Monday, December 30, 2013

Same Old Browns, Indeed!

Just because there was much to answer for doesn’t mean that much would actually be answered for.  It’s the Cleveland Browns, after all, the team that perennially overpromises and underdelivers.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and club CEO Joe Banner stood before a group of incredulous Cleveland-based reporters on Monday and spoke from the usual script such types speak from after they’ve just fired a head coach.  They talked about needing to improve.  They talked about understanding the fans’ frustration.  They talked about making sure they get the next hire right.
What Haslam didn’t talk about was why Banner isn’t being held accountable for first gushing over his hire of Rob Chudzinski less than a year ago and now trashing him as if he was the worst hire since, I don’t know, Eric Mangini?  Pat Shurmur? Butch Davis? Chris Palmer?
Another thing Haslam didn’t talk about was why he has such confidence that Banner is the right guy to lead the search for another head coach.  On the scale of wrong decisions, which is worse? The decision to hire Chudzinski or the decision to fire him?  Haslam didn’t talk about that, either.
Haslam, all square jawed and serious, came across as sincere but aloof.  For a supposedly smart businessman, assuming you put aside the major legal mess his business is in, Haslam struck just the wrong tone just as he was thinking he was hitting all the right notes. 
Particularly wrongheaded was his supposedly “candid” admission that Browns fans have a right to be skeptical at this point.  Haslam has a lot to learn.  These fans aren’t skeptical as that would imply some deep held belief that this team, despite its stumbles, still possesses the ability to “get it right.”
These fans simply don’t believe a word they’re told and no amount of Haslam prostrating himself on the altar of candidness is going to change that.
And what of Banner, who admitted because he had to that he really doesn’t have an appreciation for all the fertilizer these fans have been fed for years?  For his account Banner wasn’t into taking the responsibility for singlehandedly setting this franchise even further back than the several miles it already trailed the rest of the league.  Instead, he was much more about furthering a narrative that fans should applaud the boldness of the move to replace a head coach so quickly after he was hired.
The sad part of it all is that Banner really believes that the fans should be happy that he took the action now instead of waiting another season before the true awfulness of the hire revealed itself.  If you accept the underlying premise, that the hiring of Chudzinski was an awful mistake, then there’s something to be said for his manner of thinking. 

What’s lost in Banner’s thinking is that fans don’t accept his premise especially when he won’t accept even for a moment the perfectly reasonable but counter premise that it’s difficult to assess Chudzinski’s performance given the awful mess he inherited and then had thrown at him by the front office as the season wore on.
This really is the nub of the issue and why the divide between the Browns fans and the Browns front office has never been greater.  The fans who stayed with this team for the entire year simply don’t accept that this roster was capable of showing improvement week over week.  They saw all that Banner did to sabotage the team this season in favor of a better showing in 2014 and then rightfully wonder why suddenly it’s Chudzinski that has to be held accountable for that decision instead of getting the chance to coach a theoretically better team in 2014.

Banner said that it was fair to hold Chudzinski accountable for the lack of improvement as there were at least 3 other teams in the NFL that were in similar circumstances as the Browns entering the season and yet found a way to make the playoffs.  He wouldn’t offer up who exactly he was referencing so we’re left to speculate.
It isn’t that hard, but I could only find two.  The only NFL playoff team with a rookie head coach is the Philadelphia Eagles led by the guy that Banner wanted and couldn’t get, Chip Kelly.  On the surface, it looks similar.  The Eagles were 4-12 in 2012 and 10-6 this season.  But the Eagles also have two guys, quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy, on their roster that are better than anyone on the Browns playing similar positions. 

Even more to the point, the reason that Kelly went to Philadelphia instead of Cleveland is that he could assess the rosters of each and determine which held the bigger upside.  The Eagles’ 4-12 season in 2012 was an anomaly.  It was their first losing season in 6 years.  The Browns’ 5-11 season was the continuation of a long pattern.  Couple that with the fact that Andy Reid, who was fired at season’s end, was saddled with significant family problems that kept him distracted and suddenly things get a little clearer.  It didn’t take a genius, it didn’t even take Kelly, to see that the Eagles were simply a team that had temporarily lost its way while the Browns were a team that was simply lost.
I suppose Banner could have been referring to the Kansas City Chiefs who were 2-14 in 2012 and 11-5 this season.  Like the Eagles, the Chiefs have two players, quarterback Alex Smith and running back Jamaal Charles, that are better than anyone on the Browns playing similar positions.   The Chiefs also did something in the offseason that Banner refused to do.  They signed a credible starting quarterback in Smith.  Banner stood pat with Brandon Weeden and brought in Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer as the backups.  Finally, the Chiefs hired one of the most experienced and successful head coaches in the league in Andy Reid.  Banner could have made a run at Reid or Smith and didn’t.

In other words, Banner isn’t just wrong he’s disingenuous when he suggests that Chudzinski should be held to at least the standards of Kelly and Reid this past season.
Usually when a coach gets fired he carries a scarlet letter at least for a few seasons.  That probably won’t apply to Chudzinski.  No one in the league holds the Browns in high regard or respects their decision making abilities.  And that, actually, is why it will be so hard for the Browns to improve.

Banner was asked why anyone would want to come to this franchise given the shabby treatment Chudzinski endured.  Banner brushed the question aside by talking about his track record with Reid, suggesting that it was an act of abject courage to stick with Reid after he went 5-11 his first season without mentioning that this was two wins better than the previous season.  He then made vague reference to Haslam’s track record at Pilot Flying J forgetting to mention how quickly Haslam hired and then fired within a matter of months the CEO of Pilot Flying J.
Banner can brush aside such questions and be so convenient with the truth because he knows that someone will take the job as head coach of the Browns.  There are plenty of desperate coaches out there who want to add NFL head coach to their resume even if it’s with the league’s worst run franchise.

