Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 14

The world has to turn, I get that.  And when the world has to turn, the NFL has to play, I get that too.  No one, least of all me, expected anything as important as football to really stop so that we can all pause and ponder the violent country we live in, a country where mass murder occurs with such frequency anymore that we’ve become as numb to it as another Cleveland Browns loss.  We didn’t stop for 9/11.  We aren’t going to stop for innocent children massacred by a mad man in an idyllic Connecticut town.  The Cleveland Browns played on Sunday and lost in spectacular fashion.  I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter.  The outcome of the game will set the stage for another housecleaning in a facility that knows nothing but housecleaning and I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t matter.  So numbed am I by the events on Friday that it was hard enough to muster up enthusiasm for the game, let alone for figuring out once again what went wrong with the Browns.

Yet there was a game and while its significance was anything but, it did happen and it was a disaster.  Let’s dive in, shall we?

Whatever fun it might have been to fantasize about a mediocre Browns team sneaking into the playoffs with a mediocre 8-8 record, the reality that came crashing down in the team's home finale 38-14 ass-whipping at the hands of a Kirk Cousins-led Washington Redskins was the painful reminder that there are miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact spot where the game spun out of control but a good place to start is with 1:14 remaining in the first half.  That was the point where Trent Richardson scored his second touchdown of the day and gave the Browns a 14-10 halftime lead.  It gave the Browns and their fans a false sense that some of the strangeness of the first half would have no impact on the second half.  Hardly.  For example and for emphasis the handoff to Richardson may have suggested that head coach Pat Shurmur was still dedicated to a running game.  A halftime lead and possession of the second half kickoff and a slow, kidney-punch of a drive on the ground to open the second half would suggest that as well.  Shurmur apparently had other ideas all along, perfectly wonderfully awful ideas.

Whatever Shurmur and his coaching staff said in the 15 or so minutes of halftime couldn't have been less spot on than if it had been delivered by George Armstrong Custer as he headed into his last home game at Little Big Horn. The Browns came out in the third quarter and delivered a spectacularly woeful performance for the ages as the Redskins put up 14 points, seized the lead, then Browns' pride and ultimately the game.  To emphasize the point, though, the Redskins added another touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach, though that was clear far earlier. The two teams traded final touchdowns that accounted for the final score.

In retrospect, Shurmur had essentially abandoned the running game far earlier in the first half then most realized.  The Richardson touchdown near half time was really nothing more than redirection, at best.  Richardson had 11 friggin’ carries the entire game, 8 of which were in the game’s first 22 minutes.  When you look back at the play calling, all the 3 and outs and disjointed quickly aborted first half drives and lousy Reggie Hodges punts, you discover that there was no rhyme or reason to what Shurmur may have been thinking regarding the overall schematics of the game, let alone the second half.

If this is how Shurmur puts on a late season push to save his job then it isn't a surprise that it's hanging by a thread in the first place. For all the progress that the team seemed to be making late in the season against the few teams in the league with bigger problems than them, Sunday was the wake up call that this team still has significant and fundamental weaknesses. The case for Shurmur and Heckert could only be made with progress and while the team could lose its final two games and still claim progress, it isn't enough. It isn't even in the same zip code as enough.

I would sum it up thusly.  The problem with the Browns is that no defeat is merely a defeat. When the Browns lose, as they often do, it’s a grim reminder of how off the rails this franchise has been that simply dissecting a defeat and then moving on is rarely an option.  The Browns lost Sunday because the general manager and the head coach failed this team long before Sunday though they failed it on Sunday as well.

Let’s start with Shurmur. He’s a head coach because of a reputation for running a high caliber offense or at least an offense of competence.  If there’s one conclusion you can come to about the Browns under Shurmur it’s that their offense consistently sucks.  There are personnel issues galore and that rests at the feet of Heckert.  But schematically the offense makes almost no sense and Sunday was its doppelganger.  

Richardson is probably hurt, though he disclaimed as much after the game.  But he seemed to be running hard in the first quarter and the Browns seemed committed to getting him yards.  It was a ruse.  Just like that, Shurmur pulled the plug on Richardson and not in favor of, for example, Montario Hardesty, which might have been understandable in context.  Shurmur simply abandoned the run for Weeden’s arm.  Then it just snowballed from there.  Weeden throws a ridiculous interception on the team’s first possession in the second half, the Redskins score quickly and the Browns are down by 3.  Shurmur then panics, gets anxious to get that score back and stays with the air assault, all evidence that it wasn’t working notwithstanding, and Richardson and Hardesty essentially were decoys.  In the case of Richardson, an awfully expensive decoy, but a decoy nonetheless.

This is why Shurmur can’t coach the team next season.  When the game dictates the strategy, Shurmur is less of a factor because he’s not left to insinuate himself on the process.  The Browns have played plenty of close games that by their nature dictated the approach on offense to the point that Rick from Brunswick, long time listener first time caller, could have taken over for Brad Childress.  But when the Browns entered half time with a lead against a hot team, it was incumbent on Shurmur, with his team getting the ball to start the half, to dictate the pace and ultimately the outcome.  At the first sign of trouble, the Weeden interception I’m talking about here, Shurmur threw the run game overboard along with the women and children and road Weeden as if he was Tom Brady.  I’ve got news for Shurmur.  Weeden isn’t even Brady Quinn.

