Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Formula Loss

In a season where more questions are being raised then answers given, here's one thing that we do know. The San Francisco Bay Area doesn't bring out the best in the Cleveland Browns. But then again, not much does.

In a game that in some ways resembled the earlier loss to the Oakland Raiders, the Browns lost to the Raiders' nearby cousin, the San Francisco 49ers, 20-10 and in the process cemented the formula that's become all too predictable: good defense, bad offense, few chances, another loss.

The closeness of the score, like it did in Oakland, suggests a more competitive game then fans probably feel like they witnessed, thanks in part of a questionable call by 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh early in the game. It kept the game closer early then it should have been and allowed what could have been a rout to become a far better game then it started out, though “better” in the context of the Browns' offense is a very relative term.

At least the Browns got into the end zone this week. It needed to do more, much more, however, and that's why it lost the game.

As it was, though, it looked at the outset like the game would be a total team failure. Early on the Browns' defense looked as if it didn't realize that running back Frank Gore played for the 49ers. The offense, early and late, looked as if it never grasped the concept of a blitz, wanting nothing more than to complete a few passes, gain a few yards on the ground and then get on a plane and head back to Cleveland, which is strange because the weather in San Francisco looked perfectly delightful.

Needing to get off to a quicker start then they've managed to at any other point this season, the Browns instead fumbled on the second play of the game, turning it right over to the 49ers. It set up a 4 yard run by Gore that gave the 49ers a quick 7-0 lead.

Now the Colt McCoy naysayers will put the blame for that turnover on McCoy because technically he did fumble the ball while in passing formation. But a blitzing Ahmad Brooks blew past right guard Tony Pashos without giving him a second thought and clobbered McCoy before he could ever take a stance.

The 49ers made it 10-0 on a drive that started at their own half-yard line, featured a 26-yard run by Gore and a key first down on a tackle eligible play, for goodness sakes, but ended in just a 29-yard David Akers field goal when the Browns defense decided to stiffen before the rout was on too quickly.

Indeed that rout would have been on with the 49ers next drive if, first, the 49ers running game, which had been very effective to that point, could have punched it in from one yard in three separate attempts, and second, if Harbaugh had not attempted to gain a measure of swagger by eschewing another easy field goal on 4th and goal. Gore up the middle went for no gain and the Browns took over on downs. It kept the game in manageable territory.

But the 49ers just came right back anyway, moving methodically down field with the Browns defense providing only intermittent resistance. Quarterback Alex Smith, looking in the first half exactly like a quarterback with a good running game and getting no defensive pressure, found receiver Michael Crabtree on a way-too-easy 2-yard pass to push the score to 17-0.

A Phil Dawson 52-yard line at the end of the first half brought the Browns marginally closer at 17-3 but it hardly brought them back into the game. The Browns were being dominated in every way possible and for good measure Gore had over 100 yards in the first half alone.

Meanwhile the Browns' offense, without Peyton Hillis (and Montario Hardesty, who went out early with some sort of calf problem), without a credible receiver, and without a credible right side of the offensive line, looked as lost as you'd expect. It's a measure, really, of the Browns' offensive ineffectiveness that the only points they seem to get these days are on Dawson field goals that travel in excess of 50 yards. They treat the red zone and the end zone like in laws that they can't stand visiting.

The defense, though, inexplicably found its sea legs in the second half, and pretty much shut down the 49ers until it mattered most. The 49ers, mired all second half in the kind of offensive funk that is standard in Cleveland, stopped moving the ball. Gore, getting banged around, suddenly became ineffective, gaining just a handful of yards the entire second half. He ended with 125 yards on a day that started as if he'd gain 300. That, unsurprisingly, brought Smith back to, well, being the Smith of his first 6 years in the NFL, and again allowed the Browns' to hang around in a game in which they were otherwise being dominated.

Things got a little uncomfortable for the 49ers when McCoy and Josh Cribbs hooked up on a 45-yard touchdown early in the 4th quarter that brought the Browns to within a touchdown with plenty of time to play.

But just when the defense needed to step up one more time, it collapsed thanks in part to a critical D'Qwell Jackson face mask on Gore on 3rd and 3 from the San Francisco 32 yard line. Gore was stopped short of the first down but the personal foul gave the 49ers a new set of downs. From their they kept the chains moving, thanks in large part, and I mean that in two ways, to an 18-yard pass to 300+ pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who lined up as a fullback on the play. It was nearly the identical play that Smith completed earlier to tackle Joe Staley that went for 17 yards.

The Sopoaga completion brought the ball to the Cleveland 14-yard line and set the 49ers up for a 26-yard field goal by Akers that sealed the game. A few mad dash plays near the end of the game padded the stats of the offense but the game was well over by that point.

The most frustrating aspect of the loss is the same thing that has been frustrating this team throughout the season. A good, solid defensive effort essentially wasted by an offense that is so lacking in talent at the moment that it really has very few opportunities to score.

As an example, consider a few key moments in the second half when matters really could have turned in the Browns' favor.

In a preview of what the second half would turn into, the Browns' defense held the 49ers to a quick three and out to open the second half and a Josh Cribbs punt return brought the ball into 49ers territory. But on 3rd and 2, offensive coordinator/head coach Pat Shurmur called for one of the most ill-conceived plays on his cheat sheet. He had receiver Greg Little go in motion and then stop in the backfield. McCoy took the snap and Little swung out left, essentially taking a pitch from McCoy that everybody saw coming, including the 49ers. It lost 8 yards and forced another punt.

Then there was the next series which again followed a 49ers 3 and out. Again looking as if it had some momentum, the Browns' offense got a jump start when McCoy hit tight end Ben Watson on a simple out pattern that Watson, through pure effort, turned into a 29-yard gain. But two plays later McCoy, scrambling, unleashed a pass to a double-covered Little in the end zone that resulted, naturally enough, in an interception. It was another momentum killer even as the defense continued to try and put the offense in a position to succeed.

McCoy wasn't awful, but neither was he great. He lost the handle twice on the snap and had the other fumble early in the game. The interception he threw was pure folly, a college kid toss that may have worked in Texas but doesn't tend to work in the pros. But he also was 22-34 for 241 yards and the touchdown pass to Cribbs that gave the Browns some hope. He continues to get pounded on by opposing defenses and still answers the bell for the next play. At the very least, you have to admire his pluck.

The running game was awful. Chris Ogbonnaya, subbing for Hardesty most of the game, had just 37 yards on 11 carries. That said, he still looks to be an improvement at this point over Hardesty, who has trouble picking up blitzes, trouble catching the ball out of the backfield, and lacks any sort of burst of speed when the situation demands.

On a comparison basis, though, the statistical tale was surprisingly close after it was decidedly titled in the 49ers favor after the first 30 minutes. This was due to the Browns' defense essentially holding the 49ers to few second half yards. That's of little consequence, though, because those are only the small consolations in a business that demands wins.

The Browns take to the road again next week, this time against the Houston Texans. But it matters little where these games are contested. Unless the formula changes, the outcome again should hold no mystery.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Colt Conundrum

There were two, maybe three developments this week that should give Cleveland Browns fans pause to rethink their impatience with quarterback Colt McCoy. First was the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to start Christian Ponder instead of an increasingly ineffective and indifferent Donovan McNabb. Next came the Miami Dolphins putting Sage Rosenfels on the reserved, non-football injury list and signing J.P. Losman as their new starting quarterback. Then came the Indianapolis Colts putting Kerry Collins on injured reserve list where he joins Peyton Manning.

You could also take it another step when the Oakland Raiders, out of sheer desperation, giving away high draft picks like they’re growing off the vines in the Sonoma Valley, for Carson Palmer once Jason Campbell went down with an injury. Or what about the Seattle Seahawks turning over the quarterbacking duties to Charlie Whitehurst once Tavaris Jackson went down with an injury.

That’s five teams right there that are in far worse shape then the Browns at the moment when it comes to having a credible starting quarterback. Still local fans seem to grow frustrated by the moment with McCoy as if the Browns are just teeming with all sorts of alternatives.

