Thursday, April 19, 2018

That nagging feeling

Ever get that feeling of impending bad news?

You just know something terribly wrong is going to happen, but you can’t put your finger on it. You don’t know when. You don’t know what. You just know. And it gnaws at you.

You try to figure it out in an attempt to head it off and it just isn’t coming to you. It frustrates the hell out of you.

It is a terrible, helpless feeling.

Then you realize what it is and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Talk about helpless.

That’s sort of where I am right now with the Browns and their plans for the upcoming college football draft a week from tonight deep in the heart of Texas. More specifically, the first overall pick.

This is unquestionably a pivotal draft for a franchise that has struggled – that’s putting it mildly – since returning to the National Football League in 1999 following an unwarranted and underserved three-year absence.

A team with a fan base that has been subjected to unmerciful embarrassment in the last 19 seasons has finally positioned itself to have a legitimate opportunity to restore the franchise’s good name.

By owning two of the first four selections in a quarterback-rich lottery, they will be able to finally secure that elusive – due largely to the ineptitude of previous front offices – future franchise quarterback.

There is no question General Manager John Dorsey will grab one of those quarterbacks as he embarks on his quest to restore the famed legacy of the Browns prior to the move to Baltimore nearly two decades ago.

And that is where that feeling – the one of impending bad news – kicks in. It is a recent arrival, but has caused some dyspepsia because of the direction Dorsey appears to be headed with regard to that quarterback.

Word is leaking out as we plunge into the final week of smoke screens that invariably lurk at this time of the NFL year.

Dorsey reportedly has narrowed his choices for the top pick in the draft to Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, a couple of California kids. Unless this is the mother of all smoke screens, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen are headed elsewhere.

Allen, if the rumors are true, appears to have nudged in front of Darnold with a week to go. Thus that feeling.

(Full disclosure: I am a Sam Darnold fan. Have been since watching him in that classic Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. Thought I was watching the future Browns quarterback. Shocked, but happy, he declared this year.)

So when I hear Dorsey, who I greatly respect as a talent evaluator, is leaning in Allen’s direction despite numerous red flags, I get the sense this franchise will never again be relevant.

Makes no difference who runs the front office for this franchise. He is destined to make the wrong move at a critical time because, well, because he can’t help it. Destiny works that way.

If Allen turns out to the No. 1 pick, it will be just another chapter of Murphy’s Law continuing to dog this franchise. It’s the classic “if something can wrong, it will.”

When most of the evidence points not only to why Darnold should be the choice but why Allen shouldn’t, Dorsey appears to side with the physical freak: A quarterback who can launch a prolate spheroid 80 yards. How many 80-yard pass plays (on the fly) can new offensive coordinator Todd Haley stuff into his playbook?

Asked Thursday at a pre-draft news conference, Dorsey was asked what he looks for in a quarterback. “Does he have accuracy; does he have a strong arm, red zone; at the end of a game, does he win,” he replied. “That’s what I look for.”

Accuracy is something Allen does not possess. He was a career 56% passer at Wyoming, 56% for two straight seasons. Darnold completed 65% of his passes at USC in two seasons (63% last season). 

Allen, of course, has the stronger arm, although there’s nothing wrong with Darnold’s arm. He can’t throw a football 80 yards, though. As if that really makes a difference.

As for winning, Dorsey was unequivocal in his response. “The only thing I really care about is does he win,” he said. All right, let’s examine the facts.

Allen, plagued by shoulder problems last season, started 25 games in his Wyoming career and won 16. Darnold, who took over as the starting USC quarterback four games into the 2016 season, started 24 games and lost four.

So why, as we have been (smoke screen alert) led to believe, is Allen the frontrunner? Simple math gives that one to Darnold, at least in Dorsey’s world.

Allen threw 44 touchdown passes and was intercepted 21 times in 643 attempts. Darnold completed 57 touchdown passes and was picked off 22 times on 846 throws. These statistics do not lie.

The great separator between the two is Darnold is a much more accurate passer because he delivers the ball on time, whereas Allen holds on to the ball too long and then relies on his arm to get the ball where it needs to be and is often late. It’s a timing thing with Darnold far out in front as far as anticipation is concerned.

