BALTIMORE: They appeared overmatched, especially against a Baltimore Ravens offense that was much more balanced than they’d faced in recent years.
Yet it seemed as if the Browns were fighting to save their season Thursday night in M&T Bank Stadium. Amidst the negativity of an 0-3 start, an ineffective offense and the uncertain future under incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III, the Browns played as if determined to prove they all shouldn’t be shown the door.
They found their only prime-time television appearance of 2012 to be the perfect forum.
Although the Ravens pulled out a 23-16 victory, the Browns’ gutty play seemed a drastic improvement over Sunday’s lackluster loss at home to the Buffalo Bills.
Yes, the outcome was the same for the winless Browns. Yes, when they closed the gap to 16-10 in the third quarter on a 51-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, they couldn’t seize the night.
But in the final minute, they drove to the Ravens’ 18 with a chance to tie.
“We’ve got to find a way to coach a few plays better and each guy’s got to find a way to make one or two more plays and then we’ll be over the top,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said afterward. “We’re close in a lot of ways.”
All night, there were flashes of talent from rookie defensive lineman Billy Winn and first-year linebacker Craig Robertson. There were flashes of brilliance from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and rookie running back Trent Richardson.
“I’m proud as hell of these guys,” Weeden said. “It’s a close-knit group. We battled, we came up short, but we fought our asses off.”
Watching in person, Haslam may continue to be caught in an internal struggle, wondering what to do with such a young team -- blow it up or suffer through the growing pains?
Unlike the Bills’ game, the moments to forget were offset by moments of promise.
In the second quarter, the Browns put together an 11-play, 94-yard drive that included a 43-yard catch by goat of the week Greg Little. In the fourth quarter, Little let a high ball that would have been a game-tying TD pass go through his hands at the goal line.
“If you want to be a great player, you want to be a great receiver, you want to make plays that people remember, that people name, that put you in position to come back, you make the play,” Little said. Little caught four passes for 77 yards, but was targeted 10 times.
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, whose rollercoaster ride in the NFL found a valley on Sunday, seemed back on the rise, at least until 15 seconds remained in the third quarter. That’s when Weeden tried to get the ball to rookie receiver Travis Benjamin on the sideline and was picked off by cornerback Cary Williams, who returned it 63 yards for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a 23-10 lead. It was the first interception of Williams’ five-year career.
Before and after that, Weeden was much more in control. In the 94-yard drive, he completed 5 of 8 for 80 yards. In the third quarter, he directed a 53-yard drive to Dawson’s first field goal. Although he missed a wide-open Little in the first quarter, he found Richardson for an 18-yard reception on the same play. He continued to spread the ball around, hitting nine receivers, and showed poise when it began to rain and when adversity struck.
Weeden was operating without his most reliable receiver, Mohamed Massaquoi, out with a hamstring injury, and his replacement Josh Cribbs, who suffered a concussion on a first-quarter punt return. In the second half, Weeden’s receiving corps consisted of Little, Benjamin and Jordan Norwood, active for his first game of the season.
“He battled,” Shurmur said of Weeden, who completed 25 of 52 for 320 yards with an interception and a 59.8 rating. “I think he made progress as a player tonight. But when you really make progress is when you lead your team to victory.”
The Browns’ pass rush, while inconsistent, also showed improvement with four sacks, their second-most of the season, and two more hits on Joe Flacco. Jabaal Sheard, who led the team with 8.5 sacks as a rookie, notched his first of the season. Winn, a sixth-round pick from Boise State, came through with five solo tackles and two tackles for losses.
The unknown Robertson, a North Texas product signed to the practice squad last Dec. 11, stopped Flacco’s streak of 125 consecutive passes in the red zone without an interception in the first quarter.
“It’s not about yards, it’s about points,” Shurmur said. “When you can intercept the ball in the end zone like that, you’re accomplishing something we need to get done.”
Then there is the incomparable Dawson, who hit field goals of 50, 51 and 52 yards against the Ravens and is 8 for 8 this season, four of them from 50-plus.
“He’s a big part of this football team and he’s very, very dependable,” Shurmur said. “That’s what you want in a player, guys who are passionate, productive and durable and he’s all those.”
Yes, the Browns are still wildly inconsistent. They couldn’t come up with a big play on defense when within striking distance. Injuries and cornerback Joe Haden’s suspension continue to leave them lacking in depth and talent, especially as they attempted to cover Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught nine passes for 131 yards. There seems no urgency in play-calling when they fall behind in the first three quarters, the no-huddle apparently lost on page 999 of an imaginary 1,000-page playbook. The Browns’ bench drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 5:27 to go, which doesn’t reflect well on Shurmur.
“It was on me,” said Shurmur, who was protesting an intentional grounding penalty on Weeden. “Fortunately we had an opportunity on that drive to shoot a ball in the end zone or I would have felt worse about it. I can’t do that. It’s an emotional game and I’ve got to make sure I keep my emotions in check.”
But the Ravens are expected to be Super Bowl contenders. The Browns didn’t roll over as they had four days before. They rediscovered their pride, which seemed lacking in the second half against the Bills.
“There’s going to be a lot of negative outside this locker room,” Weeden said. “My goal is to keep this team united. We’re all in this as one. My goal is to keep this group as close are we are right now and to continue to fight. We’re a young team but we’re making strides.”
It has been an agonizing wait for the Browns to put it all together, with the setback against the Ravens their 10th consecutive loss dating back to last season. But against a supposedly vastly superior opponent, it finally seemed as if they have some pieces.