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.

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.

OFFENSE

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.

DEFENSE

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.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Equinox knocks, who's there?

While the Browns' busy off-season continues, I'll break my radio silence here by noting that my fandom continues in spite of suffering its worst jolt since 1995 with the firing of my old classmate after less than a year as head coach. Personally, it's been a struggle with cognitive dissonance.

That partly explains why I haven't responded in writing to all the news of the incoming coaching staff, the front office shakeup, the roster reshuffling, and draft preparations. I've been working on a Browns-related book, which is proving quite a complex project on many levels. 

Additionally, a lengthy, research-based Browns feature piece is complete and working its way toward publication, and I hope to share those details here soon. I have revamped this blog's design and will be updating various associated content while also engaging more with fellow fans.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Anchoring the roster

It was great that the 2013 Browns had six Pro Bowlers -- Joe Haden, Alex Mack, Joe Thomas, T.J. Ward, Josh Gordon, and Jordan Cameron. But I find it interesting when people use that fact as supporting evidence for the premature dismissal of their head coach, Rob Chudzinski. 

The line of thinking is that with all that talent, the coach should've won more than four games. Overlooked is that fact that most of those guys had never made the Pro Bowl before Chud and his staff got there. Teams typically tout their new hires, including Mike Pettine, by crediting them for Pro Bowlers who played for them, as if that individual success reflects positively on the "mentoring" or "tutelage" they received. Yet Chud sending six guys to Hawaii is somehow a demerit. That's what scapegoating will do to perceptions. 

So in the interest of balance, here are a few other facts about the Browns' 53-man roster that I think better explain their 4-12 record.
  • 49% consists of UDFAs (20) or 7th-rounders (6)
  • 36% rookies/first-year players
  • 72% came into 2013 with 16 or fewer career starts, including 23 with zero
  • 28% acquired 8/27/13 or later, so they weren't even in camp with the Browns.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Flashback 50: 23 turns 23

On this date in the championship year of 1964, Larry Benz celebrated his 23rd birthday. Well before Joe Haden, it was Benz who wore jersey 23 in the Cleveland secondary, the first Brown ever to don that number.

The undrafted safety had just finished a rookie year in which he intercepted seven passes while starting all 14 games. The team had a sudden need for a replacement due to the June 1963 death of three-year starter Don Fleming, in whose memory the Browns retired the number 46.

The former Cleveland Heights High School standout had also been a quarterback at Northwestern, and he came to the Browns at the recommendation of his coach, Ara Parseghian, who at 90 is among the very oldest surviving Browns alumni (1948-49).

As a returning starter, Benz was part of the overachieving defensive unit that shut out Johnny Unitas and the Colts' league-leading offense in the 1964 title game.

He played through 1965 with the Browns, leading or tying for the team lead in interceptions in each of his three years in the league. He was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in their 1966 expansion draft but left their training camp after one day, never to play again. He later testified before a federal grand jury investigating allegations of player blacklisting in the NFL.


Happy 73rd birthday, Larry Benz.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bereality

OK then, Chud's successor has finally been hired, so bygones, right? Uh, not to PD opinion writer Jeff Darcy, who probably shouldn't expect the proverbial playoff tickets:

Now that the Browns' front office has hired a head coach, they can begin their methodical search for a credibility repairman who is a proven winner.

With the words ''tough' and ''aggressive' being used in the presser as often as Haslam says "candidly" you can't help but take it as an inference that Chud wasn't tough and aggressive or knew how to win... Anyone who had to deal with the garbage roster Banner produced is tough. Any coach who went for it on fourth down as often as Chud did is aggressive. When Chud was O.C. the Browns record was 10-6...he clearly knows how to win.

Haslam and Banner talk a lot about accountability, but when Banner was asked about Bess and who was accountable for that blunder, he answered with his typical Banner-speak and then refused to discuss it further. ... Accountablity enforcer Jimmy Haslam said he knew nothing about the Bess blunder. He was too busy knowing nothing about the felony scams allegedly being carried out by his sales reps under the supervision of his top executives.

