Thursday, November 28, 2013

High Hopes

I suppose one could make the claim that the out of reach theme of the Cleveland Browns, indeed Cleveland Sports, could be High Hopes.  I'm not sure any of the franchises in this town actually dare to reach so far with their dreams.  The Browns seem incompetent by design.  The Cavs were against their head coach before they were for him, again, and the Indians, well, just keep seeing the core of the team that surprised travel elsewhere for market-based wages. 

Then, of course, there's always Bruce Springsteen, not a native son by any means but adopted almost.  Much of his early success outside of New Jersey came in places like Cleveland that always seemed to embrace underdogs.  So in recognition of one consistently high level performer, here's the latest video from Springsteen as he readies his 18th studio album, "High Hopes."  Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving:

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again-Steelers Edition

No one understands better than a Cleveland Browns fan the need, the longing desire, the unattainable dream, to change the narrative of this moribund franchise.  As usual, that will have to wait for at least another year as the Browns finished off their latest crash into the concrete wall that is the Pittsburgh Steelers in their usual spectacularly awful fashion, losing this time by the rather generic score of 27-11 and coming out with the usual bloody nose and busted lip.

There’s a perverse comfort in the numbing sameness that the Browns are on a week by week, year by year basis but it isn't the same as actual comfort.  That comes, if at all, when someone in charge does something about not just the talent level in this organization but its heart.  There is none.  There’s just a sinkhole, ever expanding, ever widening that no one yet has found a way to fill.  It’s why there is no reservoir of emotion to call upon when needed.  There’s just an eternal canyon in this franchise filled at best with the depressing detritus of 14 years of abject futility in the form of owners, coaches, and players come and gone.  Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

There are no words left, really, to describe another Steelers victory over the Browns. How does one exactly go about explaining the same loss in a different way?  Let me try anyway.
In the 30 games these teams have played against each other in the Browns 2.0 era, the Steelers own a 25-5 record and have won 14 of the last 15, which covers nearly 8 years of abject ass kicking.  You can’t have a rivalry if one team won’t participate

Let’s try again.

The Steelers dominated the Browns once again Sunday.  That’s not news.  It’s also not news that the Steelers did so by dominating in the manner that speaks to the essence of the divide between these teams.  The Steelers, struggling in ways that an aging great franchise occasionally does, showed that when necessary it can still play with more purpose, more physicality and more heart than these Browns have ever showed.  It’s still hard to find the right tone.

Ok, focus.  Screw it.  The Browns did what the Browns do which is lose to the Steelers.  The details aren't’t particularly important but here are a few.

First in assessing the team’s performance Sunday consider giving a pass to Josh Gordon on given that he did tied a franchise record for catches in one game, 14, and set another for yards, 237.  That’s nice, it really is.  Not to diminish Gordon’s contribution though, the context is important.  The overwhelming bulk of those yards came long after the Browns and the cold, brave fans had surrendered any hope of making the game competitive.  Still since something should be celebrated once in awhile, let’s at least consider that a sober Gordon is a talent to be reckoned with.  I’d put even money that his first call after the game was to his agent asking exactly when he’d be a free agent so he could go to a team that plays on prime time more than once every two or three years.  Otherwise he has no Pro Bowls in his future.

So with Gordon as the notable exception, let no one rejoice in the mess that the Browns have now put on full display these last two weeks against division opponents.  From opening bell Sunday until the final gun came, mercifully, 4 hours later there was not one thought one could have gleaned about a positive future for this team.

Those looking to the defense as a source of burgeoning pride, look somewhere else.  For much of the season, it had been stout.  The last two weeks, when the season was at its tipping point, it failed.  Sunday the Steelers were able to do if not everything it wanted, then most of it anyway.  True the box score suggests something different.  For example, the Steelers had 85 yards rushing on 34 attempts, which is pretty much where the defense has held most teams this year.  They also had only 217 passing yards.  That’s a pretty low total overall and generally is a hook to hang on to.  It’s just that sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole story.

