Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stepping Sideways

Before Saturday night's preseason exhibition between the Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Rams, club president Mike Holmgren did his best to level set Browns' fans by telling them to temper their enthusiasm. To coin a phrase, Mission Accomplished.

Saturday's 19-17 preseason loss to the woeful Rams wasn't the buzzkill slap in the face it could have been had this been the regular season. But it was a reminder, gentle at times bludgeoning at others, that this team remains a work in progress.

You could point to the 5 turnovers and other mistakes and jump to the conclusion that it looked like Romeo Crennel was back in charge of the team. You could also point to the rather easy time perennial journeyman quarterback A.J. Feeley and a bunch of guys who couldn't sell a jersey with their name on it to fans in St. Louis had in that first series against the defense and conclude that any of the dozen or so defensive coordinators that preceded Rob Ryan in the last 10 years were back in charge.

But even in all that mess you could still see what was most apparent: progress isn't always a step forward. Sometimes there are steps to the side, perhaps a half-step back. If the NFL didn't keep score in preseason games, it would probably be easier to see the positives in Saturday night's game.

But fans aren't so constrained by the quaint notions of meaningless final scores, neither are the writers covering this team. So, tossing aside the score like a Jerome Harrison fumble, the Browns still were able to make progress on Saturday night in ways that give hope that come the regular season they'll be able to overcome teams like the Rams with relative ease, relative being the absolute operative word.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme wasn't as sharp as his opening drive against Green Bay in the previous week but in some ways what he did Saturday night was more impressive. If Delhomme and the first team offense had had their way with the Rams defense from the opening bell, Mangini might have given Delhomme an early exit and fans might get the idea that this team is a playoff contender.

Instead Delhomme struggled a bit, from his own opening bobbled snaps, to a few missed throws. That will happen with any quarterback, including Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But where Browns fans were used to seeing its quarterbacks struggle some, then struggle some more and then struggle for good, Delhomme was able to right the ship long enough to put together an impressive drive 77-yard drive to put the team back on track and keep the game from being the disaster it looked to be early on.

As he did last week, Delhomme used the various weapons he had at his disposal effectively in that drive to keep the Rams' defense, which, frankly, isn't very good, off balance. The drive featured the running of Peyton Hillis, throws to the tight ends and wide receivers and, finally, a good throw in the back of the end zone to tight end Ben Watson for the score. Watson's impressive catch was first ruled out of bounds but a challenge by Mangini overturned the initial call. It's preseason even for the officials.

Delhomme had a chance to actually put the Browns ahead on his next drive but overthrew receiver Brian Robiskie in the end zone. The drive ended without points when Hillis was stopped on 4th and 3 from the Rams' 17-yard line.

The call for Hillis up the middle, which immediately sounds far better than Metcalf up the middle ever did, may have been an ill-advised call but in the context of a preseason game it made sense. The Rams defense was having trouble wrapping Hillis to that point and the Browns already know that Phil Dawson can kick field goals. Mangini may take a gamble on 4th and 3 in the regular season as well, but probably not with a pedestrian off-tackle run. But this is the preseason and it's exactly the kind of experiment that should be run.

As for Hillis, if he continues to run like he did on Saturday night it's going to be tough to keep him off the field or, stated differently, it's going to be tough to get Montario Hardesty on the field. All Hillis does is run straight ahead and keep his legs moving. As simple as that sounds is as effective as it is.

Hillis isn't the kind of back that usually is felled by an arm tackle to the ankle. It might be a measure of the ineffectiveness of the Rams defense, hard to say, but it routinely took several players to finally stop Hillis, whether the ball had been handed off or thrown to him on a outlet pass. If Hillis can be that effective against other teams, the play action opportunities it creates are almost endless.

As good of a night as it was for Hillis, it may have been a better night for general manager Tom Heckert who traded Brady Quinn for Hillis. It's the kind of move that usually works out the opposite for the Browns. That's the real behind-the-scenes progress that this franchise needs more than anything else.

As for Hillis' running mate, Jerome Harrison, it was the kind of game that gives color to the reason that Harrison is the back the Browns always seem to want to replace. Harrison ran for only 13 yards on 5 carries but even more to his detriment were his fumbles. He actually put the ball on the ground on each of his first two carries but was only credited with one fumble. From there his night went downhill pretty quickly.

It's too soon to write Harrison off, mainly because he has the uncanny knack of being able to bounce back. But with Hillis, James Davis and Hardesty waiting in the wings, the Browns backfield suddenly seems crowded. Look for a trade.

But the Browns running game, based on the team's last four games of last season, was not the main worry on offense anyway. That would be the quarterback position and the receivers. Quarterback seems set. Thus it remains with the Browns' receivers as the group that will need to take the biggest step forward if the Browns' offense is ever going to become a unit that's universally respected around the league. On Saturday night, they didn't so much take a step backward as take a step sideways.

Mohamed Massaquoi sat out with a slight hamstring injury. This created opportunities for Robiskie and Chansi Stuckey and of the two, Stuckey was the more impressive, but only because he actually caught a few balls. Robiskie was a disappointing no-show, although he was open on the overthrown pass by Delhomme. Stuckey, who seems relegated to the third or fourth option, depending on how often Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll want to see Josh Cribbs on the field, had only 3 catches for 51 yards but he at least ran hard after his catches.

The wild card in this mix continues to be Cribbs. He had 5 catches for just 30 yards but one touchdown, a nice pass from backup quarterback Seneca Wallace. Whether he'll ever develop into a credible receiving threat still isn't clear. Getting the ball in his hands as much as possible is understandable, but forcing it into his hands is another matter. Cribbs doesn't run crisp routes and perhaps never will. That makes him much easier to cover for even average defensive backs. Yet it's hard to fault the Browns for continuing this experiment. His presence can be disruptive to defenses andCribbs never takes a play off, even in the preseason.

Like last week against the Green Bay, the defense is still far behind the offense. What's more apparent is that the problems they have aren't going to be remedied immediately, even if they are headed in the right direction. When Mangini gets done bitching to his team about its sloppy play, what will linger long after is the sight of Feeley literally having his way with the defense on that first drive.

Feeley is more Roy Rogers than Aaron Rodgers and yet there he was like Rodgers last week picking apart the defense with ease. On the Rams' first play Feeley tossed a short pass to tight end Billy Bajema that went for 16 yards. That was followed by an 11-yard Stephen Jackson run and then a series of dinks and dunks until 8 plays later when Feeley completed a 9-yard pass to tight end Daniel Fells for the touchdown and the early lead.

It was a dispiriting start for the defense and it may have continued had Feeley not been injured on that drive. Without Feeley, the Rams were forced to turn to rookie Sam Bradford and then a player from West Texas A&M and yet still found a way to eke out a victory with a couple of late drives that led to field goals.

Bradford is the Rams' latest savior, but it looks like the fans in St. Louis will have to wait some time before redemption day arrives. Bradford played like just what he is, someone playing in his second NFL game. There weren't any particular flashes of brilliance. Instead it was mostly wide-eyed looks by someone who is just trying to keep from being overwhelmed. In other words, he looked like Colt McCoy.

The game didn't end up being the feel-good experience that a beaten down fan base was waiting for but neither was it the colossal mess that fans were used to. Instead they got the mixed bag that a team in transition usually presents. In Cleveland, that actually qualifies as good news.


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M. said...

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