Monday, September 30, 2013

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

Irrespective of venue, the surest way to lose money in a high/low game of poker is to choose the middle course, or worse to shift course once committed.

When the Cleveland Browns traded Trent Richardson (20 carries, 60 yards on Sunday, a tidy 3 yards/carry, again), it seemed that they had committed to go low to improve their lot in next year's draft. But with another improbable win against a supposedly improved Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday the Browns find themselves tied for first in a poor division and probably pondering whether to shift course and now go high.

I liked the version of the Browns that had committed low because it met perfectly with overriding expectations that the NFL universe had for them. Who but the Browns keep building for a tomorrow that never comes? I mean who other than nearly every Cleveland sports team of the last 30 years.

But there they were again, stodgy for long periods of time on offense and stout on defense as they gave another team a case of the Mondays. That makes an actual but modest win streak for a team that looked not just lost but buried for its first two games. Now fans are left to contemplate how a season that was supposed to be spent planning for future seasons yet unplayed went so horribly wrong. It is a shock to the system.

The Browns confound when they win because even the fans can’t believe what’s happening. An incredibly long and effective drive in the fourth quarter to seal a win against what was supposed to be an otherwise formidable (and favored) opponent is not how fans in these parts are used to spending the run up to the 4 p.m. games. That time is usually reserved for a quick bit of yard work or sandwich making before watching the league’s better teams and players square off.

So now the Browns do face a dilemma of sorts, don’t they? The first quarter of the season has all but eliminated the Owen Steelers to jockeying for draft position. The Baltimore Ravens gutted a Super Bowl team of most of its best players, either by design or retirement, and now rely on a misplaced faith in Joe Flacco to impersonate Tom Brady and make due with a cast of rejects. Yesterday's loss proved that's a flawed approach. And the Bengals, who knows what to make of them accept that they couldn't solve a Browns team that hasn't been much of a puzzle to anyone except their fans.

It really is a season the Browns, even a 7-9 Browns, could make the playoffs if only somewhat by default. The AFC North is that winnable at the moment. But doing so or even getting close comes at the expense of the draft choices they coveted. The answer, I suppose, lies in the fact that players and fans are in it to win as much as they can now and let the future roll out as it’s meant to when it’s meant to.

It’s the rare set of circumstances that line up just as they should to yield a result that was too speculative to contemplate. The Cleveland Indians of this season are probably the best example of that in a generation. So holding the eggs for a basket that might never come anyway isn't worth the chance. The only advice though is if the Browns are now committed high stick with it for awhile. Keep any further trade talk in check. Clean out the deadwood if you must, but keep this crew more or less in track and Brandon Weeden on the bench. Let at least another quarter season take place. Tanking the last 8 games, which is easily accomplished by re-inserting Weeden if/when necessary, can still yield powerful results for the future.

Here’s what informs that decision and admittedly it's a series of slender reeds. There’s the aforementioned weakness of a division that is actually worse than the American League Central was this year. But next and not insignificantly it’s the team.

Whether quarterback Brian Hoyer is the real deal or just Kelly Stouffer remains to be seen. What is far clearer is that receiver Josh Gordon does make a distinct difference and that Bill Belichick is somewhere today plotting exactly how to wrest tight end Jordan Cameron from the Browns’ grip. Cameron is the kind of talent that Belichick has built a career finding. Players like that don’t usually fall into Cleveland’s lap, by accident and especially not by design.

There’s also the defense, generally, and the magnificently named Barkevious Mingo, in particular that seems to have opposing teams rattled or at least caged in. Mingo has had a sack in 3 straight games but his presence is even bigger than that. Mingo just enhances a strong defensive line and the linebackers, particularly but not exclusively D’Qwell Jackson, have been so effective that they are covering up a really weak secondary. Buster Skrine continues to underwhelm. Sure he had a key interception yesterday but not to pick nits he was in position to grab the deflection because he had lost sight of his assignment. Had Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton given it a half second more there was a longer completion to be made against the confused Skrine.

On the other side, though, is a running game that will be hard pressed to get appreciably better. Willis McGahee is simply too old in NFL terms to be consistently effective. He’s Jamal Lewis in his last season, more or less. Chris Ogbonnoya will never be anything more than a change of pace back.

It will eventually fall to Hoyer to buy time, which he seems quite capable of doing, as he looks off Greg Little and gets it to Gordon or Cameron or even Travis Benjamin. On Sunday, Hoyer threw short to Benjamin and he turned an otherwise pedestrian NFL stock plan into a 33-yard gain that eventually led to the Browns’ first touchdown.

There were two other key points of note in that series, though. First was the 17 yard pass to Devon Bess from Hoyer that got the ball to the Cincinnati 2-yard line. That followed by what is now becoming routine, the Hoyer to Cameron end zone connection. Cameron simply has excellent style and skill in the red zone. He’s difficult to cover or even account for.

Later in the second quarter came a spectacular 33-yard completion from Hoyer to Gordon on a ball that probably shouldn't have been thrown. But having decided to throw it, Hoyer put it in a position, despite the double coverage and with Adam “Arrested Again” Jones step for step, where only Gordon could make the catch. It was a difficult leaping catch but had it not been completed it wouldn't have been intercepted, either.

Kicker Billy Cundiff killed the momentum of the moment by demonstrating why he was available to the Browns at such a late date. His 37 yard miss on a field goal didn't
inspire much confidence. He’s safe for another week I suspect. The Browns play again Thursday. After that, he ought to prepare to watch others try out for his job.

Those were pretty decent highlights among an otherwise yawn inducing display of football by both teams for most of the game. But far better, far more fulfilling and far more important to the overall direction of the club this season what the drive that sucked up 6 and a half minutes of the fourth quarter and ended up with the Hoyer to Ogbonoyya touchdown.

From the Browns’ 9 yard line the drive started conservatively and predictably enough. Head coach Rob Chudzinski had a lead to protect. A short pass to Cameron. Then McGahee ran for 5 then 4 yards and suddenly a little life sparked. Then Hoyer to Gordon for 13 yards and two plays later to Cameron for 31 yards. At the very least field position had been altered.