The Steelers came out in a no huddle offense, which strangely seemed to catch the Browns’ defense off guard.  Running back Le’Veon Bell wasn't necessarily doing any significant damage early but certainly the threat of him seemed to likewise keep the defense off balance.  That gave Ben Roethlisberger enough time to pick and poke at the rest of the defense as if he was carrying a long pole and checking the depths of a pond nearby.  There were little flicks of passes here, an occasional run, and then a deep ball.  Eventually that led to the Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown 41 yard touchdown that more than anything seemed to put the team, not just the defense, in a funk as if they had already surrendered to the cold and accepted that it would be a long, miserable day.

The Browns’ offense was its typical messy self.  There was no running game to speak of even when one ignores the 21 yards debited for the 3 sacks.  The Steelers’ Bell had “only” 80 yards total but the Browns collectively had 76, not including the lost yardage on sacks.  To put a finer point on it running back Chris Ogbonnaya had a fumble for the second straight week that set up the Steelers’ second field goal.

The passing attack was disjointed until, again, garbage time.  Prior to that, Jason Campbell gave what Jason Campbell has, twice.  Knocked out early for one play, Campbell left the second time after a shiv to the chin which led to another turnover.  It caused a concussion for Campbell and a headache for the fans who wanted to see Brandon Weeden about as much as they wanted to see an oral surgeon.  Out came Brandon Weeden, nonetheless, as there are no other alternatives on the roster.

A chorus of boos greeted Weeden unceremoniously.  He probably took it personally but shouldn't.  The fans understand Weeden’s significant limitations as much as they detest the idea of watching a movie again that they didn't much like the two or three other times they sat through.  And just like a movie on continuous loop this one turned out like every previous viewing.  Weeden gave what he had, which was a pick 6 interception and then, later, a 1 yard touchdown pass to Gordon.  Truthfully, he did nothing of note on either side of the ledger, the pick 6 was as irrelevant to the final outcome as the touchdown pass.  His crowning achievement, such as it was, was his steadfast reliance on bolstering Gordon’s stats.    Before that, Weeden was his usual ineffective self leading a team that simply doesn't believe in him.

The players who claimed disappointment afterward about the fans booing Weeden probably shouldn't be so snippy.  They see first hand what Weeden has and hasn't done and they play accordingly.  Fan reaction to that can’t be unexpected.  It’s also not like these same players have done much the last few weeks either.  When it comes to Weeden on Sunday, the best that can be said and all that really should be said is that his ineffectiveness wasn't particularly contributory to the defeat nor notable from that of all his predecessors, the vanquished dozens of quarterbacks before him who have likewise failed to stand up to the Steelers in any meaningful fashion.  Numbing sameness indeed!

It might be nice if one of these Browns-Steelers games was closely contested and perhaps the one in two weeks will be.  But even if a victory does come in Pittsburgh it will be too late to be meaningful.  The Steelers are hanging by a thread anyway having started the season 0-4 and may be out of that thread by the time they meet the Browns again.  If not, then soon anyway.  The Browns on the other hand started the season with few threads and surrendered all they had, obviously, a week ago against the Bengals. This Steelers game was for pride and perhaps that’s why a loss seemingly like all the rest still hurts more than it should.

There’s still several weeks left in the season that the front office gave up on weeks ago.  All of this makes for another cold depressing march, especially for the faithful who cared to purchase season tickets in the eternal hope that the tag line that comes with the solicitation for such tickets, “season ticket holders have priority for playoff tickets,” will for once not be another empty promise.  Not this year and maybe not ever.
This Browns franchise isn't UPS or FedEx.  It’s not even the USPS.  Deadline or obligation be damned. It doesn't ever deliver.

Monday, November 18, 2013

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

Depending on one’s perspective, the Cleveland Browns either never or always disappoint.  For those watching long enough to know which way that particular wind blows, nothing much about the Browns 41-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was particularly surprising or disappointing.

For reasons almost completely untethered from the reality of the environment, the Browns had briefly entered the national conversation about potential playoff teams.  Ensconced in a division that suddenly has gone weaker than the Big 10, the Browns and found themselves near the division lead relatively late in the season while still sporting a losing record, as if.

