Sunday, November 28, 2010

Barely Scraping By

The best measure of a team's progress is not always how many times it plays above its abilities. Sometimes the best measure is how a team plays when it's expected to win. The Cleveland Browns went into Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers as a prohibitive favorite for one of the few times this season and instead played down to their level of competition, if that's possible when you're only 3-7, and eked out a 24-23 field goal when the normally reliable Carolina kicker John Kasey missed a 42-yard field goal as time expired.

To say it never should have come to that is an understatement on the level of describing the Michigan Wolverines football program has challenged. It was a game the Browns should have won easily against a team they thoroughly dominated in the first half; a team that had only scored 20 points one other time this season.

The Panthers were able to get into the position for a winning field goal when Jimmy “Don't Call Me Brady'” Clausen was able to move his team from its own 4-yard line down to the Cleveland 24 with 56 seconds remaining and no time outs against a Cleveland defense fighting the ghosts of collapses past.

Clausen's mini rally also was aided greatly when the always random Rob Ryan, Cleveland's defensive coordinator, was just random enough to forgo a prevent defense in favor of pressuring Clausen. It left linebacker Chris Gocong on running back Mike Goodson and Goodson then turned a rather routine sideline pass designed to stop the clock into an amazing 32-yard run. Clausen then hit receiver Brandon LaFell for 23 more yards that stopped the clock with 5 seconds remaining, although it appeared that LaFell was down within the field of play which would have allowed the clock to run out.

That bit of Irish luck set up what should have been some heroics for both Clausen and Kasey and instead turned into a nightmare akin, but not on the same level as, the meltdown suffered by Boise State Saturday night.

The last minute theatrics notwithstanding, let's dispense with some of the obvious. The Panthers are an awful team. They are Cleveland Browns circa 2008 and 2009 awful. All season they've played with little passion or emotion knowing full well that they do not have the personnel to compete. Their fate is in the hands of mediocre running backs and another Notre Dame quarterback that looks like adjusting to the next level will be a significant challenge. Their linebackers seem almost clueless on even the most basic of play action passes and the secondary tackles like they are trying not to break a nail.

Let's also dispense with this. The Panthers should have been out of the game halfway through the second quarter when Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis scored his third touchdown of the game. When a team is 10 games into the season and has scored 20 points only once, it would seem a miracle on the order of Grilled Cheezus if they could match the Browns' point total after the third Hillis touchdown. Besides, given how things were going, you just knew the Browns could always score some more. Right? Well, not exactly.

A second half in which Jake Delhomme nearly justified every reason Carolina head coach John Fox let him go this last off season, coupled with some poor play by the offensive line against a very average defense, a defense of their own that is prone to collapsing at the worst possible moments and a few very questionable coaching decisions, put the game in doubt until Phil Dawson hit a 41-yard field goal with just under 3 minutes remaining.

From there it was a nail biter this defense always promises, though it shouldn't have been either. With Carolina needing to get into field goal range Clausen showed Carolina fans that the “new Delhomme” may be the same as the “old Delhomme” as he threw an interception to cornerback Joe Haden with 1:27 remaining to effectively seal the victory.

Of course, the operative word there is “effectively” because Carolina still had 3 time outs remaining and when the Browns couldn't get a first down, they punted with just over a minute remaining. Reggie Hodges punt bounced out at the 4-yard line setting up the Nantucket sleigh ride that was that final minute before the Casey miss secured the Browns' 4th win of the season. That miss and a bundle of other mistakes that make the Panthers the Panthers dropped them to 1-10 on the season.

Fox, the network and not the Carolina Panthers head coach John, knew this wasn't exactly a marquee match up. They assigned Chris Rose and Torry Holt to the game as the announcers. Rose has the kind of lazy, laconic tone that is more suited for narrating nature films and Holt, well, the best that can be said is maybe he'll get better behind the mike. It was his first network game and he showed that maybe he's better than Matt Millen if only because Holt stuck to the very basics of analysis while Millen is busy trying to be cute.

Until the second half, which we'll get to, believe me, the Panthers had one highlight and it was their first drive and with it they broke a couple of tendencies for both teams. The Panthers hadn't scored a first quarter point all season and the Browns' defense hadn't yielded an opening drive touchdown in 23 straight games. But the Panthers came out running very effectively through a porous Cleveland front seven. Goodson was finding the holes his offensive line was opening and Clausen hit a key third down pass to keep the drive along. And just like that the Panthers had a 7-0 lead stunning themselves, the Browns, and fans in both North Carolina and Cleveland.

If there was a gut check time in the game for the Browns, and that's a little dramatic to even suggest of a game of this insignificance, it looked like it would be here. With Jake Delhomme starting at quarterback for the first time since the season opener and against the team that holds his heart strings, no one knew quite what to expect.

But Delhomme played like a veteran, hitting his first 5 passes, including one to Brian “The Ghost” Robiskie,” in driving the Browns' offense right down field. The key pass was a 24-yard pass to Chansi Stuckey that took them down to the Carolina 8-yard line. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll then tried a little trickery as he had Hillis attempt a half back option pass to a wide open Ben Watson in the end zone. Hillis threw behind Watson. Delhomme then was flagged for intentional grounding on the next play setting up a 3rd and goal from the 20-yard line.

As if on cue, though, the Panthers played like their record and were flagged for two penalties on Delhomme's pass to tight end Evan Moore at the end zone, either one of which would give the team a first down. The Browns took the unnecessary roughness call and had it 1st and goal at the Carolina 9-yard line. Hillis then ran it in from their to tie the score at 7-7.

The Browns then scored on their next possession with the help of a Panthers' defense that committed two third down penalties to keep the drive alive and give them the ball at the Carolina 35-yard line. Delhomme then hit Mohamed Massaquoi on a 20-yard pass and Hillis ran it to the 4-yard line. On the next play Hillis then plowed up the middle for his second touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

The Browns' third possession should have pushed the lead further, it just didn't. With the Browns 3rd and inches from Carolina 8-yard line, Daboll eschewed a quarterback sneak for the easy first down and instead had Delhomme hit Moore on a quick hitter. It worked until Moore fumbled on the 2-yard line and it was recovered by Jason Williams.

But the Panthers couldn't get a first down and were forced to punt. With Cleveland taking over at their own 40-yard line, Delhomme and Hillis quickly moved in for what turned out to be Hillis' third touchdown of the half on a 6-yard run. It gave the Browns what would seem to be a pretty much insurmountable 21-7 lead.

The Panthers were able to move the ball far enough on their next two drives to get in position for two Kasey 40+ yard field goals that brought the score to 21-13 near the end of the first half. And, oh yea, Delhomme tried to make it more interesting by fumbling deep in Cleveland territory with 33 seconds remaining in the half, but he recovered, effectively ending the half.

With the Panthers now within 8 but Cleveland with the ball to start the second half, this was the Browns' opportunity to smack down an opponent that had been smacked around by most everyone else all season. Instead, Delhomme threw an interception on the half's first play to Jon Beason and suddenly the Panthers had the ball at the Cleveland 32-yard line.

The Panthers, however, again couldn't convert the turnover into points (insert your own Browns-Jaguars joke here) when John Casey missed a 46-yard field goal. The drive ended for the Panthers oddly when head coach John Fox won a challenge but lost a ruling. On a key third down play, Clausen seemingly connected with LaFell. The referee however ruled that LaFell had stepped out of bounds first and then came back in to make the catch, which is a penalty. Fox challenged and was proven correct. LaFell never did step out of bounds. But referee Jeff Triplette ruled that LaFell didn't maintain possession through the catch forcing the Casey field goal attempt.

Not to worry, though. Delhomme wanted to prove that he still bleeds Panthers blue. On his next pass he was intercepted, this time by Captain Munnerlyn (a fabulous name, don't you think?) who sprinted down the sideline for the touchdown, getting the Panthers to within 1 at 21-20.

From there, the Browns and Delhomme went into button down mode. Everyone knew the next drive would feature Hillis, Hillis and more Hillis and maybe a few safe passes, which is exactly what it did feature. It ended as it inevitably would, with a punt.

The Browns used a similar formula on their next drive as well and it had pretty much the same effect, or at least it would have if not for the Panthers running into Reggie Hodges on the punt that gave the Browns enough yardage for the first down. From there the Browns moved further down field but on 4th and 1 from Carolina 25 yard line, head coach Eric Mangini strangely elected not to push it to a 4-point game with a relatively safe field goal from Phil Dawson and instead ran Hillis into the line for no gain, turning it back over to Carolina with 11:33 to play.

And of course what happened next was a predictable as the plot of the next episode of Three and a Half Men. The Panthers drove down just far enough to get into Casey range and this time he connected with a 43-yarder to give the Panters the 23-21 lead. A team that was as utterly beatable as the Panthers were now holding a lead late in the game.

It's probably a measure of how far Delhomme has fallen and how quickly Colt McCoy has risen that Browns fans worldwide were hoping that the task would rest on McCoy and not Delhomme to lead the team back to a victory. Delhomme has a recently history of connecting his passes with players wearing the opposing colors after all. If this were a piece of fiction about a nearly washed up quarterback with one last shot at redemption then it would be easy to write that Delhomme buckled his chin strap, went into the huddle and told the team that he'll lead them to victory and then did just that. But this isn't a piece of fiction, and thus those preceding sentences will be lost forever.

