Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No Such Thing As a Bad Win

Sports in general and professional sports in particular are the ultimate bottom line businesses.  Success is measured week by week and chronicled daily in a million or so outlets.  While it is definitely true that a team that consistently wins more than it loses can be considered a success in the same way that a team that consistently loses more than it wins can be considered a failure, on a micro basis there are truths to be learned in both the wins and losses irrespective of a team’s record.
This past weekend, both the Cleveland Browns and the Ohio State Buckeyes walked away with wins. And while that should be good enough to all the bottom liners, of course it was not because the wins were not impressive in their crafting against ostensibly lesser competition.
In the case of the Buckeyes, I guess what this means is that unless 50 or more points are scored and 500 or more yards are compiled on offense, the win might as well have been a loss.  In the case of the Browns, I’m not even sure what it means.  Given the Browns rather consistent pattern of losing at least twice as many games as it wins, season after season and that just the previous week it actually lost to a winless team, the Oakland Raiders came into the game winless and left the same way and that is somehow unsatisfactory. 
I understand the frustration of Buckeye fans.  The preseason seemed to hold realistic hope of the team getting to the first ever national championship playoffs. But the injury to Braxton Miller, coupled with very inexperienced back up, altered both the perceptions and the reality.  Couple that with a home loss to what is, at best, a very average Virginia Tech, and this season seemed like it wouldn’t take any flight.
But since that game the Buckeyes have completely turned the season on its head.  Quarterback J.T. Barrett, playing for the first time in two years, seemed to have the light go on immediately and suddenly, against weak competition, the Buckeyes’ offense turned into a juggernaut.
Well, that juggernaut got slowed on Saturday night against Penn State, a supposedly vastly inferior team and that got everyone all upset.  Rather than acknowledge the growing pains of a team that has been far better than most imagined when Miller first went down, fans and most of the media instead chastised the Buckeyes for apparently not destroying Penn State at their home field at night in front of the national media and a drunk and crazed fan base making it almost impossible to call out any signals.

There was plenty to critique in the Buckeyes’ win, but let’s keep that critique in perspective and acknowledge what is likely to be one of the more important wins this team will have in the next few seasons.

Probably the biggest issue in the entire game was the play calling.  This isn’t the first time, just the most recent, when Urban Meyer went ultra conservative in a big game.  Meyer has a fascination with letting his quarterbacks carry the entire running load even when his running backs have more than proven capable.  Michigan State last year late in the Big Ten championship game was another prime example.  Meyer seems to lose faith mostly in himself.  Stated differently, he goes into small ball protection mode too quickly at the first sign of trouble.
But let’s also remember that the Buckeyes mostly dominated Penn State even if the score didn’t reflect it.  The only Penn State touchdown in regulation came on a very well thrown pass into very tight coverage.  Sometimes the other team is going to win a battle.  It happens.
The far larger point though was the manner in which the Buckeyes reversed a huge momentum swing and found a way to win.  In thinking about the Ohio State win on Saturday and fan and media reaction to it, it was best to recall the words of LeBron James last week when talking about what it takes sometimes to build a team, according to the Plain Dealer:
 “You got to go through something in order to create a bond, and that means for the worse. You've got to lose ball games that we think we should have won. We got to get in an argument here and there every now and then just to test each other out. It has to happen. It's going to happen. I know it's going to happen. A lot of guys don't see it but I see it. That's the only way we're going to be able to grow.”
That’s exactly what Saturday night’s victory ended up being, an opportunity for this team to get tested, to bond, to grow.  If this is a team with big aspirations, whether by a confluence of events this year or a more defined approach next season, this Penn State victory will be the fulcrum on which those aspirations pivoted.  We’ll see soon enough as the Buckeyes go into hostile territory in a few weeks against Michigan State.
As for the Browns, it simply is a case of confusing progress with success.  The two concepts can intersect and sometimes they can be almost the same thing.  But for now, for this Browns team, they are at best 2nd or 3rd cousins.
What most of the dissection of the Browns’ win has been is to highlight the team’s faults without acknowledging some emerging strengths.  The Raiders, easily one of the worst if not the worst team in the league, is horrible in every phase of the game, including stopping the run.  Yet the Browns couldn’t find a way to run the ball because, again, Alex Mack is apparently the most important player on this team.
