Tuesday, September 30, 2014

History holds hope for post-bye Browns

The 1-2 Browns return to action this Sunday to host the 1-3 Tennessee Titans, whose head coach is Ken Whisenhunt (Browns' 1999 special teams coordinator) and defensive coordinator is Ray Horton (same job with 2013 Browns).

Another Cleveland connection is Kamerion Wimbley, the Titans' 30-year-old defensive end, who holds the Browns rookie record with 11 sacks, a total he never again attained during a lengthy and largely healthy career.

The betting lines put the visiting Titans as a slight favorite, but the point spread is narrowing, and there's some history to hold out in the Browns' favor. Here are the Browns' results in their first game after the bye week:

2013 Week 11: lost 41-20 at Cincinnati, which finished 11-5
2012 Week 11: lost 23-20 (OT) at Dallas (8-8)
2011 Week 6: lost 24-17 at Oakland (8-8)
2010 Week 9: won 24-14 over New England (14-2)
2009 Week 8: lost 16-0 to Baltimore (9-7)
2008 Week 6: won 35-14 over New York Giants (12-4)
2007 Week 8: won 27-20 at St. Louis (3-13)
2006 Week 7: lost 17-7 to Denver (9-7)
2005 Week 5: won 20-10 over Chicago (11-5)
2004 Week 9: lost 27-13 at Baltimore (9-7)
2003 Week 10: lost 41-20 at Kansas City (13-3)
2002 Week 11: won 27-20 at Cincinnati (2-14)
2001 Week 8: lost 27-21 (OT) at Chicago (13-3)
2000 Week 17 (last week of regular season)
1999 Week 17 (last week of regular season).

To summarize:

The "new" Browns are 5-8 (.385) coming off the bye, which is slightly better than their 71-136 (.346) regular season record from 2001-2013.

The schedule-maker sent the Browns on the road eight of those 13 years. They've gone 2-6 on the road after the bye, 3-2 at home.

Those three home wins were among the most impressive Browns games of this era, all coming against teams that would win division titles.

The Browns are 2-0 against teams that would end the season with a losing record.

Putting their bye at season's end in both 1999 and 2000 is yet another way that the league disadvantaged the reborn Browns franchise.

Only 13 games in pro football history have ended with a score of 41-20. Two of them made this list, each one dealing the Browns' their sixth loss of the season, effectively extinguishing any playoff hopes.

Chansi Stuckey scores on a fumblerooski-ish gadget play
in a 2010 upset of New England. (Plain Dealer photo)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Shifting the culture, not blame

After a close loss, each mistake deserves scrutiny as a possible difference-maker. The Browns' performance against the Ravens yesterday provides many such, shall we say, opportunities.

But emotionally, I'm just not up for elucidating every error.

Whether due to coaching judgment, coordination, or execution, the Browns deserved their fate, another last-minute loss to a division arch-rival, this time at home.

It's ironic that despite the narrow loss, many fans maintain that this team is head-and-shoulders above last year's edition. Anyone can find evidence to support their hopeful views, but this is a bottom-line sport. The 2013 Browns thumped the Ravens in Cleveland, 24-18, with stout run defense, five sacks of Flacco, and the last hurrahs of two otherwise pariahs, Davone Bess and Greg Little.

So yesterday's see-saw suckitude was in no way a moral victory.

Another tendency of many fans is to advocate the ouster of their perceived goats. The special teams unit now sits on this hot seat. But there's a balance to strike between accountability and continuity. If the former boils down to job loss, how does this cultivate a culture of stability that everyone agrees is intrinsic to winning programs? What does this say about faith in the potential for growth, learning, development, improvement, redemption?

To cite one case, Travis Benjamin, returning from ACL surgery, is struggling at fielding punts. In yesterday's wind he muffed one and let another fall to be downed at the Browns' 7. Will benching him restore his confidence? Should rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, still struggling to adjust on defense, add punt return duties to his docket? Not in my eyes.

Maybe drop veteran Jim Leonhard deep when a midfield punt just needs a fair catch. But here are the speedy Benjamin's career averages: 14.6 yards per punt return, 30.7 on kickoffs, 17.5 per reception, and 13.2 per rush. You can be frustrated that he seems tentative back there this year, but a constructive solution will come with practice and persistence, not petulance and punishment.

During this bye week, clearly the Browns must react, but they ought not be reactionary. That alone would be a culture shift.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Even up

The Browns improved to 12-4 all-time against the New Orleans Saints with a dramatic 26-24 home win, the first NFL head coaching victory for Mike Pettine. Here are a few fast facts in the wake of a hard-fought Cleveland triumph.
  • Today's triumph breaks the Browns' eight-game losing streak. Their last win before today came at home against the vile Baltimore Ravens, who return to town next week.
  • Billy Cundiff's last-minute winning field goal was set up by Andrew Hawkins' 28-yard reception, which was 11 yards longer than the Browns' otherwise longest play from scrimmage all day.
  • The Browns' defense also didn't allow a play longer than 28 yards.
  • Other than the game-ending squib, Cundiff's kickoffs -- as was the case last week -- were all either touchbacks or returned shy of the 20 yard line.
  • That final play was officially a fumble recovered by the Browns, improving their takeaway-giveaway margin to 3-0 on the season.
  • Tashaun Gipson's 62-yard interception return for a touchdown was the Browns first "pick 6" since he did it last December against Chicago. It was Cleveland's third such scoring return off Drew Brees in their last two games against him.
  • Giving literal meaning to "pick 6," the Browns failed to convert the PAT. It was their first unsuccessful conversion since Phil Dawson had one blocked in Chicago in November 2009.
  • Isaiah Crowell is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Terrance West is on an early pace to rush for 1,344 yards this season. 
  • The two rookies have accounted for three rushing touchdowns so far. The Browns had four all last year.
  • Johnny Manziel saw his first regular-season action and now has the lowest completion percentage in the history of pro football. (I kid, but it's true.)
  • In each game, the Browns have been significantly outgained (total yards and yards per play), allowed more first downs than they've made, and kept the ball less than half the game. Yet they're now 1-1 and have only been outscored by one point.
  • The last time the Browns won a game 26-24 was also a Week 2 game (2005) against an NFC opponent (Green Bay) with a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Brett Favre), the first head coaching victory for a former defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel). And as with today, the Browns got a solid contribution from a tight end (Steve Heiden) playing in place of their injured star starter (Wheelie).
  • New ILB Karlos Dansby has made an early impact in each game so far, intercepting Big Ben last week, and sacking Brees out of field goal range late in the fourth quarter today, possibly the biggest play of the game. He led the team in tackles with eight solo (two for losses) and four assists.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Special teams go from weapon to weakness

