Monday, October 28, 2013

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Chiefs Edition

The last bastion of a bad sports team, the sport doesn't matter, is when it begins to traffic in moral victories.  The Cleveland Browns have been a bad sports team for more than a decade so it’s use to counting its good losses as half wins.  Undoubtedly a 23-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday has been put in the good loss column as fans and players grasp for anything positive to distract from the negatives of their reality.

Of course teams don’t make playoffs, let alone with championships, by piling up a basketful of good losses.  What they tend to get are regime changes every few years and early draft picks to squander.  That’s been the real story of the Browns of the last several season.  None of the good losses of past seasons ever translated into much before so it’s difficult to see progress by coming close against a team that hasn't yet been beaten this season.

The Chiefs were a two win team last year.  Even accounting that it was a team then coached by Romeo Crennel and offensively coordinated by Brian Daboll, they may be 8-0 at this point but let’s assess their worthiness once they play the Denver Broncos two times in three weeks in November.  For now, the focus should remain squarely where it’s always been and that’s on the bumbling group of stumblebums wearing different combinations of brown and orange week after week.

If Sunday’s game could be counted as progress of any sort, it would be to underscore the soundness of head coach Rob Chudzinski's brand of offense as coordinated by a guy who should never have left the coordinator’s booth in the first place, Norv Turner.  All it takes to come to that realization is to watch their game plan be executed by anyone not named Brandon Weeden.

That’s not good news for Weeden.  Not by a long shot.  Every time someone like Campbell can step in and look positively competent where Weeden looks positively befuddled hastens Weeden's exit and with it the closing of the incredibly misguided management style of Mike Holmgren.  For a guy who claims to know quarterbacks, Holmgren's hit rate is as impressive as a suit from Men’s Wearhouse.

To illustrate, Sunday, like that Sunday several weeks ago when Brian Hoyer took the start, showed that a quarterback of even modest accomplishment is a step change difference from Weeden, Holmgren's prized first round pick.  And while Campbell is most certainly a decent sort trying to survive in a league that churns players like NBC sitcoms churn viewers, let’s face it.  At best he’s a merely serviceable NFL quarterback.  A player like him was readily available to one of the worst teams in the league for a reason.

Yet there was Campbell, who seems to have been around since the Reagan administration but in fact is just a year older than Weeden, throwing for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns against a team that was averaging 5 sacks a game until Sunday.  His quarterback rating was 105.4, which seems like about double of what Weeden’s likely would have been.  It was enough to get Campbell another start and Weeden another step closer to a backup job with another team.

What caused the Browns’ latest good loss on Sunday was not quarterback failure.  Instead it was another hole in the leaky life raft supports this team, this time in the form of two veterans who should know better, Joe Thomas and Davone Bess.

Thomas rarely comes under criticism and for good reason.  He’s as reliable as Dick Goddard forecasting lake effect snow.  Thomas stepped into his left tackle position from his first mini camp and hasn’t missed a game.  He’s made every Pro Bowl he’s been eligible for because where every thing else about the Browns has been a disaster, Thomas has stood out in the most unusual way. He’s been the exception to the otherwise ironclad rule that irrespective of who is doing the drafting, the Browns will blow their first round pick. (It’s worth noting, if only to show how ironclad the rule really is that in the year Thomas was drafted, the Browns also took Brady Quinn in the first round.  So there!)

Yet Thomas had two crucial holding penalties and a false start that had the simultaneously bad result of killing key late drives and burying the offensively challenged Browns into even deeper holes.  It was more than Campbell and his minor core of skill players could ever hope to overcome.

Bess had a game that only two players in modern Browns history could both relate to and appreciate—Braylon Edwards and Greg Little.  The difference though is that Bess wasn't signed because he had a reputation as a breakaway, Calvin Johnson wannabe.  He was signed because he was a bargain bin version of Wes Welker.  Bess is the possession receiver that’s supposed to run the underneath patterns and hold onto balls, particularly in those third down situations where the faster receivers are being pursued by defensive backs while the rest are covered by linebackers.

