Monday, September 27, 2010

Hollow Gestures


It’s always interesting when a player takes on the burden of losing a game himself.

I remember when Bill Nelsen was quarterbacking the Browns around the 6th century B.C. (actually it was 1970) and after a forgettable performance apologized to the fans. I was pretty young then but I still remember how ridiculous it seemed that Nelsen was offering such a heart felt apology. Indeed, I can still hear Pete Franklin mocking Nelsen. It was a hollow gesture and Franklin knew it.

That’s pretty much how I feel about Eric Wright and his apology to the fans for his truly pitiful performance against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. It’s a ridiculous, meaningless gesture that does little to explain why the Browns lost.

First of all, and no particular offense to Wright, but I doubt his sincerity. Professional athletes have a common trait. They never take real blame for anything, particularly when it happens on the field. It’s a necessary defense mechanism so that they can stay focused on the next play or the next shot.

LeBron James is never going to accept any blame for the team’s meltdown last summer. He’ll go to his grave thinking he gave his best effort and that it a stifling Boston Celtics team. Tiger Woods never misses a three foot putt. If it goes off course it’s because there was a spike mark that suddenly reared its ugly head.

The same goes for Wright, especially Wright. Cornerbacks get burned all the time. It’s part of the job. The minute they start worrying about their last mistake is as quickly as they’ll make the next one.

So yes, even as Wright sounds contrite I doubt he really feels that he was singularly responsible for the loss.

And you know what? He wasn’t. There are several reasons the Browns lost that game and Wright’s comparative lack of talent is just one of them.

If you want to find other culprits, consider for the moment that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco must have felt like the Browns were only playing with about 4 or 5 defensive backs. He felt almost no pressure the entire day, whether it was from the mediocre defensive line playing straight up or on any of the 387 blitzes that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dialed up.

Baltimore has a good offensive line, but it’s not the greatest in the history of the game. Indeed, that same, vaunted offensive line had trouble with both the New York Jets and the Cincinnati Bengals, which is why Flacco played so tentatively in both those games.

When pressured, Flacco gets rattled and when he gets rattled, he throws interceptions.

But on Sunday the defense had little opportunity, save for Flacco’s first pass of the game, to even sniff at an interception. That’s because Flacco had whatever time he wanted to find whichever receiver might be open.

This gets us to the next culprit responsible for Sunday’s loss. It wasn’t just Wright who couldn’t cover a receiver. None of Cleveland’s linebackers seem to have any clue on how to cover a tight end. The reason the Browns really didn’t sniff at an interception all day (again, save for Flacco’s first pass) was because whichever receiver he wanted to throw to was as wide open as receivers in this league ever get.

It looked like a 7-7 drill on Sunday except that the Browns’ 7 were told to stand in place like pylons while the receivers maneuvered their way around to get to an open spot. If Flacco had wanted to, he could have completed a pass to tight end Todd Heap on every play. It seemed like it was almost out of boredom that he went to Anquan Boldin anyway. And when he tired of throwing to Boldin, he went back to Heap.

I can only imagine the bitching that T.J. Houshmandzadeh must have been doing to Flacco in the huddle when he wasn’t getting his share of touches. He was open most of the day, too, but there’s only so many ways to distribute the football.

But lest anyone think this is an aberration, it’s not. This gets us to the next culprit in the loss. The Browns are easily one of the least talented teams in the league. They may be fighting Buffalo for the actual title but come mid December they’ll settle that where it should be settled, on the field.

Let’s not forget about the Browns’ coaching staff, either. There’s a lot to like about Ryan, there really is. He speaks his mind, he’s brash, and he’s even a tad reckless. He brings an attitude that this team hasn’t had in years. But he can be cowboy reckless and Sunday was a perfect example. Ryan simply had no business calling for an all out blitz that would leave Wright exposed given how poorly Wright had been playing all day.

Ryan knows his defense isn’t very talented but sometimes he lets the schemes get in the way of that fact. The first two games of the season gave Ryan a sense that maybe his defense was developing faster than he thought. As a result he got himself into a chess match on Sunday forgetting that he only had about half the pieces. The checkmates came fast enough and, frankly, the score could actually have been worse.

While Ryan is the obvious goat, at some point head coach Eric Mangini has to step in and save Ryan from his own tendencies. After Wright gave up the second touchdown to Boldin, Mangini called Ryan over to explain what happened. That conversation will probably be lost to history but if it had been conducted in text messages or on Twitter, there would have been plenty of “wtf”s from Mangini and plenty of “?” back from Ryan. Meanwhile, Flacco and Boldin would probably be texting each other a bunch of “LOL”s.

Then of course there were the usual gremlins that are now becoming part of the team’s overall makeup. On Sunday there were 8 more penalties, plenty of the “offsides” and “false start” variety. Quarterback Seneca Wallace had an untimely delay of game penalty and then of course was that pitch to a running back who wasn’t expecting it. Wallace to the blame for that, like a good quarterback should, but it was clear that he and running back Peyton Hillis were simply not on the same page.

It’s a myth that this team needs to play a perfect game to win, but just barely. Based on the results of these first three games and considering the swath of competition, I’d say 98% would suffice. The problem though is that it isn’t even 50% there right now which, oddly, is probably improvement since the Browns for most of last season were an incredibly inept team.

In some sense Eric Wright probably was one of the reasons the Browns lost to the Ravens but in the larger sense, this team just isn’t good enough yet for just one person to have that kind of impact.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Burned Again


When Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini was harping at his players earlier this week about the mental mistakes that were killing this team, maybe defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should have been paying attention.

With the Browns in the lead as the fourth quarter started and the the Baltimore Ravens seemingly playing from their heels, Ryan dialed up an ill-advised all out blitz on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, a call that left cornerback Eric Wright all alone to cover Anquan Boldin. Boldin and Flacco couldn't have found a better match up and made Wright look foolish, just as they had done twice previously in the game, as Boldin grabbed an easy touchdown pass in the end zone to give the Ravens a 21-17 lead. More importantly, the touchdown completely shifted the momentum of the game and ultimately led to the Ravens 24-17 victory, the final points coming on a Billy Cundiff 49-yard field goal.

It would be hard to overstate how ill-advised Ryan's call really was, but let's at least set the context.

For the third straight game, the Browns went into the locker room with the score 14-10 and a 2-game history of showing no ability to score in the second half. But with star-in-the-making Peyton Hillis running like Mike Alstott the entire day, the Browns were able to take a 17-14 lead with just seconds gone in the fourth quarter.

The statistics will show that the score came on a Seneca Wallace to Ben Watson 1-yard touchdown pass. But it was a touchdown set up by a 46-yard run from Hillis and a 15-yard roughing penalty by safety Tom Zbikowski tacked on when Zbikowski tackled Hillis out of bounds, mostly out of frustration. Hillis had been overpowering the Ravens defense all day and had rushed for over 140 yards by that point.

After the Phil Dawson kick off, the Ravens took over on their own 31 yard line and seemed to be getting mostly in their own way early in the drive with a pair of false start penalties and a roughing penalty on tight end Todd Heap. But the Ravens started picking away, eventually moving into Cleveland territory. Flacco then hit Heap for 14-yards down to the Cleveland 32-yard line.

The Browns' defense held the Ravens on the next two plays, setting up that crucial 3rd and 5 play at the Cleveland 27-yard line. Hold here and a Cundiff field goal and a tie game looks to be the worst that can happen. Ryan, though, had other ideas and decided that a little carpe diem was in order, sending 8 players at Flacco. But Flacco's offensive line fended off the blitz, Boldin made Wright bite on a head fake right then went left and grabbed the 27-yard pass for the touchdown.