As for Darnold’s biggest red flag, ball security, Dorsey deemed that correctible with coaching. 

Unless he pulls off the biggest con since Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker nailed Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, it looks as though Dorsey has decided Josh Allen is the Browns’ quarterback of the future.

There’s a very good chance he will be this year’s JaMarcus Russell, the top pick in the 2007 lottery by the Oakland Raiders who lasted just three seasons in the NFL. He could throw the football only 75 yards.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Plodding toward the draft

Two weeks to go before the 2018 National Football League draft. Why does it feel more like two months?

Two more agonizingly long weeks before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell officially kicks off one of the most eagerly awaited annual events in the entire sports world.

In all the years I have been writing about the Browns whether it’s this blog, the OBR or the Plain Dealer, I can’t remember a more anticipated draft than this one for this franchise.

Perhaps that is why it seems as though the last three months feels more like three years, it has seemingly passed so sloth-like. This lottery can’t arrive soon enough, if only because it will finally put a stop to all the ridiculous stories involving what will happen at the top.

In runaway train-like fashion, what the Browns do with the first overall selection has been reduced to soap opera level with all the drama that surrounds it.

The nonsensical notions put forth by the various pundits around the Internet are messing with the minds of a football constituency that right now is fragile to the point it will glom onto just about anything.

Many Browns fans don’t really know what to think. They believe they do, but shreds of doubt have to linger somewhere in their thought processes until the first overall pick is actually announced.

Which quarterback will they take? Who will be the lucky guy? Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield. Depending on whom you have read and choose to believe over the last month or so, it could be any of this quartet.

Or will the Browns even take a quarterback at No. 1? Most draft experts don’t rank any of these quarterbacks among their top prospects. That honor goes to either Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or North Carolina State edge rusher Bradley Chubb.

Most of the pundits who know for certain which name that will be have settled on either Darnold or Allen. Their guesses – and that is all they are – are based on nothing more than casual rumors from so-called insiders.

It is assumed Cleveland General Manager John Dorsey will have total control of the War Room. But will it require a majority or unanimous vote from his All-Star group of aides to nail down the final decisions?

And what about Jimmy Haslam III and Hue Jackson? The owner and his should-have-been fired coach will not exactly be shrinking violets in that room. What will their roles be? And does Dorsey attempt to nullify their presence?

I suspect the GM, at this time, has no idea whose name to place on that first card for Goodell to read. In fact, I would be surprised if that isn't the case. Time and circumstances have a way of altering well-planned moves. Sometimes at the last minute.

In the meantime, inquiring minds, i.e. Browns Nation, want to know. They will go unrewarded for another, sigh, two weeks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Offensive line dreaming

With most of the talk swirling about which quarterback the Browns should select with the top pick in the National Football League college draft later this month, relatively little thought is given whom to take with the fourth overall selection.

Should they go running back if Saquon Barkley somehow is still on the board? Or maybe give Myles Garrett a bookend partner for the pass rush and take Bradley Chubb, the best edge rusher in the lottery if he falls.

Either would fit very nicely into John Dorsey’s plans to rebuild the team. But there is another area of concern the general manager certainly has to be aware of if he is a true believer that football games are won and lost in the trenches.

The Browns have a massive hole at offensive left tackle with the retirement of the peerless Joe Thomas. Right now, the plan is to shift Shon Coleman from right tackle over to the left side, a position he played in college.

Let’s be perfectly honest here. Nothing short of another perennial Pro Bowler is going to account for Thomas’ absence. Coleman is no Joe Thomas, admittedly an unfair comparison at this point of his young career.

He is far from the solution, given his uneven performance last season. But there is a solution and it involves the draft, specifically the fourth pick. It’s radical and flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

In a weird way, though, it makes sense.

The heart and soul of any offense is the line. The plug uglies up front can mean the difference between an average offense and something that resonates somewhere between good and great.

Todd Haley, the Browns’ new offensive coordinator, had the luxury the past six seasons of working with one of the best offenses in the NFL. He had Pro Bowlers at quarterback, wide receiver and running back. It all worked because he had a terrific offensive line.