Delhomme more or less did his job, going 5-5 on the next drive but he was done in a bit by Mangini who did something even stranger then going for it on 4th and 1 instead of trying to extend the lead. On 1st down from the Carolina 33 yard line, Delhomme completed a pass for 8 ½ yards to Robiskie. The Panthers were offside. If they had accepted the penalty, the Browns would have had it 1st and 5 at the Carolina 28 yard line and 3 attempts to get the first. Instead they declined and then couldn't get the extra 1 ½ yards when Hillis was stopped short and then Delhomme was as well on a sneak. This time they smartly went to Dawson who kicked the 41 yard field goal that gave the Browns the 24-23 lead with under 3 minutes remaining, setting up a wild finish that at least allowed Browns fans to still smile when it was all over.

For his part, Delhomme didn't show too many signs of rust. There were a few of course and the interceptions were just the garden variety ones fans have come to expect. On the day he was 24-35 for 245 yards and those two interceptions. He rediscovered Robiskie and Massaquoi as Robiskie had 7 catches for a robust 50 yards and Massaquoi had 4 catches for 40 yards.

Hillis had an impressive 131 yards and 3 touchdowns but somehow it seemed less impressive because he was twice stopped short on key runs late in the game that could have secured the victory. That isn't necessarily Hillis' fault, of course, as the offensive line was getting pushed around like a plate of yams at Thanksgiving. Still, it took the shine off a day in which Hillis became the first Cleveland running back since Kevin Mack in 1986 to have 10 rushing touchdowns.

It's a bottom line business and an ugly win is always better then a pretty loss. Yet fans are probably less enthused about this team then they were a few weeks ago after the loss to the Jets. It's just the way it works sometimes. But the Browns' next 3 games are all very winnable and if they can comply fans will forget about this near disaster and how they feel at the moment just as quickly as they forgot about that win and how it felt against the Saints.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mood Swings

Cleveland Browns fans have always been prone to mood swings based upon the latest evidence on the field. But this season more than most, those mood swings have been more dramatic, as if the entire fan base is on anti-depressants and occasionally forgets to take its meds.

Just a week ago the fans were essentially celebrating a loss to the New York Jets. They were buoyed by the play of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy. They were enthralled that the team seemed to be able to not just take a punch but deliver a few as well. There was also the context of a particularly 4 tough weeks against arguably the league’s 4 best teams and the Browns emerging from it 2-2.

Sure there was the usual grousing about cornerback Eric Wright who is in the midst of the worst free agent season on record. But that was tempered by the overwhelming positives, the usual comment being that this team is fun to watch again.

Fast forward a week and the pendulum has certainly swung in the other direction. The fans still like McCoy (what’s not to like?) but for the love of God how do you get 6 turnovers and lose the game? The grousing about Wright and the rest of the defense grew more vocal as it let Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew turn an almost meaningless screen pass into a 75-yard run. The run game sucks again and Brian Daboll is also, again, an idiot.

Time for some perspective:

This team is neither nearly as good as the fans thought a week ago nor is it as bad as it appeared to be on Sunday. This is a team that simply doesn’t have enough talent to win more games than it will lose.

The criticism of Daboll and his play-calling on Sunday is actually a good jumping off spot for this larger point. Terry Pluto and Tony Grossi gave voice to the frustration that many later expressed when they both wondered in print why Daboll kept running Peyton Hillis despite the fact that it wasn’t really working. Hillis had 21 carries for 48 yards on Sunday so there is some support for the premise.

The answer is simple. Let’s start with the micro view.

The Jacksonville defensive line hadn’t played like that at any other point in the season. They are mediocre at best and have the statistics to back that up. Moreover, a running game doesn’t develop in just one play or one series. It often doesn’t develop in just one quarter. Often times those 3 and 4 yard gains early in the game turn into 6 and 7 yard gains later in the game. To get to that point you have to demonstrate a level of commitment.

Hillis has run well all season. His style is such that at any moment he’s likely to break through the usual arm tackles and take off chunks of yardage with each carry. Moreover, Hillis did have 6 receptions for 95 yards, so that demonstrates in some fashion that he was causing problems for the Jacksonville defense. That kind of running would make any offensive coordinator continue to stick with running Hillis into the line and around the edges.

Now for the macro view.

The real story is that the game plan looked like it did because what options did Daboll really have? Sure there are guys on the roster that have certain titles, like running back and receiver. But that doesn’t mean they actually perform those functions. You could put a helmet on Fatty Arbuckle and call him a running back but that doesn’t mean he’s going to gain you any yards.

Daboll really had no one to rely on other than McCoy and Hillis in the first place. Hillis’ replacement, Mike Bell, may be the worst running back I’ve ever seen play in the NFL. The Browns got him when they traded Jerome Harrison to Philadelphia in a deal in which it was suggested that all either player needed was a change of scenery.

I don’t know about Harrison, but Bell doesn’t just need a change of scenery, he needs a change of vocations. The Browns would be no worse off running Shaun Rogers into the line occasionally to spell Hillis.

And Bell is the second best back on the active roster! Behind him is Thomas Clayton, a practice squad pickup from New England, and someone named Clifton Smith, a player whose status is so tentative that the team hasn’t even assigned him a permanent jersey number. The injury to Montario Hardesty was a bit of a blessing for the development of Hillis but it absolutely ruined the running back depth on this roster and hence the options that come with that.

Then there was the fact that the best receiver on the roster is Josh Cribbs, a converted kick returner still learning the job. He carries the moniker of someone who is dangerous when he gets the ball, but he can’t get it often enough to be considered a consistent weapon, someone other teams have to worry about every play. Besides, he was out Sunday further limiting Daboll’s options.

In his place were Chansi Stuckey, Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. Stuckey and Massaquoi are essentially the same receiver, just different names. Neither has the top end speed to ever be a number one receiver in the league. Indeed neither has the speed to be the number two receiver on most teams. That relegates them to what on other teams would be the third option. But on this team they are the first option which means that each week the other teams’ best cornerbacks are essentially doing the work of a typical nickel back instead. No wonder they can’t get open.

As for Brian Robiskie, I like him for what he did at Ohio State. But it doesn’t look like he’ll be anything other than a decent college player. As a professional opposing teams don’t take him seriously because he doesn’t appear to have the requisite quickness off the line to gain an advantage on whatever linebacker or defensive back is put on him. Indeed, our own quarterbacks don’t take him seriously. It’s almost as if he’s an avatar, existing in theory but not reality.

That leaves the tight ends and there the Browns have a decent complement. But the reason they stand out this season has everything to do with the fact that the Browns don’t have a decent complement of receivers. Ben Watson is a nice option as is Evan Moore. Robert Royal has mostly been a disappointment. Still, in terms of offensive options, this group ranks second behind Hillis.

What you have then is a quarterback who can throw and the only ones open tend to be tight ends in the middle of the field and Hillis out of the backfield. In that scenario it almost doesn’t matter who is calling the plays. The options are painfully limited.

The real lesson here is that you can let the moods swing all you want but in context the fact that this offense has scored as many points as it has demonstrates that Daboll is hardly the problem. Arguably he’s gotten more out of this offense then fans have a right to otherwise expect. It’s just that the fans are too angry at the moment to realize it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Early Onset Indigestion

Some losses are tough. Some are dispiriting. And then there are those like the ones the Cleveland Browns experienced on Sunday in Jacksonville that can't be measured by such traditional concepts. After taking the ball away from the Jacksonville Jaguars 6 (that's not a misprint) times, the Browns still found a way to lose 24-20 and, in the process, give its fans the kind of indigestion that can only come when Mom overcooks the turkey and undercooks the stuffing.

When a football team at virtually any level of competition turns the ball over 6 times, and at one point on 5 straight possessions, they are usually looking up at the wrong end of a gaudy score, like 49-3 or 62-10 or something ridiculous like that. But there they were, the Jaguars, with the ball midway through the 4th quarter when they found themselves down only by 7 but facing a crucial 4th and 1 at the Cleveland 39-yard line. Just before the ball was snapped, the Browns called their first time out, perhaps sensing this might be the most critical play of the game. Not the two T.J. Ward interceptions or the one by Joe Haden. Not the 3 fumble recoveries, but this fourth down.

And when the other team has a running back like Maurice Jones-Drew and you are at the game's most critical point, you have to know where the ball should end up, which it did. Stop him and you have a chance to secure the win that should have been yours anyway. If you don't, well, you get what you deserve.

Jones-Drew got the first down on a carry that put him over 100 yards rushing for the game. And then he found more yards on first down. And then he found even more, getting the ball down to the Cleveland 5-yard line.

