Is it baseball season yet?
The Cleveland Browns endured another difficult defeat on Sunday, as the Kansas City Chiefs outlasted a late comeback, 17-13.
The Chiefs captured their ninth straight win and secured a playoff spot, while the Browns lost for the second straight week to fall to 3-12.
Johnny Manziel led an inspired comeback, using his feet to keep the Browns in it, but he couldn't pierce a stout Chiefs secondary and a stiff Kansas City wind. Manziel's helmet spike after the clock expired encapsulates the feelings of many Browns fans after this late season loss.
Here are seven takeaways from the defeat:
1. Another close one: The Browns once again lost a winnable game in the closing seconds. The Browns struggled in the clutch for the umpteenth time this season.
Call it coaching or execution, the Browns can’t win the close ones. The Browns have a 1-5 record in one-score games this season, the worst in the expansion era.
We can make several conclusions from this fact: 1. The 2015 Browns do not perform well at the end of games, nothing new for a Cleveland team; 2. The Browns could easily have 5-6 wins this season; 3. This team has regressed in the second year of the Pettine era, as the team finished 4-4 in one-score games last season; and 4. The Browns are playing in fewer close games.
We cannot use this stat to conclude that the 2015 Browns are worse than the 1999 or the 2000 Browns. That’s simply not true. The stat does tell us a lot about how the 2015 season has went, however.
Eight of the Browns’ 22 opening day starters are on the injured reserve. Three quarterbacks have started in a carousel of craziness. Veterans have lagged, rookies have disappointed, and coaching strategies have failed. It’s been a bad season for the Browns.
In the grand scheme of Browns teams, this one ranks in the lower-third, though not at the absolute bottom.
The Browns’ problems boil down to one, simple reality: This Browns team cannot get the job done in crunch time.
2. The return of Johnny Football: Browns fans saw vintage Johnny Manziel, an exciting running quarterback with an inaccurate arm. Manziel pulled off several magical scrambles but his discomfort in the pocket ultimately doomed the Browns’ comeback effort.
Following a few weeks of improvement, Manziel regressed to his 2014 form against the Chiefs.
Manziel undeniably enjoyed a great day on the ground. The second-year quarterback scrambled around and through the Chiefs’ defense, picking up yards in bunches. Manziel finished the day with 108 rushing yards, a career-high. But his passing form looked poor.
Through the air, Manziel finished the day 13-of-32 for 136 yards and one interception, his worst passing performance of the season.
Manziel’s throwing motion looked off. He frequently failed to set his feet in the pocket, as he struggled to stay in the pocket against a fierce Chiefs pass rush. The Chiefs did not manage any sacks, thanks to Manziel’s awareness, but the hosts did hit Manziel five times. A few times, Manziel was crunched by the Chiefs’ big defenders, likely causing him to have happy feet in the pocket.
Manziel’s feet often wreaked havoc with his throws. On deep throws, Manziel flung the ball too far and too high. On short-to-medium throws, most of his passes fell behind his wideouts, nearly leading to two more interceptions.
Manziel often eschewed underneath throws for scrambles, which works sometimes but is not a sound strategy overtime.
It’s impossible to discredit Manziel’s intangible magic as a scrambler. It’s also impossible to discount his regression as a passer in recent weeks.
To succeed in the NFL, a quarterback must have the majority of his success in the pocket. Most of Manziel’s success came outside of the pocket. As a result, the offense did not score enough points to win. It’s that simple.
Scrambling quarterbacks do not often succeed in today’s NFL. Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick stand as clear examples.
That’s not to say that Johnny Manziel can’t one day succeed as a starting quarterback. Manziel has lots of potential and dynamite talent. He simply needs time to improve as a passer. Will the Browns give him time to do so? Probably not.
3. A tired tale: The Browns’ defense underperformed in the first half, putting the Browns in a big hole. The defense allowed the Chiefs to take a 17-3 first half lead, though the unit clamped down in the second half.
The Browns made mistake after mistake on defense in the first two quarters, frequently missing tackles and committing penalties. The first drive epitomized the Browns’ defensive struggles. The Browns missed three tackles and accrued an offsides penalty on the first five plays of the game. The Chiefs eventually completed the 11-play, 65-yard drive with an 11-yard Alex Smith touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin.
The unit did not alleviate the problems over the course of the first half. The Browns continued to miss tackles, including two on the same play, as both Tashaun Gipson and Karlos Dansby whiffed on Travis Kelce, allowing the Cleveland Heights native to turn a two-yard reception into a nine-yard pickup.