Then McGahee ran three straight for 23 yards total followed by a neat little pass to Ogbonnaya for a 1-yard touchdown and suddenly an insurmountable lead emerged even though just under 5 minutes remained. Cincinnati, unable to move the ball all day, likely was banking on the Browns’ defense taking its usual fourth quarter siesta. Instead they played as if they had plenty of sleep the night before and shut the Bengals down once again.

It was a good fundamental example of football by a team with whom the words good and fundamental rarely crossed paths.

The question now that keeps popping up is whether the Browns can demonstrate to a relatively large national audience on Thursday against the Buffalo Bills that it’s new go high strategy makes perfect sense. In a league where the Steelers are Owen Four and so are the Giants, sure, why not?

Monday, September 23, 2013

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

So much about how one reacts to what was surely a stunning victory by the Cleveland Browns on Sunday depends on how full or empty he tends to look at the perpetually slightly filled glass of water the Browns keep by each fan's night table. On the one hand, who knew that Trent Richardson was such a drag on the team? Conversely, who knew Josh Gordon’s presence would give such a boost?

If one is truer than the other, then it would have to be the presence of at least one credible wide receiver in the lineup in the form of Gordon that was one of the key differences. Gordon caught 10 passes for 146 yards. He looked strong after the catch and his presence also opened up the other real receiving star of the game, tight end Jordan Cameron who in word and deed is pretty much everything Kellen Winslow, Jr. was not.

Let’s not bury Richardson though as a drag on the team. He wasn't. He just didn't perform like much of an asset at the time of the trade. And while I consider Richardson’s true value a bit more deeply days later I am stunned by the chart the Wall Street Journal ran on Monday that showed a team’s record after having spent a high pick on a running back. Generally, it’s not been impressive. Surely the Browns' record with Richardson doesn't help the cause but look at it this way. Even with Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings are only a collectively 47-44 and that’s one of the better records. Ultimately club president Joe Banner merely put into action something that is relatively backed up by the evidence: an elite running back is not nearly as important to a winning NFL team as even a decent overall running game or merely the threat.

Richardson performed for Indianapolis on Sunday as he’s done now for all the previous Sundays he’s been in the league. His yards per carry seem perpetually stuck in the 3s. He may not know the Colts’ playbook, but will that really help? How much did it help here?

So putting aside the obvious dynamic of the presence of Gordon and the absence of Richardson, let’s look instead at the other variables. Surely Brian Hoyer had something to do with the outcome. Indeed he was going to have something to do with it either way. His beautifully lofted third down throw to Cameron accounted for the margin of difference. A more opportunistic Vikings offense might have ended with far more points and put the game out of reach off of Hoyer’s three interceptions.

Still, Hoyer showed more in one game than it’s taken a season to eke out of the surely deposed Brandon Weeden. He led the team on a freakin’ legitimate two minute drill to get the winning touchdown. Good luck finding the fan who thinks Weeden has that skill.

Let us not forget, too, that in his now fifth season in the NFL, Hoyer is still two plus years younger than Weeden. So even if Weeden follows Hoyer’s NFL arc, the Browns are three seasons from seeing a quarterback in Weeden who can loft a ball when that’s what the play dictates and who can recover from spells of awfulness without letting it snowball into head slapping frustration.

Yet it would be hard to pin the victory just on Hoyer or Gordon or Cameron or on Richardson. There was boldness on the special teams to account for. Perhaps the biggest uncontrolled variable was the “us against the world” mentality that surely crept into the recesses of a gobsmacked locker room. Nothing motivates a professional like job insecurity and if Banner accomplished anything last week it was instilling a sense of job insecurity into even Joe Thomas.

Whatever weird combination of cosmic factors and mental gymnastics were responsible for the Browns falling behind in the race for next year’s number one pick doesn’t matter today. Nothing causes a Browns’ fan to forgive faster than a victory, particularly when it was so unexpected. Of course, the same thing can be said as well for a Browns’ fan capacity to overemphasize a victory and its impact on a newly rosy future.

We’re all grown ups here so let’s acknowledge that there’s no way to attach any significance to the Browns’ victory on Sunday without the context of what kind of performance breaks out in subsequent weeks. We know the context of all previous weeks and, frankly, it isn’t very good. It’s why, really, Sunday’s victory, particularly the manner in which Hoyer was able to drive a team down the field like a real NFL quarterback and get a go ahead score with less than a minute remaining, seemed unusual. Past performance, and not just the past two weeks, would certainly suggest that no one knew they had it in them.

But that they did, for at least one game. It’s funny, but the win didn't feel as much earned as it did a bonus. That’s usually true for games one where trickery is involved and that was on display early as head coach Rob Chudzinski dug into the bag of diversionary tricks and created just that, a diversion.

There was the point in the third and fourth quarter where all that had previously gone right for Hoyer was starting to go horribly wrong. The interception he threw from his own end zone on a pass that looked as if it had been thrown by a concussed Pam Oliver, was as predictable as the jokes at Sunday night’s Emmy telecast. The Vikings defense, mostly sackless in every sense of the word, was starting to tee off. Hoyer looked as if he’d accidentally stepped into the middle lane of northbound I-71 at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday.

Then just as suddenly as that all happened it all disappeared. Hoyer regained the composure that Weeden doesn’t ever look to develop and led the Browns on a terrific final drive, continually hitting the right receiver with the right pass at the right time. There have been far prettier drives in the past, just not the recent past.

Even if a win hadn’t developed, the game still would have been a breath of hardy air. The almost abject refusal to advance the ball had all but disappeared. Hoyer, passing as if he had been in Chudzinski’s offense for years, looked mostly comfortable doing so. You could tell he learned plenty watching Tom Brady. There was enough of a running game to keep the Vikings guessing a little.

Most of all, though, there wasn't any point at which you felt as if you were watching a particularly unfortunate episode of Masterpiece Theater. There were actually multiple occasions on which Browns were exciting to watch. Most of last season and the first two games this season were overwhelming in their cringe worthiness. You may not have known what exactly was coming next but you pretty much knew what the outcome of what came next would be. This past Sunday was different. There was no point where I felt the calling to nod off.

And that pretty much sums up the low expectations I usually have for the Browns. If they aren’t boring, I’m thrilled. So yes, the game was a thrill.

