Friday, December 12, 2008

Lingering Items--Titans Edition

With Cleveland Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel all but packed and ready to move on to his next station in life, an interesting question concerns the fate of the various assistants. The reluctance of owner Randy Lerner to make a regime change stems in part from the instability it invariably causes. Thus it would hardly surprise if Lerner and general manager Phil Savage, assuming he survives the axe, try to find a head coach willing to keep many of Crennel’s assistants around to aid the transition.

Any time a candidate like that emerges, of course, red flags get raised, Roman candles spontaneously go off and dogs start playing with cats. When Crennel was hired, it was under pretty tight restrictions. As he’s proven less able at various aspects of his position, he’s had even less room to maneuver.. Most of those restrictions stemmed from Savage’s inherent insecurities. But the more salient point is that Crennel accepted those restrictions, including Savage essentially choosing the various assistants, because Crennel was just happy to finally have a head coaching gig in the first place.

That may very well be the case with the next coach as well, even if Savage isn’t around to make that decision. And the one assistant that comes quickest to mind as someone that Lerner/Savage would probably want to retain for stability’s sake is offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Chudzinski was a fairly sought after commodity in San Diego where he served as tight ends coach. After Marty Schottenheimer was fired for only going 14-2, the Chargers lost in quick order their offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, to Miami and their offensive coordinator in waiting, Chudzinski, to Cleveland. While the Chargers anticipated the loss of Cameron (they were more interested in hiring a head coach with head coaching experience; it’s how they ended up with Norv Turner and that’s worked out splendidly, but I digress), they were disappointed to lose Chudzinski.

Last season, the hiring of Chudzinski looked like one of Savage’s true master strokes. At the time the Browns were a moribund offense under a head coach lacking the ability to fix it. Chudzinski not only came in and fixed it (with no small help from Savage’s rebuilding of the offensive line), but he made it into one of the more diverse and potent attacks in the league. It helped, too, that the offense that Chudzinski’s philosophical leanings meshed perfectly, at least for awhile, with the skills of quarterback Derek Anderson. As a result Anderson put together one of the best seasons in Cleveland quarterback history.

Last season only showed an inkling of the mad scientist element to Chudzinski’s offense. This season has showed it in spades and last week’s game against the Tennessee Titans was the standard bearer. There were really two problems with Chudzinski’s game plan last week. It was poorly designed and then poorly executed. It seemed constructed off the theory that it would catch the Titans off guard, as if they are as poorly coached as the Browns. They were certainly fooled. The Browns have now gone three straight games without an offensive touchdown.

Why Chudzinski had third string quarterback Ken Dorsey throwing on four of his first five plays belies any logic. Why Chudznski had him thrown any time thereafter was pure mystery. Dorsey has almost no arm strength and that’s when he’s able to look straight downfield and throw. When flushed from the pocket and forced to throw on the run, it would be far more efficient for Dorsey to simply hand the ball to the referee and the play whistled dead.

Last week proved the exception to the rule of “Any Given Sunday.” There was no chance that the Browns could win that game. But that doesn’t mean that Chudzinski and Crennel shouldn’t have put in a better effort. By eschewing a run game in favor of having Dorsey throw, all they did was truncate their own drives and give the Titans much more time to control the ball, which is exactly how it played out.

Chudzinski did unveil a little more of the so-called “Flash” offense featuring Josh Cribbs. But Chudzinski mostly treated it as an extended gimmick instead of a legitimate offensive formation. Again, another example of Chudzinski outsmarting himself and costing the team in the process.

There is no question that Chudzinski possesses some talent as a coordinator. But if he’s ever going to be truly effective, he’s going to have to become far more adaptive to the personnel available than he has been. To this point he’s far more insistence on pounding square pegs into the round holes he had carved out for players like Anderson. Did I mention that it’s been three games since the Browns have scored a touchdown?


