At least the first half was fun.
Thanks to a second half that felt like Chinese water torture, the Cleveland Browns lost to the Arizona Cardinals, 34-20, in a ugly loss at First Energy Stadium on Sunday.
Nearly everything went right in the first half for the Browns. The second half? Not so much. Josh McCown absorbed a beating, the defense collapsed, and the team looked lost late in its third straight defeat.
The Browns now stand at 2-6 at the midway point of the 2015 season.
Here are my takeaways from today's loss:
1. Joyful start, agonizing ending: Josh McCown and the Browns offense enjoyed a resurgence against the Cardinals in the first half, but crashed to Earth in the second half. McCown threw three touchdowns in the first half before enduring a shellacking in the second half.
Following a quick Cardinals touchdown drive to start the game, McCown led the Browns to 20 unanswered points in the first half.
The Browns’ defense setup McCown’s first touchdown, as a Desmond Bryant fumble recovery granted the offense perfect field position. Three plays later, McCown found Brian Hartline in the middle of the end zone to tie the contest with under three minutes left in the first quarter. The score marked Hartline’s first touchdown as a Brown.
A 52-yard pass to Duke Johnson on the offense’s next drive placed the Browns in the red zone, and amazingly, McCown again converted with a touchdown pass. The 36-year-old threw a beautiful ball to Gary Barnidge’s back shoulder, giving the Browns a first half lead for the first time in four weeks.
The third touchdown pass came at the end of a 14-play, 72-yard drive. On 3rd and goal from the 2-yard line, Hartline found an opening near the back of the end zone, and McCown hit him for a touchdown. Travis Coons missed the extra point, but the Browns still held a commanding 20-7 lead.
The offense line mostly protected McCown in the first half, but the line allowed the Cardinals to pound McCown in the third quarter. The Cardinals registered one sack and seven hits on McCown today, far too high a number for a supposedly stellar offensive line.
McCown finished the day with a statline of 18-of-34 for 211 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.
2. Missed opportunities: The Browns defense forced four Arizona turnovers, but the Cleveland offense failed to take advantage of these chances. The Browns generated just seven points from four turnovers.
Before I lay into the Browns’ offense, let me first give credit to the team’s defense for forcing three fumbles and picking off Carson Palmer once.
Karlos Dansby, K’Waun Williams, Armonty Bryant forced the fumbles, while Tashaun Gipson hauled in the interception. These three players deserve credit for making key plays that prevented the Cardinals from blowing out the Browns today.
The defense did allow some big plays, but if you force four turnovers, you should win.
The Browns’ offense looked awful in the second half. McCown had little time in the pocket and his wideouts didn’t help much. Brian Hartline dropped three passes today and even Barnidge dropped an easy ball or two.
The running game proved to be an absolute disaster in the second half. The Browns rushed seven times (including three scrambles) for just five yards. On one of the runs, Turbin managed to fumble, allowing the Cardinals to tack on a field goal and increase the lead to 14 in the fourth quarter.
Following a 20-point explosion in the first half, the Browns did not score at all in the second half.
3. Is Pettine crazy? Even as McCown played through obvious pain from multiple injuries, head coach Mike Pettine refused to take his injured veteran out of the game. Josh McCown is a brave soul, but Pettine is a merciless fool.
As mentioned above, the Cardinals landed seven hits on McCown. Each time, McCown returned to his feet, but I lost count of the number of times McCown winced in pain after a play. Frequently after pass plays, McCown rose from the ground slowly with a grimace on his face.
Considering McCown’s previous injury issues this season, why did Pettine leave McCown in the game until late in the fourth quarter? Watching McCown suffer through hit after hit was akin to viewing someone undergo a painful waterboarding session.
As Pettine admitted in the press conference, McCown was not at 100% following a shot to the ribs in the third quarter. But he felt his veteran could "push through it."
Johnny Manziel entered the game with 2:16 left in the fourth quarter, but McCown’s final two drives resulted in turnovers, including an ill-advised tossup to 5’8 wide receiver Taylor Gabriel into double coverage in the end zone.
Granted, in his limited time, Manziel didn’t look all that great, either. Manziel managed one first down, but finished the drive 3-of-6 passing for 12 yards. The second-year quarterback’s longest completion was six yards.
Don’t expect the quarterback situation to change for Thursday against the Bengals. As Pettine said after the game, he will start McCown if the veteran physically able to play.
Halfway through the season, Pettine’s stubbornness on playing McCown is beyond frustrating. The McCown experiment is not working. The Browns are 2-6. McCown is a walking injury.
