Friday, October 31, 2008

Lingering Items--Jaguars Edition

The season’s halfway point will be reached this weekend and if one thing is certain, for the Cleveland Browns it hasn’t gone the way anyone predicted, unless the prediction was for extreme chaos.

Standing at 3-4 and heading into a home game against the Baltimore Ravens, it would be a hard case to make that the Browns’ record should be any better. It’s an easier case to make that it can and should be even worse. The actual case is that the record of 3-4 reveals nothing in particular. It’s been a sea of ambiguity thus far without enough markers to really say what’s coming next.

When the schedule was rolled out at the beginning of the season, many fans may have been hopeful for a good start, something on the order of 3-1 or 2-2 at worst but more than a few realistically appraised it as a likely 1-3 start, which is what happened. And it happened pretty much like it was supposed to, with the Browns beating Cincinnati and losing to Dallas, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Baltimore loss, which really was the swing game, stung so much because of the way the Ravens defense took over the game in the second half. The other two losses simply served as the reminder of the gap between being good and merely good enough.

But the journey to ambiguity is really where the fun begins. Most fans and probably Browns’ coaches figured the offense would be fine. The fear was on defense in general and the defensive backfield in particular. Yet the defense and its backfield have proven to be a pretty resilient, consistent group, even without the benefit of the kind of linebacker play necessary to make a 3-4 defense work.

Right now, only six teams are giving up fewer points per game than Cleveland. Unfortunately for the Browns’ offense, two of them—Pittsburgh and Baltimore—happen to play in the AFC North. (It could probably be fairly argued that the fact that both teams played Cleveland helps those stats, but let’s not veer off point quite yet). What’s encouraging but mostly unexpected is how the defense, despite its penchant for giving up huge chunks of yards, isn’t letting that translate into many actual points.. The Browns, for example, are 12th in the league in yards yielded per game, which is only slightly more than a yard per game better than the woeful Cincinnati Bengals. On a per play basis, the Browns are actually slightly worse than the Bengals owing to the fact that the Bengals defense has been on the field for 90 more total plays, or an average of more than 10 plays a game, than the Browns’ defense.

But the fundamental difference between these two teams is that the Browns’ defense can bend a lot further than the Bengals’ before it breaks. The Browns have given up a fairly substantial 10 points less per game than the Bengals despite giving up virtually the same amount of yardage.

This isn’t to say that I’m totally sold on the defense, only that it’s the unit most responsible for the team’s 3-4 record, and I mean that in a good way. The fact that the Browns are 3-4 heading into this weekend’s game against Baltimore and playing the kind of offense they’ve played counts as a minor miracle. The reasons for the woeful offense have been well chronicled and it has engendered some very healthy debate about the sanity of the Browns’ management, but suffice it to say that a perceived strength of this team has been the biggest disappointment in the first half of the season.

It’s tempting to play the “well, if the offense can get it going and if the defense stays consistent” game and then imagine all sorts of swell scenarios culminating in a legitimate Super Bowl run. It could happen but then reality sets in and you remember that there are still too many missing parts, that quarterback Derek Anderson is incredibly erratic and that the team’s head coach goes off script more than Sarah Palin these days. It doesn’t inspire great dreams of a reversal. Then you have to assume the defense can remain consistent, which while more plausible given the trends isn’t something necessarily worth counting on either.

The best thing you can do under these circumstances is go back to where all predictions start anyway, with the schedule. Halfway through a season is a far better barometer by which to judge its relative strength or weakness than the middle of July. The good news on that front is that of the remaining nine games, including this weekend’s game against Baltimore, five of the games are at home. If Anderson has demonstrated one trend in his career, it’s that he plays better at home. And as Anderson go often goes the team.

Each of the remaining home games is certainly winnable, but none are a lock. Baltimore still doesn’t have an offense to match its defense. Denver was exposed as a fraud on national television a week ago against the Patriots. Houston and Cincinnati are both second tier clubs and Indianapolis is struggling and looks to for the rest of the season.

Every road game, on the other hand, is going to be difficult, far more difficult than winning the remaining home games. On the schedule are Buffalo, Tennessee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. If the Browns lost each of those games no one would be surprised.

Thus if things go according to script what you’re left with is, actually, where most people started the season believing the team would end up anyway, an 8-8 record. It would be the kind of ambiguous record heading into next season that a team lacking a coherent direction probably deserves anyway.


Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers was not named by the league as its defensive player of the week for his performance last week against Jacksonville. Those sorts of minor honors are only meaningful if the player has an incentive bonus tied to it so it’s certainly not worth the fans getting terribly excited about But Rogers was named defensive player of the week by the NFL’s online community. It would be interesting to see just how many times Jacksonville running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew voted. Probably plenty.


Heisman trophy winner and former Buckeye Troy Smith returns to Cleveland this weekend and while he’ll probably get slightly more playing time on Sunday than the Browns’ Brady Quinn owing to a few unusual twists the Ravens’ offense employs involving Smith, two of the biggest names in college football two years ago can probably look over at each other plenty during the game and just shake their heads and wonder what could have been. Each has been the victim of some bad timing that to this point is stunting their careers.

In the case of Quinn, the drafting of Ted Ginn by Miami pretty much pushed him to the end of the first round. Then his ill-advised holdout as a rookie cost him valuable practice time and any real shot at starting last season after Charlie Frye melted down in the season’s first game. Anderson took over the starting job by default and his good play, particularly early on, ensured that Quinn would go into this season as the back-up. Anderson has played awful this season, but each time his rope seems to be taut enough to yank him back to the bench, he whips out a decent performance, or at least a decent series, and head coach Romeo Crennel is forced to let out a little more slack before yanking him for good. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Quinn is simply star-crossed.

The same goes for Smith, except in some ways it’s worse. Smith was actually headed into this season as the starter. Steve McNair retired, Kyle Boller, who would have had trouble holding on to his job anyway, injured his shoulder in preseason and was lost for the rest of the year. That left just Smith and rookie Joe Flacco. But Smith came down with a severe tonsil infection that wiped out his chances in preseason and early season. Flacco then played well enough to keep the job and a few weeks ago was named starter for the rest of the season. Smith, like Quinn, is now forced to wait for either an injury or a stretch of ineffective play before getting a legitimate chance to establish himself as a NFL quarterback. Makes one wonder if he, too, is simply star-crossed.


This week’s question to ponder: Who is more responsible for the play of this year’s defensive play, Phil Savage, Romeo Crennel or Mel Tucker?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Far Bigger Problem

In a week filled with one bizarre revelation after another regarding the Cleveland Browns, there was only one real conclusion worth drawing about the whole mess, Kellen Winslow is far less of a problem than Phil Savage, the team’s general manager.

When Winslow decided to rip the scab off of a wound that was clearly festering about his contacting another staph infection, at least two prominent sports writers in this town, Terry Pluto and Patrick McManamon, were quick to choose sides without any particular need for facts. Pluto concluded that this was simply Winslow seeing an opportunity to press his claims for a new contract. McManamon simply said that Winslow was such a disruptive force, it was time for the Browns to set him free.

At least Pluto admitted he was wrong.

The case against Winslow was never easily made in the first place. He’s an emotional player who has had his share of adversity in his relatively brief career, much self-inflicted. But what’s not been articulated only concluded is exactly why he’s a “net minus” for the Browns. By all accounts, Winslow plays well and plays injured. No one questions that he has a high pain threshold. He can actually catch.

Savage, on the other hand, is building a tidy pile of issues in his own right that suggests that as a general manager, he makes an awfully good scout. Like Winslow, Savage is emotional. In fact, given the difference between Savage’s job and Winslow’s, it’s a fair conclusion to draw that Savage has had far more public displays of inappropriate emotion.

Start with Monday’s 29-second press conference and work backwards. On Monday, Savage interrupted head coach Romeo Crennel’s scheduled press conference to deliver a rather terse statement that Winslow only had a staph infection, nothing more. Got it? While there is no way of knowing for sure, it seemed apparent that Savage had been ordered to step out in front of the media by his boss, owner Randy Lerner, in order to clear up the confusion he added on Sunday to a matter that had supposedly been resolved on Saturday. He spit out his words defiantly, like a kid whose parent had told him to go apologize to his sister for calling her a name.

Of course Savage wouldn’t have had to put himself in that position in the first place if he had just let well enough alone on Sunday. Instead, when asked to comment on the resolution of the suspension, Savage decided to muddy the waters further by suggesting that there was far more to the story still and that perhaps the reporters ought to talk with Winslow if they were really interested in getting full disclosure on the nature of Winslow’s illness.

In dropping that turd in the punchbowl, Savage came off mostly as a sore loser for having to rescind a suspension that in retrospect should never have been issued in the first place. Rather than simply say that matter was resolved amicably, he instead continued to try and justify it, when a more politic general manager would have simply smiled and moved on.

Of course Savage wouldn’t have even had to put himself in that position if he had not been so emotional mid-week to the local flagship radio station in explaining why an out-of-control Winslow just had to be stopped, for the good of the team. It might have been useful for Savage to have first gathered all of the facts and not just the ones he felt supported a rather harsh response to a clearly emotional and sensitive issue.

What’s very evident is that the real sore point for Savage is that it wasn’t so much that the Winslow grievance was resolved as it was that the Browns’ capitulated. They had to. As the facts revealed, a member of the team’s public relations staff, a group that reports up to Savage, did indeed tell Winslow not to disclose the nature of his illness or else face Savage’s wrath. In other words, Winslow was right, Savage was wrong and that’s giving Savage the benefit of the doubt that he really didn’t know what his p.r. staff was doing. But if you to see this all as some sort of conspiracy engineered by Savage to take the heat off a team that was falling apart, then remember that Savage’s reaction to Winslow’s initial statements exactly tracked the text messages that the p.r. staff sent Winslow in the first place. Savage did react angrily at Winslow’s comments, to the point of actually suspending Winslow for a week.

What the Browns really have in Savage is an incredibly emotional and incredibly thin-skinned general manager. He’s had several other public outbursts, mostly tied to his visible irritation at either members of the media or the fans who dare question the direction of the franchise. He treats any legitimate question about his decisions in a dismissive, petulant manner. He doesn’t like to be second guessed and he doesn’t play well with others. It’s in this context that one now wonders what really did happen in that little front office drama Savage had with former team president John Collins.