The Browns have been wretched the last 15 years, but for most of that time, their special teams were wonderful. That's thin gruel, sure, but subsistence nonetheless.

Under coordinators Jerry Rosburg (2001-06) and Brad Seely (2009-10) especially, the Browns had consistently excellent results with kicking, returns and coverage. Key to that success was stability with longtime specialists Phil Dawson, Joshua Cribbs, Dennis Northcutt, Dave Zastudil, Chris Gardocki, Ryan Kuehl and Ryan Pontbriand.

In an era where the offense was all too often outmatched and the defense couldn't dominate or even get off the field without surrendering points, the special teams provided some hope of a spark, be it a trick play, a scoring return, a long field goal, or a punt downed near the goal line.

That era appears over. If last season's lowlights (two punts blocked in Cincinnati, Davone Bess's critical muff in Kansas City, and the failed onside kick recovery in New England) didn't convince you, the opener in Pittsburgh really should.

The previously sensational returner Travis Benjamin's instincts appeared rusty. He made three fair catches, when at very least one of those punts was obviously returnable. He took four kickoffs out of the end zone but made it past the 20 only once. In one case, he fielded the kick nine yards deep and got tackled at the nine yard line.

Penalties on returns are nothing new, and they affected both teams. But four fouls for the Browns? It would've been five, but one hold was waved off after the ref realized it came after a fair catch. Those flags can be killers. When the Steelers punt from their own 19, it's unacceptable for the Browns offense to start at their own 15.

The now-famous flying foot-to-the-face by Steelers star Antonio Brown on punter Spencer Lanning is yet another visual indignity on record in this rivalry, and the Browns' shoddy punt coverage and tackling allowed it to happen, 36 yards into Brown's return.

Coordinator Chris Tabor's punt return unit left both gunners uncovered, allowing the Steelers to call a fake. The upback threw an easy completion to the sideline, despite it being fourth-and-10 from their own 20 late in a tie game.

Lanning's fourth-quarter punt obviously should've been downed inside the five, as the touchback foiled the suspect strategy of playing to pin rather than win.

Kicker Billy Cundiff was the most reliable special-teamer of the day, drilling every placement over the crossbar and putting all six kickoffs into the end zone. The only two returns didn't reach the 20. This begs the question: with kickoffs coming from the 35, can't they practice lofting them higher and sacrificing some depth? The coverage unit and the probability of blocking fouls should result in a spot inside the 20 more often than not, plus a chance for a fumble.

Of course, Cundiff wasn't given a chance to kick a potential game-winning field goal. The NFL's website says the ball was at the Pittsburgh 35, so the attempt would've been 52 or 53 yards. Granted, Heinz Field is tough, but the conditions were otherwise ideal. Regardless of whether you agree with that decision, it's clear that the Browns' special teams units as a whole are more weakness than weapon.

