Friday, October 29, 2010

Another vote for Colt

Allow me, please, to join the growing chorus of Colt McCoy boosters. Well, maybe not boosters. That's a little too high schoolish and college-like.

More like those who have climbed onto the bandwagon in the belief the kid from Texas might possibly be more than we believed when the Browns drafted him last April.

Through no fault of his own, McCoy has stuck his foot firmly in the door. The door marked opportunity. With two starts now under his National Football League belt, it is time to see what this baby-faced youngster can do. Now.

It is time to see what the future looks like. It is time to bring more into focus the direction the Browns are headed. It is time to make some command decisions now instead of waiting for the future to define itself.

Now that Seneca Wallace is healthy and champing at the starting job, and with Jake Delhomme getting healthier by the week, coach Eric Mangini is hedging his bets. He's taking full advantage of the bye week and milking the situation for all it's worth.

With the New England Patriots dead ahead a week from Sunday, you can bet Mangini relishes keeping who starts at quarterback against the Pats to himself. It's a move that even Bill Belichick, from whom Mangini learned all the tricks, can appreciate.

But if he's smart, Mangini will station McCoy under center the rest of the season. He's got nothing to lose.

It would be counterproductive to sit him back down now that he has, to some degree, satiated his NFL appetite with two starts, during which he did not embarrass himself or his team. Now that he's had his baptism, it makes no sense to rein him in and sit him back down.

Handling it in that manner would stunt his growth. We need to see more of him, not less. Let's see what he's got.

Now that we've seen McCoy and like what we've seen, playing Delhomme or Wallace at this juncture is just plain dumb. If it's to justify Delhomme's $7 million contract, that's even dumber. And Wallace is nothing more than career backup.

The whole idea is to win games with players who give you the best opportunity to do so. Delhomme is an interception machine prone to make mistakes. He is a 35-year-old journeyman who is clearly not in the Browns' long-range plans. So why play him now?

Give him his 7 million bucks, consider his signing a mistake, release him and move on. Nothing wrong with a quarterback troika of McCoy, Wallace and Brett Ratliff.

McCoy has one very important edge on Wallace. He's not 30 years old, in his eighth NFL season and, as previously stated, a career backup.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. McCoy was supposed to wear a headset, carry a clipboard and become a sponge for the entire season. Club President Mike Holmgren as much as said so when he strongly suggested that General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. should draft him.

No one had a problem with that until the ankles of Delhomme and Wallace gave way. Mangini then had no choice but to start McCoy, whose biggest problem is his physical stature at a smallish (by NFL standards) 6-1. It was that attribute that dropped him into the third round of the draft.

So far, McCoy has surprised in that he has exemplified the model of poise. His two starts against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, the past two Super Bowl champions, have revealed a calm most uncommon by someone so young and relatively inexperienced. He doesn't fluster.

The offense, while not exactly blowing away the opposition, has been virtually mistake-free. False starts are way down. There have been no delay-of-game penalties. Motion penalties have become non-existent. Command of the huddle does not appear to be a problem.

In two short outings, McCoy has managed the game a lot better than was expected. He's playing as if he believes he belongs. That self-assured stance is not going unnoticed by his teammates.

As it turns out, Holmgren did not have to worry about whether McCoy could handle the pressure as a rookie. Now all he has to worry about is whether his head coach sees it the same way.

And if Mangini holds true to form, we won't find out until just before the start of the Browns-Patriots game.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The backward commish

David Stern has it backward. And that's exactly why there is talk in National Basketball Association circles that the league is seriously thinking about contracting. Eliminating teams to more specific.

When the league sits down with the players association in an effort to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement, Stern believes eliminating teams will be on the table.

". . . are there cities and teams that cannot make it in the current economic environment?" he said. "I'm not spending a lot of time on it. . . . We are committed to small-market teams. We are going to have a new CBA eventually and we're going to have a more robust revenue sharing."

Stern also allowed for the possibility of parroting what the National Football League does when it comes to holding on to elite players. The implementation of a franchise-player tag will be a subject of discussion during the bargaining process.

It's very possible NBA teams might want to follow suit to prevent what took place this past summer with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire leaving their original teams. Smaller market teams losing their star attractions did not resonate well around NBA Nation, although all the moves were within the existing rules.

The league projects losses of nearly $350 million for the coming season. Stern said changes must be made "I would say the league is viable as long as you have owners who want to continue funding losses," he said. "But it's not on the long term a sustainable business model that we're happy supporting. It needs to be reset.

But if Stern had put his foot down and disallowed the player movement of his elite players in the best interest of the NBA, some of his problems would be automatically solved.

For example, the Cavaliers have sold out every game for the last several years. Why? Because of LeBron and the winning culture he brought to the franchise. Packed houses at the Q were the norm. It was the place to be seen during the season.

Shift to this season. How many sellouts can owner Dan Gilbert expect? At least two -- Thursday, Dec. 2 and Tuesday, March 29, both against the Miami Heat and LeBron -- and quite probably no more. That'll be it. The turnstiles will spin a lot less frequently for a team that will struggle all season.

Gilbert will lose money. Local interest in the team will fade significantly. The team will become an afterthought except when it plays the Heat. Then, and only then, will the fans care. It'll be a return to the bad old days before LeBron.

The Cavaliers will become irrelevant again. An NBA joke.

They're scheduled to appear on national television only twice this season -- against the Heat, of course, on Dec. 2 in LeBron's first game back in Cleveland, and the March 6 game at the Q against the New Orleans Hornets. That's it.

From must-see TV to relative obscurity.

Thank you, David Stern, for allowing the Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors to become candidates once again for possible contraction. Both franchises, which were doing very well before your inaction this past summer, will lose gobs of money this season. And all because you thought it would great to have a league with a few super teams.

Want to know what the problem is? Look in the mirror. The shaky economy, your pat excuse, didn't hurt the Cavs the last several years.

As for LeBron, now that the season is about to commence, the hurt will always be there for Clevelanders. That scar will never heal properly. The wound is too deep. The damage is permanent.

As hard as it might be for Cavs fans to admit, LeBron is a great player. That hasn't changed. Eventually, he will become the face of the Heat franchise, not Dwyane Wade.

Even Dan Gilbert, now that he's had plenty of time to think about it, knows this to be true. His anger at the time overwhelmed his objectivity when he declared the Cavaliers will win an NBA title before the Heat. That's not going to happen. Not now. Probably not ever.

LeBron is only 25 years old. He's still a few years away from approaching his prime. And that is scary.

He does not abuse his God-given talent, although there are those who correctly point out that his performance in Game 5 in last season's playoffs against the Boston Celtics definitely looked suspicious.

He no doubt has circled Dec. 2 on his calendar. Considering the fan reaction to his departure to Miami, it would not be surprising if he wants to really stick it to the fans that night and goes off for something like 50 points. And he's good enough to do it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Monday leftovers

Based on his first two performances as a professional football quarterback, Colt McCoy deserves to be the starting quarterback for the Browns when they return from their break in two weeks.

