Monday, October 23, 2017

Monday leftovers

So who starts at quarterback for the Browns when they wind up the first half of the season Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings?

Round and round spins the quarterbacks carousel and where it stops, only Hue Jackson knows.

Based on what the quarterbacks room looks like now, it appears to be a lose-lose situation for Jackson whomever he chooses. The pickings are slimmer than slim. Sort of like choosing the best of the worst trio of quarterbacks in the National Football League.

Does he pluck Kevin Hogan off from the spinning carousel again as he did for the 33-17 disaster in Houston? Or does DeShone Kizer deserve yet another chance despite leading the NFL in intercepted passes?

Then again, there’s Cody Kessler, the quarterback who began training camp back in July as the starter before fading into quarterbacks hell as Kizer, Hogan and Brock Osweiler (remember him?) moved into and out of Jackson’s revolving doghouse.

Add up all their accomplishments in the NFL with regard to their record, sans Osweiler, who is now much more comfortable and undoubtedly much happier in Denver, they are 0-15 as starting quarterbacks. That is what Jackson has to choose from.

Until Sunday’s’12-9 home loss to Tennessee, Kessler was an afterthought. He did not suit up for the first six games of the season.

The only reason he was elevated to backing up Kizer, who started the Titans’ loss after his one-game “reset” period, was because Hogan’s ribs were bruised. Health, it would appear, was the deciding factor,

Kessler was healthy and he knows Jackson’s offense. Only problem there was he was supposed to be strictly a backup in the event Kizer went down. Didn’t quite turn out that way, Jackson yanking the rookie for ineffective quarterbacking one series into the second half.

Kessler wasn’t exactly lights out and caught the Kizer interception bug once, but the offense did look more under control, comparatively speaking, when he had the huddle.

So who (whom?) does Jackson choose? Who becomes the next beneficiary of one of his predictable and stodgy game plans? Who will have the opportunity to show Londoners what bad football really looks like? (Ooops. Too late. They already saw that a few days ago when the Los Angeles Rams shut out the Arizona Cardinals.)

It is very possible Jackson might require a coin to make this important decision. Chances are good that no matter who gets the nod, it will not come as a surprise to anyone who follows this team.

It has become abundantly clear Kizer is on a leash that stretches between the sideline and huddle and probably feels like a bungee cord to him. The kid has to be so confused now, he has no idea what to expect from his coach with nine games left in the season.

It is time to put down the quarterbacks yo-yo, unplug the quarterbacks carousel and decide once and for all who the starting quarterback will be for those nine games. Then play him for the remainder of the season no matter how poorly he performs or until he gets hurt.

Playing dartboard quarterbacks is harmful to the well being, such as it is, of the offense. It makes absolutely no sense.

Kizer, of course, has the most experience this season. But after time and again committing grievous errors that put his offense back on the bench, does he have the trust of the other members of that offense?

Football is played as much from the neck up as it is from the neck down. If the other 10 members in the huddle have no faith in whoever commands it, it breeds a defeatist attitude. Sort of gives birth to a what’s-going-to-go-wrong-next approach.

A lack of confidence in the most important player on the offense, if not the team, rarely leads to success. That needs to be corrected. But how?

The offense needs to hear another voice, another set of eyes. And I’m not talking quarterbacks here. I’m talking coaching. Someone who sees things differently other than the one in charge of that side of the ball now because this offense is flat out not working.

Jackson has to set aside his massive ego, emerge from his state of denial and realize his job is on the line. One of the main reasons is his refusal to acknowledge failure. If he doesn’t, he will have no one to blame but his stubborn self when he continues his career elsewhere next season.
*       *       *
If the dysfunctional front office decides to make a coaching change during the bye week, and that is well within the realm of possibility, the most obvious choice to move up is Gregg Williams.

The high-energy defensive coordinator was the main man in Buffalo for three seasons (2001-03), during which he compiled a 17-31 record before heading back to the world of coordinating defenses.

His no-nonsense approach to coaching, as opposed to Jackson’s calmer demeanor, is reaping mostly positive results this season. With the exception of massive brain farts in a couple of earlier games, the Cleveland defense has played solid, aggressive football.

This team needs a personality change, especially on offense, which is not responding at all this season. It’s almost as though that side of the ball is in desperation gear all the time.

It is said sometimes that a team is a reflection of its head coach. His personality trickles down to the players. It sure didn’t work in Buffalo for Williams. If the front office decides to give him a second opportunity, if only on an interim basis, it has nothing to lose. Losing is what occupants in the current Ivory Tower are used to.
*       *       *
Now that offensive tackle Joe Thomas is unable to play any more this season because of a triceps muscle tear, the offensive line is in big trouble. All of which means the offense, which has underperformed all season, is in bigger trouble.

It will be interesting to see what the coaches decide to do this week for the Vikings game on Sunday. So many possibilities exist, including moving players from their natural position.

Spencer Drango, who is listed on the depth chart as a backup at guard, replaced Thomas in the Titans’ loss Sunday. He played well enough to practically insure someone else will be at left offensive tackle against the Vikings.

The coaches could flip flop left guard Joel Bitonio, who played tackle in college, and Drango, who is more effective inside. Or they could move right tackle Shon Coleman to the left side and bring 6-9, 360-pound rookie Zach Banner off the bench. Or they could activate 6-9 Zach Sterup from the practice squad and plug him in somewhere.

Whichever way they go, it will not be the same without Thomas. What once was expected to be the strength of the offense has now become arguably the weakest part.
*       *       *
One of the changes Jackson has to make for the Vikings game is installing Duke Johnson Jr. as his main running back. Isaiah Crowell has proven time and again this season he does not deserve to be the main guy behind or beside the quarterback..

Johnson is a playmaker. Almost every time he touches the ball, he makes things happen. Often times, he makes something out of nothing. His instincts and vision enable him to turn negatives into positives.

Crowell is by far the lesser talent and yet Jackson leans on him more than Johnson in hopes of popping a big gainer. He has turned into nothing more than a good short-yardage runner. When a tough yard or two is needed, give him the ball.

For once I’d like to see Johnson touch the ball 20 or more times in a game and see what it adds up to. His career averages for the last two-and-a-half seasons back up the contention he is being misused badly and should be the No. 1 running back.

In 39 games career games, Johnson has touched the football 351 times (205 as a runner) and accumulated 2,242 yards (880 as a runner), an average of 6.39 yards a touch. Extrapolate that for 20 touches a game and you come out with nearly 128 yards a game. Even analytics nerds know that’s not bad.

Now let’s compare that with Crowell’s numbers. He has touched the football 703 times in three-and-a-half seasons (622 as a runner) and accumulated 3,248 yards (2,552 as a runner), an average of 4.62 yards a touch. Extrapolate that for 20 touches a game and you come out with 92.4 yards a game, a difference of nearly 36 yards a game.

The only outlier: Crowell has scored 20 touchdowns, 19 on the ground. Johnson has scored only six, three on the ground. That’s because Crowell receives every opportunity to score the closer the Browns get to the opposition’s goal line. If Johnson had those chances, too, his scoring numbers probably would be higher.

