Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not so sweet homecoming

It's more than safe to say now that what unfolds Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena definitely will be the loudest, strangest and most spectacular sporting event in Cleveland this year.

It is already the most anticipated event of just about any kind in Cleveland since Game 5 of the Cavaliers-Boston Celtics playoff series last May 11. That was the night, you'll recall, when the fortunes of the Cavaliers took a decided turn for the worse. Only problem was no one knew it at the time.

Thursday night, a grim reminder of that evening reappears as not just the enemy, but the mortal enemy. LeBron James returns as a member of the Miami Heat to the building in which he became a basketball icon and singlehandedly placed Cleveland on the national sports map. To the sports world, he was Cleveland. City pride swelled with his exploits and the city adored him for it.

That's why the fans didn't know what to think, what to say about James' extremely questionable performance against the Celtics in that pivotal Game 5. Once the disbelief wore off, some said he choked. Some said he quit on the team.

The almost nonchalant manner in which he played that game belied what we had witnessed from him in his seven seasons with the Cavaliers. The desire, the drive, the almost maniacal hunger to excel was missing. His body language suggested he didn't care. He was not the LeBron James fans expected to see, perhaps unfairly, every game.

At the conclusion of that series one game later, James ripped off his Cavaliers Jersey as he headed for the dressing room and I wondered at the time just how symbolic was that gesture. As it turned out, much more symbolic than I ever imagined.

Ever since he "took my talents to South Beach" last July, James has been vilified by Cleveland sports fans as no other since Art Modell "had no choice" but to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1995. The visceral reaction that followed James' decision all but registered on the Richter Scale.

Cavaliers fans were angry, frustrated, disappointed. They felt betrayed by a young man who grew up in Akron and felt no compunction whatsoever when he turned his back on his hometown. Cleveland wasn't good enough for him anymore.

And that's why Thursday night's game takes on added importance to the emotional scene that will envelop the sports landscape. Because of James' departure, the Cavaliers have dropped off the national television map. Only two games this season. But you just knew the Heat's first trip to Cleveland would be one of them. The game has taken on so much importance, the TNT studio crew will be on hand at the Q. It'll definitely have a playoff atmosphere.

This will be more than just a game. It will be an event loaded with drama.

How will the fans react when James hits the floor for the first time? How will they react every time he touches the ball? How many points will he score in his first game back with the enemy? Will he attempt his patented powder toss before the opening tip? Will his teammates try and set him up to drop 50 on the Cavs?

How will James react to what almost certainly will be a hostile reception? The Cavaliers fear the worst if reports that security will be extraordinarily tight are to be believed. Cleveland fans can be nasty and downright mean. James knows that. He anticipates the worst.

"I'm ready for whatever response I'm going to get," he told ESPN.com. "It's going to be very emotional. I give a lot of thanks to that city, a lot of thanks to those fans for giving me the opportunity to not only showcase my talent, but to grow from a young boy to a man during my seven years. . . . It's going to be fun, but at the same time, it's going to be very emotionally draining."

Hopefully, saner heads will prevail at the Q. Cleveland doesn't need another black mark for fan idiocy.

The Heat, which is at home tomorrow night and plays its third game in four nights against the Cavs, most likely will arrive with an 11-8 record and a simmering controversy over the unexpectedly average start this season, while the Cavs check in at 7-10.

One report suggests James and coach Erik Spoelstra don't see eye to eye on his role with the Heat. The young coach has James playing the point more than he did with the Cavaliers with mixed results. Rumors that club President Pat Riley will step out of his ivory tower and replace Spoelstra have proved unfounded. Thus far.

Another report strongly suggests Spoelstra has been a much stricter disciplinarian with James than Mike Brown ever was with the Cavs and he doesn't like it. That sounds more like it.

One thing is certain, however. James is the linchpin to the success of his team. He is their leader by example. As he goes, so go the Heat. This has become his team, something I didn't believe would happen with the presence of Dwyane Wade.

Bottom line is the Heat has way too much talent to struggle and the Cavaliers don't have enough talent to compete for post-season activity. They are teams headed in opposite directions. But that won't diminish what will take place Thursday night.

Chris Bosh, who completes the Heat's superstar trifecta, put the game in proper perspective. "I'm sure it'll be something we've never seen before."

Count on it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

About damn time

It's official. Peyton Hillis has become someone other than "that guy who came to the Cleveland Browns from Denver in the trade for Brady Quinn."

Why is it official? Because the Cleveland running back has been discovered by ESPN. And when ESPN recognizes you and praises your talents, you have arrived. Or so they believe.

During his NFL Prime Time telecast Monday, host Trey Wingo referred to Hillis as "America's running back." Not certain what that means exactly, but the fact he was placed on such a high pedestal is bold recognition of his talent. And now the nation knows who Peyton Hillis is.

Of course, it took a three-touchdown afternoon against the Carolina Panthers Sunday to achieve that recognition. But what the heck. No one's complaining.

There are some strange and wonderful stories that permeate the National Football League landscape throughout the season, but this one has to be right up there with the best.

When training camp for the 2010 the season began for the Browns, Hillis was just another plug-ugly running back who found himself listed semi-anonymously among the team's running backs roster behind Jerome Harrison, rookie Montario Hardesty and James Davis. He was the fifth wheel on a four-wheel machine.

Then Hardesty went down with a knee injury, Harrison rubbed the coaching staff the wrong way and was benched despite a strong finish last season and just like that, Hillis was the starting running back. By game three, he became the regular by default. He was the only one left. And when Harrison was dealt to Philadelphia, the job officially became Hillis'.

No one knew exactly what to expect. Not even the coaching staff, which kept him on the bench at the start of the second game of the season against Kansas City.

He was just this big, strong kid from Arkansas with bulging biceps and supposedly not much else. He carried the ball just 81 times for 397 yards in his first two seasons with the Broncos. (Harrison had that much yardage in three games for the Browns late last season.) And when Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan in 2009, Hillis became a non-factor with just 13 carries for 54 yards.

So when Cleveland General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. shopped Quinn around the NFL and found a buyer in Denver on March 14, securing Hillis and two low-round futures draft picks in exchange, it was considered in some quarters as nothing more than just another innocuous deal.

Today, it's considered the steal of the year. And it's not even close.

Hillis has become the darling of the Cleveland sports community with his blue-collar running style. He epitomizes Cleveland with his hard-driving, never-quit work ethic. Browns fans adore his bull-like, almost crushing style of running the football.

It's almost as if he's looking for people to run over. When he scored his third touchdown Sunday against the Panthers, he ran over Charles Godfrey as though the Carolina safety was just a tiny impediment between him and the goal line. A flick of the left forearm and Godfrey, poised to make the solo tackle, was eating turf.

It was the kind of power running the Browns haven't had arguably since the great Jim Brown. Mild arguments can be made for Mike Pruitt, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, but Hillis maximizes his talent more and has more raw power.

His efforts have sent members of the media scurrying for the record book. Through game 11, Hillis has scored 13 touchdowns, 11 on the ground. The only game in which he failed to score at least once was the Pittsburgh loss in week 6. If he keeps up this pace, he has a chance to break at least one club record.