Even when the ankle sprains of Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace heal, McCoy should be the man under center when the Browns entertain the New England Patriots Nov. 7. He has earned it.

In just two games? Isn't that jumping to conclusions a wee bit early? Perhaps, but when you stop and think about it, what does Eric Mangini have to lose by sticking with McCoy? His job? That's always on the line, anyway.

In his two games, McCoy had displayed poise and a knack for avoiding mistakes that hamper his fellow quarterbacks. The rookie did not cave to the pressure brought by Pittsburgh defense in the loss to the Steelers. And he was exactly what he needed to be in the stunning victory over New Orleans Sunday.

The co-starring roles for that one belonged to the defense and special teams. All McCoy needed to do was manage the game. Avoid turnovers. Make certain the Saints did not benefit from anything stupid. And that's exactly what he did.

Too often a quarterback's numbers belie his contribution to the team effort. McCoy's stats in the Saints victory is a prime example. He was 9 for 16 for 74 yards. And he won.

In other games Sunday, Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 374 yards and four touchdowns. Carson Palmer of Cincinnati rang up 412 yards and three TDs. San Diego's Philip Rivers racked up 336 yards and a score. Drew Brees strafed the Cleveland secondary for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Great stats. But all were losing quarterbacks.

So until he shows signs of being overmatched or really screws up, McCoy deserves to be the Browns' starting quarterback. Fresh faces have a way of invigorating the fan base. And this fan base needs all the invigorating it can get.

At the beginning of the season, I wasn't exactly thrilled when Dave Zastudil was placed on injured reserve. The Bay Village punter was one of the best in the National Football League and I believed his absence would be keenly felt.

Reggie Hodges, to be perfectly fair, has been a pleasant surprise. All season long, he has helped provide good field position for the defense with his booming kicks and he has developed an uncanny knack of dropping a large number of his punts inside the 10-yard line. So far, Zastudil's talents have not been missed.

The NFL's overreaction to helmet hits and unnecessary roughness in the wake of what happened in NFL games eight days was evident in the New Orleans game when Browns linebacker Eric Barton was flagged with an unnecessary roughness penalty. All Barton did on a pass rush of Brees was literally slap Brees' helmet with an open hand. Actually, it was more of a tap, but referee Walt Coleman, perhaps fearing a chewing out from his superiors if he didn't make the call, hauled out his yellow laundry. A clear overreaction.

Is Mangini losing weight? Take a close look at him now and notice you can see cheekbones, the double chin is almost gone and his face looks thinner. If so, kudos to the head coach for taking steps to improve his health.

Odd fact in the Saints victory: Brees threw more passes (56) than the number of plays the Browns ran (46). If you looked at the stats of that game without knowing who won, most everyone would guess the Saints had romped. It was a clear case of the stats belying the final outcome.

Mangini cost the Browns four points with one of his challenges. As the Saints (trailing, 20-3) lined up quickly to kick a field goal on the final play of the third quarter after a short pass completion to Marques Colston, Mangini hurled the red flag, challenging that Colston had fumbled the ball and Eric Wright had recovered. As it turned out, the play was not reviewable.

During the quarter break, New Orleans coach Sean Payton challenged that Colston was down by contact. He won the challenge and the original call was reversed, giving the Saints a fourth and 1. Payton disdained the field goal, got the first down and the Saints went on to score a touchdown three plays later.

So if Mangini had not challenged the call and allowed the Saints to attempt the field goal, the Browns would have led, 20-6, heading into the fourth quarter and received the kickoff. As it turned out, the 20-10 lead was never in jeopardy.

Look for Joshua Cribbs' return woes to continue. It has become quite obvious that NFL teams have shown him the ultimate respect by either kicking away from him or angling their kickoffs to give their return units a better chance at making early tackles. They seem to be bunching the field, forcing Cribbs to travel mostly east and west rather than north and south.

Unless special teams coach Brad Seely can come up with some sophisticated and imaginative alternatives, don't expect Cribbs to give the Browns any significant field position advantage this season. Those days, it appears, are gone.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Big Easy victory

Where in the world did that come from?

The New Orleans Saints would love to know the answer to that question. What took place under the Superdome Sunday afternoon was not supposed to happen. To the Saints, that is.

What unfolded had Cleveland Browns fans blinking in absolute amazement. Anyone who says they are not surprised at the Browns' ridiculously easy 30-17 victory over the Saints is either lying or experimenting with drugs. It was a triumph of seismic proportions.

There was no question that the Browns had a no chance whatsoever to win this one against the defending Super Bowl champions. Give the points, take the Saints and move on to next week.

The Browns quite obviously had other ideas as they made like David Copperfield on the gridiron all afternoon, stunning the Saints with gadget plays on special teams, unorthodox defenses and an offense that managed the game perfectly. From the Saints' viewpoint, what you saw was not what you wound up with.

From Joshua Cribbs' cross-field backward pass to Eric Wright on the Saints' first punt of the game (62 yards) to Reggie Hodges' fake punt (68 more yards) to a couple of wondrous pick sixes by linebacker David Bowens to Colt McCoy catching a pass from Peyton Hillis (13 yards), this one will go down as one of the most entertaining and imaginative Browns' victories in years. That's 143 yards in gadget plays.

It prompted former Southern California and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson, color commentator on Sports USA's radio broadcast of the game, to remark, "They ran more gadget plays today than I did in my 34-year coaching career." He seemed impressed.

Major points must be awarded special teams coach Brad Seely and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for exquisitely preparing their men. Ryan was deservedly rewarded with a Gatorade shower for putting together a rather interesting game plan.

The Browns compiled just 210 total yards and a meager 12 first downs on offense, but these statistics pale to the defense's four interceptions and three sacks of Drew Brees, who was confused most of the afternoon by Ryan's strange defense.

Rarely did we see all three defensive linemen in three-point stances. On a majority of plays, right before the snap, we saw the Cleveland defense milling around. It was damn near impossible for Brees to take advantage of any pre-snap reads because of what appeared to be confusion on the Cleveland side of the ball. It was more like organized confusion, though, because the Browns rarely gave up the big play against the Saints.

It brought back memories of the UFO defense the Browns used one point during their inaugural expansion season in 1999. Some fans remember that because it had never been tried before. But teams quickly discovered then that the best way to beat defensive coordinator Bob Slowik's different defense was to run against it.

The Saints never quite figured that out, probably because the Browns blew out to a 20-3 halftime lead. It became apparent quickly that they were not going to roll over and play dead.

Beginning with Scott Fujita's interception on the second play of the second quarter with Brees banging on the Cleveland goal line, the Browns served notice this was not going to be a New Orleans walkover. This was going to be a 60-minute effort and you had better ratchet up your game if you want to stay with us. The Saints never did.

With Fujita, Chris Gocong and Matt Roth keying the very active linebacker corps and Bowens entertaining Cleveland fans with a balletic jette on his first touchdown and gymnastic somersault on his second, Brees had no clue where the pressure was coming from.

