Saturday, December 16, 2017

Old Browns, new Browns

The platitudes rolled out from Baltimore earlier this week with regard to the Ravens’ visit to Cleveland Sunday for their second encounter this season with the still winless Browns.

“They are always a tough opponent,” said quarterback Joe Flacco of the still winless Browns.

“They’ve gotten better,” warned Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “They just continue to do a good job of getting better every single day.”

Harbaugh praised the work of Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. “They’ve really solidified what they’re doing under coach Williams,” he said. “It’s a very tough package. It’s structural, but it’s physical. They play really hard, run to the ball really well.”

The Ravens coach had some good things to say about the offense, too. “(DeShone) Kizer continues to improve and makes a lot of plays downfield,” he said.

Harbaugh and a few of his team’s veterans have cautioned that the Browns, the woebegone Browns, should not be taken lightly, especially after his club blew leads of 11 and nine points late in a last-minute 39-38 loss last Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

“It’s best for us to have a short memory on this one because if we win out, there’s a good chance we’ll be in (the playoffs),” suggested veteran linebacker and Browns nemesis Terrell Suggs.

So how did the Ravens rack up a 17-2 record against the Browns the last 19 times these teams have met? Flacco is 16-2. How in the world did that happen? Because they didn’t take the Browns lightly? Yeah, that’s it.

Or maybe it was because the Ravens had much better teams that did not fall into the trap of playing down to the Browns’ inferior talent level twice a season on an annual basis. Yeah, that’s more like it.

Harbaugh and Flacco joined the Ravens in 2008 and have racked up five double-digit winning seasons and a Super Bowl title along the way. Suggs, who joined the Ravens in 2003, is 21-5 against the Browns.

The former Browns, who moved to Baltimore more than 20 years ago, have practically no idea of what it’s like to lose to the current Browns, who lug a 15-game losing streak against the AFC North into Sunday’s affair. Their last victory against a division opponent was a 33-30 triumph in Baltimore early in the 2015 season.

Still, one has to wonder whom are the Ravens kidding with this don’t-take-the-Browns-lightly bullroar? They enjoy playing the Browns. Anywhere. They are 13-5 in Cleveland since the series began in 1999 and own a 28-9 overall edge in the series. It’s almost like two breather games a year on their schedule.

You can bet they look forward to playing Cleveland this week, especially after losing in heartbreak fashion against the Steelers.

In their first meeting this season in week two, the Browns coughed up the ball five times (three interceptions by Kizer and a strip sack) en route to a 24-10 loss that was not nearly as close as the final score indicates.

That was the game Browns fans found out Kizer suffers from migraine headaches and missed a couple of series. In his absence, Kevin Hogan steered two drives, accounting for all the club’s points, and then sat back down.

To balance the scales somewhat, it should be noted the Browns have played the Ravens tough in their last three visits to the lakefront, losing games by two, five and six points. And Harbaugh is correct about the Browns’ defense. Only problem there is inconsistency.

Until last Sunday’s killer overtime loss against Green Bay, the improved Cleveland defense went entire games playing poorly at times and surprisingly well on other occasions. Fans don’t know whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde will show up against the Ravens.

Against the Packers, the Browns played terrific defense for the first 40 minutes before collapsing altogether after a fading offense failed to put the game away.

The task will be much more challenging Sunday as they attempt to snap several losing streaks, including a 30-gamer on Sunday.

The Baltimore offense, coming off its best effort of the season last Sunday, features a couple of tough young running backs in Buck Allen and Alex Collins, who has booked a couple of 100-yard games this season and run for five touchdowns in the last four games.

Flacco’s numbers, though, are down considerably this season, mainly because the Ravens’ receiving corps is mediocre at best. When tight end Benjamin Watson and Allen are the team’s two leading receivers, that’s good news for the beleaguered Cleveland secondary.

Wide receivers Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace and Chris Moore have combined to catch only 91 passes this season for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns.

Flacco is experiencing one of the worst seasons in his 10-year career. He currently is matching his career low (in his rookie season) with only 186 yards a game through the air. He has connected on just 13 touchdown passes, thrown 12 interceptions and failed to record a 300-yard game.

It’s the other side of the football and special teams that have the Ravens dreaming of playing football in January and beyond, although the Steelers might argue that point after last Sunday’s comeback. They have recorded seven touchdowns on defense and special teams, accounting for 21% of their scoring.

The Ravens had not allowed a quarterback to throw for 300 yards in a game this season until Sunday when Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers ravaged their secondary for 506 yards playing pitch and catch with wide receiver Antonio Brown all evening.

Browns coach Hue Jackson no doubt took notice of what Roethlisberger did to the Baltimore secondary and quite probably will try to give the Ravens secondary fits for a second straight week in an effort to knock them out of the playoff picture.

But the Browns must be wary of a very opportunistic Ravens defense that has forced 33 turnovers this season and has a +13 turnover ratio. The Browns are an NFL-worst (by far) -21 in the TO department.

The Ravens have sacked opposing quarterbacks 36 times (Suggs has 11), swiped 20 passes, including three pick-6s, and the defense has recovered 13 fumbles. It all points to a long afternoon for the Cleveland offense.

This one falls softly under the no-brainer category. The Ravens are clearly a better team from just about every vantage point. Let’s face it . . . the old Browns own the new Browns.

After what happened in Pittsburgh last Sunday night, there is no chance the Ravens take the Browns lightly as Cleveland’s numerous losing streaks streak on as the very forgettable 2017 home season comes to a merciful close. Make it:

Ravens 23, Browns 10

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Telling it like it is

Refreshing is the adjective that leaps to mind with candid right behind following John Dorsey’s remarks about his new club on Cleveland radio recently.

“I’ll come straight out with it,” the Browns' new general manager said on WKNR, the team’s radio home. “The guys who were here before, that system, they didn’t get real players.”

And he was absolutely right. The analytics system preached and followed by Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta produced only one positive: An unusually high number of draft picks on an annual basis.

What was missing, and this is presumably what Dorsey meant, was those making the selections at the annual college football draft had no idea what they were doing in terms of stocking the roster with quality talent.