And yet, despite the numerous 3-and-outs, the bad passes, the lousy routes, the blown blocking assignments, this team found a way to pull together late and overcome whatever adversity it faced, much of which was arguably self-inflicted.
For all that went wrong on Sunday, plenty went right, starting with the defense.  Joe Haden, of whom I’ve been a frequent critic, played one of the best games of his entire career.  Sure he was in the right place at the right moment to field an oddly errant mid-air fumble, but his coverage was at an elite status the entire game.  Late in the game on a sideline route deep with a receiver seeming to have a step on him, Haden close fast and made a textbook deflection.  It was the kind of play that coaches from other teams at all levels will use to demonstrate proper technique.
Let’s also mention Paul Krueger who is fulfilling this year much of what was expected of him last year.  Maybe it’s head coach Mike Pettine’s defensive schemes that appeal more to Krueger’s sensibilities or it’s a case of just being more in sync with this coaching staff.  Whatever it is, Krueger played well Sunday as he has this whole season.  Even poor Justin Gilbert, who has mostly appeared overmatched since the first preseason game, looked better. 
There is still plenty of improvement this team needs.  Buster Skrine is still, well, Buster Skrine and the Browns might be the worst team I’ve ever seen at any level fielding and returning punts.  But this team is already at four wins for the season and it’s a season that’s only 7 games old!
Just as with the Buckeyes, the Browns have gone through the kind of adversity now that tends to bond teams together.  Indeed, the little battles it fought in other games is largely responsible for the team’s ability to respond late this past Sunday.  In almost every other year in the last 12 other Browns teams have crumbled under like circumstances.  The fact that this team didn’t and the fact this it won should be celebrated for what it was, not the Super Bowl, but a gritty win.
I’ve been part of the fabric of this town’s crappy sports teams for more than 50 years now so I understand the manner in which all performance gets filtered.  But that doesn’t make it any less irritating for the same tired narrative of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory every time it doesn’t go to some ill-informed predetermined script.
Winning games at any level, be it Division I college football or the NFL, is hard enough.  Let’s not make it harder on ourselves by constructing impossibly high standards just so we can satisfy our inner insecurities that our teams will never be good enough to win something meaningful. And if that task is too hard then keep it simple and just remember that while you often can make the case for a good loss, you can never make the case for a bad win.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Sometimes Painful Path of Progress

If you were asked last Friday to list the 10 most important players on the Cleveland Browns, virtually no thought would have been given to putting Alex Mack anywhere on that list.  Ask it again in the aftermath of Sunday’s disaster against Jacksonville and if Mack is not at the top of your list he should be.
An offensive line that had been the early season strength of the team as it opened up holes for the running backs and gave quarterback Brian Hoyer enough time to work some magic with a crop of unknown receivers, looked instead like the weakest link on a team being held together by chewing gum anyway as the Browns lost in embarrassing and emphatic fashion to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-6.
But let’s add some perspective before anyone thinks that the best solution is to rip the gas pipe off the wall and breathe in heavily.  This Browns team, as improved as it might be, isn’t an elite team and that was true prior to the kickoff against Jacksonville.  It isn’t even a good team, assuming you define “good” as “playoff-bound.”  It’s a team that has made some decent strides, exorcised some demons, but still exists at the very early stages of learning how to play consistently and learning how to win.  It’s a team that’s mostly competitive and that alone constitutes significant progress.  Still, there will be days like Sunday because progress is rarely a straight line upward.
Now back to Mack.  Put aside the team’s talking points about the great Jacksonville defense and likewise brush aside the “any given Sunday” cliché.  Jacksonville was a lousy team on Sunday morning and it’s still a lousy team on Monday morning, albeit a lousy team with a win now under its belt.  It’s scary good defense was ranked 30th in the league prior to Sunday.  Under no legitimate circumstances could it qualify as the best defense this Browns team has faced this season or will face.  It’s ridiculous for the likes of Joe Thomas to even suggest, as he apparently did all week, that the Browns’ offense could have trouble with this scrappy little crew from Jacksonville.
