Friday, October 29, 2010

Framing the Future

Why is it in Cleveland that our sports teams always seem to offer the promise of a rosy future in the face of a dismal present? Our teams rarely exist in the here and now and instead offer up that the product on the field as the necessary boot camp to be endured in order to enjoy some mythical future where the sun is shining, birds are chirping and championship banners are getting hung.

Focusing now on the Cleveland Browns, though the Indians offer their own compelling example, they enter the bye week 2-5 buoyed by an impressive win against a defending Super Bowl champ but stuck in reality that no matter what they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs once again.

Thus the question gets posed, do they try to win as many games now as possible or do they sacrifice short term for a longer term payoff? It’s a dilemma that every bad team faces I suppose, but in Cleveland, where we’re uniquely cursed, it’s a dilemma we wrestle with year round, pick the sport. We just came off a baseball season where the future was the central theme. We’re starting a basketball season with the same amorphous goal. But with a bye week for the Browns, the issue is need of a more immediate resolution.

First of all, the Browns are not really like the Indians in the sense that it’s a matter of “letting the kids play.” The Browns are actually a relatively old team mainly because they’ve drafted so poorly for so many years that the roster ends up having to be filled in with aging veterans on the backside of their careers.

Yet in the one position that counts the most, quarterback, the Browns have the full spectrum covered with an aging veteran, a mid-career backup and a promising rookie, and thus find themselves in the throes of a debate about their future in general and, in particular, whether “the kid,” Colt McCoy, should play.

Injured second string quarterback Seneca Wallace essentially framed this issue a few days ago when talking about the quarterback situation. On the mend and hopeful to be healthy enough to play next week, Wallace not only stated his case for being the starter but for having the Browns settle on a quarterback.

In large measure, Wallace is basically saying that the rest of the season is or should be about finding a quarterback to guide this team for the next several years and that he is just that quarterback. By extension he’s suggesting that the Browns use the remaining games on the schedule to put themselves in a better position for years to come.

Wallace, most assuredly, can see what everyone else sees. Delhomme is no more the long-term solution for this team than if the Browns had brought Don Strock out of retirement, again. Wallace believes he’s coming into his own, finally, and that his play warranted a much deeper look by the Browns’ brass for now and for the next several seasons.

For Wallace, an 8-year career backup, his time is either now or not at all. He worries that the Browns will quickly lump him in with all of the other career backups in the league, a fungible bunch that floats from team to team in the offseason in favor of, once again, a more marketable backup with a glamour resume.

It will be interesting to see if club president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Hecker, and head coach Eric Mangini agree with Wallace’s premise, not necessarily about Wallace starting but about the purpose of the rest of the season. They should.

Some have suggested that Wallace’s public comments are the underpinnings of a quarterback controversy. That’s a convenient explanation because, frankly, that’s what we’re used to seeing in Cleveland. But it’s more than that. The real explanation is that it’s just a matter of Wallace stating a case for his own future but couching it into the bigger picture in order to get the bosses’ attention. Smart. Real smart.

If the goal is to win now, unquestionably a healthy Delhomme is best suited to that philosophy. He‘s had a good career, he knows how to win games. But it’s also clear that his days as a starting NFL quarterback are quickly coming to an end. Whether it’s physical or mental, he’s clearly not the quarterback he was five years ago.

The counterpoint, though, is that this team, even with a healthy Delhomme, isn’t going to win much anyway. A few victories would be nice, even a 7-9 season would seem like the playoffs. But in the grand scheme, those wins don’t matter much except to alter the Browns’ draft position. Wouldn’t it be better then to seek progress with players that might actually be here for the next several years, irrespective of what it does to the win total?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Surely if you ask Mangini he would tell you that he will play those players that give the team the best chance to win. Holmgren, on the other hand, suggested that he’d like to see McCoy play several more games this season if only to figure out whether or not the Browns need to once again draft a quarterback. This obviously rattled Wallace.

Though Mangini would no more tip his hand on this issue than he would go to a schvitz with Tony Grossi, there will be telltale signs nonetheless. If Delhomme mends and finds himself back starting, then you’ll know that Mangini still feels like his own future is in doubt. The best case for his return to the sidelines next season is made with wins, which is what happens when you have a head coach with an uncertain future. On the other hand, if Delhomme finds himself healthy but wearing a headset, then you’ll know that Holmgren has played the trump card of his position and, not coincidentally, settled on Mangini’s future, one way or the other.

Before Wallace was injured, I would have thought that Holmgren, Heckert, and even Mangini had mostly settled on Wallace at least for the rest of the season. He was playing well enough, which serves as progress in Cleveland, and had shown enough to suggest that after 8 years in the league as a back up maybe now was his time. Besides, that scenario would give them the kind of time over the next season or two Holmgren thinks would be needed to let McCoy develop.

But it’s worth pointing out that in fact Holmgren, Heckert and Mangini had never publicly endorsed Wallace as the putative starter. Mostly he’s always just been another player in the mix.

More importantly, Wallace did get injured and that paved the way for another quarterback to come in, a rookie whose near term future looked to be mostly about carrying a clipboard and looking interested by occasionally furrowing the brow. McCoy took off the redshirt he was slated to wear all season and stepped into the fray before anyone but McCoy thought he might be ready.

You can focus on McCoy’s stats if you’d like, but that’s at the expense of the context. First, McCoy had to face the Steelers in Pittsburgh, a team with as good of a defense as exists in the NFL right now. Next he had to face the defending Super Bowl champs, in New Orleans. Finally, in addition to the hostile environments, McCoy had to play in those games knowing that the Browns didn’t have a credible backup if he got hurt.

McCoy handled that pressure well, so well in fact that he quickly gained the respect of his teammates and the interest of management. He’s no longer the redshirt freshman in Holmgren’s mind but the intriguing rookie that he’d like to see a bit more of sooner rather than later.

Wallace, most assuredly, can see this as well. That’s why he decided to take the opportunity to state his case publicly for being the starter for the rest of the season and, in the process, force Browns management to frame up their goals for the rest of this season.

This may or may not work to Wallace’s advantage but I admire his pluck. I’ll admire it more if it ultimately results in the quarterback situation being settled for more than a game or two because from that decision flows most of what the future of this team will really hold.

Monday, October 25, 2010

They Never Saw It Coming

There are as many ways to devalue wins as there are ways to make losses seem even worse. It all depends on what point you’re trying to make. But when it comes to the Cleveland Browns’ entirely probable win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night, there are points to be made but not at the expense of cheapening the most solid win since the last time this team beat a reigning Super Bowl champ, or even the time before that.

No win is going to be perfect, anyway. And in Cleveland, where wins are about as common as smooth roads in winter, fans would take every imperfect win the team would care to throw at them. Besides, what was so imperfect in the first place?

Football coaches often preach the fact that there are three phases to every game: offense, defense and special teams. You don’t need to win all three phases to win the game but if you lose all three phases you will lose the game.

If you assess Sunday’s game under that construct, the statistics would suggest that the Browns won because of defense and special teams. If that’s the case, no apologies are needed anyway. Plenty of games are won with defense and special teams. Baltimore won a Super Bowl that way.

The defense on Sunday was spectacular, with much credit going to the semi-reckless grand wizard defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. With New Orleans head coach Sean Peyton likely giddy all week at the very thought of having Drew Brees spreading the ball all over the Browns’ defensive secondary, it probably never occurred to him that Ryan was just crazy enough to throw the Saints a roundhouse that they never saw coming.

When the Browns’ were prepping for the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had commented that the many looks of the Browns’ defense were confusing. It sounded mostly like happy talk, the kind of non-controversial verbal cotton candy athletes say so that their quotes don’t end up on the other team’s bulletin boards.

But now we know it wasn’t just talk. Brees had that wide-eyed look of bewilderment all game, never quite figuring out why all those players seemed to be standing around uncommitted to any particular position. It’s like the soldier who leaves basic training for a war zone and then freezes because the enemy doesn’t act quite like he practiced. Brees never found a rhythm the entire game, mainly because while he knew Ryan is blitz-happy, he never quite knew from where the pressure might be coming.

It also helped, too, that Ryan kept the safeties in significantly deeper drops than normal, taking a way one of Brees’ greatest strengths, downfield passing. That seemed to confuse Brees almost as much. The Browns’ defense wasn’t exactly in prevent mode but they were playing to contain a deeper passing game in favor of allowing Brees to attack the middle of the field.