Case closed? You be the judge.
*       *       *
Finally . . . It seemed as though Christian Kirksey was everywhere in the Titans loss. If the outside linebacker wasn’t covering a tight end or running back out of the backfield, he was sticking his nose in a run play. He accumulated 17 tackles, eight of them by himself. That means he made a play on 23.6% of Tennessee’s 72 snaps . . Middle linebacker Joe Schobert was also busy with nine tackles, five solo. . . . Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett was in on 52 snaps and acquitted himself well against Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, registering one of the Browns’ two sacks and four tackles, three solo. . . . The Cleveland offense was just 3-of-13 on third down; the Titans were just as bad at 5-of-17. . . . It can now be stated unequivocally the Cleveland run defense is the best it has been in years. It shut down a Tennessee run game that had been averaging around 140 yards a game to just 72, not counting an eight-yard scramble by quarterback Marcus Mariota. Accomplishing that is what kept the game close for so long. . . . The Browns’ pass-run figures against the Titans: 42 dropbacks, 25 designed runs. That’s a 62.7%-37.3% ratio. So much for the excuse of abandoning the run after falling too far behind to run in a 12-9 game decided in overtime. Try another excuse.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Decisions, decisions, decisions 

It seemed like an insignificant moment at the time because it occurred so early in the Browns’ 12-9 overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans Sunday.

The home crowd had barely settled in their seats when Browns coach Hue Jackson was faced almost immediately with a decision that involved a 15-yard penalty on the opening drive of the game.

On the seventh play of the drive, an incomplete pass on a third-and-one from the Cleveland 32, Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan grabbed the facemask of Browns rookie defensive end Myles Garrett with his left hand, drawing a flag from referee Terry McAulay.

McAulay turned to Jackson, indicated the penalty, but the Cleveland coach declined to march the Titans back 15 yards. It would have moved the ball back to the Cleveland 47 and brought up a third-and-16.

When Jackson gave the I’ll pass signal to McAulay, I immediately jotted down something like “is he crazy?” Third and long from near midfield as opposed to makeable field-goal distance for a good kicker? Declining is not the correct decision.

You want to push the opposing team as far away from your goal line as possible. Make it that much more difficult to put points on the board. Declining that penalty only made it easier.

Playing fast and loose with the would haves, could haves, should haves and second guesses of life, if Jackson had accepted that penalty, Ryan Succop probably would not have been in position to boot the first of his four field goals for the Titans.

On that fourth-and-one play, Cleveland defensive tackle Danny Shelton jumped offside – the first of five such penalties on the afternoon – to give the Tennessee offense life, setting up a 43-yard field goal by Succop five plays later.

Without that field goal, the two clubs would have been locked in a 6-6 battle down the stretch and Zane Gonzalez’s third field goal of the day from 54 yards with 47 seconds left in regulation would have provided a 9-6 Cleveland victory. 

It would have ended a seven-game losing streak, including the first six of this season, and been a more-than-justifiable reward for a defense that turned in by far its best effort of the season and did not deserve to be on the losing end of the score.

The home folks witnessed a classic defensive struggle that featured three more Cleveland intercepted passes, the possible crowning of another starting quarterback next Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings and the end of one of the most remarkable streaks in all of sports.

Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, whose election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be a mere formality five years after his retirement, went down with 5:35 left in the third quarter with what was called a triceps injury in his left arm as he was pass blocking.

At that point, he had played 10,363 consecutive snaps since being selected in the first round by the Browns – he was the third overall pick – in the 2007 National Football League draft. It is a record that will never be broken.

Meanwhile, the Browns’ swarming, aggressive and determined-not-to-lose defense, playing with half the secondary (cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Jabrill Peppers) out with injuries, kept the score close despite three interceptions, including two more by DeShone Kizer and a third by Cody Kessler, who entered the game early in the second half.

Jackson had seen enough of Kizer four plays into the third quarter and yanked him in favor of Kessler 90 seconds into the half after the rookie rolled right and delivered a pass into the waiting hands of safety Kevin Byard, who banked all three picks

A sensational goal-line stand by the Cleveland defense after that pick was the closest either team came to scoring a a touchdown. It blunted four straight shots from the 1-yard line with Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, Travis Coley and Emmanuel Ogbah in starring roles.

Kizer’s first interception with 19 seconds left in the first half was a fastball to an open Rashard Higgins at the Titans’ 10, but sailed over his head right to Byard. A changeup might have netted a first down. Neither error, as it turned out, resulted in Tennessee points.

Kessler wasn’t much better statistically, but the Cleveland attack seemed to run smoother when he was under center. Until, that is, he badly overthrew a wide-open David Njoku with six minutes left in regulation and Byard was there again to capitalize.

At that point, it looked as though the seventh straight loss this season was inevitable. But the defense, as it did all afternoon, came to the rescue again and bailed out the offense, stiffening and forcing a punt after a three-and-out.

Ten plays, 33 yards and three-and-a-half minutes later, Gonzalez, the seventh-round draft pick who missed a couple of easy field goals earlier this season and caused Browns Nation to wonder whether the club made another draft mistake, improbably knocked through a 54-yarder to knot the score.

The kick looked weird off his right foot, heading well left of the goal post, then somehow straightened out and sailed clearly through the uprights.

The overtime was typical Jackson as the offense went three-and-out on two straight possessions. See if this sounds familiar.

First play on the first possession: Isaiah Crowell off right guard, no gain. Incomplete pass to Kenny Britt. Incomplete pass to Kasen Williams. Britton Colquitt punts. Second possession: Crowell over right guard, two yards. Incomplete pass, a Kessler throwaway when no receiver popped open. Kessler sacked by Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, loses 12 yards. Colquitt punts.

Six plays, two runs for two yards, three incomplete passes, a sack and two Britton Colquitt punts. Six plays, -10 net yards. No ball movement, no imagination, no victory.

The Titans finally broke the malaise, but not without one last defensive effort from the tiring defense, which forced Succop to boot a 47-yarder for the game-winner.

Even that had a little drama. The game clock was stopped for the two-minute warning in the extra session a split second before Succop launched. That kick caromed off the left upright. The second sailed true and straight.

At the end, two main questions remained. Is Thomas’ injury bad enough to sideline him for an extended period of time? And who (whom?) will Jackson put in charge of the huddle next Sunday in London? Your guess is as good as anyone's at this point.

After the latest loss, it would appear as though it will take more than an outstanding defensive effort for the Browns to finally win a game this season. That side of the ball needs help and it is not arriving anytime soon.

If fingers of guilt were to be pointed at anyone associated with this latest loss, a good start would have them pointed squarely at the offensive coordinator.

So far, we have heard nothing from that coordinator that would indicate he shares at least some of the responsibility for such a bad offense.

Maybe the head coach could shed some light.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The never-ending battle to win

Winning football games is difficult. The Browns have proved that notion over and over and over for the better part of the last two decades. They’ve raised it to an art form.

That’s why when they entertain the Tennessee Titans Sunday they are not expected to win. It’s so bad, in fact, oddsmakers have installed the visiting team – the visiting team, for goodness sake – as a six-point favorite.

In the National Football League, where the expression “on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team” is occasionally intoned, you figure the Browns somewhere along the way would accidentally stumble into a victory.

Coaches through the years have popularized that phrase, initially uttered by former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell several generations ago, after their more talented teams had lost to lesser teams. Used it sort of as a reason they lost.

Upsets in the NFL are rare. For example, who would have believed the winless New York Giants last Sunday would go into Denver, where the Broncos lose a game as often as the Browns win a game anywhere these days, and walk away no longer winless?

