Prior to Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, many people, including myself, were calling this a potential "turning point" for the young Browns -- and perhaps even head coach Pat Shurmur, who has been under intense scrutiny since the team was sold to new owner Jimmy Haslam III and after an 0-5 start to the season. Whatever good vibes the fans and players were feeling from winning the last two games at home was erased as quickly as any chance Shurmur realistically had of keeping his job beyond this season when the Browns gave up 14 points in the first quarter and ultimately fell 25-15 to a team who has beaten them 10 straight times dating back to 2007.
Staying true to form, the Browns came back after a disastrous start and kept the game close, even taking the lead momentarily in the fourth quarter after Phil Dawson hit his last of five field goals to bring the score to 15-14. But, as has been the case so often this season, the Browns simply aren't good enough to overcome costly mistakes at the most inopportune times.
The Browns had to settle for that one-point lead after a touchdown pass from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon was called back because running back Chris Ogbonnaya lined up illegally on the line of scrimmage prior to the play. The touchdown would have given the Browns a 19-14 lead after the ensuing extra point, but instead they had to settle for three. That turn of events seemed to give the Ravens the momentum back, in addition to the ball. The Browns defense, who had bottled up the Ravens ever since the first quarter, then allowed them to march right down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown when quarterback Joe Flacco fired a shot to Torrey Smith who then spun back to the outside and beat the pursuit to the pylon.
In addition to overcoming mistakes like touchdown-nullifying penalties, the Browns also seem to have a problem overcoming the play-calling oddities and in-game decision-making quandaries of their head coach. Down by seven points after the Smith touchdown and a successful two-point conversion, the Browns were facing 4th-and-2 with almost four minutes to go in the game. They were on their own end of the field and had a long way to go for the tying score, unlike two weeks ago in Indianapolis where they had a 4th-and-1 in Colts territory.
In that game, Shurmur decided to punt the ball away and rely on the defense to get the ball back in time to have another shot. The decision ended up costing the Browns about 40 yards in field position and took about 2 crucial minutes off the clock. Shurmur was criticized heavily in the media the following week for what reporters and fans deemed a safe and gutless play. With the way the Colts were carving up the Cleveland defense in that game, there was no guarantee the Browns would get the ball back. They eventually did, but it ended up being moot in the end as the Colts held on for the win. Later that week, offensive coordinator Brad Childress revealed to the media that they didn't have a play they liked in that situation so they decided to punt the ball away. "Just that we didn't feel that we had the call that we wanted, that type of thing," said the Browns offensive coordinator. That‘s right, even after Weeden was forced to use a timeout because the play clock had run down to single digits, they couldn‘t come up with a play they liked on 4th and 1. Baffling.
This time, at their own end of the field with even longer to go to get the first down, Shurmur, perhaps using the Colts game as a reference, elected to go for it. The result was just as predictable as Weeden, who played poorly all afternoon, sailed a slant pass about three feet over the head of Greg Little and the ball fell incomplete. The result was a turnover on downs and the Ravens eventually kicked a field goal to give them a two-possession lead late in the fourth quarter.
Not only is the decision to go for it THIS time (when they chose not to LAST time) puzzling, the Browns defense was playing lights out all afternoon, sans the first quarter. It seemed to most onlookers that the decision to punt there and force the Ravens to go the distance of the field and rely on your defense to get you off the field would have been the smarter move. But Shurmur continues to surprise and confuse with his in-game decision-making and his mystifying habit of trying to out-think conventional wisdom when it comes to football strategy.
After the game, Shurmur defended the call by saying that, THIS time, they had a call that they liked so they decided to take the shot. His terse response when asked about the call to go for it, "I wanted to get the first down," Shurmur said. "It felt like we had a play that we liked and we didn't execute it well. That's why." It begs the question... what call is there on 4th and 2 deep in your own territory that isn't there on 4th and 1 in your opponent's territory?
Speaking of the tough questions, Shurmur continues to let the local media know how much they get under his skin when they ask him about these types of decisions following a loss. This time, when Browns beat reporter for ESPN Cleveland, Tony Grossi, questioned him about the discrepancies between his play-calling in the Ravens game and the Colts game, Shurmur went on the defensive and looked visibly upset at Grossi. "What do you mean? It will be a fun thing for everyone to talk about this week, just like when we lost the game and I didn't go for it," he said. "I don't know what you're talking about, ‘my nature.' I don't know you that well, you probably don't know me that well." Needless to say, his inability to handle pressure both in the game and during postgame press conferences does not inspire confidence in his leadership abilities going forward.
The Browns are now entering the Bye Week before they go on the road to take on the Dallas Cowboys in two weeks. Many fans, judging from my interaction on Twitter, would like nothing more than for Shurmur to be fired immediately. However, when Jimmy Haslam was introduced to the media following his voting-in by the NFL owners last month, he promised that everyone, including Shurmur, would be evaluated at the end of the season and that no more personnel moves would take place while games were still being played. As bad as it may seem having Shumur in control of the RMS Titanic right now, I don't get the impression Haslam wants to come off looking like a liar and make any brash decisions in his first few weeks on the job. He may sit in his owner's box and react impulsively to certain plays on the field, just as the fans in attendance do, but developing a reputation for being impulsive or reactionary when it comes to personnel decisions within your organization is hardly a model for sustained success.
While the move to relieve Shurmur might pacify a large portion of the fanbase looking for a pound of flesh, it would hardly seem like the practice of a man who learned from the Steelers about organizational stability. But of course, Shurmur wasn't Haslam's choice as coach and Haslam the businessman comes from a world where the customer is always right. Needless to say, after witnessing an opportunity to seize a turning point in this team's development squandered, followed by all the empty seats as the seconds ticked away on Sunday, Haslam probably knows all he needs to know about the customer's feelings right now. Shurmur has sealed his fate. It's only a matter of time.