What Banner can’t so easily set aside is that the chances of his “getting it right” with the next hire comes down to dumb luck.  Banner ended up with Chudzinski because the guy or guys he wanted (Kelly, perhaps Bill O’Brien) turned him down. He’ll end up with the next iteration of Chudzinski this time, too.  A good coach with options, and there are plenty of better openings available, would never consider the Cleveland job on simply its merits.  It’s not just the mess of a roster.  It’s the mess of a front office and an ownership that is still under federal investigation.  It will take above market money and a long term guaranteed contract and even that may not be enough.  Not everyone chases the last dollar.
Haslam bristled when it was suggested that his team is being run by the Three Stooges.  If only.  At least the Three Stooges drew laughs for the right reasons and always landed on their feet.  These stooges just draw derisive laughs and keep falling on their backsides.  Haslam also said that it galls him when the media writes that it’s just the same old Browns.  He better get a higher gall tolerance.  Nothing that came out of the press conference gave any one any reason to expect anything more than the same old Browns.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Chud is Done Edition

In a manner totally befitting the random, callous way that the Cleveland Browns operate, Rod Chudzinski was fired after one inglorious year.   

They did it first by dropping the rumor in the media a few hours before the Browns were scheduled to suffer their annual year-end beat down at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  They then left Chudzinski dangling at game’s end by issuing a press release in which they deliberately refused to end the speculation.  They finished the job sometime after the game, informing Chudzinski Sunday night telling him, undoubtedly, that the organization was moving in a different direction.

The problem of course is that this organization never moves in a different direction.  If there is one thing that’s clear, it’s that the Browns are committed to the same losing path year after year.  Occasionally they change out the tour guide in the misguided hope that the previous one was the problem.  It hasn’t worked yet.
This organization has never been able to honestly look itself in the mirror and the firing of Chudzinski simply continues that disturbing pattern.

Chudzinski deserved better and had every reason to think that when he was hired, he would receive better.  So did the fans.

The suggestion that somehow Jimmy Haslam, the new owner of the Browns, was going to come in and do something different came with the implication that different meant better.  Given how low this franchise had sunk, it was almost unthinkable that different could mean worse.  And yet it’s exactly where things stand after still another miserable, lost season.

Given how many coaches have cycled through this franchise without the benefit of a decent front office that could identify and secure talent, Chudzinski’s fate doesn’t surprise.  Nor will it surprise in a year or two when still another coach is fired and another is hired.

This is the essence of the numbing sameness of the Browns.

When he was vying for the necessary votes to become a NFL owner, Haslam spent time cozying up with 
NFL royalty like Bob Kraft to uncover the secrets of doing things right.  It was apparently just for show or he just didn’t listen.  His first hire, Joe Banner, brought with it the illusion of credibility when in truth Banner carries himself with all the personality and darkness of Dick Cheney, but with half the charm.

Banner then went ahead and brought in someone with even less credibility, Mike Lombardi, to make personnel decisions.  Lombardi has always been long on mouth and short on accomplishment.  At least he has some self-awareness.  Recognizing exactly how little he’s thought of around these parts, Lombardi stayed off the radar screen, confining his machinations behind the scenes. Just as incompetent, just not as visible. 

Together Banner and Lombardi went through a process, less exhaustive apparently than advertised, to land on Chudzinski, a decent NFL lifer waiting to take the next step in his career.  Banner and Lombardi flirted with Bill O’Brien and Chip Kelly but got nowhere.  Kelly in particular seemed to string the Browns along until he could secure a better offer from a more stable franchise.  That led to Chudzinski’s hiring.
How exactly they went about making the decision to hire Chudzinski deserves some significant scrutiny in retrospect.  It’s hard to imagine why Lombardi and Banner agreed to hire him in the first place.  What did they think they saw then that turned out to be so incredibly wrong less than a year later?  Maybe more to the point, given how poorly they botched the last hire, why should anyone, including Haslam, trust them with that kind of decision again?

This isn’t at all a knock at Chudzinski.  Indeed it’s difficult to know exactly what he does or does not bring to the table given how poorly Lombardi performed his job this season. 

It wasn’t Chudzinski that saddled this team with Brandon Weeden for another season.  It wasn’t Chudzinski who left only two healthy quarterbacks on the roster once Brian Hoyer went down.  It wasn’t Chudzinski who traded away Trent Richardson and then left the team without a NFL caliber running back.  Chudzinski didn’t draft Barkevious Mingo or sign Paul Kruger.  Chudzinski didn’t deliberately decide not to upgrade the secondary, trade this year’s second and third round picks or keep the team some $24 million under the salary cap. These land squarely on Lombardi’s lap and, by proxy, Banner’s.

All of these decisions and non-decisions led directly to the results on the field so naturally it makes sense that Chudzinski would lose his job.  It wouldn’t surprise if Banner and Lombardi get a raise in the process.
In the context of Lombardi and Banner, the decision to fire Chudzinski makes sense.  It’s the best way, really, to deflect from their own misdeeds, starting with the flimsy hiring process they undertook and culminating with the firing they engineered.

What is harder to understand is why Haslam is letting all this happen.  Even Barak Obama thinks Haslam is having a bad year. 

Haslam vowed to be a full time owner and removed himself from the CEO position of his little family 
enterprise, Pilot Flying J truck stops just to make that point.  He bought a house in Bratenahl.  He was going to be visible.  Hardly.  In what should now be considered foreshadowing, Haslam almost immediately pushed aside his new CEO and took back the reigns.  He’s less visible in Cleveland than LeBron James.  Let’s just say that loyalty isn’t his strong suit.

Then Haslam saw his business engulfed in a major legal scandal that started with a FBI raid and has thus far resulted in a number of convictions of former employees.  Haslam has denied any knowledge of the illegal skimming operation but unquestionably his mostly family owned company benefited from it.  Most of this season has been spent by Haslam paying back customers who were victimized by the skims, navigating dozens of lawsuits, and doing what he can to make sure he doesn’t end up in front of a criminal court himself.

