Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday leftovers

Colt McCoy couldn’t have summed it up any better after the Browns lost in San Francisco Sunday.

“It’s about winning,” the Cleveland quarterback said. “We can talk all day about how we fight, fight, fight. That’s the character of this team. But we’ve got to start winning.”

What he neglected to mention, perhaps purposely, is how carelessly the Browns play the game of football on offense. There is no reason for McCoy to fumble snaps, miss handoffs and look like a lost little boy just about every time he drops back to pass.

And it’s not just him. He has plenty of company on offense.

Like Turnstile Tony Pashos, whose whiff of 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks on the second play of Sunday’s game resulted in a strip sack, which led to the first San Francisco touchdown.

Like the rest of Pashos’ buddies on the offensive line, who block so weakly in pass protection, McCoy might as well accept the reality that he’s going to wind up week after week as human piñata.

And like the wide receiving corps, which continues to prove it is one of the worst in the National Football League. Rookie Greg Little was targeted for passes 11 times against the 49ers and racked up just four catches. Evan Moore was targeted twice and wound up with, surprise, two catches.

Whatever the problem is on pass protection, Pat Shurmur and his offensive coaching staff (no pun intended) have drawn blanks on how to solve it. It seems as though every time McCoy drops to throw, he has people in his face within four seconds.

Surely, Shurmur and friends can come up with a plan to combat that. Like screen passes to slow the pass rush. Or quick slants where the receiver is actually moving as he catches the ball. Or seam routes by the tight ends. Maybe a misdirection play or three.

We don’t see any of that from the Cleveland offense. What we get instead is almost predictable. And if we see it coming, imagine what the more sophisticated defensive coordinators see.

Time to begin installing some sexy schemes in order to pick up this moribund offense. It’s making Brian Daboll and his dysfunctional offense the last two seasons look good.

* * *

At least Shurmur has put his finger on the offensive problem. “Our margin for error on offense is small,” the Cleveland coach said. “That’s not an excuse. That’s the reality.” Well, at least we know his eyes are completely open.

“We have to hit on everything,” he said. ”We just do. We have to fight for every yard. We can’t make mistakes. If we do, we have to overcome them.”

Now he has to figure out just how he’s going to overcome them. And with running backs dropping with alarming consistency, that won’t be easy.

* * *

Now that Montario Hardesty has gone down with a torn calf muscle, can we now make it official that the Browns’ second-round draft choice last year is injury prone? If not, what in the world would it take?

He was drafted despite a red flag that warned he was an injury risk. He missed all last season with a knee injury, was babied throughout training camp this season to avoid a recurrence and played very little in the exhibition season.

Then Peyton Hillis went down with strep throat, followed by an ouchy hamstring, and Hardesty all of a sudden was the main man. He carried the ball 33 times in the Seattle victory eight days ago and emerged with no problem. Two series and two carries against the 49ers later, he pops a calf muscle.

The young man was – and still is – an injury risk and General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. wasted a second-round pick on him.

* * *

Player of the game on defense against the 49ers was middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in a runaway, In arguably his best game as a Cleveland Brown, Jackson had 10 solo tackles, which is normal for him. However, half of those stops came behind the line of scrimmage. And that is far from normal for him.

He usually has a problem getting into the opposing team’s backfield, but had little trouble Sunday. Three of the five stops came on the Browns’ strong goal-line stand in the second quarter when he stuffed 49ers running back Frank Gore on three straight carries from the 1. It’ll be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Dick Jauron schemes Jackson the same way this Sunday in Houston.

Jackson’s lone mistake was being too aggressive on Gore on a third-and-3 at the San Francisco 32 with about five minutes left in the game and the Browns trailing by only a touchdown. He inadvertently grabbed Gore’s facemask. The penalty took valuable time off the clock and sustained a drive that led to a field goal.

* * *

Joshua Cribbs, who scored Cleveland’s only touchdown in the fourth quarter after practically begging McCoy to throw to him on a sideline route, bemoans the club’s first-quarter blues – only three opening-quarter points all season. “The beginning (of the game) haunts us, coming out awful,” he said. “We finish like a Super Bowl team. We just start like the worst football team.”

A slight exaggeration on the Super Bowl reference. Otherwise, right on.

* * *

More Cribbs: “I know Browns Town is really upset, but one thing they can be excited about is our effort. I hope back home they won’t get into a frenzy like the world is going to end for us."

No, it won’t end, but your season is all but gone. And one more thing: Effort doesn’t win games, although it is a contributing factor. Talent and playing the game smartly are more vital factors.

* * *

Stream of thought: Still can’t figure out why Shurmur decided to punt the ball from San Francisco’s 39-yard line on a fourth-and-2 with a minute left in the third quarter and the Browns trailing, 17-3. Better field position? Or was it his way of waving the white flag of surrender? What’s the worst that could have happened if he had gone for it? Not making it? Yeah, that’s really thinking positively. . . . At the risk of sounding repetitious, why is Brian Robiskie still on the roster? He was nailed to the bench again against the 49ers. Jordan Norwood appears to have leaped over him on the depth chart. . . . Jackson, on the 49ers’ use of linemen in their passing game: "It’s tough. Everybody’s geared up for the run and they hit you with that.” “That” was a pair of passes to offensive tackle Joe Staley and defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on tackle-eligible plays that gained 17 and 18 yards, respectively, each resulting in a first down. "That" is also called creative football.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Big plays spell doom

Big plays separate good football teams from bad football teams, contending teams from pretending teams, and great teams from those that yearn for and only dream of greatness.

And so it goes for the San Francisco 49ers, who have risen this season into one of those categories. The right one; the one that propels them on the path toward greatness.

And so it goes for the Cleveland Browns, who also fall into one of those categories. The wrong one; the one that propels them so far beneath mediocrity, it becomes an annual challenge as they strive to be at least competitive.

Big plays were on display Sunday afternoon by the Bay in San Francisco as the 49ers continued their surprise run toward the playoffs with a much-easier-than-it-sounds 20-10 victory over the Browns.

It was one big play after another as the 49ers coasted to their sixth victory in seven games, sending the Browns back to Cleveland with its second Bay area loss in two weeks.

It didn’t take long for the 49ers to dip into their big-play bag. It started with a strip sack of Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy on the second play of the game, proceeded to ripping off large chunks of yardage on the ground and also included the usage of offensive and defensive linemen in the passing game.

Secreting their creative juices, the 49ers leaned heavily on big plays in big moments in an effort to demonstrate why they should be considered serious contenders.

It started when Isaac Sopoaga and all of his 330 pounds landed on McCoy’s fumble after 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks caused body-ball separation against the overmatched Cleveland offensive line. That was just the beginning for the big Hawaiian.

All afternoon, the 49ers brought in an extra offensive lineman or Sopoaga as extra blockers, determined to control the ball and allow quarterback Alex Smith to manage the game. In other words, limit the number of times he threw the ball.

The Browns are not capable to such a philosophy because their west coast offense is predicated on a pass-first philosophy to set up the running game. Another problem is they don’t have the talent to pull it off.

The Niners’ linemen – Sopoaga, a defensive tackle, and starting offensive tackle Joe Staley – did more than just block as San Francisco split their 348 total yards right down the middle.

They also contributed to the passing game, each catching a pass with both grabs leading to David Akers’ two field goals. Imagine that. Using 645 pounds of talent to catch passes.

Think creativity like that exists in Cleveland? Don’t answer. That was a rhetorical question.

The 49ers, taking the big-play cue from their defense, moved the ball with ease in the first half as they built a 17-3 lead with Frank Gore ripping off several long runs as his offensive line opened massive holes. The Niners had half a dozen plays of 20 yards or more.

The Browns, meanwhile, owned the ball for just 11 minutes in the first half and accumulated a robust 93 total yards on offense. It took a 51-yard Phil Dawson field goal on the last play of the half to get on the scoreboard.

