The quick snap was lethal and legal.
The Bengals did not violate the NFL's substitution rule when they caught the Browns' defense still huddling in the fourth quarter Sunday and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski alertly threw a 41-yard touchdown pass, a person familiar with the ruling told the Associated Press on Monday.
Gradkowski's toss to rookie A.J. Green with 4:31 left came after a legal snap with 14 seconds left on the play clock, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because play reviews between the league and teams are kept confidential. The source said the Browns had "ample time" to substitute before the ill-fated play, which will now be added to Cleveland's long list of heartbreaking plays.
Unlike most of the others, this one was preventable.
"It's a disappointing play," linebacker Scott Fujita said. "They caught the whole organization asleep on that one."
As the Browns' defense was waiting for a call to come in from the sideline, the Bengals hurried to the line and snapped the ball. Green, who had not caught a pass the entire game, hauled in Gradkowski's toss and easily outran cornerback Joe Haden for the TD to give Cincinnati a 20-17 lead.
On Sunday, Browns first-year coach Pat Shurmur wasn't sure if what the Bengals had done was permissible.
After reviewing videotape, Shurmur's tone changed.
"There are no excuses," he said. "If they no-huddle or quick huddle, we have to get out there and cover. If that doesn't happen properly, let's call a timeout. It got snapped so quickly, we couldn't really get it because you're initially trying to get everybody where they need to be.
"It's something we'll work on. We'll make sure it never happens again."
Because players were not running on and off the field, there was nothing unusual about what was happening before the snap, the source said. If the side officials had determined the Bengals had gotten an unfair advantage, they would have raised their arms and stopped the play before the snap.
The only thing the officials failed to notice was that Cleveland had 12 players in the huddle.
There's no doubt the Browns were confused.
With the Bengals facing a third-and-11, Cleveland's coaching staff wanted to get the proper coverage package on the field. Defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson sent in rookie nickelback Buster Skrine, not realizing that Dimitri Patterson, who had sat out the previous play with an ankle injury, was already back on the field.
Patterson said he forgot to tell Henderson he was going back in.
As the Browns waited for linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to give them the defensive call, the Bengals broke their huddle, snapped the ball and caught Cleveland's players squeezing in an afternoon nap.
"We all had our eyes on D'Qwell," Fujita said. "It was one of those things that we were in the middle of a personnel change and everything was just kind of frozen and then, bam, they came out in 2-point stances. I think they had been gearing up to do that, and we were slow coming out of the huddle earlier, but that's on all of us.
"We just have to be quicker and have a greater sense of urgency."
Still, the Browns could have stopped the Bengals simply by using one of their three timeouts. Surely there were enough eyes on the sideline that someone, anyone, noticed the Bengals were about to get away with some planned trickery. However, not one person on Cleveland's sideline asked the officials to halt play.
Shurmur said in those situations it's up to him and the coaching staff to call time or for one of his defensive players to signal for a stoppage.
None of them did. Fujita regrets not doing it himself.
"I should have called it," he said. "Generally, we are supposed to get permission from the sideline before we can call a timeout on defense. But me being the crusty old bastard I am, I should have noticed it and I should have called it."
Fujita said the Browns have only themselves to blame for getting beat on the controversial play.
"Whether it was (legal) or not, no one really cares," he said. "We should have had better consciousness to what was going on on the field and on the sidelines the same thing, just from the top down, it was not good for anyone of us."
Shurmur wasn't going to blame one play for the Browns losing another season opener, his debut as coach.
He lamented too many penalties, poor execution on offense and a young roster that has to grow up. Shurmur saw enough positives to believe his team will rebound next week at Indianapolis. There's time to correct the mistakes in practice, especially getting out of the huddle on time.
If it happens again, the Browns will be ready.
"Regardless what happens, when they line up with two wideouts out there, we have to cover," Shurmur said. "I don't care if we're all standing in the middle holding hands -- somebody has to cover those guys. We practice it, they know it. It's a hard lesson to learn."
Shurmur wouldn't say if P Richmond McGee, who averaged 36 yards on eight kicks in his debut, had lost his job. But Shurmur said the team was "evaluating" the position. ... RT Tony Pashos missed Sunday's game with a foot injury and Shurmur said it's possible the big man could sit out against the Colts as well.