Decisions based on analytics have produced a 1-28 record since the beginning of the 2016 season. “As Bill Parcells would always say, ‘You are your record’ and you know what?” Dorsey said. “There it is. That’s the truth teller in this thing.

“And I’m going to my darnedest to get Hue (Jackson) players. That’s all I can ask for and that’s all I’m going to do.” In other words, analytics be damned. Under his watch, talent will be the most important consideration. Nothing wrong with that.

What does that mean for DePodesta? Let me put it this way: If he is still in the Browns’ employ at the next college football draft, I will be surprised.

It’s about time someone in this dysfunctional organization came out and laid out the truth. That kind of candor is refreshing. The current roster has some very talented players. Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough of them to make a difference.

“Let’s be real,” Dorsey said in less than diplomatic fashion. "We’re 0-13, okay? So let’s get this thing rolling. The only way to do that is to start to build this thing.”

Fans need to hear this. Jimmy Haslam III needs to hear this, although the guess is he already has.

Dorsey is going to do this the correct way. Some fans have a difficult time handling the truth about this team. They get bent out of shape when someone says something radically different.

Sometimes the truth hurts. This is one of those times. All Dorsey wants to do is come in, do his job in a way that has proved successful in the past and get this franchise righted and headed in the right direction.

It has been floundering for 19 seasons, for crying out loud, mainly because those entrusted with turning it around have failed abysmally. The big difference is this time, they have hired someone with a proven track record.

The Browns are 1-28 under Jackson and the Brown regime for a reason, not the least of which is the roster is talent-starved after you get past a dozen or so players. They represent the core with which Dorsey will begin his rebuild.

There is a reason the new general manager said one of his goals was to build up the roster from the bottom up. In other words, you are only as strong as your weakest link.

At least one player took it the right way. “I didn’t feel he said anything wrong,” said running back Isaiah Crowell. “I feel like he said the truth.” Resisting the urge here to channel Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.”

The bottom line is John Dorsey is the right man at the right time for a team looking to escape nearly two decades of embarrassingly bad football. And when some fans have a problem with his forthrightness, it strikes at the heart of the situation.

He is addressing the problem in a harsh and yet honest way that some in Browns Nation are not used to. That will change when they see the fruits of his labor in another year or two.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Dorsey quietly taking aim at Jackson?

Jimmy Haslam III has assured Hue Jackson that he will be back as the Browns’ head coach next season.

John Dorsey was offered and accepted the job as the Browns’ general manager knowing that was going to be the case.

As a general rule around the National Football League, team owners grant general managers the right to name the head coach. Dorsey, whose only GM job in the NFL before Cleveland was in Kansas City, has never picked his own head coach.

The Chiefs promoted him to GM just a few weeks after hiring Andy Reid as the boss on the field. And now Haslam has all but granted Jackson a vote of confidence to rob Dorsey again of naming his man as coach.

Two teams as general manager and Dorsey is still looking to hire his first head coach. Something is wrong with this picture.

A rather odious aroma has attached itself to this story, one that makes it highly suspicious that Jackson, who has miraculously survived as 1-28 start in Cleveland, might be employed elsewhere next season.

The Cleveland coach Monday said he does not believe a Pro Football Report story that suggests Dorsey wants to name his own coach. “I don’t think that’s the case at all,” he said.

It is entirely possible Dorsey will spend a lot of time lobbying Haslam from now until the merciful end of this season in an effort to convince him the best way to change the culture with this franchise is to wish Jackson well as he departs.

Even though he took the job with the stipulation Jackson was going to get a year three in Cleveland, the new general manager cannot honestly believe the culture will change that much if Haslam remains firm.

As much as some of the players love Jackson and don’t want to see him go, the stigma of being the losingest coach ever in the NFL over a two-year span hovers like a perpetual dark cloud.

This team cannot even accidentally stumble into a victory. No matter how much he tries, the players perform just well enough to lose and Jackson still lugs around one victory in nearly two full seasons. That figure will never go away.

Maybe the players feel bad about their predicament. In some cases, a few might even feel embarrassed to be associated with the NFL’s ultimate losing franchise, one that has won just four times in the last 50 games.

This locker room needs new blood. A new approach. A new voice. A new outlook. A new energy.

Haslam owes Dorsey the opportunity to rebuild this franchise in his own image, an opportunity honed by more than 20 years of NFL experience. To do so with a coach not of his choosing is patently unfair.

Jackson is the first coach in the long history of the NFL to lose the first 13 games of the season two years in a row. It is a record that most likely will never be eclipsed.

By extension, that also means Haslam is the first owner in NFL history whose team lost the first 13 games of the season two straight years. How many more embarrassing moments must he experience with this coach before he acts responsibly?

Based on nothing more than a hunch, the guess here is Dorsey will lobby Haslam often and hard as he seeks to convince his new boss the best way to turn around this franchise is to jettison those who are a constant reminder of the bad old days.

A scenario that could possibly eventuate connects Jackson with the Cincinnati Bengals, for whom he coordinated the offense before accepting the ill-fated (as it has turned out) head-coaching job in Cleveland.

The Bengals are struggling at 5-8 this season and were just humiliated at home, 33-7, by the weak Chicago Bears last Sunday. To give you some idea how rough it has been in southern Ohio, two of the Bengals’ five victories this season were at the expense of, yep, the Browns.

Marvin Lewis, who has helmed the Bengals for 15 seasons, is getting plenty of heat and some have even forecast him moving either upstairs in the organization or completely out of the picture.

All of which would make Jackson an attractive candidate to succeed his good friend despite his miserable showing in Cleveland. Unless, of course, Haslam insists he stick around town for one more season, which might not play well with the fan base.

Too many ifs cloud the picture right now. But as soon as the season concludes on the last day of the year, some of those ifs will come more clearly into focus. If I’m Jackson, I’m going to be on tenterhooks until then wondering if his new boss somehow manages to talk Haslam out of extending my stay with this franchise.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible he feels somewhat emboldened by his ability to win the power struggle with Sashi Brown and seems to be on the same philosophical page as the new GM. Both are old-school football men in the ever-growing age of analytics.

