Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pound the ball; stop the run

What to watch for when the Browns welcome the New York Giants and a national television audience for exhibition game No. 2 Monday night:

On the offensive side of the football, look for coach Hue Jackson to try and improve the ground game, something he failed to do in the exhibition opening victory over New Orleans.

If you say you are going to do something – and Jackson made it clear in the run-up to training camp and in camp itself that the run game would be emphasized – then do it. Either Jackson isn’t listening to himself or he has a short memory.

Considering offensive tackle Joe Thomas (rest) and left guard Joel Bitonio (knee problems) will not suit up against the Giants, it will be interesting to see how the head coach/offensive coordinator calls the game with regard to the infantry aspect of the offense.

Chances are pretty good with a weaker left side of the line and second-year man Shon Coleman at right tackle, it is possible working on the ground game very well might have to wait until game three down in Tampa against the Buccaneers.

That ostensibly means the first two games of the exhibition season will virtually ignore a vital part of the offense with only the so-called dress rehearsal game left in Florida.

That means quarterbacks Brock Osweiler, DeShone Kizer and Cody Kessler had better practice long and hard on their dropbacks because that’s what they’ll be doing on a majority of plays against the Giants because the ground game isn’t nearly ready to do damage to opposing defenses.

Jackson called a pass on 42 of the club’s 64 plays against the Saints, which is not even close to the pass/run ratio he seeks this season. It’s unclear what that ratio is. Last season’s was nearly 65% pass to 35% run.

That, of course, must change this season. And Jackson has only one more game (not including the Giants game) to get the running game untracked because the regular season’s first two games are against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, teams with notable strong defenses against the run.

From the looks of the situation right now, the likelihood of that eventuating is not encouraging.

If the ground game disappears, sustained drives also disappear. Losing the time of possession game means one thing: The defense will see more playing time than coordinator Gregg Williams wants.

Last season, the defense was on the field for nearly 33 minutes a game for the same reason that stat might be repeated this season. The pass-happy – and more often than not pass-failure – game shortened drives and repeatedly brought the defense back on the field and wore it down as the game progressed.

It also means punter Britton Colquitt more than likely will earn his salary again this season. The punter might have been the most effective player on the team last season, dropping 22 of his 83 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with only two touchbacks and no blocks.

Now if Williams’ bellicose defense is stout and opportunistic and becomes a unit that repeatedly gets the ball back for the offense and shortens the field, that’s an entirely different story.

The Browns finished 29th in the National Football League in turnover ratio at minus-12 last season because the defense had only 13 takeaways in poor support of a bumbling offense. Of the 13, only three were fumble recoveries.

Williams coached the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams defense the last three seasons, recording 25 takeaways (13 interception) in 2014, 26 takeaways (half of them interceptions) in 2015 and 18 takeaways last season (10 picks).

His refreshing new approach to defense in Cleveland produced five sacks last week against the Saints with pressure arriving from just about everywhere. And this is with a mostly vanilla approach. The sophisticated stuff arrives beginning with the Steelers game.

The run defense, which has plagued this franchise since 1999, limited the Saints to just 82 yards on the ground. That, in and of itself, is a story even though it was a meaningless game. A Cleveland defense holding any team to less than 100 yards is a feat.

In the still-trying-very-hard-to-forget 1-15 record the Browns posted last season, the defense held the opposition under 100 yards only four times and under 80 yards just twice.

Williams’ defense with the Rams the last three seasons produced 22 games holding the opposing team under 100 yards on the ground, including 10 last season with a 4-12 team. The Cleveland defense over the last three seasons has held the opposition under 100 running yards a paltry 12 times, just twice under 50 yards.

Based strictly on what fans saw against the Saints and Williams’ out-there bravado and swagger with regard to his side of the football, look for a swarming-to-the-ball party on just about every play against the Giants.

Members of this very young defense have bought into his infectious style. Unlike last season’s defense, this one plays to the whistle. That might sound unfair until you realize the 2016 Cleveland defense surrendered 28 points a game.

The only weakness in the defense this season is the secondary, but a stronger pass rush should help alleviate many of the problems that hampered the defensive backfield last season. Arriving at the quarterback quicker and with more attitude should provide members of the secondary with many more opportunities for interceptions.

With the first-team defense scheduled to play well into the second quarter, keep an eye on how often Williams brings pressure from a variety of areas on the field. At first blush, he appears to be a master at disguising blitzes.

Also keep an eye on the defensive line, which will be without tackle Danny Shelton (out with a knee) for the first time since he arrived a couple of years ago. Fans will get an idea of just how deep that unit is –or isn’t – in his absence.

