Orbiting Cleveland: The Cleveland Browns and the art of winning


Houston Texans v Cleveland BrownsSometimes it feels so good to be wrong.

With two minutes and 51 seconds left to play in yesterday’s game between the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons, quarterback Brian Hoyer threw an interception that was picked off in the end zone by Desmond Trufant. The score at the time was 23-21 Browns, but can you imagine the thoughts going through my head?

Profanity aside, they were something along the lines of, “Well, this is setting up to be a typical Browns loss. Same-old Browns…”

It appeared as if my worst fears became a reality during the next drive when the Falcons drove down to Cleveland’s 35-yard line, and kicker Matt Bryant converted a 53-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 24-23 lead.

My thoughts at that moment? You guessed it: “Same-old Browns…”

Except that’s where I was wrong. Shame on me for even thinking that as well.

There have been plenty of themes that have developed throughout the course of this season, but none more significant than this one: These are not the same-old Browns.

Were they the same-old Browns in Week One when they found themselves down 27-3 to the Pittsburgh Steelers at halftime but then rallied back to tie the game in the fourth quarter?

Were they the same-old Browns in Week Two when they needed to make a defensive stop against All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees to have a chance at victory, and actually did just that?

Were they the same-old Browns in Week Five against the Tennessee Titans when they again faced a huge halftime deficit, but then came back in the second half to record the largest comeback by an NFL team ever on the road?

What about in Week Six? For years, the Browns have been the whipping boys of the Steelers, and there was no reason to expect that to change now, right? Except remember that halftime score? 21-3, and here’s the best part. That lead actually got bigger in the second half.

How about Week Ten? In recent history, no one seems to enjoy putting on embarrassing performances more than the Browns, and this has been especially true when their games are played in front of a national audience. The Browns made a trip to Cincinnati for a Thursday night NFL Network broadcast, and it seemed as if no one gave the team a chance in the contest. What was that final score again though? Oh yeah, 24-3 Browns.

If you have not done so yet, now is the time to realize that nothing is the same about this Browns team. Yes, they’ve had their ups and downs, but more often not, they’ve been ups during this rollercoaster ride of a 2014 season.

That remained true on Sunday against Falcons. The odds didn’t seem too good as Brian Hoyer had played arguably his worst game as the Browns’ starting quarterback and tied his career-high in interceptions for a game with three.

However, just as he has done all season, he came through when it mattered most and put together a brilliant final drive to get the Browns into field goal position.

That final drive saw Hoyer make four completions, all of which were on the money.

Eleven yards to Miles Austin. Twenty-four yards to Josh Gordon. Fifteen yards to Gary Barnidge and then 11 more to Austin. One spike of the ball later, and kicker Billy Cundiff lined up for a 37-yard field goal, which he converted to clinch the Browns’ seventh victory.

Just how big of a number is seven?

For this team, that number is huge. Since returning to the NFL, the Browns have won just seven or more games on three occasions (2001, 2002, 2007). So, with five games still left to play, the Browns have already recorded one of their best seasons in recent memory.

Seven wins doesn’t sound like much. Most other fanbases probably find it laughable, but for this team, it’s huge. That cannot be overstated.

Learning the art of winning is such a process in today’s NFL. Though for the first time in years, it appears as if the Browns might be doing just that.

Yes, there are still flaws. Head coach Mike Pettine’s clock management was pretty poor and he still seems to have no idea as to how to run a two-minute drill. Similarly, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan made some suspect play calls in the contest.

But despite all this, the Browns won a game in which they made plenty of mistakes and probably would have lost in previous seasons. If that’s not a sign of a team learning how to win, what is?

With a 7-4 record, the Browns maintained their pace alongside the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and remain in the thick of things. That will probably remain the case through the end of the season, and the Week 17 finale against Baltimore could have huge potential playoff implications.

Yet, as the Browns continue to master the art of winning, the beautiful thing is that the best could still be on the way. There’s no denying that Gordon and Hoyer did not look to be on the same page on Sunday. Of course, that should be expected of any player after serving a 10-game suspension.

Even still, Gordon managed to grab 120 yards on eight catches, none of which were bigger than the 24-yard reception on the Browns’ game-winning drive. Now, if that’s what Gordon did in his first week back, what can we expect once he and Hoyer start to communicate better and are on the same page?

And what about Isaiah Crowell? The 21-year-old undrafted rookie is still learning what it takes to succeed in the NFL, but how good has he looked to this point? I challenge anyone to show me a better run this season than his 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins are two other players in that same category. While Hawkins was on some decent Cincinnati teams, he was never an essential part of that team’s offense like he is now in Cleveland. While Gabriel had some nice seasons at Division I-AA Abilene Christian, the stakes are much higher in the NFL. He too is still learning the ropes but making improvements every week. All of the aforementioned players are honing their craft as they attempt to learn the art of winning.

That’s perhaps no more true of any player than Hoyer.

Tell it like it is. Sunday was not the best game for the St. Ignatius graduate.

Overall, Hoyer completed 23-of-40 passes for 322 yards and three interceptions. Almost all of his interceptions were poor throws, and it’s true that he played a key role in the fact that the Browns were losing in the game’s final minute.

But also ask yourself this. How many Browns’ quarterbacks since 1999 could have had this type of performance, shrugged it off and then come back to deliver a game-winning, 61-yard drive?

Kelly Holcomb? Tim Couch? Jeff Garcia?

What about Jake Delhomme? Derek Anderson? Brady Quinn?

How about none of the above?

Say what you will about Hoyer, but the fact remains that he continues to grow as a quarterback every week. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a franchise quarterback, but that does mean that he’s the best option to lead the Browns at this point.

On Sunday, he became the first Browns quarterback to post back-to-back 300-yard passing games since Brian Sipe in 1980. He is undisputedly the best quarterback that this team has had since returning to the NFL in 1999, and that says something.

Most importantly, Hoyer, like the rest of this team, is learning the what it takes to win each weel. It’s a task that’s easier said than but a task that this team continues to get closer to accomplishing, which was especially true on Sunday.

In any other season, with any other Browns team, Sunday’s game would have been a loss.

Yet here we sit, on Monday, November 24, and the Browns are 7-4 and entirely relevant. I’m not sure about you, but that’s plenty good for me.

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