There are plenty of statistics, from the now traditional quarterback rating system to the goofy new ESPN quarterback rating system to any number of metrics in between to make the case that McCoy isn’t playing at a particularly high level at the moment and many have used them to further an argument not worth making.

There also are all sorts of ways to counter all of these statistics to put it into the kind of context that no one much wants to hear about as they contemplate a future of Seneca Wallace and whoever is worse than J.P. Losman.

But since that’s what should be talked about, it’s what we will talk about.

Maybe it’s easy for most people to dismiss the massive overhaul in offensive scheme that took place in an offseason that didn’t exist for McCoy, but I doubt McCoy is as dismissive. Not having access to his head coach and getting precious little offseason training in the new scheme has had an effect. Wish it away if you’d like but facts are facts.

Interestingly, that might be the least of the problems.

Why, for example, dwell on schemes when there are even more obvious reasons for McCoy’s tepid play. For instance, the Browns’ number one target for McCoy, Mohamed Massaquoi, would not be a number one receiver on any other team until someone can prove otherwise. He has decent hands, runs decent routes, but lacks the true speed and elusiveness to ever be a number one threat. Even Massaquoi seems to recognize as much. He doesn’t demand the ball because he knows he doesn’t deserve it over anyone else.

Maybe Eric Mangini had hopes against hopes that his drafting of Massaquoi in the second round was a stroke of genius that would pay great dividends, but the consensus of every other personnel guy in the NFL was to the contrary. And guess what? They were right and Mangini was wrong. Massaquoi never was and never will be any team’s legitimate number one receiver.

That alone is a strong enough case to make for the difficulties McCoy and by proxy offensive coordinator/head coach Pat Shurmur have in stretching defenses and getting the ball downfield in a hurry. But why stop there?

The number two receiver (who will sooner rather than later ascend to the number one role) is Greg Little, a rookie who didn’t even play college ball last year. Forget about missing the offseason, which he did as well. Little missed nearly two years before finally suiting up and starting a game and when last he did play it was in a far different scheme then the West Coast offense that Shurmur employs. Little has good speed, good hands and a big body but he’s still too raw to be immediately effective. His future looks bright and as he develops so will the offense and by proxy McCoy but that’s at least another season away and certainly isn’t helping McCoy much right now.

The number three receiver is Josh Cribbs, a valuable and passionate player but not a credible receiver. I think Cribbs works hard and wants to be good but he is never going to be more than a third receiver on a team with lousy receivers. If Cribbs isn’t acting as the third receiver, then that slot falls to Brian Robiskie, a far more credible and professional receiver, if in name only, with virtually no ability to get open against NFL-caliber defensive backs.

Take all the time you need to devise an appropriate offense around that mess and let’s see how well anyone short of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady does in it.

While McCoy doesn’t have much to throw to downfield, what he does have at his disposal are several tight ends that can catch the ball. What none of them can do though is get open deep, which again limits the ability to go deep. So what you get is what you’d expect. Lots of short stuff that can occasionally sustain drives that ultimately tend to result in field goals and not touchdowns.

But heck, we already knew going into the season that this receiving corps wasn’t very good. General manager Tom Heckert has steadfastly refused to upgrade it through free agency, believing there’s enough talent to develop that would otherwise be inhibited by a stop-gap free agent pickup. The logic is sound but I’m not sure the assessment is. Does anyone, including Heckert, think that there is still unrealized upside to Massaquoi, Cribbs or Robiskie?

The fact that this was the team’s most pressing offensive need going into the season and remains that way 6 games into the season should help frame the debate about McCoy, but it hasn’t. Fans see balls overthrown, underthrown, intercepted or simply off target and assume, wrongly, that it all falls on McCoy. I’m certainly not suggesting that McCoy doesn’t need to improve. He does. But it will be remarkable how much better he’ll look when he has an actual receiving corps to throw to.

Why focus though just on the receivers? It’s not as if the Browns have once established a credible running game this season that would take pressure off a clearly deficient passing game.

There’s been enough drama around Peyton Hillis to last two seasons so there’s no use rehashing that for now. But his absence is equivalent to trying to run an engine without motor oil. We know, too, that Montario Hardesty is merely a nice running back at this point, not a game breaker. I wouldn’t reach any conclusions on Hardesty just yet since he’s only 6 games into his pro career. But running backs, unlike many receivers, tend to develop quickly or not at all. Hardesty could certainly become a feature back but for now he’s far more Jerome Harrison then Jamal Lewis.

But let’s not forget in all of this the rather crappy play of a patchwork offensive line that’s missing one of its stalwarts, Eric Steinbach. Hillis for example benefit greatly by having Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Steinbach all healthy last year. With Steinbach out, the right side of the line, from where virtually all the penetration seems to come, is below average. Holes aren’t being opened for the running game and blocks aren’t being made to give McCoy time to breath.

In other words, a bushel basket full of McCoy’s problems has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the state of the other key components of the offense.

It’s actually hard to get a good assessment of McCoy at the moment but that hasn’t stopped so many from trying to do just that. About the only thing we really do know is that McCoy can take a pounding and still come back for more.

But there will come a point, soon perhaps, when that physical abuse being thrust on him by an offense that’s deficient on every other level will take its toll and he’ll be sent to the sideline with an injury. And just as Indianapolis, Miami, Seattle, and Oakland has discovered when their starters went down, that’s when fans here may begin to appreciate McCoy just a little bit more.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Bottom Line Business

Just win, right baby?

Pro sports is a bottom line business and there's no better bottom line then a win of any stripe. And that's what the Cleveland Browns got on Sunday, beating the Seattle Seahawks 6-3 a week after laying a colossal egg against the Oakland Raiders. What the game lacked in excitement, it more then made up for in lack of intrigue. As soon as Phil Dawson kicked his second 50+ field goal of the day there was little doubt of the outcome. That was due to a combination of a good Browns' defense and a bad Seahawks' offense, feel free to fiddle with the percentages how you want.

To say the game was a snoozer is to do a disservice to Ambien. There hasn't been a game this boring won by a Cleveland Browns team since the Browns beat the Buffalo Bills by the same score two years ago. You remember that game, don't you? It's the one where former general manager accelerated his ascension out of town by sending a profane email to a fan after the game.

If you did manage to stay awake for every play of this game, you're probably breaking out the Visine about now. There were plenty of eye rubbing moments.

For instance, it's really kind of hard to explain how a team that had the ball for over 42 minutes on offense and ran an astounding 84 plays, like the Browns did, managed only 6 points. It's even harder to explain how in all of those minutes and plays the only ones hey ran in the red zone were late in the fourth quarter.

It's also kind of hard to explain how Dawson, who had the first game of his career with two field goals in excess of 50 yards, still managed to have two others blocked. And for added measure when we're talking about special teams breakdowns, again, is the fact that but for a fortunate call on a phantom block in the back penalty on Seattle's Kennard Cox against James Dockery, the Seahawks would have won the game instead. It nullified a punt return by Leon Washington that had gone for a touchdown.

Ok, I lied. It's not that hard to explain. Let's start with the offense.

For reasons that I'm sure head coach Pat Shurmur will adequately explain once he thinks about it, the Browns seemed hellbent on focusing more on possession then effectiveness. There were few pass plays, for example, that were of the vertical variety. It wasn't clear whether Shurmur just feared Colt McCoy passing down field like Luke Fickell fears Braxton Miller throwing down field or Shurmur had game planned as if the weather would be 35 degrees, windy and rainy, and just didn't feel like scrapping it when the weather turned out otherwise.

Whichever the case, it was painfully clear that the Browns were not so much concerned with putting together drives as they were maintaining a few slogs through a difficult yet bendable Seahawks defense. Thus were an endless series of short out passes, several swing passes, a few over the middle passes, and plenty of runs in the middle of a stout defensive line. It all added up to 20 first downs and kept the ball out of the hands of a Seahawks offense that hardly knew what to do with it anyway.