You could feel the air come out of the Browns' balloon and for all practical purposes the game was over. The Browns did have time and a chance at the end of the game to move into a position tie the game, but Wallace tried to his Josh Cribbs on a long pass down the sideline on a 3rd and 2 with just over 4 minutes to play but missed badly. The Browns were forced to punt and never got the ball again.

Any football coach will tell you that when you live by the blitz you die by the blitz as well and that's exactly what the blitz-happy Ryan did. What made the call so strange is the fact that it left Wright all alone on Bolding and Wright had already more than proven he couldn't cover Boldin, having given up two other touchdowns to him, one for 8-yards in the first quarter and a second for 12 yards in the 2nd quarter. It was exactly the wrong call at the wrong moment on the wrong player and all it did was cost the Browns the game.

In all, Boldin had 8 receptions for 142 yards, most of which were against Wright. Maybe Wright, who is usually pretty reliable, was starting Boldin in his fantasy league or maybe it wasn't Wright at all, but Brandon McDonald slipping back onto the team donning a Wright jersey. Whatever else it was, though, it was clearly Wright's worst game as a professional.

It would be easy to point out that Boldin on Wright is a mismatch of major proportions given Boldin's size and Wright's lack thereof, but these kinds of match ups are common in the NFL. The real question now will be how Wright will respond to such a public flogging.

Ultimately, the loss was expected, just not the way it happened. The Browns played the Ravens competitively throughout, which is the surest sign of progress given how poorly the Browns played the Ravens last season.

The Browns defense mostly dared Flacco, who had been struggling, to beat them and all Flacco did was respond. Finding ample time throughout the game to set his feet and scan the field, Flacco was 22-31 for 262 yards and the three touchdowns to Boldin.

But even with Flacco returning to form, the Browns, behind Hillis and Wallace, were certainly keeping it interesting.

In the first half, with the Browns down 14-3 and looking as if their best chance to get in the end zone would have been if safety T. J. Ward could have held on to a sure pick-6 interception on Flacco's first pass of the game, Hillis went to work and the Browns got back into the game.

There was a short pass that went for 11 yards and then a mere 5 yard run. But the run that signified the entire drive, indeed Hillis' entire inspired approach was a play through a huge hole on the right side of the line that went for 25 yards. About 17 yards into the run, Ravens safety Dawan Landry stood waiting and Hillis buried his helmet into Landry's chest and pushed Landry for the final 8 yards before reinforcements came to help Landry bring Hillis down. The drive ended with Hillis running behind fullback Lawrence Vickers in a hole cleared by left tackle Joe Thomas for an easier than it looked touchdown that closed the gap to 14-10.

It was the kind of drive the Browns needed at that exact moment. Without it, they might have folded for the rest of the game. As it was, it gave them the momentum going into halftime and knowing they'd get the ball back to start the second half.

But the Browns couldn't capitalize on the momentum to start the second half as the Ravens decided that keying on Hillis might be a good idea. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll kept running Hillis at the Ravens anyway and Hillis eventually broke the 46-yard run that seemed to have turned the game the Browns' way.

Hillis ended the game with 144 yards, the first time a Browns' running back had gone over 100 yards against the Ravens. He also added 36 more yards on 7 receptions. Wallace, too, helped keep the vaunted Ravens' defense off balance, passing effectively throughout the game, finishing with 18-24 for 141 yards and 1 touchdown.

Wallace managed the game well enough throughout and didn't make any crucial mistakes. But if he had one fault it was keying too much on receiver Josh Cribbs, who had 5 receptions for 58 yards, and his running backs. Wallace didn't throw a ball toward Mohamed Massaquoi all day, even when he appeared to be open.

If Wallace is going to be effective as a quarterback, he's going to have to find a way to get other receivers involved. Still, Wallace did more than enough to legitimately create an issue of whether or not he should sit when injured quarterback Jake Delhomme heals from his high-ankle sprain. Wallace showed decent pocket awareness, scrambled mostly at the right time and was accurate throughout the day.

Once again, though, the Browns are well into another season and win-less. The little victories and progress made are nice but real victories are the ultimate measuring stick and in that the Browns look like they'll continue to come up short for awhile longer.

They play Cincinnati and Atlanta at home the next two weeks and then go on the road for games against Pittsburgh and New Orleans before the bye week. If they make it through that stretch with even one win, it would qualify as a minor miracle. Most likely they will hit another bye week win-less again and trying to convince the fans that these little victories and progress will eventually lead to something bigger. I'd say it would be the toughest sales job in Cleveland, but for the foreseeable future that belongs to Indians president Mark Shapiro.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lingering Items--Replacements Edition


Twice this week head coach Eric Mangini has called out his own players publicly for the mounting mistakes they’ve been making. He’s done it in the most emphatic way possible, telling them publicly that if you fumble the ball, if you forget the snap count, if you can’t get two feet in bounds on a pass, you’ll find a spot on the bench.

If nothing else, these kinds of mini-tirades certainly appease the fans. It lets them know that the coach sees the same things they do and that he’s taking care of it. It’s a refreshing approach given how former head coach Romeo Crennel would just let these little things linger, holding no one accountable.

But these kinds of public tongue lashings also signal a bit of desperation on Mangini’s part. He knows that what he’s telling his players during the week isn’t sinking in so he’s taking that bit of dirty laundry public in hopes that a little embarrassment goes a long way.

Beyond all that, though, is a much more pragmatic question: who is Mangini going to play instead? If Jerome Harrison is the best running back on the team and Peyton Hillis is second, that leaves basically James Davis left to carry the ball. Maybe Davis can catch Boyce Green-like lighting in a bottle for a season, but I tend to think that if Davis was better than either of the two in front of him, he’d be starting.

Still, for a team that’s been running in place for more than 10 years now, Mangini could start Davis Love III at running back and the fans probably wouldn’t much notice, so used are they to watching a constantly changing carousal of players act exactly the same way that it makes one think that there must be something else in the water in Berea besides staph.

As bad as the situation is at running back, it’s even worse at receiver. Mangini can try to pump up Josh Cribbs as a receiver knowing that Cribbs is a fan favorite, but the more he does that the more it looks like he’s trying to deflect attention away from the fact that the actual professional receivers on the roster, all of which he brought in, aren’t very good at the moment.

There were some veteran receivers available for the Browns to bring in but general manager Tom Heckert and Mangini undoubtedly decided to instead try and develop what they have on the roster. That makes sense, but it’s also the same road that former general manager Phil Savage went down when he decided to start two rookies in the secondary a few seasons ago. Eric Wright developed but Brandon McDonald did not and, not surprisingly, the Browns are not any further ahead. Indeed they ended up having to once again replenish the secondary this last off season.

There is no right answer to any of this. But it is these little things that are the most frustrating part of a team that is still in the early development stage playing against teams far more mature.

**

To be a member of the Cleveland Browns once is to be a member for all time. Browns fans will celebrate with almost equal passion the greats like Jim Brown or Leroy Kelly as they will revel in the awful players that have passed this way.

That’s why Browns fans can’t get enough news about the failings of those ex-Browns for whom there were previous high hopes. It’s why so many fans have their eyes on Arizona for the moment. They want to see if Derek Anderson is missing open receivers half a continent away. He is.

But distance and a different conference make it tough to keep track of Anderson. Not so with one of the league’s most mercurial, most miserable personalities, Braylon Edwards.

For reasons only Edwards could articulate, he has been wearing what looks to be the recently discarded beard of Joaquin Phoenix. Ok, it’s a personal style choice. It makes him look ridiculous, as if he’s trying to advance his own Amish-chic style, but if he thinks it’s enhancing his rep with the lady folk, then have at it.