The wins, so infrequent as they are, are generally meaningless. They stay with you about as long as a mouthful of cotton candy does. But what does linger is the overall numbing effect of the incredibly bland flavor of football the Browns tend to play. So when they play counter to type, like Charlize Theron in Monster, you notice and in a good way.

Typically, Monday rolled around and Chudzinski, settled in like every Browns coach in the 2.0 era, refused to name Hoyer the starter for next week. He'll do so by mid week I'm guessing. Just as typically, the Browns got the overall mission of 2014 draft positioning wrong by getting it right and now have fallen behind even the Pittsburgh Steelers in the race to number one draft pick. Yet they did so in a way that asserts that when most cylinders click there’s reason to watch well into the fourth quarter. Ultimately that’s all the fans have been demanding for four or five regimes now.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

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

You get the sense from listening to Cleveland Browns president Joe Banner that this year’s regular season is just one big inconvenience. Banner hasn't liked the make up of this team since he arrived and those pesky games, like this week's against Minnesota, keep getting in the way of his grand scheme to remake the team in his own crabby image.
Banner said that the first time he talked to the Indianapolis Colts about Trent Richardson was on Tuesday. But when he pressed whether Mikey called Jimmy or Jimmy called Mikey he deliberately avoided answering. He might as well have just admitted it. General Manager Mike Lombardi saw that the Colts needed a running back and made the call. That the Colts bit in the manner they did probably shocked Lombardi even more than the day Banner reached across the table to Lombardi, hand extended, and said "you're hired."
But let's be honest about a few things. Neither Banner, Lombardi, Rob Chudzinski nor Norv Turner much liked Richardson. He was traded because he had more value at the moment than the player they like even less, Brandon Weeden.
It’s not like the Browns’ record this season hinges appreciably on whether Richardson or even Weeden is on the roster. This is a deeply flawed team that had at best only a realistic shot at a handful of wins even before Richardson was traded and Weeden banged his thumb.
To understand this trade it’s best to remember that the only place where it really matters whether you won four games or two is when establishing next year’s draft order. Banner wanted to enhance his chances of getting next year’s very first pick and this trade, coupled with Weeden's injury, presented a particularly enticing hedge. Either the Browns get it through straight out incompetence, the most likely path, or through a package of picks. That’s what Banner and Lombardi are betting on. It’s a suckers bet.
Where did it all turn bad for Richardson in Cleveland? Probably about the time new owner Jimmy Haslam hired Joe Banner to be the club’s president. Banner has some very specific ideas on where players should or shouldn’t be drafted and what they should or shouldn’t be paid. It’s why Phil Dawson is gone, for example. There isn’t a chance in hell that Banner would have drafted Richardson with the fourth pick in last year’s draft and if possible even less of a chance he’d have traded three picks to move up one spot to draft him third.
I can only imagine the assessment that Banner must have given Haslam about last year’s draft and the boneheaded move the incredibly incapable Mike Holmgren made to gut the draft to get Richardson. And that was before Banner gave Haslam an earful about the abject stupidity that is drafting a 29 year old rookie quarterback.
But if there was a linchpin to the urgency of moving Richardson it probably came during the team’s first drive against the Ravens last Sunday. Weeden had just hit tight end Jordan Cameron for a 53-yard gain that put the ball at the Ravens’ 7 yard line. That’s the point at which you give it to your number one running back, the third pick in last year’s draft and let him show what he’s made of. Chud and Turd did just that, giving Richardson two shots at the end zone. He gained three yards on the first and one on the next. Weeden then through ineffectively to Davone Bess on third down before settling for the Billy Cundiff field goal.
Richardson’s career in Cleveland was over right then. The inability to score at that moment likely convinced Banner and Lombardi that Richardson lacked the strength or explosiveness to grind out 7 yards against a Ravens defense that is a shadow of its Super Bowl self. It’s hard to argue the point.
One of the bigger surprises, at least to me, has been the fan reaction. My sense is that it’s not so much that the fans were wholly vested in Richardson. It’s that the trade gave them a hook on which to hang their building anger at a franchise that has abused them for over a decade.
Banner is right that he has to earn the fan’s trust and given his nature is certainly comfortable with waiting the 12+ months, at least, that it will take before any aspect of this trade can be objectively analyzed. What Banner doesn’t quite get yet is that the fans don’t have that same comfort. While Banner was in Philadelphia, the fans here were buying Courtney Brown and Tim Couch jerseys.
The fans intellectually understand the Browns’ thinking behind the trade. What they don’t understand is why this franchise keeps taking a dump in their punchbowls the minute they set it out for the party. Fans have barely had time to build their hopes for a season that was bound to collapse anyway. Raising the white flag so early in the season in such an unmistakable way is just unsettling. They really wanted their 1-5 start before settling into several months of real bitching. It’s the arc and rhythm of every Browns season and to have it disturb this quickly messes with one’s equilibrium.
You have to admire Banner’s stones in taking the heat at Wednesday night’s press conference just as you have to admire his stony willingness to be very nonspecific about how this trade will make the Browns better. After all, there’s still the little matter of using the pick effectively. We know that the Browns 2.0 have whiffed on every first round pick except Joe Thomas. With that kind of history there’s no reason for the fans to believe, let alone believe with certainty, that this trade will in fact make the Browns better.
On the other hand, it doesn’t make them worse. They’ve scored one meaningless touchdown this season with Richardson on the roster. The only thing this does, really, is mostly close the books on what was an awful draft class. They’ll be completely closed when Weeden is gone, which he too most assuredly is.
Lost in the shuffle of yesterday’s trade was the earlier press conference on Wednesday when Chud announced that Brian Hoyer would be this week’s starter. Chud was asked whether Weeden will return to the lineup as the starter once he’s healthy. Chud danced around it like Banner dancing around who called whom, refusing to make that commitment despite numerous opportunities to do so. If Weeden does return as a starter it’s because Hoyer craps his pants as a starter or gets injured. Weeden will find himself in the offseason competing with the likes of Colt McCoy for a backup gig somewhere.
If you’re looking for the real head scratcher in this deal, ask yourself why Indianapolis was willing to give up a first round pick for anyone. That kind of trade doesn’t happen in the NFL. The Colts’ Jim Irsay never got past Richardson’s pedigree when evaluating the trade. I can’t think of running back in the entire league I’d give up a first round pick for so yea, while we’re at it, let’s give Lombardi some credit for lacking the shame it must have taken to even ask the Colts for a first round pick. He probably had to get their confirmation in writing when the Colts jumped because hearing them say “yes” had to convince Lombardi that his hearing must be failing.
If there’s a real loser in this trade it’s probably Chud. Irrespective of the underlying circumstances, he’ll catch the brunt of what will surely be a one or two win season. The Browns could improve next season with all the picks they’ve gathered but is that a four or five game improvement? Even so that would amount to a two year losing record for Chud, which is all the shelf life coaches get in Cleveland.
Goodbye, Trent. You weren’t ever good enough or bad enough to get all that emotional about. In that way, you were the perfect Cleveland Brown. With the trade Banner is on his way to achieving that same status.

