Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday leftovers

The Browns have a play in their ground-game arsenal that needs to be looked at more closely. Don’t know what it’s called. Don’t care. It should be ripped out of the playbook and thrown away.

It’s a deep handoff from quarterback Colt McCoy to whoever the running back is. In Sunday’s victory over the Miami Dolphins, it was Montario Hardesty. It was attempted twice. It failed miserably both times.

In simple terms, it’s more like a sprint draw where the quarterback takes the snap, sprints (in this case) to his right before handing off to the stationary running back. It simulates a draw play, but the runner gets the ball a few seconds later.

The runner, who stays put until he gets the ball, ostensibly has a hole through which to run because the offensive line has given him several options by the time he secures the ball.

Considering how poorly the Browns’ offensive line blocks for the running game, that play is a drive killer and needs to be purged. It requires precise timing and this line is not capable of executing it.

To wit: Late in the second quarter against Miami, Hardesty rippped off a 14-yard gain on first down from the Browns’ 32-yard line. Next play, the sprint draw. A five-yard loss. Hardesty got the ball a split second before the Miami defense arrived. He didn’t stand a chance. Two incomplete passes later, the Browns punted.

Hardesty is not a wait-for-the-ball type of runner. He needs to be moving forward in concert with his line in order to have a chance at being effective. When he ran north on conventional dive and trap plays, he was fine.

All this play does is result in loss of yardage. Precious loss of yardage. All that play did was to put the team in a deep second-down hole.

It happened twice against the Dolphins, enough times for Pat Shurmur to open his playbook, remove that sheet, place it in a waste basket, then light a match and throw it in the waste basket.

* * *
It also appears as though Shurmur, for whatever reason, chose to stay vanilla against the Dolphins’ defense. Nothing fancy. No reverses, no misdirection, very little play action.

Perhaps it was because Joshua Cribbs was limited in what he could do. Then again, it might be a sign the coach wants McCoy to become more comfortable with the basic offense before tinkering with his learning curve.

* * *
If Shurmur is looking for a good slot receiver, he should look no further than No. 89 on his roster. At the risk of sounding repetitious, Evan Moore, at 6-6, 250 pounds with huge hands, has proven to be a playmaker whenever called on.

Sure, he’s not a very good blocker. But he certainly knows how to get open, hardly ever drops a pass thrown his way and is a playmaker on a team begging for playmakers.

Judging from his relative inactivity in the first three games, one has to wonder just what Moore did to be tethered to the bench so much. It’s not as though those in front of him on the depth chart are doing that well.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

'Tis better to be lucky . . .

Talk about your ugly wins. They don’t come much homelier than the Browns’ 17-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

This one came with blemishes plastered all over it. Not even Clearasil could erase them for the first 56 minutes and 37 seconds. But Colt McCoy, playing the part of Brian Sipe, could. And Mo Massaquoi, playing the part of Reggie Rucker, could.

The Browns, outplayed badly by the Dolphins in every phase of the game for the better part of the afternoon, somehow cobbled together one last-ditch drive and sent the visitors home on the wrong end of the score in a manner that usually bedevils the Browns.

Massaquoi’s leaping grab of a McCoy jump-ball pass in the end zone in the final minute of the game suggests that maybe it was the Browns’ turn to dance the dance of good fortune.

Ordinarily, there are victimized in the final moments of a game while desperately clinging to a slim lead. Usually, they fail to come up with the big play as they blow yet another lead.

This time, the Dolphins head back to Miami knowing exactly how the Browns and their fans have felt for the better part of the last dozen seasons. It’s an empty, uncomfortably dyspeptic feeling that tugs at your innards for a couple of days before disappearing.

Tomorrow, Browns fans will be able to empathize with Dolphins fans and send them a week’s supply of Pepto-Bismol while enjoying the victory.

The Dolphins, with any kind of a big play, would have won this game going away. Only their inability to make that play enabled the Browns to hang around long enough to have a chance.

A quick perusal of the final statistics points to a Miami victory. The Dolphins owned the ball nearly 38 of the 60 minutes. That’s 63% of the time. They ran 14 more plays than the Browns. You don’t lose many games with that kind of ball control.

The Miami offense outgained the Browns, 369-280. It ran for 138 yards while the defense limited the Browns to 70 yards on the ground.

Quarterback Chad Henne carved up the Cleveland secondary (15 of 19 in the first half), but put up just 10 points. His defense baffled and harassed McCoy for the first three quarters.

