The Browns are 0-3 to start this 2012 NFL season, but as with any Browns season, there are clear trends beneath the won/loss records. The first week against Philly, the Browns were playing hard with a superior opponent. They were playing faster on defense than we’d seen at any point in the last decade. There were rookies and other young players all over the field were making life miserable for Michael Vick. The next week, the Browns went into Cincinnati and came up short, but their offense appeared legitimately capable of allowing the team to win the game. Most Browns fans I spoke with were at least mildly encouraged or relieved after the Bengals game. Then Sunday Cleveland Browns Stadium was turned into a home game for the Buffalo Bills.
In what Pat Shurmur termed a must-win, the Browns came out flat, unimaginative and spotted the Bills a two touchdown lead. When the Browns did get lucky, knocking C.J. Spiller out of the game, they were unable to capitalize on any of the opportunities put before them to take control of the game in the second half. There are no moral victories in the locker room on Sundays, but there is little doubt some losses feel worse than others for fans. Yesterday’s loss to the Bills was one of the worse ones.
Usually there’s a tell-tale play that punches you in the gut to signify one of the worse losses, but that didn’t really happen yesterday. Brandon Weeden threw two interceptions, but the game had already felt over before that. Pat Shurmur punted the ball on 4th and 9 when he clearly could have gone for it without drawing any criticism. Still, that one (bad) decision didn’t cost the Browns the game alone because they got the ball back as the defense held. There was just something else at work yesterday. There was a nearly tangible lack of confidence and energy on the field.
Maybe it was the line of scrimmage. The Browns seemed to lose that battle on both sides of the ball. Earlier in the year the Browns’ defensive line was getting to Michael Vick and really putting hits on him. The Browns had two sacks and 11 quarterback hits against Philly. The box for Buffalo said one sack and one single QB hit. Either the defense wasn’t ready to play or that’s just a bad gameplan. It can’t all be because Joe Haden is out can it? Are the Browns so handcuffed in the secondary that they can’t afford to dial up the blitz? Even if they feel that way, are they wrong? It seems they might be if not dialing up the blitz results in the play yesterday where Stevie Johnson was given an eternity to fake Dimitri Patterson out of his jock in the middle of the field and a few yards away from the end zone.
There’s no singular scapegoat for this loss. It’s almost easier when you’re the Baltimore Ravens and you can rid yourself of Billy Cundiff and Lee Evans as the two guys who cost you the big one as they did against the Pats in the AFC Championship game a year ago. Without an easy scapegoat, it leaves only one guy vulnerable and that’s Pat Shurmur. He’s ultimately responsible for everything, from the game-plans on both sides of the ball to the seeming lack of intensity to open the game, all the way to another pretty dismal game on special teams. This isn’t baseball where you can try to fire your hitting or pitching coach in the middle of the season. Shurmur was able to hide behind a lot of things last season, but expectations were clear for the Browns this season and games like yesterday’s fall far below that level.
Prior to the season, and after Jimmy Haslam was announced as the new owner, many sports talk radio shows tried to nail down the number of wins that Pat Shurmur would need to get in order to keep his job as if there was a magic number available. I don’t really subscribe to that because as important as wins are to a coach, it takes any kind of analysis and throws it out the window. It’s not as if Pat Shurmur would deserve to keep his job if his team can somehow win six games, but not if he only squeaks out five, no matter how close the other ones are. Eric Mangini taught us a bit about that with some signature wins that fans could hang their hats on. What I do know is that all that being said, games like what occurred yesterday aren’t the kind that keep coaches in their contracts.
This is all building toward a cacophonous crescendo and it isn’t music to anyone’s ears, least of all Pat Shurmur’s. This was the year that the Browns were going to make a “jump” and be a respectable football team. And even as the 0-3 record isn’t totally shocking to Browns fans, who historically don’t lack patience and understanding, it is the way in which they are losing that smacks the face like an inhaler full of tear gas.
And speaking of tear gas, the Browns have a short week and a real opportunity to embarrass themselves and their fans on Thursday night on a national stage. Pat Shurmur and the Browns sure could use a signature win, but all we’ve ever seen of Pat Shurmur’s handwriting are signature losses.