Friday, September 28, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 4

If you squint your eyes, scrunch your forehead and furl your brow, you could see a way the Cleveland Browns end up ending what was once a 9-game losing streak by beating the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday evening.  If the third quarter sequence in which quarterback Brandon Weeden threw an ill-advised out pass that turned into a 63-yard touchdown for the Ravens and then the always reliable Greg Little doesn’t hold on to a sure touchdown pass doesn’t happen, then that 14 points swings in the Browns direction and next thing you know the Browns leave victorious.

But Weeden did throw a pick 6 and Little proved once again that he can’t catch when it matters most and now the Browns have their 10th straight loss, their 9th straight loss to the Ravens and their 293rd straight loss in the AFC North, or something like that.  But since we established in week 2 that some losses are half wins, this one even more so because the final margin was only 7 points and was competitive, the Browns stand 1-3 instead of 0-4, or should, right?  Not right.

While Weeden continued the up and down existence of a NFL rookie quarterback, Thursday he was trending toward the good, the pick 6 notwithstanding. He showed composure.  He stood in and took hits.  He showed he can throw on target while being blitzed, even  though Little can’t catch.

In that sense, optimism.  But let’s be honest. You probably can attribute at least some of the Browns’ more up than down performance on Thursday to that same ebb and flow of young player development that Weeden is experiencing.  But let’s not overlook perhaps an ever greater equalizer that made the game closer than the talent levels would otherwise suggest:  a short work week.

Here are the two things I noticed that had nothing specifically to do with the Browns.  First, both teams looked tired, Baltimore even more so than Cleveland having played Sunday night.  Three days of rest isn’t enough in the NFL.  The Thursday night games are too quick of a turnaround.  But on the other hand, the lack of rest does more for parity than the reverse order of the NFL draft.

The second thing is that while the regular NFL referees are back on the field, the calls aren’t automatically going to improve.  The blow to Cribbs’ cranium that caused his helmet to fly about 20 feet looked pretty helmet-to-helmet to me, particularly on the replay.  We’ll let Commissioner Roger Goodell figure that one out.  But once the helmet flew off the play should have been blown dead, meaning the fumble should have been nullified.  The refs reviewed it and didn’t reverse themselves, apparently feeling that a play that’s always going to be bang-bang was bang-bang and thus too difficult to tell if the fumble and the helmet flying was simultaneous.  Why have the rule? (Here’s my theory on that: do the “real” refs, for all their bluster, really want to start off their rebirth by reversing a call on themselves so soon out of the gate?  As Gob Bluth would say, “c’mon on.”).  

After the game Thursday, in that way that opposing coaches have toward their counterparts who are besieged with calls for their jobs, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh had nothing but praise for both Pat Shurmur and the Browns.  He called the team well coached and talented and a team that is not only getting better but will be something to contend with for years to come. I wonder if he knows something.
Anyway, that does beg the overarching question coming out of Thursday’s loss: are the Browns getting better?

Wins are the measuring stick ultimately and on that most important benchmark the answer is surely no.  But, you say, they look better than a year ago.  Maybe.  Last season the Browns opened against the Bengals and played pretty much the same game they played against the Bengals a few weeks ago with pretty much the same result, a competitive loss.  They followed that up with a win against woeful and Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis which gave the fans some comfort that at least the Browns weren’t the worst team in the league.  Then they won again, against Miami, a lousy team as well.  Then they were pasted by the Tennessee Titans.  They followed that up with a competitive loss to Oakland, a game they actually should have or at least could have won (like Thursday night’s against Baltimore) and followed that up with an ugly win against Seattle.

So after 6 games last season the Browns were 3-3 and in week 7 had another competitive loss to the San Francisco 49ers.  My only point is that the Browns had a horrible record last season but in most cases the losses were the kind of losses like Thursday’s and on a week-by-week basis the fans kept finding reasons for optimism even as they were pulling out their hair from another loss.

In other words, even in the context of last season there’s scant evidence that the Browns are a better team this year than last.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t it just means that there’s nothing more than the overly optimistic gut feelings of Browns fans to make that claim.

All that said, the Browns’ touchdown drive last night was a better, more professional drive than any drive the team put together last season.  Down 9-0 and backed up in their own territory early in the second quarter, the Browns were at the precipice of letting the game get out of hand and sending everyone in Cleveland to bed early.  They had just gone 3-and-out on their two previous possessions and another 3-and-out would have been fatal, a few first downs hopeful and a touchdown seemingly impossible.

When Weeden completed a 3rd and 4 pass to Ben Watson that took the ball to the Cleveland 18, it mostly eliminated the Ravens getting great field position on what seemed like an inevitable punt.  Then Weeden threw deep to Little who defied all odds and made a nice catch for 43 yards, to the Ravens 39 yard line.  At this point a Phil Dawson field goal seemed within reach and suddenly the adrenalin returned to the blood stream.  Another Weeden pass, this one to Travis Benjamin, got the ball to the Baltimore 27 and things were now rolling.  Trent Richardson ground out a 7 yard carry, taking one of the game’s biggest assholes, Ray Lewis, with him for the last 3 yards.  A pass two plays later to Benjamin got the ball to the Baltimore 1 yard line and then Richardson finished off the drive by showing the kind of NFL speed necessary to turn the corner on defensive backs, waltzing in the end zone for the touchdown.

In every sense of the word it was a professional drive.  It was extremely well executed throughout and even though I know that every Browns’ fan feared it would end in a turnover, it didn’t.  It really was the kind of drive that justified that aforesaid overly optimistic gut feeling that the Browns are a better team this year.
The third quarter pick 6 by Weeden, which even Scriff the dog saw coming on such a slow developing out pattern, was the cold slap in the face that fans ultimately expected, but still, if Little doesn’t drop the pass later in the quarter, it wipes out that mistake and the game is much different.  See, even I can get sucked in by irrational exuberance.