Good luck Mr. Pettine. My advice: tank the first few games so that the team is sure to show improvement as the season goes along. And if you ever find yourself at a wedding and see Mike Lombardi there, be sure to ask him for a dance.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Flashback 50: writing on wall for home title game

Fifty years ago today, Sports Illustrated published a brief item in its Scorecard column lamenting that NFL championship games may inevitably be moved to warm-weather neutral sites.

This, of course, brings to mind some of the legendary aspects of the Browns' 1964 championship, which seem almost other-worldly to those raised in the Super Bowl era.

Namely, the Browns (10-3-1) were able to host the Colts (12-2) in the title game, giving home-field advantage to the Cleveland underdogs. In those days, the location was not determined by the teams' record but simply alternated between the Eastern and Western conferences. Ironically, Cleveland was in the East, though it's 376 miles WNW of Baltimore.

The TV broadcast on CBS featured one announcer from each team, Ken Coleman (CLE) and Chuck Thompson (BAL), along with freshly-retired Giants star Frank Gifford. Despite a crowd of 79,544 at Muni, the game was blacked out locally, which seems beyond absurd today.

So as the stage is now set for February 2's NFL season finale -- the first Super Bowl to be played outdoors in the northern climate -- here's how SI framed the siting issue in late January 1964:

COLD COMFORT

Controversy over the Bears-Giants championship game has not died, and one strongly argued aspect is the advisability of moving the annual event to some city where it could be played in pleasant sunshine and with good conditions underfoot.

Most support for the move comes from New York fans and New York writers (who had to cover the game in Chicago in an unheated press box); none has yet come from the Chicago area. That is not to say that only sour grapes are involved. At Wrigley Field on December 29 one end of the ground was frozen and slippery, and it was so cold that the players' hands were numbed. Why, it is asked, should pro football's biggest game not always be played in conditions permitting the best possible exhibition of football skills?

The players themselves don't seem to feel that way. Their working season now extends from July to the end of December. They expect to start playing in 90-degree temperatures and end in freezing weather, and in between to play good football in rain, mud and snow. We think that is the right attitude.

Even more important is the point of view of the fan who has followed his team all the way to its divisional title; he would never see the biggest game of all except by paying his way across the continent—or on television.

The trend toward more sport viewing on TV and less in the flesh has so far been fairly well resisted by the NFL with its black-out policy, but the proposed move of the championship site would be a significant concession to that trend, which, of course, history may prove to be irreversible. That doesn't mean we have to like it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Flagrant 15

Should the Dolphins have disclosed the troubles of Davone Bess before offloading him to the Browns last year? Shouldn't the Browns have done more due diligence before rewarding Bess with a new contract including $5.75 million guaranteed?

Why wasn't this mess-in-progress sniffed out well in advance? By now the axiom ought to be etched into the walls of Berea: Do not trade with Miami on draft day to get a guy to wear #15. 



Friday, January 17, 2014

Flashback 50: Browns reject Havlicek lights it up

Fifty years today, John Havlicek scored a game-high 27 points, as the Boston Celtics improved to 30-9 with a convincing 99-79 win over the L.A. Lakers (27-17).

So how does this pertain to the Browns and their journey to the 1964 NFL championship? Only marginally, but, hey, January 17 was hoops season. Football was dormant. The draft was complete. No coaching search was necessary.

So why not commemorate a glimpse of time from a Hall of Fame career that almost wasn't? After all, Havlicek (like Lou Groza) was a native of Martins Ferry, Ohio, who scored field goals (of a different kind) for Ohio State.

Unlike Groza, he was actually drafted by the Browns, in the seventh round of 1962. The 6' 5" Bridgeport High School star was an All-State quarterback, but he focused on basketball in college. Paul Brown picked him as a potential addition to the receiving corps.