Bess’ drops in the first half were mostly irrelevant, just frustrating.  It was his disastrous fourth quarter that will be remembered most.

With just over 7 minutes remaining and the Browns’ defense continuing to tighten the screws, Bess fielded what looked like a routine punt.  Indeed Bess caught the ball near midfield, if just for a moment.  Suddenly he dropped it s if he were the focal point of the movie The Longest Yard and had made a special deal with the warden to lose to the guards.  The Chiefs recovered.  Though the Chiefs couldn't use that mistake to put the Browns away for good, it was enough that the Chiefs got another chance to punt a few minutes later pushing the Browns even further from a game tying field goal.

Where Thomas and Bess intersected is where the mistakes hurt the most.  The game was over 57 minutes old and the Browns still down just a field goal.  Campbell, who has a nice step up move in the pocket anyway, stepped up but couldn't find anyone open and scrambled 13 yards for a first down.  Thomas’ second holding penalty then  nullified the gain and the momentum.

Bess killed it for good a few plays later.  On 4th and 7, really the last opportunity to remain relevant in the game, Campbell scrambled, then scrambled some more.  It was at that moment, more so than any other in the game, where my first thought was of Weeden.  Watching Campbell move toward the sideline while still holding onto a ball that had to be thrown, I had two competing visions and they both involved Weeden.  The first was of him simply running out of bounds to avoid the sack as if demonstrating at the most inopportune moment that sometimes it’s best to take the sack.  The second was of something even dumber, Weeden again flipping the ball to anyone wearing any colored uniform.

What I got, what we all got instead was Campbell actually throwing the ball to a diving Bess justthismuch past the first down marker.  It was exactly the kind of pass that earns one the moniker of “possession receiver” (well, that, and his relatively slow 40 time).  But Bess couldn't secure the pass, leaving the Browns once again to chart a good loss.

It’s hard to understand, except in the context of losing teams, why week in and week out a new goat emerges to undo any good accomplished.  In some cases it’s because a player, tired of losing, tries to work outside of his limited role in order to “make something happen.”  In other cases it’s a character issue that reveals itself when character most  counts.  Still other times it’s simply that a lack of talent has the maddening tendency to show up at exactly the wrong time.  All of these are true of the Browns.

Weeden's not a major talent but what’s inhibited his progress is the self-imposed burden he carries to lift the team beyond what he’s capable of doing.  Last week, Little and Gordon failed because they have an insufficient reservoir of internal strength and purpose of mind.  And then there’s simply the fact that the Browns have all the depth of a Katherine Heigl movie.  They are what their record says they are.

There will be no celebrating a good loss because it hasn't gotten anyone, team, front office, coaching staff or fans anything in the past other than a slightly higher cliff off which to fall and the next inevitable bad loss.  The Browns are in a simple business where success is easily measured.  Unfortunately, so is failure.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Packers Edition

There really is a numbing sameness to the Cleveland Browns, isn't there?  It’s not just the big things, like the way they lose each week.  It’s crept into the small things as well.  Consider, for example, the following quote from quarterback Brandon Weeden and then guess when it was spoken:

“I was trying to throw a groundball to [running back Chris Ogbonnaya].  I just didn't want to take a sack there.  My mistake.”

If you guessed in the aftermath of the Browns desperate loss to the Detroit Lions a week ago, you’d essentially be right.  If you also guessed in the aftermath of the Browns desperate loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, you’d be absolutely right.  Weeden is nothing if not self aware, two straight weeks.  A mistake one week is still a mistake the following week.  The problem is that clarity tends to be hours after it’s most needed.

Weeden’s second in as many weeks backhanded, underhanded, shovel call it what you want pushing of a ball ostensibly toward an eligible receiver as he’s being dragged down by an opposing lineman, didn't cost the Browns a comeback attempt against the Packers like it did against the Lions.  Weeden made sure the game was well out of reach by then.  But what it did definitively establish was that Weeden has no capacity for lessons learned.

