Passan: Into the Weird

The Browns game against the Lions yielded the unexpected... and a glimmer of hope. Here's Rich Passan's perspective on what we saw on Sunday.

Football sure is a funny game.

Take, for instance, the Browns' improbable 38-37 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday.

They score five offensive touchdowns in the first nine games this season and then blast through for four against the Lions.

And the defense, which limited a decent Baltimore offense to just 10 points last week and has played well in recent weeks, disappears under a 38-point onslaught by the normally impotent Lions.

And then there's this . . .

Why did Eric Mangini feel the need to call a timeout as the Lions scrambled desperately to win the game on the final play?

The situation required absolute silence from the Cleveland sideline during the frantic scramble that ended one of the most entertaining games of the National Football League season.

Chaos reigned as both teams tried to avoid falling to 1-9 on the season. The situation called for cool heads and clear thinking. Not a timeout.

The ball was on the Browns' one-yard line (thanks to a pass interference penalty in the end zone), no time remained on the clock because a half cannot end on a defensive penalty and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was bent over in agony on the sideline with a serious shoulder injury, courtesy of a C.J. Mosley mauling on the previous play.

Daunte Culpepper, an innocent bystander until then, was suddenly thrust into the game by Detroit coach Jim Schwartz because Stafford's pain was too severe, preventing him from taking the snap. Culpepper, who had spent the previous 60 minutes of game time under wraps and was as cold as a winter day in Cleveland and rusty as a nail in the rain, was being called on to win the game.

He undoubtedly had run no plays with the first-team offense all week in practice. There was no way he had adopted the rhythm of the game from the bench. Odds of Culpepper succeeding on this one vital play had to be extraordinarily high. Even from the one-yard line.

So why give the Lions, who were out of timeouts, the time to pick a play? The more you rush to do something, the more likely you will fail. The Lions were in hurry-up mode. No need to settle them down and allow them to regroup.

As the backup quarterback stepped under center, Mangini inexplicably called the timeout, giving Stafford enough time to fight through the pain and talk his way back into the game. Just in time to throw his fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon.

I'd rather take my chances against a healthy quarterback who hadn't played a snap in who knows how long rather than one who was injured and had shredded my defense for four touchdowns. And if the backup quarterback scores, then so be it.

Stafford's heroics spoiled an otherwise otherworldly performance by Brady Quinn and a Cleveland offense that played where-in-the-world-did-that-come-from football in the 24-point first quarter. Cleveland fans had to be blinking in total disbelief at the offensive fireworks.

In the first nine games of the season, the Browns' offense amassed 39 first-half points. That's a shade more than two points a quarter. Against the Lions, they racked up 27.

All season long, Browns fans have been subjected to a short-range passing game that could be considered self strangling at best. It seriously raised doubts as to whether the team had anything more than a 20-yard route in its playbook,.

And when Quinn, who suddenly has become a mad bomber, connected with Mo Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey for long-distance scoring strikes in the opening quarter, a question leaped to mind: Why wait until game 10 to unveil such a passing game?

Unlike the first nine games of the season, Cleveland receivers roamed freely almost all afternoon against the pitiful Detroit secondary. Quinn, receiving good pass protection from his offensive line, displayed signs of being the quarterback the Browns thought they drafted in the first round in 2007. He looked sharp, confident and clearly in charge.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, in an an attempt to shed his Maurice Carthon label, revealed a palate of imagination heretofore thought non-existent. Only three three-and-outs in 13 possessions, including just one in their first 10 series. Clearly a step in the right direction.

OK, so it was against the Lions, who taste victory as often as the Browns. But at least the Cleveland offense showed more than just a faint pulse. It scored nearly half as many points (37) against the Lions as it had all season (78).

And the way the defense has played the last few games, fans began preparing themselves for something extremely rare in the last 15 games – a victory.

No way could the sorry Lions, giving the Browns a run for their money for NFL ineptitude,  overcome the 24-3 lead Quinn and the Browns had crafted 12 minutes into the game.

Go figure. This time, fingers of guilt in this one should be pointed in only one direction: The defense, proving the Browns can give up big plays as easily as the Lions, disintegrated with astonishing ease.

But what else would you expect from a team that has displayed inconsistency virtually all season long from its three units. Why should this be any different?

If nothing else, though, this performance by the Browns kept Mangini from having to scrape Randy Lerner off his back one more time this season.

Word late last week strongly suggested the Browns owner would put a premature end to the Mangini reign if the club had lost to the Lions. But that factored in another dismal performance, which was hardly the case by the Cleveland offense.

Still, there was no question the Browns played hard. They showed life throughout the game. That should win some points for Mangini, who could use a few in this embattled season.

In the end, however, it just added yet another sad chapter to the saga of the 2009 Cleveland Browns as they head toward the worst season in club history.

Now if the Browns, especially Quinn and the offense, play this way on offense the next two weeks in Cincinnati and against the San Diego Chargers at home, then that little glimmer we saw in Detroit Sunday could take on some luster.

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