Sunday, September 28, 2008

Baby Steps

Apparently not every 0-3 team is created equal.

In a game that featured a number of firsts for both teams, the winless Cleveland Browns got the most important first, a win, in a harder than it had to be 20-12 victory over the equally winless Cincinnati Bengals. The victory avoided putting the Browns into the bye week under a worst case scenario and facing a groundswell of fan dissatisfaction directed, in no particular order, toward general manager Phil Savage, head coach Romeo Crennel and quarterback Derek Anderson. As it is, that dissatisfaction will simply have to simmer for another few weeks.

Despite having the same records going in, the game seemed to set up far better for the Browns than the Bengals. But until Anderson, probably on his absolute last lifeline, put together a key third quarter drive capped off by a 4-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards, the outcome was seriously in doubt. It was Edwards’ first touchdown of the season. A quick turnover by Bengals’ running back Chris Perry gave the ball right back to the Browns, allowing Jamal Lewis to get a first of his own, a 4-yard touchdown run that helped give the Browns a 17-6 lead and effectively put the game out of reach. On that drive Anderson hit tight end Kellen Winslow on a 20-yard pass that helped put the Browns within Lewis’ ramming range.

Though the game was mostly over by that point, that doesn’t mean it was easy jog in. Bengals’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, subbing for the injured Carson Palmer, struggled all day but still managed to move the Bengals to within five points with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson with just under 8 minutes left. It was Johnson’s first touchdown of the season as well. The Bengals, though, had used all of their time outs early in the second half, giving the Browns the chance to burn plenty of time off the clock, which was a good plan that didn’t quite come off.

After making one first down, running back Jerome Harrison was dropped for a 5-yard loss and Anderson was forced to call a time out when the Browns couldn’t get the right personnel onto the field, which is the kind of thing that tends to keep a team winless. A Lewis run went nowhere and Anderson tried a squeeze pass to Harrison that came up short, leaving the ball just outside of kicker Phil Dawson’s field goal range. The Browns took a delay of game penalty to give punter Dave Zastudil more room, but that didn’t work either as he put the ball in the back of the end zone, giving the Bengals the ball at their own 20-yard line with three minutes remaining and some hope.

This is where Fitzpatrick demonstrated that he’s no Carson Palmer. He scrambled on first down to keep the clock running, passed short on second down to keep the clock running and then fumbled on third down at his own 20-yard line to linebacker Alex Hall with 2:04 remaining. From there, the Browns added another Dawson field goal for the margin of victory.

A win is a win, certainly, and there’s no reason to diminish it simply because it came against the Bengals. At this point, the Browns have no cause to be picky. But future wins are going to be few and far between unless they find a way to rid themselves of the usual gremlins that have plagued them this season. The game again featured a full array of dropped passes, lousy blocking and missed assignments, penalties, and an inability to pressure the quarterback. That’s why the game was close. But if the degrees of awful are measured on a 100 point scale, the Browns, even with that mess, are still hovering around a 50. The Bengals are well into the 80s.

As proof, consider the following. The Bengals have one of the worst run defenses in the league and were facing one of the worst rushing teams in the league. Somehow, though, the Browns ended up with 134 rushing yards after averaging less than 75 in the three games prior. The Bengals defense, like the Browns, can’t get off the field on third down. The Browns have one of the worst third down conversion rates in the league at 35%. On the day, the Browns were 5-13 for 38%. Ok, that isn’t much of an improvement, but baby steps, baby steps. The Bengals also like to give opposing defenses a break. Coming into the game their offense was leading the league in three-and-outs. On the day, they went three-and-out twice, which may not sound like much until you also consider that they turned it over three other times within the first three plays of a drive.

In all, and as far as the Browns were concerned, the Bengals offered a near perfect formula for a much needed victory by a team in need of a shot of confidence going into the bye week.

The Browns’ first lead, and for a while what looked to be their only lead, came on their first drive. Demonstrating a new-found commitment to the run, the Browns were able to do so more effectively than they have all season. Lewis had 20 of his 79 yards on that drive and Harrison accounted for another 8. But that drive stalled inside the 5-yard line and the Browns had to settle for a Phil Dawson 25-yard field goal.

The Bengals then snatched a little momentum of their own with a 13 play, 68-drive that tied the game thanks to a 42-yard field goal by Shayne Graham. Fitzpatrick helped his own cause in that drive by twice scrambling for first downs against a defense that couldn’t pressure him despite a flurry of blitzes.

That shot of adrenalin initially carried over on the defensive side of the ball for the Bengals but soon disappeared when Fitzpatrick threw an ill-advised pass late, deep and into the waiting hands of safety Mike Adams near the Browns’ goal line. The Browns, mostly on the strength of Lewis, put together a nice drive of their own that dissolved under the weight of Crennel’s decision to eschew field position in favor of something far more positive. It would have worked, too, except that after a nifty fake by Anderson to Lewis, Anderson then threw poorly and at the feet of tight end Steve Heiden. It was the kind of pass that he’s thrown way too often this season.

That only served to set up perhaps the sequence that best illustrated the combined incompetence of the two teams. On 3rd and 5 from his own 45-yard line, Fitzpatrick threw his second interception of the day, this time on a nice play by cornerback Eric Wright. With plenty of running room, Wright crossed back over midfield but forgot to secure the ball. The Bengals’ Perry hit him, the ball went flying backward (or forward, depending on your perspective) and into the hands of Bengals’ receiver, Chad Johnson, the first time Johnson’s name had been called all game. The play didn’t net the Bengals much in the way of yardage but gave them an important first down with two minutes left in the half. In a nearly sublime ending to the sequence, however, the Bengals mostly squandered the field position and ended up having to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Graham that just crept inside the uprights. Still, it gave them the lead in a game that didn’t feature much offense to that point but still managed to be offensive.

The reason a Bengals’ lead, or a Browns deficit, again depending on perspective, was important at that point was mostly for those fans of trends. The Browns hadn’t scored a second half touchdown all season nor had they scored a first quarter touchdown all season, which they kept in tact. Coupled with the fact that the Browns also hadn’t scored a touchdown in the second quarter Sunday, the rest of the game seemed to hold little hope. And it mostly went that way until Anderson’s big third quarter drive.

That isn’t to say that the game lacked interest, or at least some intrigue. On a drive that started at the Browns’ 2-yard line less than five minutes into the third quarter, Edwards committed his fourth penalty of the season, a personal foul on a late hit, after Lewis had seemingly gotten the first down. Punter Dave Zastudil relieved some of the pressure with a 58-yard punt, but over on the sideline Edwards and Anderson were in a heated exchange and had to separated by Lewis.

Any team other than, perhaps, Cincinnati could have easily exploited a team clearly on the brink at that point. The Bengals instead were forced to punt setting up the mini-resurrection that led to the Browns’ victory.

On the day, Anderson was hardly brilliant but almost certainly did enough to save his job for now and maybe that of his head coach. He was only 15-24 for 138 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but that was enough to raise his quarterback rating to almost 50 on the season. That still keeps him near the bottom of the league, but again, baby steps, baby steps. Edwards, despite his first touchdown, caught only two other passes for 22 yards total and still has a long way to go to be considered merely out of sync. Winslow was once again Anderson’s favorite target, grabbing five passes for 54 yards.

Now the Browns and their fans get a welcome respite from a season that once looked promising and was on the verge of looking completely lost. This win isn’t going to go too far in solving all the problems that this team still faces, but if all it does is give them a little hop in their step for a few weeks, then that’s at least more than they had when this day started. And if that isn’t the most satisfying of circumstances remember, baby steps, baby steps.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lingering Items--Ravens Edition

Cleveland Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel announced Wednesday that Derek Anderson would remain the starting quarterback. If you expected anything different, then you haven’t been paying close attention. Crennel has become the George Costanza of the NFL and he’s destined for a similar fate, unemployment, unless he too adheres to the one piece of advice that ever proved successful for George: make a decision and then do the opposite.

Crennel has been wrong about virtually everything this season. Who to start, when to kick a field goal, when to take a time out. In fact, it would be hard to find a decision this season that has gone right for him. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, he’s apparently going to continue to listen to the little man inside him, not realizing as George once did, that his little man is an idiot.

Crennel’s rationale to stick with Anderson makes a certain amount of sense if you remove context. Anderson had a great season last year by any measure. He had some alarming bouts of inconsistency and didn’t finish strong, all of which concerned a lot of folks, but the overall results for him personally and the team generally were good. Thus, you don’t abandon that kind of potential. A fair argument, too, can be made for the notion that as the starter, Anderson, like any player, should be given the chance to work his way out of a slump.

In context, you begin to visualize the first three games of the season and wonder why any coach would continue to push that Anderson rock up the same hill only to have it flatten him a few minutes later. The St. Louis Rams have benched Marc Bulger in favor of Trent Green in order to give his winless team a spark. Bulger is far more entrenched and has a far bigger contract than Anderson and yet Rams’ head coach Scott Linehan can understand perfectly the results he’s seen from Bulger thus far and knows a change is needed. And that’s with a quarterback that has almost twice the rating as Anderson at the moment.