The headiness of those modestly inflated expectations were well served in a first quarter that featured 3 Browns scoring opportunities and a quick 13-0 lead against a Bengals team that almost looked like it was playing scared, not loose.   The planets realigned in a quick and jarring fashion.

Letting a team score 31 points in any quarter, indeed in any half, in football played at almost any level is a relatively rare occurrence generally reserved for the most obvious of mismatches.  To see it happen at a professional level was stunning.  The level of ineptitude a team must exhibit to allow itself to be tossed about like a Frisbee on a Saturday afternoon in the park is actually hard to describe.  When the final points of Sunday’s second quarter were tacked on by Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent after the Browns frightful punt unit couldn’t contain Adam Jones felt like piling on.  The Browns were finished and they knew it.  So did everyone else.

Remember, too, that this was the Cincinnati Bengals doing the piling on.  The Bengals’ record is better than it should be by virtue of the company they keep within the AFC North.  It will surely continue to improve as they prance their way to a division title that no one else much wants.  That doesn’t mean that this is a good Bengals team.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis may dream of playing in late January but right now there isn’t a playoff worthy team in the whole of the AFC that is worried about the Bengals.  I don’t expect that to change.  The Bengals are simply too average in virtually every aspect of their operations to do much damage to talented or even modestly talented teams, as the Browns 17-6 victory against the Bengals earlier this season attests.

Sadly, the Browns aren’t one of those talented teams.  It’s not so much that the Bengals game exposed the Browns as some have suggested.  It’s more that this Bengals game came at that point in the season where the highs and lows tend to even out.

If you want to be disappointed about something specifically in Sunday’s loss then let it be the absence of any clamoring to have a clearly struggling Jason Campbell, a quintessential nice guy journeyman, replaced by last year’s number one pick.  That’s the kind of disappointment that really lingers.  Teams like the Browns can’t afford to miss on first round picks and when they do they inevitably suffer untimely occasional drubbings at the hands of even lesser lights like the Bengals in subsequent seasons.

This isn’t to say, however, that folks like head coach Rob Chudzinski will be so existential in their analyses.  They already know about the holes.  Chudzinski and his staff need to figure out why his team, which had two weeks to practice, played like it hadn’t practiced in two weeks.

There were the obvious signs early, of course.  The Browns did have that 13-0 lead but it should have been more, much more.

Consider, for example, the sequence that followed running back Chris Ogbonnaya’s 43-yard run.  On a first and goal from the 8 yard line, Willis McGahee got the ball to the 4 yard line.  A penalty then put the ball on the Cincinnati 2.  McGahee was able to get it to the one yard line but then two particularly lousy throws from Campbell made it 4th and goal at the 1 yard line.

Chudzinski, who has not seemed particularly wedded to conventional coaching conservatism most of the season, got married in a hurry.  He clearly cherished early points of a modest amount as paramount to the payoff of a low-risk gamble and kicked the chip shot field goal.  It suggested if anything else that Chudzinski only gambles when the stakes don’t matter.  His Browns were in what he had been told was the most meaningful football game played in these parts in over a half a generation and so he decided that any points were better than none even if an unsuccessful 4th down attempt would have given the Bengals the ball at their own 1. Considering that the two most immediate runs had gained at least 1 yard each, it set the wrong tone.

A similar decision wasn’t necessary a few minutes later when Joe Haden, who played wonderfully now twice against one of the league's best receivers, A.J. Green, had his first interception.  Haden returned it to the 14 yard line but the offense couldn’t move it beyond the 10.  Again, conventional coaching conservatism says to take any points off a turnover, though truthfully but for the Ogbonnaya run the Browns hadn’t shown any ability yet to execute a successful 4th and 6 anyway.  Fourth and 1 a few minutes earlier was far more manageable. The easy call was made in the form of another chip shot field goal attempt and a disappointing 6-0 lead, assuming any lead can be disappointing, was acquired.