But somehow, I can’t help but think Dorsey is quietly laying the groundwork to be in a position to finally choose his first head coach for a franchise that needs new blood in the locker room.

In order to do that, though, he must convince Haslam on a daily basis the only path to that goal is cashiering Jackson. The immediate future of this franchise rests on his success.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday leftovers

During his introductory news conference Friday, new Browns General Manager John Dorsey said he liked DeShone Kizer, his rookie quarterback.

After watching Kizer’s Jekyll-Hyde performance in the 27-21 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers Sunday, he might be humming a different tune. Strictly to himself, of course.

What Dorsey saw is what fans of this team have seen all season long, an uneven performance that makes you shake your head in a combination of disappointment and what was he thinking?

Kizer arrived out of Notre Dame with the reputation of a quarterback who will thrill you one minute and break your heart the next. Those attributes were on prominent display against the Packers.

He had never thrown three touchdown passes in a game in the National Football League until Sunday. His touchdown strikes to Josh Gordon, Duke Johnson Jr. and Corey Coleman were perfectly on point. Thrilling.

For the first three quarters, he made only one mental mistake late in the first half,, one that had no effect whatsoever on the outcome. He was playing easily his best game of the season, looking nothing like a rookie.

With the exception of angering coach Hue Jackson twice because of timeouts that were taken needlessly, he was in complete control. The running game, absent most of the season, was very much alive and well.

He was sharp with his throws, lasering at least four passes as straight as a taut string and on the mark. He was a confident, poised veteran-like quarterback, not the wide-eyed rookie operating somewhat out of control in an effort to please his coach.

Mistakes were kept at a minimum. In the first half, he was 12-of-14 for 170 yards and two touchdowns at one point. The second possession of the second half resulted in a nine-play, 88-yard scoring drive.

A 21-7 lead was crafted as a result and the team’s various losing streaks were in jeopardy of being smashed to smithereens. And then the unexpected rudely interrupted the thrill most Browns fans felt entering the final quarter.

It came when Kizer attempted to throw a third-down pass in overtime that should never have been thrown. Instead of either taking a big sack and punting the ball away or just throwing the ball away to avoid the sack, he tried to make a play as he was being chased by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews III.

Wisdom is often the key ingredient that separates winning from losing and vice-versa. Kizer unwisely made the wrong choice at the wrong time and it cost his team, a team that hungers for a victory of any kind at this point, a chance to do so.

His second interception of the game, and 17th of the season, rendered all the work that went into building that two-touchdown lead as fruitless. All that hard work went for naught. Winning, no matter how it is achieved, triumphs over everything. Heartbreaking.

When you win, they rarely ask how. But when you lose, that is usually the first question. How could that happen? The difference between winning and losing in the NFL often times is finite.

Kizer after the game said he was focused on wide receiver Rashard Higgins, racing wide open down the field, and tried to get the ball to him. Matthews hit his arm as he threw, the ball popped almost straight up like a pop fly in baseball and was picked off by Green Bay safety Josh Jones.

“At critical times,” Jackson said after the game, “our team, it’s understanding what we have to do in the fourth quarter to win. . . . We’ve got to find a way to make those plays when the opportunities come.”

One would think that after a dozen NFL games, Kizer is not that wide-eyed rookie anymore. That he has learned the game is played as much, if not more so, from the neck up as the neck down.

It’s obvious he still hasn’t learned it yet and it cost his team a victory. And you can be certain Dorsey has made more than mental notes on what he witnessed from on high.
*       *       *
Somewhat lost in the aftermath of the bitter loss is the where-did-that-come-from game from Isaiah Crowell, who ran for a season high 121 yards on a season-high 19 carries.

Crowell, who has lobbied Jackson all season to ramp up his carries, ripped off 55 of those yards on runs of 18 and 37 yards on the Browns’ final touchdown drive of the game midway through the third quarter as the club took a 21-7 lead.

He was much quicker to the hole than at any time this season as the offensive line, playing its best all around game this season, provided the needed space as the Browns pounded out 136 yards against the Packers.

It obviously impressed Jackson to the point where he went almost strictly on the ground after taking the two touchdown lead late in the third quarter. Unfortunately, that’s when the holes disappeared and the Cleveland ground game ground to a halt down the stretch, managing only two first downs in the last three possessions.

Interestingly, Jackson dialed up 30 passes and 27 runs in the game, easily the best ratio of pass to run this season from the coach who said in training camp that his goal this season was to have a more balanced offense.
*       *       *
It was very obvious the Packers’ game plan paid tribute to the Browns’ sixth-ranked run defense. How else can one explain why Green Bay quarterback Brett Hundley put the ball up 46 times, completing an amazing 35 for 265 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Most of his passes were of the short- to medium-range variety, keeping the Cleveland defense honest, and were gone before the Cleveland pass rush reached him.  He targeted wide receivers Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Geronimo Allison 31 times and connected on an incredible 26.

The Packers’ run game, even with Hundley’s 31 yards scrambling when he failed to spot open receivers, totaled only 85 yards, topped by Jamaal Williams’ 49 yards.

It was clearly Packers coach Mike McCarthy‘s goal to keep the Cleveland secondary busy all day. When cornerback Jason McCourty is the Browns’ leading tackler with 10, you know it worked.
*       *       *
In his first game back from three years of inactivity due to a number of suspensions, Gordon was targeted 11 times by Kizer in the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers a week ago. He didn’t score, but caught six balls and put a heartbeat back into the Cleveland passing game.

On the Browns’ first possession of the game against Green Bay, he caught passes of 38 yards on Kizer’s first throw and 18 yards, a perfect touchdown strike thrown where only Gordon and his magic hands could catch it. Two receptions, 56 yards and a TD.

And then he all but disappeared.

Gordon caught only one more pass, a 13-yard slant en route to the second Cleveland touchdown of the afternoon, a seven-yard shovel pass to Duke Johnson Jr. that gave the Browns a 14-7 lead with 5:12 left in the second quarter. Gordon was targeted only three more times, twice in the second half.

