Friday, January 18, 2019

Kitchens’ cabinet

 In case you’re keeping score, here is the Browns’ coaching staff scorecard under new head coach Freddie Kitchens . . .

Set in stone: Offensive coordinator Todd Monken; defensive coordinator Steve Wilks; special teams coordinator Mike Priefer; quarterbacks coach Ryan Lindley; offensive line coach/associate head coach James Campen; assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko; wide receivers coach Adam Henry; tight ends coach John Lilly; running backs coach/run game coordinator Stump Mitchell; special assistant to the head coach Jody Wright; Jim Dray and Tyler Tettleton, offensive quality control; secondary coach DeWayne Walker; defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi; secondary/pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr.; linebackers coach/run game coordinator Al Holcomb; assistant defensive line coach John Parrella; senior defensive assistant Chris Jones;. strength and conditioning director Larry Jackson; strength and conditioning assistants Evan Marcus, Monty Gibson, John Christovich and Dale Jones.

They comprise the major portion of the staff with holes that need to be filled by a defensive quality control coach; an assistant secondary coach; and an assistant special teams coach. That potentially brings the coaching staff to an unwieldy 26, not including Kitchens.

Henry and Lindley, who both were signed this past season, and Walker, who arrived in 2017, are the only coaches to survive the massive purge of last season’s staff.

Henry joined Hue Jackson’s staff after stints with San Francisco and New York with the Giants. Lindley, a quarterback by trade, joined as running backs coach last Halloween, when Kitchens was elevated to offensive coordinator following the firings of Jackson and Todd Haley.

Three of the new coaches bring head coaching experience to the job: Wilks in the National Football League (last season in Arizona); Monken (Southern Mississippi) and Mitchell (Morgan State and Southern) in the college ranks.

Wilks is easily the most controversial appointment, mostly because he suffered the fate of a few Browns head coaches of the recent past. Gone after just one season.

The new defensive coordinator took a job with the Cardinals that was doomed almost from the start, winding up with just three victories (only one at home). He inherited a bad football team. Bruce Arians, his predecessor, knew it, too, and got out of Dodge just in time.

Wilks, working with little or no help from the front office, opened up the season with a washed-up quarterback in Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen, who took over for the ineffective Bradford in week four. He threw more interceptions than touchdown passes last season.

Mike McCoy, Wilks’ equally ineffective offensive coordinator whose offense was hampered by a lack of quality receivers and an offensive line that couldn’t stay healthy, was fired midway through the season.

Defensively, Wilks unwisely brought a 4-3 scheme to a team whose roster makeup screamed 3-4 on that side of the football and paid the price, surrendering 425 points.

Many Browns fans see all that and think hiring Wilks is a big mistake. Why go after a loser? That’s being as little short-sighted.

Can’t argue the fact he failed as a head coach. But he has a decent reputation as a position coach and defensive coordinator. His strong work in Carolina with the Panthers in 2017 (seventh overall, third against the run) helped land the gig in Arizona.

Most coaches are not cut out to be head coaches. Wilks, based solely on one season, is one of them. He is a lieutenant, not a general.

The 4-3 scheme that failed in Arizona will not fail in with the Browns from a personnel standpoint. The only possible negative? Wilks is a proponent of the zone defense, which requires much more discipline, whereas Gregg Williams was a man-to-man disciple.

But Wilks loves to blitz. Surprisingly, his Cardinals blitzed more often last season than the Browns, which should please fans who love aggressive football.

It will be interesting to see how creative he is with his pass coverages. Williams was a master of mixing and disguising his coverages in an effort to confuse opposing quarterbacks.

Wilks brought along Holcomb, his defensive coordinator with the Cardinals, as his secondary coach. He will also be the run game coordinator. That’s another problem. The Cardinals were last in the NFL at stopping the run last season. The Browns were 28th.

Monken is a terrific fit for Kitchens, who will call all the plays on offense. He is a pass-heavy advocate, which should also fit nicely into Baker Mayfield’s wheelhouse in the NFL, which has become pass centric in the last several years.

Mitchell will be in charge of the run game, pairing with Monken and presumably Kitchens to craft game plans. With talents like Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb, an improved set of receivers and a better-than-average line, the Cleveland offense should have few problems duplicating the second half of last season.

One of Kitchens’ main jobs will be to oversee the entire coaching staff and make certain everybody lands on the same page. He has never before been in a position before to delegate authority, another primary function of his job. Most successful head coaches coach their coaches, then rely on those coaches to coach the players.