Monday, September 16, 2013

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

The real trick when writing about the Cleveland Browns is how to extricate yourself from the numbing sameness of it all, again in order to force the fingers to push keys as you struggle to say something, anything remotely new. Watching the Browns lose to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday was to essentially watch the tape from the previous week’s debacle against Miami and try to invent a new angle. It was cruel but not unusual.

Sure there were differences, subtle at best, between the two games. The overarching themes were exactly the same. No greater lessons were learned about this wretched team. Just initial impressions solidly confirmed.

Brandon Weeden is still an awful quarterback. He does enough to make a case for employment as a permanent long term NFL backup though I remain wholly unconvinced that he’s the kind of second stringer that you wouldn’t mind seeing play once in awhile. He’s actually the kind of backup that should play behind guys like Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, quarterbacks not typically prone to injuries. If Weeden’s in charge, dread is hovering.

Weeden had a statistically insignificant day in the sense that he completed a fair amount of passes for a fair amount of yards and didn’t suffer the indignity of adding to his burgeoning wrong-sided touchdowns to interceptions ratio. Where he wasn’t insignificant though was in making plays that absolutely had to be made if this offense will ever be thought of as anything other than incompetent.

How a professional quarterback, a first rounder at that, could absolutely whiff on a cupcake throw to a running back who had nothing but green grass and high tides in front of him in Chris Ogbonnaya is nearly beyond comprehension.

Does Weeden simply not listen to his coaching staff when they implore him weekly to develop touch and occasionally do something other than try to throw the ball through a brick wall on every pass? Is he uncoachable or simply untalented?

The kind of miss on the Ogbonnaya disaster captures in a simple sequence exactly what’s wrong with Weeden. He seems intellectually to understand the throw that’s supposed to be made, just as he seems intellectually to understand generally the nature and flow of the offensive schemes that Rob “Chud” Shurmur has designed. What he can’t do except in the least pressurized situations is turn intellect into execution.

The sum total of a quarterback’s existence, from high school to the pros is to make that pass. Sure there is a lot of moving pieces and parts to the position. Reading defenses is important. So is remembering the snap count. Ultimately, though, when the team needs its quarterback most is when a big play beckons. The line of demarcation between the good and the also ran is the ability to make that play.

What makes Monday’s key failure so distressing, so utterly soul drenching, is that the miss to Ogbonnaya affirmed that Weeden hasn't improved one iota from last season to now. There has been no second year upgrade in ability. The numbing sameness of it all, again.

But because this is Cleveland and because it’s the Browns, the starving fan base clings to any glimmer of progress even as it takes to the airwaves to vent a perpetually full well of anger. So in that vein we look to the insignificant improvement in Weeden's passing stats as we look to the other contributory factors as to why the Browns loss. There are always other contributors. Let’s face it, it’s not like the Browns are merely one player away.

You could start with the back up running back that is Ogbonnaya and criticize him for not having the sufficient skills to catch a fastball barehanded, even if he was only expect the soft toss that would have been more than adequate to make the play. All true and yet let’s remember his role. He’s the back up running back on a really bad team. Where exactly do you think that puts him in the ranking of the 1600 or so active players in the NFL today? Doesn't that just emphasize why a supposedly pedigreed quarterback like Weeden has to make a better throw?

Then there’s the usual culprit of the offensive line, especially the right side of the line. Mitchell Schwartz and Oniel Cousins may be the two worst offensive linemen in a generation and they are playing next to each other. You could leave a stick of butter sitting on the counter and then microwave a knife for 5 minutes and that knife would still find more resistance cutting through that stick of butter than opposing defensive linemen find from the Browns’ right side.

It would appear as though the Browns have no other options but Schwartz and Cousins at the moment but that can’t possibly be true because there is no one worse. I suppose the Browns could sign others who’d play just as bad. Indeed that’s exactly what I’d expect them to do. They have a track record. But go ahead and sign others anyway. The Browns have no particular strategy that doesn't start with the word “if…” so signing anyone else, and I mean anyone else, would be reflect both the crapshoot nature of this franchise and could just work. Hell yea it could. Go buy some tickets now.

And where would this team be without the scary talent of Greg Little? Actually they’d still be 0-2 but that’s beside the point. Little is a really, really unique receiver if by unique one means he can’t catch. To call Little a receiver isn’t to just insult the Larry Fitzgeralds of the world. It’s also an insult to the Fair Hookers of the world.

You can’t even make the case that Little is Braylon Edwards without the attitude. Little has plenty of attitude. It’s why he was available to the Browns in the first place, another reclamation project of the old regime. At least on that rare occasion Edwards would actually make a catch that was difficult. Little hasn't even reached that level of maddening inconsistency, except of course with his driving ability. Little once again and despite previous assurances gathered in a bunch more motor vehicle violations early Monday morning, most notably driving on the license that was suspended for all the other infractions he had. He’s awful and deserves to be benched and then cut.

The play calling was again suspect with Trent Richardson carrying only a slightly higher level workload in a game that, like last week, was close for three quarters. The Chud and Turd monster aren’t keen on Richardson; that much is clear. Yet there’s no one else on the roster and if nothing else the threat of a commitment to use your number one pick from last season on a consistent basis could take some heat off of Weeden. If anyone could use less heat, it’s Weeden.