If you started Brees in your fantasy league, you’re probably pretty happy with his statistics. But judging from the cut on the cheek that Brees was sporting in his post-game news conference and the look on his face, it was pretty clear that he never saw the bus that hit him.

As for the special teams, it was nice for once to see head coach Eric Mangini pull a little piece out of the college playbooks. Both Wisconsin and Michigan State used fake punts to their great advantage on Sunday. As for the lateral from Josh Cribbs to Eric Wright, that was straight from the Bill Belichick playbook, which was just fine as well. The Browns’ return game this season has been mostly ineffective because teams are afraid to kick to Cribbs. Give everyone else in the league something to think about and it should open things up for Cribbs down the road.

As for the offense, it wasn’t great certainly, but it didn’t need to be. Colt McCoy’s passing statistics looked like they were cribbed from Derek Anderson’s page in But McCoy was effective nonetheless not because of any particular pass, though there were a few of them, but because it’s pretty clear that he has a certain “it” factor that neither Anderson nor Brady Quinn had.

McCoy just acts like he belongs. He’s like a 19-year old kid who strolls into the nightclub using his brother’s fake ID. He pulls it off because he acts like there isn’t a problem and doesn’t get rattled at the first sign of trouble.

Likewise with a new quarterback. It’s the hardest position in football because coaches make it out to be. As the center of the universe, if you don’t look ready the team won’t be ready. But show confidence, act like you’ve been there and the rest of the team will follow.

In McCoy’s short time as a starter and given how he was thrust into the role before conventional wisdom said he should have been, McCoy has demonstrated great leadership skills and the response of the rest of the offense more than proves that point.

With Anderson and Quinn even the players seemed surprised when they’d actually get a first down. If you think that’s an exaggeration go back and look at the tapes of game after game when neither quarterback could get the team in the end zone.

Most of the time a quarterback’s reputation is earned on a particularly key pass at a particularly key moment in a game. But often overlooked is the leadership demonstrated in willing a team to sustain a run-oriented drive late in the game that buckles the knees and breaks the spirit of the opposing defense.

That’s exactly what happened with the Browns’ drive late in the game that put the team up 23-13. Most of it was on the back of Peyton Hillis, certainly, but McCoy kept his composure when someone else might have been soiling himself and that level of confidence tends to wear off on the others. Give McCoy credit, too, for helping secure the key first down on the pass Hillis threw to him. It kept the clock moving. (As an aside, as good as that pass was from Hillis to McCoy, it was also incredibly risky given the state of health of the Browns’ quarterbacks. Still, give Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll some credit for having the courage to take that chance. And give credit generally to Daboll for managing the game in a way that takes advantage of McCoy’s best attribute right now, his leadership, while minimizing his short comings, like reading defenses.)

There also doesn’t seem to be any lingering sense that McCoy is merely a caretaker. The receivers, such as they are, run patterns like they believe McCoy can get them the ball. McCoy has even been able to pull off the inexplicable by finding Brian Robiskie, for goodness sakes. True, McCoy had very little choice otherwise, but at least it proved that if Robiskie can get open for a second, McCoy can get him the ball.

None of this means that McCoy is a better quarterback right now than either a healthy Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme, but it does mean that perhaps there isn’t any reason to artificially inhibit his progress anymore either. Mangini and Daboll should continue to let out a bit more slack on the rope and resist the urge, post-bye week to yank him back on to the bench.

So, yes, the Browns’ offense wasn’t stellar, statistically. And yes, it’s true, that more times than not, an offensive performance like that will get you more losses than wins. But a win doesn’t hinge on the offense every week anyway. Besides, what’s even more important right now is that the Browns finally enter a bye week and for once the talk isn’t about another extreme makeover.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Grading System

The Cleveland Browns are only 6 games into the season so it will be a few weeks before we see the usual spate of “mid term grades” columns from the local media drones. In the best of years, these obligatory semi-interesting space fillers serve roughly the same function cotton candy does at a county fair. In a year like this, it will be as useless as putting Eric Wright in single coverage.

The problem, dear readers, is that trying to evaluate the Browns this season is a little like trying to evaluate Bristol Palin’s performance on Dancing with the Stars. So much of how you look at it depends on the perspective you brought into the conversation in the first place.

After so many years of being such a downtrodden franchise, many fans have become desensitized to what good, competent football looks like. They see other teams play it from time to time, certainly, but they haven’t had enough of a steady diet to really remember how it tastes, how it feels.

It’s the opposite problem, really, of the Ohio State fans. They are so used to great football over virtually the same time period that Browns fans have been suffering that they come unglued at every loss as if it’s the next sign of the apocalypse, even though the losses have been few and far between.

Different fans have different reactions to the constant beat downs. Some because hyper-optimistic. For this group of Browns fans, dulled to the point that Jake Delhomme looks like Tom Brady to them, every little positive is celebrated as if it’s a trend and every little negative tends to get lost in the flood of all the big negatives.

If you’re one of these fans looking at the Cleveland Browns’ defense through that prism, you tend to think it might be one of the better units in football at the moment because, heck, that’s kind of where they fall statistically. That then begets the thinking that if only the offense could have been slightly better this team might very well be 5-1 and fighting for a playoff spot.

Then when you parse that down to the individuals, you start getting all misty-eyed at the absolute awesomeness of players like T.J. Ward, who you’re sure is the greatest draft choice in the history of the franchise, the spectacular running of Peyton Hillis, the likes of which you’re convinced you haven’t seen since Jim Brown, and on and on it goes until you insert enough Tab As into Slot Cs to reveal a team that is one, two players away from being a Super Bowl contender, tops.

Of course, there is another group, the flip side of the same coin, the hyper-critical. They’re convinced that Eric Mangini is really Beelzebub and that the franchise is still paying for the ultimate sin of being located in Cleveland.

They see the defense as a group of mostly has-beens and never-will-bes whose statistics thus far are the product of a bunch of smoke and mirrors and that absent a major upgrade at every position it will languish and hold this team back forever. They also feel like the offense has been stuck in a mediocre re-make of Groundhog Day with Tim Couch playing the Bill Murray part except that no matter how fully realized the individuals on offense becomes, the alarm clock still goes off at 5:55 a.m. every morning with Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe” in the background.

Parse that down to the players and it gets even worse. The quarterback situation is a joke with a washed up starter who can’t stay healthy, a career backup as the backup and a guy who only the Browns would have drafted in the third round. There are better receivers on the Glenville High School team and don’t even get them started on the joke that is the defensive backfield.

The problem is that both camps are actually right. This isn’t a “the truth is somewhere in the middle” kind of thing. It really is a case where both sides are right.

The Browns occupy a particularly odd space at the moment where there seems to be evidence of improvement in some things and yet it’s not made one bit of difference in the record and isn’t likely to as the rest of the season drags on because this team isn’t good enough to make that happen.

Ward really is an excellent draft pick, hyperbole aside. Joe Haden looks like he’ll fall in the category as well. Hillis is an excellent, hard-nose running back who’s brought some needed excitement to the running game. The defense really is playing better than last season, much better in fact, and has the stats to prove it. They have kept this team in games they otherwise probably wouldn’t have been in last year and but for some ill-timed offensive miscues, the record probably is better than the current 1-5.

But no, sadly, this team isn’t in line to be a Super Bowl contender anytime soon. If the current state of the Browns was represented by one of those evolution scales, they’ve just entered the phase where the monkey has lost its tail but is still mostly walking on all fours.

The team still has way too many question marks at way too many key positions to ever be taken too seriously by any of the better teams in the league. The quarterback situation is as tenuous now as it’s ever been because it is true that Delhomme, a real professional though he may be, is on the back 10 of his career and Seneca Wallace is likely going to find productive work in the league for another 4 or 5 years but as a serviceable back up.

It’s also true that no one was rushing the podium in New York City to draft McCoy when the Browns did. The defensive backfield’s two best players at the moment are rookies and the defensive line would struggle putting pressure on a quarterback whose blindside protection was anchored by Cloris Leachman. The offensive coordinator is unimaginative and the defensive coordinator is reckless. Meanwhile, the head coach is still just trying to find his niche in a front office hierarchy that he didn’t sign on to when he agreed to join the Browns.

When you stop to really consider that both camps of fans really have a good bit of truth to chomp on, you’re left with virtually no way to really put any sort of grade on anything associated with this team. At times it looks vastly improved. At other times, you wonder whether CBS is just showing game films from early last season.