All special teams plays from Week 1:
  1. 8-B.Cundiff kicks 65 yards from CLE 35 to end zone, Touchback.
  2. 4-18-CLE 18 (10:03) (Field Goal formation) 6-S.Suisham 36 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-60-G.Warren, Holder-9-B.Wing.
  3. 6-S.Suisham kicks 68 yards from PIT 35 to CLE -3. 11-T.Benjamin to CLE 25 for 28 yards (51-S.Spence)
  4. 4-14-PIT 21 (5:39) (Field Goal formation) 8-B.Cundiff 39 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-57-C.Yount, Holder-5-S.Lanning.
  5. 8-B.Cundiff kicks 65 yards from CLE 35 to end zone, Touchback.
  6. 6-S.Suisham extra point is GOOD, Center-60-G.Warren, Holder-9-B.Wing.
  7. 6-S.Suisham kicks 70 yards from PIT 35 to CLE -5. 11-T.Benjamin to CLE 14 for 19 yards (22-W.Gay).
  8. 4-1-CLE 23 (14:55) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 52 yards to PIT 25, Center-57-C.Yount. 84-A.Brown to PIT 34 for 9 yards (22-B.Skrine; 24-J.Bademosi).
  9. 4-17-PIT 41 (13:08) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 30 yards to PIT 11, Center-57-C.Yount, fair catch by 84-A.Brown.
  10. 6-S.Suisham extra point is GOOD, Center-60-G.Warren, Holder-9-B.Wing.
  11. 6-S.Suisham kicks 67 yards from PIT 35 to CLE -2. 11-T.Benjamin to CLE 18 for 20 yards (51-S.Spence). PENALTY on CLE-53-C.Robertson, Offensive Holding, 9 yards, enforced at CLE 18.
  12. 4-5-CLE 14 (8:49) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 57 yards to PIT 29, Center-57-C.Yount. 84-A.Brown to CLE 35 for 36 yards (81-J.Dray; 30-J.Leonhard). PENALTY on PIT-84-A.Brown, Unnecessary Roughness, 15 yards, enforced at CLE 35.
  13. 6-S.Suisham extra point is GOOD, Center-60-G.Warren, Holder-9-B.Wing.
  14. 6-S.Suisham kicks 74 yards from PIT 35 to CLE -9. 11-T.Benjamin to CLE 9 for 18 yards (22-W.Gay).
  15. 4-4-CLE 43 (5:07) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 38 yards to PIT 19, Center-57-C.Yount. 84-A.Brown to PIT 20 for 1 yard (33-J.Poyer). PENALTY on PIT-20-W.Allen, Illegal Block Above the Waist, 10 yards, enforced at PIT 20.
  16. 4-1-PIT 19 (3:17) (Punt formation) 9-B.Wing punts 56 yards to CLE 25, Center-60-G.Warren. 11-T.Benjamin ran ob at CLE 25 for no gain. PENALTY on CLE-59-T.Carder, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at CLE 25.
  17. 4-4-CLE 21 (1:51) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 49 yards to PIT 30, Center-57-C.Yount, fair catch by 84-A.Brown. PENALTY on PIT-98-V.Williams, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at PIT 30.
  18. 2-3-CLE 16 (:03) (Field Goal formation) 6-S.Suisham 34 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-60-G.Warren, Holder-9-B.Wing.
  19. 6-S.Suisham kicks 65 yards from PIT 35 to end zone, Touchback.
  20. 8-B.Cundiff extra point is GOOD, Center-57-C.Yount, Holder-5-S.Lanning.
  21. 8-B.Cundiff kicks 65 yards from CLE 35 to PIT 0. 13-D.Archer to PIT 12 for 12 yards (38-A.Berry). PENALTY on PIT-57-T.Garvin, Illegal Block Above the Waist, 6 yards, enforced at PIT 12.
  22. 4-6-PIT 10 (11:41) (Punt formation) 9-B.Wing punts 39 yards to PIT 49, Center-60-G.Warren, fair catch by 11-T.Benjamin. PENALTY on CLE-53-C.Robertson, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at PIT 49.
  23. 8-B.Cundiff extra point is GOOD, Center-57-C.Yount, Holder-5-S.Lanning.
  24. 8-B.Cundiff kicks 65 yards from CLE 35 to end zone, Touchback.
  25. 4-24-PIT 44 (4:48) (Punt formation) 9-B.Wing punts 38 yards to CLE 18, Center-60-G.Warren, fair catch by 11-T.Benjamin.
  26. 4-3-PIT 7 (15:00) (Field Goal formation) 8-B.Cundiff 25 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-57-C.Yount, Holder-5-S.Lanning.
  27. 8-B.Cundiff kicks 72 yards from CLE 35 to PIT -7. 13-D.Archer to PIT 10 for 17 yards (36-K.Williams).
  28. 4-15-PIT 5 (14:11) (Punt formation) 9-B.Wing punts 46 yards to CLE 49, Center-60-G.Warren, fair catch by 11-T.Benjamin.
  29. 8-B.Cundiff extra point is GOOD, Center-57-C.Yount, Holder-5-S.Lanning.
  30. 8-B.Cundiff kicks 65 yards from CLE 35 to end zone, Touchback.
  31. 4-10-PIT 20 (9:28) (Punt formation) 21-R.Golden pass deep left to 41-A.Blake to PIT 45 for 25 yards (21-J.Gilbert).
  32. 4-5-PIT 50 (7:19) (Punt formation) 9-B.Wing punts 38 yards to CLE 12, Center-60-G.Warren, fair catch by 30-J.Leonhard. PENALTY on CLE-97-J.Sheard, Personal Foul, 6 yards, enforced at CLE 12.
  33. 4-7-PIT 35 (4:37) (Punt formation) PENALTY on CLE-5-S.Lanning, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at PIT 35 - No Play.
  34. 4-12-PIT 40 (4:37) (Punt formation) Penalty on CLE-57-C.Yount, False Start, declined.
  35. 4-12-PIT 40 (4:37) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 40 yards to end zone, Center-57-C.Yount, Touchback.
  36. 4-5-CLE 45 (2:00) (Punt formation) 9-B.Wing punts 45 yards to end zone, Center-60-G.Warren, Touchback.
  37. 4-21-CLE 9 (:59) (Punt formation) 5-S.Lanning punts 48 yards to PIT 43, Center-57-C.Yount, downed by CLE-59-T.Carder.
  38. 2-10-CLE 24 (:05) (Field Goal formation) 6-S.Suisham 41 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-60-G.Warren, Holder-9-B.Wing.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

That familiar fetal feeling

I was surprised, although the Steelers were heavily favored and at home, that the Browns came out of the gate so flat. All three phases, absolute amateur hour.

But recall how Chud got whacked within a year because the team failed to show improvement. After a 3-27 first-half deficit in his debut, Mike Pettine won't have that problem.

I was surprised that in the second half the Browns started succeeding with up-tempo offense and pressure on Big Ben Roethlisberger. The rookie runners rambled past some solid blocking, and the Browns rallied for a tying score early in the fourth quarter.

Keeping Brian Hoyer in the game showed a commendable lack of panic, and it was the right choice. Pigskin pundits will have their day to feast on Johnny Manziel's on-field exploits, but halftime of a season-opening blowout is not when you bail on your starter and expect the rookie to do anything but take some lumps.

Unfortunately, that's what Cleveland's other first-round rookie is there to do. We can only hope that Justin Gilbert's growing pains produce more growing and less pain, as the corner had an awful introduction to the NFL: repeatedly beaten in coverage, sloppy in tackling, lacking poise in committing an obvious personal foul, and -- for the second big turning point of the game (the first being halftime) -- leaving gunner Antwon Blake uncovered on the Steelers' successful fake punt.