Let’s talk about Little, again, although briefly.  If Shurmur is a man of his word or, forget that, if he has any hope of keeping the respect of the rest of the team, he’ll send Little to the bench just as he said he would earlier in the week.

Little did have 4 catches for 77 yards including the critical catch during the Browns’ touchdown drive that accounted for the bulk of his yards, but it was the catches that he didn’t make that stand out more.  In the first half he literally let a ball go through his hands in an amazing display of a lack of hand eye coordination.  The ball was through his hands a split second or two before he moved them together to try and make the catch.  

The bigger miss was the one late in the fourth quarter that would have brought the Browns to within 3 with plenty of time left.  Weeden was under extreme pressure yet still found a wide open Little at the end zone and Little inexplicably dropped the pass.  Phil Dawson kicked a 51-yard field goal that got the Browns within a touchdown, meaning they were technically still in the game, but the Little drop was every bit as deflating as Shurmur’s decision last Sunday to punt at midfield with 6 minutes left and his team down by 10. Some things just can’t be overcome.

It is true, of course, that you can’t punish someone into competence so benching Little won’t in and of itself make him a better player.  But if there’s a better player inside of Little that needs some coaxing then a benching would do some good.  Little lacks focus and the only way to foster a better approach is not to sanction that conduct by continuing to play him and simply hoping he wakes up.

Travis Benjamin, on the other hand, showed a few things Thursday night that make you think that he can actually be a significant contributor.  His inside route that got the Browns down to the Ravens 1 yard line and led to the Richardson touchdown was a revelation.  It’s clear that opposing defensive backs respect his speed and thus give him a slightly bigger cushion.  Benjamin recognized the advantage and made a nice fake out and then back in leaving him wide open for the pass that Weeden delivered on time and on budget.  It was the kind of play that few receivers wearing Browns’ uniforms have been able to make in the last 14 years and the kind of play that could make Little’s deserved benching irrelevant.

In the version of the Browns that is 2.0, has there been a player more missed than Joe Haden?  His suspension for testing positive for a stimulant and violating the league’s drug policy has caused about as big of a drop off at a position as I can recall seeing in the last 14 years.

Now, charitably, that may not mean much in the context of this team, but Haden’s loss is still pretty noticeable.  Teams are clearly picking on Buster Skrine and will until he can show that he’s a credible presence.  He’s running out of time.  Haden has one more game to sit out and thus fans have one more game to watch opposing receivers run wild, run open and run free.

Indeed Skrine’s days could be numbered if Haden comes off and is able to demonstrate that the drop off from him to Skrine is as big as it appears at the moment.  I’m not saying that Skrine is the worst defensive back the Browns have had in years, but he’s starting to make long for Brandon McDonald.

The Browns get a much needed break to reassess the season at its quarter post.  Fans that were stupidly optimistic have been slapped back to reality.  Others, meaning the majority, meaning the edgy cynics, feel justified in their pessimism.  Then there is the rest who know that nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems and that holds true even for the Browns.

What we know now, four games into a season that seems longer by the minute, is what we knew all along: this team will struggle.  This team is struggling.  And while it’s what happens on the feel that we react to most emotionally, it’s what’s about to happen off the field, the transfer of ownership, that should have the most impact on this team.

Jimmy Haslam III has been ever present since his deal.  He’s put in more time with this team in just the last few weeks then Randy Lerner has since he inherited the team from his dad.  The Browns need a more active owner and that time is nearly at hand.  Haslam is a successful businessman who knows how to build and while the Browns will clearly present the biggest challenge of his life, there’s more reason than not to think he’s up to it.

The transition to Haslam begins in earnest in October.  That’s when the Browns 3.0 begins and our long, national nightmare hopefully comes to an end.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 3

Maybe we already know everything we’re ever going to know about these Cleveland Browns. Maybe we’ll never know all we should. But what we do know now that Week 3 is in the books is that the Browns are one of two 0-3 teams in the league, the other is a team that literally is without a head coach.

It’s a useful marker, actually. All those people complaining about head coach Pat Shurmur now know that it really isn’t any worse than having no head coach. Indeed, had the Saints not blown a lead on Sunday, the Browns would actually be worse than a team without a head coach.

Now that even the most optimistic among us finally understand that the Browns aren’t going to the playoffs this week, it’s far easier to focus on the Things We Know, Week 3 and that starts first with Shurmur, of course.

If Shurmur has any hopes of maintaining his job once Jimmy Haslam takes over as owner, he better hope two things: that Haslam wasn’t around Sunday to witness the way his new team was manhandled by the Buffalo Bills and that Haslam doesn’t have access to one of the 42 different mobile apps produced by the NFL. Haslam strikes me as an iPhone guy and probably has the apps. It doesn’t matter. He was in the house. In fact Haslam wasn’t just in the house but in the broadcast booth with CBS in an exchange that went something like this:

Third Tier CBS Announcer: How does a guy go from being an owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the league's most successful franchises, to now owning the Cleveland Browns?

Haslam, pained grin on his face as if he were being examined rectally by Melissa McCarthy: Uh, well, we enjoyed our time with the Rooney family but we won't have any trouble turning in our black and gold for the orange and (stumbles for a moment almost imperceptibly but just enough) brown.

I don’t know why Haslam didn’t seem to remember, even for a moment, that the team he bought, Browns, has brown as one of its colors. I’d rather focus on the question. It was the kind of question, really, that Haslam has probably asked himself every day since overpaying for this team. How does one go from a franchise that has the ability to walk, chew gum, text and carry on a conversation all at the same time to one that has to sit down just to concentrate on how to turn that damn smart phone on in the first place.