All in all, it’s been a pretty distracting year for a rookie owner.  Banner and Lombardi don’t lack for savvy and the manner in which they’ve hung Chudzinski out to dry as if he’s the problem shows exactly how they’ve been able to exploit Haslam’s situation to bolster their own standing within the organization while continuing to keep the Browns ensconced as the embodiment of franchise malpractice. 

Everyone understands that as owner Haslam has every right to hire and fire anyone he wants.  It is likewise his prerogative to put clowns like Banner and Lombardi in positions of authority and defer to them.  Similarly, if said clowns have become convinced that Chudzinski isn’t ever going to be successful as a head coach, then it’s there duty to stop a failed experiment as soon as possible instead of fiddling for another year as Mike Holmgren did with Eric Mangini.  But it’s hard to fathom exactly how Banner and Lombardi could become so convinced so quickly that Chudzinski, the man they hired, was such a mistake just as it’s hard to fathom how Haslam could so easily sign off on that without holding either of Banner or Lombardi accountable for that mistake.

Chudzinski wasn’t able to eke out any better results than any of the other Browns coaches who have come before him but the manner in which Chudzinski fell out of favor so quickly still stuns.  This Browns team was terrible.  It lacked both talent and character.  I suppose Chudzinski is being held accountable for the lack of pride with which this team went about its business this last month or so but, again, who drafted these players?  Who constructed the final roster?  Chudzinski’s fingerprints aren’t on either of those.

I guess the Browns are rebooting again but the better question is why they are even bothering to reboot.  That suggests that the systems in place are fine; they just need to be restarted to get rid of whatever bug was plaguing it at the moment.

The truth is and has been that the systems are completely broken and need to be eradicated and replaced.  This franchise doesn’t need a reboot, it needs a complete change.  Haslam promised that when he stepped into Randy Lerner’s ill-fitting shoes and simply hasn’t delivered.   What he has delivered is warmed over misfits like Banner and Lombardi who collectively have botched almost every decision they’ve faced since they were hired.

This franchise will not be fixed with a new head coach.  It won’t be fixed with another mediocre draft.  It won’t be fixed with a few free agent signings.  It won’t be fixed until someone finally gets fed up and puts an end to the circus. 

What we learned this Sunday are two things.  First, don’t count on Banner or Lombardi to save this franchise.  They’ve more than proven that their interests are purely parochial.    Survival first, last and always.

Second, we learned today how much in common Browns fans really do have with the trucking companies suing Pilot Flying J.  At the roots of each group’s frustration is that they put their faith in Jimmy Haslam and walked away feeling as if their pockets were just picked clean.

Monday, December 23, 2013

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

There is a point in every team’s season, it doesn’t matter the sport, doesn’t matter if the athletes are paid, where it becomes clear that ultimate success will not be achieved.  What separates good organizations from the bad is how their players respond in those circumstances.

In the NFL the Cleveland Browns have written most of the current chapters in the book on seasons played without consequence.  Everyone following the team should be well used to that.  Still, the seasons disappoint not just because of the results but because of what this franchise lacks institutionally.  It isn’t just a winning attitude.  It’s a sense of pride, a sense of purpose, a sense that its athletes share a common reason for getting out of the bed in the morning to try and accomplish something that may be beyond your physical talents.

Losing does beget losing and athletes are only human.  But that still doesn’t serve as any excuse for the way this Browns team went about losing against the Jets on Sunday, 24-13.  It laid bare to whatever New York audience cared to watch that this franchise lacks any sense of pride.  The team played without a sense of urgency, passion or pride.  It was mentally already in the offseason.  Head coach Rob Chudzinski may have shown the appropriate anger afterward, but the vastness of the charge that lays before him in instilling a larger sense of purpose in this group must seem nearly insurmountable.  It has proven that way for everyone that’s come before him.

The Browns had a chance Sunday to win for the first time since early November as they entered the fourth quarter.  Then again, that’s a sentence that could have been written for each game in the last month.  And like each game in the last month the Browns did what the Browns do.  When a play needed to be made, on offense or defense, those being well compensated to do just that instead barely went through the motions.  In the end, the defense collapsed and the team lost.

The Browns do all the big and little things it takes to be a bad team, so you have them that.  If there’s a 3rd and 7 to face, an indifferent linebacker looking to avoid contact and injury will lose the slot receiver over the middle and give up a completion for 8 yards.  If 2 yards are needed for a first down, the offensive will get one.  If the offense is first and goal a lineman will commit a false start.  Wide open receivers will drop balls in the end zone.  Play calls will get botched.  Time outs will get taken at the wrong time.  There’s almost no aspect of the game that this Browns team can execute.

It really does come down to a lack of pride.  What others franchises build around, the Browns treat like a staph infection to be avoided.  It’s not that the players quit on Chudzinski.  It’s worse.  They quit on themselves.

Consider just this little stat: Four times the offense was in the red zone on Sunday and only once did it come away with a touchdown.  One time it came away with nothing.  The other two were chip shot field goals because, well, it simply isn’t good enough and doesn’t care enough to do anything more.

It’s not as if the Jets were a model of efficiency, either.  In the first half alone they tried two gimmick plays that were laughable in their ineptness.  One was a fake punt that involved an underthrown pass to a receiver who fell down without anyone around.  Another was a wildcat-based end around that lost 11 yards.  But awful, like water, find its level and on the pecking order of awfulness the Browns deliberately don’t care how low they can sink. 

When a team is this bad and has such little integrity in terms of how it goes about its business of performing for its fans it’s like knocking bowling pins down in an alley where the gutters have cushions to find the telling examples.  Almost every critical play on Sunday served as its own specific microcosm of the season, of the last 10 + seasons.

Consider first the series that followed the Jets’ goofy and unsuccessful fake punt.  The Browns had the ball on the Jets 43 yard line.  The offense then ran off 13 plays and still only covered 34 yards.  True, they were victimized by Greg Little dropping the ball after being wide open for what would have been a touchdown, but that’s what Greg Little does.  He hasn’t caught a meaningful pass all season.  He could be the poster child for the “mail it in” attitude that permeates this team.  The 15th game is no time for him to find religion.  Look at the bigger picture.  The offense ran 13 plays and only got to the Jets 9 yard line before Billy Cundiff’s field goal gave the Browns a 3-0 lead.  I doubt you could find a longer series in the league this season by any team, including the Browns, that went for less yards and didn’t involve a turnover.  It’s almost an impossible accomplishment.