It’ll be interesting to see in his news conference Monday how Jackson explains away what happened against the Packers at the Factory of Sadness, an extremely apropos nickname for that facility in light of the final outcome.
*       *       *
Finally . . . The Packers have won 12 of their last 14 games in December, the crunch time month on the calendar for most NFL teams. The Browns are 2-19 in December dating back to 2012. . . Kai Nacua made his starting debut at free safety for the injured Jabrill Peppers and acquitted himself well after two early misfires. He committed way too early on a pass play on Green Bay’s opening drive and blew the coverage on running back Williams, who was alone two yards shy of the end zone when he caught a Hundley pass and merely backed in for the TD. Nacua also was baited into a personal foul penalty by Adams, head-butting him in front of an official shortly after the Browns stopped the Pack on third down. . . . The Packers were 0-for-6 on third at one point before recovering to finish 8-for-16. The Browns were 7-for-13. . . . Duke Johnson Jr, touch watch: Six carries, eight yards; four receptions, 41 yards and a touchdown., Total: 10 touches, 49 yards. Getting lower each week.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Improbability factor strikes again

When is a victory not a victory?

When you’re the 2017 Cleveland Browns and you take a 21-7 lead into the fourth quarter of a game in front of the home folks and lose to the Green Bay Packers in overtime in most improbable fashion.

And when is a loss not a loss?

When you are the Green Bay Packers and you enter the fourth quarter of a football game against the 2017 Cleveland Browns with a 21-7 deficit and win in overtime in most improbable fashion.

It was the Dec. 10, 2017 non-musical presentation of How to Turn a 21-7 Lead Into a 27-21 Loss.

That in a rather small nutshell is what happened Sunday as the Browns did not snatch this time, they flat out grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory and firmly yanked with all their might in a 27-21 loss that, as much as anything, defines this team.

What took place on the lakefront was clearly a microcosm of the last two seasons under Hue Jackson, whose record as the Cleveland coach slips, no, make that slips, dives and plunges to 1-28.

This team, which proved once again it has no idea how to close out a game when it has a rare lead, can’t win even one by accident.

Sunday’s two-touchdown lead entering the fourth quarter was the largest of the season at that point of any game and definitely an accurate indicator of how much the Browns dominated the game until the fatal fourth quarter.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer looked sharp, as sharp as he has been all season, except for a foolish and, as it turned out, harmless interception late in the first half. The rookie threw touchdown passes to Josh Gordon, Duke Johnson Jr. and Corey Coleman.

Isaiah Crowell ran like has hasn’t run this season, piling up his first 100-yard game of the season and the Cleveland offensive line, which kept Kizer clean for three quarters, played its best overall game of the season.

Even though targeting Gordon oddly became somewhat of an afterthought in the second half – he was targeted only twice after catching three passes in the first half for 69 yards – the offense, which has struggled most of the season, more than held its own until the final quarter and overtime.

The defense also played well for three quarters. The only Packers score required a little trickery – a fake punt – and a blown coverage in the Cleveland secondary to take an early lead on their first possession of the game. After that, the Browns actually looked like a good football team for the next 40 minutes. Who were these guys?

And yet, Browns fans, even the giddy ones enjoying the unusual comfort of such a lead so late in a game, had a feeling. It was feeling that somehow, some way, this one was not going to end well. Impending doom lurked. They just did not know where.

After all, these were the woebegone, downtrodden, winless Cleveland Browns and the 21-7 lead seemed like an aberration, a dream from which they did not want to awaken.

You’ll have to forgive their pessimism because they have seen way too much heartache with this franchise since 1999. They often wonder how many different ways their team can lose a football game. They were about to discover another one.

The fans have become so accustomed to such football, even though the large (for the Browns) lead against the Packers no doubt stunned them, it nevertheless gave birth to the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this was the game that would end the 13-game losing streak, the 29-game losing streak on Sunday and the 12-gamer this season.

Little did they know at the time that a long punt return and the brain-cramp forward pass of the year by Kizer at the most inappropriate time possible would add to the improbability factor and bizarre nature of this one and their seemingly never-ending misery..

The game clock couldn’t move quickly enough for the fans as the formula by which the Browns achieved the lead began evaporating slowly. The huge upset they envisioned started slipping away.

For a while there, it looked as though new General Manager John Dorsey would be a prophet when he declared, “I believe the Cleveland Browns this weekend are going to win,” at his introductory news conference Friday.

The victory looked almost like a lock after the Cleveland defense shut down the Green Bay offense inside the 10-yard line late in the third quarter as the Packers shunned a field goal, and the offense drove 88 yards to take the 21-7 lead on Coleman’s touchdown.

And then they played the fourth quarter.

The comeback actually was born late in the third quarter right after the Browns took the two-touchdown lead. The Packers drove 75 yards against a noticeably softer Cleveland defense to shave the lead to seven with 12:50 left in regulation.

Jackson then smartly went to the ground in the next two possessions to eat up some time and that’s when the first sign of the collapse appeared. The offensive line stopped opening holes for the ground game. Seven of the next 11 plays were runs and gained just 24 yards.

With 2:57 left, Britton Colquitt skied a 53-yard punt, fielded by reserve wide receiver Trevor Davis at his 10-yard line. He found no room right and cut back to his left, finding daylight down the left sideline for 65 yards to the Cleveland 25. Short field, plenty of time. What could go wrong? Nothing.

Sensing impending doom is what Browns fans do so well. That sense reached reality seven plays later when Brett Hundley lobbed a scoring pass to Davante Adams, who beat Jason McCourty to the left corner on a first-and-goal from the one-foot line with 17 seconds left to tie the game.

The fans’ sense of doom lingered even though the Browns won the coin flip. They discovered why three plays into the extra session.

On third-and-2 at the Browns’ 33, Kizer dropped bask to pass, was flushed from the pocket when pressured by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews III and drifted to his left, looking all the while downfield,

Instead of taking a 14-yard sack, he thoughtlessly, carelessly, awkwardly and downright foolishly heaved the ball while backpedaling, throwing it across his body. It sailed almost straight up into the air -- Matthews might have gotten a hand on it -- and landed among four Packers and two Browns. It was an interception waiting to happen.

