CLEVELAND — Veteran place kicker Phil Dawson has become a beloved player in Cleveland, Ohio. He has been with the Browns since 1999 and his tenure has consisted of accurate field goals and memorable game-winning field goals.
In what might be Dawson's final game in orange and brown, he trotted onto the field Sunday with 14:45 remaining in the second quarter. At the sight of the Dawson entering the field, the fans booed. Dawson, like he has done since 1999, was automatic from 19 yards.
The issue was not that Dawson did his job, but rather the Browns, once again, failed to score a touchdown in the red zone and opted for a field goal on fourth and goal.
In two games this season — at home against Cincinnati on Oct. 3 and at New Orleans on Oct. 30 — the Browns kicked three field goals in the red zone. Cleveland won both games. Apparently, the thinking has been get the three points and eschew the risk. Hey, it led to two wins.
But on Sunday, the Browns were down 14-0 when they faced a fourth and goal from the Steelers' 2-yard-line. Cleveland had nothing to lose. It was a philosophy they used in wins over New Orleans and New England. Why, all of a sudden did the Browns get conservative?
The Browns actually showed some fight once they went down 14-0. With Colt McCoy at quarterback, the Browns took over on their own 20-yard-line and proceeded to drive down to the Steelers' 5-yard-line for a first and goal. In order to score a touchdown in the red zone, the ball needs to find the hands of a playmaker. On first and goal, McCoy threw a shovel pass to Peyton Hills. OK, he's made plenty of plays this year. Hillis went for three yards, which was followed by incomplete passes to tight end Robert Royal on second and third downs. Royal dropped both passes and the Browns decided to kick a field goal.
It killed any momentum the Browns established. McCoy was 5-for-9 for 71 yards on the drive that lasted 15 plays, went 80 yards and took 7:14 off the clock.
A touchdown needed to culminate the drive. Instead, a field goal kept momentum with Pittsburgh.
"You settle for a field goal and instead of 14-7, it's 14-3," McCoy said. "If 14-7 we have a little more life. In saying that, we can do better. We shouldn't have let it get 14-0 before we start a drive. That was a big drive that we got points, but we need to come out and find a way after that to sustain drives."
As easy as it can be to place the blame squarely on the shoulders coach Eric Mangini for opting for a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, his decision is only part of the problem.
On Sunday it was Royal who, surprisingly, became a main offensive option on the Browns' two trips to the red zone.
In the first quarter, McCoy extended the play with his legs on second and third downs only to have Royal drop both passes. In the fourth quarter, McCoy targeted Royal two more times. The ball was knocked away by a defender and a sure touchdown was dropped.
"We couldn't get any momentum in any three phases," Mangini said. "We had opportunities for touchdowns and we couldn't hold onto the ball."
Fourth down decisions aside, the Browns simply haven't made plays when in the red zone. Beginning with the Buffalo game Dec. 12, the Browns had four red zone trips (zero touchdowns, four field goals) in three games. The Browns lost all three games. In the season finale, two red zone trips resulted in a field goal and meaningless fourth quarter touchdown.
Robert Royal is not a dangerous red zone weapon.
The Browns lost 11 games this season. In 16 games, the Browns had 42 red zone trips, scored 19 touchdowns and kicked 20 field goals. The inability to score more touchdowns than field goals in the red zone was a constant frustration. It is a simple fix: More offensive playmakers are desperately needed for 2011.