The litmus test against the Giants will be provided by 36-year-old quarterback Eli Manning, 33-year-old wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham Jr., arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A black cloud hovereth

Injuries, as any football coach will tell you, are part of the game. And right now, Browns coach Hue Jackson is doing his best to get his team ready for the regular season in spite of injuries to two key members of the team.

Both play in the trenches, that vital area closest to the football where supremacy arguably determines who wins and loses games.

Joel Bitonio and Danny Shelton are extremely important parts of the units that make a living in those trenches and knee injuries to both men in recent days will have an impact on the beginning of the 2017 season in just a few weeks.

Bitonio is an important cog on the offensive line. And it is anticipated that Shelton, after spending his first two seasons in the National Football League as a nose tackle, will benefit from a switch to Gregg Williams’ hyper-aggressive 4-3 scheme on defense.

The key to any successful offensive line in football is the ability – and good fortune – to stay healthy. This unit more than any other relies heavily on each other. It is truly a group effort up front.

So when Bitonio was scratched for the second exhibition game Monday night at home against the New York Giants, red flags are prepared. Ditto for Shelton. More on him later.

Bitonio has played in only 15 games the last two seasons due to multiple injuries and is coming off Lisfranc surgery on one of his knees. Staying healthy for 16 games is a must for the Browns’ offensive line.

An injury-plagued Bitonio is of absolutely no use to the club. Never knowing when he will be healthy enough to play is a warning sign that trouble continuously lurks around the corner.

When healthy, Bitonio is one of the best left guards in the NFL. He is strong in pass protection and has the athleticism to get out in front of running backs and reach the second level in the ground game.

When he is not in uniform because of another injury, the Cleveland offense suffers. It’s not just Bitonio who makes the ground game hum. It takes five men to make it work.

Those five behemoths up front are fragile in a way. Cohesion and rhythm are their best friends. When an offensive line clicks, it means everyone is pulling his weight simultaneously. One breakdown among those five guys on any given play can destroy it. One weak link and the entire line breaks down.

Right now, Jackson is counting on left tackle Joe Thomas, Bitonio, center JC Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Shon Coleman to provide the heavy work for the skilled players.

Even if Bitonio and Tretter, who has also had health issues in his brief NFL career, make it through all 16 regular-season games, a possible weak link exists with Coleman, who appears to have bested Cameron Erving for the starting job.

Coleman is the X factor. No one knows what to expect from the second-year man from Auburn. He is the blank canvas the Browns hope will turn into a handsome picture.

But if Bitonio’s most recent injury is a precursor to the regular season, all bets are off regarding the running game, which Jackson said he would emphasize this season. There is not enough quality depth along the offensive line to compensate for his loss over a prolonged period of time.

Shelton, meanwhile, injured a knee in practice Wednesday and, according to an ESPN report, will miss anywhere from three to six weeks.

If the report is true, that means it is entirely possible the third-year man is iffy, at best, to start the regular season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10 at home. He is officially listed as week-to-week.

The Browns are downplaying the seriousness of the injury, the extent of which has not been identified. “He has a knee,” said coach Hue Jackson, “and like the other guys, nothing I think is way over the top. . . . We’ll get Danny back as soon as we can.”

If the injury is more serious than Jackson is letting on, Shelton will definitely miss Monday night’s exhibition date with the Giants if not the rest of the exhibition season.

Shelton, who totes 335 pounds on those knees, was AWOL in the exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, failing to make the stats sheet. He was clearly a non-factor for the little time he was on the field.

His absence moves veteran Jamie Meder and rookies Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley and Trevon Coley up the depth chart at one of the deepest positions on the team. Coley, a free-agent pickup, has been the biggest surprise in training camp and might be rewarded with a starting job next to Desmond Bryant.

That, of course, is if the injury bug doesn’t bite him.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It’s Osweiler

It’s all but officially decided. Say hello, Browns fans, to your new quarterback.

When coach Hue Jackson Wednesday named Brock Osweiler as the starter Monday night against the invading New York Giants in exhibition game No. 2, it pretty much ended rampant speculation that rookie DeShone Kizer had a shot at starting the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The quarterback many thought was nothing more than an expensive way for the Browns (taking Osweiler’s $16 million contract off the Houston Texans’ payroll) to obtain another second-round selection in the next college draft will be the team’s opening-day quarterback against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10.

The club has not made an official announcement to that effect. That most likely will arrive within days (if not sooner) following the third exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the so-called dress rehearsal game, on Aug.  26.

Barring any unforeseen developments, such as an injury or the team shockingly trading him, the lanky kid from Kalispell, Mont., and Arizona State University will become the 27th starting quarterback for the team since 1999. And, by the way, the tallest ever at 6-7.

Jackson begged to differ with those who surmise Osweiler has won the quarterback competition. “It (starting the Giants exhibition) doesn’t mean anything for the regular season,” he argued. “This is (for) this game.” Whatever you say, coach. Tell that to your left tackle.

