Monday, September 17, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 2 Edition



The Cleveland Browns 2.0 haven’t exactly been a NFL franchise as much as a NFL experiment. Like the L.A. Clippers in the NBA or the Kansas City Royals in Major League Baseball, the Browns have become that team, the one where we see how many times it can change every ingredient in the recipe and still produce the same miserable stew week after week, year after year.

It’s worked pretty well for the last 13 years. The Browns have had more starts and restarts, system failures and reboots, new blood and tired blood in the last 13 or so years then most franchises go through in 50 years, no discernible progress being the given. The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, had a major change in course was when Bill Cowher retired (after winning a Super Bowl) and the Rooney family hired Mike Tomlin to fill his shoes 7 years ago. As a measure of the distance between the two franchises, Browns fans still dream of hiring Cowher.

Having long since grown tired of recapping the same miserable loss that everyone else saw with their own eyes, I decided to try and search for a better way. Thus gave life to this new venture, one that tries to at least figure out the things we know about the Browns based on their performance this past week in context with the previous week’s failure or, on the rare occasion, its success. With but that bare framework to launch, here’s The Things We Know about the Browns, week two:

1. It’s come down to this. When a team has had so little success for so long a time, its fans inevitably will start counting the good losses as half wins. Sunday’s defensive and special teams’ breakdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals were just that sort of half win. Fans felt kind of good, like there may be a spark of something to work with here, that perhaps they can win more than 5 games this season.

The problem, though, is that these half wins count as full losses in the NFL and according to some cubicle-dwelling geek housed in the Bristol compound deprived of nourishment until he can find a meaningful statistic that hasn’t yet been used, only 12% of the teams that have started 0-2 made the playoffs. After two weeks in the NFL, there already are 6 teams that are 0-2, which equates nicely to 20% of the league, give or take a fraction. That means, if I remember my high school math correctly, that at best only one of those six teams has a chance at making the playoffs this season.

Somewhere in the universe that is Bristol surely there is someone that can tell me the odds that of those six teams (Cleveland, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oakland and New Orleans) the Browns will be the one to emerge. Because I have the patience of a new born puppy when it comes to such things and can’t wait for another cubicle-dwelling Bristol geek to finish his work, I’ll just make up the odds and assume it’s at best 5%. It's probably less.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Likely none of those teams make the playoffs. But if you had to make a wager, and say you had to either make that wager or watch 24 straight hours of the Kim Kardashian wedding tape (as opposed to, say, the Kim Kardashian porn tape), you’d choose New Orleans, right? They are without their head coach and are a mess, but they still have far more talent then any of the other six. The difference between them and every other team on the list can be summed up in two words: Drew Brees. But even the Saints are a long shot.

So we know it won’t be the Browns, meaning that just two weeks in any stupid, delusional hopes of the playoffs have been effectively dashed. Statistics may lie and liars may use statistics and a Bill Belichick team might lose a home opener to the Arizona Cardinals when their kicker shanks it at about the same time the previously vanquished Patriots kicker was winning a game for the Colts, there are still two things that are true in the NFL: statistics are Gospel and the Browns never, ever defy the odds. That means another early pick.

But back to that feel good loss. Why all the happy faces? It’s because Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson had good games. That gets the fans to thinking that if the defense and the offense could just come together at the same time, then this team might be worth watching?

But that’s rather the point, isn’t it? A team tends to be worth watching when they actually do put all phases of their game together. Until then they are at best like your golf game. You may be driving well, and that makes you feel you played well even when your putting was off and you didn’t break 90. The next week you sink 6 putts of 15 feet or more but hit 5 drives out of bounds and you didn’t break 90 and feel worse. Surely if you would quit hitting your drives out of bounds and make a bunch of 15 foot putts, you’d regularly break 80, maybe even 70 on occasion and then who knows?, with a little more practice maybe you can get on the Senior Tour.

You’re not getting on the Senior Tour because the chance that you will consistently do both things well is exactly the same as the Browns consistently playing good offense, defense and special teams. That hasn’t happened in generations and it may be generations before it happens again.

So what we know right now is that the defense still has an incredible depth problem. If Buster Skrine remains on this team it’s only because whoever else is out of football at the moment and used to be a defensive back is either too concussed to remember how to wear a helmet and/or too slow to cover Joe Thomas on a tackle eligible play. Joe Haden is a nice player, but he’s not nearly as good as Skrine made him look on Sunday.

Skrine told the media after the game “I don’t think I played very well.” How am I to argue.

As for the other hole in the defensive backfield, the one created when Sheldon Brown didn’t play, rookie Trevin Wade wasn’t exactly a revelation. He seemed about as ready to play as Weeden did the week before. On the other hand, he didn't get hurt. Call it a half win.