The Browns' record for total TDs in a season is 21 (in 14 games), held by Brown in 1965, his final season. He scored a record 17 on the ground twice, 1958 in 12 games and 1965.

However, Hillis doesn't appear to be the kind of player who cares much about personal achievements. The only statistic that matters to him is the one under the column marked W. If the Browns had lost to the Panthers Sunday, his virtuoso achievements would have been noteworthy and not much else.

It was apparent as early game three in Baltimore that Hillis was someone special. Even though the Browns lost to the Ravens, he ran for 144 yards against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. It was the first of his four 100-yard games.

His one vice, if you can call it that considering how much he's meant to the Cleveland offense this season, is an occasional inability to hang on to the ball. He has fumbled five times, losing four. All five have been the result of second and third efforts.

That's the kind of runner he is, always looking to pound out more yards. He clearly reminds avid NFL fans of Mike Alstott, the burly running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2006. They are built alike -- Alstott at 6-1, 248 pounds and Hillis at 6-1, 240 pounds.

Their styles are remarkably similar, but Alstott never put up numbers like Hillis has this season. Alstott's best season was a 949-yard effort in 1999 and he never scored more than 11 TDs in a season. Hillis already has 905 yards with five games left.

There are some who say Hillis eventually will pay dearly for all the contact he absorbs throughout the game. But then they don't take into account the amount of punishment he dishes out at the same time.

Hillis' achievements this season are certain to gain recognition around the league when it comes time for balloting for the Pro Bowl. It would not be surprising if he is well on his way to becoming the first Cleveland running back in the Pro Bowl since Eric Metcalf in 1995.

And if there's a more popular athlete in Cleveland right now, I don't know who it would be. No one on the Indians and Cavaliers comes close to challenging Hillis' popularity now that You Know Who is no longer on the scene.

Monday leftovers

Time once again to pick on Jake Delhomme, whose stay in Cleveland might be shorter than originally planned. He has been exposed as an interception waiting to happen. Just when things are going smoothly, you can almost count on Delhomme to make a boneheaded play.

For some reason, Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has more confidence in Delhomme than Colt McCoy despite the fact the rookie takes much better care of the ball. Delhomme has thrown 95 passes this season for one touchdown and six interceptions. Six picks in 95 throws doesn't exactly inspire the kind of confidence Daboll has shown.

Just because he's been in the National Football League for 13 seasons doesn't give license to the notion that he can be trusted at all times. He entered the league a year before Tim Couch was drafted by the Browns and has displayed Couchian tendencies when throwing the ball.

He's often late with his throws. Both interceptions in Sunday's victory over Carolina were classic examples. Had he thrown the ball a second or two earlier, neither pass would have been picked off and most likely would have wound up as a completion. His failure to trust his receivers is a causal factor. He seems to wait until his intended target makes his break before releasing the ball, thus giving the defender time to make an adjustment.

For example, Delhomme waited for Mo Massaquoi to complete a dig route to the right of the formation before sending a floater his way, enabling Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to easily step in front of the Browns receiver for an easy pick six early in the third quarter. If the ball is out on time, Massaquoi makes the grab.

Mistakes like that more than balance out Delhomme's 24-for-35, 245-yard afternoon. Ordinarily, those aren't bad stats, but throw in the two costly interceptions and you have a recipe for possible disaster. Gaffes like that shouldn't be tolerated.

Speaking of receivers, was that really Brian Robiskie making seven catches -- he was targeted seven times -- against the Panthers or did someone switch uniforms with him? Seven catches? That's almost as many (9) as he's caught up to this point of the season. The best part of his afternoon was that four of his grabs were for first downs. That's a stat that can't be stressed enough.

The fact Delhomme fleshed out Robiskie's talent as a wideout in the NFL definitely is a plus. Until now, all we could surmise is that Robiskie was good at going through the motions, but otherwise proved very little. It's nice to see the young man from Chagrin Falls finally step up when it counted. Now let's see what he can do against Miami, Buffalo and Cincinnati on the road.

All of a sudden, the next two games in Miami and Buffalo don't seem to be as easy as they were a couple of weeks ago. Quarterback Chad Henne is healthy again and playing well for the Dolphins. Only problem there is that the Dolphins have won just once in five home games this season while compiling a 5-1 record on the road. However, the Browns are 1-4 on foreign fields.

Buffalo, on the other hand, is playing its best ball of the season. Sunday at home, they should have beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime for their third straight victory. A dropped touchdown pass by Steve Johnson resuscitated the Steelers, who won later in OT. The Bills are not the pushovers they were a month ago.

There was some controversy over whether Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell should've been ruled inbounds following his catch with just seconds left in regulation Sunday. A replay showed LaFell made the catch and rolled out of bounds before being touched by Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown.

Brown attempted to touch LaFell before he made the catch, but his hand was clearly not touching the Panthers' wideout when the catch was made. As it turned out, the officials made the correct call to stop the clock. Had Brown been successful in touching LaFell before he rolled out of bounds with the ball, the clock would have continued to run, leaving no time for the Panthers to get John Kasay on the field for a field-goal attempt.

Props to punter Reggie Hodges, whose handling of a high snap enabled Phil Dawson to kick what turned out to be the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. It was one of the few bad snaps you'll ever see by Ryan Pontbriand, perhaps the most reliable long snapper in the NFL. In some ways, he's one of the team's most valuable players.

After watching Joe Haden against the Panthers, it's becoming evident why General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. made the cornerback the team's No. 1 selection in last April 's draft. He was on veteran Carolina wideout Steve Smith most of the afternoon and limited him to just two catches for 33 yards. He basically neutralized the former All-Pro.

And when it came to making solid tackles, Haden whiffed only once when Mike Goodson made that terrific run and catch as the Panthers scrambled to win the game in the last minute. Other than that, he showed the same toughness he displayed at the University of Florida.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This feels more like a loss

When does a victory seem more like a loss? After the Browns' effort against the Carolina Panthers Sunday at CBS, that one's easy to answer.

When you allow the worst team in the league to come from way behind and have a legitimate shot at beating you with mere seconds remaining on the clock. When you watch one of the National Football League's best and most accurate kickers line up for a relative chippy for him. And miss.

When you watch as the Browns' coaching staff goes into mass brain lock just when it appeared as though they would do what most fans thought and run away with the game. And when the club's so-called starting quarterback, the man to whom they will pay $7 million this season, plays up (or is it down?) to his nickname of Captain Interception.

That's why the Browns' 24-23 victory over the Panthers seems more like a loss. When John Kasay's 42-yard field-goal attempt skimmed and then ricocheted off the outside of the left upright as the clock struck 0:00, most fans cheered. But if they were honest with themselves, they had to know this should have been a Carolina victory.

Kasay, who came into the game hitting seven of eight field-goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards this season, missed a pair from that distance on this afternoon. Now if that isn't luck, then let's redefine the word.

The Panthers deserved to win this one because they outplayed the Browns in the final 30 minutes after being overwhelmed in the first 30. Of course, they had plenty of help from Jake Delhomme, the Captain himself, who lived down to his reputation and threw two interceptions (including a pick six) in a three-play span to begin the second half to give his ex-teammates hope.