What this particular brand of lousy and conservative offense did was to actually provide the bounce, the springboard, to the dizzying 31 point second quarter that the Bengals slapped on the Browns.  As bad as the start was for the Bengals, they had to look up at that scoreboard and think “at least it isn’t as bad as it could be.”  When the half mercifully ended it was the Browns looking up at the scoreboard and thinking “that’s as bad as it could be.”

Though the two blocked punts (one was technically not a block because though it was tipped it garnered 7 positive yards) and the Jones punt return near the end of the half tend to make the game look as though it was a special teams meltdown, what Chudzinski will see as he replays the game over and over in his mind were all the little things, too, that were hallmarks of an unfocused, undisciplined team; things like fumbles, interceptions, false starts and holding penalties.

Even as the game spiraled beyond its control, the Browns never really did much to shake things up, particularly on offense.  Likely the gravity of the game that pushed Chudzinski into a careful, plodding approach had an impact on players like Campbell.

Looking almost nothing like the quarterback who had a better than 100 rating in his last two starts, Campbell repeatedly checked down to receivers hovering near the line of scrimmage.  It was hard to tell whether the Bengals’ secondary was just so good that no receivers could break open (unlikely) or that Campbell was just too scared to take a shot after throwing an early interception (more likely).  Either way there was a point up until about the 74 yard touchdown completion that Campbell made to Josh Gordon early in the third quarter on about as well thrown of a ball as there could possibly be that Campbell was averaging less yards per completion than Jim Brown averaged yards per rushing attempt for his entire career.

To illustrate the point more forcefully, consider that after the pass to Gordon, Campbell attempted 27 more passes the rest of the game.  A grand total of two of those were thrown beyond that series’ first down markers and one of those two were intercepted.  Giving due notice to the two sacks Campbell also suffered, that means that 23 of 27 passes attempted were intended to garner but a few yards vertically and perhaps more only if tackles were broken and one of those passes also was intercepted.  Even with nothing to lose Campbell played as if there was.

Sunday’s game, to the extent it was hell bent on proving anything, was that the Browns are still a franchise very much in the midst of still another transition.  This particular version has already won 4 games which at this point in the season gives it a leg up on the various other versions that were tried but failed.

That is, I suppose, a positive but even as I ponder that thought I’m haunted really by another more disturbing one:  that this franchise’s high water mark is still measured by Romeo Crennel’s 10-win non playoff season of 2007.  With a record that dispiriting how could anyone really feel a lingering sting of disappointment after Sunday?

Monday, November 11, 2013

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

When now former NBA player Jason Collins revealed that he was a gay athlete last year, it was hard, actually, to appreciate the courage it took.  To understand it, no better context exists than the circus that is the Miami Dolphins at the moment.

Richie Incognito, the hulking lineman who seems hell bent on trying to outlive the suggestion his last name would seem to mandate, is a crude, boorish, possible racist with deeply rooted insecurities.  He’s bullied his way through the NFL at various stops and while his behavior at times has caused a few teammates to just shake their heads, it’s always been in the “that’s Richie just being Richie” sort of way.  His past has been his prologue with no seemingly ill effects.

Jonathan Martin is a Stanford-educated second year lineman of some talent who put up with an unceasing amount of verbal crap from Incognito and other “teammates” until he could take it no more.  It seemed mostly related to his status as first a rookie and now a second year player.  He left the team last week and on the way out the door after an unspecified run-in during a team lunch he decided not to go quietly.

The stress of the abuse seemed to overwhelm Martin and by all accounts he has nothing particular in his background that elicited the attacks.  But could you imagine if he did?  Could you imagine if he had been Jason Collins?  Every person has a breaking point.  Yet, since then little sympathy has been generated his way, in particular little sympathy from “teammates” and others ensconced in and vested with the perpetuation of the unique culture of a professional sports locker room and its status as the last bastion of the all boys club.