“Now I could be totally wrong,” Joe Thomas told the media. “I might be going out on a limb here, but I think they’re grooming Brock to be the starter in week one based on what I’ve seen.”

The only way Kizer had any chance of facing the Steelers was starting against the Giants. The situation was perfect. It is a home game in front of a friendly crowd and he would be working with the first team.

It would have given Jackson the opportunity to see his prize rookie in a situation that would be the closest to mirroring a regular-season game. That’s not going to happen now unless he starts Kizer, sans starters, in the ultra meaningless fourth exhibition in Chicago.

Kizer will take over for Osweiler against the Giants probably sometime either midway through or late in the second quarter before turning the huddle over to Cody Kessler and maybe Kevin Hogan in the second half.

Unless Jackson wants to stretch his starters into the second half, chances are Kizer will work with second and third stringers. All of which means he is Jackson’s choice to back up Osweiler in the regular season.

Maybe that’s because the coach doesn’t believe Kizer is ready to start against live fire once the meaningful games begin, preferring the much more experienced Osweiler, especially against a team like the Steelers.

Throwing the rookie into that cauldron right out of the chute could be harmful since he has not seen the real speed of the game – it ratchets up significantly – when money is on the line.

Kizer says the game has slowed up for him in training camp. Maybe it has relatively speaking. But he has no idea what lies ahead. Jackson does and, after witnessing and charting Kizer’s progress, apparently has decided the kid’s starting debut in the regular season will have to wait. Smart move.

Osweiler, in the meantime, hasn’t exactly wowed Jackson and the coaching staff in training camp, but the coach cannot ignore his 21 National Football League starts in the last two seasons and 13-8 record as a starter. That’s the big difference.

He has a strong arm, knows how to command a huddle and is the only quarterback in camp comfortable lining up under center. Considering the rugged start of the schedule (home to Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, at Indianapolis and home to Cincinnati), Jackson made the wisest choice in choosing him.

The fact he is still on the roster is somewhat of an upset since the Texans surrendered the second rounder – the Browns now have three selections in that round – in next year’s draft as a reward for taking Osweiler’s massive contract for this season off their hands.

After a contentious 2016 season with the Texans, just about everyone believed he wasn’t long for Cleveland after the trade. But when Browns’ front office could not swing a deal to dump him and his salary, he just hung around.

He kept his mouth shut, worked hard on the field and in the classroom and now here he is the starting quarterback. He did everything the right way and has reaped the rewards.

Kessler, favored by many observers to win the starting job at the onset of training camp, disappointed with an uneven performance and most likely will end up as the third quarterback with Hogan, if he clears waivers, back on the practice squad.

For right now, Osweiler is THE MAN.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Crowell not worth breaking the bank . . . yet

So Isaiah Crowell wants to be paid like Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, on whom the Falcons recently lavished a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension that included a $15 million signing bonus and $22 million guaranteed.

The Browns running back is hoping to use Freeman’s new deal as a standard bearer in his quest to extract a similar – if not better – deal from the Browns, who have used him as their feature back the last two seasons.

Citing the Freeman deal as a market changer, Crowell can point to only one statistic as evidence he belongs on the same plateau from a performance standpoint. Both men averaged 4.8 yards a carry last season.

The big difference? The Falcons went to the Super Bowl. The Browns finished 1-15.

There are other statistics where the two men differ that point where Crowell’s argument falls apart. As late-night talk show host Seth Meyers would say, “For that, it’s time for a closer look.”

Both men entered the National Football League in 2014; Freeman was a fifth-round selection from Florida State in the college draft, Crowell was signed as a free agent out of Alabama State after leaving the University of Georgia due to off-the-field problems.

Crowell, 10 months younger than Freeman, is by far the larger of the two, three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier at 5-11, 225 pounds. The only other commonality is both men have started 29 games in the NFL.

There are some neighborhood similarities. For example, Crowell has gained 2,265 career yards on the ground (607 as a rookie); Freeman stands at 2,383 (only 248 as a rookie). And each man has fumbled the football five times and lost four.

But that is where the similarities end.

Breaking down the last two seasons further shows Freeman has run for 2,135 yards; Crowell has accumulated 1,658, a difference of 477 yards.

Before we dive into more stats, take into consideration it should be pointed out Freeman plays for a team with a much better quarterback (Matt Ryan) and an offensive line (strengthened last season with the addition of center Alex Mack) that ranks as one of the best in the NFL.

Freeman, who pretty much served as a backup to Steven Jackson in his rookie season, has put up consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since then with that supporting cast.

Crowell, who can become a free agent next year, has yet to post a 1,000-yard season, although he came close with a 952-yard effort last season working behind arguably one of the worst offensive lines in the league.

