It seems too easy—almost lazy—to blame a loss on just one man, but if you want to finger-point in Cleveland's loss to Baltimore today, do so at Browns head coach Pat Shumur.
The game of football is fertile ground for sensationalism. Every game is a high-pressure situation, with just 16 of them guaranteed to each team in every season. Mistakes are easy to overblow and blame is even easier to pin on just one man or just one play.
More than execution, this game came down to play calling, which firmly puts the responsibility on Shurmur's shoulders (Brad Childress, the offensive coordinator, does not call the plays).
Though the Browns rallied back from a 14-0 deficit to an eventual 15-14 lead in the fourth quarter, they had notable failures on defense in the first period and later in the fourth combined with some inexplicably poor decisions on the offensive possessions in between. Those same possessions could have resulted in touchdowns but instead saw the Browns kick (and make) field goal after field goal—an all-too common occurrence for a team that ranks 31st in red zone touchdowns per appearance.
Third-and-short has been a troubling down for the Browns so far this year, and only because of the play calls Shurmur has made in those situations: Pass, pass, pass. On nine occasions on Sunday, the Browns faced third- or fourth-and-short (four yards or less) and elected to pass, resulting in just four conversions and an interception.
This is despite having third-overall pick, running back Trent Richardson, in their lineup against one of the very worst run defenses in the league.
Richardson was effective when he was on the field, but on these key downs, Shurmur repeatedly went with passing plays. We've seen these passes not work numerous times over Cleveland's previous nine games, but Shumur apparently hasn't learned his lesson.
Defensively, there was more the Browns could have done. In the first quarter, they gave up 66 yards and a touchdown to running back Ray Rice on 13 carries, and 25 more yards and another score to Bernard Pierce before tightening their game in the second and third quarters. Pierce had just two more yards on the day and the majority of Rice's 32 additional rushing yards came in the fourth quarter.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was a non-factor for most of the game. He had only 153 passing yards on the day, with 100 of them in the first half. Unfortunately, Flacco threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass with just over four minutes remaining that began a 10-point tear for the Ravens that clinched the victory.
But that's not even the issue here. Those final 10 points wouldn't have mattered if the Browns could have had touchdowns on a mere two of five field goal attempts. Too many of those three-point scores came about on short, third-down passes called by Shurmur that have not proven effective so far this season.
What's he point of having a back like Richardson, who has shown multiple times—including during this very game—that he can make plays and gain yards, if you don't want him in on these key short-yardage plays?
The fact that this question needs to be asked is a clear reason why Shumur isn't the right coach for this team. Yes, Brandon Weeden could have completed more passes, read his progressions better, and made better decision, but he's a rookie—ups-and-downs are a natural part of his progression.
Handing the ball off to a player of Richardson's caliber against a defense more than willing to give him yards is one way to take the pressure off Weeden. If those short throws on decisive downs aren't coming, don't call them. Every time Shurmur does so and they fail, he is that much closer to losing his job.
Cleveland converted only five of their 16 third downs. Weeden went just 20-of-37, for 176 yards and threw two picks after going the last two weeks without turning the ball over. Richardson averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry in the first half and 4.2 through all four quarters, with 25 total carries. Five or six more could have changed the outcome of this game.
Instead, the Browns found yet another way to lose.
The Browns could have had one more possession in the fourth quarter, but instead Shurmur elected to go for it on 4th-and-2 after throwing, and failing, on the third down play before it. Again, it was a throw, and again, an incompletion. The Browns turned it over on downs on their on 30 yard line, leading to the final, game-clinching Ravens field goal.
With the Browns heading onto their bye, it's possible a coaching change could come this week, though not likely. New owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner might be dissatisfied with Shurmur's performance thus far, but it won't likely do the Browns much of a service to can him halfway through the season.
The fact that Shumur is a lame duck does make for a compelling argument as to why he should be dismissed. Perhaps they should strip him of his play calling duties and hand them to Childress for at least the next few weeks and see if there's any considerable change.
This was a winnable game for the Browns. Yet again, the Ravens offense wasn't particularly hot on the road. Again, their defense was giving up a great deal of rushing yardage—116, to be exact.
However, play calling destroyed drive after promising drive, leaving a mess that Shurmur appears less than qualified to clean up.