All this is a very long-winded way of saying that the most compelling thing about this team and the basis on which to evaluate it going forward is the same way you might view a really novel science experiment that by-passed the lab in favor of testing it under real-life conditions.

Sometimes it goes well and we’re ready to write about it in the Science Journals as the greatest breakthrough since ketchup. Sometimes it’s like an episode of Mythbusters where everything goes horribly wrong and it’s all we can do to put the detritus in a medical waste bag and throw it into some heavy-duty incinerator somewhere, preferably outside the watchful eye of the EPA.

Perhaps someday the Browns will actually walk upright and all the experimenting will yield useful, repeatable results and actually bust a few myths in the process. But that time isn’t now and isn’t any time soon. Is that worth a grade? Probably not. But if pushed, the only answer is “incomplete” and that applies to the entire organization, except Eric Wright who’s actually regressed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Head Cases

When Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards brought guns into the locker room at the Verizon Center he didn’t just violate NBA rules, he also committed a crime. When Areneas and his teammates joked about it a few days later in a pregame ritual, NBA commissioner David Stern came unglued and suspended Arenas for the rest of last season and laid down the law to his cohorts.

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has a similar sense of outrage, he’ll do likewise with Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison and perhaps a few of his cronies as well.

Harrison didn’t commit any crimes while playing against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, but he did commit two rather flagrant penalties, neither of which were called and both of which knocked out players of the game. Both were brutal hits to the head, which are specifically prohibited by the NFL.

Making matters worse is the rather blasé attitude of not just Harrison, but his teammates and even his head coach, Mike Tomlin. Despite all the emphasis on head injuries throughout the league, when it comes right down to it, the NFL’s message just isn’t getting through to the people that need to understand it best—the players and the coaches.

When T.J. Ward hit a defenseless Jordan Shipley, he was justifiably fined. Afterward, no one in the Browns’ organization showed much concern for the hit itself or Shipley’s well-being. Ward focused on trying to establish his credentials as a tough defensive back and head coach Eric Mangini spent time defending his player.

Maybe the two spoke behind the scenes and perhaps Ward was given some additional coaching on better technique. If that occurred, no one is talking about it but they should. It’s not a sign of weakness or even acknowledgement that a previous hit was wrong. It’s just addressing a safety issue. Irrespective, the situation with Ward pales in comparison to the chirping coming out of Pittsburgh regarding the two blows Harrison unapologetically delivered to two opposing players.

Harrison talked about how “geeked up” a hit like the one he put on Cribbs gets everyone on his team, “especially when you find out that the guy is not really hurt—he’s just sleeping.”

Stop right there for a moment and admire both the ignorance and the arrogance. Harrison is a local kid, Akron born and educated at Kent State. Make all the jokes you want about that scholastic resume but I find it hard to believe that Harrison really is that ignorant, to equate being knocked cold to merely sleeping. I do think he’s arrogant enough not to care about the difference.

A person who’s sleeping is doing so voluntarily, like taking a nap on a sleepy winter Saturday afternoon. When a person is knocked cold, as Cribbs was, it means that he suffered a blow to his head that was so severe it caused his brain to crash into the inner wall of the skull and some level of internal bleeding occurred. A few minutes later, the brain essentially regained its intended equilibrium and Cribbs regained consciousness. It’s not like waking up from a nap. But that’s hardly the end of the story.

Cribbs is going to feel the effects of that hit for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. Generally the resulting injuries aren’t permanent and the symptoms such as dizziness and nausea disappear within a few weeks. But repeated hits cause repeated damage that increases the risk that permanent brain injury will result.

After being dismissive of the hit on Cribbs Harrison then completely downplayed the hit on a defenseless Mohamed Massaquoi. According to the Plain Dealer, the hit to the helmet left Massaquoi with some neck pain and memory loss. Harrison said, “I could have put a lot more into it than I did.” Well, there is that.

If Harrison’s self-congratulatory tone and simultaneous downplaying of its actual impact weren’t offensive enough, consider the words of James Farrior, who told the media, as reported in the Plain Dealer, “Today was especially good because he took out their top dog, really. He took out the biggest weapon they had. He didn’t do it intentionally, but with the intensity he plays with, it’s liable to happen sooner or later.”

Then there was everyone’s favorite cheap shot artist, the ever grinning, ever scheming Hines Ward. According to the Plain Dealer, he said “you see a guy like [Harrison]—knocking guys out like that—he’s a man on a mission.”

And there was more: “hopefully nothing serious was wrong with those guys. But he set the tempo for everybody else. He’s our emotional leader.” Yea, hopefully.

Taken collectively, what you have thus far is an attitude that is about 180 degrees from what Goodell and the rest of the league are trying to accomplish when it comes to head injuries.

When the players celebrate Harrison as a warrior, a man on a mission, the inspirational leader, someone trying to set the tone for the defense and if a few head injuries happen, la di da, they’re demonstrating a reckless indifference for the welfare of their fellow competitors. They also are demonstrating that whatever educational programs and fines thus far that the league has imposed have had less impact on them then Brett Favre’s problems with women.

Every one of these same players, especially Ward, is going to find themselves on the business end of one of these hits. It’s liable to happen sooner or later as they like to say And I suspect they might feel differently when they find themselves sitting out a few games, perhaps unable to earn performance bonuses or perhaps finding their careers jeopardized, because some jackass ballplayer thinks he needs to set a tone by playing illegally.

Perspective sure can be a bitch in these circumstances. Right now I’m sure there are plenty of fans in Pittsburgh celebrating Harrison’s play and carping at anyone from Cleveland who dares whine about it.

It’s the same thing way Cleveland fans played the whole Shipley/Ward encounter. At that time I posited how Cleveland fans might feel if it were Leon Hall and Josh Cribbs instead. But that theoretical turned into reality when it was Harrison and Cribbs instead. Now the Browns’ message boards are lit up with comments about Harrison’s blasts and, not surprisingly, most of those same people defending Ward are complaining loudly about Harrison.

No one is trying to put a skirt on these players but to act as if knocking players out cold is an acceptable consequence given all the research to the contrary is just more than a tad foolish. But that sort of logic tends to get lost on the fans whose player was the perpetrator and not the victim. It also tends to get lost on the totally clueless, like Harrison.

As for whether he really had any remorse for knocking out Cribbs, Harrison got the last word. “I don’t want to injure anybody, but I’m not opposed to hurting anybody. There’s a big difference being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game.”

It’s a fine and self-serving line that Harrison is trying to draw for himself but it’s clear that he doesn’t see brain trauma as an injury. The medical profession may disagree and I suspect the NFL gods will, too. And the only way they can really send the right message to Harrison, Ward, Farrior and the rest of his posse and the rest of the players for that matter that they are taking this issue deadly seriously, is to look at Harrison’s record of cheap shots, the nature of the hits themselves, and sit his ass out for four games, minimum.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Holding Their Ground

The game may have ended up as most expected, but at least the Cleveland Browns didn't go down without a fight. Playing with their third string quarterback against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that would blitz a team quarterbacked by Dick LeBeau's mother just because they can, the Browns nonetheless held their ground for most of the game before coming up short in a closer-than-it looks 28-10 loss.

The storyline going into the game may have been the return of Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from a league-imposed suspension for unsavory personal conduct he still denies, but the overarching storyline for Browns' fans was Colt McCoy's first start in a season where Browns' management had hoped he'd just be a passive observer.

But McCoy gave a good accounting for himself, hanging tough in the face of relentless blitzing from one of the league's best defenses, throwing accurately and getting his first NFL touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Having survived this game pretty much in tact, indeed after having gained confidence as the game wore on, no one associated with the Browns need fear McCoy's next start, which irrespective of the health of Seneca Wallace, should be next week against New Orleans.

On the day McCoy was a very respectable 23-33 for 281 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.

The record book will reflect that McCoy's first touchdown pass went for 12 yards to tight end Ben Watson with just over 4 minutes in the game. But this was no preseason, 4th quarter garbage time touchdown. It brought the Browns' back to within 11 points just after the Steelers had taken the lead on a touchdown following a muffed fair catch by Chansi Stuckey (more on that in a moment) with just under 6 minutes remaining in the game.

True at that moment the game was effectively over, McCoy nonetheless put together a tidy 70-yard drive in which he went 4-5. It featured a 28-yard pass to Evan Moore and the touchdown pass to Watson. Given how he had been knocked around all game, it was as pleasant a surprise as it was unexpected. Browns fans are used to seeing their quarterbacks just crawl back into a shell when the going gets that tough.