All in all, it will be a vast learning experience for the new head coach, who will add sharpening all-important in-game decisions to his list of priorities. His learning curve will be severely tested, but he appears to have assembled quality people – what he calls his support staff – ready and able to help.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Kitchens era begins impressively 


(Freddie) Kitchens is not nearly ready to become a head coach. He’s just getting his feet wet as a coordinator. As he continues to grow in that area, though, a future head-coaching job should come into focus. Rich’s Rants, Jan. 2, 2019

The future is now for Freddie Kitchens, who met the Cleveland media Monday at noon for the first time in his new job as head coach of the Browns.

The glib Alabaman, who delighted his audience with a mixture of football philosophy and refreshing down-home humor throughout the news conference, showed why he was the surprising winner in the race for the job.

He is remarkably candid. If it is on his mind, it is on his tongue. He held nothing back, seemingly enjoying the give-and-take with members of the fourth estate. From talking about his popularity in Cleveland to how he wound up in this position to numerous nods to his support staff, Kitchens commanded the room.

“I know I’m not the people’s choice,” he said. “I don’t care. I’m not a finished product and I never will be. . . . I think I’m popular in Cleveland because we won some games.”

He displayed genuineness, all in a relaxed and friendly sort of way that is engaging at first. It did not take long to see why this good ol’ boy will relate in a big way with the core of this franchise, the blue-collar worker. He is one of them.

His supreme self-confidence leaked through when he boasted, “I believe they made the best decision.” Referencing this franchise has experienced more downs than ups throughout the years, he declared, “That ends today.” Another example: “If you don’t wear orange and brown, you don’t matter.”

Now if that doesn’t resonate with this fan base, nothing will. That base has heard similar words from previous head coaching hires, but the sincerity with which this one was delivered and the determined look on his face when he said them suggested this one will produce substantially better results.

Kitchens comes off as a genuinely nice guy, the kind of guy you’d enjoy having a beer with as well as talking football and life itself. The kind of guy you know you can count on and trust no matter the situation. All are ingredients that should serve him well in his new capacity.

Head coaching is a whole different animal. He no longer will speak to a small room of running backs or quarterbacks or tight ends, assistant coaching positions he has held throughout his career. Now, he will have the undivided attention of a room full of 53 football players. “All I ask is they trust me,” he said.

For the first time in since can’t remember when, there will be a palatable connection between a Cleveland Browns head coach and the crazy, zealous fandom that has endured 20 seasons of misery with their National Football League team.

Kitchens is, in so many ways, one of them. He showed up at the news conference in a brown suit, bright orange tie and, yep, a Browns cap. He probably would have felt more comfortable in an orange hoodie.

He lived and died with University of Alabama football during the week growing up, but on Sundays, he was a Browns fan. “On Sundays, you had to something other than go to church,” he said. “I liked their colors and simplicity of the helmets. Hope that doesn’t change.”

He appeared to grasp and understand the enormity of what has transpired in such a short period of time and is self effacing enough to realize he was not the most popular choice. He didn’t seem to care.

 “I know I’m not a finished product,” he said, “and I never will be.” He admitted he has “been running fast my whole life.” He’s always trying to stay one step ahead.

Okay but is he ready to make the big jump from career assistant coach to head coach in the NFL? “Am I ready?” he repeated the question. “I don’t know. Were you ready to be a parent?” There is only way to find out and General Manager John Dorsey has put him in that position.

A gamble of sorts? Perhaps. A gut feeling? Maybe, but it was made with the knowledge that Kitchens, 44, is the kind of coach who relates well to players, a quality important to the GM.

It has reached the point where Dorsey has earned the trust. I didn’t like his choice of Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick in the last college football draft and that has sort of worked out well.

I guess he has earned further respect in this unexpected move. The only difference is the Mayfield pick was position oriented; Kitchens’ selection is much more team oriented.

Now that fans have had as chance to see Kitchens, it will be interesting to see how many of those fans who jumped off the bandwagon down through the years will be inspired to jump back on.

The guess here is he will be ether most popular head coach this franchise has had since the Sam Rutigliano-Marty Schottenheimer decade that last produced winning football.

Too many times, hopes have been raised with new faces in the front office and on the field only to be sadly let down. With Dorsey in charge in the front office and Kitchens down on the field, that has changed.

Dorsey, who admitted Kitchens was not on his original list of candidates for the vacancy, is molding a solid football team. The core is increasing exponentially and the club is on track, from a talent standpoint, to make the 2019 season the most interesting and productive since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999.

With that in mind, the new coach said he has only one goal. “Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy,” he said, labeling the club’s remarkable comeback season when they finished 7-8-1 “not acceptable.”

Yeah, but don’t they all say that? It’s nothing more than lip service, right? Sure it fires up the fans. When was the last time Browns Nation could honestly and truly believe the Browns were good enough to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Lombardi Trophy?