Green Bay safety Josh Jones emerged with the football, Kizer slapped both the palms of both hands against his helmet as if to say, “Boy, am I an idiot,” and the game, for all practical purposes, was over.

Kizer has now thrown interceptions in 10 of the 12 games he has played, including the first six, and leads the National Football League with 17 picks. His three touchdown passes against Green Bay elevated his season total to nine.

On the fifth play of the ensuing series as the inevitable became reality, Hundley threw a little slip screen pass to Adams, who broke arm tackles by Myles Garrett and Mike Jordan to almost prance 25 yards into the end zone and then into the runway leading to the dressing room with 5:05 left.

It became just another chapter in the life of a once-proud NFL franchise that has set a record for futility that might last for a very, very long time.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A coin flip

Based on the results thus far this season, it really makes no difference who plays quarterback against the Browns this season.

Whether it’s the solid play of reliables like Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford, or the really-should-have-beaten-them types like Jacoby Brissett, Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, Josh McCown and Marcus Mariota, it all adds up to the same thing – a Browns loss.

There is no discrimination. Good, bad or otherwise, opposing quarterbacks always emerge victorious against a Browns team careening this season toward inglorious National Football League history.

And Sunday, the Green Bay Packers roll into Cleveland for the penultimate home game of the 2017 season with their future Hall of Fame quarterback a week away from returning from a broken clavicle suffered a couple of months ago,

Aaron Rodgers will be a spectator as he watches Brett Hundley, who has kept the Packers in contention, albeit barely, for the postseason, take on a winless football team that has not won a game in 352 days.

It is also a team that has lost 13 straight games, 27 of the 28 games played under the current head coach, 29 games in a row played on a Sunday and 45 of its last 49 games.

An optimist, if there are any still left after this inexcusable streak of losing, would think the Browns have caught a break with Rodgers not in uniform. The statistics more than back up that contention.

The Packers under Rogers won four of their first five games. With Hundley under center after relieving Rodgers early in a loss to Minnesota, they are 2-5. It was 1-5 after six until the Packers knocked off Tampa Bay in overtime last week.

The Green Bay offense averaged 337 yards a game with Rodgers; just 284 yards a game with Hundley, a difference of 53 yards a game. Rodgers averaged 245 passing yards a game; Hundley a mere 163 yards a game, a huge difference of 82 yards.

On the surface, it appears as though the Browns have somewhat of a tactical advantage since the Packers have become a run-first team in Rodgers’ absence, an obvious sign Packers coach Mike McCarthy has little trust in Hundley’s ability to throw the ball.

And where do the Browns excel on defense? They rank sixth in the NFL against the run and ostensibly have the advantage, especially against a pair of rookie running backs in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, who have combined for 727 yards and seven touchdowns in the absence of injury-riddled Ty Montgomery.

The Green Bay offense has displayed signs of life lately. After averaging only 13 points in the first five games with Hundley in charge of the huddle, it has exploded in the last two games for 28 and 26 points.

Hundley flipped three touchdown passes in a 31-28 loss in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago and the running game piled up 199 yards in last Sunday’s overtime victory against Tampa Bay.

If McCarthy chooses to test the weak Cleveland secondary, though, Hundley has some solid options in wide receivers Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Rodgers’ favorite receiver Jordy Nelson. The trio has amassed more than 1,600 yards and scored 15 of the club’s 18 touchdowns through the air.

The Packers’ biggest weakness on offense is the line, which has surrendered 42 sacks, most likely one of the main reasons McCarthy might eschew filling the air with footballs against the Cleveland secondary.

On defense, the Pack’s weakness clearly lies in the secondary, which yields 260 yards a game; the Browns’ give up only 241 a game. It’s a stat pass-happy Browns coach Hue Jackson is likely to take strong advantage of, especially with the return of Josh Gordon. The Packers also allow opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.5% of their passes.

Only one problem there. Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer completes only 52% of his passes. His accuracy has been a concern all season and seemed to frustrate Gordon in last Sunday’s loss in Los Angeles against the Chargers when he several times overthrew the wide-open receiver.

The Pack’s strength on defense, as with the Browns’, lies in their linebackers. Outside backers Clay Matthews III and Nick Perry have combined for 13½ of the club’s 29 sacks; inside backers Blake Martinez (with a team-leading 110 tackles) and Jake Ryan are their main run stoppers.

The key in this one very likely lies in which secondary is worse in an afternoon where the ground game could possibly seem like an afterthought unless weather becomes a factor and alters game plans. The forecast calls for cloudy weather with a few snow flurries or snow showers possible and a game-time temperature of 32 degrees.

Even with Hundley at quarterback, oddsmakers still favor the Packers by a field goal, an apparent nod to their better ground game. But if it turns into an aerial shootout, which would be fun to watch because of the two awful pass defenses, it’s anyone’s game.

This is a coin-flip type of game only because Gordon’s presence has made the Browns a more dangerous team on offense. After watching him last Sunday, there is no question that is the case.

The coin is in the air and it unfortunately has landed in favor of the Packers with Hundley, who has completed 62% of his passes, besting Kizer in a shootout as the losing streaks continue. Make it:

Packers 28, Browns 17

Friday, December 8, 2017

Waking up the giants

It didn’t take very long at all for John Dorsey to ingratiate himself to Browns Nation Friday at his introductory news conference as the new general manager of the team.

“You know what, let’s re-awake this sleeping giant, the Cleveland Browns,” he declared as he faced the assembled media at Browns headquarters in Berea for the first time. “I’m kind of excited about that.”

The exuberance Dorsey displayed was infectious as the enormity of the occasion hit him. “As we go along, the one thing I always love about this is this is one of those iconic franchises,” he said.

“This has one of the unique fan bases in all of the National Football League. To me, that’s exciting. I have always liked the history of the game of football. When you mention the Cleveland Browns to me, that brings back vast memories.”