For those of you who think this is too negative, stop right here and head for the Browns' Web site and soak in the glory of their latest victory because you're not going to get it here. Plainly and simply, the Browns deserved to lose a game that had no business being as close as it was.

There is no reason in the world the Panthers, who own the worst offense in the NFL (and that's not arguable), should have been able to drive 71 yards in about 45 seconds with no timeouts left and put Kasay into position to yet again break the hearts of Browns fans.

A combination of poor tackling (will the Browns ever fix that nagging problem?) and sensational plays by Carolina's Mike Goodson and Brandon LaFell served to quiet the crowd at CBS and put the Panthers in a position to win. Poor tackling is on the coaches.

Eric Mangini and his staff nearly blew this game with some strange coaching. On both sides of the ball.

For example, with the Peyton Hillis running wild and putting on a virtuoso performance in the first half and the Panthers clearly on their heels, why come out throwing in the second half? Especially with Delhomme at the controls.

It should have been seen as a sign of things to come when Delhomme, inexplicably going back to pass from his 29-yard line with 45 seconds left in the first half and a 21-13 lead, fumbled the ball. Luckily, tackle John St. Clair fell on the ball or else the Panthers would have had a chance to score more points. Why pass there? Especially when the Browns received the second-half kickoff.

Hasn't it become abundantly clear the veteran quarterback is speeding on the downward spiral of what's left of his career? After watching how well Colt McCoy took care of the football before he got hurt, what will it take for Mangini and his offensive coaches to realize Delhomme is his polar opposite and bench him?

And when the Browns had a fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 25 early in the fourth quarter and the fans cheering because Mangini decided to go for it, where in the world was fullback Lawrence Vickers? On the bench. That's where. Best blocking fullback in the AFC, if not the entire NFL, was watching from the sideline. Hillis lined up as the lone back behind Delhomme and didn't come close to making the first down. Why did Mangini endorse that play? He could have vetoed it.

There is no way the coach comes away from this victory feeling good about his club. If he's honest with himself, he knows he got away with one and probably temporarily saved his job. Because if the Browns had lost to a 1-9 team, especially the way they might have, fans would have lined up seeking his head. Just guessing here, but that group might have included more than a few of his supporters.

And I don't want to hear about the Browns playing down to the level of the opposition. They aren't a good enough team yet to warrant using that as as excuse. In just a few weeks, they have turned into an entirely different team.

This is not the same team that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a battle in week 6, beat the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints at their home in week 7, defeated the New England Patriots solidly at home in week 8 and gave the New York Jets fits before losing in week 9.

That team gave fans what has turned out to be false hope. That four-game stretch caused many fans to seriously think their team was turning a corner. The corner has disappeared after last Sunday's loss in Jacksonville despite getting six turnovers and this latest "victory."

No, this is not a victory of which to be proud. The Browns took what should have been an easy triumph and turned it into an adventure. They allowed the Panthers to hang around. And when you allow a team to hang around, all you're doing is inviting trouble no matter how good (or bad) you are.

It'll be interesting to see how Mangini handles his quarterback situation next Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins in the first of three straight road games. Obviously, McCoy is out of the picture with his ankle sprain. That leaves Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, who takes care of the ball somewhat better than Delhomme.

Does the coach stick with his veteran captain despite his showing against the Panthers or turn to a more mobile Wallace? Inquiring minds want to know, especially those who want to see Delhomme with a clipboard in his hand rather than a football.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This one's a gimmee

In what amounts to a walkover, the Browns finally catch a break in the schedule Sunday when the pathetic Carolina Panthers invade CBS for what is expected to be a rout.

The Panthers are so bad, they're beyond pathetic and should offer little or no resistance to the Browns despite the fact Jake Delhomme returns at quarterback. Yes, Captain Interception masks his first start since the season opener against the team that deemed him washed up.

And if that doesn't give the veteran enough incentive, nothing will, especially against a team that has surrendered 252 points in 10 games. And when that team has the ball, it has managed an astounding 117 points, nearly half of them (55) by kicker John Kasay.

If stats like that don't strongly suggest the Browns are finally going to have fun beating up on someone else, snack on these. Only 143 first downs, 10 touchdown passes, a paltry 1,561 passing yards, a minus-10 turnover ratio and a minus-135 point differential that leads the National Football League. All signs point toward a fun afternoon for the fans.

The only threats the Panthers offer are wide receiver Steve Smith, still dangerous despite working with young quarterbacks, and second-year running back Mike Goodson, who ripped off 120 yards last week in the loss to the Baltimore Ravens in place of the injured DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

The ineffective offensive line has permitted 30 sacks and produces less than 100 yards on the ground for offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson, who held that job at one time with the Browns. Right now, the Panthers, whose only victory was a 23-20 home decision over the equally pathetic San Francisco 49ers in week 7, are just playing out the schedule. They lead the pack for the No. 1 pick in April's college draft.

John Fox is a fired coach walking. He'll find work elsewhere next season as a defensive coordinator, perhaps with the Browns should another team find Rob Ryan attractive enough to offer yet another Ryan a head coaching job.

In the meantime, picking the winner in this one is almost too easy. It won't be close. When the sun (being optimistic here) sets on the afternoon, make it:

Browns 34, Panthers 10

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday leftovers

Lots to get to today . . .

Clearly in the nature of a second guess, but I wonder if it occurred to Eric Mangini Sunday to let Rashad Jennings score a touchdown quickly in the waning stages of the game in Jacksonville in order to have more time with which to attempt a comeback.

Maurice Jones-Drew was hauled down by Browns cornerback Joe Haden at the one-foot line after his 75-yard run and catch with a screen pass with about two minutes left in regulation. With no timeouts, why not allow the Jaguars to score easily and then get the ball back with about 1:50 left?

Jones-Drew was getting a breather on the sideline following his big run and Jennings lined up at tailback when play resumed. The Browns stuffed him for no gain as the clock wound down before Jones-Drew came back and scored what turned out to be the game-winner with 1:12 left. With no timeouts left, Mangini couldn't stop the clock.

So instead of about 1:50 left had Jennings been allowed to score, Mangini allowed roughly 40 precious seconds to burn off because he was bereft of timeouts. That's called not thinking on your feet.

I bring it up strictly as a second guess a day later, sure, but Mangini is getting paid handsomely to make such command decisions in the best interests of his club. That is part of his job. To think ahead of the curve.

Had Haden not caught Jones-Drew, the Browns would have had a full two minutes with which to work. But the rookie Cleveland corner reacted instinctively. Players are taught and coached to prevent scoring, not permit it. Can't blame the young man for that.

During the 72 seconds with which he had to work, Colt McCoy frittered away at least 20 seconds while trying to get his men lined up properly following a first-down conversion. He twice had ample opportunity to spike the ball to kill the clock, but chose not to. By the time he did spike the ball, there were roughly 15 seconds left and about 30 yards to the end zone.

With no timeouts to help, he wasted way too much time. Someone had to be screaming into his helmet from the sidelines to kill the clock with a spike. If they weren't, then something is definitely wrong with the coaching staff. McCoy played almost too casually for what was at stake.

Sure, he got the Browns close and had a crack at the end zone, but it would have been that much easier had he had a firmer grasp of the time constraints within which he worked. This is one you can chalk up to a rookie mistake. But given his performance thus far, it could turn out to be one of just a few. The fact he got them as close as he did as quickly as he did at the end can be looked on as a positive.