If you’re head coach Rob Chudzinski, or offensive coordinator Norv Turner, or club president Joe Banner, that has to be the final  “a ha” moment of Sunday’s 31-13 loss.  Whatever secret hopes any of them may have harbored for Weeden’s success has effectively ended.  One who can’t learn can never improve.

Weeden seems to believe that nearly any act of desperation no matter how silly or ill advised is cover in the service of “leaving it all on the field.”  He said as much after Sunday’s game and the previous Sunday’s as well.  It’s a thought process shared by the insane and the incompetent.  I fear that Weeden may be both.

If there’s any way to blunt the utter frustration that Weeden inflicts on fans it would be that between the fans and the coaching staff there is no disconnect.  Pat Shurmur, for example, had a vested interest in Weeden because it’s the guy who his boss, the guy that hired him, drafted in the first round.

Chudzinski isn’t so encumbered and it’s been on full display from preseason forward.  Chudzinski wouldn't fully commit to Weeden then and won’t now.  If Weeden starts next week it will be because Jason Campbell has slipped back into a coma.

Because there are no coincidences in sports, there was deeper meaning to be drawn from both Brian Hoyer's promotion over Campbell to take over when Weeden went down with a thumb injury and Chudzinski's willingness to give Weeden extra time to heal as a way of continuing to play Hoyer.  At this point there’s no doubt that had Hoyer stayed healthy Weeden would still be rehabbing his thumb.  There’s likewise little doubt that Chudzinski sees Campbell as much of an alternative except in the “what the hell how can it be worse” sense.

Weeden simply isn't the quarterback for this team and the reason is summed up nicely in the bookended passes to Ogbonnaya in the waning moments of the last two games.  Where Weeden sees effort, his coaches see a quarterback who can’t learn.  Weeden has become Mike Phipps and the Browns and is inspiring his teammates to play with all the fire and competence of any of the 1970s teams.

Whether Weeden can be useful to any team is a different question entirely and something to ponder when next year’s draft rolls around.  But for now both Chudzinski and Browns fans will have to endure the slings of Weeden’s misguided and usually late arriving arrows.  The first two passes Weeden threw on Sunday to Greg Little serve as exhibits 2,944 and 2,955.

As for Sunday’s loss there is perspective to consider.  It was never Weeden's game to win or lose and while his limited skills contributed as they usually do to another loss, there were others responsible as well.

Receiver Josh Gordon had the kind of game that someone with his personal resume will have on occasion.   He had two catches for 21 yards and that came late in the game after the score caught up to the dominance that Packers were already demonstrating. Little, when there were decent throws to catch, had the kind of game that has become his stock in trade.  He had 4 catches for 49 yards and at least as many misses for as many yards.  Both Gordon and Little have much in common, starting with their selfish, me-first attitudes that limit their effectiveness.

Gordon and Little are good examples of why teams tend to favor signing what they call “high character” guys.  Character only matters when pressure is greatest.  The reason neither Gordon nor Little can be counted on to make the key plays that their physical talents would otherwise suggest is related to their low reservoirs of personal character.  Under duress they fold.

Gordon’s disappearance on Sunday was a little less expected than Little’s but it derives from the same place.  Gordon let his teammates down by being a multiple offender of the league’s drug policy so an inability to put up a stronger fight for a tough pass thrown into traffic in a relatively important part of the game should not come as much of a surprise.  Even Chudzinski essentially conceded in his post game comments that he thinks Gordon could have fought harder for the 4th down pass near the end zone early in the 4th quarter.  Little just can’t catch.

What is more disconcerting about Gordon and Little though is that given their flaws the Browns are probably going to have to move on without them next season.  That’s the right move in concept but in a team this flawed it creates even greater issues.

It’s abundantly clear, for example, that this team has significant holes in its starting line up and little if any depth at any position.  By luck and happenstance the receiving corps actually has legitimately talented receivers but that talented is limited in its execution.  When a team like the Browns moves on from theoretical talent it just creates more actual openings that have to be filled.  This isn't the New England Patriots.  There is no next man up.

