Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taking On More Water

On a day when the Indianapolis Colts were being generous with turnovers, it was one key turnover by the Cleveland Browns that made the difference in the game. With the Browns clinging to a 6-3 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the game, quarterback Derek Anderson dropped back to pass and lost the grip on the ball. Colts' defensive end Robert Mathis picked up the bouncing ball and returned it 37 yards for the game's only touchdown, giving the Colts the 10-6 lead and, ultimately, the game.

It was the Colts' fifth straight victory. It was the Browns' second straight defeat and second straight game in which they failed to score a touchdown of any kind.

When the ship is sinking, the floor show hardly matters. The Browns' ship has been taking on water almost since the first game of the season and with five games left no one's thinking the ship can be saved anyway. Thus these final games remaining are less about wins and losses and more about, well, just getting the whole damn thing over with so that we can find out who will be coaching the team next season. In that context, that's exactly what the Browns did on a day when the Colts did almost everything they could to not only keep the Browns in the game but actually give it to them in the form of an early Christmas present wrapped in a pretty bow. The Browns would have none of that.

Sunday's loss will ultimately be nothing more than a footnote to a season where the far bigger stories have taken place during the week. But it did answer some of the more burning questions, such as whether Anderson will suddenly find magic and force head coach Romeo Crennel into rethinking his decision to keep the injured Brady Quinn entrenched as the starter heading into next season. Anderson didn't light it up and was injured in the process, having to be carried off the field during the Browns' final drive. The most pressing question is now whether Anderson can return next week or if the Browns really will have Richard Bartel as next week's back up quarterback.

If the Colts end up making the playoffs, which is looking more likely each week, they'll look back at this week's escape as the reason. Though moving the ball effecitvely, if slowly all day, all the Colts could muster was one Adam Vinateri field goal until the Mathis return gave them not only their first lead but ultimately the game.

In part, they can thank two fumbles and two Peyton Manning interceptions. But really those were only part of the story. Just one turnover led to Cleveland points, a 34-yard Phil Dawson field goal in the first quarter after running back Joseph Addai fumbled on the game's first play. Another turnover, a Manning fumble at the Browns 1-yard line on fourth down, may have stopped a Colts' touchdown but the Browns already looked to have Manning stopped short of the goal line when the ball popped free so that point is debatable.

It actuality it was a combination of a flat Colts offense that was missing some key players, including center Jeff Saturday, and a Browns' defense that was bending but not breaking that stopped the Colts. If only the Browns' offense could have done their part. But doing so would have taken an effort largely out of character for a team that can no longer be described as merely out of sync.

For a first half that had no punts and three Colts' turnovers, the Browns could only manage a 6-3 lead. The inability to get the ball in the end zone, particularly when in the red zone, is a familiar theme for the Browns, certainly, but somewhat unchartered territory for the Colts who never seem to have problems finding the end zone.

The Browns seemingly got the start and the break they wanted right away when Addai fumbled on the first play of scrimmage, giving the Browns the ball at the Colts' 47 yard line. The turnover ended predictably enough, with the Browns failing once again in close and settling for a field goal, the Dawson 34-yarder. How the Browns covered the 30 yards of the drive was, however, instructive.

If there was one thing you can bank on it's that the Browns would try to run the ball. The reasons were two-fold. The Colts have one of the worst run defenses in the league. Second, the Browns run their offense with a squeaky wheel philosophy and for the second time this season, the run-up to the game featured a healthy dose of complaints from running back Jamal Lewis about the game plan. Thus did the Browns run, somewhat effectively, on their first 9 plays from scrimmage. But on 3rd and 8 from the Colts' 20-yard line, the Browns were forced to pass. Anderson, scared silly by this point in his development, didn't even bother to look downfield, immediately finding Jason Wright out of the backfield for a short game, setting up the Dawson field goal.

The Colts, on the other hand, were hardly so constrained. Temporarily sidetracked on their opening possession, they came back and put together a long, efficient, diverse drive starting from their own 23-yard line. There were runs up the middle and to the edges. There were swing passes. There were passes down the field and a few underneath. But on a 3rd and 11 from the Cleveland 12-yard line, just when Manning seemingly found Reggie Wayne in the end zone, beleaguered cornerback Brandon McDonald broke up the completion, forcing the Colts to settle for a 30-yard Adam Vinatieri field-goal that tied the game a 3-3.

The Browns came right back with a long drive of their own, this time with a little less predictablility. Mixing in a variety of short passes and good runs, the Browns found themselves at the Colts' 8-yard line. In many ways, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was using a game plan similar to the one he used effectively in Brady Quinn's first start. But seeing how well Quinn's mistakes went over last week, Anderson appeared wary of making his own and ate the ball on 3rd and 8 from the Colts' 8-yard line, forcing another chip shot Dawson field goal that gave the Browns the lead again at 6-3. On the drive, Anderson was 6-7, the longest pass of which was a 16-yarder to Braylon Edwards. The other five passes covered five or less yards each.

The Colts looked like they were taking control by putting together their second long drive of the half. Starting at their 33-yard line, the Colts once again moved down the field methodically, if not quickly. But after getting to the Cleveland 1-yard line, the Browns stopped Addai for no gain on 3rd down. Eschewing another field goal, Manning tried to sneak it in on fourth down with just over a minute left but fumbled short of the goal line. Though seemingly recovered in the end zone by the Colts' Dallas Clark, by rule in the last two minutes of each half the ball cannot be advanced on a fumble unless recovered by the fumbling player, in this case, Manning. As a result, the Browns took over at their own 1-yard line still clinging to the 6-3 lead. Backed up, the Browns could not get a first down and were forced to punt, giving the Colts and Manning one last play in the half. Manning's pass was picked off by Sean Jones as the half ended. It was the Colts' third turnover of the game.

The Browns were the first to punt, going three and out in their first drive of the second half. Anderson seemingly had Edwards open for the first down but threw low and behind him, forcing the punt. After muffing the punt, the Colts got the ball at their own 15-yard line. Manning immediately threw down field for Wayne but McDonald had perfect coverage and came up with the interception at the Colts' 49-yard line giving the Browns their fourth takeaway of the game.

Anderson moved the Browns quickly into the Colts' red zone on a perfectly thrown 20-yard pass to Edwards and an 8-yard run by Lewis. But this drive died, too, only without the benefit of another Dawson field goal as he was wide left from 35-yards. On the drive's crucial play, a 3rd and 2 from the Colts' 18-yard line, Anderson was forced to call time out. Proving that having any time is too much time, Chudzinski changed plays and inserted Cribbs as quarterback. The Colts were hardly fooled and stopped him for no gain. Another opportunity squandered.

It was about this time that it looked as if all the lost chances would eventually catch up with the Browns. As it turned out, of course, that's exactly what did happen, but barely. With a game plan fixated strangely on the run, the Colts seemed flat on offense. After moving ploddingly into Browns' territory, Manning couldn't find anyone open on 3rd and 8 from the Browns' 28-yard line. Vinatieri then hooked a 46-yard field goal left leaving the Browns still clinging to the 6-3 lead.

After the Browns couldn't move the ball, punter Dave Zastudil dropped the ball at the Colts' 4-yard line where it was downed by Josh Cribbs. It was the Colts' worst field position of the game. The Colts were able to get one first down but no more and were forced into their first punt of the game with just under 13 minutes remaining in the game.

That set up what turned out to be the game's most crucial play, the Anderson fumble. After that, the Browns had no answer. Taking over at their own 10-yard line following an illegal block penalty on the kick return, the Browns offense was able to get one first down but nothing more, giving the Colts the opportunity to run out the clock with 5:32 remaining. Milking every second from the play clock, the Colts got one first down but couldn't convert on a 3rd and 1 with two minutes remaining. What was most interesting, though, was Crennel's clock management. With the clock ticking to below three minutes and the Colts satisfied to keep the ball on the ground, Crennel opted to preserve the team's remaining two time outs instead of keeping more time on the clock. It was a questionable decision, but then again what Crennel decision this season hasn't been?

Of course, it didn't work. With the ball at the Cleveland 30-yard line, the Browns moved with all their usual dispatch and were forced to burn their time outs quickly. After getting one first down, Anderson was then sacked by Mathis all the way back at the Browns' 33-yard line and hurt his ankle in the process and had to be helped from the field. That brought on long-forgotten Ken Dorsey with 1:07 remaining and no time outs and the Browns in need of their first touchdown in two games. It would have hardly been a surprise if Dorsey had his street clothes on underneath his rain parka. He didn't, but the outcome was as expected nonetheless. He threw two incompletions and was picked off with 45 seconds remaining, preserving the Colts' victory.

It was the kind of game that in many ways has characterized the Browns this season. At times throughout, the defense has held good teams in check. Today was no different. Manning was only 15-21 for 125 yards and the two interceptions. He wasn't at his best, certainly, but the Browns' defense had their say in that as well. The Colts had only 90 yards rushing as well and only 215 net yards on offense. But the Browns offense was as bad as it's been nearly every week against a Colts' defense that was injured coming in and had bodies seemingly leaving the field nearly every series. Anderson was 16-26 for only 110 yards and rarely through downfield. Lewis had 77 yards on 24 carries, which should make him happy for another week. Meanwhile, Wright and Jerome Harrison each got two carries. The Browns in turn had only 193 yards of offense.

The outcome, which puts the Browns at 4-8, isn't going to make owner Randy Lerner any more sick. It won't make him feel any better, either. But if it's symbolic victories that are now what the team is playing for, they can at least know they've come as close as anyone to beating both Mannings this season.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Lingering Items--Texans Edition

In a season where so much has gone wrong so spectacularly, Cleveland Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel’s Wednesday press conference was pretty mild stuff. Still it was interesting to see the beleaguered coach get a little testy with the media over the whole Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn equation. Maybe it was simply that Crennel had finally had enough with a media that has pretty much written his epitaph and has moved on to speculating about the Browns’ next head coach.

After it was clear that Quinn would be shelved for the rest of the season, Crennel announced that Quinn was still the starter and would be going into next season. To some it seemed like a strange announcement for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it was prefaced by Crennel saying that he had seen enough in Quinn’s few starts to warrant that pronouncement. What made that strange is that about 72 hours prior Crennel had seen enough of Quinn against the Houston Texans to yank him in favor of Anderson.