As for Heckert, Sunday presented a whole host of reasons why he was proactive on Friday by giving a press conference that essentially was his “fire me” moment.
Heckert has control, wants control and believes he deserves control.  It’s as if he were pleading to anyone who would listen, “see, right here, it’s in my contract.  I’m not making this shit up.”  But that was under a much different construct.  Jimmy Haslam is the antithesis of Randy Lerner.  Haslam has brought in Joe Banner and Banner doesn’t strike anyone, including Heckert, as a Mike Holmgren clone, content to sit passively by and collect paychecks he doesn’t deserve.

But let’s assume that rather than Friday serving as a graceful way to explain your firing before it’s actually happened it was Heckert’s pitch to explain why he should remain.  Then Sunday is a problem.  For Heckert’s sake he better hope either that Richardson is hurt or that Shurmur is as incompetent as a game planner as he appears.  Otherwise Richardson is on course to be an even bigger bust than Weeden and of all the things this franchise can’t continue to tolerate blowing first round picks is at the top of the list.  Meanwhile, Cousins, a fourth rounder with less playing time than Weeden this season, was so far superior to Weeden it was embarrassing, to Weeden, to Shurmur and to Heckert.  It made you wonder exactly what Heckert saw in Weeden in the first place.

The other thing that Sunday demonstrated was the failings of Heckert’s dogged insistence on having final say over the roster and then populating it with as many inexperienced players he could corral.  This team may be maturing in some respects but it’s still the same team it was earlier in the season that can’t stem the tide when an opponent gets on a roll. (Of course in saying that I recognize that Shurmur is a part of that problem.  When he panicked Sunday, so too did his team and that was as big a reason as any that once the Redskins took control in the second half, the Browns had no chance of stopping it.)

Heckert’s made some decent personnel decisions and Travis Benjamin and the touchdown he delivered with his feet, again, is proof of that. It's just that when you want total control of the roster it comes with some serious responsibility and a roster as young as this is going to struggle. It almost has to. The NFL can accommodate rookies just not a whole team of them at once.  That’s why the only conclusion to reach about Friday’s press conference was that it was Heckert’s way of saying goodbye.  Sunday’s game was the fan’s way of saying good riddance.

You can blame Weeden for Sunday because he was awful but it’s not like he’s been particularly good either.  He didn’t get to be the 32nd rated quarterback in the league over night.  It takes a lot of bad play to sink to that level.  And his two interceptions on Sunday, along with about 43 batted balls at the line, shouldn’t have been a surprise.  He’s third in the league in interceptions and assuming they keep stats about batted balls, Weeden has to be near the lead in that category as well.  So yea, Weeden had another crappy, mistake filled game but that’s not really the point.

Weeden will always be Heckert's grand experiment and Weeden's dismal performance Sunday, punctuated as it was by the same things that have been apparent all season--bad throws and poor decision making--looks like a failure. But it always did if only, but not only, because Weeden is a 29 year old rookie who was a reach in the first round. Heck, or Heckert, he would have been a reach in the second round. No team builds around a 29 year old rookie quarterback. It hasn't been done before not because there hasn't been that chance, but because no other team thought it made much sense. The Cowboys drafted Roger Staubach when he was 27 but by the time he was a 29 year old starter he had been in the league a full two years and with a team far stronger than these Browns. The Cowboys were ruling the NFC East for years. In other words Staubach was doing it with a strong supporting cast. No one has ever tried to do what Heckert has tried with Weeden and the results show why.

But let's not delve too far into history when we only have to recall a few years ago when the Browns were led by a strong-armed quarterback with accuracy issues and and decision making deficiencies. His name was Derek Anderson and until Weeden demonstrates otherwise he has a way to go just to be Anderson. If Weeden does develop (and there's no reason to assume a when) it will be at a time when the team will have to plan for his replacement.  That in essence is the real problem with Weeden.

Then there’s the defense.  It’s hard to come down too hard on the glue that’s more or less held this 5-9 team together, but Cousins isn’t Fran Tarkenton.  He isn’t Robert Griffin III, either.  When Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan decided to have Cousins buy time with bootlegs and roll outs, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron was either too surprised to adjust or knew he didn’t have the personnel to handle it.

The thing is, it only took Shanahan about two series to figure out that he needed to move Cousins around the pocket.  Shurmur and his staff couldn’t figure out a counter the entire game.  It makes you wonder whether the Browns used halftime on Sunday to finalize their Secret Santa program.

With two games left and both on the road, the Browns are pretty much where we thought they’d be when the season started.  And not surprisingly they are where they’re at for pretty much the reasons we thought they’d be at the beginning of the season.  So getting verklempt about it now seems like a real waste of veklemptness, if there is such a thing.

And since there really is no good news left (unless you think that the last two games will be meaningless because Denver will have clinched a playoff spot and Pittsburgh will be out of the hunt) I’ll leave you with one last thought to ponder.  For the first time in I can’t remember how long, the Browns are healthy in December.  There isn’t a devastating injury to really point to anymore as a reason this team can't perform.  That means that the team you’re seeing is the team that Heckert and Shurmur imagined.  It’s a 5-9 team full of a lot of couldas and shouldas but it’s still a 5-9 team that hasn’t meaningfully progressed.  Its record, its approach, its outcome is the sum total of what Shurmur and Heckert bring to the table.  When Banner parts ways with one and probably both of them either the night of December 30 or sometime on New Year’s Eve, it will be hard for anyone to argue that they weren’t given a fair chance.

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