What was perhaps more confusing about the play calling though was the formations used. All off season fans were told that Weeden was a shotgun quarterback and having him play behind center was akin to having Bruce Springsteen play a banjo. Indeed, last season Pat Shurmur rarely had Weeden play out of the shotgun formation. This season is somewhat a different story but not nearly as much as fans were sold, if the first two games are any indication.

Sunday Weeden was in the shotgun for 34 plays and behind center for 23. Against Miami, if you disregard the final series for a moment when the Browns were scurrying to score to make the final score respectable, it was a nearly identical 31 times in the shotgun and 24 plays behind center.

What is instructive is that in actuality when the Browns are running their “regular” offense, you know the one that you see for most of the game as compared to the equally inept version that rears its ugly head just before the half or at the very end of games, Chud and Turd are as likely to put Weeden behind center as they are in the shotgun.

If Weeden’s strength as a quarterback lies mostly from the shotgun (and we’re taking a huge leap here that he has particular strengths as a quarterback) then why aren’t Chud and Turd taking greater advantage of it? They seem to prefer the shotgun formation when the team has to score and is pressed for time, such as near the end of each half of the game. Why isn’t that good enough the rest of the time, particularly when you have a fairly immobile quarterback playing behind a porous offensive line who needs all the head start he can muster before getting pounded once again?

The Browns’ offense may be a work in progress but it’s perfectly unclear what it’s progressing to. Chud and Turd don’t really know what to do with Weeden and their play calling is the best reflection of that. In other words, Weeden wasn't Chud and Turd’s first choice to play quarterback. For all intents, Weeden is to quarterback on this team as Schwartz and Cousins are to the right side of the offensive line on this team.

But these are really all the details that don’t amount to much difference. The Browns lost this week in very much the same way they lost last week and likely the same way they’ll lose next week. But they have sent a message to their fans and the league. Nothing’s changed in Cleveland including the numbing sameness of it all, again.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Browns: The Numbing Sameness of it All

In the numbing sameness that serves as Cleveland Browns openers, or the Cleveland Browns generally, the only good news was reserved for the delusional.  The rest of the AFC North also lost the first week and thus, technically, the Browns lost no ground except, I suppose, in the wild card race.  So there’s that.

The popular spin following Sunday’s route at the hands of a very, very average Miami Dolphins team was that the defense played well until it was worn down by the amount of time it had to spend on the field on an otherwise beautiful, low humidity first day of the season.  Don’t buy it.

Miami has a boat load of offensive problems and still managed to score 23 points, which isn't much when measured against conventional NFL standards but was 13 more than the Browns could muster.  When you have Buster Skrine in your secondary, your defense can never truly play well.  As Don Criqui said during the touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a wide open Brian Hartline, “the receiver there was able to get separation from Skrine.”  Get used to hearing that, often.  Skrine is barely a legitimate nickel back on an average team.  That he starts for the Browns is the alpha and omega of the team’s myriad of problems.  It lacks players who can make plays (Joe Haden and T.J. Ward come immediately to mind.  There are others.) It lacks depth.  It lacks heart.  It lacks.

As for the Browns offense, which in its awfulness and mismanagement almost made me forget what was happening when the defense was on the field, Sunday proved yet again that until the Browns find a quarterback fans should not tire of being wrong about blaming the defensive breakdowns on the fact that the defense is on the field too much. The offense is that horrible to contemplate.

What the hell were Tom Heckert and Mike Holmgren really thinking when they drafted Weeden anyway?  He’s old by NFL veteran standards, let alone rookie or second year player standards.  And that’s the least of his issues.  If the only requirement to play quarterback in the NFL was the possession of a strong arm, why not resurrect Akili Smith?  For that matter, why didn't offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski just go with his gut and re-sign Derek Anderson?

The best that can be said about Weeden is that he’s not a coach killer.  That is, he’s not the kind of player whose raw athletic skills and occasional flashes of brilliance commit a coach imprudently to spending day and night trying to devise a way to harness that potential into consistent performance until, at least, the coach finds himself out of a job due to poor judgment.

Instead Weeden is simply a middling talent, another in a long line of back up quarterbacks that the Browns have spent the better part of 12 years developing.  He is occasionally strong armed and accurate.  More often he’s strong armed and inaccurate, befuddled by the simplest of defensive schemes and panicked by a blitzing defensive back.

It was said that Weeden was ill suited for the West Coast offense run by former head coach Pat Shurmur and that given Chudzinski’s and offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s track record, this would be a break out year.  It was likewise said the Weeden operates best out of the shotgun, like he did in college.  Both could still be true but I’m skeptical.  Nothing Weeden did in the preseason, including his awful performance in the  third preseason game, or as it’s now officially known, “The Only Preseason Game That Counts,” or in Sunday’s game even hints at significantly better things to come.

Team president Joe Banner, who has spent his entire tenure thus far diminishing anyone’s expectations about the fortunes of his team to the point where it would be easier if he just wore a shirt that says “We Suck. Quit Asking,” said that the new offense is a work in progress and will evolve over the course of the season.  The question is, will Weeden be a part of that evolution?

This isn't a call so much for either back up Brian Hoyer or Jason Campbell so much as it is a reminder that there’s no reason not to play either one or all 3, in the same game, in the same quarter, even in the same drive.  Weeden is no more an established starter than either of Hoyer or Campbell and isn't likely ever to be so what would be the harm?  Or the difference?

There are probably a hundred reasons that the coaching staff can come up with to justify their misplaced confidence in Weeden and to rationalize what was abundantly clear to everyone else.  The right side of the offensive line, with Oniel Cousins and Mitchell Schwartz, was simply incompetent.  Greg Little still channels the decaying ghost of Braylon Edwards as he celebrates routine catches, lets balls go off his fingertips and into defensive backs not named Joe Haden or T.J. Ward hands on difficult ones.  Josh Gordon, in absentia, was talked about as if he was Terrell Owens in his prime.  He may be the team’s number one receiver, but that’s more by default than actual accomplishment.  And of course there’s the bizarre play calling that makes weirdly insufficient use of their best weapon, Trent Richardson.

Chudzinski may claim that the game dictated more passing because they were playing from behind, but that’s just Chudzinski covering for Chudzinski (and Turner). The strong impression was that the Chud and Turd show was hell bent on proving the skeptics wrong about Weeden by forcing a game plan for which the he and the rest of the offense were ill suited to execute.