The stats revealed four Brees interceptions, but that very easily could have been six with safeties Abram Elam and T.J Ward each dropping a sure pick. Ward's would have produced the afternoon's third defensive TD had he hung on to the ball.

McCoy, meanwhile, was a very pedestrian 9 for 16, 74 yards and a 68.2 passer rating. The rookie quarterback didn't have to be special. His most important stats were no interceptions, no fumbles and only one false start. It was a classic case of managing the game and protecting the football.

At no point in this one did Browns fans have anything about which to worry. Even when the offense sputtered badly in the third quarter with a couple of four-and-outs, the defense bailed them out. But when the Saints clawed back to 20-10, when the offense needed to give its brethren a break and sustain a drive, McCoy & Co. rose up and took 7:34 off the clock. The Saints, as it turned out, were finished.

A victory like this makes one wonder why the Browns are just 2-5? You'd think they would win a game merely by accident. This, however, was no accident. It was a well conceived and well executed victory over a very good football team.

Sort of makes Browns fans wish next Sunday is not the club's bye week. The best part, though, is the feeling for this one will last two weeks. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How's that again?

It looks as though that helmet hit Joshua Cribbs took from James Harrison last Sunday did more damage than anyone thought.

It seems the blow did a lot more than knock him out of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has severely interfered with his thought processes.

Cribbs today defended Harrison's cheap-shot kill shot. "I had the ball and was going down (in the arms of Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley) and he came in to clean me up," Cribbs told reporters. "It's his job to try and put me out of the game." As Cribbs was going down, Harrison deliberately delivered a helmet-to-helmet shot on the defenseless Cribbs that snapped his head violently to the right. He left the game and did not return.

So by Cribbs' definition, Harrison clearly did his job by putting him out of the game. Well done, James. Is that sarcastic enough?

"He's like a heat-seeeking missile," said Cribbs. "I have the football and he's targeting me. He's not like, 'I've got to hit him properly, let me aim at his legs.' He's just trying to get me down by any means possible. I would do the same. . . . He plays to knock people out. That's what good linebackers do."

Wait a minute. That's what good linebackers do? Is that what makes them good? And if they don't knock people of of the game, somehow they aren't as good as those who do? If the ball carrier gets up, you haven't done your job? Is that what football has become?

And what's wrong with hitting an opponent properly? The goal should be to take him down within the rules, not try and put him out of the game.

"You're a player, so play," Cribbs said he told his former Kent State University teammate, who was fined $75,000 by the National Football League and threatened to retire. Cribbs said he thinks he might have been responsible for Harrison's decision to continue to play. Yeah, like he was seriously thinking about retiring.

As for Harrison's double-forearm shiver shot on teammate Mo Massaquoi, the one the NFL levied the huge fine on, Cribbs clammed up. "I can't really comment on that hit because I don't want to offend Massaquoi. That's my boy, too."

Reading between the lines, that kill shot was just another football play even though his "boy" won't suit up Sunday in New Orleans because he got his brains scrambled by Harrison. Wonder if Massaquoi feels the same way.

"If (Harrison) played for our team, we'd be applauding his efforts," said Cribbs. "If he were on our team, we'd be rallying around him just like his team is doing for him. . . . Wouldn't you want a linebacker like that on your team?" Quick answer: No.

On that point, unfortunately, he's correct. Perfect example was T. J. Ward's borderline-dirty hit on Cincinnati wide receiver Jordan Shipley a couple of weeks ago that drew a flag and disdain from Browns fans. It all depends on who's doing the hitting.

Had Browns linebacker Scott Fujita missile-sought Hines Ward and Mike Wallace of the Steelers and put them out of the game, the bitching and moaning would be coming from Pittsburgh and all the preening from Cleveland.

It's a matter of perspective.

Not so Saintly

A quick perusal of their statistics this season reveals that the New Orleans Saints have discovered the formula of how to win games despite very average numbers.

The Browns' opponent this Sunday won't overwhelm you with its offense or frighten you with its defense. And yet, all Sean Payton's team does is win. The defending Super Bowl champion would be 5-1 entering the Browns' game had Garrett Hartley not missed a chip-shot field goal in the Atlanta loss several weeks ago.

The Browns will discover a team that likes to throw the ball a lot (averages 38 passes a game), runs only to keep the defense honest, spreads the ball around, is zealous in protecting its quarterback and plays solid enough defense to never be out of a game.

As long as Drew Brees remains vertical, the Saints are strong enough to impose their will on just about any defense. Although the smallish veteran quarterback has averaged a pick a game, his 70% completion rate should be a warning to all Browns fans that this one could spiral out of control in a hurry.

If the Browns have one major problem on defense, it's defending the pass. With little or no pressure on the quarterback and a secondary that has struggled all season. there is little doubt what the Saints' game plan is for Cleveland.

And it fits right into their philosophy. With receivers like Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Jeremy Shockey, is it any wonder Brees' completion rate isn't even higher? Colston, his favorite target, hasn't reached the end zone this season. What are the odds he'll make it seven games against the Browns?

If the name Lance Moore doesn't seem familiar to some Browns fans, it should. The little wideout from Toledo was in Cleveland's training camp a few years ago before being cut. Too small at 5-9. He leads the Saints with four touchdown catches.

Another Ohio college product has produced for the Saints at a time when Brees needed some relief from the running game. Chris Ivory, who played his college ball at Tiffin, stepped in when starting running back Pierre Thomas went down with a high ankle sprain and looked nothing like a rookie when he ripped off 158 yards last week against Tampa Bay.

If the 1-5 Browns have any chance of becoming the 2-5 Browns, they must somehow make life difficult in the pocket for Brees. Considering how much difficulty they have experienced at reaching opposing quarterbacks this season despite a plethora of blitz packages, that's not going to happen. Factor in that the Saints' offensive line has permitted only eight sacks and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

The Cleveland offense, which didn't embarrass itself last week in the loss to Pittsburgh, faces a New Orleans defense that has picked off only four passes. That gives Browns fans some hope considering that Colt McCoy completed 22 of 33 passes last week.

Accuracy was McCoy's forte in college and his pro debut against the Steelers only fortifies the notion that game experience should enhance that aspect of his game. He certainly played well enough against the Steelers to warrant a much longer look after Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace return.

At this point in the season, what difference would it make who starts under center? If McCoy shows he's got the tools and at least doesn't embarrass himself, why not let the rookie start? What harm would it do?

So even if the Browns fall to 1-6, and they will, an injection of Colt McCoy the rest of the way would give Browns fans something to look forward to. Nothing wrong with that. Until then, though, make it:

Saints 31, Browns 14

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Keep thy head up

The uproar caused by the National Football League's decision to finally enforce the rule regarding helmet contact is not unexpected. Anytime you deal with something that rattles how the game is played, such a reaction can be expected.

All the NFL wants to do is protect its players. Sure, it promotes how tough the sport can be and sometimes goes too far in highlighting the gratuitous violence.

