to the Cleveland 20, and three plays later, the Bengals were in the end zone again on a one-yard run to balloon the lead to 19-0 over the stunned Browns.

The Browns tried to rebound, scoring a TD in both the third and fourth quarters to make it 19-14, but their comeback fell short when they failed to score after getting a first down at the Cincinnati 44 with 26 seconds remaining.

All season long – and even now – Anderson, despite his big statistics and the first trip to a Pro Bowl for a Browns quarterback in 20 years, had a penchant for throwing interceptions and trying to fit the ball into tight places. Knowing that, why did the Browns have him pass not only once, but twice, when it would have been easy to take a knee several times on that next-to-last possession, run out the clock and go into the locker room at halftime down just six points?

But that's not all.

The week before against Buffalo, a 32-miles-per-hour wind blew from the south sidelines to the north throughout the game. Despite the fact the wind, though strong, was predictable directionally, the Browns played it intelligently and had Anderson attempt just 18 passes to avoid having a wind-blown interception. They erred on the side of caution and kept the ball on the ground, as Jamal Lewis rushed 33 times for 163 yards.

In Cincinnati, the wind was blowing almost as hard – 19 to 29 mph – but it was a lot trickier to read because it was swirling – with no rhyme or reason -- once it got into the stadium. One moment, it would be blowing one way, then the next moment, it would be going the opposite way. That made it appreciably more dangerous to try to throw.

But instead of playing it safe again, especially just before the half, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who had been criticized at times during the year for throwing the ball too much, opted to roll the dice and have Anderson put it up – twice.

So that notion, just like the one that Anderson took too many chances with his throws, was given even more credence.

Another notion was that head coach Romeo Crennel was too passive on the sideline and did not exert his authority enough, especially on offense. That, too, was given more credence when, not once but twice, Crennel heard that play go through his headset and didn't veto it by changing it or at least calling a timeout to discuss it.

As former Bengals Pro Bowl safety David Fulcher, the NFL's uniform policeman for Cincinnati home games, was saying that day to anyone in the press box who would listen, "These guys (the Bengals) haven't stopped anyone on the ground all year. I can't believe the Browns aren't handing the ball off to Jamal Lewis all day. He's averaging over four yards a carry."

Lewis finished with 21 rushes for 92 yards, a 4.4 yards-per-carry average.

From that game on – more specifically, from just before the end of the first half on – nothing has gone right for the Browns. Even though they beat the 49ers 20-7 in the finale the next week and ended the season at 10-6, the same as Pittsburgh, they didn't make the playoffs. They lost the tie-breaker with the Steelers for the AFC North title, then lost the tie-breaker with the 10-6 Tennessee Titans for the last wild-card berth.

Coming off that season, the Browns were the sexy pick to make it to the Super Bowl in 2008, but as every fan knows, the season imploded even before it began. By the time it was over, the Browns were 4-12, losing their last six games and not being able to score an offensive TD no matter if they threw the ball or ran it, or if it was cold and windy or warm with just a slight breeze.

And, as mentioned, nearly every coach, from Crennel to Chudzinski and right on down the line, was fired.

The team Mangini took over this year was a mess, and, sadly, still is.

And the path to that started in Cincinnati.

So while Anderson will try on Sunday to duplicate what he did against the Bengals in 2007, he had better make sure that he's focusing on the first game and not the second one.

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