But Crennel’s dogged insistence on staying the course is more than keeping with the one trait that continues to fail him the most, abject stubbornness. Recall how steadfast Crennel stood behind Maurice Carthon as offensive coordinator until general manager Phil Savage finally stepped in and forced Carthon’s “resignation?” You can also see it in Crennel’s approach to defense. Despite lacking the linebacking talent to run a 3-4 defense, Crennel continues to march it out there week after week insisting that the only thing holding it back is the need to just work harder.

If Crennel’s decision not to go with Brady Quinn at this point is out of some misguided fear of creating a quarterback controversy or dividing the locker room, to that one can only ask either, who cares or how would that make a difference anyway? Professional athletes are great at wearing blinders and so too is this group. They continue to say the right things and continue to look on the sunny side of the street. But even this team, in its heart of hearts, knows that there are serious problems that extend well beyond the outcome of the Anderson/Quinn conundrum.

You get the sense, too, that maybe, just maybe, Crennel doesn’t much care for Quinn. Crennel’s quote after last week’s debacle against the Baltimore Ravens that “I think we’ll try to get the other guy ready, and we’ll see how it goes from there” suggests much even while saying little. Why, is Quinn simply “the other guy?” Does Crennel not know his name or is he just trying to emulate the vast interpersonal skills of his mentor, Bill Belichick, or the big daddy himself, Bill Parcells? If nothing else, it showed an amazing lack of respect by the supposed leader of the team to not even refer to one of its marquee players by name.


Not that Crennel naming Anderson as a starter was much of a surprise, but who’s playing quarterback on Sunday, while not irrelevant, is only one of several relevant concerns. Quinn can be more mobile, more decisive, more accurate and it won’t make much of a difference if, for example, the Browns keep marching Syndric Steptoe out there as the only other viable alternative at wide receiver.

More to the point, it isn’t going to matter much who the receivers are until the Browns prove to an opponent that they have a viable running game. One of the great truisms in football is that establishing a run game helps set up the passing game. Thus has nearly offensive coordinator who’s ever donned a set of headphones tried to establishing the running game irrespective of who he has taking the hand off.

The Browns have a pretty decent running back in Jamal Lewis and yet haven’t run very effectively in any of the three games. Some fault lies with an offensive line that hasn’t played particularly well. Mostly, though, it’s been because the Browns have been behind. But there also seems like a deliberate plan by offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski to zag when the other team is expecting a zig. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that right now zagging, which means passing, is even less effective.

Consider, for example, the one case that seems to have particularly caught the eye of Lewis when he complained earlier this week about the game plan. In the Ravens game, the Browns actually had the lead heading into the third quarter and got the ball first. In a situation tailor made for establishing the run and, hence, taking control of the game, Chudzinski instead opted to throw, risking turnovers for the potential of a quick score that would put more pressure on Ravens’ rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

In the first series, the Browns started on their own 10-yard line following the obligatory block-in-the-back penalty on the kick return. They went pass, pass and pass, with that third one being intercepted by Chris McAlister. The Ravens turned that into a touchdown and the lead.

On the next series, which started at the Browns’ 18-yard line, Chudzinski called for a run, which went for four yards, and then another pass, which was intercepted by Ed Reed for a touchdown. Now the Ravens had an insurmountable lead. The Browns responded in kind and out of necessity by running only twice more.

The whole scenario points out, generally, that the problems with this team are at virtually every level. The head coach is overmatched, the offensive coordinator is outsmarting himself and the defensive coordinator is a rookie forced to adhere to a strategy without the talent to support it. The players, with very few exceptions, are performing below expectations. In the end you get what you have, a team that is 0-3 and on the cusp of having to play out the string only a quarter into the season.


This week’s question to ponder as the Browns travel to as contrived of a nickname as exists for an opposing venue, the “Jungle”: Given Crennel’s coaching lineage, do you think Belichick would start Anderson over Quinn this week?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Talking Points

Sorting through the wreckage of another Cleveland Browns’ beat down at the hands of a division rival, one thing that is clear above all else. There is no magic pill, no silver bullet solution to curing what ails them. In almost every way imaginable, the Browns find themselves in the kind of mess it usually takes 8-10 games to create.

Right now there seems to be an argument of sorts taking place between the Browns’ front office and its fans. General manager Phil Savage, deploying the team’s radio announcers every bit as effectively as Mark Shapiro does with the Indians, has Doug Dieken constantly reminding everyone of the team’s injury situation. The fans, on the other hand, are tired of hearing excuses and demand some answers and some accountability. They’ve gotten little of either.

Instead, Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel keep hammering away on injuries as if they were political talking points that are to be repeated no matter the question. But if Savage is going to take refuge in the injury situation, then he also has to accept responsibility for getting the franchise into this predicament in the first place. Injuries are part of the game and always have been. But why is it that injuries seem to always impact the Browns more than any other team? Why is it that some teams can overcome it while others, like the Browns, wallow in it?

In the past, I’ve applauded the fact that Savage hasn’t sat on his hands like some other general managers in this town, hoping against hope that another year of seasoning will suddenly make mediocre players better. He has worked hard to upgrade the starting talent. Usually, though, when a team is that active, certain compromises necessarily are made.

Savage has made two significant compromises. First, by trading draft picks for veterans, he traded the future. Second, he compromised the team’s depth by filling out his roster with a bunch of undrafted free agents in order to make a salary cap laden with those veteran salaries work. Of those two, the one that is hurting the team the most right now is the lack of depth. Head coach Romeo Crennel can say that changes will be made in the wake of Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, but it’s an empty threat. Right now the Browns already are using a healthy dose of their second string because of injuries and the fans are finding out exactly why the injuries to the starters hurt so much. The cupboard is bare and has been for the better part of going on 10 years.

As general manager, Savage is in charge of the football side of the team’s operations. Not only has he failed to procure the kind of depth a team needs during a 16-game schedule, but he’s also failed to build a training staff that can keep the players healthy.

Football is a physical game. But far too many of the Browns’ injuries are non-contact related strains and pulls. Receiver Donte’ Stallworth’s injured quadriceps can be lumped in with all of the other pulled hamstrings and such that have caused too many players to miss too many games for too many seasons. Either the Browns don’t have the right training staff or their training staff is creating an environment that breeds injuries through overwork and overuse. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But there are answers to be had and continuing to chalk it up to bad luck is simply perpetuating the loser’s mentality that Savage frequently decries. It’s not the fans feeding that beast. It’s Savage and Crennel.

There is also the nagging suspicion that some of the Browns’ players are just plain soft. Anyone who has watched pre-game warm-ups knows that it barely qualifies as physical activity. Players stretch a little, walk through a few plays and formations, just to get the juices flowing. Yet Stallworth has been out for three games now because of an injury suffered during the pregame? Seriously?

No one’s claiming that Stallworth isn’t injured. What is being questioned is the extent. If nothing else, it’s at least fair to say that Stallworth’s pain threshold is just a wee bit south of, say, Kellen Winslow’s. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter if he ever suits up for a regular season game anyway. He’ll never be fully embraced until fans are convinced that at the first sign of war he doesn’t turn himself in as a hostage. I’d say the jury’s still out on that one but since he’s never actually played for the Browns in the regular season, it’s kind of hard to even convene a jury. At least next year it will be a problem for his fifth team in five seasons, not the Browns.

The other problem with continuing to beat the injury drum is that it ends up being a cheap ploy to avoid addressing the team’s other multi-faceted problems. Irrespective of how injuries may be impacting the team’s depth, they surely aren’t the reason for the mindless, drive-killing penalties that are this team’s stock in trade. This is a team that lacks focus and discipline and this burden falls squarely on the head coach. Undoubtedly Crennel has pointed out these problems to the players. But just as surely he hasn’t attached any consequences to noncompliance. Each week the same mistakes keep getting made as if it was the first time it ever happened. If you start work at 8 a.m. and keep showing up at 8:15 and you don’t get disciplined, what time do you think you’ll show up tomorrow?

This point is endemic of the team’s entire approach. This team lacks core-level leadership that will hold the players accountable for their repeated failures. Jamal Lewis can publicly say the team’s play is pathetic but that hardly goes far enough. Fans are more interested in him grabbing Braylon Edwards by the scruff of his neck behind the scenes and threatening him to within an inch of his life if he doesn’t start holding on to the damn ball.

But don’t look for that to happen any more than you should look for the Browns to suddenly rip off a string of victories and get back into the playoff hunt. A team lacking basic leadership and discipline at the top can’t expect it to miraculously grow from within no matter its injury situation. The fact of the matter is that this team wasn’t prepared to open the season and looks no better prepared three weeks in. That isn’t going to suddenly change with Crennel in charge and isn’t going to change simply because Stallworth decides that his tender quadriceps has healed enough for fans to witness all that scary speed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another Unraveling

It’s hard to say which team needed a victory more on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns or the U.S. Ryder Cup team. It’s not hard to say, though, which team has been resurrected and which team has not. The United States took care of Europe but the Browns couldn’t take care of the Baltimore Ravens, losing 28-10 and dropping to 0-3 on the season.

