Saturday, January 24, 2015

Off-season overview: WR, OL, DB

It's about now that the Browns' decision-makers should be done evaluating the 2014 season and roster. They know their own strengths and liabilities. It's now a matter of strategy. Which of their own dozen-plus potential free agents should they try to re-sign? Who are their top targets around the league when free agency kicks off in March? How much of their abundant salary cap space are they willing to spend? Which positions are deep in the draft, and which prospects project best for the brown and orange? Who might they trade for and trade away?

Yesterday I focused on the Browns' top three positions that need attention: QB, DL, and TE. Here's the rough landscape for the next three units to buttress.

Wide receiver -- It seemed telling that the first player new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo mentioned in his introductory press conference that he's excited to coach was Josh Gordon. The mega-talented but enigmatic #1 wideout was thought to be all but out the door after the team suspended him for the final game. But if they were intent on sending him packing, the incoming OC wouldn't be so quick to drop his name like that. Gordon's leash may be shorter than ever, but the potential upside of him returning to 2013 form outweighs the benefit of cutting bait just yet. He's still just 23 -- no fewer than 57 current Browns are older! And the two suspensions last season deprive him of becoming an UFA after the coming year, though Gordon is expected to contest that.

While his potential is immense, there's no way the Browns can rely on Flash as the focal point of the offense. GM Ray Farmer tends to downplay the importance of investing in premiere receivers, but clearly more options are needed. First thing I'd do is re-sign Miles Austin for another year. He was a clutch target last year and a mature presence even after his season-ending injury. Beyond that, Cleveland has three bantamweights: Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin. They each can continue to contribute, though Benjamin's value depends on reestablishing himself as a reliable returner. Marlon Moore played mostly on special teams, is unsigned for '15 and -- going on 28 -- seems unlikely to be back. Three other developmental players -- Phil Bates, Kevin Cone and Rodney Smith -- each have size and will compete for roster spots. That still leaves a pretty glaring need, even if the flaky Gordon and injury-prone Austin return. It's time to add another viable option, probably via the draft. Had they kept Charles Johnson last fall, I might not be saying that.

Offensive line -- Last year's line was outstanding until center Alex Mack's broken leg exposed a disheartening lack of depth. He should return to his fine form for at least one more season, after which he could opt out of his contract and hit the market. The left side remains quite solid with perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas entering his ninth season at tackle and Joel Bitonio quickly establishing himself as a fine find at guard. At right guard, veteran John Greco was reliable and made no one pine for Shawn Lauvao. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has now started all 48 games of his career and heads into his contract year. I'd love to see how his evaluation went. He may be challenged by Michael Bowie, who started eight games for the 2013 Seahawks, and perhaps a reasonably high draft pick, as the Mack experience was eye-opening, and the falloff should Thomas ever get hurt would be similarly tragic. I'd be surprised if they see the durable but inconsistent Schwartz as a pillar of this team long-term. Others in the mix include disappointing vet Paul McQuistan, fill-ins Nick McDonald and Ryan Seymour, and prospects Vinston Painter, Andrew McDonald and Karim Barton.

Secondary -- The defensive backfield was the Browns' best unit last year, with three players earning Pro Bowl honors: corner Joe Haden and safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Much-maligned Buster Skrine also played well overall as the other starting corner. With Haden on the other side, he gets attacked a lot and probably commits too many penalties, but he's a very game competitor, lightning fast and solid in tackling. He's also headed for free agency, and this will be an interesting call. Does he want to re-sign here, and are the Browns willing to pay up? I hope so on both counts. We've suffered through his early growing pains, so it would be nice to enjoy his prime years. In the wings at corner are last year's rookie crop. Blue-chip draftee Justin Gilbert was a disappointment and seems unready to step up and start. Small school sensation Pierre Desir started to emerge late in the season. K'Waun Williams was a fine free agent find, playing well in the slot. Fellow UDFA Robert Nelson and late-season pick-up Kendall James round out the group, along with young journeyman Micah Pellerin, added just last week. As for safety depth, Jim Leonhard played well after Gipson went down, but he's retiring, leaving holdovers Jordan Poyer and Johnson Bademosi. The latter is a special teams stalwart and a restricted free agent worth bringing back. The higher priority, though, is fellow RFA Gipson, who deserves a multi-year deal. I could see the Browns taking a flyer on a late round safety, given that Whitner is entering his 10th season, Gipson is recovering from serious injury, and the existing depth is fairly unproven.

