Monday, December 31, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 16 Makeover Edition

To the surprise of no one, including the principals, the Cleveland Browns today fired head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert and launched their by now all too common biennial makeover. Shurmur was on board for two years and Heckert three but together they combined for less wins than there are games in one regular season.

These firings hardly qualify as news.  They are more in the nature of confirmations of the inevitable.  What I wonder though is who gets stuck with the bill to pay them off on the remainder of their contracts?  I suspect it's new owner Jimmy Haslam III which puts him squarely in the same company as Randy Lerner whose ownership was defined mostly by the millions he spent paying ex coaches and front office types.  It gets difficult spending money on things that matter when so much is tied up in paying off people who don't.

To say any of this relates in any way to what took place on Sunday in the 24-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers would be unfair.  As Heckert noted in an interview with the Plain Dealer, he knew he was gone the minute Haslam hired Joe Banner and gave him final say over everything including the final roster.  That was a power that Heckert had and wasn't interested in relinquishing.  So Heckert's gone not because he was lousy at judging talent (he wasn't but he also wasn't nearly as good as people are now claiming either) but because his ego wouldn't allow him to let someone else have control over the roster.  That's life in these United States I suppose.

But as we delve more into the latest decline of a franchise that always seems to find new depths to plunge, let's do so in the context of Sunday's loss even if the less said about it the better.  It's not that it was a particularly embarrassing loss.  Indeed there have been much worse at the hands of the Steelers, particularly in the season's last game.  It's more that the game wasn't particularly meaningful.  Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, was on the line.  The Steelers weren't jockeying for playoff position and the Browns weren't playing for their head coach's future.  That had long been decided.  You could argue rightfully that the game had even less on the line then a typical final preseason game.

The game was chippy at times but only in the way that a neighborhood annual Turrkey Bowl game between rival factions of the same family is chippy.  There was a surface level amount of tension but it had roughly the passion of a typical bimbo/mimbo hook up on The Bachelor.  And while the Steelers covered the 11-point spot by winning 24-10, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone, including the degenerate gamblers hanging around bowling alley bars that would have put a plug nickel on the game.  Even giving the points they'd feel guilty winning the bet and generally gamblers don't feel guilty about anything. 

The overhang to the game of course was the impending unemployment of Shurmur and Heckert.  It being their last game didn't seem to inspire much in the way of play by a roster ravaged with injuries these last few weeks.  It would be convenient, at least poetically, to say that Sunday's game was a microcosm of Shurmur's tenure in Cleveland but it wouldn't be true.  The Browns lost Sunday because even though the Steelers suck they are still better than a Browns team that was starting its practice squad quarterback and a defensive back named Buster Skrine.

In fact, let's talk about the Steelers for a second instead of the Browns if only to feel good about something.  In the Browns victory over them earlier in the season you got the sense that this wasn't a typical Steelers team.  Then in the weeks that followed when the Steelers were playing like every other 6-10 team in the league that sense grew stronger.  But it wasn't until Sunday when it became clear to me how bad the Steelers are this season.  The Browns have a far superior offensive line to the point that if the Steelers had the Browns offensive line they'd probably be in the playoffs.  And let's face it the Browns offensive line isn't great, just average to above average.

Then there is Ben Rothlisberger.  I suspect he now understands what it must have been like to be Bernie Kosar in the '80s.  Watching Ataya Rubin literally push his man into Roethlisberger's lap on nearly every pass play and then seeing Roeethlisberger take lick after lick thereafter probably means a premature end to Roethlisberger's career, just like Kosar's.  Ben is big but those hits hurt and they've clearly taken a toll this season.

The Steelers have a receiving corps that should make Browns fans feel good about the receivers on their team.  Would any GM outside of true idiots like former Jets' GM Mike Tannebaum trade the Browns' receivers even up for the Steelers? Sure the Steelers have tight end Heath Miller and the Browns have, who?, Jordan Cameron and Ben Watson.  But where does it go after that?  Josh Gordon and Greg Little offer far more promise than any other receiver currently on the Steeler's roster.  That is not something I could have imagined writing earlier in the season, particularly about Little.  But Little turned it around when he decided that it was better to play a good game than talk one.  It was one of the more dramatic positive turnarounds of a player wearing a Browns uniform since the advent of Browns 2.0.