The loss doesn’t necessarily kill the Browns playoff hopes. There still are 13 more games to play. But let’s just say whatever hope is left is on life support and the prognosis isn’t good. The last time a team started 0-3 and went to the playoffs was 10 years ago. In the last 18 years, it’s happened only three times. And with the Cincinnati Bengals suddenly looking better, having taken the New York Giants to overtime before losing Sunday, the Browns face the real possibility of entering the bye week winless.

In a game that now raises more question than answers, one thing is certain. The drama the Ryder Cup held will be nothing compared to the drama inside of the Browns’ headquarters in Berea Monday morning. Head coach Romeo Crennel likely will admit to only that the team just has to work harder and get better. As if. General manager Phil Savage on the other had has to go about the more difficult task of not only figuring out what’s gone wrong with this team but how he’s going to fix it.

The first part of that equation is easy. The offensive line suddenly can’t block. Braylon Edwards suddenly can’t catch and Derek Anderson suddenly looks like the guy who couldn’t make the Ravens’ roster. The second is a far more complex problem, but it looks like the first step toward trying to fix it may come with a new quarterback behind center Hank Fraley. Put it this way, if quarterback Derek Anderson is behind center next week and not Brady Quinn, then the only explanation, no matter what the front office says, is that he’s being showcased for a trade.

The game didn’t really unravel for the Browns until the second half, though it unraveled quite well from then on. Indeed, after some flurry early, the first half was mostly a grind it out game playing true to expected form. The Ravens’ first drive dissolved when the normally reliable Matt Stover missed badly on a 48-yard field goal try. Their second drive did likewise as the result of the first of two Joe Flacco interceptions. Neither situation, though, proved to be omens.

The Browns were able to turn Flacco’s first interception, to linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, into a 7-0 lead when Anderson completed a simple out to running back Jerome Harrison which he turned into a 19-yard touchdown. It was the only highlight. Perhaps even more encouraging than the drive itself was the fact that on the touchdown play, the Browns for the first time this season had the right play called against the right defense. Anderson caught the Ravens in a blitz that was picked up nicely allowing Anderson plenty of time to complete the pass to Harrison, who had slipped out of the backfield unnoticed.

A second Flacco interception on the next drive, this time by safety Mike Adams in the end zone off a flea flicker that fooled no one, didn’t have the same impact. In a theme that’s been repeated too many times this season, the Browns went immediately backwards thanks to two penalties and were forced to punt. Punter Dave Zastudil, so good last week in the wind and rain, shanked his punt, giving the Ravens the ball back in Cleveland territory on the 43- yard line.

The two Flacco interceptions, the second of which went to cornerback Brandon McDonald, seemed to convince Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh to button up the offense a bit and to good effect. Willis McGahee, like so many before him, ran through the defense, eventually scoring on a 5-yard run. Thirty-three of the 43 yards covered on the drive were on the ground. For the day, the Ravens rushed for 151 yards.

As surprising as it seems now, the Browns actually grabbed back the lead late in the second quarter thanks to a Phil Dawson 38-yard field goal that gave the Browns their only lead, 10-7. It was a drive that looked to promise more, like so many others before it, but sputtered under the weight of the pressure of the Ravens’ defense which sacked Anderson on a crucial 3rd and 6 from the Baltimore 19-yard line. But the Ravens were unable to move the ball with just over a minute left in the half and were forced to punt.

The end of the half got a bit scary when a routine Jamal Lewis run resulted in what looked to be a serious injury to Ravens safety Dawann Landry. It wasn’t clear from replays exactly what happened to Landry, though according to reports he suffered some numbness as a result of a blow to the head. The game was delayed eight minutes so that they could carry him off in a cart.

Whatever momentum the Browns may have had heading into the locker room was long forgotten just 15 minutes later. A decent return by Josh Cribbs on the opening kickoff of the second half was negated by a penalty, putting the ball at the Cleveland 10-yard line. On 3rd and 3 from the 17, Anderson hit tight end Kellen Winslow, but the ball popped out and into the arms of safety Chris McAlister, who returned it to the Cleveland 12. McGahee took the ball to the one. Flacco fumbled but recovered it and on the next play Le’Ron McClain, in for an injured McGahee, took it in from there for the first of his two touchdowns. Stover added the extra point to give the Ravens the 14-10 lead.

The road to the end followed quickly thereafter. Rattled, Anderson came back on the next series and hit Ed Reed with a perfect pass. The problem is that Reed plays for the Ravens and has been one of the Browns’ key tormentors for the better part of his 7-year career. Reed took the interception back 32 yards for the score and with less than five minutes gone in the half the Ravens were up 21-10.

It would be nice to say that things got better from there, but it would be a lie. Crennel, relying again more on questionable instinct than logic, stuck with Anderson despite his doing almost nothing right for the better part of three games. It was a situation that begged for a change of pace, which is why Crennel so obviously missed it. Predictably, after one good running play, the Browns went backward on the strength of two more penalties and an Anderson sack and were forced to punt. The Browns added nine penalties on the day to their already bursting-at-the-seams season total.

The Ravens, needing virtually no momentum anyway, got even more when Jim Leonhard took the punt back to the 50. For good measure, Adams committed a personal foul, putting the ball at the 35. From there, the defense offered almost no resistance, essentially giving up as the Ravens scored on a one-yard run by McLain. Stover’s extra point put the score at 28-10. It was the final nail in a coffin that had long been shut anyway.

Anderson, playing for reasons which probably only make sense to Crennel, continued his futile quest toward mediocrity for the rest of the game, alternately overthrowing or underthrowing open receivers when he otherwise wasn’t being sacked. On the day, he was 14-37 for a mere 125 yards and three interceptions. He also was sacked five times. In every way imaginable, the game was a disaster for Anderson. He entered the game with a quarterback rating of 57.1. Let’s just say it didn’t improve.

After a final, lengthy drive by the Ravens didn’t result in any points but ate up most of the fourth quarter, Anderson quickly did his best to fix that by throwing it to Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle. Rolle didn’t have quite the same luck as Reed and was tackled quickly. With the ball at the Cleveland 5-yard line Harbaugh, taking mercy on the Browns but in actuality only making the situation that much more embarrassing, had Flacco take a knee to run out the clock. As the Ravens celebrated their own resurrection, the Browns had been reduced to a team seemingly going through the motions knowing that whatever promise the season once held, it held it no more.

Next Sunday, one winless division team faces another. It will be the furthest thing from a feature game that one could imagine. Indeed, if the NFL could, it would probably relegate the broadcast of it to the Home Shopping Network. But it can’t so CBS has to take the bullet, Cleveland fans will probably get another week of Steve Beurlein announcing and some of us actually will be forced to watch.

It’s hard to know at this point where the Browns go. It’s a team without an identity playing like a team making excuses. Where the fact that 13 games remain on the schedule would seem to be good news, right now it seems more like a death march toward an active off season. This won’t be the game that costs Crennel his job. That will come perhaps if the Browns do indeed enter the bye week winless. Perhaps not, for on a team that lives on excuses, there’s always a bunch of injuries to blame.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lingering Items--Steelers Edition

Probably the most frustrating aspect of the Cleveland Browns’ 10th straight loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers centers on the fact that the loss is less surprising than the manner in which it happened.

Even those hoping against hope that the Browns would prevail felt like for that to happen it would have to be something like the Browns’ 51-45 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last year. No one expected the defense to hold anyone, let alone the Steelers, to 10 points. To have that happen only to then see an offensive meltdown seems like just such an insult.

The main offensive culprits are known at this point, quarterback Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards. They are hardly alone, however. Gathering some, but not enough, attention is the offensive line. Last year’s strength is turning to this year’s vulnerability. Perhaps the return of Ryan Tucker will stabilize the situation.

But as a measure of how poorly the line is playing, just check the team’s offensive rankings. Two games may be a limited sampling, but then again, it’s all the games the Browns have played.

Some of the key stats: the team ranks 29th in the league in the number of offensive plays. As a result, they rank a not so surprising 28th in total offensive yards. The Browns also are 26th in the league in rushing, which is a decent measure of offensive line ineffectiveness.

Anyone watching probably isn’t surprised at these stats, nor would they be surprised that the offense, particularly the line, is undisciplined. Holding penalties are one thing. They happen mostly because they are such a judgment call in the first place that a referee having a bad hair day could find a reason to throw a flag for it on nearly every play. But false starts and lining up in the neutral zone are entirely different matter. They result from a lack of concentration and focus. And they always seem to happen at the worst possible time, such as in the red zone or on third and short.

The Browns have committed 19 offensive penalties, third in the league. Couple that with the overall lack of production when they aren’t otherwise committing penalties and you start to get the sense of why this team is in the hole it is. Anderson isn’t playing well anyway, but an offensive line that struggles will make any quarterback look bad, just like it will make any quarterback look good when it’s playing well.

