Monday, December 10, 2012
The Things We Know--Week 13
There is any number of ways to approach the Cleveland Browns’ 3-game win streak, but familiarity isn’t one of them. The Browns haven’t seen a winning streak since former head coach Eric Mangini made his mad-dash sprint at the end of his first season. Even then, there’s wasn’t a whole lot to enjoy about it. Mangini was hanging by a thread for a number of reasons, including the recent hiring of Mike Holmgren, and the Browns were so far from relevant that all a 4-game win streak then was to give them 5 wins overall. And it wasn’t as if anything carried over from that streak into the following season. The Browns started out 0-3 on their way to another 5-win season.
So excuse fans and players alike if they don’t know how to act in the face of a late season, but not season-ending, win streak. The competition within that streak may not have been stout, but all a team can do is play the teams on its schedule. The NFL is and shall remain a no-excuse league and besides there’s no way anyway on or associated with the Browns should ever be looking down their noses at any other team. Remember, they’re still 5-8 and once again out of any real hope for even undertaking a perfunctory playoff loss.
The overarching story from the Browns’ easier-then-it’s-been-in-years 30-7 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday is that after giving up a freakin’ 80-yard touchdown run on the game’s very first play from scrimmage, a play that happened so quickly that it actually put the Browns defense on pace to give up 350 points Sunday, the Browns’ defense then pitched a shutout. That allowed the offense, ably assisted on special teams by Travis Benjamin’s team-record 93-yard punt return at the end of the first half, to modestly do its job by outscoring what is the league’s worst team not named “Arizona Cardinals.” The accomplished that modest goal by the end of the first half.
But if head coach Pat Shurmur is going to last beyond his second season in Cleveland and/or begin building a legitimate career as a legitimate NFL head coach, he’ll look back on Sunday’s win as the real turning point. It wasn’t the fact that the team put together a mini-streak against teams in turmoil. It wasn’t the ostensible opening up of the usually turgid and staid offense. It was the classy move Shurmur made post game to correct a mistake that needed correcting and that, in the process, kept him in the good graces of a team that just wants to win.
Shurmur knew he blew it when he yanked Montario Hardesty for what turned out to be the final play of a drive that Hardesty almost single-handedly had conceived and led because Hardesty fumbled and then recovered that fumble at the Chiefs’ 1-yard line. Shurmur, with the knee-jerk reaction of a coach who is both embattled and too by-the-book for his own good, sent Hardesty to the sidelines and inserted Trent Richardson to finish the drive and what little spirit remained of the Chiefs.
“Hmm. Oh here it is, NFL coach manual, page 8. When your running back fumbles, remove him immediately and then put your arm around him on the sideline and tell him you still have confidence in him as he stands safely on the sidelines.” (I note that the high school and college coach manual differs on this point. They suggest putting the running back right back in to restore his confidence. In the NFL if you need your confidence restored, see a therapist. There’s too much money at stake to take chances on guys that fumble.)
Football, indeed professional sports, is a cold-blooded bottom line endeavor and it can’t, it won’t, tolerate second string running backs that fumble, particularly second-string running backs that fumble at the goal line. Couple that with Shurmur’s usual risk aversion to anything that could create a turnover in the red zone, and Hardesty never stood a chance. But in what could become Shurmur’s biggest growth moment as a head coach, he self-corrected, apologized publicly to Hardesty for the apparent loss of faith, and then did so again privately. It was noticed.
When you think about it, though, Sunday’s victory was all about correcting perceived wrongs. Hardesty’s was just the most noticeable. Shurmur also threw Josh Cribbs, the team’s most passive-aggressive squeaky wheel, a couple of bones by running a play out of the wildcat offense and then giving the green light to a weird looking and weirdly affective punt formation trick that in large measure sprung Benjamin’s punt return. Well, Benjamin’s burner speed helped too but stay with the narrative, will ya?
Shurmur used Sunday and the breathing space accorded by playing an emotionally spent Chiefs team populated with guys that previously weren’t good enough for one of the league’s formally worst teams (I’m talking the Browns here, folks), to repay some debts of his own creation. But it’s that willingness to repay those debts that will endear Shurmur to the team and, in turn, will give Shurmur the best chance to retain his job.
There’s two lessons here. First, as much as we like to harshly judge others mistakes (while completely and totally rationalizing our own), what tends to infuriate is not the mistake but generally the poor efforts made to correct them. Second, nobody keeps a head coach who’s lost the ear of the players. That doesn’t mean players should decide who coaches them, which works out about as well as Eric Mangini getting to hire his own boss, but think Norv Turner. Turner will be fired by the San Diego Chargers because the players stopped listening to him about two seasons ago. It finally took a loss to the Browns several weeks ago for their ownership and management to finally notice.
The other lesson from Sunday’s win is that trying something a little different on offense isn’t always a bad thing. The pitch to Greg Little, which he ran effectively until he somehow got stopped at the 1-yard line, was the kind of non-controversial wrinkle that fans have been waiting to see for two seasons. Couple that with the wildcat and pistol formations that were run with less success and at least you have the makings of more diversity than the delegate section of a typical Republican National Convention.