Or that the woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars would pound the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens earlier this season by a combined score of 74-16? On any given Sunday . . . Yep, it works every now and then.

Browns coach Hue Jackson labors at his job with a roster filled largely with mediocre talent (and that’s being kind). It has to be difficult for him to maintain a positive attitude with his men when it seems as though the constant losing will never end.

Demoralizing losses to winless Indianapolis and Cincinnati in weeks three and four perpetuated the notion that the Browns, indeed, might be headed in a similar direction as last season, when they won just once in 16 games.

It was then thought the losing this season would finally end when the New York Jets, a team believed to be tanking the season in an effort to be in position to select a quarterback in the next college draft, arrived in town a few weeks ago. Ex-Browns quarterback Josh McCown took care of that in a hurry with a 17-14 victory.

When a team gets beat on the scoreboard and beat up on the field, as the Browns were last Sunday in Houston, winning a game, any game, becomes a challenge that is harder to achieve as the schedule unfolds. It can have an exponentially deleterious effect on a team.

Frustration mounts. Fingers are pointed. Blame is parceled out. It all falls apart quickly despite the effort. Losing begets losing.

That hasn’t happened yet with the Browns, except for the losing, of course. And that’s mainly because Jackson somehow is holding this team together. The question is how much longer can he do that?

One more season like 2016 pushes that envelope to its limits. When does the players’ patience run out, especially among the younger players not used to this in college? Losing all the time wears on them, wears them down.

Future opponents are gleeful when the Browns game appears on their schedule, especially if their season is not going well. Well maybe not gleeful, but extremely optimistic. It provides momentary relief. A victory awaits. It has become almost automatic. Pencil it in even before it is played.

It gives the opposition a psychological edge. Hang around just long enough and the Browns eventually will find a way to lose. It’s uncanny how this franchise since 1999 has improbably snatched defeat after defeat bizarrely from the jaws of victory.

And now along come the Titans, a team wallowing in mediocrity in a division filled with it. Where a 3-3 record puts you in a three-way tie for the AFC South lead.

It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for coach Mike Mularkey’s team, experiencing highs with efforts of 37 points against Jacksonville and 36 points last week against Indianapolis and lows like a 57-14 walloping at Houston.

The Browns are first up on the docket for the Titans as they journey through the AFC North the next four games.

These teams met in Nashville last season, the Titans holding on for a 28-26 victory despite a 336-yard, two-touchdown afternoon by rookie Cleveland quarterback Cody Kessler, who was sacked six times. Marcus Mariota threw for 284 yards and three scores for the Titans.

The Browns catch somewhat of a break with the Titans coming off their Monday night victory over the Colts. One less day to practice and recover from that game. At this point, the Browns will take anything they can get.

Mariota missed a game and a half with hamstring problems earlier this season before guiding his club past the Colts while pretty much tethered to the pocket to protect the injury.

Unless he is a quick healer, the pocket is most likely where the Cleveland pass rush will find him Sunday, assuming a good Titans offensive line can protect its semi-mobile quarterback. Mariota, who has thrown for nearly 1,100 yards and four touchdowns this far, has been sacked only three times in more than 150 dropbacks.

That line will have to deal with Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ multitudinous and unpredictable blitz packages. In all probability, Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie (remember him from Butch Davis’ staff more than a decade ago?) will follow last week’s script to keep his quarterback vertical.

In order to neutralize an improving Cleveland pass rush, look for quick developing plays with Mariota delivering the ball within three seconds. If successful, that in turn will put that much more pressure on the beleaguered Cleveland secondary, which has surrendered an average of 241 yards a game.

Another interesting battle will feature the Titans’ strong run game against the Browns’ stingy run defense (that feels so weird to write after all those years of futility against the run). Successfully shutting down DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry puts an entirely different spin on the situation. But that’s a pretty big if.

The Tennessee defense, under the guidance of 80-year-old Dick LeBeau, is not scary, either. It allows opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 61% of their passes (giving 50% Cleveland thrower DeShone Kizer some hope) and also permits 241 passing yards a game.

LeBeau likes to blitz on occasion, too, but his zone blitz scheme is not quite as effective as when he was designing defenses for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It provides some hope for a Cleveland offensive line that has underdelivered most of the season.

For the second week in a row, this one on paper could turn into a crowd-pleasing shootout. But Kizer has to elevate his game to levels he has never attained as an NFL quarterback in order to stay with Mariota. And Isaiah Crowell is no DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry. Nevertheless . . .

On any given Sunday this Sunday? Uh . . . uh . . . no., not this Sunday. Browns Nation mourns once again as Mariota outperforms Kizer and the Tennessee ground game prevails as the Browns’ losing streak reaches seven at the aptly named Factory of Sadness. Make it:

Titans 27, Browns 13

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

He’s b-a-a-a-a-a-ck

There was good news and bad news for the Browns Wednesday.

The good news? DeShone Kizer is back as the club’s starting quarterback.

The bad news? DeShone Kizer is back as the club’s starting quarterback.

There is no way the team’s second-round draft choice learned all that much in his one-week “reset” period (OK, it was a benching) after playing bad football in the first five weeks of the season.

Kizer’s one-week reset, as coach Hue Jackson likes to call it, is not going to do the trick. When you get right down to it, the coach really had no other choice after Kevin Hogan dropped a stink bomb in Houston last Sunday to stretch the club’s winless ways this season to six games.

According to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, that makes 20 changes in starting quarterbacks by the Browns in the last 43 games, going all the way back to the last five weeks of the 2014 season.

From Brian Hoyer to Kizer, nine different quarterbacks have started a game for Cleveland in that span. That’s roughly a different quarterback every other week. In case you’re wondering, the Browns are 4-39 since defeating the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 23, 2014.

For the present and immediate future, it sure looks as though Kizer is the man for the next 10 games no matter what happens from here on out, despite Jackson’s cautious approach to what transpires the remainder of the season.

“I’m not going to say the rest of the season,” he said in explaining his decision to bring back Kizer, “ but I know he’s the guy right now. I hope he is. I hope there are no more times we have to take him out and let him reset (there’s that word again) himself.”

There’s a lot of hope in that statement.

Jackson offered no regrets for the reset. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “In fact, I know it was the right thing to do a week ago. I think we’ll be better for it and I think he’ll be better for it and hopefully we’ll see some growth.”

Sounds like a pep talk.

Jackson did not mention the disappointment he must have felt as he watched Hogan go down in flames in Houston. He most likely did not expect to haul Kizer back into the starting lineup so soon, preferring to give him a few more weeks to settle down (reset?) before returning.

Hogan was dropped to the No. 3 slot behind Kizer and Cody Kessler, who will suit up for the first time this season Sunday against the invading Tennessee Titans. Bruised ribs was the reason given for Hogan’s descent to No. 3.

So now the Browns have a starting quarterback who has nine interceptions in less than five games as a pro and is winless in five National Football League starts, a backup quarterback who is winless in eight NFL starts and a No. 3 quarterback who is winless in one start. What’s that about hope?

Jackson’s latest move is not a knee jerk reaction. It’s recognizing Hogan isn’t even close to being ready to lead a pro offense, so he might as well stick with Kizer and determine once and for all whether the kid can be an honest-to-goodness NFL quarterback.