The Browns then took their second time out, but this time because they had 12-men on the field, though it easily could be been just to regroup. It was a good break, or so it seemed as the defense then sacked quarterback David Garrard back to the 15-yard line. Tiquan Underwood then dropped a ball near the goal line. But just when it looked like the Browns might escape, Garrard found tight end Marcedes Lewis at the one yard line and he reached the ball over the goal line as he was being tackled by Ray Ventrone. It helped tie a game that should have been a blowout at 17-17 with 3:34 remaining.

Still, there was time.

Starting what looked like it might be their final drive at their 41-yard line with the knowledge firmly entrenched of one offensive failure after another in the second half despite the gift wrapped points the Jaguars were seemingly giving them with each ensuing turnover, McCoy nonetheless would lead the Browns down the field for a go-ahead 41-yard Phil Dawson field goal.

McCoy, battered most of the day by a Jaguars defensive line that was having its way with the Browns' offensive line, completed a 38-yard pass on first down and then on a key 3rd and 4 from the Jacksonville 36-yard line scrambled 18 yards on what appeared to be a bad ankle. But McCoy couldn't get the Browns into the end zone for a touchdown leaving the game in the hands of the defense once again as Dawson drilled the field goal through the center of the uprights.

And just as in overtime against the New York Jets a week ago, the defense couldn't get it done, allowing Jones-Drew to turn a screen pass into a 75-yard play that served as the season's most backbreaking play, supplanting, by the way, the Santonio Holmes overtime touchdown a week before. Jones-Drew was dragged down at the 1-yard line by cornerback Joe Haden, but Jones-Drew cleaned up this minor annoyance a few minutes later with the 1-yard run that gave the Jaguars the lead and the game, 24-20 with just over a minute remaining.

McCoy did a nice job of getting the Browns down the field quickly but the game ended, as did McCoy's 98-pass streak with no interceptions, when safety Sean Considine picked off a pass intended at the 3-yard line that was intended for tight end Ben Watson. It didn't help either that the Browns had squandered their timeouts earlier in the quarter, but the failure to convert on this last drive wasn't what lost the game anyway.

The enduring question of the game may be why the Browns could move the ball so well on their final two possessions when they couldn't move the ball at all for the rest of the second half. After Ward's first interception, which was at the Jacksonville 48-yard line, the Browns quickly went 3-and-out. On Jacksonville's next possession, Haden intercepted and the Browns again went 3-and-out. Garrard fumbled on Jacksonville's next possession and the Browns couldn't get a first down and Phil Dawson missed a 51-yard field goal, his second missed 51-yard field goal of the game.

What was most frustrating about those Browns' possessions was how soundly their offensive line was being beaten by Jacksonville's defensive line. Throw in an occasional blitz and an inability to effectively pick it up which led to McCoy being sacked before he had any real chance to do anything with the ball and you pretty much have it capsulized why the Browns' offense looked like the Browns' offense circa 2008 or 2009 despite being handed one opportunity after another to blow open the game.

In a sense, it was a game as hard fought as the previous week's game and with painfully similar results. But in another sense, it shouldn't have been that kind of game. The difference between good and bad teams in the NFL can often be found in turnover margins and you'd have to go along way back then I'm willing to look at the moment to find a game in which a team with a -5 turnover margin, in the game, still came away with the victory.

Until that bizarrely disappointing second half, the game was shaping up far more traditionally.

The Jaguars opened the scoring with a 47-yard Josh Scobee field goal, but that was just a prelude to one of the more amazing Cleveland Browns' drives in recent memory.

Starting with the ball at their own 8-yard line as a result of a penalty on the kickoff following the Jacksonville field goal, McCoy engineered what would turn out to be a 16-play, 92-yard drive that covered nearly 10 minutes and ultimately gave them a 7-3 lead. It kept their string alive of having a lead in every game this season.

During that drive, the Browns converted 4 third down plays. McCoy was 6-8 on the drive and also scrambled for 10 yards when the Browns were 2nd and 21 on the Jacksonville 44-yard line. It gave the Browns a much more manageable 3rd and 11 which they converted when McCoy hit Mohamed Massaquoi for 14 yards.

After holding the Jaguars on their next drive, Cleveland appeared to be back in business, moving the ball from their own 19 down to the Jacksonville 33-yard line. But the drive died when McCoy and Massaquoi were not only not on the same page but actually reading different books. On a blitz, McCoy threw deep where Massaquoi appeared to be heading but instead Massaquoi broke off his route and the ball bounced harmlessly away. Phil Dawson missed a 51-yard field goal that gave Jacksonville good field position on their own 41-yard line.

But the Jaguars' drive died when they tried to crib a play from Brian Daboll's playbook and had Jones-Drew attempt an option pass. There's a reason why running backs don't play quarterback and Jones-Drew perfectly illustrated it as he soft-tossed the ball in the direction of receiver Mike Thomas as Abe Elam stepped in for the easy interception. The Browns weren't able to capitalize, however, going a quick 3-and out. It turned out to be foreshadowing, in a big way.

That gave the Jaguars an opportunity to put together their own long drive and take the lead at halftime when Garrard found Thomas on a 5-yard pass to help give the Jaguars a 10-7 lead. Thomas had gotten inside of defensive back Sheldon Brown for the touchdown. The drive covered 68 yards in 13 plays and used up most of the last 5 minutes of the half.

After an exchange of possessions to open the second half, the Browns regained the lead when Elam stripped Jones-Drew at the end of an 8-yard run. Elam, who was on the bottom of the pile, scooped up the ball and walked into the end zone as the other 21 players on the field stood by, each with a look on their face that said “wasn't the play over?” It wasn't as the referees signaled touchdown. On the replay the ball was indeed fumbled but a solid case could have been made that Elam was down by contact. Oddly the Jaguars appeared to give no thought to challenging the call as Dawson kicked the extra point that gave the Browns the 14-10 lead.

The Browns seemed to be right back in business when Ward intercepted a Garrard pass that had bounced off Thomas and was down at the Jacksonville 48-yard line. But they went 3-and out with McCoy getting sacked on third down and were forced to punt.

But the Browns' defense proved to be as resilient as Beef Jerkey when Haden got an interception off Garrard 5 plays later. Haden had a nice run to near the Jacksonville 10-yard line but the ball was stripped at the last moment and fumbled backward, where Chris Gocong recovered. On 3rd and 11 and the Jaguars blitizing as if Rob Ryan were calling the plays, McCoy dropped back and attempted to hit no one in particular on what would have amounted to a screen pass. It was nearly intercepted. That set up a 38-yard field goal by Dawson that pushed the Browns lead to 17-10 late in the third quarter.

From there, the Jaguars kept bouncing back from their own self-inflicted wounds just long enough to tie it on the Lewis touchdown and then take the lead on the game on the Jones-Drew touchdown.

For McCoy, the game was a learning experience, if nothing else. Subjected to repeated pressure, he did wilt and mostly handled it well when he wasn't otherwise secretly hoping he wouldn't get injured in the process. He was 17-28 for 241 yards and one touchdown. He also had two key scrambles but was sacked 6 times. Running back Peyton Hillis, facing his near-twin in Jones-Drew, was far less effective. Bottled up all day by a swarming Jacksonville defense, he had only 48 yards on 21 carries, though he had the one touchdown on the McCoy shovel pass at the 10-yard line.

Garrard, far more experienced than McCoy, wasn't really much better. He was 20-24 for 254 yards, 2 touchdowns but 3 interceptions. The difference was Jones-Drew. He had 132 yards rushing on 24 carries and had 87 more yards on 3 pass receptions, the bulk of which came on that 75-yard screen play.

The Browns haven't really been favored in any game this season so it's difficult to say they lost a game they were supposed to win. Still, circumstances sometimes dictate when you should win and those circumstances so dictated on Sunday. But though this team is progressing, it isn't yet good enough. They are a better team with a better future than last year's model. But at 3-7, it's hard to argue that their record isn't what it should be.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lessons of the Past

History isn’t always repeatable, but it is instructive. Cleveland Browns, 2010 edition, meet the Cleveland Browns, 1985 edition.

Though the current NFL season is just past its midpoint and there is enough that can happen in the remaining 7 games to make any sort of historical evaluation impossibly premature, enough has happened so far to give dying fans enough water to actually begin quenching their thirst.

The Browns have completed a very difficult portion of their schedule against the league’s elite teams and came out of it a very respectable 2-2. The formula for getting to the playoffs in football is more or less the same as it is in baseball: beat up the bums and split with the contenders.

The reason the Browns aren’t in the playoff hunt right now is because they haven’t beaten up the bums, at least not yet. They are, however, more or less splitting with the contenders and it’s that fact that has gotten everyone’s attention. The clues to whether or not they can follow the formula more closely comes in the form of that 1985 season.

While the 1985 and 2010 Browns aren’t quite identical twins, they at least are fraternal. There are plenty of parallels on which reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

Both seasons were set up with miserable seasons the previous years. In 1984, the Browns went 5-11 and Sam Rutigliano was fired mid year and replaced by Marty Schottenheimer. The 2009 Browns certainly weren’t any picnic with things getting so bad at one point that Randy Lerner decided to essentially demote head coach Eric Mangini and hire Mike Holmgren as team president late in the year. In each case, that set the table for what followed next.