In the next installment I'll summarize the situation with the linebackers, running backs and specialists. In the meantime, take a detailed look at the roster as it stands today.

A secondary is only as good as its weakest link. The Browns would
be fine with K'Waun Williams and Pierre Desir as their third and fourth CBs.



Friday, January 23, 2015

Off-season overview: top three need positions

Here's a quick overview of the three Browns positional groups that need the most attention this offseason.

Quarterback -- Cleveland's braintrust isn't foolish enough to rely on Johnny Manziel as the answer for 2015. He'll probably get one more fair shot to show up or to show off and ship out. Meanwhile it's hard to put odds on the return of UFA Brian Hoyer, but I lean against. We now know his ceiling. Connor Shaw may prove serviceable but ultimately limited. Late-season emergency signee Tyler Thigpen shouldn't return. So it will be fascinating to see who the Browns bring in. Veterans such as Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker and Nick Foles (if the Eagles look elsewhere) seem worth considering. Even so, expect the Browns to draft another quarterback. Who and in which slot? That will surely be a storyline to follow into May.

Defensive line -- The unit most saw as the team's strength was decimated by injuries. Now longtime starter Ahtyba Rubin is a free agent, as is fill-in Sione Fua. Ishmaa'ily Kitchen saw lots of snaps on the nose, and he's a restricted FA. It's quite possible none (except maybe Kitchen) will return. That leaves the expensive Desmond Bryant, plus three guys headed into the last year of their rookie contracts: Phil Taylor, Billy Winn and John Hughes. Winn and Hughes ought to be considered for new deals before next season. Injuries aside, Taylor hasn't played to his first-round potential. Armonty Bryant was an intriguing pass rush threat before his ACL tear. His rehab and the development of Calvin Barnett and Jaccobi McDaniel will be telling in terms of depth. One impact player would fit in really well, but I'd be very reluctant to open the bank for the soon-to-be-ex-Lion Ndamukong Suh.

Tight end -- The big question is whether former Pro Bowler and UFA-to-be Jordan Cameron will return. On one hand, it would be a shame if we lose him after the years invested in his development. He's a sure-handed big-play threat that defenses must respect. But he's also concussion-prone. The Browns were right to let Brodney Pool walk five years ago, and I could understand if they won't pay a premium this time either. I hope it works out for him to return. Otherwise, TE becomes a serious need. Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge are nice complementary players who'll be back. But no doubt the scouts' shopping list has tight end near the top.

Other units ranked in decreasing order of need:
  • Wide receiver
  • Offensive line
  • Secondary 
  • Linebacker
  • Running back
  • Specialists
Look for my overviews of these units soon. In the meantime, you can review the current roster yourself here.

Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin may very well be going and gone, respectively.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A better record, but a team on the rise?

Once again, the Browns have finished a losing season in a tailspin, dropping their last five games. They led the AFC North as late as November 16, but now the rest of the division is headed for the playoffs, and the Browns are headed for another tumultuous off-season.

Unlike the past two years, the head coach and general manager will stay on, according to owner Jimmy Haslam. The new Mike Pettine/Ray Farmer regime produced a three-game improvement over 2013, which ended with the scapegoating of rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski and -- after a prolonged search for a successor -- the eventual firing of CEO Joe Banner and his henchman, GM Mike Lombardi.

The sole rationale Haslam provided for Chud's firing was this:
What we would say is that it's really important that we show improvement during the course of the season. Specifically, we talked about, I believe if you look back at the quote, we needed to be better in the last three games than we were the first three games. As the season developed and what was a really nice start and as we got later into the season, it was our feeling that as a team we were not getting better. Yes, we had a young team, but I think if we'd reflect on it we would all say, ‘A young team should get better,' and we simply didn't feel like that was happening.
But that was a year ago. So does this 7-9 season, ending as it did with some serious skid marks, represent substantial progress and cause for hope? That's certainly debatable, but history can provide some context.

Ten other times in NFL history, a team followed up a 4-12 season by going 7-9. So what happened next? Their combined records the next season were 66-93-1, which means the average record for a team that went 7-9 the previous year and 4-12 before that is just 7-9. And that's rounding up.

