T his might as well be the last column written here about the Browns this season. Seven games in, and the only question left is whether they'll manage to equal the 5-11 record of the last two seasons, because it's a virtual certainty that they won't surpass it.
The experience of following the 2011 Browns is best compared to dipping a piece of litmus paper each week into liquid that you already know is either acid or base. When the Browns play an opponent with lesser or equivalent talent, the best we can do is cross our fingers for a fourth-quarter comeback. When they play a more talented opponent, they come off like a pat of butter on a hot frying pan, leaving little question as to the outcome after two quarters of play. (In their last three losses, the Browns faced third-quarter deficits of 31-6, 24-7, and 17-3, respectively.)
Reflecting on the Browns' favorable schedule thus far, Gregg Rosenthal of NBC sports called them "the worst 3-3 team we can remember" before Sunday's loss in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it's impossible to say his memory is failing him. It's just as hard to say that any remaining Browns opponent might be considered less talented except for the St. Louis Rams, who come to Cleveland a week from this Sunday. But even the Rams managed to beat the New Orleans Saints last week, demonstrating an ability that the 2011 Browns haven't shown at all: to organize a winning game plan against a better team.
In fact, last year's complaints about Eric Mangini's supposed inability to make "adjustments" in close losses to eventual playoff teams after jumping out to early leads are positively quaint seven games into the Pat Shurmur era. Back then, Bernie Kosar tried to explain that the previous regime would "start games with some really good schemes."
"The other teams adjust to us, and then it comes down to talent — man-on-man," Kosar said. "You can't out-scheme the other team for the entire game."
And if you're the 2011 Browns, you can't even do it for a little while: They've now been outscored 44-3 in the first quarter, with not so much as a single touchdown scored in any of the 14 first and third quarters they've played this season. Worse still is the fact this regression has come with a head coach who's supposed to be an expert in the "West Coast Offense," a roster that's unquestionably improved over last year's, and a quarterback who's not a rookie anymore (despite Colt McCoy's October claim that "we're all learning, with a rookie quarterback" — in direct violation of Mike Holmgren's preseason "No Excuses" mantra).
With last year's week-to-week competitiveness a distant memory and dreams of a Patriots-style upset long gone, we're left with calls for patience from Teflon Holmgren and his acolytes in the press — the same pleas for patience that were incredibly absent when we had a coach in town who could at least draw up a winning game plan against good teams.
So while Holmgren wonders aloud why Cleveland fans are so upset that he'd go on the radio to talk about how he wants to move back to Seattle, those fans can only wonder again what might happen in next April's draft. Will a bankable "quarterback of the future" be selected? Or how many more years will we spend trying to figure out if third-round project McCoy could be that guy? And how long, anyway, to bring a new quarterback along if we do select one?
With as much patience as the 2011 Browns are calling for, Holmgren's five-year term will pass in the blink of an eye. If he spends three or four of them on a bad bet on McCoy (to say nothing of Shurmur), is it really back to Seattle with Randy Lerner's $50 million after the fifth? Even if it is, it would mark the first time in the history of the Lerner-era Browns that a chief executive would work to the full term of his deal. To think we'd have to call that progress no matter what.