The Browns, though, were showing some spunk. They tried and failed at an onside kick, looking to make the score even closer. After the Steelers punted, McCoy went back to work but threw his second interecption, this time to Lawrence Timmons. Three plays later, Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace for a touchdown and the final margin of victory. It was Roethlisberger's third touchdown pass of the day and second to Wallace.

If this Browns' season is all about tracking progress, then here's a statistic that will make fans feel better. For the 6th straight game, the Browns had a lead, this time an early 3-0 on Phil Dawson's franchise record 235th field goal. But the counterpoint, unfortunately, is that for the 5th time in those 6 games, the Browns permanently relinquished that lead and now find themselves pretty much where they were a season ago, 1-5 with injuries mounting more quickly than subpoenas at a Cuyahoga County commissioners meeting.

At least they didn't lose another quarterback. Well, sorta, they did and it's a loss that could prove to be far more difficult for the team to absorb if kick returner, receiver and part-time quarterback Josh Cribbs is out for any extended period of time.

Cribbs, running from the wildcat formation early in the second quarter, collided with former Kent State teammate James Harrison and was knocked cold. Cribbs was able to leave under his own power but was taken into the locker room and didn't return. If T.J. Ward is the barometer then Harrison should get an nice letter from the NFL and a strongly worded request that he donate part of his salary for what amounted to a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cribbs. Oddly, with an official right there and watching Harrison lead into his tackle of Cribbs with his helmet, he didn't bother to throw a flag.

But Harrison was hardly through. A short time later and for good measure, Harrison also blasted a an essentially defenseless Mohamed Massaquoi in the helmet as well and likewise wasn't flagged. The hit knocked Massaquoi out of the game yet didn't garner a penalty, either. If the league lets the Cribbs hit go it will only be because they won't let the Massaquoi hit go. In truth, Harrison deserves double the Ward fine.

With two starting receivers out, Stuckey became the primary receiver and the putative punt returner, which is how he got into a position to muff a return in the first place. Stuckey did catch 4 passes for 46 yards. Watson, though, was the leading receiver with 6 catches for 88 yards and the touchdown. Running back Peyton Hillis also had 6 catches, for 49 yards.

With Cribbs no longer an option of any sort, the entire burden of facing the Steelers fell to McCoy. It's a similar dilemma that more than a dozen or so other quarterbacks for the Browns have found themselves in over the last decade and if nothing else, McCoy proved he wasn't overwhelmed, which gives him a leg up on most of the others already.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll helped out by simplifying the game plan a bit. There were plenty of runs that featured misdirection and a number of screens designed mostly to keep the pressure off McCoy. When McCoy did drop back, he showed a mostly accurate arm while also absorbing a beating at the hands of a blitzing Pittsburgh defense.

McCoy's day didn't get off to the kind of start that anyone outside of Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs wanted. After taking the opening drive and moving into Steelers' territory, McCoy threw into heavy traffic and saw the ball tipped and then intercepted by safety Ryan Clark.

The Steelers, though, couldn't capitalize. With Roethlisberger and the hard running of Rashard Mendenhall, who had 84 yards on 27 carries for the day, the Steelers offense was putting together an impressive drive. It ended abruptly however on 3rd and 4 from the Cleveland 14-yard line when Roethlisberger overthrew Wallace and into the waiting arms of cornerback Joe Haden. It was Haden's first career interception and his 62-yard run afterward was easily the most exciting run of the Browns season, returning it 62 yards. It led to the Dawson field goal and the 3-0 lead.

That lead lasted as long as the Steelers' next drive. Roethlisberger then went to work, hitting Emmanuel Sanders on a 22-yard pass and then, under pressure from linebacker Matt Roth, hitting Wallace for a 29-yard touchdown. Wallace had turned cornerback Eric Wright the wrong way near the end zone a for the score. It gave Pittsburgh a 7-3 lead.

Despite Roethlisberger looking mostly like he had been playing all season, the Browns' defense still kept the game close. It's hard to know, certainly, but a case could certainly be made that the game may have been even closer if defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was just a little less reckless.

His schemes tend to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing. The linebackers, particularly Matt Roth and Scott Fujita, are playing better than any group of linebackers in the last 10 years. As a unit, the Browns' defense hits hard. Yet, Ryan's love affair with his cleverness continues to cost this team.

Every Steelers big play came on a Browns blitz. Roethlisberger's first touchdown, a 29-yarder to Wallace, came on the heels of a blitz that left, guess who, Wright flailing once again. Roethlisberger's second touchdown, an 8-yarder to Hines Ward, came on an all out blitz that again left Wright exposed. Ward caught it short of the goal line but Wright was out of position and whiffed on the tackle. Had it been made, the Steelers would have had to settle for a field goal and the game would have been that much closer.

The reason the Steelers can get away with blitzing so often is that they have talented defensive backs that can cover and tackle. The reason the Browns can't ever seem to get away with blitzing is that they have a patchwork defensive backfield that features two rookies, a 9-year veteran, Sheldon Brown, who has lost a step and 4th year player in Wright who hasn't taken the next step in his development that most expected.

Things don't get any easier next week for the Browns as they travel to New Orleans. Drew Brees will have 6 weeks of game films to study all the various blitzes that Ryan will throw at him and, if Cribbs doesn't return, the Saints' defense will spend most of their day covering tight ends. For good measure, they won't have to worry much about kicking away from the Browns' return teams, either.

It's far from the best case scenario for the Browns, but then again, when was the last time the best case scenario fell the Browns' way anyway? Exactly.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Owning their Sins

It may be darkest just before dawn but in Cleveland it’s always darkest just before the Pittsburgh Steelers’ game.

With the Browns licking a bunch of sore wounds after a physical beating at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday all they get for their trouble is a divisional game against their most hated rival at exactly the wrong time.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a bye week. They have one of the top defenses in the league and their star-crossed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is coming back off suspension to a team that played just fine in his absence.

Meanwhile the Browns are down to their third string quarterback already and just re-signed the guy that couldn’t beat out that third string quarterback during the preseason. Their best running back is hurting and probably won’t play, their receivers are about as visible as Barack Obama at a Tea Party rally and their offensive coordinator has less imagination than the comedian Gallagher.

At least Cleveland Browns’ president Mike Holmgren can’t say he wasn’t warned. I’d say that the wheels have fallen off the Browns’ wagon again, but they weren’t all that secure in the first place.

Much of what’s being foisted on the Browns at the moment is the culmination of a whole bunch of little sins over a whole bunch of years.

In the Bruce Springsteen song Long Time Comin’, a father, talking with the kids tugging at his shirttails, tells them if he had one wish in this God forsaken world, it would be that their sins would be their own. At least the Browns can say they own their sins.

So much of the story about why the Browns both lost to the Falcons and go into this weekend’s Steelers game such a mess traces directly to the sins of neglect and abuse that the caretakers of this franchise have committed for over the last decade.

The Browns haven’t drafted and developed a credible quarterback since their return despite all the advantages that one poor season after another has given them. That’s why the Browns entered the season with a nearly over-the-hill quarterback like Jake Delhomme and a never-going-to-scale-the-hill quarterback like Seneca Wallace.

Delhomme is a serviceable transition quarterback, or at least he would be if he wasn’t injured in the same way that Wallace is a serviceable back-up if he wasn’t injured. But the fact that both are now injured just highlights how dire the long-term quarterback prospects for this team really are.

What’s fascinating is that despite all of this is that by all accounts the Browns’ quarterback situation is still better than it was last year, and that’s the larger point, isn’t it? This franchise’s inability to draft and develop a credible starting quarterback, despite its many draft advantages borne of so many terrible seasons, has left it and its fan base clinging to news about whether or not Wallace will be able to give it a go on Sunday. Good God!

It’s gotten so bad that the Akron Beacon Journal’s Marla Ridenour felt it necessary to resurrect her rather naïve view that perhaps now is the time to give Josh Cribbs the opportunity to play quarterback.

Cribbs is a great athlete and has contributed to this team in several ways over the years. But simply because he played quarterback for Kent State years ago doesn’t make him a viable quarterback option in the NFL. In the context of Kent State football, Cribbs had a nice career as a quarterback. But it wasn’t the kind of career that had pro teams salivating for his services. Indeed, he was signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent because of his running ability and not because there was ever any thought that he could be a quarterback.