But let's at least give some credit where it's due and in not so snarky fashion. One of Shurmur's shortcomings as a head coach is his inability to reign in the throwing tendencies of his offensive coordinator, who happens to be the same person. With Peyton Hillis on the sidelines nursing a sore hamstring (or was he?) it seemed like a situation tailor-made for Shurmur's instincts.

Instead he stubbornly committed to running the ball with Montario Hardesty and recently signed Chris Ogbonnaya. Between them, they had 36 carries, which is surely worth an exclamation point! Hardesty more or less responded with 95 yards on 33 of those carries, but that was more than enough to keep the clock moving. McCoy, too, had 8 carries for 31 yards, but those were all the result of broken down pass protection running head long into receivers who couldn't get open. The guess here is that those were the times that a more vertical pass play was called, but that's just a guess since there were plenty of times when the protection broke down before McCoy had a chance to grip the strings on the ball.

The reason all this is important is that it ended up having the intended effect near the end of the game as the Seahawks defense tired and gave up some key runs that, but for the second of the two blocked field goals, would have technically sealed the game earlier.

So in that sense it was a positive to see Shurmur take some of the pressure off of McCoy and put it on the running game. The negative, though, is that while Hardesty can bang out some tough yards, he seems to lack that extra gear to get around end or crack back into a slight opening that the really great running backs possess. It would have been interesting if Hillis had been able to play (or was he able to play?) to see how stout that Seahawks defensive line really was.

Still there should be a few statistical highlights when you run the number of plays the Browns did. In addition to the 162 yards rushing (from which we subtract the 21 yards lost in sacks), McCoy was 20-25 for 178 yards and 1 interception. He did throw one interception, which occurred when the Browns were actually moving the ball forward in what could be called chunks. Maybe that's really what spooked Shurmur.

Now let's talk about the special teams. There was no secret to the two blocked field goals. Red Bryant was just too much for the middle of the line to block. He was able to push his way through far enough each time to spoil any trajectory that Dawson might have been able to put on the ball. As for the breakdown on the punt coverage, it was simply a matter of missed tackles. Washington avoided several tackles at the initial point of contact and from there the seam opened. The penalty call on Cox was a mistake but an understandable one. Cox did extend his arms at Dockery's back and Dockery, the last person who could have gotten Washington, fell. But if there was contact, it was less then a high school freshman gets on his first date.

The defense was a bright spot for the Browns but it was aided greatly by two overarching facts. First, Tavaris Jackson, the Seahawks starting quarterback, was out. That left Charlie Whitehurst to make just his third start in 6 seasons. He played exactly like a guy making his third start in 6 seasons. He was jittery, tentative and lacked any touch on the ball. It didn't help, either, that on three or four occasions when he was on target his receivers dropped the ball. Ultimately he was 12-30 for just 97 yards and one interception, which came, not unsurprisingly, immediately after the called back punt return.

If the lack of personnel wasn't a difficult enough obstacle for the Seahawks to overcome, another was created when starting running back Marshawn Lynch was scratched right with a bad back right before the game started. Without a credible running attack, Whitehurst was pretty much stuck playing Charlie in the Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Indeed it seemed rather unlikely that the Seahawks would even find a way to score a single point. It's telling actually how their points did come about. On the one defensive play where the Browns' coverage did break down, Whitehurst found a wide open Sidney Rice all alone at about the Browns' 10-yard line. While the pass was completed, it was Rice's wrong shoulder and forced Rice to lose balance and step out at the 9-yard line. A running play went for no gain but on second down Ahtyba Rubin was called for a face mask penalty, giving the Seahawks the ball at the Cleveland 2 yard line. Another run for no gain followed by two incomplete passes forced the Seahawks to kick the 20-yard field goal. In that short series of plays did the Seahawks aptly sum up the true awfulness of their performance.

So again, do the math how you want but the Browns did come out with the win and stand at 3-3 which, if only psychologically, is miles ahead of 2-4. It puts 5 or 6 victories this year well within reach and a chance for everyone to come away with the only victory this town needs at the moment, the one spelled p-r-o-g-r-e-s-s.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lingering Items--Talking Heads Edition

Are the sportswriters in this town merely idiots or are they just reflecting the collective angst of a downtrodden fan base. In Cleveland it's sometimes hard to tell.

Browns' president Mike Holmgren made his semi-regular pilgrimage to the podium in Berea on Thursday to talk about the state of the Browns as he sees them and for his candor he's rewarded with more questions about not just what the heck he said but why. The reason I suspect is that no one takes anyone at face value.

Responding to questions about the state of negotiations with Peyton Hillis, Holmgren said they are at a standstill, which was obvious to nearly anyone who remembered that Hillis hadn't signed on to any contract extension just yet. Holmgren didn't blame Hillis or his agent and he didn't suggest that the Browns had lost interest. It's a question of value, which it always is, during contract negotiations.

Holmgren was asked about first year coach Pat Shurmur and then said what was obvious to nearly anyone who remembered that Shurmur, hired by Holmgren, is barely 5 games into his first go-round as a head coach. Surprise, Holmgren still backs Shurmur.

So when is Holmgren going to make Shurmur hire an offensive coordinator? Well, that's up to Shurmur, or so said Holmgren.

And then there were the questions about Colt McCoy. Is he really “the man?” Holmgren said what was obvious to nearly anyone who remembered that McCoy is just 5 games into a new offensive scheme. Yes, McCoy is the quarterback for this year. Well then, what about next year? We'll see, won't we, or so said Holmgren. If he's not, then we'll keep looking until we find the right quarterback.

It really was that obvious and straightforward, so naturally the local writers, like Marla Ridenour at the Akron Beacon Journal, concluded that both Hillis and McCoy face uncertain futures in Cleveland. Welcome to the big leagues.

I suppose the Ridenours of the world should be forgiven for their superficial approach to a sport they probably don't quite understand. I'm talking about journalism and not football, by the way. If you're going to engage in analysis and put it out there, it helps to actually analyze and contextualize. It's easy to assume that everyone has an agenda, that things said aren't what is meant, as the way of putting a spin on what you wanted to conclude anyway, but seriously isn't the future just as uncertain for virtually any player on the Cleveland Browns? Why single out Hillis and McCoy?

Maybe Joe Thomas and Joe Haden are safe. You could probably count T.J. Ward in there as well. But take a stroll through this lineup and ask yourself who else really is safe for the next few years. And when you come to the end of that yellow brick road, maybe then you'll start to understand why a team that's been this crappy for about a hundred thousand reasons for the last 10 plus years stands just 2-3 at the moment.

The Browns' roster has improved because the drafting has improved. But the draft happens exactly once a year and unless the NFL and its other member clubs take pity on the Browns and let them choose the first 30 players in the draft in each of the next four years, the improvement in this roster to the point where the team is consistently competitive with the best teams in the league is going to be slow.

This isn't a question of counseling patience to a fan base with none. It's a reminder that what gets said has context, that's all. Is that too much to ask? Perspective.

If there could be any mild criticism of what Holmgren had to say, it stems from his naivete about the fragile state of the psyche of this town's fans. An entire generation fans has been borne and is now midway through college and hasn't seen anything resembling the kinds of teams that their parents experienced in the early 1980s. It's one thing to tell war stories but it doesn't always translate to a younger group of fans with the attention span of a puppy and no tolerance for lousy product.

So when Holmgren, in all candor, said that the Browns would be comfortable letting Hillis enter free agency and then try to sign him, alarms went off to the sportswriters ready to pounce. Doesn't Holmgren get what Hillis means to this town? Doesn't he know that Hillis was a Madden cover boy?

There is an absence of players that the fans can identify with which fully explains why they've sunk their hooks so deep into Hillis and Josh Cribbs. But until Hillis can prove he can stay healthy (which he hasn't), why should the Browns risk tying up significant long-term dollars in the context of a hard salary cap and why should Holmgren say otherwise?

