Monday, December 03, 2012

The Things We Know---Week 12



If the Cleveland Browns have indeed finally turned a corner toward a lighted street and not another darkened alley, then they’ll look back at the sloppy victories against two struggling teams that constitute a legitimate win streak as the first signs.  The Browns’ harder-than-it-had-to-be yet not-as-close-as-it-appears 20-17 win against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday was notable not because the Raiders are Kansas City Chiefs-level awful, though they’re close, but because it almost has never mattered how awful the Raiders are when playing the Browns.  The Raiders have been invincible at whatever stadium they call home, whether in Oakland, Los Angeles or wherever Al Davis’ dementia took them next, against the Browns.  It’s as big a monkey as the Browns got off their backs last week when they beat the Steelers, just less noticed.

Having unburdened themselves thusly these last two weeks, there’s reason for optimism even if there’s less reason to be totally optimistic.  It’s the same feeling really that fans had in the midst of Eric Mangini’s  “Save My Job” 4-game win streak tour at the end of his first season as head coach, a streak incidentally that claimed the Steelers and Raiders among its victims.  This is a way of acknowledging that slaying our nemeses on occasion doesn’t necessarily portend a brighter future, at least not immediately.  Counting these last two weeks, the Browns have won only 13 times since that last win streak.

What is perhaps different at the moment though is that both the head coach and the too-old rookie franchise-quarterback-to-be may be growing up together, a good thing.  There are several ways in which Sunday’s victory doesn’t come about.  Among the biggest, though, has to do with head coach Pat Shurmur’s on again off again confidence in his offense and, by proxy given his role in that offense, himself.  Sunday it was on again as he made two crucial, correct, 4th down “gambles” that kept drives alive, resulted in points and, ultimately, the victory.

Not too long ago Shurmur would have punted on 4th and 1 from the opponent’s 45 yard line late in the game.  In fact he essentially did that twice and on both occasions the team trailed and lost.  Yet here was Shurmur, his team clinging as always to a precarious lead like a teenager clings to his iPhone, having made a grand defensive gesture deep in their own red zone thanks to Sheldon Brown’s interception and deciding to take a chance with the clock winding down.  His quarterback awarded that in-context bravado with a 3-yard quarterback sneak for the first down that beget a 23-yard reception on the next play that beget a predictable Raiders’ penalty that beget the Trent Richardson touchdown that effectively put the game out of reach.  It was a potential early career defining 94-yard drive for their quarterback.

As for that quarterback, Brandon Weeden, he put together a strangely effective performance, at least as it played out in crunch time, passing for 364 yards, a key early touchdown pass to Josh Gordon, while still overthrowing both harmfully and harmlessly enough to remind fans that there is still a huge learning curve to be overcome.

But God love Weeden and that learning curve.  In the running for my favorite quote of the year is this gem he leveled on the press afterward: “Beating [the Steelers] last week and then coming on the road and beating a really good team this week, it kind of shows the maturity of this team is moving forward.”  I’m always glad when maturity moves forward even if no one outside of Weeden would ever slap the label “really good team” on the Raiders. Save the accolades for teams that deserve the moniker.

Certainly Shurmur’s and Weeden’s maturity is moving forward (assuming that’s a good thing) and so too is that of Greg “Too” Little.  Since getting off Twitter and perhaps getting on some strong ADHD medication (with a proper prescription naturally), Little more than any other player on the team has shown that forward movement maturity thing the most.  Maybe it didn’t quite spring Mohamed Massaquoi's 54-yard reception, but the block Little threw late in that reception helped the cause and was the kind of thing Braylon Edwards would never do, which means that while he may have Edwards’ hands, Little has certainly surpassed Edwards in attitude and effort.  If Little can avoid a fight with a member of LeBron James’ posse anytime in the next 6 months, then he’ll have definitively surpassed Edwards in maturity, too.

Sunday’s game was not the unwatchable mess that was the New York Jets/Arizona Cardinals debacle, but it wasn’t eminently watchable either.  The Raiders are an awful team.  Their starting quarterback, Carson Palmer, had about two games during his penultimate season of 2009 in Cincinnati,when he looked like he might not be the usual USC failure in the pros.  Since then he’s been less effective then a half dozen rookie quarterbacks I can think of off the top of my head.  Backing him up is the ultimate USC bust Matt Leinart.  Meanwhile Terrelle Pryor has been active just once in two years, which says that Pryor either is the worst quarterback imaginable or the Raiders’ personnel evaluators couldn’t see Bar Rafaeli topless and in a thong if she were standing in front of them with a come hither finger gesture a la Christie Brinkley in Vacation .  I vote for the latter given that this is the same group that gave, absolutely gave, the Cincinnati Bengals a first AND second round pick for a retired Palmer.  And that’s just the start of it.  The Raiders have no running game, no credible receivers and a defensive backfield that would bow down to Buster Skrine and worship him like the Dali Lama if they had him.  Indeed, the Raiders’ defense is probably celebrating the fact that it only gave up 20 points on Sunday, which often is good enough to win.

