The good news in Sunday's 27-17 loss to the Bengals was that the Browns played three decent quarters of football. The bad news was that league rules require you to play four. Please hold all LeBron James jokes until the end of the piece.
Sadly, 2011 didn't start out the way the Cleveland faithful had hoped or expected for the Browns, and it didn't start out the way the Cincinnati faithful had feared for the Bengals.
For the Browns, it was almost heartbreaking. We Browns fans are always telling folks our team isn't as bad as they think we are. Unfortunately, Cincinnati would end up getting to be the team that made that statement after Sunday's contest.
For the Browns and their fans, it was a day that began with promise and ended in disaster. We started with a heartfelt tribute to the fallen heroes of Sept. 11, 2001 and a solid first half of football, and finished with a miserable, soaking downpour and horrendous play in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't all bad for the Browns or all good for the Bengals, but a disappointing opener certainly wasn't quite what anyone expected for Cleveland. Here are five things we learned in Sunday's 27-17 Bengals' victory over the Browns.
I imagine poor, beleaguered Carson Palmer must have died a little inside when he saw the final score on yesterday's game. In a twist that almost no one saw coming, it turned out that the Bengals actually didn't need him; apparently Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski would do just fine. Sort of.
Okay, okay...it's always tough to pass up the chance to take a shot at the Bengals-Palmer lovers' quarrel, but in reality, Dalton and Gradkowski weren't exactly the game winning players for the Bengals on Sunday. However, they got the job done. Dalton went 10/15 for 81 yards and a TD before being injured, and Gradkowski was 5/12 for 92 yards and a TD.
To no one's great surprise, Cedric Benson would be the player who would wind up with the game winning score, though the real game changing score belonged to Gradkowski and rookie WR A.J. Green.
It's always been clear that the Bengals had a lot of talent on offense, but up until now, most of us perceived it as a disorganized mess of significant but unrefined and thus ineffective skill. Turns out that wasn't entirely accurate.
Granted, the Browns defense gave them a LOT of help (more on this later), and I wouldn't exactly call Cincinnati's performance on offense "stellar" (especially in the first half), but it did become pretty clear yesterday that they're not quite the mess we thought they were.
That pesky little yellow flag made a disconcerting number of appearances on the field on Sunday, and mostly, it was directed at the home team.
The Browns were penalized 11 times for 72 yards, six times in the first quarter alone. A disgusted Pat Shurmur grumbled "a season worth of mistakes in the first quarter" after the game.
The really scary part? It could actually have been much worse. The Browns were lucky - they may have been called for a lot, but they also got away with a lot. To say the team needs to clean up its act and cut down on the penalties would be a gross understatement.
Personally, I'm generally not as upset by heavily penalized outings as most people - I'm willing to eat the flags in exchange for players willing to be aggressive and passionate about doing their job - but this was just ridiculous.
No team can hope to come away with a win in the NFL (even if the opponent is a struggling team like the Bengals) when they hand them 72 free yards, many of which came at critical junctures in the game and ultimately led to scoring plays for the Bengals or took away scoring opportunities for the Browns.
Granted, penalties are a textbook byproduct of a talented but very young, inexperienced team, but this display was entirely too much to be excusable. The Browns need to clean up their act and clean it up fast, or they'll play their way to a very poor 2011 record one penalty flag at a time.
The switch to the 4-3 was supposed to do a lot of positive things for the Browns. It was supposedly better suited to the talent they had in-house. It would allow them to pass rush more productively. It would allow them to stack up the box and hold opponents' ground games in check.
Fortunately, all of these things will probably ultimately turn out to be true. Unfortunately, it became pretty obvious on Sunday that the Browns aren't there yet.
It's easy to pin this one squarely on the defense's error on the Green TD (clearly they were unprepared for and surprised by what happened), but it wasn't that play alone that betrayed their lack of experience.
Certainly that was the worst of the lot, and it was a surprising lapse for CB Joe Haden who, despite breaking up five passes throughout the game, was out of position and missed his man in a costly way on this one. Still, overall Haden did more good than harm and definitely wasn't the whole problem. The rest of the secondary clearly needs more work, but I wouldn't say they were awful.
The linebackers, however, looked very, very concerning, just as we worried they would all through the offseason and preseason.