Then of course there was the usual lack of running game.  But how much that matters depends on how much one believes offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes to run the ball anyway.  There’s a strong case to be made that Green Bay jumping out quickly in response to Weeden's lack of same suggested that it could be a long day.  In turn that would require a more pass oriented attack.  But there’s also a strong suggestion that Turner and Chudzinski always favor a pass oriented attack in what is clearly a pass happy league.  Put it this way, there is no evidence to date that either Chudzinski or Turner favor a balanced attack.  So blaming Willis McGahee for being old is like blaming Mike Holmgren for being conceited.

Not to continue flogging a mostly dead horse, but the flaw in Chudzinski's and Turner’s offense is not its underlying theory but it’s reliance on quarterbacking skills that Weeden simply doesn't have.  That isn't to say that it’s unreasonable in its expectations.  It is to say it’s incompatible with the quarterback they inherited.

Watching a game on television with its multiple replays tends to highlight what must be increasingly maddening film sessions inside Berea.  Weeden favors tight end Jordan Cameron anyway but there were at least 3 times that Weeden didn't seem to see a wide open Cameron in the middle of the field because he was locked on a more difficult option.  There were other times that Weeden did what he usually does and hold on to the ball until the receiver becomes inextricably covered by even modest defensive backs.  And, of course, there were just the mystifying throws, the ones where he can’t seem to get it in the hands of an outlet receiver hanging within 5 yards of the pocket.  His touch on simple screen passes resembles Anderson Varejao’s touch on lay ups.

To be fair, Weeden's touchdown pass to Cameron was well thrown.  It was the kind of pass that suggests more.  Yet it came after he missed Little on a slant in the end zone by throwing behind him.  That too sums up Weeden and the Browns offense.  Some starts but mostly fits.

With Weeden at the controls the Browns have regressed significantly on offense since the veritable salad days of Hoyer.  Instead of the relative exciting mess that they were for about 3 games, they’re back to the same turgid death march where 40+ yard field goals are the best one can hope for.

The Browns have definitely resumed the early season tailspin that got temporarily interrupted when Hoyer had the ball.  If nothing else it also resumes the plan Banner hatched by collecting all those 2014 draft picks in the first place and puts them back in a dogfight with Jacksonville and the New York Football Giants for next year’s number one pick.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Lions Edition

Football, as in life, is all about balance.  In that sense then it’s no surprise that the Cleveland Browns found themselves at 3-3 after a 31-17 shellacking at the hands of one of the NFL’s most interesting teams, the Detroit Lions.

It’s hard to know whether the Lions are good or just looked that way Sunday.  In fairness, the Browns have become somewhat of a cottage industry when it comes to making other teams look good so it’s always hard to judge the level of competition.  Still a team with Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson is a team worth looking at occasionally.

But we’re not here to praise the Lions and we’re not here really to bury the Browns.  It’s about balance, remember?

So in the interest of balance what this team and its fans know after 6 games is that Brandon Weeden is 0-3 as a starting quarterback and the team is 3-0 when he’s not.  That’s balance, right?  The trouble is that the Browns have little choice at the moment but to continue starting Weeden which can only mean that the heady feeling new head coach Rob Chudzinski had after a 3-game win streak is about to become a pounding migraine the likes of which everyone of his predecessors in Browns 2.0 has felt on most Sunday evenings.

Part of the context of Sunday’s loss was borne just a week ago, the Thursday night win against the Buffalo Bills.  The unfortunate, season-ending injury to Brian Hoyer resonates but not as much as the marked difference in what Hoyer brought to the team vs. what Weeden has to offer.

Though Hoyer's play was limited in the Bills game, his brief moments, coupled with his play the previous two weeks, crystallized why Rob Chudzinski likely has the chance to succeed where Pat Shurmur and company failed.  It also crystallized why Norv Turner may not be much of a head coach but he’s a real asset as an offensive coordinator.