The biggest perpetrators of his practice, however, is ESPN. While reporting about the NFL's decision to crack down on the most violent hits, it looped a B roll of the hits last Sunday that prompted this furor. As the reader reported the story, we constantly saw Dunta Robinson drive DeSean Jackson into next week; James harrison knock out two Cleveland Browns; and Brandon Meriweather knock Todd Heap into dreamland. Over and over and over. Ad nauseam.

Harrison, fined $75,000 by the league for his rather extreme way of playing the game against Cleveland, threatened to quit because he didn't know if he could play football the way the NFL poobahs wanted. Anyone who took that seriously is either naive or will believe anything. He's back and nastier than ever.

Yes, the league has overreacted to the devastating hits Sunday. But if anyone is to blame, it would be Roger Goodell, who has declared that the players' safety is his main goal.

What the commissioner should have done is sit down with his on-field officials at the beginning of the season and laid down the law. Helmet hits would result in immediate ejections. Use your helmet as a weapon and you're gone. That goes for offensive players, as well as their defensive counterparts.

The helmet has no place in football other than to cover the most vital part of the body -- the head.

If Goodell and his officials had taken that approach before the season, the latest controversy would have been averted. Now, we'll most likely see an overreaction by the officials with ejections aplenty this Sunday, some of them unwarranted.

It's very clear that a new way of tackling must be taught by coaching staffs around the NFL. Hitting with the shoulder aimed at a target somewhere between the hip and shoulder area and wrapping up the ball carrier with the arms is nothing more than a throwback to the way football was played before players began launching themselves as missiles.

And stay away from the knees. That'll draw the yellow laundry, too.

In hockey, it is understood that if you want to remain relatively healthy, it's much better and safer if you skate with your head up. Keeping the head up should be the rule in football, too.

Want to hit a ball carrier? Keep they head up and out of the way or else you could find yourself on the wrong side of a fine or, worse, a suspension.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How's that again?

Well, it looks as though the National Football League will take steps to crack down on what has been an epidemic of sensational (for TV) hits that cause serious injuries such as concussions.

And if you don't think concussions are serious injuries, you haven't been paying attention.

NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson has announced the league will take immediate steps to penalize heavily those players who persist in using their helmets as weapons.

"We've got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability," said Anderson, "We have to dispel the notion that you get a free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots."

All well and good except for one important item.

In Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh, Steelers linebacker James Harrison nailed the Browns' Joshua Cribbs with a direct helmet-to-helmet hit while Cribbs was running the ball on a play out of the wildcat formation. It was brutal, devastatingly flagrant and knocked Cribbs out of the game with a concussion.

Shockingly, the NFL did not see that hit as flagrant or dirty. It was, according to a league spokesman, quite legal because "helmet contact on a running play is not illegal."

Huh!! On all other plays it's legal, but not on running plays? What makes that any different? Where is the distinction?

That should make no difference whatsoever. Helmet-to-helmet hits should be outlawed regardless of where they occur or when they occur. Cribbs was in the grasp of another Pittsburgh defender and defenseless when struck from the blind side by Harrison's crunching hit.

There should be a clear distinction. There should be no gray area that permits devastating hits on some plays and results in stiff penalties on other plays. It's bad enough for officials to interpret and call those penalties now. Why make it even more difficult?

Officials have the right to eject players for unnecessary roughness. Unfortunately, we see very few ejections. Maybe we'll see more now that the rapid rise in extreme violence has gotten the league's attention.

The trend toward extreme violence has been coming on for some time now as the league turned the other way when helmets were involved. It has turned the game, at least from a defensive standpoint, into legal thuggery.

Perhaps the league should have a sit-down with their coaches and make it clear to them that this part of the game will be cleaned up. Coaches such as Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, for example, who said after Harrison's hits on Cribbs and Mo Massaquoi, "They were legal hits. Not fineable. He played good football."

I wonder how he'd react if Steelers receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace had been laid out and concussed instead of two members of the opposition. It all depends on one's perspective.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Monday leftovers

It will be extremely interesting to see what the National Football League does in the wake of a spate of recent head injuries, several of which became concussions. The league has become super sensitive when it comes to concussions and Roger Goodell has made it perfectly clear he will take the matter seriously.

After Sunday's carnage -- OK, a slight exaggeration -- in the NFL, it's readily apparent that something needs to be done right now if the league wants to avoid what could turn out to be a tragedy. And there is a way to deal with the problem. It's radical, but could be very effective.

It's quite easy. Immediately legislate helmet hits out of the game. Any hit involving the helmet draws a penalty. Whether it's a defensive player or offensive player, helmet hits are out. Period.

Broken bones are one thing. Torn muscles, ligaments and cartilage are another. So are sprained body parts. The one part of the body that should be off limits to any kind of damage is the brain. It needs to be protected as much as possible in a game that features unmitigated violence.

So how can the league effectively deal with helmet hits? Easy. The first helmet hit costs the perpetrator a $10,000 fine and a warning. Do it again and it'll cost you a lot more.

A second offense draws a $20,000 fine and a one-game suspension. Do it again and you miss the next four games without pay. If you persist, you might as well prepare for next season.

There is a rule in the NFL that states if you lead with the crown of your helmet, that constitutes spearing and should draw an immediate flag. Unfortunately, officials seem to have forgotten that rule, concentrating instead on the new rule that prohibits unnecessary violence against a defenseless player.

Goodell and his minions should draft a quick memo and send it down to their striped buddies on the field. If a helmet is involved in play, reach for your flag. If the players complain, too bad.

Hit the players where they feel it the most -- their game checks. Sooner or later, they'll get the message.

Football NFL style was played just as violently 30, 40, even 50 years ago. Players got hurt. Back then, however, they knew how to tackle. They were more fundamentally sound than most of today's players. They didn't have to launch themselves at the opposition. They learned to tackle the correct way by wrapping and dropping. Players today use their bodies like missiles.

The helmet is a weapon and until the NFL legislates it out of the injury equation, that weapon will continue to swell the rolls of players with concussions.

If it takes incidents like Atlanta defensive back Dunta Robinson's crushing hit on Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson or James Harrison's twin takeouts Sunday against the Browns to get the league moving, then it might be all worth it. If not, heaven help the player who winds up a paraplegic or, worse, dead.

Fans are still buzzing about Colt McCoy's pro debut in Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh. Some are anointing him the next big thing, the Browns' future unfolding before our very eyes. That, of course, is understandable since most Browns fans will latch onto anything that is remotely hopeful.

Others are taking a more conservative approach. It's only one game, they say. And they would be correct. But McCoy did display a poise most uncommon for someone so young in such an important role. And you might have noticed there was no huddle confusion and not once were the Browns flagged for a false start. That's to McCoy's credit.

I must admit I was against McCoy making his pro debut against a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. I feared he would be overwhelmed and called for Eric Mangini to start Brett Ratliff instead. I was wrong. At least for this one game. Let's see how he fares against the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in the next two games.

The Steelers had no idea what to expect from McCoy. They had no tape on which to make any preparations.He was an unknown factor. The Saints now have tape. And you can bet Bill Belichick will have a few surprises for the kid when they meet after the bye week.