If it hadn’t been for a staunch goal-line stand by the Browns early in the second quarter, and the notion San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh appeared to take his foot off the pedal in the second half, the 49ers would have turned this one into a rout.

The recurring theme this season has been the Browns’ inability to start games strong. It’s almost as though they come into them totally unprepared. There is little defense against that argument given the club’s problems in putting up points in the first 15 minutes.

That responsibility rests on the shoulders of the head coach. Not his assistants. All they can do is prepare their men to play solid fundamental football. The emotional approach belongs to the coach or one of the players. Since the Browns seem to lack that emotional leader on either side of the ball, that job lands squarely in Shurmur’s lap.

So far, the Browns have played seven games. And in each one of them, they have come out supremely flat, especially on offense. There is total lack of urgency. And who is responsible for the Cleveland offense? Never mind. Another rhetorical question.

Most offensive coordinators like to script the first 15 or 20 plays of a game. Considering what we’ve seen thus far from Shurmur this season, time to burn that script.

Speaking of burning, Shurmur tried to get cute on the first series of the second half on a third-and-2 at the San Francisco 42 and it took him out of possible field-goal range.

He had wide receiver Greg Little line up initially in the slot, then shift into the backfield at the tail of an I formation. At the snap, McCoy threw Little a swing pass that was more of a backward pass.

It was a play the Browns had never used before and probably designed to take advantage of Little’s ability to make something out of nothing when running with the ball. But Shurmur did not count on a blown assignment on the offensive line and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis dropped Little for an eight-yard loss.

That’s one play that needs to be exorcised from the playbook because the Browns are incapable of executing it.

Sycophant Browns fans will write this one off as just one of those days. If they were a good team, perhaps that would pass the sniff test. But they are not a good team. Not even close.

The schedule does not get any easier from here on out. How much longer will it take before those sycophants begin to see the real picture?

Unless Shurmur has been keeping the real Cleveland Browns under wraps, the answer to that question is soon. Very soon.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Now it gets tougher

OK, boys and girls, are we ready for the rout? Er, are we ready for what the rest of the season might look like?

Because if you take a real close look at what remains on the Browns’ schedule, you’ll no doubt notice that of the 10 remaining games, only three are against teams with losing records.

Outside of winless St. Louis, 2-5 Jacksonville and 1-5 Arizona, the rest of the schedule is fraught with teams at or near the upper crust of the National Football League. That includes five games with the rest of their much more talented brethren in the AFC North. The easy part of the schedule is now history.

Starting Sunday in San Francisco, Cleveland plays seven of its remaining games against teams with winning records. Combined, they are 31-14. And all are either leading their respective divisions or challenging for the lead.

If the Browns harbor any hope of finishing at or near .500, they’re going to have to play spectacular, if not perfect, football from now on. That would be a virtual impossibility given how they have played thus far. On offense, that is. No quarrel with the defense. So far.

Cleveland stands at 3-3, but it’s an extremely shaky 3-3. The victories have come at the expense of the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks. Three teams with a combined record of 3-17.

But if recent rivalry history is any indicator, the Browns do have a shot at upsetting the 49ers on the second of their three trips west this season. Cleveland owns the last three victories in the series – 1993, 2003 and 2007.

The most memorable of those was the 1993 game, a Monday night affair in week two that saw the Browns win, 23-13, in Bill Belichick’s third season as head coach. Six weeks later, Belichick fired quarterback Bernie Kosar.

The 49ers, like the Browns, have fallen on hard times throughout much of the first decade of the 21st century. They haven’t had a winning season since 2002, racking up a 46-82 record in the last eight seasons. The Browns are 43-85 over the same span.

But unlike the Browns, who continue to wallow as they struggle to attain some form of respectability, the 49ers seem to have recaptured some of the luster of the Bill Walsh-George Seifert years.

Unlike the Browns, they went out and hired a high profile, energetic and extremely successful college coach who played the game on the professional level and did not have to learn the nuances of the NFL.

Jim Harbaugh came in with the reputation of being a no-nonsense guy who has known nothing but success everywhere he has coached. Some NFL observers believed, however, it would take the former Michigan quarterback a while to adjust. It has taken him six games.

That the 49ers, coming off their bye week, are 5-1 is no accident. Harbaugh has his men convinced this is not an aberration. They are 3-0 on the road with victories in Detroit, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, all tough venues.

Outside of perhaps running back Frank Gore, the Niners do not overwhelm you with their offensive statistics. But it’s very obvious looking at those stats to determine exactly what you’re going to get when you face San Francisco.

It’s going to be large doses of Gore running behind a solid run-blocking line or cerebral quarterback Alex Smith throwing mostly to tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, who own six (three each) of Smith’s eight touchdown passes. And the Browns have had problems all season covering tight ends.

However, the 49ers’ offensive line has difficulty protecting Smith when he drops back to pass. He has been leveled 16 times, a number the improved Cleveland pass rush hopes to elevate significantly.

Where the Browns will encounter problems is on offense, the club’s Achilles’ heel. The 49ers’ front seven – they play a very active 3-4 scheme – has 16 sacks of their own and put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to steal eight of their passes. Of those 16 sacks, defensive end Justin Smith and rookie linebacker Aldon Smith, a situational pass rusher, own 10.

In order to beat this defense, the Browns must throw the ball. They will not be able to run against a front seven that allows just 73 yards a game and has yet to yield a rushing touchdown.

If Pat Shurmur insists on running the ball as often and as unsuccessfully as he did in last Sunday’s victory over Seattle, Colt McCoy will spend most of the afternoon looking for his receivers.

As for special teams, the 49ers own a decided edge, mainly because Brad Seely is their coach. Seely, one of the best special teams coaches in the league, now has Ted Ginn Jr., the former Glenville High School and Ohio State blur, as his prize pupil. And Ginn has already rewarded him with a pair of TDs.

One more thing that favors the Browns even though odds makers have made them nine-point dogs: Teams coming off byes thus far this season are 3-9 in their first games back.

Of the 12 teams with byes, only Baltimore, Denver and Kansas City won their first week back. Four teams returned with home games and own a 1-3 record. Eight returned on the road and sport a 2-6 mark.

So the odds do, indeed, favor a Cleveland victory, right?

Uh, no. Not quite. Nice try. Make it:

49ers 24, Browns 6

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday leftovers

In splitting their first six games of the season (the most deceiving 3-3 record in the National Football League), the Browns have shown no signs of progress from the offense. And if that doesn’t concern Pat Shurmur, something is wrong.

Quarterback Colt McCoy still finds himself either waiting way too long to deliver the pass or he’s scrambling for his life because his protection broke down too early. Not to mention receivers who have a tough time getting open.

There is no rhythm whatsoever to Cleveland’s version of the west coast offense, which has sputtered and staggered embarrassingly. If this is Shurmur’s iteration of the west coast scheme, time to make radical adjustments or get rid of it.

It is becoming more and more apparent that McCoy is most uncomfortable with the philosophy. While his feet dances a jig and his head swivels furiously, he becomes less and less like the quarterback who looked decent in the last half of the 2010 season.

Because the west coast is a strict scheme that requires precise timing, he is much less accurate with his passes than last season, when he was not restricted to short- and medium-range passes.

That does not bode well for the running game, whose success depends heavily on passing accuracy from the quarterback. In the west coast, unlike more conventional offenses, the pass sets up the run.

Shurmur, it seems, stubbornly sticks with the same game plan week in and week out. Receivers rarely are seen downfield. And when they do get open, they usually catch the ball flat-footed. It’s almost as though McCoy is playing with one hand tied behind his back.

The coach is determined to make this thing work even though it has become apparent that opposing defenses have locked into his thinking process.

All that makes it much more difficult for the defense, the only reason the Browns have won three games. That defense, with a couple of notable exceptions, has played very well and saved Shurmur’s coaching butt.

If he insists on continuing to coach this brand of offense, the season will wind up in disastrous fashion because the defense can last just so long before wearing down. The defense has picked up the offense thus far. It’s time for the offense to reciprocate.

