KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Jason Campbell headed out of the locker room, he stopped to talk with CEO Joe Banner. Banner complimented his performance and reached up to fix the collar on his tan suit.
The latest new Browns quarterback looked good on and off the field Sunday and made an obvious difference. But even a huge improvement in quarterback play wasn’t enough for the Browns to pull the upset of the undefeated Chiefs in loud, red Arrowhead Stadium.
The offense took nearly two quarters to get started, the defense was atrocious for the entire half and Davone Bess couldn’t hang onto the ball early or late.
A strong effort and impressive rally ended as Cleveland’s third straight loss, 23-17 to Kansas City. The Browns fell to 3-5, the Chiefs improved to 8-0.
“It stings because it’s a game we feel like we had a chance to win, and to come away with a loss, it hurts,” Campbell said.
Despite a dismal first 16 minutes and 13-0 and 20-7 deficits, the Browns had chances to stop the skid and stay within shouting distance of Cincinnati (6-2) in the AFC North. But they self-destructed down the stretch and never seriously threatened, despite having the ball four times trailing 20-17, not including the desperation shot with 17 seconds left.
Bess was the worst culprit. He replaced Travis Benjamin — knee sprain on a third-quarter punt return — as punt returner and fumbled with 7:02 left. The Browns would’ve had the ball at about the Kansas City 45-yard line trailing 20-17. Instead, the Chiefs used three more minutes, coach Rob Chudzinski spent his last two timeouts and Bess caught the next punt at the 16-yard line.
Campbell picked up one first down, then faced fourth-and-7 from the 31. He scrambled right and threw back to the left. Bess was coming back toward the line of scrimmage, slid at the 40 and dropped the ball for what would’ve been a first down.
The Chiefs added an insurance field goal.
“I thought we were just going to score and win,” right guard Shawn Lauvao said of the Bess fumble. “It’s unfortunate that happened.”
Campbell was the main reason the Browns even had a chance, making Chudzinski look wise for making the move from Brandon Weeden. Campbell was the 20th starting quarterback since the Browns returned in 1999 and third this year.
He went 22-for-36 (61 percent) for 293 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, a sack and a 105.4 rating. He got rid of the ball quickly, scrambled when he had to and looked comfortable.
“I felt good,” he said. “I proved I can still play the game. We knew it was a big challenge coming here, but I felt all week we could win this game.”
The Browns fell behind 13-0 and 20-7 in the second quarter as the defense couldn’t stop quarterback Alex Smith (24-for-36 for 225 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 102.2 rating, 40 yards on six rushes). The Chiefs held the ball for 22:46 of the first 30 minutes, amassing 281 yards and 16 first downs.
The Browns didn’t get their first first down until 3:30 was left in the half and had 18 yards on their first nine plays.
“It’s just like treading water,” Campbell said. “We were backed up and just trying to get our head above the water.”
Campbell remained calm, filled his lungs and put together three scoring drives in a row, ending with an 80-yard march to being the second half to pull the Browns within 20-17 with 9:58 left in the third quarter.
“I thought that Jason did a good job on a lot of things: leadership, bringing us back, putting us in a position, making some plays that we needed,” said Chudzinski, who said he’d stick to his process and watch the film before naming Campbell the starter for next week.
“Jason had a tremendous week in terms of preparation,” Lauvao said. “It’s not his first rodeo. He’s a really smart guy. He doesn’t necessarily say much, but in terms of his actions they definitely speak a lot louder.”
Campbell, who completed passes to nine receivers, started the comeback with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon (five catches, 132 yards) on a flea flicker. Willis McGahee (nine rushes, 28 yards, 3.1 average) took the handoff, stopped and pitched back to Campbell. Gordon wasn’t the first option, but he hesitated off the line, then ran past cornerback Sean Smith on a post-corner route and Campbell found him open down the left side.
Campbell’s second touchdown was a 17-yard swing pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker – his first NFL touchdown — that swung the momentum to the Browns. They couldn’t capitalize, despite a drastically different defense than in the first half.
The Browns held the Chiefs to three points – the final field goal – 50 yards and four first downs in the second half. After the Chiefs didn’t punt in the first half, the Browns forced five straight after halftime.
“We didn’t make any adjustments,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “We knew what we had to do and went out there second half and did it. If we would’ve went out there and did what we had to do the first half, we could’ve easily beat them.”
The Browns had six sacks, five after halftime. Linebackers Craig Robertson, D’Qwell Jackson, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo, safety T.J. Ward and Taylor each had a sack. The outburst tied a season high and came after one each the last two weeks against the quick releases of Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
“The second half we stayed true to our game plan regardless of what had happened and guys responded,” said Jackson, whose voice was hoarse from screaming the signals over the crowd noise. “I think it was just a matter of attitude. That first half was not us. The first half we clearly didn’t play nearly an ounce of defense as we’re capable of doing.”
The defensive players joined Chudzinski and the offense in praising Campbell. They feel with competent quarterback play they will have the chance to compete every week and make a run at the Bengals.
“We almost won that game,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way not to shoot ourselves in the foot too early. Not fight from a big hole in that second half.”
Campbell’s numbers were impressive enough. That they came in the madhouse of Arrowhead Stadium against the dominant Chiefs defense spoke even louder.
The Chiefs still haven’t allowed a team to score more than 17 points, lead the league with 36 sacks and entered tied for the league lead with 19 takeaways. Campbell didn’t throw an interception and took only one sack.
“I saw a lot of great things. We can win with Jason,” Taylor said. “He made a lot of great plays in the air and on his feet. We need that every week.”
And a bit more from the guys around him.