The Cleveland offense, clearly missing the power running of Peyton Hillis (out with a strep throat), didn’t help with a sputtering performance that produced just three successful conversions on third down. Only some solid red-zone defense saved the Browns from further damage.

The defense, on the field way too often, revealed a disappointing lack of tackling technique most of the afternoon. Miami running backs Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush gained far too many second- and third-effort yards, the direct result of too much arm tackling.

However, the mark of a good team is the ability to hang around long enough to have a chance to win the game. And that’s exactly what the Dolphins allowed the Browns to do. Perhaps that’s why they’re still winless.

But I’m not nearly ready to say the Browns are a good team yet, but the way this game was won sure won’t hurt team morale. They’re 2-1 and on top of the AFC North.

When Browns coach Pat Shurmur shook hands with Miami coach Tony Sparano at midfield after the game, their exchange was extremely brief.

It probably went something like this:

Shurmur: We were lucky today.

Sparano: Damn right you were.

The Browns lost the battles, but won the game. In the back of their minds, however, they must know they were very lucky.

Quick thoughts: Shurmur had to be heartened by the performance of running back Montario Hardesty, who ran 14 times for 67 yards in Hillis’ absence. More important, he caught a swing pass from McCoy on a fourth-and-4 at the Miami 37 and gained 10 yards with about 90 seconds left to sustain what turned out to be the winning drive. The best part is that Hardesty made some tough runs, several difficult change-of-direction moves and emerged uninjured. It looks as though he is 100% healthy and ready to contribute. . . . Punter Brad Maynard averaged 42.2 yards on five punts, but never placed one inside the Miami 20, even though the last three punts originated from his 41, 47 and 35. That has to improve. . . . It’s puzzling why Evan Moore is being used so little. He has the best hands of any receiver on the club and yet he was targeted only three times. One of those catches was an eight-yard grab on a third-and-5 at the Miami 22 just prior to the TD catch by Massaquoi. . . . The offensive line allowed no sacks of McCoy and has yielded just three in the first three games, but that’s somewhat misleading since McCoy was often forced to run for his life against the Dolphins. . . . The defense, meanwhile, racked up five more sacks and has rung up 11 this season. The line produced four of the five with Ahtyba Rubin and Jayme Mitchell splitting three and Phil Taylor with one. It would have been six except one was wiped out by a Jabaal Sheard roughing penalty. . . . Once again, penalties are on the rise – eight more for 85 yards. This has got to stop. . . . On several occasions, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron unveiled a zone blitz on Henne with Sheard dropping back in coverage. . . . Henne was held to just four of 10 passing in the second half for 33 yards. . . . For whatever reason, Henne went deep three times on the final drive, which started at the Cleveland 47. All he needed was 15-17 yards to get into field-goal territory and yet he threw three deep incompletions. . . . McCoy threw to five different receivers on the final drive.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

It'll be close, but . . .

So many story lines for Sunday’s game between the Browns and Miami Dolphins.

The Browns enter week three with a 1-1 record for the seventh time since returning in 1999. But they have entered week four with a 2-1 record only three times.

The Dolphins can’t wait to get to Cleveland after dropping their first two games at home.

And Brian Daboll, the much-maligned offensive coordinator for the Browns the last two seasons, returns to the lakefront as offensive boss in Miami.

Where to begin . . .

Let’s start with Daboll, who surprised a lot of fans by landing the gig in Miami despite some questionable coordinating with the Browns.

It was very difficult to figure out exactly what Daboll was trying to accomplish when the Browns had the ball. Was the attack supposed to be smashmouth with Peyton Hillis? Was it supposed to stretch the opposing defense? Or was it a finesse ball-control team?

In his two seasons, Daboll’s offense displayed multiple personalities. It appeared to confuse the Browns more than the opposition. No one knew what to expect from week to week.

There was no rhyme, reason or consistency, leading to a couple of 5-11 records under Eric Mangini. Last season, the Browns would have finished with a better record with any kind of help from the offense.

Now Daboll has a fresh start in Miami. But some of the old problems have crept up just two games into his tenure, most notably the third-down conversion success rate. The Dolphins have converted just six third downs in 26 attempts. Sound familiar? It should. Only the venue has changed.

But you can be certain Daboll will arrive in Cleveland this week with the express intent of showing Browns fans – and the media – just how wrong they were about him. He does so with an offense that averages nearly 400 yards a game, 125 of those on the ground.