The All-American basketball star actually chose to pursue football, and he competed for a Browns roster spot in training camp and into the exhibition season. But Hondo wasn't the only incoming pass-catcher vying for a pro career. In fact, Gary Collins was the team's first-rounder that year, the fourth pick overall. He too was 6' 5", and he could punt as well, a useful versatility in the days of 36-man rosters.

The team also had returnees "Rabbit" Ray Renfro, the team's leading receiver in 1961 at age 32; Rich Kreitling, their top pick in 1959; Bobby Crespino, the 1961 first-rounder; and veteran Leon Clarke.

While Coach Brown admired Havlicek's competitiveness and good hands, in his view the "lack of great foot speed" limited his potential in football to no more than a "fringe player."

Ultimately, Havlicek was cut from the Browns on August 22, 1962, but he had a pretty solid fallback option, having been selected by the Celtics as the NBA's seventh overall pick back in March. I'd say he rebounded all right. Sixteen seasons, eight titles, and still the most career points in the history of that iconic franchise.

As for Collins, he remains the Browns' all-time leader with 70 receiving touchdowns. He's certainly best known for scoring the only three touchdowns of the 1964 NFL title game.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves in our reminiscences; it's still only January.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

KO takes on Jimmy

Not sure what I think of Keith Olbermann's snarky take on JH3's letter to fans. The not-quite-indicted billionaire surely hasn't changed the Browns' image away from laughingstock, and that's an understatement. Here's the overstatement:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Flashback 50: rookies Warfield, Kelly in the fold

By this date in 1964, the NFL draft was already old news, having been held on December 2, 1963. By January 14, two of the Browns' key selections had already reportedly signed their rookie contracts.

Both Paul Warfield, the 11th overall pick, and Leroy Kelly, chosen in the eighth round (110th overall) would enjoy fantastic NFL careers that would earn them induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

While the exploits of these Browns legends are now well known to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the team's history, back in 1964, even after inking their rookie deals, they were just two promising prospects trying to establish themselves. They weren't set for life.

During their rookie training camp at remote Hiram College, they lacked even the cars or the cash to head into the nearest town, Garrettsville, in the evenings. They'd stay on the sleepy campus and end up tossing the Frisbee or playing Wiffle ball along with teenaged ballboys like Casey Coleman.

Warfield, the star Ohio State halfback and Warren native, was almost a no-brainer of a pick, and under the special tutelage of the retired "Rabbit" Ray Renfro, he made a quick and successful conversion to split end, leading the championship team in the major receiving categories.

Kelly, a pure halfback, was the proverbial diamond in the rough. Coming from Morgan State, a historically black college in Baltimore, he had starred on both offense and defense to more than earn his half-scholarship. Focusing on special teams as a Browns rookie in 1964, he earned $17,000, including his signing bonus, less than four times the average American wage.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Flashback 50: the January 12, 1964 Pro Bowl

2014 marks the semicentennial anniversary of Cleveland's last championship season in any major pro sport. Throughout the year I'll be revisiting the exploits of the 1964 Browns and their extraordinary journey to the NFL title.

I hope this provides readers with some reminders of fond memories, or (if you're like me and too young to have lived through it) a richer connection with the Browns' winning football heritage. Sadly, it's been too long since we've been on top, and the state of the current Browns organization has me despairing of the outsize investment I've made following this franchise over the course of my life.

Maybe this year-long exercise will help reinforce some of the core aspects that make (or made) Browns fandom such a captivating pastime.


Fifty years ago today, the great Jim Brown rushed for a game-high 101 yards and two touchdowns. It was the Pro Bowl, the exhibition capping off the 1963 season, in which the Browns finished 10-4 and lost to the Packers in the Playoff Bowl, meaning that they finished fourth in the 14-team NFL. Some 67,242 were on hand at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Cleveland's magnificent fullback was joined by five teammates -- LB Galen Fiss, DE Bill Glass, C John Morrow, DB Bernie Parrish, and LT Dick Schafrath -- on the Eastern Conference squad, which lost 31-17 to a West team led by Baltimore Colts stars Johnny Unitas and Gino Marchetti.