The next 10 games will answer that question for Jackson and the front office, which, if it is still around at the end of the season, has to determine if Kizer is the man or turns its attention to the strong quarterback class in next year’s college draft.

Kizer said the week off his resetting “definitely sparked my competitive juices. It definitely motivated me throughout the week to make sure I’m doing extra.

“I think the most important thing I got to see from my perspective last week is what the process is and what our process is as a unit and how in this league you have to talk less and do more.”

Huh?! Sounds as though Jackson’s coachspeak is rubbing off on the returning quarterback.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on how Jackson game plans his offense for the Titans’ game Sunday.

Will he dumb down the offense in an effort to ease Kizer back into the flow? Will fans see quick-developing plays that require the ball to be out of Kizer’s hand within three seconds? Will the stretch-the-field approach Jackson favors be shelved? Will he finally ratchet up the running game to take pressure off his young quarterback?

Kizer’s slow – and often times hesitant – pass release in the first five weeks of the season was a major factor in his dismal showings. Refining his ability to quickly recognize and identify opposing defenses and make the necessary adjustments is a key factor.

On numerous occasions this season, Kizer started to throw the ball, then pulled it back and by the time he determined what he wanted to do with it, the rhythm of the play was disturbed enough that he was either sacked, intercepted or he made an ill-advised throw.

He said earlier in the season the game was slowing down for him. That he was having only a little trouble adjusting to the speed and quickness of the game, as opposed to the exhibition season.

That’s a little hard to believe considering how poorly he is making the adjustment to pro ball. He’s trying to make plays when trapped in the backfield that he was able to make at Notre Dame. That doesn’t work in the NFL, where the players are faster, quicker and a whole lot smarter than in college.

He still looks uncomfortable under center in the pro set, a formation that has proved much more successful in the ground game than either the pistol or shotgun formations. It’s an adjustment he has to make.

So get ready, Browns, fans, for more of the same with No. 7 in charge of the huddle. The highs will be sparingly high and the lows will be alarmingly low.

If you think the road has been bumpy so far, buckle up for what very well could be an even bumpier ride right through to New Year’s Eve day in Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Some football coaches are so pig-headed, so stubborn and their thought processes are so out of focus, they are totally blinded and have a hard time distinguishing the difference between perception and reality.

Such a football coach is Hue Jackson, whose tenure as head coach of the Browns has been significantly damaged and compromised by the performance the last 22 games of his offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson.

The offensive coordinator probably believes he is doing a good job. The head coach’s 1-21 record in those 22 games suggests otherwise in a most alarming way.

The two talk quite often. But the head coach for some reason has no problem with how the offensive coordinator is doing his job. The fact the team has only one victory since he took over doesn’t seem to bother him.

It should be easy for the head coach to wake up, glance at the National Football League standings every once in a while and notice his club is winless in six games this season and playing a far less competitive game of football than last season’s 1-15 bunch.

This season has been sliding downward precipitously since a promising 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh in the season opener. It is getting exponentially worse not only on a weekly basis, but a quarter-by-quarter basis.

While the defense continues to play more consistently than their offensive counterparts, the coach/offensive coordinator stubbornly asks his quarterbacks to perform in a manner opposite to their particular talents.

Rookie DeShone Kizer is more than capable of stretching the field with his big arm, but he is wildly inaccurate, is not capable of feathering some of his passes and is highly susceptible to interceptions.

Kevin Hogan, on the other hand, doesn’t have the big arm, but is unfairly asked to be like Kizer and fails. They are polar opposites when quarterbacking a football team. Hogan’s talents lie in the short- to medium-range game.

Kizer’s showing thus far, which earned him a seat against Houston, should not come as a surprise. He came out of Notre Dame advertised as inconsistent and inaccurate. He has done nothing to dispel that notion. There’s a reason he was there for the Browns in the second round of the college draft.

Jackson does not coach to the talents of either of his quarterbacks. He expects their talents to adapt to him. And therein lies the big problem. It won’t change or get better unless he sees the errors of his ways and adjusts. There are no Andy Daltons or Joe Flaccos on this roster.

Coaches like to say their goal is to put players in the best position to succeed. Jackson has said that on more than one occasion. How much success has the Cleveland offense experienced as a result? He might preach it, but he does not follow through.

There is little or no imagination or creativity to the Hue Jackson offense. That makes it easier to defend. After Sunday’s loss in Houston, Hogan marveled at how the Texans’ defense seemed to know what was coming.

That’s good coaching recognizing tendencies and game planning for them. That’s why the Cleveland offense did not get into the Houston end zone until the final moments of a game that was essentially over by halftime.

The Cleveland offense is as predictable as a draw play on third-and-33. The Browns rarely throw the ball on first down. Fans are fed up watching Isaiah Crowell run for a yard or two on first down, putting the club in second-and-long consistently.

The run game is, for the most part, a mere afterthought. Opposing teams know the Browns are going to put the ball up on two out of every three plays, so why bother to even stop the run?

And when they do run, it’s usually a stretch play. Stretch right, stretch left. They rarely run traps, counter traps or power sweeps. Maybe they’re not good enough at executing them because they lack the athleticism. If they do have the athleticism, however, it makes no sense to abandon those plays.

Kizer is very athletic and yet his coach rarely rolls him out behind a moving pocket to create better opportunities for the receivers to get open. There is very little movement on most plays.

As for the other facets of the passing game, when was the last time a Browns tight end ran a seam route down the gut of a defense? Gary Barnidge was golden on that route in 2015 and on a few occasions last season before being released.

Jackson loves to shift out of initial formations presnap, but the end result is almost always the same. More negative or failed plays than those that work.

It is not because this team is not trying. On occasion, it appears as though the players are mailing it in. The reality is this team lacks talent in so many vital areas, they lose even when that talent performs up to their capabilities.

For the five zillionth time, the 2017 edition of the Cleveland Browns has a serious lack of quality talent up and down the roster. There are some studs, to be sure. But not nearly enough talent to sustain a winning approach for a week, let alone a season.

The current roster is good enough to hope it can win a game or two, not know it will win a lot more than a game or two. The attitude going into each game might be there; the talent to carry it out to a successful conclusion is an entirely different matter.

This all falls on a front office that seemingly has buffaloed owner Jimmy Haslam III into believing they are headed in the right direction. If that direction is down, then yes, they are definitely headed in some sort of a direction.

Browns fans have been patient to the extreme, but that patience is getting Nutrisystemed, so to speak. It is getting thinner with each pathetic loss and long-time fans, eager to celebrate when (if?) this whole thing turns around, are starting to dribble away.

This is the 19th season of professional football in Cleveland since the NFL welcomed the city back into the fold. Not once in those 19 seasons have the fans been rewarded with a front office that produced teams anywhere near the great Browns teams of the past.

The greatest enemy to any professional sports franchise is apathy. The Browns are beginning to see vestiges of that apathy on Sundays at home with the number of empty seats slowly increasing.

According to the latest figures, the Browns through the first six weeks rank 21st in the NFL in average attendance at 65,135, but 26th in percentage of seats filled at 89.7%. That’s slightly better than last season, when they ranked 25th and 29th, respectively, for an entire season.

It is difficult to determine whether those figures indicate the number of people who actually pass through the turnstiles. Some teams count empty seats that have been purchased in advance and include them in the final attendance figure.