Enough is enough. Play Manziel.
4. Carved by Carson: The Browns’ secondary allowed Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer to march up and down the field in the second half. Making matters worse, Joe Haden and Donte Whitner left the game with concussions in an ugly day for the Browns’ secondary.
Sunday did not mark the Browns’ secondary’s finest hour. Palmer passed for 374 yards and four touchdowns against the Browns, picking apart holes in the team’s defense.
Palmer used his pinpoint accuracy, particularly on the deep ball, to bury the Browns.
Palmer spread the ball to six different receivers, but Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd were his top two targets. Fitzgerald finished with nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, while Floyd ended the day with four receptions for 106 yards, including a 60-yard deep pass.
Haden was the victim of Floyd’s lengthy touchdown pass, as Floyd easily hauled in the catch and tiptoed past Haden for six. The Browns’ Pro Bowler suffered his concussion on the play, as his head smacked into Floyd’s foot. Haden has now suffered two concussions this season.
Besides the long touchdown to Floyd, Palmer burned the Browns for completions of 20 or more yards five other times throughout the game.
Besides Haden, Johnson Bademosi also had an iffy game. Bademosi did recover a fumble at the end of the third quarter, but his defensive holding penalty on 3rd and 11 midway through the fourth quarter negated a drive-ending sack. The Cardinals took advantage of the automatic first down, eventually capping off the drive with a game-sealing field goal with 2:20 remaining.
One player who does deserve props is Ibraheim Campbell. The 2015 fourth round pick recorded five tackles in place of Whitner, including an impressive tackle of Fitzgerald.
Heading into Cincinnati, the Browns’ secondary looks battered and bruised, physically and mentally.
5. Rushing to nowhere: The Browns’ running game again broke down against the Cardinals. As a team, the Browns managed just 39 yards, tied for a season-low.
The team’s rushing stats this season are atrocious. The Browns have rushed for 100 or more yards as a team just four times. No Browns player has hit the century mark in a game this season. The club entered the day ranked 28th in rushing yards, and will likely sink in that category after today. The team is averaging just 84 yards per game.
The team’s leading rusher today? Josh McCown. The veteran finished with five attempts for 18 yards, including the team’s longest run of the day, 10 yards.
Robert Turbin, Isaiah Crowell, and Duke Johnson combined for 14 carries for 20 yards. Crowell received the majority of the carries, with 10 for 14 yards.
Turbin and Crowell need to step up. These two missed holes and didn’t show great ball security, either. Turbin fumbled twice without being touched by a Cardinal. The statsheet credited McCown with the fumbles, but Turbin was the responsible party. Turbin can’t give the ball away that easily.
The offensive line also shoulders some of the blame for weak tackling and missed assignments. The line did not exactly pave the way for a successful rushing attack today.
Without a running game, McCown or Manziel will struggle under center and the Browns will continue losing.
6. Just give the ball to Duke already: For some reason, Johnson only received three touches today. The offensive coaching staff failed to involve Johnson enough in the gameplan this week, a fatal mistake for the offense.
You would think that offensive coordinator John DeFilippo would have learned by now. Duke Johnson is a dangerous playmaker. Give him the ball in space, and he will gain lots of yards. It’s a simple formula.
Johnson proved his value today, turning his three touches into 71 yards. But DeFilippo and offensive staff kept Johnson on the sideline for critical third downs and only handed the ball to him once on the ground
Any Browns fan with a pulse can see Johnson’s big-play ability. Why doesn’t the Browns staff recognize it?
Duke Johnson can play a big part in the Browns’ offense if the staff lets him. The question is – Will the staff ever use him properly?
7. Mid-season reflections: It's time to start asking the big questions. As crazy as it seems, we’ve reached the halfway point of the 2015 season. That means it’s time for the Browns to ask some soul-searching questions.
Should Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer be fired at the end of the season? How can this team start running the ball and stopping opposing backs? When Johnny Manziel ever play? Will 2016 be another rebuilding year?
Following today’s loss, the Browns stand at 2-6. This is a team without playoff hopes or a franchise quarterback. This team has clearly regressed since last season. Remember, the Browns started last season 5-3.
If change does not occur soon, the answers to some of the questions above will become quite clear. In the meantime, Browns fans are left to think about a team that looks lost in the wilderness.
However, the most important question is this: How does owner Jimmy Haslam feel about all of this?
Isn’t being a Browns fan fun?