However, you can be equally certain the Browns’ defense will be ready for anything Daboll serves up. In splitting their first two games, the Browns have surrendered 294 yards a game and played better than expected on defense.

Throw out that why-weren’t-they-prepared, quick-snap touchdown Cincinnati scored in the season opener and the meaningless TD Indianapolis scored in the waning moments of last Sunday’s victory and the Cleveland defense has not played badly at all thus far.

Getting out of Miami also was best for the Dolphins, who opened up at home against the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, a couple of teams favored to win their respective divisions. By comparison, this game probably feels like a breather.

Not only that, the Dolphins no doubt thank the schedule maker for slotting this one in week three in Cleveland, where the weather will be mild, instead of, say, week 13 when a chilly winter wind and snow will whip in off Lake Erie.

Look for them to feature the running game more against the Browns in an effort to reduce the amount of pressure on quarterback Chad Henne, who has completed just 53.2% of his passes and thrown for only three scores.

Reggie Bush swings over from New Orleans at running back, along with rookie Daniel Thomas, replacing long-time Dolphin Ronnie Brown, now with Philadelphia. It took the Dolphins just two games to realize Bush is not an every-down back.

That means Thomas, the ex-Kansas State star for whom the Dolphins traded up in the last college draft, will be the main running threat. He’ll run into a semi-porous Cleveland defense that has surrendered 124 yards a game on the ground.

The Miami defense, on the other hand, was victimized for 61 points by quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Schaub. The secondary was strafed for 747 yards and six touchdowns.

To give you an idea of just how porous the Miami defense has been, three of the four leading tacklers on the team are members of the defensive backfield – safeties Reshard Jones and Yeremiah Bell and cornerback Vontae Davis.

Of course, in Browns Colt McCoy, they won’t face a quarterback anywhere near the caliber of Brady and Schaub. And the Cleveland receiving corps is among the worst in the National Football League.

All of which leads to the belief the Browns will try to take the infantry route a lot Sunday and try to wear down the Miami defense in an attempt to go 2-1 after three weeks for just the fourth time since 1999. They won their third game of the season three straight years (2000-02) after splitting the first two.

Look for Montario Hardesty to enter the game and contribute a lot sooner than last Sunday’s game. Expect McCoy to hand the ball off as many times as he puts it up as Pat Shurmur buttons down the Cleveland offense and grinds it out..

Winning this one won’t be easy for the Browns. The Dolphins are not as bad as their poor start indicates. It would be easy for the Browns to take a look at Miami’s 0-2 and take the visitors for granted.

This will be a good test of Shurmur’s ability to get a team ready to play emotionally and psychologically. That was missing the first two games.

It should change Sunday with the charged-up Browns moving to 2-1 in a relatively low-scoring game with kickers Dan Carpenter and Phil Dawson playing prominent roles. Make it:

Browns 23, Dolphins 16

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blame injuries on the lockout

What’s with the spate of major injuries in the National Football League?

Only two weeks into the season and the injury list continues to grow. Football is a rough game, but I’ve never seen so many calamitous injuries in such a short period of time.

Many high profile players, counted on by their teams to put them in the best position to win, are falling and can’t get up.

It seems as though the teams that avoid the injury crisis, for lack of a better term, are the ones that will have the best shot at playing into January and February. That would make the trainers the most valuable members of the team.

So what is causing all this? No one knows for certain, although there are those who speculate that the prolonged owners lockout that extended to the beginning of training camps could be a contributing factor. Maybe even the major factor.

Players held what amounted to informal workouts during the lockout in order to stay moderately busy and hopefully in shape. But that’s the not nearly the same as OTAs and minicamps. That’s not the same as being able to come into a facility at any time and use the equipment.

The discipline of staying in shape during the offseason and getting ready for the new season was absent. The rhythm of preparing for the upcoming grind was thrown off by the lockout.

Maybe that’s the reason we’re seeing some of these stars wind up on injured reserve. Stars like Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, who shredded his ACL with a common move Sunday.

Or Dallas quarterback Tony Romo winding up with a couple of fractured ribs, courtesy of a porous offensive line that might have performed better with more practice.

Arian Foster, the National Football League’s top running back last season, is of no use to the Houston Texans right now because of a balky hamstring, no doubt achieved when he tried to get in shape too quickly. He tried it again Sunday against Miami and reaggravated it.

Offensive linemen are not exempt. Center Nick Mangold of the New York Jets, who never misses a game, is out for several weeks with a high ankle sprain. Rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi of Chicago has a dislocated knee and will miss at least a month.