It was a false narrative and still is.  The fact is that Thomas and his teammates were covering up for the fact that Mack’s injury actually weakened the line in two places—center and right guard.  That more than anything about the Jaguars’ defense is the reason the Browns’ offense looked miserable.
It was apparent from the first series on that this offensive line, remade by moving Greco over from right guard and inserting Paul McQuistan into Greco’s spot, had about as much cohesion as a group of four year olds jumping inside an inflatable castle at a birthday party.  Greco in particular seemed lost and with him so went the right side of the line.
The play that summed up the struggles was the too cute by half attempt in the fourth quarter to have the Jaguars burn a time out by first running the punt unit out on the field on 4th and 5 and then rushing the offense back out.  It had its intended effect, to create confusion, just on the wrong team.  Greco inexplicably snapped the ball to Hoyer when he was instead just supposed to wait to see if the Jaguars would call time.  And if time wasn’t called, the offense would simply take a delay penalty and then kick.  In other words, nowhere did the play call for Greco to actually snap the ball.  A surprised Hoyer now with the ball then pitched the ball to an equally surprised Ben Tate.  It ended though in no surprise.  The Browns lost 2 yards, turned the ball over on downs and snuffed out whatever little chance remained to mount a comeback.
As for Greco’s replacement, McQuistan, he just got beat up and down the field all day which is a problem when most teams tend to run in the area where McQuistan was supposed to be opening holes, the right side of the line.  Collectively Greco and McQuistan struggled as if both had walked into a calculus exam and prepared for it by studying history.
The almost complete collapse of the line in Mack’s wake accounted for the struggles of the running backs and Hoyer.  If a team can’t run and the quarterback can’t find even a modicum of time to throw, bad things typically happen.  On the day and particularly late when calculation was out the window and Hoyer was willing to try damn near anything, interceptions filled the air.
If Greco’s and McQuistan’s struggles were the most apparent, they weren’t the only ones observed.  Head coach Mike Pettine seemed almost nearly as lost.  Eschewing a field goal late in the first half, a field goal that if successful would have given the Browns a two possession lead, Pettine outsmarted himself by instead gong for the first down on what was fourth and one.
It was a poor decision for a couple of reasons.
First, given how the game was progressing to that point, it was an unnecessary risk.  The Jaguars’ offense was struggling every bit as much as the Browns, even as they were having some success running the ball.  There just didn’t seem to be any reason to try to extend the lead by an extra four points at that moment.  Just be satisfied with a 9 point lead instead of a potential 13 point lead and then go in the locker room and figure the rest of the game out.
Of course it turned out as bad as imagined because that little jolt of football caffeine pushed the Jaguars almost immediately down the field and into the end zone.  Instead of having a two possession lead to start the second half, the Browns found themselves actually down by a point.
Second, it seemed like it was a decision made in the heat of the moment and not one of calculation.  It’s one thing to try and seize the momentum by deciding on, say, first down, that your team is in four-down territory no matter what.  It’s quite another to make that decision on the fly, which is what Pettine clearly did and much to his detriment.  How else to explain the bizarre play calling? 
A team in four down territory would have used third down for a pass and fourth down as the time to try and move the defensive line the yard you need.  The Browns did the opposite. The fourth down call was particularly curious, a kind of weird mid-range sideline pass to Jordan Cameron instead of a quick slant or even a swing screen to a back.  The play developed slowly and there were 4 bodies in the area (two Jaguars defenders and two Browns receivers).  You can blame Hoyer for the pass or one of the two receivers for apparently running the wrong route and bringing two extra bodies into the mix but the better place to look is at the coach who called the play and the coach that let that coach call the play.
Then there was the aforementioned attempt to get the Jaguars to apparently burn a time out in the middle of the fourth quarter.  I’m still pondering why Pettine was so oddly focused on reducing the number of timeouts the Jaguars had remaining, particularly at that moment when his team was struggling so mightily with more fundamental issues like blocking and scoring points.  It smacked of a rookie coach who felt like he just had to do something at a moment when almost nothing was working.  It was the very embodiment of a bad decision poorly executed.