Never mind all that, what Crennel was really saying was that Quinn already was a starter and thus wouldn’t lose his position simply because of an injury. It’s the kinds of things coaches are supposed to say, frankly, and the kind of things players need to hear. It’s why the players have so much respect for Crennel in the first place. From that standpoint it shouldn’t have struck anyone as all that dramatic.
But the media pressed on, asking Crennel whether that could change if, God forbid!, Anderson “lit it up” the last five games of the season. Finally, Crennel signaled he had had enough. Showing about as much fire as he ever has during his tenure in Cleveland, Crennel said "I'll tell you, you guys are really something. You really are. DA, he was the starter. You guys hated him. Alright? Quinn goes in and plays. And now you're saying if DA lights it up, you want him to be the starter. I've decided Quinn is going to be the starter, and Quinn is going to be the starter, and I'm sorry if you don't like that."

Crennel’s mini-outburst, as out of character as it was, also was a bit of an over interpretation of the actual question. No one said they hated Anderson. What most fans hated was Crennel’s overly long leash for Anderson despite game after game of missed throws and indifferent decision-making. What most fans hated was the overly short leash Crennel had for Quinn when his sins were far less dramatic. But hating Anderson himself? Hardly.

Further, no one was suggesting that Anderson should be next year’s starter if he suddenly finds his mojo in these last few games. All that the fans, through the media, were asking is what does a good Anderson performance mean for next season? Will it in any way change Crennel’s thought process? Will it be an open competition during training camp? Are there more coin flips in the offing?
Of course, at least as good a question is why the media was bothering to ask that of Crennel anyway. Right now it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Crennel is the head coach next season. It was probably a question better asked of general manager Phil Savage, but there, too, it’s getting hard to imagine a scenario where he remains as well.

The bottom line is that the Browns have no choice but to start Anderson right now with Quinn finished for the season. How he performs is mostly irrelevant in determining next year’s starting quarterback. Its relevance lies in whether he’ll enhance his status and make him attractive trade bait. Anderson was a far hotter commodity at the end of last season, but Savage over played his hand and now he’s stuck hoping Anderson can get hot in order to extract anything even approaching what he might have been able to get last year. If one thing is clear, the Browns still have a pretty large talent deficit on this team and if Anderson can bring something valuable in return, the end of this season won’t be a total failure.

The one guy you may want to feel sorry for in all of this is receiver Steve Sanders. On Tuesday, the Browns’ off day, Sanders was seen distributing turkeys to the needy on behalf of the Browns. On Wednesday, as the domino effect of Quinn landing on injured reserve, Sanders found himself out of a job and in need of a turkey himself.

Not that it much matters, but once Quinn was lost, the Browns elevated a practice squad linebacker, Titus Brown, to the active roster, signed a quarterback, Richard Bartel, to the practice squad and then waived Sanders.

Unless Sanders somehow resurfaces somewhere, the first year player out of Cleveland’s East High and Bowling Green State University, will end his NFL career with exactly one reception for 18 yards and, as far as I know, no dropped passes.

In case you’re wondering, Brown was a starter at Mississippi State last season, was an undrafted free agent signee by the Miami Dolphins and was eventually signed to the Browns’ practice squad in September. Bartel was an undrafted free agent signee by Dallas in 2007, waived and then signed to their practice squad from which he was cut in early September, 2007. He was re-signed as a free agent in February, 2008 and waived again once training camp came. He spent a week on the Cowboy’s practice squad in September and then cut again. He has not been on any NFL roster until the Browns picked him up this week.

In case you’re wondering, Tarleton State is a small college in Texas and, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, is nicknamed the “Texans.” From the looks of it, the Cowboys signed Bartel for the same reason, for example, the Browns might have signed Sanders—it’s a nice public relations move to bring a local star to a big league camp. In two years as a starter for the Texans, Bartel threw 28 touchdowns and completed 59% of his passes. Not bad, but nothing great. One wonders exactly what Savage saw in Bartel, other than his availability, which warranted his signing, even to the practice squad.

The local television and radio personalities all were fuming over Browns’ owner Randy Lerner’s decision to hold a non-recorded press conference, and for good reason. Lerner, as the caretaker for what even he terms a community asset, has an obligation to the fans and speaking to a bunch of print reporters is hardly fulfills that duty.

Lerner is such a reluctant presence in the first place it’s almost as if he doesn’t exist to most fans. All they really know about him is that he’s willing to write checks, almost carelessly, and that he doesn’t like to be the center of attention.

No one said Lerner had to become the next Al Davis. But standing at a podium in front of a few television cameras is hardly too much to ask. The fans deserved to see whether there was any passion behind Lerner’s words. To this point, all they know is what’s been reported second hand. Lerner may be sickened by what he’s seen on the field, but the depth of that feeling is still a major question. In short, Lerner didn’t do himself much good by shying away from the cameras, again. If anything, he unintentionally created another story by that reluctance.

We made it this far in this week’s column without even mentioning Braylon Edwards, which qualifies as a Thanksgiving miracle of sorts given his rather spotty performance last Sunday. But so much else transpired that picking again at Edwards’ problems just seems like piling on at this point. So in honor of Edwards, this week’s question to ponder: Who will lose his job first, Edwards or Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Roads to Ruin

The only surprise about Sunday’s Cleveland Browns/Houston Texans game is that some Cleveland fans still have the capacity to be surprised. Anyone who didn’t see this meltdown coming is hopelessly naïve. Week after week of controversy overlaying an organization that’s already among the most dysfunctional in sports eventually will take its toll. It always does.

Think of the Browns organization as a building constructed with cheap materials that don’t meet code. That it would eventually collapse becomes somewhat inevitable. It just happened to be this past Sunday. It could have been last week or next week. The only hope is that no one is inside when it happens. Here, though, there were plenty inside, including all of the fans who have stood by this team with their time, their energy and their money. Even with the economy and stock market as it’s been lately, they would have been far better off investing in the S&P 500 than the Browns.

As it stands, the Browns’ collapse is really the convergence of three separate roads leading to Berea. The first road is that laid by Browns’ owner Randy Lerner who embodies the definition of reluctant owner. It’s no secret, in fact, that owning the Browns wasn’t something that Lerner necessarily aspired to do in the first place. He inherited the team when his father, who wanted nothing more than to own the team, died prematurely. Since then, Lerner has pretty much put the fate of the franchise in the hands of a variety of individuals, none of which has ever fully served him well. Being the reluctant owner, though, he hasn’t seemed particularly bothered by that.

But Lerner’s shortcomings as an owner have now accelerated to the point where his fingerprints were all over Sunday’s disaster, even from whatever perched he watched it take place. Though he spoke to the media on Tuesday, it seemed it was mostly to let the fans know that he is not selling the team. Great. Substantively he said nothing more noteworthy than there will not be any changes until after the season. Oh yea, he’s just sick about the whole thing, just like the fans. It was hardly enough to quell the unrest let alone alter his status as an absentee landlord.

By staying away, by failing to set a tone or direction, by being mostly invisible at a time when an owner is needed most, Lerner has morphed his style from one of deference to one of cowardice. It’s one thing to let your “football people” run the show. It’s another to hide from the white hot glare of scrutiny yourself when all hell is breaking loose and you’re the only one that can truly restore order. And in case he didn’t notice, all hell is breaking loose as the screams of “Cowher, Cowher” at the end of Sunday’s game will attest.

Lerner’s near total abdication helped pave the way for the second road that led to this disaster, the one occupied by general manager Phil Savage. Only in Savage’s world does a plausible rationalization exist by which his bizarre and unprofessional conduct this season hasn’t set the exact wrong tone and direction for a franchise in need of a guiding light.

Too many in this town seem to want to give Savage at least a partial pass because of his talent evaluation abilities. No one is questioning those skills. Savage has significantly upgraded the roster. But it’s that upgrade, actually, which highlights his overwhelming flaws.

It’s neither Savage’s title nor role to be the team’s head scout. But that’s truly how he functions and where he’s most comfortable. Give him his tweed blazer, a worn baseball cap, a stopwatch and a ticket to Mobile, Alabama to scout the Senior Bowl and Savage is in high heaven. Get him talking about 40-yard dash times and vertical leaps and Savage literally comes alive. But ask him to skillfully handle the more mundane matters, whether it’s corralling the public relations interns or calming the legitimate medical concerns of egomaniacal tight ends, and Savage enters a twilight zone of bizarre decisions and petty recriminations. And yet still too many, including his boss, want to act as if there is no relationship between those acts and the product on the field.

This isn’t even a question of letting Savage grow into a job he’s been in now for almost four years. By this point his skill set is established and his ability to improve limited. If you don’t think either of those is true consider how poorly Savage has handled the administrative functions of his job just this season. On a weekly basis one issue or another seems to blow up instead of getting handled behind the scenes. This is even before you get to his bizarre and profane email to a fan that got under his rather paper-thin skin. Put it this way, after considering his full body of work after these four years, if this were an election do you think Savage would ever get voted another four-year term, assuming the fans, the media and the players all had a say?

It was Savage, of course, who in turn paved the way for the third road into Berea, the one laid by Savage’s hand-picked head coach, Romeo Crennel. You just know it must be getting to the end for Crennel when the Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston finally acknowledges what has been clear to most others for months, if not years, but I digress.

It’s not as if it’s been a State secret that Crennel is in over his head and has been since day one. There’s a reason he was a 25-year career assistant that never secured the top prize until it dawned on the collective brains of former team president John Collins (another Lerner hiring disaster), Savage and Lerner that there apparently was something in Crennel that every other team didn’t see. All his hiring has done is prove that they never really knew the difference between reality and a mirage.

In looking back, one now wonders how much due diligence Savage, Collins and Lerner really put into the decision. Crennel was first interviewed for the job while the New England Patriots were in the midst of their Super Bowl run in 2005. From “On Jan. 7, Browns owner Randy Lerner, team president John Collins and general manager Phil Savage met with Crennel in Boston for his interview. It didn't take them long to realize he was their man. ‘There was sort of an aura about him,’ Collins said. ‘We were all shooting each other looks like, this is the guy.’’ From the sound of it, it doesn’t look like the three really looked at anyone else.
The question is, why? The Patriots certainly had a great defense and Crennel was known as a good defensive coordinator, but didn’t it occur to them to look beyond just those facts and figure out why Crennel never landed anywhere else, particularly when other teams were busy signing far younger and less experienced coaches?
That’s all water under the bridge at this point, but it does provide some insight into the decision-making that’s been going on in Berea. It’s been like that ever since. You can almost set your watch by it.
But far more damming when it comes to Crennel is that every one of his teams, and that includes last year’s 10-6 version, has been plagued by the same sorts of issues, all of which point right back to him. His teams are always among the most penalized and many of those are false starts, game delays and other similar infractions that speak to a lack of focus. There are persistent discipline problems that never seem to get fully addressed. Too often there is any lack of coherence to what the team is trying to accomplish from week to week. Are the Browns a running team or a passing team? Are they a pressure defense or a read or react? The only consistent philosophy is that they have none.
Where Crennel does get some credit, certainly more than either Savage or Lerner, is the fact that he’s a stand-up guy and always has been. It’s precisely where his two superiors suffer most. Crennel at least understands that suffering the slings and arrows comes with the territory. His shortcomings as a head coach are voluminous, but his integrity and character are unmatched in the organization. It would be great, indeed preferable, if Crennel had the coaching ability to match his admirable personal characteristics. But since he’s the team’s head coach and not its ethics officer, his abundance of character is not enough to save his job.