Freeman also is much better when the ball is thrown to him, whereas Crowell was almost forgotten in that aspect of the game in his first two seasons. Freeman has caught 157 passes for 1,265 yards; Crowell has only 68 grabs (40 last season) for 588 yards.

Freeman is also a more consistent performer; Crowell is more hit and miss.

A perfect example was Crowell’s performance last season. He bolted out of the gate with 392 yards in his first four games (6.46 yards a carry) to rank among the league leaders.

Then he virtually disappeared the next eight games. That’s half the schedule. From game five through game 12, he ran for only 211 yards on a meager 84 carries, an average of just 2.5 yards a pop.

Freeman has never had an eight-game stretch like that. He has also booked seven 100-yard games, including three in a row in 2015. Crowell has five.

More than half of Crowell’s 952 yards (518) last season were gained in four of the 16 games. All were for 100 yards or more. And if it hadn’t been for a 152-yard game in the season finale in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rested many of their starters, his final stats would have been less impressive.

Part of the blame can be dropped on the desk of head coach Hue Jackson, whose offense was so pass heavy, Crowell never really had the opportunity to display his talents as a runner. Only 84 carries in eight games as the main running back, including just 23 over a three-game span? What in the world was Jackson thinking?

And therein lies another problem. Crowell has carried the ball 20 times in a game only once in his career, a 145-yard effort in a 2015 victory over San Francisco. Freeman has logged nine games with 20 or more carries.

Why doesn’t Crowell get the rock more often? Well, he just might this season. Jackson has pledged – no, make that stated – his goal this season is to emphasize the run more. A 42-22 pass-to-run ratio in the opening exhibition is not exactly a step in that direction.

If you haven’t been bored to tears yet with all the stats, here’s one more significant one. Freeman has scored 27 touchdowns the last two seasons, 22 on the ground. Crowell has scored only 12 times in the last two seasons, 11 on the ground, after scoring eight as a rookie.

So if Crowell’s representatives in negotiations point out the 4.8-yard average the two men posted as evidence they are on the same level from a salary standpoint, it would appear playing that game falls short in lieu of the last two seasons.

Now if Jackson steps up and, indeed, makes Crowell a large part of his offense – much like Freeman is down in Atlanta – and makes certain he gets at least 20 carries a game on a consistent basis, not to mention being part of the passing game, then maybe the big back would deserve Freeman money.

Crowell, making $2.75 million this season after receiving a second-round tender by the Browns, considers himself a top tier running back. Is he as good as, say, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson, DeMarco Murray, Jordan Howard or Jay Ajayi? Rhetorical question.

All ranked in the top 10 in rushing last season. Crowell came in 15th. His per-game average of 59.5 yards ranked 18th (Freeman was 12th).

The Falcons obviously believe Freeman is a major part of their offense and rewarded him thusly despite statistics that are not what you might call overwhelming. His contract averages $8.3 million a season should he play long enough to fulfill it.

All that, of course, caught the attention of Crowell, who will be running behind a vastly improved offensive line this season. He believes he should be compensated equally even though the numbers do not add up.

So is Crowell a top tier running back? The stats and inconsistency say no. It will be interesting to see how the Browns view him in the coming weeks and months with regard to furthering his career in Cleveland.

Stay tuned.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Browns-Saints notebook

Brock Osweiler has been around the National Football League enough to know that his poor performance in the Browns’ 20-14 victory over New Orleans Thursday night means very little in the grand scheme of things.

The fortunes of quarterbacking in the NFL can turn so abruptly, all he has to do is remain patient and hope coach Hue Jackson doesn’t read too much into what he accomplished – or didn’t accomplish – in his four series under center.

It wasn’t until the fourth series that he was able to produce a first down and eventually lead a 13-play that eventually petered out at the Saints 3-yard line when he thrice failed to connect in the end zone with wide receiver Kenny Britt.

Should he worry, especially in light of DeShone Kizer’s string performance in the second half? Yeah, probably, given Jackson’s predilection of going with the hot quarterback.

Quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns right now is not anyone’s job to lose because no one has stepped up and taken charge, although a teeny, tiny case can be made for Kizer. No one is a clear-cut favorite at this juncture.

Starting off the game with a pair of three-and-outs and a four-and out with the starters did not exactly win points with the coach. Never mind this was Osweiler’s first time working with the ones. It shouldn’t take four series to get untracked.

The saving grace for Osweiler, who was 6-of-14 for just 42 yards, was his ability to recognize blitzes and avoid sacks. Other than that, it was a flat showing he no doubt hopes merits at least one more shot at winning the job.
*       *       *
Top draft pick Myles Garrett arrived in Cleveland with great fanfare about his ability to play disruptive football. And although he was in for just a few series against the Saints, he more than backed up that contention.