That neutralized the Browns' surging second-half momentum, and the moment suddenly seemed to get too big for the young Browns and their new coaching staff.

Critical sequence: The Browns faced second-and-seven from the Pittsburgh 35 with the score tied and under five minutes left. They called a pass play: incomplete to Miles Austin. Then they called timeout. Then they called another pass play, again incomplete, this time to Gary Barnidge. So after eschewing the running game twice from that spot on the field, Pettine's choice on fourth down was to punt, rather than have strong-legged Billy Cundiff try to give the Browns the lead with a 52-yard field goal in ideal weather conditions.

It was classic Crennel-esque, Mangini-esque, Shurmur-esque playing not to lose, which, of course, leads to what it led to. A touchback. And an offense that went fetal on its next and last possession, losing 11 yards and leaving Big Ben another shot to avoid overtime.

Disappointing, true. Demoralizing, yes. But all in all, it was a quintessential late summer day to welcome back another NFL season, and after an exceptionally change-intensive off-season, even by our standards, this was very, very familiar as a Cleveland Browns football game.

So I was not surprised.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Where are they now?

Following the league-wide cutdown to 53-man rosters and the formation of 10-man practice squads, certain obsessive fans may be interested to see which former Browns are still employed and where. I found 44 ex-Browns listed on various other teams' rosters.

LB Jason Trusnik -- Dolphins
WR Brian Tyms -- Patriots
CB Leon McFadden -- Jets
WR David Nelson -- Jets
QB Jason Campbell -- Bengals
TE Alex Smith -- Bengals
QB Bruce Gradkowski -- Steelers
WR Lance Moore -- Steelers
K Shaun Suisham -- Steelers
S Mike Adams -- Colts
LB D'Qwell Jackson -- Colts
RB Trent Richardson -- Colts
LB Quentin Groves -- Titans
LB/DE Kamerion Wimbley -- Titans
SS T.J. Ward -- Broncos
WR Jordan Norwood -- Broncos IR
LB James-Michael Johnson -- Chiefs
LB Kaluka Maiava -- Raiders
FS Usama Young -- Raiders
DB Larry Asante -- Raiders IR
QB Brandon Weeden -- Cowboys
RB Peyton Hillis -- Giants
LB Emmanuel Acho -- Eagles PS
DE Clifton Geathers -- Washington
G Shawn Lauvao -- Washington
QB Colt McCoy -- Washington
S Don Carey -- Lions
FB Jed Collins -- Lions
DT C.J. Mosley -- Lions
C Garth Gerhart -- Packers PS
TE MarQueis Gray -- Vikings
QB Derek Anderson -- Panthers
RB Fozzy Whittaker -- Panthers
QB Luke McCown -- Saints
TE Benjamin Watson -- Saints
CB Trevin Wade -- Saints PS
OL Oniel Cousins -- Buccaneers
OL Garrett Gilkey -- Buccaneers
RB Bobby Rainey -- Buccaneers
LB Brandon Magee -- Buccaneers PS
DE Frostee Rucker -- Cardinals
P Dave Zastudil -- Cardinals
K Phil Dawson -- 49ers
DB Josh Aubrey -- Seahawks PS.

These folks and those still with Cleveland give us some data about the staying power (or lack thereof) from the Browns' recent drafts:

2014 (Farmer) -- 6 of 6 still in the NFL
2013 (Banner/Lombardi) -- 4 of 5 (80%)
2012 (Holmgren/Heckert) -- 9 of 11 (82%)
2011 (Holmgren/Heckert) -- 4 of 8 (50%)
2010 (Holmgren/Heckert/Mangini) -- 6 of 8 (75%)
2009 (Mangini/Kokinis) -- 3 of 8 (38%)
2008 (Savage) -- 1 of 5 (20%)
2007 (Savage) -- 1 of 7 (14%)
2006 (Savage) -- 2 of 10 (20%).

Monday, August 11, 2014

The quintessential Cleveland Brown

Tip o' the helmet to Dan Pompei for the best piece I've ever read on one of the most significant figures in Cleveland Browns history, Bernie Kosar.

No player better embodies the full scope of what it means to be a Brown than Kosar, "the most loved person over multiple generations in Cleveland sports."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The organized chaos of the Pettine zoo

This MMQB piece is the best description I've seen about what schemes and methods the new coaching staff is bringing to the 2014 Browns.

In a nutshell:

  • Coach Pettine on Manziel: “He has a tendency to keep both teams in the game.” 
  • Based on confusing quarterbacks' pre-snap reads, the "shape-shifting" defense features players rotating jobs within the scheme.
  • Keep it simple for the dumber players; partner them with the smarter "sponges," who more often are relied upon to perform a variety of assignments.
  • Don't give the playbook to Belichick's buddies! 
  • Most defensive meetings are with the whole unit, not broken down by positional groups.
  • Run a variety of tempos on offense.
  • Pettine, in his first head coaching gig since his high school days a dozen years back, is studying up on those game management situations that not infrequently tilt wins into losses or vice versa.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