Hoyer has a quicker mind and a quicker release.  Those are two traits needed in any offense by any quarterback, certainly, but what they illustrated best as executed by Hoyer was both the innovative quality of Chudzinski’s plays and Turner’s play calling and how those things can be leveraged to effective use even on a team with a suspect set of a receivers and a running back who more resembles Jamal Lewis in the last throes than Adrian Peterson in his prime.

It was a fun team to watch.  Wins help but so does just the possibility that not every series will end in a punt unless it first ends in an interception.

Weeden came in to relieve Hoyer last Thursday and made a decent, almost workmanlike accounting for himself.  He didn't do enough organically bad to lose the game.  He was important in the win, in fact.

But there is a much different Weeden in the midst when he appears as a starter.  In the first half of Sunday’s game against the Lions, Weeden at first resembled the Weeden of last week’s Buffalo contest.  He executed just well enough so that fans could appreciate, for once, the real benefits of a clever offensive coaching.  Travis Benjamin’s 45 yard end around was a bit of a spark of course but more to the point there was a decided rhythm to what was happening on the field as the Browns built a 10-point half time lead.

Then whatever fluids Weeden took during the half returned him to the form that fans have become frustrated by.  With Weeden at the controls, the offense is turgid.  His execution on even the simplest passing plays is as crisp as month old lettuce.  He holds the ball like he’s afraid the refs won’t give it back to him when the play is over.  It almost doesn’t matter what Chudzinski and Turner draw up.  They know it’s a crapshoot whether or not it can get executed with any sense of precision.

I suspect that Weeden’s career in Cleveland will last only as long as it takes for team president Joe Banner to heed the cries of Chudzinski and Turner to find someone, anyone who can play better than Weeden.  Banner’s faced tougher tasks.  Making sure there are enough beer vendors on game day comes to mind as one.  Until he’s gone though Weeden will surely be defined by his fourth quarter interception that absolutely sucked the air and the crowd out of FirstEnergy Stadium late in the game.

In the pantheon that constitutes interceptions, let’s acknowledge first that except for the interception that a defensive back absentmindedly makes near his team’s goal line on a ball thrown from the opposing 35 yard line on 3rd and 20, there is no such thing as a good interception.  But there are degrees of bad.

The pick 6 tends to be at one end of the continuum, the desperation heave at the end of the first half at the other.  But every once in a while there is an interception so puzzling in its construction, an interception so visually abhorrent, that it causes you to question the meaning of life.  Weeden's interception on Sunday, the second and not the first, was just such an interception.

It’s brief life belies its everlasting impact.  It showcased nearly every wrongheaded element of Weeden's ill considered switch from baseball to football.  The game was still in the balance.  The Browns had just absorbed a 51-yard field goal by David Akers that put them behind by 24-17.  Greg Little, maybe the single worst kickoff returner in the history of the game, fielded the ball 5 yards deep in the end zone and decided to run it out, relying apparently on the same gut instincts and decision making that caused him to lose his senior year of college.  He returned it to the 16 yard line.

Let’s pause for a moment and focus on just this small point.

One of the things that make bad teams bad is poor decision making by mediocre players.  Little has repeatedly put his team in a bind by fielding kicks deep in the end zone.  Lacking either the trait of top speed or the skill of elusiveness, Little struggles to get the ball out to the 20-yard line under even modest circumstances.  When he took the Akers kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone, these weren’t modest circumstances given the lateness of the game.

You could almost see the thought bubble dancing above Little’s head.  “This is when players make plays,” he appeared to be thinking.  The problem is that between thought and deed he has no filter.  Little is not a “player” in that sense of the phrase.  He can’t catch and he can’t field kicks.  Seizing the moment, Little did what Little does and returned it to the 16 yard line.  If there is  any quarterback in the league who needs to be put in a hole less than Weeden, stand up and defend your choice.