That’s really what is making it so difficult to evaluate Anderson and, similarly, may be the reason general manager Phil Savage is reluctant to push Brady Quinn on head coach Romeo Crennel. A line that is playing poorly isn’t going to miraculously play better simply because Quinn is behind the center. Quinn may have a bit more mobility than Anderson, which always helps, but Quinn will still be saddled with the same problems Anderson faces. When a team can’t establish a credible running game because its line isn’t blocking, passing is that much more difficult, no matter how mobile the quarterback.


It’s hard to believe that the absence of Ryan Tucker is responsible for the offensive line’s troubles thus far, but maybe it is that simple. Consider, for example, how much better the defensive backfield looked on Sunday with Brodney Pool back at safety. That’s either a testament to Pool’s talents or an indictment of his replacement, Mike Adams. In actuality, it’s both.

Pool was a second round pick in 2005. Quietly, he’s turned into one of Savage’s better draft picks. But the talent level below him also highlights one of Savage’s weaknesses: the inability to draft and develop defensive players or, stated differently, the inability to find quality back ps.

The depth on defense is made mostly of undrafted free agents cast off by other teams. Both Adams and Nick Sorenson, who is filling in for strong safety Sean Jones, are good examples. Sorenson has played in 84 games in his career and has started none. He was signed by Miami and cast aside quickly. St. Louis toyed with him for a few years and he eventually landed in Jacksonville until he was waived before last season and then signed by the Browns.

Adams is building a similar career. He was signed by San Francisco in 2004, cut and then resigned to their practice squad. Eventually he made the regular roster where he started 18 games over two seasons before he found his way to the Browns. He didn’t start any games last season.

Look at the rest of the defense: Louis Leonard, who likely will see much more action with Robaire Smith on the injured reserve, is likewise an undrafted free agent. In just two seasons, he’s already on his third team. Shaun Smith, a starter at defensive end, also is an undrafted free agent. In four seasons, the Browns are his fifth team. Santonio Thomas, his back up, also is an undrafted free agent who was signed and waived by New England about a dozen times in his short career. Linebacker Shantee Orr, who is in his rookie year, is an undrafted free agent. Kris Griffin, also a backup linebacker, is also undrafted free agent. Backup defensive back Gerald Lawson, too, is, you guessed it, an undrafted free agent.

The situation is better, but only marginally, on offense, which has five undrafted free agents among its mix: Darnell Dinkins, Steve Sanders, Charles Ali, Jason Wright, and Josh Cribbs.

The presence of a salary cap may very well create a situation where it is necessary to fill out a roster with cheap free agents. In Cleveland, where a healthy amount of salary cap money is invested in one position—quarterback, the situation is perhaps more aggravated. But if you have to fill out your roster that way, then you better make good decisions. Right now, Savage’s only real success has been Josh Cribbs.

Until Savage gets much better at filling out the roster, the presence of injuries to the starters are always going to be that much more important to a team like the Browns.

With time running and short, along with your attention span, here’s this week’s question to ponder: What’s more likely to happen first this season: Crennel makes a right decision on when to kick a field goal or Crennel gets a replay challenge right?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Anderson, Edwards and RAC, Oh My!

Here is what we know after two weeks of regular season football in Cleveland: quarterback Derek Anderson is regressing; receiver Braylon Edwards is still full of himself; and, head coach Romeo Crennel can’t count. Unfortunately, it didn’t take Nostradamus to forecast any of it.

Last year Anderson had one of the great seasons that any quarterback in Cleveland Browns’ history has ever had. But as the season was winding down, teams were catching up to him. In some ways he was like the rookie hitter who rips the cover off the ball the first time through the league. Eventually the pitchers catch up and then it becomes the hitter’s obligation to adjust. It’s a constant battle on both sides to stay one step ahead.

Anderson is there right now. The book is out on his tendencies and defenses have adjusted. He’ll either make the next adjustments or he won’t, but if he doesn’t he’ll soon find his and Brady Quinn’s roles reversed. To this point, Anderson hasn’t made the adjustments. The critical interception to Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu highlighted two of Anderson’s basic decision-making flaws which are now being exploited by anyone that studies film, which would include pretty much every player in the league. First, when pressured he tends to throw wildly. Second, when pressured he tends to lose focus on the situation.

There were eight seconds left in the first half. Anderson only needed seven of them to still give his team a chance to get some points. But without any timeouts, he had two main tasks: look quickly into the end zone to see if someone broke free and, if nothing materialized, throw it away. Anderson handled the first part OK, but then he panicked. Rather than quickly throw it away, he strangely threw short of the goal line. That Polamula was standing by to accommodate him is almost beside the point. Had the pass been completed the Browns still would have ended the half with no points.

A veteran, which Anderson is at this point, shouldn’t be making those kinds of mistakes. Big games need big plays from the big players. Anderson instead stayed small and played small when needed most.

That doesn’t mean that all is lost with Anderson only that his development is not nearly as far along as last season’s success would indicate. Development is rarely a straight line up anyway so it is not as if any of this should be a surprise. But watching the Browns offense sputter, you get the sense that no one inside the Browns inner sanctum saw this coming.

The same holds true with respect to Edwards. For all the right reasons, Edwards decided last season to just shut up and play football. It couldn’t have worked out better for him and the Browns, at least for awhile. Now it also seems to have turned into about the worst thing for Edwards and the Browns.

Already this season he has dropped more passes than he has caught. That’s an irritating but tolerable situation when you’re a number three or four receiver, but a problem when you are the team’s number one target. Edwards always has had a reputation for dropping passes. In fact, he was second only to Terrell Owens in that category last season. But the continuation of that trend when the opposite was expected is every bit as responsible for the offense not working as Anderson’s struggles. Couple that with the return of Edwards’ petulant superstar schtick from two seasons ago and he’s quickly putting himself in the “not worth the trouble” bin.

As for Crennel, it’s almost like a broken record, but all he did in losing to Pittsburgh again was prove that he can’t handle the pressures of being head coach, which is a tad unfortunate since he is, actually, the head coach. Risking repetition without addition, it’s still worth noting that a lack of preparation is as much to blame for Sunday’s loss as anything else. A team with playoff aspirations and veteran leadership on and off the field is supposed to clearly understand how to manage a clock with under two minutes left in a half. But there the Browns’ offense was again on Sunday, acting as if the league changed the rules and no one sent them the memo.

Crennel will be stand up about it all with his usual the “buck stops with me” answers. But if he really believed it, he’d fix it. And if he does believe it and it’s still not fixed, which it isn’t, then what conclusions are there to be drawn? If he was your employee what conclusions would you draw? Thought so.

As hard as it is to believe, it turns out that the goofy field goal decision during the Dallas game was just a prelude to an even goofier decision about a field goal in the Pittsburgh game. Trying to squeeze one more shot at the end zone at the end of the first half on Sunday wasn’t a wrong decision. Risky, but not wrong. Anderson simply choked on it, that’s all. But kicking a field goal with just three and a half minutes left in the game and down by seven proves that either Crennel can’t add or that he thinks field goals are worth 8 points. It must have shocked him that the Browns were still down four.

While it is true that the Browns’ defense played better, there wasn’t a person in the Stadium besides Crennel, let alone a person watching anywhere in the country, that thought the Browns’ defense had any chance of stopping Pittsburgh quickly enough to give the offense a chance at then scoring a touchdown. Not to get all factual about it, but despite giving up only 10 points, the Browns defense only held Pittsburgh to one three-and-out the entire game, and that was in the first quarter. Indeed, on its previous drive, the Steelers held the ball for nearly seven minutes. Given those trends, it’s easy to see why Crennel thought his team would suddenly rise up at the game’s most critical moment.

If Crennel was simply being unconventional, that would be one thing. The problem is that he’s an old school by the book kind of person who seems to have missed some pretty critical chapters. It’s hurting the team week in and week out.

The way injuries are starting to shape this team, Crennel looks to probably escape a discerning microscope from the front office once again. The injuries may be stacking up like planes over LaGuardia but by far what’s hurting the team more are the ones still playing and the ones still coaching .

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bowing Down to their Masters

The Cleveland Browns were looking for credibility Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But with their 10th straight loss to their former rivals, this time by a score of 10-6, about the only thing the Browns may have gotten was a quarterback controversy.

With Browns quarterback Derek Anderson struggling since late last season, he needed to play well. He didn’t. Though Anderson didn’t play poorly enough to get himself traded to Seattle, he again looked shaky when he needed to be steady. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger just did what he always does, nurse an injury and control the game. He didn’t play spectacularly either, but he made just enough plays to keep his team 2-0 and two games ahead of the Browns just two games into the season.

The first sign that this may not be the same team that was embarrassed by Dallas came on the Steelers’ first series. After the Browns went a quick three and out, a safety blitz by Nick Sorenson on 3rd and 2 put the kind of pressure on Roethlisberger that Tony Romo never saw last week and Roethlisberger went down for the defense’s first sack of the season. And while that play wasn’t necessarily a tease, it didn’t exactly provide the kind of spark the Browns ultimately would need.