There’s enough disappointment around about those who have stood silent or defended Incognito at the expense of Martin to fill up a book the size of a typical Stephen King novel.  Others better suited to that exposing that sort of outrage have weighed in.  Personally, though, I was disappointed in Brian Hartline’s reaction.  Rather than come to Martin’s defense or at least add a balanced perspective, Hartline evaluated the politics of the situation and his place in the locker room and came out squarely against Martin.  I would like to think an Ohio State athlete schooled under Jim Tressel would have reacted better than that.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming amount of analysis about this situation inevitably lands at the intersection of jock behavior and NFL culture.  But it’s not just NFL culture for the same kind of abuse takes place not just in NFL locker rooms but in the locker rooms housing male athletes in virtually every athletic pursuit from middle school to professionals all across the country if not the world.  The typical male athlete is infused with arrested development anyway so it shouldn’t surprise that the behavior that starts young carries over to well beyond the point it ceases to make any sense whatsoever.

Most “locker room behavior” isn’t clever.  It’s the same sort of derogatory abuse that picks first at the scabs of the most vulnerable.  Nothing Incognito said or did to Martin, for example, is any cleverer than the towel-snapping and wedgie escapes of high schoolers.  The only thing that’s changed really is the economic status and the physical size of the participants.

Until you can stop and consider this culture for a moment you can’t begin to fathom how difficult it would have been for Collins to be an openly gay athlete during the prime of his career.  Collins may have been wrestling with his own sexuality for years, conflicted by it, tortured by it, but all the while the overhang to the self-analysis was the unforgiving, uncompromising attitudes of his “teammates.”  The chances of acceptance were always slim and that is the real tragedy of the kind of culture that Incognito, Harline and all the others coming to his defense are trying to protect.  Collins, Martin and all the others deserve better.

To an extent, athletes reflect society, but only to an extent.  There is plenty of intolerance these days for anyone the least bit different.  Sarah Palin is on her latest book tour railing against religious intolerance by ginning up for profit a phony War on Christmas supposedly being waged by people who just want the same religious freedom to not have her beliefs mainstreamed on them.  Indeed we’re so accustomed to institutionalized intolerance that middle America is to willing to accept without even a sliver of the outrage we have for Incognito a Congress that wants to deliberately preserve the right of businesses to discriminate against gays and transgenders.

But yet in most workplaces where professional athletes don’t toil, the kind of behavior that Incognito attempted to justify in his shameless Fox Sports interview would never be tolerated. Most workplaces are even well ahead of Congress.  They already outlaw discrimination in any form.  If they didn’t, if they tolerated the abuse of others, productivity would fall at roughly the same rate that liability to a major dollar lawsuit would rise.

For some reason though, Incognito and all those who by word or deed support what he did to Martin are essentially trying to convince the rest of us that professional athletes (any athletes, really) should be held to a much lesser societal norm.  To that a simple question: to what end?

It’s not just the particular abhorrent words that Incognito used to refer to Martin that offend.  It’s the whole approach.  It’s the notion that a co-worker, someone supposedly working just as hard as Incognito to reach the same goal for their employer, should nonetheless be subject to unceasing abuse because of status that offends.  Incognito, quite frankly, is just too stupid to understand that concept.  Listen to his interview again and you’ll see what I mean.  I’d say his agent should be fired for green lighting the interview but an agent with integrity and a sense of decency wouldn’t be associated with Incognito in the first place.

But guys like Jason Collins understand better than anyone what a nitwit like Incognito never will.  It’s the notion that status is irrelevant.  Performance is what matters and those who are offended by status of any kind aren’t just lunkheads but cancers to the goal of the enterprise.  They can’t even see the small irony in calling themselves teammates of a player they can’t tolerate.

I’m not na├»ve to think that this problem is limited to the Dolphins.  I’ve covered sports and have been in plenty of locker rooms.  The fate suffered by Martin, for example, is commonplace.  Women, who make up an ever increasing segment of the working sports press, still get the occasional eye roll and sexist attitude from their subjects.  It’s improved, but it’s not been eliminated.

This is why above all else that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had no choice but to launch an investigation into the Dolphins’ farce.  It speaks to an entire multi-billion dollar enterprise and its own attitudes toward a diverse workforce.  The NFL’s bread is buttered on the backs of its multitude of corporate sponsors, none of which would want to be directly associated with any organization that openly tolerates the kind of conduct Martin exposed.