Playing some of the time in what appeared to be a version of the wide-nine defense popularized by the Philadelphia Eagles several years ago. Garrett lined up several yards well to the right of his defensive tackle, creating a difficult blocking angle for the opposing offensive left tackle.

It enabled him to use his quickness and speed to appear in the Saints’ backfield before the offensive tackle could adjust and recover, giving him greater opportunities for a sack or at least disrupt a play,

It looked as though new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams used it only with Garrett on the right side, but it was very effective with the rookie almost relentlessly putting pressure on quarterback Garrett Grayson.

It could be a sign of things to come in Williams’ ultra aggressive style of playing defense. And that defense registered five sacks, seven quarterback hits and numerous hurries.

Garrett also flashed his speed on the second Saints series when running back Alvin Kamara bounced outside after being stopped on a dive play and rambled 22 yards down the right sideline. Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden finally made the stop, but Garrett was right there to finish him off. Impressive.
*       *       *
Even though the Browns will be playing with three linebackers about 20% of the time this season, it became apparent that Joe Schobert will be the middle backer with a strong performance against the Saints.

It probably relegates Tank Carder, who is outstanding on special teams and was hoping to win the starting MLB job, back to what he does best.

Schobert, who looked out of place at outside linebacker as a rookie after a productive college career as a pass rusher, is new to the position, but sure didn’t look it. He looked very comfortable and seemed to enjoy playing Williams’ upbeat defense, registering a sack, a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss.
*       *       *
Nate Orchard, another college pass rusher turned linebacker by the Browns last season, is back at defensive end and causing some havoc. He was credited with a pair of tackles, a half a sack (should have been a sack and a half) and a quarterback hit.

Williams now has a vast array of natural pass rushers at his disposal in Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Orchard in addition to a wealth of players in the secondary who love to be part of the coordinator’s many blitz packages.

Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who had two tackles for loss (both on blitzes), seems to be thriving with the new approach to stopping the opposition. The most spectacular hit was on the Saints’ first series of the second half.

On a fourth-and-goal at the Cleveland 2, Boddy-Calhoun came untouched on a corner blitz and dropped wide receiver Tommylee Lewis on a wide receiver sweep for a seven-yard loss. Fans would never have been treated to that last season.
*       *       *
The Browns forced only one turnover, but it contributed to their first touchdown of the game early in the second quarter. Free-agent tackle Trevon Coley stripped Grayson of the ball and Nassib fell on it at the New Orleans 21.

Cody Kessler took over for Osweiler at quarterback and needed five plays to score, rookie running back Matthew Dayes, showing good vision, running the final yard. The play was designed to go up the middle, which was plugged, but Dayes saw daylight at left tackle and cut it back to score.

Coley, perhaps the biggest surprise on defense in training camp, was in on seven tackles, four of them solo, and racked up one of the club’s sacks. Right now he is outplaying draft picks Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley (out with a broken finger).
*       *       *
We have already highlighted who looked good. Who didn’t? Let’s start – and end – with offensive, very offensive, tackle Cameron Erving. A little background first.

Erving was a left tackle at Florida State University and was so bad, the Seminoles had to switch him to center, where, it has been said, he played decently enough that the Browns made him a first-round pick a couple of years ago.

He failed to impress anyone on two Cleveland coaching staffs his first two seasons, although given the opportunity to win a regular job. When Alex Mack bolted for Atlanta in free agency last season, he was handed the starting center job. He was so bad there, too, he was replaced by a variety of players.

Favored to win the vacant starting job at right tackle this season, Erving is listed behind Shon Coleman on the depth chart. He started at left tackle Thursday night when Joe Thomas was given the night off.

Erving was flagged for a false start and holding on two of the first three Cleveland plays of the game and was more or less a turnstile on pass plays, getting beat routinely by his man. If he makes the final roster, that will tell you how bad the offensive line depth is this season.
*       *       *
Rookie safety Jabrill Peppers learned a valuable lesson on his first punt return opportunity late in the opening quarter. For some reason, he signaled for a fair catch with the closest Saints defender 13 yards away.

He immediately realized his error and slammed the ball against his hand in frustration. He later returned a punt for 13 yards and added a 27-yard kickoff return to his evening’s performance on special teams. “I feel like I should have broken both of those,” he said after the game. “Just have to stay on my feet, finish what I start.”