It’s been suggested that the only way to really fix this franchise is to blow up each of the three roads and start from scratch with new ones. That may be a little dramatic since two out of three may work just as well, especially since Lerner has no plans on selling. But ridding this team of just Savage and Crennel isn’t going to work unless Lerner dramatically alters his approach to this prized asset. To this point, his methodology has been as flawed as it’s been unsuccessful. In that context, simply turning the reigns over to Bill Cowher alone or anyone else for that matter isn’t going to get it done. Lerner will find a way to curb his instincts and muster the courage to actually take the reigns of a franchise that is wreaking far more havoc at this point than a mere runaway train.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Panic at the Disco

Apparently a practice week full of controversy isn't enough for the Cleveland Browns. Opting to heap an additional healthy dose of it into the game himself by inserting backup quarterback Derek Anderson for a struggling Brady Quinn, head coach Romeo Crennel officially pulled the pin on a season that had long since blown up in his face anyway and the Browns lost another home game, this time to the Houston Texans, 16-6, in front of what looked to be about a 100 or so diehard fans that bothered to remain to witness another bitter end.

The win was the Texans' first win on the road this season. Despite the relatively close score, it was a game the Texans dominated from the outset even if they couldn't quite put away. Maybe that's why they were 3-7 coming in.

After the game, Crennel said Quinn is still his starter but cited a combination of the broken right index finger on Quinn's right hand that he suffered against Buffalo on Monday night as well as some poor decisions as the underlying reasons for making the switch. And while Quinn was struggling, having just thrown his second interception of the game, this one inside the red zone, by ditching Quinn Crennel showed none of the patience he had afforded Anderson all season despite titanic struggles that made Quinn's day look mild by comparison. Crennel's decision smacked of desperation, something the players sensed and the fans well knew by greeting Anderson's entry with a chorus of boos.

Not surprisingly, Anderson couldn't provide much of a spark, something Crennel might have realized had he been paying attention all season or even just on Sunday. Texans' defensive end Mario Williams was having his way with Browns' left tackle Joe Thomas all game and harassed Anderson as much as he had Quinn early in the game. Meanwhile, receiver Braylon Edwards was busy dropping his usual complement of passes, even when Anderson was throwing well, including a potential touchdown that could have brought the Browns to within three with almost half of the fourth quarter left to play. It was Anderson's best drive, a term being used judiciously, and still the Browns had nothing to show for it as the usually reliable Phil Dawson proceeded to shank a 39-yard field goal, only his third miss of the season.

Thus the Browns found themselves with 7:38 remaining down by 10 and pushed ever more deeply into the funk that's enveloped them all season by a Texans team with at least as many issues. Short of an exorcism, it's not likely to end, either. Meanwhile the Texans were able to over come most of their demons Sunday while holding on to the ball for over 37 minutes and keeping the Browns out of the end zone. For the game, quarterback Sage Rosenfels was 24-32 for 275 yards and one touchdown. He also had two interceptions, neither of which much mattered.

Meanwhile, the Browns were busy playing as if they truly couldn't wait until the season ended. In addition to Quinn's two interceptions, Anderson added another and running back Jamal Lewis fumbled twice. Edwards, looking as if he would fit nicely with his Michigan Wolverines this season instead of on a legitimate NFL team, had as many drops as catches (5). Tight end Kellen Winslow had one insignificant catch for 11 yards late in the game and the now obligatory pass interference call. The defense, despite intercepting Rosenfels twice, was having trouble accounting for Texans' receiver Andre Johnson, who had 10 catches for 116 yards. Rookie running back Steve Slaton had 73 yards on the ground while Ahman Green added 39 before leaving the game with a sprained knee. If the Texans' had a killer instinct the game would have been a blowout.

But since they don't, the Browns, despite being dominated, had plenty of chances, it's just that they seemed indifferent to taking advantage of them. Statistically, the Browns aren't the worst red zone team in the league, just one of the worst and it was this season long problem, as much as anything else, that accounted for the loss. Officially, the Browns were in the red zone three times on Sunday. They came away with six points and an interception. A conversion on any of those three, let alone all three would easily have turned the game. Instead, the Browns have now already lost seven games, one more than all of last season.

That this game would belong to Houston and not Cleveland seemed clear from the outset. Coming into Sunday's game, the Texans had exactly one opening drive touchdown all season. Now they have two, thanks to a 17-yard pass from Rosenfels to receiver Kevin Walter. It was the culmination of a 79-yard drive that consumed 8:11 to open the first quarter and it set the tone for the rest of the game. In the drive, Rosenfels was 6-7 for 60 yards and the Texans converted three critical third down plays, including the touchdown to Walter that came on a 3rd and 6 from the Cleveland 17-yard line.

The Browns couldn't respond, which also was a theme that held for the rest of the day. A drive that started with some promise ended quickly when Lewis, taking a quick screen pass from Quinn, fumbled into the waiting hands of the Texans' linebacker DeMeco Ryans, giving the Texans the ball at the Browns 40-yard line. It was small consolation that it was Lewis' first fumble in over a year. Indeed the only consolation came when the Browns' defense was able to hold the Texans to a 31-yard Kris Brown field goal to give the Texans the 10-0 lead. But since the Browns would only score six points all day, it was a lead that ultimately was insurmountable.

The Browns' offense should have been fresh for having been on the field all of four plays in the game's first 16 minutes. The self-inflicted rest did them some good, just not enough to figure out their red zone problems. After putting together a decent drive that took them down to the Texans' 18-yard line, Quinn twice couldn't connect with Winslow, although Winslow arguably was held on one of the plays, and was forced to dump it off the fullback Lawrence Vickers for a short gain on the third play. Dawson then converted a 32-yard field goal attempt and the Browns closed the gap to 10-3.

The Texans looked poise to respond quickly after a 17-yard run by Slaton up the gut of the defense. But linebacker Kamerion Wimbley sacked Rosenfels for a 9-yard loss and after the Texans' couldn't convert on third down, Shaun Rogers blocked a Kris Brown 47-yard field goal attempt that gave the Browns good field position at their own 39- yard line.

Quinn then found Edwards at the Texans 18-yard line for a 43-yard gain which put the Browns right back in the red zone but with predictable results, thanks to a dropped pass by, guess who, Edwards on third down that forced another Dawson 32-yard field goal. It brought the Browns to within four at 10-6. They'd get no closer.

The Texans had a chance to open up an 11-point lead on the ensuing kickoff but Andre Davis' 93-yard touchdown return was nullified by a holding penalty that pushed the Texans back to their own 14-yard line with just over two minutes remaining in the half. What followed wasn't the most picturesque two-minute drive you're likely to see or the most effective, but the Texans did twice convert fourth down plays to keep it alive. When it ended, Brown had his second 31-yard field goal of the game and the Texans had a 7-point lead again, 13-6 at the half. The Texans actually had a chance to add three more points with one second remaining in the half after recovering a muffed kickoff. But Brown was wide right from 56 yards as time expired.

Entering into the half, the real question at the time was which team felt better about itself. The Texans owned the first half statistically but only held a 7-point lead. The Browns, despite having the ball less than half the time of the Texans and an offense that was merely offensive, were still well within striking distance. But the reality both teams knew is that the Browns were the team struggling and doing so in a way that suggested it would continue. They couldn't solve Rosenfels, who already was 16-20 for 190 yards, or the Texans' rushing attack, which already had 73 yards and while within striking distance it felt like a far bigger gap.

As it turned out, the Browns never did solve Rosenfels and company but that hardly turned out to be the reason they are now 1-5 at home. Instead they were so busy self-destructing under the master guidance of a head coach with absolutely no feel for the game that it wouldn't be necessary for anyone on the team to tell anyone watching what they already knew: this team quit.

Consider, for example, how the Browns came out after the half, a quick non-descript three-and-out. It put the ball right back in the hands of the Texans where it didn't remain long thanks to an interception by Brodney Pool. That put the ball right back in the hands of the Browns at their own 45-yard line, where it didn't remain long either after Quinn threw directly into the hands of Texans' defensive end Anthony Weaver two plays later to give the Texans the ball at the Cleveland 43-yard line. It didn't officially kill of the Browns' chances, it just felt like it despite the fact the Texans could only manage a Brown 36-yard field goal to push the lead back to 10 at 16-6.

For reasons that are as fleeting as mysterious, this sloppy little exchange seemed to give the Browns new energy, it just didn't last long. Running on nearly every play, they quickly had the ball at the Texans' 12-yard line. But facing a crucial 3rd and 2, Quinn suddenly had his second career interception, this time to cornerback Fred Bennett. The red zone woes continued, but this time there wasn't even the obligatory Dawson field goal to show for it. It was the last pass Quinn would throw in the game. He was 8-18 for only 94 yards and two interceptions.

After the Texans were forced to punt, Crennel panicked and put in Anderson. It hardly mattered. Anderson threw poorly and the Browns were quickly punting the ball back to the Texans. Anderson's next possession was better, slightly, but by then the rest of the team was already mentally at dinner. A couple of false starts and several drops by, guess who, Edwards, seemed to kill another drive. Even though the Texans seemed intent of keeping the Browns' drive alive with a couple of illegal contact calls, the Browns proved impervious to charity. Edwards, proving to be as mercurial as ever, made a good catch and an even better stretch on 4th and 10 to give the Browns a key first down at the Texans' 25-yard line. But just as quickly Edwards dropped a pass in the end zone and the Browns were forced to settle for the 39-yard field goal attempt that Dawson missed.

As bleak as things looked at that point, one final flicker of hope remained, but it too was fleeting. Sean Jones intercepted Rosenfels at the Texans' 47 and brought it back to the 27-yard line. Winslow was then caught interfering and that pushed the ball back another 10 yards. Lewis then fumbled again and the Texans had the ball at their own 45-yard line with just over 6 minutes remaining and a chance to finish off the game. The Texans, not surprisingly, couldn't quite finish it off and were forced to punt but by then there were just three minutes remaining. The Browns quickly complied by going three and out. Finally, the Texans closed out the game and put to an end one of the more miserable performances in Cleveland Browns' history.