With a hard rain and gale-force winds wrecking mostly havoc on both teams, much of the game was reduced to a series of punts, particularly in the first half. Thanks mostly to the foot of punter Dave Zastudil, the Browns were able to escape repeatedly poor field position. It kept them in the game as neither team was able to sustain much of anything, meaning that mistakes were likely to dictate the course.

And mistakes are what ultimately did. The Steelers only touchdown, a 12-play, 70-yard drive started because of a mistake—a critical Anderson interception—was sustained by mistakes—particularly a critical third-down facemask on Roethlisberger by defensive end Shaun Smith—and was finished off by a mistake when receiver Hines Ward found himself wide open in the end zone. The drive was helped, too, by the Browns’ usual problem of not being able to hold a team on third down. It was the only points the Steelers ultimately would need.

On the Browns’ next possession they were able to put together a drive that somehow found them at the Steelers’ 9-yard line with just eight seconds left in the half. It wasn’t exactly a model of efficiency that led them there but there they were anyway, almost in spite of themselves. After Anderson sneaked forward to put the ball at the nine, he called the team’s final time out. Deciding there was enough time to try a pass in the end zone before attempting a field goal, Anderson did the one thing he could ill-afford, put the ball in the hands of the wrong team. Finding no one open, Anderson oddly threw short of the end zone and into the hands of a waiting safety Troy Polamalu who stepped in front of Anderson’s pass at the two yard line for the interception. The only thing that saved all of the life being sucked out of Cleveland Browns stadium was that halfime followed right after.

From there, the Steelers didn’t exactly dominate, but they didn’t have to. After another Zastudil punt seemingly pinned the Steelers back to their own 15-yard line, Roethlisberger connected on a 48-yard pass to Santonio Holmes that put the ball at the Browns’ 36-yard line. It was the best play by anyone associated with Ohio State in the last two weeks. Two runs and an incomplete pass later, Steelers kicker Jake Reed kicked a 48-yard field goal that put the score at 10-0. It might as well have been 100-0.

In spite of the hole, the Browns did respond with another good drive, aided by some hard running by Jamal Lewis and a couple of key Steelers’ penalties—a roughing call on linebacker LaMarr Woodley and a taunting call on linebacker James Farrior. But that drive fizzled too and for the same reason, mistakes. A false start on Kellen Winslow and a bad pass by Anderson forced the Browns to settle for a 31-yard Phil Dawson field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, it looked like the Browns might finally get the break they’ve been waiting nearly two games for when the wind caused Steelers’ returner Rashard Mendenhall to misplay the kick. Jerome Harrison had the first crack at the free ball but wasn’t able to secure it. From there a scrum forced the ball out on the Steelers’ two-yard line where the Steelers then took over.

Pinned deep, Roethlisberger found Ward on a 31-yard pass on second down, taking the Steelers out of trouble again. The defense did their best to help the Steelers keep the drive going with both Shaun Rogers and linebacker Alex Hall committing neutral zone infractions, but the Steelers weren’t exactly mistake free either. After a holding call put the Steelers at a 3rd and 11, Roethlisberger just missed Ward, who had a step on Terry Cousin, forcing the Steelers to punt.

With the Browns getting the ball at their 12-yard line and with just under 11 minutes left, it may not have been the Browns’ last chance, but it sure felt like it. As it played out, it was. Playing with a sense of urgency, Anderson and the Browns put together another good drive thanks in large part to running back Jerome Harrison, who turned a short swing pass into a 23-yard gain and Winslow, who made a circus catch off of his own deflection to keep the drive alive. But once again, Anderson and the Browns couldn’t finish what they started after Edwards dropped his third pass of the game on a crucial 3rd and 7 play at the Steelers’ 20-yard line. With 3:24 left, head coach Romeo Crennel opted again for a Dawson field goal, this one a 38-yarder. It put the Browns down by four. As they should have a chorus of boos reigned down on Crennel immediately thereafter.

At this point, even the most casual of fans could have scripted the finale. On second down, Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller at the 50-yard line, Willie Parker ground out another first down. Crennel mismanaged his time outs (which became irrelevant when Parker ran out of bounds) and the Steelers essentially held on to the ball for the rest of the game.

Crennel’s odd call for another field goal will be a focal point again, but the real story of the game, besides the somewhat bizarre weather, was the ever present series of mistakes and stumbles by the Browns that deprived them of another chance to win. One drive was snuffed out by an Anderson interception. The other two fizzled because of penalties and bad or dropped passes. A once potent offense is being done in not just by injuries but by an inside job. Anderson can’t sustain any rhythm and Edwards can’t catch a crucial pass. On a team with injuries throughout, those pieces and parts that are playing, like Anderson and Edwards, have to do a better job and they aren’t. For the game, Anderson was 18-32 for just 166 yards and those two critical interceptions. Edwards had another quiet game, catching three passes for 32 yards.

For the Steelers, Roethlisberger put together what is his standard line: 12-19 for 186 yards and one touchdown. Holmes had five catches for 94 yards while Ward had five catches for 59 yards and one touchdown. Parker rushed for 105 yards.

For once, the defense didn’t embarrass themselves, indeed the team didn’t embarrass themselves, but the result is the same nonetheless. The return of safety Brodney Pool made a bigger impact on the psyche and ultimately the performance of the defense than anyone could have fairly anticipated. On the day, the defense sacked Roethlisberger three times. Still, it wasn’t enough.

At 0-2, it isn’t necessarily time for the Browns to do some soul searching even with a schedule that takes them on the road for four of the next five games. But it is time for them to recalibrate their expectations. They aren’t going anywhere until they play better fundamentally. There is a long way to go. Edwards may turn his season around just as the rest of the team might. But it isn’t going to happen just by showing up. The closeness of the game belies what was clear on the field: at this juncture the Steelers are simply more talented than the Browns. It may be hard to know by how much, but one thing that is certain is that the difference isn’t just talent but the confidence born of owning an opponent year after year after year after year.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lingering Items--Cowboys Edition

If you’re looking for a poster child to sum up the Cleveland Browns’ effort last week against Dallas look no further than wide receiver Braylon Edwards. As I said after the game and maintain to this day, it’s hard to lay much blame for the loss on the offense. So in that sense singling out a member of the offense is an odd choice. Yet, Edwards still meets my criteria for the perfect metaphor for that game: he’s fallen so much in love with his own hype that actual performance has become an after thought.

Edwards is a great receiver, just ask him. But on Sunday he was anything but great, just like a lot of his teammates. On the Wednesday before the Dallas game, Edwards was pretty definitive in saying that timing between he and quarterback Derek Anderson wouldn’t be a problem, despite both missing most of the preseason. He said they had a great week of practice and that, well, everything was just swell.

After the game, a game in which Edwards had as many penalties as catches (two), things weren’t so swell. Edwards said he wouldn’t make excuses for his performance and then proceeded to do nothing but. Essentially, and with no sense of irony, he blamed it on a lack of timing, owing to the fact that he and other starters missed a good deal of the preseason. Of course, Edwards contributed greatly to that issue by missing those games because of an injury he suffered while horsing around with fellow receiver Donte’ Stallworth, but introspection of that sort isn’t necessarily Edwards’ strong suit anyway.

Perhaps Edwards has since recognized the inconsistency of his competing views on the matter, telling those in attendance at a function on Tuesday that really his poor play was the result of a relentless pursuit of perfection, to borrow a phrase. According to Edwards, “the biggest thing about that game was that I was trying to do too much. It was my first game back and I was trying to show everyone I was healthy, and I was trying to overcompensate a little bit for Donte [Stallworth] not being there….I played real uptight in trying to make every play a spectacular play. I played outside myself, and as a result, I didn't have a good game. It was a good lesson, a humbling before Pittsburgh comes to town.”

So timing wouldn’t be a problem until it was but it really wasn’t because poor play was not an act of omission but commission. Whatever. About the only thing you can really take to the bank is that the next time Edwards feels humbled about anything will be the first time.

The Browns will win far more games with Edwards just making a boat load of ordinary catches each week than they will with Edwards self-absorption with coming across as the world’s most spectacular receiver. The difference between good and great is not the occasional eye-popping play but the ability to be counted on time and again to make every routine play as well. It’s why Joe Jurevicius’ absence is so glaring. The failure to catch key passes in your hands isn’t a timing issue or a function of trying to do too much. It’s a lack of attention and concentration. Each of the four balls Edwards dropped was in his hands. Catching any of those required no special effort, only the attention to the mundane detail necessary to perform at a professional level.

And that’s really the story of the game, from head coach Romeo Crennel on down and in every direction out. The Browns probably don’t have enough talent to match up with the Cowboys, but that should never excuse a lack of preparation, concentration or effort. The result of that game may not have been any different even if Edwards, for example, holds on to those passes. But by believing paying more attention to their press clippings than their preparation, Edwards and his teammates made the team worse, not better.


