Although no-nonsense coach Mike Pettine refused to embrace such thought afterward — “there are no moral victories in this league,” he said curtly — here’s what happened Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
The Cleveland Browns didn’t find victory here — again — but they may have found their identity.
Although the Pittsburgh Steelers won the season opener, 30-27, thanks to a 41-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham as time expired, the Browns didn’t leave here looking like the total patsies they seemed to be in the first half.
After the Steelers ran and passed on them for a whopping 364 yards in the first half, the Browns trudged into the dressing room down 27-3.
And against all odds that’s when the discovery was made.
“As much as I’d like to say it was a fire and brimstone speech, it really wasn’t,” Pettine said. “Obviously it was well below our standards and we needed to start playing like us. With a lead (on you) like that, your heart is bent to take it personally. The leadership on the team stepped up and the coaches really didn’t have to say much.”
He said quarterback Brian Hoyer was “pretty vocal,” as was tackle Joe Thomas, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner.
“We just said ‘Are we going to lay down and die or are we going to find our true identity and battle back?’” said Hoyer.” I told those guys at the end of the game that I’ll take that team to the end of the earth if we’re going to fight back like that.
“If you have the heart and character to battle back against that team and get back to where we were, I’ll take that team any day.”
Switching to an up-tempo offense that had the Steelers out of sync, Cleveland — thanks to the rushing of rookies Terrance West (16 carries, 100 yards) and Isaiah Crowell (5-32, two TDs) and Andrew Hawkins’ eight catches for 87 yards – scored 24 unanswered points and tied the score 27-27 on a 9-yard TD pass from Hoyer to receiver Travis Benjamin.
With 4:37 left in the fourth quarter, the Browns had the ball down to the Steelers 35-yard line, but on fourth down opted to punt rather than send kicker Billy Cundiff out to try a 52-yard field goal, a decision that was later questioned by others, but defended by both Pettine and, interestingly, Cundiff himself.
A perfect pooch punt that should have pinned Pittsburgh down on the 1-yard line was instead surrounded by three Browns, one of whom – Chris Kirksey – grabbed it and fell, his shoulder touching the goal line and thus giving the Steelers the ball on the 20.
That helped Pittsburgh flip the field advantage and after a couple of other Browns miscues late in the game, the Steelers got the ball back one last time to kick the game winner.
What nearly became the Browns’ greatest comeback of all time – the record is a December 1966 victory over the New York Giants after being 20 points down – ended up being Cleveland’s 11th straight loss at Heinz Field.
That’s tied with Detroit’s futility in San Francisco as the NFL’s fifth longest active losing streak on an opponent’s field.
A dressing room game questioner touched a nerve with Jordan Cameron, Cleveland’s standout tight end, when he asked if, in all honesty, the Browns simply had found a way to lose again.
“I wouldn’t say we found a way to lose,” Cameron said in a voice suddenly gone flat. “We came back from 20 some points down. We didn’t give up. We didn’t back down or tank at halftime like a lot of teams do.”
With a mix of metaphors, veteran right guard John Greco agreed: “We could just have easily come in here and thrown in the tank. That was a big hole to dig ourselves out of. In the NFL it’s hard to overcome that kind of deficit. But the guys showed character, resilience, fight – I know they’re all buzz words – but it was true.
“Guys came in here and no one panicked. No one hung their head. It was all about accountability. I know there are no moral victories, but if we can do that for a half, let’s do it for four quarters.”
While Pettine is all for that – the first half was a comedy of errors defensively – he wasn’t a silver-linings type day for him in his debut as an NFL head coach:
“What we take out of this is that we’re 0-1. That’s what I told the team afterward. This is a pass-fail league … and we failed.”
Another subject he was not interested in discussing was his keeping much-hyped rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel – or Johnny Football as he’s been known at Texas A&M, on the Vegas party scene and especially on his much followed Instagram feed – on the bench he whole game.
The Browns first-round draft pick had battled Hoyer for the starting job until the third week of August and, though he was named the backup, he is the heir apparent. Most people figured his ability running zone read plays and his scrambling capabilities would get him on the field Sunday, at least in spot duty.
Instead he spent the whole game on the sideline, one sleeve rolled up, pacing, applauding Hoyer’s plays and then huddling with him on the bench while the Browns defense was on the field.
Turns out the biggest thing Manziel did in the past few days was apply for a patent to trademark the term “Johnny Cleveland.”
Although he has yet to play a down in a regular season NFL game, Manziel now has the fourth best selling jersey in in the NFL and the second highest merchandise sales of any NFL player on the website run by Fanatics.
Asked if he had thought of playing Manziel in the second half, Pettine answered: “ No”.
Later, asked why, he said: “The way the game went, we just never felt the need for it.”
While Hoyer went 19 for 31 for 230 yards, with no interceptions and the one touchdown, Pettine seemed reluctant to shower him with much praise. He said the sixth-year quarterback – who has come back from a season-ending knee injury last season – made some good plays but “left others out there (on the field.)”
And that translated to just one thing, the coach said:
“(Pittsburgh) basically made one more play than we did. It’s a valuable lesson, but that doesn’t change the fact we’re 0-1.”