CLEVELAND — Joe Flacco delivered everything but a win.
For more than three quarters on Sunday, the 38-year-old Flacco, who hadn't played in an NFL game in 11 months and wondered if his career was over, gave the Cleveland Browns the kind of performance they've lacked for years from their quarterbacks.
Poise. Precision. Possibility.
Beyond competency, Flacco, the fourth QB to start for Cleveland this season and the 37th since 1999, not only gave the Browns (7-5) a legitimate chance to win but provided hope that this injury-riddled season can limp forward — possibly into the playoffs.
Although Flacco threw an interception in the fourth quarter when Cleveland still had a chance to win what turned out to be a 36-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, he'll likely remain the Browns' starter this week and perhaps for the rest of the season.
Coach Kevin Stefanski wouldn't commit to Flacco being his starter for this week's home game against Jacksonville. He did confirm that rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson was still in the concussion protocol.
“I’m not going to get into those types of things on Monday,” Stefanski said when asked if Flacco is his starter. "We’ll work through that.”
There's actually very little to process. This seems to be a no-brainer.
Anyone who was inside SoFi Stadium, and that included Browns QB Deshaun Watson — who has been in Los Angeles the past two weeks rehabbing after shoulder surgery — had to be impressed by Flacco, a 15-year veteran and former Super Bowl MVP.
From the outset, he commanded Cleveland's offense and showed little rust despite the long layoff and only three full days of practice with the starting offense. Flacco was confident he still had “gas in the tank” and it certainly appeared that way.
Just about everything looked better when the Browns had the ball.
“I thought Joe did a nice job,” Stefanski said. "We were sharp getting in and out of the huddle. We weren’t perfect. There were a few things that we did alignment-wise that weren’t great. But I thought Joe did a nice job in the huddle, which you’d expect from a veteran like Joe.”
Flacco passed for 254 yards and two touchdowns. However, his one mistake was a big one.
With Cleveland trailing 20-19 and 6:51 left, Flacco threw deep on first down toward streaking wide receiver Elijah Moore. However, Flacco left it way short and Browns safety John Johnson III intercepted the pass and returned it 42 yards to Cleveland's 24.
The Rams capitalized on the turnover with a touchdown, and any hope of Flacco's Hollywood debut having a feel-good Hollywood ending was over.
That doesn't mean Flacco didn't earn a sequel.
Stefanski's steadiness has been instrumental in the Browns staying in the playoff hunt despite several major injuries. He's kept his team connected and competitive.
Cleveland is on its fourth QB, is missing star running (Nick Chubb) and both starting tackles (Jack Conklin, Jedrick Wills Jr.) with knee injuries, and is now banged-up on defense as well.
From week to week, Stefanski and his staff have had to juggle lineups, in some cases plugging holes with rookies, and adjust on the fly. That's part of coaching, and Stefanski has done it superbly.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Cleveland's pass rush failed to generate enough pressure on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who wasn't sacked, was rarely hurried and passed for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
With star end Myles Garrett slowed by a left shoulder injury, it was up to others on Cleveland's defensive front to step up. No one did.
Also, top cornerback Denzel Ward sat out his second straight game with a shoulder injury and was sorely missed.
Moore. The speedy wide receiver had his best game (four catches, 83 yards) since joining the Browns, and it's no accident that it came in Flacco's debut. They spent two seasons together with the New York Jets, and that chemistry contributed to Flacco targeting Moore 12 times.
Unfortunately, one of those turned into the game-swinging pick.
Cleveland's defense has gone from dominant to dormant.
The Browns didn't force a turnover against the Rams, who rolled up 399 total yards and had a handful of explosive, back-breaking plays.
Afterward, Garrett insisted his shoulder injury wasn't an issue, but his stat line — zero tackles — said otherwise.
Stefanski didn't have an update on wide receiver Amari Cooper, who sustained a concussion and had a couple uncharacteristic drops before leaving. Cooper's departure impacted Flacco's ability to push the ball downfield. ... Wills and CB Cameron Mitchell are eligible to be activated from injured reserve this week.
38, 321 — Age in years and days for Flacco, who became the oldest quarterback to throw a TD for pass the Browns. Don Strock was 38 years, 21 days in 1989 when he threw one.
An 0-2 trip out West has damaged Cleveland's playoff chances. The Browns, who host Jacksonville on Sunday, can't afford many more losses.