AP states "God hates the Browns" as fact

Check out this characterization by former Plain Dealer reporter Mark Gillispie, who last month joined the Associated Press. In reporting on Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald's proposal to divvy up some of the recently-renewed sin tax funds on the basis of the local franchises' on-field results, Gillespie nutshells our local football team thusly:
The Browns? It's arguable, perhaps likely, that the Browns are the most loved and most reviled of all the professional franchises in Cleveland. Love and hate. Hope and despair. If the Browns ever wanted to put something on the bare sides of their orange helmets, the Chinese symbol for yin and yang might get a few votes.
A Sunday in Cleveland during the NFL season is a time to pray and wonder why God hates the Browns and its fans. Yet Sunday after Sunday, diehards sit in front of their televisions or squeeze into expensive seats at FirstEnergy Stadium and typically suffer the consequences. 
Is this post-PD catharsis, or does this kind of writing score him points with his new employer? Maybe Gillispie can pitch a piece to the AP's religion desk and get to the root of God's antipathy. As if speculating on a helmet logo weren't sacrilege enough.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Statgeekery: Gordon's the most better ever

Once again, a Brown has topped a statistical list generated by Chase at Football Perspective. He reports that Josh Gordon last year had more yards per target relative to his teammates than any NFL receiver since at least 1999.
 [T]he Browns threw 681 passes last year and gained 4,372 passing yards. But 1,646 of those yards came on the 159 passes intended for Gordon. Remove those plays, and Cleveland averaged just 5.22 yards per pass attempt on passes to all other Browns last year.
The team has obviously loaded up with a surfeit of experienced receivers in place of the erratic Greg Little and Davone Bess. Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett, and Anthony Armstrong are all new veteran free agents competing to alongside of and/or in place of the great Gordon, whose agent and attorney are busy contesting whatever sanction the NFL has in mind for his latest officially undisclosed violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

But there's no doubt about it: whatever suspension Gordon gets will profoundly damage the team's offensive capabilities. He's made an indelible mark already.

Of the recuperating WRs, advantage Benji

As foreshadowed in the set-up of my piece on the bizarre history of the Browns' 80 jersey, Travis Benjamin has shed the doomed digits. He told me in March he wanted number 10, but then that went to free agent signee Earl Bennett. So he swapped with the wearer of #11, Charles Johnson, a fellow wide receiver who is also recovering from a torn ACL, discovered soon after the Browns poached him from the Green Bay practice squad last October.

Coach Pettine said recently that the only two players with an outside chance of missing the start of training camp due to injury were Benjamin and Johnson. Based on the latest jersey swap and the long tortured history of the Browns' number 80, it's now advantage Travis.

Johnson during his standout career at
Grand Valley State

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kelly repeatedly beat the best rush defenses

The sheer weight of decades of 16-game seasons has largely eclipsed the statistical accomplishments of Leroy Kelly. Though he retired as the game's fourth all-time leading rusher, he's now just 55th in career rushing yards.

Inexplicably, it took this legendary Browns running back 20 years and four tries as a finalist to make the Hall of Fame.

Thanks to Chase at Football Perspective, we have one more window through which to view Kelly's greatness. He found the 31 longest streaks in which a defense didn't allow a 100-yard rusher, all spanning 25 games or longer. He also listed the back who snapped those streaks.

No name appears on that list more than once, except for Leroy Kelly, who did it no less than three times. In other words, he did what no other back could do against defenses in their most recent 33, 29, and 27 games, a feat no one else accomplished more than once.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

One toke over the line?

I've been avoiding the topic since it hit like a flashlight to the retinas during the Johnny Football afterglow, but it remains the talk of the town.

What about Josh Gordon?

In the coming days, it's expected that the only Brown ever to lead the league in receiving yards will be suspended based on a positive test for cannabis, as first reported by ESPN eight days ago. Information on pending matters of this nature is supposed to be tightly controlled, so the question of who leaked this story -- timing it seemingly to rain on the Browns' parade -- is in itself an interesting one. One person with a reputation compatible with such behavior seems to have had both the motive and the opportunity: former Browns GM Mike Lombardi, fired in February and last seen at the scouting combine as a Patriots employee working from Browns' printed materials.

Regardless of how this story became public prematurely, it certainly has legs. When the whole NFL drug policy is cloaked in confidentiality, to the point that it's never confirmed which stage a player is in, that fuels more speculation. When word soon follows that the league is considering lightening up on marijuana, the obvious implication is that Gordon is gonna get hit hard, because the NFL is bound by the terms of its current policy.

It's also interesting that the Browns not only passed on the draft's top-ranked receiver, Sammy Watkins, but also didn't select a single wideout from what was considered a deep pool of draft talent this year. They even traded away their seventh-round pick to the archrival Ravens for a sixth next year rather than take a flyer on Mike Campanaro, Baltimore's choice, or any of the four other WRs who went even later in the final round.

So maybe it's no surprise that less than a quarter of self-selected Browns fans believe Gordon will actually be suspended the full 12 months, as originally reported, and as specified by the league's policy for a violation by a player in Stage 3.

Then on Thursday afternoon, the Browns signed not one but two veteran free agents, Miles Austin and Earl Bennett. This logically implies that the Browns expect to be missing Gordon, and sure enough, opinion shifts: a more recent poll shows nearly a third of Browns fans believe Gordon will miss all of 2014. On Friday, they cut Greg Little, despite questions at the position and a team-friendly contract for a talented but inconsistent starter with a bit of an off-putting reputation.

My own view is that, yes, the league is probably bound by its own out-of-whack policy, and unless agent Drew Rosenhaus can successfully exploit ambiguities around the tested THC level or what phase Gordon should be in, the young All-Pro will be banished from all league activity for a full calendar year and will need to apply for reinstatement thereafter.

The only bright side from the Browns' perspective is that Gordon's affordable rookie contract would likely be automatically extended by a year, so he would be under team control through 2016, rather than headed for a potentially heady payday after 2015.

But if he's suspended for less than a year, say eight games, the Browns miss out on that extension, and so one of the four years of his rookie contract will be all but wasted. Rejoining the team midway through this new regime's first season could be a distraction that offsets the benefit of his talent.

So the front office might not be entirely supportive of Gordon's appeal.