Herein lies the Browns’ problem this season. The defense misses easy tackles on first and second down, allowing opposing offenses to set up easily convertible 3rd and shorts. The Chiefs converted 4-of-9 third downs in the first half.
The Browns' defense did come up with a big play midway through the second, as Nate Orchard intercepted an Alex Smith pass and returned the pick 46 yards into Kansas City territory. Credit Randy Starks for deflecting the ball at the line of scrimmage and Orchard’s teammates for blocking on the return.
In typical Browns fashion, though, Manziel threw an interception two plays later.
The Browns defense held, but Kansas City’s next drive resulted in a Smith touchdown pass. Four plays before the score, Barkevious Mingo allowed Smith to escape from his clutches on a near-sack. Smith took advantage of Mingo’s missed tackle, scrambling 29 yards into Cleveland territory.
Going back to the touchdown, Smith found Kelce on a 13-yard strike that should have never happened. Playing a two-deep zone, strong safety Donte Whitner should have picked up Kelce coming into his zone. Instead, Whitner reacted too slowly, allowing the Chiefs to take a two-score lead into halftime. As evidenced by the negative reactions of Gipson and Tramon Williams, the touchdown hurt.
Despite all the mistakes, both mental and physical, the defense toughened up in the second half. The Browns limited the Chiefs to 58 yards and no points in the second half, allowing the Browns’ offense to play catchup.
The defense’s best play of the half occurred midway through the fourth quarter. On a critical 3rd and 1, Jamie Meder wrapped up Charcandrick West inches short of the first down marker. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid challenged the spot, but the referees upheld the ruling, forcing Kansas City to give the ball back to the Browns.
The Browns’ next drive faltered, allowing the Chiefs to take over on downs. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s men again stood tall, forcing a big three-and-out following two Chiefs runs and one screen pass to Travis Kelce.
Thanks to the defense’s efforts, the Browns offense received one last chance to win the game with a touchdown drive.
4. That familiar feeling: Special teams hindered the Browns early on against the Chiefs. Poor kick coverage, bad blocking, and penalties hurt the Browns’ special teams unit early on Sunday, though a gutsy fake helped the team late.
The Browns’ special team cost the team points and field position today, particularly in the first half.
For the fourth time in five games, kicker Travis Coons had a field goal blocked. Once again, the Browns’ big uglies allowed the opposition to push through the front lines. The failure to block led to a blocked 51-yard field goal at the end of the half. Instead of taking a little bit of momentum into halftime, particularly following a lengthy Manziel scramble, the Browns’ special teams faltered.
Coons did manage to contribute today, however, hitting a 45-yard field goal midway through the second quarter and a 36-yarder halfway into the fourth.
The blocked field goal still hurts, however. The Browns might have attempted a game-winning field goal in the waning seconds. The Browns did have the ball at the Kansas City 32-yard line with 28 seconds remaining.
Raheem Mostert also experienced a tumultuous day. Mostert fumbled one kickoff and had another return erased by a holding penalty. The rookie exited the game in the first half due to injury, leading Darius Jennings to assume kick return duties.
Thanks in part to the return struggles, four of the Browns’ 10 drives started inside their 20-yard line.
The special teams did make a big difference late in the third quarter, as Jordan Poyer gained 10 yards on a fake punt on 4th and 8. Poyer pushed his way forward following an initial stop by the Chiefs, preventing a calamity that might have doomed the Browns, as a failed attempt would give the Chiefs the ball deep in Cleveland territory.
Give credit to the Browns’ coaching staff for the gutsy call. The fake punt extended the drive and granted the team a big boost of momentum at a critical time.
At the end of the day, though, blocked field goals will come back to haunt you.
5. Silver lining: The Browns’ ground game pounded the Chiefs defense, as Johnny Manziel and Isaiah Crowell ran all over the Chiefs. A solid rushing attack kept the Browns close for most of the game.
Manziel and Crowell enjoyed banner days, as the Browns finished with a season-high 232 rushing yards.
Facing a very good Chiefs secondary, Manziel finished with 54 yards and one interception in the first half, so the coaching staff switched the gameplan coming out of the break. The Browns leaned heavily on the ground game in the second half, and the approach worked.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo reached deep into the playbook in the second half and called previously unused plays, including a read option play with Manziel and Crowell. The new looks worked wonders, as the Browns picked up yards in bunches.
The approach yielded several big gains in a critical 21-play, 62-yard drive eating up 12:01 of clock time. The drive ended in disappointing fashion, yielding only a field goal, but the Browns punched repeatedly the Chiefs in the mouth with big runs. That’s the type of football fans have waited to see all season.