Here are those ten teams, most recent first (* = team changed coaches during or between the preceding 4-12 and 7-9 seasons, as the Browns did):

  • 2014 Lions, 11-5 (wildcard team with new coach and established QB)
  • *2013 Buccaneers, 4-12 (Greg Schiano's second-year regression got him the boot)
  • 2007 49ers, 5-11 (four different QBs started games)
  • 2004 Bears, 5-11 (also had four starters in Lovie Smith's first year)
  • 2002 Falcons, 9-6-1 (won a wildcard game in Michael Vick's first full season)
  • *1997 Cardinals, 4-12 (turned to rookie QB Jake Plummer from mid-season on)
  • *1996 Rams, 6-10 (Rich Brooks' second and last season as a head coach)
  • 1994 Cardinals, 8-8 (Buddy Ryan took over for Joe Bugel and lasted just two years)
  • *1990 Lions, 6-10 (Wayne Fontes and Barry Sanders would have better and worse seasons)
  • 1980 Chiefs, 8-8 (a middling year in the middling Marv Levy era).

The takeaway is just this: a losing team that improves by three wins doesn't necessarily keep on improving. In fact, it usually stays a losing team. Even if it's not the Browns.

Johnny Manziel and Jimmy Haslam confer before the Colts game. (Jason Miller/Getty)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Shut down, up and out

I don't get to go to many games, one a year if I'm lucky, as I live three hours away. The previous one was last year's win over the Ravens, my favorite in-person Browns experience in 26 years.

My dad and I were there yesterday, and the pre-game excitement was palpable within and throughout. The coach had hyped the playoff atmosphere. A girl with a Hillis jersey was in high demand for photos as she sported her "Fear the Midget" sign.

The weather was mild and calm, a welcome contrast to a previous December memory of freezing through my long-johns for three hours to see only a single gimmick touchdown. Even then we stayed 'til the bitter, bitter end.

But dear god, yesterday, by the second quarter, the Bengals were averaging a point a minute, and the only people standing in section 102 were the beefy dudes right in front of us. When we finally got our first first down (by penalty), the crowd was sarcastically chanting "Super Bowl, Super Bowl." By then the lady right behind behind me was obsessively chanting "BRI-an HOY-er" after every offensive fail, despite her husband telling her to give it up already.

And speaking of giving up, it was obvious that our no-nonsense, "Play like a Brown" head coach knew we were done for. Down 23-0 very early in the fourth quarter, it's fourth-and-14 from near midfield, and he sends in the punter. That signaled Game Over for me. Five minutes later, fourth-and-two, same score, same decision. Punt the ball away.

Now I've been known to sit through the sloppy end of boring night exhibition games with my car parked on a dark Detroit side street. But yesterday I had a surprisingly strong new urge to get the hell out of that stadium right there and then. My dad convinced me to stay for one more offensive series so that if the Browns were somehow to score, we wouldn't have missed it. As you know, they yielded a 14-play touchdown drive that took nearly all of the remaining nine minutes off the clock.

By then we were in the car wondering when the line to leave would start moving. Through the windshield there was just enough daylight left to see glum-faced fellow fans silently straggling away, the shoulders of their souvenir jerseys slumped forward.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Impressive investment at a perilous position

The new Browns have become known for their rapid turnover at quarterback, 20 different starters since 1999. That's a lot, of course, but it is contextualized and partly explained by this equally astounding figure: over the same time frame, Cleveland has started 39 different men at the two offensive guard positions.

(Try this quiz to see how many you can name.)

In other words, a Browns starting guard has kept the position less than 13 games on average. Over the course of 15-plus seasons, they've installed about two-and-a-half new starters each year.

The longest lasting? Eric Steinbach, 62 games from 2007-2010, and Shawn Lauvao, 44 starts from 2010-2013.

One of several blatantly bad personnel decisions at guard was allowing Shaun O'Hara to leave in free agency after he'd started 38 games from 2000-2003. He ended up making three Pro Bowls in seven years as the Giants' center.

The highest draft pick the Browns have spent in this area came this year after they showed no interest in re-signing the free agent Lauvao. Here's second-rounder Joel Bitonio, writing in MMQB about his adjustment to the NFL and to adulthood in general.

After all the flame-outs and flakes, heavy-footed hole-patchers, creaky vets and leaky threats to our quarterbacks' well-being, I like what I'm seeing from Bitonio, who may be the first guard dawg of the new era to earn post-season accolades. Let's hope he holds up, because we've already seen serious statistical shrinkage with the need to plumb the depth chart. He's quickly become the Browns' only indispensable rookie.

 Gregory Shamus/Getty

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The bigger they come...