What Sunday’s game more than demonstrated was how silly all the talk was this past week about Hoyer’s contract status and what the Browns might do with Johnny Manziel.  Hoyer’s had a fine first quarter of the season and certainly better than most anticipated.  He is a gamer, the kind of guy you want to have around.   And given his make up there’s no reason to think he won’t bounce back.  But as I said last week, talking contract now for Hoyer as if he’s a late blooming Tom Brady seemed a tad premature.  These things tend to work themselves out and games like Sunday illustrate that point beautifully.
If Browns fans really want to focus on something worth their time, then the next few weeks provide ample opportunity to really discover if the first five games of the season were a mirage or a trend.  And on a related note, we’ll get a real measure of the kind of head coach Pettine can be.
The Browns are at a tipping point heading into week 7.  This is the place where, in seasons past, previous hot starting versions of otherwise miserable teams allowed one disastrous game to beget the next.  All those thatt came before Pettine proved utterly incapable of stopping the slide once it started.  The real measure of Pettine is if he can get that handful of veterans in the locker room, players like Thomas for example, to avoid channeling the inevitable dread of seasons past and see Sunday’s performance for what it hopefully represents—a miserable game that every team experiences every now and then.
If, instead, the game becomes both the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end, and the Browns careen to their usual four or five win season then, given owner Jimmy Haslam’s impetuousness, Pettine may wish he’d have rented that house in Cleveland instead of buying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Only Thing Worse Than Losing...

The Cleveland Browns on Sunday did the football equivalent of passing a kidney stone in dominating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-10. That stone, jagged and huge, had been stuck for over a decade.  Yet as it passed, the sweet relief lasted about as long as it took a reporter to finally discover that quarterback Brian Hoyer is a free agent after the season.
Now, instead of feeling satisfied for at least a few minutes, fans are fretting over the status of a quarterback who was mostly an afterthought just a few months ago and what it means for the high profile savior-in-waiting, Johnny Manziel.  In other words, this is exactly what it’s like to be a fan of Cleveland sports.
I suppose it won’t be long until another reporter starts asking general manager Ray Farmer, should the Browns continue winning, about the wisdom of stockpiling picks for next year’s draft if the Browns end up with a lower draft pick.  In Cleveland it seems the only thing worse than losing is winning.
It really is a testament to the unique paranoia in Cleveland that no good win goes unpunished.  The status of Hoyer’s contract on a team that sits at 3-2 and the bulk of its season still in front of them shouldn’t even register a blip on fans’ collective consciences at the moment.
The Browns are 5 games into the season and find themselves at 3-2.  That’s better than most predicted and with the next 3 games against teams with 1 combined win among them, there is some reason to think that 8 games into the season the Browns could find themselves with 6 wins.

But to get there would require a 5-game winning streak.  This is a team that hasn’t won 5 games in a season more than twice in a dozen years and has not won 5 in a row in 20 years!  The roster is young with some talent.  It’s also thin and getting thinner with two key injuries just this past week.  To think it can run the immediate table in front of them is dreaming.

In that context Hoyer’s contract status is hardly a story and his unwillingness to address it doesn’t make it a story.  The premise of the question, as essentially concocted in the head of a Bleacher Report reporter, is that Hoyer has let people know that he won’t sign long term in Cleveland if Johnny Manziel is still on the roster.
The question, as we say in the law business, assumes facts not in evidence.  The reporter never specifically attributes Hoyer’s alleged comments to anyone in particular, just people in general. That’s probably because the reporter just made it up in order to advance a point that isn’t yet ripe to be made but what the heck it creates anxiety and where there’s anxiety there’s also buzz.  So let’s give some credit.  The Bleacher Report got its click bait just as did Crain’s Cleveland, The Plain Dealer and The Beacon Journal, all of whom reported what was reported elsewhere, which is that this isn’t even something Hoyer has thought about.
The larger point though is that 5 games into the season it’s silly to even begin pondering the Browns’ quarterback situation next year.  The odds are high that Hoyer will get injured this year, not just because he got injured last year, but because that’s what happens to quarterbacks in the NFL.  But yea, it’s also because Hoyer had a serious knee injury last year and it would surprise exactly no one if the repaired knee can’t withstand the rigors of a full season.
