Sunday, November 13, 2011

'Factory of sadness' gears up for holidays

It wasn't your fault, Phil.
Computing the cheerless geometry of another baffling Browns' loss is a futile exercise. Math was never my strong point anyway, but for the sake of this column, I'm going to take another run at deciphering the latest brain-busting chapter of "How We Blew It This Time: A Compendium."

First, a positive note: For another game in which the endzone was lidded against the Browns like a welded-shut manhole cover, the offense showed some ingenuity in what rather pathetically was its best performance in weeks. Coach Shurmur seemed to recognize that run-run-short pass wasn't doing it and broke out with some much needed trickery. Wildcat formations, end arounds, and by God shotgun formations all made appearances.

But if Shurmur is to be commended for mixing things up, our head coach deserves an equal ration of grief for the suffocatingly buttoned-down red zone playcalling he employed. The daring-do that put the Browns in a position to score touchdowns made the lack of imagination near the Rams' goal line all the more glaring. One could practically feel Shurmur's butt cheeks clenching as Cleveland's tight formations out of the huddle indicated they were playing for the field goal.

The football gods must have been glowering down on Cleveland Browns Stadium upon witnessing this babyfood-safe bit of playbook pabulum, even if those same deities were beneficent enough to send Shurmur a warning on the comically ass-hatted call of giving tight end Alex Smith a handoff on second-and-goal from the 9.

This play was called despite fullback Owen Marecic leaving the field due to injury. Smith was promptly thrust into the fullback slot, and the guy who according to the Plain Dealer had never before taken a handoff in his pro career promptly fumbled the potato. The Browns were lucky to get the ball back.

But alas, Cleveland did not heed the message from above. Instead of rolling Colt McCoy out of the pocket to get the ball to one of his sure handed tight ends, or doing anything in the direction of that elusive endzone, Shurmur chose yet another straight ahead running play. The muff on the ensuing chip-shot field goal was therefore both anticlimactic and oddly logical. You can't irk the football gods to such a degree and expect to get away with it.

Today's game must have been devastating for Shurmur. Upon the missed field goal, he had a look on his face like his dog just got hit by a cement truck. It's difficult not to be a reactionary sportstalk radio panic-monger when appraising Shurmur's performance so far. You have to wonder if Mike Holmgren has made a mistake of Rich Kotite-like proportions with the hire, and what that means for the future of this club.

Shurmur perhaps deserves some slack when factoring in an offensive line still reeling from the loss of Eric Steinbach, injuries that have reduced his backfield to a pair of practice squad castoffs, a rookie-laden defensive line, and a wide receiver corps that with the trade of Brandon Lloyd to the Rams is now indisputably the worst in the league.

Where Shurmur should not get a pass is the seeming stubbornness in his game planning, at least up until today. The Browns are literally down to their fourth and fifth options at running back, making the reluctance to open up the passing game in scoring situations all the more curious. Colt McCoy is having his troubles under center, a situation exacerbated by the depleted line, but our coach's Schottenheimer-esque penchant of playing not to lose is no way to give the young QB confidence. Someone needs to pass along the message that Cleveland is not in a nip-and-tuck race for the division lead. Beating the 1-7 Rams with field goals would mean essentially nothing in a season dedicated to giving the offense an identity.

Perhaps Shurmur thinks he's coaching for his job, hence the ultra-conservative redzone calls, but Holmgren jettisoning his handpicked find after one season seems unlikely. Unless the Browns completely implode and lose out, granted not a farfetched proposition at this point, Shurmur will like be patrolling the sidelines through at least the first half of 2012.

If so, he's going to need a bushel of help that the front office's "process" did not provide this year. As ever, the Browns' laundry list of needs is long - wide receiver, right tackle, cornerback, linebacker, maybe a running back - take your pick.

As Browns fans, we can complain to the high heavens and make funny YouTube videos about the agony of a decade's worth of awful football. None of that sound and fury matters without a real fix to what seems an irreparable culture of losing. Barring that, all we're going to get is more days like today.