Sunday's loss to the Bills, a team that hadn't won on the road since at least the last time the Browns won a game, wasn't Shurmur's finest moment. He’s only won 4 games as a head coach so that isn’t really saying much. But more fascinating was his post game obit in which he said that the team’s stated goal going into the game was to get off to a fast start and to finish well. Yea, about that.

The Browns started in a 14 point hole and from there it looked like the Bills might actually score 100 points, so compliant was the Browns' defense to the every whim of the Bills offense and so eager was the Browns' offense to get off the field as quickly as possible lest they have to spend one more minute with these replacement refs.

When the Browns did claw there way back into the game, and they honestly were back in the game and hanging with a team only slightly more competitive than they, the strong finish never materialized. Indeed, quarterback Brandon Weeden threw a couple of awful interceptions that killed any final, fleeting opportunities. It was only through the good graces of Bills head coach Chan Gailey that the final score wasn't even more lopsided.

So the last thing Shurmur tells his team before it heads out of the tunnel in its own stadium and in front of its own fans is that they need to start fast and finish strong and they go out and do the exact opposite? It could be me but I'm starting to get the sense that the team has tuned him out.

It wasn't just that Shurmur's team ignored his broad themes; it was also the fact that his team looked ill prepared and I'm not talking about the fact that a rookie-laden defensive line and a back-up/too old-laden defensive secondary can't be expected to stop NFL-caliber teams. It's more the fact that this team commits idiotic penalties, which reflects on a lack of concentration, tackles poorly, which reflects on a lack of effort, and has relatively high draft picks at receiver who drop balls in their hands, which reflects on a lack of drafting acumen. There is no sense that the team could ever meet the challenge to start fast and finish strong.

Then, of course, was the odd decision by Shurmur to forego a 4th down attempt around midfield with about 6 minutes remaining in the game and his team down by 10. Shurmur thought about the decision like Mike Hargrove used to think about pinch hitters, technically. Right handed hitter, have the lefty get a bat. With Shurmur, it was pin the Bills back with a punt and then get a quick 3-and-out with plenty of time still left. A failed 4th down attempt would give the Bills the ball at midfield and almost any score at that point would put the game out of reach.

(Everything that follows assumes the technical soundness of Shurmur’s decision. But let me say a few words about that. If Shurmur felt that his defense was capable of a quick 3 and out following a punt, why wouldn’t it be capable of that same quick 3 and out if the 4th down attempt failed? Buffalo’s approach wouldn’t have changed irrespective of the field position. The Bills were interested only in keeping the clock moving, which meant keeping the ball on the ground. In other words, if the defense could hold the Bills at the 15 yard line they could hold them at the 45 in that scenario. Glad I got that off my chest.)

While Shurmur was thinking technically, he should have been thinking emotionally, like a leader who understands what’s at stake, how desperate his team is for a win, and how it’s easier to erase a 10 point lead with nearly 6 minutes left then it is with 3. Besides, didn’t the Browns draft Trent Richardson just for these kind of moments?

As it happened, Shurmur’s text book response somewhat played out like he hoped it would except Weeden ruined it with interceptions. But that's hardly the point. When Shurmur sent the punt team on the field, you literally could see whatever spirit remained in this team drain out as if their collective carotid arteries had been opened by Theodoric of York and they lost every remaining drop of blood. The team could feel the lack of confidence their coach had in them, the fans could feel the lack of confidence the coach had in them, and the inevitability of what would happen next took over. It was all just so self-fulfilling.

When the carnage that was Week 1 stopped smoldering it was clear that this franchise suffered from a lack of boldness, the failed pursuit of Robert Griffin III being a prime example. For a team that had lost 8 straight games dating back to last season and was on the cusp of number 9, it needed to do something bold at that moment. Instead it literally punted and the game was lost.

This is why Shurmur is going to have trouble retaining his job. He may have made the right technical move but football is a game of emotion often decided by waves of momentum. Shurmur had no idea that the moment was there to be seized and that's why it's no surprise that his team didn't start fast and finish strong.

Coaches in the NFL are usually hired on their technical accomplishments as coordinators. But in a way that Romeo Crennel couldn’t grasp either, the job of the head coach is as much emotional guide as anything else. There are plenty of examples of teams with lesser talent have been rallied by their coach to accomplish more than they should. How is it that Jim Harbaugh, for example, can continue to coax good performances out of a mediocre talent like Alex Smith when others couldn’t? Shurmur may have been dealt an unwinnable hand given the talent on this team, but he's also showing no propensity for instilling a belief into his outgunned team that against all logic and sense they can still accomplish good if not great things. At some point Shurmur’s going to actually play a hand instead of folding and waiting to see if the next deal works out better.

While I think Shurmur’s lack of emotion and plodding approach created and environment for Sunday’s loss, it was hardly the only reason. The Browns still have a significant problem at wide receiver.

Greg Little, in particular, looks like the second coming of Braylon Edwards, perhaps without the chip on his shoulder but with the same hands of stone. Little dropped at least one pass that he could have turned into a long gain, maybe two. And Little wonders why the fans objected when he drew so much attention to himself last week for catching a touchdown in a game the Browns would lose anyway? Little clearly is a product of youth sports in which every small accomplishment, like remembering to wear his cup, was celebrated with a trophy.
Little is, at best, streaky. When you think about Edwards that’s the thing that comes to mind immediately as well, his streakiness. He was like Julio Franco playing shortstop. On instinct, he could make spectacular plays. With the routine, the ball would go through his legs or, in the case of Edwards, through his hands.

Edwards hasn’t become a barely hanging on receiver in the league simply because of injuries. It’s because his lack of discipline toward his job engendered a lack of trust by his quarterbacks. Little is only in his second season but to this point he’s shaping up to be another Edwards and unless he wakes up quickly will find himself in a few years driving a Bentley at 2 a.m. drunk and sobering up to find that he had no friends to bail him out.