But there was Weeden, asked to put the team on his back, march 80+ yards and tie the game.  Two of the first four plays were positive.  There was a 15 yarder and later an 18 yarder to Josh Gordon that put the ball on the Lions’ 44 yard line.  Then panic set in.

Weeden went back to pass and was pressured by former Browns defensive back C.J. Mosely among others.  Weeden already struggles to make good decisions when he has time.  He has almost no natural instinct on how to handle the rather common occurrences of pressure.  Moving around the pocket with the footwork of Bernie Kosar, Weeden had long determined he wasn’t going to be able to complete a pass downfield.  He also had determined that he didn't want to take a sack.

At that point the standard quarterback playbook calls for a pass out of bounds.  Rolling to his left, Weeden would now be required to throw across his body to get the ball out of bounds.  According to his dissection afterward, Weeden supposedly decided to throw the ball enough over the head of running back Chris Ogbonnaya and, apparently, out of bounds.  I say apparently because I’m not sure Weeden is being perfectly candid.  I think he tried to muscle the ball to Ogbonnaya with a semi side arm shuffle of a pass that ended up sailing harmlessly out of Ogbonnaya’s reach and gently into the arms of DeAndre Levy who immediately was tackled.

It was no pick 6, but that hardly mattered.  There were barely 4 and half minutes to play and the Browns were done to death.  Stafford piled on with another touchdown pass, this one a 10-yarder to Jospeh Faurier, for what turned out to be the final measure of victory.  It was the culmination of 24 straight points against a team that was struggling just to get first downs.

The interception wasn't necessarily unexpected.  With Weeden such can never be the case.  But its suddenness hit with every bit the same force as the double play ground out from Asdrubal Cabrera’s against the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild card game.  It was the clarity of the moment that the Browns had reverted to pre-Hoyer form that sent the fans scurrying for the exits like they had just contracted food poisoning.  Weeden’s play is making fans sick.

You could lay some blame for the defeat at the feet of the defense and that wouldn’t be wildly off the mark.  Entering the game cornerback Joe Haden said that the match up against Calvin Johnson, which didn't really materialize as much as anticipated due to Johnson’s injuries, would allow Haden to measure himself against the best.  Haden's two pass interference penalties in the first quarter are the better measuring stick.  They led to Detroit’s first touchdown.

But this too is where balance comes in.  The defense was on the field most of the second half because their counterparts on offense were incapable of anything resembling ball control.  They were tired if not dispirited.  The Browns’ first four possessions of the second half were all of the 3 and out variety.  The fifth possession featured the Weeden interception.  Then came a mop up possession to end the game which comically ended when Weeden, needing to throw into the end zone instead dumped off a 1 yard pass to tight end Jordan Cameron.  I suspect that wouldn't have been Tom Brady’s first choice or even Brady Quinn’s or even Quinn the Eskimo's.

As an overall matter, the Browns being 3-3 isn't cause for futile screaming in the wind.  It’s better than most anticipated.  Yet why does it feel like 10 games from now the final ledger won't look so balanced?  It's because Browns fans know this movie better than anyone.  The likely outcome, indeed the expected outcome now is that the Browns will still be standing at 3 wins as Chudzinski tries to explain in a post season press conference why he and his charges deserve another year at the helm.

Chudzinski will get his second year and likely more than that.  It will come at the expense of Weeden who if he survives the season in tact, will be a pre-draft trade for a late round pick.  And when Chudzinski gets the opportunity to balance his defense with the offense he's designed led by the quarterback he needs, the Browns for once and maybe more will end up on the right side of the ledger.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Midweek Edition

The Cleveland Browns and their fans find themselves in the oddest place, which is first place in the AFC North. Lest you think god is smiling with them he’s not.  He’s laughing at them.

In a week that started with an amazing confluence of events that brought fleeting joy to the sports fans in these parts has ended in a confluence of events that more than anything confirms exactly how much God really does hate Cleveland sports.