Consider next the series where the Browns were parked on the Jets’ two yard line and used 4 plays to gain zero yards. (The official play by play suggests the Browns’ gained a yard.  The official scorer was being generous.) That phantom one yard came on a first down run.   The next three plays featured ill-conceived passes and no points Chudinski can’t be faulted for using all four downs.  He can be faulted for not overruling offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s play calls.

That series doesn’t illustrate the ineptitude enough?  Then how about with the Browns trailing by 7 midway through the fourth quarter and in the midst of moving the ball on the ensuing drive? It was at that very moment when pride can push a team through.  Not this team.  It has none.

On first and goal from the 6 yard line, Edwin Baker gained four yards to, you guessed it, the Jets 2-yard line.  On second down, some tight end no one’s ever heard of and I’m going to keep it that way (Ok, Gary Barnidge) false started, pushing the ball back to the 7 yard line.  One terrible pass by Jason Campbell and one dump off pass to get the ball back to the 2 yard line forced the Browns to settle for the chip shot field goal.

And if that doesn’t do it, then the fully expected, completely inevitable defensive collapse on the very next drive should do it.  Again, it was a test of pride and again the lack of same was on display.  On their way to the touchdown that would officially put the game out of reach, the Jets converted four third downs.   That final conversion was a 17 yard scramble for God’s sake by Geno Smith, the second worst quarterback in the league.  (If you have to ponder for a moment who the worst quarterback in the league is, then stop reading now.  Just stop.  You live in a bubble that doesn’t receive whatever broadcast signal shows Browns games on a weekly basis.)

The final measure, though, was the late garbage time interception Campbell threw to Ed Reed.  It had no impact on the game.  It had more of a historical flavor if only to demonstrate that nothing changes even as everything does.  Reed could be wheeled out on a gurney 10 years from now against whichever of the next 21 quarterbacks the Browns will cycle through over the next 10 years and still get an interception against this team.

In terms of what else happened in the game, ask yourself whether or not it really matters and then tell yourself it doesn’t because it doesn’t.  Campbell was the epitome of his 9 year journeyman career.  Some good plays, lots of bad plays and the overall inability to lead a team that desperately is in search of anyone to lead them anywhere.

While nothing that happened in the game qualified as a surprise, the question Chudzinski needs to ask defensive coordinator Ray Horten is how, exactly, has he gone about preparing his charges.  Horton bragged a month ago about how well his defense was playing, results notwithstanding.  He had a pile of statistics to prove his point.  As Jim Bouton once said, “tell your statistics to shut up.”

Horton’s defense has done little the last several weeks to justify his misplaced braggadocio..  You could pick nits about a secondary without Joe Haden but it’s not like the defense was playing well with him.  Besides, the secondary has always been the weak link of the defense.  That was true in week one and is just as true in week 15.  Bad players don’t get good just by playing more and no team can be armed with Buster Skrine and Leon McFadden and expect to stop anyone, including  Dave Nelson, a receiver who wasn’t even good enough to make the Browns’ pitiful team.

The real issue against the Jets, as it was against the Bears a week before, was the incredibly lousy play of the defensive line.  Forget about the healthy chunks of yardage they were giving up on the run against very average Jets’ backs.  Focus instead on the complete lack of pressure they got on Smith.  He wasn’t sacked once.  To give you an idea of how embarrassing that is, Smith has been sacked 47 times this season, or more than 3 times per game.   In fact, it’s hard to find an offensive passing statistic that Smith isn’t last or close to last in the league. 

Going into Sunday’s game Smith had the worst completion percentage, the fewest touchdown passes, the second most interceptions, the worst interception percentage per pass thrown, the worst adjusted passing yards per attempt (which takes into account interceptions) and the worst quarterback rating in the league. (Maybe he is the worst quarterback in the league.   Memo to self: email Mike Lombardi and see if the Jets want to trade for Brandon Weeden.)  But on this particular Sunday the Browns treated Smith like he was Peyton Manning.  Unable or unwilling to apply any pressure, even a hack like Smith can play as he did in college.  He completed 20 of 36 passes, had two touchdowns and gave up no interceptions.

Horton should be embarrassed and probably is.  The defense should be embarrassed but probably isn’t.  There have been some low points for this franchise over the years making it very hard to discern between the dozens upon dozens of putrid performances.  But the effort against Tampa Bay a few weeks ago and Sunday’s effort against the Jets were something special all together.  Teams with pride have awful games.  Teams without pride have awful existences.

There’s one final game of the season and it is the annual last game beat down against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Neither team will be playing for anything but that won’t stop the Steelers from pushing the Browns around, just because they can.  The Steelers are still a proud franchise.  The Browns are a franchise that couldn’t spell proud if you spotted them the p, r, and u.  As they know, as we all know, you need a an “o” and a  “d” and this team doesn’t have either one.

Monday, December 16, 2013

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

The temptation, of course, is to slap a new headline on last week’s story and call it a day.  That’s basically what the Cleveland Browns did on Sunday, losing in inglorious fashion once again, this time to the Chicago Bears, 38-31.

There wasn't anything particularly new to report, the details of this particular loss irrelevant.  Suffice it to say that the Browns blew a lead as the defense collapsed. Gee, when have I written that before?  Oh year, nearly every freakin' week.

So if the manner in which the team lose is irrelevant was there anything of relevance to ponder?  Yes.  If you’re looking for meaning in a cold city with a cold stadium and an even colder season then it is that this team continues to lose, that it continues to lose with such regularity in fact that it is threatening to undermine whatever fan base remains.

