CLEVELAND: On a rare Browns Sunday, creativity replaced predictability, Shurmurball went into mothballs and fans might still be blinking in disbelief.
Among the little ditties coach Pat Shurmur trotted out in a 30-7 victory over the visiting Kansas City Chiefs were the return of the wildcat, a pistol formation, a reverse, receiver Greg Little at running back and a punt block play that turned into the longest punt return for a touchdown in Browns history.
Miraculously all worked except for the pistol, a modified version of the shotgun, with Brandon Weeden’s pass for Josh Gordon batted down at the line.
“Long time coming,” said receiver/returner Josh Cribbs, who could have been speaking for all of Browns Town.
“We pulled ’em out when they were needed,” Cribbs said of the trickery. “Coach is getting a little bit more flexible calling plays and a little bit more comfortable running this team. Great. Better things to come.”
There are two schools of thought on Shurmur’s reason for abandoning his plodding offense.
Some suggest it’s born of desperation, with the second-year coach trying to save his job and convince new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner he’s the right man to the lead the Browns despite a 9-20 record.
Or it’s a case of young players maturing, Shurmur growing as a coach and finally trusting them to take more than baby steps.
I’m convinced it’s the latter. But either way, the odds of Shurmur staying are improving, especially if the Browns win their remaining three games — at home against the Washington Redskins, at the Denver Broncos and at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The hard-luck Browns might have caught a break when Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III sprained his right knee in the final minute of a 31-28 overtime victory Sunday over the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, the Steelers fell 34-24 to the San Diego Chargers despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s return from a shoulder/rib injury. Shockingly, the 5-8 Browns are still among the contenders for the final AFC wild-card spot.
Shurmur thought it was time for “fun stuff,” perhaps because the foe was the struggling Chiefs (2-11). So he handed the ball to Little, a running back in high school and at the University of North Carolina, and Little dashed for 17 yards to the Chiefs’ 1. Receiver Travis Benjamin picked up 15 on a reverse. Cribbs returned to his good old days running the wildcat and gained 15 yards on two carries, one also stopped at the Chiefs’ 1. He later suggested it was a swipe at former Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, now calling plays for the Chiefs. Benjamin scored on a 93-yard punt return that broke Eric Metcalf’s team record from 1994.
Shurmur unleashed the hounds, but he didn’t explain why.
“We have those types of plays in most of the time,” he said. “It just so happened it came in bunches today, and we got them called in the right situation.”
Browns players believe they know.
“You get coaches being creative, you know all the ability and all the skill players we’ve got, just shows he’s got confidence in us,” running back Trent Richardson said. “You’ve got a good game plan like that and good plays being called, you can’t do nothing but win.”
With rookies making up more than 32 percent of the active roster, tight end Alex Smith said Shurmur “never quite knew what you were going to get those first few games.”
“As the season has gone on, you can definitely see the maturity,” Smith said. “Greg Little hands-down he’s had the most improvement, him and Josh Gordon. Those two playing well elevates this whole team.”
Smith had a good feeling when he saw how loose the players were in practice Friday. There was no hint of the doom-and-gloom that might bog things down with the possibility of a coaching change.
“Guys were out there having fun,” Smith said. “When they scored a touchdown, they dunked the ball. I don’t know if it was the plays that were being called or guys feeling comfortable with where we were with our game plan.”
Weeden said in his case, it was the latter.
“Any time I can line up at wide receiver or something like that, look like I know what I’m doing, that breaks up the monotony a little bit,” Weeden said. “Any time you do plays like that, it’s tough on defenses.”
That’s rarely been the case with the Browns’ offense in recent years.
Shurmur’s willingness to experiment comes from his increased faith in his young talent, but also from him growing into his role, which he conceded a week ago. He and his staff made huge strides during the Nov. 11 bye week getting their in-game communication issues streamlined. Since then, the Browns have won three out of four.
Shurmur was way behind schedule getting to his postgame news conference and had to weave through the media to reach the podium.
“All right, sorry I’m a little bit late here. A lot of fun stuff in there for a change,” he said.
Shurmur was referring to revelry in the locker room, but it seemed more apt for his imaginative game plan.
There’s still a smidge of hope for the playoffs, and for continuity with Shurmur. So let the fun continue.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. 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.