A. In a restroom at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday prior to the Browns-Broncos game, a very loud and already intoxicated fan was calling out his disdain for the Cleveland Browns team, declaring that there was no doubt about the outcome of the game, “It will be 25-0 at halftime.” “Twenty-five?,” I felt like asking, “And what combination of scores will get it to 25?” But that would have been like asking a philosophical question of someone talking in his sleep.
Four-plus hours later, on the way out of the stadium, in the subdued quiet of a crowded stairwell, a Browns fan hollered out, “Does anyone know why the Browns went for that two-point conversion today?” No one answered him, probably knowing that it would have just been one of those twenty-twenty hindsight observations.
These pre-game and post-game anecdotes are just two recent sidelights of the 45-year history of competition between the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Browns. The two teams have played 28 games over the years. You may be unaware of the specific numbers but you probably have a feel for how lopsided the “rivalry” has been. In fact, Denver’s lead in the historical series was lengthened on Sunday to 23-5. The Browns won the first time the teams played on December 20, 1970 and came out on top in three of the first four games between them, but Cleveland has earned only two more victories after 1974. They came during the regular seasons of 1989 and 1990.
During their history, they’ve met three times in AFC Championship games with the Broncos winning all three. Those were in 1987, 1988, and 1990. The Browns have zero wins against the Broncos in the 15-year period since the Browns became an expansion team, but in the 10-year period before that they were also winless against the Broncos. So, yes, the numbers have been way too asymmetrical to call it a rivalry. For the Browns, nemeses there are aplenty, but rivalries, not so much.
B. Sunday’s game, which was the fourth between the teams to go into overtime (yes, Denver has won all of those too), was entertaining if you have the disciplined objectivity to see it as a single game without the context of the aforementioned long losing history of the Browns against the Broncos. That’s the problem, however. Who is capable of such detachment except maybe someone from a small town in Denmark? Or a visitor from another planet?
Denver entered the game undefeated, at 5-0 on the season. Peyton Manning himself entered Sunday’s game 6-0 lifetime against the Browns, but in his very first series he showed why he is now viewed as, ahem, beyond his peak-performing years. It could very well be that the body can no longer deliver what the mind has ordered, but the first interception he threw to Karlos Dansby was not just a physical mistake, it was a poor decision. It resembled the confused, panicked toss of a rookie. (Hey, it happens to the best of them.) In the Browns’ first series which followed, Gary Barnidge dropped McCown’s fourth-and-5 pass to give the ball back to Denver. Those first series for Denver and Cleveland set the tone for the day: Opportunities aplenty offered by the Broncos, and spurned by the Browns.
After that first Cleveland series, Denver went 58 yards in 15 plays, converting a fourth-and-4 along the way, and eventually kicking a 29-yard field goal. In that early, telling series, the Browns defense appeared to look improved from previous weeks, resembling more of a bend-but-don’t-break defense rather than one that gets routinely torched. But such interpretations come with XXL caveats and may be misleading. The Broncos this season still have not scored a first-quarter touchdown and they look every bit the part of what their statistics tell us: one of the most ineffective offenses in the NFL. The undefeated Broncos offense brought to the north coast that which was predicted of them: Sub-par quarterback play, several dropped passes, and penalties. The hope in Cleveland was that our less than stellar defense would match up pretty well against them.
The two elemental confrontations of this game (the Denver offense against the Cleveland defense, and the Cleveland offense against the Denver defense) reveal the essential facts of the game, although there are no stunning revelations to be found here.
The league-leading Wade Phillips Denver defense, which still hasn’t given up a first-quarter touchdown this season, entered the game having allowed only 15.8 points per game. The Browns offense, averaging 23.6 points per game to start the day, scored 16 against them. The Broncos offense arrived having scored only 18.4 points per game. Against the Cleveland defense, which had been allowing an average of 26.4 PPG, they scored 19. The figures are adjusted to account for scores by the defensive units. Denver’s defense has now scored 28 points on the season. The Browns defense, thanks to the pick-six by Dansby on Sunday, has now scored seven.