What is going to take for Mangini and Brian Daboll to realize Evan Moore needs to become more involved in the offense? At the risk of sounding repetitious, Moore is not a tight end. He's a wide receiver in a tight end's body, much like Joe Jurevicius. It's no accident that he continually finds ways got get open. McCoy found him a few times for sizable gains in the Pittsburgh loss. His size and soft hands should make him a desirable target.

Perhaps it's time to make Eric Wright the nickelback and start rookie Joe Haden at cornerback. How much worse can Haden be than Wright, who has backslid so badly, his confidence has to be shot? What do the Browns have to lose by making the switch? Another game? They're already 1-5. Also, send Haden out to return punts now that Joshua Cribbs is going to be out for a while. Let Chansi Stuckey concentrate on catching passes because he certainly lacks the knack for catching punts.

For those of you wondering whether James Harrison of the Steelers will fined for his play Sunday, count on it. It will happen and it wouldn't surprise if he gets nailed twice. He'll complain, of course, but you can also count on his coaches reeling him in on the violence thing. If I'm wrong and history repeats itself, Harrison will be involuntarily contributing to NFL charities well into the season

It's time the Browns finally admit they made a mistake when they drafted Brian Robiskie in the second round in 2009. The kid from Chagrin Falls has been a colossal bust. With Cribbs and Mo Massaquoi out with injures against Pittsburgh, McCoy still found Moore and Ben Watson much more often than Robiskie. That's an indictment. The kid might be a nice blocker, but they didn't draft him to block.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Self-inflicted wounds

It's one thing when their opponents try to beat the Browns. But when they unwittingly help those opponents by beating themselves, that's too much to handle.

Take, for example, Sunday's 28-10 loss in Pittsburgh. Losing to the Steelers is bad enough, but it becomes maddeningly frustrating when the Browns practically hand the game to them.

On a day when the defense played more than respectably, when Colt McCoy looked like anything but a a rookie quarterback making his first National Football League start, when there appeared to be some hope for this team, the Browns failed miserably when it counted.

It is a team that certainly knows how to compete, especially on defense, but it does not know how to win. It does not know how to make plays that help win games. It is a like the little engine that tried, but couldn't.

The Browns played what can be best described as a reasonably good game against the Steelers for the better part of two and a half quarters. They made Ben Roethlisberger look like a quarterback playing for the first time this season. The rust showed early from his four-game suspension.

But then like most bad teams, when it really counted, the Browns hit the fail button with regularity in the game's final 20 minutes, dropping them even deeper among the league's bottom-feeders at 1-5 with New Orleans and New England dead ahead.

The Steelers turned a 7-3 lead into a 14-3 margin late in the third quarter in a snappy two minutes as Roethlisberger strafed the sieve-like Cleveland secondary with three passes covering 96 yards in a five-play drive. Missed tackles on Hines Ward on third down inside the 5 turned a certain field goal into six points.

A couple of series later, the self-inflicted-wounds alarm sounded. The Steelers, in punt formation in Cleveland territory, twice were called for infractions. Coach Eric Mangini accepted the penalties. Not certain why he accepted both when his best punt returner was knocked out of the game with a concussion midway through the second quarter. (More on that later.)

What in the world did he expect? Third time is a charm? Not in this case. More like a disaster when Chansi Stuckey attempted to the field the punt like a center fielder catching a routine fly ball. The gift, er, muff was recovered by the Steelers who then did what good teams do four plays later for an 18-point lead.

But then something unusual happened. The Cleveland offense, with McCoy looking more comfortable with each play, stung the blitz-happy Steelers with an impressive six-play, 70-yard scoring drive. Where in the world did that come from? Best drive of the season.

Gives one hope that maybe, just maybe, McCoy could turn out to be the real McCoy. He threw a couple of interceptions and looked confused at first by the incessant blitzing. But for the most part, he seemed to make the right move at the right time for someone so young and inexperienced. He did not embarrass himself.

But his coach embarrassed himself in the latter stages of the game. With the score at 21-10 and the Steelers with the ball deep in Cleveland territory following an interception, Mangini chose to stop the clock twice even though the game was well in hand and the Steelers were more than willing to run the clock out by running the ball.

So Big Ben and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin decided all right, if that's the way you want to play it, if you don't want to accept an 11-point loss, how about an 18-pointer? Forget the run. Let's try a TD pass to Heath Miller. Is that better? You can take your useless timeouts and stuff them.

What Mangini should have been angry about is the way Pittsburgh offensive lineman Flozell Adams nearly yanked Joe Haden's helmet off by the face mask when the rookie cornerback returned a Roethlisberger pick 62 yards in the first quarter. It went unflagged.

And he should have been angry about a vicious and very blatant helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison on fellow Kent State alum Joshua Cribbs midway through the second quarter, knocking him out of the game. It also went unflagged. Harrison also nailed Mo Massaquoi with a a double forearm shiver later that knocked him out of the game, too.

With Cribbs and his Wildcat plays out of the game and the game plan out the window, it was all McCoy all the time. And he acquitted himself well. A lot better than many fans expected.

One last rant: If the NFL does not crack down heavily on any hit involving the helmet, it is asking for trouble. The league is understandably skittish about concussions, but what will it take for it to realize most concussions are caused by helmet hits? A death? Some other catastrophic tragedy like permanent paralysis? The league needs to do something now.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Here comes Big Ben

Most fans expect the Steelers to roll over the Browns tomorrow afternoon in Pittsburgh now that Ben Roethlisberger is back under center for the Steelers.

Not gonna happen.

That's not say the Browns are going to win. That's not gonna happen, either.

You can expect Roethlisberger to spend most of the afternoon chipping off the rust he accumulated while sitting out a four-game suspension for misguided conduct (and that's being kind) off the field. A quarterback does not come off such a layoff and perform as though he had been doing it all along. Doesn't work that way.

Big Ben, who loves playing against the Browns (only one loss in his career), will struggle. The Steelers offense will struggle. Offense is all about timing and it'll take the big fella at least a couple of games to smooth out the rough spots.

He is not going to step in a perform at a high level. But one thing is certain: The Pittsburgh offense will be a lot better than it's been the first four games of the season.

The Steelers, as has been the case the last two decades, win games with a dynamic defense. And that, more than anything, is responsible for their surprising -- not to them -- 3-1 start. Most Steelers fans would have been happy with a 2-2 start with Roethlisberger as a spectator. They've got to be thrilled with 3-1.

When one checks the club's stats sheet and finds receivers Hines Ward and Heath Miller with just 22 catches total in those four games, and notices that the offense has scored just seven touchdowns (the Browns' offense has nine), there can be no question that defense is still the king in Pittsburgh.

Coordinator Dick LeBeau, who reached genius status a long time ago, is still up to his old tricks and not many teams have figured out a way to beat him. As long as safety Troy Polamalu is healthy, the Pittsburgh turnover machine hums merrily along.