Kitchens is stepping into a position now that is unlike any he has ever encountered. He is entering an entirely different world. There is so much more responsibility in that world.

He will have to put out fires, manage games while calling plays for the offense at the same time (not easy to do for head coaching rookie) and generally be the conscience for the team.

Kitchens’ hardscrabble life as an assistant coach has paid off. He has reached the pinnacle of coaching. His main job now will be to remove the incompetence and dysfunction this has enveloped this franchise for way too many years.

“I’m just going to do my job,” he said. “I always was under the assumption that if you do your job, you’ll be recognized.” A philosophy that has paid off handsomely.

If his introduction to Browns Nation Monday is indicative of what lies immediately ahead, the years of abject misery and frustration for what used to be one of the proud franchises of the NFL, to quote Kitchens “ends today.”

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Onward and upward

Well it’s about time.

Congratulations Freddie Kitchens on your new job as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Not that everyone wondered whether all those reports emanating from Berea this past week were just a figment of someone’s imagination.

No, the media had it right all along and someone important in the Browns’ hierarchy apparently decided to have some fun with the timing of the announcement.

It arrived late Saturday morning and Browns Nation heaved a collective sigh of relief, at the same time probably uttering, “Okay, now tell us something we don’t know.”

The big splash will take place Monday morning when at least Kitchens – and maybe some of his new coaching staff – is formally introduced as the 17th full-time head coach of the franchise, which was born in 1946.

The Cone of Silence will be lifted at that time and Browns fans around the globe will finally get to know all there is to know about the new boss.

And a new era in Cleveland Browns football will be launched.
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No idea why

Well . . .

Is he? Or isn’t he?

Is Freddie Kitchens the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns?

Why am I asking? Because we (Browns Nation and I) have not heard a peep out of Berea indicating that is the correct answer.

Freddie Kitchens is the new head coach of the Browns. The Internet says so; the Cleveland media says so. So it must be true.

Just about everywhere in the social media world says so. To be named, will be named, hired. That’s all we have been hearing the last few days. All unofficial.

Nada from Berea.

You’re not going to get it from 76 Lou Groza Blvd. That the club has not denied it is a step in the right direction, though. So why has it dropped the Cone of Silence around the complex?

I have no idea.

Other National Football League teams filling vacancies have trotted out their guys within days of revealing their choices. Sometimes the same day. Exposed them to the dreaded media horde.

Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona, Vic Fangio in Denver, Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and Bruce Arians down in Tampa have already been introduced to their respective local media.

Why not Kitchens in Cleveland? I have no idea.

The best – and clearly most loyal – fan base in the NFL is on tenterhooks, anxiously waiting to meet the new boss. Yes, that means Freddie Kitchens, the miracle worker who helped save the 2018 season.

Or does it? Four days after the news leaked and we still don’t know for certain. The silence is deafening and puzzling.

The decision to elevate Kitchens from offensive coordinator so meteorically in what has to be considered an upset of sorts is a great story. Fans want to hear it.

The public relations arm of the Browns must feel as though it is operating with a straitjacket on. So much news to dispense and the starting gate is locked.

What seems to be holding everything up? Dotting all the eyes and crossing all the tees perhaps? Gotta be more than that.

Putting together a coaching staff, most notably the coordinators? Yeah, that might be it.

The fans don’t want to hear from the coordinators now. They want to hear from the new head coach.

The four franchises mentioned above put their new head coaches on stage by themselves, as it should be with such an important decision.

Why not Cleveland? I have no idea. Anyway, we’ll hear from the coordinators later.

So when are the Browns finally going to admit Kitchens is the man and parade him in front of the media? Probably not until at least Monday.

It definitely won’t happen this weekend, not with the playoffs hogging the league spotlight with four quarterfinal playoff games.

No, the Kitchens coming-out party will have to wait for at least 48 more hours.

You’ve waited this long, Browns Nation. Why not just a little longer?

I have no idea.
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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Toub should have been the man

At the risk of being totally and irrevocably wrong about who should be the next Browns coach, especially given the news Freddie Kitchens will be that man Friday, here is another out-of-the-box thought.

I cannot understand why special teams coordinators are not given as much chance to become a head coach as a coordinator on a specific side of the football. I say that with Dave Toub in mind.

The special teams boss in Kansas City the last six seasons and for nine seasons before that in Chicago must wonder what he has to do to land on lists of National Football League teams seeking to fill head coaching vacancies.

Cleveland General Manager John Dorsey knows all about Toub, having spent four seasons as the Chiefs’ GM before landing with the Browns late last season. Why he wasn’t considered at all will remain a mystery.

Dorsey seeks to sustain the stability that surrounded the Browns in the surprising second half of this past season. He needs someone who can oversee both sides of the game, not someone who concentrates on only one side.

