Monday, October 08, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 5

“It’s easy to grin, when your ship comes in and you’ve got the stock market beat;
But the man worthwhile is the man that can smile when his shorts are too tight in the seat.”

Judge Smails, at the christening of the Flying Wasp.

There’s no easy grinning in Cleveland and no one’s ship is coming in. Pat Shurmur’s shorts are getting awfully tight in the seat, too, as he watches with increasing impatience as his quarterback makes stupid throws, his linebackers miss tackles, his defensive secondary leaves opposing receivers running free and the rest of his players walk around, hands on hips, wondering why they can’t be free agents at season’s end. And as Shurmur looks out over the horizon here’s what he really sees: 11 straight losses under his watch, an 0-5 mark this season, the very real possibility of this team going 0-16 and the increasingly greater chance that the first phase of his head coaching career will last as long as the second phase of Eric Managini’s head coaching career, if he’s lucky.

What we know definitively after an embarrassing loss to the New York Football Giants is that the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. We know that for simple reasons like the fact that they are the only team without a win this season. We also know it for the more complex reasons like the fact that the general manager figured it might be an interesting experiment to see how repurposing the roster to the equivalent of a minor league baseball team will work in the NFL. No credible franchise sends a team into a NFL season where most of the players have one year or less of experience. If you want to know why knowledgeable NFL types shake their heads at Cleveland, that is the reason.

I consistently hear fans who want to believe, just have to believe, that the Browns are working their way through the forest and that Heckert has put this team on the right track. But this team is demonstrably worse in so many ways than even last year’s miserable team that it’s getting harder and harder to defend Heckert.

He drafted Trent Richardson but that was because he failed to make the trade to secure Robert Griffin III, a player whose mere presence would have added legitimate hope to the team. Richardson is a nice player, makes some nice runs, but even Heckert has to have noticed that it’s far easier to get to an elite level in this league with a transformational quarterback than a big-time running back. Adrian Peterson wasn’t moving the needle that much for the Vikings, which is why they were so vested first in Brett Favre and now Christian Ponder (a younger Brandon Weeden).

I get on this rant after seeing a game like Sunday’s because as much as these losses seem to teach us the same lessons, it’s as if the Browns’ management can’t grasp the concepts.

Which is why Shurmur’s shorts are getting so tight. He knows this isn’t going well and that he and the team stand perilously close to their own fiscal cliff. A loss to the Bengals next week and it will be clear to everyone, including the new man in town, that Cleveland hasn’t seen a runaway train of this magnitude since the days of Chris Palmer.

Did you notice how Shurmur took on Weeden for that miserable game-turning interception near the end of the first half? Or maybe Shurmur was referring to Weeden’s other game-turning interception early in the fourth quarter when he said, essentially, that it’s time to stop using “Weeden is a rookie” as an excuse for not making good football decisions.

And I agree with Shurmur but then I also remember that Shurmur put Weeden in a position to fail, at least on that first interception. It was 3rd and 1 and Richardson was running effectively enough so naturally Shurmur decided that rather than go toe-to-toe with the Giants for two downs in order to get one yard he’d have Weeden throw the ball. If Shurmur didn’t see that interception coming then he was the only one. The 14-year-old son of my girlfriend, a kid who is a Giants fan and knows nothing about the Browns, said matter of factly before the play turned into a disaster, “I can’t believe they would throw here. It will probably get intercepted.” Uh, yea.

Shurmur’s rather prickly response to being questioned about another questionable game-day call “we have to either run or throw here so we threw” or something to that effect. He didn't back off that assessment a day later. Frankly, as long as he was giving up why not just take a knee and then have Phil Dawson kick a field goal? But more to the point, why not at least look like you’re going to maybe run by keeping Richardson in the game? When Richardson trotted off the field and Chris Ogbonnoya ran on to the field, the ball already was intercepted.

In context, Weeden isn’t playing like he’s the worst quarterback or even the worst rookie quarterback in the league. The interceptions, either one of them, were killers and they both resulted because Weeden made bad plays. But the reason the Browns are so lousy in the first place is that there is virtually no support system in place. The team lacks the kind of players that can help lift others up when it gets rough.

Let’s contrast for a moment, shall we, the Browns/Giants game against a nearly identical game taking place in Indianapolis. They were almost parallel games. The Packers were the best team last season and they were taking on last year’s worst team. The Giants, the Super Bowl champs, were doing similarly, taking on the second or third worst team from last year. Both were obvious mismatches. The Browns got off to the fast start they needed, took the MetLife Stadium crowd out of the game and then folded before the two-minute warning of the first half. There was no coming back. The Packers had an 18 point lead at halftime. There was every reason for the Colts to fold. They didn’t. And then when the Packers regained the lead, 27-22, with just over 4 minutes remaining in the game, there was every reason for the Colts to fold again. They didn’t. Instead Andrew Luck, with a major assist from Reggie Wayne, played like a player with a pedigree, led his team on a clock killing drive for the touchdown they needed (and the two-point conversion) that ultimately gave them the victory.