The injuries to New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, San Diego Chargers’ linebacker Shawne Merriman, and Tennessee Titans’ quarterback Vince Young, may be high profile, but all they really do is illustrate that the Browns are hardly alone when it comes to injuries. In fact, virtually every team is suffering the loss or diminution of one or two key contributors due to injuries and it’s only the first week of the season.

What this also illustrates is that making the playoffs isn’t necessarily a function of the quality of a team’s starters, but of its depth. The guys who often get you to the playoffs in January are the second-tier players signed to fill out the team during the previous off season.

Certainly the fact that the Browns or any other team are suffering injuries isn’t news. And as much as the NFL hierarchy will wring their hands over the loss of Brady, they know there isn’t much that can be done about it. In the first place, football is a violent sport. Its main feature is bodies crashing into one another, sometimes at high rates of speed. When you couple that with the fact that those bodies are superbly conditioned athletes that are stronger and faster than ever as a result of increasingly sophisticated year round training, you begin to realize that injuries will happen.

The reason this seems to affect the Browns more than others is that Browns’ general manager Phil Savage has had his hands full just trying to field a legitimate group of starting players on both sides of the ball. He simply hasn’t had enough time to devote to upgrading the depth necessary to mitigate the impact of the inevitable injuries to the starters.

The defensive secondary is the most glaring example. The news on Wednesday that safety Sean Jones will undergo knee surgery is just the latest blow to a unit that lacked quality starters, let alone quality back ups. It also highlights how dreadful the depth situation on this team really is. Behind Jones and Brodney Pool, who may or may not return on Sunday, are Mike Adams and Nick Sorenson. If you’re starting to think that even former Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Tommy Maddox could exploit that situation on Sunday, let alone Ben Roethlisberger, you’re not alone. The pressure this puts on the defensive line is bigger than the combined yearly grocery bills for Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams.

Crennel says that the Browns are also out looking for additional safety help. That’s comforting.

You had to love Crennel’s honest if incomplete explanation of why his team essentially put no pressure on Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo on Sunday. Crennel said that they were dropping as many bodies into coverage as possible because of the weakness of the secondary and the strength of the Dallas receivers. When they found that this scheme gave Romo enough time to learn French and still move the team down field, they decided to run more bodies at him. That worked better but only in the sense that a category 2 hurricane is better than a category 3.

Left out of the explanation was why the defensive line had so much trouble putting any pressure on Romo in the first place. Dallas has a good offensive line, certainly, but shouldn’t the Browns’ defensive line made them at least break a sweat on Sunday? Ah, another problem for another day I suppose.

This week’s question to ponder: If the Browns are 2-2 after their first four games, does it matter how they got there?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Phil's Blind Spot

If there is one positive Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner can take away from his team’s yearly opening loss embarrassment it’s that the fans still care enough to get mad. Anger isn’t the enemy, indifference is. The problem is the Browns seem hell-bent on giving their fans ever more reason to be indifferent.

General manager Phil Savage told Sports Illustrated writer Peter King that his goal for the Browns this season is to be competitive. Consider it still a goal. More than anything else, what was particularly clear on Sunday is that the Browns are just not there yet. Not with those cornerbacks. Not with those linebackers. Not with those receivers. Not with that head coach.

In every way a team can get outclassed, that was the Browns’ fate on Sunday. In and of itself, that’s not a crime or a sin. But if those fans who attended the team’s opening practice at training camp this summer and chanted “Super Bowl” were serious, then such a result was as unexpected as John McCain selecting, essentially, the mayor of Willoughby to be his running mate. It shouldn’t have been.

The most revealing and refreshing aspect of King’s chronicling of the Browns for Sports Illustrated is how clearly attuned Savage is to the team’s weaknesses, at least in terms of players. Savage clearly acknowledged the weaknesses in the secondary and the limited opportunities he had to fix it given the other holes that had to get fixed. In that respect, he’s underscoring a truism that is important for everyone to remember: in a league with a salary cap, extreme makeovers aren’t going to happen over night. Remember, too, it was Savage that readily admitted that just a few short years ago, the team had but a handful of legitimate NFL players on the roster. Generally speaking, Savage’s glasses have clear lenses.

Thus has Savage gone about rebuilding the team from the inside out. He’s fixed the offensive and defensive lines. The skill positions have received a fair amount of attention as well. The last remaining pieces, like the leaky plumbing in a downstairs bathroom, are next. Unfortunately, it’s going to take another offseason to get to that project.

But where Savage is completely unrealistic is in his view of head coach Romeo Crennel. In fact, it’s Savage’s biggest blind spot. By giving Crennel a contract extension in January, Savage just reinforced the flaw in his own thinking.

Simply put, Crennel is a lousy head coach. He came to the job in the same way Bud Carson came to his job as a head coach. He had paid his dues and it was his time. Now it’s producing similar results. The players respect Crennel and speak highly of him. They just don’t perform particularly well for him. It may not be entirely their fault.

Week in and week out, and the Dallas game is no exception, the Browns are not as well prepared as their opponents. Crennel has not even come close to mastering the true nature of his current job description: to put his team in a position to win each and every week. Game plans don’t seem to exploit the weaknesses of the opponents or anticipate their strengths. Mental mistakes predominate.

The call for a field goal on Sunday when all sense of logic and reason said otherwise is getting a lot of run on the fan boards and the call-in shows. One perspective to it that I hadn’t initially considered was that it was evidence of Crennel throwing in the towel, conceding that his team had virtually no chance to make that first down or win the game. I don’t think Crennel’s a quitter. I think the truth of that situation is far more obvious: it was just another mental misstep.

Crennel demonstrated in that moment precisely the problem with him as a head coach. The stress, strain and responsibility of being a head coach have overwhelmed him to the point that it has robbed him of all sense of instinct and context. The big book of head coaching may have said to take the points. The rhythm of the moment said otherwise, loudly.

As awful as Crennel has been on game day, the real problems lie in the days and weeks prior. Crennel is a system coach with the inability to adapt. He continues to shove the 3-4 defense peg into the round hole of talent deficiency. No matter how fundamentally sound Crennel may think the 3-4 scheme is, this team does not yet have the talent to pull it off. As important as the defensive line is to that defense, what really makes it go are the linebackers. On this team, the linebackers are nearly as weak as the secondary. Outside linebacker Willie McGinest was something once, he’s just not that anymore and he’s a starter. Andra Davis and D’Qwell Jackson, the inside linebackers, probably wouldn’t start for any other team. Kamerion Wimbley, the other outside linebacker, has talent but lacks consistency.

Despite these shortcomings, Crennel remains steadfast. And not surprisingly, the defense continues to falter. It’s a “chicken or egg” argument to blame Savage for the defensive failures since he’s in charge of talent acquisition. While that is true, in the meantime Crennel has to have enough flexibility to adjust to the talent at hand. He’s not done it yet and offers no reason to think he ever will.

Beyond his lack of flexibility also lies a coach fundamentally inept at preparing his team for the battles at hand. Until the game is played with robots, mental mistakes are going to happen. The problem here though is that the mistakes are constant, signifying a trend rather than an anomaly. Moreover, the game plans seem simplistic and generic. If anyone can definitively say exactly what the Browns were trying to do offensively or defensively against Dallas, please speak up now. Dallas is a good team, maybe even a great team. But they aren’t a perfect team. They have flaws. Yet from the opening gun the Browns played as if there was nothing they could do to score or to stop Dallas from scoring. The outcome was inevitable.

Savage, for his part, gets arrogant and dismissive of anyone who suggests that Crennel isn’t suited for his current role. But the more he continues to turn a blind eye to one of the key reasons this team cannot progress to the mythical next level, the fruits of his hard work will never be fully enjoyed. Savage may think this is just typical knucklehead fans lashing out because the team performed as it did on Sunday. But sooner or later he’s going to land on the conclusion that Crennel is the problem. Likely, though, it is going to be two or three frustrating seasons too late.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Getting Schooled

Tell your expectations to just shut up.

The Cleveland Browns, entering a season in which much, maybe too much, is expected, demonstrated that the preseason was indeed a dress rehearsal for the regular season, going down hard to the Dallas Cowboys Sunday 28-10.

The 18-point margin is deceiving. It was as complete a defeat as one could imagine. The Cowboys were able to pass and run nearly at will and did more than enough on defense in applying a hard lesson to a team that was simply outclassed. About the only Cowboy’s decision worth questioning was why, after winning the coin toss, they decided to defer their decision to the second half. With as potent of an offense as there may be in the NFL, it seemed odd that Dallas would forego the opportunity for a quick score and the tone that would set for a chance at a quick defensive stop. It mattered little. While not stopping the Browns’ offense immediately on their first possession, they stopped it quickly enough.

The Cowboys, behind quarterback Tony Romo, put together the kind of textbook 10-play 80-yard drive that had the look and feel of what could very well turn into a recurring theme for the Cleveland defense. At least it was on this day. The Cowboys initially chose not to run at the strength of the defense, instead sending running back Marion Barber to the edges. Meanwhile, Romo was a perfect 5-5 on the drive, essentially playing pitch and catch as the defense, even with several blitzes, couldn’t come close to making him sweat.