That Savage would treat one of his marquee players in such a shabby manner, particularly when it was so disproportionate to the actions by that player, doesn’t speak well for his suitability as the team’s most visible front office representative. That Savage engineered this entire mess when he didn’t have all the facts and then mostly disappeared leaving Crennel to face the media says something about Savage’s own leadership skills. Crennel has enough trouble just keeping the lid on players like Braylon Edwards. The last thing he needs is to play Darren Stevens to Savage’s Larry Tate.

To this point, I have been mostly supportive of Savage. While I disagreed with some of his personnel decisions, I at least admired his willingness to take them on. He clearly saw the need to make step changes with this team and hasn’t been afraid to make that happen, even at the expense of making a mistake or two.

But Savage’s biggest Achilles heel has always been his overwhelming need to make himself look like the smartest guy in the room. As long as the team is winning and headed in the right direction, a whole host of sins are easy to forgive. But the erratic and overly emotional behavior he displayed this past week frankly makes any decisions he makes going forward that much more suspect. If the Browns are in the tie-severing business anytime soon, far better to look first at Savage before getting to one of the few guys on this team that can actually play.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Calming the Storm

If all it takes for a team to win in this league is for it to first endure the most disruptive week in recent memory, then Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage should feel free to re-stir the pot again this next week. Showing only a residue of the effects from the soap opera that enveloped them all week, the Browns, blew a 10-point halftime lead, got two field goals late and then held on by the length of one bobbled football for a 23-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday.

After a first half that was mostly a ping-pong match of momentum changes, the Browns found themselves leading 17-7 after two quarters and seemingly in control. But lumbering out of the locker room after apparently taking a 15-minute nap, the Browns mostly watched Jacksonville take over the second half with series of long drives that ultimately promised more than they delivered.

A blocked field by defensive lineman Shaun Rogers, who had his best game as a member of the Cleveland Browns, ended one drive and the Jaguars were forced to settle for a field goal on another when they really needed a touchdown instead.

Meanwhile, the Browns got two critical Phil Dawson field goals after Jacksonville had tied the game at 17 and came up with one final defensive stop, thanks to a ball Jacksonville receiver Matt Jones couldn't quite handle in the end zone with one second remaining, before the win was secured.

It was a somewhat unlikely but satisfying end for Cleveland in a game that started out as if it was going to be a shootout.

After an early exchange of punts, the Browns came out on their second series of the day and acted as if neither the Redskins game nor everything that followed had happened. On four straight plays the Browns gained 10+ yards and moved quickly from their own 20-yard line and into the Jaguars' red zone. A pass from quarterback Derek Anderson to tight end Steve Heiden then took the ball down to the Jaguars' 5-yard line for another first down. Two plays later Anderson found Donte Stallworth wide open in the middle of the end zone.

It was the Stallworth's first touchdown of the season and, remarkably, the Browns' first first-quarter touchdown this season. This sort of harmonic convergence, together with the Phil Dawson extra point, gave the Browns the early lead at 7-0. It was a crisp 9-play 80-yard drive that was as much a message from the Browns to themselves as it was to the Jaguars that the self-inflicted turmoil of the week was indeed behind them.

That sense of purpose seemed to be picked up by the defense and all was going well on the ensuing Jacksonville drive until D'Qwell Jackson, coming up the middle on a blitz on third-and-10, couldn't contain Jaguars' quarterback David Garrard. Some nifty running coupled with missed tackles by linebacker Willie McGinest and safety Sean Jones allowed Garrard to gallop for 24 yards, down to the Cleveland 39.
The Garrard run set the tone for the rest of the drive as the Jaguars then converted three more third downs before Garrard found receiver Reggie Williams for a 5-yard touchdown. Remarkably, it was the first touchdown by a Jaguars wide receiver this season, a bit of harmonic convergence for Jacksonville as well and the game was quickly knotted at 7-7.

But the Jacksonville momentum was short-lived as well, thanks to a questionable call by head coach Romeo Crennel that for once went right. With the ball on their own 49-yard line, the Browns decided to gamble. Anderson faked the sneak to fullback Charles Ali and rolled right, finding a wide open Heiden who then rumbled for 51yards, down to the Jacksonville 2-yard line. From there, Jamal Lewis took it in and, with the Dawson extra point, the Browns held serve and regained the lead 14-7.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, couldn't muster a similar magic of their own on their next drive when the Browns stopped running back Maurice Jones-Drew on fourth and one from the Cleveland 37-yard line. The Browns' immediately turned decent field position to their advantage when Anderson found receiver Braylon Edwards on a 43-yard pass down the left side line. But the drive fizzled on an Edwards drop on second down and an odd, quick underneath pass on third down to Stallworth. Dawson then hit a 32-yard field goal to extend the Cleveland lead to 17-7 with just over two minutes left in the half.

The Browns had a chance to add to that lead, taking over at their own 34-yard line with just over a minute left in the half and two time outs. A 17-yard screen pass to Jason Wright took the ball to the Jackson 49-yard line. But the drive died right there. Even still, it was the only real opportunity that the Browns had missed in that first half en route to putting up 17 points, two more than their season average, and gaining 212 yards, just 24 less than they had in the entire Redskins' game a week ago.

But if Jacksonville was down, it was hardly out. Getting the ball to start the second half, Jacksonville moved quickly down the field. Just as suddenly, though, they were fourth and one from the Cleveland 10-yard line. Instead of taking the chip shot field goal, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio out-Crenneled Crennel. Garrard gave the ball to Jones who was bottled up, but only temporarily. He strung the run out left and stepped out at the 8-yard line for the first down. On the next play, Garrard found Matt Jones slanting in the end zone to help bring the Jaguars back to within three at 17-14.

The Browns, on the other hand, seemed to be in full yawn mode. After stalling out in their next drive at the Jacksonville 40-yard line, Dave Zastudil's punt traveled all of 15 yards. Taking over at their 24-yard line, the Jaguars put together a long, lumbering drive that consisted of many plays and many minutes. But when it ended seemingly two hours later, all the Jaguars had to show for it was the blocked field goal by Rogers that gave the Browns back the ball at the Cleveland 41-yard line.

But even that couldn't jolt the offense awake as it then proceeded to put together its worst series of the game, a series that in retrospect not only could have been worse but could have cost them the game. An Anderson interception on third down was nullified when Jacksonville was offside and an Anderson fumble on the next play was recovered by offensive lineman Joe Thomas.

With Jacksonville taking over at its 26-yard line after the Zastudil punt and just over 11 minutes left, the Jaguars seemed to have the Browns where they wanted. On third and 8, Jacksonville converted another third down, their 400th or so of the day, on a Garrard to Jones 20-yard pass. Rogers then was flagged for a roughing penalty on Garrard, the Browns' first penalty of the day. That put the ball at the Browns 39-yard line. But Jacksonville couldn't convert its 401st third down and was forced to attempt a 53-yard field goal, which Josh Scobee converted to tie the game at 17.

As it turned out, it's where the Browns wanted to be all along. On some inspired running early in their next drive by Jamal Lewis and an inspired run off a 53-yard catch by Syndric Steptoe that took the ball to the Jaguars' 1-yard line, the Browns seemed poised to seal a victory. But they couldn't punch it in, even after a Jaguars penalty took the ball to the half-yard line, and were forced to settle for a 19-yard Dawson field goal and a very shaky 20-17 lead with just under 5 minutes remaining.

But gifts come at the most unexpected time and on the kickoff, returner Brian Witherspoon had the ball dislodged by his own teammate and Josh Cribbs ended up with it at the bottom of the scrum. With just over 4 minutes remaining, the Browns had the ball at the Jacksonville 26-yard line.

But in a season where nothing has come easy, the Browns went three and out. Dawson then hit a 43-yard field goal to extend the Browns lead to 23-17 but it likewise was not the stick-a-fork-in-them end to the drive that they needed.

The defense, though, tried to then do the honors themselves, forcing Jacksonville into its own quick three-and-out. But when the offense got the ball back, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski stayed conservative, running on a 3rd-and-five, and forcing the Browns to turn the ball right back over, giving Jacksonville one final crack at the ball with two minutes remaining.

The problem, though, with the Jacksonville offense is that it's not particularly geared to this kind situation. It prefers the more laconic pace of a mid-game drivel approaching each drive like a pharmacist filling a prescription. A 35-yard pass to Jones did bring the ball to the Cleveland 26-yard line with 17 seconds remaining. But on a play that seemed to be run in slow motion, Jones couldn't quite find the handle on the ball in the end zone, bobbling it three times before watching it fall harmlessly away with one second remaining. Garrard's final desperation pass was long, securing the win for the Browns.

The outcome certainly brought a measure of calm to the internal storm of the previous week and probably did little to stop the Browns-are-better-off-without-Winslow talk among the fans as Heiden again had a solid day with three catches for 73 yards, including that 51-yard pass from Anderson.

Anderson, meanwhile, wasn't great but he was good enough, which is really all he needs to be from week-to-week. He was 14-27 for 246 yards and one touchdown, the 5-yard grab by Stallworth. Lewis had 81 well earned yards on 20 carries and the Browns' other touchdown.

The defense, led by Rogers, continued its stellar play. Though Jacksonville had the ball nearly 11 minutes more, converted 11 of 20 third downs and outgained the Browns 380-327 yards, the Browns defense repeatedly came up with the key stops they needed at the end of the game. Garrard was 25-42 for 282 yards and two touchdowns and also scrambled for 59 yards. He was the leading rusher as the defensive line kept running backs Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor under wraps all day, which was the difference maker.

The Browns now find themselves at 3-4 and a game closer to the Pittsburgh Steelers after they lost at home Sunday to the New York Giants. The Browns aren't necessarily at a crossroads, but nonetheless find themselves facing a crossroads game against Baltimore next Sunday who, with a victory over Oakland, also is ahead of the Browns in the standings.

Given how this season has gone, everything sets up well for a let down next week. But on the other hand, in a season where almost nothing has been predictable, there's every chance the Browns can break form and reassert themselves in the AFC North. Just to be safe, a little turmoil this week would help.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lingering Items--Redskins Edition

Usually when a player pops off to the media, fans tend to rally around the team and against the payer. Judging on the response thus far to the suspension of Cleveland Browns’ tight end Kellen Winslow by general manager Phil Savage, the team isn’t exactly winning this dirty little war. It’s hardly surprising. Fans are smarter than the club would like to think.