Sure the Indians went on a 10-0 run to end the season and grab the top seed in the American League wild card play-in game.  But that was just a way to suck fans into the false conceit that this could be their year.  It’s never their year.  The middle of the lineup went 0-16.  Asdrubal Cabrera, in front of Gods and countries, demonstrated exactly how much he’s regressed since the last time the Indians were in the playoffs and then Nick Swisher, everyone’s Nick Swisher, first failed to lift a ball out of the infield and then  struck out on 3 straight pitches to kill the last flicker of a chance.

The Indians got plenty of hits, 9 to be exact.  But not a single one came when it mattered and like the Browns team of several seasons ago that won 10 games and didn’t make the playoffs, the Indians were done before they started and the jaded fans that had repacked Progressive Field to remind everyone how it used to be were left wondering exactly what kind of menace the front office would bring in the offseason.

Your first place Browns can’t seem to lose for winning or, more accurately, lose for losing.  It’s clear what God intended. Joe Banner just hasn't been around long enough to recognize the forces he's battling. He had a plan, damnit.  He had a plan. 

The team he inherited, the one Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert built, had the following characteristics: a first round 29-year old rookie quarterback; a first round running back who can’t seem to average more than 3 yards a carry or stay healthy; a substance abusing wide receiver who is one step away from getting kicked out of the league; another wide receiver who can’t catch; and, of course, Buster Skrine, the worst cover guy in NFL history (slight exaggeration that!) anchoring of sorts the secondary.

It took Banner no more than one regular season game, though he waited two, to assess what he had.  This team would have to be disassembled, piece by piece.  Banner would sell off what he could and discard what he couldn’t.  Stockpile draft picks and get a quarterback who when he's 29 will have been in the league for 7 years. And the plan was working.

Banner took advantage of a desperate Indianapolis Colts team and extracted a first round pick (!) for Richardson.  If it were any team other than the Browns on the receiving end of that trade, I’d immediately declare it the most one sided trade since Dallas went all in for Rickey Williams.  But it is the Browns, a team that has made high art of squandered draft picks.

Still, a good start.  With no running attack and a quarterback with no fast twitch skills, a losing course was set. Wait 'till next year, again. Just sit back and let the rest of the league come to you.

Then as almost luck would have it Brandon Weeden injured his thumb. If having a first string Weeden is critical to a losing season then imagine how delicious it must have been to Banner to use a back up quarterback for a good part of the season. But just to leave no stone unturned Banner had the team use the third string quarterback instead. It's as if Banner, who resembles the Grinch anyway, was in his cave rubbing his hands together, talking to his dog.  

But the Who down in Whoville didn’t get the message.  Brian Hoyer, waiting, learning from the masters old school way, jumped into the fray and ignited an offense that had been moribund since the word moribund was invented.  The improbable victory against the Minnesota Vikings looked like an outstretched middle finger to the front office.  Then came the victory against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team with high playoff hopes.  The game was boring, sure, but Hoyer rallied in ways that Weeden could never imagine and the Browns ground out a very professional victory.

Two straight and the smacking sound you heard all the way to Green was Banner slapping his head with his palm.  The two game win streak energized the fan base who, even if the Indians were in the middle of winning game 7 of the World Series by 5 runs, would still flood local sports talk shows with questions about the Browns.

Banner’s plan was unraveling faster than the plot of a Kate Hudson movie.  With that as the backdrop, the Browns entered into Thursday night’s game against the Buffalo Bills not exactly sure where they stood.  The fans were just as confused.

Order seemed restored early on when first Greg Little, who has the decision making skills of a 10-year old in a trading card store, fielded the opening kick from 9 yards deep and returned it 18 yards, pinning the Browns on their own 9 yard line.   Hoyer then hit Josh Gordon in the hands on what should have been about a 70-yard touchdown pass on the game’s second play.  Naturally Gordon dropped it.  The ensuing punt was returned well by the Bills who found themselves with a short field, made all the shorter when Joe Haden interfered with Steve Johnson in the end zone, setting up a short touchdown and a quick 7-0 Buffalo lead.