Minor injuries that could become major have hampered Felix Jones, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin of the Cowboys.

The weekly injured lists enlarge and show no signs of stopping. It has become somewhat epidemic in proportion and no doubt concerns the league that many of its star performers are on IR.

Most likely, this phenomenon won't happen again for at least the next 10 years. That’s how long labor peace is expected to rule. Or so we’ve been told.

Still, rushing the players back without proper preparation appears to have paid a dear price to the teams and, more important, the fan-paying public that expects to get bang for their bucks.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Go ahead and enjoy

The first-place Cleveland Browns.

Has a nice ring to it. A sweet ring, in fact.

OK, so the Browns share first place in the AFC North with three other teams after handling the Indianapolis Colts Sunday.

But long-suffering Browns fans don’t really care that it’s week two of the National Football League season. They don’t care how the top spot was achieved. They don’t care if there’s company up there.

Their Browns are in first place and that’s all that matters. Fans will take good news like this any way they can get it. The Browns won’t win the division, not with Baltimore and Pittsburgh as residents, but for one week, the team is in first place.

And don’t think that won’t put a bounce in the step of Browns Nation this week. The next few days will be spent reminiscing about how good it felt when Colt McCoy took a knee to seal the 27-19 victory.

Instead of wondering how the Browns blew yet another one, conversation will center on how efficient and cool McCoy was under pressure; on how well the defense played, especially in the red zone when it forced the Colts to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns; on how hard Peyton Hillis slugged it out with the Indy defense; on how the attack was better balanced; on how well the offensive line protected McCoy (with one early exception); and on the lack of penalties.

All the good things will be dwelled upon. That’s what usually what happens after a victory. Nothing wrong with that.

But a few negatives should not be overlooked. Little things that might not be noticed in the big picture.

Things like failure to realize that it’s OK to pass on first down, particularly when your offense is predicated on a pass-first philosophy. In fact, a perusal of the play-by-play reveals that passing on first down is far more productive.

Coach Pat Shurmur’s offense had 22 first-down plays against the Colts, 13 of which were executed on the ground. On those 13 plays, the Browns netted 39 yards. On the nine pass plays, including one incompletion, the net gain was 68 yards.

Breaking that down, McCoy and Co. averaged three yards on first down after they ran the ball. That meant the average distance to go on subsequent second downs was seven yards. Conversely, the average per pass play on first down was 7.55 yards, leaving second-down distance at 2.45 yards.

In other words, each time the Browns ran the ball on first down, they were forced into second and long because of their inability to gain substantial yardage. When they threw, second down became much more manageable.

The idea is to make it easier for an offense to pile up first downs. Granted, the Browns were 8 of 16 on third-down conversions against the Colts, which makes McCoy’s afternoon that much more notable. But it could have been a whole lot easier – and possibly more productive – if the passing game had been ratcheted up.

Hillis’ afternoon became more bountiful when the Browns’ defense stymied the Indianapolis offense and produced five straight three-and-outs in the second half, including an interception and strip sack/fumble recovery.

The gassed Indy defense had virtually nothing left by the time Hillis rumbled for the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. Stuff like that usually happens to the Browns.

As with most winning teams, luck plays a vital role.

In the first quarter, for example, Dwight Freeney beat Joe Thomas on the second offensive series and sacked McCoy, who fumbled. Thomas redeemed himself by gathering in the fumble at the Cleveland 45 as Colts defenders scrambled for the loose ball.

Then there was McCoy’s touchdown pass to Evan Moore midway through the second quarter that got the Browns on the board. It was close, but it appeared on the replay as though McCoy released the ball just past the line of scrimmage.

Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who won a replay challenge earlier in the same drive, chose not to challenge this one. The first challenge was on a dinky – almost meaningless – two-yard pass to Cleveland fullback Owen Marecic. He passed on what was a scoring play.

Luck, it is said, is the residue of hard work, That certainly was the case Sunday against the Colts.