And that’s where this year’s draft comes into focus. It is relatively weak for offensive linemen, especially at tackle. But there is one offensive lineman who clearly stands out above the rest.

Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is a 6-5, 330-pound ball of nastiness who has 10-year Pro Bowler written all over him. Only one problem. He’s a guard and the Browns already have two pretty good ones in Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler.

Then you realize – assuming here the coaching staff does, too – that Bitonio was a left tackle in college and played the position well. The Browns switched him inside to guard because Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz were the tackles. Enough said.

So why not draft Nelson, plug him at left guard for the next decade and shift Bitonio to Thomas’ old spot? Bitonio is an upgrade over Coleman. The idea is to strengthen the offensive line, not weaken it.

The Browns last had a decent offensive line back in 2014-15 with Thomas and Schwartz at the tackles, Bitonio and John Greco manning the guards and Alex Mack at center.

It definitely would be a radical move and yet understandable to select Nelson. The likelihood of it eventuating, though, resides somewhere between are you kidding me and never.

In any other year, taking Nelson at four would be a no brainer. That’s how good he is. But this, of course is not just any other year.

Too bad. He would have looked good in the Seal Brown and Orange.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Full secondary

There is no question whatsoever the Browns will select a quarterback with the top selection in the National Football League’s college draft later this month.

It’s the fourth pick of the lottery, the one the Browns received from the Houston Texans last season, that brings into question whose name will land on the card delivered to Commissioner Roger Goodell.

There are a significant number of possibilities to render that choice, at least right now, difficult to predict. But one thing is virtually certain. It will not be a defensive back.

What? When guys like Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Denzel Ward of Ohio State most certainly will be on the board? Not even then?

Nope. Can’t see it.

Have you looked at the Browns roster lately? It lists 17 secondary candidates to fill maybe eight or nine spots on the final roster.

Breaking it down, it shows 11cornerbacks and six safeties, several talented and versatile enough to play most of the four positions in the defensive backfield. 

So why in the world would General Manager John Dorsey and his guys even think about adding to the secondary roster? Aren’t 17 candidates enough to make a determination as to who opens the season back there?

Why muddy the situation by bringing in more players unless it’s a case of throwing as many darts against a board in hopes some of them will stick. Strength in numbers? Again, can’t see it.

Dorsey needs ro turn his attention to an area of the defense that significantly impacts the secondary – the pass rush.

How many times last season did we see defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, noted for his aggressive style, resort semi frequently to soft zone coverage because of a so-so pass rush?

If you can’t get to the quarterback, man coverage is mostly ineffective. If the quarterback has a lot of time to throw, even the best corners in the NFL have a tough time in coverage.

They rely on the guys up front to make opposing quarterbacks deliver the ball before they want. Disrupt the timing. When that happens, secondaries are much more effective.

A good pass rush is the secondary’s best friend. It shortens their coverage time and gives them a better chance of making a play. That’s the area that requires a much closer look.

Of the 17 candidates, 11 are returnees, including cornerback Howard Wilson, a fourth-round draft pick last season who fractured his kneecap last May and spent the season on injured reserve.

Among the six newcomers, corners E. J. Gaines and T. J. Carrie are certain to make the final roster, if not nail a starting job. And Damarious Randall, who came over in the DeShone Kizer trade, is already penciled in as the starting free safety.

So why, then, would Dorsey even think about grabbing someone like Ward or Fitzpatrick with the fourth pick if the secondary is virtually set? That’s why he probably won’t, at least in the first two rounds, if at all.
*       *       *
Had a good laugh today. Quarterback Kevin Hogan has asked the Browns to trade him.

What made me chuckle is the Browns gave Hogan and his reps permission to see what’s out there and see if anyone bites. Of course they did, knowing they will release him if that effort comes up empty

Question: What took Hogan so long to make the request? Surely he had to see his time in Cleveland was over.

Another question: What team would be willing to deal for the marginal NFL quarterback when they know the Browns are going to release him anyway?