One wonders, actually, what Savage really was thinking in taking on Winslow when he’s distanced himself so many times from the equally detrimental acts of receiver Braylon Edwards. It’s possible that Savage views Winslow as a habitual offender and thus it was time to ratchet up the club’s response. It’s just a possible, though, that Savage did this in a vain attempt to keep a lid on a pot that is near full boil.

If it’s the former, Savage certainly could have found a better way to handle the matter. Keeping it in house, as he wanted Winslow to do, comes to mind as the most obvious option. If it’s the latter, it probably won’t work. By trying to quell a distraction he’s made it more so. But whichever it is, Savage came off looking rather small, petty and thin-skinned, not to mention cowardly by simply releasing a statement rather than talking to the media directly.

And what of that statement? Carefully written by the Browns’ public relations department, it parses words to leave the impression that Winslow is being just a bit dishonest about who decided to keep this latest staph episode quiet. But read the words carefully. Savage never claims it was Winslow’s decision or even his suggestion. Instead he just lays it out there for people to assume, saying “…following discussions with Kellen Winslow and his representation, the Browns agreed to make every effort to maintain the confidentiality of his recent medical condition.” Agreed with whom, Winslow or among themselves? Kudos to the staffer who wrote it.

The real issues in Savage’s mind is that Winslow went public with his complaints as if he violated some sort of “team first” credo that Savage has been working so darn hard on creating,. In truth, Savage appears embarrassed for having conspired to keep from his own players the fact that staph had once again reared its ugly head at the team’s facilities. In that sense, Winslow is being punished as a whistleblower to a matter Savage certainly would rather have kept quiet, even if that silence was fueling one outrageous internet rumor after another about Winslow. By taking it out on Winslow, all Savage really did was bring more attention, more “unjustified negative attention” to himself and the organization in the process.

Lost in all of this is a more basic set of questions. What really was so “disparaging” about Winslow’s comments or brought “unjustified negative attention” to the organization? For that matter, let’s start with what was untrue? The Browns have a problem rooting out staph infections. It may not be a problem confined to the Browns, but it is a problem with the Browns and their facilities nonetheless. By most reports, there have been six or seven relatively recent episodes of staph involving such high profile players as Winslow, LeCharles Bentley, Joe Jurevicius,. Stating a fact that is already a part of the public record hardly strikes me as unjustified.

Was it untrue that Savage didn’t call Winslow while he was in the hospital? Savage doesn’t deny it. If Savage finds that disparaging it’s only because it revealed publicly a personality flaw in Savage that he would rather have kept quiet. While this may sound like a small matter, let’s keep in mind that this is the second time Savage has been called out for this sort of insensitivity. As Terry Pluto reported earlier this summer, when LeCharles Bentley was hospitalized for his staph infection, he too was hurt that Savage never called. Savage supposedly admitted this was a mistake and that he should have made some calls. Yet here we have it again. If indeed Savage punished Winslow for being a habitual offender, isn’t that sort of like a nerd telling the hippie his clothes look weird?

The only thing left, then, is Winslow’s contention that the Browns were trying to keep his infection quiet in order to allay concerns among the rest of the team, which we now know was true. Was this disparaging because it made the Browns’ look bad, like they were hiding something unflattering? Perhaps but why is that Winslow’s fault? It’s hardly a stretch to think that the Browns front office might have some motivation in not acknowledging publicly that still another player had still another staph infection. If you were a free agent, might not you be a little nervous about the cleanliness of the Browns’ facilities?

There’s no reason not to take the Browns at their word that they are doing everything within their power to control staph infections. There certainly is no reason for them to look the other way on a serious health issue and every reason, in fact, to confront it directly. But if they are somehow worried that Winslow shined a light on an unflattering fact about the organization, they need not be. The staph problems are well known. Besides, there’s plenty of other things going wrong in Berea to distract one’s attention.

Lost in all of the turmoil was any sort of coherent explanation of how exactly keeping Winslow away from the Browns’ complex for a week makes either Winslow or the team better? Maybe that’s necessary to carry out a suspension, but didn’t Savage have a better option, like having Crennel bench Winslow for the game but otherwise make him participate in practice for the week?

The suspension of Winslow gives Savage a chance to test a theory he’s obviously floated to some of the local reporters he has in his pocket—that this team is actually better off without Winslow. I see no compelling need to address this issue again this week, but do see a compelling need to remind Savage, if not the fans that are buying into this bit of propaganda, that a team with a real talent deficit like the Browns can never be better off by letting one of its best players get away.

Winslow’s outburst last Sunday notwithstanding, he simply is not a distraction, at least to the extent where one could reasonably conclude that his absence constitutes addition by subtraction.


Moving on for a moment from Winslow and on to something more mundane, it will be interesting to see how long it takes Savage to realize that quarterback Derek Anderson is Kelly Holcomb revisited. Holcomb, like Anderson, fascinated general managers and offensive coordinators alike with a strong arm and a penchant for occasionally playing really well.

Browns fans remember less than six years ago when Holcomb threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns and almost singlehandedly beat Pittsburgh in a playoff game. In spot duty that season subbing for Tim Couch, Holcomb had 8 touchdowns in four games, only four interceptions, and completed over 60% of his passes.

The next season, with a chance to be the starter for an extended period of time, Holcomb couldn’t quite live up to that promise. Still, he did enough to maintain enough of a mystique that took him to Buffalo as a free agent, where he remained long on promise that ultimately was never fully realized. After bouncing around the league for 12 seasons, he had a mostly undistinguished career.

Anderson is following that script almost to the letter, but either Savage doesn’t want to see it or Savage wants to think he’s smart enough to avoid the inevitable outcome of misplaced faith. But the longer Savage continues to delude himself into thinking that Anderson will eventually develop into Tom Brady (and hence make Savage look like a genius in the process), the more likely that he’ll divest the team of a quarterback in Brady Quinn who has a more realistic chance of actually being able to deliver on the promise of an actual pedigree.


This week’s question to ponder: If/when the Browns and Romeo Crennel part ways, does Crennel ever get another head coaching job in the NFL?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fraying at the Edges

The San Francisco 49ers fired their head coach, Dick Nolan, yesterday. The strong sense is that Cleveland Browns general manager, Phil Savage, is just shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s no way to run a franchise,” he’s likely muttering to himself.

Perhaps, but it’s also true that the clearest path to recovery is to first admit you have a problem. At least the 49ers were willing to take that step. Despite arguably more evidence than the 49ers had to work with, Savage remains firmly stuck in denial that his team even has a problem, except when it comes to Winslow.

The outburst on Sunday by Winslow, coming as it did during a game in which quarterback Derek Anderson had another on-field confrontation with another player, demonstrated far more than anything else to date that Savage has a serious problem on his hands. If he thinks suspending Winslow, justified or not, is the answer, then he can't even begin to comprehend the question. Eventually, when Savage has no choice but to take a critical look at the state of his franchise, he’ll see a team rapidly fraying at the edges and threatening to unravel completely. But the longer he waits, the harder the repair job.

Savage’s main issue with taking the step the 49ers did, particularly midseason, is the instability it creates. Most certainly, it takes away any chance of the team competing for the rest of the current season. But staying the course just because it’s easier and doesn’t require reprinting the media guides is no reason to maintain a status quo that isn’t all that great to begin with. The Browns aren’t going to the Super Bowl this season anyway; why not get a head start on next season?

When the Browns laid an egg on Sunday against the Washington Redskins, the inclination is to think that the picture just got murkier. To the contrary, it actually got clearer. This team needs a new direction, a new discipline no matter how much Savage wants to turn a blind eye to it all.

The game against the Giants was instructive because it revealed the full potential of the team. That’s the good news. But it also set a bar that fans rightly expect to be matched each week, if not in total output, at least in approach. Instead, what they have been treated to is a team that is far more notable for its rabid inconsistency and its uncontrollable personalities than as a legitimate contender for football greatness.

After Sunday’s loss to the Washington Redskins, a good but not great team, head coach Romeo Crennel was asked why his team couldn’t carry forward the momentum it had just six days earlier. Essentially Crennel said that if he knew the answer to that, he’d be a better head coach. Well said. The fact that Crennel can admit that he’s clueless can be a useful virtue, but until he can turn that from a concept to an action item it will be a mostly useless virtue.

Meanwhile the evidence against Savage and the direction he’s set is starting to pile up like dirty dishes in the sink. First to be dispelled is the myth that the players respect his head coach. If they do, they have a funny way of showing it. Too many times too many of the so-called leaders of the team demonstrate their public disdain.

Exhibit A is Braylon Edwards. If Savage doesn’t want to treat previous season incidents as proof--like the trip to the Ohio State/Michigan game that Crennel told him not to make-- that’s fine. Let’s look at this last week. One of the more startling admissions after Sunday’s game came from Edwards who claimed that he and others on the team were a bit lax after their big win the previous week. It’s an admission Edwards has made at several other points in his short career as well. That doesn’t mean Crennel isn’t saying the right things in the meetings, it’s just that after all these years it still hasn’t taken hold. That’s a respect issue.

If the Browns had one hope of saving this season, it was to build on the confidence it gained in the Giants game by taking it on the field in Washington D.C. They didn’t. Among the chief culprits was Edwards who dropped four passes. Edwards shares some responsibility in all of this, certainly, but a great head coach, like a great boss, has to find a way to draw out the best from those he supervises each and every week, to help them translate potential into performance. It’s absolutely critical to success and, unfortunately, this is one of Crennel’s biggest failures as a head coach.

Ask yourself this question, how many players can you name on this team who have played beyond their abilities? Then compare that answer to this question: how many players can you name on this team who usually play below their abilities? If the answer to the first question is less than the answer to the second, which it is, you start to understand the depth of the problem.

Exhibit B is Winslow. He came to the Browns as a difficult personality and in that regard he’s been as advertised. His outburst on Sunday may very well have been contract frustration finally boiling over, as others have argued, and perhaps the suspension was justified. But it’s also true that Winslow is not finding a receptive audience internally from his head coach. Despite the number of times Crennel supposedly has spoken to Winslow about keeping matters in house, it, too, hasn’t resonated. That, too, is a respect issue.