Toub (rhymes with lobe and strobe) would have been more than qualified to fill that role with the Browns. He would be in a position to see and understand the various situations that come up within the framework of a game.

He spent this last season in what amounted to on-the-job training, learning the ropes, the ins and outs of being a head coach, from one of the best, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. He also had assistant head coach attached to his job title.

Check out Reid’s coaching tree: Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy, Ron Rivera and John Harbaugh, all successful head coaches in the NFL, three of whom have taken their teams to and winning the Super bowl.

It all begs the question: Why are teams so hesitant to go after the only coordinator on a team who talks with players on both sides of the ball? Other than the head coach, the special teams coordinator is the only other coach on a staff who deals with all the players.

Most of those who come from the special teams ranks have been eminently successful. Marv Levy, John Harbaugh, Bill Cowher, Mike Ditka, Dick Vermeil and, yes, even Bill Belichick were special teams coaches at one point in their careers who went on to be extremely successful. .

The only possible stumbling block in naming an ST guy to be a head coach? It is not a sexy pick. Most NFL owners seek the hot candidates on the market, the ones whose stock rise dramatically throughout the process.

Special teams coordinators operate almost anonymously in many cases. The third unit of the team rarely factors into a game. Unless the teams are so bad, as in the case with the Browns’ Amos Jones in 2018, they are not bothered and are seldom singled out.

Toub is the main reason the Chiefs’ special teams are ranked in the top five year in and year out. They were No. 1 this past season. The Browns? They were No. 32.

Doesn’t that count for something? Some day, a wise general manager will figure that out, hire a special teams coordinator to be his head coach and be rewarded by a coach who will make him look awfully good.
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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Is it really over? Not quite yet

National Football League head coach vacancies update: Matt LeFleur is headed to Green Bay; Kliff Kingsbury gets the job in Arizona; Bruce Arians is all but set in Tampa; and Denver will choose either Vic Fanzio or Mike Munchak.

That’s four down, four to go as the race for the next Browns head coach tightens with speculation now indicating Freddie Kitchens and ex-Minnesota interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski are the leaders in the clubhouse and the apparent finalists.

Reports from the NFL Network and other league sites suggest it’s all but over with General Manager John Dorsey and the team’s selection committee deciding on the ultimate winner.

That would seem to indicate Dorsey has shut down interviews with other candidates. But until he and the committee make the final decision and the club calls a news conference, nothing is chiseled.

If Kitchens is the surprise choice, it would complete a storybook season during which his stock rose to dizzying heights while serving as the Browns’ interim OC in the second half of the season.

To go from running backs coach to interim offensive coordinator to head coach of the Browns within a one-year period – he was hired last Jan. 24 – is the kind of story most people would never believe.

As for Stefanski, now a free agent after his contract with the Vikings expired Monday night, it is being reported in Minnesota he left the club of his own volition and is in Cleveland for a second interview.

He has been with the Vikings since 2006 in a variety of capacities, mostly on offense, but never in charge of a unit until he succeeded the fired John DeFilippo as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator with three games left in the 2018 season.

If Dorsey and the committee tap Kitchens, there is still a good chance Stefanski will come on board as the full-time offensive chief with Kitchens concentrating on being a head coach. He was still under contract with the Vikings when he interviewed for the head coaching with the Browns the first time.

If Stefanski is the choice, he would become at 36 the youngest head coach in Browns history, replacing Eric Mangini, who was hired 12 days before his 38th birthday in 2009.

All that said, let’s for a moment disbelieve the notion that the search is over and it’s only a matter of time before an announcement is made, that Dorsey isn’t quite through yet.

There is one name out there that hasn’t been mentioned yet. And if I’m wrong, it might never be mentioned in conjunction with the Browns.

Dorsey is looking for stability. Someone who is grounded. Someone who knows all the nuts and bolts of running an entire football team, not just one side of the football

It is not easy making the switch from assistant to head coach at any level. Being a head coach is worlds different than being a position coach or a coordinator. The litany of failures far outnumbers those who are successful.

I’ve heard the following before and firmly believe it: Most assistant football coaches are lieutenants; only a select few are generals. The lieutenants are very good at what they do until becoming head coaches. The generals are those who get it and have no problem making a successful transition.

They are thinkers who see the whole picture, not just part of it. They surround themselves with like-minded people.

There is someone out there on the NFL coaching landscape who fits that profile. Dorsey knows him. He is Dave Toub, the long-time successful special teams coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Next: Why Toub should be given strong consideration to be the next Browns coach.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Thinking outside the box

When John Dorsey said the search for the Browns’ next head coach would be ”very thorough and very deliberate”, it tested the fans’ patience in the first week.