That’s the least of his sins. The most, which means the latest, is his recent DWI arrest at approximately 5:16 a.m. Tuesday when he was caught driving around a few of his fellow Jets back from wherever it is that Jets go at 5 a.m on a Tuesday while having about .16 blood alcohol content. Just a guess here, but Edwards may have been acting as the designated driver. Oy vey!

It’s not a surprise that Edwards tried to wrangle his way out of the arrest that was about to come his way. It’s an age-old tradition for boorish celebrities who, when not talking about themselves in the third person are telling those trying to hold them accountable “do you know who I am?”

Maybe the arresting officer was another one of those Michigan haters. Maybe the officer, stuck with the miserable task of riding the streets of Manhattan in the early morning hours for a measly $25 an hour wasn’t impressed with Edwards and his New York flash and attitude. Maybe the officer was just a Giants fan. Whatever it was, Edwards once again finds himself on the wrong side of the law, meaning that he’ll probably run to his mommy once again to get her to defend her misunderstood little boy to the local media.

Believe me, Edwards isn’t a misunderstood anything. He’s a marginally talented football player with an entitlement complex that runs deeper than the Atlantic Ocean. He never accepts responsibility for his own misdeed, blames others for his misfortunes, and has little if any respect for anyone. I’d say he’s a misanthrope but I don’t want to insult the misanthropes among us.

Edwards has given the perfunctory apology to his fans, his team and his current city but as Browns fans know full well, Edwards is as sincere as a Vegas stripper.

The Jets are being rightfully criticized for not taking a much harsher approach to Edwards. They are punishing him in the most symbolic of ways possible. He’ll have to sit out the first series on Sunday. When did Rex Ryan turn into Rich Rodriguez?

It will now be up to the league to send a message to Edwards that the Jets won’t. Edwards has a history and should get a suspension. If the NFL takes a different approach then by proxy they are undercutting the message they tried to send to Donte Stallworth via his suspension when he killed Mario Reyes while driving drunk. Remember, Edwards was drinking with Stallworth a few hours prior to that tragic accident.

And if none of that is reason enough to suspend Edwards, then the NFL should do it simply because that’s the only message the most of these knuckleheads truly understand. They only thing they have in their lives, really, are the games. Give them a taste of what it feels like on the outside looking in and it tends to bring them back into focus, especially when it costs them a game check or two.

On the other hand, what’s the chance it will have any impact on Edwards other than to embolden his “me vs. the world” attitude? Just be glad he’s in a Jets uniform. On this Browns team at this moment, it’s far better that Edwards stays firmly entrenched in the ex-Browns category and that we enjoy watching this car wreck from afar. Just hope that nobody innocent gets hurt in the meantime.

**
The Browns have lost two very winnable games already this season. If they’re going to reach the even modest expectations that fans had for them going into the season, they’re going to have to now win two games they aren’t supposed to win.

One of those games potential wins is this week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens. There’s a pretty good chance that the offense may actually get shut out this weekend and if that happens it’s going to be difficult to win, not impossible. But if the offense can score just a little, there’s a far better chance for the Browns to win than most might think.

The Ravens are once again defense strong and offense weak. Joe Flacco is playing like he’s wearing a Browns uniform and it’s kept the Ravens’ offense as stuck in the mud as the Browns. No surprise.

The Browns also represent a breather on a tough opening schedule for the Ravens, making it more likely that they’ll be overlooked The Ravens had tough games against the Jets and the Bengals to open the season and then next play the Steelers, the Broncos and Patriots before they get another breather against Buffalo. In other words, the Browns appear on the Ravens’ schedule at exactly the right moment for them to be taken lightly.

If the Browns can pull off the win, it will certainly turn brighten the pall over the franchise after the first two weeks. A loss, on the other hand, and it’s a long time until week 12 when the Carolina Panthers come to town.

**

According to Friday’s Plain Dealer, Jake Delhomme has a high ankle sprain, although the Browns haven’t and won’t confirm as much. Assuming it’s true, it’s likely Delhomme will be out a few more games at least.

It begs the question that will serve as this week’s question to ponder: are the Browns really going to enter into the meat of their schedule with Seneca Wallace as the starter and Colt McCoy as the back up?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Solving One Problem at a Time


There will come a point where it won’t be too early to make judgments about the Cleveland Browns and even if that’s not now that day is coming soon enough.

Two games into a season that didn’t offer anything more than false hope, the Browns don’t just look stuck in a rut, they look like most any other Browns team in the last 11 years and that’s not a compliment. The politically correct view is to counsel patience and let’s see if that continues. That’s fine for now, but that doesn’t mean anyone should accede to the requests of the apologists among us and essentially bury our heads in the sand, either.

Seneca Wallace, starting for one of the few times in his 8 year career, may have been brought in to merely manage the game, just like Jake Delhomme was brought in to merely manage the game. But their approach hasn’t resulted in anything substantially different from what fans have seen before—critical mistakes at critical moments that turn winnable games in the wrong direction.

If you take it as a given, which I think you should, that the Browns work on the little things in practice under head coach Eric Mangini, ask yourself why hasn’t all that emphasis taken hold yet this season?

Maybe there’s only so many ways you can say the same thing. If that’s the case, I can understand the view as I have to write about these guys week in and week out and have to fight the building desire to simply slap a headline above the words “See last week” or “Ditto” after each game and move on to other, less painful pursuits such as having a tooth extracted by drilling through my arm pit. Maybe the players are all on AT&T’s network and Mangini’s using Verizon. Who knows?

But if part of Mangini’s job is to find out why his players aren’t listening, part of my job is to find out why Mangini isn’t succeeding at his job, so I press on.

At its root, this is fundamentally a bad team. On offense there are exactly two players that could start on a good NFL team: Lawrence Vickers and Joe Thomas. There are a few others that would see lots of playing time on good NFL teams but probably wouldn’t start. Eric Steinbach and Peyton Hillis come to mind. I think a few teams might like Mohammad Massaquoi and a few others might like Evan Moore.

That doesn’t mean that if the Browns disbanded tomorrow that others on that unit wouldn’t get picked up. They probably would but it would largely depend on their contract status. At best they would be spare parts on several but not all teams.

Walk through the defense and it’s much the same story. I’m sure most teams would like to have Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, though right now neither would probably start for good NFL teams. Ahtyba Rubin would find himself starting for other teams, maybe Shaun Rogers, though he’s currently on the Brett Favre plan when it comes to preseason. But the rest of the starters are like their offensive brethren, glad that the Browns actually didn’t fold when Art Modell moved the team. Otherwise, they’d struggle to find a job in the NFL.

Josh Cribbs would start for nearly every other NFL team, but solely on special teams. No team outside of Cleveland would make him a starting receiver.

That’s just the obvious stuff but it’s important to note nonetheless because it’s not as if Mangini is working with the 2007 New England Patriots here.

But the inability to make a tackle or cover a receiver or hold a block or run through a hole should be separate and distinct from the ability to stay onsides, move with the snap count, block without holding, not interfere with a receiver or avoid hitting a player after the whistle blows. In other words, it’s not a good enough argument to say that a lack of talent is why the Browns continue to make mistakes.

Ok, a lack of talent is not completely divorced from making mistakes. A defensive back that consistently gets burned by a receiver is more likely to grab him or make illegal contact downfield in order to slow him up. An offensive lineman is far more likely to hold a player he can’t otherwise block. A quarterback desperate to impress is more prone to take unreasonable risks. But what about the false starts and the late hits? What’s the excuse there? Exactly, there isn’t one.

Reading the post game comments of a number of players they were consistent in saying that Mangini emphasizes eliminating mistakes and turnovers. Mangini himself talked about it to the point of frustration in his post game press conference.

