By the time the Browns realized what was happening, it was already too late.
A.J. Green was long gone, and so was any chance of winning coach Pat Shurmur's debut.
The Cincinnati Bengals made Cleveland look foolish.
"Every once in a while you lose a game that makes you feel sick to your stomach," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said. "This is definitely one of those games."
Bengals backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski caught Cleveland's defense in the huddle, took a quick snap and lobbed a 41-yard touchdown pass to rookie A.J. Green in the fourth quarter, giving the whatever-it-takes Bengals a stunning 27-17 win Sunday over the Browns to spoil Shurmur's sloppy first game as Cleveland's coach.
Trailing 17-13 and facing a third-and-11, Gradkowski rushed the Bengals to the line and caught the snap as Cleveland's defense was still milling about. Green was left wide-open down the right side and Gradkowski tossed him the ball for an easy game-winning TD that baffled the Browns.
"Not a good look for us," said cornerback Joe Haden, who had a monster game with five breakups but was unable to stop Green on the game's biggest play.
"We were just scrambling around. It wasn't like they caught the ball on us. They caught us off-guard. It wasn't like we blew a coverage."
Shurmur, the Browns' fifth coach since 1999, had his first game as Cleveland coach decided by an odd play he wasn't sure was legal.
"They quick snapped us," said Shurmur. "I'll have to watch the tape, but it's my understanding they changed personnel, lined up and then quick snapped it. There's rules that go along with that, so we'll see. My understanding is when the offense changes personnel, the defense is allowed to do so as well and have time to do it."
The Bengals acknowledged the quick-strike was planned.
"The play is designed to catch them napping," said running back Cedric Benson, who put the Browns away with a 39-yard TD run in the final minutes. "We caught them napping."
This is not what the Browns had in mind to begin the Shurmur era.
They committed 11 penalties — 10 in the first half, including one on Shurmur — and were beaten by a Bengals team in disarray.
With quarterback Carson Palmer sticking to his trade-me-or-I'm-not-playing demand, Cincinnati started rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and then had to turn to Gradkowski in the second half.
Still, the Browns couldn't win and dropped to 1-12 in openers since 1999.
"The mistakes fall on everybody," said running back Peyton Hillis, held to 57 yards on 17 carries. "It was just a lot of mistakes, penalties, miscommunications and a lot of things like that."
Colt McCoy threw two TD passes for the Browns, who unveiled a new West Coast offense with mixed results. McCoy finished 19 of 40 for 213 yards, one interception and had several balls tipped or batted down.
"I was a little out of sync," he said. "We've got a lot of learning to do. I certainly had my bad plays. We have to put it all behind us. It's not one person, it's all of us."
On the ill-fated play to Green, Haden desperately tried to recover but couldn't catch the speedy wideout.
"We weren't ready," Haden said. "Everybody was scrambling. Everybody was standing in the middle looking at (linebacker) D'Qwell (Jackson) trying to figure out what the call was. We never got one and when we heard everybody screaming, they were already lined up and we just started running."
Benson, who recently served jail time on an assault charge, finished with 121 yards on 25 carries. Mike Nugent kicked field goals of 24 and 47 yards for Cincinnati.
Dalton injured his wrist when he was hit by Browns rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor on Cincinnati's final offensive play in the first half and didn't return. He finished 10 of 15 for 81 yards and hopes to play next week at Denver.
Shurmur's first quarter as a head coach couldn't have gone much worse as the Browns were called for six penalties, gained 3 yards rushing and were badly outplayed.
Afterward, a red-faced Shurmur didn't hold back when assessing his team's disappointing outing.
"A season full of mistakes in the first quarter," Shurmur said. "No excuses. I don't care if you're a rookie. I don't care if you've been in this thing for 12 years, and I care if this is your last game. You can't make mistakes."
Notes: WR Greg Little delivered a devastating block on punter Kevin Huber, a shot that also knocked down returner Josh Cribbs, who might have run it all the way back. ... Jackson was one of the Browns' few bright spots, recording two sacks and 11 tackles. ... Players and coaches on both sidelines helped hold the giant American flag that covered the entire field during a stirring pregame tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. ... Browns punter Richmond McGee averaged 36 yards on eight punts, a poor debut that could lead to changes.