The Cleveland offensive line sure picked the wrong Sunday to have a bad game. Everyone on that line was culpable as the Jaguars absolutely manhandled them most of the afternoon. The Jags loaded the box all day, daring McCoy to throw, often rushing as many as seven.

They clogged just about all of Peyton Hillis' running lanes and made certain that at least two or three men greeted him every time he traveled beyond the line of scrimmage. Jags defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, in particular, severely tested Cleveland center Alex Mack.

It also became clear that the right side of the line operates better with Pork Chop Womack at either guard or tackle. Against the Jags, he was on the bench with an injury. John St. Clair and rookie Shaun Lauvao had a great deal of difficulty holding down the strong side of the formation and that's where most of the pressure on McCoy came from.

OK, let's try this one more time. With feeling. EVAN MOORE IS NOT A TIGHT END. HE'S A WIDE RECEIVER AND NEEDS TO PLAY MORE. What in the world will it take for the Browns' brain trust to recognize that Moore's size alone (6-6, 250) makes him an appealing target for McCoy. He's not a good blocker. Never has been. But he sure knows how to get open and catch a football.

Mo Massaquoi, Chansi Stuckey and Brian Robiskie have trouble getting open. Wait. Robiskie is still on the team? Why? He doesn't contribute anything. Oh, wait a minute. He's a very good blocker downfield. But the Browns don't get enough players with the ball downfield. So why is he on the field more than Moore?

Probably because the Browns regard Moore as a tight end. HE IS NOT A TIGHT END.

Wanna know how valuable Joshua Cribbs is to the Cleveland offense? One wonders how much of a difference he would have made had he been healthy enough to play in Jacksonville. Even though he's not the best wideout on the team, he has made numerous clutch catches this season to bail out his quarterbacks. That element was missing Sunday.

And, of course, his ability to give the offense a short field with his returns. That, too, was absent. But the defense made up for it by giving the offense the ball at the Jacksonville 48, Jacksonville 18, Cleveland 43 and Jacksonville 35 on successive turnovers in the second half and all it could muster was a field goal. One could only imagine what the final score would have been had the defense not been so opportunistic.

Having watched Jones-Drew only casually and appreciating his talents from afar, that appreciation grew sizably after watching him against the Browns. He is a midget version of Hillis in that he refuses to go down and piles up loads of yardage after contact. His low pad level makes him look even smaller and harder to find with his 5-7 (maybe) stature. He ducks behind his large offensive line and plays "where's MJD?" very well.

He slithers and slashes and when defenders do locate him, his ability to stay on his feet enables him to pile up the yards. The 75-yard play that helped seal the victory was the result of a very tired Cleveland defense. When players get tired, they have a tendency to arm tackle. Three Browns had a clear crack at him on the screen play, but could offer an obligatory arm tackle. And Jones-Drew is one guy you don't bring down with arm tackles.

Now come the sad-sack 1-9 Carolina Panthers, odds-on favorites to own the No. 1 pick in the college football draft. The Panthers play football more like kitty cats. They have scored just 117 points this season, far and away the worst offense in the National Football League. On the road, they are a slightly better team with 58 points in four games. At home, they have put just 59 points on the board in six games.

If the Browns' record is not 4-7 by around 4 p.m. this Sunday afternoon at CBS, the panic button will be a popular target for a large number of fans.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Knock, knock; nobody home

That glad-hander named opportunity knocked furiously on the Browns' door all afternoon Sunday down in Jacksonville. In fact, it pounded on that door. Damn near blasted the thing off its hinges.

Unfortunately, no one answered.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, clearly feeling in the holiday mood a few days early, did everything they could to give away their game with the Browns. Need an interception? Here, how about four of them? And just because we feel like it, we'll throw in a couple of fumble recoveries. Have fun.

The Cleveland offense said, "Thank you very much," and proceeded to engage in a little holiday frolicking of its own. After considerable thought, the offense reconsidered and declined to take advantage of the Jags' generosity.

Rarely, if ever, will you find a football team at any level that turns six turnovers into a measly and embarrassing 10 points and loses the game. Yet, that's exactly what transpired in northern Florida as the Browns gift-wrapped a 24-20 Jaguars victory with an offensive display that had the distinct aroma of something Browns fans witnessed in 1999.

Frustrating does not even begin to describe the aftertaste of this one. Neither does disappointing. When a team eschews the extraordinary amount of generosity it received Sunday and does not take advantage, one has to wonder just how close the Browns are toward turning the corner. For a while, it looked as though that corner was in sight.

In what appeared to be a positive and hopeful look at the immediate future following four well-played games against the best teams in the National Football League, this has to be regarded as a gigantic step back in a direction no one wants to even contemplate.

If last Sunday's loss to the New York Jets was bitter, the latest setback almost defies description.

Incredibly, the Browns created five of their six turnovers in consecutive series in the second half. Five straight times, the Jaguars turned over the ball. In the NFL, that is considered suicidal. There was no luck involved. All five were legitimate and well earned.

Where the Jacksonville offense sputtered and stammered, the Cleveland defense capitalized. And when the Cleveland offense sputtered and stammered, the Jacksonville defense picked up their teammates. They made Colt McCoy look like what he is -- a rookie. They absolutely crushed the Browns' offensive line all afternoon and delivered a battering to McCoy that he hasn't experienced in a long time.

Each time the Jags belched a turnover, the defense stiffened. It's time to read 'em and weep.

Second quarter: Abram Elam, playing perhaps his best game as a Brown, picks off a Maurice Jones-Drew halfback option pass. The result: Three plays for minus-5 yards from the Cleveland 20 and a punt.

Third quarter: Elam rakes the ball out of Jones-Drew's arms, recovers and goes 18 yards for a touchdown.

Third quarter: T. J. Ward makes the first of his two interceptions against David Garrard. The result: Three plays for minus 4 yards from the Jags' 48 and a punt.

Third quarter: Joe Haden picks off Garrard. The result: Three plays for minus-1 yard from the Jacksonville 19 and a 38-yard Phil Dawson field goal.

Fourth quarter: Ray Ventrone forces a Garrard fumble and Chris Gocong recovers. The result: Three plays for minus-1 yard from the Cleveland 43 and a punt.

Fourth quarter: Ward makes his second interception off a deflection. The result: Three plays for 2 yards and a missed Dawson field goal from 51 yards.

Add it up and please pass the Pepto-Bismol. Not counting the Elam TD, the Browns' offense mustered minus-9 yards in 15 snaps with three punts, one successful field goal and a missed field goal following the other TOs. Awful.

Now that, by any standard, is considered exquisite transition defense by the Jags, who dropped McCoy six times, hit him eight other times and recorded numerous hurries. They bull-rushed almost all afternoon and took away his throwing lanes. At least four of the sacks were of the coverage variety.

It was almost as though the 16-play, 92-yard drive that consumed nearly 10 minutes and resulted in the first Cleveland touchdown was an aberration. What went right on that drive was never repeated.

The Browns never countered the fierce Jacksonville pass rush with quick-developing plays. No slants, no outs, very little misdirection. McCoy really had no chance.