If Winslow felt slighted that Savage didn’t call him in the hospital last week, imagine how he feels having been made scapegoat for talking about it publicly. Savage may now look organizationally tough, as if he's in control, but all he's done is confirm the existence of a problem in the first place. Winslow's outburst was a symptom, not the disease, particularly when you consider that Winslow didn’t place much stock in a phone call Crennel did make to him. As far as Winslow’s concerned, Crennel doesn’t represent the Browns, Savage does. That’s a fairly damning indictment right there of the lack of traction Crennel has gotten with some of his key players and the suspension not only reinforces the point, but arguably makes the problem worse.

Exhibit C is Anderson. At this point it’s clear that Savage is far more interested in developing the flyer pick he orchestrated while in Baltimore than he is in developing the number one pick he orchestrated in Cleveland. On this one it’s hard to tell what Crennel really thinks but it’s clear he’s having trouble translating his boss’s wishes into reality. Crennel has yet to reach Anderson in a meaningful way. Crennel rarely interacts with his quarterback during the game, despite having a wealth of knowledge about defense that Anderson might actually find useful. He hasn’t had much of an impact on smoothing Anderson’s wildly uneven development nor in curbing Anderson’s emotional need to confront teammates whose mistakes he thinks are making him look bad.

More to the point though is the fact that during the heat of the game, Crennel at times acts as if he’s forgotten he’s the head coach, something the players can’t help but notice. Anderson struggled mightily on Sunday against the Redskins, just as he has for roughly 90% of the team’s possessions this season. Most of his passes were off target, often badly. There was absolutely no spark. Yet Crennel, just as he’s done most of the rest of the season, sat back wishing a better result rather than remembering he had the ability to coax a better performance by, if necessary, inserting Brady Quinn into the lineup, even as a change of pace.

Crennel may not want to create a “controversy” by making that kind of move, but every time someone throws that up as an excuse, it’s hard not to wonder whether that’s just a convenient way of apologizing for Crennel’s apparent unwillingness to confront a difficult circumstance and make a hard decision. Changing quarterbacks comes with its fair share of political risk, but a true leader welcomes that challenge precisely because it’s hard. That’s a point Savage would do well to remember as well.

You can talk about all the poor Xs and Os decisions fans witness each week, the utter lack of preparation that symbolizes this team and the seemingly aimless direction of it all and all you’re really doing is describing the personality that has overtaken this team. Even if this team isn’t the reincarnation of the Bronx Zoo, Savage would be a fool to deny that it’s a team beginning to spiral out of control just the same.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Back to the Drawing Board--Again

If last week’s game awoke a sleeping giant within the Cleveland Browns, it didn’t stay awake too long.

Slumbering most of the day, the Cleveland Browns rallied but fell short on Sunday losing to the Washington Redskins, 14-11. The loss and a modest two-game win streak ended when Phil Dawson’s potential game-tying 54-yard field goal went wide right in the game’s waning moments.

It was an outcome the Browns probably deserved anyway.

For most of the game, all the Browns managed to demonstrate was what fans feared most, that last Monday night’s game was a mirage. Whatever chemistry had existed had dissipated as the team reverted perfectly to their early season form. But a semi-furious fourth quarter rally, sparked in no small part by a fumble from the Browns’ nemesis all day, Redskins’ running back Clinton Portis, kept the game in doubt until the final seconds.

Until that late surge, the game had the pace and feel of a high school chess match, without the intrigue. Both teams managed to set offensive football in the NFL back three or so decades, trading punt after punt after punt. When the Redskins finally broke through the scoring drought on a 4-yard Clinton Portis run early in the third quarter to take a 7-0 lead, it looked like it would hold up. Eventually it did. The Browns answered with a 37-yard Dawson field goal only to see the Redskins’ push the lead to 11 on an 18-yard pass from Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell to Santana Moss. At that point the game looked mostly over.

Things then got interesting, just not interesting enough for the Browns. With just under six minutes to go and the Browns in a fourth and goal at the Redskins’ three-yard line, head coach Romeo Crennel decided not to attempt a field goal that would have put the game to within one score. In context, it was a questionable decision. When quarterback Derek Anderson’s pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage so too, seemingly, were the Browns’ chances.

But on the Redskins next play, Portis bailed out Crennel by scampering for 24 yards and then fumbling into the arms of safety Brodney Pool. Finding an offensive rhythm that had eluded him all game, Anderson then was able to move the team quickly, finding Edwards for 20 yards and then tight end Kellen Winslow for another 8 yards. On fourth and goal from the one yard line, Anderson found Josh Cribbs in the end zone to bring the game to within five. Anderson then hit Edwards for the two point conversion to bring the Browns to within three with 2:44 left in the game.

Opting not to try the onside kick, a risky call given how well Portis had run all day, Moss returned the ball to the Redskins’ 35-yard line. But the Redskins couldn’t coax one more first down out of Portis and were forced to turn the ball back to the Browns. A Ryan Plackemeier punt, his eighth of the game, put the Browns at their 29-yard line with 1:51 and no time outs left and needing only a field goal to send the game into overtime.

Anderson then found Donte Stallworth on an 18-yard out and a defensive holding penalty on Villa Angela-St. Joe grad London Fletcher gave the Browns the ball at the Redskins 49-yard line. Another pass to Winslow and an Anderson sneak put the ball at the 37 with only 45 seconds remaining. Three straight Anderson completions set up the 54-yard attempt by Dawson. Though plenty long enough, it stayed right and with that, the Browns, despite a valiant comeback attempt, had their fourth loss of the season.

The excitement of the fourth quarter belied some pretty awful play by Anderson and the Browns that reminded no one of the team on the field against the Giants Monday night. Anderson, to that point, was as bad as he’s ever been. Missing his targets both short and long, Anderson seemed mostly to be sleepwalking through the game. Only the running of Jamal Lewis, who had 80 yards rushing on 19 carries, kept the offense from being completely embarrassed.

The Redskins weren’t a whole lot better, but were good enough, relying mostly on Portis, who was busy all day shredding a defensive line that had been revamped in the offseason for just this reason. But neither Shaun Rogers nor Corey Williams, nor anyone else in the defensive front seven for that matter, were much of a match for Portis. Even with the Browns knowing that Portis would get the ball, they were mostly helpless to stop him, except on the Redskins’ final drive. On the day, Portis ran for 175 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown.

Before the rally, the Browns seemed on the brink of a complete implosion. Facing a third down from their 9-yard line, Anderson was forced to call time out in order to avoid a delay of game penalty. Walking to the bench, he and fullback Lawrence Vickers seemed to exchange words, with Anderson twice grabbing at Vickers and Vickers twice pushing Anderson away in apparent anger.

It was symptomatic of everything that’s plagued the team to that point in the game and since preseason in fact, the Giants game notwithstanding. At the same time, though, it also seemed to have awoken Anderson. It was after that dust up that Anderson found his game.

Until then, though, there was virtually nothing to distinguish either Anderson or the Brown’s offense from any of the team’s first four games. For as much as the Browns defense and special teams were able to push the Redskins deep into their own territory early in the game was as much as the Browns’s offense wasn’t up to the field position they were handed in return.

The same can be said for the Redskins, particularly in the first half. Either it was a great defensive display by both teams or a really bad offensive display by both teams, take your pick. But as you’re choosing, remember this, midway through the second quarter, the teams had combined for more punts (9) than pass receptions (8). In all, each team had an amazing six possessions in that first half, which has to be some kind of record.

The Browns’ offensive ineptness (59 yards total in the first half; 236 for the game) was fostered by the usual gremlins, particularly in the first half. Anderson and tight end Kellen Winslow weren’t on the same page on third down on the Browns’ first drive, leading to a quick three-and-out. The second drive featured a few first downs, mostly on the hard running of Jamal Lewis, but stalled out quickly as well. It did demonstrate one thing, however, and that is that whatever magic Anderson had last week disappeared somewhere between Cleveland and Washington D.C. or in offensive lineman Ryan Tucker’s bulky shoulder that kept him out of the game.

The Browns did have opportunities in that first quarter, twice getting the ball in Redskins’ territory. But they went three-and-out once, with Anderson missing both Lewis and Winslow with what could have been long gains, and went quickly away the second time. It was eerily similar to the kind of offense the team showed in its first four games, right down to the three dropped passes by Edwards. On the plus side, there were no false starts. Maybe the offensive line was just too tired.

The Redskins likewise were having issues, just not quite as many as the Browns thanks to Portis. In that first half, the Redskins had far more yardage and came far closer to scoring but fittingly for that first half Shaun Suishman missed a 36-yard field goal, hitting the upright as time expired in the first half. It was an attempt they probably shouldn’t have had. On second down with 17 seconds left and no time outs, Redskins’ quarterback Jason Campbell slipped going back into the pocket and was sacked. With time running down, defensive linemen Shaun Rogers was a bit slow getting up and was flagged for the delay of game. Okay, he wasn’t just slow. He was lying on top of Campbell. The penalty gave the Redskins the opportunity to kick, which they squandered. The rest of their six possessions were a mixture of poor field position, penalties and a whole lot of poor passes from Campbell.

In some sense, the fact that Anderson was able to rally both himself and the team was some measure of success, but not nearly enough. On the day, Anderson was 14-37 for 136 yards and no touchdowns, with most of that yardage coming in the fourth quarter. It was setback, certainly, from last week’s game, but only if last week is the expected level of performance. In actuality, Anderson’s game was to a lot of games he’s had lately, which isn’t comforting.

With this loss, the Browns and Anderson now are in more desperate a search for an identity as ever. Both know they have the ability to play well. They just don’t know whether they have the ability to play well often. Meanwhile the defense demonstrated that it can hold a team out of the end zone, even if it can’t stop a team from running all over the field. With another game lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the standing, it may not matter whether the Browns ever solve this puzzle this season. They’ll have a long offseason to figure that out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lingering Items--Giants Edition

It’s understandable why the Cleveland Browns’ victory last Monday night gave the fans some hope. When the Tennessee Titans are the league’s only undefeated team six weeks into the season, you can pretty much conclude that this is shaping up to be a strange year in the NFL. At this point, it’s probably easier to name the bottom 10 teams than it is to name the top 10.

