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Late-game gaffes bad signs for Browns

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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening

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Posted Nov. 14, 2011 @ 9:57 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

On Sunday, I watched Falcons head Mike Smith decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 29-yard line vs. New Orleans in overtime. The play failed, and the Falcons would lose shortly thereafter.

Smith's rationale for his gamble? He didn't want to give the ball back to the Saints' offense. He is being panned for his decision — and of course he is, because it was a risky move that was going to essentially bury his club if the Saints got the fourth-down stop.

I have conflicted feelings about Smith's decision. I believe it showed a lack of confidence in his defense and his punter, rookie Matt Bosher. I don't worry about the implied messages Smith could be sending with his decisions as much as the potential basis for those implied messages. The Falcons' defense is perhaps better than it was a season ago, but it is 21st in yards per play allowed, which is hardly stellar. And while Bosher has showed promise, his net average is just 36.3 yards, and his gross average is just 39.3 yards. Smith's decision was a moment in time, but the conditions that may have led to those decisions aren't going away.

However, although Smith's gamble failed, and miserably, I respect his boldness. I think his team does, too.

Which brings us to a discussion of the ending to Rams-Browns, a game marked by some very questionable play-calling by head coach Pat Shurmur before Cleveland ultimately settled for a field-goal attempt that ended in disaster as Cleveland fell 13-12.

Here's the scene: The Browns trail by one with 3:55 left, and they have the ball on the Rams' eight-yard line.

On first down, QB Colt McCoy hands off to RB Chris Ogbonnaya, and Ogbonnaya loses a yard off right guard. There's nothing wrong with the idea of a run play there, even if the execution was less than ideal.

Now, here's where things get weird.

On second down, TE Alex Smith lines up in front of Ogbonnaya and behind McCoy in the fullback's position. McCoy takes the snap ... and hands off to Smith, who mishandles it. Luckily, WR Joshua Cribbs recovers for Cleveland. The Browns do gain two yards on the play, which we mention for the record, but let's be real — this was an absolute mess otherwise.

On third down, the Browns hand off to Ogbonnaya again, and he gains three yards. Out comes the field-goal team, which proceeds to undergo a systematic failure. LS Ryan Pontbriand's snap appears to hit C Alex Mack's foot and bounces to P Brad Maynard. Maynard gets the snap down, but PK Phil Dawson's rhythm is thrown off by the snapping problem, and he hooks the 22-yard attempt left. It was yet another big mistake for the Browns' special teams in a season that has featured far too many of them. The Rams take over with 2:10 left and are able to run out the clock to secure the victory.

To review, the Browns, down a point, essentially played for a field goal that would have put them up two points — and would have left the Rams more than enough time to put together a last-gasp drive to win the game. They did not throw the ball once in three plays inside the St. Louis 10. One of the plays involved handing off to a tight end.

It was a mind-boggling sequence.

Did Mike Smith make the wrong call in overtime on Sunday? Yes, he did. That said, he was playing to win. Yes — that sentiment is trite. Fine. But at least I can understand where Smith was coming from.

But Shurmur? I don't have the slightest idea.

The second-down play, in particular, merits a more in-depth look.

Of note: FB Owen Marecic was in for the Browns' first-down play, but he left the field briefly. Enter Smith, who said that Shurmur may not have known that Marecic — who had just converted a key third down two plays earlier — wasn't on the field.

"Owen got dinged on the play before and had to come out; I don't think Coach knew it," Smith said Sunday, according to The (Lorain, Ohio) Morning Journal. "I've never taken a handoff to the best of my recollection, but I'm a football player and I feel like that's a basic thing to get an exchange and ram it up there for some yards."

On Monday, Shurmur said he knew Smith was in the game and would be getting the handoff, but circumstances made him elect to have the play go off as called.

"I knew who was in the game, and I chose not to stop the play," Shurmur said, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Shurmur, according to the paper, said he was too far away to signal a timeout to an official and didn't have the ability to communicate with McCoy through his helmet. 

Shurmur indicated Monday he would have done things differently, in retrospect.

"Had I known then what I know now, I would have tried to call a timeout," said Shurmur, according to Fox Sports Ohio.

So, on third down, why did the Browns take the air out of the ball when QB Colt McCoy had completed 20-of-27 passes on the game? Does Shurmur trust McCoy? He was asked if the decision to run instead of pass spoke to a lack of confidence in McCoy.

"No, I trust every player out there," he said Sunday. "I wasn't worried about anybody's ability to execute any set, called play. But, what I did know is that you have less things that could go wrong, possibly. I didn't want a sack and I know the way the Rams would respond in that situation. I felt like running the ball was the right thing to do."

In the end, Shurmur was too cute, then too conservative. And then the Browns' special teams, once again, faltered. 

The Browns are 3-6 after Sunday's defeat. They have lost three in a row and 5-of-6. Five of their final seven games are against division foes Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. I do believe Cieveland just shanked one of its best remaining chances to win a game.

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