What is of particular concern about Little is that his route running still isn’t particularly sharp and neither is his concentration, despite having a year in the league. Josh Cribbs is a terrible route runner as well (which is why you see so little of him) but he never takes a play off mentally. The route Cribbs turned into the team’s longest gain of the day on Sunday wasn’t a thing of beauty but he made it work.

If Little is going to be all that he imagines, not to mention all the fans imagine, he’s going to have to stop his annoying habit of breaking off routes too early or too late and, as importantly, he’s going to have to learn how to hold on to the damn ball. A quarterback will always try to find the guy that can catch, even if he runs lousy routes, like Cribbs. A quarterback will always ignore a guy that can’t catch, even if he runs great routes, like Brian Robiskie.

Josh Gordon, a year younger but in pretty much the same position as Little, thus far looks like as much a reach in the second round as Little. Charitably, he’s off to a slow start. In truth, he looks as lost as the producers of Lost during its last season. Did Gordon pay attention at all during training camp?

Then there’s Mohammad Massaquoi. He’s off to a much better start, somewhat justifying Mike Holmgren’s gushing review of Massaquoi’s preseason. But let’s keep that at least at some level of context. Massaquoi is a possession receiver and not the downfield burner this team needs to take the pressure off of its running game. A team absolutely has to have a receiver like Massaquoi but if he ends up being the number one receiver in a number three receiver’s body, then that means the passing game is still lagging, probably significantly. And if it lags significantly, just like it did last year, I wonder how quickly Holmgren and Heckert will conclude that the problem isn’t their miscalculations at receiver but some critical skill missing from their quarterback as they angle for Matt Barkley (assuming they have positions with the team from which to angle).


In his three weeks as the starting quarterback, Weeden has been bad, good and in between. That’s not a surprise since he’s a rookie. But there was a point Sunday that gave me a little more insight into why Shurmur et al. have put their faith in Weeden rather than Colt McCoy.

What Weeden does better than McCoy, consistently, is look down the field to make a play. McCoy was the master of the check down to the outlet receiver. Time and again on Sunday Weeden had a running back or other outlet receiver nearby and time and again Weeden threw downfield to someone else instead, sometimes justifiably sometimes not. You had to appreciate the intent if not the results.

Watching Weeden throw downfield has been a bit of a revelation. The Browns only scored 14 points on Sunday but they were relatively close to scoring more (which is the kind of sentence someone like Mary Kay Cabot would type in order to remain upbeat and positive). What you hope comes in time is that Weeden gets better touch on the deep balls. Weeden’s self-assessment of his performance Sunday was that except for the interceptions, he had a solid day. Yea, except for the interceptions.

But I do think that Weeden is also victimized by the same things that victimized McCoy, receivers who aren’t very good. Weeden came close to connecting on those deep balls and arguably some of them could have benefited from having a bit more air under them. But the Browns’ receivers could help him out a little by fighting for the ball once in awhile.

The one thing you don’t see any Cleveland receiver do ever is use his body to gain position and then fight for the reception in traffic. It’s as if unless the ball is perfectly placed it isn’t going to be caught or, in the case of Little, even if it is perfectly placed it isn’t going to be caught

It’s both a talent and an effort issue. General Manager Tom Heckert still puts too much faith in project receivers, like Ernie Accorsi used to put too much faith in undrafted free agent offensive linemen. Even if there is some raw talent to be cultivated the coaches on this team, starting with Shurmur, could do a better job (or even a passable job) of finding a way to reach into the psyches of these receivers to turn them into guys who would do anything to make a reception. When you watch the New England Patriots by contrast it almost doesn’t matter who they have at receiver. Heck they overhaul their receiving corps every year. But there is an amazing consistency to their approach. The Patriots find the guys that want to win while Cleveland spends too much time settling for guys who just want to play, or in the case of Shurmur, who just want to coach.


To kind of finish where we started, a comment earlier in the week by Trent Richardson certainly takes on more resonance in retrospect. Richardson, used to winning as a collegian, told his teammates that they need to practice harder and stop accepting losing as a way of life. I suspect his teammates wrote that off as collegiate exuberance but when you saw the pathetic effort that was this team on both sides of the ball Sunday, you do wonder how hard they practice and/or whether they more or less accept losing as their current lot in life.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 2 Edition

The Cleveland Browns 2.0 haven’t exactly been a NFL franchise as much as a NFL experiment. Like the L.A. Clippers in the NBA or the Kansas City Royals in Major League Baseball, the Browns have become that team, the one where we see how many times it can change every ingredient in the recipe and still produce the same miserable stew week after week, year after year.

It’s worked pretty well for the last 13 years. The Browns have had more starts and restarts, system failures and reboots, new blood and tired blood in the last 13 or so years then most franchises go through in 50 years, no discernible progress being the given. The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, had a major change in course was when Bill Cowher retired (after winning a Super Bowl) and the Rooney family hired Mike Tomlin to fill his shoes 7 years ago. As a measure of the distance between the two franchises, Browns fans still dream of hiring Cowher.

Having long since grown tired of recapping the same miserable loss that everyone else saw with their own eyes, I decided to try and search for a better way. Thus gave life to this new venture, one that tries to at least figure out the things we know about the Browns based on their performance this past week in context with the previous week’s failure or, on the rare occasion, its success. With but that bare framework to launch, here’s The Things We Know about the Browns, week two:

1. It’s come down to this. When a team has had so little success for so long a time, its fans inevitably will start counting the good losses as half wins. Sunday’s defensive and special teams’ breakdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals were just that sort of half win. Fans felt kind of good, like there may be a spark of something to work with here, that perhaps they can win more than 5 games this season.