But beyond not quite being fully tapped in to the sometimes misguided thinking of this fan base, there was nothing much said by Holmgren that couldn't have been easily imagined. The problem I guess is that he had the temerity to actually say it before the writers could and thus sent them scurrying to invent another angle.

Speaking of Cribbs, there wasn't anything much said by Holmgren on that subject, but plenty of kvetching anyway when Cribbs said earlier this week that he's not much of an option in the offense and that he'd rather contribute more on special teams.


Here's a note to Cribbs and the rest of the fans. At best Cribbs really is the third receiving option, even on a team strapped for guys that can get open and catch the ball. Cribbs wears the banner of a playmaker because he has good instincts when he gets the ball in the open field. He also is one of the most passionate players the Browns have ever had.

But having good open field instincts and passion doesn't necessarily make one a good receiver and that realization has dawned on Cribbs, just not as quickly as it did on Shurmur. Cribbs is not, as the Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw suggested earlier this week, going all Keyshawn and saying “just give me the damn ball.” He's just being honest. He's an afterthought.

That's because Cribbs just isn't a good receiver and may never be. Isolate on him when you can and you'll see that he doesn't run crisp routes. He isn't particularly elusive when it comes to getting open, either. In other words, even average defensive backs in the league don't fear Cribbs because he isn't all that hard to cover.

It's relatively easy to get Cribbs the ball on short crossing routes and hope that he can break a long run occasionally, but that isn't a system. It's just a small piece of a much larger puzzle of which Cribbs is never going to be a major piece.

It makes for easy writing to say that the Browns need to get Cribbs the ball, but then ask yourself exactly how that should be done and who should suffer at that expense. Should Cribbs take carries away from Hillis or Montario Hardesty? Should he take opportunities away from Greg Little? I suspect that if Cribbs was better then any of those players then those opportunities would come. He's just not.

Cribbs is valuable in spot duty but he's never going to approach the raw receiving talent of even a player like Little and Shurmur knows it and now so does Cribbs. Does that mean Cribbs doesn't have a role? Of course not, but it isn't going to be any more of a role then a third receiver typically gets on any team.

Cribbs' real value is on special teams and instead of trying to preserve him for an offense where he doesn't fit in, it is time that Cribbs return full time to covering special teams on both sides of the ball. That will make this team better and could have possibly saved the team the embarrassment of last week's special teams failures.

While Holmgren looked positively relaxed at his press conference, Shurmur was a slightly different story. He's wearing the stress of a season spent coaching new players and a new system that needs more practice then the collective bargaining agreement will allow.

It was refreshing though that Shurmur was willing to acknowledge that McCoy will get better when his fundamentals improve. Shurmur attributes the low completion percentage, for example, to simply a lack of consistent fundamentals.

The question really is what Shurmur and McCoy are doing right now to make that better. The answer is probably not much.

The Browns do ostensibly practice during the week but most of that is dedicated to refining their approach for the next game rather than working on things like footwork. That's what the offseason is for and that's where the lack of a formal offseason has hurt McCoy then probably most other players in the Browns' lineup.

What you do see from McCoy are the occasional flashes of brilliance and the many flashes of Derek Anderson. But there's been enough brilliance to justify the continued confidence the coaching staff has in McCoy but not enough to say that McCoy need not worry about a replacement for the next 10 years.

While there is no question that McCoy's fundamentals need to improve in several areas (and I've written about that plenty), I also get the sense that more is being asked of McCoy then is typically asked of a rookie quarterback.

Part of that is likely due to the fact that McCoy isn't actually a rookie but a big part of it is Shurmur's insistence of putting in the entire West Coast offense rather than roll it out over time. There's merit to either approach so it's not as if there's a right answer.

If you watch what the Carolina Panthers are doing with Cam Newton, it's really similar to how the Steelers approached the integration of Ben Roethlisberger. The offenses get simplified with the quarterback as a spoke and not the axle. Newton may be having some individual success but his team isn't much good and that's why it's losing. The Steelers were far more successful but that was mainly because their team, on both sides of the ball, was excellent.

But let's remember that McCoy has a far different background then either Newton or Roethlisberger. Newton is a great athlete with very limited experience. There's only so much he could handle anyway. Roethlisberger was a good talent with good experience in a lesser program. Likewise there was only so much he could handle.

McCoy was a four year starter for a much bigger program. He should be able to handle more. Moreover, there's no reason for the Browns not to use this season as a lengthy training camp for next season. That's tough for the fans to hear and even tougher to charge full price for but it is the truth. The Browns were never going to the playoffs this season but that doesn't mean that there isn't anything to accomplish.

As Holmgren noted, McCoy is getting kicked around pretty good. It's a good initiation really to see what comes out the other side. If he's still standing at season's end and the improvement's there, then the Browns will really know they have a quarterback. And if that turns out to be the case, then this season would hardly be a waste because better days will follow.


It may just be me, but the question I've been pondering this week, after learning that the Browns signed running back Chris Ogbonnaya and waived Armond Smith: What was it again that compelled Shurmur to pitch the ball to Smith on a crucial and unsuccessful 4th and 1 while the Browns were still in the game against Tennessee?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Not So Special Team

If the Cleveland Browns did any work during their bye week it wasn't particularly apparent in the Oakland Coliseum on Sunday. Looking mostly like they were still hung over from the game two weeks ago, the Browns fell hard to the Oakland Raiders by a somewhat deceiving score of 24-17.

It's only somewhat deceiving because it never really felt like the Browns were in the game despite the objective proof that they had a chance to tie the game with under a minute remaining thanks to a late touchdown pass by Colt McCoy to Mohamed Massaquoi with just over a minute and then a successful onside kick brilliantly executed by kicker Phil Dawson and recovered by defensive back James Dockery.

But McCoy couldn't capitalize on the opportunity for mostly the same reasons the Browns were in the position they were in at that moment. He was off target on his throws when it mattered most and the Raiders went away with the victory on the day that they honored the recently deceased Al Davis.

The hubbub near the end of the game notwithstanding, the Browns' offense had another miserable day against another team that was ripe for the taking.

And lest anyone think that the Browns inability to again generate any consistent offense had more to do with the emotion of the day exhibited by the Raiders for Davis, it was not. The Raiders were without their starting quarterback for most of the game and while that stymied their offense from that point forward, it didn't matter. Almost from the outset it looked like an early Raiders 14-7 lead was really more then enough anyway against a Browns' offense that seems to regress each week.

The funny thing is, this Raiders team, particularly with Kyle Boller in and Jason Campbell out, isn't very good. They're the usual undisciplined mess they've been for years. There's some talent on defense and a few good skill players on offense, but they aren't a first tier ball club.

Let's consider the evidence. Before getting injured, Campbell was 6-9 for just 52 yards and no touchdowns. Boller was, well, Boller. He was 8-14 for 100 yards and no touchdowns. The Raiders didn't have a running back gain more than 100 yards, though Darren McFadden was close with 91 yards on 20 carries. In many ways, the Raiders' offense resembled the Browns' offense. It generated one early touchdown, a Darren McFadden 4-yard run on the Raiders' first possession of the game and a Sebastian Janikowski 48-yard field goal in the third quarter. And that was it.

So why did the Browns lose? Well, a decent amount of the blame can be put on the special teams, which yielded two touchdowns. The first was a 101-yard kickoff return by Jacoby Ford and then, for good measure, another when they bit hard on a fake field goal as punter Shane Lechler found a wide open Kevin Boss for a 35-yard touchdown. The Ford return was particularly damaging because it completely sapped the Browns' only real offensive momentum of the day. On the previous play quarterback Colt McCoy hit tight end Alex Smith on a 1-yard touchdown pass that helped knot the game at 7-7.

So, yea, throw out the mistakes by the special teams and theoretically the Browns win the game. But the problem with that kind of thinking is that it ignores two overarching points. First, the Browns got as close as they did because Raiders' head coach Hue Jackson channeled Ron Zook at just the right or wrong time, depending on your perspective. Second, the Browns have fundamental problems on offense. The Raiders have theirs and that's for them to figure out. But the Browns have to answer some serious questions around why their offense gets worse when it should be getting better.