Six candidates were interviewed and, it seemed, many residents of Browns Nation hung on the outcome of every one in an effort to climb inside the head of the team’s general manager.

Most probably never gave thought that it is entirely possible none of those who sat down with Dorsey and the club’s rather expansive selection committee will make it to a second interview.

With six other National Football League teams with vacancies in the midst of conducting interviews, the competition to hire whom they believe will be the next great National Football League head coach will start heating up.

Many names are being bandied about in gossip circles, most of them well known in the coaching community because of their high profile status. A vast majority are coordinators on both sides of the football.

There is also a good chance Dorsey already knows who he wants and is determined to play out the process. Milk this thing for all it’s worth before revealing the winner.

At the same time, he risks losing his offensive coordinator, who has pulled off a decent-sized miracle in resurrecting a struggling offense in the second half of the 2018 season.

He probably will not allow Freddie Kitchens, whom interviewed Monday, to talk with any other team unless it’s for the position of head coach, a request he cannot stop unless he gives Kitchens the top job immediately. That’s not going to happen.

The only way he releases Kitchens is if his choice as the new coach wants to bring in his own man to run the offense. But considering the way Kitchens and Baker Mayfield bonded last season, Dorsey most likely will push hard  to keep his offensive chief.

So whom does the GM want? What is he looking for? What kind of coach best fits into his grand plan for the Browns?

The common denominator is stability. Dorsey has taken this moribund and forlorn franchise for the last two decades and turned into one its long-suffering fan base can glom onto with a lot more than more than just hope.

He is seeking a steady hand. Someone who can come in and continue to build on the groundwork he has laid in the 14 months he has been on the job. Continue the culture that has shifted 180 degrees.

There are lots of sound coordinators on the candidates’ landscape. Each brings a unique set of credentials and experience to the interview process.

The big question is whether Dorsey wants an offensive-minded head coach or one whose expertise lies on the other side of the football. He had a taste of both with Hue Jackson and then Gregg Williams.

Factor this in: The Browns were an entirely different football team on offense in the second half of the season. Tinkering with that success might be counterproductive.

The defense, thought to be the strength of the team at the beginning of the season, turned out to be a problem area, one that undoubtedly will be addressed in the offseason. It needs help from a coaching standpoint, more so than the offense.

So does Dorsey go offense or defense for his head coach? Or maybe something entirely different.

Next: An outsider to whom no one has given any consideration.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Dorsey launches search for Mr. Right

And they’re off.

John Dorsey is officially off on his quest to identify the next head coach of the Browns. Let the rampant speculation, ridiculous rumors and nonsense in general begin for the most important coaching move this franchise has made in a generation.

From the expansion beginning in 1999, which morphed into what arguably is the worst 20 years of football a National Football League team has ever turned out, to the current and most promising team since then, this is the moment Browns Nation has patiently waited for.

This is the run-up to the moment the Browns’ general manager affixes the bow around the franchise he has rebuilt – and will continue to rebuild – so successfully in the 13 months since he took over.

Now, it’s time to bring someone in who can complete the package he envisioned when he inherited a big, fat mess that turned into the second winless 16-game season in NFL history last season.

Although he doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry, Dorsey knows exactly what he wants as he prepares to carefully choose a head coach for the first time in his long, distinguished career.

“I want to be able to see everything.,” he told the Cleveland media earlier this week, implying everyone will be considered for what many believe is the most attractive coaching opening (of the eight) in the league this offseason.

“You don’t want to sell yourself short. Why not go see other people out here, too, just to see? We talk about doing our due diligence and what’s best for this organization. Why not go and look at everybody?”

He said the search would be “very thorough and very deliberate.” No timetable has been set. It probably will be a case where Dorsey will know instinctively who he wants, at which time he will end the interviewing process.

Among the early candidates are New England de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores; Indianapolis DC Matt Eberflus; Indy offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni; ex-Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy; Minnesota interim OC Kevin Stefanski; New Orleans tight ends coach Dan Campbell; ex-Indy and Detroit HC Jim Caldwell; Pittsburgh offensive line coach Mike Munchak, and Iowa State HC Matt Campbell.

Dorsey also interviewed (undoubtedly as a courtesy) current interim Browns coach Gregg Williams and interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens the last couple of days, but it is unlikely either will get the top job.

The GM has a certain profile in mind for his head coach. I’m not certain Williams and Kitchens fit that profile, although Dorsey is obviously very pleased and somewhat surprised they turned this team around so quickly in the second half of the season.

Look for him to resist the groundswell from the multitude of fans who would love him to remove the interim tag from Williams’ current title and make it permanent. He might, though, be tempted to offer him his job back as defensive coordinator back if he does not find a head coaching gig elsewhere.