The Jacksonville Jaguars recently – and surprisingly – surrendered a future conditional seventh–round pick for Cody Kessler, whose credentials shine just a wee bit brighter than Hogan’s.

There was no way Hogan would be back for the 2018 season in Cleveland as Dorsey emptied the quarterbacks room from last season’s history-making club.

Good laugh, though.

Monday, April 2, 2018

What to do, what to do

Here we are 23 days from the National Football League’s college draft and the Browns still don’t know what they are going to do with the first overall selection.

Or do they?

Well, if they are, they aren’t saying.

But the guess here is no, they do not know yet what name they will put on that initial card Commissioner Roger Goodell will read as a nation anxiously holds its breath.

The poobahs who will run this draft for the Browns say it’s too early to make that determination. And they are correct.

There is still a lot of work to be done before the critical decision is made as to which of the top four quarterbacks will be the Browns’ franchise quarterback of the near future and the face of the team.

General Manager John Dorsey and his cadre of lieutenants know who those quarterbacks are and enough about them to know how they can have an impact on the club.

Until Dorsey & Co. put together their final boards in the final week or so leading up to the lottery, everything fans see and hear should be taken with sizable grains of salt because they are nothing more than pre-draft pabulum.

The run-up to this draft has taken on such a significant importance to the starved fans of this franchise, it can’t arrive soon enough. They are weighed down by the nonsense spilling out from all corners of the media.

This guy who knows Dorsey tells a writer exactly what the Cleveland GM is going to do with his first choice and it becomes public. Dorsey, someone reported, is reportedly fascinated by quarterbacks who have extraordinary arm and most likely will draft Josh Allen.

You’ve got to be pretty gullible – or na├»ve – to swallow all that. Why? Because the draft is still 23 days away. That’s why. Too many factors between now and April 26 can ultimately determine those final decisions.

It’s nothing more than a guessing game at this point, anyway. And anyone who says he knows definitely what will take place in Arlington, Texas on the final Thursday of the month is blowing smoke.

What we do know almost for certain is Dorsey will take a quarterback with the initial pick. Almost certain because there are one or two possibilities remaining that could affect that decision. Like, for example, possibly trading out of the slot.

That’s almost certainly unlikely unless Dorsey has big enough shoulders to feel the wrath of Browns Nation if he has a massive brain cramp and chooses to move in that direction. The likelihood is minimal.

First things first, though. Dorsey and his men (including the owner) are meeting with the four quarterbacks this week and next in Berea to further evaluate them and hopefully narrow the reasons they should or should not take one of them.

They probably will go in with an open mind in hopes the candidates will do or say something along the way that will either eliminate them or enhance their chances.

In the meantime, find something else to do for the next three weeks or so and trust that the best front office this franchise has had since the resurrection nearly 20 years ago knows what it is doing.

There is reason to believe this is the case and we will all watch it unveil deep in the heart of Texas in just 23 days.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Draft can't come soon enough for Dorsey

Poor John Dorsey.

You’ve got to feel for the Browns’ general manager right now. 

Here we are roughly four-and-a half weeks from the National Football League’s college draft, which means there are roughly four-and-a half more weeks of crazy questions and even crazier media speculation as to how he will handle his first draft with the team.

Under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn’t be so bad. But these are not ordinary circumstances. Not when you own the first and fourth selections in the lottery.

With all kinds of nutty rumors flying all over the NFL universe indicating he has already decided to make USC quarterback Sam Darnold his top pick, Dorsey was in semi-denial mode addressing the Cleveland media covering the league’s annual meeting in Orlando Monday.

“The draft is five weeks away,” he reminded them. In other words, chill guys. The big decision has “not necessarily” been made. “There are a few more pieces to the puzzle left.”

However, he allowed it was “fair enough” to say four quarterbacks are in the mix for the top pick, referring to Darnold, Baker Mayfield and the Joshes, Rosen and Allen. Shocking!

Asked if there was a leader in the clubhouse, Dorsey toyed with them. “I won’t tell you,” he said, and then added, almost mischievously, “I won’t tell you who it is. It could be Saquon Barkley.” He smiled as he refereed to the highly-ranked Penn State running back.

