EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Rule of thumb in the NFL: Expect the unexpected.
On Friday, Johnny Manziel was running the scout team offense at practice and quizzingJosh McCown on last minute game prep.
On Sunday, McCown left the game abruptly with a concussion and Manziel found himself on the field at MetLife Stadium trying to create magic in a disappointing 31-10 season-opening loss to the New York Jets.
The taste in Cleveland's mouth will be bitter when the team watches film together Monday. The formula equivalent to 10 points plus four turnovers on offense typically results in losing.
Manziel will take the brunt of the blame in that area. The quarterback’s 13-for-24 completion total and 182 yards after coming in cold off the bench are something the Browns can work with. Two fourth quarter fumbles and an interception are not.
It was the pick, in particular, that peeved Manziel the most as he reflected with an occasional sigh during his post-game press conference. Only trailing 14-10 early in the third quarter, the Browns were still very much in the game.
After two first downs to start the half, the Browns found themselves nearing midfield. On third-and-8, Manziel located Brian Hartline gaining separation on his route. But as the wide receiver cut toward the left sideline, Manziel fired the pass to the wrong shoulder and into the hands of Jets cornerback Marcus Williams. Six plays later, Brandon Marshall was dancing in the end zone for the Jets.
“Little things that hindered us and nagged us throughout the day,” Manziel said, "that I think finally in the second half caught up to us a little bit.”
“He’s got to be more protective of the ball,” coach Mike Pettine said. “We can’t turn the ball over and expect to win, so that’s something he’s got to get better control over.”
In a game with few positive takeaways, Manziel had the grandest on his 54-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin.
With New York safety Jaiquawn Jarrett creeping toward the box on a disguised blitz, Manziel recognized Benjamin would be matched up 1-on-1 with Antonio Cromartie. Benjamin's first few steps left the veteran Jets cornerback eating dust, the pass was zipped in stride and Cleveland took a 7-0 lead. With Manziel's instant playmaking, the Browns seemed poised to end the club's decade long Week 1 losing streak.
“It was just a go ball, a little outside leverage by the corner and he just ran right by him,” Manziel said as he described the first touchdown pass of his career. “That’s just Travis using his speed and trusting seeing a single safety meant that we were going to get the ball up to him. He did a heck of a job catching that and taking it to the house.”
The wave of momentum on offense eventually came crashing down, though, and soon after the Benjamin touchdown catch, the Browns found themselves searching for someone, anyone, to provide help alongside Manziel for the rest of the afternoon.
It never surfaced.
Cleveland's Pro Bowl-laced offensive line was physically outmanned by New York's defensive line. If the numerous times Manziel was forced to flee the pocket wasn't evidence enough to show the Browns problems went beyond the quarterback position, Isaiah Crowell's 12 carries for 20 yards was. Manziel and McCown combined for 58 yards rushing; Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr., and Shaun Draughn combined for 46.
“Their defense is built to defend the run,” Pettine said. “I didn’t think we were doing a very good job blocking at the point of attack. Our pad level wasn’t great. We were getting knocked back at times.
“We hit a few runs and this is the type of team (that if) you’re not going to hit runs consistently, then you’ve got a chance to hit a big one and that opportunity never came up for us.”
In the locker room, the Browns acknowledged their poor showing to open the season, but they didn't shy away from giving credit where it's due. New York broke the bank in the offseason to remodel its secondary, and, for the most part, the unit put a lock and key on Cleveland's receivers.
Outside of Travis Benjamin's three catches for 89 yards, big plays were sparse. Outside of Brian Hartline plucking a one-handed catch in his knees on a fling from Manziel late in the second quarter, notable plays on offense were lacking.
Despite the disconcerting loss and the negative emotions that come with that type of defeat in the NFL, the Browns are just 0-1. There's no extra penalty for losing by three touchdowns.
“Again, it’s disappointing, but it’s one, and knowing the resolve from the men in that room, we’re going to bounce back and be ready for next week,” Pettine said.
So the “expect the unexpected” rule of thumb applies to Manziel and the Browns offense. Sunday’s start to the season was unexpected, and, in turn, so would a rapid bounce –back performance next Sunday against the Titans.