It was the start the Cowboys wanted and the Browns feared and it begged for an appropriate response. Getting that and more, quarterback Derek Anderson led the Browns on marathon 16 play, 78-yard drive to tie the game at 7-7, capped off by a two-yard toss to tight end Kellen Winslow. It was the team’s high water mark for the day. The drive was aided greatly by two Dallas penalties, the most critical of which was a third down interference call on cornerback Adam Jones, who essentially tackled receiver Braylon Edwards as Anderson’s pass was headed his way. More importantly, the drive consumed nearly nine minutes, which had the intended effect of keeping the defense off the field.

If defensive coordinator Mel Tucker used the extra time to make whatever defensive adjustments were necessary after the first Dallas drive it didn’t show. Romo, Barber and the rest of the company went right back to work, barreling through the defense with one big play after another and in short order, following a Romo to Terrell Ownes 36-yard touchdown pass, Dallas had recaptured the lead for good. On the play, Owens had two steps on cornerback Brandon McDonald. You probably won’t see a bigger mismatch in the NFL this year.

With the pace being set by the Cowboys offense, it was a rather large request to ask the Browns offense to continue to respond in kind. Indeed, after that first Cleveland drive, it was mostly just a series of fits and starts for the offense. It didn’t help that Edwards was dropping more balls than he was catching and otherwise looked mentally distracted for most of the day. Yet, you can’t lay too much blame for the loss at the feet of the offense. With most of its starters back, the offense, with the exception of Edwards, had a certain crispness at times that had eluded them throughout the preseason. But the joint pressure applied by both the Dallas and Cleveland defenses was simply too much for the Browns’ offense to overcome.

Still, with less than three minutes left in the first half, the Cowboys only had a 14-7 lead. Unfortunately, they also had the ball inside the Cleveland red zone. They used the time wisely. A hands-to-the-facemask penalty on McDonald against Owens, took the ball to the Cleveland 15-yard line. A tipped pass on first down, a short Barber run on second set up a third and six that Romo converted with a seven-yard pass to Owens. It looked like Owens had scored but the officials marked it down at the one. Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips didn’t even bother to challenge. Instead he just sent Barber in for the easy score with 26 seconds remaining in the half for an insurmountable 21-7 lead.

As the second half beckoned, the wisdom of Dallas’ decision to defer after winning the opening coin toss became apparent. But an offensive pass interference call on Owens pushed Dallas into a third and 15 on that opening series. The defense then put its first real pressure on Romo as he was forced to throw it away. With Dallas pinned back, the Browns took over after the punt at midfield with the chance it needed. Instead, they quickly went three and out. Dallas took over and put together its third long drive of the game, with rookie running back Felix Jones running straight up the heart of the defense and taking with him whatever was left of it, for an 11-yard run and a 28-7 lead.

Down 21 points and forced to all but abandon the run, the Cowboys defense was able to simultaneously lay back and tee off, denying Anderson any real chance to find the home field rhythm he possessed last season. The closest he came was late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when he led the Browns to their best drive since the first quarter, mixing in a little of his own scrambling with a little running by Lewis and a few key passes, including an 18 yarder to receiver Steve Sanders, that took the ball down to the Dallas 24 yard line.

From there, the drive appeared stalled and on 4th and 3 at the Dallas 17. Head coach Romeo Crennel then seized the moment as only he can by deciding to kick a 34-yard field goal, which kicker Phil Dawson converted. With just 10:31 left in the game, it was a bizarre decision unless Crennel was betting the “under” in some sort of coaches’ pool. As meaningless as that decision ultimately was, it nonetheless sucked whatever life was left in the stands and on the sidelines. The Cowboys then held the ball for the rest of the game. At least the crowd got an early start for the parking lots.

As lopsided as the game was, it could have been worse. Romo, perhaps bored with all the time he had to throw, made his only mistake of the game when cornerback Eric Wright stepped in front of a pass intended for Owens in the end zone. Cowboys’ coach Wade Phillips then decided to mostly sit on the ball at the end of the game with it sitting deep in Cleveland territory.

Overall, a potent Browns offense that was rolling up over 350 yards a game last season was rendered mostly impotent, running up a meager 205 yards. Without an opportunity to fully mix in the run, particularly in the second half, it was hardly a surprise. For the game, Anderson was 11-14 for 114 yards and one touchdown. Lewis, in just 13 carries had 62 yards.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Romo played like a MVP in the making. It wasn’t difficult. On nearly every pass play, at least two receivers were open downfield and with enough time to both survey the field and wave to girlfriend Jessica Simpson squirreled away somewhere in a suite, Romo had no trouble finding them. On the day, he was 24-32 for 320 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Barber, before going out with an injury, ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns while Jones added another 60 yards rushing and a touchdown. Owens, toying with McDonald all day, had five catches for 87 yards and one touchdown. Tight end Jason Whitten meanwhile had six catches and 96 yards. Overall the Cowboys amassed 487 yards against what might be the NFL’s worst defense.

While the game may not have been a complete embarrassment, it was embarrassing enough. It also was an eye opener that demonstrated the difference between expectations and execution. It’s the latter and not the former that keeps teams playing in January. And on that count, this much is clear: the Browns still have many steps to take.

The defensive problems were well known going into the game. Nonetheless, with a rebuilt defensive line, more was expected, less was delivered. Barber and Jones ran free while Romo lounged in the backfield. It’s a scene fans better get used to.

As everyone inside and out of Berea knew, it isn’t going to be any easier in the Browns’ second week, facing a Pittsburgh team smarting just a bit from all the preseason hype coming Cleveland’s way. Though the Browns’ defense played a mostly better second half, it didn’t play nearly well enough to give the Steelers any reason to be concerned.

Last year, general manager Phil Savage made the most dramatic move of his career after the first week, jettisoning starting quarterback Charlie Frye in favor of Anderson. It was the move that ultimately turned the season around. Don’t look for a repeat performance. The Browns defense simply needs too much help.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

In the Dark

Every new season, whether football, baseball or basketball, starts in a certain amount of darkness. Light is shed not all at once but over time. We’d all like to know how a team is going to perform. The only thing will end up knowing is how they did, which comes too late to be of any use.

But that doesn’t stop any of us from trying to reverse the course. Indeed, Las Vegas and countless Indian casinos have thrived on just that bet. Personally, I don’t like to be so precipitous with my money.

Thus we enter the upcoming Cleveland Browns’ season with an armful of questions, none of which can be fully answered, and a truckload of expectations. As part of’s season opening Browns’ roundtable, I’m on record as predicting a 8-8 record. Usually, I avoid making a prediction because, frankly, I’ve never been any good at it. But I’m also nothing if not a team player and thus felt obliged to participate.

That being said, don’t be fooled. If the Browns end up at 8-8, it won’t be the result of inspired genius. It’s just a guess. The Browns could go 11-5, 8-8 or 4-12. More likely, their record will be none of those.

The NFL does a nice job of legislating parity, the intent of which is to ensure a certain minimum level of talent. Some franchises try their best to defy those odds but sooner or later success tends to catch up with everyone. Thus, while nearly any team in the NFL in a given year probably has enough talent to make the playoffs, whether or not that comes to pass depends in large measure on two factors mostly out of their control: injuries and luck. Avoid the former and have some of the latter and the next thing you know you’re playing in the AFC Championship.

Applying this matrix to the Browns, unquestionably they have enough starting talent to make the playoffs. That doesn’t mean they will. What they lack is depth. As injuries start to creep in, the talent level on the field plunges dramatically meaning that in a particular game there is a pretty good chance they won’t have enough talent to win. Combine that with the three subparts of NFL luck: the timing of the injuries, which team is on the schedule that week and, where the game is being played and you start to see how easy a season can turn.

Right now, the Browns’ injury situation doesn’t look good, which is a continuing theme with this team. It started with defensive back Daven Holley blowing out his knee in the off-season. It continued on Thursday when linebacker Antwan Peek blew out his knee in practice. In between, there have been two concussions (quarterback Derek Anderson, safety Brodney Pool), an ankle injury (kick returner Josh Cribbs), sore knees (safety Sean Jones, linebacker Beau Bell, offensive lineman Rex Hadnot), a balky hamstring (running back Jamal Lewis) and a couple of offseason surgeries that haven’t yet healed (offensive lineman Ryan Tucker and receiver Joe Jurevicius).

In short, this is a team well banged up before even the first game is played. Whether or not the Browns really do have more injuries, year after year, than the typical NFL team is hard to say. What isn’t is that it certainly seems that way. Maybe it’s conditioning, poor technique or lousy instruction. Whatever it is, the Browns haven’t yet solved the injury problem and it once again threatens to hold them back because they don’t have nearly enough depth, except perhaps at quarterback, to make up for the talent lost when a starter is down.

Indeed, if the team was deep, the injuries wouldn’t get as much attention. But as was evident during the preseason, this team needs virtually every one of its starters on both sides of the ball. That won’t be the case on Sunday against Dallas and won’t be the case against Pittsburgh the following week.

