SAN DIEGO – There's not much more quarterback Josh McCown could've done Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium against the Chargers.
In a last-second, 30-27 loss to San Diego, McCown completed 32-of-41 passes for a cool 356 yards, slung two touchdowns, didn't throw an interception, engineered a game-tying drive with under two minutes left in the fourth quarter and banged home the tying two-point conversion to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.
It wasn't enough.
"I'm just disappointed – just heartbreaking for all of us," McCown said. "I feel like everybody battled and fought really hard."
Cleveland is wearing its 1-3 record like a black eye. Besides the distant buzz of headphones, the plane ride back to Berea was silent. In an entertaining, seesaw affair, the Browns fought tooth and nail and ultimately collapsed at the end on defense.
Even in the minutes after trying to fathom the gut-wrenching loss, one thing became increasingly clear to McCown: This offense is becoming more dynamic each week.
When he made the play call sheet earlier in the week, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo's game plan wasn't to throw the football 42 times against the Chargers compared to just 21 runs, but McCown said the plan was adjusted on the fly based on the success Cleveland was having through the air.
"In the big picture, this is John DeFilippo's first year as a coordinator," McCown said. "Every game he's getting better, just like all of us. I felt like he called a good one today and he's continuing to get better and better.
"The way that we were able to find things in the passing game and create big gains but also stay with the run, that last drive to come back to the run and really hammer that thing down there was huge. I'm excited about where we're headed."
Behind McCown's precise decision making, fluent footwork in and out of the pocket and crisp accuracy, Cleveland was able to unleash one element of its offense that could continue to lift the offense to new heights. The Browns are using both of their running backs as pass-catchers, and they presented mismatches to San Diego's defense.
Rookie Duke Johnson Jr. had a breakout moment in only his fourth NFL game, catching an eye-opening nine passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. Isaiah Crowell caught a quick dump-off and sped 53 yards down the field. Cleveland also rushed 21 times for 100 yards, the 4.8 yards per carry serving as the best so far this season.
The second quarter touchdown pass from McCown to Johnson Jr. was borderline spectacular. Motioned out of the backfield as a receiver before the snap, Johnson beat the coverage, tracked the deep pass with his eyes, turned his shoulder and made a snag some veteran wide receivers would struggle to make.
"They were awesome," McCown said. "Our young backs are coming along, and that's something to be excited about. I'm just very proud of those guys. Coach (Wilbert) Montgomery has put in a lot of time developing those guys and I said this earlier in the week, we keep seeing a little bit from them, and growth, and growth and growth. Big picture wise, it's very encouraging with what they were able to do today."
The other promising aspect from Cleveland's offense wasn't a new revelation, but rather a continued staple formed a week ago against the Raiders. Tight end Gary Barnidge and wide receiver Travis Benjamin sustained their chemistry with McCown.
On Sunday, Barnidge was targeted six times and hauled in all six passes for 75 yards and the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Athletically, Barnidge may not be built like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but the 29-year-old is more than just a security blanket for McCown underneath. This guy is making big plays.
"If he gets his hands on it, it's probably a catch," McCown said. "You just learn not to bet against him."
Benjamin, on the other hand, had six receptions for 79 yards, giving him 328 yards so far in 2015 – already a career-high.
The Browns were aggressive and attacking on offense, but they weren't flawless. Following that Crowell big run after the catch in the third quarter, Cleveland stalled inside the 10-yard line and begrudgingly took three points instead of seven. Four of the Browns' 11 possessions resulted in three-and-outs.
But while the Browns rally together and look for signs as to why they can climb out of the 1-3 hole, the club has to look no further than McCown and this growing offense.