Sometimes you can't really appreciate how incompetent the Browns are until you see them in the flesh, and though the semi-annual appointment with the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday proved reliably that Cleveland's NFL entry is again comically bad, it was hard not to notice that the officials were funnier.
Not by much, mind you; the Browns brought out some hilarious stuff, like the third-down fumble nullified by a delay of game penalty (that's right, they can't even fumble on time), but referee Walt Anderson and his crew were more consistently chuckly.
After Cleveland linebacker David Bowens was flagged for roughing the passer late in the first half, Anderson took to the field microphone and explained that Bowens was guilty of "forcibly taking the quarterback to the ground."
Forcibly? Well, it's often difficult to talk them down.
And you thought forcibly taking the passer to the ground was somewhere in the standard linebacker job description. It might even be the mission statement.
The Browns weren't laughing after a fourth-and-1 play on the same Steelers possession resulted in a measurement the Cleveland defense had just begun to celebrate when officials ruled -- wait a minute -- first down. Fooled 'ya.
Anderson was compelled to explain that one in the post-game, and dutifully came up with this:
"The ball has to penetrate the plane of the stake. When we set the ball up ready to measure and we bring the chains out, the chains are set beside the football; they're not put down on top of the football. So I get on the side and I'm looking straight in at that angle. So when the stakes go down I'm sighting in between the nose of the football and the stake. So if the nose of the football touches the stake, then it's a first down. It's kind of like a football touching the plane of the goal line. But we don't actually put the stake up against the nose of the ball because of the way the ball is shaped. The chains and the stake are laid beside, so it kind of depends on the angle you might be looking at it from."
Uh-huh. But all I learned right there was that I was suddenly hungry for a steak.
Steelers QB Roethlisberger actually had a better explanation: "We got lucky."
Luck took a coffee break two plays later, when Roethlisberger's perfect fade pass was pulled in expertly by a twisting Hines Ward, but the touchdown was overturned on review despite the inconvenient truth that Ward caught the ball and came down with it in the end zone.
"The ruling I thought was you have to have control while you're in the end zone," Ward said after a sizzling eight-catch, 159-yard effort. "What the ref said was that you have to continue, no matter how many times you roll. On the second roll the ball hit my thigh and moved a little bit. I had complete control of the ball when I caught it in the end zone."
Anderson disallowed it, but it wasn't Anderson's fault. He was just enforcing a ridiculous rule that is the theoretical opposite of the famous ground-can't-cause-a-fumble dictum. If the ground can't cause a fumble, how can a series of momentum-driven rolls be allowed to cause a negated touchdown?
So instead of being up, 21-7, at the half, the Steelers were briefly in danger when the Browns decided to cram a month's worth of touchdowns (one) into the third quarter. A 45-yard catch by Ward helped stretch the lead back to 24-14.
"It's all about opportunities," Ward said. "I just try to take advantage of the ones I have and that's what I preach to the other guys. We all want the ball out there, but you're only as good as your opportunities. You take away the turnovers we had and we're still out there putting up more yards. I think we had over 500 yards of offense."
Five-hundred forty-three to be tedious, but the turnovers numbered a shocking four, three of them coming in a slapstick second-half sequence in which the Steelers and Browns turned it over on five consecutive possessions. The fifth of those was easily the goofiest, coming when Rashard Mendenhall fled around the right edge, landed in a pile up, and lay there indifferently until backup linebacker Kaluka Maiava ripped it loose for Bowens to recover.
"I was laying on the ground!" Mendenhall said. "Maybe they decided I was on top of some people, but there were parts of me that were on the ground. But still, you can't leave it up to them. You have to hang on to it."
Evidently. When you're on your back in the semi-turtle, I would suggest forward progress has been expired, as had the third quarter, which was when Anderson got back on the field mic and announced, "This is the end of the first quarter!"
There are three more quarters of this?
Blessedly, the remainder of this 27-14 Steelers victory passed without incident, unless you count Browns linebacker Jason Trusnik somehow avoiding a penalty when he forcibly took Roethlisberger to the ground, and unless you count the Ryan Clark interception near the goal line after which officials ruled the Steelers would get the ball at the 20, then re-ruled that it should be spotted at the 1.
Anderson explained from the field the seldom-heard phenomenon of "interception momentum."
Asked about that, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said "I have no idea what Walt was talking about."
Funny, but he wasn't laughing.