The fact that Cribbs played quarterback in college does give the Browns the opportunity to use him in gimmick situations, like they did on Sunday when he completed a pass to fullback Lawrence Vickers. But to expect Cribbs to suddenly come in, read defenses and run an offense is as ridiculous of a concept as the fact that Ridenour is still writing about football. Fans would yearn for Derek Anderson

Maybe Colt McCoy will surprise everyone and transition right into the NFL game. But he walks into a situation where his own head coach is so unsure about his prospects that he decided to make an injured Delhomme Sunday’s back up instead of a completely healthy McCoy.

Maybe Eric Mangini’s trepidation about McCoy isn’t about McCoy at all but about the two wide receivers Mangini drafted in the second round last season.

On Sunday Mohamed Massaquoi caught 5 passes, which doubled his total for the year. That puts him on a pace to catch 32 balls all season. His fellow second rounder, the guy actually picked just before him, Brian Robiskie, or at least someone wearing his jersey, caught one pass. He has exactly 3 catches all season, which puts him on a pace to catch about 10 balls this season.

Neither Massaquoi nor Robiskie has the speed to be an elite receiver in this league and neither is particularly adept at getting open. Massaquoi shows more promise than Robiskie but that’s like saying that the Indiana Hoosiers showed more promise than the Eastern Michigan Hurons did against Ohio State. Put Massaquoi and Robiskie on the only relative scale that matters, other NFL receivers, and you can better appreciate the problem.

The leading receiver on this team isn’t even someone who ever played the position until he got to the pros, the aforementioned Cribbs. He looks positively brilliant compared to Massaquoi and Robiskie but again, on the only relative scale that matters, there are probably only a few other teams in the NFL, teams like the Browns, on which Cribbs would start at receiver.

But maybe it goes beyond just Massaquoi and Robiskie. The offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, is literally learning on the job. It was kind of fun to imagine in the offseason all the great schemes he’d come up for Wallace and Cribbs. But reality has hit in the form of a season and Daboll acts as a slave to offensive theory without so much as a hint of innovation.

The concept of having someone like Cribbs line up as a quarterback only to run isn’t exactly a new idea and isn’t particularly effective anymore anyway. Teams can adapt pretty quickly. It thus falls to Daboll to take it to a new level and he has a couple of athletes on the roster to facilitate it. Either he simply lacks the imagination to pull it off or his head coach lacks the guts to try something more creative than a 4-yard pass from Cribbs to Vickers. But the longer this continues and the more the injuries mount, the more likely this offense is to rival the beast from season’s past that literally went game after game without scoring an offensive touchdown.

The Browns have faced long odds in the past, heck it always seems like they have faced long odds. Occasionally they overcome it when emotion trumps an opponent’s complacency. But the fans should be entitled to something more than a good effort at this point. Sooner or later someone is actually going to have to fix this mess.

Mike Holmgren, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Little Things

It's always the little things. A fumbled snap here, a deflected pass there that can make all the difference in a football game. Throw in an untimely turn of an ankle and that pretty much sums up the 20-10 loss the Cleveland Browns absorbed at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

The loss dropped the Browns to 1-4 on the season.

From a scoring standpoint, the key play was certainly Falcons' defensive lineman Kroy Biemann's improbable 4th quarter interception and run for a touchdown off a Jake Delhomme pass that Biemann deflected. Biemann, tipping the ball in the air and then rolling to the ground as he secured it, got up and rumbled his way to a 41-yard touchdown that was the margin of difference in the game.

But perhaps the real key play was when starting Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace turned his ankle late in the first half. It's why Delhomme was in the game in the first place, a game he wasn't quite physically ready to play in and it showed.

Exhibt 1: With the Browns clinging to a 7-6 halftime lead, the Falcons started the second half with the ball. On 3rd and 2 from the Atlanta 34-yard line, linebacker Scott Fujita stripped the ball from Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan which defensive lineman Kenyon Coleman recovered at the Atlanta 25-yard line. It was the kind of break a team like the Browns need to be successful.

But on 3rd and 2 from the Atlanta 2-yard line, a rusty Delhomme lost the handle on the snap and only a heads up play by running back Peyton Hillis allowed the Browns to get some points out of the opportunity, a 19-yard field goal by Phil Dawson that gave him the team record for field goals.

Exhibit 2: The Biemann interception. Though Biemann's effort was extraordinary, it was set up by the fact that an already mobility-challenged Delhomme was rendered even more so by the high ankle sprain that had sidelined him the last three weeks. It kept Delhomme in the pocket searching for passing lanes and hoping the blocking would hold long enough. But Biemann broke through quickly and was closing in on Delhomme for a sack when the interception occurred.

Exhibit 3: After the Beimann touchdown the Browns took over with just under 4 minutes remaining and still clinging to a theoretical chance. Delhomme had the Browns driving but as he got the offense inside the Falcons' 20-yard line and just under 2 minutes remaining, Delhomme was picked off again, this time by linebacker Stephen Nicholas. It brought an ignominious end to the game and perhaps Delhomme's tenure as a Browns' starter for awhile, pending the outcome certainly of whatever x-rays, MRIs or other medical machinations are administered to Wallace.

Despite the rather pedestrian display by Delhomme, it really is hard to place too much blame on him for the loss. Simply, he was injured, just less so than Wallace. Unable to move effectively in the pocket and unable to plant and throw the ball with much zip, Delhomme ended the day 13-23 for 97 yards and those two interceptions. Nothing about his play, given the circumstances was much of a surprise.

It didn't help Delhomme's cause either that the running game was similarly hampered by injuries. Peyton Hillis, the emerging emotional center of this team, injured his hip in practice last week and was hobbled entering into the game. All he did thereafter was aggravate the hip a bit more and probably two or three other body parts as well as the game wore on.

The Hillis highlight of the day, though, was a great one-handed catch on a ball that looked to have been overthrown by Wallace. Hillis was able to secure it, however, for a 19-yard touchdown pass. But it came at a price as Hillis limped off the field, further limiting his effectiveness for the rest of the game.

Jerome Harrison replaced Hillis but was mostly ineffective. Hillis returned in the third quarter for what amounted to spot duty. A run here, a pass there, but limited in his ability to stay on the field.. But every hit he absorbed looked to be another adventure in pain. Hillis had to repeatedly return to the sidelines.

Though he only carried the ball 10 times, it seemed like more, mainly because he wrings every last inch out of every carry. He also caught 4 passes for 49 yards and the 1 touchdown. Harrison had 6 carries for only 6 yards.

The Hillis touchdown/injury might never have happened, however, had head coach Eric Mangini challenged what looked like a bad call by the referee on a Wallace pass in the end zone to Mohamed Massaquoi a few plays earlier. At first glance it did look like Massaquoi didn't get both feet in before stepping out of the back of the end zone. But further replays seemed to confirm that Massaquoi already had gotten two feet in before his third step hit the white line. Mangini didn't bother to challenge the call but the issue was rendered moot a few moments later with the Hillis touchdown.

While the Browns' offense was struggling with injuries, the Falcons' offense was struggling with a Browns' defense that was showing itself to be quite resilient.

For the first half anyway, it looked like it would be the Falcons that would walk away from the game with a loss and blaming it on squandered opportunities. With the Browns' defense pressuring and frustrating Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for most of the first half, the Falcons were unable to turn two long possessions into anything more than 6 points.

The first covered 66 yards in 4 minutes, 21 seconds and was aided by two personal fouls on Browns defenders for roughing. Yet when Ryan needed to make a play late in the drive and down near the Browns' field goal, he was forced out of the pocket and forced to throw the ball away in order to preserve the field goal.

The Falcons next drive was much the same thing, just longer. It covered 70 yards and took over 7 minutes and yet ended much the same way, with Ryan scrambling on a crucial third down near the Browns' end zone and then throwing the ball away away.

The best spin the Falcons could put on both drives was that at least they were wearing down the defense for later in the game on an unseasonably warm October day. But in truth, it was inspired play by the Browns' defensive front 7 and good coverage in the secondary that was the real story of both drives and allowed the Browns to go into halftime with the lead.

For the most part, the Browns' defense played well throughout the day. It did allow Michael Turner to rush for 140 yards, the first running back to go over 100 yards on the Browns' defense this season, but it was a quiet 140 yards. It kept drives moving, certainly, but Ryan was never able to much capitalize on it.

