Before revisiting this week’s heartbreak, I would like to take just a moment and speak directly to the Cleveland Browns: I believe I can help you. I offer my services out of love, nothing else. I do not ask for money. I do not ask for an office. I do not ask for a business card, though if you want give me some cards that would be great. You could put the Browns’ logo on there, call me a consultant or something with more pizazz — we can work out the details later.
This would be my job: Whenever you score a touchdown, you would text me. Or you can call me. I could have a fun light-up orange phone installed in my house like Batman did on the old television show — I would even put the phone under a glass cake dome like he did. Point is: I promise to be available no matter where I happen to be.
You would then ask me: “Sir, should we go for two points here?”
I would say: “No. Do not go for two points here.”
And … that’s it. That would be my whole job, and I promise I would do it with enthusiasm and consistency, and I promise that it would prevent you from making the sort of $&#^#%^ decision that you #%@^#$^& made on Sunday against Denver.
Thank you for your consideration.
* * *
I suppose it was around the third or fourth time that the Browns lost the game to Denver on Sunday that my buddy Mike started to scream at me. New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro and I have been friends for 25 years and over the time, we have supported each other through all sorts of trials and tribulations and St. Bonaventure losses. Only the depth of our friendship could have kept Mike outside in a car in the Citi Field parking lot, listening to a Browns-Broncos game on the radio.
With a minute or so left in the game, the Browns got the ball and the score was tied. After a completed pass, they moved the ball into Broncos territory. They needed about 15 more yards to have a real field goal chance to win the game.
“Look,” he said. “The Browns are going to win.”
I looked at my old friend sadly. He grew up a Jets fan and a Mets fan; he knows the pain of losing. But he does not know what I know.
On the next play, Josh McCown threw one of the most dismal and blatant interceptions that a human being can throw. And Mike lost it.
“What the (bleep) was that?” Mike shouted at me. “Why are you dragging me into your (bleeping) Browns insanity? What the (bleep) was that? And you know what the worst part is? You were out, man! You were totally out. Yeah, you grew up in Cleveland, you had to root for the team so you could have friends, but then you were out! Why would you VOLUNTARILY go back into this (bleep). Why?”
And then, he asked the most pertinent question of all.
“And why would you drag me into your Cleveland (bleep)?” he shouted.
I just looked at him and shrugged. What’s left to say, really? The Browns would lose this game a couple more times before it was over.
* * *
Peyton Manning is terrible now. This is a painful thing to say because Manning was such a joy to watch all these years, whether you were rooting for him or against him. He was this beautiful quarterbacking force of nature with all those gyrations and coded signals and guided missiles that seemed to bend around outstretched hands. His demise is confusing to watch, because the mind doesn’t quite register that Manning is truly terrible and keeps expecting him to just revert back to his previous brilliance, as if we could just click an “undo” button on the top left corner of his brain.
But there’s no undo button. He’s terrible. His arm is gone. His reflexes are gone. His sense of the game is, of course, intact, but when your arm and reflexes are gone, that doesn’t matter very much. Even if he can see the open receiver, he can’t get the ball there. Even if he can sense the opening, he can’t get through it. Even if he feels the rush around him, he crumples before it. His ageless mind is trapped in a 39-year-old body that has been battered for nearly two decades.
The Broncos have a ridiculously good defense and running backs and receivers. At this point, the one weakness teams can exploit is, yes, Peyton Manning. Denver is undefeated in spite of him.
And, make no mistake, it was Peyton Manning almost singlehandedly who kept the Cleveland Browns in a game they had no business being in. Well, there were a couple of drops by receivers, too. Still, it was mostly Manning. The Browns’ offense was overmatched. The Browns’ defense was overmatched. Early in the second quarter, Browns quarterback Josh McCown threw a horrendous pick-six to Aqib Talib to give the Broncos a 10-0 lead. The Broncos got the ball three more times before the half with a chance to put their foot on the Browns’ neck. On those three drives, Manning went 3-for-7 for 14 yards and the score was still 10-0 at halftime.
The game coughed and wheezed after that. The Browns scored a touchdown. The Broncos settled for a couple of field goals because Manning can no longer punch it into the end zone. The Browns somehow scored another touchdown to cut the Broncos’ lead to two, 16-14.
Then Manning dropped back to throw, awkwardly danced around and haphazardly flipped a pass to Ronnie Hillman that was instead picked off by Karlos Dansby, who returned it for a touchdown, Hillman could have caught it — you can’t blame Manning entirely — but it was an awkward pass from an awkward spot and precisely the sort of silliness that you almost never saw Peyton Manning commit.
Anyway, after that the Browns led, 21-16, with just a few minutes …
Sorry, they didn’t lead 21-16? They only led 20-16? What happened again?
Oh, yeah. I forgot.
* * *
Pause in the action: I would like to take just a moment and speak directly to the Cleveland Browns: I believe I can help you. Oh, wait, I did this bit already. So, let me explain. The Browns led by 20-16 with more than eight minutes remaining. They went for two. And it reminded me again: Football coaches should not do arithmetic. Ever.
