INDIANAPOLIS — The play call was bold. The throw beautiful.
After an uneven performance for 3½ quarters Sunday, the Browns were moments from taking their first lead of the game. The highly anticipated two-game winning streak was within reach.
The pass, the game, the streak, the momentum, the positive vibes that had filled Northeast Ohio for a week all slipped through rookie receiver Josh Gordon’s fingers in the blink of an eye. The drop will linger much longer in the memories of new owner Jimmy Haslam, embattled coach Pat Shurmur and frustrated fans everywhere.
More photos below.
The Browns lost 17-13 to Andrew Luck and the Colts, slipping to 1-6 on the season. The Colts are 3-3 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
The Browns had chances before and after Gordon’s drop, but it hurt the most. On third-and-1 from the Indianapolis 41-yard line, Shurmur called for a pass that would go to Gordon on a post route if the safety bit underneath. The safety took the crosser and Weeden, despite taking a shot from linebacker Pat Angerer, lofted a perfect pass that landed on the hands of Gordon, who had sprinted past cornerback Jerraud Powers and cruised under the ball at the 3-yard line.
Instead of his second touchdown of the game and fifth in the three weeks, Gordon had a giant regret.
“No sun, nothing like that, just dropped it,” he said. “That was one of those plays that just didn’t go my way. In a big-time moment like that, you can definitely blame the loss on me in that regard.”
The game didn’t end with the drop, but the Browns’ best chance was gone. The next two minutes of real time played a big part in that.
The decision to throw deep on third-and-1 usually means the coach has decided to go for it on fourth down. Shurmur inserted Oniel Cousins as an extra lineman and called a run play for fourth down, but it was slow getting to Weeden and the play clock was at three seconds when the offense reached the line. Weeden called timeout with 6:38 remaining.
“One, it was a long play. Two, it’s a big play,” Weeden said of why it took so long to break the huddle. “We want to make sure we called the right one, because essentially it could have been the ballgame. We wanted to make sure we had the right play, right personnel, right everything in there to do it like we want to do it, but we just ran out of time.”
Shurmur waffled during the break, dismissed Weeden’s suggestion to go for it and decided to punt. It caused Haslam, in his first game since being approved by the league, to set his jaw and shift in his seat.
“I had two timeouts left and better than six minutes,” Shurmur said. “We felt like the best thing to do was punt, which was the right decision in my opinion. But we did have a discussion.”
Punter Reggie Hodges was supposed to pin the Colts deep with a kick out of bounds, giving the defense the chance to get a stop and set up the offense with good field position. Instead, he kicked it into the stands after covering only 21 yards.
The defense got its stop anyway, and the offense moved into Indianapolis territory. Two incompletions around a 4-yard Montario Hardesty (seven carries, 28 yards) run left a make-or-break fourth-and-6 from the 39. Weeden fired on a slant for good buddy Josh Cooper, but Powers had man coverage and appeared to break it up.
“He made a good play, and I probably should’ve made a play there,” Cooper said.
Shurmur felt the second chance validated his choice to punt after the Gordon drop.
“I wouldn’t do those decisions differently,” he said.
The list of what the Browns should’ve done differently is as long as their 11-game road losing streak, which tied a franchise record set from 1974-76. The last win away from the lakefront was in Indianapolis in Week 2 last season.
The Browns were supposed to have the advantage at the lines of scrimmage, but the tables were turned.
Indianapolis found its missing running game, using backups Vick Ballard and Delone Carter to rush 37 times for 148 yards, a 4.0 average. Ballard ran for 84 yards, 17 more than his career total coming in.
The Colts were just as effective stopping the run. A week after allowing 252 to the Jets in a 35-9 loss, they held the Browns to 55 yards on only 17 attempts, a 3.2 average. The Browns ran twice for 0 yards in the third quarter.
Rookie running back Trent Richardson ran eight times for 8 yards before being benched in the second quarter after getting stuffed on third-and-1. Richardson injured rib cartilage the Sunday before in a win over the Bengals, was playing with a flak jacket and wasn’t himself.
He wanted to stay in and thought his production would improve over the course of the game, but said he understood Shurmur’s decision.
“Coach didn’t think I was as I usually am,” Richardson said. “That’s something I have to swallow. The injury I have is much bigger than what folks think it is.
“I feel like you have to give me the whole four quarters and I didn’t play the whole four quarters. I got shut down early.”
Luck and Weeden were hot early as they traded long touchdown drives to open the game. Luck finished 11- and 14-play drives on the first two possessions with 3- and 5-yard runs. He looked in complete control, going 16-for-29 for 186 yards and a 74.8 rating. Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron made adjustments after a field goal in the third quarter, and the Colts were blanked the rest of the way.
Weeden was 25-for-41 for 264 yards, no sacks, two touchdowns and a 96.0 rating. He was hampered by poor field position until the fourth quarter but still gave his team the chance for a second straight win.
He said the loss shouldn’t crush anyone’s spirit.
“Yeah, it stings right now but you’re crazy if you don’t see the strides we’re making, you’re out of your mind,” Weeden said. “I don’t think we took a step backwards. I think there’s a lot of good things we can build on and that’s what we need to focus on. We can’t dwell on the negatives.”