The Browns are retooling or rebooting or whatever they end up calling this latest housecleaning but the Steelers have issues they ignore at their own peril. In fact, the same goes for the Baltimore Ravens.  The Browns are laggards in a bad division but it is a bad division which in a perverse was is as good of time as any to start anew again.

So let us not dwell on the existential meaningless of the Sunday loss and instead let's dwell generally.  Shurmur was brought in because of his offensive approach.  Heckert was hired for his ability to spot talent.  Of the two Heckert was more successful but let's not confuse that with abject success.  Only twice all season did the offense score the equivalent of 4 touchdowns.  In half their games they scored enough points to add up to two touchdowns or less.  Without Phil Dawson, and particularly his uncanny ability from beyond 50 yards, the offensive output would have been even worse.

Shurmur's schemes were too often either ill-conceived or too predictable.  He was saddled with a rookie quarterback, certainly, but Shurmur did little to adjust to that circumstance.  He often ignored the running game in a misguided attempt to accelerate Brandon Weeden's development.  And Weeden did little to convince anyone that the trial by fire made sense.

But maybe Shurmur knew something the fans didn't.  Trent Richardson showed flashes of promise but was in very large measure the average back that Jim Brown assessed during the preseason.  Want proof?  It's there in abundance from Richardson's very pedestrian yards per carry stat to the almost complete absence of any run of significance.  Put it this way.  The Browns' two longest runs from scrimmage this season were both 35 yards.  One was from receiver Travis Benjamin on a reverse in the season's first game.  The other was from defensive back Ray Ventrone on a fake punt in the season's last game.  It's not time yet to declare Richardson a bust but he performed worse than pretty much any other first round pick in last year's draft and that includes Weeden.

That's the context to this latest makeover which will certainly be accompanied by the usual hope and skepticism because the franchise doesn't seem any closer to figuring it out than at any other point in the last 13 years.  Sure there is a new owner and he's far more invested emotionally and far more successful profesionally than the jammy wearing ingrate that used to occupy the owners' suite.  There's also a new CEO or president or whatever title he's going by that has a better track record than anyone wearing that title previously with this franchise.  But this franchise is cursed.  It's a black hole of a franchise where smart people go to get stupid.  If we've learned anything over the last nearly decade and a half it's that the Browns are a franchise where good ideas go to die and good players go to get injured.

Don't at all take this as a defense of the status quo.  Consistency isn't a goal unto itself.  You stay consistent if there's something to stay consistent about and nothing about Shurmur screams "stay the course."  But if I'm being entirely fair and perhaps a bit melancholy Shurmur probably is my favorite bad coach of the Browns.  Think about it.  He wasn't as outwardly incompetent as, say, Romeo Crennel.  He wasn't as visibly overwhelmed as Chris Palmer.  He was more sincere than Butch Davis and lacked the evilness of Eric Mangini.  He wasn't any more successful than any of his predecessors, which is why he's gone, but there was a certain underlying integrity about him that was admirable.

The reason Shurmur is out of a job today isn't just that he didn't win.  It's more that he demonstrated through word and mostly deed that he isn't suited to be a NFL head coach.  I think he brings value in some ways and that's why he'll always find work as a high level assistant.  But there are certain personality types that aren't suited for the corner office and Shurmur's is one of them.  You almost get the sense that he never really aspired to the role he had and was probably surprised when Mike Holmgren chose him instead of taking the job himself.  Shurmur didn't have, as Springsteen once wrote, the passion that burned in his veins.  Fans could sense it and so could the players.  He's a decent and likeable sort but the players never seemed inspired to walk through hell in gasoline-soaked underwear for him.  Why would they?  There were times when it wasn't all that clear whether Shurmur even had a pulse. 

Meanwhile, though Sunday's game wasn't particularly revealing about the future, it was enough of a lesson about the state of the franchise to scare off even the most competitive minded of head coaches-to-be.  Whoever takes the reigns next, and believe me there will be someone to take the reins next, faces a daunting challenge.  There are some decent starters to work with but there is no depth.  More to the point though is that there is a culture to overcome.  Think about how D'qwell Jackson or Dawson or even Joe Thomas and Josh Cribbs will approach the next head coach.  They've been through this so often that they have to be completely jaded to the process.  The new head coach needs first to reach those four (unless Banner dispenses with Dawson and Cribbs)  and convince them that he has a better way, a right way, a way that will result in more than 4 or 5 wins every season.  It would be easier to face a nursery full of colicky babies after not having slept in 3 days then a lockerroom of Browns players at this point.  They'll listen because they have to, which is what Shurmur found, but they aren't going to follow unless they're convinced there's a damn good reason to and unless Jackson and Dawson and Thomas and Cribbs can embrace that reason there's no reason to think anyone else will either.

