FOXBOROUGH, Mass.: Browns coach Rob Chudzinski didn’t think it was pass interference.
Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereria, writing for msn.foxsports.com, said it wasn’t pass interference.
But the critical penalty called on rookie cornerback Leon McFadden with 35 seconds left in the Browns’ gut-wrenching 27-26 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium shows just how far the Browns have to go to gain respect in the NFL.
Their meltdown in the final 2½ minutes, when they blew a 12-point lead with a rash of mistakes, took “Only in Cleveland” angst to new heights. Only this time, the Browns had help.
For much of the day, they had two opponents, the Patriots and referee Jerome Bogar’s crew. From the minute Patriots quarterback Tom Brady talked Bogar into picking up a flag for intentional grounding in the first quarter, it seemed like the Patriots got more than their share of calls. It was almost as if the officials were blinded by Brady’s three Super Bowl rings or owner Robert Kraft’s status as one of the league’s top power-brokers.
Chudzinski, directing a team that has been a perennial loser and has made only one playoff appearance since 1999, became his team’s personal protector. He went 2-for-2 on challenges and could have tossed the red hanky at least once more.
In the second quarter, he questioned the spot after a measurement showed running back Willis McGahee was stopped inches short on third-and-1. After the review, the Browns picked up 2 yards.
In the third quarter, Chudzinski challenged what was initially ruled as an 8-yard completion to receiver Julian Edelman, even though Edelman lost control of the ball as he went down. Chudzinski won that one, too, giving him an additional challenge. Chudzinski — and whoever was watching replays and advising him from the press box — scrutinized every flag. They had to wonder why some, including an intentional grounding call on Browns quarterback Jason Campbell in the final five minutes, were thrown so late.
Browns players thought the Patriots got Kobe Bryant- or LeBron James-like treatment, and in this case, they weren’t alone. There was second-guessing in the press box and on Twitter. It felt like the haves against the have-nots and the haves got the benefit of the doubt every time.
“On the road you can’t expect calls to go your way, especially against the New England Patriots,” Browns defensive back Jordan Poyer said after his team slipped to 4-9 and the Patriots improved to 10-3.
Asked if he considered some of the Browns’ seven penalties for 75 yards hometown calls, outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard said: “You tell me. That’s what it seemed like.”
But the play that thrust McFadden into the spotlight in his first extended playing time of the season will rankle the Browns for more than 24 hours.
The Patriots cut the deficit to 26-21 with 1:01 remaining and their field position for the ensuing onside kick was helped by a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty on Poyer, who appeared to hit Edelman shoulder-to-shoulder on a 2-yard touchdown catch.
After the Patriots recovered the onside kick, two plays later, McFadden found himself covering receiver Josh Boyce on first down from the Cleveland 30. Brady’s pass fell incomplete in the end zone, but McFadden drew the penalty, setting up the Patriots with a first-and-goal at the 1. They scored four seconds later.
“Personally, I don’t think it was pass interference,” McFadden said.
Free safety Tashaun Gipson agreed with the suggestion that the penalty on McFadden was cheap.
“Oh, absolutely. I saw him extending back pushing McFadden,” Gipson said of Boyce. “There were a lot of bad calls today, but I’m not a ref. It’s not my job to critique the refs, but a lot of questionable first downs.
“We played one heck of a game. Unfortunately plays like that happen. That’s kind of been the story of this year.”
Chudzinski might already be a favorite of his players, but he has earned more credibility by sticking up for them with every challenge flag he has. In his first season, he has frequently submitted officials’ calls to the league for review. Every coach does that, but it seems like the Browns have had an inordinate number to question.
The league’s answer this week might be longer than normal.
Campbell said the loss stung because of the great opportunity the Browns had against one of the NFL’s elite teams.
“We talked about it all week. If you want to get recognition and get respect you have to earn it,” Campbell said. “What better opportunity than to play against a team like this on their home field?”
Campbell and the Browns want respect from their peers and the league’s coaches and general managers. But they may not have realized that they’d forgotten a step in their climb from obscurity.
The Browns might be on their way back, but the men in the striped shirts need convincing, too.
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.