The offense was so awful in the second half, Eric Mangini had to call time out at least once down the stretch to give his gassed defense a chance to catch its breath. That tired state helped contribute to Jones-Drew's remarkable 75-yard catch and run with a Garrard pass in the final minutes, during which three Browns flailed at him with arm tackles and missed. It led to the winning TD.

This latest loss should serve as a slap in the face for those players who might have taken this game too lightly. No one knows for certain, but they had to be feeling pretty good about themselves after how well they played during their difficult four-game stretch.

It'll be interesting to see how this humbling loss affects them as they prepare for next Sunday's game at home against Carolina. How they perform should give us a little more insight as to the personality of this team.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Positively pivotal

There are games throughout the National Football League season that have greater impact than others. The Browns will play such a game Sunday in Jacksonville against the Jaguars.

The team has reached a point in its season where the result of one game can mean the difference between another plunge to the bottom of the AFC North and adding another chapter in a comeback story no one anticipated.

Given their performances in the last four games, the Browns' game against the Jaguars qualifies as a must-win. This team has managed in the last month or so to play some very good football. So good, in fact, it approaches the Jags game with a confidence it hasn't had for way too many seasons.

The next five games for Cleveland are winnable and the key is this one. Win it and the next four against Carolina, Miami, Buffalo and Cincinnati give rise to the possibility that a .500 season or better is a distinct possibility. And that is something no one in his right mind would have predicted back around Labor Day.

But Jacksonville must be conquered first. It won't be easy, of course, but the last three trips down to the northern Florida city have resulted in three victories. There's no reason to believe the Browns can't make it four in a row.

The Jags are a shaky 5-4 this season and can thank a last-second miracle last Sunday against Houston for that record. Otherwise, it has been a spectacularly up-and-down season for Jack Del Rio's crew.

Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew, a one-man gang who has 90% of the team's carries, there is no one on this team who frightens opponents. And the relative success the Browns have had against the run this season (compared to their abysmal stats the last several seasons) causes one to be sanguine about their chances of shutting down Jones-Drew.

Load the box and force quarterback David Garrard to throw the ball. Even though he's coming off a 342-yard game, Garrard has blown hot and cold this season. In the Jags' five victories, he has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just one interception. In their four losses, only one TD and six picks. He's been sacked 17 times, but has completed 69% of his passes.

The Browns will have to pay close attention to huge tight end Marcedes Lewis, who has just 30 catches, but seven have wound up in the end zone. Wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, another hot-and-cold performer, has just four TD receptions.

But it's the soft Jacksonville defense that the Browns must target. The Cleveland offense, which has grown exponentially the last month since Colt McCoy moved under center, must play aggressively. Expect the Jags to try and take Peyton Hillis out of the offense and force McCoy to throw the ball.

The Jags are hurting along the defensive line with sack leader Aaron Kampman out for the year with a torn ACL and Jeremy Mincey playing with a broken hand. Mincey moves to Kampman's spot on the right side of the line and former first-round draft pick Derrick Harvey takes over on the strong side, a move the Browns should exploit due to Harvey's weak play against the run.

The burgeoning offense, now that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is beginning to trust McCoy more, needs a few new wrinkles. Since he's shown more mobility than expected, more misdirection plays by McCoy could take pressure off the offensive line. And Daboll somehow must get more wide receivers involved.

McCoy can't just keep throwing to Ben Watson and Chansi Stuckey. Evan Moore and Brian Robiskie need to become a part of this offense, especially Moore, who seems to catch everything thrown his way. It just needs to get thrown his way more often.

The Browns, who should have come out of last Sunday's game against the New York Jets with no less than a tie, seem to have recovered emotionally from the loss and appear to be focused on the Jaguars.

If they are in the proper emotional frame of mind on Sunday, they will not lose this one. Make it:

Browns 27, Jaguars 17

Monday, November 15, 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel

Didn't see yesterday's game against the New York Jets. Family event. Nowhere near a television set. Found out the Browns lost to the Jets 36,000 feet in the air somewhere over Colorado.

So I can't comment from what my eyes did not see, but after reading accounts of the game and perusing the box score and play-by-play of the game, certain thoughts about the Browns and the direction they are heading have come into focus.

I didn't realize they had lost in overtime, and when I checked the play-by-play and discovered they had a chance to escape with a tie, the disappointment was palatable. Especially after noticing that Eric Mangini elected to call a timeout with less than 90 seconds left in OT and his men just nine feet from their goal line.

The timeout followed an incomplete pass by Colt McCoy on first down after Joe Haden intercepted a Mark Sanchez third-down pass he should have knocked down at the Cleveland 3 and forced a punt. Why call a TO there? It made absolutely no sense. The Browns had played hard and played well. There was nothing wrong with a tie in this instance.

It has been said that winding up with a tie is like kissing your sister. But not in this case. The players did not deserve to lose this game. A tie would have been a victory of sorts. At the very least, it would not have been a loss resulting in a very somber dressing room.

A deadlock would have meant you played one of the best teams in the National Football League and escaped with your dignity intact. It would have sent yet another message around the NFL that there is a resurgence of football in Cleveland.

There are those who argue that if Mangini hadn't called timeout, Jets coach Rex Ryan would have. Maybe so. But Ryan had only two timeouts with which to work -- that's all teams get in OT -- and they wouldn't have been given his team time enough time to do what they eventually did.

There are times when conservative football is wise. This was one of those times. Oddly, the usually conservative Mangini unwisely helped his coaching rival when he called that timeout. It gave the Jets the slimmest hope of winning and that's exactly what they did.

But even in defeat, the Browns had nothing of which to be ashamed, although the shock of losing the way they did might take some time to wear off. They now head into the easy portion of their schedule, playing the next five games against teams they have a good chance of defeating even though four are on the road. They have won the last three times they traveled to Jacksonville, this Sunday's opponent.

The offense is playing with a great deal of confidence now that McCoy appears to have cemented the job at quarterback. Against the Jets, he once again protected the ball, stretching to three games his streak of not throwing an interception. That despite working with one of the NFL's worst receiver groups.

And Peyton Hillis, his fumbling issues notwithstanding, is a relentless force who helps keep defenses honest and is a major factor in McCoy's ability to be successful with play-action passes. If the Browns are to have any chance of moving the ball, Mangini must swallow hard and keep Hillis in the lineup.

The defense, which had a hiccup of a game against a Jets offense that played wonderful ball control, needs to regroup and become more determined to do a better job on third down. The Jets' ability to convert on third down (11 of 21) wore down a Cleveland defense that had already lost Sheldon Brown and Scott Fujita.

There are two ways to take this latest loss. It was either a crushing blow that will have a negative impact on the rest of the season. Or it can be looked on as a positive experience because the Browns took on one of the best in the NFL and did not embarrass themselves. They proved they can hang with the best, just as they did against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and New England. A 2-2 record in consecutive games against four of the toughest teams in the league is something of which to be proud.

The Browns finally are playing the brand of football that is making the rest of the NFL sit up and take notice. Now comes the hard part. Going out and proving their performance in those four games was not a fluke.

