There's a nasty rumor making the rounds that the Browns have quit playing for Eric Mangini.
The head coach has angered them so much this season through a variety of unpopular moves from within, it is believed, that the players have basically said, "Enough." As in enough already, this coach doesn't deserve my best.
At least that's the perception of many fans seeking reasons for the 1-11 record thus far as the Browns careen toward 1-15 and historical ignominy.
But if Sunday's performance against the San Diego Chargers can be used as a barometer, there is no way this club has stopped playing for its coach.
At the risk of sounding like Mangini, this team could have given up when the Chargers blew out to a 27-7 lead with six minutes left in the third quarter and the Cleveland defense in a freefall as it allowed Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates to play pitch and catch all afternoon.
It did not. Even though the Chargers had, for all practical purposes, wrapped up the game, the Browns did not cower and just go away. Just when you thought another embarrassing blowout was about to take place, the complexion of the game changed.
Now the players might not like Mangini. We've seen some evidence of that throughout the season.
But in this case, it wasn't that the players played for their coach in the final 21 minutes of the 30-23 loss to one of the hottest teams in the National Football League. It was more a case of them playing for themselves.
They did not quit.
As sappy as this sounds, the pride factor appeared to kick in as the Chargers were kicking the Browns around Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Cleveland offense, which wouldn't scare a good college team this season, surely would fly the surrender flag, especially after consecutive three-and-outs in their only two third-quarter possessions.
This time, however, it was as though they said, "Enough." As in enough already; time to fight back.
Even though Mangini has torn this team asunder from a talent standpoint on the offensive side of the ball, there seemed to be a flicker.
Who knows? This might be just a temporary blip on their way to 1-15. The attitudes of players are oftentimes very hard to figure out. But the signs Sunday are hard to ignore.
At times this season, it looks as though the Browns mail in their performances, especially on defense. Critics suggest that's the case with all the injuries on that side of the ball, citing that's what happens when players play at less than peak effort.
It wasn't as though the Chargers hauled out the welcome mat Sunday and generously allowed the Browns' offense to score 16 points in the fourth quarter and make a game of it.
Garbage time, some will say. Easy points when you're up by so much with the victory never in doubt. Maybe the first Cleveland touchdown in the fourth quarter, but not the next nine points. The San Diego defense was back on its heels in the final minutes of the game.
No, the Browns didn't win. And yes, I'm a bottom-line guy. But I saw something in those final 21 minutes I haven't seen from this team in a while. The players actually cared and it showed in their body language.
There seemed to be urgency on both sides of the ball and with special teams right after the defense stonewalled Chargers fullback Jacob Hester on fourth-and-inches at the Cleveland 31 three plays into the final quarter.
The Chargers' defense, which had given up just 200 passing yards a game coming into this one, was torched for (OK, gave up) 271 passing yards and three touchdown passes by Brady Quinn, who is showing glimpses of being a decent passer when given the opportunity. No other quarterback has thrown that many scoring passes against the Chargers this season.
Granted, several of his completions were of the dump-off or checkdown variety to eight different receivers, but the offense ran more smoothly – with the exception of those third-quarter belches – than it has a majority of the season. Quinn looked especially comfortable with play-action passes, which heretofore had been moth-balled.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, perhaps emboldened, even tapped his somewhat limited creative juices, plugging in an occasional seam route for tight end Evan Moore. Another moth ball resurrected.
And why has Moore been languishing on the practice squad – he was signed a month ago – when the club so desperately needed a tight end who can catch the ball? He's big, gets open and catches the ball. Imagine that.
The Cleveland offense this season, with the exception of perhaps the Detroit loss, does not scare anyone. And yet, the Chargers were holding on at the end.
If not for a dropped touchdown pass by Brian Robiskie – yes, he's still with the club and it was his only drop of the day – with about 75 seconds left in the game, who knows how this one would have turned out.
The better team won, of course. But not because it was handed the game.
No, this time the Browns were competitive not because of Mangini, but in spite of him.