It ended with a coffin corner. A punt. A lawn dart of a kick that plummeted back to the earth, landing on the three-yard line before bouncing immediately out of bounds. Punts are often assimilated with failure, but on this day it was anything but.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers out of timeouts, having used them with the Browns decidedly pinned back in their own territory, the team that had seemingly found a way to win throughout recent history1 was left with nothing but a valiant attempt at trickeration — wide receiver Mike Wallace heaving a lateral across the field as time expired, making Charlie Batch jealous of such unbridled accuracy, all with a flick of a gloved wrist. But it ended. The Cleveland Browns victorious, holding on to a six-point lead through the entire fourth quarter.
This, as it’s called in the business, is knowing how to win. It’s an ideal that has largely escaped the Cleveland Browns for much of the last decade and has assuredly not been prevalent amidst the late-game collapses that have been imagery accompanying the Pat Shurmur chapter of Encyclopedia Browntanica.
“We’ve just got to find a way to finish,” Shurmur said last Monday. “We have a whole locker room full of winners. This whole organization is full of winners, we’ve just got to put it all together and do it.”
Surely, it was not the offense that had won the contest as the Browns defense forced the team from down the road, to borrow phraseology from Jimmy Haslam III, to cough up the ball eight times. As Shurmur had been battered for questionable late-game decisions for the majority of the 2012 season, the prodding and mid-week autopsies were largely in part to the loss which said play-calling provided. But the conservative late-game decisions on Sunday — having reserve quarterback Colt McCoy hand the ball off through two straight drives — in this instance, resulted in a win. A win against a division rival. A win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As Shumur would state in his post-mortem about the team’s recent loss to the Dallas Cowboys, a game where they had the lead with one minute remaining and their opponent having the entire field to drive, the 2012 Browns roster is full of players who have won at every level prior to their journey into the NFL. It was just a matter of doing it. And on Sunday, they did just that.
“To finish a close game like that is big for us,” said running back Trent Richardson, the player who was responsible for carrying the ball on each of the team’s final six plays, single-handedly bleeding the game clock toward triple zeroes. “It feels really good — we have been in that situation plenty of times, so we get into that situation again and there isn’t any reason we shouldn’t know how to finish. We’ve been here game after game, it hasn’t just been one.”
Interestingly, it was the defensive unit who, at many times this season, had been the team left on the field as their respective opponents manicured a drive that led to the Browns’ lead evaporating into the fourth quarter air. A dropped interception against the Philadelphia Eagles, a 50-yard touchdown in Cincinnati and a penalty-ridden drive in Dallas all being line items on the doctrine of What Could Have Been? Even this past Sunday, against an offense that could not amount much of anything in terms of a drive for an entire first half, the defense allowed the Steelers to score a touchdown with one second remaining, taking a lead — and the ball — into halftime. But when it mattered most in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, as Pat Shumur elected what I recently dubbed a “prevent defense while on offense,” jockeying for field position and focusing on the team’s strengths, the defense knew how to get the job done.
“You have to find your confidence and know how to take that big game and just finish,” said Richardson.
And finish they did. The coaching staff and players are all very well aware of the embers of the rivaly which Cleveland fans continue to blow on, hoping to one day reignite a competitive fire in subsequent seasons. Finishing this game, and closing off the season with a contest in Pittsburgh would be the best way in doing so and every player who took to the field on Sunday knew that without the first step, the ones that followed would be meaningless.
A good portion of this Cleveland Browns unit, one rife with rookies and first-year players who have zero connection to the malaise of the last decade, is now 1-0 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. There’s no ill history, no downtrodden lack of morale or feeling of inadequacy. This Cleveland Browns team marched into their own stadium on Sunday, fire blazing both during pre-game introductions and once the whistles blew, and punched a perennial Super Bowl contender2 straight in the mouth, leaving their head coach dazed with a face of disbelief.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” said veteran tight end Ben Watson, a player who has felt the brunt of several defeats at the hands of the Steelers. “This is a team that we struggled against in the past and to come in and have a close-fought game like this and come out on top it’s a great confidence booster for this team. You know, we’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been very close and haven’t been able to finish. Our defense played tremendously. To have eight turnovers, that’s tremendous defense. It’s a good team win. It’s good for the team moving forward.”
A city littered with negative headlines through the majority of the calendar year, some will undoubtedly try to point out the negative — after all, it’s easier to tear down than it is to build. Call it fortuitous scheduling, as the Browns were able to play their first game against a banged-up Steelers team 11 weeks in to the season. Call it the magic of Jimmy Haslam jumping ship if you’d like; his new team handed it to his old team, six-point margin or not. But in the very end, it boils down to this team finally finishing a game, knowing what it was going to take and executing as instructed.
They did it. It was done through clock-draining offense and one hell of punt, not the sexiest of on-field execution by any stretch. But the Cleveland Browns did it. Finally.3
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)