The 1984 Browns had significant building blocks already in place. Ozzie Newsome was in his 6th season. The offensive line was still relatively solid, although it would be the last seasons for Doug Dieken and Joe DeLamielleure. Earnest Byner was a rookie.

The defense was solid, featuring the likes of Bob Golic, Clay Matthews, Chip Banks, Frank Minnifield, Hanford Dixon and Al Gross and rookie Don Rogers. Matt Bahr and Steve Cox were the kickers.

Indeed when you go through that 2004 lineup, you’re left scratching your head as to how it won only 5 games. Oh yea, now I remember. Paul McDonald was the quarterback. They used the offseason to remedy that glaring weakness, manipulating their way to getting Bernie Kosar in the supplemental draft.

The 2009 Browns didn’t have nearly the same number of building blocks as their 1984 counterparts and thus their record makes much more sense. But there were some decent pieces in place, including players like Joe Thomas, Josh Cribbs, Phil Dawson and a young but developing linebacking corps. They lacked receiving talent (still do) but perhaps more importantly, they lacked a credible quarterback.

The Browns took a short, mid and long-term approach to solving that problem in the offseason. They signed Jake Delhomme as a short-term answer. They brought in Seneca Wallace, a 6-year veteran back up, with the idea that Cleveland might be his best shot to earn the status of starter. They then drafted Colt McCoy in the third round. McCoy was certainly high profile, but the NFL cognoscenti convinced themselves that he had a weak arm so he dropped in value and into the Browns’ laps.

The Browns also tried to address their running game. Despite his accomplishments, this coaching staff, like the one before them, never quite felt the love for Jerome Harrison. They decided that Peyton Hillis, as hard-nosed of a runner as exists in the game at the moment, was more to their liking and went out and got him by trading Brady Quinn.

The signing of Bernie Kosar, the drafting of Kevin Mack, the emergence of Brian Brennan, the leadership of Gary Danielson and the maturing of the blocks already in place helped turned the 1985 Browns into AFC Central champs, albeit with a very modest 8-8 record.

While the signs were certainly present during that season that the team was turning back around from the disaster of 1984, it still wasn’t quite yet a winner. The entire season was played around the .500 mark. It was just that a very mediocre division allowed the Browns to emerge as champs.

But that emergence was actually the key to its ascent. It allowed them to face the mighty Miami Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs. The Dolphins had finished the season 12-4 and were favored to win the Super Bowl. But in that playoff game, the Browns raced to a 21-3 third quarter lead mostly on the strength of Byner’s running. But the Dolphins’ defense finally stiffened, the Dolphins’ offense work up, and the Browns ended up losing the game 24-21.

Still, the disappointment of that loss, a loss that was expected, buoyed the team and its fans. They entered the 1986 season still basking in the previous season’s afterglow and went on to win 12 games. Kosar had a game for the ages against the New York Jets in the first round and well, we all know what happened the following week against Denver.

This year’s Browns aren’t likely going to win the AFC North. They have 6 losses already and their division is much stronger than the 1985 version. Indeed, it is more likely than not that this team will end up with a losing record.

But games like the last three, especially the last two, have a way of transforming a franchise. Much like 1985, various events this season have coalesced to create a kind of excitement in this team that has appeared only sporadically in the last 10 years.

The injuries to Delhomme and Wallace conspired to put McCoy in a spot even top management wasn’t relishing. And instead of things going predictably bad, they went better than anyone had a right to expect. Whatever McCoy’s physical shortcomings might be that caused him to drop in the draft, he has more than made up for them in the form of a presence, an “it” factor that suggests that for once the Browns are off the market for a quarterback.

But he’s also aided by Hillis, who likewise has exceeded even the most optimistic projections that anyone could dare conjure. Together, those two are aided by an offensive line that is actually getting better, not worse. And all those elements are being aided by a defense that is better than the sum of their parts, week in and week out. In other words, the elements that need to work together are doing just that. The bugs are still being worked out, but the finished product can actually be clearly imagined.

As a result, this team enters each subsequent week with a swagger, a confidence that suggests it clearly understands that better days are ahead.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that these Browns will go on to become one of the league’s elite next season like the 1985 Browns did, but the fact that the concept can be contemplated without garnering a derisive laugh says something about where this team is headed.

Let’s just hope, for all our sakes, that if these Browns eventually do end up going down those same roads, they aren’t facing today’s equivalent to John Elway in the backfield. Another 25 years of purgatory would be difficult to take, especially at my age.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Shiv to the Ribs

It was a sudden ending to a game that seemed destined to end in the tie it was supposed to end up in. The Ryan Brothers, Rex for the New York Jets and Rob for the Cleveland Browns seemed locked in their own personal battle, as if fighting over the last turkey leg at the Thanksgiving table. Neither was willing to yield to the other but in the end it was Rob's defense succumbing to Rex's offense as Santonio Holmes caught a 37-yard pass from Mark Sanchez with just seconds remaining in overtime to win the battle royale, 26-20.

It could have been worse. It could have been Braylon Edwards with the catch, except for that to happen Sanchez would have had to have confidence that Edwards could make that catch. It's why he went to Holmes.

What set up that winning touchdown was an improbable turn of events that conspired to give the Browns their 6th loss of the season against 3 wins. With the Jets driving but out of field goal range and under two minutes remaining in overtime, Sanchez threw deep to Edwards but cornerback Joe Haden had the inside coverage and easily intercepted at the Cleveland 3-yard line. It was probably more effective than the likely punt would have been anyway.

That left 1:35 remaining in the game and the Browns decided, rightly, to try and win the game instead of milking the clock and settling for a tie, a tie that would have meant nothing as opposed to a win that would have meant everything. (Note: at some point someone will whine about how the loss cost the Browns position in the next NFL draft and then we can spend the next 10 years debating what decision the Browns would have made with that pick instead of the one they had and, well, you get the idea.)

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called for a pass on first down and Colt McCoy overthrew tight end Ben Watson deep, which stopped the clock. The Jets' defense was ready for the inevitable hand off to Peyton Hillis on second down and it yielded just 3 yards. With the Jets waiting to utilize their last time out, the Browns took the clock down to 41 seconds and called time. Then on third down McCoy dropped back to pass and as the pocket collapsed he darted back to the line of scrimmage, setting up fourth down. Reggie Hodges hit a 53-yard punt but returner Jim Leonhard returned it for 18 yards, back to the Cleveland 37-yard line, setting up the shiv that Sanchez and Holmes delivered to the ribs of the Browns and their fans, not to mention the bragging rights Rex now has over Rob.

It could have gone the other way. After the Jets were unable to score on the first possession, the Browns took over and seemed to be moving in for the victory. After gaining one first down, McCoy found Chansi Stuckey down the right sideline for what would have been another and then some as Stuckey danced his way to the Jets' 32-yard line and into the outer edges of kicker Phil Dawson's field goal range. As he was doing so, however, Stuckey had the ball stripped and it was recovered by Antonio Cromartie, killing the Browns' best chance to win the game.

The Jets weren't able to capitalize on the turnover when kicker Nick Folk missed a 47-yard field goal, his third miss of the day. The Browns took over at their 37-yard line but couldn't manage a first down and had to punt. On the Jets' next series came the Sanchez interception which, in retrospect, set up the victory.

As difficult of an ending as it was, the Browns did well to get to that point in the first place. Trailing 17-13 at halftime, the Jets took the opening kick in the second half and seemingly held on to it for the entire quarter. Actually it was a 19-play drive that covered over 10 minutes.

The only problem for the Jets is that they had nothing to show for it as Folk hit the right upright. As tiring as the drive was for the Browns' defense, the outcome had to leave them a bit energized. The Browns' offense, however, had been sitting idle and apparently needed more of a boost as it quickly went 3-and-out, giving the Jets the ball back once again.

From there the teams traded punches, counter punches and punts until the Jets pushed the lead to 20-13 with another clock eating drive that lasted over 8 minutes and ended with a Folk 24-yard field goal. It left just 2:36 remaining in the game.

With only 14 total yards under their belts for the entire second half and not having put together one scoring drive with 2 minutes remaining the entire season, McCoy put his own little dagger in the guts of the Jets as he led a stunning drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Massaquoi with 44 seconds remaining. Dawson's extra point tied the game at 20-20. On the Jets' next drive, they were content to settle for overtime and regroup.

The second half, with the Jets controlling the clock, lacked the intensity of the first half, at least until the last Browns' drive. But the first half had the kind of atmosphere that's been missing from this franchise for years now, an atmosphere that underscored that this was a game in November that had meaning. Heck, CBS sent it's number one broadcasting team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to cover the game and at the very least they came away convinced that whatever this Browns' team lacks in talent it makes up for in chemistry.

The Jets won the coin flip and opted to kick off to start the game, hoping to establish its defense early. Not quite. The Browns' offense, at least for that first half, kept the Jets defense on their heels, just as they had with the New England Patriots' defense last week and the New Orleans Saints' the week before that.

After starting the drive on their 16-yard line, McCoy and Hillis led the offense to the Jets' 17-yard line but the Browns were forced to settle for a 35-yard Dawson field goal and the early 3-0 lead.