As the club continues to lose this season, more and more fans will either stay home and watch on television or do something that has nothing at all to do with the Browns. Sort of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind day.

There are four more home games left this season, including Sunday’s invasion of the Tennessee Titans. The game a week from Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings is a Cleveland home game.

Unless Jackson somehow between now and the end of the season magically uncovers the mystery of why this is such a bad football team, one can only imagine how many seats will be filled for the remaining three home games in November and December.

Maybe then Haslam and his wife, Dee, will open their eyes and see the reality their coach does not. Maybe then they will sit down, think it through and do what should have been done years ago.

Hire a sagacious football man (not an attorney) to oversee the football operations. Someone with a reputation for taking over struggling teams in the past and successfully putting them back on the road to success and respectability.

Then step back and let him do what others before him could not. There’s a solution out there on the NFL landscape. All the Haslams need to find it.

They are fortunate to have the most caring, dedicated and passionate fan base in the NFL. Those fans deserve much more than they have received for almost a couple of decades with regard to their football team.

Care about those fans. Not with words. With deeds.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Monday leftovers

At the risk of being wrong (to a certain extent) two weeks in a row, it sure looks as if coach Hue Jackson saw enough of Kevin Hogan last Sunday to realize he made a mistake by making him the 28th starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999.

Hogan’s abysmal performance in the loss to the Houston Texans proved beyond a doubt he is a much better relief pitcher than starter. And DeShone Kizer once again will have the huddle when the Tennessee Titans invade Sunday.

Jackson has not publicly stated that will be the case, but if he starts Hogan again this week against the Titans, more than a few seeds of doubt as to his decision-making will be planted.

No matter how poorly Kizer plays, he is the man from now until he is either (a) injured or (b) so battered but able to stand that Jackson has no choice but to mercifully save him from further punishment.

After the loss in Houston, the coach explained why he did not make a change at halftime when it was apparent Hogan was in way over his head, having thrown three interceptions in the second quarter.

“I made a decision I was playing Kevin for this game,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be fair to put DeShone into the game. I made a commitment to doing this for the week. That’s what I did whether for good or bad.” Resisting snarky remark here.

Jackson reminded the media that he told them Kizer would be strictly a spectator no matter what against the Texans. “I told you guys I wanted (Kizer) to see the game from a different lens,” he said. Regardless of whether that lens was corrected to 20/20 vision, the show was ugly.

Hogan most likely will lobby that he deserves another shot at starting. “I really trust my talent and I trust in my ability to lead this team,” he said after the Houston game. “ I know the guys trust me and I know I can make plays out there. I have so much confidence in myself, I definitely feel like I’m going to be ready to go.

“I’m not shaken from this at all. I felt like I was seeing a lot of things out there and they made a lot of great plays. Felt like they had a game plan for us. At the end of the day, it’s all about making plays.”

Of course the Texans had a game plan for the Browns’ offense and yes, they made plays all afternoon. They won so handily because they made those plays.

The Texans knew exactly what to expect from Hogan. They had three games’ worth of tendencies on tape to figure out what he liked to do and what bothered him the most. And they accomplished it without J. J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, their two best players on that side of the ball, out with season-ending injuries.

“This was a tough first experience but definitely something to learn from and grow from and I think there are some positives to take from it,” Hogan said. He sounds like a guy who is either shell-shocked or delusional. Maybe both.
*       *       *
As Jackson’s coaching record in Cleveland slips to 1-21, I can’t help but think of the late John McKay, who set the National Football League mark for coaching futility after becoming the head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.

McKay was a great head coach in college at USC, having won four national championships, when he decided to give the NFL a try. It didn’t take long for him to be humbled by the efforts of one of the worst teams in league history; arguably the worst.

The Bucs lost every one of their 14 games in their inaugural season and the first 12 the following season. Twenty-six straight games without a victory. After one of those games in the second season, McKay was asked what he thought of his team’s execution.  “I’m all for it,” he quipped.

So why think of McKay with regard to what’s going on with Jackson in Cleveland? Well, McKay went on to win his division’s championship in his fourth season and eventually advanced to the NFC title game before losing.

If Jackson can hold on and survive the current regime, it’s possible he could still be around when a newer, hopefully wiser front office takes over and finally provides him with players who can actually make him look good.

One big difference: McKay had coaching gravitas. Jackson isn’t even close.
*       *       *
He has played only two games, but there is no doubt Myles Garrett is the Browns’ best draft selection since they selected Joe Thomas in the 2007 lottery. If he can stay healthy playing a game where health is not guaranteed, he is headed for the same destination as Thomas five years after he retires.

Garrett, idled the first four games with a high ankle sprain, played half of the Browns’ 66 snaps against Houston and registered five tackles (two solo), one sack, two-and-a-half tackles or loss and four quarterback hits. Quarterback hurries are not an official statistic, but he must have nearly a dozen so far.

That brings the defensive end’s two-game total to seven tackles (four solo), four-and-a-half tackles for loss, three sacks and six quarterback hits in 52 snaps, all the while playing with a sprain that has not completely healed.

It’s not difficult to imagine what Garrett can do when completely healthy and able to play every down. He is a force around whom opposing offensive coordinators will have to game plan differently. That ostensibly will create more opportunities for his fellow linemen.
*       *       *
Wide receiver Kenny Britt did not suit up for the second week in a row. Groin and knee injuries, according to the club. His status for the Titans is uncertain.

Addition by subtraction says his growing legion of detractors. They point to his eight catches (on 23 targets), 121 receiving yards, one touchdown and boatload of dropped passes in four games as evidence the Browns blew it by giving him the same contract Terrelle Pryor turned down.

Jackson approaches the Britt situation in a more diplomatic manner. “We need to get the best version of Kenny Britt,” he said. “That’s what is important. If there is anything I think is not right, then obviously I would hold him.”

Unfortunately, the best version of Kenny Britt played last season with the Los Angeles Rams, for whom he caught 68 passes for 1,0002 yards and five touchdowns. It was a career season that quite probably will never be replicated.
*       *       *
The big question on defense remains why rookie Jabrill Peppers is not game-planned to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He’s not playing deep, deep, deep safety as much as in earlier games, but it seems his greatest strength is making plays at or near the line of scrimmage. He is a fearless tackler when given the opportunity.

He is not used to playing in space and proved it by taking the wrong angle in the first quarter Sunday on Houston wide receiver Will Fuller, who gave him a simple juke in the open field and collaborated with Deshaun Watson on a 39-yard scoring strike for the Texans’ first touchdown of the afternoon.

All Peppers could do was futilely try to catch him, the victim of another rookie mistake. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams needs to either park his free safety closer to the line of scrimmage or play him where he really belongs – at strong safety. Otherwise, his rookie season will be a dismal failure.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Jackson once again strayed from his goal of a more balanced offense against the Texans, who jumped out to a quick lead and took away the Cleveland running game. Of the 63 plays from scrimmage, 43 were designed pass plays. It took the Browns 13 possessions to accumulate those 63 plays. . . . Britton Colquitt, who punted only twice last week, booted seven times and averaged a terrific 51.1 yards. . . . The reason Colquitt was so busy – the Browns were three for 14 on third down. . . . Eleven more penalties for 72 yards. Discipline, discipline, discipline.. . . . The three Cleveland linebackers totaled 33 tackles, 14 solo against the Texans. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert had 13 overall. Peppers chipped in with six tackles, five by himself, . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Five carries, 40 yards; three receptions, -1 yard. Oy!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Is this really happening?

