INDIANAPOLIS: On the surface, it looked like almost any other Browns game this season.
The 17-13 loss Sunday to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium was their fourth setback of seven points or less. It seemed totally in character for the 2012 Browns (1-6), masters of only one thing — squandering opportunities.
But as maddeningly consistent as the Browns were, this game felt different. It felt like the one that sealed the fate of Browns coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert.
The special teams’ gaffes. Nine penalties. Shurmur’s questionable play-calling and decision-making. The Browns’ inability to run the ball and continuing failure to stop the run. Another big dropped pass, this time by rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon one stride away from the goal line.
The repeated mistakes seemed almost comical, especially the three holding or illegal block calls on special teams, two by safety Ray Ventrone, one by linebacker Tank Carder.
But Jimmy Haslam wasn’t laughing. CBS cameras repeatedly caught the new Browns owner looking perturbed. Haslam-watching took on a life of its own, with the Northeast Ohio sports blog Waiting for Next Year photographing his reaction on television on every crucial play. It was enough to make one wonder if Haslam will sit out of view at the Browns’ next two games, both at home.
Haslam found out why the man he’s about to give $1 billion — Randy Lerner — became a Long Island recluse.
Haslam couldn’t have liked what he saw. The Browns regressed from the confidence-building home victory last week over the Cincinnati Bengals. They lost their 11th consecutive road game. The hope of a possible turnaround seemed like a fleeting dream.
Haslam has to have questions about Shurmur’s leadership and game management, about the coaching staff, the roster Heckert has built and whether the team is heading in the right direction.
He might not be the only one.
“It would be a joy if we won a freaking game,” said Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown, an ardent Shurmur supporter. Brown forced the game’s only turnover with his sack of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck with 7:25 remaining. “It’s hard to walk around and gloat about things that happened when you don’t win.”
Asked why he seemed more down than usual, Brown said, “I thought this was a game we could have won. I thought we were jelling. We made some plays. We fought back. But I think it’s important for this young group of guys to go into a hostile environment and be able to win.”
That’s not going to happen with mistakes like punter Reggie Hodges’ muffed hold on an extra-point kick or his 21-yard punt out of bounds with 6:31 remaining.
That’s not going to happen with the Browns gaining just 55 yards on the ground against a Colts defense that gave up 252 yards rushing to the New York Jets the week before. With running back Trent Richardson ineffective playing with a rib cartilage injury and benched in the second half, Shurmur gave up on the run too soon, especially with Montario Hardesty hitting the holes with explosion and averaging four yards per carry.
That’s not going to happen with Shurmur punting on fourth-and-1 from the Colts 41 with 6:38 to go, flip-flopping after a timeout.
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden said they were going to go for it, but he got to the line of scrimmage with three seconds left and decided he had better call time on the biggest play of the game. During the break, Weeden lobbied to go for it.
Shurmur changed his mind and punted, and stood by his decision afterward. He felt vindicated after his defense forced a three-and-out, giving the Browns another chance, starting at their 31 with 4:08 left.
It might have been the right decision for a team with a winning record, for a team that had more to lose with such a risk. But instead of trying to make a bold move and perhaps save himself in the process, Shumur seemed more mindful of the Browns’ struggles than their successes. Six-of-13 on third down, they hadn’t converted one since their third play of the second half. Four of the six came on their first possession.
But his decision on fourth-and-1 wasn’t the only disconcerting aspect of the game. The special teams continued to spring leaks, despite the admirable performances of kicker Phil Dawson and returner Josh Cribbs. Those units were abominable last year, yet coach Chris Tabor was retained. The Browns’ special teams haven’t been the same since Brad Seely went to the San Francisco 49ers after coach Eric Mangini was fired following the 2010 season.
The Colts’ running game found new life behind rookie Vick Ballard, who came in with just 67 yards on 29 carries. Ballard rushed for 84 yards on 20 attempts as the league’s 26th-ranked running attack piled up 148 yards on the ground, nearly 62 above its average.
“We can’t afford to give them an inch, and we gave them the game,” linebacker Kaluka Maiava said of the Browns’ run defense.
Left tackle Joe Thomas lamented that the Browns let another victory get away.
“We were right there. Catch the ball in the end zone, touchdown and we’re up,” he said of Gordon’s drop. “And then a couple other times stuff like that. It was definitely there for both sides to take and neither side took it.”
Weeden insisted the Browns are still improving.
“Yeah, it stings right now. But you’re crazy if you don’t see the strides we’re making, you’re just out of your mind,” Weeden said. “There’s so many positives to take from this game. Don’t get me wrong, you’ve got to be hard on yourself to see where you messed up. But you’ve got to look at the positive plays and take those with you.”
Judging by Haslam’s body language, he wouldn’t agree. When it comes to the futures of Shurmur and Heckert and many others in Berea, that might be the truest indicator of all.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.