The Browns more or less fell into Hoyer the same way they fell into their head coach, Mike Pettine.  It’s not as if anyone thought even last year that Hoyer had a viable career as a NFL starter just like Pettine wasn’t thought to be a viable head coaching candidate.  And yet each, given a chance, has shown that they may have been underestimated.
There is no question that Hoyer has a certain “it” factor about him that most if not all of the others that have come before him did not.   Where the Brandon Weedens of the world always seemed to be adding water to a grease fire, Hoyer doesn’t get nearly that rattled.  His ability to help keep his team in games, particularly the first Pittsburgh game and the comeback against Tennessee, speaks volumes about his ability to lead the offense. Players will follow whoever leads them.  Too often in Cleveland that’s been no one in particular.
Hoyer may very well be a long term solution for the Browns, though it’s a bit premature to render a verdict..  He’s 29 years old and for the benefit of Mike Holmgren it’s worth noting that he’s 2 years younger than Weeden.  So there is still plenty of runway left in Hoyer’s career should the Browns eventually reach a conclusion about his long term worth.

But it’s not as if NFL executives and fans haven’t been fooled by previous flashes in the pan.  Do the names Scott Mitchell and Kelly Holcomb mean anything to anyone?  How about Derek Anderson?

Indeed Anderson is a particularly recent example of why getting too excited too early can be dangerous.
In 2007 Anderson threw for nearly 3800 yards.  He threw for 29 touchdowns against 19 interceptions.  His 29 touchdowns were just 1 less than Brian Sipe’s franchise record of 30.  As Anderson was having the season of a lifetime, the savior-in-waiting was Brady Quinn, who had been the team’s number one pick entering the season.  As Anderson continued to pile up the wins and enhance his own stats, fans became less interested in Quinn and more interested in Anderson’s contract status since he could be a free agent at season’s end.  Is any of this sounding familiar?
We know how former general manager Phil Savage handled it.  He signed Anderson to a multi-year multi-million dollar, albeit relatively club friendly, deal.  At the time Savage’s move was viewed as savvy.  It gave him the option to then trade Anderson before the draft in order to recoup the draft pick he gave up to get Quinn initially.
But Savage dithered, as was his wont.  Despite teams needing a starter and despite both Anderson and Quinn being at the zenith of their trade value, Savage held on to both.  The Browns’ draft suffered, which itself isn’t unusual.  But then both Anderson and Quinn proved to be less than Savage had anticipated and the Browns were once again in search of a new quarterback once Anderson was cut, a search that hasn’t exactly concluded even with the emergence of Hoyer.
Right now the Browns have a good problem with a dozen ways to resolve it, none of which require action now.  Let the situation play itself out.  Let’s not have Farmer make a long term decision about Hoyer based on a relatively small sample and for God’s sake don’t make a long term decision about Manziel without any sample.
Hoyer has shown himself to be the glue holding the offense together, but the team’s early success isn’t the product of any one person.  At least as much credit, if not more, could go to Kyle Shanahan.  His approach has seemed to rejuvenate, for example, the offensive line.  His dogged insistence on establishing a running game in a passing league has proven that some adages remain just as true as ever: the run does set up the pass.  Credit also could go to receivers like Jordan Cameron, someone whose next contract should rightly be rich and lengthy.  And credit could go to Farmer for making some good decisions at running back, including the signing of Ben Tate.
As much as it’s true that Hoyer is playing well and as much of a great story he is at the moment, what this team really needs to do is keep the bigger picture in mind.  It really does appear that it’s building a team that can compete weekly.  Five games in that appears to be the case.  But it is only five games in. The one thing that could stop that progress is knee jerk decisions made in the heat of the moment.
Hoyer’s contract isn’t a story right now and may never be so relax.  The Browns are on a wild ride at the moment and for once it has more thrill than folly.  Enjoy it because as should be more than apparent to all, there’s no telling if or when it might come around again.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Not So Numbing Sameness of It All!