The defense had really only one breakdown but it was a costly breakdown. After the Dawson field goal pushed the Browns lead to 10-6, Atlanta took over at its own 32-yard line. On second down, defensive back Sheldon Brown went down after colliding with tight end Tony Gonzalez. With Joe Haden replacing Brown for one play, Ryan hit tight end Justin Peelle on a short pass right at Haden that Peelle turned in to a 15-yard gain. Brown then came back into the game only to find himself in single coverage with receiver Roddy White. Ryan hit White in stride in the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown that gave the Falcons a lead that they never relinquished.

A win is sometimes costly and a loss is never welcomed and this loss in particular will probably linger longer because of the injuries. Right now the Browns' are banged up and could really use a bye week. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New Orleans Saints stand in the way of a needed week off.

For now, though, the Browns collectively will have to adapt to the attitude of Hillis and just keep answering the bell anyway. With their lack of depth it probably won't be good enough against either the Steelers and Saints but if the season's first 5 games are any indication, at least you get the feeling that the Browns will find a way to keep each game within reach. For a team struggling to regain relevance in a league that could care less, it constitutes good news and the surest sign yet that progress is being made.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Lingering Items--Questionable Decisions Edition

Of all the things people could focus on when it comes to the Cleveland Browns, the things they are focusing on at the moment are safety T.J. Ward, the hit he put on Jordan Shipley in Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the aftermath.

If the email I receive from readers is any barometer, sentiment is running high that Ward got a raw deal from the NFL, the Bengals should quit yapping and that anyone who thinks differently is some sort of effete liberal who probably cried during dodgeball in high school.

It’s an understandable attitude, well all except the whole effete liberal thing, because Ward plays for the Browns and football’s a violent sport. It’s also a convenient attitude because the person doing the hitting plays for the Browns. If Bengals’ cornerback Leon Hall puts a similar hit on Josh Cribbs and knocks him out for a game or two I suspect that these same folks would be calling for Hall’s suspension.

Ward was one of the best draft choices the Browns have made in 10 years. He’s played well this season and he seems to have a great upside. But none of that can change the simple fact that he hit a defenseless receiver after the play was essentially over. Ward’s hit wasn’t necessary to break up the pass. It served only to send a message and cement a reputation Ward’s been cultivating since middle school about being a hard hitter.

One cheap shot doesn’t make one a cheap shot artist any more than one fumble make a running back a fumbler. To this point it’s only one questionable hit in Ward’s brief career in Cleveland so for now it’s just a lesson he has to learn and not a reputation he has to overcome.

There is a fine line between a hard hit and a cheap shot and Ward is going to have to figure out how to straddle that line if he’s going to be successful. He’s also going to have NFL officials watching every one of his tackles for the rest of this season, at least. Given the nature of the hit on Shipley, Ward doesn’t have any margin for error, at least if he doesn’t want to start parting with his any more of his hard-earned money.

Ward has an opportunity to be a player in the mold of Ronnie Lott who, early in his career, had a reputation for making questionable hits, only to overcome that on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Lott, like Ward, was known as a hard hitter coming out of college and carried that into the NFL. There were plenty of times when opposing teams and their fans were screaming for Lott to be fined and/or suspended because one of their receivers had just been lit up. A few of those hits happened on Browns’ receivers.

Lott remained one of the league’s most feared safeties up until he retired but he eventually overcome a reputation that perhaps a few too many of his tackles were a little late, a little cheap. As he progressed in the league he learned to play within the rules and still make receivers pay for venturing into his territory.

I think Ward will learn the same lessons without losing the best parts of his game. But all that shouldn’t obscure this particular situation. What Ward did was wrong and he was rightly fined a substantial amount and simply pointing that out doesn’t make one a traitor to the cause.


It was interesting to read Colt McCoy’s take on the Ward/Shipley incident given McCoy’s friendship with his former college teammate Shipley. McCoy, as would be expected, sided with his current teammate and not his former.

What makes this interesting is the contrast between a similar situation in 2006 when Browns’ safety Brian Russell lit up Chad Ochocinco (who was still just plain Chad Johnson at the time) with a questionable hit after a Leigh Bodden interception in a game the Browns lost 34-17. Ochocinco’s helmet flew off and he suffered a pretty nasty gash to his chin. Russell wasn’t flagged for the hit and Ochocinco mostly joked about it afterward.

Fast forward 10 weeks and the next Bengals game. In ways that only the tortured synapses in serial miscreant Braylon Edwards’ brain could fire, he chimed in publicly that he thought Russell’s hit was bullshit. Edwards called out Russell’s hit as a way of illustrating a larger point about receivers being targets.

Edwards’ comments didn’t sit well with then head coach Romeo Crennel, who, after probably giving Edwards’ a fatherly lecture and then sending him back home without a cookie from the training table, chimed in publicly to basically tell Edwards to shut up, pointing out that Russell’s hit on Ochocinco was legal.

Edwards’ comment was as inappropriate then as McCoy’s comment was appropriate now. Nothing good is ever accomplished when you take sides against the family. Ask Fredo.


The Browns’ trade for Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jayme Mitchell is as understandable as it is perplexing.

While defensive end Kenyon Coleman had a decent game against the Bengals on Sunday, the defensive line overall has not been able to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan continues to try to cover up those shortcomings by blitzing as if the Browns’ are the German army and the opposing team is Poland.

So in that context, getting any one that can help is understandable. What makes the trade for Mitchell so perplexing is the acknowledgement that Mitchell has never played in a 3-4 defense.

If Mitchell can figure out the plot to Inception, he can eventually learn the 3-4 defense. But he isn’t going to learn it in a day or a week. There’s a learning curve and right now he’s at the very beginnings of it.

If you were following the Albert Haynesworth soap opera with the Washington Redskins, at its core it was about the fact that Haynesworth feels he’s better suited for the 4-3 system he grew up in and not the 3-4 system that head coach Mike Shanahan favors. Part of Haynesworth’s whining is likely due to what he feels are fewer opportunities to sack quarterbacks in a 3-4 defense, although that’s debatable. But playing as big a part is simply the difficulty of teaching an old dog an entirely different system. It’s still football, but so is the single wing and nobody playing it is going to easily adapt to a spread offense on command.

I wouldn’t expect Mitchell to bring Haynesworth-level drama with him given his relatively low status on the NFL totem pole. But that doesn’t mean that Mitchell won’t struggle in the new system just as Haynesworth has struggled.

Mitchell will help this team mainly because another new body on that unit couldn’t hurt. But don’t look for immediate contributions from Mitchell, which means that you should look for the blitzkrieg to continue.


It appears that Jake Delhomme will be back starting for the Browns this week. He isn't the future of this team anyway, which leads to this week’s question to ponder: Given the manner in which both Delhomme and Seneca Wallace were brought to this team, why is Delhomme the assumed starter?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rebranding the Browns

One of the truly great things about a desperate city is how it latches on to any good news. The Cleveland Browns won a game they weren’t favored to win and all of the sudden the fans in this town, so needy to believe in just one of their sports teams, quickly forgets the three games that preceded it.

All this is quite fine, actually. This town needs good news. It needs a team to believe in. The Indians on Sunday closed out another 90+ loss season without much hope for marked improvement next year. The Cavaliers have their first preseason game this week with a new head coach, a new general manager and a team full of George Harrisons and Ringo Starrs. The Browns are their best hope.

The Browns’ victory on Sunday was an outcome that wasn’t so much a sum of its parts as a turn of fate that finally went their way. Carson Palmer shredded the defense all day with a steady diet of Terrell Owens and yet couldn’t quite score enough touchdowns to pull out a victory. It’s about time that happened to someone else.

The Browns couldn’t much move the ball in fourth quarter and looked to be heading toward their fourth straight game without a fourth quarter first down until their running attack more or less took over. It literally clinched a game that was seriously in doubt. If it all seemed unexpected it’s only because the expected results in Cleveland usually have the fans crying in their coffee on Monday mornings.

The victory doesn’t necessarily make a talent-deprived team more talented. The victory didn’t come because the Browns finally eliminated mistakes. They still commit way too many penalties. The victory came because the Browns have begun to take on an identity that may finally get this fan base out of living in the mid 1980s.

Meet Peyton Hillis.

It’s not really clear why the Denver Broncos seemed so willing to part with Hillis. All he does is run the ball and play the game with the same passion that Chris Spielman played linebacker for so many years in the NFL. There’s no task too small to take on, no yard to unimportant to dig for. Hillis has the attitude that every coach wishes he could bottle.