Let's go back to Jackson. Had the Browns been able to tie the game, he would have had some 'splainin' to do. Seemingly taking pity on a Browns' team his Raiders' were dominating to that point, Jackson eschewed a late field goal on 4th and 1 from inside the Browns' 10-yard line with just under 5 minutes remaining that would have given the Raiders a 17-point lead. With Janikowski kicking off, the Browns would likely have had to march 80 yards quickly and recovered two onside kicks in order to actually get back into the game. But the 4th and 1 failed and probably caused more then a few butts to pucker when the Browns recovered the onside kick. Good think for Jackson that Davis died. Otherwise he might have fired him on the spot. He still might from whatever middle earth lair he's occupying at the moment.

But the Raiders' escaped and the Browns are left to wonder why a team with two weeks to prepare looked like they hadn't practiced in a month, particularly on offense.

McCoy, looking more confused and uncertain then at any time since freshman football, couldn't discern coverages, couldn't detect pressure, and missed receivers all day in the most spectacular of fashion. Balls sailed high. Balls fell short. Balls missed their targets by 5 yards. It was a miracle, really, that he wasn't picked off.

The late rally juiced his stats but he still was only 21-45 for 215 yards, though he had the two touchdown passes.

The running game was again non-existent. It's becoming increasingly clear exactly why the Browns haven't extended the contract of running back Peyton Hillis. He's just not in their long range plans. After starting the game, Hillis was mostly absent from there on out, making a brief appearance in the fourth quarter. Marv Albert, announcing another Browns' game as if it's a permanent assignment, said that Hillis supposedly tweaked his hamstring. Perhaps, but he did re-enter the game, so that explanation falls by the wayside.

So, too, will the explanation that Shurmur used for not deploying Hillis against the Titans two weeks ago, that the situation didn't dictate his use. It's not clear why those same situations dictate using Montario Hardesty instead of Hillis, especially since Hardesty can't catch. It must be that Shurmur sees something in Hardesty that isn't quite apparent to the untrained eyes of every other observer. Hardesty rushed 11 times for 35 yards and Hillis had 6 carries for 14 yards.

Whoever is running the ball at the moment isn't really the issue anyway. Teams are stacking the box against the Browns because they simply don't fear any part of the Browns' passing attack. They're willing to concede short and even mid-range routes because they don't sense that anyone receiver on the Browns has big play capability. And they're right until they're proven wrong.

That means that McCoy needs to get better and quickly. His decision making isn't crisp. He's not handling pressure well. His fundamentals are awful. His lack of accuracy has everything to do with an inability to set his feet and throw, even when he does have time. It is up to him and the receivers to stretch the defense and give the running game some breathing room and they're failing miserably.

So while the loss can be pinned on the offense and the special teams, at least the defense was mostly respectable, despite the absence of cornerback Joe Haden. You had to feel some compassion for his replacement, Dmitri Patterson. The Raiders threw in his direction on nearly every pass play. The Raiders had only 14 completed passes and it seemed like every one was in front of Patterson who kept coverage soft to avoid the big plays.

It would be nice to think that what fans are seeing from this Browns team at the moment are the necessary growing pains of a team in transition. And hopefully that's all this malaise really is because anything more is too difficult to ponder at the moment. So standing at 2-3 and not even at the half way point of the season, it's not time to write the season off completely and start planning next year's draft. But that's not to excuse what's taken place to date. There has to be progress soon or all of this just ends up being another wasted season for a franchise that, unfortunately, has that act down pat.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lingering Items--Fleeting Regrets Edition

The NBA lockout has now resulted in regular season games being cancelled and from all appearances it looks to be headed toward the land of the NHL. It eventually will get solved but will anyone notice?

Indeed right now outside of columnists like Bill Simmons and a few other basketball junkies, the NBA’s labor problems are pretty much being met with a shrug by most everyone else, unless you’re someone earning $30,000 a year whose livelihood depends on games being played.

If the NFL lockout was the equivalent of the last episode of M*A*S*H in terms of generating interest, then the NFL lockout is like any episode of The Amazing Race. It draws some interest, even some really devoted fans, but most of the country is tuning out.

You can take my word for it or consult any number of sources but on the pecking order of television ratings, the NFL is the 1000 pound gorilla and the NBA is, perhaps, a full grown chimpanzee. Network regular season games in the NBA draw a 2.2 share, which means that of all the television equipped households in this country, only 2.2% were tuned to that game. The story is better in the NBA Finals, but that’s merely by comparison. Last season’s NBA Finals drew less than an 11 share.

By contrast, last season’s Super Bowl was actually the most watched television program in broadcast history, surpassing that final episode of M*A*S*H. NFL regular season games that are nationally broadcast routinely draw in excess of a 10 share, similar to a NBA Finals game.

There are probably a dozen or so reasons you can cite for this vast difference, but however you want to choose to parse it the fact remains that the fans have spoken. Casual indifference toward the NBA lockout vs. intense interest in the NFL lockout mirrors the ratings for each sport.

I’ve avoided writing much about the NBA lockout because I’m four-square in the camp of the casual fan. Frankly, if the whole season was cancelled it would make absolutely no difference in my life. I understand and empathize for the vendors and all the ancillary people that depend on the NBA for their livelihood. Those folks are always the victims. But let’s face it, the NBA owners and the players care so little for any of those people that it’s hard to feel any empathy for the lockout’s main participants.

For those that do care, though, perhaps you’re scratching your head (just as you scratched it raw during the NFL lockout) as to how two sides with $4 billion to split can’t figure it out. If only it were that easy.

The reason the NBA owners and its players can’t divide all that basketball related revenue is that over the last several years and through the last several contracts they’ve created such a byzantine economic system that almost no one at the bargaining table can even figure it out.

The NBA supposedly has a salary cap, but that’s in theory only. The cap serves as merely a guideline and teams routinely blow past it because of all the exceptions that have been created to address individual situations. Then of course if you run out of exceptions it doesn’t matter anyway. A team can go as far beyond the cap as it wants. It just has to pay a luxury tax.

In essence the NBA takes the worst aspects of major league baseball’s system and layeres on the dumbest ideas they could think of. It couldn’t be worse if it was designed and overseen by Congress.

I’d be more interested in this lockout if it was about real reform, like a level playing field that recognizes the economic differences between Milwaukee and Los Angeles. But it’s not. Any semblance of that was abandoned early by the owners who used a hard salary cap as an opening volley in the negotiations.

At this point is really comes down to deciding on the proper revenue split between the owners and the players. The owners are trying to get it to a 50/50 split and the players are resisting. It’s as boring of a dispute as a mid February game between the New Jersey Nets and the Golden State Warriors.

Eventually this will get solved and in a way that the rich on both side get to remain rich. It will also get solved in a way that the average fan that bothered to care will get stuck with the bill. It always does. It would just be nice to think that one side or the other would have the common courtesy to at least give that fan a peck on the cheek before they screw him once again.


Lots of handwringing this week over the ill fortunes of the Ohio State Buckeyes, mainly because the fans aren’t used to seeing the Buckeyes fail. They stand at 3-3 and the meltdown in Nebraska that started midway through the third quarter certainly makes a reasonable person wonder whether the Buckeyes will even become bowl eligible.

They might not, but that’s less of a problem this season then it usually would be.

One of the reasons the Michigan Wolverines didn’t improve much under Rich Rodriguez had everything to do with them missing bowl games every year. That extra practice time that programs are given in order to prepare for a bowl game are incredibly valuable more so for the following season then the actual upcoming game.

But in the case where there is going to be an offseason coaching change anyway, that kind of prep isn’t nearly as valuable unless the new head coach is on board for those practices.

At this point, even if the Buckeyes become bowl eligible, I wouldn’t expect a new head coach to be hired prior to that bowl game. And before I’m accused of putting the cart before the horse, I do believe a new head coach will be hired by the Buckeyes.