Here's how Browns quarterbacks have performed since 1999, categorized by their draft position (regular season and playoffs):

Draft round W/L record W/L % Pass yards Completion % TDs INTs
1 35-75 31.8% 22,485 57.9% 119 122
2-4 13-38 25.5% 9,747 59.1% 45 54
5-end 16-25 39.0% 8,194 51.6% 50 58
undrafted 16-28 36.4% 9,568 60.7% 56 51

This data dive was inspired by the recent success of Brian Hoyer, one of the undrafteds, who continues to hold off first-round rookie Johnny Manziel. Hoyer's the only Browns starter in this era with a winning record.

For your reference, here are the QBs in each category, listed in descending order by pass attempts:

Monday, October 13, 2014

What a rush! Browns overtake Steelers

OK, I think they're for real. As you may have heard, the Browns yesterday dismantled the Steelers 31-10, their largest margin of victory in the series in a full quarter century.

There are several storylines of interest here, from the satisfaction of a convincing division win, to the season-ending broken leg of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, to the gritty performance of the hobbled and harried Browns defense, to the prospect of continuing this roll against three subpar opponent on the immediate horizon.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Browns should be favored over the Jaguars, Raiders, and Buccaneers (combined record of 1-13). If they convert, they'd be 6-2 heading into a crucial Thursday night showdown at Cincinnati. Then they'd have All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon back from suspension to face three middling teams -- the Texans, Falcons, and Bills -- before a challenging stretch run in December.

To focus on one aspect of the Browns success, take a look at the three-headed monster in the backfield:
They stuck with the top two yesterday, sending a message to West, the rookie third-round draftee, by benching him in favor of Glenn Winston, who, like Crowell, is an undrafted rookie with considerable upside despite some past character demerits.

Assuming West satisfies the coaches with improved attitude and pass blocking, he'll return to complete the most balanced and productive tailback ensemble in many years. They're averaging 143 yards per game, which puts them on pace for 2,288 for the season. Not since Jim Brown's peak year of 1963 have three Browns combined for as many rushing yards.

All three of them are decisive and powerful, good fits for Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking, one-cut approach. Each has his strengths and weaknesses. 

Tate, the veteran, has good vision in the open field and is shifty enough to threaten the second level of defenders. But he's had injury problems throughout his pro career, and his smallish hands make him less than an ideal receiver and a fumble risk (ten in 40 games over three years in Houston).

Crowell flies off the TV screen with a very strong burst, allowing him to find and attack seams in a hurry. His biggest area to improve may be concentration. We saw a few ball-security lapses against the Steelers. As he matures, he stands to become a more complete player worthy of a higher proportion of snaps.

West finishes his runs well, leveraging his compact frame to churn ahead and fall forward for extra yards. If he could use that physicality as a pass blocker, he'd be a more viable option on third down.

While the group's rushing productivity is high, none of them has stood out as a preferred option in the passing game. Rookie fullback Ray Agnew deserves credit for some strong lead blocking, and he may be their best pass protector in the backfield. 

The trio has totaled just six catches for 28 yards, mostly by West. Agnew's been targeted five times with just one reception. This indicates that the Browns could benefit if one of their talented runners could step up to provide reliable blitz pick-up and glide into the flat as a checkdown option.

Screen passes, at least to running backs, are essentially absent from the Browns' game plan.

It will be interesting to see if West remains in the doghouse, if Winston will join the rotation, how much the loss of Mack up front will hurt, and whether the Browns continue to keep their stable fresh and hungry with a balanced workload.

It's hard to argue with this kind of success. The Browns' 349 rushing yards is their highest season total against the Steelers since 1966.

Cleveland ranks third in rushing yards per game, despite no single run longer than 29 yards. Their eight rushing touchdowns leads the league.

The offensive unit as a whole averages 6.0 yards per offensive play, tied with Dallas for fifth. They're top 10 in many categories including points per game, first downs per game, and turnover margin, despite having the fewest completed passes of any team.

Yesterday, eight was enough.

Ben Tate gears up to get past Troy Polamalu. Jason Miller/Getty photo.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Taking the smart, unified O-line at face value

Nice to see the Browns' offensive line getting some attention for the team's better-than-expected ability to rush the ball, protect the passer, and -- above all -- score points. All hail Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, John Greco, and Mitchell Schwartz.

