CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Stefanski trusted his quarterback. The wrong one.
With a chance to possibly seal a gritty win in Seattle on Sunday, Cleveland's coach turned to his starter — his franchise QB was standing on the sideline in street clothes nearby — to make the right play in the game's biggest moment.
A calculated gamble. Seemingly low risk. Stefanski had other, safer options.
This one backfired. Badly.
Stefanski's decision to have backup P.J. Walker throw on 3rd-and-3 at Cleveland's 41 with two minutes left — when a run might have been the wiser choice — resulted in another gut-wrenching loss for the Browns (4-3), who have perfected them over the years.
Walker's short pass deflected off the helmet of Seattle's Jamal Adams and was intercepted. The Seahawks capitalized on the unexpected turnover by driving 57 yards and scoring a touchdown with 38 seconds remaining for a 24-20 win.
Stefanski is being panned for the call, with the strongest argument that it was too chancy to have Walker, making his second start this season in place of the injured Deshaun Watson, throw in that situation.
Perhaps. The Monday morning arm-chair QBs are feasting Stefanski, who called an impeccable game to that point.
They contend a running play was better because the Browns had moved it on the ground, and even if Seattle stopped Cleveland on third down, a punt would have pinned the Seahawks deep and forced them go the length of the field against the NFL's highest-rated defense.
That's making some assumptions, but so be it.
Stefanski stood by his decision.
“I felt good about our group,” he told reporters on a Zoom call. “Obviously, you’d prefer an incompletion there, you know it stops the clock at the two-minute warning. We knew that. And obviously, you would have preferred a run for a gain of 0, 1 or 2 (yards) or get it. All of that’s true, but the result didn’t go the way we wanted.”
It's hard to lay all the blame on Stefanski, who has been put in a tough situation while Watson recovers from his right shoulder injury. The Browns' trade of QB Joshua Dobbs — who has been starting for Arizona — before the season left Cleveland's coaches without an experienced backup.
Rookie Dorian-Thompson Robinson started one game for Watson and was dreadful. Walker, on the practice squad until a few weeks ago, somehow led the Browns to comeback wins over San Francisco and Indianapolis and Cleveland went 2-1 despite him throwing five picks in three games.
Walker needed to make one final throw Sunday and couldn't. He didn't even have to complete it, just not give it to the other guys.
Now, with Watson's shoulder potentially a problem going forward (nobody knows for sure), Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry may need to acquire an upgrade at backup quarterback by Tuesday's trade deadline.
If nothing else, Stefanski's fateful decision Sunday proved that.
Cleveland's running game is rolling, fueling the argument Stefanski should have had Walker hand off.
The Browns picked up 155 yards rushing, giving them three straight games of at least 150, a nice bounce back after struggling for two games in the wake of star Nick Chubb suffering a season-ending knee injury.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
For all the hype about Cleveland's top-ranked defense, there have been some holes — and issues — the past two weeks.
Seattle gashed the Browns with some explosive plays early, becoming the third straight team to score a TD on its opening drive.
And then the Seahawks drove for the winning score with little resistance amid some broken tackles and whiffs by the Browns. Also, rookie defensive back Cameron Mitchell dropped what could have been an easy pick-6 earlier in the fourth that would have put the Browns up by two scores.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. A constant target of criticism by disgruntled Browns fans, Wills played well despite being limited in practice last week by a foot/ankle injury. A first-round pick in 2020, Wills has had strung together some of his best games in recent weeks.
Running back Kareem Hunt. He didn't do Stefanski any favors with postgame comments questioning his usage and the fateful third-down play.
Hunt had 55 yards rushing on 14 carries with a touchdown, but lamented not getting any touches in the fourth quarter.
"I feel like I could’ve helped win,” Hunt said.
Stefanski said he doesn't feel the need to speak with Hunt personally about his complaints.
“Kareem wants to help this football team,” he said. "I like players that want to help the football team.”
Stefanski had no specific update on Watson, who has a strained rotator cuff. ... Stefanski said the team is still awaiting test results on a “bunch of guys.” DE Za'Darius Smith (undisclosed), CB Greg Newsome II (groin), RT Dawand Jones (shoulder) and DE Alex Wright (knee) were all treated for injuries Sunday.
17 — Cleveland's league-leading giveaways.
A home date against the struggling Cardinals (1-7) before back-to-back AFC North games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
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