This isn’t an indictment of Luke Fickell, exactly, but if anything is clear at the moment it’s that he just wasn’t ready to assume the head job at a program this big. Part of that may be due to how little time Fickell had to prepare for that role. But a big part of it is simply due to his lack of experience as a head coach.

Fickell’s good for the program and I hope he’s retained by whoever is hired. But if Fickell is retained as the head coach, the team is going to continue to struggle for the several years it takes for Fickell to gain the kind of experience one needs to run a program the size of Ohio State’s.

If you think it’s painful watching a freshman like Braxton Miller learn on the job how to be a quarterback at the highest level of college football, triple that feeling if Fickell keeps his current job. The Buckeyes might be respectable the next few seasons but they won’t be the kind of threat they were under former head coach Jim Tressel once he got through his transition year.

Right now one lesson Fickell is learning is how to control the team and I don’t just mean the players. Fickell’s lack of experience on the offensive side of the ball is showing as it’s becoming very clear that he feels he doesn’t have the gravitas to challenge Jim Bollman’s decisions on offense.

The last assistant coach I can think of that’s had a worse year than Bollman was Greg Robinson. Before him it was Ron English. Both were the defensive coordinators for the Michigan Wolverines under Rich Rodriguez and we all know how that worked out. They were as much responsible for Rodriguez’s departure as anything else.

That’s not necessarily the case in Columbus with Bollman, but it’s a fascinating scene nonetheless. Bollman, the Tressel confidant, strutting about the program as if he, not Fickell, is the head coach. Fickell, on the sidelines watching one 3-and-out after another, frustrated and powerless to do much about it. If Fickell has the power to overrule anything Bollman does during the week or on game day, it’s only on paper.

It reminds me of the dynamic between Oakland As manager Art Howe and general manager Billy Beane as portrayed in the movie Moneyball. Howe theoretically reported to Beane but went about his job in quiet defiance of most of Beane’s orders.

These are just the kinds of dynamics that demonstrates why Fickell isn’t the right fit at this moment. He ascended to a role he wasn’t prepared for and most everyone around the program knows it and acts like it. I don’t think that changes any time soon and is fundamentally why Fickell’s future with the program is as the defensive coordinator next season.


The Browns play in Oakland this Sunday and in the all-too-predictable run up to the game the focus turned to former Buckeyes’ quarterback Terrelle Pryor who is coming off a league-imposed 5-game suspension.

Pryor gave an interview in which he expressed the kind of remorse that most athletes tend to express. It was mostly vague, talked about regrets in general terms and then turned the focus toward the future.

That probably won’t satisfy many Buckeyes fans who tend to look at Pryor as the devil, the focal point of all that is currently wrong in Buckeye Nation.

But if they spend any time kvetching over whether Pryor is remorseful enough then it’s time well wasted. It’s just not in the genes of most athletes to regret anything, particularly during their playing days. Almost from the outset of their initial pursuits, athletes are more or less programmed to always look forward, mainly because so much about being a professional athlete is about overcoming one failure after another.

There’s no sport that can ever be mastered. Tom Brady throws interceptions. Jack Nicklaus missed putts and drove the ball in the trees on occasion. The best baseball players still fail to get a hit 68% of the time. Dwelling on these failures only breeds more failures.

And so it is with Pryor. It’s probably best not to judge Pryor’s true mindset based on his current verbal output. Most likely his thoughts won’t be fully formed until after his playing days are over. There will come a point, but probably not for years, when Pryor will be able to embrace the attitude and immaturity that cost him and all that were counting on him a chance to really do something special at the collegiate level.

There’s no reason to pick on Pryor for the same reason there’s no reason to spend another moment regretting the Buckeyes’ situation. You can’t alter the past anyway. All you can do is move forward by putting the past in its proper context, meaning those are just more mistakes in a long list that will continue to get made.


The major league baseball playoffs are in full flower and it leads to this week’s question to ponder: Is it just me or does it seem like every year the baseball playoffs end up being dominated by former members of the Indians?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Making Good Use of the Bye Week

The best thing that could happen to the Cleveland Browns did. They had a bye week when they needed it most.

In the midst of a self-inflicted controversy regarding fan favorite Peyton Hillis and some very questionable play calling in last week’s dispiriting loss to the Tennessee Titans, the last thing that head coach Pat Shurmur needed was a game this past Sunday.

What he needed more was a chance to enjoy the weather, visit with the family and clear his head because it’s a long season from here on in.

The nice thing about a bye week is that it does offer some perspective on what’s taken place to this point. The issues with Hillis and such are important, but what Shurmur needed to do most in the bye week was make a proper assessment of where this team currently stands and why, particularly on offense. Given its relatively poor performance to date, Shurmur’s ability to get that righted holds the key to what kind of season this ultimately will become.

When Monday beckoned and the Browns returned to work, a few changes were noticeable. Greg Little is now a starting receiver and Brian Robiskie is not. Tight end Evan Moore is slated for more time. Not specifically addressed but a key to making all that work is how Shurmur will go about accelerating quarterback Colt McCoy’s maturation process.

Right now McCoy’s abilities are being questioned because he had the audacity to throw a few really bad passes in the last few weeks as he was putting together some uneven performances. But the longer view is that McCoy had an offseason without access to Shurmur and his version of the West Coast offense, a truncated pre-season to learn the system and now 4 starts to run it at game speed. In that context, why should anyone expect anything more then they’ve received from McCoy to this point?

Taking still an even longer view, virtually nothing McCoy learned from last year is of value to this season. Not one aspect to the Eric Mangini/Brian Daboll offense has been retained. That includes the blocking schemes, the receiving routes and the check downs. In other words, last season McCoy was getting a crash course in Italian. This season, he’s had to be conversant in Spanish from the first game forward because the fans expect nothing less then fluency out of the gate.

That’s the reality of the situation for Shurmur but he still must push McCoy to make the offense second nature anyway. That’s a function of time in grade but it’s also a function of study. If Shurmur and McCoy didn’t use the down time to work through the nuances that have been causing McCoy trouble, then it was time well wasted and it will show in the next few weeks.

There’s also the issue of mechanics. Perhaps that’s a function of McCoy not being completely comfortable with the offense just yet, but particularly when it matters most McCoy’s mechanics tend to fail him.

When he’s comfortable and not feeling like the next play is the make or break play of the game, McCoy tends to do the little things well. His play action fakes are crisper. He moves around the pocket nicely and then sets his feet properly when he passes.

But just like a golfer who reverts to his old swing when the pressure is on the most, McCoy tends to forego what he’s been learning when he’s really feeling pressure in favor of what’s work for him in the past. That means foregoing any real effort to play fake or set his feet. He then whizzes through his progressions that much more quickly in order to justify his natural instinct to run as a means of buying time. The problem is that it’s not always clear why he’s buying time.

The end zone interception against Tennessee is a perfect example. McCoy labeled it a dumb play on his part but it didn’t seem to occur to anyone covering the Browns on a regular basis to ask McCoy exactly why it was such a dumb play. Had they not treated it merely as a bit of self-deprecation, they likely would have found out exactly what McCoy meant, which is that the play represented the breakdown of the mechanics he needs to be successful.

He rolled to his right to buy time from a pocket that really hadn’t completely collapsed. As he ran, his options grew more limited. Instead of going out of bounds or throwing it out of bounds, either of which is standard NFL moves, McCoy let his college instincts take over and threw across his body into the end zone while getting hit. The pass was at least 10 yards short of his intended target.

So, yea, it was a dumb play but probably not in the way most people think about it. It was a play of inexperience in a league where every defensive back has good speed. It was also outside any of the usual protocol of the offense he was charged with running. McCoy beat himself up not because he’s dumb but because he understood that so much about the NFL game is merging his best instincts with the best of what the coaches have given you to succeed. McCoy fell short and knew it.

It’s Shurmur’s job to ensure that McCoy grows into his role because right now and on the near horizon, there aren’t any other options. Some of this will come as McCoy gains experience. But more of it will come when Shurmur gets better at putting McCoy in situations in which he has a better chance to succeed. It is a hand-in-glove existence.