From yesterday's Associated Press feature
"Just stand near them and listen to them to talk," said first-year coach Mike Pettine. "They're football nerds. That's all they talk about is football. They get into some real in-depth conversations about it, and it shows on the field. They work very well together. It's a very intelligent group, and I think they're very well suited for the scheme."
The scheme.
Under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Browns switched to a zone-blocking scheme this season. It can be a complicated system to learn with many details and nuances. Pettine and his staff knew it would take time for the Browns offensive line to become comfortable with something so foreign.
They expected a steep learning curve. This group, though, flattened it quickly.
Pettine said he didn't expect the line to come so far this quickly.
"But when you look at the group and just how smart they are and how hard they work and the way they get coached, looking back on it, it's not a huge surprise," Pettine said.
Fox News picked up the AP piece and put it under a headline that began: "Not blockheads."

The team's in-house mouthpiece also touted the starting five this week:
The Cleveland Browns offensive line is manhandling opposing defenses through the first four games of the season. This isn't a fluke. This is who they are...
They haven’t just gelled together. They are together, as one.
And the well-regarded analytics site Pro Football Focus just came out with their league-wide offensive line rankings. The Browns graded out at the very top:
It’s rare the stars align like this. You’ve got five players who have played every snap and look like a line in sync.
These plaudits are certainly well-deserved. But at the risk of pooping in the punchbowl, there's something interesting behind all this talk of a special star alignment of a unified group of "very intelligent" quick learners up front.

I'll go ahead and say it. They're all white guys.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. And far be it from me to imply that Ray Farmer's roster reflects a systematic bias. But the particular language used to discuss this group echoes certain pre-existing identity-related narratives. If you disagree, point out profiles of some mixed-race offensive lines that similarly emphasize, for example, their "in-depth conversations" about football and their togetherness "as one."

Now on to the math. A demographic study of the NFL's opening 53-man rosters provides data as to the racial composition of the teams and of the various positions. A few fast facts:
  • 27.66% of players are white
  • Black players are in the majority (67.98%) but earn less on average than any other racial category.
  • The positions with the highest proportion of white players, in order: long snapper, kicker, punter, center, quarterback, tight end, and guard.
  • 49% of offensive linemen are white, compared to just 10% of defensive lineman.
Even given the relative prevalence of white offensive linemen, the Browns' situation is rare. The odds that a random draw of one center, two guards, and two tackles from the current NFL population would result in five white players is just 2.6%.

A quick look at depth charts around the league shows that Cleveland is the only team with all white starters across the offensive line if you include the tight end.

Counting just the interior five, aside from the Browns, only Jacksonville and perhaps Green Bay (depending on whether a player partially of Persian descent counts) have all-white starters.

This all is just observation, not accusation. Racial attitudes and aptitudes, opportunities and obstacles -- well, it's all fraught with complexity and conflict.

So why bring it up?

Because no one else has.

And that's where I'll leave it for now. Take your anger out on the Steelers.

Mitchell Schwartz sports his Sharpie after training camp practice August 15, 2014

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Brians in Browns history

We're only through the first quarter of the season, but it's interesting to note the parallels between the two quarterbacks in Browns history named Brian.

Both fan favorites were largely overlooked coming out of college, barely saw the field early in their careers, and suffered season-ending injuries after becoming the starter. Neither were known for particularly outstanding physical tools, but they each earned the top job in Cleveland over first-round picks (in Hoyer's case, over three of them).

With the help of a solid offensive line, several capable running backs, a Pro Bowl tight end, and an ensemble of sure-handed though not elite wideouts, each Brian has come into his own by leading the team to a series of fantastic finishes, winning some, losing some, but making each game plenty interesting.

And as mentioned yesterday, Brian Hoyer is on pace to throw for 4,032 yards this season, which would be just the second 4,000-yard season for a Brown, exactly 100 yards behind Sipe's 1980 total.