And yet none of this emphasis really has taken hold just yet. Either the players have long since tuned out Mangini or never were really on the same wavelength with him. Whichever, the net result is that the Browns were a team almost deliberately undisciplined under former head coach Romeo Crennel and despite improvement last season have regressed this season.

Does this mean Mangini’s job is in trouble? Well, probably no more now than when the season started. But if club president Mike Holmgren ever does decide to let him go, you can bet your next pension check that a lack of disciplined play will be one of the key reasons and the sense is that Mangini is well aware of that fact. You can read it on his face.

No one is suggesting that the Browns should play mistake-free week in and week out. It’s a goal, of course, but it’s more aspirational than achievable.

But for the Browns, the problem is that a lack of discipline coupled with a lack of talent is as deadly combination as there exists in football. It’s tough enough going against the opponent across the field when you already know they’re a better. Lopping on top of it idiotic penalties and mental lapses makes it nearly impossible to win, particularly when you can’t then rely on your team’s underlying talent to overcome those problems.

It’s a bit of apples and pineapples comparison to be sure, but the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday played an entire game without one penalty. No one stresses playing disciplined and mistake-free more than Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel and over time you can certainly see how that emphasis has manifested itself on the field.

If anything, it should be harder to get a group of 18-22 year olds to play in a disciplined fashion than a group of seasoned professionals. And yet the Browns thus far have literally thrown away two games against equally mediocre teams because they can’t seem to apply the lessons that a group of college kids 120 miles south seem to understand.

Mangini was brought here in part because he was much more of a disciplinarian than Crennel. The statistics certainly bear this out. In the two years prior to Mangini’s arrival, the Browns committed 195 and 194 penalties. At the same time, Mangini’s Jets teams committed 170 and 156. Last season, the Browns committed 178 penalties, similar to where the Jets were under Mangini.

Through two games this season the Browns have committed 24 penalties, 14 on offense and 10 on defense. That’s an astounding pace by any standard and certainly won’t continue. Does that mean these two games were a fluke? Partially, but there always comes a point when a fluke becomes a trend. Four games in is usually the point where you start drawing real conclusions and where you’ll really see Mangini start to sweat if things don’t change.

The other thing about this team, beyond the myriad of mistakes, is the stilted nature of the offense. But we’re not here to solve every problem at once. Let’s stick with the small stuff for now and tomorrow or the next address whether anyone outside of Mangini thinks Brian Daboll is qualified to be a NFL offensive coordinator.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Same Old Same Old


Leave it to the Cleveland Browns to pose the musical question, can a center really lose a football game? If you answered yes, then you're in the camp that blames Alex Mack's ridiculous roughing penalty late in the first half of Sunday's Browns' 16-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs as the reason Phil Dawson was unable to convert a field goal that would otherwise have been the difference in the game. If you answered no, then you're in the camp that blames a stagnant and undisciplined offense that once again failed to score in the game's second half.

Mack's penalty, coming as it did off two plays after Ahtyba Rubin's interception of a tipped Matt Cassel pass, cost the Browns 15 critical yards relatively deep in Kansas City territory. But on the other hand, Dawson is usually reliable even from 42 yards (he's 46-68 lifetime on field goals between 40-49 yards) so it's not as if that particular penalty really cost the Browns the victory.

Besides, a case could be made that Seneca Wallace's ill-advised pass to Chansi Stuckey earlier in that quarter that was picked off and returned 33-yards for a touchdown by Brandon Flowers was far more costly.

But really, none of that matters because the bigger picture is that once again the Browns were simply not good enough in any phase of the game as they handed the sell out crowd the usual dose of home opener blues, this time made a little more bitter coming on Ring of Honor day.

If the Browns ever run out of players to honor, and considering the last 10 years it is a distinct possibility, and start honoring individuals games instead no one will have to root through the archives for a tape of this disaster, assuming they can get their hands on last week's tape from the Tampa Bay loss. The two games were remarkably similar.

Both games featured critical interceptions in the second quarter. Both featured an offense that either made no adjustments at the half or could not counter the adjustments made by the opponent at the half, take your pick. And both featured enough other mistakes and penalties to make one wonder exactly what are the Browns working on during the week.

Seneca Wallace, subbing for an injured Jake Delhomme, became the 15th different starting quarterback of the “new” Browns. He wasn't awful but there was nothing about the performance that gave him a leg up on any of the other 14 either.

Like Delhomme last week, Wallace was able to complete a long pass for a touchdown. Delhomme's was to Mohammed Massaquoi. Wallace's was to his offensive kindred spirit, Josh Cribbs. It came just a few plays after the Flowers return for a touchdown and came, coincidentally enough, when Cribbs got behind Flowers in the secondary.

But from that point forward the Browns offensive fell asleep. They finished the half with two straight punts and the Dawson missed field goal. In the second half, every Browns drive ended in a Reggie Hodges punt and only four plays, including a Hodges punt, took place on the Kansas City side of the field.

In all, the Browns had a dismal 55 yards in the second half, 39 of which came through the air. And yet, despite all that, the Browns had the opportunity for one last gasp had the defense, which otherwise played well once again, been able to stop the Chiefs from gaining a critical half-yard late in the fourth quarter.

With 2:41 remaining in the game, the Chiefs took over at the Browns 45 yard line as the result of a Hodges 37-yard punt from deep in Cleveland's own end zone. With only two time outs remaining, the Browns were forced to use them as the Chiefs kept the ball on the ground in order to keep the clock moving.

After Thomas Jones was held for a 2-yard gain on 3rd and 3, the Chiefs faced a critical 4th and 1 from the Cleveland 36-yard line with two minutes remaining.

Knowing that the Browns only needed a field goal to win the game, Chiefs head coach Todd Haley eschewed a pooch punt and instead decided to try and win the game right there. Cassel handed the ball to Jones and he dove far enough on top of the pile that formed at the line of scrimmage to get the few feet he needed. A review was no help and with the first down, the Chiefs were able to run out the clock to secure the victory.

That's not to suggest that the Browns would have been able to move into field goal position anyway. Indeed, it's fair to suggest that it really wasn't much of a gamble for Haley. Still it served as a gutsy call at that moment, one that gave the Chiefs an unexpected 2-0 start and one that could buoy his team for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, there was no need for gutsy calls on the Browns' side of the ball. The offense never really gave the coaches that chance. While offensive coordinator Brian Daboll ran a very balanced attached, it's fair to ask what happened to the Browns' running game that literally shredded the Chiefs last season. With Jerome Harrison getting the bulk of the carries, it was mostly non-existent. Harrison carried 16 times for a total of 33 yards. Peyton Hillis had 35 yards in just 8 carries.

In his post game comments head coach Eric Mangini credited a major overhaul in personnel in Kansas City's front seven for the stunning turnaround from last season. Maybe. Perhaps it was just the return of Romeo Crennel to the job that suits him best, defensive coordinator for the Chiefs that was the real reason that the Browns offense couldn't get out of its own way. We'll never really know because Crennel wasn't in Tampa Bay last week and the offense still couldn't perform.

As bad as the offense was again, it's not as if that was the only problem. For the game the Browns had 9 penalties for 78 yards. Mangini wouldn't say directly that a team like the Browns, suffering as it does from talent deficiencies, has to play a nearly perfect game in order to win, but had he no one would have disputed the point.

The Browns mistakes were too numerous for them but not necessarily too numerous for an otherwise decent team to overcome. So much of what happens on Sundays is about overcoming the unexpected. The Browns at this point can't even overcome the expected.

As much as the Browns' two losses seemed to be mirror images, arguably the offensive performance this week was actually worse. Last Sunday the Browns could always point to poor field position for most of the second half as an excuse for playing so conservatively. This week, with Kansas City doing its level best to keep Josh Cribbs from breaking a return gave the Browns decent field position most of the afternoon, including the second half.