Beyond the issues with McCoy, Shurmur also needed the bye week to assess the rest of his offense because McCoy is hardly that unit’s biggest problem. The running game has likewise suffered for the lack of an off season and it too is showing. The schemes seem haphazard at the moment with no real clear path in what Shurmur’s trying to get accomplished. Players say that the smash mouth running style of last season is over but that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Hopefully Shurmur used the time to better clarify his own thoughts and then commit to a style and a running back and let it play itself out. That question gets answered Sunday at Oakland.

But at least Shurmur did address the ongoing saga of the receiving corps. Right now it’s very tight end-centric, which is not a surprise given the style. But it wasn’t clear why a playmaker like Moore wasn’t seeing more action. Shurmur offered explanations on Monday but did acknowledge that Moore needs to be on the field.

As for the wide receivers, the elevation of Little to a starter is one of the most encouraging signs of Shurmur’s deep thinking during the bye week.

Shurmur has come to the conclusion that Robiskie is not a viable option at this point. While good route running is the gold standard for receivers, Robiskie proves on a weekly basis that it isn’t the Holy Grail. By all accounts, Robiskie’s main strength is his ability to run routes. It’s also his main weakness.

There’s no jazz to Robiskie’s game. If the pattern calls for 6 yards and out, Robiskie will run 6 yards and out. If that doesn’t result in him being open, so be it. This is where the weakness comes in. The inability to go off script in the slightest in order to free himself makes it almost impossible for any quarterback to get Robiskie the ball consistently.

Defensive backs study receivers because that’s their full time job. The book on Robiskie is simple. It’s like following the bouncing ball on a one-note melody. The defensive backs know that there’s no chance Robiskie will improvise and thus they understand his every move on the field. Sticking with him is never much of a problem.

Little on the other hand is more artist then technician. You can see that he’s more comfortable than Robiskie in occasionally going off script by rounding off a route when the situation calls for it. Do too much of it and the coaches will nail your butt to the bench. But there are split second decisions to make in a game and sometimes it’s better to vary from the plan as long as your quarterback is on that same page. You can see a rapport growing between Little and McCoy. Robiskie hasn’t been able to build report with any quarterback at the pro level.

The fact that Shurmur is admittedly doing some tweaking is a positive sign for growth. The one thing that he has going for him is that that tweaking is not being dictated by an 0-4 start. What the fans want now is not necessarily playoffs this season but real progress. As the fans well know by now, Shurmur’s future depends on it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Welcome to Cleveland, Pat Shurmur

Now it’s finally time to say, “Welcome to Cleveland, Pat Shurmur.”

Because of an off season beset by labor problems and a lockout, Cleveland Browns fans really haven’t had the proper chance to get to know Shurmur, and he them. When Shurmur awoke Monday morning after a disaster of a game against the Tennessee Titans it was really the first time that he got to fully understand why this Browns’ franchise puts the “fun” in dysfunctional.

How he deals with a mini crisis that he mostly created will say a lot about whether or not Shurmur will ultimately be successful as a head coach.

The wreckage of a game poorly played against the Titans is still smoldering. It’s being fanned by all the various things that have fanned every flame in this franchise’s inglorious rebirth: pissed off fans, clueless players, unsure coaching, oddly silent management.

This is the point, really, where Shurmur is going to have to decide what kind of head coach he wants to be and team president Mike Holmgren is going to have to decide what kind of president he wants to be. In the aftermath of the Browns’ loss, whatever strategy the two have landed on thus far might need to be reworked.

The most immediate crisis has to do with how a team can roll up more than 400 yards on offense, dominate time of possession and still suffer a blowout at the hands of a better but not great team.

Much of that is easily explained by the rather strange play calling by Shurmur, who serves as his own offensive coordinator. Apparently caught up in the emotion of the game (which is the danger, really, of serving as your own coordinator), Shurmur showed little commitment to a balanced offense at any point in the game and went with his instinct to throw the ball nearly every play, especially in the second half.

The pass plays he did call were unimaginative and the few runs he did add, particularly, at crucial moments, were strange. All you need to know on that count is that on a 4th and 1 play he called for a pitchout to his 3rd string running back. The play prior, which was 3rd and 1, was a dive play without a fullback.

Shurmur’s play calling and his ability to perform two jobs before he’s proven definitively he can perform one of them competently is just one of the issues fans are concerned about. The other is Shurmur’s handling of the team’s best offensive player, Peyton Hillis.

There’s a rather disturbing chill between Shurmur and Hillis at the moment and it’s mostly Shurmur’s fault. It stems not from anything that happened in the Titans game but from the decision, apparently Hillis’, to not play the previous week against Miami.

Hillis was replaced by Montario Hardesty and while Hardesty had a nice game, it wasn’t a breakout performance. Yet when it mattered most against the Titans on Sunday, more often than not it was Hardesty on the field and Hillis left on the sidelines to ponder his fate. Even as Hardesty was proving his inability to catch a 3-yard pass consistently, Shurmur stayed with him and left Hillis to stew in his juices. You could see the frustration in Hillis’ face.

The average fan can’t possibly know what it takes to suit up in a NFL game, particularly when you’re hurt or not feeling well. But I got a feeling that the average NFL fan wouldn’t have gone to his day job with a strep throat, a fever and having just lost 10 pounds because of the flew. That’s why companies have sick days.

But the NFL is a place where guys are supposed to play sick and hurt. The warrior mentality predominates and there’s little tolerance for any player who doesn’t suit up unless his limb is literally hanging by a thread, just ask Jay Cutler.

So it’s not a surprise that there are players, former and active, among the Browns who are grumbling about Hillis not playing against Miami a week ago. But the biggest grumbler seems to be Shurmur, who for reasons pointed or petty has decided it’s best to let the question of Hillis’ commitment to the team linger.

After the game, Shurmur had a chance to step up and protect Hillis and decided instead to double down on the message he already was sending throughout the game by keeping Hillis on the sidelines. As the media probed Shurmur every which way to find out why he used Hillis so strangely against the Titans, the questioning naturally turned to the circumstances of the week before.

Shurmur said, succinctly, “he was sick. That was my understanding.” See, that’s the kind of mind games that coaches like to play. Former head coach Eric Mangini made a hobby out of doing just that. Shurmur could have stood up and protected his running back by saying “Peyton was sick. I assessed his condition and he was in no shape to play against the Dolphins. I didn’t want him getting even sicker because I knew we’d need him against Tennessee, so I sent him home. That’s the whole story and there is nothing more to it.”

But instead Shurmur left Hillis dangling with his “that was my understanding” comment and said nothing, really, in his press conference on Monday to take the sting out of that statement. It speaks volumes. It tells you that Shurmur didn’t buy Hillis’ reasoning and it was also a message to the other players that they shouldn’t think of ever using the same excuse to miss a game. Maybe that’s why Alex Mack played with appendicitis.

But it also was an unnecessary and petty move by Shurmur to keep a controversy going that doesn’t serve the team dynamic well. No good can really come from having Hillis’ teammates question his commitment and dedication.

Meanwhile, Hillis was doing his own talking in the locker room after Sunday’s game, letting the media know that he and the head coach are indeed seeing things differently. When a player is upset with his playing time or the quality of plays being called when he is in, he always tells the media that they will need to ask the coach that question.

Hillis’ postgame quotes were full of “I just run the plays that are called” and “you’ll have to ask the coach about that” phrasing. It’s the typical passive-aggressive way a player challenges a coach without calling him out publicly. Otherwise, a player like Hillis would have just toed the company line with a perfunctory “we just didn’t execute” explanation of why a play didn’t work.

So now Shurmur has a full-fledged locker room problem on his hands and one that he initiated. It will be interesting to see how he gets out of it or if he even wants to. Monday’s press conference suggested that he was taking the easy road with a “controversy, what controversy?” approach. Some head coaches, like Mangini for instance, just let the pot boil and Shurmur’s mostly done the same. Maybe that’s effective but there is at least 10 years of dysfunction within this franchise to suggest that it’s not very successful to building a team in this town.