Without him, the Browns' receiving corps will surely suffer, and the offense will be that much more challenged in getting acquainted with the scheme and each other. For good or ill, at least four of the team's six leading receivers from last year would be missing.

More important than all that, though, is the well-being of a likable and very talented young man. Lots of scorn has accompanied the latest news, but it's both premature and uncharitable. We just don't know the facts or circumstances.

If it plays out as it appears, then to me, it's just sad, another vivid illustration that despite some recent societal progress, it remains all too true that more damage results from marijuana prohibition than from marijuana itself.
Plain Dealer photo of Josh Gordon at training camp in 2012.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Gems are formed under pressure

Althought it's Johnny Football on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated, after reading this feature, I'm all in for fourth-rounder Pierre Desir, immigrant from Haiti, faithful father of two, blue-collar scholar, small-school standout, cornerback worth backing.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Big needs, big deals, big names

Rookie GM Ray Farmer had a strong first night, filling the Browns' two positions of highest needs, while pocketing a precious first-round pick for next year.

With cornerback Justin Gilbert, Cleveland gets a starting-quality player to pair with Pro Bowler Joe Haden, while Buster Skrine can move to full-time slot duty. Both Haden and Skrine are entering their contract years, and no other corner on the roster has proven his pro adequacy, so this was the right position to target with their top pick. And they maneuvered into the proper slot, down from fourth, then up from ninth to eighth, netting Buffalo's top pick in 2015 in the process.

I'm no expert on college football or scouting, but I can say that the NFL's collected wise men drafted nine defensive backs in the first round, including five corners. From this deep pool of quality talent, we got the first guy. And it's a high-salary position, so getting a quick starter in place under the rookie wage scale is a much better deal than shelling out eight-figure salaries for established veterans.

The Browns' other glaring need, of course, was for a quarterback. Sure enough, Farmer finagled another trade, sacrificing a spare third-rounder to move from 26 to 22, the same spot that prior regimes traded up to in order to draft QBs Brady Quinn in 2007 and Brandon Weeden in 2012.

So that's how Johnny Manziel enters the pro ranks. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is one of the most polarizing, perplexing, and flat-out fascinating faces to enter the league in recent years. Johnny Football is a cocky competitor and superb scrambler who, if all goes well, will settle into the more staid pro game without losing his inclination to make big plays when things break down.

Just when he gets his chance will depend on his adjustment and the comfort level he can provide the coaches. In Cleveland, the quarterback controversy storyline never seems far away, and, well, it's officially back. This version features the undrafted veteran from the area, Brian Hoyer, finally poised for his first real shot at the reins of a franchise, and a little hotshot Texan with a chip on his shoulder and a reputation to both live up to and live down.

Looking ahead to tonight, the Browns have the third pick of the second round and plenty of remaining needs: inside linebacker and wide receiver especially, but also at safety, offensive line, and running back. Some possibilities:

  • Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
  • Marqise Lee, WR, Southern Cal
  • Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
  • Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin
  • Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Best of the blog

Here are the posts from this blog that I like the best. If you got here from the menu at right, these favorites follow on this page. And if that's not enough, check out the bibliography on the "About Ace" page.

January 02, 2014: The Browns' misfire -- Chud's rookie coaching record was better than those of several legendary coaches whose owners weren't so rash.

November 07, 2013: One for the ages -- Personal photo essay of an intergenerational day to remember at the stadium.

January 12, 2013: Chud's hire hits homeroom -- Heartfelt impressions upon the news of a high school classmate landing his dream job.

August 04, 2012: A billionaire's buy-in -- An early take on new owner Jimmy Haslam and some hopes for his regime.

November 23, 2009: Coaching up coach -- Eric Mangini's in-game decision-making hadn't improved since his Jets days, as a defeat in Detroit demonstrated.

September 22, 2008: De-generation -- The awkward realization that obsessively following a horrid football team may not be the kind of habit to instill in a four-year-old.

February 20, 2008: The phantom '40s -- Calling on the Browns to stop excluding AAFC statistics in their own team records and publications.

December 31, 2007: Hey Tony... -- An open letter to Colts' coach Tony Dungy for offending the sport with a flagrant lack of competitive effort, a factor that cost the Browns a playoff berth.

December 12, 2007: Breed's hut hut hike -- Notes from a win over the Jets, posted by an ill blogger self-consciously struggling to write, as in college days of yore.

September 16, 2007: Signal Caller Outer -- MSU QB Brian Hoyer disavows his Browns fandom because they drafted Brady Quinn.

March 17, 2007: Cutting to the chasing of the 'Cutt -- A qualified appreciation of the departing Dennis Northcutt, "the most productive player mistreated and/or maligned by his agent, two coaching regimes, and his own fans."

May 06, 2006: All in great time -- Chinatown allusions permeate this essay about maintaining hope in the Browns in the face of repeated insult.

June 22, 2005: Passan that idea -- Rebutting the suggestion that the reborn Cleveland franchise should have picked another name and allowed the Browns to rest in peace.

April 17, 2005: Who needs Kiper? -- Dialogue with Old Dawg Trey Davis about what's in the cards for the Browns on Phil Savage's first draft day.

December 21, 2004: Root to lose? -- Hoping for a worse record so your team drafts higher is a sloppy emotional habit and just plain bad karma.

September 11, 2004: Savor of the season -- Waxing poetic on the meaning of football's opening day.

July 31, 2004: Why is Jeff Garcia smiling? -- A campaigning president shows up at training camp, and a blogger's snarky side shows. Originally posted on a now-repurposed domain, this prompted the most comments of all my blog posts, though they're in the digital ether by now.

October 11, 2003: Where were you during Red Right 88? -- "Odd, isn't it, to feel such deep nostagia for so painful a memory?"

