CLEVELAND: Pat Shurmur began his NFL coaching career by accidentally knocking over a referee on the sideline and drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Three hours later, Shurmur should have known better than to kick him while he was down.
Shurmur questioned whether officials should have allowed the Browns time to substitute on the Cincinnati Bengals’ game-winning touchdown pass. The Browns’ defense was caught napping with a quick snap and backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski found rookie receiver A.J. Green uncovered for a 41-yard score.
Shurmur hedged a little, saying he had to watch the tape, and should have stopped there. “It’s my understanding that they changed personnel, lined up and then quick-snapped it,” he said. “There are rules that go along with that.…When the offense changes personnel, the defense is allowed to do so as well.”
CBS replays showed the Browns had 12 men on the field on defense. Presumably that means the Browns were substituting, which means Shurmur should have kept his rule musings to himself until he saw more.
It also means that someone should have called a timeout, whether it was Shurmur or defensive coordinator Dick Jauron or a player. Former safety Earl Little — who took credit for summoning kicker Phil Dawson for the game-winning field goal at Pittsburgh in 1999 — would have stopped the clock somehow.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown backed Shurmur, whom he has known since 2002 in Philadelphia, saying, “I thought the penalties were a little one-sided,” and later adding, “I thought we were playing at home today, but obviously other people didn’t feel that way.”
That cha-ching you heard came from the finemeister at NFL headquarters, even if the Bengals were flagged just three times for 22 yards.
I’m sure that’s not the way Shurmur wanted to make his debut in Cleveland.
Not on a day when the Browns dropped a 27-17 decision to the Bengals because they couldn’t convert a third down (4-of-15) and couldn’t stop committing penalties (11 for 72 yards).
Not when they led 17-13 in the third quarter and couldn’t close the deal.
Not when they looked unprepared to play against an opponent they were favored to beat by 6 1/2 points. Those who thought an 8-8 record was attainable had an “Oy vey!” moment.
To his credit, the first words out of Shurmur’s mouth concerned the Browns’ seven penalties for 48 yards in the first quarter.
“I mean, you’ve made a season full of mistakes there in the first quarter,” he said.
It wasn’t just the flags. Quarterback Colt McCoy caught his first pass after it was tipped by defensive end Robert Geathers, a problem that plagued McCoy all game. The first kick by punter Richmond McGee, signed after Reggie Hodges tore his Achilles in training camp, went a mere 20 yards. The Bengals’ defense swarmed running back Peyton Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards in 2010, holding him to 3 yards on his first three attempts. Even four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was whistled for a false start.
Shurmur’s voice rose a few minutes into his opening remarks, a clear indication of his displeasure.
“He’s ticked, and I don’t blame him. We’re all ticked,” Brown said. “It’s unacceptable, to be honest with you, and we’re going to find a way to fix it.”
Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson blamed some of the mistakes on inexperience. Their starting offensive guards — rookie Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao — had one previous NFL start. There were four rookies in the starting lineup.
“It was first-time jitters. We’ve got a lot of young guys,” Jackson said. “Good thing it happened early. Colt was making plays all over the place with his arm and his legs and the penalties hurt us.”
At least McCoy was making plays when the Browns scored 17 unanswered points. But other than the second quarter, when he threw touchdown tosses to tight ends Ben Watson and Evan Moore, McCoy was below average. He completed 4-of-9 passes for 103 yards and two scores (for a 126.4 passer rating) in the second quarter and went 15-for-31 for 110 yards with an interception (43.8 rating) in the other three.
“I certainly had my bad plays,” McCoy said. “We found a way to get back in the game then let it slip away from us. It’s not one person. It’s all of us. When you’ve got the lead at halftime at your house, you’ve got to win that.”
To his credit, Shurmur took some of the blame, saying, “I need to call better plays, and I need to get the guys in better position to make plays.”
Save for his foray into the rules and officiating, he remained the stand-up professional he has been since he arrived in January.
Basically, the Browns were snookered by six-year veteran Gradkowski, alert enough to recognize the defensive chaos and catch them unprepared. He was playing after rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor knocked Bengals rookie Andy Dalton out of the game at halftime with a wrist injury. It was the same Gradkowski who started the final game of Browns coach Romeo Crennel’s tenure at Pittsburgh in 2008 and finished with a 2.8 rating.
Blame it on first-time jitters if you want, for the Browns and their rookie coach. There have been a lot of if-onlys as the Browns have gone 1-12 in season openers since 1999. If only they had called timeout might be the simplest one of all.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.