He said things throughout the 36-minute news conference Browns fans have yearned to hear since the NFL allowed Cleveland back into the league in 1999. They want someone who knows how to quickly turn around a struggling franchise.

Dorsey, who helped transform the Kansas City Chiefs from a 2-14 team to an 11-5 team in his first season as general manager in 2013, is eager to get started with a specific goal in mind at the start.

“I can’t wait to try to build and establish this thing and move this thing forward because you know what we want to do?” he asked. “We want to be competitive every year. We want to be in the AFC North and we want to compete with these guys year in and year out. We’re going to do that, I can tell you that.”

He lays it all out there confidently because he believes not only in himself, but the philosophy he adheres to, one that made him one of the most sought after front office executives in the league.

He left the Chiefs in June in a dispute with coach Andy Reid over his role, which he declined to discuss, preferring instead to move on.

There appears to be no pessimistic bones in Dorsey’s body. The man, at least on the surface, brings an energy and unflagging optimism to his most of his answers. And he sure knows how to work a crowd.

Asked about the sensitive issue of accepting the job knowing Hue Jackson will be his head coach for at least the 2018 season, he answered candidly even after Jimmy Haslam III embellished the situation.

“We are planning on Hue Jackson being our football coach for a long time and he and John working closely together for a long time,” the owner said. And no, his fingers were not crossed.

Dorsey, who wasted no time in shaping his roster by cutting non-producing wide receiver Kenny Britt Friday, admitted he and his new coach “don’t know each other very well, but we have begun to establish a relationship and I know just being around him briefly . . . I’m excited.

“The people I know and he knows, all the people I talk to about Hue, they love Hue. They say, ‘You two guys are going to work wonderfully together.’ I’m excited. I can’t wait.”

Added Haslam, “I can’t tell you for sure these two guys will work well together, but . . . I am highly optimistic, given their backgrounds and skill sets, that John and Hue will work well together.”

But first Jackson must finish off the 2017 season and come up with at least one victory in order for the winless Browns to avoid becoming only the second team in NFL history to go 0-16, joining the 2008 Detroit Lions.

Dorsey pointed out he and Jackson share some similar philosophies. “I like his overall schematic stuff,” he said. “I think that’s kind of cool. And I like the way the team plays. They play hard. I like a team that plays hard. It symbolizes the AFC North.”

The new GM can’t wait to shape his roster through free agency and the college draft. No wonder he can’t with 13 picks in the next lottery, including five in the first two rounds and six selections in the top 65, not to mention nearly $100 million in salary cap space.

“Any personnel guy worth his weight would be excited,” said Dorsey, who paid tribute to his predecessor. “I’m not going to lie to you. I think Sashi (Brown) did a nice job of creating some draft picks and some cap space, but I’m excited. This is an opportunity not many personnel guys would pass up.”

Browns fans should feel a lot more comfortable with Dorsey calling the shots this time for the Browns in the draft room than Brown, whose knowledge of football is, trying to be kind here, marginal.

“We are going to roll up our sleeves, check our egos at the door and go to work every day to go back to the AFC North,” said the new GM.

Dorsey was more cautious when asked whether he could be a success in his new job. “I know I can do my job with the best of my peers in the National Football League,” he said. “Two, I know I’m going to sit here and work and do everything my God-given ability has given me and I will try to do it. It won’t be from lack of work and lack of preparation.”

Dorsey’s chief objective with what most likely will be the top pick in the draft again will be to once and for all identify and then select the club’s quarterback of the future.

Haslam made it clear that is what he expects from his new hire. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to find the quarterback we need to be successful,” he said. “That will be John’s No. 1 priority.”

Dorsey’s reputation as a sagacious drafter bodes well for the future of this franchise. “This is a quarterback-driven league,” he said. "We all know that and we all know to succeed and go a little bit further and further and further, you need one of those guys.” He declined to go into specifics, but acknowledged it “is not a bad class.”

He surprisingly complimented the current winless team. “I like the roster,” he said, “and I like that the roster will be developing more and more in ’18 and ’19. And I look forward to acquiring some other players as well to sustain that. The objective is to make the roster as competitive as you can from the bottom up.”

An interesting take on where he finds strength on the 53-man roster, figuring you’re only as strong as your weakest link, a philosophy not shared by his numerous predecessors.

He said he also “likes” Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, having scouted him for last season’s draft when he was with the Chiefs. However, he later mentioned accuracy is one of the chief attributes he looks for in quarterbacks. Accuracy has never been one of Kizer’s major attributes.

Dorsey hedged and then dodged when asked where he thinks the Browns will be in five years. “I’m the eternal optimist,” he said. “I believe there’s a goal for everybody. I believe there’s good in every organization. I believe the Cleveland Browns this weekend are going to win (against Green Bay at home Sunday).”

He then hauled out the bromides. “All I can tell you is we’re going to give it our best effort,” he said. “We’re going to try to reestablish some position in the AFC North.”

Bottom line on Dorsey based on first impressions: He is exactly the kind of general;manager this team needs. He knows what it takes to transform a struggling franchise into one that is, at its worst, competitive.

The man knows the whys and wherefores of the NFL, having spent nearly a quarter century honing his craft. What he accomplished in Kansas City is merely a glimpse of what he can bring to what is currently the most wayward and dysfunctional franchise in the NFL.

There is nowhere to go but up. Dorsey has fallen into a great gig and he knows it. He is the correct hire, finally, by Haslam, whose track record in this area has been abysmal until now. 

The necessary first step to eradicate the ongoing nightmare has been taken. Now it’s time for fans to sit back and watch Dorsey do what he does best. He’s already off to a good start.

“I’ve learned from the past, I live in the present, but I’m building for the future,” he said.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Haslam gets it right with Dorsey

Now that Jimmy Haslam III has finally discovered the quickest way to become competitive is to hire someone who has been successful in rehabilitating National Football League franchises, he needs to introduce him to the local media and then disappear.

The hiring Thursday night of John Dorsey as the Browns’ new general manager is decidedly a step in the right direction, one that sends a signal that the Browns owner has finally seen the light.

