"Part of my makeup is that I have a pretty short memory and I'm not going to let anything get to me," Brandon Weeden explained, after a dismal career debut in front of a sell-out crowd at Cleveland Browns stadium on Sunday. I suppose having a short memory is a good thing if you're an NFL quarterback. It's not so good if you're a fan of a team that has only won one season opener since 1999. At some point, the repeated losing gets to you. Or maybe it doesn't. Perhaps some develop immunity or numbness to it. For many Browns fans, myself included, losing the season opener is almost expected at this point.
What wasn't expected yesterday, as the Browns took on the Philadelphia Eagles, whom many experts have projected to be Super Bowl favorites this season, was that the Browns were actually within inches from winning the game. However, the Browns were not worthy of a victory on this day. The offense couldn't do enough to garner points when it mattered and the defense, which had been on the field for over 36 minutes, couldn't close the game out in the waning moments. Such is the life of a young football team still learning how to win in the NFL. Unfortunately, for the fans of the team, we don't have short memories. This one will sting for a while.
The Good. Obviously, it wasn't all bad on Sunday since the Browns were close to robbing the Eagles of a win. I think if you would have told most Browns fans on Saturday that they would be within one point of victory against the far more talented Eagles, they would've asked where to sign up.
The defense, including rookies DE/DT Billy Winn, DT John Hughes, LBs Craig Robertson and LJ Fort, played inspired and aggressive football for all but two drives of the game. They played so well, in fact, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick told reporters after the game, "I gotta get out of Cleveland." That wasn't a knock on the city but rather a compliment to how the Browns ball-hawking defense made his 2012 season opener one that he'd rather forget.
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Vick finished the day completing 29 of 56 passes for 317 yards. He threw two touchdowns and four interceptions. The Browns had only nine interceptions all of last season. In 2012, they already have almost half of that after Week 1. Credit Robertson, Fort, middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and cornerback Joe Haden for the picks, but also credit the defensive line for getting the pressure on Vick and forcing him to throw so many passes up for grabs. Perhaps an underrated component in the Browns ability to create turnovers this year is new defensive backs coach Tim Hauck, who came over from the Tennessee Titans to replace the departed coach Jerome Henderson.
Other Browns defenders who had solid outings were cornerbacks Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine, who came off the bench after veteran Sheldon Brown went down with an injury in the first quarter. Containing Vick is no easy task in itself but combine that with the challenge of stopping two of the better receivers in the league in Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and the Browns secondary played a great game. Maclin did have a touchdown to end the first half but was somewhat of a non-factor the rest of the game.
The Bad. The one part of the Browns defense that did struggle a bit on Sunday was against the run. Fortunately for the Browns, Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid designed a game plan with an emphasis on an aerial attack, as evidenced by Vick's 56 pass attempts. Otherwise, it might have been a long day for the Browns.
By the time the Eagles finally began to establish a running game, it was almost too late. Running back LeSean McCoy had success carrying the ball, finishing with 110 yards on 20 carries for a 5.5 yard average, but most of those runs came late in the game. McCoy's best efforts were after the Browns had taken a 16-10 lead following D'Qwell Jackson's interception return for a touchdown. Had Reid implemented more of a "ground and pound" attack with McCoy early on, it likely would have worn down the Browns defense a lot faster and it definitely would have taken some of the pressure off of Vick to make so many plays with his arm.
On the other sideline stood Browns head coach Pat Shurmur, who failed to go for a two-point conversion after the go-ahead touchdown, which would have put the Browns up by 7 instead of 6. Eventually, that decision proved to be fatal as Shurmur watched Vick lead a 91 yard scoring drive to take the 17-16 lead with 1:18 left in the game. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, especially in coaching, but that is definitely one of those in-game decisions that Shurmur would like to have back.
While Eagles fans have every right to question Andy Reid's game plan, similar questions can also be asked of Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress. The Browns did little offensively to take pressure off of Brandon Weeden in his rookie debut. While he didn't have the attempts that Vick did, the Browns hardly made any effort to establish a rushing attack either. Part of that could be due to the fact that fellow rookie Trent Richardson had no preseason to get himself acclimated to the speed of the pro game and perhaps they wanted to ease him in slowly. You can hardly fault the coaches for taking that approach but it would have been nice to see a bit more consistency out of the running game to help the offense develop some rhythm and perhaps move the chains a bit. That, at least, would have given the defense a little more of a rest and likely could have been the difference in the game.
The Ugly. The Browns offense was abysmal. There's not enough lipstick in the world to put on that pig. In fact, I'm pretty sure what we saw on Sunday wouldn't qualify as an NFL-caliber offense most weeks. In Cleveland, however, it looked like more of the same. There's absolutely no way to sugarcoat it or spin the stats to make it look better than it was. It was ugly.
Weeden finished his first career start in the regular season having completed12 of 35 passes for 118 yards and four interceptions. In addition to the four picks, he was missing wide-open receivers and having trouble with his accuracy. "I was so jacked up. I had a little adrenaline and missed Mo," Weeden said after the game, explaining why he missed a wide-open Mohamed Massaquoi in the first quarter. "Anybody that's a competitor is going to be amped up," Weeden said. "Every game in college I was (amped up). It was a lot of fun to be out there." Perhaps the nerves and excitement of making his first NFL start got the best of Weeden, but that excuse only works once. His passes were erratic and he hardly displayed the touch, accuracy or calm decision-making while standing in the pocket that earned him the right to be a 1st Round draft pick in April.
Having said that, clearly there's nowhere to go but up for Weeden and company. Sitting in the stadium yesterday, I could hear distant cries for Colt McCoy. If things keep going this way, those cries will grow louder as the season progresses. While it's debatable whether Colt could have fared any better statistically against the Eagles, the only way Weeden is going to improve is if he stays the starter and begins to develop a feel for playing in the NFL, along with gaining chemistry with his receivers in this offense. There is very little to gain from having Weeden sit on the bench at this point. Being 28 years old, he doesn't exactly have the luxury of sitting and developing behind a veteran for a few years before taking the reins. Perhaps fans have a bit of buyer's remorse in that respect with Weeden but what's done is done as far as the Draft is concerned, and now the focus has to be on playing him and hoping he gets better. It most certainly can't get any worse.
Bottom Line: There was a lot to dislike in yesterday's game. The negatives will always outweigh the positives when a game is lost. I can't imagine having pulled out a victory yesterday would've made the coaches, the players, or the fans feel much better about the offense's performance. But a win would have definitely numbed the sting a bit. It would have felt like we had gotten away with something we shouldn't have. I imagine we wouldn't still be talking about the Browns embarrassingly poor record in season openers anymore. At least, we'd have that.
Maybe we should ask Eagles' fans how they feel about their team after having barely escaped Cleveland with a victory. I'm sure they're glad to have the win because that's all that matters. A win is a win is a win. But I doubt any of the Philly faithful are calling Andy Reid to ask him for playoff tickets after that clunker.
The beauty of the NFL is that each week is another chance. It needs to be reiterated that this is a very young team, especially in so many key positions. I think the Browns' defense provided something to build on and promises to keep the team in a lot of games this season. The offense just needs to step up and make strides and it starts at quarterback. That will ultimately determine how successful or how disastrous this season ends up. I'm excited to see how Weeden and company respond on the road in Cincinnati next week. If our defense can bring the same intensity with a knack for making plays as it did this week, and our offense can take a necessary step forward, we all just might have some memories worth keeping this season.