The Browns then tried to catch the Jets napping by attempting an on-side kick. The problem: some of the Browns' were napping as well. Haden looked as surprised as the Jets that the onside was being tried and was unable to secure the ball as it bounded out of bounds. It gave the Jets a short field which they converted into a 27-yard Nick Folk field game that tied the game at 3-3. Sanchez tried to find Edwards late in the middle of the field and the pass was broken up by T.J. Ward. Defensive back Abe Elam then gave Edwards a little shove, just because he could.

The Browns' next drive started promisingly but ended quickly when Hillis lost his 4th fumble of the season at the Browns' 31-yard line. Sanchez and the Jets couldn't convert a first down however and Folk's 48-yard field goal went wide right.

The Browns ended up getting the ball at their own 40-yard line or about 9 yards further than where Hillis fumbled in the first place. Hillis quickly made amends as he bulled his way through the Jets, eventually scoring on a 12-yard run that was sprung by a Lawrence Vickers block. It gave the Browns a 10-3 lead.

The drive was notable for another wrinkle the Browns' offense installed this week. It featured Hillis taking a direct snap, handing off to Cribbs who then gave the ball to Massaquoi on an end-around. It worked, but Hillis oddly was called for a hold and it put the Browns in a 1st and 20 from the Jets' 30-yard line. McCoy got almost all of it back on the next play when he hit Watson on an 18-yard crossing pattern, setting up the Hillis touchdown run.

But the Jets came right back as Sanchez hit a wide open Jeremy Cotchery on a 25-yard touchdown pass that again tied the game. The Browns' responded but not quite in kind, trading touchdowns for field goals. With the ball at the Jets' 42-yard line, McCoy hit Cribbs on a short route that Cribbs turned into a 37-yard play. It took the ball to the Jets' 5-yard line but Cribbs was injured on the play and did not return. The Browns were not able to punch it in from there and settled for a 23-yard field goal that gave them a 13-10 lead.

The Jets again came right back on the strength of LaDanian Tomlinson's running and eventually scored when Sanchez ran it in from the Browns' 1-yard line on what appeared to be a broken play near the end of the first half. It gave the Jets the 17-13 halftime lead.

Still the game was well within reach, never more so when McCoy led the Browns down the field to tie the game in regulation. But the Jets aren't an easy team to beat and did what good teams do, hung in there until someone, anyone could make a play.

If there was a concern that McCoy might eventually start to show the jitters a rookie is supposed to show, especially in a game like this, there shouldn't have been. Except for a fluttering sideline pass to open the game that missed its mark badly, McCoy again played above his experience level, the best evidence of which was that drive at the end of regulation. It helps certainly, just as it helped Ben Roethlisberger when he was a rookie, to have a running back that is difficult to bring down and an offensive line that can open holes for the run and protect the quarterback on the pass, but to this point McCoy still looks special.

For the game he was 18-31 for 205 yards and that late touchdown. Again, he went without an interception and took the best pounding the Jets' defense could dish out and came back for more.

Hillis, bottled up by a Jets defense that stiffened in the second half, still had 82 yards on 19 carries and the 1 touchdown.

For the Jets, Sanchez was 27-44 for 299 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Tomlinson and Shonn Green split the carries at running back with Tomlinson gaining 57 yards on 18 carries and Green gaining 72 more on 20 carries.

Oh yea, then there is Edwards. After some initial jawing early in the game, he was mostly quiet with 4 catches for 59 yards. A few of those catches helped the Jets continue drives but he was held mostly in check by an inspired Browns' defensive backfield.

It's a disappointing loss but there are a number of ways to look at it. But before getting to that let's dispense with any sort of talk about moral victories or trite phrases like “they have nothing to be ashamed of” though that is true.

The Browns have now shown enough as a team through 9 games of this season to be out of the moral victory category. When they win, it is not viewed as a surprise. And when they lose fans have a right to now be upset, especially when a game like this gets away from them.

That said, there still is context. The Browns went toe-to-toe with a far more talented Jets team for 74 minutes and 36 seconds. They did it with Cribbs on the sideline the whole second half and overtime. They did it with a rookie quarterback whose best, most reliable, most consistently open targets are tight ends and wide receivers. In other words, they did it without the benefit of the bevy of playmakers dotting the the Jets' roster.

It was that last 24 seconds, just like the dwindling minutes and seconds in the seasons' first few games, where the Browns' defense buckled when it needed to tighten. They'll learn, certainly, but it will also take some more firepower on this team before they start winning more of these types of games.

And so the Browns' enter another week of woulda and shoulda instead of on the backs of a momentum train that has been carrying the team to emotion-filled highs. But it was another week of character building, another week when they played with the league's best and gave them more than they had a right to expect. And the good news is, with a more favorable schedule in the second half, there still are plenty of reasons to get excited about the rest of the season, even if the playoffs are just a technical possibility at this point.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Lingering Items--Transformative Edition

Anyone who wonders why New York Jets receiver Braylon Edwards doesn't just shut up is asking the wrong question. The better question is will he ever shut up and the answer is no.

Edwards, you see, is an attention whore. He craves the spotlight like a Kardashian and has roughly the same level of societal value and accomplishment. He won't shut up because he can't. Everything about Edwards screams "look at me!"

Nothing Edwards said this week about Cleveland, the Browns or the fans should be much of a surprise. He is a wannabe trying to further the brand of the petulant loudmouth receiver that Terell Owens pioneered years ago. Edwards like so many of his colleagues these days thinks that the road to riches is paved with attention.

He's right and he's wrong.

If you're a Hollywood bimbo you can cultivate an increasingly needy entertainment media and get noticed. Eventually it will lead to a reality show where a few people will tune in a few times for the same reason people stop and look at car wrecks. The cable company will be happy because they need just a handful of viewers to survive anyhow.

But every such star burns out eventually and in order to keep it going as long as possible they have to find new ways to be even more outrageous. That’s the trajectory Edwards is on at the moment.

But if you're a professional athlete and not a real housewife of some glamorous city eventually you'll need some real accomplishments or quickly you'll be forgotten among the many others that actually have done something with their lives.

That's where Edwards is right now in his career. His one good season has mostly been forgotten because he hasn't come close to duplicating it since. Indeed, he's far more known for his drops than his catches which is the exact opposite of what a receiver should be known for.

So he's resorted to living large, running his mouth and otherwise being outrageous in order to remain relevant, angling for column inches in New York tabloids. Even Edwards' DUI earlier this season seems calculated in context.

That's why his statements this week in preparation for this week's game against the Browns is so laughable. Maybe he means half of what he said. Maybe he means all of it. But the larger point was to simply call attention to himself; make this game about him and no one else.

Indeed it's probably driving Edwards batty that too much focus is on the Rex Ryan/Rob Ryan dynamic. So he figures that if he can throw a few bricks through a few windows of a few Browns fans, he'll get the headlines he craves.

The best thing to do in this case is to avoid feeding the beast. The worst thing that could happen to Edwards is not a dropped pass or two, which would be typical. It would be walking back to the team bus knowing that the fans in Cleveland could care less about what he does or what he says.

I'm sure a good many fans have already taken the Edwards bait, painted some semi-humorous signs and plan on booing him every time he steps on the field. All that will accomplish is to create a headline for him that doesn't depend on the outcome of the game. It will be mission accomplished.

If you really want to get under Edwards’ skin, then there is no better way then to just yawn and move on. Remember, the opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference.


New York Jets head coach/class clown Rex Ryan opined this week that his twin brother Rob will be a head coach soon, perhaps even next year. It wasn't just a case of brotherly love talking.

Rob Ryan will indeed be a head coach. Unless the Browns' defense falls into the lake during the second half of the season, his work here in Cleveland is approaching Anne Sullivan territory.

With 8 games under their belts there are some conclusions we can draw about the defense. The linebackers are a solid group, the best group in a generation in fact. The defensive line is average. The secondary is average at best.

But the unit is playing better than the sum of its parts and that leads back to Ryan. His combination of brashness, recklessness and hubris has caused this group to play better than they are. That’s always the best measure of a coach.

There's also a bit of mad scientist about Ryan. He takes unadvisable risks repeatedly, which is what makes him dangerous to opposing teams. Yes he is crazy enough to leave Eric Wright on an island again. He tinkers with formations as if he's choreographing an off Broadway show of experimental dance. With Ryan there is no conventional wisdom.

In the process, he’s confused some of the best quarterbacks in the league. That kind of stuff gets a person noticed, in a good way.

But the reason he'll be viewed as more than a crazy uncle has everything to do with his brother. As Rex noted in his press conference, his success will pave the way for Rob. They are both a little off center and that tends to clash with the conservative sensibilities of most owners. But watching it work for Rex in New York will go a long way to convincing some other button-downed owner to take a chance on Rob.

As it looks now, Eric Mangini's job is safe in Cleveland, which means there won’t be room for Rob to move up any further.. And as big of a task as Mangini has in front of him just trying to turn the franchise, one of the keys to his success will be finding an appropriate successor to Ryan. That planning needs to start now.