Starting the season, most figured that the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, again, would fight it out for the AFC’s top spot. The NFC looked to be the province of the Dallas Cowboys. But an injury to Patriots’ Tom Brady, some late offseason knee surgery for the Colts’ Peyton Manning and a busted pinky finger for the Cowboys’ Tony Romo has everyone rethinking their fantasy football lineups, not to mention their pre-season playoff predictions.

The Browns are still two games behind the Steelers (call it 2 ½ because they already lost to the Steelers) but it no longer seems insurmountable. Part of that is due certainly to the other-world performance of the team against the New York Giants. But a big part of it is the feeling most have outside of Pittsburgh that the Steelers’ simply aren’t that good, and that was before they had injury problems of their own. Offensively, they’re just average and that’s with a healthy Willie Parker at running back. Defensively, they’ve played well all season but they just don’t strike anyone as a dominating defense, like the Baltimore Ravens during their Super Bowl year.

Speaking of the Ravens, they, too, are two games behind the Steelers (and a leg up on the Browns) but somehow they feel further away than Cleveland. Baltimore’s defense is again carrying the team but it is far from the most dominant unit in the league, very far from it actually. Offensively, the Ravens remain mostly a mess.

A reassertion by the Browns into the thick of the AFC North race, though, lies in their ability to carry forward the supposedly freakish chemistry that broke out on Monday. That’s hardly a proposition worth betting what’s left of your 401(k) on. The moon, the stars, the planets and a whole host of intergalactic bodies will all have to align to get the Browns this season to where many fans expected, but in a season of oddities already, anything is possible. Except when it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, where the only real question is whether Marvin Lewis will quit first or get fired.


Kellen Winslow’s mystery illness and his absence from the Giants’ game has sparked all sorts of conversation, from the derivation of the illness itself to an emerging theory that the Browns should consider trading him. It’s all rather amusing, actually.

I’m not sure there’s any mystery to what is ailing Winslow. It’s just that the particular malady hasn’t been revealed. For the conspiracy theorists out there that sees virtually everything as a cover-up, this lack of information is probably hiding something sinister. But the reality is that the Browns are just following the law.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, commonly known as HIPAA, set in motion new regulations mandating the privacy of individually identifiable health information. It’s the statute and regulations that keeps your employer from releasing your medical information publicly just as it keeps the Browns from releasing the medical information of its employees, including its players.

Certainly, Winslow could authorize the release of the information publicly, but why should he? Fans don’t have an absolute right to know his private medical information anymore than they have an absolute right to know the medical information for the guy sitting in Sec. 26, Row D. And spare me the argument that Winslow is highly paid professional athlete as if that somehow changes the equation.

Some fans, like some people, tend to equate their needs with their rights. They may feel a need to know the extent of Winslow’s illness in order to make a good decision on who to start in their fantasy football league or to make a wager in Vegas, but that doesn’t magically translate into a right to that information. But all the logic or legalities in the world isn’t going to stop fans from speculating, even if they’d object vehemently if the situations were reversed. Don’t you hate it when something gets in the way of a good conspiracy theory?

As to whether the Browns would be better off without Winslow, that’s a stretch. Steve Heiden and Darnell Dinkens had decent games against the Giants, but they are and always will be serviceable back-ups in the NFL, nothing more. Those two are great examples of the one area that the Browns have depth. The minute it reveals itself in a positive way, some fans start losing perspective and immediately want to undercut it by trading away the starter.

It’s an old Cleveland mindset, actually, usually practiced though by the Indians. Anyone around long enough to have lived through the Indians in the 1960s and 1970s will remember a seemingly never ending series of trades that all had the same feature, the Indians trading away a steak for three weenies. It kept the team afloat, I suppose, but did nothing to produce a winner. Neither would trading Winslow.

The other thing about Winslow that shouldn’t be underestimated is his positive impact on this team. After an incredibly rocky start by a player whose own immaturity nearly cost him his life and not merely his career, Winslow has turned into a rock solid tight end with an incredibly high threshold for pain. He’ll never be a great blocker, but he’s gotten much better. More importantly, he’s got superb pass-catching skills and is not afraid to use them in virtually any situation. He’ll make a catch knowing he’s going to take a hit. In short, he’s one of the few players you can rely on when you need him most.

Winslow runs neck-and-neck with Jamal Lewis as the heart and soul of the entire team. Other players see the pain these two are willing to incur in order to win and gain not just inspiration but the drive not to let them down. If anything, this team needs more players like Winslow, not less.

Letting Winslow go, by whatever means, would be disastrous for the Browns. That’s probably why it will eventually happen.


If Browns quarterback Brady Quinn doesn’t have the worst timing of anyone in the NFL, then I’d like to meet who is first. Ok, maybe he’s second to Troy Smith, but you get the point. Every time Quinn seems on the precipice of finally starting his career in a meaningful way, fate has a way of jumping up and smacking him in the face. It started with the NFL draft and continued through last week.

Going into Monday night’s game, Quinn’s moment was nearly in hand. Derek Anderson had struggled for several games dating back to last season and the only one that seemed willing to ignore the on-the-field results was head coach Romeo Crennel. But then Anderson somehow found a groove that had been eluding him. Anyone watching Monday night’s game had to notice the look on Quinn’s face when the camera flashed to him after Anderson’s first touchdown pass. The camera didn’t stay on him long, but long enough. It was an expression that said “Looks like I’m not getting behind center in a game anytime soon.” When the camera returned a few minutes later, Quinn’s expression was far more positive, either because he knew the cameras were now on him or because he was genuinely happy about what was taking place on the field. Still, it was hard to miss his disappointment.

Fans of Quinn won’t want to hear this, but if Anderson stays healthy and relatively hot the rest of the season, it’s hard to imagine general manager Phil Savage nonetheless dumping him in favor of Quinn. That’s probably unfair to Quinn because he’s never had much of a chance and Savage won’t likely get what he gave up, but the Browns can’t continue to pour that kind of money into one position when they have so many other needs. Savage will go with the known commodity, it’s the safer bet.


This week’s question to ponder: When the Cincinnati Bengals lost last week to run their record to 0-6, should Chad Ochocinco have changed his name to Chad Ochoseis?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Context and Perspective

If you thought Cleveland sports fans were a cynical, unforgiving lot, then you haven’t been listening since the Browns unexpected beating Monday night of last season’s Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants. With one dominant performance, Browns fans seem ready to forgive virtually every sin that occurred in the prior six weeks.

In many ways, it’s refreshing that a fan base can suddenly develop a short-term memory problem. Talking about and focusing on the negative all the time tends to sap one’s energy anyway. But the current giddiness also smacks a tad of desperation.

The Cleveland Browns were a great team on Monday night. Does that mean they are a great team overall? If that’s the case, does that render the 1-3 record (with the only win being against a team vying with Kansas City to become the dictionary entry under the word “hapless) irrelevant? At this juncture it’s just as likely that the answer to each question is “no” as it is that it’s “yes.”

This isn’t about trying to throw cold water on a premature celebration. Ok, maybe it is, but just a little. But it’s only because this team still suffers from fundamental problems, Monday night’s game notwithstanding. Even a team with fundamental problems can play well, just not that often. That doesn’t mean the Browns won’t duplicate their performance Monday night again this season. But until they can duplicate not just sporadically but against the Pittsburgh Steelers, questions are going to linger.

For example, the fact that this was Derek Anderson’s first really solid performance in his last 13 games as a starter doesn’t mean that Anderson has suddenly rediscovered some sort of swagger, no matter how much fans want that to be true. All it really does is demonstrate, as Anderson did many times last season, that he’s a young quarterback with talent still learning the game. That’s not a sin nor should it be unexpected. It’s just the reality of playing one of the most difficult positions in professional sports.

Likewise, the fact that head coach Romeo Crennel stuck with Anderson doesn’t suddenly make Crennel a genius any more than it makes anyone else questioning that thought process, including, by the way, general manager Phil Savage, a rube. What it really emphasizes is something everyone knew anyway, Crennel is stubborn, sometimes to a fault. This time it served him well, next time it might not.

In this case, Crennel’s personality helped foster the conditions that led to Monday’s unexpected performance. By sticking with Anderson, he essentially created a rallying point for a team on the brink. It worked, but for how long? Anderson is solidified for a few more games, at least, and with this issue temporarily off the table all this team has to do now is live up to the expectations rekindled by a performance most fans expected would be a weekly occurrence anyway, at least on the offensive side of the ball.

The test for Crennel will be whether he can get his team to perform any better now then earlier in the season without a contrived rallying cry. Crennel can’t use the “respect” card because any lingering disrespect the Browns may still be suffering is of their own making, caused by playing like amateurs in the season’s first four games. The last time I looked, they still have several “national” games on their schedule. That means they’ll have plenty of opportunities to create change in the court of public opinion.

Whether Crennel is up to that task will ultimately play out before everyone’s eyes. But if you’re looking for clues, you have to look beyond one game. Putting a best face on the broader context, let’s just concede that Crennel’s performance has been uneven and leave it at that. For whatever strides the team has made under him, they’ve also taken nearly as many steps back. If you do want to confine yourself to just the most recent history, then don’t ignore the fact that this team still committed 10 penalties that were accepted (and a handful that were not) on Monday night, five on one crucial drive. No team is ever going to be able to crawl out of those holes game after game.

One of the more interesting developments in Monday’s game, and the one development in that one game from which it may be fair to draw broader conclusions, was the play of the defense in general and the defensive backfield in particular. Brandon McDonald, Eric Wright and Brodney Pool all had excellent games. Giants’ receiver Plaxico Burress had a six inch height advantage over McDonald and yet, by maintaining position, McDonald was able to contain Burress most of the night. It was by far McDonald’s best game as a pro. In fact, it was Wright’s best game as well.

To put that performance in perspective, it’s worth nothing that even after Monday nights’ game the Giants still lead the league in total offense. They’re still averaging over 400 yards and 28 points a game. Eli Manning is still one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Brandon Jacobs is still a bruising runner and a load to bring down and Burress is still one of the better receivers in the game. Yet time and again the defense found a way to seize opportunities and essentially shut down the Giants in a way that was far more suggestive of Cleveland’s good play than a product of a Giants team malfunctioning.

That may not mean it’s any more likely that the defense will continue to perform at that level for the rest of the season anymore than it means the offense will continue to perform at that level each week. It does mean, though, that there finally is enough talent to believe that with time there will be a defensive unit in Cleveland worthy of the support this team’s fans give it.