Consider the evidence.  With just three minutes gone in the fourth quarter, Miami held a 13-10 lead.  They then went on a 5 minute plus drive that extended the lead to 20-10 on a one yard touchdown run.  At that point and only at that point could the case be fairly made that passing was the first, best and only real option.

To that point, though, Weeden had already thrown 35 passes!  Richardson had run a mere 13 times!  I’m using exclamation points because anyone reading this, just as I was writing this, should be both amazed and confused!  Thirty-five freakin’ passes for a team with a wildly inconsistent quarterback and an embarrassing selection of receivers.  It’s pure bullshit, frankly, that the game dictated that kind of massive imbalance between the pass and the run and for Chud to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.  The truth is that Chud and Turd wanted to show how smart they were for believing in Weeden and all they actually accomplished was confirming how ill suited Weeden is to be a starting NFL quarterback.

The NFL can be a difficult game to navigate but it’s not nearly as difficult as its practitioners often imagine.  Richardson looked to be running well early on so naturally Chud and Turd abandoned it like their predecessors.  Look, everyone wants an explosive offense, one that can score on every possession.  That isn't the Browns and doesn't look to be anytime soon.  What’s wrong with shortening the game a bit by running Richardson until it’s nearly beyond question that it isn't working?  If you want to take pressure off a struggling quarterback and a defense that doesn't seen to have the conditioning to withstand even its first game, running the ball would seem the best option.

It’s true that the Browns aren't going to get appreciably better overall until they make better decisions about the talent they choose to employ.  It’s also true that this team won’t get appreciably better until the coaching staff stops thinking they’re the smartest guys in the room.  When you're number one pick is a supposedly elite running back, then just run the damn ball.

Meanwhile fans set giddy by irrational preseason exuberance unaccompanied by any objective reason for it are left with the deadening feeling of collapsed expectations and an anxiety-ridden future.

What do the Browns do with their quarterback situation?  They've been a laughingstock for years with the revolving door that is that position.  But until it’s definitively or at least more positively solved it’s questionable whether the Browns can ever be even a mere playoff team.

The Baltimore Ravens, the Browns’ next opponents, won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer so it’s possible that a strong enough running game and a strong enough defense can paper over the team’s glaring quarterback issues and get to a point where at least it’s not so damn hilarious and depressing to ponder the playoffs.

But even if Chud and Turd go against their collective wont and become more run-oriented in their approach, eventually this team will have to find its own version of Joe Flacco.

Look, there’s reason for hope.  There always is.  It’s just hard to find obscured as it is by the numbing sameness of a team that knows not of success but only of unrelenting disappointment.  It’s going to be another long season.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Lingering Items--Browns Preview Edition

At some point the Cleveland Browns had to sign a kicker.  Billy Cundiff, it’s your turn in the box.  Thankfully they signed Cundiff before Sunday’s kickoff against Miami.  But it was always iffy whether they’d get it done, wasn't it? With the Browns, where hope has been its only strategic plan for more than a decade, it’s never wise to presume anything.

When Joe Banner took over as president of the club, his hiring signaled not just the end of Mike Holmgren (thankfully) but of Phil Dawson as well.  Banner, as curmudgeonly of a sports executive as you’re ever likely to see, doesn't like old kickers, even kickers who have are 7-7 outside of 50 yards the past two seasons.  He doesn't think they’re worth whatever it is to keep them around, even on a team with an offense that tends to stall at the opponent’s 30 and relies on 50+ yard field goals like hookers rely on conventions.

That meant that Dawson wasn't going to be resigned short of agreeing to play for free and maybe that wouldn't even have done it.  Dawson had been the team’s MVP but let’s not get completely wrapped around the axle on that small fact.  It’s not as if this team was top heavy in MVP types in the first place.

So the fact that Dawson was expendable and thus expended and the Browns entered their opening week without a kicker isn't so much what grinds the average fan, though it grinds them still the same.  It’s the fact that the team’s ham handed approach to filling one of the more critical roles on a team that can’t otherwise score reveals that for however hard you might scrub the walls in Berea with the newest, bestest detergent the stench of incompetence doesn't get removed that easily.

I don’t care that Shayne Graham wasn't the answer and rookie Brandon Bogotoy was injured or whatever.  Those things happen.  But cutting them both without having another kicker on the roster?  Is that really how good, efficient, smart teams handle such things?  Would it have killed them to sign another kicker first?  Do they always have to look like boobs in how they go about making and executing personnel decisions?

And while that bit of stupidity made the new regime look like the old one and the one before that and the one before that, the real story of this team continues to be its lack of depth.  That more than anything will keep this team from progressing.

How do we know it lacks depth?  Put it this way: if you cut 7 players in order to get down to the league mandated 53 players and then go ahead and cut 7 more after that just to sign 7 cast offs from other teams it doesn’t say much about the back end of the roster, which is exactly what the Browns did last week.  It also doesn’t say much about the people making the decisions in the first place.

Isn’t all of this what fans were hoping would be avoided when Jimmy Haslam bought the team and with that swept Randy Lerner and Mike Holmgren out of town?

The Browns have 9 undrafted rookie free agents on the roster.  That may be slightly higher than most teams, but not significantly so.  Every team fills out the back end of its roster with undrafted free agents.  It’s the cheapest most efficient way to manage the salary cap.  More broadly, though, well more than half the active roster on this team is first or second year players.   That doesn’t just scream youth.  It screams lack of depth.

The Browns find themselves once again one of the youngest in the league.  The roster turnover was again massive.  There may be better starters on this team then in year’s past, but what separates teams is roster depth.  Starters get injured every game.  In order to compete you have to have experience backing those starters up.  The Browns don’t.  Again.

When you look at the current Browns’ roster, it’s fairly deep on the defensive line and that will certainly help. It has to.  The defensive backfield is thin, New York runway model thin.  That means that Ray Horton’s blitzes have to pay off because as we’ve seen in seasons past, when the defensive line can’t get pressure and the linebackers don’t blitz, Buster Skrine is only marginally better than Buster Bluth.  Joe Haden can’t do it all and T.J. Ward has to stay healthy.