Tony Grossi of the Plain Dealer is theorizing that a victory over the Jets this weekend could very well be the transformative victory that Mangini needs to essentially cross an important threshold. It begs the question: what, then, was the victory against New England?

Grossi's hypothesis is mostly premised on Mangini's relationship with the Jets both as a former employer and as a person who essentially handed them Edwards and quarterback Mark Sanchez.

The problem with the hypothesis is that those matters are not really baggage that Mangini is carrying, at least when compared to the complex relationship he has with his former mentor, Bill Belichick.

That's why Grossi's analysis is about a week late. Mangini’s transformative victory was over the New England Patriots. Watershed events can’t be easily predicted, they just happen. The way the New England game unfolded a number of things became much clearer. First, the Browns are a much better coached team then most of us were willing to admit. Maybe it was a trap game for the Patriots, but the Browns beat the Patriots not because they were taken lightly but because they were better prepared.

Second, the Browns looked like they may have found a quarterback. Colt McCoy, whose performance thus far has been minimized in some quarters, put together defining drives late in the game that build the kind of confidence that simply can't be manufactured. Third, despite an overall lack of talent, the Browns present a unified front, a kind of us against the world mentality. The players for the most part are on the same page and that kind of cohesion can carry a team to far greater heights then a better talented team that is running in different directions. All you need to do is compare the Browns to the more talented Cincinnati Bengals to see the difference.

All of those elements seemed to coalesce against the Patriots. That doesn't mean the Browns are going to win the rest of their games this season. They could very well lay an egg against the Jets on Sunday. But when the story of this season and the next are written, it won't be the Jets game that people look to as the turning point. It will be the Patriots game.


Watching Wes Welker and then Ndamukong Suh kick extra points last week because the starting kickers were hurt on this team leads to this week's question to ponder: If Phil Dawson got hurt during a game, how likely is it that Josh Cribbs would be called on to kick?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Mangini 2.0

It turns out that the biggest obstacle Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini had to overcome was himself. In a revealing portrait by Greg Bishop in Sunday’s New York Times, Mangini basically admitted that most of his trouble is self-inflicted.

If that’s the case and if the latest accounts about a changed Mangini are correct, then perhaps Mangini really is coming into his own as a NFL coach with a real future. Sunday’s career-defining win by the Browns against the New England Patriots is a significant step in that direction.

The assent of Mangini 2.0 came as such assents often do, through a humbling. Mangini had a right to be heady when he became the league’s youngest head coach at 35 years of age. The descent, as such descents often do, was precipitated when that headiness turned to cockiness.

According to the story, Mangini literally had no idea how to actually be a NFL head coach. He had never drawn up a practice schedule. He had limited experience before the media. As much as he wanted the job, it probably came much sooner than he expected.

So Mangini went about emulating the only real teacher he had, Bill Belichick. He did so when it came to preparing his team and he did so when it came to interacting with his team. He was a pain in the ass to the players and worse to the media. Just like Bill.

In the process, though, Mangini says he completely lost his sense of who he was. In the story, Mangini allows that he brought much too much of this on himself mostly by not sticking to his core principles. He didn’t favor the signing of Brett Favre for example while he was in New York and yet didn’t speak up. As suspected, he left New York thinking that he was the fall guy for the Favre signing instead of seeing a far bigger picture developing in front of him.

The story doesn’t touch too much on last season in Cleveland, but if last season had not played out exactly as it did, it’s pretty clear Mangini would be unemployed to this day. He came on like gangbusters last season, from his first interaction with Shaun Rogers to the seeming pettiness of his rules even before the first practice was held. He then bought too much into his own genius by first bringing in and then firing his close friend George Kokinis, taking over the job duties in the interim. He remained ever the reluctant communicator.

With the season spinning out of control, owner Randy Lerner stepped in and did the only sensible thing he could have done short of firing Mangini. He determined that his franchise lacked credibility, internally or externally, and sought out a voice that would change all that.

Lerner found it of course in Mike Holmgren. If the public criticism Mangini was receiving last year was tough for him to take, imagine how difficult it had to be for him to hear from Lerner that the Browns were bringing in Holmgren to essentially repudiate damn near everything Mangini was trying to build, at least in the front office. Mangini certainly acted last year like he was that credible voice and then comes Lerner, seeing the franchise about to burn again, deciding that whatever virtues Mangini had personally, he wasn’t resonating as the voice of the Browns.

That decision by Lerner to bring in Holmgren may have been borne out of frustration but it provided a whole new lease on life to Mangini. Unburdened by all of the responsibilities he took on himself and for which he was ill suited, at least at the time, Mangini suddenly found himself as the head coach and only the head coach of a NFL franchise.

That could have gone either way for Mangini. The fact that it seems to have worked out as well as it did for him is a tribute to the fact that Mangini didn’t become a diva. Instead he engaged in the kind of self-examination that kind of public rebuke tends to force and came out on the other side realizing that he indeed was his own worst enemy.

It was easy to feel a bit sorry for Mangini when reading the Times story. Mangini talked about how difficult last season really was on him, the toll it took on him physically and emotionally. He couldn’t sleep, he was overeating and he was chewing too much tobacco. The self-doubt and self-examination, fueled by an incredibly stressful two years, had literally turned Mangini into a bloated mess.

According to the assistants and colleagues interviewed, Mangini is slowly, surely altering course demonstrating that he is a personality and not just Belichick-not so light.

The first thing Mangini has done is to alter his eating habits and with it his physical appearance. It’s been a success. Mangini is a shadow of his former self. That’s a good sign. I’ve never understood, actually, how coaches can allow themselves to balloon up while presiding over athletes for whom the most common message they send to them is one of discipline. He also allows himself to crack the occasional joke. The players certainly have noticed.

It was evident from preseason that Mangini was more relaxed. But the best evidence of that came after Sunday’s game. Walking to the locker room, Mangini allowed for himself a huge smile, knowing that he had given himself, his team and this city a transformative victory. The old Mangini might have mumbled almost imperceptibly about it being just another game. The new Mangini, the one better in touch with himself, allowed the smile he actually was feeling.

It turns out that Lerner saved Mangini’s job not by simply recommitting to him but by getting Mangini the help that even Mangini might not have realized he needed. Sometimes it’s tough for any of us to admit when we need help because we feel so sane. Even tougher yet is to embrace that help and maybe that will serve as Mangini’s best accomplishment to date.

The Browns are only 3-5 halfway through the season but it is the most optimistic 3-5 record in the league. It is a team clearly on the upswing. More than that, though, it is the kind of team that fits perfectly into the psyche of the average Cleveland fan.

It’s neither a team of superstars nor misfits but of a bunch of guys that seem committed to working hard and getting the best out of themselves for the pure satisfaction of what it feels like to overachieve. If it feels like the team Mangini always envisioned then it’s probably because that’s exactly what it is.

It’s just that it was a vision Mangini wasn’t ever going to see clearly until he exorcised some of his own demons that were standing in his path. It’s a work in progress, just like the team he coaches but the signs for once are mostly good. If yesterday really was the culmination of a necessary reinvention, then the Browns really are on the right path because the much wished for stability may finally be at hand.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Dominating Day

If this had been Las Vegas, the Cleveland Browns would have been the player at the craps table with the hot dice. If it had been a prize fight, the Browns would have been the boxer pummeling a club pro as a tune up to a bigger match. But it was a football game and the Browns were simply the team that looked like it had the best record in the NFL instead of playing the team that did in dominating the New England Patriots 34-14 on Sunday.

Playing like they had red bull in their water bottles while the Patriots looked as if they hadn't yet had their morning coffee, the Browns literally overwhelmed the Patriots in every aspect of the game, offense, defense, special teams and coaching. At 3-5, the Browns aren't yet a playoff team yet, but you can at least say this: they are a credible NFL team once again. Welcome back.

The Browns were led mostly by a one two punch of running back Peyton Hillis and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy. Hillis shredded the Patriots defense for 181 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy established himself as a legitimate NFL starter and perhaps the franchise quarterback this team has craved with a bevy of signature plays of his own. The defense played solid throughout and was aided greatly by a Patriots' receiving corps that dropped enough passes to embarrass even Braylon Edwards. The special teams got a big fumble recovery early and rendered the Patriots return teams ineffective. And Eric Mangini, yes Eric Mangini, as beleaguered as any coach in the league, simply out coached his mentor turned tormentor, Bill Belichick, to get the best win in his short Browns' tenure.

From an opening drive that yielded a 38-yard Phil Dawson field goal to a gimmicky end around that Chansi Stuckey turned into a 11-yard touchdown run to a signature drive engineered by McCoy in the third quarter that effectively put the game away early, the Browns demonstrated that they are no longer the probable “W” on opposing team's schedule that they have been for the last few season.

The Patriots may eventually chalk this loss up as just one of those days but they certainly head back home knowing that they had their butts kicked by a team that was a four point home underdog. Quarterback Tom Brady didn't necessarily look as shell shocked as Drew Brees and the Saints two weeks ago, but it didn't necessarily matter much. He spent a good portion of the game exactly where the Browns had scripted it in their wildest mind's eye: on the bench with a ball cap on, waiting.