But a very ineffective Harrison and a very average Wallace could not make the one or two plays needed to keep any drive going.

On the day, Wallace was 16-31 for 229 yards, the one touchdown and, of course, the one crucial interception. Cassel wasn't anything special, completing just 16 of 28 passes for 176 yards and two interceptions, one by Rubin, the other by Sheldon Brown.

The defense should be credited for handcuffing Cassel and mostly keeping a decent Chiefs running game in check. Indeed once again it played well enough and put the offense in a position to win the game and once again the offense failed to cooperate. If the defense can hang in long enough, at some point they'll be rewarded. But since this is the Browns, there is every reason to believe that if an offensive explosion ever does occur, the defense will probably fall apart in that game.

Things don't get better for the Browns next week, or for the next five weeks for that matter. The Baltimore Ravens may be having their own set of issues on offense but if the Browns can't move the ball against two of the league's more mediocre defenses, one wonders what the over and under for total offense might be against the Baltimore Ravens. One hundred yards and take the under seems a pretty good bet.

There were a lot of pundits that called this week's game a near must win for the Browns. In truth it wasn't. In fact, the Browns haven't played a must win game in years unless it's a must win for a coach to hang on to his job and don't look to play in any this year either.

All you can expect from a team this bad is progress. Unfortunately, two games into the season it is, as the kids like to say, the same old same old.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Walking Two Paths at Once


If you were surprised by the Cleveland Browns’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season’s first week, perhaps you shouldn’t have been. In something that is no small coincidence, the Browns had another starting quarterback to open the season and it’s not as if those two things are unrelated.

One of the most obvious problems for the Browns is that they’ve been in a do-loop of transition and reinvention for the last decade. The lack of continuity is holding this franchise back and yet continuity for its own sake is hardly ever the answer either.

When Mike Holmgren took over this franchise he faced the same dilemma that everyone whose fingerprints are on this franchise has faced. Blow the damn thing up or try to make sense out of the mess he inherited. No small task making that decision so it’s not a surprise that he did a little of each.

In somewhat of a nod to trying to have your cake and eat it to, Holmgren opted for continuity at the top by keeping head coach Eric Mangini and a refresh in the rest of the front office and at the quarterback position. Maybe it will be successful but then I’m reminded of the sage advice, oft repeated, that you can’t ride two horses with one ass.

The problem with the approach was on full display Sunday. This isn’t the time to get into a full fledged screed about whether or not Eric Mangini should have been retained. That ship has long since sailed. Instead, it is a reminder that decisions have consequences.

Mangini seems far more relaxed this season than last and I attribute that to the demotion he had to accept in order to retain his job. No longer responsible for the draft or even the final roster, all Mangini has to do is coach the team and at least in terms of how he carries himself, less responsibilities seem to agree with him.

But there are certain things that come with a Mangini-coached team.

For example, in far too many games you’re often going to be left wondering why his teams struggle to make adjustments at halftime and likewise struggle to make counter punches to the adjustments that opposing teams make. You’re also going to be left wondering at least once a game about one questionable decision or another that he makes when the pressure is on.

Such a decision on Sunday was foregoing any of the three time outs that he had in his pocket on that crucial 4th and 3 play late in the fourth quarter. Somewhere a cogent explanation exists, but I haven’t heard one yet. Essentially Mangini wanted to make sure he had the time outs later if he needed them rather than use them when he actually needed them. It’s the kind of strange that tends to be part of the Mangini package.

The other thing with a Mangini-coached team is that they tend to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. That’s somewhat a byproduct of having a roster of less talented, less experienced players. But it’s not like the play calling was all that imaginative in the second half, either. It looked like offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was scared of taking a chance and that carried over onto the field.

You can put that directly on Daboll, but as Freud used to say, there are no accidents. Daboll is a product of those above him. Mangini is risk adverse. That’s not a dig. Jim Tressel is as well. But where they differ is that Tressel is much better at making that aversion work for his teams than is Mangini, at least from what we’ve seen so far.

Holmgren’s decision to blow certain things up though didn’t have any better results on Sunday, either.

No one is ready to argue the point that Derek Anderson had a future in Cleveland. A few more may want to take on the debate over Brady Quinn but the point remains that the lack of continuity at quarterback with this franchise in the last 10 years is as much to blame with its lack of success as its lack of continuity in the front office.

Whatever else Jake Delhomme may be, he’s not a long-term answer for this franchise. The chances of him even starting every game this year are slim, whether because of injury or ineffectiveness. The chances of him being the starting quarterback next season are even slimmer yet for much the same reasons. He may be a transition quarterback but exactly a transition to what isn’t quite clear.

It’s nice to have a higher level professional taking the snaps this season, no doubt. It gives an illusion that things will be better. But this franchise isn’t going to be ready to take the next step until that position is settled for the long term which means it’s no closer to being settled now than it was when Quinn, for example, was still on the roster.

Ultimately the reason Holmgren and folks in positions like his tend to try to play both sides against the middle is because fans, for whatever they may say publicly, have trouble accepting that their team is rebuilding. They see players wearing Browns uniforms playing against players wearing Steelers uniforms and assume that all things are mostly equal. But as the losses pile up because the talent level between the teams is so dramatic they forget all about the expectations that were laid in front of them from the outset and instead demand change immediately.

This isn’t just a phenomenon in sports, by the way, it’s just where it’s most prevalent. The upcoming midterm elections are supposedly a referendum on the economy because most people just can’t accept the fact that digging out of any hole takes longer than they patience they have for it.

That’s certainly true with the Browns. Holmgren has been mostly straightforward with the fan base, letting them know this is going to take more than a few games and perhaps more than a few seasons before this franchise can return to prominence. But reading the message boards after the Browns loss suggests that very few got the message.

But I don’t blame the fans. Despite Holmgren’s words, his actions suggest that he is having trouble fully embracing the concept of a complete overhaul.

Let’s face it, it is a difficult concept to embrace. It’s a tough economy and the Browns, like several other NFL teams, are having trouble selling high priced tickets to fans who know going in that it’s a lousy investment of both time and money.

But turning a blind eye as many fans have done, even at the implied suggestion of Holmgren, isn’t going to do anyone any good. When the dust settles, the Browns still are a team in the early stages of a re-build and Delhomme is just another in a long line of quarterbacks who doesn’t have a long-term future here.

This will change eventually, it has to. But until it does, fans are just going to have to accept the fact that games like last Sunday’s are the norm and not the exception.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Back On Familiar Ground


So much for getting off to a fast start for the game and the season.

The Cleveland Browns, after dominating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early, saw that mojo disappear in the the dust of two key turnovers as they lost 17-14 on a hot, muggy and sometimes rainy day at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay.

The loss puts the Browns in a spot they know well, 0-1, to start a season. It also ends the modest 4-game win streak dating back to last season.

With the Browns leading 14-3 and seemingly on their way to, at worst, a field goal late in the first half, the Jake Delhomme that most fans feared might rear its ugly head once the regular season started did just that when he failed to see Ronde Barber closing in on tight end Ben Watson. Barber stepped in front of the pass and took it 61-yards to the Cleveland 2-yard line. From there, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, he of the broken thumb and rabid inexperience, found Michael Williams in the back of the end zone that closed the Browns' lead to 14-10. It was an acrobatic catch of a ball that had been tipped by Sheldon Brown.

In fairness to Delhomme, though, on the interception, he really hadn't noticed Barber much that entire first half in avoiding at least two other interceptions.

More importantly, though, it killed what ever momentum the Browns had mustered via a balanced offensive attack that for most of the first half kept the Buccaneers mostly scratching themselves.