Maybe Crennel still honestly believes he can save his job by winning the last three games of the season or maybe he’s just extracting a little revenge against the general manager that threw him under the bus last week. Either way, it was intriguing to hear Crennel basically say that he wouldn’t give more playing time to rookies like tight end Martin Rucker and linebacker Beau Bell. The reason? They aren’t ready.

Consider for a moment the dual ramifications of that statement. On the one hand, Crennel is highlighting still another one of his shortcomings and that of his staff. Counting the preseason, this team has been actively together for five months. Factor in all the various camps and such and Crennel has had his hands on these rookies for the better part of seven or eight months now and they still aren’t ready to see extended NFL experience? According to Crennel, players like Bell and Rucker are still “picking up the system.” That doesn’t speak well for the abilities of Crennel and his staff, does it? But at this point, it’s almost impossible to level new criticism on Crennel anyway so the risk to him and his reputation in making those statements is rather minimal.

On the other hand, Crennel’s statement is also a not so subtle a swipe at Savage for obtaining players that were at least a year away from being NFL ready. In that regard, the players Crennel is talking about aren’t undrafted free agents that everyone expected to be projects but actual draft picks. Bell was a fourth round pick and Rucker was a fifth rounder. While you’re at it, throw in Ahtyba Rubin (which is now officially the second time I’ve typed his name this season) drafted in the sixth round and seventh rounder Paul Hubbard who is on the practice squad and all of the sudden you have a compelling case that maybe Savage isn’t the genius he thinks he is.

The Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi did a nice analysis Friday contrasting Savage’s draft misses this season to the productivity many top teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers excluded) are getting out of their rookies. When you see it in black and white, it becomes more evident that Crennel was indeed poking at Savage, even if just a little.

When the story of this season is written, most of it will be center around whether this was a legitimately talented team that couldn’t handle high expectations or whether this was never a legitimately talented team in the first place. The truth lies somewhere in between. But the more it begins to dawn on you that the 2009 draft was a complete bust, that Savage never brought in seasoned reinforcements for the defensive backfield and that his other great acquisitions are looking like one-hit wonders, the realization sets in that the problems on this team are trending toward the systemic, not isolated.


While we’re picking on Savage, it seems worth wondering why Savage spent the Thursday before the Titans game not at the team’s headquarters, which is always awash these days in controversy, but instead scouting a meaningless Lousiville vs. Rutgers match up.

I’ll take it as a given that either or both of Louisville and Rutgers have a player or two on their rosters that will be playing in the NFL next season. But since Savage is the team’s general manager and not it’s chief scout, wouldn’t the task of watching a meaningless late-season game in Newark, New Jersey tend to fall, perhaps, to an intern in the scouting department?


If whoever is running this team next season wants to motivate his players, the best thing he could do is make them watch the game films of last week’s Titans games, but not for the reasons you might think. Forget about all the mistakes the Browns made in all phases of last week’s game. What was far more instructive was how Titans’ head coach Jeff Fisher has created one of the top teams in the league despite having at best mid-level talent.

Quarterback Kerry Collins isn’t scaring anybody these days, assuming he ever did. Chris Johnson and LenDale White are nice running backs, but not great. Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth are legitimate big time talents, but that’s two. The team’s most notable player is someone who isn’t playing, Vince Young.

There is nothing fancy or gimmicky about the Titans’ approach on either side of the ball. What they do well, indeed do almost better than anyone, is execute. Fisher and his staff have done an almost unbelievable job of putting each player in the right place to make the right play at the right time.

The Titans were hardly at their best against an overmatched Browns team. But they were more than good enough. In methodically picking apart what’s left of the heart and spirit of this team, the Titans displayed what a team with average or slightly above average talent can do when well coached. In contrast, the entire Browns’ season has been a lesson in what can happen when a team with average to below average talent is poorly coached.

If Lerner couldn’t see this contrast, then he, too, must have stopped watching. Perhaps he can convince the BBC to show more than the weekly highlights.
With the Browns playing the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, this week’s question to ponder: how much space does a NFL game take up on a Tivo?

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