Quick thoughts: As hard as Hillis runs, he’s got to know that the opposition always tries to get a helmet on the ball as they attempt to tackle him. Or they try to rake the ball out when he attempts a second or third effort. . . . Wondering why Shurmur put in Montario Hardesty following Usama Young’s interception early in the fourth quarter. He hadn’t played a down up to that point. Where was Hillis? . . . Why was Moore targeted only once all afternoon? Shurmur is misusing him. He could be the Aaron Hernandez of the Browns. The New England Patriots incorporate Hernandez perfectly into their offense. The Browns would be wise to do the same. . . . The run-pass ratio was much better against the Colts with 35 runs to 32 pass attempts. . . . Is Brian Robiskie still on the team? . . . The only way Joshua Cribbs will not return a kickoff is if it’s booted out of the end zone. Otherwise, it’s coming out. Guessing here: Cribbs’ ultimate goal is to catch a kickoff nine yards deep and return it for a touchdown, which would be an NFL record. . . . McCoy is still having trouble hitting his receivers in stride, which is essential in the west coast offense. It seems as though most of his completions are on dig or hitch routes. . . . Other than his one hiccup against Freeney, Thomas had a solid afternoon. . . . Nice to see the penalties cut down to nearly zero. Only one on the offense. Must be those drawing-board sessions. . . . Funny sign held up by a Browns fan late in the game: Where’s Your Peyton? A not-so-vague reference to the absence of injured Indy quarterback Peyton Manning and the performance of Hillis.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Will it really be an upset?

When the National Football League schedule was released last spring and fans started placing Ws and Ls beside the games on the Browns’ schedule, the second game on that schedule rated an automatic L.

That’s because it was Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. In Indianapolis. But that was also before Manning underwent neck surgery and the recovery process did not go smoothly. And now that the veteran quarterback has had a second procedure that could sideline him the entire season, Sunday’s game against the Colts has taken on a whole new meaning. That L might not wind up in the Browns’’ column after all.

There are those who believe Manning is the Indianapolis offense. Period. Without him, they are not the same team. His ability to control a game is the main reason the Colts have lived among the elite in the NFL.

Indianapolis fans, until last Sunday, had not known what life was like without Manning. What they discovered horrified them. They found out that journeyman Kerry Collins, summoned out of retirement, was no Peyton Manning. Not even close.

The 35-7 thrashing the Colts absorbed in Houston last Sunday was a rude slap in the face and forecast what could turn out to be a very long season. Sort of like the kind of seasons the Browns have cobbled together the last dozen years.

If there is any relief for the Colts, it’s that the Browns are their next opponent. Surely, Colts fans placed a big, fat W next to that game when the schedule came out. Even without Manning.

Collins is not exactly a slug under center and the Colts’ defense, its performance against the Texans notwithstanding, is not that bad. Considering how poorly the Browns’ offensive line protected Colt McCoy last week, Indy defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney should have no problem locating the Cleveland quarterback.

That said, if the Browns can’t beat the Colts this week, it really could be a long season. The Colts are ripe to be upset.

Wait a minute. What’s that you say? It wouldn’t be an upset? The Browns are favored by two and a half points? Are you kidding me?

Is that how much of an impact Manning’s loss is to the Colts? That tells me odds makers believe the Colts are now the front-runners in the Andrew Luck derby. Can’t remember the last time the Browns were favored to win on the road.

Considering how they gave away last Sunday’s season opener to Cincinnati, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Browns come out against the Colts and play the way most people expected them to play against the Bengals.

They key is how well McCoy performs on offense. That will depend, in large part, to how well the wide receivers play. The level of McCoy’s success will be measured by how often the wideouts get open.

Against the Bengals, we didn’t see nearly enough of the quick-strike capabilities of the west coast offense. There were too few three-step drops and pops. McCoy rarely hit a receiver in stride and that’s what the west coast offense is all about. There was no rhythm and the quarterback’s performance suffered as a result.

Pat Shurmur insists he has not abandoned the running game, although last week’s pass-run ratio (28 runs, 40 passes) indicates otherwise. It’s just one game and the coach should be given an opportunity to back up his words.

I look for the Browns to try and slow the Colts’ pass rush with some infantry action. Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty should be able to take advantage of the absence of Indy middle linebacker Gary Brackett, out with a shoulder problem.

That should open up some throwing lanes for McCoy to work with, especially if his receivers run disciplined routes. Look for Mo Massaquoi, who played well last week despite missing the entire exhibition season, to be a major factor, along with tight ends Evan Moore and Ben Watson.

On defense, the Browns should have no problem with Collins, who is still trying to learn the offense. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Dick Jauron dial up more blitzes than he did against the Bengals. The defensive coordinator has a lot to make up for after last week’s quick-snap gaffe.

The Browns have lost their last five meetings with the Colts, including four in Cleveland, by a total of 20 points, all with Manning at quarterback. That losing streak is coming to an end Sunday.