But Goodell has to do more than just punish the Dolphins and if past is prologue, he will.  Goodell showed an uncompromising approach to the New Orleans Saints that in large measure eliminated an analogous form of misconduct, bounty hunting of opponents, by subjecting it to significant consequence.  That, too, was a behavior initially justified by the supposedly singular nature of the NFL culture.  It was fraud as defense just as Incognito’s explanations are now.  And if, in his investigation, Goodell finds that Dolphins officials and/or coaches helped facilitate Incognito’s behavior then they should suffer a fate similar to that of Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints head coach.

There’s no reason, no good reason anyway, that the NFL or any professional sports team should tolerate an atmosphere where racial slurs, derogatory comments about sexuality or family or friends, should be seen as just part of the bouillabaisse that makes our sports unique.  The Incognito situation can and should serve as a flashpoint for a sea change in behavior.  There are plenty of Jason Collinses in the NFL right now and even more that desire to play professional football but don’t dare dream for fear of the abuse they’d be subject to in the name of preserving an antiquated culture.

It’s time for the NFL to be a leader once again not just for itself but this time for a whole swath of our culture.

Monday, November 04, 2013

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

There's no way, a day after snapping one of the more embarrassing losing streaks in franchise history, to definitively say if the Cleveland Browns are a franchise on the rise.  But after dominating the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, 24-18, there's at least enough reason to believe that this might be the case.

This Browns team at this moment isn't exactly a playoff contender but neither is it the woeful doormat it's been for years. And if that's the only conclusion to draw from Sunday's victory that's still better than the conclusions Browns have been used to drawing on a typical in season Sunday evening.

Are they a team on the rise?  One telltale sign is when it believes that's the case. This Browns team believed, indeed assumed, it would win Sunday and not in a wishful thinking sort of way.  Some of that stemmed from the tough loss it suffered at the Ravens hands in the season' second week, a game it could have or maybe should have won.  Some of that stemmed from the way the Ravens have struggled since that win, struggles that confirm that the various off season financial moves the Ravens endured, including paying quarterback Joe Flacco as if he were Tom Brady, were ill advised. And some of that stemmed from a Browns team that simply seems more energized on both sides of the ball when Brandon Weeden serves as a backup.

The offense, led by a gritty Jason Campbell, set the tone early and closed the door late. It's actually hard to remember when that was the case, particularly with a quality team.  In between those bookends the defense forced the Ravens into a one dimensional offense by taking away any semblance of a running game and forcing Flacco and a modest  set of receivers into roles they are ill equipped to execute even against a defensive backfield as thin as the Browns'.  Flacco was pressured all day, sacked 5 times, and generally had the beleaguered look afterward that Browns fans are used to seeing on the faces of their various quarterbacks over the years. It was satisfying on many levels.

While it never completely felt like the victory was either assured or in doubt, one play that surely tipped the balance in the right direction is the very one that has so completely defined the the troubles of Campbell's backup. It was a desperate flip pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya, the third of the season though the first from Campbell.  Where Weeden looked ridiculous for trying Campbell pulled it off with aplomb and at just the right moment. Combined with the horse collar penalty then Ravens drew trying to tackle Ogbonnaya, the Browns were able to drain the clock of most of its remaining life while setting up a 22-yard Billy Cundiff field goal that forced the Ravens into needing a touchdown from 80 yards away with 14 seconds remaining. That the Ravens didn't even much try was a particularly enjoyable coda to a game in which they never led anyway.

The other play, perhaps the game's biggest, that gives reason to think this team is rising while the Ravens are falling, was the little 3-yard catch by Davone Bess on 4th and one from the Baltimore 43 yard line with 3:12 remaining, the Ravens with a full complement of times outs, and the Browns with merely a 3 point lead. Miss on that play and the Ravens are a couple of first downs away from perhaps tying the game. Campbell was pressured but bought time and eventually found a diving Bess. It was the kind of play that a possession receiver like Bess is supposed to make and the kind of play he couldn't make a week ago. It broke the hearts and minds of the Ravens defense.