About the only good news in that is that each of those games is at home. Play well, even in defeat, and there is a chance that both games could just be an interesting footnote in an otherwise entertaining, successful season. Play poorly, get embarrassed on national television and this season has a chance to be over before it gets fully started. That’s why it really is so difficult to predict how the season truly will shake out.

The key to holding this all together will be head coach Romeo Crennel. This is Crennel’s fourth season as head coach. General manager Phil Savage gave Crennel a contract extension in January of this year, meaning Crennel is signed through the 2011 season. By all accounts, it appears as though Crennel is firmly entrenched and shrouded with the kind of confidence from his boss that would seem to remove any pressure on him to win now.

Don’t believe it. Even with all that, it still feels like a make or break year for Crennel. Savage has systematically upgraded the talent both on the field and in the assistant coaching ranks in order to give Crennel the tools to succeed. The task now falls to Crennel to make it work. For him to succeed, he’s going to have to find a way to leverage his greatest strength while overcoming his greatest weakness.

Crennel’s greatest strength is that the players like and respect him. While that generally translates into a willingness by players to play hard for him, it hasn’t translated into what really matters—more victories. Far more of a difference maker has been Crennel’s consistent inability to have his team fully prepared for each and every game. You can go through any season in the Crennel era and find several games where a lack of preparation, which manifests in the form of mental mistakes, made the difference between a won or loss.

On the surface, it would seem like an easy problem to fix. But to this point, that hasn’t happened. For Crennel to achieve success as a head coach, he’s going to have to stop leaving the small details to chance. When things go wrong in a game, which they inevitably will, a team’s ability to anticipate and respond is critical. Unfortunately, Crennel’s teams too often just seem out of sorts.

To be certain, there is a learning curve even as a head coach. Crennel’s should be nearly complete. He can’t expect his players to step up their own games if Crennel himself doesn’t follow suit. Whether he can could be the most compelling story line of the season.

The Browns are not, by any measure, a perfectly built machine at this point. They lack depth. They are injury prone. They are trying to shake off a particularly resilient stench that has permeated the inner fibers of Berea since the team returned in 1999. They have a head coach with issues. But they aren’t without talent, either. Their luck can always turn. Injuries could heal. The schedule could be more of a plus than a minus. In other words, considering all the contingencies upon which this season, indeed any season, lies, it’s why I’m not so precipitous with my money. 8-8? Who knows?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Lingering Items--Final Preseason Edition

When the Cleveland Browns entered training camp, it seemed like the stars were aligning more or less perfectly. An armful of expectations borne of a 10 win season in which they didn’t make the playoffs greeted them. No first, second or third round picks assured them that they’d have no holdouts. The starting quarterback already was firmly entrenched. In short, quiet six or so weeks beckoned, allowing sufficient time for preparation for what is clearly a rough first few weeks of the season.

It’s interesting how a winless preseason can change all that. Browns fans now approach this team with nearly as much caution and anxiety as they have each of the last nine seasons.

Perhaps that is why general manager Phil Savage took to the podium on Saturday to address the media about the 53-man roster. More than anything else, Savage wanted to inject a little perspective over the Labor Day holiday weekend. Whether it worked or not probably depends on how you feel about Savage. Whether he’s right or not will be easy to tell soon enough.

The thrust of his message was that this is a veteran team that was using the preseason far more for evaluation than for establishing a mythical winning culture. Though Savage said he could have done a better job of communicating that to the media at the outset of training camp, he did allow that the focus really become that until the first half implosion against the New York Giants in week two of the preseason. “From that point on, I think the focus of our preseason changed in terms of, ‘Ok, we’re really going to just try and get through this and try to get our young players a good experience here, but let’s shoot for Labor day and get as many players as we can up and running.’”

It’s a reasonable point of view. The question then is whether that’s where the Browns now find themselves.

Let’s start with the easy stuff first. Though the team got banged around pretty hard in the last four weeks, no one suffered a catastrophic injury. Key members of the offense in the persons of Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis and Braylon Edwards, all are set to return on Sunday against Dallas. In fact, it appeared as though all three could have played Thursday night against the Chicago Bears had that been a regular season game. That removes some significant pressure right there. Of course, timing could be an issue but that’s a far easier problem to fix than not having those players available at all.

Then there are the combined absences of free safety Brodney Pool and kick returner Josh Cribbs. Officially each is listed as questionable for Sunday. What that means is always hard to say. Players listed as questionable tend to play. It seems like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has listed quarterback Tom Brady as questionable every week for the last six years and he never misses a game.

If neither can play ironically, of the two, Cribbs will be the most missed even though he has the more capable backup in Syndric Steptoe. So much of the NFL game revolves around field position. Cribbs’ unique talent, indeed the reason he’s so highly paid, is his uncanny ability to put his team in good field position, whether on a punt or a kickoff. Cribbs also is a valuable gunner when the Browns kick off, often responsible for denying the other team good field position. These are talents that NFL coaches and general managers don’t take lightly and neither should the fans. If Cribbs is absent for any length of time, both the offense and defense will suffer accordingly.

As for Pool, he may be the Browns best defensive back, but that’s only be default. The preseason revealed just how thin this part of the team really is, even if Pool is healthy. If he’s not available, it will be hard to tell given the lack of quality elsewhere anyway. Whether or not Pool plays, the key to stopping other teams will be the play of the defensive line and the linebackers. They have to not only stop the run but get to the quarterback quickly. And defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has to thrown in plenty of blitzes to hopefully paper over the gaping holes.

While that’s been the plan all along unfortunately it didn’t seem to work all that well in the preseason. The defensive line did play well, Kamerion Wimbley seemed rejuvenated yet the defensive backfield still was exposed. A healthy Pool isn’t going to change that and an injured Pool doesn’t make it much worse. Simply put, the corners have to play better, much better. Second year players Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright have their moments but they still are way too far between.

Savage addressed this to a certain extent on Saturday but in the sort of confusing way only a general manager could muster. Addressing questions about whether or not there is other help available, such as free agent Ty Law, Savage said “everybody wants to take the magic pill and go get the big name. It’s not always the big name that’s the answer. This is what we have and this s what we’re going with. As Romeo said, maybe if we lose five guys, we’ll make some calls.”

Translated, Law isn’t a magic pill even if he’s an upgrade. The problem is that he’s a 13-year veteran who at this point is at most a stop gap upgrade, which he already has in the form of Terry Cousin. What Savage really is saying is that he believes both McDonald and Wright will continue to mature and are better for the team in the long run, even if Law can help today. Savage clearly doesn’t want to take any playing and hence development time away from his young corners.

Savage may be technically correct, but so much of what he’s done in this past offseason has been in an effort to win now that it seems odd that he’s now sacrificing that just a bit for the sake of the future. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that either McDonald or Wright will develop anyway. Look no further than receiver Travis Wilson, a third round pick in 2006 for proof.

It’s why, ultimately, despite the earnest effort to add perspective Savage just ended up underscoring all the reasons it’s easy to be uneasy.


In addition to the defensive backfield, the Browns enter the regular season a bit thin in two other key areas, offensive line and receiver. The injury to Rex Hadnot on Thursday followed by the placing of Lennie Friedman on injured reserve and the fact that Ryan Tucker is still a few weeks away means that at least in the short term one of the team’s great strengths has turned into another of the team’s great question marks. Right now, it’s the area the can least sustain another injury.

As for the receivers, Savage spent far more time in his press conference addressing the progress Syndric Steptoe made during camp than addressing the flameout of another early round draft pick in Wilson. Savage also spent a considerable amount of time talking down the value of third receivers in general, noting that last year’s third receiver had only eight catches.

That may be true, but don’t be fooled. The fact that Savage cajoled Joe Jurevicius into remaining with the team as the third receiver tells you everything you need to know about how Savage really values a third receiver. Jurevicius as a second receiver was extremely valuable commodity last season. Not only is he sure handed, but he also seemed to make every third down catch that was needed last season. As a third receiver, he becomes even that much more valuable.

That’s where the cutting of Wilson comes in. The bottom line is twofold. First, Savage didn’t think Wilson had the talent to ever be the team’s number one or number two receiver. Second, Wilson doesn’t hold on to the ball nearly enough to be a reliable outlet in the absence of Jurevicius. He may have had six catches against the Bears, but it was the drop of a Ken Dorsey pass down the sidelines for what looked to be a touchdown that was far more noticeable.

Steptoe, on the other hand, seemed to make the difficult catch far more often. Also, given his ability on returns, he’s a far more valuable addition. This probably means that Cribbs will be in the mix far more often as a receiver as well, and not just as a fourth receiver, which is something that fans have been clamoring for. If/when Jurevicius is able to return, the Browns may not have the best receiving corps in the league, but they have more than enough to compete.


As the Browns get ready for next week’s opener against Dallas, the only question on anyone’s mind, really, and thus this week’s to ponder: Will Jessica Simpson make the trip? And for a follow up: What will she wear? Let’s hope it’s warm.