McCoy will not have a big day, but it will be good enough to get the job done. And the Cleveland defense will make Collins wish he had stayed retired. Make it:

Browns 23, Colts 6

Woulda, coulda, didn't

The day-after mea culpas issued by the Browns’ coaching staff earlier this week regarding that quick snap by the Cincinnati Bengals in last Sunday’s loss only reinforces what’s wrong with this team.

Why does it take a “we should have and could have” called a timeout to prevent what turned out to be the winning touchdown? Where is the leadership? Clearly, it does not reside on the lakefront on Sunday afternoons.

Thinking ahead of the curve is the hallmark of a good coach. It shouldn’t have to take an “aha” moment to establish that hallmark. Thinking, in general, would be a good start.

If a dummy like me (and countless others, no doubt, at the time) could see that calling a timeout was not only necessary, but mandatory, then the Browns’ problems are far greater than imagined.

Wake up, Dick Jauron. You cost your team a victory last Sunday. So did you, Pat Shurmur.

Yes, it’s only one game, but important moments like that cannot be minimized. There will be others like that along the way for the next 15 games and the coaching staff had better come up with the right answers or else this could produce results similar to those of the last two coaching regimes.

The Browns right now are not good enough from a talent standpoint to absorb such blows and bounce back. They cannot afford to let games like the season opener to slither through and wind upon the wrong side of the won-lost ledger. They get only 16 cracks at it. . . .

It’s time for the Browns to cut Tony Pashos. Why is this man still on the roster? Waive him injured and be done with him. He is useless and taking up space on the roster. The injury waiting to happen has happened. How many times does this have to occur before the Browns get the message?

He is the main reason the Browns should have drafted an offensive tackle in the first round of the college draft last April. This club needs help in a far out way on the right of side of the offensive line.

Bringing in slugs like Oneil Cousins and Artis Hicks and playing them next to inexperienced right guard Shawn Lauvao only exacerbates the problem.

Shurmur says he likes running the ball in his west coast scheme, an offense that features a pass-first mentality. If he intends to make Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty a vital part of that offense, he better slant most of that offense to the left side because the right side isn’t going to offer much help. . . .

What in the world has happened to Owen Marecic? The Browns’ rookie fullback was an aggressive player at Stanford the last couple of seasons, playing fullback and middle linebacker. Where is that player now?

So far, he has shown none of that aggressive nature and appears to be feeling his way as he adapts to the National Football League. He keeps this up and he’ll find himself watching from the sidelines. . . .

Anyone notice last Sunday that Ted Ginn Jr. ran a kickoff and punt back for touchdowns for the San Francisco 49ers? That could be a portent of things to come for the former Glenville High School and Ohio State star.

Look for Ginn to thrive on special teams all season That’s because the Niners’ special teams guru is none other than Brad Seely, the man who guided the Browns’ special teams the last two seasons to high rankings.

Why he was allowed to escape ranks right up there with the reasons behind Lawrence Vickers’ departure. It might have to do with a new regime inheriting players (and coaches) they aren’t comfortable with, but waiting a year before parting company with them. . . .

Brad Maynard, the Browns’ new punter, feels bad even though he hasn’t kicked the ball once for his new team. The veteran was signed to replace Richmond McGee when the rookie went down with a disc injury in his back.

So why is he unhappy? Turns out he knows McGee from their days with the Chicago Bears, but that’s not the reason. McGee, even as the Browns placed him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season, said he feels good enough to punt Sunday in Indianapolis against the Colts.

Maynard says he feels bad for McGee’s plight. He shouldn’t. He should be thankful that a friend’s misfortune has provided him with an opportunity to continue his career.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Is this ever going to end?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Same old Browns.

OK, everyone, put your hands down.

Season opener. The opponent: The Cincinnati Bengals, one of the worst teams in the National Football League.

Home field advantage.

New coach, new culture, new season, a new beginning. And yet . . .

The same result.

The Browns, looking more like a team with a glazed look in its eye, were outhustled, outplayed and outcoached most of the afternoon in a 27-17 loss.

They enter week two of the season in a nice, cozy and all-to-familiar place: The basement of the AFC North.

Twelve home openers in the last 13 seasons have yielded a grand total of only one victory. This is getting ridiculous.

Same old Browns.

When next season’s schedule is announced next spring, the Browns should immediately notify the NFL that there is only one course of action: Forfeit the opening game.

If their performance Sunday against the Bengals is a portent of things to come, this is going to a much longer and extremely aggravating season through which to negotiate. It’s going to be downright nasty.