The light at the end of this tunnel might not be that oncoming train. We'll find out in the next five weeks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's all about the bull's-eye

As they wend their way triumphantly toward the middle of the pack in the National Football League, the Browns, in the process, have acquired a rather large bull's-eye on their backs.

That's what victories over two of the league's best teams will do. It doesn't take long for news to travel around the NFL warning teams that playing the Cleveland Browns is no longer like having a week off. No, that has changed.

And you can bet the New York Jets will be pounded by their coaches this week on that very notion. The Braylon Edwards silliness aside, the Jets will arrive in Cleveland Saturday knowing that one of the hottest teams in the league awaits with a confidence that has been lacking way too long.

Sunday's game is being billed in some quarters as the Robbie and Rexie Show in deference to the fabulous Ryan brothers, whose mouths always precede their accomplishments. Makes for good entertainment.

All the Ryan nonsense aside, the Jets are clearly the better team. Better personnel, more playmakers. Then again, so were the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots and we all know what happened there.

The Jets, however, have a more balanced offense than the Saints and Patriots, whose philosophy was slanted decidedly toward the passing game. The Jets run the ball as often as they allow Mark Sanchez to throw the ball.

The second-year quarterback runs hot and cold, however. His first five games this season produced 10 of his 12 touchdown passes with no interceptions. His last three efforts show just a couple of TDs and all five of his interceptions. The big question is which Sanchez, who has been sacked just 12 times, will show up Sunday.

It has become quite obvious that his favorite receivers are Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller, each of whom own five TD receptions, Edwards in just 25 catches. Keller is his go-to guy in third-down situations, while Edwards and Santonio Holmes are his deep threats. His loquacious manner aside, the inconsistent Edwards is still a dangerous threat. It'll be interesting to see how members of the Cleveland secondary treat him after his latest barrage of disparaging remarks.

One member of the Jets' offense who figures to be another object of the Browns' attention is the rejuvenated LaDainian Tomlinson. The ex-Charger, thought to be well on the downside of his career, is on pace for a 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown season. More petrol in the tank than initially believed. He's also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.

If Rob Ryan needs any clues as to how to handle the Jets' offense, all he needs to do is watch tapes of New York's 9-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers a couple of weeks ago. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who runs a similar look to Ryan's, never allowed the New York attack to get going. The Jets' only trip into the red zone (just barely at the 19-yard line) resulted in a missed field goal.

Defensively, the Jets do not intimidate with a modest 17 sacks and a paltry five interceptions, but they counter that with 10 fumble recoveries and have forced opponents to average more than six punts a game.

It'll be interesting to see what receiver Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is assigned, considering the Browns do not have what you'd call an elite wideout. It's quite possible Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will try to confuse Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy with a combo defense that couples a zone with man looks.

Right now, defensive coordinators are trying to figure out what McCoy's weaknesses are and try to exploit them. What they have discovered thus far is a quarterback who is faster and more accurate throwing on the run than originally thought. They have also found out he doesn't fluster easily and make bad throws.

The keys to victory for the Browns in this one are no different than the keys in the Saints and Patriots victories. Keep the chains moving, take what the Jets' defense gives them, take care of the ball and minimize mistakes on offense, and maintain their aggressiveness on defense.

Will we see some of the UFO, milling-around, confused-look defense this week? Probably not because Sanchez is not nearly the savvy veteran quarterback that Drew Brees and Tom Brady are and, thus, does not rely on pre-snap reads to determine his course of action. Look for a more traditional look, probably because the Jets will be prepared for what the Saints and Pats faced.

On offense, Peyton Hillis once again faces a very good run defense. The Jets have limited opponents to just 87 yards a game on the ground. Just another challenge for the human tank.

The X-factor is Eric Mangini. Even though he's been away from the Jets for a while, the Browns coach still knows their tendencies, what they like to do in certain situations. That has not changed. It could be a chess game all afternoon.

It promises to be a close game for the better part of 60 minutes, but higher talent quotient seems to win more often in games like this. The Browns will come close to making it three in a row, but fall just short. A longed Nick Folk field goal in the waning moments will be the difference. Make it:

Jets 20, Browns 17

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Monday, er, make that Tuesday leftovers

He's doing it again.

In an attempt to keep New York Jets coach Rex Ryan guessing as to whom the Browns' starting quarterback will be when the two teams meet Sunday at CBS, Eric Mangini once again has put on his tap-dancing shoes and performed the terpsichorean shuffle.

Now that Seneca Wallace is healthy enough to practice and Jake Delhomme isn't too far behind, the Browns' head coach has enough bullets in his coaching gun to play that silly little game called "Who's My Starting Quarterback" with opposing coaches.

With Colt McCoy injecting more life into the Browns than a Die Hard battery, it has become quite obvious to just about everyone in the National Football League who will be under center Sunday. Anyone other than No. 12 and the world of football will be stunned.

And yet, Mangini continues his little charade. "(McCoy is) making the discussion harder and harder each week," he told the media Monday with a straight face. "We'll see where Colt and Seneca are and we'll have that discussion. But (McCoy is) definitely making it a lot harder." Really?

Ryan in New York must be quaking with uncertainty and fear with every Mangini utterance on the quarterback situation. Yeah, right. You can bet he's preparing for just one quarterback. Hmmm. Wonder who that would be.

Mangini's strange obsession with trying to confuse the upcoming opponent's defensive coordinator is becoming stale. Instead of playing cute little games with opposing coach's minds, how about concentrating on playing cute little games with opposing teams on the field.

Lost in the euphoria of the latest two victories was the performance of the plug uglies along the offensive line. In those two games, McCoy has finished each with a relatively clean uniform. Just one sack and only five hits. At the same time, they have provided Peyton Hillis with enough running room to pile up significant yards.

Late in last Sunday's victory over the New England Patriots, Hillis was dropped for a five-yard loss on the first play of a drive when ex-Brown Gerard Warren jumped into the hole vacated by guard Eric Steinbach, who pulled for a trap block. On the next play, Steinbach and tackle Joe Thomas double-teamed Warren, sealing him off, opening a hole through which Hillis cut back against and ran for 15 yards.

That was the drive the big running back made his personal tour de force, carrying all six times for 60 yards and the game-sealing touchdown in the 34-14 victory. Thomas, Steinbach, center Alex Mack, right guard Billy Yates and right tackle Pork Chop Womack are worthy of all the accolades coming their way.

And let's not forget fullback Lawrence Vickers. Playing at a level that should warrant his selection for the Pro Bowl, Vickers might turn out to be Phil Savage's best contribution to the Browns. Right now, the sixth-round raft pick is arguably the best blocking fullback in the NFL.

He plays the position like a heat-seeking missile. And when Hillis pairs up with him in the backfield in an offset or straight I formation, you can bet something positive will eventuate. With Hillis' penchant for always falling forward and tremendous ability to rip off huge chunks of yards after contact, Vickers has become a huge weapon in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's arsenal.

Did anyone notice how McCoy was able to reach the end zone on his 16-yard scoring run against the Patriots? Joshua Cribbs came across the field and delivered a devastating block that cleared one path and Hillis arrived late to seal off another defender just before the rookie quarterback scored.

It's little things like that help win games. They often times go unnoticed by fans, but you can bet the coaches take notice and feel rewarded that their work is beginning to pay off. More often than not, coaches harp on the little things like that which contribute to victories.

