CLEVELAND -- The Browns finally did it.
Look good? Nope.
Give the home crowd reason for optimism in the third preseason game that’s supposed to serve as a dress rehearsal for the regular season? Absolutely not.
But for the first time in three preseason games, the starting offense scored a touchdown. It came Saturday with 37 seconds left in the first half of a 33-14 loss and against St. Louis’ backups.
It was still a relief for starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, who celebrated his 5-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Hawkins with a huge fist-pump.
“Getting in the end zone, it was good to do that and finish a drive,” Hoyer said.
“It’s a good sign,” said rookie coach Mike Pettine, who dropped to 0-3 in meaningless games, 0-1 at home.
Speaking of signs, rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel flashed his “money sign” after scrambling for a 7-yard touchdown in the third quarter to cash in an interception by rookie inside linebacker Chris Kirksey. Manziel stepped up in the pocket, broke for the goal line and dived headfirst.
Rams rookie Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, returned the favor by flashing the “money sign” after a fourth-quarter sack of Manziel. The game ended with Sam’s second sack of Manziel and a shove of Sam by a Browns lineman.
“If you’re going to sack Johnny, you’ve got to do that at least once,” Sam said.
Manziel led the one scoring drive in four series. He finished 10-for-15 for 85 yards and an 81.2 rating and said he felt more comfortable and decisive. His only run was the touchdown.
“The stadium was incredible, the big screens looked awesome, the crowd was great from the beginning to the end,” Manziel said. “It was a great first experience for me in the stadium. To get a touchdown was incredible.”
Any positives for the Browns were vastly outweighed by negatives.
The first-team defense gave up two touchdowns to third-string Rams quarterback Austin Davis after starter Sam Bradford left on the first possession with an injury to his surgically repaired left knee. Cornerback Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 pick in May, was beaten repeatedly, including for two touchdowns. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas gave up a sack and was penalized for holding.
The Browns were outgained 472-178.
“It doesn’t,” Pettine said when asked if the performance shook his confidence. “It’s just disappointing. We had circled this date. You play at home, you only get one chance to make a first impression for your fans, even though it is the preseason.
“That to me is disappointing, that our fans deserved a better performance. They showed up ready to go, revved up and we didn’t give them much to cheer about.”
The positive vibes from the second-quarter touchdown lasted through halftime on the night stadium renovations were unveiled to the fans. They quickly disappeared.
Hoyer and the starters returned to start the second half. On the first snap of the third quarter, Hoyer wanted to make a sight adjustment and throw a quick pass to receiver Miles Austin, but Austin didn’t expect it. Hoyer kept the ball, was sacked and fumbled. The Rams recovered.
“We’re all just trying to come along together. As an offense, you have to be on the same page,” Hoyer said. “It’s gonna come. That’s what the preseason’s for, to work out those kinks.
“We have flashes here and there, then we pull ourselves back. I don’t want people to hit the panic button.”
Hoyer, a North Olmsted native, was named the regular-season starter over Manziel on Wednesday and was looking to find a rhythm with the rest of the starting unit. They managed spurts of movement, but had too many incompletions, punts and turnovers.
Hoyer and the starters played seven series. They managed seven points and 101 yards. Hoyer went 10-for-16 for 84 yards with a touchdown, an interception, a fumble, two sacks and a 70.8 rating. For the preseason, he’s 18-for-36 for 192 yards with an interception and touchdown.
Hoyer started well with three straight completions. He later converted his first third down of the preseason after nine failures, but was intercepted on the next play. Hoyer didn’t see linebacker Alec Ogletree drop in coverage as he looked for Austin cutting across the middle and it was easy pickings.
“I’m not going to play timid. I promise you that,” Hoyer said. “I came off a hard play-fake, you go to throw the ball on time and I didn’t see the linebacker.”
Hoyer hadn’t played in the stadium since tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 3 against Buffalo. He returned as the starter and appreciated the significance.
“It hit me when I ran out of the tunnel that a lot of hard work was put into getting back on this field because last time I was on this field was not a good night,” Hoyer said.
Pettine’s debut on the lakefront wasn’t what he’d hoped. He wanted to inspire the fans and re-energize the Dawg Pound.
It didn’t happen.
The starting defense couldn’t get off the field. It allowed St. Louis to go on drives of 68, 74 and 83 yards, and gave up 279 yards in the first half. The Rams converted seven of 10 third downs in the half, including third-and-longs of 12, 25, 11 and 19 yards.
“Third-and-long should be something where a good defense will dominate,” Pettine said. “That’s where we took a step backward tonight. We just couldn’t make a play on third down and get off the field.”
Gilbert gave up a 6-yard touchdown on the goal line to Brian Quick and a 75-yarder to Chris Givens. Gilbert trailed Givens on a crossing route, then missed a tackle and Givens was gone, outrunning safety Donte Whitner, the Cleveland native who kicked the grass when he was introduced.
“This is where I’m from,” he said. “This is what my heart is, what I love. I think that’s what I’m going to do every time I come out and I’m called because I kiss the land. This is where I’m from, Cleveland.”
The Rams lost four starters in addition to Bradford, yet still dominated on the gorgeous night. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson was carted off with an apparent knee injury, and right guard Rodger Saffold (Bedford) and defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford walked off.