Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The Cleveland Browns, coming off a couple disappointing seasons, make a coaching change. The new coach comes in, the front office is happy, the players are excited about the change, the fans are fired up with all the hope and optimism that this new coaching regime is going to bring.
And then the season starts. And without fail, it starts with a spectacular display of failure. A stagnant offense that seems incapable of converting 3rd downs in the 2nd half when just one measly TD would seemingly put the game away. And then there’s the bizarre/boneheaded play that turns the game in the opponents’ favor, and just like that everything seems exactly the same as it has always been.
Meet the new Browns, same as the old Browns.
On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns have never looked quite so Cleveland Browns-like as they committed 7 penalties (not a typo, they really committed 7 penalties in the first quarter) to build a 13 point deficit. To their credit, they turned things around sparked by a nice kickoff return by Josh Cribbs and in the blink of an eye they scored consecutive TDs to grab the lead back. After scoring 17 unanswered points to hold a 17-13 lead, the game was the Browns’ to take if they wanted it.
Unfortunately, the Browns would not do another positive thing all day. The Bengals would score the go ahead TD on a play in which the Browns’ defense was still in their huddle while the Bengals’ offense was lined up and set. Cedric Benson would later add the nail when he took a 3rd and 3 carry 39 yards for a TD.
For Browns head coach Pat Shurmur, the game was a nightmare way to make a debut. The team looked unfocused, undisciplined, and just generally unprepared to play an NFL regular season game against an NFL opponent. Shurmur need not feel lonely, however, as he doesn’t sit alone. Rather, he joins the long list of Browns coaches who made less than stellar debuts for this franchise.
In 1999, nobody really knew what to expect when Chris Palmer made his debut. Palmer wasn’t Carmen Policy’s first choice to lead the newly formed Cleveland Browns rebooted franchise, but hopes among the fans were still pretty high. Palmer and his Browns made their debut at home against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers and the pregame atmosphere was just electric. And then the Browns took the field. It was 20-0 Steelers at the half and 43-0 at the end of the game.
The Steelers outgained the Browns 464 yards to 40 yards. Ty Detmer was 6-13 for 52 yards with an interception. Tim Couch relieved him and went 0-3 with a pick. Terry Kirby carried the ball 5 times for 10 yards. In all, the Browns had 9 rushes to the Steelers’ 57. The Browns attempted 16 passes to the Steelers’ 32. In all, the Steelers had 89 offensive plays to the Browns’ 25. Fans wouldn’t know it at the time, but this game would serve as an ominous piece of foreshadowing for what the future had in store. Chris Palmer would win a total of 5 games in his 2 years at the head of the Browns.
Next up was Butch Davis in 2001. Butch Davis was one of the rising stars of the coaching world after his success in rebuilding the Miami Hurricanes’ program. The hope was that he would do the same to the Cleveland Browns franchise. So it was with a renewed spirit of hope and enthusiasm that the Browns took the field against the Seattle Seahawks, coached by none other than Mike Holmgren.
In a defensive battle of field goals, the Browns fell to the Seahawks 9-6 when Rian Lindell booted a 52 yard field goal with 3 seconds left in the game. The Browns had a 1st and goal from the 7 late in that game trailing 6-3. Naturally, the Browns failed to convert the go ahead touchdown. Instead, they settled for a tying FG with just over 2 minutes left. On the ensuing kickoff, the Browns gave up a 49 yard return into Browns’ territory to set up the losing FG.
In 2005, it was Romeo Crennel’s turn to make his debut. The Browns welcomed the Cincinnati Bengals into town for this debut and ultimately fell to the rejuvenated Bengals 26-16. Carson Palmer completed 76% of his passes for 280 yards and Rudi Johnson carved up 126 yards on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Browns had 2 (two) TDs called back by penalties. Trent Dilfer made his debut for the Browns and early in the game he threw a ball that hit the ref in the head and deflected to Browns’ center Jeff Faine who caught the ball and was penalized for illegal TD (sound kind of familiar?). This was the Bengals’ first opening game win in 4 years and their first opener win on the road since 1995 (sound even more familiar?).
Which brings us to Eric Mangini’s debut in 2009. Again making a debut at home, the Browns faced the Minnesota Vikings and new (old) QB Brett Favre. Favre actually played for Mangini in New York the previous season and many feel that it was Favre’s fault the coach was fired from the Jets. The Browns actually led 13-10 at halftime before giving up 14 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter and ultimately losing 34-20 in a game that wasn’t as close as it sounds.
The Browns mostly kept Favre in check, but Adrian Peterson exploded in the 2nd half. He ended up with 180 yards rushing and 3 TDs. The Browns, meanwhile were completely inept on offense. They committed 8 penalties as a team and turned the ball over twice. Josh Cribb’s punt return for a TD in the 2nd quarter was the team’s only TD until a garbage time TD with 28 seconds left in the game with the outcome already secured.
So really, Pat Shurmur’s debut in Cleveland really shouldn’t be too surprising. This is what happens in Cleveland. But somehow it is surprising. It’s surprising that no matter what this franchise does, the results are the same.
We’ve seen changes in Presidents, GMs, coaches, coordinators, personnel, players. You name it, the Browns have tried changing it. Yet the team somehow always looks exactly the same and makes the same kind of mistakes.
Yet Shurmur’s debut really might be the worst one yet. Sure, the Browns have always made mistakes, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Browns look so un-coached. Perhaps not since late in Romeo Crennel’s tenure when the team had tuned him out. But this is a debut. This is when the players are supposed to be on board. But there was no discipline and no focus to be found in this game.
After the game, Shurmur was quick to share his frustration with the way the team played. He said they would make no excuses for this display, before giving an excuse for the defense being asleep on the game winning TD.
He might have a point. Perhaps the Bengals did do an illegal quick snap. But even so, the moment anyone saw the Bengals offense lined up and set, with the Browns defense still in their huddle, a time out should have been called. Whether it be Coach Shurmur or defensive coordinator Dick Jauron (a former head coach himself), someone needs to have the awareness to see what is happening and get a time out called.
Never the less, as disheartening as the game was, and as many mental errors as there were, it’s still just game one. Game one of the season and game one in Pat Shurmur’s head coaching career. The team looked and played like a team with a rookie head coach. If this is a one game thing, it will be acceptable. If the team, and most importantly, the head coach, can learn from their mistakes and correct them, it will be acceptable. If team morale can survive this and they can channel it into positive energy for the upcoming game against the Colts, the season can still move on.
But if the team comes out and plays like this again against the Colts, a team coming off an embarrassment of their own, then who knows what will happen to this season. Any coach has to go through growing pains. No coach can become an experienced coach without first being a rookie. This is now Pat Shurmur’s test. Can he rise to the challenge and get this team playing at a level most think them capable of? Or will this be yet another 4-5 win season where everything happens exactly like it always has? It will be interesting to see how Pat Shurmur deals with his first taste of real adversity. How the Browns rebound will tell us a lot about this team and about this season.
Photo Credit: (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)