Monday, November 28, 2011

Breakable Browns can't afford mistakes

Cleveland football's glacial slog toward respectability is nothing if not fragile. This team lives on such a rickety ledge each game that one or two mistakes are enough to send the whole works crashing to the floor like a precariously placed Ming vase.

The Browns can occasionally get away with a few gaffes to beat a team like Seattle or Jacksonville. Against a talented, upcoming team like the Bengals, however, those blunders magnify a root truth of competitive sports: Bad teams always find a way to lose.

It's a shame because yesterday's contest was within reach right up to the final gun. Cleveland started the day playing its best half of football all year. The offense was especially sharp with Peyton Hillis's punishing runs opening up the passing game, led by a decisive Colt McCoy showing the confidence and decision-making ability he flashed at times last season. (Side note: The game at Paul Brown Stadium was rather astonishingly blacked out in Cincinnati, the eighth time in the last nine home games the club has failed to sell enough tickets to get on local TV. Bengals' fans are treating their team like Cleveland has the Dolan-owned Indians. I don't get it.)

The defense, which always seems to give up a few big plays before settling in, got some pressure on Bengals' rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and made a very impressive goal line stand in the first 30 minutes.

The day's first hairline cracks appeared in third quarter when the Bengals made adjustments and the Browns, as they so often have this season, failed to respond. The time McCoy had been getting in the pocket evaporated, with the young QB taking some mean hits, including one fairly scary shot that snapped his head back like a ragdoll's.

McCoy's accuracy hasn't been great this year, but what really killed him were the drops. Rookie wide receiver Greg Little, who also scored his first career touchdown this game, had three or four stonehands moments alone, none more damaging than a midfield drop during Cleveland's final drive of the afternoon.

Those are exactly the kind of simple miscues that pile up to smother a team like the 2011 Browns. A few drops and an offense like Cleveland's shuts down, a point magnified by the final two plays of the day, a checkdown dumpoff for a few meaningless yards followed by an ill-advised toss into coverage on fourth down. There's your ballgame.

Small slip-ups can crack a young squad's already shaky confidence. Larger mistakes can shatter it. The interception on the first play of the fourth quarter was a murderous combination of a bad decision and a bad throw. McCoy said post-game he was trying to get the ball out of bounds but was hit on the play. Try harder, Colt.

The second big mistake essentially sealed the Browns' fate this day. A 55-yard-field goal into the wind is hard enough to make with a good snap, but that apple of Butch Davis's eye Ryan Pontbriand's worm-burner did nothing to help Phil Dawson's rhythm or Cleveland's chances. (Side note #2: Coach Shurmur should have punted on fourth down, regardless of the confidence he may have in Phil Dawson. Shurmur's conservative playcalling is maddening at times, but this was a situation that demanded a measured approach. The percentages were not with Dawson given the weather and the length of the kick, and the dangers of giving the Bengals excellent field position in a tie ballgame were too ominous to disregard.)

Good teams take advantage of miscues, and Cinci rookie wideout AJ Green going up and snagging a pass from Dalton on the Bengals' winning drive illustrated the road team's lack of playmakers that make every mistake so glaring. The Browns are caught in a Catch-22, as they need to play a near perfect game to win, particularly against good teams, but don't have the talent to do so.

Until more difference makers are a part of this roster, the Browns are going to continue to pay for their mistakes in an already rough division that looks to get rougher still thanks to the newly arrived Bengals. Right now, they're just too easily broken.