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.

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