The Browns had a chance on their opening drive of the second half to recapture the momentum and for awhile anyway, looked as if they had. But running back Peyton Hillis fumbled at the Tampa Bay 15-yard line, killing the Browns' last real threat of the day.

From there, the Browns offense played most of the second half scared, except when they were playing desperate. After exchanging punts with the Buccaneers, an exchange that ended up putting the Browns deep in their own territory with 6:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, Delhomme threw late and over the middle and everyone knows what happens when you throw late and over the middle. Corner back E.J. Biggers was there to receive the gift at the Browns' 39-yard line.

The Bucs, on the verge of putting the game away for good, showed why they are who we think they are as fullback Earnest Graham fumbled the ball at the Browns' 2-yard line. Lineback Eric Barton recovered and gave the Browns one last chance, or at least what looked like one last chance at the time.

But there would be no miracle drive and no memories, really, of a preseason that looked more promising. Delhomme couldn't complete the one pass he needed and the Browns turned it back over to the Bucs with at their own 14-yard line with a minute remaining.

But alas! The Buccaneers are who we think they are and they strangely gave the Browns still one final chance to tie the game. Eschewing a field goal that would have given them a 6-point lead and forced the Browns to score a touchdown with just seconds remaining, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris instead had Freeman attempt a pass only to see him get sacked and give the Browns one really last chance. But having burned all their time outs on the Tampa Bay possession, the Browns really never had much of a chance to get the ball into field goal range with any time left on the clock.

Not that it much mattered, but one of the key reasons the first last chance drive probably didn't produce came after Delhomme completed a pass to Josh Cribbs for 6 yards, setting up third and 4. With three time outs in their pocket, head coach Eric Mangini strangely decided the time wasn't quite right and instead hoped, apparently, to catch the Buccaneers' defense off-guard. It didn't work as the offense instead couldn't get set. Floyd Womack was whistled for the false start setting up a 4th and 9 and Delhomme's gasp of a throw to Chansi Stuckey that sailed harmlessly away.

Like a putt that looks good until it finds a way to avoid the cup at the last minute, the Browns looked like a team that knew what it was doing until it found a way to avoid a victory.

New quarterback Jake Delhomme,showing a veteran's poise, and a newly-slimmed down offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll,together involved the entire offense in a first half that would have been much more satisfying had it not also featured the usual mistakes.

In that first half alone, Delhomme completed passes to running back Peyton Hillis and Jerome Harrison and wide receivers Mohammad Massaquoi, Stuckey and Brian Robiskie. The pass to Massaquoi in particular was a thing of beauty, a tight spiral threaded between two Buccaneers defenders that went for 41-yards and the Browns' first touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. The half also featured nearly 100 yards of rushing from the combination of Harrison, Hillis and Cribbs.

But then there was the bad. The Delhomme interception late in the first half followed by the Freeman-to-Spurlock touchdown followed by the Hillis fumble early in the second half effectively put the Browns away. They just didn't know it at the time. From there the offense had four straight 3-and-outs and then the Delhomme interception by Biggers before their final two last gasp attempts.

Credit for that should probably go to the Buccaneers' defense. But a healthy dose of the credit or blame, depending on your perspective, can be laid at the feet of an offensive line that couldn't open up holes for the running game against a defense that was the worst in the league last season against the run. That same offensive line didn't give Delhomme much time either as most of his passes were rushed.

If there was a bright spot of sorts, it was probably the defense. The Buccaneers 17 points were hard earned and should not have been enough to win the game in any event. Tampa Bay's first points came via a 49-yard field goal from Conner Barth. Their first touchdown, which covered all of 3 yards, was set up by the Delhomme interception in the first half. Their second touchdown, a Freeman 33-yard pass to Michael Spurlock who had a step on Haden, was set up by a Reggie Hodges punt from the Browns' own end zone that gave the Bucs the ball at the Cleveland 47-yard line.

While Haden was the victim on the Freeman touchdown pass to Spurlock, he otherwise played well in his first NFL start. The same goes for rookie safety T.J. Ward. And while we're being free with the accolades, the linebackers played effectively throughout as well. In short, the defense was mostly solid.

For a team that thought it would struggle more on defense then offense, when the opposite proved to be the case it cost the team a victory it should have had.

Delhomme, counted on so heavily to lift this team beyond its current bottom-feeder status, was 20-37 for 227 yards, with most of those yards coming in the first half. The running game yielded another 104 yards but again, virtually all of it came in the first half.

The Buccaneers weren't all that impressive either. Freeman completed 17 of 28 passes for only 182 yards. But he had the two key touchdown passes and only turned it over once, an interception by Mike Adams in the second quarter that seemingly set up a Browns score that wasn't because of the Delhomme interception. On the ground, Cadillac Williams had a quiet 75 yards rushing, though he had a couple of good gains called back because of penalties, and Freeman added 33 yards, most of which came on one run.

In the pantheon where all losses go to be evaluated, this will go down as a bad loss for now. But because it came in the season's first week, at least there is plenty of time to recover. Beat a team you shouldn't and all is soon forgotten. Lose to the Kansas Chiefs next week, though, the team and town go into panic mode.

Still, don't read too much into this loss unless you were in the camp that thought the Browns were a playoff team. It's about baby steps now and when baby steps are involved, often times a fall is just around the corner. If the Browns can find a way to quickly stand back up, then this will just be another painful lesson in a very long learning process.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Just Another Opener


It’s opening week for the Cleveland Browns and though there are plenty of fans excited about that prospect there are probably more that no longer know what to think. This is what it’s like when you know before the season opens that your team won’t be playing for a championship.

It’s not that the Browns are hopeless at the moment. Indeed this is a team that looks to be one of the more improved teams in the league, if not in results than at least in direction. But that’s not much of a consolation prize to fans in a town who have borne witness to a very dispiriting baseball season and are about to bear witness to a basketball season where a .500 record will be considered an accomplishment.

Personally, I’m tired of adjusting expectations in order to figure out a way to make these hometown teams look successful. At some point the Indians, the Browns and the Cavaliers are going to have to find a way to adjust their expectations instead and figure out how to actually be successful and be truly worth of the fans that support them.

They all talk a good game, of course. Indians president-in-waiting, Mark Shapiro, has nothing if not the gift of gab. But he’s done nothing to articulate a coherent plan for returning the team to a level of success the fans tasted in the late ‘90s, mainly because that plan depended on money and his plan depends on everything but.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is well financed and has a knack for success. But he’s facing major headwinds. His team lost its most valuable asset and at the moment it seems incomprehensible to think that a player with anything approaching that level of talent will find his way to Cleveland outside of a magic ping pong ball.

But this is football season so for the moment we can cast aside those depressing scenarios for another, hopefully brighter, one.

We’ve heard from Browns president Mike Holmgren, as decent of a man as exists in the game, talk passionately about restoring a once proud tradition. Holmgren has done mostly right by his words, bringing in Tom Heckert, for example, to be his general manager.

And yet all of us, from Holmgren to Heckert to Eric Mangini to the guy cleaning the lint guards at the local Laundromat know that fixing what ails this franchise isn’t a one-year job. That’s the problem.

Holmgren and Heckert know there isn’t enough talent on this team. That message came through loud and clear in the first roster Heckert put together and in what he said afterward. It came through loud and clear in the amount of roster turnover that there’s been just since Mangini got here. Finally, it came through loud and clear in its almost shocking lack of homegrown players.

Heckert and Holmgren are realists, which is oddly refreshing. They know that it will take several drafts to get them to a respectable level. The problem that they face is that the NFL, like every other sports league, is an endless spin cycle in which anything can go wrong at almost any time. Fix one area of the team and a leak will spring from another.