The right side of the offensive line remains in flux and there is no credible running back behind Trent Richardson.  He simply has to stay healthy to mask the gaping deficiency the Browns have at quarterback.  Everyone likes Brandon Weeden’s arm.  But he’s  second tier talent at best, prone to flashes of competence and streaks of incomprehensible decision making.  Weeden’s age isn’t working in his favor, either. Behind him is Brian Hoyer?  Jason Campbell?  Does it matter?  Neither is more than a stop gap, but then again that’s their role.

See the pattern?  For whatever talent lies in the starting line up it serves only to underscore the significant drop off when it comes to the reserves.  Given all this how can anyone expect this team to win more than 5 games?  Certainly Vegas doesn’t.  The over and under for wins is 4.5, and that sounds about right.

Perhaps it will all work out one of these days.  Dumb luck suggests that at some point a winning program has to emerge.  The problem with the Browns though is that they almost purposefully eliminate the chance of luck biting them in the ass by being so dumb about their roster in the first place.

The other thing about the Browns lack of depth is that besides a few free agents to bolster the defense and the drafting of a now injured Barkevious Mingo, the Browns accomplished pressure little this off season, at least in terms of players.

They did, of course, switch out the entire coaching staff and instill new systems on both offense and defense, but from a personnel standpoint this season mostly hinges on the hope that last year’s hope develops.

That’s what makes the nearly unbridled optimism that many fans feel about this team so strange.  The Browns have mostly done a great job at diminishing expectations and yet the fans feel as optimistic as ever.

Part of that is due, of course, to this just being a Browns town.  The other part is the fact that the people who run the Browns are afforded a pass not given to any other team in this town, and perhaps the country.

For me, though, I’m going to trust Banner and company and assume this team is still a massive work in progress.  You simply can’t be as young and inexperienced as this team is and make plans for the playoffs.


In the last decade the Browns have opened at home 9 times.  They have a 1-8 record.  From a purely statistical point of view, that doesn’t given anyone much hope for a victory against Miami this Sunday.

For many teams past performance is not a good indicator of the future.  For teams like the Browns it’s a direct correlation.

Still if you’re looking for a reason, any reason, to have some optimism about the Browns vs. Dolphins, look no further than the notion that every team in the NFL has flaws and gaps. There are no perfect teams just varying degrees of imperfect teams.  It’s just that fans in Cleveland tend to know their team’s problems more intimately than, say, all the various problems plaguing Miami at the moment.

The Dolphins spent big to get receiver Mike Wallace, a speedster with a penchant for occasionally dropping important passes.  Ryan Tanehill was a surprise last year as a quarterback the Browns passed on in order to get 29 year old rookie Brandon Weeden.  But so much of the Dolphins’ success hinges on Wallace becoming the superstar his paycheck suggests and Tannehill taking the next step.  Just substitute the words “Weeden” for Tannehill and “Richardson” for Wallace and it’s hard to distinguish between the potential of the Browns and the Dolphins.

And for most of the season it will be a similar analysis.  Just for giggles, consider this year’s sexy pick, the Cincinnati Bengals.  Maybe they do take the AFC North but doesn’t that depend, really, on Andy Dalton playing even better?  Dalton is a decent quarterback but is he a top tier quarterback?  It’s hard to see the Bengals getting back to 10 wins because, ultimately, water finds its level and if there’s something we know about the Bengals it’s that they are nearly as poorly run of a franchise as the Browns.

You could go down the same road with the Ravens and the Steelers and even the Patriots but as I said, water tends to find its level.  That’s why, again, teams like the Browns, the Raiders and the Jets will end up with a steady diet of Don Criqui and Steve Tasker broadcasting their games.

If you want a question to ponder about the Browns, how about this: How many games will Mingo appear in this season?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Lingering Items--Concussions Edition

Just remember, we live in a cynical world.

The NFL is about to do a massively right thing by pulling out of its huge bank account as much as $800 million to help thousands of former players who are or may begin suffering from the effects of concussions suffered during their playing days.

Reaction to the NFL’s unprecedented concussion lawsuit settlement has been both fast and predictable and cynical.  Where some see it as the NFL doing the right thing others see it as not nearly enough.  Maybe they just can’t comprehend the scope of how big of a settlement pot nearly $800 million really is.  Then there is the predictable group that has decided in the players shouldn't get a thing.  They knew the risks.  We’ll get to that group in a minute.

There’s never been an effective way to place a monetary value on a human life and there never will be.  In that sense, the carping about the size of the payout isn’t a surprise.  Is someone suffering from Parkinson’s deserving of $3 or 4 million?  Is that too much or simply not enough?  Who really can say?

Lost though in this aspect of the discussion is the simple fact that the NFL stepped up and got this massive lawsuit settled in very short order.  With nearly 4,500 plaintiffs in the purported class action lawsuit, the litigation could easily have taken years just to get through the preliminary wrangling without any of the lawyers breaking much of a sweat. Indeed the parties were wrangling over whether the case should be heard in court or by an arbitrator.  A ruling was due and whichever way it went the other side would appeal.  It could have been years before the parties ever got to the merits of the case.

But this wasn't a lawsuit about someone having water in the basement.  There was real suffering by thousands of former players whose brains and lives got scrambled doing the only thing they ever really were trained to do.  The more the litigation promised to drag on, the worse they would get. Many would have died in the interim.  Many already have.  For all the criticism the NFL gets about its supposed indifference to the needs of retirees, from questions about pensions, to health care, to compensation for past injuries, it was instrumental in putting together an unprecedented, complicated, expensive settlement that promises to provide real relief and benefit to the victims of its violent sport.

There are always aspects of any settlement that anyone can quibble with.  For example, one of the criticisms is that the NFL has only committed $10 million of the settlement toward additional research, which in a vacuum seems woefully insufficient.  But the broader picture on that subject is the NFL has funded hundreds of millions in research already, continues to do so outside the context of the lawsuit and is committing even more money to that effort.

There’s no question that the NFL has had a mixed history of dealing with the players who made the league the economic juggernaut it is today.  And there’s no question here that the league had an economic motive to get the case settled.  At the very least the more it dragged on the more likely there would be revelations embarrassing to the league as one of the key allegations in the suit is that the league deliberately hid the medical consequences of concussions  for years from its players. 