One of the biggest complaints Browns' fans had about their team last season was that their LBs could pressure the opposing quarterback and force him from the pocket, but they couldn't take him down or even force enough pressure to result in many incompletions or interceptions. This was supposed to be fixed in 2011, and yet we saw it again yesterday. A lot.
Clearly, the whole defense fell down on the job on Sunday, especially in the fourth quarter. They looked overwhelmed, tired, confused, and sloppy. The linebacking corps were probably the most notably problematic as a group, but the whole unit still has a lot of improvements that need to be made.
Oh no. Yet another problem the Browns struggled with last season that we were all hoping they had fixed reared its ugly head on Sunday.
That would be their seemingly ongoing issue of starting off slowly and finishing even slower within the confines of each game they play.
We saw a lot of this from the Browns in 2010 - they were quiet in the first quarter, efficient and productive in the second and third, and tired, confused, and out of gas by the fourth. We saw the same thing again yesterday.
As was the case last season, the slow start the Browns had yesterday was less costly for them than the slow finish.
In football as in any professional sport, the team that wins a close game is often just the one who simply refuses to lie down and allow themselves to lose it. It isn't always about out-muscling and outplaying the opponent; sometimes it's just about outlasting them.
That's exactly what the Bengals did to the Browns on Sunday, and predictably, it netted them a win.
The Browns, especially on defense, looked exhausted and beaten by the fourth quarter. They got notably slower, weaker, and less aggressive. Clearly they were mentally worn down too, as they started making foolish mistakes and appeared slow to react and adjust.
It's tough to say how to fix this problem. A team that is often tired out by the fourth quarter might have a conditioning issue. It might simply be a squad with poor endurance. It could be a coaching flaw. Or perhaps this is merely symptomatic of the youth of the team and the fact that they have yet to fully adjust as a group to the intensity of play in the NFL.
Most likely, the issue is the result of some combination of most or all of the above, but regardless of the reasoning, the Browns have to start playing a solid and alert full four quarters of football or they'll never stand a fighting chance in a close contest.
I think we Browns fans all suffered enough thanks to yesterday's surprising and disappointing loss, so let's end on at least somewhat of a high note here.
That high note - much to the total and utter shock of Browns fans who have been literally terrified of how the wide receivers would look at the start of the season - was the passing game.
No, I wouldn't exactly call it a decisive, beautifully executed effort in the air for the Browns on Sunday, but all things considered it was certainly a lot better than most of us expected.
Granted, both TD passes from Colt McCoy were caught by TEs (Ben Watson and Evan Moore) and tight ends weren't the component of the passing game where the Browns had a lot of concerns entering the season, but that is merely the product of how the Browns' offense is set up (at least to a degree), and the WRs, while not spectacular, were better than expected.
Of course that's more true of some than others.
The oft-maligned Mohamed Massaquoi actually had a really nice game. He had three receptions for 77 yards, including one highlight reel catch.
Josh Cribbs and Greg Little each had one catch. Cribbs didn't contribute much in terms of yardage, but did a nice job drawing coverage and made no major mistakes.
Little looked a bit shaky, dropping a pass at a key moment that he should have had. McCoy did lead him a bit with the throw, but these are the kinds of plays that have to be made to win in the NFL, and yesterday rookie Little learned that the hard way. That said, I think Little did fine for his first professional football game.
Of course, when we praise the Browns passing game, we have to acknowledge that it's all relative. No one can claim the Browns were anything close to excellent in this area. And just like in 2010, the WRs weren't carrying the passing game; it was the tight ends and RB Peyton Hillis, who had six receptions for 30 yards who did the majority of the work.
Still, things did look better than they did last fall in this area. The lone serious disappointment was Brian Robiskie, who despite appearing to possibly be the lead receiver coming out of camp, was a complete non-factor in yesterday's game. Robiskie was targeted three times and failed to come down with the ball once and didn't contribute much of anything in terms of drawing coverage or blocking either.
In Robiskie's defense though, he clearly wasn't the favorite target on the field yesterday, and aside from one notable dropped pass, didn't make any major, costly mistakes. I still believe he will ultimately be fine as the season progresses.
As for the receivers on the whole, they clearly still have a lot of work to do, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much they already appear to have improved.