It was a performance for the ages on Monday night, so long as we confine the ages to the last 10 years. Fans are understandably enthused by what they saw, but that doesn’t mean the previous four games were just some substance-induced hallucinogenic haze either. Context and perspective, two words as foreign to a typical fan’s vocabulary as beer and “f” bombs are family, caution restraint. So too does a remaining schedule that’s every bit as difficult of the sequence they just completed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Self-Inflicted Gratification

As much as the Cleveland Browns may have had to gain in their game against the New York Giants Monday night, they really had nothing to lose. With a season on the verge of spiraling completely out of control, the Browns came out ragged but loose and almost carefree surprising the Giants and a national television audience with a dominating 35-14 win against last season's Super Bowl champs.

The record will reflect that the fatal blow was delivered by cornerback Eric Wright when he took Giants' quarterback Eli Manning's third interception of the game 94-yards with just over 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson and receiver Braylon Edwards finished the job with a two-point conversion that gave the team an insurmountable 21-point lead.

But the real story of the game was a team rejuvenated on both sides by a bye week that came not a moment too soon. The offensive line, working better than it has all season, welcomed back Ryan Tucker at right guard and it had a settling effect. Anderson, though pressured at times, wasn't sacked and had enough time to constantly find open receivers. Anderson's ability to put together a vertical passing game kept the Giants' defense from stacking the box near the line of scrimmage. In the process, the running game opened up for 144 yards, 88 of which were by Jamal Lewis on 21 caries. Maybe the Browns ought to petition the league to schedule more bye weeks.

The Giants tried to make it interesting near the end with a quick drive that took them deep into Browns' territory. But like most of what the Giants did all night, that drive, too, ended in frustration as the Browns held on 4th and two and took over on downs at their own 6-yard line with just under four minutes to play. The Browns then closed out the game on two rushing first downs by Lewis.

The Browns' performance as dominating as it was unlikely stood as redemption of sorts for the pitiful performance they put on this same national stage against this same team during the preseason. The win doesn't turn them suddenly into competitors but it does give them something far more to build on then if they had simply played well in another loss. It also sent a bit of a message to the rest of the league that whatever else the Browns might be, they aren't the Cincinnati Bengals, the Detroit Lions or the Kansas City Chiefs.

As entertaining of a game as it ended up being for the Browns and their fans, it certainly didn't start out that way. Kick returner Josh Cribbs fumbled the opening kickoff, quarterback Derek Anderson through his first pass poorly and at the feet of Donte' Stallworth, and Tucker lined up illegally, which was declined. It set an ominous tone.

But before that emotion could even take, receiver Edwards caught a short pass from Anderson and turned it into a 49-yard play and suddenly a sign of life appeared, like a blade of fresh grass popping through the Browns' dry cracked soil of a season. The drive fizzled however first on a false start penalty and then on a fumbled exchange between center Hank Fraley and Anderson, forcing the Browns to settle for a 26-yard Phil Dawson field goal as a smattering of boos in a homage to more red zone futility. It wouldn't last.

Meanwhile, the Giants weren't quite out of sync but they weren't exactly hitting on each cylinder either. During their first drive, Manning was picked off by Brodney Pool near the Browns' goal line. Pool took the ball back to the Browns' 29-yard line but the Browns weren't able to convert the turnover into points when a Dawson 51-yard field goal fell short. The drive did feature the debut of the Browns' "Flash" formation, so named for former Kent State Golden Flash Josh Cribbs. Cribbs took a direct snap from center and ran around left end for 12 yards.

The Giants then temporarily got back on track to take their only lead at 7-3 with a 6-play 58-yard drive that culminated with a 6-yard run by Brandon Jacobs, who almost pushed himself clear through safety Mike Adams on his way to the end zone to help give the Giants the 7-3 lead. It was enough to make Browns' defensive lineman Corey Williams rethink that "tiptoe" comment he made about Jacobs earlier in the week. The key play on the drive, though, was the Giants' conversion of a third down and 4 from the Browns' 11-yard line to set up the Jacobs touchdown run.

Whatever confidence that drive gave the Giants dissipated quickly. Anderson immediately hit Edwards on the Browns' next play with a 70-yard pass that saw Edwards, who was sprinting past cornerback Aaron Ross down the right side. Edwards actually had to wait oh so briefly for Anderson's pass to arrive, allowing Ross enough time to recover and tackle Edwards at the 4-yard line, temporarily saving a touchdown. This time, the Browns were able to convert, with Lewis taking it in from there to help give the Browns a 10-7 lead. It was the real kick the team needed.

Suddenly a sideline that had looked mostly befuddled and frustrated all season was instead smiling and looking as if they finally were enjoying themselves. The defense meanwhile was doing its part, forcing the Giants to punt in a drive that was hurt by Giants penalties and some outstanding coverage by cornerback Brandon McDonald on Giants' receiver Plaxico Burress.

That series breathed further life into the offense in general and Anderson in particular. Displaying a confidence that has mostly been missing all season Anderson led the Brown on an efficient 9-play, 77-yard drive that ended with an Anderson to Darnell Dinkens, 22-yard touchdown play. The Dawson extra point pushed the Browns lead to 17-7 with just over two minutes to play in the half.

The Browns had a chance to take that lead into the locker room but a costly illegal contact penalty on Adams on the Giants next drive nullified what looked like a Manning fumble that was recovered by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson at the Browns 21-yard line. It gave the Giants the ball at the 16-yard line and from there a quick first down followed by a three-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Burress helped narrow the Browns' lead to three. The Browns also had another chance to kill that Giants' drive but Eric Wright couldn't quite haul in a pass headed for Domenik Hixon, a mistake he more than made up for later in the game. If it gave the Giants hope in a game that was closer than it should have been at that point, it didn't last long.

Whatever play the Giants imagined to start the second half went quickly awry when Manning was intercepted by McDonald on the Browns 33-yard line on the half's first play. The pass was intended for Burress who turned inside as Manning threw outside and into the waiting arms of McDonald. McDonald returned the ball 21- yards to the Giants 46-yard line. It was symptomatic of everything that plagued the Giants all evening.

The Browns' offense then added its own razzle dazzle with a double reverse, Anderson handing off to Cribbs sprinting around left end who then handed off to Jerome Harrison running in the other direction. Harrison sped around left end for a 33-yard run. But two running plays and an incompletion to Stallworth in the end zone forced another 26-yard field goal for Dawson and pushed the Browns lead to 20-14.

After forcing the Giants to punt, the Browns had a chance to essentially put the game away late in the third quarter. In one of the strangest drives imaginable, the Browns ultimately scored on an Anderson to Edwards 11-yard touchdown pass to help give them a 27-14, but it was hardly a thing of beauty. The drive was 14 plays long and consumed over 8 minutes, neither necessarily by design. For nearly every good play executed, the Browns found themselves marching backward after a penalty. In all the drive featured three false start penalties, one holding penalty and a delay of game for good measure. To their credit, the offense overcame the self-inflicted adversity and the drive had its intended effect, essentially breaking the Giants' spirit.

That doesn't mean the Gants went down without a fight. Despite being pinned back near their own goal line as a result of a poor kick return and an offensive face mask penalty, the Giants and Manning were seemingly on their way to closing the gap to 6 points when Manning threw his third interception of the game, the backbreaker that Wright took back 94 yards for the touchdown and the 33-14 lead. The two-point conversion to Edwards was the final margin of difference.

The evening featured not only a return from a lengthy absence by the Browns on Monday night football, but a return from a lengthy absence by an offense that was so potent last season but mostly impotent this season. Edwards had his best game as a pro, catching 5 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. Anderson, despite playing without tight end Kellen Winslow, managed his best game since last season's win against the Seahawks in that season's eighth game. He completely outplayed Manning, and it wasn't close. Anderson went 18-29 for 310 yards and two touchdowns. Just as importantly, he didn't throw an interception and finished the evening with 121 rating. Manning meanwhile looked flustered and played unevenly. Pressured, he may have had as many completions as Anderson on just one more attempt, but it was for only 196 yards and one touchdown. The difference, though, was the three interceptions that kept him from finishing off drives.

It was, unquestionably, as gratifying of a performance as the Browns have had in years. It was the kind of win that in some small sense justified some of its early season hype. There is still a significant amount of work for the Browns to overtake the Steelers, let alone make the playoffs. But at least on this night, the hill looks far less steep than it did just a day or two ago.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Lingering Items--Bye Week Edition

As bad as its been for fans of the Cleveland Browns this season, they can take solace in the fact that they do not, to paraphrase former Bengals’ coach Sam Wyche, live in Cincinnati. Pick an area in which the Browns are deficient, from the front office to the personnel on the field, and you’ll see a bigger mess in Cincinnati.

To really understand the depths to which that franchise has plunged, consider just the reaction of fans of both the Browns and the Dallas Cowboys following games against the Bengals in which their teams actually won. To put it mildly, the fans are upset. To put it more accurately, you get the sense that there would have been less reaction from the NRA to a new round of gun control legislation.

Certainly some of the grumbling stems from the fact that the fans of each team have far higher aspirations than merely getting by against the woeful Bengals. While that’s certainly justified in Dallas, in Cleveland is a far different story, but I digress. What really is at play here is that the Bengals, along with the Detroit Lions, have become the model for how not to run a franchise. In that sense, even Browns fans had a right to be a tad angry with their team notwithstanding it was their only win of the season.

The Browns, for all their problems, still have a vast advantage over either Detroit or Cincinnati. Browns general manager Phil Savage may be losing his appeal as of late, but in n Detroit, the Lions got rid of Matt Millen, the only former general manager who could possibly make Dwight Clark look like Scott Pioli. The Browns may have a laconic and absent owner, but in Cincnnati, Mike Brown, the team’s owner and president, has steered his franchise so far off the rails, he ought to consider changing his last name to Bidwell. In virtually every way imaginable, Brown has made it so that his team performs at a level each week that rivals the 1999 and 2000 versions of the Browns for sheer incompetence.

At this juncture, it’s or no great source of pride when a team beats the Bengals or the Lions. In fact, playing them creates more problems than it solves. A victory is expected. Poor play or loss is cause for a death watch. When you lose to the Bengals or the Lions these days, it generally is cause for setting in motion a daisy-chain of events that leads a team to question not only its talent but its manhood.