As he prepared for his first start as a quarterback in the National Football League this past week. Kevin Hogan said earlier this week he likes to visualize the game. Sort of see things before they happen.

Bet he didn’t visualize what unfolded Sunday down in Houston against the Texans. Like three interceptions, one a pick 6, in one quarter; one safety (intentional grounding in the end zone); and way, way, way too many passes sailing, sometimes floating, over the intended receiver’s head.

Bet he didn’t visualize getting sacked four times and generally running an offense that did not look dissimilar at all to the one operated by DeShone Kizer, who was benched because of its inefficiency and who must have been an amused spectator on the sideline in the 33-17 loss.

“I could have done that,” he might have muttered to himself as he watched the Cleveland offense unravel for the umpteenth time this season as the losing streak this season reaches six games and road losing woes now stands at 16 in a row.

Until Hogan connected with tight end Seth DeValve on a short scoring pass with a minute left in regulation, the Cleveland offense had compiled less than 200 total yards against a defense that had given up more points than the Browns this season.

The only Brown who saw the Texans’ end zone prior to DeValve played for the defense. Cornerback Jason McCourty put a halt to 30 unanswered Houston points when he rang up a pick 6 after intercepting rookie Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson early in the fourth quarter with the Browns trailing, 33-3.

Coach Hue Jackson time and again asked Hogan, who played well in relief of Kizer on three occasions this season, to do something he does not do well. Of his 37 attempts, Hogan dialed long distance vertically nearly a dozen times. And completed none.

He does not excel at stretching the field, which runs counter to Jackson’s offensive philosophy. He is a much better quarterback when throwing short- and intermediate-range passes. Perhaps that’s why Jackson likes Kizer.

But after what he saw against the Texans, either the coach alters his game plan for next Sunday at home against Tennessee or brings back Kizer and his bazooka arm.

In the run-up to this game, Hogan said, “I feel like I run the offense the way he (Jackson) wants it to be run.” After playing for three extremely frustrating hours against Houston, he might want to rethink that.

In an attempt to please his coach, Hogan altered his mechanics. In an effort to throw deep, he consistently got under the ball, instead of getting behind it and driving through it, and floated it downfield. He can throw 18- to 20-yard outs, but the vertical game is not his strong suit.

A nightmarish second quarter, which actually began well, took all the fun out of this one for Hogan.

After the Texans had taken a 10-3 first-quarter lead on the first of Watson’s three touchdown passes, a 39-yard beauty to Will Fuller to culminate an 87-yard drive in five plays, the Cleveland quarterback directed a good-looking drive.

On the ninth play of that drive at the Houston 23, Hogan got under a throw and floated the football over the head of Duke Johnson Jr. and right into the hands of Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who saw nothing daylight, i.e. the Cleveland end zone 82 yards ahead. No one laid a hand on him.

On the next Browns possession, Hogan went deep, this time down the right sideline, again for the Duke, and dropped the ball perfectly into the arms of Houston linebacker Dylan Cole.

Pick No. 3 came after Watson had given his club a 24-3 lead on a short shovel pass to Braxton Miller, the former Ohio State quarterback/wide receiver who somersaulted into the end zone on the one-yard play.

This time Sammie Coates was the intended target and Joseph simply jumped the route for his second intercept as Hogan seemed to stare down his receiver. Three interceptions in five possessions, two of them consecutive. Ball game.

The television camera zeroed in on Hogan on the sideline following the third interception and he wore what appeared to be a bewildered look. A look of disbelief at what was unfolding. This was not the way it was supposed to go.

Not only were the turnovers drive and momentum (such as it was) killers, they were emotion-draining daggers. Call them self-inflicted wounds of the worst kind.

And then Jackson did something surprising as all kinds of speculation no doubt buzzed about the press box as to what he would do at the half. Would he yank Hogan, who threw the trio of picks, put only three points on the board in seven possessions and looked nothing like Kizer’s relief pitcher?

As the teams trotted to the dressing room, I noted, “Well, Hogan had his shot. He blew it. Does Jackson want to see more of this?” Did 128 yards of offense on seven drives warrant more of this torture?

Shockingly, yes.

One can only imagine the reaction around Browns Nation when they saw Hogan take the huddle at the start of the second half. What must the man have been thinking?

The Browns made the final look respectable – that is if you consider a 16-point loss respectable – by outscoring the Texans, 14-0, in the final 15 minutes.

An optimist would say, “Well at least the Browns won one quarter. “ A pessimist would counter, “Are you out of . . . never mind.”

When it was all said and done, those fans with the courage to stick this one out until the very bitter end had to think, “How much longer do Browns fans have to put up with this garbage? When is enough enough? At what point do those in charge see this is not working?”

You can be certain they did not visualize their favorite football team getting whipped so thoroughly this far into the season.

Asked after the game, Jackson dealt with a question regarding whether rock bottom for his team is in sight, as if oh and six and a 1-21 record under this head coach doesn’t already place them there.

“I’m not going to let it get rock bottom,” he told the assembled media. “Just like I told the team, it’s not fun. . .. But this is the hand we’re dealt with. . . . We have to stick together, hold each other accountable and keep playing.

“This team is not quitting and Hue Jackson is not quitting. . . I know the narrative that’s going to be written. . . . I am not swimming in that lake. . . . We are going to find a way. It’s that simple.”

Whistling past the graveyard.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Revisiting the college draft

Deshaun Watson has made such a wonderful transition to the National Football League from a star-studded college career, the Second Guessers of the World are having a field day with the Browns.

Commissioner Roger Goodell had not called Watson’s name among the first 11 selections of the annual NFL college draft last spring in Philadelphia. The Browns, looking for their quarterback of the future, were sitting there at 12 after selecting Myles Garrett with the top pick.

In the last two drafts, the Browns’ analytics-minded front office has made a conscious decision to stockpile draft choices with an eye clearly on the future. So when the Houston Texans called and offered their first-rounder (No. 25) and next year’s first rounder for No. 12, they couldn’t say yes fast enough.

That one was in their draft-stockpile wheelhouse.

The Texans, also looking for their quarterback of the future, immediately grabbed Watson. The Browns used the Houston pick later on in the opening round to select safety Jabrill Peppers. And we all know where the Browns picked up their quarterback of the future.

Fast forward to the present.

Watson was supposed to start the season on the bench. Texans coach Bill O’Brien, however, did not want to thrust him into regular-season games right out of the chute. He opened the season instead with Tom Savage, a young veteran, at the helm.

Six sacks, two lost fumbles and a 19-0 halftime deficit later, Savage was on the bench at the beginning of the second half in the season opener at home against Jacksonville and Watson became the team’s starting quarterback. And it sure looks as though he has every intention of keeping it.

He has adapted to the pro style of game seamlessly and is making extremely loud noises, casting an eye on rookie-of-the-year honors with a dazzling display of quarterbacking that has caught the attention of everyone around the league. Next up on his docket: Sunday at home against the Browns.

Which, of course, brings up the question whether it was wise for the Browns to pass on Watson and pick up DeShone Kizer later in the second round. Other than the same pronunciation of their first names, they have been polar opposites in their brief pro careers.