Why can a team like the Colts, so awful a year ago, rise up when the Browns fold as if they had just been deal a 3 of spades and a 4 of diamonds in a game of 5-card stud? A big reason is that the Colts and Luck can rely on someone like Reggie Wayne while the Browns and Weeden can rely on, exactly who? Greg Little? Josh Gordon? Trent Richardson? Ben Watson?

When people talk about the Browns’ lack of depth, that’s exactly what they’re talking about. For a team to win it has to be able to go to the well for someone who has been there, won’t panic and will carry the rookies through the tough spots. But when Heckert gutted the team the way he did, he also eliminated that possibility and that, more than anything, is why the Browns lost. They also lost because they suck.


If Greg Little thinks this past week was an anomaly in his developing career, he ought to think again. The Browns had two receivers out and Weeden still basically refused to throw a ball to Little. His role was to act as a decoy which was about the only job he’s capable of doing at this point.

I loved Weeden’s quote when he said that Little had a great week of practice and that not throwing to him was just how it worked out. Yea, it’s exactly how it worked out. Little has proven himself to be completely unreliable as a receiver and while Weeden needs help in his decision-making and badly needs a win, he’s at least mastered that part that says “just because a guy’s out there doesn’t mean I have to throw to him.”

Indeed, the best way for Weeden to master the art of going through the progression of receiver options on every play is for Shurmur to call more plays designed specifically for Little. It looked as though Weeden consistently looked off Little in order to throw it someplace else. Maybe there is hope.

Now the ball really is in Little’s court. He’ll see far less throws and the few he does see will be flavored with far more pressure for if he drops any of those, his next step will be to hire Braylon Edwards’ agent and find another team willing to take a flyer on a receiver that can’t catch.

Don’t feel bad for Little, though. There’s only so much energy a person has and Little has decided that allocating most of it to establishing an online persona via Twitter and creating self-aggrandizing post-catch celebrations is far better for his brand. That’s left precious little (which is actually a nice little ironic nickname for him) energy to devote to developing receiving skills.

I really don’t think Precious Little will ever amount to much in the NFL. He seems to lack sufficient self-awareness to realize that it’s time to develop the kind of work ethic needed to succeed in football or, really, in life. Precious Little is never the last person off the practice field but he should be. He doesn’t do one thing more than he’s told to do and it shows.

The lingering thought that I keep returning to about Sunday’s game was how competitive it really wasn’t. The Giants were far superior coming in to the game and the Browns, already a bad team when fully healthy, were missing several starters anyway. When your starting lineup would at best be back ups on most other teams, what does it say about your back ups?

Which brings us right back to Buster Skrine. He couldn’t cover a hole in a wall with a piece of plywood if you spotted him the hammer and the nails. It’s stunning that of all the out of work and practice squad defensive backs out there that there isn’t someone better than Skrine. Let me rephrase that: it’s stunning that of all the out of work and practice squad defensive backs out there, general manager Tom Heckert continues to keep Skrine on the roster.

This is one you can’t hang on Shurmur. He doesn’t have any authority over picking or maintaining the final roster and apparently lacks sufficient clout or credibility to force Heckert to do something about Skrine. The Giants didn’t exactly have the full complement of their receivers available to Eli Manning but it hardly mattered. I suspect Skrine could even make Precious Little look like Victor Cruz and that’s giving full credit to the 6 or 7 passes Little would drop on his way to a 200+ receiving day against Skrine.

Shumrur isn’t doing himself many favors with respect to coaching but he’s also being undone by an inside job. At this point he’d be better off ordering Dick Jauron to put an extra linebacker in coverage than continue to throw Skine at opposing receivers and watch as those opposing receivers laugh all the way to the end zone.


The final thing we know about Sunday’s game is that the rest of the season should be stress free. Not that there really ever were but certainly now there are no must-win games on the schedule. Indeed and no matter what Shurmur or anyone else associated with the Browns would tell you, this team really is better off now losing any or all of the rest of their games and ensuring themselves next year’s number one pick, which they can immediately use on a quarterback whose not already older than half the league.

I don’t know whether Geno Smith or Matt Barkley is the next Andrew Luck but if the Browns do end up with the number one pick, and for the life of me I don’t know how they’ll blow it but I just know they will, it will be a choice to make. And let’s hope that if Heckert is still around he doesn’t try to ransom the pick like the St. Louis Rams did by thinking that the Browns are set for the next 10 years at quarterback with Weeden.

While this team can always use picks, they need a franchise quarterback more than they need anything else. Fourteen years into Browns 2.0 and this team still has no identity. There hasn’t been on person from the owner on down who the fans could honestly say represents what this team is trying to accomplish.

Maybe Jimmy Haslam III can be that person. To this point the spot is wide open and there isn’t any line forming to fill that spot. Randy Lerner never wanted it. Team president Mike Holmgren isn’t up to that task and Heckert prefers the background. For now it falls to Shumur and he’s got his hands so full just trying to get the players dressed for Sunday that he’ll never find the time to take the spot. The vacuum remains and that as much as anything is why this team can’t pull itself out of its tailspin. No one wants to be the leader. They also can’t because they suck.

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