In their four outings thus far, the Steelers have six interceptions and six fumble recoveries. That's three turnovers a game on which their offense had a chance to capitalize. Throw in 11 sacks and you have the formula by which you can win three games in four attempts with an offense not much better than a good college team.

And now that Big Ben is back, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians can unbutton the offense, which has averaged just 213 yards a game under Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, who combined for just 81 passes in four games. The threat of Roethlisberger also will allow Rashard Mendenhall more room to run since opposing defenses won't dare stack the line of scrimmage.

And then there's the revenge factor. Late last season, the Steelers arrived in Cleveland with a chance to get into the playoffs and defend their Super Bowl championship. But the Browns sacked Roethlisberger eight times in a 13-6 victory to eliminate the Steelers from contention. He and his offensive line have not forgotten that Thursday night on national television.

What's going to make Eric Mangini's job more challenging in this one is how he and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll plan to protect Colt McCoy in his professional football debut. The kid will see so many different looks, he'll be cross-eyed by the second quarter.

That said, it would not be surprising to see a lot of Joshua Cribbs in the wildcat, which was moderately successful in last season's victory. And don't expect any quick-count snaps. The more time the Browns can take off the clock, the better. Look for the ball to be snapped with one of two seconds left on the play clock. Shorten the game.

The most important goal for McCoy and/or Cribbs will be to win first down. If they can do that and keep second- and third-down plays at least manageable, they'll be OK. Otherwise, it'll be a long and frustrating afternoon.

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, hopes to duplicate its eight-sack performance the last time it faced Big Ben. Hoping won't make it so. If it gets half that number, it should be satisfied. They've got a good shot. The Pittsburgh offensive line has allowed 11 sacks this season.

Add it all up and it comes out to a Pittsburgh victory. But it won't be easy if the Cleveland defense continues to play well. Make it . . .

Steelers 23, Browns 10

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mangini's slippery slope?

Following the Browns' latest loss last Sunday to Atlanta, I was prepared to strongly suggest that Eric Mangini's career as head coach of the Browns was in dire jeopardy.

"Let the countdown begin on Eric Mangini's departure from Cleveland as head coach of the Browns," I jotted down. "It's difficult to feel numb anymore about this team. They have made feeling like that all too common the last 10 seasons."

Then the Browns' two best (relatively speaking, of course) quarterbacks went down with ankle injuries. And then the thought suddenly hit me.

No matter how this team does the rest of the season, no matter how badly it plays, the blame for losing can always be placed on the lack of a quality quarterback. How can the Browns be expected to win without a good quarterback? How can Mangini be blamed with one hand tied behind his back?

In other words, the coach received a get-out-of-jail-free card on job security when his quarterbacks went down. There is no way Mike Holmgren and/or Tom Heckert Jr. can fire the guy. It would make no sense. Unless, of course, the team stops listening to Mangini and begins tanking games. That possibility does exist.

When you stop and think about it, the Browns' defense, which has played relatively well this season, is bound to wear down soon. And when you take into consideration that the next four opponents -- Pittsburgh this Sunday, New Orleans, New England and the New York Jets -- own a combined record of 13-5 entering this week, that defense will get its sternest test in the next month.

In Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez, it will face the top tier of quarterbacks in the National Football League. It is not going to be pretty. At some point, the defense is bound to wear down with no help coming from an offense that has all the power of a popgun.

It is highly likely the Browns will enter the bye week with a 1-7 record with no relief in sight. It is not the kind of record Holmgren and Heckert expected. It'll be interesting to see how they react. Neither man is used to such ineptitude and paltry rewards on their efforts.

If, however, they surprise a lot of fans and pull the trigger on Mangini at the bye, his supporters will argue he can't win without a quarterback and that his dismissal is unfair. It would be a hollow argument. This was not a good club before the quarterbacks went down. It needed a transfusion, a radical change in attitude, and Mangini was not the man to inject it.

Hopefully, the guys in the ivory tower in Berea see this sooner rather than later and make a change in an attempt to salvage at least something this season.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Way too early

History has a way of repeating itself. And we're about to witness it again this Sunday in Pittsburgh. It won't be pretty.

When Colt McCoy steps under center for the Browns against the Steelers, one can only imagine the disaster that awaits. It puts me in mind of what took place on the second weekend of the National Football League season in 1999.

After Ty Detmer flamed out in the inaugural season opener against the Steelers, coach Chris Palmer figured he had nothing to lose when he placed Tim Couch in charge of the offense when it was obvious he wasn't nearly ready. It contributed to what eventually became a less-than-mediocre career.

It all but destroyed what might have been something a whole lot better. Instead of sticking with the veteran Detmer and taking his lumps, Palmer instead threw caution out the window and placed a raw rookie where he shouldn't have been placed.

And now, more than a decade later, a Browns head coach is about to make the same mistake. Granted the circumstances are different, but the results most likely will turn out the same.

With Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace nursing severe ankle injuries, most fans believe McCoy would be the most logical choice to start Sunday. After all, the rookie is the No. 3 quarterback. Why not?

Besides, a lot of fans want to see just what the highly-acclaimed college quarterback can do with the big boys. Let's see what he brings to the table.

Only one problem. Not only is McCoy not nearly ready, what happens Sunday could have a disastrous effect on the rest of his NFL career. Remember Tim Couch.

In the Steelers, he's facing the nastiest defense in the league. It's not even close, although Ravens and Jets fans might disagree. It is bellicose to the extreme. It makes great quarterbacks look less than normal. It makes good quarterbacks look awful. And it makes mediocre quarterbacks look . . . well you get the message. Rookie quarterbacks? Oy!

Obviously, Eric Mangini doesn't see it that way.

Unless the Browns come out with a massive dose of the Wildcat against the Steelers with Joshua Cribbs as the trigger, Mangini feels comfortable placing his young quarterback on the hottest of seats.

If I'm Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, I'm placing no fewer than nine men in the box on every play. I'm shutting down the Cleveland running game and daring McCoy to beat me with his arm.

That's not going to happen with McCoy, who has the weakest arm among the quarterbacks and arguably the weakest receivers corps in the league with which to work. James Harrison, Troy Polamalu & Co. have to be literally frothing at the very thought of facing this not-nearly-ready-for-primetime quarterback.

Why Mangini did not even consider Brett Ratliff for the start is puzzling. The normal rationale is that McCoy has been with the team all season and Ratliff was on another team's practice squad until the ankle woes hit the club.

That might be the case, but don't forget that Ratliff, who was with the Browns during training camp, is just as familiar with the Browns' offense, having been the club's third quarterback last season. Unless he has had severe problems with his memory in the last couple of months, he shouldn't have trouble picking up the offense.

If there is going to be a sacrificial lamb for the next three games -- against the Steelers, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots -- before the bye, it should be Ratliff. He's been around a lot longer than McCoy and has a lot less to lose.

If he starts, McCoy will see a game played with more speed and quickness than he has ever witnessed. Mistakes will come quickly and often. Unless he's more remarkable than any of us imagined, what eventuates Sunday in Pittsburgh could have career-threatening results.