On several occasions Sunday, the vaunted Broncos defense gave the Browns opportunities to succeed. In the first quarter, for instance, on a third-and-8, DE Malik Jackson yanked on McCown’s face mask as he was bringing him down. Instead of the Browns punting, they got a first down on a 15-yard penalty.
The drive that resumed after that penalty, though, came to a bitter and abrupt halt when cornerback Aqib Talib stepped in front of a McCown pass that looked much like Manning’s first pick: bad decision, bad throw. After Talib intercepted it and ran it back 63 yards for a touchdown, he celebrated his 30th career interception and 8th career pick-six by throwing kisses to the Dawg Pound. And speaking of the Broncos’ league-leading stats, that was the fourth touchdown by their defense this season.
A central theme of the game, if there was one, was the fact that Josh McCown was hurried on almost every pass play by an outstanding pass rush while Peyton Manning was (or should have been) relatively stress free. Manning was not sacked once and, in fact, was rarely even hurried, while McCown was sacked four times and hit and hurried on numerous occasions. Browns QBs are getting sacked at a rate of almost four per game.
The sack of McCown that resulted in a fumble recovery by Denver came after the Browns took over on their own 48. On first down, the too-predictable Browns ran for a three-yard gain. On second-and-7, the Browns’ Malcolm Johnson lined up in the slot on the right side in front of Shaquil Barrett. Johnson ran right past Barrett, oblivious to the linebacker sprinting toward McCown, untouched. Barrett hit McCown at full throttle. To call that purely a McCown turnover is a great deal less than charitable — as though the whole thing was McCown’s fault because he had the temerity to look left for 2.5 seconds for his primary receiver.
The Browns offense, whether it is the play calling, the offensive line or the assignments for the tight ends and running backs, is simply not protecting its quarterback. If future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning had been drilled on Sunday in a like manner, you’d have to assume there would be hell to play on the sideline. “That cannot happen!” would be the command.
For the Browns, nemeses there are aplenty, but rivalries, not so much.
Denver’s offense is third from the bottom in the NFL, averaging 325 yards per game. Against the Browns’ defense on Sunday they totaled 442 yards, 290 through the air and 152 on the ground. The Browns are 11th in the NFL, averaging 364 yards per game. Against the Broncos’ defense, they totaled 322 yards.
C. For those intent on assigning blame for the loss of a football game, it’s a complicated business. There is so much minutiae that plays a part in these games that it would seem an impossible task, even for the likes of King Solomon with his sword. Depending on one’s frame of reference, you could say, for instance, the game played itself out according to the season’s law of averages to date. You could also say the Cleveland Browns didn’t take advantage of some golden opportunities. Then again, you could say the Denver defense returned to form after those gift offerings and did what they’ve done all season: shut down the opposition.
For the Browns part, they didn’t seem to do anything remarkably out of character. Their offense scored 16 points against one of the NFL’s best defenses that had been allowing 15.8 per game. The Browns defense gave up 19 points to a team that had been averaging 18.5, but it’s also true that the Browns defense did not pressure an all too vulnerable aging quarterback, and allowed 442 yards in 4.5 quarters of play, including 152 rushing yards, 111 of which were by Ronnie Hillman for a 5.6 yards-per-carry average.
As for quarterback play, there will again be complaints that Josh McCown is not a franchise QB, but neither is Peyton Manning — not anymore — and if forced to play with one or the other for a season or two, even that visitor from outer space would take No. 13 over No. 18. And yet Denver is 6-0 … and Cleveland is 2-4. This Denver team, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, is yet another of those object lessons in football. You know the one, that it takes a team…
My personal interpretation leads me to this conclusion about Sunday’s game: Two series define the results. On first down, after Mingo’s interception of Manning’s awful pass in overtime, the Browns ran a sweep to the left side by Turbin for a three-yard loss. On second-and-long, McCown was sacked, and on third-and-longer, McCown was sacked again. The Browns’ play calling and their tendency to run on first down (and again, this is my personal view) is simply too predictable. That was the game, right there. “It was there for the taking,” as CBS announcer Ian Eagle phrased it.
