Coach Pat Shurmur certainly doesn’t want the Browns to set a franchise record for ineptitude on his watch, and incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III certainly doesn’t want them to be the only winless team in the NFL when the league’s owners vote Oct. 16 to approve his purchase of the organization.
But those depressing possibilities are dangerously close to becoming realities.
The Browns (0-5) have one last chance to spare themselves embarrassment on both fronts Sunday when they host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) in the second game of the year between the two AFC North rivals.
Shurmur’s men have suffered 11 defeats in a row dating to last season, matching the number of consecutive losses the Browns had when they fell in the final two games of 1974 and then started the 1975 season 0-9. This year, the Browns are the only team without a victory heading into Week 6.
The New Orleans Saints, ravaged by the bounty scandal, started 0-4 but prevailed over the San Diego Chargers 31-24 on Sunday night. The Browns, of course, collapsed earlier in the day against the New York Giants and lost 41-27.
Perhaps the Browns’ greatest hope to end their historic drought lies in the return of starting cornerback Joe Haden, whose four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs ended Monday. Haden will be charged with covering Bengals standout wide receiver A.J. Green, who has caught a touchdown pass in each of his three Battle of Ohio appearances.
In Week 2, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton capitalized on Haden’s absence by picking the secondary apart. He threw for 318 yards and connected with Green, Andrew Hawkins and Brandon Tate for a touchdown apiece. Adam Jones also returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown early in the first quarter to foreshadow the Bengals’ 34-27 triumph.
Joe Reedy covers the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: What is the morale of the Bengals after they fell to the Miami Dolphins 17-13 on Sunday and squandered a chance to extend their winning streak to four games?
A: “The morale still remains good, but it’s still a sense of disappointment. Considering the way things are going in the AFC, the Bengals could have been in a great position at 4-1, but now at 3-2, and with the schedule getting more difficult after Sunday with three straight home games in four weeks against playoff opponents, the Bengals can’t waste win opportunities against teams they are favored to beat.”
Q: The Dolphins stifled the Bengals’ offense. Why was Miami’s defensive game plan so effective against Dalton and Co.?
A: “Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was the secondary coach here for 11 seasons and was well versed in the passing game. The Dolphins got consistent pressure on Dalton but also took Green and Hawkins out of the game. Dalton and Green were in sync for one drive, which was the Bengals’ only touchdown. But Hawkins had a key drop, and Dalton was off for most of the game with all his receivers. There were also a couple passes batted at the line, and [Dolphins defensive tackle] Randy Starks had [an] interception during the third quarter that led to a [13-yard rushing] touchdown [by Dolphins running back Reggie Bush]. On the season, the Bengals are at minus-4 on turnovers and have been outscored 38-12 in points off turnovers.”
Q: It’s no secret that Green is an elite player, but the Bengals also have been getting solid production from Hawkins, another young receiver who killed the Browns in Week 2. How do you explain Hawkins’ success this season?
A: “He has emerged as the team’s slot receiver after mainly being used outside last year. As he showed last season, Hawkins is dangerous when he gets open space and is averaging 11 yards after the catch. [Offensive coordinator] Jay Gruden is also doing a better job of calling plays on deeper routes where he is able to generate the yards after the catch. The best example of that was his 59-yard touchdown in Week 3 against Washington where he broke away from the corner on a simple route down the middle and was gone. The [50-yard] touchdown against the Browns in Week 2, which was Hawkins’ first in the NFL, was a great individual effort that showed off his speed and athleticism.”
Q: What do you consider the most pleasant surprise and the biggest disappointment for the Bengals through five games?
A: “The most pleasant surprise has been the continuing improvement of [rookie] linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who moved into the starting lineup after a season-ending knee injury. It is the first time that Burfict has played outside linebacker but coaches like his athleticism and the aptitude that he has for picking up the defense. The biggest disappointment is that the Bengals are starting to become a one-dimensional team on offense. The running game has struggled two of the past three weeks and nearly 40 percent of BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ carries have been for 2 yards or less, and he is not a breakaway-type back.”
Q: What will be the keys to the game for the Bengals if they want to sweep their season series against the Browns?
A: “The Bengals have to begin generating turnovers, but they also have to stop [Browns running back] Trent Richardson, who gashed them for two touchdowns in the first meeting. Run defense has been better the past couple weeks as they have contained [Jacksonville Jaguars running back] Maurice Jones-Drew and Reggie Bush. The Bengals also didn’t have [defensive end] Carlos Dunlap the first game [against the Browns] and have 14 sacks over the past three games. Offensively, they need to get the running game going.”
Read Joe Reedy’s coverage of the Bengals at www.cincinnati.com/blogs/bengals. Follow him on Twitter: @JoeReedy. Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.