As the Cleveland Browns end their bye week and begin preparing in earnest for their game with the New England Patriots on Nov. 7, the stark reality of life in the NFL has set in.
To wit, their glorious, imagination-filled win over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints is ancient history.
It’s just as well too because the Browns went to their bag of surprises so often in The Big Easy that they used up their reserve of “trickeration,” as ESPN’s Reece Davis insists on calling it, ad nauseam.
Don’t get me wrong, they had to do it and they pulled it off brilliantly. From Josh Cribbs’s cross-field lateral on a return, to Reggie Hodges fake punt, to Peyton Hillis’ halfback option pass to Colt McCoy, the Browns repeatedly caught the Saints napping and it was the story of the game.
It also means that the cat’s now out of the bag, right along with the tricks. Think teams won’t be on guard for a Cribbs pass or a Hodges fake? Of course they will.
They’ll also be watching for the flea-flicker to McCoy, now that the understandably excited rookie happened to mention that the Browns practice it a lot, and “in practice, it’s been a touchdown every time.”
Somehow, I can’t imagine Bill Belichick losing any sleep over that.
So, what now? The Browns shocked the Saints with their daring and their good fortune. After all, it’s bad enough for New Orleans that Drew Brees threw four interceptions, but to have two of them returned for touchdowns by the same guy—a defensive lineman, at that?
Well, it was a day to remember, but it’s over. Not even momentum will carry over through a bye week, so it’s back to normal football for the Browns and that won’t catch anybody by surprise.
Realistically, they’ll be the underdogs for about two-thirds of their remaining nine games. If they pick up three wins in that stretch, they’ll finish 5-11. Steal an extra one in there, and they could make it 6-10.
That’s where I picked them to finish, so I won’t be disappointed if they do. Expecting more at this point isn’t prudent—the Browns remain a work in progress.
Some pleasant discoveries have been made this year, however: Peyton Hillis has emerged as a workhorse of a running back, a leader by example, and a fan favorite; T.J. Ward and Joe Haden have solidified the secondary; the linebacking crew has covered the occasional lapses by the defensive line and made more than its share of big plays.
Seneca Wallace was making a compelling case to be the starting quarterback before he was injured, and most likely will get the job back when he’s healthy. In his absence, Colt McCoy has given fans hope for the future.
If the Browns can put together three or four more wins, fans should be happy, Mike Holmgren should be happy and Eric Mangini should have the opportunity to keep his job for at least another season.
It will take more than trick plays from here on out, however. The second half of the season will be an accurate measuring stick for how far this team has truly come.
Process, progress and moral victories are one thing—actual wins are another.
If Mangini and the Browns can get a few more of those, Cleveland fans will have reason to cheer and to have genuine hope for 2011 and beyond.