The problem, though, is that these half wins count as full losses in the NFL and according to some cubicle-dwelling geek housed in the Bristol compound deprived of nourishment until he can find a meaningful statistic that hasn’t yet been used, only 12% of the teams that have started 0-2 made the playoffs. After two weeks in the NFL, there already are 6 teams that are 0-2, which equates nicely to 20% of the league, give or take a fraction. That means, if I remember my high school math correctly, that at best only one of those six teams has a chance at making the playoffs this season.

Somewhere in the universe that is Bristol surely there is someone that can tell me the odds that of those six teams (Cleveland, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oakland and New Orleans) the Browns will be the one to emerge. Because I have the patience of a new born puppy when it comes to such things and can’t wait for another cubicle-dwelling Bristol geek to finish his work, I’ll just make up the odds and assume it’s at best 5%. It's probably less.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Likely none of those teams make the playoffs. But if you had to make a wager, and say you had to either make that wager or watch 24 straight hours of the Kim Kardashian wedding tape (as opposed to, say, the Kim Kardashian porn tape), you’d choose New Orleans, right? They are without their head coach and are a mess, but they still have far more talent then any of the other six. The difference between them and every other team on the list can be summed up in two words: Drew Brees. But even the Saints are a long shot.

So we know it won’t be the Browns, meaning that just two weeks in any stupid, delusional hopes of the playoffs have been effectively dashed. Statistics may lie and liars may use statistics and a Bill Belichick team might lose a home opener to the Arizona Cardinals when their kicker shanks it at about the same time the previously vanquished Patriots kicker was winning a game for the Colts, there are still two things that are true in the NFL: statistics are Gospel and the Browns never, ever defy the odds. That means another early pick.

But back to that feel good loss. Why all the happy faces? It’s because Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson had good games. That gets the fans to thinking that if the defense and the offense could just come together at the same time, then this team might be worth watching?

But that’s rather the point, isn’t it? A team tends to be worth watching when they actually do put all phases of their game together. Until then they are at best like your golf game. You may be driving well, and that makes you feel you played well even when your putting was off and you didn’t break 90. The next week you sink 6 putts of 15 feet or more but hit 5 drives out of bounds and you didn’t break 90 and feel worse. Surely if you would quit hitting your drives out of bounds and make a bunch of 15 foot putts, you’d regularly break 80, maybe even 70 on occasion and then who knows?, with a little more practice maybe you can get on the Senior Tour.

You’re not getting on the Senior Tour because the chance that you will consistently do both things well is exactly the same as the Browns consistently playing good offense, defense and special teams. That hasn’t happened in generations and it may be generations before it happens again.

So what we know right now is that the defense still has an incredible depth problem. If Buster Skrine remains on this team it’s only because whoever else is out of football at the moment and used to be a defensive back is either too concussed to remember how to wear a helmet and/or too slow to cover Joe Thomas on a tackle eligible play. Joe Haden is a nice player, but he’s not nearly as good as Skrine made him look on Sunday.

Skrine told the media after the game “I don’t think I played very well.” How am I to argue.

As for the other hole in the defensive backfield, the one created when Sheldon Brown didn’t play, rookie Trevin Wade wasn’t exactly a revelation. He seemed about as ready to play as Weeden did the week before. On the other hand, he didn't get hurt. Call it a half win.

2. Speaking of Brandon Weeden, we know that he’s not the worst quarterback in the league, certainly not as bad anyway as his 5.1 rating from Week 1 would indicate. He’s probably not as good as his 114.9 rating from this week would indicate either, but he did enough positive to stop the Colt McCoy Chorus from straining their vocal chords for another week. In truth, I really liked what Weeden did this past week, mainly because it was such a dramatic improvement from the week before even if the end result was the same.

Weeden had a couple ways he could have gone after the debacle against the Eagles last week. That he chose to ignore the cacophony and instead work harder during the week so that he could be a little less wide-eyed on game day was a bold and admirable choice. He didn’t have a perfect game, certainly, but he did show that his confidence and his psyche aren’t too fragile for the pro game.

All that said, Weeden has a long way to go to prove that he’s not Derek Anderson or Mike Phipps. Anderson had an entire season where he looked every bit the franchise quarterback and yet he failed when his strong arm kept putting the ball in the hands of opposing defensive backs. Phipps had a big arm and the intellect of Jeff Spicoli. In other words, there is still plenty of time for this to go another way.

The other number one pick, Trent Richardson, had a good game as well, as dramatic of a difference from week one as was Weeden’s, perhaps even more so. Richardson’s moves to get in the end zone on the pass from Weeden was just the kind of moment that does make you think he could actually be special.

Anytime a running back has more than 100 yards in less than 20 carries and then adds a catch for a touchdown is a day to celebrate, especially in Cleveland. If you want to add perspective to it, here’s why Kansas City lost: Peyton Hillis fumbled on the two yard line at the exact moment that Chiefs were poised to get back into the game. It’s why Hillis isn’t in Cleveland. He can’t hang on to the friggin’ ball.

So the rookies, the two the team really are counting on anyway, had a good week. The results haven't changed but string together more of those performances and the results have to change.

3. There’s something about defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to like. His teams bend like a Russian gymnast but typically don't give up a lot of points. You have to like, too, that his career as a head coach pretty much matches the success rate of the Browns 2.0, right down to all those losing seasons. But he keeps plugging away and never seems to carry a chip on his shoulder. He knows defense and now seems content to let that phase of his career play out without any greater aspirtions. That's why, despite having virtually no success as a head coach, players still respect him and still listen to him.

But one thing I didn’t like on Sunday about Jauron’s defensive game plan is the way he purposely exposed his incredibly weak defensive backfield by blitzing so aggressively. There was a perverse logic to it—put pressure on Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton and force him to throw short. And it sort of worked. The Browns defensive line and linebackers kept Dalton scrambling but as Browns fans have seen too many times, short passes are this team’s Achilles heel. That was a problem last year and the year before that (when Jauron wasn't here) and based on yesterday's results (two shortish passes turned into a 50 yard and 44 yard touchdown) is still a problem.

