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.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Where are they now?

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

The quintessential Cleveland Brown

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

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The organized chaos of the Pettine zoo

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

In a nutshell:

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

Thursday, June 05, 2014

AP states "God hates the Browns" as fact

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

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Statgeekery: Gordon's the most better ever

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

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

Of the recuperating WRs, advantage Benji

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

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

Johnson during his standout career at
Grand Valley State

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kelly repeatedly beat the best rush defenses

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

One toke over the line?

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

What about Josh Gordon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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