On the Browns’ second series, Hoyer scrambled for a first down and in true Cleveland fashion, tore his ACL and ended his season.  Weeden trotted in, looking as effective as he had before his own injury, and the Browns quickly punted.  This led to a Buffalo field goal and now a 10-0 lead.  The rout certainly seemed on.

Just as Banner was secretly celebrating Weeden’s return and the return of his master plan, something strange happened.  Once again the Browns rallied around the beleaguered Weeden and he found what amounts to sea legs.  True Weeden more or less looked as he always has.  He holds the ball like he’s afraid he’ll never get it back and moves in the backfield as if he was driving with the brakes on.  Those deficiencies aside, he was able to play nearly effective enough.

Weeden will forever be defined by 57 yard return that gave the Browns the ball at the Buffalo 31.  A short pass fell incomplete.  A run went nowhere.  A third down pass fell incomplete but the Bills were penalized for unnecessary roughness.  A Weeden sack and a few incomplete passes later the Browns were settling once again for a 30-yard field goal.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

What Weeden will rarely be defined by is the next drive, an interminably long affair that started at the Browns 12 and ultimately ended in a game tying touchdown.  It mostly featured the running of Willis McGahee enabled greatly by the return of Shawn Lauveo at right guard.  It was tedious at times and nerve racking at others.  It was not clear until it happened that McGahee would get that final yard.  He did and the Browns were tied.  Fah who for-aze. Dah who for-aze.

After a defensive hold, Travis Benjamin took the Bills punt 79 yards and the Browns were now winning, 17-10.  Games do turn quickly, usually against the Browns.  This was a through the looking glass moment.

In the third quarter, the Bills scored twice and were now up 24-17.  The first was a 54-yard touchdown run by C.J. Spiller against a defense that apparently featured no defensive backfield.  Once Spiller made it past the line he could have run sideways to the end zone so alone was he.  The second was nearly a carbon copy of the Bills’ first touchdown, set up by interference in the end zone.  The only negligible difference was that it was T.J. Ward who committed the penalty.

The game was turning predictably back, except it really didn’t.  As suddenly as the clouds returned and the rain began to fall, figuratively and literally, Gordon turned a short pass from Weeden into a 37-yard touchdown. Another should have been touchdown turned into a chip shot field goal courtesy of a poor run from the 1-yard line by McGahee and a wildly inaccurate pass to tight end Jordan Cameron.

Still another Cundiff field goal was followed by a pick six from Ward on a pass from the Buster Skrine of quarterbacks, Buffalo’s Jeff Tuel, and the game was over.  Final score, Browns 37, Bills 24.

Let me pause here for a moment to stop picking on Skrine.  In truth, he played probably his best game as a professional, and probably his entire life, on Thursday night.  He was mostly where he was supposed to be and that’s a major accomplishment.  Haden, on the other hand, seemed lost.  Maybe he’s trying to do too much given the shortcomings around him, but against a better team and a better quarterback Haden would do well to pay attention to his assignments and not try to do others as well.

Now back to our regular programming.

Weeden wasn’t anything special on Thursday night.  He was only 13-24 for 197 yards.  Yet he wasn’t awful at least awful as defined by Banner’s expectations of him or those of virtually everyone else that have followed his brief, flatline trajectory as a starter.

Now the Browns are firmly entrenched for another week at the top of the AFC North.  It is a highly winnable division because there isn’t a dominant team among them.  Heck, the Steelers might go 0 for the season. Yet you get the sense that Banner can’t possibly be happy with this outcome.  It doesn’t completely devalue the power the Browns will yield in the draft but if this winning stuff continues it does diminish it.

So in any sense, large or small, God really does hate Cleveland sports.  If he didn’t, the Browns would have a lock on the first pick of the draft, the Indians would be playing the Red Sox this weekend, Hoyer would be healthy and Bernie Kosar wouldn’t be trying to find a creative defense for the DUI he got last weekend.