In the end, the spark Crennel practically begged for never materialized. Anderson was no better than Quinn, hitting only 5-14 for 51 yards and one interception. After the game Crennel said that Quinn remains the starter, which should be the case, but one never knows because what one does know is that no Crennel decision is final until general manager Phil Savage weighs in.

The real question facing this team now is what direction it takes. If it wasn't at a crossroads before the game, it would be foolhardy for either owner Randy Lerner or general manager Phil Savage to deny it now. If Lerner wasn't otherwise spending the weekend in England and Savage wasn't otherwise fixated on his blackberry, they had to notice that the few fans that remained at game's end were yelling, in unison, "Cowher" as in Bill Cowher, the fans' next choice to restore a sense of pride to a franchise in desperate need of some. Despite being out of the playoffs for several weeks now, a team with pride and leadership would still play hard. It hasn't happened.

The tackling remains poor. The offensive line no longer seems capable of blocking. The team's number one receiver, when he isn't busy dropping passes is playing with a complete lack of effort, though the two are closely related. Even the team's most inspirational player, Lewis, lost focus and fumbled twice. It's almost as if the team has joined the fans in waiting to see when, not if, Crennel will be fired and what that kind of future may hold for them.

Whether that happens now or at the end of the season should hardly matter. The last remaining intrigue, really, comes in the second last game of the season, when the Browns play the Cincinnati Bengals. If the NFL still wants to punish Referee Ed Hocuhli, as they did by giving him the Houston/Cleveland game in the first place, then we'll see Hochuli again when the Bengals visit. That game should hold all the appeal of Saturday's matchup between a winless University of Washington and a one-win Washington State, a game that, not surprisingly, went into double overtime. For when really bad meets worse, 60 minutes hardly seems enough.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lingering Items--Bills Edition

It turns out that the seething hostility and bad judgment that Cleveland Browns’ general manager Phil Savage exhibited during the Kellen Winslow/staph infection incident was the mere tip of the iceberg. Now comes word that Savage indeed went all Dick Cheney, in writing, to a fan that had the temerity to question the product on the field. If Savage survives this incident it will only be because owner Randy Lerner is completely indifferent as to whom he has guiding the franchise on a daily basis.

For those just getting up to speed on this one, reported on Wednesday that a particularly angry Browns fan, hardly in limited supply these days, had the absolute audacity to write to Savage during Monday’s game suggesting, among other things, that Savage was the worst general manager in the league and that the coaching staff should be fired. It wasn’t a profane email by any stretch but neither was it particularly polite. A short time after the game ended, Savage responded with a terse “go root for Buffalo-f#@* you.” Classy.

It seemed unlikely that Savage would actually do something so unprofessional but on Thursday the Browns, through Crennel and not through Savage, confirmed that Savage did indeed respond just as quoted. Crennel, exhibiting the one skill he has in abundance, apologized saying that it was unfortunate but in tough times tough things happen.

If you’re thinking that Savage’s conduct was a tad more detrimental to the franchise then, say, Winslow’s popping off about the excessive number of staph infections on this team, you’re probably not alone. If you’re also thinking that Savage isn’t likely to fine himself for such conduct, you’re probably not alone in that either.

The interesting spin being put on all of this is that this conduct is so out of character for Savage. Really? Let’s recap. You can almost establish a drinking game over the various times Savage let his emotions boil over publicly. The Winslow incident had to set some type of record alone. But what of the other times he’s held testy truncated press conferences to essentially attack the fans that he claims are dragging the team down by all their negativity? Savage has a short fuse and limited patience for anyone that doesn’t see the world through his rose-colored glasses. In the end all it really shows is that Savage simply does not have the temperament to handle the responsibility he’s been given by an owner who apparently doesn’t know better.

That Savage’s conduct was unprofessional on literally any level imaginable is beyond question. That some would defend his actions anyway is likewise beyond question. Maybe there’s a populist appeal when the head of an organization tells a fan what he really thinks, but then you have to remember that Savage, by default, is the face of this struggling franchise. And because it’s struggling, the last thing that anyone associated with the team needs to do right now is feed into the problems that are undermining it in the first place.

If Savage didn’t think for one minute that his competency would be questioned at some point in his career then he’s either the most naïve executive in the history of professional sports or the most delusional. He put himself in the public eye by taking the millions that Lerner graciously shoves his way and now seems bothered by the fact that some in that public might not be completely enamored with him or the team he’s put together.

What this really tells us is that Savage is completely incapable of setting the proper tone for a franchise that seems hell-bent on alienating its fans as much as possible. There’s a leadership void ingrained in this franchise starting with the owner on down and through the locker room. All Savage has done now is prove that when it comes to that void he’s part of the problem not the solution.

The ramifications of his actions are pretty obvious. How, for example, could Savage rightly fine any player who decides to flip off an obnoxious fan after a game when Savage has already done the same thing in an even more direct and personal way? And by the way, doesn’t he owe Winslow an apology if not a refund for whatever fine money he wrongly extracted?

Whatever plusses Savage has at this point are getting harder to see because of all the distractions he has placed in front of them. If he can’t maintain calm during the storm he shouldn’t expect emotionally immature players to do likewise and he sure as heck shouldn’t expect a beleaguered coach with a mile-high list of problems of his own to have his back. It should be the other way around.

Savage has once again embarrassed a franchise that continues to plumb new depths of embarrassment each day. Savage, to no credit, did issue an apology. It’s to no credit because, as usual, it was far from complete. Instead of just admitting that he was wrong and that his actions were unbecoming of a general manager of a NFL franchise, he implies instead that he was justified by carefully pointing out that the fan has apologized to him as well. Frankly, the fan didn’t have anything to apologize for but Savage as is his wont just can’t ever leave well enough alone. He has to have the last snarky word.

Even with this latest incident Savage probably doesn’t need to worry about his job security. It’s likely to be just another sorry footnote for a franchise where character and integrity are just words in a dictionary, not values to uphold.


Phil Dawson’s 56-yard field goal on Monday night was not only a game winner but also the longest of his career. If it seems like Dawson is getting better each season, it may be that fans are just finally starting to appreciate how talented Dawson has always been.

Kicking field goals is a very tricky business, especially in a stadium along a lake shore with natural gas. Wind and weather can play havoc on a kicker’s accuracy. Yet Dawson has been amazingly consistent throughout his career.

For his career, which began in 1999, and through Monday’s game when he went 5-5, Dawson has converted 84% of his field goal attempts. He’s made 97% of his extra point attempts. Now in his 10th season, Dawson has had only two relatively mediocre seasons, 2002 and 2006. In 2002, he converted only 78% of his kicks while in 2006 he sunk to a career low 72% with nearly all of his misses coming in that critical 40-49 yard range.

At the time, many wondered whether Dawson’s days were numbered. They weren’t. In the first place, that season was a statistical anomaly in context of the years that preceded it. Since then he’s proven that there’s still plenty of life left in his leg. For example, in the last two seasons he’s attempted 11 field goals in the 40-49 yard range and missed only 1. But even more telling perhaps is the fact that he’s remained pretty accurate from the 50 yards + range, hitting 4 of 7 attempted. For his career, he’s 10-14 from that range.

To put this is some perspective Dawson is 6th in career field goal percentage among all active kickers and is 7th among all kickers, just ahead of Matt Stover. In fact, the only kicker with a similar number of years experience as Dawson and ahead of him on the career field goal percentage list is Mike Vanderjagt. For further comparison purposes, Lou Groza, as revered a figure in Browns history as anyone, is 143rd on the all-time list with an accuracy rate of just over 54%. Matt Bahr is 66th on that list at 72% while Don Cockroft is 102nd with a 66% conversion rate.

In a season, indeed in many seasons, where so much has gone wrong for the Browns, Dawson has been the team’s single most steady presence. In case you’re wondering, and unless Savage outsmarts himself on this one, it looks to stay that way for several more seasons. In 2005, Dawson signed a 5-year contract extension.


It’s a little distressing to hear that Brady Quinn suffered a broken index finger on his right hand, but not for the reasons you’d think. It’s distressing because it just complicates life for Crennel who already has enough complications to manage. For example, if Quinn can’t go and backup Derek Anderson comes in and plays well, Crennel is likely to go into information overload mode. Having been told personally made the decision to start Quinn, a good performance by Anderson in relief would undoubtedly get Crennel thinking once again, which has proven to be a very dangerous proposition this season.

While the list of “the last thing this team needs” is getting longer by the hour, another quarterback controversy would seem to be right in that mix. Yet because Crennel has never publicly backed Quinn, except reluctantly and rarely by name, you almost get the sense that Crennel would hardly need an excuse to go in a different direction. But if anything has been clear from Quinn’s two starts, it’s that he deserves to start. He exudes a calmness and presence that Anderson just doesn’t have. If nothing else, in just 8 quarters of play he’s stabilized a position that’s been shaky all season. No matter the extent of the injury, now and for the foreseeable future is not the time to revisit a decision that was correct though reluctantly made.


So many questions, so little time. In honor of the Houston Texans’ visit to Cleveland on Sunday, this week’s question to ponder is: Which team will get to the Super Bowl first, Houston or Cleveland?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tackling the Obvious

If you were confused by Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel’s press conference on Tuesday then you now have a better idea of what it’s like to play for him and sit through a meeting.

In one breath, several actually, Crennel had to admit was obvious to everyone: his defense isn’t any good. Sure, he admitted it in the context of a defense that looked like it had taken tackling lessons from the Vassar flag football team, but it was an admission all the same. In another breath, several actually, Crennel sang the praises of nose tackle Shaun Rogers, saying again that Rogers is having an amazing season. The problem is that the internal inconsistency of the two statements never seemed to have occurred to Crennel.

Maybe it’s possible for the nose tackle on one of the league’s worst defenses to actually be having a Pro Bowl caliber season, as some including Crennel have suggested, but for now the only thing that is certain is that Rogers’ ability stands out mostly because of the lack of same by those who surround him.

This isn’t to suggest that Rogers and even Corey Williams haven’t been welcome additions to the Browns, or even that Rogers isn’t having a good season. But the truth is that his impact has been minimal. The problem plaguing this team for years, a problem Crennel was brought in specifically to fix, has been its inability to stop the run. In 2006, the Browns were 29th in the league against the run, giving up 142 yards a game and 4.4 yards per attempt. In 2007, their statistics were slightly better but they hardly improved. The Browns’ defense was 27th against the run, yielding 129.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt.