Watching the Browns lose again on Sunday in much the same manner as their other 10 losses this season, I wondered whether even the players get bored losing in the same way each week.  Either they have the deepest reservoir for absorbing boredom imaginable or they aren't bored at all.  No matter.  They are, sadly, still losers.

A defensive collapse by this team isn't news this season or any season.  It’s just what they do irrespective of the players, irrespective of the coaches, irrespective, really, of who they are playing. Maybe losing like this is habit forming as D’Qwell Jackson suggested after the game.  Maybe it just doesn't matter.  When you’re playing out another string in another meaningless season does the manner in which your next loss happens really matter?  It does but only if you’re earnestly trying to improve.

Feel free to make the case that this Browns team isn't the worst team the front office has put on the field in recent years. I’ll readily concede that this team seems more talented than in previous seasons as long as you readily concede that your point notwithstanding the results still aren't any different.  That is the numbing sameness of it all in a nutshell.

The problem with this team since its reintroduction into the league until this past Sunday starts with the quarterback and flows from there.  It’s almost hard to fathom that the Browns are no closer to having a good serviceable quarterback than at this same point during its first in 1999.  That is institutional incompetence as practiced at the highest level of professional sports.

Without a quarterback that the team or the fans can believe it, there's little to rally around.  A strong defense can win you a few games.  Perhaps your hack quarterback can do likewise occasionally.  But there is no end game except the unfulfilled belief in the results of next year's draft.

In Sunday’s New York Times sports section there was an article pondering whether the Jets, whom the Browns play this coming Sunday, will follow the same path of the Carolina Panthers and once again try to draft a franchise quarterback.  The Panthers, as most recall, drafted Jimmy Clausen late in the first round in 2011 only to watch him perform like a baby-faced Brandon Weeden.  In 2012 they conceded their mistake just one season into the experiment and drafted Cam Newton and now find themselves, in Newton’s second season, as one of the better teams in the NFL.  In doing that they did what most teams won't even contemplate—cutting losses instead of grasping to the thin reed of the potential you saw in the player when you first drafted him.  NFL quarterback may be the toughest position in professional sports but that doesn't mean that conclusions can't be drawn after a season.

This past season the Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round.  He’s been awful in the way that only an unprepared rookie quarterback could be awful.  Think Akili Smith and you’you've essentially captured the awfulness of Geno Smith.  The Jets face the issue of whether to cut bait with Smith, just like the Panthers did with Clausen.

The Browns of course faced this issue last off season and punted, which is why Weeden started the season.  Now deep into Weeden's second season, there can’t be anyone in Berea that believes he’s a viable, reliable NFL starter.  The game just hasn’t slowed down enough for Weeden and who knows if it ever will.  Meanwhile the Browns continue to have a quarterback problem and they need to continue to turn over every rock, spend every high draft choice they have, until one is found.   Quit using hope as a strategy.

The Browns don’t need a “franchise” quarterback, for whatever that even means at this point.  They just need a guy who can consistently and efficiently manage a game, minimize mistakes and get the ball where it needs to be.  Maybe that is asking a lot. No matter.  Until that quarterback is found, the Browns will remain stuck on 4 to 5 wins a season.

Look at it this way.  In their 15th season since re-entering the league, the Browns are averaging just over 5 wins a season.  The franchise has had just two winning seasons overall.  The common denominator is the lack of a quarterback.  The correlation is near perfect.

Which brings us back to Sunday’s game.   Those brave few that continue to watch know what happened.  The defense had another, yes another, monumental 4th quarter collapse that gave the Bears 21 points, the last of which was on a 40 yard touchdown run.  This continues to be a major problem with the team but let’s also be fair: it’s not as if this collapse spoiled fine play on the offensive side of the ball.

Jason Campbell didn't lose the game.  But where he failed is where every other similarly situated Browns quarterback has failed.  He can’t win a game on his own.  He doesn't have the presence and doesn't have the skill to lift a team’s spirit and push it forward in the tough moments of a game.  He’s in very fitting company with all the other ones who have tried and failed in a Browns uniform.

Sunday Campbell helped put together a decent first drive but he couldn't finish, a consistent theme on both sides of the ball.  Campbell did throw a 43-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining.  The Bears were up 14 points.  In other words, it was garbage time.  What Campbell was able to do, once, was put together a drive that mattered that resulted in the Edwin Baker 2-yard touchdown run.

Is this all Campbell’s fault?  Of course not.  The holding penalty on Shaun Lauvao early in the fourth quarter negated a nice run by Chris Ogbonnaya that had taken the ball deep into Chicago territory.  The penalty ultimately pushed the Browns back far enough where they had to punt.  If that penalty doesn't happen, maybe the Browns go in for the touchdown and maybe they go up 14, just like a week ago.  But given Campbell’s play, there’s at least as much reason to think that the Browns end up getting another field goal, at best.  At worst, he throws an interception.

Either way, it was still on the defense to help make a paltry lead stand.  It was at that point where my future son-in-law leaned over to me and asked me if I thought the Browns could seal the deal for once.  How do you think I answered?

As if on a timer, the defense then collapsed.  The capper was not the Michael Bush 40-yard touchdown run.  That was icing on a cake that was fully baked.  Once the Bears had overcome the deficit and gone up by 7, the defense was waiving the flag of defeat.  It might be they lacked confidence in Campbell and the offense.  It might be that they lacked confidence in themselves.  It was probably both.

The capper was the 45-yard improbable touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.  What was remarkable was the fact that Cutler threw the ball in the first place.  He saw Jeffery seemingly well covered by Tashaun Gipson and Julian Posey and still figured “why the hell not?”  Why the hell not indeed.

Gipson seemed perfectly positioned in front of Jeffery.  It didn't matter.  Gipson jumped and missed and the ball landed perfectly in Jeffery’s arms.  Give Jeffery credit for good concentration certainly but that play, more than any other this season, succinctly documented this team’s massive defensive shortcomings.

Safety T.J. Ward, who had a fumble recovery for a touchdown, said that the team won't be folding in it's last two games.  Who is he kidding.  This team is neatly folded with crisp hospital corners.  It couldn't possibly fold any further.