When Phil Savage was handed the job as general manager, he too took a long and realistic look at the roster with owner Randy Lerner and determined that there were very few core players on it. He then went about trying to fix that problem and made some good decisions in the process, not unlike what Heckert and Holmgren are doing now. And yet, not even two years removed from Savage and the Browns are essentially reworking pretty much everything he did.

That may be an indictment of sorts on Savage certainly but it’s also an acknowledgement that professional athletes are so much more than the sum of their parts. You can have a young player grade out at the top on every conceivable metric and still not possess the internal wiring to make all of that talent work at the right time.

You can consider Matt Leinart as the current poster child for all that can go wrong when selecting your next franchise savior. He’s big, has a decent arm, and played in a program that should have prepared him well for his vocation.

What Leinart lacked was something that can never be measured, an “it” factor that is the dividing line between potential and realization. Maybe his being cut by the Arizona Cardinals will be the wake-up call he needs. Likely it will not.

The problem for Arizona though goes much deeper. Where once they saw a key building block around whom they were trying to build a team now all they see is a series of make-shift moves in hopes that the damage done to the franchise for being wrong won’t be too great. It will.

That’s the problem with the Browns. Brady Quinn didn’t work out and either did Derek Anderson. Who’s to say that once the defense is fixed the offense won’t need an overhaul? Jake Delhomme is in the last years of a decent career but Seneca Wallace ultimately is unproven and the league is literally littered with back up quarterbacks from big time programs like Texas who aren’t good enough to start.

Holmgren’s sobering assessment when he took over was that this team didn’t get this way over night and it won’t get better over night. They are the product of 10 years of poor personnel decisions, literally creating a roster with more holes to fill than time to fill it.

Every team has holes and it’s an unattainable goal to think that any team, whether it’s the Browns or the New England Patriots, will enter a season where there isn’t at least one visible flaw.

But where the Browns fall short right now is the sheer amount of visible flaws. The trick for Heckert will be to get as many fixed as quickly as possible before new, longer term issues develop. But that won’t be now, which gets us back to this season.

Does it really matter if the Browns finish 7-9 vs. 6-10 or even 5-11? Not really. What matters far more are the kinds of moves the team makes during the season in order to shore up its gaping holes. If Heckert can find another Matt Roth or two on the scrap pile, that’s one or two less problems come season’s end.

So as the Browns enter a season that offers little hope for redemption on the field, Browns fans enter another season in which hope is their only friend. That’s fine and it beats many of the alternatives, but as a method of operation it’s getting a little tiresome.

There’s more reasons than not to believe that the present regime will eventually bring a few rays of sunshine our way. Let’s just hope we don’t die of frostbite in the meantime.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Linebacker U


The Cleveland Browns roster now stands at a precarious 53 players. It is overloaded with linebackers and undernourished with cornerbacks. Yet all anyone can think of at the moment is “there goes another second round pick.”

Maybe it just seems this way but the Browns and the second round go together like LeBron James and Dan Gilbert. Montario Hardesty finds himself out for at least the season with a torn ACL and suddenly a Browns draft that looked so promising suddenly looks rather mediocre, T.J. Ward and Joe Haden notwithstanding.

Not surprisingly general manager Tom Heckert spent most of his post-cut press conference answering questions about why Hardesty, with his injury history, was drafted in the first place. Apparently it matters little to those doing the analyzing that Hardesty's latest injury is a new injury for him. All that matters is that he's been injured plenty in the past and so, if dog, rabbit.

Maybe Heckert will have to turn in his genius credentials after that pick, but who knows. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was injured plenty and no one ever thought he'd end up playing professional basketball. All he did was go on to have one of the more memorable careers in Cleveland Cavaliers history, but perhaps he's the exception and not the rule.

Still, facts aside, the focus on Hardesty is at once understandable and convenient. The Browns aren't exactly draft mavens in the second round with far more misses than hits over the years. And the Hardesty story does have the early makings of the Lawyer Tillman saga, another star-crossed second round pick. But it's not as if the Browns' season hinged on Hardesty in the first place.

In fact, the offense is the least of this team's worries at the moment. The real message coming through the rather odd composition of this roster at the moment is that the defense is going to struggle to raise its ranking at the end of last season as the 31st best defense in a league of 32 teams.

Forget about the actual players kept or discarded for a moment and just focus on the numbers. The Browns go into next week's season opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 12, count 'em 12, linebackers on the roster. That's more than any other team in the league, which means that if nothing changes the defense will at least lead the league in something.

Teams playing a 3-4 defense will always carry more linebackers than those playing the 4-3, but even by those standards the Browns' roster is seriously out of balance. If you go down the rosters of every team in the league, most playing the 3-4 carry 9 linebackers. A few have as many as 10. Those playing the 4-3 carrying 6 linebackers at most.

Heckert's and Mangini's fascination with linebackers is partially explained by the fact that D'Qwell Jackson is injured and may not return for a few games. But even 11 linebackers is excessive. And it's not as if the talent of that unit is so universally spectacular that Heckert and Mangini found it difficult to part with even of those assets.

Instead, it looks like the decision to keep this many linebackers was driven more by the weaknesses on both the defensive line and in the secondary. This is especially true in the secondary.

The Browns are currently carrying the least amount of cornerbacks in the league: 3. But Heckert was quick to point out that Mike Adams can play the corner, so there is that. And yet it may actually be a sign of progress that the team felt confident enough in the 3 (or 4) corners currently on the roster that they sent Brandon McDonald on to the next stage of his life.

McDonald was a Phil Savage project from the beginning. Thrust into a starter's role that he never deserved, McDonald simply didn't develop the consistency that a team needs. He'd always bracket one good game with 2 or 3 bad games and 4 or 5 mediocre ones. He'd make a nice interception and then blow coverage on a simple out patter on a wide receiver that would end up going for 25 yards. If he ever truly adopted to the speed of the pro game it was hard to tell.

A player like McDonald just puts too much pressure on a linebacker or a free safety because you're never quite sure he'll handle his assignment. It probably didn't help McDonald's cause that he seemed more interested in establishing his social media bona fides than in establishing himself as a credible NFL player. But ultimately he just isn't talented enough to play corner on a regular basis and the the Browns certainly aren't worse off because McDonald is now on the Arizona Cardinals roster.

The other thing about the secondary is that it is counting heavily on the contributions of two rookies in safety T.J. Ward and corner Joe Haden. That's an upgrade from McDonald, certainly, but regular season NFL games are going to be a real eye-opener for the two. The best fans can hope for is that the adjustments won't take too long.

Still, and with no disrespect to Adams, the Browns need more corners.

The number of defensive linemen on the roster is more conventional but that doesn't mean it will be any more effective when you consider that one of the keys to it is a a player coming off ankle surgery who wasn't on the field for one play of the preseason, Shaun Rogers.

Even when Rogers was healthy, the line was still ranked 28th against the rush. When virtually nothing else has changed about it except that Rogers is even less healthy than a year ago, how much better can it be?

Mangini has been almost effusive in his praise of Ahtyba Rubin and while Rubin is certainly a credible player, he's far from Rogers in his prime. Yet he currently sits as the best of a very mediocre bunch at the moment that includes journeymen like Kenyon Coleman and Robaire Smith.

When you add all of this up, any incremental improvement will have to come from the various smoke and mirror packages that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes to throw at opposing offenses. But that can only go so far, especially as the season drags on.

The one thing that you can count on when it comes to the defensive roster is that it's going to change, probably this week and the next and the next after that. The Browns may get down to 10 linebackers and 5 corners at some point only to see that revert to 12 linebackers and 3 corners later. Ultimately, though, it won't change until each unit gets far more settled than it is at the moment.

