The postgame scene in the Browns’ locker room on Sunday wasn’t exactly the most festive of settings. Although in theory, the Browns dropped a second straight close contest, the tone of the game more resembled the weather outside – cold, dark and cloudy.
After all, there weren’t many positives to point to after the Bengals dominated time of possession and beat the Browns at their own power game.
The effects of the loss could be seen on most of the faces in the locker room. In most respects, this was a cast of beaten down and numb performers unable to explain what has occurred over the last two weeks.
The popular refrain given by most of the Browns’ key players echoed the words of the team’s beleaguered head coach Eric Mangini.
“We’ve got two more opportunities to get the things that we need to get fixed, fixed,” he said. “That’s where we are.”
Unfortunately for Mangini and his Browns, the road to improvement will get infinitely more difficult as the likes of AFC North powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh come to town to close out the season.
Considering the speculation of yet another offseason exodus of coaches and players, Mangini’s words contain an unenviable truth – as he now tries to end the 2010 season on a positive note.
However, if we point to last week’s depressing affair in upstate New York as a precedent, it’s obvious that the odds are stacked against the Browns.
Although the team’s earlier victories over New Orleans and New England represented an elusive kind of hope that the team was poised to enter NFL legitimacy, this current version of the Browns appears to be slowly fading – despite the best efforts of the coaching staff.
Injuries to defensive starters Robaire Smith and Scott Fujita, along with the gradual breaking of Ahtyba Rubin and Sheldon Brown have reduced the Browns’ run defense into a huge liability over the past month. Couple this with an offense that is still lacking any playmakers beyond Peyton Hillis and Ben Watson and the results of the past two weeks are easily explained.
Of course, in the cold bottom-line world of the NFL, such circumstances do not create any leniency.
While it’s obvious that Mangini and his staff will no doubt spend countless hours in the film room trying to solve their team’s problems, it’s also clear that any “fix” will have to be spearheaded by the leaders in the locker room.
To this point, the question has to be asked: Who exactly are these leaders?
Judging by the emotion that was mostly absent in the post game locker room, it appears that such a question is not easily answered.
While nearly all the veteran players who were interviewed gave professional, team-coded responses regarding the team’s performance, it appears that at the moment, the emotional pulse of the team is being driven only by a long-time veteran and a raw rookie.
Veteran linebacker David Bowens began his post game comments with a definitive “nobody’s checking out.”
Of course, this is the characteristic of a Mangini-coached team. Despite the frequent struggles shown this season, the Browns have been a competitive, if not resilient team. However, this is also a team that is facing the crossroads of effort and production.
"It's going to start with me as one of the defensive captains, one of these leaders,” Bowens said. “I'm going to make sure that everyone's on the same page for these last two games. It's the least I can do for this team."
While there’s little doubt that Bowens will not follow through on his pledge, it remains to be seen what the veteran linebacker can contribute over the next two Sundays.
In terms of on-field leadership, Bowens cannot fully deliver on his words. At this stage of his career, he is essentially a part-time player. At the moment, Bowens is rotating with Jason Trusnik in an attempt to replace the injured Scott Fujita. And as witnessed by the last two weeks, he is manning a spot that has been repeatedly attacked and exploited by opposing offenses.
As for a true on-field version of a team leader – one who can better convey the “fixes” that the coaching staff enacts this week – the Browns are currently best represented by a player who has started all of six games in his career. Yet despite this short track record of NFL experience, quarterback Colt McCoy appears to have already embraced this role.
“I told the guys after the game I was so proud of the way we came back, kept fighting, back into the game and if we get an onside kick, you never know what happens,” McCoy said. “So, it shows the character of our football team. Things aren’t going well – last week, things aren’t going well…this week, we started off OK, but had some opportunities to make plays, but we didn’t. But we never quit. We kept fighting up until the end. I think that shows the kind of class these guys have in this locker room. We have two more games to play our hearts out and compete and get better.”
While McCoy has made some amazing strides during his rookie campaign – especially considering that he wasn’t destined to play at all in 2010 – it seems a bit ironic that such a young player has all but assumed the reins of leadership on a team filled with veterans.
After all, McCoy has barely a shred of experience when compared to players like Bowens. However, what McCoy brings to the locker room is some genuine passion for playing and winning.
“It’s football. I’m new to it, too,” McCoy said following the loss to Cincinnati. “I’ve never been in this position. It’s not about me. It’s about what can we do to win? What can we do to win division games? We got to win games like this. You have to get hyped up. I thought at the start, we lacked a little bit of energy. We lacked a little bit of intensity. That stems from me, that stems from the older guys on this team, that stems from all of us coming together and playing with a lot of energy and a lot of focus.”
Beyond mere motivational talk, McCoy’s ascension to team leader has been elevated by his play. Against Cincinnati, McCoy played nearly mistake-free and sparked the offense to two scores. At this point in the season and despite the offense’s struggles, it’s obvious that McCoy is the best option at quarterback. And clearly, this means that there is no better player to convey the coaching staff’s attempts to fix the team.
And while it’s not a perfect fit for a team that is struggling to end the season on a positive note, it’s worth noting that as for a true leader, the Browns could do a lot worse.