Enter Williams and Rogers. Yet following the Buffalo Bills’ game on Monday night, the Browns’ rush defense once again finds itself in very familiar territory. They are 28th in the league, yielding an amazing 150 yards per game on the ground and 4.7 yards per carry. Based purely on these statistics, how exactly can anyone conclude that Rogers, or anyone on the defense for that matter, is having a monster year let alone having any impact on the defense?

The Bills game was particularly telling. Entering the game, the Bills were 28th in the league in rushing. It was hardly a case of an indestructible force confronting an immovable object. All the game proved is that when bad rushing faces bad defense, bet on the bad rushing. After the game the Bills improved their ranking by four places and now find themselves 24th.

Now, going from 28th to 24th may not be particularly meaningful when neither ranking is all that impressive in the first place, but the fact that one of the league’s worst rushing teams, featuring a running back who didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game in his career until Monday night, could literally run right through the Browns’ defense is all the proof anyone needs that Crennel’s supposed status as a defensive genius is as inflated as Charlie Weis’ status as the savior of Notre Dame football.

Crennel isn’t wrong when he observes that Rogers is clogging the middle and usually occupying more than one offensive lineman. But isn’t that just another way of Crennel saying that the other 10 bodies on defense can’t seem to handle the rest of the opposing team’s offense even though they now have them outnumbered? In that context is it any wonder that Rogers stands out and that Crennel has trouble connecting the dots?

Crennel can gush all he wants about how Rogers’ push allows the Browns to drop more players into coverage. But having more mediocre players available for coverage Monday night against a team with a quarterback literally wetting himself at the thought of having to throw downfield doesn’t seem all that necessary. Once the Bills’ Edwards was intercepted for the third time in Monday night’s first quarter, the Bills ceased to have any lateral throwing game. Nearly every pass from that point on until Edwards’ last pass was a simple screen or swing pass at or behind the line of scrimmage.

In response, the Browns’ defense was in fact crowding the line of scrimmage for three quaters, which was the right move, and still couldn’t solve a running back duo in Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson that isn’t exactly the reincarnation of Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka, let alone Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner.

This is where the tackling part comes in. Assuming for the sake of further argument that Rogers was indeed clogging the middle of the line like a beast how was it that Lynch and Jackson still found more than enough space to run up 186 yards on the ground? What about the additional 58 yards Lynch got catching 10 passes at the line of scrimmage? The answer lies in the defense’s inability to execute the most fundamental aspect of defense imaginable, tackling.

Crennel said that he and the coaching staff continue to emphasize tackling though he admitted that it’s a little late in the season to practice it. If there’s one thing I’m with on Crennel it’s this: there’s no reason a team of professional football players 10 games into the season need to practice tackling. They’ve been doing it since pee wee football. If the average defensive player is 25 years of age, that means that he’s been practicing tackling every summer and fall for the last 17 or so years. If he can’t tackle by now, how in the name of Phil Savage is he going to learn now and how did he get signed in the first place?

The reality is that tackling, like rebounding in basketball, is far more about effort than technique. If you want to measure a team’s intensity, particularly early in a game, watch how it tackles. A player that isn’t tackling well is just another way of saying that his effort isn’t there. That’s why it’s hard to discount what both Jamal Lewis and Josh Cribbs said last week about certain players quitting.

Usually when a player makes that accusation he isn’t necessarily talking about one individual or another. What he’s referring to is the lack of effort that his teammates are giving on each and every play. When Denver receivers were running essentially unmolested on the Browns’ defense two weeks ago it wasn’t hard to conclude that the effort wasn’t there. When Lynch and Jackson were running essentially unmolested on the Browns’ defense Monday night, it wasn’t hard to conclude that the effort wasn’t there either. The Browns can celebrate Monday night’s win all they want, but if they are being honest with themselves they know that but for the suddenly golden leg of Phil Dawson and the suddenly tin leg of Rian Lindell the outcome would have been different. Any win in the NFL may be a good win but a win doesn’t necessarily right every ship either.

At this point in the season, it’s hard to express much more outrage over a team that fundamentally lacks effort. It’s been obvious in the results each week. But to the extent that the shortcomings of Crennel need to be further chronicled, feel free to add the inability to instill professionalism to whatever list you’re maintaining.

It’s nice to see Crennel offering praise to a player like Rogers. And maybe Rogers really is having a legitimately great season, a year in which he deserves to go to the Pro Bowl. But unless and until the front office decides to find a coach who can actually get the rest of the players around Rogers to step up their effort and start tackling the player in the different color jersey with the ball tucked into his side, it’s going to be hard for anyone else to notice, or care.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Spitting in the Face of Destiny

Staring the kind of destiny squarely in the eye that could have had ramifications well beyond this season, it was the littlest players that came to the Browns’ rescue Monday night against the Buffalo Bills.

Faced with the possibility of blowing their third straight lead of at least 13 points, something no NFL team has ever done, running back Jerome Harrison came out hibernation just long enough and kicker Phil Dawson hit a 56-yard field goal, his fifth of the game, with 1:35 remaining to give the Browns a 29-27 win. The Browns still had to wait out a final missed field 47-yard field goal by Bills’ kicker Rian Lindell that sailed just wide right with 35 seconds left before finally putting an end to their current two-game losing streak and keeping themselves out of the wrong chapters of the NFL’s record book.

The win improved the Browns’ record to 4-6 while the Bills sunk to 5-5 after starting the season at 5-1.

The Dawson field goal was the difference, but if not for some late heroics by Harrison that helped make Dawson’s field goal the game winner the finger pointing inside the Browns locker room would have taken on a fever pitch. On the first play of the fourth quarter and the ball at the Browns’ 28-yard line, Harrison, on only his second touch of the game, took a handoff from Quinn, broke one tackle at the line of scrimmage and then scampered virtually untouched for a 72-yard touchdown run that momentarily turned a precarious three point lead into a 10-point margin at 23-13.

It was the Browns’ longest run from scrimmage in three years and was certainly an unexpected and welcome change of pace for a team that was working hard to blow a 13-0 lead they had acquired early in the second quarter. It would have been nice change, too, if it had lasted even a series. Leodis McKelvin, who had nearly broken two other returns earlier in the game, immediately took the Dawson kick off, cut left and then right across the field for a 98- yard touchdown return that again brought the Bills back to within three at 23-20. It was the third time the Bills had cut a Browns’ lead to 3 points. This time though it was with momentum that more than suggested that the Browns’ date with destiny was inevitable.

Except this time it was the opposing team, in the form of the Bills, that was doing all it could to make sure that didn’t happen. Lindell’s ensuing kickoff, one of the worst if not the worst in the league this year, went out of bounds at the Cleveland 43-yard line. Harrison ran for 9 yards line with 15 more tacked on when he was hit out of bounds. That put the ball at the Bills 33-yard line. Harrison then caught a crucial third down pass from quarterback Brady Quinn for 21 yards that took the ball to the Bills’ 9-yard line. The Browns couldn’t punch it when a Lewis run fell short and Quinn overthrew both tight end Kellen Winslsow and receiver Braylon Edwards in the end zone. It led to a Dawson 26-yard field goal and another precarious six point lead, 26-20.

With Bills’ quarterback Trent Edwards afraid to throw it down field, thanks to three first quarter interceptions, the Browns’ defense mounted one of their few challenges to the Bills’ running game forcing them to punt with 7:40 left in the fourth quarter. With a 6-point lead, it gave the Browns the opportunity to control their own fate late and put the game away which is what good teams do and 3-6 teams can’t.

It’s why what happened next was a surprise to virtually no one. Bills’ linebacker Kawika Mitchell, blitzing Quinn without any resistance from any member of the Browns’ offensive line, forced a rainbow throw that seemingly floated into the waiting arms of safety Ko Simpson. But head coach Romeo Crennel challenged the call, his first of the season, and was rewarded for his patience. The pass was ruled incomplete.

Given a second chance, Quinn hit Winslow for a first down. It was only the second third down conversion of the night for the Browns. The excitement was short-lived. Quinn nearly hit a streaking Edwards at the Bills’ 35-yard line but he was well covered. On the next play, a key third and 6, Quinn did hit Edwards for an apparent first down, apparent because, naturally, Edwards dropped the ball, his fourth drop of the game, forcing the Browns to punt. Rosco Parrish fielded the Zastudil punt at his own 15-yard line and returned it to the Cleveland 48 with 5:13 remaining. It was as good a chance as the Bills could want to run out the clock and grab the victory.

The Bills only got one of two of those correct, and until the Dawson field goal and Lindell miss, it seemed like the right one. Running back Marshawn Lynch, who along with fellow back Fred Jackson, spent most of the game shredding the Cleveland defense on the ground, ran for 29 yards and then followed it up with a 28-yard run that took the ball to the Cleveland 1-yard line. Edwards, in a bit of redemption considering the breadth and depth of his mistakes early on, snuck it in for the touchdown that helped give the Bills the 27-26 lead with 2:25 remaining. A freezing Ralph Wilson Stadium was suddenly the hottest place on earth.

Without wanting to resort to the trite cliché, it was nevertheless the quintessential gut-check moment for a team on the brink. Josh Cribbs was able to take the Lindell kick back to the Browns’ 32-yard line. Quinn hit Edwards at the Browns’ 45-yard line for a first down. Two plays later he hit Winslow for 16 more yards, taking it down to the Bills’ 39-yard line at the two-minute warning, inching ever closer to Dawson’s field goal range. Quinn was then nearly picked off on a poor throw to Donte Stallworth and then overthrew Winslow and Edwards on consecutive plays to set up the Dawson game winner. Though nearly blocked, the kick sailed through the middle and cleared the cross bar with room to spare that gave the Browns the final margin of victory. Still, there was 1:35 remaining.

Not wanting to kick to McKelvin, Dawson bounced the kickoff into the waiting arms of Jackson, who merely took it to the Bills’ 44-yard line. Edwards, still in the throes of a confidence crisis, now had no choice but to throw and he did, immediately, naturally putting the Bills in field goal range by hitting tight end Robert Royal with a 22-yard pass down to the Cleveland 34-yard line. Three straight running plays took it to the Cleveland 28-yard line with 43 seconds remaining as Cleveland was forced to use their final time out to preserve, if necessary, a last chance. It wouldn’t be necessary. Lindell, playing the part of Scott Norwood, but in a game with far less meaning, went wide right and with it went the Bills’ last chance.

The flurry of activity, intermittent scoring and actual excitement in the second half belied a sloppy, inartistic mess in the first half. The Bills’ Edwards was doing his part to try and give the Browns every opportunity for a blow-out, a gift the Browns continually declined.