The opening drive was truly a harbinger of things to come. Josh Cribbs, fielding a bounding kickoff just inside the two yard line, returned the ball to the Cleveland 37-yard line. Recognizing that the Patriots were keying on Hillis, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had McCoy use play action to great effect on the first play and hit receiver Mohamed Massaquoi for a 21-yard pass. Hillis then signaled that the bye week was good for his health as he blasted up the middle for 18 yards, leaping the New England safety in the process. But it looked like Hillis came down a bit tenderly on his ankle and sat out the rest of the drive.

With Mike Bell providing a poor substitute at running back, the Browns weren't able to get it much closer and settled for the Dawson field goal. Then it got weird, Eric Metcalf weird.

On the ensuing kickoff, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski signaled for a fair catch and then walked away from it as if it were a punt, leaving fullback Sammy Morris to try and field the catch. Morris, confused, muffed it and Ray Ventrone recovered giving the Browns the ball at the New England 19-yard line.

McCoy then hit tight end Evan Moore on a 17-yard pass that put the ball at the New England 2. From there Hillis powered his way into the end zone and the Browns had a 10-0 lead before Brady and the Patriots even took a snap on offense.

The Browns' defense, similarly inspired, sent a message early as it held New England to 3-and-out on its first drive.

The Browns offense seemed to be right back in business with Hillis hitting holes like he was Mike Pruitt in his prime. But on a 16-yard run, Hillis had the ball stripped and safety Brandon Merriweather recovered. It was the only mistake Hillis would make all day. As it was, the New England offense looked frustrated and couldn't capitalize. It left Brady barking at his offense near the Patriots' bench as Zolton Mesko punted.

The Brady pep talk had its intended effect, but an effect that lasted exactly one series. With a renewed sense of purpose and passes that seemed to have more zip, Brady took the Patriots on a 11-play 79-yard drive that ended with a Brady to Aaron Hernandez two-yard touchdown pass. The ball appeared to be headed for Gronkowski but it was tipped and Hernandez made an excellent grab in the back of the end zone.

But just as it seemed like the Patriots were re-asserting themselves, McCoy and the Browns struck again. Starting at their own 40-yard line, the Browns marched down the field and scored when Stuckey took a handoff that no one expected and went around left end for and 11-yard touchdown. What made the play unusual was the way that the offense sold it. With the offensive line standing around looking confused, Cribbs positioned himself behind center Alex Mack, took the snap and while acting like he was going to run around the right end, put the ball in Stuckey's gut. Stuckey, in a crouch and barely visible behind the offensive line, then had a mostly free path to the end zone as he stretched for the pylon.

The Patriots tried to tighten the game late in the first half and were on the verge of pulling within 3. But on first and goal from the 9-yard line, Brady hit Gronkowski on a short pass. Gronkowski, already having the kind of day that can result in the coach asking to see you in his office on Monday, bring your playbook, then fumbled at the 2-yard line. It was recovered by Abe Elam and that effectively ended the half with the Browns holding a 17-7 lead.

Perhaps the best measure of progress of this team came in the second half. The Patriots, getting the ball first, had an opportunity to curb the Browns' enthusiasm. Instead it was Brady and the offense collectively doing their best Larry David impression as they couldn't quite do anything right and were forced to punt.

That opened it up for the series that should ensure McCoy's on-going status as starter and quell any talk that any other quarterback on this roster gives the Browns a better chance to win. It was one of those moments really where reputations are either made or loss. It wasn't like the Browns were exactly nursing their 10-point lead, but another score here would send the Patriots a message that the first half was anything but a mirage.

Given the opportunity, McCoy didn't just walk through the door, he kicked it off its hinges in the process. Leading a 10-play 72-yard drive that consumed nearly 7 minutes, McCoy first extended the drive with a scramble that avoided the blitz while throwing a pinpoint pass on the run to receiver Brian Robiskie that took the ball to the New England 11-yard line and then finished off the drive with a scrambling 16-yard touchdown run. On that run, McCoy stepped up in the pocket, couldn't find an open receiver and saw enough daylight down the left sideline that allowed him to stretch the last two or so yards for the touchdown. It was the kind of run that surely raised his respect level in the huddle and with the coaches as Daboll could be seen on the sidelines fired up as he congratuled McCoy. It was the defining moment for McCoy that a player like Brady Quinn could never quite find.

The Browns' defense, again similarly inspired, once again kept the Patriots out of the end zone. The Browns' offense then kept things rolling adding a 37-yard Dawson field goal as the game grew increasingly out of New England's reach.

Brady was able to engineer another touchdown that kept the score respectable, hitting on two key 4th down plays in the process. But the Browns' offense would answer once again as Hillis capped off a career day on the next drive with a 35-yard touchdown run that was the final margin of victory.

On the day, McCoy was a very efficient 14-19 for 174 yards. He had the 16-yard touchdown run and as importantly, didn't turn the ball over. Brady, meanwhile, was 19-36 for 224 yards, two touchdowns. Back up Brian Hoyer got into the game late and threw an interception to Eric Wright.

For Mangini, one thing is clear. The bye week was well utilized. He had every member of his team ready to play. He had well-scripted, aggressive game plans on both sides of the ball and the special teams were once again special. It was the kind of coaching performance that could be as meaningful for Mangini's future with the Browns as the third quarter drive was for McCoy's.

At this juncture, the Browns are no longer a league doormat. Heck, they aren't even the doormat in their division. That would be the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns pulled off one trick already, demonstrating they could follow up one dominating performance with another. It's the hardest trick in pro football. All they need now is to do it again, against the team that put Mangini in Cleveland in the first place, the New York Jets.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Not Quite Comfort Food

If Cleveland Browns’ president Mike Holmgren intended his mid-year press conference on Tuesday as a means to inform, he missed the mark. Instead Holmgren wittingly or otherwise, raised a few issues and a few eyebrows that probably will cause a whole new bucket of angst to make the rounds.

The basic information passed along was done with the ease of Josh Hamilton hitting batting practice. Colt McCoy? Holmgren put the issue back to the coach, insisting that it was Eric Mangini’s decision. Holmgren said he won’t push a point of view and offered up that the season is about winning and thus the head coach needs to utilize the players that give the team the best chance of doing that.

There isn’t much news in that, certainly. Indeed if you closed your eyes it might as well have been Mangini doing the talking. That’s not to suggest those that Holmgren doesn’t have an opinion on this or that he won’t be sharing it with Mangini. In fact, he admitted that such a conversation will take place. Again, nothing unusual there given Holmgren’s background and position in the organization.

Where things got interesting and where Holmgren may have done himself more harm then good was in answering all the questions about his own status.

For now Holmgren seems to be enjoying the challenge of being the captain of a 500 foot ship trying to make a 180 degree turn in a 400 foot wide canal. But he is enjoying that challenge at the expense of what he truly loves to do, coaching football. He categorically refused to rule out a return to that vocation.

As one would expect, that statement immediately got pencils pushing on notebooks at breathtaking speed because of the potential impact that Holmgren’s desires might have on current head coach Eric Mangini. And Holmgren didn’t necessarily discourage all of that pondering when he basically wouldn’t comment on Mangini’s status after this season.

Indeed, if you are at all a conspiracy theorist at heart, you can easily connect some dots here to make the case that Holmgren may not see much of a future for Mangini. One dot was that Holmgren talked about how encouraging it’s been that the team has been in every game this season but then talked about how discouraging it’s been that the team hasn’t been able to win those games. Another was that Holmgen talked about how he’ll evaluate Mangini’s status at the end of the season. A third dot is that it never seemed to occur to Holmgren in all of that conversation that Mangini already is under contract for next season and thus the assumption should be that Mangini will be back absent some other sort of problem.

There may be something to all of that but you can also take Holmgren’s statements at face value and not read any sort of indictment of Mangini into it. All Holmgren really was saying on that front is that he plans on doing what someone in his position should do once the season ends—evaluate all aspects of the operation and figure out the future from there.

In other words, I tend to think that Holmgren didn’t intend any of those dots to be connected so that anyone could conclude that Mangini is in any more or less secure position then he was when Holmgren decided to keep him after a mostly disastrous 2009 season. Holmgren surely still believes that continuity more than anything else will be the key to reviving this franchise. Likely his default is that Mangini will be staying absent something compelling happening to change his mind in the season’s last 9 games.

That said, it was nonetheless enjoyable to contemplate that Holmgren’s words might make Mangini feel the same way that Mangini makes his quarterbacks feel every time he takes a question about their status. Never commit. Never back yourself into a corner without at least one viable exit. If Mangini is feeling a tad uncomfortable with the lack of public commitment to him at the moment, well, he probably has better insight today into how exactly Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy feel at the moment.

Holmgren also had a fascinating exchange about the direction of the offense, generally, when he pointedly said that he isn’t used to an offense that’s designed to make so little use of its wide receivers. Holmgren made it clear that he thinks that the receivers on the roster (Brian Robiskie? Mohamed Massaquoi? Chansi Stuckey?) are “better than OK.”