It's especially a problem against Andy Dalton. Weeden had that aforementioned 114.9 quarterback rating against the Bengals yesterday. Dalton has put up that kind of rating against the Browns for three games now, which means three straight wins. (It's only in Cleveland that a quarterback puts up that kind of rating and loses, kind of like when the Browns went 10-6 under Romeo Crennel and didn't make the playoffs.) If Jauron doesn't find another way to try to stop Dalton, who essentially is Brandon Weeden only younger, then it's likely to be another season gone without winning a divisional game.

Frankly, I'd rather see the Browns defense challenge most quarterbacks to throw long. Accuracy decreases the further the pass. That would mean of course that the Browns would have to count on a very weak defensive line to pressure the quarterback and I think we all know how that would go.

But poison must be picked and right now the better choice would seem to be to play 5 defensive backs on every down and hope that the line and linebackers can stop the run and keep marginal pressure on the quarterback. The against-type method of defense let the Bengals score 27 points and this isn't that good of a Bengals team.

4. There will be no real progress for this franchise until it can win AFC North games. They've now lost 11 straight. It's understandable when the Browns are playing the Ravens and the Steelers. But how do they lose that many to the Bengals?

Let that roll around the crevices of your brain for a moment. The Bengals, perhaps the league's next biggest doormat, has beaten the Browns 13 of their last 16 times they've played. You can throw out everything you ever really know about the Browns 2.0 and just look at that stat and know that this is a franchise in trouble. That's why it's hard to look at any loss, even the supposedly feel-good half-win type losses, and feel that progress has been made.

There were plenty of other things we now know but why get on a screed about Greg Little's celebration after his touchdown? I'd say he should act like he's been there before but he's not that good of an actor.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lingering Items--Simple As That Edition

If Cleveland Browns owner-in-waiting Jimmy Haslam III is spending time right now wondering whether to keep Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert he could, probably should, take into account the performance of The Oldest Living Rookie Brandon Weeden on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The last time Browns fans saw an opening day quarterback perform this poorly (and believe me they seen a lot if opening day quarterbacks and a lot of them perform poorly) it was 2007 and it was Charlie Frye. He was traded two days later.

You can blame Weeden or you can blame the guys who picked him. I'd go with them. Consider: In the run up to this year's draft the St. Louis Rams owned the number two pick and were looking to sell it to the highest bidder. Indianapolis wasn't letting go of the number one pick they so richly earned and after jettisoning Peyton Manning, they were committed to Andrew Luck. Robert Griffin III was next in line on everyone's draft board and no one was even close.

The Rams told interested bidders they'd have one chance to make their best pitch for that pick. The Washington Redskins took that proclamation seriously. The Browns did not. The Redskins got a stellar performance from their pick (Griffin) on Sunday. The Browns did not. As head coach Pat Shurmur said in his Monday press conference, though in a different context, “simple as that.”

It would be one thing if the Browns had made their best offer and fell short. It happens. But Holmgren admitted that wasn't the case. He and Heckert ignored the bid instructions, assumed the Rams were bluffing and bet on the ability to make a stronger offer when the Rams called back. They never called back. Holmgren and Heckert stood dumb founded with egg on their face or their thumbs up their ass, you pick. Either way, it's the story of this regime and every other one that's come before them in the Browns 2.0 era. It’s been one massive miscalculation after another.

Naturally Holmgren, in that “hey I’m just being honest with you” sort of way he has when he’s shading the truth, basically put the blame on the Rams for not following established (?) league protocol in making sure they got the absolute best price for their pick.  I mean, who doesn't call back, amiright? Holmgren even suggested the Browns were prepared to make an even better offer than the Redskins but weren’t given the chance.  Maybe they were going to make a better offer, who knows?  What we do know, or as our doppelganger Bill Belichick would say, is that going by only what we can see, they didn’t make their best offer when told to and the chance to be bold was overtaken by the need to be cautious. That’s why this franchise never really takes a step forward. Again, simple as that.

That's the thing about making one of those bold trades.  The only time anyone even remembers what you gave up to make it is when the boldness fails in spectacular fashion. Big risks, big rewards and all the stuff. There probably are but a handful of people between St. Louis and Washington D.C. who can readily name exactly what it cost the Redskins to get Griffin and will remember if and only Griffin suddenly turns into Akili Smith.  What Redskins fans know, though, is that they have Griffin and while one performance, either way, doesn't a career make, you'd still rather see your new quarterback play like he belongs in the NFL rather than in the SEC. Right now I’m not sure Weeden even starts for the Miami Redhawks.

With Griffin and Luck out of reach, Holmgren and Heckert traded up to get Trent Richardson instead, figuring that in a quarterback dominated league, it’s better to have a guy with lingering knee problems running the ball who can reliably be counted on to get you 2 yards per carry. Besides, Brandon Weeden would be available later in the first round. They guessed right.

One of the main issues with relying on Weeden has everything to do with his age. There’s one thing to be a 25-year old rookie, but a whole other kettle of corn to be a 29-year old rookie, particularly when the alternatives were 22-year old rookies. It’s simple math and makes their timid approach to getting Griffin puzzling.

Griffin is one of those 22-year olds. Even if he is the real deal (and the earliest indications are far more promising then they are for Weeden, but it’s a marathon not a sprint as Holmgren reminded us last week), it’s still going to take 3 or so years to consistently play at an elite level. The time period between big man on campus and starting in the NFL has certainly lessened for quarterbacks, but the learning curve once starting to gaining elite status is still relatively lengthy considering it’s the hardest position to play in all of professional sports. Getting NFL good just takes time. Ask Drew Brees. Ask Aaron Rodgers. But when Griffin is ready to take that next step, he’ll still be 3 or 4 years younger than Weeden is today.