Dorsey better get used to this. It will continue right up until that moment when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell puts the Browns on the clock on April 26 in Arlington, Texas.

It will get worse. It might even reach the point when all Dorsey can do is roll his eyes whenever the big question comes up in conversation. That’s the price he must pay for being in a position few general managers have ever been.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he acknowledged before sharing his thoughts on the workouts of the quartet of quarterbacks within the last week.

He praised all four at this stage of the process, which must be somewhat confounding to those who follow the draft zealously and lean on every word he says in hopes he will carelessly drop a clue as to which way he is leaning.

That process still has a month to go. There are eight other selections the GM must make in the draft – barring any movements up and/or down on draft weekend – and a final board to assemble before making hard decisions.

Until then, all fans and media can do is speculate, try to read between the lines, searching for that little nugget that unlocks the mystery to the biggest question on the minds of the fans and media.

A word of caution: Listen and read all you want, but don’t believe anything you read or hear in the next roughly four-and-a-half weeks because chances are very good it won’t eventuate.

It is all mere speculation that helps make this event one of the most anticipated on the sports calendar.

Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A step up at quarterback

It took him a while, but Browns General Manager John Dorsey finally found Tyrod Taylor’s backup this season.

Signing Drew Stanton to a two-year contract Sunday all but signaled the end of the careers of Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan in Cleveland.

Depending on how Hue (Trust Me) Jackson wants to align his quarterbacks, Stanton will be either Taylor’s caddy or the club’s third quarterback if the coach wants to elevate the club’s first draft pick to backup.

Either way, the Browns get an experienced career backup who most likely will share mentor roles with that top draft selection throughout at least the 2018 season, if not beyond.

In seven National Football League seasons, the new Cleveland quarterback has started 17 games and won 11 of them with Detroit and Arizona with a brief stop in Indianapolis in between.

All but four of those starts were with the Cardinals, including four last season – he won three – after Carson Palmer went down with a broken arm.

Stanton is one of those rare quarterbacks just good enough to be a backup, but falls far short in becoming a starter. And that is what Dorsey obviously was looking for.

The thought of Kessler, who preceded Sam Darnold at USC, and Hogan backing up Taylor apparently was anathema to the GM. If neither man could not beat out rookie DeShone Kizer last season, they don’t belong on the new revamped roster.

It will be interesting to see whether Dorsey invites either or both young men to training camp this summer.

While not the perfect backup, the soon-to-be 34-year-old Stanton is clearly a step up from last season. And he will have a lot in common with many members of his new team.

The 6-3, 240-pounder, selected by Detroit out of Michigan State by Detroit in the second round of the 2007 college draft, was a member of the winless 2008 Lions team that lost all 16 games.

Now fans have a new name to chant when they are dissatisfied with Taylor. After all, isn’t the backup quarterback the most popular player by the fans in that instance? Unlike last season, there is no need to worry this season. Stanton’s arrival is a definite step up.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The not-so-total package

All right. Let’s get this out of the way right out of the chute.

Josh Allen is a freakish quarterback.

He can flick his right wrist with little or practically no effort and propel a football 35-40 yards. On a straight line.

Ask him to air out said football and he can deliver it with modest effort in the vicinity of 80 yards. That’s practically inhuman.

Josh Allen is, indeed, a freakish quarterback. No argument there.

His nickname is well earned after he primed his howitzer, a.k.a. his throwing arm, and put it on dazzling display the other day for a coterie of professional football scouts, general managers and at least one owner (the one from Cleveland).

Lots of ooohs and aaahs on many of his impressive throws in the scripted workout. It is hard to not notice.

They all came to see this physical marvel and find out whether he was a figment of someone’s imagination. He did not disappoint and added another layer to the argument of which of the top four quarterbacks in this class should be the No. 1 pick in next month’s National Football League college draft.

In doing so, he validated the notion by many draft gurus who knew about him and believe he very well could be the top selection in the lottery. Allen’s coming-out party was a huge success.

It is so easy for scouts and coaches – and, yes, even owners – to fall in love with such a stunning weapon. It’s a trap most of them fall into. There is a tendency to overlook other aspects of quarterbacking.