Generally after another loss the head coach says that the team just has to go back and work harder and get ready for the next opponent.  After Sunday's loss, that still remains true except that the next opponent they face is the same one they've been facing and getting hammered by for years--themselves.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 15

Much about what you get out of the holiday season depends on what you believe in.  It's a bit like the last line of I Believe in Father Christmas by Emerson, Lake & Palmer where Greg Lake sings “the Christmas we get we deserve.”   The Cleveland Browns got beaten down 34-12 on Sunday by the Denver Broncos and there's no question they got exactly out of that game what they deserved.

The team played just as a team who knows its head coach is on the way out tends to play, indifferent, distracted and dispirited.  We know this because we've seen it out of various forms of this team just about every other year at season's end.  To be fair and perhaps in a show of strength and faith for the players that stopped listening to him about 10 minutes after Jimmy Haslam III took over officially as owner and Joe Banner took over as president, its head coach, Pat Shurmur, coached Sunday's game like someone who knows that he'll soon be looking to latch on somewhere else next season as a quarterbacks coach.  For the second straight week the offensive looked untethered, random, clueless and confused.

Every year when I watch the Browns play out the string of another failed season my mind starts to drift to the pity I feel for players like Phil Dawson and D'Qwell Jackson.  Like the fans, they have been through so much crap with this franchise that it makes you wonder why they do it.  But week after week, year after year, through every next savior and every next great plan, they just stick to their assignments, don't make waves and get their work done. The money is good in professional sports and it sure beats regular work but it still takes a special type to grind through season after season with the Browns and come out smiling at the end.

Peyton Manning, playing as if he has finally found both his sea legs and his second wind, carved up the Browns' secondary from literally the first play of the game until the Broncos essentially took mercy on them early in the 4th quarter and stopped passing the ball.  By then the Broncos had 31 points and were still able to add 3 more thanks to a defense that couldn't stop the run even though they knew what was coming next.  Meanwhile, Shurmur was in full panic mode from the outset once again treating first round pick Trent Richardson like a decoy while entrusting the increasingly erratic Brandon Weeden to find open receivers downfield. It worked every bit as well as it did the previous week.

If Richardson was pissed last week because of the lack of carries, he must be apoplectic today with his 9 carries.  What's more, and as last week, Richardson seemed to be running hard early.  He amassed a number of nice runs and still couldn't find his way into the offensive flow that Shurmur had in mind.  Shurmur at this point has hitched his star to Weeden and it's proved to be about as bad a choice as he's made all season and it's not like there haven't been a hundred other bad choices by Shurmur to choose from.  Anyway, Richardson ended the game getting hurt when the game was long out of reach, which is another reason on the ever expanding list that new club president Joe Banner keeps in his pocket entitled “What Was Pat Shurmur Thinking?”

I thought I knew this team and yet its capacity to surprise is mystifying to me.  On the one hand, the outcomes, particularly at this time of year, are utterly predictable, like the plot of any episode of any version of Law & Order.  On the other hand, the ineptness, the abject idiocy employed to get to the outcome is never less than fascinating.

The Browns' first offensive series, which started about 3 minutes into the game or, said differently, about 2 minutes and 50 seconds after Manning schooled the Browns in how to run an offense, perfectly captured everything you'd want to know or think about this team.  It had the ebb and flow of the entire season, really.  It was turgid often, interesting sometimes and self-defeating at exactly the wrong times.  The aforementioned Richardson had two early carries, one for 8 yards, the other for 7 while Weeden was doing his usual routine of running through his progressions with the panic of a 16 year old  in driver's training class surveying a four way stop for the first time.  Like the 16 year old hesitant to enter traffic, Weeden was hesitant to try anything more then the outlet pass.  Once in awhile those short  passes turned into decent gains but ultimately the drive fizzled when the Browns had it first and goal at the Broncos 8 yard line and just as quickly found themselves at the 13 yard line because of another friggin' false start penalty.  Phil Dawson eventually was called on to kick a routine field goal to make it seem as though the Browns still had a chance in a 7-3 ball game.