The Browns haven’t quite sunk to those levels, but as we’ve seen with the stock market lately, things can change rather quickly. Frankly, the only thing keeping the Browns out of that group is the fact that they did win 10 games last season. But that will only go so far. Right now, the word around the league is that the Browns are a fraud. If they sink further into the abyss, the league will be right and then the Browns will find themselves in fast company with the Bengals and the Lions, meaning they too become the automatic win for each opponent that remains on the schedule.


That quarterback Derek Anderson is starting on Monday against the Giants is hardly a surprise. Though he played poorly for most of the Cincinnati game, he put together one decent drive late in the game which was all, apparently, Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel needed to justify a decision they had already made anyway.

By any measure, Anderson has not played well this season. Few are suggesting that he be summarily kicked to the curb, never to be heard from again as a result. But kicking him to the sidelines to carry the clipboard for awhile is another matter. Certainly if 16 games last year wasn’t enough to reach a final verdict on whether to keep him over Brady Quinn, then certainly playing poorly in four games doesn’t constitute a mandate either. In other words, giving him some measure of the benefit of the doubt is justified.

But it doesn’t seem the height of outrage to suggest that maybe Quinn deserves a shot. Giving Quinn a real opportunity has absolutely no downside to it, unless you’re Savage and Crennel. Apparently having Quinn come in now and play well amounts to some sort of nightmare on 9th Street, as if his success will create an actual quarterback controversy, as opposed to the virtual one playing out anyway.

The thought process that leads Crennel and Savage to not utilize the talent on the bench is symptomatic of why this team has trouble succeeding. They seem far more concerned with managing an apparently fragile Anderson ego than possibly getting the best players on the field. Put it this way: if Anderson’s ego is that fragile, he has no business being the quarterback of this team anyway.


Quinn and Joe Thomas lent their local celebrity status to John McCain’s foundering presidential bid earlier this week at a rally in Strongsville and it caused a bit of a stir, but shouldn’t have. It’s pretty clear, for example, that head coach Romeo Crennel wasn’t completely pleased with their appearance and the strong guess, if the email I get is any indication, is that many others were probably bothered as well.

In a column last week, I said that Bengals back up quarterback, Ryan Fitzgerald, had about as much business playing as Sarah Palin did running for vice president. As jokes go, I’ve written better, I’ve written worse. But what I didn’t anticipate was the anger some readers would have over the idea that politics at all was being interjected into sports. (Not to mention, although that’s what I’m now doing, the anger directed toward me for supposedly impliedly criticizing McCain and his perky running mate.)

But the main point of most of these emails was that people see sports as their safe haven from the harsher realities of every day life. Interjecting politics, thus, is as unwelcome as a neighbor’s dog that craps in your yard. As for Crennel’s point of view, the last thing he needs in that locker room is more distractions. He can barely handle, let alone contain, the ones he has.

Despite what some see as an intrusion politics and sports have often been strange bedfellows and will always be. Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest running back of all time, was never too far from expressing his political point of view. It cost him fans, but only during the week. On Sundays, so long as he continued to grind out the yards, he was universally loved.

And that’s ultimately how these things get resolved, at least from a fan’s perspective. Sure, there will be a few fans permanently turned off by Quinn’s or Thomas’ presence at the McCain rally, but they’ll be in the minority. Even those who thought either that Quinn and Thomas should keep their political views to themselves or that their time would be far better spent figuring out how to win a few games will still forgive them so long as they go on to play well on Sundays. If Quinn, for example, is not able to deliver the goods, then it will just give those who didn’t like him anyway another thing to put on the list.

This week’s question to ponder: Who has a better chance of being with the Browns next year, Romeo Crennel or Syndric Steptoe?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Identity Theft

One thing that seems to continually rub Cleveland Browns’ general manager Phil Savage the wrong way is the negativity he perceives among the team’s fan base. He’s expressed that frustration on more than a few occasions and with the hostility fans have shown this year there’s a good bet that he’s already reached his set point once again.

But the hunch, call it a suspicion, is that Savage is still not yet in tune with what makes this town tick. Negativity is part of it, certainly, but that’s only because Cleveland and its fans of all stripes have had plenty to be negative about for more years than most anyone following the teams these days have been alive. What Savage clearly doesn’t understand, and the configuration of his current team more than makes the point, is what Browns fans covet and the Browns haven’t delivered is an identity for their team.

Ask yourself what this team currently stands for, what its identity is, and you’ll struggle to articulate anything specific. Look at the logo of Despite great internal debate about updating the Browns’ reference with something more current than a picture of Bernie Kosar in his glory years, no one could much think of anything more appropriate. It’s not that anyone at the site is deliberately living in the past. It’s just that they, the fans, not been given a present, let alone a future.

But it’s not just this site. Speaking far more loudly is the team’s own website. Search around it all you like. Try to find out what the team’s core values are, what it is striving to accomplish. The closest you get is the intrusion of a supposedly menacing looking cartoon drawing of a dog on various pages within the site. That works as a nod to the teams of the 1980s, like this site’s use of the Kosar picture. But as a reflection of current times, the conclusion one draws is that even the team is still entrenched in a view of itself that is not only no longer relevant, but hasn’t been for 20 years. The truth is that for too many years now the Browns have had no discernable personality and don’t seem any closer to it even as Savage continues his extreme makeover of the franchise.

When anyone thinks of the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, the picture they have in their mind is of a physical team. Though the players have changed, the Steelers have not. First and foremost they seek to pound the ball down an opponent’s throat on offense. On defense, they play fundamentally sound, blitz often and hit hard. It’s nothing fancy, but it does define what they do, year after year, player after player, coach after coach.

By the same token, the Baltimore Ravens, not exactly the oldest franchise around, have built a reputation on the basis of its defense. Maybe that has something to do with linebacker Ray Lewis, but dating back to their Super Bowl year and to this day, it’s a team built around its defense. On the other hand, it’s also known for having as vanilla of an offense that can possibly exist. The most it asks of its offense is to not get the defense in too deep of a hole. Maybe that will all change eventually, but even though the Ravens have had only middling success of late, virtually no one counts them out of any game still because of their defense and hasn’t for years.

Contrast either of those teams with the Browns. The Browns have been in a perennial rebuild since its rebirth but has yet to pick a direction, any direction. That starts at the top with owner Randy Lerner and to date it has been among his biggest faults. His philosophy may be to hire football people to run the team and stay out of the way, but that doesn’t absolve him of his duty to set the course and tone of what this team should be about. By failing to give any discernable direction to Savage, the leader of his football operations, Lerner has left Savage with the abstract job of acquiring talent simply for talent’s sake. While he’s had some success, he’s done it in a way that’s hard to understand, except at a most basic level.

For example, Savage’s first project was to build an offensive line, which to that point was among the worst in the league. He signed LeCharles Bentley, then one of the top free agents. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. Savage, understanding that no matter what you ultimately want to accomplish on offense it takes a strong offensive line, pressed forward the following offseason by drafting Joe Thomas and signing free agent Eric Steinbach. For the most part, this rebuild has worked, but to what end exactly?

Head coach Romeo Crennel is defensive-minded and doesn’t seem to have any particular philosophies when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. He stuck with a like minded offensive coordinator in Maurice Carthon until Savage pulled that plug. Savage brought in Rob Chudzinski, but two years into this offense it’s still hard to place a label on it. The run/pass ratio suggests nothing in particular. Some weeks it skews well toward the pass, other weeks toward the run. At the end of last season, however, the Browns passed over 100 more times then they ran. If this year’s trends hold, the ratio will be far closer but will still end with a few more passing than rushing attempts.

Does that mean this is a pass first team? Not necessarily. From the looks of things, it seems to be a team that is quick to abandon the run for the pass the minute it gets behind. As for the passing game itself, if forced I’d say it trends toward a more vertical approach than controlled, short passes. At least that was the case last year when quarterback Derek Anderson was near the top of the league averaging more than seven yards per pass. Yet Anderson this year has the second lowest yards per pass ratio in the league. That may be a factor of both Anderson’s and receiver Braylon Edwards’ poor play and may also be due to how opposing defenses are now playing the Browns, but clearly there has been a significant shift.

In short, about the only conclusion you’re left to draw is that the Browns offensive philosophy is reactive and not proactive. It doesn’t seek to establish much of anything and depends more on attempting to exploit whatever weaknesses that week’s opponent may have. For the fan at home, that doesn’t much make for interesting or compelling football. More importantly, it doesn’t give them much of a clue on what to expect week to week.

On defense, things are a little easier to figure, at least theoretically. Crennel is a staunch advocate of the 3-4 defense, no matter how ill-suited it may be for the personnel he has. In furtherance of that philosophical goal, apparently, Savage bolstered the defensive line this past off season, although an argument can be made that no matter the defensive scheme, this line needed bolstering. But Savage has not acquired the linebackers needed to really make the 3-4 defense work. Rather than adjust philosophies until the talent level catches up instead what you have is mostly a mess.

But beyond Crennel’s dogged insistence on building a 3-4 defense, a larger issue remains. The defense for too long has had no personality. Fans still view it through the prism of the glory years of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield mostly because they haven’t been given anyone else to rally around. The Dawgs had their day, but it has long since passed. At this point, the only people living up to the reputation of the Dawgs are those who sit in the bleachers at each home game. At least they still harass the opposition even if the players are not quite up to the task.

The fact is that every team, indeed every organization, needs a unifying theme, an identity that says this is what we stand for and this is what we will do. Right now, all the Browns seem to stand for is the proposition that success is as far off now as it’s ever been.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Lingering Items--Bengals Edition

There’s a myth out there that the Cleveland Browns’ defense, surprisingly, is the unit holding this team together. It’s a myth mostly because it suffers from a faulty premise—that this team is holding together. Going into the bye week this persistently mistake-prone team without a recognizable leader is at 1-3 and knowing that it will take a 7-5 record just to get to 8-8 and a 9-3 record the rest of the way to just get back to where it was last year. That doesn’t sound like a team hanging in there to me, but hey, maybe I’m just a pessimist.

So what we do here at Lingering Items is not only head back to the videotape but also over to the big book of statistics to see if a case can be made to support the half-full crowd. From the looks of it, it can’t, but maybe I’m just a pessimist. You decide.