Bess had two touchdown grabs in the game, one of which included an impressive 15 yard run after catch and ankle breaking fake on the Ravens' Ladarius Webb who dove to his right at the insistence of a Bess head fake and Bess took his body the other direction and into the end zone. Bess' overall play Sunday was everything it wasn't the week before.

The game served as redemption of sorts, too, for receiver Greg Little, who had one of the best statistical days of his career, 7 catches for 122 yards.  But Little both gives and takes and so it was Sunday as Little cost his offense 30 yards on two stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. He tossed a defender's helmet, apparently because he didn't like the extra curricular push in the pileup and taunted another within ready distance of a referee.  Little has much to learn and he could do worse than befriending Bess and picking his brain.

Campbell's 3 touchdown passes against a team that has bedeviled the Browns for 5 years was a welcome surprise. It's a testament too to the interesting mix of caution and abandon that head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner employ on a weekly basis. Certainly a welcome respite from the stodginess of Pat Shurmur's version of the West Coast offense. Yet the better story of Sunday's win was the play of the defense.

Barkevious Mingo has a chance to be a real rarity in Cleveland, a first round pick that pans out. His quickness is wondrous and even with just a handful of games to his professional resume teams are specifically scheming against him and with very mixed results.  The presence he brings to the defensive line, along with an increasingly stout Phil Taylor, combined to make both Flacco and running back Ray Rice's Sunday miserable. Rice played like Trent Richardson but with even less burst. Had Flacco not scrambled for 25 yards while as he was trying to escape a constantly pursing defensive line the Ravens rushing total might have looked like Michigan's did against Michigan State on Saturday.

If teams weren't convinced before Sunday's game, they are now.  The Browns are a difficult defense to run on and are one of but just two teams to not give up 100 yards rushing to any one opposing player.  That's a worthy accomplishment 9 games into the season.

The Browns' defensive backfield, as thin as any unit in the league, had just as good a day Sunday as the defensive line.  Outside of Joe Haden's fingertip interception, it wasn't a particularly loud day but that's what made it so good.  There weren't any particular instances where Buster Skrine, for example, found himself with his back to the quarterback chasing a receiver.  Skrine's improving, likely, but it's clearly aided by a defensive front that can pressure an opposing quarterback.  But before we celebrate too much let's remember that a few more good quarterbacks await in the season's remaining 7 games before we can draw any particular conclusions about Skrine's long term prospects.

As for the Ravens, it was fun and just on Sunday to watch a team struggle on offense the way the Browns usually do, particularly since it was Baltimore's lost offense. Watching one Baltimore drive after another fail for every different reason was the real treat, certainly on par with watching the Steelers get taken to the woodshed by the Patriots on Sunday.

Flacco played Sunday like he's regressed since securing a big contract.  The Browns' defense was no small part of it Sunday but so too is the lack of talent around him at the moment.  Whatever Derek Anderson-like lightning in the bottle that Flacco caught in last year's playoffs has disappeared just as quickly as it did for Anderson.  Maybe he finds it again but he'll need a better supporting cast for that resurrection.

Certainly the Baltimore fans must be miserable as they watch the downfall of a team that just months ago was Super Bowl champs.  To that I just say, “welcome to the party.  I hope you remembered to bring the cupcakes.”

After 9 games, the Browns finally draw a bye week and for once it's not filled with the kind of intrigue centered around another potential regime change.  Chudzinski for now looks like exactly the right hire.  He's quirky without being odd.  He's willing to take chances especially of the high risk variety when his team otherwise has nothing to lose.  The players seem to like him but more importantly respond to him. In baseball terms, where Shurmur was Eric Wedge, Chudzinski is Terry Francona.

The latest word out of Berea is that Campbell has sore ribs after having the full weight of Haloti Ngata fall on him in a somewhat questionable fashion.  Ngata is quite acquainted with less than ethical play so his relatively late pancaking of Campbell after he already was down remains questionable.  But in the body of work that is Ngata's, it doesn't make the list of his top 50 offenses.  Campbell will have several days to recover, which is a good thing.  Because when this team has looked most on the rise is when it has had the benefit of anyone but last year's number one pick behind center.