Kizer has struggled enough where his coach had seen enough and benched him after just five games. At the same time, Watson has absolutely blossomed. Jackson became very defensive the other day when the draft scenario was broached.

“I totally get it,” he told the Cleveland media. “What did I tell you guys earlier in the week? You guys can say whatever you like. I get it. I get the second-guessing, the questions and all of that. You are entitled to do all of that.

“DeShone Kizer is on our team. Deshaun Watson is on their team. We can’t all of a sudden flip them. So why are we having this discussion? I’m being very honest about that.”

The Houston offense has exploded in a point-scoring spree the last three games with Watson shredding opposing secondaries for 845 yards and 11 touchdown passes, nine of them in the last two games.

He administered a 57-point spanking on a Tennessee Titans defense choreographed by the great Dick LeBeau. One can only imagine what lies in store for the Browns against one of the best offenses in the NFL.

Of course, Watson is just five games into his professional football career and anything can happen in the next 11 games. But you can’t ignore what he has accomplished in the last three weeks and call it an aberration.

So why are the Texans only 2-3 heading into the Browns’ visit? That doesn’t square with the prodigious numbers Watson puts up.

The problem is the Texans also have to play defense. And they don’t play it very well, surrendering 130 points (worse than the Browns), including 92 in the last three games.

It comes down to this: To have a chance to win, the Texans almost literally have to outpoint opponents to compensate for a leaky defense. The offense has scored 124 points in the last three games and lost twice.

The chief culprits on the defensive side of the ball have a distinct northeast Ohio flavor. Mike Vrabel from Akron, Ohio State and the New England Patriots is having a rough first season coordinating the Houston defense after coaching the linebackers for three seasons.

He succeeded former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, who was bumped up to assistant head coach/defense. Both can point to key injuries that have hampered the Texans’ struggle to play decent defense.

Last Sunday, they lost defensive end J. J. Watt (broken leg) and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle) for the season. Watt also missed most of last season with a herniated disc in his back.

Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, the club’s leading tackler, and Jadeveon Clowney are questionable at best for Sunday for a defense that yields 323 yards a game on the average and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 64% of their passes for 234 yards a game.

That’s not quite as bad as the Browns, who surrender 244 yards a game through the air and allow opposing quarterbacks to complete passes at a 74% clip. Let that sink in. Three out of every four passes thrown against the Cleveland secondary wind up as completions.

As if he didn’t have enough weapons to play with in running back Lamar Miller and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Watson welcomed back wideout Will Fuller a couple of games ago after he spent two months healing a broken collarbone. They connected immediately.

Watson celebrated Fuller’s return by completing six passes to him in those games, four for touchdowns. A wide receiver tandem like Hopkins and Fuller is downright lethal.

Unless the Cleveland pass rush somehow finds a way to keep Watson in the pocket and force him to throw before he wants to, the secondary will be in for an extremely busy and long afternoon. It could get ugly in a hurry.

The much more balanced Houston offense also produces 141 yards a game on the ground, a challenge for a Cleveland defense that permits a meager 77 yards a game infantry style.

The biggest difference between the teams on offense is that Watson has the luxury of throwing to Hopkins and Fuller, while Kevin Hogan makes his pro starting debut throwing to the likes of Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, Bryce Treggs, Kasen Williams, tight end David Njoku and, if he is healthy, Kenny Britt.

Working against a sketchy patchwork Houston defense should help Hogan. His ability to get the ball out quickly and decisively is a plus. A large degree of success through the air should help a Cleveland running game that has been stuck in a mud bog all season.

Jackson most likely will try to take advantage of the Texans’ porous secondary and return to a heavier dose of passes. Hogan’s success last week in the second half of the Jets’ loss after coming off the bench in relief of Kizer could be a precursor for success against Houston.

The Cleveland defense, while trying to cool down Watson’s recent surge, must be mindful he is also an effective runner, although O’Brien has him concentrating on throwing the ball rather than running with it.

At Clemson the last two seasons, Watson threw for 76 touchdowns and ran for another 21 in just 30 games, gaining more than 1,000 yards with his legs in 2015. He has run the ball only 22 times for 179 yards this season.

This one has all the earmarks of a good old-fashioned Texas-style shootout where defense is nothing more than just another word in the dictionary.

Both quarterbacks have big afternoons, Watson throwing for three more scores and running for a fourth. But the Texans’ ground game provides the difference with Miller outdueling the Browns’ Isaiah Crowell.

The Browns’ losing streaks reach six games this season, stretches to 16 straight overall on the road and nudge Jackson closer to the exit door. Make it:

Texans 37, Browns 23

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hogan’s heroes?

For what it’s worth, Hue Jackson made the correct decision Wednesday when he benched DeShone Kizer and made Kevin Hogan the next brand spanking new starting quarterback for the Browns.

If you’re keeping count – and there is every reason to believe most National Football League pundits are – Hogan becomes the 28th new starter at what has become a revolving position in Cleveland since 1999.

Breaking that down even further, that is roughly 1.5 different starting quarterbacks a season, which has to be some sort of record when it comes to futility at the most important position of a football team.

Hogan, who makes his starting debut Sunday in Houston, becomes the newest member of a club started by Ty Detmer way back in ’99. If you are into trivia, Detmer is the correct answer to what could some day, if it isn’t already, be a great question in Browns lore.

For all these years, this franchise has been wandering in the quarterback desert searching for the one man who could figuratively pick this team by the bootstraps and lift it into the realm of contender.

The road to NFL contention in Cleveland is littered with the likes of Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Cody Kessler and Kizer.

All the while, all Browns Nation wanted was someone to glom on to in an effort to bring back the good, old days when their team was something other than the kicking can it has become.

One front office disaster followed by another followed by another has rendered this franchise helpless and hopeless. And yet, as it should, the search for that savior plods on with Hogan next up on the pedestal.

There’s a saying in the NFL that the most popular player on a team from the fans’ standpoint is the backup quarterback. Unless, of course, the starting quarterback is good enough to pin him to the sidelines. That hasn’t been the case with this team since 1999.

And now it’s Hogan’s turn as Kizer resumes his brief pro career observing from the sidelines in a learning role. He has played just badly enough to warrant his new viewing location.

Hogan, fourth on the depth chart at the beginning of training camp a few short months ago behind Brock Osweiler, Kizer and Kessler, played it perfectly as the season slowly unwound.

Osweiler played himself out of town and back to Denver with a poor exhibition performance. Kessler, Jackson’s “trust me” quarterback, was anything but trustworthy. Kizer sort of won the starting job by default. Hogan, the quiet and loyal soldier, became his backup.

Kizer proceeded to play the game so poorly after a decent start in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Jackson really had no recourse than to make the change. But it wasn’t just because Hogan was his only choice.

By playing well in Kizer’s absence, whether it was because of a migraine or just awful quarterbacking, Hogan made Jackson’s choice to make the switch seem logical. He unquestionably deserved the chance.

“He understands the system,” Jackson pointed out Sunday after the loss to the New York Jets, during which he benched Kizer for Hogan at halftime. ”The ball comes out (quicker).”

Of course Hogan understands the system. The Stanford product is no dummy. He is a quick study. What has held him back was the ability to properly execute Jackson’s stretch-the-field philosophy because his throwing arm was below Jackson’s standards.

All Hogan did in his three brief appearances this season was pilot a smooth, efficient offense that did not operate in fits and starts. But since Kizer was the anointed one by his coach, all he could do was watch.