Kitchens is not nearly ready to become a head coach. He’s just getting his feet wet as a coordinator. As he continues to grow in that area, though, a future head coaching job should come into focus.

He is also a candidate to be offered the job full-time in Cleveland pending approval of the new coach. His bonding with quarterback Baker Mayfield and resultant success weigh heavily in his favor.

Dorsey said he is looking for “a guy who can instill leadership into these young men, a guy who is a collaborative thinker . . . who is consistent on a day-in, day-out basis. . . . who players can look up to and go, ‘You know what? I’ll follow that guy anywhere.’

“Once you can get and identify a guy like that, those are the type of guys you’re looking for. The goal of this organization is to get what’s best for this organization. Find a man of character who can lead young men.”

One could interpret that in a number of ways. The guess here is he is looking for someone, not necessarily a high-profile candidate, to install even more stability in the franchise than Dorsey and his strong front office have already established.

A few more waves of candidates lurk around the corner, all of which will continue to excite an already anxious fan base. Another guess: The winner’s name has yet to be officially mentioned.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Monday leftovers

 Full disclosure . . . actually more like an admission . . .

When Browns General Manager John Dorsey defied the experts/pundits and selected Baker Mayfield for the Browns with the No. 1 overall pick in the last college football draft, I was skeptical at best.

I was steadfastly and stubbornly in the Sam Darnold camp almost from the time he dismantled Penn State in the 2017 Rose Bowl. The timing was perfect. The Browns would have the top pick when Darnold decided to leave USC.

He was the perfect choice to lead the Browns into a new era. A fresh young face with oodles of talent, Darnold was a winner. Dorsey surely had to know and see that.

What we did not know at the time is the GM also had his eye steadfastly and stubbornly on Mayfield mainly because of his intangibles. He was a leader. He didn’t just hate losing; he abhorred it.

And most important of all, he wanted to enter on the ground floor and build something. The only drawback was his height. In a league where prototypical quarterbacks are at least 6-3, he fell short (pun intended) at a thumbnail over six feet tall.

Why in the world would Dorsey risk his excellent reputation as a master talent evaluator on a short, arrogant, full-of-himself, supremely confident player at the most important position on a football team?

When he took Mayfield, I thought, “Okay. If that’s what he wants, he can’t take it back now. Might as well see how far this goes. Hopefully, this is not just another typical Browns draft blunder.”

He and the other wise heads he assembled in his front office in Berea said Mayfield reminded them of Brett Favre when he arrived in Green Bay from Atlanta in a trade. They had all seen him while serving in the Packers’ front office.

It was that self-assured Favre persona that helped make the Packers one of the National Football League’s best franchises that captured their attention. And they held on to that notion until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell put them on the clock.

When Browns head coach Hue Jackson refused to give Mayfield a shot at the starting job in training camp, Dorsey and his guys remained silent, at least publicly. Their job was to provide him with the players; Jackson’s job was to coach them.

Because history has a way of ultimately correcting mistakes, it would be only a matter of time before Mayfield became the starter. It took two games and almost half of a third before Tyrod Taylor, Jackson’s anointed starter, was injured and the entire season turned. Just like that.

From the moment Mayfield trotted onto the field at home in a nationally televised game against the New York Jets, football felt different in Cleveland. The Browns trailed, 14-0, to Darnold and the Jets at the time, headed for their 20th straight game without a victory.

Mayfield led the club to a 21-17 victory, clicking on 17-of-23 passes for 201 yards, and a new era in Cleveland football was born. “I’ve just been waiting for my moment,” he said after the game. “I’m just getting started.”

Later, he added, “Dilly, dilly to the Cleveland fans. It’s not the only win we’re going to celebrate.”

As a prognosticator, he was right on. The Browns went on to win six of the next 13 games, which might not seem a lot but it served to elevate him to near royalty with Browns Nation. It forecast a bright future for this franchise.

Numerous losing streaks that had strangled the franchise began to tumble. The Browns appeared to be turning a corner for the first time in a long time and he was the reason why.

As a quarterback, though, he was even better. He excelled to the point where he has made NFL media seriously think of considering him for the league’s offensive rookie of the year.

Once Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired in midseason, Mayfield flourished. He completed nearly 68.4% of his passes, averaged 282 yards a game and threw 19 of his NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes in the final eight games.

He also learned how to better protect himself in the pocket, limiting his sack total to just five in those eight games after being dropped 20 times in his four-and-a-half games.

There is no question he can make all the throws. He has the arm to laser an 18- to 20-yard out. Fitting the football into tight windows is not a problem. His touchdown throw to Antonio Callaway Sunday in Baltimore shows up in the stats as just a one-yard TD.