On his first play from scrimmage, for example, Edwards saw his pass batted at the line of scrimmage by Shaun Rogers and intercepted by Kamerion Wimbley at the Cleveland 44-yard line. It was a theme that was preceded by another theme. The Browns weren’t able to convert. Quinn’s first pass, for example, was dropped, naturally, by Braylon Edwards. Good field position, three plays, Bills’ ball.

The Bills and Edwards tried to re-gift on their next drive by throwing this time to linebacker Andra Davis. Three Edwards passes, three complete, two to the Browns. This time the Browns capitalized, in the most expected way, a Dawson 40-yard field goal. As it’s happened too many times this season, it was a drive that initially promised so much more. It featured a new play, a quarterback bootleg that Quinn took for 11 yards. It also featured a perfect pass to Edwards at the 5-yard line, which he dropped, naturally, as a thousand angry fans blasted the message boards on in response.

On their next drive Bills’ offensive coordinator Turk Schonert showed the savvy of the back-up quarterback he was. He took the ball mostly out of Edwards’ hands and put it in Lynch’s hands instead, except for two very safe screen passes, also to Lynch. It was the best decision the Bills made all game as it ended up giving them their best chance to win.. In this instance, it was successful in the sense that there wasn’t a turnover. It proved far more successful later on as Lynch, first, and then Jackson, found hole after hole in a very porous Cleveland line.

But something should be said for Schonert. Apparently not convinced that the running game was the answer, he let Edwards thrown down field one more time. Schonert was rewarded for his confidence with Edwards’ third interception of the game, this time to the beleaguered Brandon McDonald who took the ball to the Bills’ 12-yard line. But perhaps Schonert knew what was to come. A failed reverse to Stallworth was good for a 4-yard loss. Another drop by Edwards on second down (three passes, three drops) and an incomplete pass to a well-covered Winslow led to a 33-yard field goal by Dawson. Three interceptions, six points and only one touchdown away from being behind in a game they should have been dominating.

But of course, the Bills were on the same offensive pace that they were in last year’s 8-0 loss in Cleveland. McKelvin took the Dawson kickoff back to the Bills’ 49-yard line. Edwards didn’t throw an interception this time, but neither was he able to move the team to a first down. This time it was the Bills that punted brilliantly, downing the ball at the Cleveland 3-yard line. But in a break that proved to be larger than any of the three interceptions, Quinn threw long to Winslow on third down. Clearly interfered with, the official instead signaled for illegal contact. Though it led to a Cleveland first down, it was only a 5-yard penalty. Then Quinn went to work.

He hit Winslow on a nice crossing pattern at the Browns’ 29-yard line. He then hit Edwards at the 49-yard line. This time he held on and a thousand exasperated fans blasted message boards to collectively say “about time.” But Edwards wasn’t done. He then caught another Quinn strike at the 32-yard line. A deep pass in the end zone to Stallworth was overthrown, but Edwards held on to a quick slant for another first down at the Bills’ 22-yard line. Jamal Lewis added 16 more yards on an end around that gave Cleveland a first and goal at the Bills’ 2-yard line. Sprinting around end, Cribbs took the handoff from Quinn, cut it back inside for the touchdown that helped extend the Cleveland lead to 13-0.

It was just enough of a lead to make the fans back on the message boards say “hey, I’ve seen this movie before.”

Whatever one thinks of Trent Edwards, the one thing he’s not is Jay Cutler and thus the movie didn’t quite have the same ending this time. The three first-quarter interceptions all but guaranteed that Edwards would be tentative the rest of the night. He was. But Lynch and Jackson were not. Jackson broke through for a 19-yard run and then followed it up with a 17-yard run. Meanwhile, with an opportunity to throw downfield, Edwards repeatedly opted instead for the outlet receiver, usually positioned safely near the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, one of those outlet receivers was Lynch. Grabbing an essentially lateral pass at the Cleveland 18-yard line, Lynch then finished the drive, braking tackle after tackle on his way to a touchdown that helped bring the Bills back to within six points at 13-7.

It seemed to wake up the rest of the team. The Bills’ defense forced a quick Cleveland three-and-out. Taking over with just under 5 minutes left in the half, the Bills used Jackson and Lynch to continually hammer the Browns’ defense with one punch after another. A direct snap to Jackson here, a great catch and run by Lynch there and the Bills again were quickly deep in Cleveland territory. Luckily Edwards was still tentative. With plenty of time to throw, Edwards instead opted for an ill-advised run that forced Buffalo to call their last time out with 15 seconds left in the half and the ball sitting at the Cleveland 7-yard line. Edwards threw perfectly to safety Brodney Pool who should have had the Browns’ fourth interception of the half. Scared by that possibility Edwards then danced around in the pocket for nearly the rest of the quarter, finally throwing out of bounds with three seconds left. Lindell hit the 24-yard field goal that brought the Bills to within 13-10 at the half. For those counting at home, that was 10 straight Bills’ points.

If the Browns had any notion of stopping the bleeding this time, they’d have to do something heroic even on a smaller scale, such as converting a third down, something they didn’t do in the first half. That would take a few more series. Meanwhile, the Bills seemed poise to at least tie it on their next drive but McDonald knocked the ball loose from Jackson as he tried to squirm for extra yardage at the Cleveland 28-yard line. The loose ball was picked up Ahtyba Rubin who took it to the Browns’ 37-yard line. It was the first time anybody covering a Browns’ game had to type Rubin’s name all season. It proved to be a good enough omen to at least allow Quinn a chance to lead the team into field goal range, which he did, and to actually help the Browns stop the bleeding.

Alternating between 10 and three point leads for most of the rest of the second half, the inevitable seemed poised to happen. Despite a plethora of turnovers and a quarterback who probably is still hearing footsteps, the Bills managed to remain within striking distance the rest of the game. It was the classic set up of one team unable to put another away only. Indeed, when Edwards’ temporarily gave the Bills their only lead of the game, that’s exactly what the lede to this game story looked like. But this time it was another team that couldn’t hold a late lead and now the Browns, while not exactly resurrecting their season, at least gained some measure of respectability since the game was on national television, as the thousands who watched can attest.

Other than Dawson’s five field goals and the Harrison 72-yard run, there was nothing particularly spectacular about either the Browns’ approach or their execution. It’s just that wherever they fell short, the Bills fell justthismuch shorter. Quinn, in his second start of his career, was able to get a better outcome this time despite playing a far more uneven game. Facing repeated blitzes, Quinn avoided turnovers, but barely. The Bills easily should have had two interceptions. But the constant pressure and an offensive line that seemed to have never learned how to pick up a blitz led Quinn to a less-than-impressive 14-36 for only 185 yards and no touchdowns. Still it was far better than his counterpart with the Bills. Edwards was 14-26 for only 149 yards, most of which came on 1-yard passes that Lynch repeatedly turned into decent gains, and 3 interceptions. He also had one touchdown, to Lynch, naturally.

In what is now a firmly established recurring theme, season after season, another set of running backs had their way with a Cleveland defensive front seven. This time it was Lynch and Jackson. Lynch had 119 yards on 23 carries, his first career 100-yard game, and also had 58 yards receiving. Jackson added another 60 yards on the ground. The Browns had 161 yards on the ground, including 80 by Harrison on just 3 carries, 65 by Lewis and 18 by Quinn on two bootlegs. The Browns’ Edwards, despite four more drops, had an otherwise solid night catching 8 passes for 104 yards.

With the victory, the team that seems to play better (if not well) when shrouded in controversy returns home to face the Houston Texans, who stand at 3-7. It’s a golden opportunity for the Browns to get ever closer to the mystical .500 mark. But unless a little controversy, contrived or otherwise arises, it’s an opportunity that the rhythm of this season suggests has every chance of being squandered.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lingering Items--Broncos Edition

Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage certainly has serious shortcomings as an administrator but it hasn’t hampered his evaluation skills. The current record notwithstanding, the Browns’ roster has far more talent on it than when he got here. It’s far from a roster fully realized but when you compare it to teams like Cincinnati and Kansas City for example you get the feeling that a really good head coach would rather have the Browns’ roster than either of the other two. (This is what I call column foreshadowing. Pay attention.)

But the Browns’ record being what it is, that doesn’t speak well for the current head coach, a point readily apparent every week. If Randy Lerner does decide to restructure in the midst of cleaning house, whoever comes in will at least find a cupboard with a few staples in it. That’s where Josh Cribbs comes in.

Cribbs more than any player on the current roster is doing his best to hold this team together. It’s not an easy task. Playing off of comments that Jamal Lewis first expressed after the Denver game, Cribbs told the media this week that indeed some players quit on the team during the most critical moments of that game and that they’ll have to be weeded out. He didn’t specify who. He didn’t have to. Suffice it to say that when a player of Cribbs’ stature goes public on one of the most serious allegations you can make against a teammate, it reverberated well past the scribbled notes on a reporter’s notebook.

When a coach is under as much fire as Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel, the final measuring stick often is whether or not the players have quit playing for him. Cribbs essentially answered that question for Savage and now it’s Savage’s turn to do something more than turn a deaf ear to it. You almost get the sense that if the Browns don’t play a complete game next Monday night against Buffalo, even in defeat, Crennel won’t survive the season. All of which makes me wonder whether Terry Robiskie, as close to a professional interim coach as exists in the NFL, might be available for the rest of the season.


Speaking of Cribbs, he’s the only Browns Pro Bowl player from last year who hasn’t noticeably regressed. Slowed by injuries earlier in the season, Cribbs is rounding into Pro Bowl shape, particularly in the last two games. His season averages on kick off and punt returns are only slightly behind last year’s averages and with seven games still remaining he easily can equal or exceed those numbers. Against Denver, for example, Cribbs averaged 30 yards per kick return, the same as last season. Against Baltimore, he was even better averaging 33 yards per return, including a 92-yarder for a touchdown.

What is often overlooked when it comes to Cribbs, though, is his presence on the Browns’ kick team. He’s often the first body down the field and is often the first to make a hit on an opposing returner. Thanks in large part to Cribbs, only three teams—Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Washington—are holding opposing teams to less kick return yards. Even so, the difference between the best team, Washington, and Cleveland is a mere ½ a yard per return.

Cribbs is on this team and under a long-term contract thanks to Savage. Cribbs was a talented but somewhat mercurial player for the Kent State Golden Flashes. Despite compiling a whole host of Kent State offensive records and securing his place in the NCAA record book, Cribbs went undrafted. Part of that was due to the fact that he played for Kent. But also figuring prominently was the red flag Cribbs sent up when he was arrested in January, 2004 for allegedly trafficking in marijuana. Ultimately he pleaded guilty to possession.