Prediction: Peppers will score at least two touchdowns this season returning kicks and punts.
*       *       *
Notebook: Big difference this season on defense is more swarming to the football. That’s all on Williams. . . . Defensive tackle Danny Shelton was a huge (pun intended) non-factor. He planted a big zero on the stats sheet. . . . Britt should have had a touchdown in that second-quarter drive that ended on downs. All he had to do was drag his back foot as he was running out of the end zone and he would have had six points. . . . Bad stat: 12 penalties for 72 yards. . . . For some reason Jackson incorporated more pre-snap shifts than usual on offense. . . . Where’s the balance on offense? The Browns ran the ball only 34% of the time. . . . Thirteen players caught at least one of the 22 completed passes. . . . And finally, long snapper Charley Hughlett was the third-leading tackler with three solo tackles. This might be the only time you see Hughlett’s name all season.

A glimmer of hope

It doesn’t take much for Browns fans to get excited about a quarterback whose professional football debut, albeit in an exhibition game, stirs the juices of hope.

After 26 starting quarterbacks in 18 frustrating seasons and just one playoff appearance and two winning seasons to be boastful of, along comes a lanky kid from Toledo to almost immediately capture their hearts.

DeShone Kizer’s where-did-that-come-from performance in the Browns’ come-from-behind 20-14 exhibition victory over the New Orleans Saints Thursday night at home seemed almost the stuff of fairy tales. Almost.

The kid from Toledo Central Catholic High School, who went to Notre Dame and has now come back to play on the northeastern side of the Buckeye state, gave fans a small sampling of what they can expect from his rocket arm and ability to make big plays.

Throwing for the winning touchdown with two minutes left in regulation – a perfect 45-yard throw to almost-forgotten wide receiver Jordan Payton on a fourth-and-two from just past midfield no less – delivered a sudden and severe emotional jolt through Browns Nation.

Is Kizer THE MAN? Is he the franchise quarterback this woebegone franchise (since 1999) yearned for, ached for, dreamed of? Has the savior finally arrived?

It wouldn’t be surprising that many Browns fans are thinking exactly that way right now. Glom onto the kind of performance Kizer put on and it’s not unreasonable to think that way. After all, he produced something the Browns did only once last season – win a game.

Then there are those – at the risk of spoiling Kizer’s 30-minute, 30-play (not including the final-play kneel down) evening that produced 172 total net yards and two touchdowns – who say, “Whoa there. Let’s not get too excited just yet about the kid.”

One side of the coin says he has the strong arm, which twice put points on the board. The other side of that coin says he did all that against a Saints defense that featured second-stringers and the rest of the bench.

The skeptics say, “Nice game, for sure. But let’s see how he does against the starters. Like if he starts the next exhibition a week from Monday night against the New York Giants in front of an ESPN national audience.”

Think coach Hue Jackson will start him against the Giants? Why not? Some important questions need to be answered as quickly as possible. And there is no better way to do so than in an exhibition game.

This is not meant to take anything away from what Kizer accomplished against the Saints. It’s meant to put things into perspective. Do not lose sight of the fact he is a National Football League infant just out of the college football womb.

His 11-of-18, 184-yard evening was not a mirage. He made two deep throws, the scoring heave to Payton on the button, and an earlier 52-yarder to Richard Mullaney that was slightly underthrown, but set up a touchdown. They were mindful of a young Bernie Kosar.

He showed fairly good pocket presence, although he was sacked three times, twice because he failed to detect a blitz. He showed some escapability on occasion with good footwork, buying time to connect on a throw.

He had 31 snaps in six series and was under center on only seven of them (including the kneel down) for a total of 13 net yards, the longest a 12-yard connection with wide receiver Rannell Hall. He was exclusively – and more comfortably – in shotgun formation for the final three series (except for the kneel down).

At the same time, he did not look uncomfortable under center. His footwork, while not perfect, still needs some work, especially in his dropbacks. That should smooth out with more repetitions.

Right now, though, he needs to work with the ones. And the only way he can do that is if his coach elevates him to starting status a week from Monday. Fans will be disappointed if Jackson doesn’t within the next few days reward Kizer with a start against the Giants.

That way, we’ll all find out whether the initial burst of hope in Browns Nation Thursday night was nothing more than an aberration, a momentary glimpse into the future that will fade.

In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with embracing and enjoying Kizer’s impressive entrance onto the NFL stage. There are 10 days until the next exhibition. Plenty of time for the skeptics to reserve judgment on the young quarterback as he takes his talent to the next level.

Kizer entered the NFL with the reputation – rightly or wrongly – of being a quarterback who can thrill you one moment and break your heart the next. We’ll find out soon enough how true that is.

(Notes to folo.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Merry-go-round stops at Osweiler . . . for now

In what amounted to a no-brainer decision Monday, Browns coach Hue Jackson named Brock Osweiler as his starting quarterback in the exhibition opener at home against New Orleans Thursday night.

It was a no-brainer because Osweiler, according to reports, has been the most consistent quarterback in training camp. This despite working sparingly with the first team.