Weeden is less certain as the real deal. There have been plenty of strong armed quarterbacks that couldn’t make the adjustment. We had one in Cleveland and his name is Derek Anderson. But giving Weeden that same trajectory, he’ll be in his early to mid 30s when he finally begins to figure it all out, if he sticks around that long. That isn’t ancient, but it doesn’t give a whole lot of time to forge a long career, either. For comparison sake, Peyton Manning is 36 years old.

Weeden at best is a then mid term solution. There simply isn’t enough time in his career to be a long term solution. With that kind of math you can just hear Holmgren and Heckert justifying the pick down the road by saying Weeden was only a late first round pick, as if this was the NBA. With that kind of thinking though, there’s probably a far safer conclusion to reach: when it comes time to pick the next Browns quarterback of the future, it won’t be Holmgren and Heckert doing the picking.


If there’s one thing that was clear in Shurmur’s post game comments and his Monday presser about Weeden’s play, it’s that he wants to make sure he doesn’t further damage Weeden’s psyche by giving straight talking words to what everyone else saw.

That’s laudable, I suppose, but on the other hand I’ve always thought that if a NFL quarterback’s psyche is that fragile then perhaps he shouldn’t be a NFL quarterback.

Shurmur said he wasn’t disappointed in Weeden’s play, just disappointed in some bad plays. It’s like saying that “New Year’s Eve” wasn’t a disappointing movie; it just featured some disappointing writing, acting and directing. I guess that’s why coaches get the big bucks. It’s that ability to make a distinction without making a difference.

Shurmur, ever the optimist with the pessimist's demeanor, found “good news” in that every problem is correctable. When you see an open receiver, you just have to make a better throw. Simple as that.

Even if it is theoretically possible for Shurmur to have been pleased with Weeden’s performance but disappointed in all the bad plays he made, a good chunk of that disappointment should lay directly at Shurmur’s feet so maybe that’s what he meant all along.

During the preseason Shurmur protected Weeden as if Weeden was Tom Brady. Weeden didn’t play nearly enough in preseason and it showed. If you look at Weeden’s preseason, he didn’t throw a touchdown pass and when he had that opportunity to do so twice on Sunday, the lack of experience showed. He missed wide open receivers by at least as much as Holmgren and Heckert missed consummating the trade with the Rams for that first pick.

It would have been nice if instead of seeing the opportunity to complete an important pass and getting all wide-eyed and nervous at the flashpoint, Weeden would have instead seen the opportunity like someone with experience does, a chance to complete a pass and give his team a chance to win. But Shurmur denied Weeden that experience by limiting his reps during preseason games and even going so far as keeping Weeden out of the last preseason game. Another miscalculation, but hey why start counting now?

Here’s another reason Weeden’s lack of experience and Shurmur’s lack of willingness to get him that experience hurt the Browns on Sunday.

It was early in the fourth quarter, the Browns were up 16-10 and the Eagles were driving. But that drive stalled just outside the red zone and then the Eagles missed a 45 yard field goal. While a touchdown might have seemed too far out of reach, a field goal did not and, frankly, that’s all that was needed anyway.

Starting with good field position at their own 35-yard line, Shurmur and Childress lost their near, or more likely, their confidence in Weeden. With three interceptions already (and one that was dropped), they had a point.

The play calling went like this: Richardson off left tackle, Richardson off right tackle, Weeden short pass to Brandon Jackson that Jackson alone turned into a 14-yard gain. It was a conservative, don't turn it over approach, on which they got lucky. That should have given Shumur/Childress some confidence but instead only made them more scared of having another shoe drop.

So they cashed in their chips. The rest of the play calling went like this: Richardson off guard rights for a loss of one yard. Weeden short pass to Greg Little, incomplete. Weeden short pass to Jackson, incomplete. What’s notable about those short passes at that there was no chance that either could garner a first down, particularly the third down pass to Jackson. Indeed, that third down pass once it fell incomplete, had all the feeling of the Indians trading for Brent Lillibridge. The let down was palpable.

After the Reggie Hodges punt pinned the Eagles to their own 9-yard line, we know the rest of the story. It was a classic drive, extended by penalties and mistakes, and ultimately concluding in the usual backbreaking fashion.

When Weeden came back in with 1:12 remaining and the team still just a field goal away from winning, was there any doubt what would come next? Weeden, denied any significant chance at gaining some experience during preseason, reacted as you’d expect, if only more quickly then we thought. He threw poorly on the first play, was intercepted for the fourth time, and Michael Vick got a chance to take a knee and end the game.

It was a sad, but predictable ending, like so many that had come before it.

The story of the day was the play of the defense. They gave up a boat load of yards, just as they did last season, but they limited the scoring, just like they had last season.

What was at least as impressive was the physical nature of their play. They hit Vick hard and consistently. They were ball hawks. They both contained and kept pressure on Vick throughout and had him frustrated most of the day.

But they were on the field much too long and it showed on the last drive. There were several opportunities to limit the damage of the drive, including a potential interception in the end zone, and consistently came up short.

Still, if there was good news in another Browns opening day loss, it was that the game never got out of reach. If you're Andy Reid at the moment, it may be time to rethink whether your team is even playoff caliber.


Sticking with today’s theme, here’s the question to ponder: What is more damaging to Weeden’s confidence, having Colt McCoy breathe down his neck or completing 12 passes out of 25 attempts for 118 yards and throwing four interceptions?

Bonus question to ponder: If the Browns get the number one pick next year, do they draft Matt Barkley?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Art of Modell

The news came across in rather pedestrian, almost unobtrusive fashion. Art Modell, former owner of the Baltimore Ravens, former owner of the Cleveland Browns, died of natural causes in his adopted city of Baltimore. He was 87 years old.

