Thursday, June 19, 2014

The organized chaos of the Pettine zoo

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

In a nutshell:

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

Thursday, June 05, 2014

AP states "God hates the Browns" as fact

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


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Statgeekery: Gordon's the most better ever

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

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

Of the recuperating WRs, advantage Benji

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

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

Johnson during his standout career at
Grand Valley State

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kelly repeatedly beat the best rush defenses

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

One toke over the line?

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

What about Josh Gordon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Gems are formed under pressure

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

Friday, May 09, 2014

Big needs, big deals, big names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Best of the blog

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

2014 schedule for off- pre- and regular season

Off-season

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

Pre-season

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

Regular Season

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Airing out the Browns' fateful 80

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Quite a QB quandary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 04, 2014

Browns roster spreadsheet, free and worth it

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Moves leave no shortage of draft needs

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

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