It was a lot more than that. Mayfield superbly squeezed the ball in to Callaway in heavy traffic at the goal line where only he could make the catch. Many veteran NFL quarterbacks have trouble making that play.

Mayfield can feather his passes with touch when necessary. He is also getting quite good at escaping the pocket when plays break down, extending them to where he can deliver a strike. And here is the best part. For someone so short, very few of his passes are deflected at the line of scrimmage.

So now everyone, including a certain former Darnold fan, knows why Dorsey picked him and are glad he did. His guy has quickly transformed the Factory of Sadness into a Factory of Happiness.
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Dorsey might want to take a long look at his offensive line during the offseason, compare it to the Ravens’ and then do something about it. Because of what the Ravens did to the Cleveland defensive line Sunday, he might consider addressing that in the draft.

The Baltimore OL ravaged Cleveland’s front all afternoon, compiling just shy of an unbelievable 300 yards. The Ravens’ front is much more agile and athletic than the Browns’ plunderers.

The Browns are incapable of pulling the left tackle and left guard and execute successful counter plays and misdirection plays. Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst had a field day pulling and opening holes on the strong side of the formation with a lot of help from tight end Maxx Williams.

Greg Robinson of the Browns cannot pull and lead plays in the opposite direction, He excels in short area blocking, but is not athletic enough to do much else. Same with right tackle Chris Hubbard.

The middle of the defensive line needs also to get stronger and a whole lot quicker. As for the edges, Myles Garrett is getting virtually no help from the other side of the lone. Emmanuel Ogbah is thisclose to being a bust.
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John Harbaugh is a terrific coach. He is arguably the best coach the Ravens have had since moving from Cleveland 23 years ago. He has coached numerous great players and even won a Super bowl with them.

That’s why it looked and sounded strange after the Ravens knocked off the Browns Sunday and gained a spot in the playoffs that he said the following:

“This is the best team I’ve ever been associated with in 34 years of coaching and even back to peewee. Look at this team, this bunch of guys. This is what a real team looks like. A bunch of guys who make a team. That’s why we’re where we’re at.”

Didn’t he notice how close the Browns came to eliminating him and his “bunch of guys” from the postseason in the last game for the second straight year? They scared the crap out of everyone else on that sideline. Perhaps Harbaugh was feeling somewhat overcome with joy and excitement after his team escaped disaster.

And “this is the best team” he’s been associated with? Really? This is a man who has won 104 games in 11 seasons and has coached teams that are 15-10 in playoff games with a Super bowl title after the 2012 season. Wonder how Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and that crew think.
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Finally . . . The next several years will be interesting in the Cleveland-Baltimore rivalry with Mayfield and Lamar Jackson meeting twice a year. If it’s anything like the season finale, buckle up. . . . It will be an upset if the Browns don’t open up competition for a new placekicker for next season. Greg Joseph was just okay after replacing the inconsistent Zane Gonzalez, who by the way nailed a 55-yarder for Arizona Sunday,  The Browns need better than okay at the position. . . . Nick Chubb just missed joining the 1,000-yard club Sunday. He was dropped for a five-yard loss on his last carry of the day on the penultimate possession, lowering his season total to 996. . . . Final Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 21 yards; one reception, three yards. Total: Five touches, 24 yards. Final season totals: 40 carries, 201 yards; 47 receptions, 429 yards. Total: 87 touches, 630 yards, 7.24 yards a touch. Last season: 82 carries, 348 yards; 74 receptions, 693 yards. Total: 156 touches, 1,041 yards, 6.67 yards a touch.

Happy New Year One & All

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A bright future beckons

 Before the Browns closed out the 2018 season with the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, quarterback Baker Mayfield summed up the situation perfectly. “They are playing for a playoff spot and we are playing to prove who we are,” the rookie said.

After Sunday’s dramatic, pulse-pounding 26-24 loss in easily the best and most exciting game of their season, there is no question whatsoever who the Browns are. They proved to themselves – and the rest of the National Football League – that they are back in a big way.

They have or will soon become the off-season favorites to seriously challenge for the AFC North championship next season. At no point did it seem they were out of this one in a game that meant a whole lot more to the Ravens.

They proved it behind the wizardry of Mayfield, with a second half that scared the daylights out of the Ravens, making a game of it down the stretch with an excellent chance to ruin the Ravens’ playoffs hopes for the second year in a row.

This is a one tough football team.

Yes, they lost on the scoreboard, but won in many other ways. They no longer are the league’s doormat, the easy victory, the pushover. They do not scare easily. Those days are history.

They came away knowing, not hoping or thinking, knowing the light at the end of the tunnel now is not the oncoming train. It is the light that strongly indicates those awful years of abysmal football in Cleveland are over.