We don’t know if this loss was an aberration because it’s way too early to get a handle on how a Pat Shurmur-coached team plays. One game does not mean the next 15 will go the same way.

But it was quite evident this team was not ready to play a meaningful football game on offense. With the exception of a five-minute period midway in the second quarter, Colt McCoy wasn’t the brash quarterback who sparkled in the exhibition season.

Courtesy of a porous offensive line, he was the harassed and battered quarterback. And when he did have time, which wasn’t often enough, he badly missed targets. And 4-for-15 on third down ain’t gonna cut it.

The defense didn’t play that badly for the first three and a half quarters, but did manage to make second-string quarterback Bruce Gradkowski look good late in the game. And that’s not easy to do.

It looked as though all 11 defenders took a Sominex snooze with four and a half minutes left in the game when Gradkowski and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green hooked up on a 41-yard touchdown pass to give the Bengals the lead at 20-17.

No one had the common sense or presence of mind to call a timeout when the Bengals lined up quickly on a third-and-12 at the Cleveland 41. No one was lined up anywhere near where he should have been at the snap.

There was a complete communications breakdown that led to what will certainly be one of the easiest touchdowns of the season. Whatever excuses the Browns offer to explain the blown coverage should fall on deaf ears.

It should never have happened. The Browns were caught asleep at a time when the opposite should have been the case.

Same old Browns.

Somehow, they almost always find a way to lose. This one won’t rival Dwayne Rudd’s famous helmet toss in the 2002 season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, but it might wind up in the top five.

All in all, it was not the kind of performance most fans expected from this team.

Quick thoughts: If Richmond McGee wants to keep his job as the Browns punter, he had better get better in a hurry. Two shanks in eight punts with a 36-yard average won’t keep him employed much longer. . . . Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had a fabulous game. Eleven tackles, 10 solo, with two sacks and a hurry. It’s nice to see what he can do when the defensive line keeps him clean. . . . Ditto for cornerback Joe Haden, who had an incredible five passes defensed and a sack. . . . Credit Joshua Cribbs with kick-starting a Cleveland offense that looked as though it was playing in a mud bog in its first three possessions. His 52-yard kickoff return after the Bengals took a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter was the precursor to a four-play, 57-yard scoring drive that got the Browns back in the game. . . . Eleven penalties for 72 yards is a statistic usually reserved for bad teams, undisciplined teams. Those were the Browns totals against the Bengals. Draw your own conclusions. . . . Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, a rookie, looked more like a seasoned pro in the first 30 minutes, working behind the huge Cincinnati offensive line. He was hardly touched before exiting with a wrist injury late in the second quarter. . . . Think Peyton Hillis doesn’t miss Lawrence Vickers? Seventeen carries for 57 yards against an average defense. Rookie fullback Owen Marecic has a lot of ground to make up if Hillis is to replicate last season. . . . Good news dept: Montario Hardesty ran the ball five times and managed to get up after each of those carries. That, indeed, is good news. . . . Are McCoy’s hands big enough to hold on to a football? Twice against the Bengals the ball slipped from his hand before his arm moved forward. Hmmmm.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Respectability dead ahead for Browns

It’s always fun predicting how a team is going to finish even before the first snap of the season. Time for some fun.

The Browns have kept company with the dregs of the National Football League for a major portion of the time since they returned to the league in 1999. And, for the most part, deservedly so.

It is said that you are as strong as those with whom you surround yourself. Considering where the Browns have finished most of the time in the last dozen seasons, it’s not difficult to see where the problem lies.

But it now appears the Lerner family has done something right and the big payoff will not be that oncoming train. The long-awaited turnaround season that will ultimately recapture the glory days of the past begins tomorrow at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

That’s because Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. have slowly removed the Browns from the dregs category and placed them in the representative category. Last season, we saw glimpses of the future with shocking victories over New England and New Orleans.

This season, look for the Browns to take a significant step toward the kind of respectability they have sought for way too long. This will be the season they take a large step forward.

Of course, an easy schedule will be a large factor as the Pat Shurmur era kicks off tomorrow at CBS against the Cincinnati Bengals. The home schedule is one of the easiest in recent memory. Six of the eight opponents racked up a 39-57 record last season.

In fact, only one of their out-of-division opponents this season managed a better than .500 mark last season. And that team, the Indianapolis Colts, will be without its Hall of Fame quarterback when the Browns travel to Indiana in week two.

If Colt McCoy and the west coast offense are, indeed, a match made in heaven, there is every reason to believe the Browns will flirt with the .500 mark this season. I see them winning as many as seven games, mostly before the final five weeks of the season.