Coach Mike Pettine explained his maneuver: He reasonably saw this is as a field goal game. The Broncos had not scored an offensive touchdown all game. Peyton Manning looked pretty useless. And with a successful two-point conversion, the Browns would be up six points instead of five, thus meaning that if the Broncos kicked two field goals they would only TIE the Browns rather than beat them. See?
There was also this mathematical atrocity:
“If you go up six and then you kick a field goal,,” Pettine said, “now you’re up nine, which makes it a two-score game on their part.”
Math is hard. I remember a few years ago when my friend Gunther Cunningham was coaching the Chiefs and utterly wasted a timeout. I don’t want to go over all the details, but let’s just say it was inarguable: The timeout was COMPLETELY WASTED. There was no counterargument. If he had not called timeout, the opponent would have had to run one play before the two-minute warning. Because he did call the timeout, the opponent had to run, yes, one play before the two-minute warning. It was like taking a timeout and throwing it into a fireplace.
Afterward, instead of just saying, “Yeah, total brain lock,” Gun tried to defend the timeout. And to do so, he unwittingly revealed that he thought football used a 35-second play clock instead of a 40-second play clock. See, coaches like Gunther Cunningham have PhD level understanding of things like blitzes and coverages. But you don’t want to delve too deeply into a coach’s grasp of simple things.
And when it comes to going for two points, coaches are really good at the simple math of seeing what a successful two-point conversion will accomplish. It goes without saying that it’s better to be up six points than five points, for more or less the reasons that Pettine suggests.
The trouble is: Coaches don’t counterbalance the greater than 50 percent chance of two-point conversion failure. In other words, Pettine failed to take in the equally obvious point that it is a lot better to be up five points than four points. When you’re up five points, and the other team scores a touchdown, you can win with a field goal. When you’re up four points and the other team scores a touchdown, you can only tie with a field goal.
This, of course, is exactly what happened.
The charts are interesting on this. The chart referenced shows that if the Browns were 49 percent sure they could convert on a two-point conversion, they should try it. The league percentage is close to that (47 or so percent) which means it’s a very close decision, and an aggressive coach might try.
But that’s for NORMAL teams. The Browns are 1-for-9 (11 percent) on two-point conversions since 2010 — a small sample size, yes, but decisive. They stink on two-point conversions and basically the math says they should never, ever go for two except in those absurdly obvious situations when it immediately determines victory or defeat.
I think that the rule of thumb for the Cleveland Browns should be: Take as many free points as you can get.
Two plays after the Browns’ stupid two-point failure, Peyton Manning had a youthful moment, threw a 75-yard-touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, and the Broncos led, 23-20.
It should have been 23-21.
Cleveland Browns: Please just install that Bat Phone in my house.
* * *
The toughest part of rooting for a doomed team like the Browns is that they don’t lose games once. No, they lose them again and again and again, like a recurring nightmare. The Browns drove deep into Broncos territory in the last two minutes with a chance to punch in the go-ahead touchdown. They then ran a baffling series of plays that seemed designed to not score a touchdown, and they ended up kicking the game-tying field goal. So that’s one time they lost the game.
The Broncos got the ball back with 1:25 left, which would have been more than enough time for THE old Peyton but wasn’t nearly enough for AN old Peyton. He threw three incompletions (which included a nasty drop by Demaryius Thomas) and Denver punted the ball back to the Browns with more than a minute left.
Then the Browns lost the game again. McCown drove the Browns into Broncos territory and threw the interception that inspired Mike Vaccaro to yell at me. After a briefly interesting drive and a replay overturn, the Broncos stalled and the game went into overtime.
Let’s be clear about this: A great athlete has the right to go out any way her or she wants. They owe nothing to their legacy or to our overly nostalgic memories. It pains me to see Peyton Manning play football like this, but it’s his life and his career, and he should follow his heart on this. Hey, the Broncos are undefeated, and he has occasional flashbacks to better days, and maybe that’s enough for him. Maybe he’s enjoying this year more because he knows the end is near and he’s taking the time to experience everything fully.
But in overtime, watching Peyton Manning throw one of the worst interceptions I have ever seen — a floaty, silly, bloop of a pass that I guess he was trying to throw over the head of Cleveland’s Barkevious Mingo — I thought of the wistful sadness of Longfellow’s poem, “Nature.”
“So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings, one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay”
OK, no, I didn’t really think of that poem at all. I thought, “Hey the Browns are on the Denver 39 and just need a field goal to win this game. Am I mad? Are the Browns actually going to win?”
I laugh at my younger self.
First play: Robert Turbin run for minus-3.
Second play: Josh McCown sacked for minus-8.
Third play: Josh McCown sacked for minus-3.
Fourth play: Delay of game for minus-5.
Fifth play: Punt.
I’d have been better off thinking about Longfellow. I reached for the car door to leave and Mike said, “Wait, we have to wait to see how it turns out.” Like there was a doubt. We sat through the inevitable Broncos 12-play drive and Denver’s 34-yard field goal that ended things.
Mike immediately tweeted:
Yes. We all have been here before, right?