* * *

Sometimes, coaches make stupid statements. OK, maybe more often than sometimes. Here’s the latest Shurmur beauty.

“I don’t feel we are regressing,” he said after Sunday’s 6-3 blowout of the Seattle Seahawks. “They (the Seahawks) have a pretty good defense. We just need to get more points.”

Ya think? You’re not regressing and you need to get more points? Right and wrong. Yes, you need to get more points and the reason you are not is because your offense is regressing.

* * *

More Shurmur: “It’s a credit to the players, to the coaches . . . to hold an NFL team to three points. That’s outstanding.” Apparently he did not notice or take into consideration how awful the Seattle offense played. It was not all because of the Cleveland defense.

Come to think of it, Seattle coach Pete Carroll could very well have said the same thing if he wanted (smartly, he didn’t), changing the number of points allowed to six.

* * *

In assessing McCoy’s performance, the coach said, “Colt battled. That’s what I’ll say about how he played.”

That’s called damning with faint praise.

* * *

It appears safe to say Montario Hardesty’s knee problems are a thing of the past. What other conclusion can be arrived at after watching him carry the ball 33 times, catch two passes and total 122 yards from scrimmage against Seattle.

Remember how Hardesty was babied in training camp, the exhibition games and the beginning stages of the season when Peyton Hillis was healthy? After Sunday’s game, consider Hardesty a threat to become the lead running back.

He ran hard, hit some holes quickly, but seemed to have a problem with picking the right hole. More reps should take care of the latter problem.

* * *

Another pleasant surprise was the running and pass catching of running back Chris Ogbonnaya. Mere days after joining the Browns, McCoy’s ex-teammate at the University of Texas picked up 15 yards in three carries and caught all five passes thrown his way (three for a first down) for 43 yards.

With Hillis still slowed by a hamstring injury, it’ll be interesting to see how Shurmur plans to use Ogbonnaya and Hardesty this Sunday in San Francisco. Wouldn’t mind seeing more of double dose of them based on what we saw against Seattle.

* * *

It’s somewhat ironic, from a special teams standpoint, that the Browns will be in San Francisco this weekend. Brad Seely, who coached Cleveland’s special teams so well the last two seasons, now calls the shots for the 49ers’ special teams.

Given the problems the Browns have had on special teams the last two weeks, one has to wonder why Cleveland allowed Seely to head west. Current Browns special teams coach Chris Tabor has got to be feeling some heat.

* * *

Seattle wideout Mike Williams after the game: “I don’t want to disrespect Cleveland or anything. They played a good game, but we are better.”

With all due respect, Mike, no you’re not.

* * *

Stream of thought: Joshua Cribbs was targeted six times by McCoy against the Seahawks and caught only one pass. How much longer will it take Shurmur to realize Cribbs is not a wide receiver? . . . With Cribbs relatively non-productive and Mo Massaquoi and Ben Watson most likely sidelined with concussions, maybe Shurmur now will give Evan Moore more playing time. Maybe. . . . When John Greco replaced the injured Shawn Lauvao at right guard against the Seahawks, the running game seemed to pick up. . . . Cornerback Joe Haden playing on a balky knee is better than anyone else in the Cleveland secondary who is completely healthy. . . . And what’s with Brad Maynard’s nine-yard punt in the second quarter? It wasn’t costly, but nine yards? C’mon. Why is he still on the team? Time for more tryouts.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Just how ugly was it?

If football coaches on all levels all around the nation want to show their players how not to play the game, here’s a suggestion. Get a copy of Sunday’s Browns-Seattle Seahawks game and show it to them.

The ineptitude both teams displayed for three ugly, embarrassing, torturous and exasperating hours did nothing to further the game of football. It was enough to turn the staunchest fan into a baseball lover.

Even though the Browns won, 6-3, this was one three-hour block of life most fans would want back. Tapes of this one must be destroyed immediately, if not sooner. Suffice it so say the Pro Football Hall of Fame will not clamor to get its hands on them.

It was so far beyond ugly, there isn’t a word in the English language that would adequately describe it. It was really that bad.

The only things missing were leather helmets, no facemasks, high-top shoes and placekickers who kicked straight on instead of soccer style. It was a throwback game by accident.

The Browns put up their robust six points while owning the football for nearly 43 minutes. Imagine that. Forty-three minutes of possession with only a pair of plus-50-yard Phil Dawson field goals to show for it.

If the Browns feel proud of themselves with this outcome, shame on them. This was a victory nowhere near being worthy of pride.

It was a war of attrition between two very, very bad football teams. The pitiful displays of offense did nothing to enhance the National Football League’s reputation for presenting good football.

It prompted Fox Sports commentator Jim Mora Jr. to tell play-by-play guy Ron Pitts, “Ronnie, this is the worst offensive performance I’ve seen in a long time.” Statements like that are usually reserved for when the microphone is turned off.

Mora unquestionably was speaking to – and on behalf of – the myriad Seattle and Cleveland fans who tuned in to what turned out to be arguably the sorriest game of the season. It’s a wonder fans didn’t storm the box office after the game and demand their money back.

Some will argue it was an afternoon for the defenses. Nonsense. This was an afternoon where the offenses were so bad, it enabled good defenses to look a lot greater than they actually were.

Neither team ran the ball well. And neither threw the ball with any authority. The only time either team saw the end zone was when Seattle’s Leon Washington returned a Brad Maynard punt 81 yards for a touchdown with about seven minutes left in the third quarter.

And befitting the afternoon, it was called back by a cheesy, ticky-tack illegal-block-in-the-back penalty on Kennard Cox of the Seahawks. Cox barely touched James Dockery of the Browns, who performed the flop of the game, drawing yellow laundry. It would have made a soccer player envious.

The Seahawks’ best offensive weapon was punter Jon Ryan, who averaged 50 yards on seven kicks. He constantly kicked the Browns close to their goal line.

How bad was this game? It was so bad . . .

• Browns running back Montario Hardesty ran the ball 33 times for 95 yards. That’s less than three yards a pop.

• Joshua Cribbs ran back four punts for 14 yards and one kickoff for 23 yards. So much for that offensive weapon.

• Dawson had two field-goal attempts blocked by Seattle defensive end Red Bryant. Blame Oneil Cousins on the first and Jason Pinkston on the second.

• The Cleveland running game racked up 141 yards, but it took 44 attempts to reach that total. Forty-four!!

• The closest the Browns got to the Seattle goal line was late in the fourth quarter when they reached the 6-yard line only to watch Bryant block another field-goal attempt.

• Both teams consistently shot themselves relentlessly in just about every place on their body with terrible play selection and worse execution. If there was a mistake to be made, like Murphy’s Law, it was made.

• The Browns reached the red zone only twice, including taking over on downs late in the game, and the Seahawks managed just one trip.

Fans didn’t know it at the time, but they were given a sneak preview of what was to come with the first two possessions of the game.

The Seahawks began the game’s opening drive from their 14. Eight plays, two first downs and three penalties later, they were on their 26 and punting. Eight plays equal 12 net yards.

The Browns reciprocated by starting their first drive from their 16 and wound up punting from the nine after a three-and-out that featured a holding penalty on right tackle Tony Pashos. Three plays net negative seven yards.

And it didn’t get much better from there. The Browns were extremely fortunate the Seahawks were that much worse. It was really a game neither team deserved to win.

If the afternoon proved anything, it showed the Browns they have a partner when it comes to offensive ineptitude. It was almost like playing against a mirror image. Both teams came into the game among the lowest scoring teams in their respective conferences, then proceeded to show why.

At the end of the game, as Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur approached Seattle coach Pete Carroll for the post-game handshake at midfield, he had an almost apologetic look on his face and a shrug in his shoulders as he extended his hand. And well he should have.

It was as if to say, “Sorry we couldn’t have given you a better game.” Carroll could have responded in kind. And both men would have been correct.

So here we are six games into the season and the Browns are 3-3, but playing like a team that very well should be 1-5. They have not played well enough to be .500 at this juncture and yet, here they are.