In the first quarter, Glass tipped and intercepted a Unitas pass, leading to a field goal and a 3-0 East lead, but the West basically dominated throughout, with Brown's scoring runs of eight and three yards coming in garbage time.

Jim Brown carried the load for the East, who played without injured QB Y.A. Tittle, the league's MVP in 1963

Saturday, January 11, 2014

There's a catch

Eight different men caught passes for the NFL Champion 1964 Cleveland Browns. In fact, five of them (Paul Warfield, Jim Brown, Gary Collins, Ernie Green, and Johnny Brewer) accounted for over 95% of the team's receptions. They had a league-high 28 touchdowns through the air in 14 games.

In their Week 15 game at New England in 2013, nine different Browns had receptions. For the season, 17 players had at least one catch (8 WR, 3 TE, 6 RB). Cleveland led the league with 681 passing attempts and almost certainly in the number of plays with unique passer-receiver combinations.

The obvious conclusion? Fire the coach.




Friday, January 10, 2014

The beatdown goes on

I’ve covered 10 Browns head coaches, nine coaching changes and seven Browns coaching searches. Never have I seen or heard the franchise criticized and ridiculed so intensely as right now.

It goes back to the firing of Rob Chudzinski and his staff after one disappointing season. Totally outrageous. A complete repudiation of what owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner professed to stand for. Stability? Out the window. Credibility? Shot.

Lurking behind the curtain is Mike Lombardi. His role in this abject mess can not be discounted. Lombardi holds the title of general manager, yet he is strangely protected like a juvenile from media interrogation by Haslam and Banner. Lombardi is absolutely brilliant at evading accountability and transferring blame to coaches.

-- Longtime Browns beat reporter and columnist Tony Grossi.

 -- ESPN poll, as published in the blog of longtime Browns writer Pat McManamon

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Browns' misfire

The Cowboys hired a 36-year-old first-time head coach in 1960. The team went 0-11-1. Dallas stuck with native son Tom Landry and enjoyed tremendous sustained success.

Bud Grant won just three games his first year but went on to win 11 division titles in 18 seasons with the Vikings.

The perenially putrid Pittsburgh Steelers gave Cleveland native Chuck Noll, age 37, his first head coaching job in 1969. He promptly went 1-13, their worst result ever. But the owner stuck with him, and it turned out OK. In fact, no other coach has won four Super Bowls.

Eddie DeBartolo didn't cut bait on Bill Walsh when his first-time head coach failed to improve on the 49ers' 2-14 record in 1979. 

Bill Parcells went 3-12-1 as a rookie head coach with the New York Giants in 1983, worse than Ray Perkins had ever done before him.

New Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hand-picked a 46-year-old NFL newbie to succeed Landry, who went 3-13 in 1988. Jimmy Johnson failed to show instant results, as they traded stud running back Herschel Walker mid-season in the rebuilding effort. After a 1-15 rookie season, Johnson stayed on to soon reestablish a top-notch winning culture in Dallas.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers regressed from 7-9 to 6-10 under first-year coach Tony Dungy. He never had another losing season, and it's not because his owner got impatient and fired him.