While that end of the game 94-yard drive was a nice way to win a game, particularly coming as it did off a turnover that ended a Raiders’ serious threat and that had it not happened could have served as the ending to most of the Browns’ road games over the last few years, the overall lack of productivity by the offense remains a concern.

Richardson looked at times like he was healthy and running hard but at other times he looked more injured then he’s letting on.  He has 49 carries over the last two games and less than 200 yards to show for it.  Richardson was there at the end when the Browns needed him and his presence forces defenses to respect the run, but either he needs to get more healthy or more effective or both.  You get the sense the Browns could get similar production right now out of Montario Hardesty and have used the third pick in last year’s draft on someone else.

Gordon on the other hand is actually getting better with each game.  Though he joined the Browns under similar circumstances as Little, he’s already surpassed Little in development.  Gordon is definitely making general manager Tom Heckert look good even with surrendering a second round pick next year to get him in the second round of this year's supplemental draft.  The tight ends, particularly Jordan Cameron, are getting more active and, frankly, Weeden is getting much better at distributing the ball around.  Eight different players had receptions for the Browns on Sunday (10 if you include Weeden’s two interceptions).  That’s a very positive sign that Weeden is grasping the concept of having a second, third and outlet receiver in a pattern..

And yet for a variety of smaller reasons this team still has trouble scoring.  Penalties that kill drives, dropped passes on critical downs, solid blocking that suddenly becomes leaky all conspired throughout the game, throughout the season really, to keep this team from scoring more.  Then there’s the overreliance on placekicker Phil Dawson, who has exactly one missed field goal this entire season, a 28-yarder on Sunday that was partially blocked mainly because the snap was high and the timing was off.  Paradoxically if Dawson was a little less reliable, the offense would be a little more bold and might have won Sunday's game more comfortably.

Still, no NFL victory should ever be diminished, even if it’s against lowly or struggling teams, two terms that define the Browns’ existence over the last 14 years.  Let’s consider, for example, the plight of those Steelers.  A week ago against the Browns, Charlie Batch, subbing for Ben Roethlisberger about as well as Dick Sargent substituted for Dick York,  looked like a guy that hadn’t played in nearly a decade, which is what he was.  The rest of the Steelers’ offense took its cues from Batch and together they turned the ball over 8 times (could have been 11).  They lost only because it’s impossible to win while turning it over that much.  This past weekend, with Batch still in, the Steelers found a way to beat the Baltimore Ravens with Batch, playing, really, not appreciably better than a week before, leading the way on a late score to win the game.  Go figure.  The loss so infuriated Ravens safety Ed Reed that he blamed it on Roger Goodell who from this point forward is now the point person for everything bad happening, from the fiscal cliff to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

The Browns next face the Chiefs, which should be a victory under any circumstances.  I just don’t understand how a team with Romeo Crennel, Brady Quinn and Peyton Hillis, none of whom could make it in a low pressure environment like Cleveland could suddenly turn things around.  Frankly, I think Scott Pioli has lost his mind by reinventing the Chiefs as the Browns Redux and if he has a job next season then he’s holding something over the ownership of the Chiefs and I’m damn sure it’s more than incriminating photos.

It's still going to be tough for this team to surpass 5 wins for the season, but even that amount will look strangely like progress.  Go figure that, too.

**
Speaking of the Chiefs, whatever else there is to say about Crennel, give him his due for coaching the Chiefs to an improbable victory on Sunday, even if it came against Carolina.  Crennel is not a good head coach, but it wasn’t his coaching ability that led to his victory but the steadiness of his hand and the content of his character.

Nothing can prepare a person for what Crennel faced, having a player turn a gun on himself a few feet away and pull the trigger.  Jevon Belcher was clearly troubled.  He murdered the mother of his child and then killed himself, leaving that child without a parent for the rest of his life.  The better question may be why the NFL felt that game had to be played at that moment but the fact that Crennel could remain standing and clear headed enough to coach is amazing and deserving of an inordinate level of respect forevermore.

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