Winning football is back in Cleveland.

Based on what fans have witnessed the last half of the season, this team now has the ability and ammunition to inflict a lot of damage in the future, especially when they own the football. At no time did they think they were out of this game.

A lot of that is centered on Mayfield, who threw scoring passes to Breshad Perriman, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, giving him an NFL rookie record 27 touchdown passes this season in only 13 starts.

It more than proves the Browns, who wound up the season 7-8-1, are no longer out of contention in a game as long as Mayfield is vertical and healthy. He put on a dazzling display, especially in the second half, that silenced an otherwise boisterous Baltimore crowd.

After getting walloped physically in the first half in every conceivable way by an explosive Baltimore offense that ran roughshod, the Browns did not do what so many other Browns teams in the last 20 years have done in similar situations. They could have caved, but did not, even though they knew there was no next Sunday.

At no point, either, did Browns Nation think it was over as the Ravens took a 20-7 halftime lead, inflicting tons of damage in the run game, challenging the Cleveland defense to stop them and winning just about every battle behind rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and an abusive offensive line.

That’s a character thing, a trait this team has displayed in interim coach Gregg Williams eight-game tenure, during which the club won five, clearly in his favor as General Manager John Dorsey launches his search for a new head coach Monday.

The Browns knew going into the game that the Ravens relied on the ground game to guide their offense. And yet they had no answers for Jackson and that ground game, which churned out 179 yards in the opening 30 minutes.

Large holes opened up just about everywhere as Jackson and running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon took turns carving out huge chunks of yardage behind a line that bludgeoned the Cleveland front four.

Jackson scored both Baltimore touchdowns in that half on runs of 25 and eight yards, had a third of 33 yards negated by a holding call and lost a fourth when he coughed up the ball inches short of the goal line. All that in the first half.

It wasn’t until the Browns made second-half adjustments that either shut down and/or narrowed the running lanes for Jackson & Co. that they sensed the momentum was shifting.

Mayfield refused to let his team lose. Protected beautifully by his offensive line (no sacks once again), he willed it to a pair of second-half touchdowns with the kind of quarterbacking you just don’t see from a rookie.

The defense responded by literally tightening up the interior, limiting the Ravens to just a pair of field goals by Justin Tucker, who had four on the day. Even though the Ravens tacked on 117 more infantry yards in the second half for a total of 296, the Cleveland defense protected its goal line more zealously,

That enabled the offense, which was stymied in the first half after Mayfield connected with Perriman on a 28-yard scoring throw on the Browns’ second possession, to make it a game.

They actually had a chance to take the lead with a field goal in the final two minutes, but the desperate Ravens threw the kitchen-sink pass rush at Mayfield on four straight pass attempts from the Baltimore 39, forcing him to throw before he wanted.

Incompletions to David Njoku, Landry and Njoku again brought up a fourth down. On the last kitchen sink, he had running back Duke Johnson Jr. open over the middle underneath and tried to loft the ball to him over the head of Ravens linebacker C. J. Mosley, who tipped the ball to himself for Mayfield’s third pick of the day.

As the new face of Cleveland sports, who wound up with 376 yards passing, walked dejectedly off the field, Jackson came back onto the field and appeared to congratulate him on his effort. Little consolation, Mayfield seemed to indicate with his expression.

If you want to quibble on how close the Browns came to winning, all you have to do is go back to the final play of first half when Greg Joseph’s 46-yard field attempt drifted wide of the left upright by less than a foot.

Another quibble, this one centered on a quick whistle. Several minutes earlier, the Ravens had a chance to boost their first-half lead to 27-7 when Jackson ostensibly scored from the one-foot line on third down after jumping up and thrusting the football over the goal line with one hand.

As a sideline official ran in indicating touchdown, Browns linebacker Joe Schobert poked the football loose. It rolled to the 7-yard line, where safety Jabrill Peppers scooped it up and began running toward the Ravens’ goal line with no one in pursuit and got as far as the 35. A whistle had stopped play.

The call on the field was touchdown. But replay showed Jackson did not reach out far enough with the ball to break the plane of the goal line and it was overturned, giving the ball back to the Browns at the 7 due to the inadvertent whistle. Somewhat ironically, the very next play will also have Browns Nation talking.

Mayfield dropped back to pass and launched a perfect spiral to a wide-open Landry at the Cleveland 35. But as he reached for the ball, it hit his facemask and fell harmlessly to the ground. Had he caught it, it would have been a 93-yard touchdown and cut the lead to 20-14.

All in all, this game will be remembered by many fans for its many exciting plays and heart-stopping finish. But mainly it will be remembered as one where battling back in the face of a lot of adversity and nearly winning is a portent of a very bright future.
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