Lest they get full of themselves, this might be a good time to remind the Browns they travel next Sunday to San Francisco and the following Sunday to Houston. Word is those guys are pretty good. Quite unlike the Seattle Seahawks.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How improbable

There’s something about the Browns playing at home that odds makers seem to like. Not sure exactly what it is, but installing them as three-point favorites over the Seattle Seahawks for Sunday’s game puzzles the rational mind.

Yes, we know those three points are awarded for home-field advantage, but the only advantage the Browns have at home is they don’t have to sleep the night before the game in a hotel room.

Other that that, there is no such thing as home-field advantage for the Browns, who bring a 35-64 record at Cleveland Browns Stadium into the game. That’s right, this is game No. 100 at CBS since the 1999 return and the Browns have crafted an ignominious .353 winning percentage there.

So much for home-field advantage.

Only once in the last 12-plus seasons have the Browns carved out a winning record at home. They rattled off seven straight victories in 2007 after dropping the season opener to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This season, they sport a 1-2 mark, losing to Cincinnati and Tennessee. And, yes, those all-knowing odd makers favored Cleveland in those games, too.

Perhaps the guys who work the numbers in an effort to take your money figure the Seahawks are an awful team on the road. And that would be a correct assumption because the Seahawks have a problem especially when they play in the Eastern Time Zone.

When they throttled the New York Giants, 36-25, a couple of weeks ago, it shattered a 10-game losing streak in the East. So maybe that’s what went into the thinking when posting odds for this one.

The Browns and Seahawks have striking similarities. Both teams enter the game at 2-3. And both teams have trouble running the ball and putting points on the board. Neither team overwhelms when in possession of the ball. They have combined for just 185 points.

The Seahawks, however, have shown signs of coming around offensively with 64 points in the last two games, thanks to the installation of a no-huddle attack, after posting just 30 points in the first three. They’ve done most of their damage, as have the Browns, through the air.

This could turn out to be a game of attrition since both clubs have problems protecting the quarterback. The Seattle offensive line has surrendered 20 sacks in five games, while Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, even though sacked just nine times overall, has served as a piñata the last three games.

Charlie Whitehurst, who relieved the injured Tarvaris Jackson against the Giants and led the comeback victory, gets the call and will guide the Seahawks’ new up-tempo attack. However, he is a more of a pocket passer than Jackson and a stationary target for a strong pass rush.

Forget the ground game for Seattle. The Hawks average a meager 83 yards on the ground. Running back Marshawn Lynch has rushed only 58 times this season. He used to carry the ball that many times in two-plus games when he was with Buffalo.

The Browns, meanwhile, seem stuck in trying to kick-start an offense that has spun in neutral for the first five games. One problem, which coach Pat Shurmur stubbornly ignores, is the disproportionate ratio of the running game vs. the passing game.

Cleveland averages 24 runs a game. McCoy has thrown 43 passes a game. You put the ball up that many times, you should be averaging more than 240 yards a game. Shurmur has virtually ignored the infantry game.

I realize the west coast offense is a pass-first offense, but this is ridiculous. McCoy has no shot at fooling the opposition with a play fake because the Browns’ running game has been an extreme disappointment. It averages 82 yards a game.

Unfortunately, Shurmur might have to do the same against the Seahawks, one of the best teams in the National Football League against the run. Peyton Hillis is doubtful with a hamstring, so look for at least 43 passes from McCoy against a weak Seattle secondary.

Then there’s this little gem. One national pundit labeled the game “The I Can’t Believe the Winner Will Be 3-3" Bowl.

Two teams considered by many at the beginning of the season to be also-rans will play each other in a game Sunday that will elevate the winner to .500 status six games into the season.

Let that fact sink in. The Cleveland Browns at 3-3 with two of the victories at home? The Seattle Seahawks at 3-3 with two of the victories in the East? No one saw that coming.

Then again maybe it won’t happen because there is one other possibility. The most improbable outcome for this one? A tie! Make it:

Browns 23, Seahawks 23

Monday, October 17, 2011

Monday leftovers

So Joshua Cribbs wants to refocus his attention more to special teams than wide receivers with the Browns.

“I’m very insignificant on offense,” he told reporters shortly after the Browns dropped a 24-17 decision in Oakland Sunday. “So I need to be out there on special teams.

“I got the ball only twice (on special teams Sunday), so that’s insignificant right there. Snaps, it’s significant. I want to help my team win. You get the ball to your athletes. I feel like I’m an asset on this team on special teams and I want to refocus on what got me into this league.”

Memo to Pat Shurmur: Listen to Cribbs. He makes sense.

Cribbs is not a wide receiver. He’s been in the National Football League long enough (since 2005) to have honed the skills to become a good wideout. He has not. It’s about time Shurmur realizes that.

Meanwhile, Shurmur’s best receiver, Evan Moore, roams the sidelines far too much. The club’s best pass-catching receiver – and for the umpteenth time, he’s not a tight end – is not on the field.

Yes, Moore is not fast. And yes, he is not a great blocker. All he does is run good routes, get open and catch the ball when it’s thrown to him. Can’t ask much more of a receiver than that.

Sunday in Oakland, he was targeted just three times by Colt McCoy and caught two passes ford 15 yards. Yippee. For the season, he has been thrown to 15 times and caught nine passes, two for touchdowns. Cribbs is 14 for 25 and one TD.

Cribbs’ maximum value lies on special teams. He’s correct when he says that’s what got him into the NFL. He knocked down that door and has established himself as one of the most feared return specialists in the league.

Not only that, he’s just as valuable as a gunner on kickoff and punt return teams. But in order to work him into the offense, Shurmur relieved Cribbs of those chores. And the special teams suffered. Time to get him back on and make Moore a fixture as a slot receiver.

Ever the good teammate and team player, Cribbs said the decision is not his to make and will remain silent on the matter. “I ain’t gonna ask,” he said. "I’m a vet. I just do. I’m on (special) teams. Get somebody else out (there as a receiver).”

A plea that no doubt will fall on deaf ears.

* * *

After five games, it has become more than apparent the Browns lack speed and quickness on both sides of the ball. They are a relatively slow team that, time and again, is victimized by faster, quicker teams.

And while the defense played fairly well in Oakland, it was frustrating to watch Cleveland’s front seven get pushed around by the Raiders’ offensive line. It wasn’t unusual to see the line of scrimmage moved several yards downfield by the time Darren McFadden and Michael Bush got the ball.

The Cleveland linebackers are slow with an instinct quotient that falls far short of pre-season expectations. Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong are slow and D’Qwell Jackson, who has the instincts, lacks the aggression one would associate with a middle linebacker.

* * *

In the final minute of the Oakland loss, after recovering an onside kick, the Browns had a second and 3 at the Oakland 42 and the momentum. Three downs to pick up a first down with a measly three yards to go.

And McCoy, for whatever reason, failed to pick up those nine little feet with incompletions to Greg Little, Ben Watson and Mo Massaquoi. Three downs, three yards and nothing to show for it.

Playmakers make those plays. They expect to make those plays. For all the bravado and confidence McCoy displays, he falls far short of undoubtedly his own expectations. That’s the difference between an average quarterback and one who strives to rise above that level.

* * *

Stream of thought: If Sunday’s loss doesn’t prove that football games are won and lost in the trenches, then nothing will. The Browns’ lines were abused a good portion of the afternoon as the line of scrimmage belonged solely to the Raiders. The Cleveland offensive line is a mess with the exception of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. Tony Pashos at right tackle is slow in pass protection and the young guards are, well, still playing like young guards. . . . If Tom Heckert Jr. doesn’t make the offensive line the top priority in next April’s draft, then it’ll be the same old, same old again next season. He helped the defensive line this season, Next season, the offensive line. . . . Kudos to Mack, who played the entire game less than two weeks after an appendectomy. . . . No excuse for the Browns to get flagged for having 12 men on the field on defense to begin a drive late in the second quarter. . . . Little was targeted 12 times by McCoy. Any doubt who the No. 1 wide receiver is? . . . Two more dropped passes for Montario Hardesty. That makes six in the last two games. A trend or just an aberration? . . . Misdirection football made its return on the Browns’ first touchdown against the Raiders. McCoy’s play fake on first and goal at the Oakland 1 with movement right resulted in a scoring pass to Alex Smith on the opposite side. More of that please. . . . Want speed? Watching Oakland’s Jacoby Ford run that kickoff back all the way for a touchdown gives you some idea of the kind of speed the Browns lack.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Questions, questions, questions

So many questions in the wake of the Browns’ latest loss.

