Sunday, September 9, 2007
All the optimism for the 2007 Cleveland Browns season disappeared in a puff of smoke in the span of a 3 play, -3 yard, 1 minute and 10 seconds drive for the Browns and a 4 play, 22 yard, 2 minute and 1 second drive for the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.
Let's recap... after a touch back on the opening kickoff the Browns started off the 2007 season with a bit of trickery with a dive by Jamal Lewis off right guard for a gain of 2 yards. With the Browns Hall of Famers on hand to honor newly inducted Gene Hickerson, this play was more of a throwback to the "Metcalf up the Middle" plays of "Martyball", the pre-Super Bowl years of Bill Belichick and Trent Dilfer's best friend Maurice Carthon than to the Browns Glory years of the 40's, 50's and 60's. The 4 month installation of the new offense culminated with a hand off up the middle.
Unfortunately for all Browns fans, this was the best offensive play we would see for some time. It was followed up by a poorly thrown, yet catchable, slant from Charlie Frye that was dropped by Joe Jurevicius. This led to a 3rd and 8 in which RT Kevin Shaffer, the Human Parking Cone, was PANCAKED by Steelers DE Aaron Smith who sacked Frye for a 5 yards loss. Drive totals: 3 plays, -3 yards.
And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the Browns had to punt. Now normally this is no big deal. Dave Zastudil is one of the best punters in the NFL. But alas, he injured his back on Monday and the Brwons decided to play coy for a week and did not sign a punter until Saturday afternoon after auditioning 6 replacement Tuesday. It laster came out that Zastudil did not even try to attempt to punt until Saturday morning and at that time he told the Browns he could not punt after attempting a few kicks. Enter Paul Ernster, the punter for the Denver Broncos last season. He got a few snaps with long snapper Ryan Pontbriand Saturay afternoon, but no live practice.
This proved critical as when Pontbriand hit him right in the hands in the middle of Ernster's #7, Ernster dropped the ball and a Chinese Fire Drill ensued. This is an insult to all Chinese Fire Drills and I sincerely apologize. After succeeding, while in a frantic panic, to pick up the ball Ernster managed to avoid the rush, roll left and get off a rugby style kick that went 15 yards to the Browns 32. What you might have missed while watching this lunacy was the tsunami of yellow flags that rained upon the field. The Browns succeeding in doing something I had never seen before by committing 4 penalties on the play as a result of the botched punt. Antwaan Peek was guilty party #1 as he lined up off the line of scrimmage for an illegal formation. Jerome Harrison was forced to commit a holding penalty to give Ernster time to get off the punt. Same for David McMillian. The forth, and mercifully, last penalty was an illegal man down field due to one of the interior linemen releasing automatically. The holding penalty on Harrison was enforced giving the Steelers their first possession of 2007 on the Browns 22.
It took the Steelers 4 plays to hit Hines Ward on a fade rout to the right corner of the end zone over rookie CB Eric Wright for a 7-0 lead. When the Browns got the ball back on the ensuing kickoff, Charlie Frye began to unravel and looked lost and he scrambled for one yard before dropping back on the second play of the drive and hit Deshea Townsend right in the hands and to give the ball back to the Steelers on the Browns 17. The Browns D held them to a FG to keep it a manageable 10-0 deficit. The Browns and Steelers traded punts before Jamal Lewis fumbled and gave the Steelers on the Browns 40. Ben Roethlisberger promptly hit Santonio Homes on the first play of the drive for a 40 yard TD on a blown coverage by safeties Brodney Pool and Sean Jones and it was 17-0 Steelers, with 58 seconds left in the first quarter and the game was, for all intensive purposes, over.
Charlie Frye continued to look lost, over matched and incompetent and was pulled with 6:34 left in the second quarter. He lasted less than 25 minutes in which he was sacked 5 times, went 4-10 for 34 yards and was intercepted once. He looked completely and utterly confused and like he had no grasp of what to do or how to play quarterback in the NFL, holding the ball way to long and having little or no accuracy on his throws. Derek Anderson did not fair much better but did manage to lead the Browns to a score to avert being shut-out. The final score ended up being 34-7 Pittspuke, but it could have been much worse with the Steelers barely throwing in the second half and their receiving corps dropping a number of balls in the first.
Other glaring issues than the punting and QB debacles included the loss of 2006 defensive leader Brian Russell was evident as Sean Jones and Brodney Pool did not appear to on the same page the entire game. Rookie Eric Wright was picked on early and often, which was to be expected, but a veteran like Russell would have helped the kid out. Tim Carter, wearing #86, stirred echoes of scissors-handed Dennis Northcutt with a few drops throw right to him. I am dubbing this the "Curse of Brian Brennan" as the sure handed Brennan reliable wore #86 during the Browns' last period of relevance in the late 80's and early 90's. Those who have worn he number since can't seem to catch a ball cleanly. Both sides of the ball were plagued by stupid penalties which were reflected in the final stats as many were declined. And not to be outdone, Romeo Crennel went 0-2 on two awful, awful challenges int he first half that anyone could see were the correct calls. This drops him to 0-9 lifetime in Coaches' Challenges.
2007 was supposed to be the year the Browns turned the corner. They may not win many games but they were going to be a factor and be competitive. Well that went down the toilet in a matter of minutes and if that type of performance continues the Browns will struggle to beat anyone. Once again the management of this team from the top down comes into question. The smokescreen with the punters should have never happened. It's a frickin' punter, there is no competitive advantage to hiding that. All it would have cost you was cutting DB Jereme Perry a few days earlier and most likely resigning him when Zastudil was healthy. The joke of a QB competition was exposed in front of the national TV audience and the cries for Brady Quinn could be heard early int eh second quarter. To lose happens. To be man handled is not acceptable. To be embarrassed, at home, to your rival, who you play twice a year, who you have played twice a year for over 40 years, after prepping for 4 months, is down right inexcusable. The Browns lost by 27 points and it would have been more if the Steelers hadn't have called off the dogs. Only the Saints lost by more (31) but they were actually competitive for most of the game. The Browns were out of the game after the first series. The responsibility for that falls on Randy Lerner, Phil Savage, Romeo Crennel and the entire coaching staff.
Where the Browns go from here is a mystery. But one this is for certain. The cautious optimism of all Browns fans has turned into a haunting fear after Week #1 of the NFL season. The high powered Cincinnati Bengals visit the shore of Lake Erie this coming Sunday and they should be frothing at the mouth to face the Browns.