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?