The selection of Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas and defensive lineman Shaun Rogers to the Pro Bowl is a validation of sorts for general manager Phil Savage. It was Savage that made the hard decision to beef up the line by selecting Thomas third overall in the 2007 draft. Savage then made the hard decision to strengthen the defensive line at the expense of depth in the defensive backfield by trading for Rogers in the last off season.
But no decision is without consequence.
Thomas was always a safe, if aggressive pick at number three. Given the make up of most offenses, left tackle is often the key position on the line. The main job is to protect the quarterback’s blind side. That’s why left tackles are also the most highly paid positions on the line. But in choosing Thomas, Savage had to resist the siren call of the so-called “skill” players, including one Brady Quinn who landed in Cleveland anyway.
The far bigger gamble was Rogers. Despite two previous Pro Bowl seasons with the Detroit Lions, Rogers had basically worn out his welcome for a variety of reasons. The Lions have been underachieving for years and Rogers, with his tendency to gain weight and lose interest as the season wore on, often was a frequent target of fan wrath, as if he was what ailed that franchise.
But whether the rap on Rogers coming into the season was fair or not, it hasn’t been an issue yet for the Browns. Rogers has played hurt and at a high level all season against an AFC that hadn’t seen much of him until this season. Obviously they were impressed.
The fact that both players have worked out to this point at least as well as expected is a credit to Savage’s abilities as a talent evaluator. But it isn’t necessarily complete validation either. There is another side to the story.
If you are one of the fans wondering whether Thomas made the Pro Bowl this season on reputation, you aren’t alone. I’m hard pressed, for example, to find a specific positive play from Thomas that made me shake my head and say “that’s why he’s an All Pro.” I can point you to any number of plays where he was bull rushed aside by lighter and more mobile defensive tackles on their way to the quarterback. Think Indianapolis game. Think Tennessee game. In fact, the one play that I’ll remember most was watching Thomas get shoved unceremoniously to the ground over while pursuing Asante Samuel after his interception in last week’s game..
In some respects, the case for Rogers is far easier. There were plenty of plays where it was easy to tell how big of an upgrade he’s been to the 2007 defensive line. That may have been a fairly easy hurdle to jump, but he cleared that bar by plenty. Rogers does disrupt an opposing team’s offensive line. He’s often double teamed. He doesn’t give up on any play as evidence by the number of blocked passes he’s had.
The real problem with both selections is that they came in a year when the units they both anchored are far worse than the year before by almost any measure. It’s a nice accolade to be recognized by your peers and perhaps it puts a little bonus money in the pockets, but the truth is that those performances had virtually no impact on the overall success of the team. Isn’t that really the standard the matters most?
That doesn’t mean that Rogers and Thomas played poorly or even that their selections were a mistake. It’s just that from the fans’ perspective the fact that the two were voted to the Pro Bowl is pretty meaningless. The Browns have still only won 4 games. How much worse could it have gotten?
Perhaps the real reason neither had much of an impact (and by saying “perhaps” I’m just being cute) is that the talent around them not only didn’t measure up but actually negated whatever good they accomplished.. Where that shows up in particular is with respect to Rogers. Rogers can only do so much. The other defensive linemen around him are just average but even if they were better the far bigger problem is the linebackers. The Browns under head coach Romeo Crennel continue to insist on playing a defensive scheme that relies on having good linebackers in place. Yet the talent level at linebacker on this season is barely NFL caliber. Not a single linebacker on this team would start on any other team, save perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions. It really is that simple. Toss in a defensive backfield that is not just young but raw and you can really begin to see why Rogers’ play has had no impact.
The same holds on the offensive side of the ball. That unit could not have been more mismanaged this season if Crennel had set out to deliberately sabotage it. Derek Anderson was not the same player that he was a year ago and that much was clear from the outset. Yet the move away from him came too late to make a difference. Braylon Edwards has had a disastrous season and injuries are clearly taking a toll on Kellen Winslow’s ability to perform. Donte Stallworth was a swing and a miss of epic proportions. Jamal Lewis, as much as we want to believe otherwise, has lost a step. Throw in the injury to Ryan Tucker and the significant drop off that is Rex Hadnot and the only conclusion left to draw is that it would have been impossible for Thomas to have made any impact, even if he had played better than any player in the history of the game.
It’s nice to see two Browns’ players, even in this most awful of seasons, honored. It’s a bit of confirmation that the team isn’t a complete disaster. Throw in the section of Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson as alternates and overall there is some good news among the mostly bad that’s come from Berea this season. But this modest recognition does come at a price. It reminds us how deficient the rest of the roster really is. That’s why it’s only a validation of sorts and not a complete vindication for Savage.
In the category of “you had to see this injury coming,” it can’t be a shock to anyone that punter Dave Zastudil has some tendinitis in his knee and is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Bengals. His leg has been getting quite a work out, particularly the last few weeks.
With two games remaining, Zastudil has 65 punts, 12 of which have come in the last two weeks. Last season, the Browns had 62 punts total. For the stats freaks, that’s figures to an extra punt per game. By the time this season ends in a few weeks with whoever is quarterback, that could creep up to an extra 1.5 punts per game. That may not seem like much unless you’re the one that had to make those kicks.
In a year of dubious achievements cornerback Brandon McDonald’s game against the Eagles will certainly rank among the most dubious. It was nice to see McDonald score the team’s first touchdown in weeks, but the fact that he could take another interception back 97 or 98 yards (depending how far back in the end zone you estimate he was when the play began) and not score a touchdown had to make him the butt of a few jokes in the team’s film room this week. Probably the Bengals’ film room as well.
When McDonald made that interception there was no one in front of him and the path to the opposite end zone was clean and green. Yet the Eagles’ Brian Westbrook hunted him down and slowed him up enough to allow Hank Baskett, the player against whom he made the interception in the first place, make the tackle at the 7-yard line.
It’s debatable whether McDonald slowed up thinking he had the touchdown. What’s not debatable, though, is that neither Westbrook nor Baskett did. They knew full well that their team’s playoff chances were at stake and they couldn’t afford a loss to the Browns. The play they both made spoke volumes about their pride and desire.
Which leads us to this week’s question to ponder: If the situation had been reversed, would Braylon Edwards have put in that same effort?