The Browns left for the bye week bubbling with frustration.
They had just been swept by the rival Ravens after settling for five field goals, wasting three timeouts after the play was late getting called and blowing a one-point fourth-quarter lead. They had fallen to 2-7, silencing all but the most delusional talk of a playoff run.
The Browns returned from the bye bouncing with energy.
They had just spent five days away from the grind of the season. Their bodies are fresh, their minds cleansed and their hope restored.
The final seven-game stretch begins today at the see-it-to-believe-it Cowboys Stadium. Rather than an excruciating countdown to vacation, the young Browns see seven weeks of opportunity.
“We want to establish ourselves as a team that can win games,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We just need to start winning. Every week we lose it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to focus on this week and we really have to start winning.’ There’s nothing else that can be said but to win games.
“We feel like we put out a good product, we feel like our team is a good team, but nobody else is going to recognize that or realize that until we start getting W’s and not L’s.”
The excitement and optimism took a hit Wednesday when Haden strained an oblique and couldn’t finish practice. He missed practice Thursday and Friday, was listed as questionable on the injury report and will be a gametime decision.
Missing Haden would be a big blow as the Browns try to deal with the potent Cowboys passing attack. The Browns went 0-4 during Haden’s early season suspension and the defense allowed 30.5 points per game.
“I’ve been here long enough to know that this stuff happens at the craziest time — especially for us,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.`
But the team remained hopeful Haden could play through the injury and energized about putting together a strong second half.
“Press the reset button and start something new,” defensive end Jabaal Sheard. “Just start winning and get it done, especially upfront as a defensive line.
“We want to come out and dominate and show that we are the best defensive line out there. We’ve got to go out there and prove it Sunday versus Dallas.”
The season always seemed set up for a stronger finish than start. The Browns have 17 rookies on the 53-man roster and they’ve made 49 starts. Their top passer, receiver and runner are rookies, and the Browns have another 10 players with less than two years of experience.
The youth has had nine games to grow up, and the expected wobbles will no longer be accepted. Coach Pat Shurmur always anticipated a better team as the season reached its second half.
“Because I believe in the players that we have on this roster, that the more they played, the better they would get,” he said.
The 10th straight season will end without a playoff appearance unless the Browns go 7-0 and get some help. It would be an unprecedented turn of events, because no 2-7 team has reached the postseason since the current format began in 1990. Three 3-6 teams have.
But the lack of a postseason doesn’t diminish the importance of the finishing stretch.
Not only does the team need to prove it has the talent and fortitude to win close games, the new regime of owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner will use the games to determine their course of action in the offseason. Every part of the organization will be evaluated, but Shurmur, quarterback Brandon Weeden and the rest of general manager Tom Heckert’s roster will receive the most scrutiny.
Banner will decide by January if he’s willing to commit to Heckert and Shurmur. The Weeden decision won’t be far behind.
Shurmur said this week Weeden can be an “outstanding” quarterback. But offensive coordinator Brad Childress said he needed the rest of the season to make a proper declaration.
“I want to see him grow here in the second half of the season and play through this Cleveland-Pittsburgh weather,” Childress said. “I want to see all of that. I want to see the whole body of work before I venture an opinion of where he’s at.
“He’s our starter and he’s given a pretty good representation of himself here. Can he improve? He’d be the first to tell you that, yeah. I think he’s doing OK for a first-year signal caller in this league.”
Weeden will face the eighth-ranked Dallas defense led by combustible coordinator Rob Ryan, who will pull out all the stops against his former team. Weeden needs 360 passing yards to pass Tim Couch’s 2,447 for the most by a rookie in franchise history. He’s taken a lot of heat for his 12 interceptions, and Banner raised the ante when he said he didn’t know yet if Weeden was the long-term answer.
“I’m nine games into my career and, yeah, it’s not going the way I would’ve expected maybe, but I don’t feel like (I’m under fire),” he said. “I know I’ve got to play better. And I’ve got to do my part to help this team win.”
The Browns have won two of their last four, but the feeling outside the locker room is they’re stuck in neutral after a tough loss in Indianapolis, a 7-6 win in the muck against San Diego and the deflating loss to the vulnerable Ravens. It’s also been exactly 14 months since the Browns won on the road, a streak of 11 straight losses.
Shurmur has just one road win in his two seasons and will venture into Jerry Jones’ $1.2 billion palace for the first time. Dallas is only 15-13 at its new stadium and has lost two straight, but won at Philadelphia last week and believes a run to the playoffs is still possible.
“We’re gonna go down to Dallas, to Jerry’s World, or whatever they call it, and we’re gonna play hard,” defensive tackle Phil Taylor said.
A final subplot was added when outgoing Browns president was linked to the Cowboys coaching job if Jones fires Jason Garrett after the season. Holmgren and Jones have worked together on league matters and it looks like a perfect fit for the pair of large personalities looking for another Super Bowl run after recent stumbles.
Holmgren said he hasn’t ruled out coaching but hasn’t discussed his future with anyone and would never campaign for another coach’s job. Jones praised Holmgren but said he believes in Garrett.