Here's a rundown of Brians of Browns past and present, in rough order of significance and/or merit.
  • Brian Sipe -- holds most of the Browns' major passing records
  • Brian Brennan -- reliable possession receiver, 1984-91, tied for second in franchise history among WRs in receptions 
  • Brian Hoyer -- only one of the 20 "new" Browns starting QBs with a winning record
  • Bryan Wiedmeier -- Since 2010, the Executive Vice President has focused on the Browns' business affairs and particularly the stadium renovation project. He recently earned a contract extension, less than two years after surgery for Stage Four brain cancer.
  • Brian Kinchen -- long-snapper who developed into a starting tight end, 1991-95
  • Brian Russell -- starting free safety, 2005-06, best known for this devastating hit on the Bengals' Chad Johnson
  • Brian Hansen -- punter whose five teams in 15 years included Cleveland from 1991-93
  • Brian Robiskie -- the least productive of the eight receivers Cleveland drafted in the second round since 1999
  • Brian Washington -- tenth-round pick in 1988 started at safety as a rookie. Released with a broken nose, he went on to play seven more productive seasons with the Jets and Chiefs
  • Brian Angelichio -- current tight ends coach
  • Brian Decker -- in his first year as player personnel strategist after an Army career that included helping develop the Special Forces
  • Brian Fleury -- current assistant linebackers coach
  • Brian Schaefering -- undrafted d-lineman out of Lindenwood (same school as Pierre Desir), started ten of 37 games for the Browns, 2009-11
  • Brian Baker -- outside linebackers coach in 2013
  • Brian Gross -- as a membership services representative, he'll gladly sell you some season tickets
  • Brian Daboll -- offensive coordinator under Eric Mangini, 2009-10. Cleveland ranked last and 29th in offense during his tenure.
  • Brian Duncan -- backup running back, 1976-77
  • Brian Sanford -- backup d-lineman who played seven games in two stints with Cleveland, 2011-12 & 2013
  • Brian Tyms -- two forgettable catches in seven games with 2013 Browns, now on the Patriots' WR depth chart
  • Brian Smith -- linebacker whose only two NFL games were with 2011 Browns
  • Brian Franco  -- 1987 replacement "scab" kicker
  • Brian Dudley -- 1987 replacement "scab" DB
  • Brian Greenfield -- Pitt punter picked in 10th round of 1991 draft. The veteran Hansen won the job.
  • Brian Murray -- 13th-round draft pick in 1976. Offensive tackle from Arizona never made it.
Sipe steps up in the pocket as Cody Risien blocks HOF Ram Jack Youngblood.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Echoes of excitement and excellence

The Browns' thrilling 25-point comeback win at Tennessee yesterday was indeed historic in several respects.

It was the greatest deficit ever surmounted by a visiting team that came back to win. That's all teams, all time.

It was also the Browns' biggest comeback win ever. However, in 1947 they fell behind 28-0 to the New York Yankees of the AAFC and rallied for a tie in Yankee Stadium. So technically, yesterday was not the Browns' largest comeback.

That shouldn't dampen spirits a bit though. Because this was quite an unusual game, even as big comebacks go.

How incredibly rare must it be for a team to come back from so far to win when they
  • commit three turnovers in the final 17 minutes, with two nullified by penalty
  • fail on fourth-down conversions in consecutive second half possessions
  • run the ball 20 times in the second half of a game they were losing by 18
  • start the fourth quarter down 15 points and rush ten times for 37 yards, including just two yards on each of their final five carries
  • allow the opponent to convert eight of 14 third downs, opposing QBs a rating of 123.6, and opposing runners 149 yards at five yards a pop?
Special thanks to Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt for his foolish decision to go for it on fourth down at his own 42, nursing a six-point lead with 3:09 to go. Squandering a timeout on a hopeless challenge after the whistle blew on Charlie Whitehurst's stuffed sneak also proved helpful in the end.

This was the third straight Browns/Titans clash in Nashville in which the home team scored exactly 28 points.

The game there 12 years ago was another of the most memorable comebacks in franchise history, as the Browns allowed a touchdown to trail by 14 points with just five minutes to go. As with yesterday, the Brown best known for punt returning was instrumental in the comeback. 

In 2002, it was Dennis Northcutt, who recovered an onside kick and scored the tying touchdown with 18 ticks left in regulation. 

Yesterday, of course, it was similarly slight Travis Benjamin, who's struggling on punt returns but hauled in two exciting fourth quarter touchdown catches, matching the career total he brought into the season.

And any post on this game would be remiss without mention of the pride of North Olmstead, Brian Hoyer, the comeback quarterback whose personal story is rightly eclipsing the Johnny Manziel mania. After just four games, the six-year veteran has already set has career highs in completions, yards, and touchdowns. It was a good week for last year's ACL surgery patients.

Don't look now, but Hoyer's on pace for a 4,000-yard passing season, which would be just the second in franchise history, the other belonging to another beloved Brian, 1980 league MVP Brian Sipe.

And now it's Steeler week, this time in Cleveland, to determine whether Mike Pettine's team -- with the schedule's soft underbelly to follow -- is really ready to compete for their first division title in 20 years.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

History holds hope for post-bye Browns

The 1-2 Browns return to action this Sunday in Nashville to face 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 host 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.