Like Allen’s weakest attribute, for example. In two full seasons at the University of Wyoming, the big California kid completed only 56% of his passes. That normally is a gigantic red flag for coaches.

Allen’s only consistency in that regard is that he completed 56% of his passes in both seasons. Not a shred of improvement in the second season.

There is reason to believe he has problems with timing and anticipation with the possibility of so-called slow eyes in the execution of plays, like not recognizing defenses quickly enough to make the proper adjustments and not delivering the ball on time.

Holding the ball a split second too long before delivering it can make all the difference between a completed pass and either an incompletion or interception. DeShone Kizer was a perfect example of that malady with the Browns last season. Many of his 22 interceptions were delivered late.

The question is whether the inability to process quickly enough hurt Allen’s completion percentage at Wyoming more than receivers who failed to help him. It is much more important to fall in love with the total package than it is to fall head over heels for the throwing arm.

You don’t have to be freakish to be great. Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Eli Manning don’t fall into that category. All are great current quarterbacks headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but in an entirely different way.

The same can be said for the likes of Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Joe Montana. There is a lot more to playing the position that owning a rocket arm.

But isn’t launching a football great distances with air-piercing speed the most important weapon in a quarterback’s arsenal? No. Allen’s 56% completion parentage the last two seasons is not an aberration. It’s a trend.

It’s a trend the Browns might want to give serious thought to even though the top pick will sit at least one season behind Tyrod Taylor and experience what it’s like to be a professional football quarterback.

Sam Darnold, not nearly as dazzling as Allen in his pro workout, was a starter the last two seasons at USC, where he was a 65% passer and threw for more than 7,200 yards. (Full disclosure: I believe Darnold should be the pick if the Browns choose to go quarterback with the No. 1 selection.)

Strong-armed quarterbacks are intoxicating to scouts and coaches. The Oakland Raiders took a chance with the first pick in the 2007 draft on a bullet-throwing quarterback from Louisiana State named JaMarcus Russell. After three miserable seasons, Russell was out of football. He was the antithesis of the complete package.But he sure could throw the hell out of the ball.

Quarterbacks who struggle with accuracy rarely correct those problems. The successful ones are those who give their teams the best opportunity to win games by being consistently accurate. 

So is Josh Allen the franchise quarterback the Browns have sought for nearly two decades? Or is he the next JaMarcus Russell?

Former (Browns) scout and draft guru Daniel Jeremiah, now with the NFL Network, summed it up perfectly when discussing Allen: “His ceiling is higher than anybody, but the floor is lower.”

Food for thought.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Is Darnold the man?

Is there any question now who the Browns would select with the first pick in this year’s National Football League college draft if the lottery were tomorrow?

Not after Sam Darnold unloaded a wow! performance at his pro day at USC Wednesday in front of members of the of Browns’ front office, coaching staff and ownership in California.

The young quarterback's impressive 60-throw afternoon in the rain removed any doubts as to whether he has what it takes to make a successful jump to professional football.

If there are any lingering uncertainties about whether he is ready to take the next step in his football career, they were dispelled in front of an audience that included Browns General Manager John Dorsey, offensive coordinator Todd Haley, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and owner Jimmy Haslam III.

It is most unusual to see so many important members of the front office and coaching staff in attendance. That’s a clear sign Darnold is either sitting atop the Browns’ board now or is No. 1 in their hearts with regard to this terrific quarterbacks class.

If they wanted verification, Darnold did not disappoint. He dazzled, showing vast improvement in his footwork, accuracy with all his throws from the pocket and on the run, a smooth delivery and the ability to work mostly under center despite the adverse weather conditions.

He appears to have tightened his delivery (one of several flaws that caused early concern), seems to have corrected a hitch, displayed a quick release, but still needs to work on shortening that release. All are coachable.

Pro days for quarterbacks are carefully scripted and sometimes rehearsed so as not to embarrass the player. What made the day so special for him was how comfortable and unflustered he looked in the steady rain.

