By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
KANSAS CITY, MO.: Jason Campbell gave the Browns a spark akin to the one fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer provided last month before he suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Campbell, though, couldn’t conjure enough magic to overcome some crucial mistakes in crunch time and a sluggish start.
The Browns fell 23-17 to the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium after flirting with a major upset. Although they lost their third consecutive game, they learned something about Campbell during his first start in place of Brandon Weeden, who was demoted last week.
“I proved I can still play the game,” said Campbell, who completed 22-of-36 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, posting a passer rating of 105.4 and taking just one sack, four fewer than the Chiefs were averaging per game entering the weekend. “We knew it was a big challenge coming here, but I felt all week we could win this game.
“I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud of the way they fought. It stings because it’s a game we feel like we had a chance to win. And to come away with a loss, it hurts.”
In his postgame news conference, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski was not ready to name Campbell the starting quarterback for Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens (3-4), but there’s no doubt he will do so. After a sluggish beginning marred by three consecutive three-and-outs, Campbell, 31, was crisp in his first start since Nov. 19, when he filled in for Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“He made some great plays for us,” Chudzinski said. “I think his leadership was key in us being able to hang in there and fight through the early deficit.”
Despite falling behind 13-0 early in the second quarter and trailing 20-10 at halftime, the Browns (3-5) had the Chiefs (8-0) right where they wanted them in the end. Trailing by three points, they had possession at their 16-yard line with 3:55 left and a chance to pull out a win the way Hoyer did by orchestrating clutch touchdown drives in wins over the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 22 and Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 29.
The Browns, though, didn’t have any timeouts because Chudzinski used the last one with 3:57 left right before the Chiefs punted. Chudzinski said he wanted to ensure the Browns got the ball back with plenty of time remaining.
Then the miscues piled up. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was penalized for a false start and for holding Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali. Thomas’ second holding penalty of the fourth quarter negated Campbell’s scramble for 13 yards on second-and-10 at the Browns’ 28.
It ultimately led to the Browns facing fourth-and-7 at the 31. Campbell rolled to his right under pressure and threw across the field to wide receiver Davone Bess, who dropped the ball as he slid for it. It looked as if Bess would’ve had a first down had he held on.
“You don’t have any timeouts left, and you can’t just go down,” Campbell said. “So I was trying to do everything I could to stay inbounds and not cross the line and see if someone would pop open, and at the last minute, I saw Davone kind of in the middle. So I tried to flick it to him real quick.”
Bess dropped three passes, including two in the first half. He vowed Friday to “fix” that problem, which has plagued him this season.
“I had a bad game,” Bess said. “You can’t make critical mistakes in critical situations. That’s the bottom line. There is no excuse for it. I pride myself on catching the ball.”
After Bess failed to secure the ball as he slid, the Chiefs took control at the Browns’ 31 with 2:01 left. Four plays later, they extended their advantage to 23-17 with Ryan Succop’s 40-yard field goal.
Another golden opportunity slipped from the Browns’ grasp after the defense held the Chiefs to what should’ve been a three-and-out. Bess caught Dustin Colquitt’s punt at the 50, took a step or two and then dropped the ball without anyone hitting him, allowing linebacker Frank Zombo to recover at the Chiefs’ 47 with 7:02 remaining. Bess was filling in for Travis Benjamin, who suffered a sprained right knee when he was tackled returning a punt in the third quarter.
“I just tried to come up and field it, and I muffed it,” Bess said. “No excuse. I got to catch it.”
The fumble didn’t lead to any points for the Chiefs. But it allowed them to take more than three minutes off the clock and wiped out what would’ve been good field position for the Browns, who instead started their last real drive at their 16 amid deafening crowd noise.
Campbell and Co. didn’t gain a first down until 3:30 remaining before halftime. One play later, wide receiver Josh Gordon, who finished with five receptions for a game-high 132 yards, caught a 39-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker from Campbell. The offense opened the third quarter with a nine-play, 80-yard drive capped by running back Fozzy Whittaker’s 17-yard touchdown catch that cut the Chiefs’ lead to three points.
The defense then buckled down, allowing only 50 yards and compiling five of its six sacks against quarterback Alex Smith in the second half. The threat the Browns posed after a dismal start gave them confidence they can triumph with Campbell.
“Absolutely. We almost won that game,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “So that’s what we want to do — create opportunities for our offense to move the ball. And it was two minutes to go, and [Campbell] made a great effort, even on fourth down. So I’m more than confident. We’ve just got to figure out a way not to shoot ourselves in the foot too early, not fight from a big hole in that second half.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.