Photo Courtesy of ClevelandBrowns.com
When a team has been on the same unending stretch of rough road for as long as the Cleveland Browns have, it would be easy to miss the subtle improvements that occur along that route, let alone the moment that a meaningful corner was turned.  And while fans have had to endure other false positives, perhaps the Browns really are a team on the come after overcoming a historic deficit on the road to beat a woeful Tennessee Titans team, 29-28.
There may have been no exact moment on Sunday where one could say that the road got smoother or an actual corner was definitively turned, but there are plenty of candidates for consideration.  The one that stood out though was the precise moment in the 4th quarter when Titans coach Ken Whisenhut channeled his inner Brady Hoke in an all-or-nothing call in which careers tend to be either made or broken.
With just over 3 minutes remaining in the game, Whisenhut decided that his defense could be trusted less than his offense and called for a quarterback sneak at the Titans’ 42-yard line on 4th and inches.  It wasn’t successful and it put the ball in the Browns’ hands and set them up for the go ahead touchdown that gave the team its first road win since, I think, LeBron James first left Cleveland for Miami, maybe longer.
Let’s pause on this particular moment because it really is what could be a key moment in the entire season.
Whisenhut was forced into making the call in the first place because tight end Delanie Walker caught a Charlie Whitehurst pass on 3rd and 6 and carried the ball on his right hip instead of his left as he went out of bounds.  The difference in inches from one hip to the other ended up being the difference between 1st down Tennessee and 1st down Cleveland.
Initially the referees signaled first down and in another small but pivotal moment a Browns assistant, secondary coach Jeff Hafley watching from the press box (in order to get the best view of the Browns awful secondary?),noticed that Walker’s body but not the ball had crossed the plane for a first down that could have allowed the Titans to likely run out the clock and win the game.  Hafley signaled to head coach Mike Pettine and the red flag was thrown.
It was probably the single best use of the challenge flag you’re likely to ever witness, at least by someone affiliated with the Browns.  It was only a half yard but as Al Pacino said in “Any Given Sunday” you have to fight for every inch at every moment.  Those were the most critical inches in the long death march that has mostly marked the Browns’ return to the NFL over a decade ago.  The first down call was overturned setting up Whisenhut for his make or break moment.
It was both a risky and curious call in the same way Michigan’s Hoke decided to try a two-point conversion to win the game against Ohio State last season instead of tying the game in regulation and moving on to overtime.
The risk was obvious.  But the reason it also was curious has to do with how Whisenhut viewed his own defense at the moment, similar to Hoke.  He didn’t trust them.  He didn’t think his defense could stop the Browns!  Roll that around in your head for a moment.  He decided at that moment that punting and putting the Browns’ offense deep in its own zone ultimately still held less chance for a Titans victory then gaining those few extra inches on a Whitehurst sneak and running out the clock.
Such are the decisions of head coaches who end up having to append the term “former” to the front of their title.  The objective of course is to win but going for the quick money and ignoring the long game is a sign of desperation and the Titans and Whisenhut were clearly desperate to win a game they seemed to have won have 30 minutes of play.  Whisenhut now has to face the rest of the season with players who already know their coach doesn’t trust them.
The Browns are only 2-2 at the moment and aren’t yet in anyone’s objective conversation about playoff teams.  But there are a fair number of positive signs.  For example, the Browns have a legitimate running game at the moment.  Ben Tate had 123 yards on 22 carries, demonstrating while he’s a starter.  Still the Browns already were establishing a running game with Tate’s rookie replacements Terrence West and Isaac Crowell.  Tate at the moment just makes it a little better.
It also looks like Brian Hoyer wasn’t just last year’s premature flash in the pan.  However else Hoyer looked in preseason, he is a gamer.  He’s a little gawky at times, his throws a little wobbly at times.  But he plays with poise and generally makes smart decisions.  In all candor, he’s the first Browns quarterback in the 2.0 era about whom you can say anything positive.  He’s kept the team moving forward and is certainly a key reason that it is clicking.  What all that says about Johnny Manziel in the near or far term is hard to say.  Just know that at some point Hoyer likely will get hurt and then we’ll see if Manziel can get to at least a similar level.