Why is Evan Moore not a major part of the game plan? The big tight end (he's not a tight end; he's a big wide receiver) does nothing but make significant contributions every time his number is called. At 6-6 and 250 pounds, he's a huge target for McCoy. His 17-yard catch on a jump ball at the New England 2 helped set up the first touchdown of the afternoon. It was the only time he was targeted. Why?

He's got large hands, rarely drops a ball, runs good routes, isn't afraid to go over the middle and makes plays. OK, so he doesn't have wide receiver speed. Neither did Dave Logan and Joe Jurevicius and they had nice NFL careers. Both ex-Browns could always be counted on to make a play.

So why not Moore? He'd be better suited to team up with Mo Massaquoi than Brian Robiskie. He wouldn't look out of place. After all, he did play wide receiver at Stanford.

The Browns' latest surge toward respectability has caused one to look differently at the upcoming schedule. At one time, the Jets' game was no doubt written off as a loss and the game in Jacksonville game was a possible loss.

Look at that schedule now and, based on the way they have played the last three games, you say there is no such thing as a sure loss for the Browns. If they continue to play at this level, there is every reason to believe they approach these games knowing they can win rather than thinking they can win.

It's all about confidence and they've got a boatload of it now that they appear to have found out how to finish games. Who knows where they would be had they not blown three fourth-quarter leads at the beginning of the season -- 5-3, maybe 6-2, instead of 3-5?

One niggle on Hillis: He has to learn when to go down. Most of his fumbles have occurred when he twists and turns trying to get extra yards. That, it appears, is when the ball is most vulnerable to be stripped. Even so, it was nice too see Mangini stick with him even though he lost a fumble against the Patriots. Despite his proclivity to lose the ball, he should never be removed from the starting backfield.

Has anyone noticed the Browns have taken fewer penalties lately? After averaging about seven penalties and 57 yards a game in the first five games, they have averaged just four penalties and 35 yards a game in the last three. And we all know who the quarterback has been the last three games. Coincidence? I think not. Someone has removed his finger from the self-destruct button.

Rarely now do we see a false start or motion penalty or procedure penalty such as six men on the line of scrimmage. Mistakes are way down. The reason has to be a combination of good coaching and the new kid at quarterback.

The Browns now need to feed off the Patriots victory, not dwell on it. Mangini's greatest challenge this week is getting the undivided attention of his players to shift their focus to the Jets. He'll have plenty if company in Rob Ryan, who would love nothing better than to beat his twin brother.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who was that masked man?

OK, who was that team that masqueraded as the Cleveland Browns against the New England Patriots this afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium?

They were dressed in Orange and Seal Brown, Check. They had the correct names on the back of their uniforms. Check. But they did something quite out of character. They used CBS like a bully pulpit as no other Browns team has in the last 11 seasons.

In what might some day be considered a transformative day in Browns history, this team dismantled one of the best teams in the National Football League in just about every way imaginable. These Browns didn't just beat the Patriots. They beat them up. They embarrassed them.

The 34-14 victory was so complete and overwhelming, it made one wonder just where this team has been. It also made one wonder whether this is just the beginning of what could be the long-awaited renaissance of pro football in Cleveland.

It is so easy to take this game and run with a euphoric feeling that easily eclipses the one Brown fans felt following the startling New Orleans victory a couple of weeks go. Two straight victories against two of the best teams in the NFL. And with the New York Jets dead ahead next Sunday at CBS, maybe three straight victories against . . .

Wait a minute. Let's not get carried away. Time to slam the brakes on that for the time being.

Upset a team once and some might call it an aberration. Do it twice in a row and you sit up, take notice and start paying attention. No doubt the NFL grapevine right now is rife with talk of what in the world has happened to Cleveland Browns.

The answer to that is quite simple. It's called sound, fundamental, smart, opportunistic and, above all, mistake-free football. It's the kind of football championship teams play. Teams that do not beat themselves generally wind up playing football in January and beyond.

Check the Browns down through the last decade and you'll discover they generally were their own worst enemy. With Murphy's Law strapped tightly around their necks, they self-destructed en route to becoming the laughingstock of the NFL. Poor records and performances were expected and the Browns, for the most part, did not disappoint.

This team seems to be quite different, however, and a lot of the credit has to go to Eric Mangini for not permitting his club to give up on the season even though it lost five of the first six games. He decisively outcoached and outwitted his mentor on the New England sideline today.

It was nice to see him smile in the game's final seconds after looking as though he was having a gastric attack for the first 59 minutes. Maybe the Gatorade shower loosened him up.

The Browns' performance in the last three games coincides with the insertion of Colt McCoy at quarterback. The rookie has played like anything but a rookie as the Browns' offense has stepped up and rescued what had been a defense in desperate search of someone to put points on the board and take off some pressure.

McCoy, whose seemingly unflappable approach to the game is most uncommon in someone so young, was clearly the linchpin against the Patriots as he outplayed Tom Brady. The Cleveland offense hasn't looked this steady since . . . well, I can't remember when.

His infectious approach to the game seems to have invigorated offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, whose heretofore stodgy schemes seem to have disappeared. That touchdown run by Chansi Stuckey that gave the Browns a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter was pure brilliance.

Never saw a wide receiver line up directly behind the right guard, almost hiding and close enough where he could smack the guy in the behind, then take a quick handoff from Joshua Cribbs in the Wildcat and score on a misdirection play from 11 yards out. It sent a message to the Patriots that this was not going to be any ordinary Sunday afternoon in Cleveland.

McCoy's success also seems to have spilled over and affected the creative juices of defensive of coordinator Rob Ryan, whose unorthodox schemes baffled and befuddled Brady all afternoon. Just like the Saints' Drew Brees a couple of weeks back, Brady had all kinds of problems with his pre-snap reads because of all the milling around the Cleveland defense did before the snap.

Rarely did we see as many as three hands on the ground at the snap. Linebackers lined up on the defensive line. Linemen often dropped back into short coverage. Safeties cheated up before dropping back. Brady had no clue whatsoever where the pressure was coming from.

Again, it was reminiscent of Bob Slowik's infamous UFO defense during the inaugural season in 1999. The big difference now is this scheme is much more organized with everyone knowing exactly what to do and where to be at the snap. And it looks as though they're having fun playing it.

Then there's Peyton Hillis, whose 184-yard, two-touchdown afternoon revealed the New England run defense for what it was -- a fraud. What else can you say about the guy, whose pugnacious approach when running with the football has been a pure delight. Where would the team be without him? Rhetorical question.

And to think all it cost the Browns to relocate him from Denver to Cleveland was Brady Quinn, the once and never franchise quarterback. Sure has made General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. look like a genius.

Following the game, Mangini was asked about his starting quarterback against the Jets next Sunday. "Can we really enjoy this moment right here," he said. "We'll talk about it tomorrow and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday."

Nothing wrong with enjoying the moment. But there are going to be plenty of angry fans if McCoy is not under center again against New York. Is there any doubt whatsoever now that he should be taking all the snaps the rest of the season? Barring injury, there is no way Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace should start a game from here on out.

