They led Tampa Bay by 11 points, had controlled the action, confused quarterback Josh Freeman and displayed a diverse offense. The Browns were beating the Florida heat and marching toward the fork-in-the-Bucs score.
But the game, the young season and the vibe throughout Browns Town changed with one ill-advised Jake Delhomme throw Sunday with 30 seconds left before halftime. The Ronde Barber interception led to a touchdown, a Peyton Hillis fumble in the third quarter sucked away the rest of the momentum and the Buccaneers rallied for a 17-14 win in Raymond James Stadium.
“I’m more disappointed and it hurts more than anybody,” Delhomme said. “You want to start the season 1-0. We had great preparation and a great week’s work and we lost the turnover battle. Without a doubt that was the difference in the game.”
Coach Eric Mangini preaches ball security more than a pastor does charity. But the Browns had three turnovers.
“The ball was on the ground too much,” he said. “We’ve got to get to the point now where we are playing to win and not making mistakes that are going to cost us the game.”
The Browns might as well start the season in Week 2. They are 1-11 in openers since returning in 1999. They had played the first 11 at home, so they proved they can lose home or away. The quality of the opponent doesn’t matter, either.
The Buccaneers went 3-13 in 2009 and aren’t expected to do much better this year. But they hung around long enough to let the Browns self-destruct and win the battle of the bad no one outside of Cleveland saw on TV.
The Browns have lost all kinds of openers — 43-0 to Pittsburgh, Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss — but this ranks with the worst.
“We simply beat ourselves,” Joshua Cribbs said. “We blew a lead and we lost.”
The despicable defeat ratchets up the pressure on Mangini and Delhomme. After the home opener against Kansas City on Sunday, the schedule gets much tougher. And this team isn’t talented enough to give away games.
It’s also not good enough to overcome so many mistakes. The character Mangini and the players like to rave about will get tested immediately.
“It takes away nothing,” fullback Lawrence Vickers said when asked if the loss diminished his optimism. “We have a lot more games to play, a lot more opportunities. The good thing about it is we can only get better. This was the starting point.”
The Browns looked formidable early, as they took a 14-3 lead on a 10-yard Hillis run around left end. Vickers had a good block in the hole, and pulling left guard Eric Steinbach took out a defensive back down the field.
The first Cleveland touchdown was a 41-yard completion to Mohamed Massaquoi on a post. Safety Tanard Jackson and cornerback E.J. Biggers undercut the route but missed the interception, leaving Massaquoi free to jog into the end zone.
The Buccaneers made it 14-10 on the first play following Barber’s 64-yard interception return to the 3. Mike Williams caught a tipped ball in the back of the end zone and dragged both feet — something Cleveland’s Brian Robiskie couldn’t do twice on the sideline.
The Browns were done scoring. After Hillis (nine carries for 41 yards) fumbled on the 15-yard line on the opening drive of the second half, they were done moving the ball.
“When we’re in sync, we’re in sync,” said running back Jerome Harrison, who carried nine times for 52 yards with a long of 39. “When we’re out of sync, we’re out of sync.”
Delhomme blamed the dropoff on first-down execution.
“We didn’t do a good job putting ourselves in manageable second-down situations,” he said.
Delhomme went 20-for-37 for 227 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and a 59.2 rating. The picks ruined the game and brought back memories of his final season in Carolina, when he threw 18 interceptions in 11 games.
“This is very different from where I came from team-wise and everything,” he said. “You always want to make a good first impression, you want to be perfect in everything you do.
“But the thing is how do you respond. That’s the true character of a man.”
The defense posted decent numbers, limiting Freeman to 182 yards passing with an interception. But he had an 88.7 rating and two touchdowns, including the 33-yard winner to Micheal Spurlock behind rookie cornerback Joe Haden with 6:45 remaining.
Freeman showed some character himself, because two plays earlier he missed a wideopen Williams when the throw wobbled out of bounds.
“I apologized to Mike, because that should have been his touchdown,” Freeman said. The Spurlock touchdown came on an all-out blitz by the Browns that never reached its target. Freeman had time to wait for Spurlock to get open.
“He ran a hitch, I broke on the hitch, then he ran a go,” said Haden, who was called for illegal contact on the play. “I tried to turn around and catch up.”
As the defense gave up a couple of critical third-down conversions late — including the touchdown — the offense went 1-for-7 on third down in the second half. Throw in consistently bad field position after a subpar special teams effort, and the Browns weren’t able to match Tampa’s comeback.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said cornerback Eric Wright, who covered former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, holding him to four catches for 32 yards. “I felt like we definitely have a better team. You can’t win when you have self-inflicted wounds.
“I feel like we really shot ourselves in the foot.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com.