But wrangling over the motive to settle is to miss the relative speed with which the NFL will be getting financial relief to those in distress.  The league essentially paid a settlement that is in the range of what it stood to lose in the litigation anyway and so it’s pretty safe to assume that it indeed understood and underplayed the medical impact of multiple concussions.  It’s also pretty safe to assume that it wanted to provide real relief to these players and it has.

There’s never an adequate way to compensate a person financially when he’s otherwise lost the essence of himself through an injury.  It’s unlikely that the thousands of players suffering from the effects of multiple concussions will ever have their medical fates reversed.  But at least the men who find themselves unable to care for their families and the families who are struggling to take care of these men in a dignified way can ease those burdens with a substantial pot of money.  It may be crass but that doesn’t mean it won’t make it easier.
The NFL should be applauded for actually doing the right thing, particularly since the public default tends to be that the NFL never does the right thing.  Could it have done more? Probably.  It also could have done less.  There were lives at stake.   There still are.  At least the sides are united in the common goal of providing for those who sacrificed so much to make so many others rich.


Then there are the “they knew the risks” jerks who feel like the former players really don’t deserve a penny.  Pete Prisco, a columnist of sorts with, leads this pack.  Prisco, aiming for provocation where understanding would be the better motive decided that this settlement was indeed the right moment to make a name for himself at the expense of others by deliberately taking an intellectually dishonest point of view.  He equated the settlement to a money grab by the ex-players who knew the risks of their sport and now, essentially, are suffering as much from buyer’s remorse as anything else.
It’s a crowded platform on the internet.  Columnists are rewarded on the number of clicks they get and so the hot take like the one from Prisco is designed to garner him traffic.  That’s why I won’t provide a link here.  The less clicks, the better.

The retirees’ lawsuit was actually about the very issue Prisco claims was incontrovertible—the known risks of the sport.  Concussions have always been a part of the mix, certainly.  But the science of concussions has evolved over the years as increased research has more definitively established the long term effects of concussions.  When the NFL knew this was a key to the entire lawsuit.  So despite was Prisco says, it isn’t true that the risks of playing football have been known for years other than in a general sense. 
Jackasses like Prisco come and go.  His work on this issue underscores that he would be best sticking to discussing the societal implications of third and long.  Where Prisco didn’t go but could have and maybe should have is to discuss all the players who still have an almost open hostility toward the league’s efforts to make their workplace safer.

Complain all you want about the NFL’s past conduct but you can’t deny the NFL’s strong push in recent years to improve the safety of the sport through literally dozens of rule changes.  These range from rules designed to limit kick returns to changes in equipment, like the mandating of thigh and knee pads, to the outlawing of helmet to helmet hits.

And yet each time it implements a new rule there is the usual reaction from dozens if not hundreds of players that the league is sissifying the sport.  “Why not make it flag football” or “let’s put a dress on them” are the usual, tired reactions from the players.  When a thug like James Harrison deliberately goes out of his way to injure to members of the Browns in the same game and is suspended for it, he tears into the NFL Commissioner and does so with the backing of his teammates and dozens of other players around the league.  It’s simply scandalous that Harrison and his ilk are allowed to remain in the game and perhaps even more scandalous that he and his type aren’t called out on their behavior by their union leaders.
Frankly the players are their own worst enemies when it comes to player safety.  It’s part of the “warrior” mentality that gets ingrained from Pop Warner on forward that they should play in pain and rub a little dirt on the injury.

In that sense it can be a little frustrating to hear about these kinds of settlements, but only in that sense.  Players do bear some culpability for the lifelong effects many suffer from a result of the sport they played.  Players and their union representatives constantly work at cross purposes from the league in terms of player safety.  And while the specific long term effects of things like concussions are still far from being completely understood, there is no question that players today can and should better understand they are involved in an inherently dangerous activity.

That all said, nothing in that equation relieves the league of its duty as an employer to provide a safe working environment for its workers.  Short of banning the sport there probably is no way of making the sport risk free, but that’s not the goal anyway.  The real goal is transparency.  Players are entitled to the full range of disclosures on all the risks inherent in the activities they undertake on the field.  Only then can they truly make an intelligent decision about whether or not to take those risks.


In this context, it’s actually fascinating to read about the travails of Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.  Griffin, after suffering serious leg and knee injuries last season, has been cleared to play in the season opener next week.  Yet according to reports from ESPN, Griffin’s own doctor, the well respected Dr. James Andrew, has strongly suggested that the Redskins are risking further injury to their prized asset by continuing to use him as they did last season.

In other words, Andrews believes that allowing Griffin to be exposed to the constant pounding that a read option quarterback takes will be at the risk of losing Griffin again.  No one much is commenting on whether Andrews indeed made that recommendation though Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan eluded to as much by saying that the team needed to talk to Griffin about the issues related to his medical clearance.
I actually think it’s too cynical to suggest that the Redskins won’t follow Andrews’ recommendations, but those recommendations do put the team and the player in a quandary and it’s just that kind of quandary played out over decade after decade of professional football that eventually leads to the kinds of litigation that the NFL just settled.

Griffiin’s issues aren’t concussion related but they carry significant long term health risks nonetheless. But Griffin wasn’t drafted just to hand off the football or sit back in the pocket.  His strong arm and swift feet are his true stock in trade and when perfectly combined it’s really a thing of beauty to watch.
For Griffin, the long term health risks are well known and established.  He has the transparency to the process that players should have.  But he’ll likely ignore them.  He has a contract to live up to and another to grab down the road.  NFL football represents his best path to lifetime financial freedom.  He’d be better served to reinvent himself as a pocket passer but it carries a tremendous amount of risk as well.  What if it doesn’t work? What if he becomes Derek Anderson? You can see the high level calculus Griffin wrestles with as he confronts these issues and then you start to understand why players put themselves in harm’s way even when they know very specifically that harm awaits them.


The Browns’ lack of depth is once again being exposed as injuries mount during training camp.  Until the depth on the team improves significantly, the record won’t tick up appreciably.  Still, this week’s question to ponder isn’t about injuries: When was the last time a team went through its final cuts and ended up with no place kickers on the roster?