What we’re left with then is what we’re always left with: a team without a quarterback it can believe in and a defense that’s all shit no hit.  In other words, wash, rinse, repeat.  There’s two more weeks to go.

Monday, December 09, 2013

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

It should have been a story about how the Cleveland Browns stepped out of character to get what for this team counts as a signature win even despite being mired in its 9th losing season in the last 10.  Instead it’s just another story about how an out of character effort came up short for much the same reasons the Browns continue to come up short.  The Browns lost, improbably it turns out, to the New England Patriots 27-26 mostly by yielding 13 points in the last 2:39 of the game.  It might feel better to think the Browns deserved better and maybe they did, but they also likely got what they deserved.

After taking a 26-14 lead on a Jason Campbell 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron, the game appeared to be over to fans with a rooting interest in either team.  Even Patriots fans, long used to late game heroics by one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play had to take a measure of the context and conclude that this time the luck of their design would not arrive.  At least it looked that was as fans headed to the exits to get an early jump on traffic.

Those fans weren’t the only ones fooled.  The ones prematurely celebrating in Cleveland had their own head slapping moments.  With just 2:39 remaining the Patriots had labored just to get 14 points against a Browns team that statistically if not actually, is one of the best in the league.  Tom Brady seemed mostly frustrated all day as the secondary kept the coverage tight and the defensive line kept the pressure on.  Indeed, the touchdown pass to Cameron felt like the final nail.

This Browns team needs more nails, particularly on defense.

Starting from their 18-yard line after the ensuing kickoff, the Browns’ defense was a victim in the way so many others have been against New England.  Brady did what Brady does.  The Patriots’ offense wasn’t particularly effective all day but yet Brady was able to summon a reservoir that this Browns team, bereft of significant talent at most positions and constructed with a spinning carousal of players over the years, can’t yet comprehend.

Where early Brady couldn’t find seams, suddenly they were there and his vision improved.  The Browns were playing soft and it yielded 6 yards, here, 9 yards there, another pass for 19 yards, another for 23.   The clock was ticking, which is what the Browns wanted, but it came at the expense of the Patriots being inside the Cleveland 20 just a minute later.  Then, with 1:09 remaining, one timeout and sitting on the Browns’ 2 yard line, the Patriots did something odd.  They tried to ram the ball into the end zone with running back Shane Vereen.  It didn’t work.  It also forced the Patriots to use their last time out, which, too, seemed to be to the Browns’ advantage.

The timeout gave the Patriots a chance to clear their heads.  Afterward Brady hit receiver Julian Edelman in the back of the end zone.  For good measure, the Browns’ Jordan Poyer (who?) was penalized for unnecessary roughness, perhaps a questionable call, perhaps not.  It was enforced on the kickoff which was most assuredly not to their advantage.  It allowed the Patriots the chance to the onside kick that the Browns not only knew was coming but had plenty of time to scheme, from the 50 yard line, meaning that if successful it would give the Patriots even better field position.

And of course that’s exactly how it worked out.  Stephen Gostkowski drove the ball in the ground and ran in front of it, poised to pounce once it went the requisite 10 yards.  The Patriots didn’t need to wait that long.  Fozzy Whitaker tried to field it after 9 yards only to see it bounce off his chest and into the arms of Kyle Arrington.

What happened next, at least in terms of the ultimate outcome, was entirely in the realm of the expected by fans of both teams.  For New England, its fans have seen Brady do it for years.  For Cleveland, its fans have seen every collapse imaginable.

As it happened Brady hit Danny Amendola for 10 yards because apparently defensive coordinator Ray Horton saw no reason to tighten the coverage, despite the Shermanesque march that was the last drive.  Then Brady threw deep to Josh Boyce in the end zone.  In one of the more questionable calls in a day of very poor officiating overall, defensive back Leon McFadden was called for pass interference.  It gave the Patriots the ball at the 1 yard line.  The Patriots were on the precipice of scoring having used barely 25 seconds.  When Brady passed to Amendola for the go ahead touchdown, the collapse was complete.

Still, there were 31 seconds remaining and Jason Campbell and the Browns almost pulled it off.  Campbell, who played brilliantly throughout, moved the team just outside of Cundiff’s field goal range with 1 second remaining.  On a day when a new NFL field goal record of 64 yards was set, Cundiff gave it his best effort, but his best wasn’t good enough.  On target but yards short, the game ended with the outcome that most expected anyway and the Browns further solidifying their hold on a good draft pick.

In some sense it really was too bad.  By now nearly everyone from your local barber to national sports pundit has weighed in on the interference call against McFadden with the strong consensus being that the call against McFadden was wrong. There was definite jostling in the end zone but far less, for example, than the mugging that Carolina did on Rob Gronkowski a few weeks back with no call.  More accurately, had McFadden been called for holding prior to Boyce getting to the end zone few would have quibbled, mainly because it would have carried only a 5-yard penalty.

But let’s acknowledge a few points.  First, the penalty didn’t cost the Browns the game.  The Browns had several last clear chances to avoid the official’s negligence.  The defense could have stopped Brady on the prior drive.  The return team could have cleanly fielded the onside kick.  McFadden could have better covered Boyce and not let him get behind him.  Inconvenient truths, I know, but truths just the same.

Second, those are exactly the calls that go against poor teams like the Browns and in favor of good teams like the Patriots.  The NFL is not the NBA where superstars get a pass and rookies are hazed with ticky tack calls.  But human nature is what it is and teams as consistently lousy as the Browns can’t expect to get the benefit of the doubt.  Factor in as well that McFadden was chasing Boyce and the Browns’ secondary does have a fair number of interference calls against them this season so a call going against them is not justifiable necessarily but understandable or at least explainable.

You could also make the case that the Patriots didn’t deserve the win.  That’s a much tougher case to make.  The game lasts 60 minutes for a reason.  Teams rarely play solid throughout.  There will be peaks and valleys so while the Patriots spent most of the game walking the valleys, a team with that kind of talent will eventually find the trail to hike the peaks.  The opposite tends to be the case with a team like the Browns.  And when one team’s peaks line up with another’s valleys, well, the results tend to line up as you’d expect.