Manziel finished the day with 11 rushes for 108 yards, the best for a Browns quarterback in franchise history, according to Browns’ play-by-play broadcaster Jim Donovan. Crowell netted 88 yards on 16 carries, including a 28-yard rush early in the first half. Duke Johnson also added on 26 yards on eight attempts.
Without a doubt, the Browns’ ground game churned out its best performance of the season. And the success can be credited to one play – the outside zone read.
The Browns repeatedly ran this play for big results. Tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz paved the way for big blocks, and guards Cameron Erving and Austin Pasztor sealed the backside with authority.
Pasztor pulled quickly and efficiently on several plays, while Erving showed vast improvement with his technique. Erving did not get pushed back as in past weeks on runs plays. The rookie bodied defenders and pushed players back with surprising strength. Erving’s footwork still needs work, but his physical play today is certainly a good sign.
6. There’s a first for everything: Mike Pettine outcoached Andy Reid in the second half. The Browns’ coaching staff made the necessary adjustments at halftime and nearly pulled out a surprise victory over the hottest team in football.
For perhaps the first time this season, the Browns’ coaching staff outsmarted a veteran coach in the second half of a game. Following a disastrous first half with few positive takeaways, Pettine’s staff adjusted the gameplan with big results.
In the first half, the Chiefs outscored the Browns, 17-3, and outgained the visitors, 200-124. In the second half, the Browns enjoyed the upper-hand in points, 10-0, and in yards, 244-58.
To quote the old cliché, it was a tale of two halves.
After calling 10 run plays and 11 pass plays in the first half, John DeFilippo threw out his balanced approach in the second half, calling 26 runs against 21 passes, most of which came on the final drive. DeFilippo’s dedication to the run worked to perfection.
Crowell and Manziel tore through the Kansas City defense, using new plays to gain yards in bunches. The Chiefs did not have a response to the onslaught, as DeFilippo let his quarterback run wild. Manziel’s scrambles opened running lanes for Crowell, who enjoyed one of his best games of the season. The switch to a run-first offense also avoided a dangerous Kansas City secondary with two Pro Bowlers.
The unbalanced approach did not lead to a win, as Manziel faltered in the waning minutes. Still, credit is certainly due to DeFilippo and the offensive staff.
Jim O’Neil also dialed up several changes in the second half. The Browns seemed to switch from a zone scheme to man coverage, which worked out well. Smith completed 4-of-5 passes, but his completions yielded just 36 yards.
On the ground, the Browns utilized a more aggressive approach, which also paid off. The Chiefs picked up just 25 yards on eight carries, two yards below the team’s yards per carry mark in the first half. Better tackling also aided the changed scheme.
Pettine’s gambles also paid off. His decision to fake the punt late in the third quarter worked well, as the Browns narrowed the Chiefs lead after a lengthy drive. Pettine also chose to keep his offense on the field three times today, converting on two of the three.
Yes, the Browns did not win against the Chiefs. But poor coaching is not one of the reasons for this loss.
7. The big picture: How does this loss affect the futures of Pettine and Ray Farmer? The loss stings, but the Browns did show fight in this game.
A loss is a loss. Moral victories do not exist in the NFL. But the loss might just help Mike Pettine.
Through the expansion era, Cleveland fans have watched the Browns play countless meaningless games. Fans have seen the Browns quit and rollover too many times to count. That didn’t happen today.
Backed into a corner in the second half, Pettine’s men scratched and clawed back into the game, nearly stealing one from the NFL’s hottest team. The Browns adjusted and roared back in the second half, playing as if Sunday’s game actually meant something.
Despite the loss, does this mean something to owner Jimmy Haslam? Does he notice the team’s fight at the end of the game? Or is he only concerned about the "W"?
To be honest, I can’t say for sure, same as everyone besides Jimmy himself. But the loss could not have hurt Pettine much.
Pettine coaxed a solid game out of a skittish quarterback in the pocket. He helped his defense slow down a consistent Chiefs offense. Even facing a significant talent gap, Pettine kept his team in the game until the end.
On the other hand, the loss could not have helped Farmer much.
Two of Farmer’s premier free agent signings in the offseason, Dwayne Bowe and Tramon Williams, hindered the Browns. Bowe dropped his lone target, though perhaps out of his reach, and Williams committed two big penalties totaling 45 yards. Williams also allowed several big plays in the first half.
Farmer’s failure to acquire a big receiver also loomed large, as Manziel often waited forever in the pocket waiting for his wideouts to come open. Darius Jennings and Marlon Moore should not have significant roles as wide receivers.
Will today’s loss have any effect on Haslam’s thinking as we approach Black Monday? We’ll have to wait and see.