Let’s start with the obvious one. Why did they look so bad and not ready to play a game of football after their bye week?

Then there’s this one: Why is it that the Browns get outcoached in just about every game?

How about: Why has Peyton Hillis become an afterthought?

Keep going? OK.

Try these two: Is the pro game too much for Colt McCoy to handle? And why has Pat Shurmur abandoned the running game (21 runs vs. 45 passes)?

Sticking with the offense: Is this the Shurmur offense we must put up with the rest of this season?

So many other questions. Let’s try to answer a few in a way that at least would make some sense.

No, the Browns were not ready to play a game Sunday in Oakland and all but handed the Raiders a 24-17 victory. It was obvious they were ill-prepared.

They struggled on offense most of the afternoon. Their special teams play was atrocious. Only the defense approached respectability, but couldn’t overcome the damage the other two phases had caused.

The final score is misleading. Even though they were in a position to tie the game in the final moments and give the diehards hope, you just knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not the way McCoy and his guys played.

Shurmur has put way too much faith in McCoy’s ability to make plays; way too much faith in his receivers’ ability to make plays; way too much faith for anyone on that side of the ball to make plays.

That they were in a position to at least tie in the waning moments was nothing more than a fortunate bounce of the ball on a desperate onside kick that was poorly played by the Raiders. The Browns took advantage of that by reverting to their implosive ways.

As for the coaching, it’s understandable that a rookie head coach will get outcoached on a rare occasion, but it has become nearly a weekly event with Shurmur. Sunday, special teams took center stage.

OK, it’s not unusual for a kickoff to be returned all the way this season. Jacoby Ford of the Raiders just added his name to a growing list of players who have accomplished that feat. It happens.

But when the Raiders used a successful fake field goal attempt to climb to 24-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, that’s a product of bad coaching. Very bad coaching. Not a tip-of-your-hat nod to being outsmarted.

The bewildered look on Shurmur’s face said it all when Oakland punter Shane Lechler hit Kevin Boss with a scoring pass as the Browns gave absolutely no thought to the possibility of a fake.

The fault of special teams coach Chris Tabor? No way. This one belongs to Shurmur, who should make it mandatory for his coaches to always consider a fake in field goal and punt situations and make the opposition kick the ball. He got snookered.

Perhaps the load of being his own offensive coordinator and keeping his head in the game on all levels is too much for Shurmur. Sure he allows defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to run things on that side of the ball. But as head coach, he has to be autonomous.

Everything must run through him. It’s obvious some things are slipping through the cracks and costing the Browns games. And when you play only 16 of them, the mistakes glare brightly.

As for Hillis, why is this man even in uniform? It has become apparent he has become a pariah. Not sure why, but his relative non-use is beyond puzzling. It’s perplexing.

The word is Hillis had a hamstring injury. Forgive me for being a skeptic (that’s my nature), but when it comes to Hillis. I believe nothing these days. If he was hurt, why did he seem to lobby Shurmur to get back into the game in the fourth quarter when the Browns were driving for what turned out to be a touchdown?

The Browns are too fragile a team from a talent standpoint to be victimized by bad coaching. But you can bet Mike Holmgren isn’t too bothered by what he has seen thus far this season. The club president isn’t going to use five games as a barometer to judge his handpicked head coach. At least he won't come out and admit it.

But he certainly has to wonder why his team hasn’t been ready to play in the first five games. And he certainly has to wonder whether the talent on board can effectively run a west coast offense. There have been too few glimpses of west coast success this season and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Holmgren can't be too thrilled with what he's seen. If he is, he's part of the problem.

But at least McCoy aired out the ball on a few occasions against the Raiders. Unfortunately, with one lone exception, it appeared he was throwing the ball to either nobody or one of the Raiders.

He didn’t get much help from his offensive line – again – as he was flushed out of the pocket on numerous occasions. The Raiders racked up only two sacks, but hurried his throws on at least 15 occasions and dropped him six more times after the throw. Not exactly the formula for success.

Maybe Shurmur should take a long, hard look at what McCoy can and cannot do and fit the offense around him, not the other way around. The little guy from Texas is taking a pounding much in the manner of Tim Couch a decade ago.

At the rate he’s being hammered, it’s only a matter of time before he begins to lose that confidence, that swagger that helped him look so promising a year ago.

As for Shurmur, maybe it’s time to hand over the reins of the offense to someone who can devote all his energies to improving what the Browns do when they have the ball. It’s time he became the head coach so he could adequately prepare his team emotionally to prevent games like Sunday’s in Oakland from slipping away.

It’s time to be the head coach and not in name only.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Emotional tidal wave

Only the Browns could be this unlucky.

Who knew when the National Football League schedule was drawn up that week six would have them in Oakland. Not Baltimore or Cincinnati or San Francisco or Houston. Oakland.

The Raiders’ first home game following the passing of Al Davis will be against the Browns. The Coliseum will be an emotional cauldron for the better part of three hours Sunday.

Davis was beloved in Oakland He wasn’t the founder of the team, but he might as well have been. He came along two years after they were formed and became an icon, an institution.

He helped produce three Super Bowl championships and numerous appearances in the postseason for the city of Oakland. He made the phrases “commitment to excellence” and “just win, baby” part of the sports lexicon.

Davis was revered in the Bay area in spite of a dearth of victories the last 10 years. He was the Oakland Raiders until his death last week.

And now the Browns, through the fate of the schedule, will take on the daunting task of playing the Raiders on this special day. They’re certain to feel the wrath of the denizens of the famed Black Hole, four sections of the Coliseum reserved for the rowdiest Raiders fans.

They make members of the Dawg Pound in Cleveland look like choir children by comparison and have no problem living down to their reputation. They should be amped to ridiculous heights Sunday.

That’s what the Browns can expect. The adrenalin flow on the Oakland side of the field for this one could reach extremely high levels.

Football is as much a game of emotion as it is talent. This game will be a good litmus test for Pat Shurmur, whose Browns haven’t played with extreme emotion yet this season. The rookie head coach, it seems, likes his club to play on an even emotional keel.

That’s why it’s so hard to look for anything that would give them an edge against the Raiders. The fact they’re coming off a bye and have had an extra few days to prepare for this one might be the only glimmer of hope.

But then you notice the Raiders are the third-highest scoring team in the AFC. Look again and you see only three AFC teams have surrendered more points, which more than balances that scale.

The Browns, on the other hand, have had those few extra days off to smooth out their considerable problems on offense. And the defense, which collapsed in the last game against Tennessee, had better regroup in a hurry because the Oakland offense is formidable.

Expect running back Darren McFadden to test the Cleveland front seven early and often. McFadden, who averages 5.7 yards a carry, just might be the best running back in the NFL.

If there is a weakness to the Raiders' offense, it lies with the passing game, but Darrius Heyward-Bay and Denarius Moore have busted a few long gainers this season. The Browns most likely will be without the services of cornerback Joe Haden (knee). So count on the Raiders pounding the ball until the Browns show they can stop the run.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, will face an Oakland defense that loves to pressure the quarterback. Which means Colt McCoy once again probably will be forced to scramble most of the afternoon.

That is, of course, unless Shurmur has installed a quick-hitting passing attack that features three- and five-step drops and allows McCoy to get rid of the ball quickly, offsetting a pass rush that averages nearly three sacks a game.