“At this stage in the evaluation process of our quarterbacks, we are going to have Brock start the pre-season opener,” said Jackson. “A lot goes into our evaluation. But it’s always going to be about efficiency and effectively running the offense. You want your starter to be able to do that despite the circumstance.”

Jackson understandably wants to see how his most veteran quarterback in camp performs with the ones for at least a couple of series against the Saints. It will amount to a tryout, though.

That’s because I believe the coach, even if Osweiler plays well, will not give him a second crack at starting the second exhibition against the New York Giants, also at home, on Aug. 21.

The guess here is that Jackson is eager to see how DeShone Kizer, his prize rookie, performs in a real, albeit meaningless, football game from the beginning and will tap him for the start. It will have some meaning for Jackson regarding the immediate future.

He needs to know quickly exactly what he can expect from the kid so he can make definitive plans for at least the first few games of the regular season. Unless Jackson has seen enough that he has deemed him not yet ready for prime time, Kizer will get his shot with the ones against the Giants.

Based on the quarterback order for the Saints game, Kizer most likely will start the second half when most of the second- and third-stringers and camp fodder are on the field. Nothing can be gleaned there.

Osweiler starting the exhibition opener also does not mean he will be under center for the regular-season opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 10. At least not yet, especially if Jackson continues to divide reps among his quarterbacks.

Unless he has already made up his mind who that quarterback is and has decided to keep it to himself, look for the coach to keep the quarterback carousel revolving right up until the Steelers game with Osweiler and Kizer the main riders.

Jackson needs to be decisive now, if only because it is unfair to the rest of the offense, especially the grunts up front. They need to know what voice they hear in the huddle on Sept. 10. Lingering indecision about the quarterback will be hurtful to the offense.

At the risk of sounding repetitious, that’s a recipe for disaster.
*       *       *
Anquan Boldin, the veteran free-agent wide receiver the Browns should have signed, has signed with the Buffalo Bills.

The 36-year-old Boldin, who has booked 1,076 receptions for more than 13,750 yards and 82 touchdowns in 14 seasons, is the kind of wideout who can make any quarterback look good. The Browns never went after him, although they could have used his wisdom in the wide receivers room.

That room in Berea is filled mostly with youngsters who either will never be successful in making the transition to the National Football League or those who are just good enough to hang on. None of them qualify as legitimate playmakers.

Boldin, of course, is well on the downside of his career. But everywhere he has played (this is his fifth stop), he has been a leader and a difference maker. And it will be no different in Buffalo, where he will help turn Tyrod Taylor into something more than an average quarterback.

The Browns’ brass totally whiffed on this one.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Quarterback roulette risky

It’s all about the choice and what he does once he makes it.

Browns coach Hue Jackson on Monday will name his starting quarterback for Thursday night’s opening game of the exhibition season at home against the New Orleans Saints.

Be careful, fans, in anointing that quarterback – whether it is DeShone Kizer or Brock Osweiler or Cody Kessler – as the starting quarterback in the regular-season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Whoever is chosen Monday most likely will not play more than two series against the Saints unless, of course, those series are so awful, he will play a third.

It’s a tough situation for Jackson, who throughout his career is used to working with more than a modicum of talent at that position. He doesn’t have the luxury of working with, for example, Andy Dalton, his quarterback when he was offensive coordinator for a couple of seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before he took over in Cleveland.

Think of it this way. You are the head coach trying to decide who your starting quarterback will be and the candidates are a journeyman, a rookie and a second-year quarterback who was winless in eight starts as a rookie.

That’s sort of like having to choose the best among the worst. Relatively speaking, of course.

It very well could come down to this: Whoever starts the second game of the exhibition season should wind up under center for the Steelers game.

The Browns do not have enough talent on offense in the skilled positions for Jackson to fool around with the most important position on that side of the ball. He needs to identify his starter by game two and stick with him.

He needs to give that quarterback as many reps as possible in order to get him ready for the regular season in a very short period of time. It makes no sense to have the position winner starving for reps when the real bullets fly.

Offense, as I have said so many times previously, is all about rhythm. Screw with that rhythm and you court trouble. And that is exactly what Jackson is doing by toying with his quarterbacks as if they are on a merry-go-round.

Whoever winds up as the starter needs as many snaps with his offense as he can get to feel comfortable and confident entering the season. It is almost imperative. No need to waste reps on someone you know won’t win the job.

Exhibition game one might be considered the tryout. Games two and three should be the dress rehearsal for whomever wins that tryout. Game four, when the ones on both sides of the ball traditionally rest to avoid injury, should be a learning experience for the two quarterbacks who won’t start.

If Jackson is still playing quarterback games by exhibition game three, you can just about take it to the bank the Cleveland offense, much as it did last season with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown battling for the starting role, will struggle out of the gate again.