The offense on the other hand will be more stable, which signifies that it is likely to improve on its standing as the league's worst offense. Then again, that wouldn't be particularly hard.

With Hardesty out, there probably won't be much week to week change in the running backs. Jerome Harrison will be counted on but Peyton Hillis and James Davis look like solid contributors as well. The same goes with the wide receivers. This is a big year for players like Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie and even Josh Cribbs, if he's ever going to be a credible wide receiver in the league. But expect the Browns to give those players, along with Chansi Stucki and Carlton Mitchell the whole season.

The offensive line is always in a state of flux but yet it's hard to see the Browns doing much with this unit either, barring injuries. As for the quarterbacks, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace are upgrades based on their play in the preseason but that isn't always the best barometer either.

Still, the offense is a relatively settled bunch and while it's not one of the more talented units in the league, it will be better and more points will be scored.

The Browns, particularly the “new” Browns, have never been a team with much luck, something Heckert is just finding out. But teams tend to make their own luck anyway and that should come once this roster improves. The question is whether fans have the patience to wait another 2 to3 years.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Lingering Items--Controversy Edition



Here’s a case of what goes around comes around. In a recent story from ESPN.com, a NFL coach, discussing his quarterback situation and whether or not he was ready to name a starter for the regular season replied, "Who knows? Maybe we'll keep them guessing."

Sure it sounds like Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini circa 2009 vacillating over whether to start Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn at quarterback, but the coach in question is Arizona Cardinal’s Ken Whisenhut. Yet Anderson remains the common denominator. Same problem, different team.

If you really want to understand the difference thus far between this year’s Browns and last year’s Browns you only need to see the havoc that Anderson’s presence is causing for Whisenhut and the Cardinals to appreciate why teams simply can’t enter the regular season indecisive about their starting quarterback as the Browns did last season.

Mangini always seemed bright enough to understand that a quarterback controversy is never healthy for a team. Yet he got sucked right into a vortex of his own creation when he announced an open competition that ultimately divided the team and left them unprepared for the regular season. Mangini never could get comfortable enough with either Quinn or Anderson to give a full-fledged vote of confidence and as a result the offense suffered greatly. (The defense didn’t have any such excuse. It’s problem then as now is that there aren’t enough good players.)

But this isn’t about revisiting past sins so much as it is to illustrate why the Browns are on a better path now than the Cardinals unless Whisenhut does what either Phil Savage or Mangini should have done—dump one of the “starters” before this cancer spreads.

When Mike Holmgren became the president of the Cleveland Browns, he understood better than most the quarterback situation. It’s his raison d’ĂȘtre. It wasn’t just the pros and cons of each player that he grasped. More so he understood how Mangini’s frustration with each quarterback’s various deficiencies was making him indecisive about the key position in football and ultimately impacting the team.
Holmgren quickly determined that the Browns shouldn’t make any effort to re-sign Anderson. Holmgren was less certain about Quinn, mainly because Quinn never really had a chance to develop. But he was certain at least that Mangini wasn’t a Quinn fan. Having committed to Mangini, Holmgren deemed it foolish to force feed him a quarterback he didn’t want and had new general manager Tom Heckert trade Quinn, which actually worked out pretty well.

That paved the way, of course, for a far more settled situation at quarterback for the Browns. They signed Jake Delhomme and traded for a firmly established number two quarterback in Seneca Wallace. They then drafted Colt McCoy on the if-come. It’s really a textbook example of how to populate the quarterback position and it has settled this team in ways that the preseason can only hint at.
Meanwhile, in Arizona there is a churning controversy between Anderson, who thought he was signing as a back up, and former first round pick Matt Leinart. Somewhere between Anderson’s signing and now, Whisenhut and his coaching staff fell in love with Anderson’s strong arm and the cut of his jib and their infatuation with Leinart and his potential fell accordingly.

All of this culminated with Whisenhut unexpectedly naming Anderson as the team’s starter for the third preseason game, traditionally the most important game in the preseason, thus creating the inevitable quarterback controversy. Leinart didn’t help things of course by taking his case to the media.

If rumors are true, Whisenhut is actively trying to solve his problem by trading Leinart. Good luck there, on both fronts. Anderson has one year of superior performance under his belt. The problem is that it was in 2007 and since when he hasn’t been injured he’s been awful. And it’s not “awful” in the sense of it being bad-luck awful. The guy simply has no touch on the mid-range passes that are so crucial to an offense’s success. Couple that with an inability to scramble and a deer-in-the-headlights approach to reading defenses and you end up with someone who shouldn’t start for any team except in emergencies.

But Leinart hasn’t shown much either and probably never will. He was overrated coming out of college and eventually will become some other team’s pain in the butt.
All of this is of course a cautionary lesson about quarterbacks in general. They can have the right size and the right arm and still not make it. It really comes down to what’s between the ears and is why someone like Tom Brady can make it and someone like Matt Leinhart cannot.

Having learned that lesson, the Browns are now far better off. For Cardinals fans, it’s going to be a long year.
**


The Jim Brown controversy continued nearly unabated this past week but in the most unusual way. For reasons that make little sense, Brown leaked to the media his letter to Mike Holmgren and Randy Lerner about why he won’t be part of the Browns’ Ring of Honor ceremony.

Accuse the Browns all you want of being tone deaf on this or any other matter, but Brown is at least as tone deaf, particularly if he thought this letter would somehow garner him much sympathy for his position in a dispute that is much ado about nothing.

As usual, and as he’s done with almost everything else in his life, Brown has decided to take the road less traveled and for no particularly good reason.
That Brown sees himself as the oppressed in every situation is a given and unless you’ve walked in his shoes as a youngster or even as an adult and were exposed to the kind of racism that formed the core of his belief system, it will always be hard to relate to his thought pattern, let alone make sense of it.

And yet, why is it that when all of this is stripped away it seems like Brown’s complaints really boil down to money? Owner Randy Lerner, of his own volition and probably just to show everyone that he really is a Browns fan at heart, kept Brown coming around. Sure Brown carried an “advisor” title, but really he was basically a well-paid greeter. Brown saw his role much differently, if you believe the letter he wrote to Holmgren. He claims he was paid to offer his intelligence and logic to advise Lerner on football matters, reporting only to Lerner.

It doesn’t seem like Lerner saw it quite that way since he went out and hired Holmgren to play that same role in a much more formal sense. For good measure, Lerner then foisted Brown on him.

But just taking Brown at his word on his role (which, by the way, explains plenty about why Lerner made such a mess of things), it still begs the question as to why Brown’s so offended in the first place. That’s where the money part comes in. Something tells me that if Holmgren would have kept Brown’s reportedly half million dollar salary in place, Brown would still be coming around offering his sometimes bizarre insights, even if it was to someone who knows better. But Holmgren wanted to formalize Brown’s role into what he essentially already was and cut the salary accordingly. Brown balked and hence the standoff.

Brown didn’t help his cause by intentionally misquoting Holmgren to make it appear as if Holmgren was a racist or that Holmgren’s invitation to Brown to attend the ring ceremony had any underlying racial implications. All Brown really did was make himself look like a fool and a whiner. The ceremony will go on, with or without Brown, and Brown’s name will be in the Ring of Honor, whether or not he’s there and whether or not he likes it.

Brown has always been a compelling but difficult personality and he’s proven that once again. With Brown both the good and bad about him is that you can’t change the past.
***

There was an interesting segment on ESPN recently in which the talking heads debated the number of games the Browns would win. The over/under was 6. I can’t recall how that debate came out, as if it actually matters, but I appreciated the attempt by ESPN to build enthusiasm. Which leads to this week’s question to ponder: Are you more excited about the Browns or the Buckeyes?