I'm not saying that Chud is as good of a coach as any of the legends above. But the Browns' 4-12 mark does not brand him a failure. And his rash, premature firing doesn't prove he was a bad hire. It does deny him the opportunity to continue in his dream job and perhaps achieve the success that history shows is very possible even after a rocky, rebuilding, rookie year.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Incredibility

“I’m hard pressed to think that in nine weeks a first-time head coach can do any better or any more than he’s doing. All of the measurables that you’d look to come up with — if you even wanted to create a yardstick of measuring at this moment — I just think he’s doing an outstanding job.”
--Browns CEO Joe Banner, November 13, 2013. Rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski was fired just 45 days later.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Worse than no team at all

The Browns are indeed a joke. They are, at the moment, the worst organization in American sports.
Cleveland doesn’t deserve that. This coming year will mark 50 since Cleveland’s last championship in any sport. The Browns have provided more pain than any of the other teams. I remember the awfulness of the Browns final home game in 1995 — the last game in Cleveland before the Browns moved to Baltimore. There was so much anger, so much disgust, so little hope.
And then, in 1996, '97 and '98 there was no football in Cleveland. When I would come back in the winters, there was a bleakness that overwhelmed everything. The wind. The snow. The slush. The grayness. The potholes. All of it seemed tolerable as long as the Browns played on Sundays. With them gone, well, it was rough.
But you know what? With these Browns — with this owner, with this braintrust, with the never ending parade of quarterbacks, with the perpetual hiring and firing of coaches — I have to say: Those three years without the Browns almost seem charming in memory.

-- Joe Posnanski, Cleveland native and one of America's best sportswriters

Monday, December 30, 2013

From Mumbles himself

 Cleveland did a good job. They outcoached us and outplayed us in every area.

--Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Dec. 9, 2013, one day after his playoff-bound team squeaked by the Browns, 27-26, in New England in Week 14

Thursday, November 07, 2013

One for the ages

I'm very grateful to have had the chance to take my dad and son to last Sunday's crucial win over the dreaded Ravens. It was a memorable experience made possible through the generosity of the Browns, the extraordinary Southeast Michigan Browns Backers and its members, and my folks, who won the tickets at the Browns Backers' raffle and picked up the other incidental costs for the weekend.



We got to hang out on the field for a good hour before the game. Elliot met Chomps. We watched the teams warm up (though we were stuck behind the Ravens' sideline). 






We sported some ridiculously huge new T-shirts, plenty big enough to wear over our coats. Below is grandpa taking one of many pictures that I'm sure are better than mine.



Although we weren't close enough to be able to interact with Browns, side judge Larry Rose pulled my boy out of the rope line long enough for us to snap a few photos.

Soon enough, we privileged season-ticket holders and Browns Backers lined up with our mini flags along the goal line and 2-yard line for the pregame ceremonies. Cameras were now verboten, we were told, so I leaned into my nine-year-old's ear and told him to etch this scene in his mind's eye for the sake of future reminiscences. Amid a field busy with service-member honorees and various staff from the teams, the league, and the media, the placekickers continued practicing, confidently booting footballs clear over our heads. I noticed the stands seem suddenly filled with fans, and the enthusiastic stadium noise reached a crescendo as the Browns stormed the field just to our left. As the starting defense was announced one by one, we felt each fleeting blast of heat from the twin flamethrowers accompanying each player's introduction. The late afternoon air was crisp, but it was no sacrifice to remove our hats for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Our shirts said "Unite," and I sang along this time.
Then we marched back into the tunnel to grab the belongings we'd stashed in an extra locker room. We made it to our seats without missing too much of the action.


As for the game experience itself, it rivaled my own first-ever Browns game -- the legendary 23-20 double-overtime playoff win over the Jets in 1987. Our seats were at the end of the last row of the lower level, so we didn't feel crowded from behind or the side, and the suites overhead provided some cover that didn't turn out to be needed. We were just high enough to see across the whole field, even though Section 113 is toward a corner of the stadium, near the end zone where four of the day's five touchdowns would occur. Here's the view upon Davone Bess' fourth-and-goal scoring grab:


Seated in front of us were two inebriated and very friendly young men, brothers, who instigated high-fives, fist-bumps, even chest-bumps with every good Browns play, and there were plenty. They must've offered a dozen times to take pictures of our little party of three generations.