“It’s not a distraction for us,” Shurmur said.
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JUST THE FACTS
• WHO: Cleveland vs. Dallas
• WHEN: Today, 1 p.m.
• WHERE: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• RECORDS: Browns 2-7; Cowboys 4-5
• LAST WEEK: Browns had bye, lost 25-15 to Ravens on Nov. 4; Cowboys won 38-23 at Philadelphia
• SERIES: Browns lead 17-12
• SERIES IN DALLAS: Tied at 7
• LAST MEETING: Cowboys won 28-10 on Sept. 7, 2008
• COACHES: Pat Shurmur is 6-19 with Browns and overall; Jason Garrett is 17-16 with Cowboys and overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19, with Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• NFL RANKINGS: Browns— offense 29th (27th rushing, 18th passing), defense 24th (27th rushing, 22nd passing); Cowboys — offense 9th (29th rushing, 6th passing), defense 8th (13th rushing, 7th passing)
BROWNS UPDATE: Shurmur is 0-1 following a bye, losing 24-17 at Oakland last year.
• RB Trent Richardson’s three 100-yard games tied a team rookie record. He has two straight.
• QB Brandon Weeden is second among rookies in passing yards (2,088), passing first downs (104) and completions of 20 yards (30).
• WR Josh Gordon leads rookies with 417 receiving yards and is tied for first with four receiving TDs.
• LB D’Qwell Jackson leads the team with 70 tackles. He’s one of three players in the NFL with at least two sacks (three) and two interceptions (two).
• Against Baltimore, WR/KR Joshua Cribbs became the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return yards with one team (9,638). He ranks fourth this season in kickoff returns (29.7-yard average) and fifth in punt returns (12.6).
• CB Sheldon Brown has 51 tackles, four INTs, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a sack in 16 games against Dallas. He returned the fumble 80 yards for a touchdown.
• Gordon, Richardson and RT Mitchell Schwartz were named to ESPN.com’s Midseason All-Rookie team. Weeden and DT Billy Winn received honorable mention.
• Rookie CB Johnson Bademosi leads the Browns with 11 special teams tackles.
• DE Jabaal Sheard has 29 tackles and two sacks, one each in the Ravens games. He had 8½ sacks last year.
• CB Buster Skrine has a team-high eight pass breakups and is second with eight special teams tackles.
• Cleveland has converted 31.5 percent of its third downs.
• WR coach Mike Wilson was drafted by the Cowboys in the ninth round in 1981.
COWBOYS UPDATE: Are one of three teams to rank in the top 10 in offense and defense.
• The 3.6-yard average per rush ranks 30th in the league.
• Dallas is looking for its first back-to-back wins.
• Dallas’ .572 winning percentage (452-337) in the regular season is second to Chicago’s .579 (719-522). Dallas’ wins rank 12th all time, and the Browns are 13th at 444.
• Garrett went to University School in Chagrin Falls when his dad, Jim, worked for the Browns in the 1980s.
• Garrett’s brothers John and Judd work for the Cowboys. John is the passing game coordinator/tight ends coach, and Judd is the director of pro scouting.
• The Cowboys have a minus-9 turnover ratio. Their defense has only four INTs.
• The Cowboys have converted 42.1 percent on third down, ninth in the NFL. Their defense has allowed 33.9 percent to be converted on third down, which ranks fifth.
• PR Dwayne Harris had a 78-yard punt return for a TD last week, the first of his career. He replaced WR Dez Bryant.
• CB Brandon Carr got his first INT with the Cowboys last week and returned it 47 yards for the first pick-six of his career.
• LB coach Matt Eberflus had the same job with the Browns in 2009-10 under Eric Mangini.
• Secondary coach Jerome Henderson held the same position with the Browns from 2009-11 under Mangini and Shurmur.
• FB Lawrence Vickers was drafted by the Browns in the sixth round in 2006 and spent five years here.
• BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: CB Dimitri Patterson (ankle), S Bubba Ventrone (hand/calf); Questionable: CB Joe Haden (oblique), DT Ahtyba Rubin (calf); Probable: TE Jordan Cameron (groin), WR Josh Cooper (illness), WR Joshua Cribbs (wrist), LB D’Qwell Jackson (calf), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring), RB Trent Richardson (chest/rib/finger), DE Frostee Rucker (shoulder/illness), CB Buster Skrine (ankle), DT Phil Taylor (chest/ankle/illness), S T.J. Ward (hand), QB Brandon Weeden (groin/thigh), S Usama Young (knee)
• COWBOYS INJURY REPORT: Out: C Phil Costa (ankle), S Matt Johnson (hamstring), DT Sean Lissemore (ankle); Doubtful: C/G Ryan Cook (knee), CB Mike Jenkins (back), RB DeMarco Murray (foot); Probable: LB Dan Connor (neck), TE John Phillips (ankle), NT Jay Ratliff (ankle), FB Lawrence Vickers (knee)
• SCOTT’S PICK: The Browns returned from the bye week energized, but the Haden injury Wednesday deflated them. If he doesn’t play — or play at a high level — the Browns can’t win.
Cowboys 27, Browns 20.