July 30, 2003: Jamel White knocked woozy -- Years before concussion concerns hit the NFL mainstage, I called Butch out for returning a back to practice too soon during training camp.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

2014 schedule for off- pre- and regular season


April 29-May 1 - "voluntary" minicamp
May 8-10 - NFL draft
May 16-18 - Rookie minicamp
May 20-21, 23, 27-28, 30, June 2-3, 5-6 - OTA offseason workouts
June 10-12 - mandatory minicamp
June 22-28 - NFL rookie symposium @ Aurora, OH (NFL Play 60 events @ Berea)
July 26 (Sat.) - first training camp practice (full training camp schedule TBA)


Aug 9 (Sat.) - GLC at Detroit, 7:30 pm
Aug 18 (Mon.) - at Redskins, 8 pm National TV
Aug 23 (Sat.) - Rams at Browns, 8 pm
Aug 28 (Thurs.) - Bears at Browns, 8 pm

Regular Season

Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1
Sept. 14 New Orleans Saints, 1
Sept. 21 Baltimore Ravens, 1
Sept. 28 BYE
Oct. 5 at Tennessee Titans, 1
Oct. 12 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1
Oct. 19 at Jacksonville Jaguars, 1
Oct. 26 Oakland Raiders, 4:25
Nov. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1
Nov. 6 (Thursday) at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:25 National TV
Nov. 16 Houston Texans, 1
Nov. 23 at Atlanta Falcons, 1
Nov. 30 at Buffalo Bills, 1
Dec. 7 Indianapolis Colts, 1
Dec. 14 Cincinnati Bengals, 1
Dec. 21 at Carolina Panthers, 1
Dec. 28 at Baltimore Ravens, 1

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Airing out the Browns' fateful 80

It was almost eight years ago, back when Wheelie became Wheelie, when I first explored the pattern plaguing those who have worn the number 80 for the Browns. Nothing's happened in the meantime to wrinkle this fateful fabric, so I've delved into the full history with a feature of nearly 4,000 words. The first of three parts is now up at the Orange and Brown Report. Suffice it to say, I was seriously intrigued by what I learned of the great Len Ford, one of just two Browns defensive players in the Hall of Fame.

Len Ford dons an oversize cage to protect his broken face and return to action in the epic 1950 NFL Championship game.

Update: now that all three parts have run on the OBR, I've posted the full piece on this single page and will plan to update it as events warrant.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Quite a QB quandary

The Browns clearly need and will draft a quarterback (or two). But it ain't easy to figure who's the best of this bunch, or how good or bad any of them will be. It sets up a dilemma in which using the fourth-overall pick on a QB is very risky (compared with, say, one of the top offensive tackles); however, waiting until 26 or the later rounds assures that they'll be left with leftovers -- not a solid strategy for finding a franchise player at the the sport's most critical position.

Lets look back at previous drafts to see how often the first quarterback selected turned out to have the best NFL career of that draft class.

So only about half the time did the top-drafted QB turn out to have the best NFL career.

But if the Browns wait until 26, they may very well end up taking the fourth or fifth QB off the board. Only three times in the last 15 years (Edwards, Garrard, Brady) was the best quarterback chosen after at least three others were taken, and they were all later-round finds.

This year's draft is shaping up as pretty deep, with no clear-cut elite QBs. If the Browns have their eye on a particular guy, there's no sense in waiting, because several teams are eager to upgrade the position. It seems that Teddy Bridgewater may be the lowest-risk, most game-ready option for 2014 and beyond.

But if they're not truly sold on anyone, and they see a pool of possibilities to work with, it might make sense to sit back and see who falls their way. Is that approach aggressive enough to solve this long-standing positional deficit? In hoping to outsmart 31 other teams, you might just outsmart yourself.

Fact is, the Browns' QBs are now just Brian Hoyer, an undrafted journeyman with certain promising qualities coming off ACL surgery, and Alex Tanney, a small-school project who has yet to show anything as a pro. They need two more guys, one of whom must be a plausible fill-in for Hoyer, lest the 2014 season carry unacceptably high risk of sudden catastrophe. I don't think a Jimmy Garoppolo and Rex Grossman rookie/vet combo will do the trick.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Browns roster spreadsheet, free and worth it

After the 2013 draft, I created a Google spreadsheet of the Browns roster, containing more data fields than exist anywhere else on the same page.

It's free to view, download, copy, and share. Though I backslid a little in recent weeks, it is now current, and I plan to keep it that way. That way, I (and you) can unearth facts like these:

  • Fourteen Browns are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the coming season, including Joe Haden, Jordan Cameron, Jabaal Sheard, Brian Hoyer, Buster Skrine, and Phil Taylor. If Alex Mack ends up signing his one-year deal under the transition tag, that would make 15.
  • The Browns currently have 70 players under contract, plus Mack. They have ten draft picks next month, and the roster maximum is 90, so there will still be plenty of room for free agents, be they undrafted rookies or veterans still looking for teams.
  • Only four Browns have reached their 30th birthday. Three of them are 2014 free agent acquisitions, and the fourth is kicker Billy Cundiff, the team's oldest player.
  • The average Brown today is 13 days shy of 26 years old. The median age is 25 years, 2 months, and 27 days, as represented by Josh Cooper (half of the roster is older than him, half younger).
  • The average listed weight is 239 pounds. By contrast, the original Browns team in 1946 had only two heavier than that.
  • Seven Browns are listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter (compared to only one of the 36 members of the '46 Browns).
  • 34 of the 71 Browns on today's roster were undrafted. Eleven more were 6th- or 7th-rounders. 
  • When I started this spreadsheet last May, four Browns attended Maryland, most of any university. They're all gone.
  • It looks like this is the first time ever that two former Toledo Rockets occupy Browns roster spots (John Greco and Andrew Hawkins).
Please let me know what fascinating facts you can mine from the roster, or if you have any suggestions for making it more useful.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Moves leave no shortage of draft needs

Here's a quick summary of how the Browns have reshaped the roster by positional group this off-season. The bulk of free agency is now past, and the focus is clearly on the draft. In both cap space and draft picks, the team stands in very good shape, so we can still expect major changes before the 2014 Browns take the field. This post is mainly designed to point the finger at where those changes should occur.