Then, just as halftime approached, the drunk duo wished us a good life and left, having promised to meet a friend in town who couldn't muster a ticket. Really, we couldn't have asked for a happier and more agreeable day, from the fellow fans to the short concession lines at halftime, to the pre-game experience, to the result on the field, where the Browns played their most complete game of the season and aggressively stuck it to the illegitimate offspring of a late traitor whose name need not appear here. Instead, here's Ahtyba Rubin stuffing Ray Rice for a loss.


For me, even better than the sacks of Joe Flacco, the redemption earned by our receivers, and the gutsy leadership shown by my old classmate now manning the Browns' sideline is the sensation of the shared experience of Browns football taking root into a new and promising era. Elliot (previously featured in this blog here) quickly picked up the idea of getting loud when the opponent has the ball on third down. It's OK, I explained, it's not poor sportsmanship to make it hard for the Ravens to hear. It's called the home field advantage, and I'm so glad we were there to take full advantage on Sunday.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bring on the 20th

Like so much surrounding the Browns, I have mixed feelings about the latest quarterback switch, this time from Brandon Weeden to Jason Campbell, who will be the new era's 20th different starting signal-caller.

I'm generally averse to benching the starting QB for several reasons. It risks destroying confidence. It tends to appear like a knee-jerk response to outside pressure. It often signals a sad devaluation of the team's high investment in its starting QB, an acknowledgement of an expensive mistake. The backup QB was the backup for a reason. The backup may need "time" to "adjust" to "game speed" and develop "chemistry" with the first-teamers. This bakes in an excuse for underperformance and makes it even harder for the coach to go back to the original starter, even if he is (as was originally believed) the better player.

But in this case, sorry to say, it's pretty clear that Weeden hasn't shown the ability to play winning football at this level. It was obvious that the Green Bay game was a critical test of his competence. He came out of the gate throwing awfully, and he didn't get much better as that wet day went on. He seems like a nice, stand-up guy, but he's just not the answer.

Campbell is no world-beater either, and he didn't make a strong play for the starting job in training camp and pre-season, when he had a high completion percentage but took way too many sacks -- six, compared to 35 pass attempts. He was already passed over once in favor of the now-injured Brian Hoyer when Weeden hurt his thumb in Week 2.

Still, he has plenty of starting NFL experience, with mixed results, and if he can use his mobility to buy time and avoid sacks, that could make a difference against the fearsome defense of the undefeated Chiefs. I'm not expecting a Hoyeresque spark, but it would be nice to see what the Browns can do as a team with even average play at the most important position.

On a side note, all the other African American quarterbacks in Browns history (Dave Mays, Spergon Wynn, Seneca Wallace, Thaddeus Lewis, Josh Johnson) took the field only after injuries to their predecessors. Campbell will be the first black Browns QB to start as a pure coach's decision.

Overall, Chud's choice is a good one. Weeden has been too inconsistent, inaccurate, and indecisive. Although this move implies that the 22nd overall pick just one year ago was essentially a blown opportunity, it's better to give Campbell a chance here and evaluate each week to see what can be made of this season and who ought to be retained going forward.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Four-shadowing Willis

In the grand scheme of all things Brown, this is minutiae, but I need a parking spot for my stray thoughts.

Nobody has ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season for four different teams. Only two men have reached that milestone with three teams: Ricky Watters and our very own Willis McGahee.
McGahee would need to average 79 yards per game for the rest of this season to go where no man has ever gone before. For reference, he averaged 77.2 yards per game as a Bronco the previous two years.

It may be unlikely, but if he even approaches that mark, it will surely be just one reason among many that this Browns season will have become amazing.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Frank is right

Very interesting interview in the PD with Frank Ryan, a name all Browns fans should know, he being the quarterback on the most recent Cleveland team to win a professional sports championship. The 77-year-old mathematician had several straight-shooting reflections and observations. A few quick takeaways: he could throw a football 100 yards back in the day, Art Modell undervalued him, today's NFL players take a near-lethal risk, and Jim Brown had upward balance but could be, well, a downer.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pulling out the stops pays off

That was one exciting game, and a much-needed win for the whole Browns organization. Congrats to Chud for his first career win as a head coach, especially given the extraordinary circumstances of the last week.

