Darnell Mooney

Darnell Mooney's Hail Mary drop, Browns debacle encapsulates Bears' lost season

Darnell Mooney had a chance to erase a season of frustration Sunday, but an unlikely catch slipped through his fingers, and only big questions remain

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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Darnell Mooney sat inside his locker in the bowels of Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday night, talking with quarterback Justin Fields about what could have been 20 minutes before.

The Bears entered the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns leading 17-7. Their defense had dominated all day, picking off Browns quarterback Joe Flacco three times en route to a 10-point lead. But the wheels came off in the fourth quarter as the Browns scored 13 unanswered points to take a 20-17 lead with 32 seconds to play.

Fields and the offense moved the ball to the Browns' 45-yard line with five seconds to play. Needing a final miracle to avoid a third double-digit, fourth-quarter meltdown this season, Fields let it fly toward tight end Cole Kmet in the end zone. The ball was batted forward and into the arms of a falling Mooney. But the receiver couldn't grip it while falling, and the ball bounced off his toe and into the hands of safety D'Anthony Bell.

Game over. Meltdown loss Part III complete.

"I tried to tip it and then hold onto it," Mooney said after the 20-17 loss. "It hit my chest [before I could secure it]. I was already falling, so it's tough. It would have been crazy, but it's tough. How many times do you see a Hail Mary work and actually fall into -- being able to make a catch?

"It was tough. I wish I could have had it, but it is what it is."

Mooney sat on the turf in the end zone for a few minutes after the game -- and likely the Bears' faint postseason hopes -- bounced off his chest. When he returned to the locker room, he watched the video to see how close he was to a miraculous, game-winning catch.

Last season, Mooney lost a game-winning touchdown catch in the Soldier Field lights in a Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders, bobbling it before being tackled at the 1-yard line. After that loss, Mooney and Fields sat together for a long time to dissect a game-winner missed. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy also stopped by to join the conversation.

It was different this time, given the unlikelihood of a Hail Mary completion. Mooney sat in his locker for a while Sunday, but there wasn't dejection in the wide receiver's face—just disbelief at everything that unfolded, culminating in that would-be hero moment slipping through his fingers.

"I was just like, 'Dang, that would have been crazy if I could have held onto it,'" Mooney said. "It was like, 'Wow, that was crazy.'

"I just saw it and everybody's killing me for it. But it was a hard catch. Difficult catch."

Quarterback Justin Fields and the offense struggled to get going against the Browns' banged-up but talented defense. Heading into their final drive, the Bears' offense had just 206 total yards.

But Mooney and Fields had a chance to wipe all the frustration and a fourth-quarter flop away with an unlikely completion.

A miracle that was this close to being delivered.

"On a Hail Mary like that, you just want to be able to buy as much time for your guys to get down in position and get a chance to catch the ball," Fields said. "Put some air on it, maybe get a tip. DBs aren't the best at tracking balls. Main thing is just give my guy a chance, and we almost came out with a catch. That's all you can really do.

"I heard some celebration on the sideline, and then it was like, 'Oh.' I saw the guy come out and tipped up and picked, of course. Can't do anything about it."

A feeling of despair briefly swept over the Browns' sideline as the ball found Mooney, but sometimes the ball bounces your way.

"I damn near s--t myself," Browns tight end David Njoku said of the final play. "Luckily our defense made an exceptional play, sealed the game, and that was it."

Mooney's season hasn't gone the way he hoped. The fourth-year receiver is in a contract year but hasn't been able to produce the way he did in 2021 when he was a 1,000-yard receiver. Mooney has taken the high road with his frustrations. He has continually said he's just going to keep running his routes and make plays when the ball finds him.

The football gods finally looked his way Sunday. Although he was unable to secure a gift dropped in his lap, Mooney was unshaken by an unlikely opportunity missed.

"It's Hail Mary," Mooney said. "It's nothing like targeted for me. It just ricocheted, and I happened to be the guy in the position right there to try to get the ball. It's a wild play. It could have been crazy. I wish I wasn't falling, it would have been easier to catch it. It's unfortunate. Shouldn't have to come down to those things to just throw the ball up in the air and make some things work.

"It's unfortunate that I wasn't able to hold onto it."

With the loss, the Bears' three losses, when leading by 10 or more in the fourth quarter, are tied for the most in NFL history. Since 2013, teams whose defense notched three or more interceptions and four or more sacks were 97-3-1. The Bears' loss is number four.

It was a play and a loss that perfectly sums up a 2023 season that started out terribly and never fully got back on track. A win Sunday would have put the Bears at 6-8 and firmly in the playoff hunt with three games to play. It was all there for the taking.

Then, in a debacle fitting this roller-coaster season, it all fell apart.

"That’s exactly where the pain was,' safety Eddie Jackson said of a loss that doomed postseason hopes. "We had our destiny in our hands. Like, we had it. And we had it. We knew that it was going to be a tough game. Everybody knew, especially on defense, it was going to be a defensive game on both sides. they’ve got a good defense. We knew they were going to give our offense work. We knew it. And we have a good defense. So we knew that it was gonna be a defensive game. We knew that. It’s not like we came in, like, ‘Man offense is going to put up points.’ We weren’t looking for offense to put up points. We were just looking to get turnovers, stop, and score on defense, which we did. Just at the end, we couldn’t finish."

Mooney could have played the hero Sunday, erasing all of that -- and the frustrations of a season that hasn't gone according to plan -- with an improbable catch.

But the ball bounced up into Bell's arms, leaving Mooney alone on the turf with only what could have been -- with a catch that wasn't and the remnants of a season that hasn't lived up to expectations.

All that remained as the 5-9 Bears exited Cleveland Browns Stadium after a third meltdown loss was the first of many big-picture questions for Mooney, Fields, and head coach Matt Eberflus:

What comes next?

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