BEREA — Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade, a seventh-round pick out of Arizona, didn’t believe his veteran teammates when they told him every game in the NFL is decided by a couple of plays. After four years of mostly blowouts, he couldn’t fathom the weekly torment that is life in the big leagues.
“It is crazy that in the NFL it really comes down to a couple plays,” he said Monday.
The Browns’ 23-20 overtime loss to Dallas on Sunday was just the latest example of how exhilarating turns to excruciating between toots of the whistle. The Browns lead the league with 18 losses by seven or fewer points since 2010. They’ve won seven such games.
An overtime game like the one Sunday allows for more what-ifs and could’ve-beens. So here’s the anatomy of a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, hair-graying loss in five painful steps.
A better result in any of the situations could’ve resulted in a different outcome and the Browns leaving Cowboys Stadium 3-7 instead of 2-8. But the lack of execution at critical times and the inability to overcome adversity reveal a young team not ready to close out victories.
“Losing at the end by one score in well over multiple games is really hard and stressful,” Wade said. “Just because we’re just right under the hump and we just need to find a way to get over.”
The fumble that wasn’t
We’re starting at the finish.
The Browns had gone three-and-out on what turned out to be their only possession of overtime. Rookie cornerback Johnson Bademosi missed a tackle on the punt, allowing Dwayne Harris to return it 20 yards to the Cleveland 48-yard line. The defense that had been shredded for 20 points in the second half needed a turnover and appeared to get it.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown clubbed the ball out of receiver Miles Austin’s hands after a catch and two steps upfield and safety Usama Young grabbed it. But the ball shifted in Austin’s grasp and the official ruled incomplete. The play wasn’t reviewable by replay because the whistle had blown.
A play eerily similar happened in the New Orleans-Oakland game Sunday and was ruled a completion and fumble, only to be overturned by replay. The referee said the ball was still moving in the receiver’s hands, which means it was never a catch.
Coach Pat Shurmur was asked for his opinion of the ruling.
“A lot of thoughts, no comments,” he said.
Bottom line: The whistle was too quick, the call was correct, the rule is too tough to interpret.
A huge penalty
The Browns were hanging on for dear life after taking a 20-17 lead with 1:07 left in regulation. Cornerback Buster Skrine had been knocked out with a concussion four plays earlier, leaving veteran Brown with rookies Wade and Bademosi in the nickel package.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo faced first-and-10 at the Cleveland 49-yard line with 29 seconds left. He threw deep down the right sideline for Harris, who had gotten behind Brown in single coverage. The ball was underthrown and Harris made contact as he tried to stop. Brown grabbed Harris’ jersey in return, inadvertently hit his helmet and was penalized 35 yards for pass interference.
The Cowboys were suddenly in field-goal range and forced overtime with two seconds left.
Bottom line: Brown can’t get beat deep in that situation. He disagreed with the call, but there was too much contact to ignore.
Coming up short
Running back Trent Richardson had the ball in space on consecutive plays early in the fourth quarter. The offense was in a funk, and this was its chance to snap out of it, pick up a first down and regain the momentum from the 13-point first half.
On second-and-10 from the Cleveland 7, quarterback Brandon Weeden dumped to Richardson in the right flat. Cornerback Brandon Carr was the only thing between Richardson and a first down, went low and got enough of Richardson to bring him down.
On third-and-5, Richardson took a quick pitch left and had a head of steam and what looked like a sure first down. But he saw safety Gerald Sensabaugh coming, braced for a collision and lost. Richardson was stopped in his tracks and the ball popped loose. When he recovered, he was a yard short of the first down.
Richardson rushed 28 times for 95 yards, but had only 33 yards on 12 carries after halftime. He was also stopped on a third-and-goal leap from the 1 in the final minutes.
“I don’t think he ran out of gas,” Shurmur said. “I thought he did a lot of good things in the second half.”
Bottom line: The No. 3 pick in the draft needed to pick up the first down and extend the drive.
Head or shoulder
Safety T.J. Ward has been penalized before for hits to the head of a defenseless receiver and purposely aimed lower as the Browns tried to protect a 20-17 lead in the final 63 seconds. Intent didn’t matter, and he was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct for a hit to the head of receiver Kevin Ogletree.
Ward made initial contact shoulder to shoulder with his head off to the side. But Ogletree’s head moved upon impact and the helmets knocked.
“I hit him in the chest, aimed at his chest, ball comes, man comes all in a split-second,” Ward said after the game. “It’s not ‘Back to the Future.’ I can’t control time. It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating.”
Ogletree had dropped the ball, so instead of third-and-6 at its 24-yard line, Dallas had first-and-10 at the 39 and was in business.
Bottom line: The call could’ve gone either way, but the violent collision that knocked out Ogletree and Skrine with concussions helped elicit the flag. Ward needs to aim lower to be safe.
What, no flag?
The officials had a disproportionate impact on the game, and it wasn’t just on penalties against the Browns. They didn’t throw flags on two critical plays for the Cowboys on the touchdown drive that gave them a 17-13 lead with 6:46 left in the game.
On third-and-6 from the Cleveland 37, Dallas’ left tackle moved before the snap to try to combat a Browns pass rush that finished with seven sacks. The violation was obvious and one officials never miss. But they did this time.
Tight end Jason Witten caught a 9-yard pass for the first down, but it should’ve been third-and-11 from the 42 — out of field-goal range.
The Cowboys capitalized, and three plays later Romo hit receiver Dez Bryant for a 28-yard touchdown down the left sideline on second-and-19. This wasn’t without controversy, as Bryant pushed off at the goal line. Brown was in perfect position until Bryant separated himself illegally.
Bottom line: The zebras missed the calls, the Cowboys took advantage and the Browns made too many mistakes to overcome them.