We should see more – hopefully, a lot more – of Peyton Hillis, whose relative non-use has resulted in a stagnant Cleveland running game. The more touches he gets, the more effective he and the offense becomes.

That’s a lot to ask of an offense that has shown very little imagination and creativity this season. Especially against a defense that’s going to be extra buzzed considering the deep emotional meaning of this game.

I’d like to think the Browns can take advantage of the Raiders being perhaps too emotional, too overcharged on Sunday. I’d like to think Shurmur will have a surprise or two for Hue Jackson, his coaching counterpart.

I’d like to, but I can’t. Make it:

Raiders 33, Browns 10

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Meanderings as we await the resumption of the season for the Browns . . .

It’s time to get Alex Smith off the field and Evan Moore on. The Browns need to get better in a hurry on offense and the first step should be Moore back in a full-time role.

The reason Smith has seen so much action this early is the weakness on the right side of the offensive line. Coach Pat Shurmur deemed right tackle so weak, he loaded up that side of the line with an extra tight end for pass protection.

And now that Tony Pashos is healthy (for at least the next game Sunday in Oakland), there is no need to give him any help in pass pro. That should mean a seat on the bench for Smith.

Shurmur, who said the other day that Moore needs to be on the field more, still hasn’t figured out that Moore is much more valuable as a wide receiver. It’s the position he played at Stanford.

As a tight end, he’s a terrible blocker. As a wide receiver, he’s clutch. Rarely drops a throw. Runs good routes. Would be perfect as a slot receiver. Needs to be on the field as much as possible.

Colt McCoy needs someone he can rely on. Moore is that guy. Not Mo Massaquoi. Not Joshua Cribbs. Not Greg Little.

The west coast offense is a pass-first offense. Tethering Moore to the bench works against that philosophy.

It is said the best coaches always put their players in the best position to be successful. That obviously is not the case with Shurmur and Moore. We’ll see Sunday if the coach has figured it out.

* * *

Do the Browns have the hurry-up offense in their playbook? And I don’t mean in the final two minutes of a game when they’re trying desperately to win.

It certainly looks as though Shurmur has dumbed down the offense to the point where is looks as though they are incapable to playing anything else but vanilla football.

No screens. No misdirection. No gadget plays. Makes one wonder if Shurmur’s favorite color is gray.

Strictly draws, traps, dive plays and stretch plays. Ho hum. No wonder opposing defensive coordinators do not fear the Browns’ offense.

* * *

The Browns need to work a lot harder on first-down plays. On both sides of the ball. Winning first down is essential.

You win first down on offense and you have a better shot at moving the chains. Second and short or medium is a lot easier to convert than second and long. That’s been a season-long probem.

Win first down on defense and you force the opposition to do something with which it has trouble. Second and long for the opposition changes the whole dynamics of a series and enables you to bring more pressure.

* * *

Is the National Football League game too fast for McCoy? It seems as though he’s having trouble with the speed of the game. In college, he had much more time to throw. The game seemed to slow down for him.

That does not appear to be the case in the NFL. He has had way too much trouble picking out his receivers and has delivered the ball late at an alarming rate. It’s a wonder he doesn’t have more interceptions.

Waiting an extra beat or two before getting the ball out is a sign of failing confidence in your receivers. Watch your successful quarterbacks and notice how they release the ball well before the receiver makes the break.

McCoy has become shy to the point where he waits until the receivers make the break and then throws the ball. That second or two enables a defensive back to recover and be in a position to spoil the play.

* * *

And why doesn’t McCoy throw downfield? In the Tennessee loss 10 days ago, he threw 61 times in 65 dropbacks and never once threw the ball beyond 20 yards. He needs to stretch the defense.

Is he not capable of airing it out? Is his arm that weak where the best he can do is 40-45 yards? If so, then the Browns are in real trouble. If nothing else, McCoy needs to throw long to dispel that notion and keep opposing defenses honest. Don’t be afraid.

* * *

Hopefully, the Peyton Hillis nonsense if over. Both sides poorly handled damage control over something as simple as a step throat. The Browns should have said he has a strep throat and won’t play against the Miami Dolphins. Period. And Hillis should have kept his mouth shut.

It’ll be interesting to see how many touches Hillis gets Sunday in Oakland. The Raiders have trouble stopping the run and the idea of giving your best running back 25-30 touches sounds like the best plan.

It’s time for Hillis to have a bust-out game. But his coach needs to give him the opportunity.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What's almost a rookie?

So Pat Shurmur considers his quarterback “almost a rookie.”

That’s right, the Browns head coach says Colt McCoy is “a young player and in my mind almost a rookie. And so his improvement can be great from practice to practice and game to game. I think (he can improve) a lot.”

Yep, that’s what he told reporters recently even though McCoy played the last half of the 2010 season and performed reasonably well.

Surprisingly, McCoy has bought into the almost-a-rookie label. “Right, exactly, and that’s how it is,” he told reporters. “You look across the receiver room, nobody has been in the west coast (offense) in that room. You look at the tight ends and nobody has been in the west coast except Alex Smith. In a sense, we’re all learning – with a rookie quarterback. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement.”

Sounds like a copout; an excuse for a slow start by the offense.

Is it the new offense that’s holding the offense back? Or is it the serious lack of talent in the receiving department? Or the strange play calling by the offensive coordinator? Perhaps it’s the inability of the offensive line to protect its quarterback and open holes for the running game.

One thing is certain: The problem does not lie with the quarterback..

If receivers can’t get open, if the offensive line can’t hold the opposition for more than 3.5 seconds in pass protection, if that same line has trouble opening holes in the ground game, how is that the fault of the quarterback?

McCoy, as supremely confident as he is, is not a miracle worker. But he knows how to cool the flames.

“We’re playing together for the first time,” he said. “We practice hard. I believe in the guys. I know the receivers and running backs and linemen believe in me and the line’s doing a nice job.”

All the right words. He was doing fine until he got to the mention of the line. He fanned on that one. It is not doing a nice job.

In 16 quarters this season, McCoy has been sacked seven times and hit on 23 other occasions. The latter number is worrisome because of his size.

That number must get lower and in a hurry or Seneca Wallace will see action sooner than expected this season. The best way to do that is cutting down on the number of times McCoy drops back to pass.

So far this season, he has attempted 172 passes. That’s 43 a game, a pace that will see him throw 688 by the time the season ends. That’s if he makes it that far.

But that won’t be a record. Drew Bledsoe launched a record 691 passes for the New England Patriots in 1994. The record for most passes by a rookie quarterback is owned by Sam Bradford last season with the St. Louis Rams.

And his offensive coordinator with that team? That’s correct. Pat Shurmur, the almost-a-rookie head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Same old, same old

Wasn’t the soap opera that was Cleveland Browns football supposed to end this season?

Weren’t Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert Jr. and Pat Shurmur brought to Cleveland to get rid of the nonsense that has plagued the franchise since it returned in 1999?

No more Carmen Policy. No more Dwight Clark, No more Butch Davis, No more John Collins. No more Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel. No more Eric Mangini and George whatshisname.

This was supposed to be a new start. A new beginning where the inmates didn’t run the asylum. Where all the shenanigans would stop. Where the fans would finally get a chance to enjoy the smooth running of a football team.

Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As some frustrated fans are no doubt saying just four games into the Holmgren-Heckert-Shurmur regime, “Here we go again.”

Four stinking games and the wheels might not be off, but they are certainly wobbling.

It started about two weeks ago when Peyton Hillis was diagnosed with strep throat. He was advised, or so we were told by the club, that team physicians recommended he go back home after reporting to Cleveland Browns Stadium for the game against the Miami Dolphins.

The following day, some former Browns who still live in the Cleveland area, called Hillis soft. It was also speculated that the reason he didn’t play was that he was not satisfied with the way talks for a contract extension were not going the way he had hoped.

All parties denied those rumors. But they were confirmed recently by Hillis’ agent, Kennard McGuire, who admitted he told Hillis to go home that Sunday. Not the doctors.