That was true early in the game when the Browns were building their lead while the Patriots were struggling and was just as true late when the Patriots found their magic and the Browns regressed to their norm.

It was in most other ways though a really solid effort by a Browns team that only a week before had been thoroughly embarrassed a week before by Jacksonville.  It’s the kind of performance that the team can build on if it wants to.  It really is a choice.

Campbell, as mentioned, was brilliant.  It may have been the best game of his career.  He played with poise and was accurate throughout.  On the day he was 29-44 for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He hit Josh Gordon in stride on a 10-yard slant that turned into an 80-yard touchdown and the 4-yard touchdown to Cameron was an exquisite rendering of deception in action.  Gordon beautifully faked a handoff and by the time the Patriots recovered Cameron was wide open in the end zone for what appeared to be the backbreaking touchdown.  This doesn’t mean Campbell’s presence has solved the Browns’ quarterback problems.  But if nothing else when the Browns do pounce on still another quarterback savior this offseason, Campbell should be kept anyway.  He does have value.

Gordon was elite,  again.  Though the Patriots keyed on him early, Gordon still found his way to 7 catches and 151 yards.  The aforementioned 80-yard touchdown was essentially a footrace that Gordon won by several lengths. 

This is the 4th straight week Gordon has been well over 100 yards in receiving.  In two of those weeks he was well over 200 yards.  While much of the yardage he gained against Pittsburgh was late and the game long since lost, the other 3 weeks were far more critical.  I mentioned this last week but it bears mentioning again.  What makes Gordon’s performances so eye-opening are the quarterbacks he’s had throwing to him.  Imagine if Gordon played for New England.

And yet, even with performing like Calvin Johnson and causing opposing defensive coordinators to scheme against him, the Browns still can’t find a way to win.  The one consolation for Gordon is that his agent will have plenty to talk about during contract negotiations.

Although this 4-9 version of the Browns doesn’t look or play like those 4 and 5 win teams under Pat Shurmur and Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel and Butch Davis, the results are nonetheless the same.  Perhaps the Browns are building.  Surely if they can hold on to Gordon and Cameron and find someone who can at least run for 60 or 70 yards a game, the offense will score consistently.  And if the Browns can keep the defensive line mostly intact and build more depth in the defensive backfield, the defense won’t collapse as much late.

Of course those old similarly situated Browns’ teams had similar “if only” scenarios and they never seemed to follow through.  Still you get the feeling that this ship won’t sink completely to the bottom of the ocean.  You’d just like to still be a fan by the time that proves to be the case.

Monday, December 02, 2013

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

Describing Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden’s desperation pass that was just out of the reach of Josh Gordon with seconds remaining in the Browns 32-28 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Browns’ broadcaster Doug Dieken observed, “it was almost nearly on the money.”  Unwittingly Dieken succinctly captured the game, the season and the franchise.  Two steps removed from greatness it is and remains almost, almost good.

That the Browns lost to the Jaguars Sunday was not particularly unusual.  December losses in Cleveland are like December snowflakes.  There are always plenty of them. If anything was unusual, it was the manner in which the Browns went down, not so much by the feeble hand of an offense whose quarterback still hasn't won a start but by the feeble play of a defense that has kept the team mostly competitive all season, except in the season’s most important games.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton seemed to have a lot of chatter and carefully segmented statistics to bolster his case last week about how great of a job he’s apparently done coaching the defense.  And it’s mostly true if you ignore the statistics that Horton didn't bother to discuss, the defense’s repeated failures inside the opponent’s red zone all season.  Teams that get their score touchdowns and have done all season. When Chad Henne, as much a journeyman quarterback as any in the league, who struggled all second half to get his offense a yard, moved swiftly and quickly through the defense at the end of the game, the touchdown that followed their entry into the red zone seemed inevitable.  That it came against cornerback Joe Haden seemed appropriate as well.

The other thing that was unusual, in the sense that it’s never happened before in the NFL, was the second consecutive 200+ yard receiving game by Gordon.  I’m not sure if it’s more incredible that it’s never happened before or that Gordon accomplished it off the arm of Brandon Weeden.  In 10 years, if that record is still standing, the second part of the trivia question, “and who was the quarterback who threw to him” will be harder to remember than the names of every Real Housewife.

Anyway, kudos once again to Gordon.  If last week’s record setting performance required the obvious caveat that most of his 249 yards were compiled during garbage time of a game that had long since been lost, Sunday’s performance required no such embarrassment.  Gordon is quickly placing himself among the elite receivers in the league with the kind of show he put on Sunday, highlighted of course by the 95 yard touchdown reception, about 85 yards of which were all Gordon that put him in the record books for the second straight week.

Weeden for once wasn't terrible in the way the fans are used to, meaning from bell to gun.  He had legitimate NFL quarterback moments, throwing some pretty nifty passes, actually, to both Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron.  It’s those moments that tend to confound coaches who would just rather write off another failed quarterback experiment but can’t fully when he does things like that.

But with Weeden it’s never two steps forward one step back.  It’s always the opposite and so it was Sunday.  After staking the team to a 14-7 lead that almost everyone in brown and orange seemed ready to take into halftime, Weeden turned into Lucy Ricardo in the chocolate factory, overwhelmed and not sure what to do next while living up to the frustration that safety TJ Ward expressed a week ago about turnovers.
First, Weeden tossed an interception that led to the Jaguars tying the game as running back Maurice Jones-Drew threw 8 yards to Marcedes Lewis.  Weeden’s throw, considerably less accurate than Jones-Drew’s, looked exactly like every other Weeden interception—an off target throw that makes you remember exactly why you forget the good things he can do from time to time.