Mike Holmgren has all but stated did not want to see McCoy this season. He wanted the youngster to learn on the sideline. Of course, he had no idea his quarterbacks had weak ankles.

If he's smart, Holmgren will let his coach know that starting McCoy will be a mistake and that Ratliff is the better choice.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A conundrum

The Atlanta Falcons arrive at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday with a 3-1 record. Not bad, say you? Lucky, say I.

The Falcons are the luckiest team in the National Football League. It's not even close. They should be dragging a 1-3 record into CBS Sunday against the Browns. They have won their last two games in the most improbable ways.

Two weeks ago, New Orleans place-kicker Garrett Hartley missed a chip-shot (29 yards) field goal in overtime, allowing Matt Bryant to subsequently kick the game-winner for Atlanta.

Last Sunday, the Falcons scrambled in the final minute to get into a position for a game-winning field goal against San Francisco, but 49ers cornerback Nate Clements, with a 14-13 lead, intercepted a Matt Ryan pass, then made a fatal mistake. He tried to return the pick for a touchdown instead of just falling down and forcing the Falcons to use all their timeouts. Falcons receiver Roddy White caught Clements from behind, stripped the ball, the Falcons recovered and went on to get a Bryant field goal for the victory.

Luck, it is said, is the residue of hard work. In this case, luck was anything but. Repeating: The Falcons should be 1-3 instead of leading their division. And now they meet another team down on their luck, most of it bad.

It is difficult to handicap the Browns-Falcons game. If you go by past history, the Browns should win with no problem. They have won 10 of the 12 meetings with the Falcons, including two since the return in 1999. And no one on the Browns knows the Falcons better than the man who is expected to start at quarterback.

Jake Delhomme has suited up against the Falcons in every one of his 12 NFL seasons. He has started 12 games against them -- he's 6-6 -- and has had moderate success from a statistical standpoint with 61.5% completion percentage, 16 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He has been sacked 18 times, lost four fumbles and thrown for 223 yards a game. But enough with the stats.

The Falcons present a different kind of problem for the Browns. Coach Mike Smith's team is predicated on ball control, featuring a strong running game, and a conservative passing game. Combine that with an opportunistic defense (eight picks in four games) and you understand why the Falcons are never out of a game.

In order for the Browns to have any shot at winning Sunday, they must stop the Atlanta ground game and put the game in Ryan's hands. Surprisingly, the Cleveland run defense has shown marked improvement this season, but it hasn't run into the likes of the Falcons' 1-2 punch of Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. They've lost only one fumble all season.

Ryan, who has been picked off just three times, rarely goes deep. It appears as though the Falcons' offensive philosophy features short- to medium-range passes with White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez as this chief targets. At least the Browns' secondary, burned so often on the deep pass this season, won't have to worry this week.

The Atlanta defense, which features three smallish but very active linebackers, relies heavily on the front four to pressure the quarterback. Key matchup there features a battle between Falcons defensive end John Abraham and Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who has not performed nearly as well thus far as he did in his first three seasons.

The big Browns questions surrounding this game:

is Delhomme healthy enough to play a majority of the game?

Can Peyton Hillis sustain his hell-bent style of running for a third straight week?

Who is the wide receiver du jour? Two weeks ago, it was Joshua Cribbs. Last week, it was Chansi Stuckey. Ergo, this week it'll be Mo Massaquoi. Or will it?

Can the Browns' run D make it three straight strong performances?

How many blitzes will defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dial up to force Ryan to throw before he wants?

Will the Falcons' good-luck streak finally come to a conclusion?

It's so easy to pick against the Browns, whose roster is not nearly as talented as Atlanta's. They have no advantage over the Falcons in any area.

But . . .

Something tells me that somewhere along the way, the Browns somehow will make up at least one of those two losses to open the season and this very well could be the one. It certainly won't be against the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints or New England Patriots in games six through eight.

So . . . with fingers crossed, make it:

Browns 16, Falcons 14

Monday, October 4, 2010

Monday leftovers

Much conversation today regarding T.J. Ward's near decapitation (exaggeration, of course) of Cincinnati wide receiver Jordan Shipley in the end zone in Sunday's 23-20 victory over the Bengals.

Sides, as expected, were taken. On one side are those who believe it was a dirty and unnecessary hit by the rookie safety. Obviously, the official who threw his flag on the play and the letter that is certain to arrive beckoning a fine for the hit agree with that assessment.

Then there are those who believe there was nothing wrong with the shoulder-to-helmet hit on a defenseless player. Aggressive football, they argue. This is not a game for players who wear skirts. Ward was only doing his job. Wonder how those people would feel if the Bengals Roy Williams had done the same thing to Chansi Stuckey in the end zone. Methinks they would have railed.

Ward's coach defended his immediate label of dirty player. His teammates defended him. That, naturally, is to be expected. Protect your own. That's what good teammates and coaches do.

Was his hit dirty? Borderline dirty. Had Ward's aim been lower and a little quicker, no problem. As it was, the head was targeted and National Football League officials have been instructed to flag anything to do with that area.

At the same time, it was nice to see some physical play from any of the Browns. Aggressive plays like reflect an attitude and if there's anything this team needs in large doses on defense, it's attitude. Ward just might have lit that fuse. We'll find out soon enough.

It would appear that Tony Pashos has entrenched himself at offensive right tackle. Two straight 100-yard games for Peyton Hillis is mute testimony that Pashos' insertion into the starting lineup has paid off handsomely. He and right guard Pork Chop Womack have also upgraded the club's pass protection on that side of the line.

It almost, but not quite, goes without saying that when John St. Clair is pronounced fit and ready to play, it would be a good idea to staple him to the bench. Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, Alex Mack, Womack and Pashos now seem to be functioning as a unit in a manner that offers hope for the future.

So much for passer rating, one of the most confusing and useless statistics in the stats-crazy NFL. In Sunday's victory, Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace had a passer rating of 74.9, while Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer racked up a passer rating of 121.4. Give out those numbers anonymously to a football fan who didn't see the game and ask him which quarterback won the game and anyone who would pick Wallace is either drunk or on drugs.

Wallace's number would have been higher had Chansi Stuckey been able to hold on to Wallace's pass late in the second quarter. Cincinnati's Leon Hall picked off the tipped ball, which was thrown perfectly. Why then should Wallace be penalized for the mistake of his receiver? Again, the fallacy of the passer rating.

It was nice to see Stuckey involved more in the offense. Now let's see more of Mo Massaquoi, the so-called No. 1 receiver on the team. And let's see a lot more of Evan Moore, a wide receiver mislabeled as a tight end. He's big, has good hands, knows how to get open and makes plays when called upon. Use him as a wideout with Stuckey and Massaquoi and take advantage of the middle of the field.

For those of you having a Wallace-Jake Delhomme argument, consider this: Wallace manages a better game. He has turned the ball over only once (that was his fault) in 12 quarters since taking over for Delhomme. His ability to escape the pass rush gives other teams something about which to worry.