This is Haslam’s fifth crack at getting it right in the front office and a quick perusal of Dorsey’s résumé indicates the days ahead, even with the club headed again toward NFL infamy this season, are in good hands.

There is no question Haslam had already made up his mind to hire the former Kansas City Chiefs general manager when he sacked Sashi Brown mere hours before announcing Dorsey as his choice.

Dorsey, jobless since last June after losing a power struggle with Chiefs coach Andy Reid regarding authority over final say of the roster, brings tons of experience to a Cleveland front office aching for it.

It is assumed he will take over Brown’s role regarding final say of the roster for the Browns with credentials that dwarf Brown’s. It is also assumed the current scouting staff will remain in place until after the season.

But like most general managers in a new job, expect Dorsey to recruit people with whom he is most comfortable. It is also possible he will retain some of the current scouts.

Dorsey, 57, has spent a vast majority of his NFL administrative career with the venerable Green Bay Packers organization, serving all but one of his first 22 seasons there in various front-office capacities before being named general manager in Kansas City in 2013.

He was drafted as a linebacker out of college and played five seasons for the Packers (1984-89) before heading into the administrative end of the game.

He has a cultivated a strong reputation as a shrewd judge of college football talent and is credited with aiding in drafting such players as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires, and linebacker Clay Matthews III for the Packers.

The Cleveland media and fans will find out the status of coach Hue Jackson Friday when Haslam introduces his new GM. It is assumed one of the stipulations of Dorsey accepting the job was the retention of Jackson.

Why else would Haslam boldly declare earlier Thursday in his prepared statement announcing Brown’s dismissal that Jackson would, indeed, be back next season? It would be the same situation 
Dorsey faced in Kansas City with Reid, who was hired ac coach nine days before the Chiefs brought him in to take over for Scott Pioli.

The Dorsey-Reid team was 43-21 in those four seasons in Kansas City with three appearances in the postseason. The Chiefs were 29-67 the previous six seasons.

In his last Chiefs draft last spring, Dorsey selected Patrick Mahomes II, the club’s future quarterback, and running back Kareem Hunt, whose sensational start this season quickly caught everyone’s attention.

In his five drafts with the Chiefs, Dorsey selected 11 players who are current starters, including four of the five offensive linemen (he also signed Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz as a free agent), dynamic wide receiver Tyreek Hill, cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Marcus Peters and tight end Travis Kelce.

He does come with some baggage, however. According to a piece in the Kansas City Star, Dorsey was accused by a source protected by anonymity of having a management style that “could wear on people.”

He also apparently likes to operate independently. Again from the Star, “John does stuff and doesn’t tell people why.” Sounds a little but like Joe Banner, whose stay in Cleveland wasn’t brief enough a few years ago.

But the bottom line is Dorsey gets results, something Browns fans haven’t seen or experienced since the old Browns moved to Baltimore a generation or so ago.

And now it’s up to Haslam to stay out of Dorsey’s way. Cool it with the micromanaging. Let the man do his job with minimal interference.

The Brown front office, through a series of trade machinations, has provided the new GM with a boatload of picks in the next college draft, 13 overall, including five in the first two rounds and a high third-rounder in addition to (reportedly) nearly $100 million in salary cap space.

Overall, the Browns will make six of the first 65 selections in the lottery. That will probably seem like Christmas to Dorsey, a factor that might have been the hook to get him to commit to Browns. Rumors also attached him to the brand new vacant New York Giants job.

There is also no question now that Jackson importantly will have more respect for the experienced and much more successful Dorsey than Brown, whose slow learning curve resulted in abject failure and his ultimate departure.

As for the analytics approach to football that labeled the Brown-Paul DePodesta regime, forget it. It is gone. Dorsey is a former scout and that means only one thing: Molding the roster is back to the old fashioned way of procuring talent.

Entrusting Dorsey with the immediate future of this franchise is unquestionably a strong move, one designed to excite a fan base that has waited far too long for its team to regain a large degree of dignity and respect around the NFL.

This time, Haslam got it right. It’s about time.

Premature media criticism of Brown's dismissal

The pro football media world’s reaction to Jimmy Haslam III’s latest front-office move has drawn surprising rebukes on social media.

Surprising in that there are more than a few out there on the National Football League media landscape who actually believe Sashi Brown was doing a good job and was screwed by his owner when removed as executive vice president/football operations Thursday.

The headline on the USA Today Web site screams: The NFL world rips Browns owner Jimmy Haslam after he fires another GM. The Twitterverse exploded with condemnation for Haslam’s latest move. Here are some examples.

“Unreal. Sashi Brown has killed the last 2 drafts and has set them up for a huge haul this year. Jimmy Haslam is the worst owner in all of sports right now.” Ryan McCrystal, Bleacher Report

“Really though Ted Stepien was the worst it could get from an owner. Haslam giving everyone beers to hold on that front.” Jeff Risdon, Real GM

“Jimmy Haslam is the WORST. The Browns think they’re gonna get a GM worth his salt who has to come in with a coach already in place? Gimme a break. Feel terrible for Browns fans.” Nick Kostos, CBS Sports

“Officially done with Jimmy Haslam. That idiot needs to sell the team and get far away from it as possible. Team rebuilding and he ruins it.” Jonathan Kinsley, Brick Wall Blitz

“Jimmy Haslam is easily one of the worst owners in North American sports. Probably bottom five.” Patrick Daugherty, Rotoworld/NBC Sports

“NFC GM on the Browns: ‘This level of ineptitude is historic. It all traces to Jimmy Haslam.’ “ Mike Freeman, Bleacher Report columnist

“Haslam signs up for a long-term plan. And less than 2 years into said plan, fired the guy who is doing a good job executing the plan. Oh Jimmy.” Chris Fedor,

“At some point, the Browns are going to hire a GM who lasts longer than 35 minutes.” Peter King, MMQB

Here’s one more King: “Moral of the story: Better get the quarterback right.”

Here is what I don’t understand. Those critics seem to be backing someone who is responsible for a 1-27 record the last two seasons and I’m not talking about Hue Jackson.