McCoy seems to have the knack of making the big play and avoiding mistakes. He threw just one bad pass against the Pats and showed enough escapabaility to complete two crucial third-down passes on rollouts. His greatest asset might be his resourcefulness

And his savvy on a quarterback sneak from his 36-yard line on fourth and a foot midway through the first quarter was outlandishly daring and gutsy. Just when everyone thought he was trying to draw the Patriots offside, he changed the call to a spread formation and picked up three yards after the Patriots reacted to the spread and thinned out the line.

The notion that a player should not lose his starting job to injury is nonsense. Especially when someone like a McCoy comes in and outperforms his predecessors. And especially when it involves the most important position on the team.

Why mess around with what appears to be a plethora of good karma that seems to have enveloped 76 Lou Groza Blvd.? And one of the main reasons for that feeling is the baby-faced kid from Texas.

Enjoy the moment, coach. But don't let it cloud your judgment. You never know. Sticking with McCoy might give you many more enjoyable moments.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Misleading stats

At first blush, the New England Patriots' statistics aren't what one would call overwhelming. Sometimes, stats lie. Consider this one of those times.

The Patriots, who make their first CBS appearance in six years tomorrow against the Browns, rank 19th in total offensive yards in the National Football League, 16th in passing and 14th with their running game. Defensively, they surrender 22 points and 384 yards a game, 282 through the air.

But when those underwhelming stats translate into a team that averages 29 points a game and produces a 6-1 record, you have a pretty good idea of what the Browns have to look forward to. The Pats don't look pretty on the stats sheet, but they look absolutely beautiful on the scoreboard.

And that's the only statistic that really counts. All the Patriots do is win. It might not be as cosmetically appealing as in the years during which they won three Super Bowls, but Bill Belichick is a bottom-line guy and the bottom line sure looks pretty good right now.

The Patriots beat you up in a number of ways -- through the air, on the ground, with special teams and an opportunistic defense. This might be the best team the Browns have played this season. Anything less than a near-perfect performance will result in a 2-6 record.

There will be no excuses for this one. The Browns are coming off a bye and Eric Mangini, who prides himself in being fully prepared for opponents, has had the extra week to prep and is certain to have a surprise or two for his former boss.

It most likely won't be as dazzling as the package he and his coaching staff unveiled in the New Orleans victory a couple of weeks ago. But Mangini knows the best way to beat Belichick teams is with sound, fundamental and extremely aggressive football.

Mistake-free football is one of the hallmarks of Belichick teams. This season, for example, New England quarterback Tom Brady has thrown just four interceptions. The Pats are +7 in turnover ratio. They rarely beat themselves.

The Browns, coming off one of their infrequent zero-turnover games, must take care of the ball in order to have any chance at stretching their winning streak to two games.

With rookie quarterback Colt McCoy exhibiting tendencies to take extra care of the football and Peyton Hillis showing signs of finally shedding a nagging fumbling problem, it would not surprise that the Browns give the Pats all they can handle for the better part of three quarters.

In fact, it could turn out to be somewhat of a scoring bonanza considering the weakness of both teams' secondaries. Neither team has what you'd call an outstanding pass rush. So Brady and McCoy figure to have plenty of time to strafe each other's secondary.

The big difference is that Brady has the ultra-reliable Wes Welker, Deion Branch and a couple of nice young tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. And the Browns have to be careful and keep an eye on running back Danny Woodhead, who is just as dangerous a receiver as he is a runner.

McCoy, meanwhile, has a receiving corps that has not overwhelmed this season. It will be interesting to see how much he involves them against the Patriots. In his two starts, he seems to have favored tight ends, running backs and only one wideout, Chansi Stuckey. That'll have to change, especially against the Pats' shaky pass defense.

About the only way the Browns' defense can stop Brady & Co. is with a strong pass rush, something that has been relatively foreign to them this season. It appeared in the New Orleans victory, but has been missing way too often. Lack of consistency has been the biggest problem.

Adding up all the ingredients for this one, only one conclusion can be reached. Factoring in the possibilities, mixing in a few probabilities and throwing in some any-given-Sunday improbabilities, it's still difficult to deduce anything less than a New England victory. Big. Make it:

Patriots 38, Browns 20

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Nothing to lose

It has been 10 days since the Browns' stunning victory over the New Orleans Saints and the glow is finally beginning to wear off. Hard to shake the feeling. That's how profoundly unexpected surprises can affect a fan.

Maybe that glow remains a large part of the reason I still believe Colt McCoy must remain as the starting quarterback of this team for the rest of the season.

When the rookie became the Browns' starting quarterback by default a few weeks ago, the prevailing feeling was the experience would be way too much, way too soon. Just another case of bad timing when he became the man.

His first two starts couldn't have been any tougher or more demanding. The dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers, still owners of one of the best defenses in the National Football League, and the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Both were road games.

To be honest, I feared the worst. Two outstanding defensive teams. He doesn't stand a chance. He'll be overmatched. What a terrible way to inaugurate your professional football career. He'll be scarred forever.

I was wrong.

Sure, it's only two games. Certainly not enough upon which to build a portfolio. The National Football League is just starting the McCoy dossier. No need to get excited yet, right?

Uh, no.

McCoy shows every indication of being an extremely resourceful quarterback, one who has the superb tendency of overachieving. He's small by NFL standards, does not have a strong throwing arm and won't overwhelm you with his skill set.

Kind of reminds me a little of Brian Sipe, who came from practically nowhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s and provided some highly entertaining football for Cleveland fans. Sipe, too, was small, did not have a strong arm and didn't overwhelm you with his skill set. All he did was make plays. And win.

Against the Steelers, McCoy racked up nearly 300 passing yards. Not many quarterbacks can boast those stats against Pittsburgh. In the Saints victory, it's not so much what he did. It's what he didn't do.

He didn't do anything that would have contributed to another loss. The Browns, for one of the rare times in the last several seasons, turned in a zero-turnover effort. Someone has to take credit for that. It might as well be McCoy.

For a team that has died way too many deaths because of turnovers, that is a significant statistic. It cannot be emphasized enough that the team that best takes care of the ball wins more often than not.

And when a time-consuming drive was needed in the fourth quarter against the Saints, McCoy stepped up and delivered.

Now that's he's got his foot in the door and it wasn't chopped off, it's time to squeeze the rest of him through that door. At the risk of sounding repetitious, it's time to see what he can do on more than just a hit-or-miss basis.

Yes, Seneca Wallace is healthy and ready to go. But he's not the future of this team. He and Jake Delhomme, also not the future, were not brought here to be McCoy's babysitter. If they are here to teach, then something is missing because until he took over, all McCoy learned was how not to win ball games.

Mike Holmgren has to be excited at what he sees from the kid. And yet, he throws up a caution flag. "Before anyone anoints anybody, he's played two games," the Browns' president said recently.

Who's anointing? McCoy still faces a long road. All I'm saying is that he's gotten off to a rather surprising start. Who knows? He might very well fall and stumble if he starts against the New England Patriots and New York Jets the next two Sundays.

But if he doesn't start, we'll never know.

Again, what does Eric Mangini have to lose by starting McCoy? Another game? So what. He's already 1-4 with Delhomme and Wallace as his starting quarterbacks.