Here are my final thoughts from the Browns’ 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium:
>>It didn’t have the drama of last week’s “Massachusetts Meltdown,” but the script was exactly the same. The Browns found a way to squander yet another fourth-quarter lead and exit the field with, as coach Rob Chudzinski put it, another “disappointing and frustrating loss.” Disappointing and frustrating have become the operative words of the Browns’ December. This is the third game in a row since the month began that the Browns allowed what looked like a victory to slip through their fingers. It’s getting old. The Browns keep teasing with their ability to be competitive for large stretches of the game, to make big plays such as the pick-six by Tashaun Gipson and the fumble return for a touchdown by T.J. Ward (you get two such defensive scores in game, you should win; the last time the Browns scored on an interception and fumble return was in a 51-0 triumph over the Steelers in 1989), to seemingly grab momentum by the throat … only to give it all away at the end.
>>So what’s the problem? Why do the Browns continually put themselves and their fans through this galling routine? I don’t believe there’s a single, simple answer. The easiest place to start is that they lack the overall maturity to close out games. I’m inclined to say that that is a function of the youth of the roster, except that at this stage of the season, younger players aren’t so young anymore. They need to have already adopted the necessary focus required to finish games. And their older teammates must be leading the charge on that count. Another place to look is at the overall talent, or lack thereof. The Browns simply don’t have enough playmakers, but we already knew that. More playmakers will clearly increase the odds that someone will step up in those crucial moments in the fourth quarter. And still another area is coaching. This season has been quite an education for first-year coach Rob Chudzinski. He understands as well as anyone the importance of closing games out, and he and his staff clearly have the No. 1 coaching point to take into the offseason. “I truly cannot answer that question,” Gipson said when asked when the Browns will finally figure out how to finish a game. “I think that we have the right guys in this locker room in every position. I just feel like everybody this past week was preaching to finish, and as you can see, that is just what we are not doing.”
>>Defensive coordinator Ray Horton apparently knew what he was talking about when he anointed Gipson the defensive MVP of the first half of the season. Gipson is finishing the year the same way. He had two interceptions against the Bears, returning the second 44 yards for a touchdown to give the Browns a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. In both cases, Gipson grabbed deflected passes, the first by Ward in the end zone and the second off the hands of Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. Since joining the Browns as an undrafted free agent last year, Gipson has displayed an uncanny ability to consistently be in range to make plays. That’s the sign of someone who is thorough in his studying of the opponent and understanding of the defensive game plan. There are Pro Bowls in this player’s future.
>>What an impressive introduction running back Edwin Baker made in his first game as a Brown. He had all of about two days to prepare for the game, joining the roster after Willis McGahee suffered a concussion last week. Baker showed tremendous burst to the hole and explosiveness on the way to averaging 4.8 yards on eight carries, one of which was for a two-yard touchdown that tied the game at 17-17 in the third quarter, and generating 46 yards on four receptions (an average of 11.5 yards per catch). Granted, his legs are fresher than is normally the case for this time of year and the Bears entered the game with the NFL’s worst run defense. But Baker’s raw speed and instinctive running are undeniable. So, too, was the fact he’s an excellent fit for the Browns’ offense, which is no surprise considering that offensive coordinator Norv Turner made him a seventh-round draft pick from Michigan State when Turner was head coach in San Diego. Baker’s compact size, speed, and elusiveness are exactly what the Browns were expecting Dion Lewis to contribute to their offense before he suffered a season-ending broken leg in the preseason.
>>It was sad to see Joe Haden suffer a hip injury, given that he has been having arguably the best of his four seasons with the Browns. Despite the big plays by Gipson and Ward, the Browns’ secondary is not the same without Haden. He remains one of the NFL’s top lock-down cornerbacks. It would be a shame for him to end up missing a chance to play in his first Pro Bowl because of an injury.
>>Josh Gordon did it again, making the 14th touchdown reception of his two-year career and 13th of more than 20 yards (with a 43-yarder that cut the Bears’ lead to 38-31 with 59 seconds left. That was the lone bright spot on an otherwise mostly non-Gordon-like day in which he was targeted 10 times but had only three receptions. In the second quarter, he dropped a pass that would have easily gone for a touchdown. The Bears played a two-deep zone for most of the game that was designed to prevent the sort of big plays that Gordon routinely makes.
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