He learned his lesson. Since coming to the Browns, Cribbs has been a model citizen and one of the few players you can actually point to who does more walking than talking. Cribbs did raise a few eyebrows at the beginning of training camp this season when he suggested he’d be looking for a new contract, despite signing an almost unprecedented (for a special teams player anyway) six-year contract extension last November that included a $2 million signing bonus.

But to Cribbs’ credit, he didn’t make his desire for a new contract much of an issue. He said back in August that he wouldn’t be a distraction to the team and has been true to his word. Instead he worked hard to rehab his injury and has played hard since returning. He’s rounding into shape at the right time. The problem, of course, is that the rest of the team isn’t cooperating which is at the base of Cribbs’ frustration. He knows that his contributions will go mostly unnoticed as the team collapses under the weight of the expectations placed on it.

Despite his contributions and his emerging presence as a leader, it’s doubtful that Savage is in any hurry to renegotiate a contract that is barely a year old and has five more to run. But if Cribbs continues to perform at this same level next season, Savage will find himself in the uncomfortable position of having to retrench on this issue. On a team with so few leaders in the first place, Savage simply can’t afford to alienate one of them.

Savage’s reticence to renegotiate contracts appears to be more philosophically-based than economically induced. Right now, Cribbs’ salary takes up very little room under the salary cap. In fact, the Browns salary cap payroll, which differs from actual payroll, shows them to be around $16 million under the approximately $110 million salary cap. That’s not unusual; all but two teams are under the salary cap, most by a similar amount. Within the division, both the Browns and the Steelers have a similar cap payroll. The Bengals have even more room, coming in at a cap payroll of around $92 million. The Ravens have the highest cap payroll, around $102 million, still well below the league salary cap.

It’s worth noting that in a given year a team’s salary cap payroll may be higher or lower than its actual payroll for a number of reasons. For example, the Browns paid Cribbs a $2 million signing bonus last season. However, only 1/6 of that amount gets allocated to salary cap each year, assuming Cribbs is with the Browns all six years. If he gets cut, that number would be accelerated meaning whatever amounts were to be credited against future salary caps gets credited instead against the cap in the year he was cut. Thus, while the Browns aren’t actually paying Cribbs 1/6 of his signing bonus this year, the cap payroll is artificially inflated as if they did. Similarly, former players often account for salary cap space well after they’ve been cut.

On a quick review of the Browns’ salary cap, they appear to be in pretty good shape going into 2009, the last year a cap will be in place unless there is a new agreement between the players and the owners. Well, they are in pretty good shape if you look at it from the amount of room they have under the cap and the amount of dead money in the cap, dead being defined as money for players not on the team any longer. Only about 2.5-3% of the Browns’ cap is the result of players no longer on the team. Thus on both those measure, the Browns are fine.

The far more relevant question though is whether the Browns are getting back in value anything close to what they are devoting their financial resources to. Just guessing here, but most fans would say they aren’t, in resounding fashion.

They are probably right. For example, the players taking up the most cap space are those you’d expect: Eric Steinbach, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, Derek Anderson, Joe Thomas and Jamal Lewis. Anderson is chewing up over $3 million of cap space while Edwards has almost $8 million allocated to him. Whatever you think of either, it’s at least fair to say that this season the Browns aren’t getting their money’s worth. But when it comes to the others, it’s a harder call irrespective of the actual cap figure (which is substantial for players like Steinbach and Thomas). The play of Anderson and Edwards, for example, has had such a negative impact on the team that discerning overall value is difficult.

Defense, though, is where it’s an easier call. After the last two weeks, the Browns defense has sunk to 27th in the league based on total yards. A little less than half of the Browns’ cap is devoted to the defense. Assuming Pittsburgh, for example, is in a similar position, it appears as though the league’s top-ranked defense is getting far more for their $48 million than the Browns.

Depending on who you consider to be the starters, somewhere between $6-9 million of cap space is devoted to the starting linebackers. Ouch. Another $11 million is dedicated to the defensive line. Double ouch. By contrast, the defensive backfield, featuring mostly young players or veterans just hanging on, accounts for around $6 million in cap space, not including Devan Holly who is on the injured reserve. That doesn’t seem like all that much but then again the Browns aren’t getting all that much in return these days.

For the Browns to really improve, they not only need better players, but Savage needs to acquire them in a way that maintains salary cap integrity. It’s not a function of just spending big dollars on pricey free agents. It’s more the art of filling out the majority of the team with players whose value far exceeds their cap space. It’s the number one reason the New England Patriots remain a top team, even without Tom Brady. Right now, the Browns’ roster clearly is underperforming. That doesn’t mean it’s misbalanced in the long run, though it is relative to the Patriots, but it further emphasizes why a head coach who can draw out the talent is so critical to the overall health of a franchise.


One of the reasons that fan disappointment in the Browns is so intense is related to the expectations that they had at the outset. The easy conclusion is that those expectations in retrospect were ridiculous. I would agree if the expectation was that this team was a legitimate threat to get to the Super Bowl. But if the expectations were of a team that could or should win its division and go a little deep in the playoffs, then they weren’t off the mark.

As it’s playing out, the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t nearly as good as they looked earlier in the season. Injuries are starting to take their toll. The loss at home to Indianapolis on Sunday provided a nice overview of the state of that team. The Cincinnati Bengals are as awful as predicted and likely wouldn’t be much better even if Carson Palmer was healthy. The Baltimore Ravens, on the other hand, have surprised. Behind a rookie quarterback less heralded than the Browns’ Brady Quinn, the Ravens are scoring points at a decent clip. Meanwhile, a defense that is banged up is still performing. Ray Lewis, easily one of the most annoying players in all of sports, still has the ability toactually inspire his teammates even as his own skills deteriorate.

On paper, though, there is no reason the Browns shouldn’t be in this mix. The division is not that strong, even given Baltimore’s surprising play. The Browns’ roster, again on paper, matches up well against its two main divisional rivals. That the Browns have been relegated once again to an afterthought is frustrating, certainly, but even more so is the way they’ve gone about taking themselves out of it. Browns’ fans aren’t a patient bunch by nature but they have and likely would have again tolerated a hard-working, well run team falling just short but heading in the right direction. What they’ve been given instead is a team off track filled with a bunch of egomaniacal divas with a sense of entitlement that overreaches their accomplishments overseen by a kindly grandfather who can’t bring himself to reign in someone else’s kids. It’s a team without direction or personality. There simply is no sense of where this ride will stop next.

All of which leads to this week’s question to ponder: what would the Browns’ record be right now if Bill Cowher was the team’s head coach?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Beating of the Drums

The Cleveland Browns gave their fans a lot to dislike in the last week and everyone I’m sure has their own list. For me, the fact that they gave up nearly 1,000 yards of offense to two teams that aren’t exactly reincarnations of the 2006 Indianapolis Colts tells you pretty much everything there is to know about the state of the franchise. It was the most yards any Cleveland Browns team has ever given up in two straight games. That’s ever as in ever.

When you’re team has sunk to that kind of level, it’s hardly a surprise that the drumbeat is starting to grow louder for the Browns to part ways with head coach Romeo Crennel. Bud Shaw of the Plain Dealer is on record. So, too, now is Patrick McManamom of the Akron Beacon Journal. The News-Herald’s Jeff Schudel is a reluctant hold out although even he admits it’s getting more difficult to defend the coach who puts that product on the field each week.

Of course it’s nice to finally have some company. Nearly two years ago, in my first column for, I wrote the following:

If there is one thing we can tell by now, it's when a coach is on the verge of getting canned. The results are clear on the field and in the locker room. Players fighting, airing grievances in public, playing without passion or inspiration. Those are the telltale signs of a coach who's lost control. The signs were there long before the University of Miami finally pulled the plug on head coach Larry Coker just as they were there long before Ohio State pulled the plug on John Cooper. And only a fool would try to deny the signs on this Cleveland Browns team.

I may have underestimated general manager Phil Savage’s commitment to Crennel, but as I sit here two years later, tell me exactly what’s changed? In the last few weeks there has been in-fighting, players questioning the front office and its coaches, the front office questioning its players and a respected veteran running back who has publicly questioned the heart of this team, nine weeks into the season.

Crennel puts on the brave face but his abject honesty will ultimately be his downfall. Too often, his assessment of the team’s performance underscores an alarming lack of insight into the pulse of the team. After the Denver loss, for example, Crennel said: “we have to figure out what we have to do defensively to play better in the second half.” It was just the latest variation of a similar statement Crennel makes pretty much each week.

Perhaps even more damning is that nearly everyone else watching can tell him why this team can’t perform. There’s an offensive line that has stopped opening holes. There is the head coach’s steadfast decision to stick with quarterback Derek Anderson all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. There’s the uncontrolled massive ego of Braylon Edwards who would rather channel Ricardo Montalban than Jerry Rice. There’s Kellen Winslow and all the demons in his head that he can’t keep under control. There’s a defense playing a scheme without the talent to execute it. There’s a defensive backfield being patrolled by rookies that are still a few seasons away from respectability and veterans who likely wouldn’t start for any other team. There’s the incredibly bad clock management, week after week. There’s the questionable decisions, from when to kick a field goal to when to accept or decline a penalty, that pop up nearly every week. There’s the team that takes the field each week ill-prepared for the challenges it will face. Should I go on?

But of course these aren’t things that have just emerged in the last few weeks. They’ve been there all along. Some you can lay blame on an insecure general manager who seems to take advice only from those who will agree with him. But too much can be laid at the feet of a head coach who spent a long career as an assistant mainly because virtually every other front office in the league, except the one in Cleveland, knew he wasn’t head coach material.

The case for Crennel has never been an easy one to make. At most, his supporters will point to his honesty and integrity. Good traits, certainly, and something that are 1 and 1A on the list of key traits for any leader. But it takes far more. What else is there? The only other trait that even Phil Savage has been able to identify is that Crennel brings stability. To this day, I still don’t know what that means. Any head coach brings stability until he’s been let go, so it’s not so much a trait as it is a state of being.

Taking Savage at his word that stability is a trait, like the other positives with regard to Crennel they haven’t translated to sustainable on-field success. Crennel has never been able to transfer the respect he commands into performance on the field. Because of his background he’s much too deferential to assistants who don’t deserve the leeway they’ve been given. He has no idea how to pull out the best from a player, how to take someone with modest talent and turn him into a force and how to take someone with real talent and get him to consistently perform at the highest level.