With the ball back and time, Weeden then threw another interception.  It led to a 44 yard Josh Scobee field goal that gave the Jags the lead.  Weeden then fumbled away the ball on the next series as he was being sacked.  That led to still another Scobee field goal and a Jaguars 20-14 lead at halftime.  It was a stunning two minutes and 47 seconds that almost perfectly captured Weeden’s short and likely to remain short career in Cleveland.  He was diagnosed with a concussion after the game but that’s not the reason he won’t start.
It is worth a second pause on those final few minutes of the first half.  They played out as if Weeden was trying to give the Jaguars all of their Hanukkah gifts in one night.  That the Browns only surrendered 13 points in that span was a tribute to the defense that ultimately failed them in the end.  Truthfully the game could have and maybe should have been over at that point.

But so it is when two bad teams collide.  They don’t necessarily play compelling football but it can be interesting.  The Browns could have been eastbound and down with Weeden looking as out of place on a football field as a scoop of ice cream does in a bowl of lobster bisque.  Instead the team came out and looked almost inspired in the second half.  I say almost because, let’s face it; the Jaguars had only won two games before the day started.  No team should need inspiration to beat them.

The Browns opened the second half as they had the first, taking the ball to the end zone courtesy of a Weeden 4 yard touchdown pass to Greg Little.  It gave them a 21-20 lead and may be the first time in a decade that the Browns opened each half of a game with a touchdown.    After that both teams more or less settled into their mediocre selves, running plays in theory while gaining yards begrudgingly and inducing slumber in those still watching.

It all changed though midway through the fourth quarter, as if both teams awoke from their own mid game nap.  With the Browns backed up on their own 14 yard line, Weeden dropped back in the shotgun.  With the ball yet to be snapped the scene looked particularly set for the typical Weeden off target late pass over the middle that would find nothing but the arms of an opposing player.  A steady dose of Weeden over nearly two seasons now, or just from the first half, take your pick, inspires such thoughts.  But Weeden didn't get a chance to touch the ball, except with his foot.  Center Alex Mack uncharacteristically sailed the ball over Weeden’s head and into the Browns’ end zone.  Weeden charged after it as if it was a contract extension and did the only right thing he could do.  He kicked it out of the back of the end zone for a safety.  It put the Jaguars back in the lead, 22-21.

It also woke them up.  After returning the free kick 31 yards, Henne led the Jaguars to another Scobee field goal and a 25-21 lead.  That meant that the Browns would need a late touchdown and in this city at this time of year those are as rare as a close in parking space at the mall.

That’s when things got really interesting.  On the ensuing kick off the Browns were penalized and had to start the drive at their own 5 yard line.  That wasn’t unusual.  It’s what came next .  Weeden threw short to Gordon who spun off the receiver and went essentially untouched for a 95 yard touchdown and a 28-25 lead.  It was the most remarkable play of the season, easily.  It also sent the crowd into a frenzy; the kind usually reserved for a team that just scored an important touchdown while fighting for the final playoff spot in a season that actually meant something.  Desperate fans will celebrate anything.

It also didn't last.  The defense then and almost inexplicably let Henne lead a really moribund Jaguars offense straight down the field. It culminated in a 20-yard Henne to touchdown pass to Cleveland native Cecil Shorts with 40 seconds remaining.  It was another defensive breakdown, of which there have been many, for the defense in the red zone.  The only thing more deflating was the sadly comical series that followed.

Weeden was done.  Overwhelmed by what he had done and not done and flashing back to his handiwork near the end of the first half, he settled for a series of short passes and another (his second of the game, fourth of the season, and proof once again he learns nothing from his mistakes) ill advised flip of the ball to running back Chris Ogbonnaya.  It was as if Weeden was hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle he had earlier with Gordon only this time with Davone Bess.  Lightning is hard enough to capture once.  The game clock ticked harmlessly away as the Browns left another December crowd cold and miserable and pondering once again why this team, this franchise has failed them.

Weeden had an impressive day statistically once you ignore the interceptions and fumbles.  He threw for 370 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Gordon, of course, was the main benefactor and it is a tribute to his skills as a route runner that despite being frozen in Weeden’s sights all day long he still had 10 receptions for 261 yards and two touchdowns.  Absolutely no one should complain about the context in which those yards and receptions were made, even accounting for the dismal competition.  Gordon has emerged as one of the few, perhaps only, legitimate play makers in the Browns 2.0 era.

As for the rest of the team, sympathy goes to head coach Rob Chudzinski.  Visually, the team looks better coached in so many ways than in seasons past.  The results simply aren't’t there and that, as usual, stems from a lack of talent.

Consider just Joe Haden.  Often he plays like one of the better cornerbacks in the league.  His interception Sunday was a triumph of superior technique and the manner in which he caught the ball, in stride as if thrown to him, makes one wonder whether he should be converted to receiver.  Yet it was Haden who disappeared again late in the game.  Henne’s touchdown pass to Shorts happened because Haden blew his assignment, being faked by a relatively benign double move.  It’s Haden’s wont as he rarely has a complete game.

Players like Haden dot the roster.  T.J. Ward can be an intimidating safety with a mouth he can’t control but he likewise disappears for long stretches at a time.  Gordon has been great the last few weeks and maybe he’s turned the corner after being hot and cold earlier in the season.  Meanwhile Greg Little is, if anything, regressing.  He caught a touchdown pass but he also dropped a pass in traffic and was mostly a non factor in the game, again.  He’s a big receiver who plays smaller than Bess, another forgotten acquisition.

Then, of course, there is Weeden.  He didn’t lose the game, at least not by himself, but he also couldn’t win it against a team that was 2-9 after starting 0-8.  As a fantasy player, and prayers go to anyone who has the misfortune to have Weeden on his roster, Weeden turned in a decent performance.  But the distance between fantasy and reality is that yardage and touchdown passes are nice.  Turnovers cost games.

Weeden’s flaws coupled with the defensive failure at the end of the game cost the Browns the game.
The Browns had a chance to win a game against a team that should be able to handily beat.  And for most of the day they were nearly on the money.  It’s just that when the money was set to be counted it was the Browns who once again walked away with less than they had when they started the game.