Here are a few fast facts from the 31-27 road win:

  • In their first game without Trent Richardson, three different Browns had longer rushes than any of his efforts, when he got 100% of the team's carries over the first two games.
  • Fresh off his two-game suspension, Josh Gordon exploded with career highs in receptions (10) and yards (146, plus another 22 on an end-around).
  • Jordan Cameron became just the second tight end in Browns history to score three touchdowns in a game. Any guesses on the first? No, not Ozzie, not Wheelie, not even Milt Morin. It was Steve Heiden, accomplished in Butch Davis' last game in 2004.
  • Key to this win was keeping Adrian Peterson under control. The All-Pro back's longest play was just nine yards.
  • Spencer Lanning deserves one of the game balls for throwing a TD pass on a fake field goal, kicking the extra point that forced the Vikings to try for a last-gasp touchdown, and -- oh yeah -- averaging an excellent 46.4 net yards on five punts, with no touchbacks and two inside the 20.
  • Am I forgetting someone? That's right, the quarterback, Brian Hoyer, making his Browns debut, had a very eventful day, showing generally good instincts and several fine touch passes, along with a few WTF moments. Still, he led a winning fourth-quarter comeback, so it will be hard to sit him down even if Brandon Weeden gets the medical thumbs-up. That last drive consisted of 11 passing plays. No sacks, no penalties, no wasted timeouts. Hoyer completed six throws, converting two crucial third downs, including the score to Cameron.
  • Six different members of the Browns' front seven sacked Vikings QB Christian Ponder. It marks just the 12th time since 1999 that the Browns registered at least a half dozen sacks. 
  • It was a rough game for PR/WR Travis Benjamin, who muffed a punt and later inadvertently mooned the TV audience. But he did have a nice 28-yard punt return on that play. In just 12 career punt returns, he's brought four of them back at least that far.



Friday, September 20, 2013

Back-enders

Willis McGahee, a month shy of age 32, is the newest Brown, signed today to step into a thin backfield suddenly thinner given the trade of Trent Richardson.

With 8,077 career rushing yards, McGahee ranks 42nd all-time. He joins the following list of veteran backs who became Browns only in the last legs of their careers:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On Sunday, watch Minny's T-Riches

One of the ironies of yesterday's Trent Richardson trade is that he won't be playing for the Browns this Sunday in Minnesota, where the Browns acquired the third overall pick they felt they needed to draft Richardson last year.

As with Butch Davis keying on Kellen Winslow II in 2004, the Holmgren/Heckert regime was willing to offer a not-inconsequential ransom to slide up just one slot in the draft. They coveted Richardson above all else, once the best QBs proved out of reach.

They had to know that the Vikings wouldn't draft T-Rich, even with Adrian Peterson coming off injury. But they weren't 100% sure that they wouldn't trade the pick to another team that wanted the Alabama back. Besides, they had a surfeit of lower-round picks, and it seemed unlikely they'd even fit on the roster, much less make a difference.

So to secure their feature back, the Browns surrendered four 2012 picks: 1(4 overall), 4(118), 5(139), and 7(211). From further trades, the Vikings netted five players, all among their 53-man roster today:

  • LT Matt Kalil (USC), a Day 1 starter at a critical position
  • WR Jarius Wright (Arkansas), who started last week and had a decent 22-310-2 rookie year stat line.
  • S Robert Blanton (Notre Dame), a backup with three solo tackles so far this year
  • CB A.J. Jefferson (via trade with ARI), a young vet starter for 8 of 18 games as a Viking, including their playoff loss last season
  • MLB Michael Mauti (Penn State), a 7th-round rookie who's been game-day inactive so far.

So which would you rather have: that group of players, or Trent Richardson, or the Colts' first round pick next spring?