That grueling stretch includes four games with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and the last of three trips out west to play the Arizona Cardinals. That masochistic stretch more than makes up for the relatively easy home schedule.

I see the Browns checking into that string of games with a 6-5 record with McCoy getting the pro football world’s attention, drawing comparisons to Brian Sipe along the way. Sipe was a classic overachiever for the Browns in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In some ways, this season will end up much like the 2001 season with Butch Davis in his first season as coach, That team beat the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens twice en route to a 7-9 season.

I see the Browns knocking off the Bengals twice this season and delivering a surprising blow to another division opponent’s playoff hopes in the last month.

With an offense that will be good enough to not ever be out of a game and a defense that will grow and mature as the season unfolds, the Browns at the end of the season no longer will be considered dregs anymore.

This will be the season the Browns take one giant step beyond respectable and become competitive. They no longer will be the weekly pushovers. Those bully days are over.

Make it 7-9 with an outside shot at 8-8. No playoffs, but Browns fans will not dread the 2012 season. That’s one they will eagerly look forward to after this season.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Questions won't spoil opener

The Browns head into the regular season with numerous questions marks on offense. Almost too numerous.

For example:

Along the offensive line, only two spots are set: Left tackle (Joe Thomas) and center (Alex Mack). Some believe Shawn Lauvao is a fixture at right guard. Then there are those who think Lauvao might be moved to left guard because it would be too risky to start rookie Jason Pinkston there. If that’s the case, then veteran John Greco most likely moves in to play right guard.

Right tackle Tony Pashos, who tops the injury-waiting-to-happen list just about every season, is walking around with a boot on his right foot. That brings newcomers Oneil Cousins and Artis Hicks into the picture.

So will it be Thomas-Pinkston-Mack-Lauvao-Pashos Sunday in the season opener against Cincinnati? Or will it be Thomas-Lauvao-Mack-Greco and Cousins/Hicks? Then again, it could be Thomas-Greco-Mack-Lauvao and Cousins/Hicks.

The Browns’ front office, of course, could spin this to look like a positive. “We have so many good and versatile linemen, we’ll be all right no matter who plays,” they could say.

Heading into the season, this is not what you want the offensive line picture to look like. Stability is the key for the front five. The less stability, the less effective they are. The same five needs to start every week in order to have a shot at being successful.

Now let us turn to the wide receivers. Who is going to start? Better yet, who are the main contributors going to be?

Mo Massaquoi hasn’t played a single minute of the exhibition season due to injury. How sharp is he going to be for the Bengals? And while Brian Robiskie looked halfway decent during those games, he’s not an elite guy. Joshua Cribbs is still a much better return specialist than wideout and Greg Little is a rookie. Most rookie wide receivers struggle in their first year.

Then you’ve got Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell coming off the bench. Enough said. The Browns are hurting, once again, at wide receiver. And nothing the front office can say changes that.

The only solid parts of the offense right now reside at quarterback with Colt McCoy, running back with Peyton Hillis, although the bench offers little help there, and tight end with Ben Watson and Evan Moore.

On defense, there exist a few questions marks. Such as:

Is the Browns’ defensive line too young and too inexperienced to be a factor in the early stages of the season?

With rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard comprising half the line, and Jayme Mitchell finally getting a shot at starting after five seasons of watching from the bench, it’s almost too much to expect them to scare the opposition.

As for the linebackers in the revamped 4-3 scheme, can D’Qwell Jackson stay healthy long enough to be a force in the middle? How effective is Chris Gocong going to be after missing the entire exhibition season? And how spry will Scott Fujita be in his 11th season?

Unlike last season, the Browns enter the 2011 campaign in relatively good shape in the secondary. Unless, that is, Joe Haden and T.J. Ward suffer from a sophomore jinx. The addition of Usama Young, James Dockery and Buster Skrine provides much needed depth.

All things considered, I look for the Browns to do something they have done only once on opening day since the return in 1999 – win. And it shouldn’t be close.

The Bengals, strong candidates to replace the Browns in the AFC North basement this season, open with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton and are relatively inexperienced at wide receiver.

If new Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron steps out of character and shelves his normally conservative approach for a more aggressive stance against the rookie, it’s going to be as fun afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Look for that to happen with McCoy hooking up all day with Watson and Moore and Hillis banging out big yardage, especially in the second half. Make it:

Browns 30, Bengals 17