I don’t fault the coach. The makeup of the 53-man roster is not his job, There is not enough talent on that roster to warrant winning football games.

The coach and de facto general manager were reportedly not talking. The left hand had no idea, it appears, what the right hand was doing. It is ineptitude and dysfunction rolled up in a big ball careening uncontrollably downhill.

Winning only once in the last 28 games is not just a sign; it is as blaring siren that, hey, something is terribly wrong with the professional football team in Cleveland, Ohio. And it shows no signs of getting better.

Continuing on this slow-motion course might have turned into winning football by the year 2020. But the misery experienced by the fans until then would be unfair to that fan base.

We live in a bottom-line world. And the bottom line for the Browns in recent seasons is ample proof something had to be done. Haslam’s only mistake in this whole scenario was promoting Brown to begin with.

The Harvard lawyer had no background or experience in player personnel on any level of football. And it showed.

Bottom line: 1 and 27. Brown was in way over his head and had to go before the situation became toxic.

Maybe the hiring of John Dorsey as general manager late Thursday will change the minds of some of those in the media who knee-jerked prematurely.

Haslam got it half right

The good news out of 76 Lou Groza Blvd. Thursday is Sashi Brown is longer in charge of the Browns’ fortunes less than two years after being elevated to the top football spot.

The bad news? Hue Jackson has been guaranteed a third season as the Browns’ head coach.

Brown, the executive vice president of football operations and de facto general manager of the Browns, was relieved of his duties by owner Jimmy Haslam III, who promoted the Harvard lawyer in January 2016.

It was a promotion of historic proportions, but the wrong kind of history. All you have to do is look at the Browns’ 1-27 record since that promotion as more than ample proof his stewardship has been an abysmal failure.

In a prepared statement, Haslam revealed what many who questioned Brown’s promotion from legal counsel and salary-cap boss to begin with already knew.

“We have great appreciation and gratitude for Sashi’s commitment and leadership to our organization, but believe transitioning to someone with strong experience and success in drafting and building consistently winning football teams is critical to the future of the Cleveland Browns,” Haslam said in the statement.

Strong experience, success in drafting and building consistently winning football teams. Brown possessed none of those qualities. It wasn’t even close. And it showed every time the team took the field.

Haslam said all the right words in letting Brown down softly when it had become quite apparent over the last two seasons that this team was rapidly headed in the wrong direction.

There was minimal improvement at best, but it did not reflect in the bottom line. This franchise has been on a disastrous course downward the last two seasons that has seen it set a few National Football League records for futility and ineptitude with more on the way.

It has been a bitter and frustrating fall from the days when Cleveland was one of the great and proud franchises of the NFL. And to watch it set these embarrassing records is sad almost beyond words, especially since this franchise has one of the most ardent and hungry fan bases in the league.

Someone had to take the fall. Brown was in charge of a roster that is talent-starved, severely handicapping the coaching efforts of Jackson and his staff. The coach, it would appear, has won what is being perceived as a power struggle.

Haslam made it clear in his statement that Jackson is still the man and appears to have been absolved of blame. “Hue Jackson will return for the 2018 season, but we feel it is necessary to take significant steps to strengthen out personnel department,” he said in the statement, a damning condemnation of Brown.

Guaranteeing Jackson’s continued employment as head coach of the Browns, however, flies in the face of how it's done in the NFL. Brown’s successor has not been named and yet it appears he will have no say in who will be his head coach.

Normally, an NFL general manager gets the opportunity to choose his head coach. That’s sort of unwritten NFL protocol. This way, it’s ass backward and extremely unorthodox.

This is not to suggest Jackson should not return next season as the Browns’ boss, but only if the new guy puts his stamp of approval on that. If he does, it will merely be history repeating itself.

The last time that happened was in 2010 when incoming president Mike Holmgren unwisely gave incumbent coach Eric Mangini another chance. Mangini rewarded Holmgren with his second consecutive 5-11 season and was shown the door, a door he should have been shown a year earlier.

To his credit, Jackson and his staff have done a remarkable job of keeping the club focused in spite of a losing culture that would ruin other clubs. The Browns this season cannot be accused of packing it in at any time when they had every reason to in some cases. They have just been beaten by more talented teams.

With regard to Brown, I wonder why it took Haslam so long to recognize his inadequacies? Did he actually think the team would turn it around and head in the right direction?

It remains a mystery. Maybe the owner figured the Browns couldn’t possibly lose this many games. But he failed to take into consideration the talent quotient was not nearly as high as Brown and his minions believed or led him to believe.

There was no evidence whatsoever to support that notion. This team lost games because they were incapable of winning them. While that seems like a simplistic conclusion, consider the following.

There were three quarterbacks on the roster. Their victory total was zero. It’s hard enough to win in the NFL with an experienced quarterback, let alone three who have never celebrated after playing a regular-season professional football game.

Now take into consideration Cleveland’s wide receivers corps was arguably the worst in the NFL. The leading receiver this season is a running back. Be it dropped passes, underperforming free agents or running the wrong routes, this unit has disappointed all season.

On defense, the major inconsistency was located in the secondary, which has been strafed all season with only occasional help from the front seven.

So why did Haslam elevate an attorney to the top job in the first place? If there is any blame to be placed, it should be directed at the owner for promoting Brown. He was promoted after his owner fired coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer.

It would appear Haslam will not make any more moves until the season concludes. It would not shock anyone to see chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta head back to the baseball world and player personnel chief Andrew Berry either demoted or cashiered.

For now, though, the guessing game begins as to who succeeds Brown.

Names you’ll be hearing often are New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, Jacksonville Jaguars director of pro personnel Chris Polian, Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, former Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, Arizona Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough, co-director of player personnel for the Seattle Seahawks Trent Kirchner and Green Bay Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf. Polian and Wolf are the sons of former NFL general managers.

Caserio has local ties to Cleveland. Born in suburban Lyndhurst, he is a John Carroll University graduate who played his high school ball at University School in Hunting Valley and has been one of the key factors in the success of the Patriots.