CLEVELAND — The pockets of fans that remained in the near-empty stadium wore Bills colors and cheered loudly, with encouragement from the players on the sideline. They no longer had to compete with the jersey-wearing home crowd and partied with little resistance from the orange seats.
“I don’t like it. I don’t like it whatsoever,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.
“That was embarrassing,” safety T.J. Ward said.
The disturbing scene has played out too many times at Cleveland Browns Stadium, but usually in the dog days of December against the powerhouse Steelers. The season is all but over, hope is gone, the weather is brutal and Cleveland fans have already turned their attention toward the draft.
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This time it was an average fall day, the perennially mediocre Bills were on the visiting sideline and the season was less than three weeks old.
The situation felt nearly as hopeless in the final minutes as the thousands of Buffalo fans expressed their excitement. The remaining Cleveland fans and their team could do nothing to stop them in a 24-14 loss that left the Browns 0-3. They have lost nine straight dating to last season.
“We were at home, but you’re not the home team it felt like at times,” Ward said. “You heard the fans throughout the entire game, ‘Go defense!’ and we weren’t on the field.
“But if you give them nothing to cheer about, then they can’t cheer.”
The theme of the week was avoiding an 0-3 start. Coach Pat Shurmur stressed the importance of a victory, rookie running back Trent Richardson gave a speech to inspire his teammates to stop the losing before it was too late and the veterans recounted how awful things can get when the season starts with a skid.
Then the game began and the Browns played as if they were still waiting for a wakeup call.
The Bills led 14-0 before 10 minutes had elapsed. The Cleveland offense, which had shown such promise seven days earlier, didn’t get a first down until the second quarter. The special teams allowed big returns on the first two punts. The defense broke down twice to give up Ryan Fitzpatrick (22-for-35, 208 yards, three touchdowns, 107.8 rating) touchdown passes.
“We’ve got to make sure we come out blazing,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to come out running the ball hard, we’ve got to come out throwing the ball, we’ve got to come out correct on special teams, we’ve got to come out on every aspect of the game.”
Cleveland needed big plays to climb back into the game, but couldn’t make enough of them. It climbed within 17-14 late in the third quarter on a 22-yard pass from Brandon Weeden to rookie receiver Travis Benjamin, but left the momentum sitting in the end zone.
The Browns’ final four drives ended in two punts and two Weeden interceptions. In the middle, the defense allowed a touchdown drive to bump the margin to 10 as cornerback Dimitri Patterson was beat by Steve Johnson (seven catches, 61 yards) for a 9-yard touchdown. So the finish was nearly as big a problem as the start.
“We talk frequently about a fast start and strong finish, and we didn’t accomplish it,” Shurmur said.
Despite losses in the first two weeks, the level of anticipation had been raised by the performances of Weeden and Richardson last week in Cincinnati. Weeden threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns, and Richardson ran for 100 with two touchdowns.
Sunday was a step back. Richardson found little room to run against a stout and expensive defensive line and finished with 12 carries for 27 yards (2.3 average) and a long of 6 — a touchdown run in which he bounced outside after being stuffed. Weeden was 27-for-43 for 237 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions, four sacks and a 65.7 rating.
“It wasn’t a lack of effort on our part, I can tell ya that,” Weeden said. “Trent ran hard, our offensive line played hard. We just couldn’t get anything going.”
Weeden described his play as “solid” except for the final interception. He spread the ball to his receivers and made several nice throws, but he couldn’t connect on the one huge play needed to turn the game.
He underthrew Benjamin and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (he left the game in the third quarter with a pulled hamstring) on deep routes, then overthrew tight end Jordan Cameron (five catches, 45 yards) on another.
Failing to make the pivotal play has long been a problem for this franchise. It becomes more obvious when the opponent has no such issue.
The Bills got a 32-yard touchdown from running back C.J. Spiller on a screen pass — before he left in the first quarter with a shoulder injury — a crucial third-down conversion from receiver T.J. Graham in the fourth quarter and a sack from defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that short-circuited one of Cleveland’s final drives.
The Browns countered with at least four drops — three on third down — a late-hit penalty on Jackson and a fourth-quarter holding penalty on center Alex Mack.
“Those penalties really hurt you,” Mack said. “Whatever I need to do to fix that and have it not get called, we need to do that. From what I know, I don’t think it was holding.
“It hurt. We were close the whole game after that first quarter. Those are winnable games. We need to come up with the win.”
Cleveland Browns Stadium was supposed to host a celebration Sunday. Hall of Famer Jim Brown returned from his two-year exile and 21 Browns Legends were on hand to celebrate the induction of Ernie Green and Clarence Scott.
But the only people partying Sunday night were dressed in blue and red. And the Browns were left to ponder their sixth 0-3 start since returning in 1999, the fourth in the last five years.
“I never thought we would’ve been 0-3,” Ward said. “We can’t let it steamroll on us. We’ve got to stop the bleeding, because we’re bleeding right now.”