It’s not as if any of that is really new. Hillis had that same reputation in college and even with the Broncos. It’s a trade Denver will come to regret if they don’t already.

What makes Hillis such a great story is that he’s not the most talented player in the game. That puts him in good company because it’s been several generations since the Browns were the most talented team in the league. He’s exactly the kind of player a town like this embraces and is the perfect complement, really, to someone like Josh Cribbs—overachievers in a town that’s usually counted out.

Hillis was a 7th round pick out of Arkansas. Cribbs was an undrafted free agent. When you enter the league in either of those slots, no one gives you much of a chance to carve out a career.

But Cribbs has an X factor that makes him so valuable—passion. It pushes him to work harder than the next guy so that he can get the most out of his somewhat limited talents. Hillis has that same X factor. He’s a few years behind Cribbs but it seemed apparent from his first carry in the preseason that this guy is a keeper and for all the same reasons as Cribbs.

The knock on Hillis out of Denver was that he couldn’t hold on to the ball. Hillis demonstrated some of that in preseason. That was the same knock on Mike Pruitt early in his career and that turned out pretty well.

Part of the reason Hillis, like Pruitt early in his career, fumbles has to do with the fact that he simply refuses to go down with the first hit. It almost always takes more than one defender to bring him down. As those several defenders congregate to stop the onrushing train, at least one of them also is trying to strip away the ball. Fumbles can happen.

But Hillis seems to have adjusted. He carries the ball with two hands and given his obvious physical strength, that’s going to make it a lot harder on other teams to pry the ball loose.

Terry Pluto, in his Plain Dealer column on Tuesday, took note of Hillis and other overachievers on this team, players like Matt Roth and Evan Moore. They were similarly discarded by their prior teams and watching them play makes you at least realize that it’s not just the Browns’ personnel office that can’t tell an apple from an orange.

Focusing on these overachievers is the right approach for this team for the next few years. It will take more than just one or two drafts to significantly upgrade the talent. In the meantime, for this team to be successful it will need to wring out as much as it can from players like Hillis, Cribbs, Roth and Moore.

At this point, Hillis and Cribbs make a nice duo when it comes to rebranding this football team. You don’t need superstars at many positions, though a few would be nice. The formula Bill Belichick has followed in New England is to surround a couple of real stars with passionate complementary players to do the dirty work that needs to get done in order to win games.

What this team doesn’t need is to have these rebranding efforts derailed through other means. At the same time that Hillis was cementing his reputation on Sunday, safety T.J. Ward was establishing his and it is not nearly as flattering. Ward, already carrying the reputation as a hard hitter, felt it necessary to reinforce the point with a late helmet-to-helmet charge into Bengals’ receiver Jordan Shipley that will probably sideline Shipley for a game or two. It could have been worse.

Head coach Eric Mangini strongly defended Ward, as you’d expect, but the hit Ward put on Shipley isn’t really defensible. Ward will be fined, as he should be, and he’ll be on heightened scrutiny by NFL officials for the rest of the season if not the rest of his career.

It isn’t going to help the Browns much to have a reputation as a safe haven for cheap hitters and while Ward is far from that at this point, he’s now got an uphill battle in proving that isn’t the care. Some fans may like it but it’s not a sustainable business model. So much of the Bengals’ shortcomings start and end with a roster full of low character players. It has an impact.

What is going to help the Browns, in the eyes of the vast majority of fans and in the standings, is to have a reputation of being a place that values and nurtures overachievers.

Not much has gone right in Mangini’s short tenure with the Browns and much of that is for self-inflicted reasons. But Mangini should be credited with grabbing both Roth and Moore and for giving Hillis and Cribbs as many opportunities as he can to make plays. And if Mangini can continue down that path, with major assistance from general manager Tom Heckert, job security won’t be an issue. A vastly improving won-loss record that follows will take care of that.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Winning the War

Nothing like losing the battle but winning the war.

Beaten statistically all day, the Cleveland Browns nonetheless finally let another team make the critical 4th quarter mistakes and as a result, took themselves out of the winless column thanks to a hard fought 23-20 win against the Cincinnati Bengals. In the process, the Browns may have also found themselves an identity and his name is Peyton Hillis.

For the second straight week Hillis ran for more than 100 yards, none bigger than his 24-yard run just before the two-minute warning that took the ball from the Cleveland 46 yard line to the Cincinnati 30. With the Bengals using their remaining time outs prior to the Hillis run, that run effectively sealed the win and all that was left was for quarterback Seneca Wallace to do was take a knee three times and the Browns had their first win of the season.

The Browns' win simultaneously broke a 3-game losing streak against the Bengals and halted a Bengals 8-game winning streak against the AFC North.

If you're a fantasy football player looking just at the box score, the game was a statistical mismatch in favor of the Bengals and you're happy, particularly if you started quarterback Carson Palmer or receiver Terrell Owens. Palmer was 25-36 for 370 yards and two touchdowns and the Bengals also had 67 yards running. Owens meanwhile gave the Browns' secondary fits all day. He had 10 catches for 222 yards. Based those statistics fans in both Cleveland and Cincinnati are probably wondering exactly how the game ended up as it did.

A lot of the answer to that question depends on how you want to look at things. Technically, the difference in the game was a 44-yard field goal attempt by Bengals placekicker Mike Nugent that was blocked by linebacker Scott Fujita late in the first half. The Browns, behind some timely completions from quarterback Seneca Wallace, were able to turn that block into a 34-yard Phil Dawson field goal as the half ended. It was a 6 point turnaround that was the difference in the game.

But it was really far more than that. While Owens was running wild in the secondary and screaming on the sidelines when the Bengals didn't have the ball about how the Browns' defense couldn't stop him, Palmer was making one timely mistake or another that kept the Bengals out of the end zone. Although he missed on only 11 passes, it seemed like every one of those misses couldn't have come at a worse time.

Consider, for example, what turned out to be the Bengals' last drive. Starting at their own 14-yard line, Palmer was picking apart the secondary as the Bengals made their way all the way down to the Cleveland 37-yard line. Palmer then missed a short pass over the middle to receiver Andre Caldwell and, two plays later, missed Chad Ochocinco on a short pass. Ochocinco didn't help matters by being flagged for an interference penalty and Eric Mangini didn't help matters by accepting the penalty. On 3rd and 13, Palmer was then sacked at the 45-yard line, forcing a punt with just under 5 minutes remaining. It was one of 4 sacks Palmer endured, mostly because he seemed indecisive at just the wrong moment.

But it wasn't just Palmer's strangely inconsistent play that was the difference either. Credit must go to the ability of the offense behind Hillis to put the game away with nearly 5 minutes remaining as Palmer helplessly watched.

Hillis, though, was more than just that last drive. Taking nearly as much punishment as he was dishing out, he gained the tough yards the entire day that forced the Bengals' defense to respect the run. That opened up enough of the passing game for Wallace. Let's also mention that there was another signature run for Hillis, this one in the form of a blast he put on safety Roy Williams when Williams made the mistake of trying to tackle Hillis near the shoulder pads. It knocked Williams back about 3 yards and then out of the game.

Wallace, meanwhile, continued to make a case for supplanting putative starter Jake Delhomme. If Delhomme was brought in to essentially better manage the game than the former pretenders behind center for the Browns, and he was, then serious consideration should be given by Mangini to continue riding Wallace instead. He's doing just fine in that regard.

Wallace didn't have the glamor statistics that Palmer put up but he was quietly effective anyway, hitting 18 of 30 passes for 184 yards. He had one touchdown, a beautiful 24-yard pass to tight end Evan Moore in the first half that stretched the Browns' early lead to 10-0. Wallace still makes some poor decisions, including an interception, but nothing that the Browns couldn't at least overcome this week.

As for the defense, anytime it can hold a potentially explosive offense to 20 points, it should be considered a good day. But further analysis will reveal that so much of what went wrong for the Bengals was self-inflicted on offense that it certainly isn't time yet for the defense to claim elite status.

One of the lingering questions would be how cornerback Eric Wright might respond after absorbing a week of watching countless replays of him chasing Baltimore Ravens' receiver Anquan Boldin. It was a mixed bag, at best.