That had to get the attention of even the most casual fan because it certainly seems like Robiskie and Massaquoi have regressed. Holmgren noted that the offense is designed to work the middle of the field where slot receivers, running backs and tight ends toil. But that’s a little bit of a chicken and egg explanation. Is Daboll’s philosophy built around working the middle of the field or is the current offense designed because the outside receivers aren’t exactly scaring the opposition? Maybe it’s the former but it certainly appears to be the latter.

Beyond these intriguing little matters was the far more interesting discussion on how Holmgren views his commitment to owner Randy Lerner. Pressed to elaborate on his own coaching desires, Holmgren said that his commitment to Lerner was “to get the Browns going in the right direction in my role as president.”

That’s a pretty amorphous standard and one which he could credibly argue he’s probably already met. The Browns are heading in the right direction, slowly, surely. They may not ever arrive but it would be intellectually dishonest to argue that they aren’t on more solid footing now than they were a year ago, two years ago.

That simple fact suggests that Holmgren could very well view his mission as accomplished by season’s end and return to coaching. The dot connectors could see that as further evidence that Holmgren has definite designs on walking the Cleveland sidelines next season.

But as we say in the legal profession, that assumes facts not yet in evidence. Despite Holmgren’s rather passionate views on the value of continuity within a franchise, it’s plausible that Holmgren could justify a departure by seeing his role as mostly completed and thus unnecessary, passing the reigns of president and whatever remaining duties there may be to existing general manager Tom Heckert.

Doing so doesn’t mean it would come at the expense of Mangini. It’s just as plausible, perhaps even more likely, that Holmgren is simply paving the way for his own exit from Cleveland sooner rather than later. There are plenty of teams and their head coaches in seemingly more trouble than the Browns on the moment. Minnesota and Brad Childress come immediately to mind, but then so does Josh McDaniels in Denver and Norv Turner in San Diego.

When you piece the entire news conference together, it’s hard to figure actually what message Holmgren was trying to send. In fact, he looked confused about it himself. It’s not so much that he was going through the motions so that he could check a box on his “to do” list. It was more like Holmgren had something he really wanted to say but wasn’t quite sure himself exactly what it was.

I’m glad, though, that Holmgren at least is willing to go in front of the press on occasion to give his views, however scattered they may be, and not act as if he’s in the middle of a particularly painful root canal at the time. It’s a sign of leadership which, irrespective of the questions he raised, is something that this franchise has needed for years.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Buh Bye Week

Maybe the Cleveland Browns serving a 4-year league imposed bye prepared me for it, but honestly I look forward to the team’s bye week each year. Timed right, it not only gives me the opportunity to finish up the outdoor chores I tend to ignore in those agonizingly painful days between the end of golf season and the onset of snow, but it gives me the opportunity to watch football through a much different prism.

Unencumbered by another Browns’ game to break down and analyze for the moment (which, believe me, is not nearly as fun as simply watching it with your buddies while being over served Bud Light), I get to instead focus on what the rest of the NFL is up to.

The good news, indeed the great news, is that the Browns are hardly the most troubled franchise in the NFL at the moment. In fact, it’s not even close. As bad as things have been in Cleveland, at least we haven’t been burdened lately with overwhelming expectations. The last time that happened was in the pre-Twitter days of 2008, nearly a lifetime ago, and we saw the Browns handle it like a cheap lawn chair from Sam’s Club handles your overweight brother-in-law at his kid’s soccer game.

On full display Sunday was the Dallas Cowboys who are essentially reliving the Browns’ 2008 season except for a few small details. The expectations for the Browns were the playoffs, modest but exciting in context. For the Cowboys it’s the Super Bowl or bust. The Browns play in a nice stadium but the Cowboys don’t just play in a stadium, they play in a Parthenon, a monument to excess that, I think, cost somebody somewhere about $6 billion. The Browns had a diffident owner who hid from the media like Howard Hughes in the final throes of dementia. The Cowboys have one of the most visible owners in the history of the NFL. He hides from the media like a Kardashian hides from the media.

But with 7 games under their belt the Cowboys are 1-6 and looking every bit as disinterested, unorganized and out of sorts as any Browns’ team in the last 10 years, including that woeful 2007 bunch. Head coach Wade Phillips has assumed the role of Romeo Crennel, the nice guy who expects grown men to act like professionals and give their best effort because that’s what their paid to do.

It didn’t work out well for Crennel then because he gave the inmates the keys to the compound. And when given the chance the inmates will absolutely take over the compound. They’ll imprison the guards, change the locks on the door and put nothing but desserts on the lunch menu. The Cowboys, like the Browns in 2007, are in full revolt at the moment and all Phillips can do is stand by, grimace occasionally and hope that his favorite Pandora station starts playing through the headset he wears on the sideline instead of the incessant noise from an assistant who knows he’ll too be out of work soon.

Although quarterback Tony Romo is injured and gone for the next several weeks, it’s hardly an excuse for the kind of mail-it-in performance they had against Jacksonville on Sunday or even against the New York Giants a week before when Romo was playing. First of all, Romo may very well be one of the most overrated quarterbacks I’ve seen in the last 10 years. He has skills, but not Peyton Manning skills. Romo’s accomplishments pale in comparison to the attendant hype. He’s an above-average quarterback with the bad luck to be on a team where above-average is never going to be good enough.

The other thing is that the Cowboys defense is pitiful. Given how the Browns’ defense has played all season, even with Sheldon Brown and Eric Wright spending a good portion of the first 7 games watching receivers fly past them like a stranded driver watches semis whiz by on the Shoreway, the Cowboys might very well be at least 4-3 and in the playoff hunt if they had that Browns’ defensive unit. The Cowboys can’t stop the run or the pass, just like the Browns in 2007.

This will not end well for Phillips just like it didn’t end well for Crennel. The difference is that Phillips will not survive the season. Crennel survived mainly because it took owner Randy Lerner that long to realize that yes, he was witnessing a car wreck as it was happening. Let’s just say that Jerry Jones is a little more self-aware.

I also had the chance to watch another overrated team, the New York Jets, put on an absolutely horrendous performance against the Green Bay Packers. I’m still not quite sure what kind of team the Packers have but I am pretty sure that the Jets will once again disappoint the fans of New York. To that I say welcome to the club. Browns fans have been charter members of it for the last 10 years.

The reason the Jets ultimately will disappoint is that they have a head coach who can be as reckless as he can be inspiring, kind of like the Browns’ defensive coordinator. No small coincidence then that the two are twin brothers, is it?

Rex Ryan literally cost the Jets a victory because of hubris couched in mismanagement. It’s the fatal flaw of the Ryan brand. They trust their instincts too often when they should trust their research.

On 4th and 18 early in the game, Ryan let punter Steve Weatherford try a fake punt. I understand the surprise factor, although fake punts are all the rage this season, but Reggie Hodges running 60 + yards last week for the Browns on a fake punt is a once in a lifetime sort of thing. Weatherford had as much chance of getting the first down as Bill Belichick has being inducted into the Browns’ Ring of Honor. (Note: Weatherford was originally ruled to have gotten the first down but on replay the call was reversed. He missed by at least two yards.) It gave the Packers the ball deep in Jets territory, which they converted into a 20-yard field goal. The Jets didn’t know it at the time, though they should have, that it would be all the points the Packers would need.

But that little sneak attack that blew up in their face was a minor blip compared to the strangeness of the play calling and decision making in the last 6 minutes and 36 seconds of the game that beat them over the head With the Jets deep in their own territory and trailing 6-0, they were able to get one first down before Ryan and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer went into brain freeze mode.

After a Mark Sanchez swing pass fell incomplete, Ryan and Schottenheimer eschewed any desire to move the ball methodically, instead putting Sanchez in a situation where he couldn’t succeed. Two deep passes were incomplete (it wasn’t even close) and the Jets were forced to punt.

With 4:12 remaining and the Packers with the ball, Ryan decided to use all 3 of his remaining time outs. It worked, except when it didn’t. All it did was really accelerate the inevitable outcome.

The Packers were forced to punt and the Jets took over with 3:50 remaining, instead of the two or so minutes they might have had had they preserved at least 1 time out. An off tackle run by LaDanian Tomlinson, which kept the clock moving, was followed by another deep pass that fell incomplete. Sanchez was then sacked on third down as he held the ball too long while looking for an open receiver on another inexplicable deep route. The clock kept moving. Forced to go for it on fourth down and in their own territory, Sanchez again looked deep again and in the direction of Braylon Edwards. That pass, predictably, fell incomplete. Not once did Ryan, Schottenheimer or Sanchez seem to even consider the possibility that getting a few first downs and putting the Packers on their heels might be a good idea. The Packers then moved in for another field goal effectively ending the game.

It was the kind of play calling that Browns’ fans may be used to but the real comfort is that this kind of stuff doesn’t just happen in Cleveland except, of course, when Rob Ryan is calling blitzes and leaving Eric Wright to fend for himself.

Bye week football is not to be ignored but to be relished for what it is. A confirmation that things aren’t as bad as it seems in Cleveland even while it serves to show how far this team still has to go.