Then there are the receivers, perhaps everyone’s pick as the weakest link on the team.  General Manager Ray Farmer stood steadfast in his statement that the receivers on the roster were good and the fans and the media were counting them out just because they didn’t know anything about them.  There is something to be said for having players with established reputations on the roster, but at the moment Farmer seems to be more right than wrong.  Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is making good use of the no-names on the roster and it has kept the Browns mostly moving in the right direction.
Speaking of Shanahan, he’s been another of those positive signs.  Play calling always looks better to the naked eye when the players are able to execute what’s called.  So to a certain extent even Pat Shurmur would have looked brilliant calling the plays had the players he had been able to execute.  But Shanahan also is demonstrating great patience. 
If you’re being honest you’ll admit to wanting to throw a shoe through the television midway and late in the fourth quarter when Shanahan kept calling for running plays with the Browns still more than a touchdown behind and the clock moving in the wrong direction. But because Shanahan had been able to establish the run earlier, sticking with it at the moment was the right call. The Browns needed to score but also manage the clock because, let’s face it, this defense can’t be trusted either.  Those runs allowed the Browns to do both because it kept the Titans from selling out on the pass.  Their linebackers and defensive backs had to stay closer to the box in order to prevent a long run and that ultimately loosened up the secondary.
Another positive is the man who hired Shanahan.  Mike Pettine may have dropped into the Browns’ laps reluctantly but at the moment it seems to be working well if only because Pettine has the exact right temperament for a head coach in this city.  He is no nonsense but self-deprecating.  Intense but with a sense of humor.  It also helps that physically he looks like about 75% of the guys who hang out at the tailgates before the game.  In other words, he may not have been born here but he looks and acts like he could have been for all the good and bad that means.
Pettine has done a nice job of both understanding the paradigm in which this franchise has operated and embodying the commitment it takes to really alter it.  The only way to change is to actually change.  Shut up and do something.  Sometimes having a rookie head coach has its advantages.
But before we enshrine Pettine, he needs to fix the defense.  There’s a reason why the Browns look better when they’re playing from behind.  It’s because opposing offenses in the NFL playing with a comfortable lead rarely go for the jugular.  Instead they’re usually content with managing the game from that point forward.  They stop taking chances and that feeds right into the strengths and weaknesses of the Browns’ defense.
Looking at both the Pittsburgh and Tennessee games, the similarities are fascinating.  Both teams have very average offenses.  Not great, certainly, but not New York Jets level bad either.  And both had their way with the Browns’ incredibly weak secondary in the first halves of those games.  Then both teams buttoned up in the second half, playing mostly not to lose.  That played into the relative strength of the Browns’ defense, its defensive line.  By short circuiting their own offenses prematurely, both Pittsburgh and Tennessee allowed the Browns’ offense to get into gear.
In the Pittsburgh game the Browns still lost because ultimately once the Browns did come back, the Steelers were forced to open the offense back up, sort of like putting the starters back into a game that had been a blowout but now was getting uncomfortably close.  The Steelers moved the ball well enough in that last moment to get into position to kick the game winning field goal.
Tennessee however couldn’t manage the clock nearly as well.  With less than a half a field and playing against a defense its own head coach didn’t believe in, all that was left for the Browns to do at that moment was use just enough clock to ensure that the Titans couldn’t get into field goal position to win the game.  It helped that Whitehurst was at quarterback as his lack of mobility and experience led to his being sacked on first down.  The clock ran out for good on a pass that couldn’t get to the sideline and the Browns had the most improbable comeback and win in the last dozen years, at least.
But what to make of the future?  While it holds promise the team won’t find the Promised Land with that secondary.  Joe Haden, the putative leader, isn’t the lock down corner he thinks he is.  Justin Gilbert is playing less and less each week.  He hasn’t adjusted to life in the NFL and that doesn’t look to change in the near term.  And Buster Skrine is Buster Skrine.
The secondary might be better if the defensive line could put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks when the game hangs in the balance.  But for a variety of reasons that isn’t happening under Pettine.  If anything, the defensive line has regressed in that regard from last season!  Still it is the least poisonous part of the defensive tree at the moment.
This team is far from a complete product.  Heck it’s not anything close to playoff ready.  But after four games it’s proved itself to be competitive and interesting, something no other Browns team has been in a very long time.