OAKLAND, CA. -- Say anything you want about Sunday's game here between the Cleveland Browns and the Oakland Raiders -- and you pretty much CAN say ANYTHING based on what happened -- but one thing is absolutely certain.
Two of the most loyal, long-suffering, abused fan bases in United States sports enjoyed/suffered through one of the most entertaining football games possible -- complete with hope, despair, aggravation and official robbery -- as the Raiders out-lucked and outlasted the visiting Browns, 45-42, in overtime Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum.
It was a game that became must-see TV because it featured the debut as a starter of Browns 2018 No. 1 draft pick, controversial quarterback Baker Mayfield. But it was ultimately decided by a little-known, undrafted rookie kicker Matt McCrane who signed four days earlier, ended the game with a 29-yard field goal with 1:50 left in overtime. McCrane admitted he didn't even know he was going for the win until he asked just before jogging onto the field.
In between, these two downtrodden teams lit up the scoreboards for four hours and four minutes with 1,052 combined net yards on 164 plays with 10 touchdowns (six passing), five lead changes and perhaps most important, six turnovers -- four by the Browns.
In his first NFL game as a starter, Mayfield completed 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, one a pick six.
"I love Mayfield," Oakland coach Jon Gruden said. "The way he plays, the confidence that he has. He got out of trouble and made some unbelievable throws under fire today. He has a bright future, and I think Cleveland found their quarterback. They have been complaining about not having one for a while, but it's pretty obviously they got one."
In his first win of this season, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr continued to improve after a forgettable few games, hitting on 35 of 58 passes for 437 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, including one just before the half when the Raiders were in position to tie the score.
Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch pounded the Browns for 130 yards on 20 carries while Oakland wide receivers Amari Cooper and Jared Cook each caught eight passes, Cooper for 128 yards and a touchdown; Cook for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
"Congratulations to the Raiders," said Browns head coach Hue Jackson. "They made enough plays to win the game. We didn't. Obviously, turnovers were the difference. . . Fourteen-point swing there in the second half to where they scored each time we turned it ... and that's the difference."
The Raiders will accept the win any way they can get it. The victory probably avoided a revolt even by the faithful Raider Nation. It gives the team a 1-3 record, ending ...
1. A streak of three consecutive games in which it lost after blowing second half leads and opened a Pandora's box of concerns about the status and ability of Carr;
2. Gruden's personal seven-game losing streak as a head coach, traversing 3,591 days, or nine years, 10 months, depending on how you count, and
3. Constant consternation about trading All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack, an act of treason for fans in Oakland and probably an impact on Nos. 1 and 2.
The thrill of victory did not escape Gruden after all his agony of defeat, going back thousands of days and damned near decade to November 2008, after which he lost his last four games with Tampa Bay. He was fired, launching his career as an undefeated television analyst.
"It feels like my first win in 100 years," Gruden admitted. "It's great to be back. I thank our fans for hanging in there with us. There was a lot of ups and downs, but to get that field goal from our third-string kicker, back-up snapper. I've never been so nervous on a 29-yard field goal in my life."
Let's get back to that drama-ending play later. First, we will discuss a pair of plays that will live in Browns' lore for years, maybe decades. Surely Raider Nation can empathize. Two critical officiating calls determined the outcome every bit as much as anything done by the players, good or bad. These weren't as blatantly stupid as the Tuck Rule (Jan. 2, 2002 vs. New England), which led to the end of Gruden's first stay as Raiders coach.
But there were two calls that went against Cleveland that harkened horrors of Raiders history -- such as the Rob Lytle Non-Fumble from the Jan. 1, 1978 AFC Championship game in Denver and the so-called Index Card Measurement just last December against the Dallas Cowboys. The Raiders lost both games as a direct result of those bad calls. And, for what it's worth, the stupid Tuck Rule was rescinded a few years ago.
Sunday, with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter on third-and-9 from his 42, Carr was in trouble in the pocket, stepped up and was hit by Browns pass rushers Myles Garrett and Genard Avery. The ball popped out upon contact and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi grabbed it and began running. But the play had been whistled dead, citing forward progress and that fumble was erased just the same as was on Lytle's fumble on that New Year's Day in Denver.
With 1:41 left in the fourth quarter on a third and two play, Browns running back Carlos Hyde barged up the middle. Initially, the ball seemed beyond the line to gain and was called a first down. But upon review from New York the ball was moved back slightly so the point of the ball and the line to gain seems less than the space between these lines ||. The call was reversed, and the Browns punted. When we reviewed this on our 80-inch screen it seemed implausible that any video review yields indisputable evidence that demanded a reversal.
After the game, NFL vice president for officiating Al Riveron explained that the decision to overturn the call was because of the angles they could see in the central command center in New York. They based their ruling on the fact that the ball was short of the line when Hyde's elbow was down.
Ok, with the ugly duly noted, let's move on to the good and even some bad.
The good for the Raiders was that final play that caused so much angst for Gruden. The "third string kicker" is undrafted rookie Matt McCrane from Kansas State who was waived by Arizona after training camp. He was signed Wednesday to replace Mike Nugent who went on injured reserve after a 52-yard field goal last week. And Nugent was in for Eddy Pineiro, who was injured in training camp.
Before making the game-deciding, 29-yard field goal, McCrane was two for four on field goal attempts, missing from 47 yards in the second quarter and 50 yards with 6:14 in overtime. So, what was going through his head when he trotted out with less than two minutes left in overtime?
"I don't say much goes through my head," he offered after the game. "I don't really try to play up the situation. I went to our long snapper and asked, 'is this to win it?' I didn't even really know. I was sitting at home the last 3 weeks hopefully waiting for a call."
After a horrid first three games and a roller coaster ride to victory Sunday, Gruden feels the team is heading in the right direction.
"We have a lot of character," he said. "I think they have proven that. The way they came off to the loss of the Rams on a short week up in Denver. We fought on a hot day and then we went to Miami and fought for 60 minutes on a terribly hot day again.
"Coming off of a three-game losing streak, it doesn't look good we are down by eight points. We hang in there and we keep playing. That says a lot about the football character. A lot of those veteran players that we brought in here, delivered in spirit today. I think the attitude has a lot to do with the leadership we have on our team."