Earlier in the game, during the second quarter when the Broncos had ten defenders bunched up along the line in anticipation of the run, McCown threw a beautiful pass to Andrew Hawkins for a 25-yard gain. A few moments later he threw another beauty to Barnidge in the the end zone for a touchdown. Yes, McCown threw a couple picks in the game, but good teams don’t dare allow fear and insecurity to freeze out their creativity and unpredictability.
In the fourth quarter, when the Browns drove down and tied the game at 23, they seemed to play it very cautiously, running the ball several times like they were content with tying the game, rather than going for the touchdown to win it. Dan Fouts remarked at that point, “Run plays forced Denver to use all their time outs but also forces Cleveland to come up with some third-down magic.” And after McCown was rushed and had to throw it away Fouts said, “Everybody and their sister knew this was going to be a pass play…”
Part 2 of this commentary, however, is what happened after the Browns punted in overtime and Denver took over at their own 12-yard-line. I suppose no one would dare call what followed “The Drive II,” but the Broncos drove from their own 12 to the Browns 16-yard line. That’s 72 yards, and they did just about whatever they wanted to do during that drive. And it looked like the only reason they didn’t keep driving into the end zone is because they didn’t need to.
Speaking of The Drive … John Elway’s current title: Executive Vice President of Football Operations/GM. The Broncos are 54-22 since he took that job.
One of the positive signs of the Browns’ developing roster was the play of Robert Turbin. Turbin’s first run of the season came with 14:02 to go in the second quarter. He ran up the middle and got hit two yards past the line of scrimmage but drove the pile four more yards for a 6-yard gain. Turbin ended up with 10 rushes for only 27 yards but he looked like the kind of power back the Browns have been missing in the trenches.
On the negative side of the ledger was an unfortunate tendency surfacing in the game of rookie Duke Johnson, Jr. In the second quarter, Johnson, after a fine 12-yard scamper around left end, was run out of bounds by Denver safeties, Darian Stewart and T. J. Ward. For no apparent reason, Johnson seemed on the verge of a physical confrontation with the two tacklers until a Browns teammate shooed him back to the huddle. Two plays later, Johnson was flagged for a false start penalty, and third-and-5 turned into third-and-10.
Ironic, that on a day the Browns honored Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack, Johnson should begin to resemble the volatile Byner in his playing days, who was far too often lured into an on-field overreaction and flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Mr. Byner would surely tell Duke Johnson today, best to reign that stuff in now, and the sooner the better.
Regarding the two-point conversion attempt, Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts went back and forth about the call, especially after the attempt failed. Fouts thought it was the right call. Eagle wasn’t sure but said, “Either way, Cleveland, at some point, is going to have to stop Denver.” Well, that pretty much says it all.
Finally, the new unsavory news that has surfaced about Johnny Manziel. Manziel has admitted he was out during the day, drinking with his girlfriend and there were some eye-witness accounts of his driving at a high speed on the left shoulder of I-90…while struggling physically with his girlfriend. While this self-destructive, high-risk, anti-social behavior has caused headlines and concern — again — regarding the celebrity quarterback, it hardly seems a shocking revelation. After all, how often does a few months in rehab truly result in a permanent healing of such behavior.
Moreover, just how deviant or aberrant is the behavior in the first place? The Browns organization claims to be supporting Manziel’s efforts at establishing a personal and public sense of responsibility and accountability but, if my visit to FirstEnergy Field on Sunday to see the game against the Broncos told me anything, it was to reinforce the notion that Browns games are the place to go to get plastered and behave boorishly. As I watched those around me consume five, six, seven beers each, as I stood up every few minutes so they could stagger past for their multiple trips to the restroom, and as I listened to their slurred, disjointed replies to my attempts to converse about the game, I had to wonder … are you actually enjoying this game? And more importantly, are you driving home from here?
The height of absurdity came after Andy Lee boomed a 60-yard punt. One of the “fans” behind me launched into a vulgar diatribe aimed at, of all people, Andy Lee. Here’s a fan who found someone to blame for the loss. An easy target, he was, standing there out in the open, easy to spot, easy prey, and only a single digit on his uniform to memorize. Andy Lee, 102 games played in the NFL and hasn’t scored a single point!
You want personal responsibility and accountability? Maybe ushers should be authorized to throw flags in the stands for unsportsmanlike conduct.