In defense of Mike Pettine’s in-game decisions


Sep 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine claps after a touchdown in the first quarter against the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns won 28-14. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

There’s plenty to criticize about the in-game decision making from Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine‘s this season – like tossing the ball around deep in his own territory when behind with under a minute remaining in the first half in two games – but he deserves a hall pass on the two decisions from Sunday’s that the fans and media have, well, been piling on.

It was a relief when the Browns didn’t stop the clock with the Denver Broncos driving at the end of the first half. To reset, Peyton Manning had just converted a second-and-nine play, giving the Broncos a first down inside Cleveland’s 40-yard line at the two-minute warning. Three plays later, with the clock running down under a minute, Denver lined up to go for a fourth-and-two at the Browns’ 32-yard line.

If Manning converts that fourth-down play – and given his track record combined with the Browns defense he likely would have – Denver would have had plenty of time for three or four plays to score a touchdown and put the Browns in a 17-0 halftime hole.

Related: The Browns are close to being a good team

If anything, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak should catch heat for going uber-conservative and settling for a long field goal, which, fortunately, drifted left.

Questioned about his clock management by CBS as he was running toward the locker room at halftime. Pettine’s explanation? “Looked like they were going for it; if they get a first down we’d be doing them a huge favor (by stopping the clock).”


Then there’s the debate over attempting a two-point conversion after linebacker Karlos Dansby‘s pick-six with nine minutes left in regulation put the Browns up 20-16 (for all of about a nanosecond.) At that point the Browns had their first lead of the game, but a four- or five-point margin guarantees the Browns would lose with either a Denver touchdown or two field goals.

On the other hand, with a six-point lead, two Denver field goals can only tie the game. A touchdown requires Denver to convert the point-after attempt – and in case you didn’t know, that’s no longer a sure thing in the NFL this season.

With nine minutes of game time, Manning was guaranteed two more possessions (he eventually had three); given the Browns struggles in the first half and the team’s history, especially against Denver, overtime looked pretty at that moment.

If any Browns’ coach deserves criticism, it’s this year’s prodigy offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (my MVP to date).

Related: Mike Pettine on Johnny Manziel: We’re supporting him

While a gentle second guess of the play calls at the end of regulation, when the Browns were threatening to score a go-ahead touchdown may be in order, (boy, a draw or Josh McCown bootleg would have been a sweet, no-risk gamble at third-and-six from the Denver eight-yard line), it’s the overtime play calling that potentially cost the Browns a season-defining victory.

Barkevious Mingo‘s interception (and yes, play the guy more, upside plays beat the downside) gave the Browns a first and 10 at the Denver 37-yard line. Three boring runs into the middle of the line would have netted five to seven yards, maybe even a new set of downs, and put the Browns well under the 50-yard field goal range.

The only scenario the Browns couldn’t afford was to lose yardage – which they did on all three downs (thanks to consecutive sacks of McCown) – before punting, which lead to Denver’s inexorably long game-winning drive. (And Pettine should be credited for his perfectly-timed “ice the kicker” timeout, since Denver’s second attempt was a lot shakier than the first.)

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Dropped passes, Manning chucking throws toward Lake Erie, a missed field goal, questionable clock management and the biggest gift: a Mark Gastineau reminiscent roughing the quarterback penalty that kept the Browns game-tying drive alive. Denver gave Cleveland ample opportunities for victory.

Conversely, the Browns, per form, found plenty of ways to lose – McCown being McCown, not running on passing downs, zero pass rush – but Pettine’s decision making wasn’t one of them. At least not against the Broncos.

This week in the former TWA Dome against the St. Louis Rams could be a different story – hopefully it will be one with a happier ending.

Next: Browns open as road underdogs to the Rams