Here is all you need to know about Hogan’s 10 possessions. Britton Colquitt was called on to punt just twice.

The Cleveland offense generated 449 total yards in those 10 possessions with drives of 83, 62, 63, 75, 72 and 86 yards, all of which put 31 points on the board. It was only a matter of time before Jackson had no choice but to make this move.

“I’m very confident,” Hogan told reporters after the Jets game last Sunday. “If you do your job in preparation leading up to the game, then you don’t let things surprise you.” Like being told at halftime of that game he was starting the second half.

How long Hogan keeps the job depends, of course, on how well he performs. Kizer still lurks in the background in the event he falters. The difference now is opposing defense coordinators will game plan for him. He will not be a surprise to them now that Jackson has handed him the job.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Hogan most likely will be in charge of the huddle through the bye week at the end of the month. That’s a three-game tryout, so to speak, to determine whether the starting quarterback chain will end at No. 28.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

The following is not going to be a rant. It’s going to be more like a plea.

Hue Jackson needs to wake up one morning in the not-too-distant future and realize he has a gem of a football player in Duke Johnson Jr. If he does, he also needs to play him more. A lot more.

The running back is unquestionably his best playmaker pun the Browns whenever his coach chooses to put the football in his hands. When he does, the third-year pro often times does wondrous things when in the open field.

A quick check of the snap counts in the first five games shows Johnson has played 22 more snaps (205-183) than Isaiah Crowell in 355 total offensive snaps from scrimmage. It needs to be even more unbalanced.

Look at the production of these two men. Crowell has 69 touches, all but seven as a running back, and gained 251 yards. That’s a 3.64 yard per-touch average. Johnson’s 39 touches, 23 via the forward pass, have produced 347 yards, a per-touch average of 8.9 yards and three total touchdowns. Crowell has yet to score.

Jackson said at the beginning of this season he wanted to present a more balanced offense than last season’s pass-heavy team. He didn’t even come close to meeting that goal in the first four games, during which Crowell ran for a measly 134 yards.

In the most recent loss to the New York Jets, he was much closer to his avowed goal. Crowell, seemingly stuck running in an offense that does not best suit his talents, briefly showed signs of life with consecutive runs of 10 and 16 yards early in the second quarter against the Jets before falling back to short bursts.

Fans are tired of watching Crowell run into a stone wall made up mostly of his offensive line. He has become Jackson’s go-to back on the first play or nearly every possession. Against the Jets, he ran for three, four (after a 10-yard penalty), 10, five, two and one yard, all on first down.

He carried the ball on the first play on six of the first seven possessions. Talk about being predictable. The average yards-to-go on second down was 7½.

The goal of every offense is – or should be – win first down. Second-and-short is easier to call plays for. It opens up the playbook. The Browns haven’t won many first downs on offense this season.

Why? That gets us back to Johnson.

Jackson says he always strives to put his players in the best position to succeed. He seems to have done just that with Johnson, but on a far too limited basis. It’s difficult to comprehend why he stubbornly runs Crowell so often early in a series. He fails a majority of the time.

Johnson has been his best playmaker in an offense that, for the most part, has struggled from the opening snap this season. It shouldn’t be that way, especially when Jackson has a talent like Johnson, whose versatility is being wasted.

The knock on him is he is not a willing blocker when the play calls for him to protect his quarterback on a pass play. Valid point. That can be fixed by keeping a tight end (Jackson has three) in as an extra blocker.

Weigh that against what Johnson can do when the coach places the football in his hands and lets his magic feet and excellent vision do the rest. He needs more snaps. He needs more touches. What does Jackson have to lose? Correct answer: Nothing.
*       *       *
Fox Sports NFL man-in-the-know Jay Glazer Sunday speculated that Peyton Manning will be back in the NFL in some high-level front-office capacity next season and named three teams as prime candidates for his services.

The future Hall of Fame quarterback, according to Glazer, could wind up in either Los Angeles with the Rams, Tennessee or Cleveland.

Los Angeles, of course, is the most high profile city of the three; he played at the college ball at the University of Tennessee; and he is a personal friend of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III.

The Rams and Titans have much better rosters than the Browns if Manning seeks to jump on board with a team clearly headed in the right direction. Cleveland’s situation is a relative mess.

About the only chip Haslam can play in an attempt to lure Manning to Cleveland, if he so chooses, is a willingness to make him a part owner. If nothing else, it would be a great public relations move. Install a well-known football man at the top of the flow chart and give him a piece of the action.

Of course it is extremely premature to speculate beyond what Glazer has speculated, but the sound of Browns President and General Manager Peyton Manning sure has a nice ring to it. Cleveland definitely presents the biggest challenge and it isn’t close..
*       *       *
When the Browns selected placekicker Zane Gonzalez in the final round of the college draft, they did so with the belief he would have no trouble beating out incumbent Cody Parkey for the starting job.

It was his job to lose from the outset of training camp and he didn’t lose it. The kid from Texas by way of Arizona State had a stronger leg, which made the decision easy on cutdown day.

Last Sunday against the New York Jets, Gonzalez had two opportunities to be the determining factor in what should have been the club’s first victory of the season. He failed twice, booting field-goal attempts of 52 and 39 yards wide left.

Gonzalez arrived with the reputation of being an accurate and consistent kicker from 50 yards and beyond. He is only 2-of-5 this season, both inside the 40, and has missed his last three attempts. (But he is perfect on nine extra points.)

The wolves are out after Gonzalez’s miserable performance against the Jets, but I don’t see Jackson making any moves yet. He’s got many more problems to address before fixing the kicking. Another week like the last one, though, could spur some action. Let’s see if the kid has any bounce back.

So where is Parkey? In Miami with the offense-challenged Dolphins. He was perfect on four field-goal attempts, including a 54-yarder, in the season-opening upset of the Los Angeles Chargers. He is five-for-five overall. (But he has missed two extra points.) He has accounted for 17 of the Dolphins’ 41 points in four games.
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Questions seeking answers: Has Ibraheim Campbell replaced Derrick Kindred at strong safety or is Kindred injured? Kindred played only 10 snaps against the Jets. Campbell had 25. Kindred’s name has not popped up on the injury list . . . What do the Browns do with James Burgess now that Jamie Collins is back at outside linebacker after missing three games with a concussion? Burgess led the team in tackles (7) and solo tackles (6) against the Jets with a sack, two tackles for loss, one pass defensed and a couple of quarterback hits. In the Cincinnati loss the previous week, he had seven tackles (four solo). It means there is at least one position on the team with a solid backup.
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Guess who owns one of the NFL’s best defenses? Your Cleveland Browns, that’s who. Gregg Williams’ guys have allowed opponents an average of only 305 yards a game to rank fifth overall in the NFL in that category. They rank 19th against the pass (tied for third-worst, allowing 11 touchdowns) and fifth against the run (an impressive 76.6 yards a game). Division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati join them in the top five overall. Now all the Browns need is for the offense to wake up and support the defense.
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Didja notice who provided the key block on Johnson’s scintillating 41-yard touchdown romp with a screen pass in the final minutes of the Jets game? After delivering his initial block, center JC Tretter hustled downfield and provided the block that enabled Johnson to cut back to his right at the Jets’ 10-yard line and skip into the end zone. Without that block, it’s doubtful Johnson scores.