It looked like the Browns adjusted their defense to give Wright a slightly less demanding role. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had Wright pinching up in run support and getting help while watching Chad Ochocinco. The task then fell mostly to Sheldon Brown to cover Owens. Ochocinco had only 3 catches for 59 yard while Owens ran wild. But Wright was often out of position and late on coverage and still seemed out of sorts for most of the day. Either there is something physically wrong with him or he's lost his confidence. Either way, this is a situation that will likely end up with rookie Joe Haden starting sooner rather than later.

And what would a week be without Ryan using the blitz as a sword instead of a shield and looking nearly reckless in the process? Another ill-timed blitz in the first half seemed to wake up the Bengals at just the wrong time and looked, for awhile anyway, like it was just the medicine that the Bengals' constipated offense needed.

With the Browns having taken an early 10-0 lead Ryan called for an all-out blitz on 2nd and 13 from the Bengals own 22 yard line. This time it was Brown on an island with no help and as he tripped, Owens pulled in what turned out to be an easy 78-yard touchdown pass that helped tie the game at 10-10.

The Browns' offense seemed as stunned as the crowd by that turn and on its next possession turned the ball right back over to the Bengals after Chansi Stuckey defelected a short pass from Wallace into the arms of Bengals' cornerback Leon Hall. But after a 25-yard completion to Owens, Palmer missed three straight times and then Fujita block Nugent's field goal attempt, essentially taking Ryan off the hook and the Bengals lost whatever momentum they had.

As if to prove the point, the Browns then stretched their slim halftime lead to 10 on their second possession on the back of some timely completions by Wallace, some hard running by Hillis and a few mistakes by the Bengals' defense, including an interference penalty that kept the drive alive. Hillis finished it all off with a 1-yard run.

The Browns then had a real chance to put the Bengals away midway through the third quarter when Palmer fumbled and it was recovered by Kenyon Coleman at the Cincinnati 13-yard line. But the Browns couldn't punch it in from there and settled for a Dawson 22-yard field goal that gave the Browns a slightly more tenuous 23-10 lead.

It looked even more tenuous when the Bengals marched right back but they again came up short in the red zone and had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Nugent with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter.

Following a Browns' punt, the Bengals then put together their most effective drive. On 3rd and goal from the Cleveland 7-yard line, Palmer looked to have missed receiver Jordan Shipley in the end zone, but safety T.J. Ward pummeled Shipley with a late helmet-on-helmet and was flagged for the personal foul. Ward probably should have been ejected from the game and will surely be fined substantially. Palmer then shoveled a pass to running back Brian Leonard for a 4-yard touchdown that brought the Bengals back to within 3 points.

But the Bengals couldn't find any more after that and, as a result, look like about the third best team in the AFC North.

The win will surely put a bounce back into the steps of a Browns' team that looked like it might have to endure a very long stretch before victory would come their way. Now the trick of course is to follow it up with another win against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that will have serial offender Ben Roethlisberger back at quarterback. Things never look easy for this team but at least for one weekend nothing looks impossible.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Debate Continues

The current debate surrounding cornerback Eric Wrights’ play last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens serves as a microcosm of the debate around head coach Eric Mangini’s future.

The nub of the issue centers around Mangini’s decision to leave Wright in to fend for himself against Ravens’ receiver Anquan Boldin after it was more than proven that Boldin vs. Wright was the biggest mismatch since Bunny vs. Fudd.

Mangini dismissed any notion of adjusting the defense in response to Wright’s deficiencies, holding on to the notion that rotating the players and perhaps putting a bigger body on Wright would have otherwise disrupted the integrity of the underlying game plan.

To some that underscores exactly why Mangini should be replaced. He just can’t adjust to what a game dictates. To others Mangini should be credited for sticking to his knitting as part of this team’s overall improvement process. Both sides have a point.

One of Mangini’s greatest weaknesses as a head coach, at least to this point, is his inflexibility and Sunday demonstrated it in spades. Wright was both off his game and overmatched and as the minutes wore on it wasn’t going to get any better. Players have bad games and it isn’t a sign of weakness but of strength to acknowledge what every one else can see and then do something about it.

Some have phrased it (e.g. Terry Pluto) in the context that doing something different couldn’t have been any worse. But that obscures the debate. Whatever adjustment Mangini might have made could have been worse for the team only if you think it matters whether the Browns lose by 7 or 27. Professional sports is a bottom line business and while some losses don’t sting as much as others, they all do count the same.

The better question, in a pure business context, would have been to weigh the downside against the possible upside and determine whether whatever risk that downside held was worth the chance to realize the potential upside.

If Mangini had made the adjustment before Boldin’s third touchdown, then perhaps the Browns go on to win the game. That’s the best case scenario. A more likely scenario is that making the adjustment teaches Mangini something about the other players on the roster. Maybe Mangini unearths a latent talent in someone like Mike Adams that he didn’t know was there. Maybe Joe Haden proves he’s ready more quickly than anyone thought. Maybe he comes to realize that no one in his secondary can actually play up to NFL standards.

The point isn’t so much to second guess but to illustrate that making a change didn’t carry any inherently greater risk to the team than staying with the status quo. The additional downside of replacing Wright was minimal while the potential upside was larger. In business, most people would take that risk every time.

Folks willing to go down that road, not coincidentally, fall into the same category as those who think Mangini should be fired and yesterday is not too soon. Their passion is understandable.

But it’s not as if Mangini’s point isn’t well taken, either. Not coincidentally, those who think his point is well taken are willing to give Mangini more time to let his vaunted process take hold since this Browns’ train isn’t going anywhere anytime soon anyway.

To consider Mangini’s side of things, I’m sure he doesn’t think that he’s inflexible. It’s actually much simpler than that. Given what he knew was the outcome anyway, a strong argument could be made that having Wright take his lumps and learn from his mistakes will make a decent player better in the long run. If this year’s results are being judged against the amorphous concept of progress rather than a more concrete barometer, such as success, then taking one’s lumps is part of that process.

There’s only so much one can learn in the classroom. The real lessons are usually learned through trial and error. Making a mess and then being forced to clean it is often the best way to learn how not to make the mess in the first place. That applies as much to someone like Wright as it does to the second year analyst in the cubicle down the hall.
Besides, all of these players need to learn to play within the system they’ve been given. You can argue all you want about whether the system makes any sense, but success isn’t likely to be achieved when the fundamental blueprint is easily abandoned.

If you look at the actual success that either the Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers have had on defense, it comes from the players understanding their roles in the overall scheme. Coaching players toward learning and executing those roles has proven to be a decent recipe for those teams and there’s no reason to think it couldn’t eventually be successful for Cleveland.

So when Mangini says he didn’t want to mess with the integrity of the defense by shifting Wright around, it isn’t necessarily fodder for those who want to chop his head off and move on to the next pretender in line to be the coach of this team.

When the day comes for the people who get paid to judge Mangini’s overall performance, club president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert, Mangini’s actual boss, they will have plenty to consider and it goes well beyond just a little inflexibility in one instance. It has more to do with a track record.

Asked Wednesday what he thought Peyton Hillis’ big day last Sunday might mean for his future role with the club, Jerome Harrison gave one of the most candid answers imaginable. He said he had no idea because he has no idea what his role really is on the team and never really has.

If that’s true, that’s at least as big of indictment on Mangini for those ready to prosecute him anyway as is his inflexibility on mid-game defensive adjustments that include personnel changes.

Consider for example how that kind of statement really undercuts Mangini’s argument against removing Wright during the Ravens game. At its core Mangini was basically saying that Wright and his colleagues on defense have very defined roles and, absent injury, it’s best not to upset that apple cart.

Yet on offense you have a key player, a running back, telling the media that he doesn’t even understand what his role is on the team. Mind you Harrison wasn’t really complaining, just explaining. He doesn’t know if he’s supposed to be a feature back, a change of pace back or a former back, meaning he’s never really sure how to prepare.

At the very least this dichotomy speaks to an inconsistency of approach that is ultimately damaging to the team and its morale.

When Mangini was pushing the “Mangini Process™” last season and saw some veterans, like Jamal Lewis, bristle, it was over this very issue. And yet here it is a year later and that doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

The much bigger picture to all this is that even with all its other problems, such as a disturbing lack of NFL-caliber talent, at the center of the Browns’ current woes is still a coach arguably with an identity and, perhaps more damning, a credibility problem. If that is really the case, it won’t matter how much fans scream for his ouster. His ticket to elsewhere is probably already punched and his departure is just a question of finding the right timing.