QB -- Gained: nobody. Lost: Brandon Weeden (cut, now with DAL), Jason Campbell (cut, now with CIN). Current quality and depth: Only Brian Hoyer and Alex Tanney remain, so it's obvious that the Browns will draft a quarterback. Just who that is --  and how high -- are the biggest pending questions of 2014. I expect the Browns to open camp with four QBs, so if they don't double up using a later pick, look for a veteran like Rex Grossman to sign after the draft. Need level: Very high.

RB -- Gained: Ben Tate (2-year UFA deal, HOU). Lost: Willis McGahee (UFA, unsigned). Current quality and depth: The Browns went from riches to rags at this position in the span of a month last year. Tate's a clear upgrade over the washed-up McGahee. But with his injury history, the supporting cast of Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis, Edwin Baker, Fozzy Whittaker, and Jamaine Cook could stand an upgrade from a mid-to-late-round runner, plus a true fullback. Need level: Medium.

WR -- Gained: Andrew Hawkins (4-year RFA deal, CIN). Lost: Davone Bess (cut, unsigned), Brian Tyms (waived, unsigned). Current quality and depth: We have a true #1 in Josh Gordon and a capable slot man in Hawkins. Drop-prone Greg Little almost certainly will play his last year in Cleveland in 2014 if he hasn't already. Travis Benjamin should be back for return duties and as an occasional big-play threat using his straight-line speed. Maybe Charles Johnson will emerge, but I'd be shocked if the Browns didn't use this deep draft to target at least one viable starter opposite Gordon. Need level: High.

TE -- Gained: Jim Dray (3-year UFA deal, ARI). Lost: nobody. Current quality and depth: Six tight ends now fill the roster, including Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, who's entering the last year of his rookie contract. The only priorities here are to re-sign him and decide who else makes the cut. Dray seems favored to be the top backup over Gary Barnidge, and I'm interested in seeing how MarQueis Gray develops as well. Need level: Low.

OL -- Gained: Paul McQuistan (2-year UFA deal, SEA). Lost: Shaun Lauvao (UFA, now with WAS), Oniel Cousins (UFA, now with TAM+). Pending: Alex Mack (transition tag). Current quality and depth: If the season started today, I guess the starters, left to right, would be Joe Thomas, John Greco, Mack, McQuistan, and Mitchell Schwartz. But I wouldn't wager $10, even at 3:1 odds, on that lineup for Week 1. Jason Pinkston may actually be the team's best guard. Chris Faulk could push for a starting job. Mack may still leave, or miss OTAs/minicamp before signing his one-year bonanza. Who knows what the new staff thinks of this crew? Given all their picks and the quality of the draft pool, I expect at least one lineman to be chosen, but it could be anywhere from their top pick to a late-round flyer. If Auburn's Greg Robinson is somehow available with the fourth pick, he'd be hard to pass up. Need level: Medium.


DL -- Gained: nobody. Lost: nobody. Current quality and depth: On paper, it's the strongest unit on the team, but there are question marks. Ahtyba Rubin is set to earn a hefty $6.6 million in the last year of his contract. Former first-rounder Phil Taylor will also be a free agent after 2014 as things stand. Pricey 2013 signee Desmond Bryant is set to come back after being sidelined by a heart condition. Behind them are some able young players including Billy Winn, John Hughes, and Armonty Bryant. Need level: Very low.

LB -- Gained: Karlos Dansby (4-year UFA deal, ARI). Lost: D'Qwell Jackson (cut, now with IND), Paul Hazel (waived, now with HOU). Current quality and depth: The OLB positions go two-deep with Jabaal Sheard (entering his contract year), Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, and Quentin Groves. But depth inside is a problem. Dansby is a great player but is 32. Craig Robertson had a rough first season as a starter. Solidifying the middle, particularly in pass coverage, should be an important draft priority. Need level: High.

CB -- Gained: Isaiah Trufant (2-year UFA deal, NYJ), Royce Adams (street FA, NYJ), Brandon Hughes (street FA, PHI). Lost: Chris Owens (cut late in 2013, now with KC). Current quality and depth: Joe Haden is a premiere player who's expected to sign an extension in the coming weeks. Buster Skrine emerged as a legitimate starter, though he's better suited covering slot receivers. The off-season pickups are marginal, the tiny Trufant being a special teams cover guy, Adams a local kid who caught Pettine's eye in New York, and Hughes a young veteran signed coming off injury by the ousted front office regime. The play for Darrelle Revis failed, and last year's third-rounder Leon McFadden remains unproven, so it's essential that a potential starter be drafted, preferably of the taller variety, by the early third round. Need level: Very High.

S -- Gained: Donte Whitner (4-year UFA deal, SF). Lost: T.J. Ward (UFA, now with DEN). Current quality and depth: It's debatable whether the Browns upgraded in letting Ward walk and signing the slightly older Cleveland native Whitner. It's also debatable whether Tashaun Gipson will prove much more than a replacement level starter. Behind them is nothing but low-round or undrafted potential (Josh Aubrey, Jamoris Slaughter, Jordan Poyer, et al). While not as critical as CB, there's certainly no reason to exempt this position from consideration on the team's draft board. Need level: High.