This year’s bye week is early but it didn’t come a moment to soon. There’s work to be done and much of it is inside Shurmur’s head. He’ll either recognize his mistakes and get them corrected or he’ll take the road traveled by the Manginis and Josh McDaniels of the world and insist on his own correctness as he drags the team further down. In Cleveland we’ve already seen the latter. It would be refreshing to see the former.

This is your time, so welcome to Cleveland, Pat Shurmur.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Beaten Down and Broken

If a team is going to lose it might as well do so in epic fashion. At least the Cleveland Browns got that part right and not much else as they were pummeled at the hands of the Tennessee Titans, 31-13.

If there's any consolation to the fans, it's that the players will have to watch films of this mess all week. The fans won't have to look at this again.

There were enough missed tackles of all shapes and sizes that helped the Titans build a 24-6 lead late in the third quarter. And while those missed tackles are worth considering, and they will be, the signature play of the day came just at that point, the Browns down 24-6 and with the ball.

Starting at their own 18 yard line, Colt McCoy and the Browns looked as if they were finally putting something together with plenty of time to still do so. Eighteen points isn't an insurmountable lead and while the offense was once again waking up late, at least they now looked like they had the sleep out of their eyes.

After an 18-yard pass to Ben Watson took the ball to the Titans' 29-yard line and gave the Browns a first down, McCoy was flushed from the pocked and ran to his left. As he was spotting Peyton Hillis come across the back of the end zone, McCoy was hit and severely under threw the ball into the waiting arms of safety Jordan Babineaux at the 3-yard line.

Now let's freeze the action right there for a moment.

This wasn't a case of McCoy throwing it in the flat to a defensive player who jumped an out route and had essentially an open freeway to the end zone. Instead, Babineaux was surrounded by Browns players when he caught the ball. Nonetheless, Babineaux weaved his way first down the side lines and then through the middle of the field on his way to the end zone. As he was doing so, Babineaux was hardly touched as literally no one on the offense made any real effort to disrupt his journey.

Maybe they all had the Titans' defense in their fantasy league.

The Babineaux touchdown gave the Titans a 31-6 lead that was as safe as about 94% of the plays that head coach/offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was calling all day.

Maybe it's a measure of the Browns' resilience or a measure of how confident the Titans felt at that point, but McCoy and the Browns did actually respond to that rather deflating touchdown return by Babineaux (and yes, I keep saying his name because it's kind of fun to type it). Employing a no-huddle offense and simultaneously making the case for sticking with that strategy from here on out, the Browns put together a 15 play 69 yard drive that culminated in a 18-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Watson in the end zone. It brought the Browns to a more respectable 31-13 score but probably frustrated the fans even more.

Why? For the same reason that last week's win frustrated the fans. It's not exactly clear why the Browns' offense struggles so often and yet can look so good in spurts. As if to prove the point, following the Watson touchdown the Browns got the ball right back after a Mike Adams interception and the offense went right back into slumber mode thanks mostly to underneath passes that had no chance of getting additional yards anyway or dropped passes. The lack of production there didn't seal the Titans' victory but only because it had already been sealed much earlier.

There are any number of places to start when considering why this offense struggles. But let's start with the running game.

One of the things that Shurmur is going to have to decide pretty quickly is whether he has two running backs or one starter and a backup. Hillis, either still suffering the effects of last week's illness or in Shurmur's dog house for some unspecified reason, yielded a fair amount of his playing time to Montario Hardesty. All that really did is give neither player a chance to stay in the offensive flow long enough to be effective.

But the other thing to keep in mind is that Shurmur really didn't seem all that committed to the run anyway, so it probably didn't matter all that much whether it was Hillis or Hardesty in the backfield. You can blame it on the fact that the Browns were so far behind as the reason for the offensive imbalance, but the game plan looked from the outset like the running attack was being used solely as a decoy.

I'm going to freeze the action right here for another moment. As much as I've praised McCoy and still believe he's a long-term answer at quarterback, he has more work to do, particularly if he's going to sell this offense to opposing defenses. At times he does a very nice job on play action passing because he actually concentrates on trying to make the play look initially like a run. Too often, though, McCoy goes through the motions and makes a perfunctory move that fools no one, especially the linebackers who are supposed to freeze in place thus giving the tight ends the extra step they need to get open.

For a quarterback and a head coach that rely so much on the tight ends, you'd think McCoy would be good at this move. It's not that he's bad, it's that he's inconsistent. This has to get better for the play action to be much more effective.

Back to the action.

The West Coast offense isn't necessarily designed to stretch defenses but it also seemed like Shurmur's primary goal throughout was to try and give McCoy more confidence in the passing game by calling for so many short underneath routes. Mission accomplished, I suppose. McCoy had a boatload of completions (40-61) and a decent amount of yardage (350) but ultimately that accounted for just 13 points and that is never good enough.

Part of the reason, of course, is that the Browns wide receivers just aren't very good. Mohamed Massaquoi had 6 quiet receptions. Brian Robiski had his first three catches of the season none of which were particularly meaningful. Josh Cribbs, until he proves differently, is on the field simply as a decoy. His route running just isn't consistently good enough for defenses to worry about him. That leaves Greg Little who, though playing well in spurts, is still learning.

As a result, McCoy has to consistently lean on his three tight ends, who are mostly reliable, and the running backs to keep the passing game moving forward. But one of the more obvious points proven in that regard is that Hardesty can't catch very well with nearly has many drops (4) as receptions (5).

Put that together and in that context, the 13 points really isn't that hard to explain, yardage gained and time of possession notwithstanding.

It's a fair point if you want to argue it that when a team only scores 13 points it shouldn't expect to win. I wouldn't necessarily disagree. But it's only part of the story as to why this loss was so complete. The other part of the story is the defense played like it was starting to believe its press clippings.

One of the reasons the Titans didn't seem like they had the ball much had to do with their ability to score quickly early on when good defensive play was needed most and gotten least.

After going 3 and out on their first possession, the Titans rectified it on their next. Starting from their own 40-yard line following a Phil Dawson kick off that went out of bounds (which took the shine on his 48-yard field goal moments before) Matt Hasselback moved the Titans quickly down the field finding tight end Craig Stevens for an 18-yard touchdown pass. It put the Titans up 7-3, a lead it didn't relinquish.

The thing about the Stevens catch is that it was the result of a mental mistake by safety T. J. Ward. With Stevens heading toward the left corner of the end zone, Ward worked back toward the middle instead. Stevens was wide open as a result.

But an even bigger defensive blunder came on Hasselback's next pass, which followed a Browns drive that led to a Dawson 51-yard field goal. On first and 10 from their own 20 yard line, receiver Jared Cook ran right past linebacker Scott Fujita, who was on the coverage. Defensive back Usama Young was late helping out (which is being generous because Young was actually nowhere to be found initially) and then took a horrible angle to Cook while Fujita ran futilty behind. Young wiffed at the tackle and Cook went the distance untouched. That pushed the lead to 14-6.

The Titans then pushed the lead even further with a minute remaining in the second quarter on a 4-yard pass to Damien Williams. But the real back breaker on that drive was two plays earlier when Nate Washington turned a short pass into a 57-yard gain that got the ball to the Cleveland 4 yard line in the first place. Chalk that one up, too, to poor tackling and a general lack of effort. It's really the same thing.

It matters little that from that point forward, the Titans only had 3 more points on offense. They didn't need any more. The damage was done.

As much as last week's last minute win was a confidence builder, this week's loss was that much more demoralizing. It would be one thing if the Browns had kept some of the momentum from that victory but instead they came out as if they were 0-3 instead of 2-1. In other words, just when the team answers one question, it raises a whole bunch of new ones.

Where do they go from here? To the bye week first and to Oakland next, but that's logistics. Where they really go is in Shurmur's hands. And like all the coaches who have tried and failed before him, he probably won't find enough time, even with a bye week, to figure it all out.