CLEVELAND: Fans in Northeast Ohio have always loved their Browns, warts and all.
So for the next 24 hours, or the next 24 inches of this column, let those guys who wore brown and orange in Sunday’s 17-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins be known as the Warthogs.
Until the final 3½ minutes, the Warthogs could find no consistent offensive rhythm.
They dropped passes.
They picked the most inopportune times to be penalized.
They couldn’t stop a rookie running back.
They were dominated in almost every statistical category.
Their leader, quarterback Colt McCoy, was horrible.
They seemed to be waiting for their spark plug, Joshua Cribbs, to do something.
Yet the Warthogs won. They started the season 2-1 for the first time since 2002.
“They said nine years,” marveled kicker Phil Dawson, his 13 years making him the longest-tenured Warthog. “Hey, just to get a win at home, who cares how ugly it was? Kind of like your high school prom date. As long as you had one, that’s all that matters.”
If this was prom night, the Warthogs woke up with big zits on their noses. In the first quarter, they might as well have been napping with star running back Peyton Hillis, who was sent home with strep throat.
“We have to figure out exactly why it’s taking us so long to start,” said Warthogs receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass, a 14-yarder with 43 seconds left. “The defense is doing a great job of making sure whenever we don’t score as quickly as we need to or when we’re a little bit flat, we’re still in the game.”
At least Warthogs coach Pat Shurmur was well aware of the ugliness.
“There’s plenty to correct,” Shurmur said. “I said a boatload [before], this is a freighter load full of stuff to correct.”
After the boatload of mistakes in a season-opening loss to Cincinnati, the Warthogs regrouped to win at Indianapolis. Now comes a freighter load of issues to be corrected before next week’s home game against the Tennessee Titans (2-1).
They must improve against the run, especially after second-round pick Daniel Thomas of Kansas State gashed them for 95 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Next comes the Titans’ $53 million man, Chris Johnson.
The Warthogs must improve offensively on third down, converting 35.7 percent for the season and just 3-of-11 (27 percent) against the ’Fins. That contributed to a staggering 15-minute deficit in time of possession.
“That’s my job to keep us on the field and I thought I did a pretty poor job of that today,” McCoy said.
Above all, McCoy must find a more consistent rhythm. He had it in the second quarter, when the Browns have scored 35 of their 61 points this season, marching the Warthogs 59 yards to Cribbs’ 33-yard touchdown reception. They mustered some to start the third quarter on a nine-play, 68-yard drive to a Dawson field goal. Then taking over with 3:23 left, McCoy drove them 80 yards on 13 plays and completed 9-of-13 passes.
“We had a drive coming out of halftime that was a great drive,” McCoy said. “You go down and get points, kind of set the tone. Then we kind of fell back into whatever you want to call it, our funk. I misfired a couple of throws, but some throws were there. We’ve got to make some plays, we’ve got to catch the ball. But at the end of the day when it’s time to go get one drive, thankfully we put it together.”
Before the Warthogs’ final series, McCoy had completed 10-of-26 passes for 135 yards with a touchdown and an interception (for a 52.6 rating).
Penalties continue to be a major issue. The Warthogs were flagged eight times for 85 yards against Miami, running their total to 22 for 206 in three games. That’s on pace for 117 penalties for 1,099 yards. The latter would rank second in Warthogs’ history.
The Warthogs did all they could to hand the Dolphins the game in the final minute, with an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Massaquoi after his touchdown celebration and a horse-collar tackle by defensive back Dimitri Patterson on the Dolphins’ kickoff return. Those two flags totaled 30 yards and helped set up the ’Fins at the Warthogs’ 47. Another Thomas run or two and Miami might have had a game-winning field-goal attempt.
The Warthogs also have health issues. They have yet to get right tackle Tony Pashos (left ankle) onto the field this season. Against the Dolphins, they played without Hillis and with Cribbs (hamstring) and Massaquoi (foot) ailing.
Yet there are things to like. The Warthogs’ defensive line looks strong, accounting for four of their five sacks of Chad Henne. Rookie receiver Greg Little continues to improve, catching all three balls thrown his way in the game-winning drive. Second-year running back Montario Hardesty showed promise in his first extended action, with 67 yards on 14 attempts. The secondary continues to shine, save for a couple of tough moments for cornerback Sheldon Brown.
But if Sunday’s mediocrity continues, the Warthogs may not be able to live on the edge and prevail. After hosting the Titans and an Oct. 9 bye, they play three of their next four games on the road. They go to Oakland, San Francisco and Houston, plus play an Oct. 23 home game against Seattle.
The Warthogs cannot let victory obscure their flaws. They need more than an ordinary prom date to reach respectability. They need a looker.