Shurmur so often comes across as an automaton as a play caller that you wonder whether there’s anything else in the play book besides the following plays: off tackle left, off tackle right, fade left, fade right, look long for a moment and then dump off to outlet. It could be that this developed because since Shurmur got to Cleveland he hasn’t had the full opportunity to install his offense. In his first season, the players were locked out and the first glimpse he really got of his players was about two weeks before the season started. This year, with the decision to go with Brandon Weeden as quarterback and mostly a new receiving corps and new running backs, all of whom are essentially rookies, it wouldn’t have been easy to install Army’s offense, let alone the complicated version of the West Coast that Shurmur favors.
Offense in the NFL is like pitching in baseball. It’s most effective when the defense (or the batter) is off balance. If Sunday was the day that Shurmur decided that the Browns’ skill players are actually starting to grasp the higher level math required by his offense, Shurmur can better keep opposing defenses guessing. Now it’s true that having the Chiefs’ ragged defense doing the guessing is going to have about as much success rate as Kim Kardashian guessing her way through the MCATs or the New York Times’ Sunday crosswords, but as I’ve said before, no win in the NFL should be diminished.
If there was any area of concern with Sunday’s win it’s that Trent Richardson’s effectiveness continues to drop precipitously. He had 18 carries for 42 yards, which is barely over 2 yards per carry. Even Jerome Harrison is scratching his head at that. Richardson is obviously still hurting and also appears to have hit the rookie wall. The NFL season is longer and more arduous than a college season so it’s not unusual for rookies to hit the wall. Maybe that’s what was really behind Shurmur’s mea culpa to Hardesty. He knows he’ll need him to spell Richardson even more during the season’s last 3 games.
Back to the theme, though. There simply isn’t a playbook for how Browns’ fans are supposed to feel in the midst of a legitimate win streak. The win over the Steelers seemed more like the product of Charlie Batch effect and 8 Steelers turnovers that produced only 20 points. The win against Oakland was a win against, basically, another version of the Chiefs. Sunday’s win could likewise be attributed to a number of unique factors, from the Chiefs’ very weird roster to a team emotionally depleted by the tragic events of a week before that have now caught up to them. That the Browns should have won all three still doesn’t diminish from the weight of actually having won all three. If it shows them nothing else, the Browns team finally believes that they no longer are the worst team in the league. From all outward appearances, particularly in a season where there seem to be an overabundance of really bad teams, their belief doesn’t appear to be misplaced.
Every win streak is a product of a number of factors, including luck and the Browns demonstrated that yesterday. I’m not sure that anything could have helped the Chiefs on Sunday, but an improbable punt return for a touchdown, two dropped interceptions deep in Cleveland territory by Chiefs defenders and Hardesty getting his own fumble at the 1-yard line are the kinds of things that could have turned the game much differently.
Weeden was particularly lucky that Eric Berry had a cast on one hand. It gave Ben Watson a chance to knock a sure interception out and kept a Browns’ drive alive that in fact produced a touchdown by Richardson 4 plays later. The Hardesty fumble was a little different and arguably a close call. On a day when the Browns had trouble in the first half scoring touchdowns (two in the same drive were nullified because of penalties) while settling for field goals, the Chiefs had a chance to make more of a game out of it. That they didn't is the story of exactly why Scott Pioli is in deep doo-doo in Kansas City.
As important as all of those plays were to the outcome of the game, perhaps the luckiest break, the one that more than anything changed the rhythm of the game came on the Chiefs’ second drive of the game. After holding the Browns to what essentially was 3-and-out (the Browns got a first down on first down and then went backward from there), the Chiefs took over from their 21-yard line. Brady Quinn completed a short pass to Dwayne Bowe that turned into 23 yards and then completed a 47-yarder to Bowe in front of Joe Haden that put the Chiefs at the Cleveland 4-yard line.
Quinn then tried to complete two passes over the middle that were both well defended and poorly thrown. The Chiefs were forced to try a 28-yard field goal which promptly dinked off the upright and fell to the ground. That the Chiefs didn’t score any points in that drive was lucky. That they couldn’t score a touchdown was the sum total of the Chiefs’ season and Quinn’s career.
When Quinn was in Cleveland, it seemed like he was never given a real opportunity to be the starter. Some of that was his fault (the idiotic contract hold out), some of it was circumstance (Derek Anderson’s career year) and some of it was injuries. But ultimately when he left Cleveland it felt like it was more related to cleansing the facility of anything Phil Savage related then it did an indictment on Quinn’s abilities.
Watching Quinn on Sunday, though, you get the sense that he’s just not a legitimate NFL starter. There are starts of greatness and fits of frustration. There isn’t anything he does that is particularly bad. But there’s nothing he does that is particularly good, either. Modest is the best description of the skills he brings to the table. When the season ends, Quinn will still find work in the NFL, but he’ll be a back up. I expect that the Browns will run into him again, perhaps playing for the Steelers next season wearing the jersey that Charlie Batch was forced to turn in at this season’s end.
And finally, in what is turning into a late season bout with good fate and clean living, the Browns are both injury free and running into a team with an injured quarterback. From the looks of things, when the Washington Redskins come to Cleveland next Sunday, Robert Griffin III, the player that should be starting for the Browns but for the poor poker playing by Holmgren and Tom Heckert, was set to start. He's the league's highest rated passer. But an injury in the form of a sprained knee is likely to keep Griffin out and Kirk Cousins in. That means that the Browns have an honest to goodness chance of making it 4 in a row. All I know is that these kinds of things never happened under Randy Lerner's ownership. Just sayin'.