Manning then came right back running essentially the same series as he did the first time the Broncos had the ball and ended up with the same result, another touchdown.  At this point I figured that the Broncos could score 50 points by halftime if they wanted and I'm sure they could have.  That they didn't shouldn't be viewed as any sort of moral victory by the Browns.  They were handled from the opening series on and were never in the game.

After the Broncos took the 14-3 lead, things settled down a bit and then the Browns avoided near total disaster when Manning was intercepted in the end zone by Usama Young just as the Broncos were looking to take a 21-3 lead at the half.  So with the game still technically well within reach, the Browns needed to come out in the second half with a plan.  For the second straight week they had none.  I'm not sure exactly what Shurmur and his coaches talk about at halftime but it doesn't seem to be football related.  The Browns added a 53 yard Dawson field goal, which was notable and which I'll discuss in a moment, and then Manning followed it up with another touchdown and at that point the game was over, completely unequivocally read at the meat thermometer over.

That's the point where Weeden went down on a relatively light sack and left the game and Colt McCoy came in, got sacked right out of the gate and then the Browns punted.  I don't want to dismiss the viciousness of professional football, especially as I watch it from the comfort of a heated home where the biggest threat to my safety is a potential short in a string of Christmas tree lights.  But the sack that put Weeden out of the game seemed almost benign.  I'm not questioning his resolve.  He's been beaten pretty thoroughly throughout the season.  It was of no great concern anyway.  Weeden was a robust 12-19 for 104 yards at that point and wasn't about to get any better.  McCoy played lousy, but it's not like he had much of a chance.  He did put together a late touchdown drive that ended with a nice little pass to Greg Little.  But even that couldn't be celebrated fully.  With the score 31-6, Shurmur oddly had the Browns attempt a two-point conversion that failed.  Nice coda, there, Pat.

As I said at the outset, though, the manner in which the Browns get to where they inevitably should be is probably the most entertaining aspect of a game that was less entertaining than “rap week” on The Voice.  Here I pick on Weeden again but more to illustrate the absurdity of it all.  In the Browns' first drive of the second half, you know, the one where they had to come out strong so that they could remain in the game, Weeden actually got the team down to the Broncos 28 yard line.  From there he had Josh Gordon wide open near the goal line, about 25 or so yards downfield.  Weeden short-armed the pass and it ended about 5 yards short of the target.

At that particular moment I had the radio broadcast on as well and Doug Dieken said, seriously, that this was the end of the field where the wind was blowing pretty hard.  That would be some mighty wind, Doug.  I understand that part of the business of the home team broadcasting crew is to find the rainbows and silver linings in the perpetual storm clouds that envelope the Stadium, but even this was a bit much even for Dieken's partner, Jimmy Donovan, who wasn't buying it.  That Weeden missed another open receiver at just the exact moment that could have put the Browns back in the game isn't anything new.  It's been going on all season.  But what was particularly delicious and delightful was what came next.  On third down, Weeden got sacked for 7 yards. On fourth down Dawson calmly almost routinely nailed a 53-yard field goal that would have been good from 63 yards.  It made Dieken look ridiculous for his prior comment while elevating the sympathy factor for Dawson even higher.  That too is the Browns' season in a nutshell.

One other thing about the game worth noting and, honestly, there isn't all that much to note, was the fact that the Browns' secondary was particularly depleted.  What makes that interesting is that going into last Sunday's game against Washington the secondary was completely healthy.  During the course of this past week, two defensive backs got injured in practice and Shurmur mysteriously released another, Dmitri Patterson..  It's pretty unusual for two players on non playoff teams to get hurt in practice this late in the season.  But this is the Browns where there is no script, no playbook and thus no usual mode of operation.  That left the likes of Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine to pick up the slack and they did just exactly what you'd expect.  Brown spent the first quarter just a step behind any receiver he was recovering.  Skrine spent the game committing penalties.  Brown was hurt on a particularly cheap shot and will be lost for the last game of the season.  Tough luck on the injury, of course, but at least he doesn't have to suit up.  Dawson and Jackson won't be so lucky.

The Browns season comes to a merciful end next week in a game with absolutely no meaning to it.  The team visits the Pittsburgh Steelers who were knocked from the playoffs on Sunday and for the first time in years have likewise nothing to play for.  It will be interesting to see how they handle the experience.  If they need some pointers they have a whole library of Browns' film from the last decade they can watch.

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.

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'.

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.