Perhaps the reason Savage can’t see Crennel’s shortcomings stems from an inability by Savage to understand what traits really make a great head coach. Savage’s own strengths run toward the player evaluation side. As the last few weeks have demonstrated, he’s an extremely poor manager himself who likes to think otherwise. In that context, it doesn’t surprise that he has little idea what makes a great head coach.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. All Savage really needs to do is compile a list of the traits of some of the great NFL coaches, past and present. He’ll see some common threads. Passion. Preparation. Attention to detail. The ability to make tough decisions as soon as they need to be made. The ability to see two moves ahead instead of just reacting to what’s taking place at the moment. An ability to find the pressure points of each individual player and to push them when they need to be pushed and to also take your finger off the button at the right time. Should I go on?

If you’re thinking, like me, that most of that defines Bill Cowher, the former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, it’s not by accident. Cowher would be the overwhelming choice of a fan base transitioning from disgruntled to indifferent so it’s worth asking whether Cowher should have a future in Cleveland.

That’s a no-brainer, except where Savage is concerned. Simply put, Cowher has been far too successful and is far too strong of a personality for a guy like Savage to handle. Savage likes his coaches compliant. Take the players I give you and figure out how to win with them. The next time I ask your opinion about a player will be the first time.

Cowher would have none of that. His long and successful run and the easy life of retirement put him in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose his spots. Ask yourself this: if you were Cowher would you work for Savage? Frankly, the only way Cowher lands is Cleveland is with many, many millions of owner Randy Lerner’s money and the freedom to assert his authority beyond just what happens each Sunday. That isn’t going to happen with Savage here. Savage’s contract wouldn’t allow it and Savage’s ego couldn’t handle it.

Assuming that Lerner takes his usual laissez-faire approach to the Browns this off-season, Savage probably sticks around. If that’s the case, Crennel may go but in his place will be essentially another Crennel, either a lifelong assistant just happy to have the chance or a college head coach with mostly modest success. If you’re thinking that Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz fits that description, it’s not by accident.

Looking back at Thursday’s game, it wasn’t just that the Browns’ defense was overmatched. They lacked any semblance of professionalism. It reflected poorly on Crennel in the first instance and Savage ultimately. It’s probably why Savage, assuming he stays, will be forced to part with Crennel. A coach like Ferentz would bring a different vibe, but that’s about it. Given as much latitude as any head coach in the college ranks, Ferentz hasn’t ever been able to find anything more than intermittent success. In other words, he’ll be the perfect hire for Savage.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Flat lining

For the second time in the last four days, the Cleveland Browns tried to resuscitate a season that has been in need of life support since September. And for the second time in the last four days, the Browns did all they could to kill the patient instead, again blowing a second half lead on their way to losing to a very iffy Denver Broncos team, 34-30 Thursday night.

The final blow of the game and likely the season came courtesy of Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, who took a machete to the Cleveland secondary in the second half on his way to passing for a career high 447 yards. The coroner’s report will show that it was Cutler’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall with 1:14 that officially flat lined the Browns. But it was al that had led up to that moment that really did the damage.

The Browns’ did have one final shot but it ended moments later when Brady Quinn’s pass on 4th and 1 sailed right through the hands of Kellen Winslow. It was a disastrous end to a disastrous half for Winslow that was a contributing factor, at least, toward sending the Browns to their second straight loss and third in four games. A pass interference call on Winslow on a ball thrown to Braylon Edwards helped kill one drive and a fumble by Winslow after getting a first down on the next drive lead to a Broncos touchdown that ultimately helped set the stage for the Broncos’ comeback.

But Winslow was hardly the primary reason the Browns lost the game. That dubious honor goes to a defense that barely pressured Cutler the entire night, allowing him all the time he needed to spread the ball around to six different receivers. The lack of pressure essentially exposed a weak secondary, and particularly an overmatched Brandon McDonald, who was burned for two touchdowns in the second half, a 93-yard Cutler to wide receiver Eddie Royal and the final touchdown to Marshall.

Perhaps most frustrating about the play of the defense was the fact that it knew what was coming on virtually every play and still couldn’t do anything about it. The Broncos arrived in Cleveland with virtually no running game because of injuries and halfway through the second quarter literally had no healthy tailback on its active roster when fourth string tailback Ryan Torain went down.

Apparently that was a satisfactory game plan as it allowed Cutler to embarrass a defense that had been carrying the team until recently as he compelted 24 of 42 passes for three touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the defensive collapse obscured a good debut by Brady Quinn as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback. Looking confident and capable throughout, Quinn engineered a critical fourth quarter drive that temporarily gave Cleveland a 30-27 lead with just under five minutes to play. But the defense was essentially a chew toy for Cutler and as a result, the Browns’ sixth loss of the season was firmly secured.

On the night, Quinn was 23-35 for 239 yards and two touchdowns, both to Winslow. Indeed, until it turned on him, Winslow too was having a strong night. He was Quinn’s favorite target, catching 11 passes for 111 yards. But it was the interference call, the fumble and the final drop that fans will remember most, assuming they can get the image of the defense out of their heads.

For the first half anyway the Browns played like a team that seemed to thrive on turmoil. Just as they did two weeks ago against Jacksonville, the Browns used controversy, this time the controversy that grew out of the benching of quarterback Derek Anderson, to their advantage and had a 10-point half time lead that they stretched to 13 points early in the third quarter.

But the Broncos, despite a shortage of healthy bodies, were always able to stay within striking distance because of Cutler. That much was clear from outset. On the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage, he hit tight end Tony Sheffler for 39 yards. Though that drive went for naught when kicker Matt Prater missed a 38-yard field goal a few plays later, it was certainly a precursor of what was to come.

On the Broncos’ next series, they grabbled the early lead as Cutler picked apart the secondary, moving 86 yards in 9 plays, including an 18-yard pass to Royal that took the ball to the Browns’ 1-yard line. From there, Torain hurdled over the pile at the goal line for the touchdown.

The Browns quickly answered and answered and answered again and seemed well in control doing it. Josh Cribbs, fortifying his bid for a second straight Pro Bowl, took the Prater kick back to the Browns 41-yard line. Quinn then hit Donte Stallworth on a short out pattern that Stallworth turned into an 18-yard game. It was the kind of short touch pass that has bedeviled Anderson, all season. From there, Jamal Lewis took over, running first for 8 yards and then breaking loose on a 29-yard run, the Browns’ longest run from scrimmage this season. On the night, Lewis had 60 yards on 19 carries. Then, on third and goal from the five, Quinn hit tight end Kellen Winslow with a bullet in the back of the end zone. The Phil Dawson extra point then knotted the game at 7-7.

Following a Denver punt, the Browns added to their lead thanks to a 24-yard Dawson field goal. It was a drive that featured Jerome Harrison ripping off one long run after another against the Broncos’ defense. In all, Harrison had 44 yards on 4 carries on that drive. Oddly, Harrison had only one other carry the rest of the night.

Meanwhile, Cutler kept on slinging. After a holding penalty pushed the ball back to the Broncos’ 15-yard line, Cutler tried to hit Marshall breaking long but instead hit Brodney Pool, who took the interception back to the Broncos’ 20-yard line. Three plays later, Quinn hit Winslow at the Broncos’ 5-yard line. Winslow was able to shake the tackle of Marquand Manuel on his way to the 16-yard touchdown, his second of the game, to help give the Browns a 17-7 lead with the second quarter barely four minutes old.

After a Prater 38-yard field goal brought the Broncos back to within 7, Cleveland answered with a Dawson 52-yard field goal to once again push the lead to 10, giving the Browns a 20-10 half time lead.

The Browns kept the pressure on the Broncos in the second half with a 10 play 54-yard drive to open the second half. But Quinn and Winslow couldn’t quite connect twice in the red zone and the Browns settled for a 33-yard Dawson field goal. Cutler and the Broncos answered on their opening drive with a field goal of their own, a 30-yarder by Prater. It seemed harmless at the time but as it turned out, the Broncos were just getting warmed up.

The Browns actually had a chance to perhaps put the game out of reach for good on their next drive. In the process of putting together the kind of drive that tends to break the backs of a defense, Quinn first and then Lewis converted crucial third and fourth down plays. But on 3rd and 6 from the Denver 41, Quinn hit Edwards for 15 yards, but the play was nullified because of the Winslow interference penalty. The Browns couldn’t convert on 3rd and 16 and were forced to punt.

What doesn’t kill you apparently makes you stronger as Cutler hit Royal sprinting down the left side line for what turned out to be a 93-yard touchdown play. There was either a blown assignment or Royal just badly beat McDonald. Either way, a game that the Browns were dominating had suddenly turned shaky with the Browns clinging to a 23-20.

And it seemed like it would only be shaky for as long as it took Prater to kick the ball to Cribbs. Fielding the ball at the 5-yard line, Cribbs nearly broke it for a touchdown before being dragged down at the 50-yard line. But after catching a key 3rd down pass from Quinn for a first down, Winslow fumbled the ball and Denver recovered, giving the Broncos the ball at their own 38-yard line with a chance to take the lead, which predictably is what happened.

The colossal mess that the game eventually devolved into for the Browns was typified on that Broncos drive. Throwing on virtually every down and with almost no pass rush to challenge him, Cutler had no problem finding a variety of receivers against a defensive secondary that was neither covering nor tackling well. The epitome came on Cutler’s 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Graham who essentially walked the final 10 yards into the end zone as both Mike Adams and D’Qwell Jackson whiffed on tackles. It didn’t help either that McDonald, fresh off giving up the long touchdown to Royal, had a chance to make amends in that drive but dropped what should have been his second interception of the game that allowed the Broncos drive to continue.

After the Quinn-engineered touchdown gave the Browns back the lead, the defense had a chance to shut the door again but couldn’t. On the Broncos’ final drive, they faced a 4th and 1 from their own 45-yard line. After being forced to call a timeout in order to get the right personnel in, Cutler gave the ball to fullback Peyton Hills. Sean Jones had Hills stopped behind the line of scrimmage but couldn’t finish the tackle as Hills dove forward for the first down.

From there, Cutler continued to slice the defense as finely as a ginsu knife slices a tomato, helping his own cause with an18-yard run that took the ball to the Browns’ 11-yard line. From there he put the knife to, who else, McDonald who couldn’t stay with Marshall. The easy touchdown, along with the Prater extra point, gave the Broncos the 34-30 lead and the game.

With two games completed in just four days, the Browns now have 11 days off. They’ll need it, but not to find a quarterback but to find a defensive lineman who can pressure a quarterback or a cornerback that can cover. Is that DeAngelo Hall’s phone I just heard ringing?

More than likely, the Browns will just squander the time off instead in favor of some sort of self-inflicted controversy. But as we know now, not even turmoil can rally this team anymore. With the loss and the way it happened, the Browns have officially run out of excuses. The monitor can be unplugged.