2. Speaking of Brandon Weeden, we know that he’s not the worst quarterback in the league, certainly not as bad anyway as his 5.1 rating from Week 1 would indicate. He’s probably not as good as his 114.9 rating from this week would indicate either, but he did enough positive to stop the Colt McCoy Chorus from straining their vocal chords for another week. In truth, I really liked what Weeden did this past week, mainly because it was such a dramatic improvement from the week before even if the end result was the same.

Weeden had a couple ways he could have gone after the debacle against the Eagles last week. That he chose to ignore the cacophony and instead work harder during the week so that he could be a little less wide-eyed on game day was a bold and admirable choice. He didn’t have a perfect game, certainly, but he did show that his confidence and his psyche aren’t too fragile for the pro game.

All that said, Weeden has a long way to go to prove that he’s not Derek Anderson or Mike Phipps. Anderson had an entire season where he looked every bit the franchise quarterback and yet he failed when his strong arm kept putting the ball in the hands of opposing defensive backs. Phipps had a big arm and the intellect of Jeff Spicoli. In other words, there is still plenty of time for this to go another way.

The other number one pick, Trent Richardson, had a good game as well, as dramatic of a difference from week one as was Weeden’s, perhaps even more so. Richardson’s moves to get in the end zone on the pass from Weeden was just the kind of moment that does make you think he could actually be special.

Anytime a running back has more than 100 yards in less than 20 carries and then adds a catch for a touchdown is a day to celebrate, especially in Cleveland. If you want to add perspective to it, here’s why Kansas City lost: Peyton Hillis fumbled on the two yard line at the exact moment that Chiefs were poised to get back into the game. It’s why Hillis isn’t in Cleveland. He can’t hang on to the friggin’ ball.

So the rookies, the two the team really are counting on anyway, had a good week. The results haven't changed but string together more of those performances and the results have to change.

3. There’s something about defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to like. His teams bend like a Russian gymnast but typically don't give up a lot of points. You have to like, too, that his career as a head coach pretty much matches the success rate of the Browns 2.0, right down to all those losing seasons. But he keeps plugging away and never seems to carry a chip on his shoulder. He knows defense and now seems content to let that phase of his career play out without any greater aspirtions. That's why, despite having virtually no success as a head coach, players still respect him and still listen to him.

But one thing I didn’t like on Sunday about Jauron’s defensive game plan is the way he purposely exposed his incredibly weak defensive backfield by blitzing so aggressively. There was a perverse logic to it—put pressure on Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton and force him to throw short. And it sort of worked. The Browns defensive line and linebackers kept Dalton scrambling but as Browns fans have seen too many times, short passes are this team’s Achilles heel. That was a problem last year and the year before that (when Jauron wasn't here) and based on yesterday's results (two shortish passes turned into a 50 yard and 44 yard touchdown) is still a problem.

It's especially a problem against Andy Dalton. Weeden had that aforementioned 114.9 quarterback rating against the Bengals yesterday. Dalton has put up that kind of rating against the Browns for three games now, which means three straight wins. (It's only in Cleveland that a quarterback puts up that kind of rating and loses, kind of like when the Browns went 10-6 under Romeo Crennel and didn't make the playoffs.) If Jauron doesn't find another way to try to stop Dalton, who essentially is Brandon Weeden only younger, then it's likely to be another season gone without winning a divisional game.

Frankly, I'd rather see the Browns defense challenge most quarterbacks to throw long. Accuracy decreases the further the pass. That would mean of course that the Browns would have to count on a very weak defensive line to pressure the quarterback and I think we all know how that would go.

But poison must be picked and right now the better choice would seem to be to play 5 defensive backs on every down and hope that the line and linebackers can stop the run and keep marginal pressure on the quarterback. The against-type method of defense let the Bengals score 27 points and this isn't that good of a Bengals team.

4. There will be no real progress for this franchise until it can win AFC North games. They've now lost 11 straight. It's understandable when the Browns are playing the Ravens and the Steelers. But how do they lose that many to the Bengals?

Let that roll around the crevices of your brain for a moment. The Bengals, perhaps the league's next biggest doormat, has beaten the Browns 13 of their last 16 times they've played. You can throw out everything you ever really know about the Browns 2.0 and just look at that stat and know that this is a franchise in trouble. That's why it's hard to look at any loss, even the supposedly feel-good half-win type losses, and feel that progress has been made.

There were plenty of other things we now know but why get on a screed about Greg Little's celebration after his touchdown? I'd say he should act like he's been there before but he's not that good of an actor.

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