That poor excuse for an offense set the tone for the rest of what turned out to be a 1-15 season, scoring more than more 20 points just four times.

If it happens again this time, there will be no one to blame except the head coach/offensive coordinator.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Exercising quarterback patience

Full disclosure: I did not see Friday night's Orange & Brown scrimmage from my commodious  – and very hot outside – dwelling in Goodyear, Ariz.

That said, here are some observations based on posts on a few Web sites by those who witnessed the scrimmage one way or the other.

It was just a scrimmage. No need yet to make pronouncements as to who (whom?)  should be the starting quarterback against Pittsburgh in the season opener based on that scrimmage.

No need to wonder whether Kevin Hogan, who is said to have looked better than Cody Kessler, is really better than Kessler based on a meaningless scrimmage.

No need to pronounce Brock Osweiler as the starting quarterback against the Steelers based on what some observers believed was the best performance of the evening.

No need to get bent out of shape based on how those quarterbacks performed. One scrimmage does not tell all. It doesn’t come even close. And anyone who makes declarations based on what they saw has no clue as to how this works.

Rookie DeShone Kizer, from all indications, looked like a rookie. Kessler did not look any different than he did last season when he started – and lost – eight games. And Osweiler looked better than expected.

That could change as quickly as how they perform in the first exhibition game against the New Orleans Saints next Thursday night at home. And even then, the picture probably will still be out of focus.

Coach Hue Jackson, whose job very well could depend on how he handles the quarterback situation, is not going to make a snap decision based on what he sees in the next few weeks.

Whoever wins the competition will do so by stepping up and making the coach’s job easier by making plays on a fairly consistent basis. Keeping mistakes at a minimum will also factor in his final decision.

He must consider the daily barrage of questions on who (whom?) has taken the lead in the quarterback race almost comical. How many times can he say, “We still haven’t made a decision. We’ll let you know when we do.”

The daily exercise of grilling Jackson will nevertheless continue because, well, because that’s just the nature of the job on both sides of that story.

So sit back, pay little or no attention to the daily probing until the week before the third exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Aug. 26 in Florida. That is when you’ll find out who (whom?) your starter will be against the Steelers.

The Osweiler trade machine spinneth

Make note of this . . .

Whenever a starting National Football League quarterback goes down in practice, rev up the Brock Osweiler trade machine for the Browns.

Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins became the first of those quarterbacks to set off alarms of panic when his damaged left knee buckled in non-contact fashion Thursday in a scrimmage.

The rumor mill almost instantaneously reached maximum speed and Osweiler, whose place on the Browns’ roster is still surprising to some, wound up smack in the middle.

The tall quarterback, thought to be gonzo well before training camp because of his bloated $16 million contract, has a theoretical connection to the Tannehill injury. That connection links him to Miami head coach Adam Gase, who was Osweiler’s offensive coordinator in Denver in 2015.

Linking the two was a natural mainly because Gase still runs the same offense in Miami and Osweiler, who filled in admirably when Peyton Manning went down early in the 2015 campaign, is comfortable running it.

So with Tannehill possibly through for the season or, at the very least, not ready for the regular season, why not seek out a deal with the Browns to reunite Gase and Osweiler? Makes perfect sense.

Gase, as you might expect, immediately said backup Matt Moore is now the starter. So let us tone down the Osweiler-to Miami talk and let the front offices of the Browns and Dolphins, if they so choose, take this to another level and try to work something out.

Speculation has already belched out Jay Cutler’s name as a possibility along with Osweiler to replace Tannehill. The retired Chicago Bears quarterback signed a contract with Fox Sports a few months ago and is ostensibly going to be in he booth this season.

As the exhibition season unfolds, other veteran quarterbacks will go down and Osweiler, unless the potentiality of a Dolphins deal becomes a reality, undoubtedly will become the subject of a deal.

Osweiler says he loves it in Cleveland. He says he loves playing for the Browns. He probably knows that if he is still on the roster the week of the season opener against Pittsburgh, he will be under center against the Steelers. That’s because he is the best – and most experienced – quarterback on the Cleveland roster.

The Browns, on the other hand, would not be unhappy to get Osweiler off the books – they might have to eat some of that huge salary to help facilitate a deal – and move everyone up the depth chart.

That would mean a battle between a pro sophomore (Cody Kessler) and a rookie (DeShone Kizer) for the top spot with Kevin Hogan, another pro soph, moving into the No. 3 hole. All of which almost guarantees the club will start the season with the rookie in charge of the huddle.

Unless Kizer looks absolutely overwhelmed during the exhibition season, I don’t see coach Hue Jackson going with Kessler out of the chute if Osweiler is elsewhere. He already knows what he’ll get from him.

But first things first. The Osweiler Watch is officially under way.