Somehow I always imagined that the news would come across with a far bigger impact, at least in Cleveland. But maybe it’s because the fans, like me, never figured that Modell would actually die.

By all accounts, Modell had been on his death bed since the early ‘80s. He had heart attacks and all manner of maladies and yet hung in there to live another day. He was Hyman Roth, perpetually dying but always sticking around as a thorn in someone’s side. Even Modell saw the humor in his supposedly poor health, often joking about how he continuously cheated death. It wasn’t the only thing he cheated.

So his actual death caught me a bit flat footed. I had started to write his obituary several times over the years but gave up because I became convinced sometime about 10 years ago that Modell wasn’t human but an apparition, a vampire perhaps, that would roam the world forevermore and scrapped the project. It doesn’t matter. His story is burned into my brain.

The Baltimore Sun had a fawning tribute to Modell and why not? Modell returned football to the city of Baltimore after it had been screwed over by Bob Irsay. I felt sorry for Baltimore when that happened and then cheered when Homeland Security added them to the foreign enemies list after they conspired with Modell to steal the Browns.

Modell didn’t pack up his team and move it in the middle of the night like Irsay did, but he might as well have. The effect was the same, but just on a different city. And because of it, Modell forever changed his legacy and how he was perceived in both life and now death.

Thankfully Cleveland, with substantial assistance from the NFL, stopped the cycle of abuse by simply creating a team from scratch. And despite all the problems with Browns 2.0, it remains a point of pride that the city didn’t have to steal someone else’s team to get football back. Our crappy team is our own.

But back to Modell, although, truthfully, even today nearly everything about the Browns has a relationship to him. I’ve always thought, for example, that the way it all went down, with Al Lerner helping lure Modell to Baltimore and then Lerner landing as the new owner of the Browns was a masterstroke of sleight-of-hand perpetuated by Lerner. Certainly Modell saw it that way as shortly after the move, Modell and Lerner had a falling out. And where would Browns 2.0 be without the abiding influence of Al and Randy Lerner? They were better owners than Modell in the sense that they had more money. But they were not any more technically proficient.

Meanwhile, Modell was a hero in the minds of the citizens of Baltimore and when the Ravens, the re-constituted re-named Browns, won the Super Bowl years later, Modell become an icon. As he did in Cleveland, Modell became an active philanthropist and social gadfly. It endeared him to the non-profit community in Baltimore just as it had in Cleveland. On that score, but only on that score, Modell had a life well lived.

Death has a tendency to cause people to reconsider and as a society we find it distasteful to speak ill of the dead. But the act of dying doesn’t absolve Modell. The facts remain the facts even though Modell spent most of the last 16 years trying desperately to change the narrative. Almost from the moment that he stuck a knife in the collective backs of Browns fans, Modell began trying to reshape the story so that he became the victim and not the perpetrator. As Modell was fond of saying, “I had no choice” but to move the Browns.

Modell had a choice. He always had a choice. He just didn’t choose to exercise the right one. And that was the problem with Modell. He had a unique knack for making the exact wrong decision. The bigger the decision the more likely he was to get it wrong.

The real legacy of Modell, at least in his professional life, can be boiled down to one sentence. He was the only owner in NFL history to go broke. Imagine that. NFL ownership is essentially a license to print money. Jimmy Haslam III just paid a billion dollars to gain controlling interest of the Browns and thinks he got a great deal. He probably did.

While other owners couldn’t find enough pockets to stuff all their cash into, Modell seemed to walk around like the Monopoly character—slumped shouldered, empty pockets turned out, frowning. Ultimately, he was forced to sell his franchise in order to make ends meet.

There are plenty who will claim that Modell was a visionary and perhaps he was. He’s often credited with creating Monday Night Football but that, too, is a fallacy. Pete Rozelle was always the visionary and the driving force behind that franchise. Roone Arledge and Chet Forte at ABC created what MNF eventually became. Modell pushed to have the Browns play in that first game, certainly, but that’s a far cry from being the”Father of Monday Night Football” as some of his sycophants have suggested.

Modell’s life was always far more fantasy than reality, anyway. It was a consistent theme which isn’t a surprise considering his background as a former Madison Avenue advertising executive. But in that he was more in the vein of Roger Sterling then Don Draper. What Modell was good at, like Roger, was schmoozing. It gave Modell a reputation as a player. But what Modell wasn’t good at, like Roger, was doing. True he was able to put together a group and buy the Browns but for most of his career and to those in the know, Modell was someone they had to manage around.

Modell was known as a generous soul and in some sense he certainly was. But he also was ruthless and inept. He blew every penny he ever got. He installed his idiot son David as CEO of the Ravens and all David did from that point forward (and, truthfully, in all years previously as well) was embarrass himself and the family. That’s just for starters.

Modell lost a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit filed by Bob Gries, the former Browns minority owner, over losses actually incurred by Modell’s Stadium Corp. that he tried instead to saddle instead on to the books of the Browns. He’d been sued by the Andrews Trust, the successor to a business adviser that helped Modell originally buy the Browns. Under the terms of a 1963 agreement, Modell was to pay a $30 million finders fee to the Andrews Trust upon his sale of the team. To counteract that claim, Modell kept a small piece of the Raven franchise so that he could argue that because he didn’t sell all of the team, money still wasn’t owed.

But ultimately none of it mattered. He died not as an NFL owner but as a kind of forlorn has been surrounded by the adopted sons he coddled.

Modell’s passing will surely open up the wounds of Browns fans for a day or two but a new season is starting and he’ll soon be mostly forgotten. Fans here are 13+ years into a new team and have much more parochial concerns. But as the history of the NFL continues to be written, Modell will forever be remembered not for his philanthropy or his love of family but merely as the guy who moved the Browns and screwed the fans.