Saturday, November 08, 2014

Wrestling With Our Paranoia

If you’re not secretly fearing that the Cleveland Browns will find a way to turn a 6-3 record into a 6-10 record by season’s end, then you’re not a real Browns fan.
And if you’re not secretly fearing that Brian Hoyer will break an ankle, that Josh Gordon was flunk his return to work drug screen or that Jordan Cameron will find retirement a better option than another concussion, then you’re not a real Browns fan.
Nothing breeds paranoia in the hearts and minds of real Cleveland Browns fans like unexpected success.  So today, entering a weekend where the Browns have already played and won handily on the road against the team leading the division at the time, unexpected success is exactly the conundrum real Browns are wrestling with.
It’s all the big questions now because when your team sits at 6-3 and most of the rest of the games on the schedule look reasonably winnable, that’s all that’s left to ponder.  So let’s just go ahead and wonder whether this Browns team, the one with the least impressive set of “skill” players at its disposal, is playoff worthy.  It’s no longer too early to consider it let alone too early to say it out loud.  No longer do you look like a member of the Tin Foil Hat Society for even considering it.
But let’s also keep perspective before we start extrapolating what this team can still accomplish based on what it’s done so far without Gordon or Cameron in the lineup.  The last time this team won 10 games in a season, a number which at this point tilts more toward realistic than delusional, it didn’t make the playoffs.  That’s actually a difficult task to accomplish in the NFL, winning 10 games and still sitting at home in January.  But accomplish that task the Browns did and that naturally is the antecedent to the deep-seated paranoia that is so understandable.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the big winner in all this of course is Jimmy Haslam, the team’s owner.  One or two more wins and the NFL will allow him to send out playoff ticket information to season ticket holders.  It’s an owner-friendly policy that allows the team to charge each season ticket holder an exorbitant price for each potential home playoff game.  If the games don’t materialize, the money is held by the team, for its account and probably in some sort of short term high yield investment fund, and credited to the season ticket holders’ accounts for next season.  The NFL is like Hyman Roth.  It knows how to make money for its partners.
This really has been an improbable season thus far for the Browns with Thursday’s win, not so much the result but the how, being the most prominent example.  The Browns hadn’t won on the road in the division since before Bill Clinton met Paula Jones. The Browns had just come off a 3-game stretch against opponents who had a combined 1 win between them and managed two wins in somewhat unspectacular fashion.  Their running game had stalled out the last several weeks, their best receiver, indeed one of the league’s top receivers, was still sitting out a drug suspension, their second best receiver was trying to recover from his third concussion in three years, and their third best receiver was inactive with a leg injury.  And the defense, as usual, was showing itself to be far less than the sum of its parts.
The Bengals were leading the division.  Their victories were achieved with a bit more dominance and their quarterback looked to be perhaps finally taking that long step from a good regular season quarterback to a good playoff quarterback. 
In other words, while the game didn’t stack up as a mismatch neither did it appear to be much reason to believe that on this particular night the Browns would shed the shackles of seasons’ worth of struggles to establish relevance.
But perhaps what made it all so improbable was the rather simple fact that it was November and the Browns were on national television in a game of relevance.  All systems, all planets were seemingly aligned for a bitter reminder of why the attention of most Browns fans by this point is on Ohio State.
Nothing ever goes as planned, does it?  Andy Dalton was not just bad, he was historically bad.  The Browns’ defense, rightfully maligned and whose poster child for all its holes was the lightly talented Buster Skrine, played like the 1985 Chicago Bears.  Dalton was hurried.  He was harassed.  A.J. Green couldn’t permanently shake loose of Joe Haden and Skrine had two interceptions.  The defense didn’t merely walk through a looking glass.  It played as if it were living and working in Bizarro Cincinnati.
Meanwhile Brian Hoyer has turned into the second coming of Brian Sipe.  There’s nothing particularly pretty about how he goes about his business.  And yet far more often than not in his Cleveland rebirth the results have been good enough.  At the same time and perhaps not coincidentally the running game returned.  Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan hasn’t been able to land on a primary back to this point so he keeps running out all 3, Ben Tate, Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell, and like just about everything else this season it improbably works.
And what to make of the available receivers on the roster?  Show of hands for all of you who had tight end Gary Barnidge on your fantasy team this week.  Barnidge had two catches for 46 yards and the ancient Miles Austin had 5 catches for 48 yards.  Usually when those are a team’s leading receivers for the evening the team is looking at the business end of a 30-point loss.  But because the running game was effective, because the defense was creating turnovers, Hoyer didn’t need to throw the ball around like he has the past few weeks.
As for Bengals players, coaches, front office staff, ticket takers and ushers, they likely are all questioning their parentage and relevance.  The ass-whipping they experienced was that complete.  Dalton ended the evening with a historically bad quarterback rating of 2.0 and that’s not a typo.  What keeps it from being the statistically worst game in history is, naturally, the performance of a former member of the Browns, Jeff Garcia, who while toiling for Butch Davis’ version, compiled a 0.0 rating in a September, 2004 game against Dallas.   Ah, good times.
The best part of all this?  The Browns and their fans get to savor it a few extra days.
A few weeks ago I wrote that the Browns had turned a corner and indeed they have.  Even if they lose out, which they’ve done for several seasons anyway, they’ll still end up with 50% more victories than usual and in context that qualifies as an abject success.  It probably qualifies head coach Mike Pettine for a raise.  But if past is prologue and Haslam has a proportional reaction akin to what he had last season with Rob Chudzinski, then Pettine won’t just get a raise but an extension which, also true to form, Haslam will end up having to eat a few years down the road.
The reality of this season is still in the early stages.  The remaining schedule isn’t as unfavorable as the weather likely will be, but this is still a young team whose progress is upward but uneven.  That means zags when zigs are required, losses where victories seemed assured.  I guess what I’m saying is that for all the reasons that might exist to get one’s hopes up, that’s never the right course in Cleveland.  But I really didn’t need to tell you that, did I?