Darnold did not throw at the NFL combine a few weeks ago, generating speculation he had shoulder problems, but he made all the throws with no apparent problems with his shoulder. He looked especially sharp with his deep outs and go routes.

Granted he was in shorts and a T-shirt, was not facing a pass rush and knew exactly what he was going to do with every snap. That is what makes reaching conclusions in these matters so difficult.

Darnold unquestionably passed all the performance tests. Now the Browns have to find out about Sam Darnold, the person. Is he the guy the club wants to be the face of the franchise some day? What makes him tick?

The Browns were reportedly put off by Darnold’s laid-back manner during a brief interview with him at the combine. And he supposedly did not do well with the whiteboard.

Haslam, who sat with Darnold’s parents during the workout, got to know him a little more during dinner Tuesday night along with Dorsey and Jackson.. (Darnold had dinner Monday night with the New York Giants, who own the second pick in the draft.)

“He’s a great guy,” he said of his meeting with Haslam. “That whole staff is awesome. . . . I’m trying to impress them but at the same time be myself.”

The so-called upside on this kid – he is the youngest of the top four quarterbacks at just 20 – is off the charts. Wednesday’s performance in Cleveland-like weather conditions did not hurt his chances of being the top pick five weeks from Thursday night.

If in fact Dorsey writes Darnold’s name on the first card for Commissioner Roger Goodell to read, the tipping point very well might be how well he did on a rainy late March afternoon in Southern California.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Not your ordinary Joe

Joe Thomas is an outlier.

For 11 National Football League seasons, he labored in relative anonymity with a team that played football as badly as humanly possible.

Year after year after maddening year, his peerless performances went unrewarded. Unless, that is, you consider the first 10 seasons when he was recognized as one of the best offensive tackles in the business. Ten Pro Bowls in 10 seasons says it all.

In 2007, Thomas’ rookie season, the Browns finished 10-6, yet failed to make the playoffs. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was the pinnacle of his career from a standings standpoint.

The team never really came close to a winning season after that and yet Thomas, whose annual performance epitomized the blue-collar work ethic of the city he represented, labored on at an All-Pro level.

It was the only way he knew how to play. Hard, smart, head down, mouth shut and full of hope that next year would be better. It would be the year.  It had to be. Couldn’t get any worse. That next year never arrived.

Thomas, who officially retired Monday, experienced more next years than someone of his considerable talent and desire and hard work deserved.  Hope kept him in Cleveland all these years in spite of the constant losing.

New head coaches came and went; six came, one still remains. But the losing never stopped. It got worse. Historically worse. Agonizingly worse. And yet, he chose to remain.

He certainly didn’t have to. He had opportunities to leave through free agency. He could have demanded a trade, seeking to finally experience what it was like to play for a winner.

Isn’t that what most athletes want? Why waste that talent on a franchise that was disturbingly dysfunctional? That looked hope in the face and laughed. This was a team that constantly kept getting in its own way. 

Thomas was the one constant. Coaches knew he would deliver. He never failed them. And he did it from the opening kickoff to the final play of the game. Every game.

He began his professional football career as a starter in his rookie season. Until he tore a triceps muscle while blocking in game seven last season, he never knew what it was like to watch a game from the bench. After a remarkable 10,363 consecutive snaps, he was finally brought down.

Playing a position where injuries happen suddenly and often, Thomas was like a man of steel. Trench warfare is not much fun and yet nothing seemed to bother him. At least not outwardly.

He got dinged more than just a little in those 10,000 plus snaps. Whether it was preventing a defensive end from mauling his quarterback or providing running lanes for his backs, he was the dependable one on the offensive line.

Despite all the losing, Thomas head-scratchingly chose to stay. Browns fans were that much richer for it.

He follows in a long line of outstanding offensive left tackles this franchise has produced. From 1947 through 1995, the Browns employed only five men at that position – Lou Groza, Dick Schafrath, Doug Dieken, Paul Farren and Tony Jones.

And then along came Joe with the new Browns. In spite of all the losing, the future first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer has ultimately emerged a winner.

No, this Joe is hardly ordinary. He is a pro’s pro. A coach’s dream.

He was – and still is – exceptional.