All of which cast suspicion on Hillis that he allowed the contract situation to interfere with his role as the team’s most effective running back. Reportedly, sides were being taken in the locker room. Not a good sign.

The specter of outside distractions had clearly raised its ugly head. Just four games into the first season of a rookie head coach. And they have been allowed to fester.

This team does not need those distractions. The players aren’t talented enough to overcome them. They need to devote their attention to playing the game, not worrying about things they can’t control.

This is where good coaching comes in. A head coach must have firm control of his locker room. The players and coaches must think as one. Any deviation to that credo needs to be addressed.

The week following Hillis’ absence in the Miami game, he started against the Tennessee Titans and carried the ball just 10 times. Ten times for one of the hardest-running, toughest-to-bring-down runners in the National Football League. Ten times in a game that saw quarterback Colt McCoy throw an embarrassing 61 times. Ten times in a game that begged for a game plan that featured more of the ground game.

Was this some sort of childish punishment for Hillis? He was certainly well rested and recovered from the strep throat. If it was a punishment, then shame on Shurmur and whoever suggested it.

If Shurmur was trying to make a point with Hillis, he certainly made it. And Hillis played the good soldier by not saying anything that would jeopardize further punishment.

What kind of nonsense is this? The naysayers of Browns football, those fans who are more than used to these kinds of distractions, have the definitive answer.

Same old, same old. It’s not like we haven’t seen stuff like this before.

And a lot of those nattering nabobs of negativism say the problem isn’t really down on the field. What we're witnessing down there is the result.

Where the problem begins – and should end – is up in the ivory tower where Holmgren and Heckert reside. That’s where fingers of blame should point.

Happens with other teams, argue those solidly in the corner of the new Browns triumvirate. Not necessarily.

Don’t see that happening in New England. Or Baltimore. Or Pittsburgh. Or Green Bay.

You don’t see any dysfunction with those franchises. Maybe that’s why they have been so successful the past dozen or so seasons.

Perhaps it’s time for Holmgren, from on high, to grab hold of this franchise and right it before it gets so far out of hand, it’ll be too late. Of course, that’s only if he knows how.

Up until now, he has not shown that capability.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday leftovers

If what we’ve seen of the west coast offense in the first eight games (including exhibitions) is any indication of what we’ve got to look forward to, then it truly will be a long season for the Browns.

Pat Shurmur’s version of the west coast looks nothing like its predecessors. It’s not even close. The results have ranged from mediocre to disastrous.

Maybe it’s the personnel. Then again, maybe it’s the execution. Whatever it is, it carries a stench that is beginning to turn off some Browns fans.

I, for one, am this close (as he holds his index finger and thumb apart just enough to notice a sliver of space between them) to giving up on this new offense. It has become truly offensive and not a serious threat to opponents.

Blame it on the owners’ lockout, which prevented teams from participating in OTAs and minicamps. Blame it on the fact that Shurmur has been dealt a bad hand with a terrible receiving corps and a quarterback struggling to make it in the National Football League.

Colt McCoy played four years at the University of Texas in an offense he said had similarities to the west coast. He even boasted that the switch to that philosophy by Shurmur would help him develop even faster.

Hasn’t worked.

The offense is predicated on the pass setting up the run. But you need a strong receiving corps to do that. And you need a quarterback who makes quick and accurate decisions.

McCoy, thus far, has shown a tendency to hold onto the ball too long. It doesn’t come out of his hand quick enough. As a result, a lot of his throws are either late (resulting in interceptions) or off target.

You can almost tell when something bad is going to happen. Count to four (a thousand one, a thousand two, etc.) after McCoy gets the snap. If the ball isn’t gone by four, expect a negative play. If it’s gone before then, it usually winds up a positive play.

Tim Couch and Charlie Frye had similar problems. They frequently waited (too long) for a receiver to uncover and delivered the ball late. Instead of trusting the receiver to be open and throwing early, they did the opposite.

It appears McCoy is just a smaller version of Couch and Frye.

In order to be effective, a quarterback has to have a large dose of chemistry with his receivers. The kind of chemistry McCoy has with his wideouts would blow up a lab.

* * *

Just because the west coast relies on the pass setting up the run, it doesn’t mean the ground game should be virtually ignored. There is no excuse why Peyton Hillis ran the ball just 10 times in the loss to Tennessee Sunday. He is a weapon and weapons do not watch from the bench, as Hillis did too often against the Titans.

Montario Hardesty is still getting his NFL feet wet and it showed against the Titans when he dropped five very catchable passes. The Browns needed to run against Tennessee and the best man to do that was not in the game.

That’s bad coaching. Shurmur is the offensive coordinator, as well as head coach. To find the culprit for his mismanagement of personnel, all he has to do is look in the mirror. Maybe the load is too much for him. He needs help.

Hillis, for whatever reason, has not been a factor this season. We’re a quarter of the way through the season and he has been a relative non-factor. That’s not how to treat your leading rusher from last season.

* * *

It is said games are won and lost in the trenches. That was illustrated perfectly against the Titans, who had four sacks and a boatload of hits on McCoy, who was forced to scramble far more than he wanted.

And the Cleveland front seven, which had 11 sacks in the first three games, drew a blank against a far superior Tennessee offensive. They managed to hit Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck just once. His uniform after the game looked as though it had just been laundered.

Not protecting your quarterback and not getting to the opposing quarterback is a recipe for failure.

* * *

Why is it that almost every time a Browns receiver catches the football, he’s standing still waiting for the ball to arrive. Rarely do you see a Cleveland receiver in stride upon delivery.

If I recall correctly, the west coast is an offense based on timing and that timing includes movement toward a thrown ball. No stopping. Fluid movement so yards after the catch can be gained.

Haven’t seen much of that this season.

* * *

The Browns’ offensive line is overrated. Vastly overrated. It might be the worst in the division, Yes, even worse than Pittsburgh’s.

It has trouble opening holes in the running game as evidenced by a rushing average of just 86 yards a game. And it must share some of the blame for failure to protect the quarterback.

How often have we seen McCoy roll out after (a) failing to spot an open receiver or (b) encountering pressure before he wants to deliver the ball? That pressure has come from all directions, not just one side.

In other words, everyone is to blame, including the great Joe Thomas, whose play this season has been spotty. And first-year starting guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao are playing like first-year starting guards.

* * *

It took four games before the Browns saw a real honest-to-goodness NFL quarterback. In the first three games, they faced a rookie (Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton), a washed-up has-been (Indianapolis’ Kerry Collins) and one of the NFL’s mediocre signal callers (Chad Henne of Miami).

So when they faced Hasselbeck Sunday, it was the first real test of how well they would fare against one of the good ones. Although on the downside of his career, the veteran showed he can still bring it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A large dose of reality

There is no other way to put this. The Browns got spanked Sunday by the Tennessee Titans. Big time spanking.

They looked like a college football team by comparison, They did not belong on the same field as the Titans clearly demonstrated a decided talent gap between the two clubs.

The 31-13 loss extended to eight the number of consecutive ugly quarters of football the Browns have managed since knocking off the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts in week two.

The Titans won this one from the moment they emerged from their bus. That’s because for the second week in a row, the Browns were not prepared to play a game. They were not ready physically, mentally or emotionally.

They were burned by big plays on both sides of the ball. The Tennessee offense stung the Cleveland defense for plays of 25, 80, 57 and 21 yards. The Titans' defense produced a 97-yard pick six.

Included in this slapping was a couple of incredibly poor coaching decisions by Pat Shurmur, whose supposedly improved offense leaves a whole lot to be desired. (More on that tomorrow.)

Down, 14-6, with about six minutes left in the second quarter, the Browns ran a pitch play to rookie running back Armond Smith on a fourth-and-1 at the Titans’ 41. It came up short. Whatever happened to the quarterback sneak? Or Peyton Hillis?