In terms of total defense, the Browns rank a respectable 10th in the league, yielding around 313 yards per game. Yet, every team above them has a better record. Does that mean the offense is really holding this team back? Possibly, but at least a little of the gloss on the defense’s ranking starts to fade when you consider that three of the four teams the Browns have played are near the bottom of league rankings in offense. Baltimore, of course, is a perennial, but both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are struggling on offense as well. Baltimore has a rookie quarterback, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has become a human punching bag, having been sacked more than a can of Starkist at Acme. The Bengals are simply a mess and also feature a gimpy-armed quarterback and a backup with about as much business playing in the NFL as Sarah Palin has running for vice president. The fourth team, Dallas, is second in the league in offense.

Ah, Dallas. The only legitimately good offensive team the Browns have faced thus far. All Dallas did was put up 28 points on this defense and could easily have scored more if necessary. That tends to fade a little more gloss. Then take into account that a bad offensive team like the Ravens, featuring a rookie quarterback of questionable pedigree, also laid 28 points on this defense. That more than anything argues against the premise that this defense has been holding this team together, but again, maybe I’m just a pessimist. So I ask: Do you know how many times the Ravens scored 28 or more points last season? Exactly once, in a 33-30 loss to the Browns. I’m not so much into wagering nor am I much for following the oddsmakers in Vegas, but assuming there is a book on such things, the over and under for the number of times the Ravens will score 28 or more in a game this season has to be two. They’ve already done it once and, conveniently, have another date with the Browns in a few weeks.

When a bar is set as low as it’s been for this defense, stepping over shouldn’t be much of a problem. But having stepped over it doesn’t necessarily mean that this defense is solid. Far from it. To the extent that anyone perceives this defense as a pleasant surprise, it is because the offense has played so poorly that the pressure on them has only increased. In that context, the fact that the defense hasn’t completely wilted is somewhat remarkable. But that is far different than concluding it’s essentially the savior of a season that otherwise would be lost.

One of the more remarkable streaks that the Browns finally put to bed last Sunday was the failure to score a second half touchdown all season. Though the Browns had their collective heads handed to them in last year’s opening game against Pittsburgh, at least they managed a second half touchdown. True, it was their only touchdown, but a touchdown nonetheless.

The fact that the Browns waited nearly four games before scoring a touchdown in the second half is more than reflected in their statistical rankings. Right now, the Browns are tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the league low in points averaged, 11.5 per game. To fully appreciate the drop-off of the offense, consider two things. First, the Browns scored more in last season’s first game against Cincinnati, which was the season’s second game, then they’ve scored in four games this season. Second, after four games last season, the Browns were averaging over 27 points a game, an incredible two touchdown difference. In that context, it is hard to believe they are even 1-3.

Last season, the Browns outscored opponents by a grand total of 20 points which isn’t much when your team is otherwise 10-6. Only the Tennessee Titans, who ended the season with the same record as the Browns, had a worse differential among teams with a winning record. This season, the Browns already have been outscored by 32 points, which is about what you would expect with a team that’s 1-3. Indeed, the Browns are tied with Kansas City in that category with only four other teams faring worse, including the St. Louis Rams, who just fired their head coach, checking it at a point differential of a whopping -104. For perspective, that’s 50 points more than the next worst team, the Detroit Lions, which just fired their general manager. If you’re looking for good news, hang your hat on that.


This may not be apropos of much, but exactly why was receiver Braylon Edwards celebrating in the end zone last Sunday and why, having chosen to do so, was he celebrating by strumming an air guitar? Edwards, as much as anyone, is responsible for the huge drop off in offensive production. He may not have dropped any passes against Cincinnati, which is a major improvement, but he still committed a costly and ridiculous personal foul that nullified a first down and forced punter Dave Zastudil to kick from the back of his own end zone.

In this regard, I’m not necessarily old school, although I tend to favor the Penn State approach best exemplified by Joe Jurevicius. Just hand the ball to the referee and act like you’ve been there before. Mostly, I see end zone celebrations are harmless and sometimes humorous. But there is context. A baseball player who hits a home run when his team is 10 runs behind should put his head down and run the bases quickly. A football player whose season is characterized more by his drops than his catches shouldn’t do anything more than matter-of-factly spike a ball after his first touchdown catch that took four games get and was prefaced by a lot of bad play.

Until Edwards vastly improves his play in every facet of the game, he has no business celebrating anything. By celebrating as he did on Sunday, all Edwards did was draw attention to the fact that he’s been nothing short of a major disappointment. One catch against one really bad team is hardly the stuff of which Pro Bowl years are made. Edwards will need to catch a few more balls in a few more crucial situations before he even begins to mitigate the smell from the odor that has been his season thus far. If he wants to actually maintain Pro Bowl status, he’s got a far longer climb.


Given how poorly this team has played fundamentally, this week’s question to ponder: Is a bye week really what this team needs?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Rewarding Effort, Ignorning Results

Talk about your mixed bag.

Cleveland Browns’ general manager Phil Savage checked in with the media on Monday to give what amounted to a quarter pole assessment of his team. In doing so, Savage confirmed that despite a refreshing sense of realism toward the current situation, he’s still every bit the dreamer that continues to value effort far more than results.

He sees, for example, some of the same things that every Browns fan has seen, such as a struggling quarterback and a head coach who’s piling up an impressive list of poor in-game decisions in a season only four games old. What he doesn’t see, however, is much reason to do anything more than stay the course and assume that everything will work out fine. To put it in economic terms, if Savage was a congressman he’d see the economy tanking but likely vote against any plan geared toward doing something about it. As Savage explained, “I’ve talked to people around the league, people who have been in this business for a long time, and you don’t go blowing things up after a couple games.”

Apparently he’s not talking with anyone in Oakland or St. Louis who have done precisely that. Though neither of those franchises are a model to emulate, no one’s looking to copy what the Browns have been doing the last 10 years either. But disregarding the tendency to think the need to consult others in the league means Savage still doesn’t have enough confidence in his own instincts, one still wonders whether any of those experts he did speak with have a vested interest in telling Savage what he wants to hear, which is that Crennel’s a good coach, Anderson’s a good quarterback and the only thing separating the Browns from the elite teams are a basketful of injuries. If only.

Whether he admits it publicly is beside the point. If Savage doesn’t know full well that the mismanagement that’s taken place on the field this season is hardly confined to this season then owner Randy Lerner needs to find a new general manager. Year after year, Crennel has proven an inability to field a disciplined or prepared team. The poor decisions on the field goals and the clock mismanagement are old stories. The only news there is that they still aren’t fixed despite Crennel’s vows each and every season to the contrary.

But Savage, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, continues to paper over these persistent problems by attributing them to outside agencies and bad luck. To those who see things differently, who can discern a disturbing trend that is literally marching into their living rooms each week and slapping them in the face, Savage can only say that “as long as the players play hard for him, I don’t think we have any issues at that position.” It would be fun to give Savage a shot of sodium pentothal and find out what he truly thought when he watched the Dallas and Pittsburgh games.

At this juncture, Savage’s bar for Crennel is awfully low. It seems that Savage believes that good results eventually will follow from earnest effort disregarding the fact that earnest effort poorly coached could serve as this team’s bumper sticker slogan. Both Crennel and his offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski can tell everyone how they constantly emphasize the need to avoid the so-called self-inflicted negatives, but it’s hard to imagine that the message has resonated with a team whose defense lined up in the neutral zone four times on Sunday, the fourth game of the season.

If the team had some fight in it, indeed if it had some feistiness, at least there would be some basis to Savage’s abject faith in a head coach that has yet to accomplish anything despite given plenty of opportunity to do so. To date, the only thing that’s evident is that this is a team full of players with conflicting agendas overseen by a coach who is incapable of getting them on the same page.

As much as Savage backed Crennel, he didn’t mince much when it came to his unwavering support for Anderson either. What’s hard to discern is whether Savage was trying to diminish any issue about who the starting quarterback should be or whether he truly feels that way. It’s probably a little of both. What isn’t so hard to discern though is that objectively, Anderson has done little this season to warrant that level of confidence.

Any number of statistics undercuts Savage’s view and you can literally pick among your favorites. Anderson has only three touchdown passes in four games, but has six interceptions. In his last 12 games dating back to last season, he has 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. His quarterback rating is only 49.9 this season, which makes him better than exactly one quarterback in the entire league, Kansas City’s Tyler Thigpen. His quarterback rating for those same last 12 games is only 64.75, which would place him in the bottom five of the league this year. He’s averaging only 4.6 yards per reception this season, again making him better than only Thigpen in the entire league. His longest reception is only 23 yards, making him last in the league.

You can go on all day like that or just move beyond the hard statistics and go by what you see. And what you’d see is that this season the Browns have had just over 40 offensive series. Outside of the one series early in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati on Sunday that more or less turned around a game that was as boring as it was poorly played, you’d be hard pressed to recall any series of note that Anderson has had this season.

The point here is not to beat up Anderson so much as it is to press Savage on how he can stand behind those kinds of results and yet not even consider a change, but the story last week reported by Fox Sports that “the other guy” got exactly two additional reps in practice last week support’s Savage’s claim.

In his press conference, Savage was quick to say that “D.A. still gives us the best chance to win.” It may be a trite phrase by this point but it’s also a conveniently self-serving view. The fact that Quinn doesn’t given the Browns the best chance to win is a simple product of the fact that he hasn’t been given much of a chance to show anything. That may have been perfectly understandable last season, even if you disregard Anderson’s late season struggles, but this season is far different. There have been several situations in which using Quinn would have been highly advisable. But since Crennel continued the insanity of trying the same thing in the same way hoping for a better result we’ll never know what kind of chance Quinn might give the team to win.

It’s starting to look like Savage is losing interest in Quinn at the expense of Anderson, which is strange given how much Savage gave up to get Quinn in the first place. If nothing else, Savage is proving to be a conveniently agile and fickle judge of talent.

Savage may have tried to calm the waters, as he often does with these intermittent media events. But as the team continues to founder it seems his efforts are far more geared toward pulling a few more skeptical bodies through a looking glass that is become ever more warped. It’s no wonder that virtually no one in Cleveland is celebrating a victory over a certifiably awful team like Cincinnati. It’s about as fulfilling as beating the St. Louis Rams at this point, or roughly as fulfilling as another Savage press conference.