This is not an endorsement of Wallace as the starting quarterback the rest of the season. He's way too short to withstand the rigors of a 15-game season and would wear down somewhere around midseason. But do not underestimate how important he is to an offense that can ill afford to turn the ball over.

In the first series of the Bengals game, the Browns took a timeout after the fifth play of Cincy's first drive. It was third-and-2 at the Bengals 46 and the Browns called a timeout. Why? Less than four minutes into the game and they needed a timeout? What the hell for? That was never explained.

Timeouts should be treated like gold. They are precious and should not be squandered in the opening moments of a game. They should be hoarded and used only when necessary because you never know when you're going to need one. It's always more valuable to keep them in your pocket for later use and not need them than to need them and not have them.

And then they blew another timeout late in the first quarter when they challenged -- and lost -- a ruling by an official who said the ball hit the ground on Ben Watson's alleged end-zone catch. The replay clearly showed the ball touched the ground. The Browns' eye in the sky in the press box apparently doesn't know the rule regarding end-zone catches. Another blown TO.

It's refreshing to see defensive coordinator Rob Ryan gamble on almost every play Sunday. Corners blitzing off the edge; zone blitzes on occasion; all-out blitzes; all kinds of exotic pressure designed to rattle Palmer. Most of the time it didn't work because the Browns don't have outstanding an pass rusher, but because he stayed with it long enough, it produced Matt Roth's clutch sack that kept the Bengals out of field-goal territory and helped preserve the victory. It would be nice to see him continue his gambling this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

Will this be the week Joshua Cribbs finally breaks free for one of his patented long touchdown runs on either a kickoff or punt? Probably not. Word has spread around the league that kicking off short, thus throwing off his blockers' timing, and punting away from him seem to be working just fine. Look for it to continue and challenge special teams coach Brad Seely to come up with something different.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Miracle of miracles

The fourth quarter for the Browns this season has become the bane of their existence. Three games, three leads heading into the final quarter, three losses.

So when they marched into the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, it was not surprising that more than just a few fans around Browns Nation wondered to themselves, "I wonder how they're going to blow this one." It's like getting hit over the head so many times that you expect it all the time.

This time, however, the Browns had a 23-13 lead, which is not precarious to most National Football League teams. But these are the Cleveland Browns, renowned for plumbing for losses when victory is in sight. It has become what might be considered a way of life for most Browns fans the last decade.

And it looked as though it was going to happen again after Carson Palmer, with help from a third-down personal foul call in the end zone on rookie Cleveland safety T.J. Ward, shoveled a touchdown pass to Brian Leonard that shaved the Cleveland lead to just a field goal with nearly 11 minutes left in regulation.

The Cleveland offense went into its fourth-quarter malaise right on cue while Palmer, who strafed the Browns secondary all afternoon with help from Terrell Owens, was beginning to look like an All-Pro against a tiring Cleveland defense.

It wouldn't be long before this one became loss number four. Fans had to be at least thinking, if not saying, "Here we go again." It was inevitable as the Bengals, after a pair of three-and-outs from the Browns, marched toward what would be no worse than a field goal.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had gambled all afternoon with blitzes from just about every conceivable angle. But Palmer remained clean most of the day, while Owens, an equal-opportunity abuser (i.e. Sheldon Brown, Eric Wright and Joe Haden), punished the Cleveland cornerbacks relentlessly.

It was just a matter of time as Palmer, who threw for nearly 375 yards, marched his team downfield with his no-huddle offense.

The something strange and truly unusual happened. And it turned the game around.

The Browns began catching some fourth-quarter breaks.

As the Bengals approached game-tying field-goal territory, Chad 85, who had been relatively quiet while Owens roamed free, was called for offensive pass interference on an incomplete third-down pass from the Cleveland 31.

Take the down, Eric Mangini, and make Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent try a 49-yard goal. There are still five minutes left and your men blocked an earlier Nugent field goal. This one's a no-brainer.

Damn, he took the penalty. When is he ever going to learn. The way Palmer has been throwing and Owens getting open, this one's going to turn out disastrously.

But wait. Matt Roth breaks free on another of Ryan's blitzes and sacks Palmer, taking the Bengals out of FG range.

Great call, Mangini.

The breaks don't stop there, but not without a what-was-he-thinking moment.

With 4:41 left to play, the ball on their 11-yard line and the Bengals down to two timeouts, the Browns start their next possession with a pass. A pass!! An incomplete pass!! It stops the clock. Oh-oh. So this is how they're going to blow it. Dumb play calling.

At this point in the game, the clock is your friend. Do not stop it.

Then someone must have gotten through to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Peyton Hillis is a weapon of mass destruction. Use it.

After an unusual holding call on a defensive lineman on second down, giving the Browns a fresh set of downs, it became the Peyton Hillis show and forced the Bengals to exhaust their timeouts. Left, right, left, right Hillis marched as the Cleveland offensive line came alive.

On the sidelines, Mangini ultimately smiled what looked a lot like a gas-pain smile when victory became evident.

No matter. A victory is a victory no matter how it's wrapped.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Are you sitting down?

Well, you better when you read the following sentence.

The Cleveland Browns will defeat the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. It won't be pretty. It won't be a classic by any stretch of the imagination. And it won't be replayed as one of the games of the week on the NFL Network.

But it will be a Browns victory.


Simply because the Bengals have not played well all season long on offense and if there's anything the Browns do well thus far this season, it's play good defense. Not great, but well enough to keep the final scores close. And Sunday, they'll continue Carson Palmer's very ordinary season.

You'd think the Cincinnati quarterback, with wide receivers like Chad 88 and Terrell Owens, a running back like Cedric Benson and an offensive line that averages nearly 6-6 and 326 pounds (center Kyle Cook is the midget at 6-3, 316), would be off the charts with his stats this season.

The Bengals have averaged 93 yards a game on the ground and Palmer, uncharacteristically erratic while completing just 56% of his passes, has thrown for just three scores and three interceptions. The team has reached the end zone just five times overall.

The Bengals have played very much like the Browns in many ways this season. Not much on offense and a strong defense. They've allowed just 17 points in their last two games after getting blown out by New England in the season opener.

And like the Browns, they've had problems reaching the opposing quarterback with just two sacks. That's one of the main reasons I like the Browns Sunday. The Bengals won't get close enough to whoever starts at quarterback for Cleveland. Whether it's Jake Delhomme and/or Seneca Wallace, look for the Browns to throw more.

You can bet the Bengals will load the box in an effort to stop Peyton Hillis, almost daring Delhomme and/or Wallace to throw the ball. If the Browns are smart, they'll try to stretch the field early (involve more than just one wide receiver), loosen up the Cincy defense and give Hillis room to batter his way to another 100-yard game.

Defensively, the Browns have improved dramatically at stopping the run with just 117 yards a game this season. That might not look overly impressive, but when you consider they allowed at least 20 more yards per game the last three seasons, that stat is impressive.

If Rob Ryan continues haul out his blitz packages, the Browns will be in this one right down to the final couple of minutes. And they'll reward the home folks with a victory. Make it:

Browns 16, Bengals 13