That paled, however, compared to what happened early in the second half. Trailing, 21-6, Shurmur faced a fourth and a blade or two of grass at his 21-yard line after a four-yard pass to Mo Massaquoi came up that short. The measurement was so close, referee Pete Morelli had to lean in to get a closer look.

The strategy screamed for the Browns to go for it. They were down by 15 points and playing poorly against the Titans. They needed an emotional and psychological pick-me-up.

Colt McCoy could have leaned for at least five blades of grass and picked up the first down. Shurmur had nothing to lose by going for it. It would have been a small confidence booster.

Instead, he called for punter Brad Maynard. Interesting insight into just how conservative Shurmur will be as a head coach. He had so little confidence in his offense, he opted to give the ball back to the Titans.

Terrible decision. Unforgivable.

What in the world was this man thinking? His defense was not playing nearly as well as it did in the first three games. His offense was sputtering. His team needed an injection of confidence.

This is something Eric Mangini or Romeo Crennel would have done. There's nothing wrong with being bold. They play a man’s game in the National Football League. Shurmur sent the wrong signal to his team by punting. It somehow fit into the afternoon scenario.

Sure, the Browns put up 416 yards of offense. Sure, McCoy attempted a team-record 61 passes and completed a team-record 40. And sure, the Browns owned the ball for nearly 37 minutes, running 87 plays to Tennessee’s 50, recording 25 first downs to Tennessee’s 13.

But they were also eight of 20 on third down. Yes, that’s right; an almost unheard-of 20 third-down opportunities. Eighty-seven plays netted the Browns 13 points, while Tennessee’s offense put up 24 in 50. Jordan Babineaux’s 97-yard pick six on a pass that should never have been thrown was just sugar for the scoreboard.

McCoy was chased practically the entire game as he struggled to find open receivers– does that sound familiar? – all afternoon. That sounds strange considering he hit on 40 throws. But not when you consider most of them were of the dump-off or check-down variety. Much more often than not, his primary receiver was either not open or not in position to catch the ball.

And the most incredible stat of all? In those 61 passes, not once did McCoy throw the ball downfield. Not once did any of his receivers travel more than 25 yards downfield.

Somewhere along the line, you’d think the Browns had a play in their playbook that at least attempts to stretch the opposing defense. It’s hard to believe Shurmur has so little faith in McCoy that he basically does opposing defenses a favor by limiting his quarterback to short- and medium-range passes.

Then again, it could be a lack of faith in his wide receivers, the corps team President Mike Holmgren says he likes. Now that he’s seen these guys in action for four games, it might be a good time to ask Holmgren again what he thinks about his wideouts.

This team has all kinds of problems on offense. It has a tough time protecting its quarterback; it has a tough time running the ball; and it has a tough time negotiating the field through the air.

Until Sunday, the defense hadn’t played that badly. Yes, there some bumps along the way like poor tackling and questionable coverage by members of the secondary not named Joe Haden.

And then a game like this one comes along where the blemishes stick out like sores. Where reality rises and slaps them silly. Where the tackling gets worse, if that’s possible. Where the bye week looks pretty good.

The Browns did not play solid fundamental football against the Titans. Check that. They did not play anything resembling fundamental football against the Titans. They were embarrassed before the home folks.

That’s three home games and two losses. Without that little miracle against Miami last week, the Browns would be zip for the home schedule thus far.

No question the better team won this game. But it also opened up the eyes of the Browns and their coaching staff that there’s still a long way to go before this team is ready to be competitive.

It’s becoming apparent, too, that Shurmur is unwilling to try something different to shake his team out of its offensive doldrums. (A little no-huddle maybe?) He seems willing to stay vanilla and somewhat predictable as opposing teams hone in on his conservative tendencies.

Unless he dares to open up the offense, unless he dares to become a lot more creative than he’s been thus far, the season could become very long very shortly because the defense can’t bear all the weight much longer.

It’ll be interesting to see how fast the offense explodes from the gate in two weeks when the Browns travel to Oakland to face the much-improved Raiders in the first of three road games in the next month.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Another close one

As improbable as it seems, the Browns have maintained their role as the favored team for Sunday’s invasion of the Tennessee Titans.

Even though the Titans boast one of the National Football League best defenses. Even though the Browns haven’t exactly scared anyone this season. And even though the Titans have already knocked off the Baltimore Ravens in convincing fashion.

Yes, the Browns are still point-and-a-half favorites, which really means they are point-and-a-half dogs since they automatically get three points for home-field advantage. The line has barely moved since it opened.

The Titans are not frightening on offense, but when the defense takes over, the game does not get out of hand. The Tennessee goal line has been crossed only four times in three games this season.

In the season opener in Jacksonville, the Titans’ defense was on the field for nearly 40 minutes and yet, the Jaguars barely managed to scrape out a 16-14 victory. That defense will be the determining factor if the Titans hope to play beyond January.

That’s because the Tennessee offense, despite improved play at quarterback with Matt Hasselbeck, will not be the same the rest of the season after Pro Bowl wide receiver Kenny Britt mashed up his ACL last week.

Still, the Titans will be a tough team to beat Sunday. A very tough team.

The Browns have struggled on offense this season and that plays into the hands of Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. His unit has permitted just 783 total yards this season.

The Browns have managed just 259 yards on the ground thus far and average a paltry 290 total yards a game. Colt McCoy is hitting on a meager 54% of his passes against three mediocre defenses. The fact the Browns won two of the first three games is a testament to how well the defense has played.

The Titans’ defense has surrendered only 43 points while winning two of its first three games. Only the Ravens at 40 points against are better.

Helping the Cleveland cause on offense will be the return of Peyton Hillis, back after his losing battle with a strep throat last weekend. That should enliven the offense somewhat, but the Titans have been stingy against the run, permitting just 90 yards a game.

Speaking of Hillis, he took some unwarranted criticism from some ex-Browns, who criticized him for not playing last week against Miami. The guess here is they have never had a strep throat.

First of all, strep is contagious. And it can make a victim violently ill. I know. I’ve had strep throat on two occasions and it wasn’t pretty either time. Swallowing is extremely difficult. You don’t want to eat. And the fever that usually accompanies it brings its victim to the precipice of upchucking.

So before they challenge Hillis’ manhood (and it sure seemed that way), perhaps they should do battle with the strep virus and see exactly how it can debilitate and weaken its victim.

Now then, back to football.

The key to winning this one for the Browns will be their ability to render running back Chris Johnson irrelevant. The Titans’ first three opponents were highly effective in stopping the Pro Bowler cold.

Holding out the entire exhibition season for a contract redo has backfired in a most serious manner for Johnson, who has gained 98 yards (not a misprint) in the Titans’ first three games. This from a runner who racked up 4,600 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons.

After signing a new six-year, $56 million contract, he has averaged 2.1 yards on 46 carries and only three of those carries resulted in a first down. His longest run was for nine yards. He has been held to under 25 yards in two games. And he has yet to visit the end zone.

He’s too good a runner to be held down that long. One of these weeks, he’s going to bust loose and take some of the pressure off Hasselbeck, who has completed almost 70% of his passes, to get it done by himself.

That will be Sunday at CBS as the Browns attempt to go 3-1 for the first time since 2001, when they accomplished the feat in Butch Davis’ first season as head coach, knocking off Detroit, Jacksonville and San Diego after dropping the season opener to Seattle.

Because Tennessee doesn’t have the personality to dominate a game, this one will be close heading into the final quarter. With Britt gone, Browns cornerback Joe Haden will successfully shut down wide receiver Nate Washington, forcing Hasselbeck to rely on his ground game.

Both defenses will play solid football, but the Tennessee offense, emboldened by the return to form of Johnson, will steal one from the Browns in the late stages of the game with Rob Bironas hitting a field goal in the final two minutes.

McCoy will try to rally the Browns like he did last week against Miami, but fall short when Titans corner Cortland Finnegan intercepts his pass intended for Greg Little in the final minute.

So the Browns enter the bye week at 2-2. Make it:

Titans 19, Browns 16