Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday leftovers

So what in the world has happened to Joshua Cribbs? The Joshua Cribbs who used to thrill Browns fans with scintillating kickoff and punt returns.

The one who, when he caught the ball, made you hold your breath because you knew something exciting was about to happen. The one who, when he caught the ball, would enhance the Browns’ chances of winning a ball game.

Yeah, that Joshua Cribbs. What has happened to him? He’s been missing in action.

Hard to believe he has lost his luster, but that’s exactly what has befallen the Browns’ only serious threat of breaking open a game. Check that. Make that former serious threat.

Just as hard to believe is the last time Cribbs found the end zone as a return specialist. It’s been 29 games. Not since he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a 41-34 victory in Kansas City on Dec. 20, 2009 has he scored via that route.

That was the game, you’ll remember, when Jerome Harrison ran for a club-record 284 yards and three touchdowns. Harrison and Cribbs accounted for more than 500 total yards that afternoon.

Since Cribbs last visited the end zone, the Browns are just 11-18. That’s not to say he’s the reason, but his returns definitely gave them a better chance to win. He was an impactful player.

How many times did Cribbs put his club in a good position on offense to change the tenor of a game? He was the ultimate weapon in gaining favorable field position because you never knew when he would break one.

That has clearly changed. Whether the National Football League has finally found a way to shut him down or he just doesn’t have it anymore depends on your perspective.

Cribbs’ style was strictly north and south. Rarely did he move east and west to avoid a tackle. And he used his great balance to avoid being easily knocked off his feet. He was strong, fast and, above all, determined.

That has all changed. Teams now squeeze the middle of the field and force Cribbs to veer in one direction or another and into the arms of waiting tacklers who take different angles.

There is no question the new kickoff rule also has hampered his style. At first, he downed kickoffs that reached the end zone. Two games into the season, he changed his approach. Unless the kickoff cleared the end zone, he was coming out.

His average per kick return this season is 26.8 yards, the third highest of his career. However, that number includes the end zone yards and nets out to about the Cleveland 21-yard line.

Compare that to the 30.7 average in 2007 that netted out to nearly the 32-yard line. That’s a huge difference. He also led NFL specialists in total yards, average and all-purpose yards that season.

Rarely these days does Cribbs make it beyond the 25-yard line, thus putting the offense in a hole. More and more, opponents are getting to him before he reaches the 20. Offensive coordinators prefer much shorter fields with which to work.

Some suggest that Cribbs’ full-time status as a wide receiver has robbed him of the ability to rip off his trademark long runs. Maybe. Maybe not. Only he knows for certain and he’s not talking.

Fans still hold their breath when he catches the ball in the end zone or on a punt. They do it more from habit than anything else. They yearn for the days he would take it all the way.

They have a hard time convincing themselves that maybe those days are gone and might not ever return.

* * *

It was nice to see Peyton Hillis back in uniform and on the field most of Sunday’s 23-20 loss in Cincinnati. Showed that he has not lost that tenacious desire to grind out yards. And he dealt out a lot of punishment along the way to his 65 yards.

But it appeared as though he began to tire in the second half after missing several weeks with hamstring problems. Chris Ogbonnaya made a couple of token appearances to give Hillis a break and knocked out 16 yards on three carries.

Why coach Pat Shurmur did not use him more is a puzzle. His slashing running style is a nice change of pace in the Cleveland attack. After all, he did run for 115 yards in the Jacksonville victory eight days ago. And yet, he festered on the bench when the Cleveland offense could have used him.

* * *

Is it time to call Greg Little stone hands? It sure looked as though the rookie wide receiver had two mitts of concrete Sunday.

He was targeted 13 times by quarterback Colt McCoy and made just five catches, including his first touchdown as a professional. It should have been nine catches because four other McCoy passes hit him in a bad spot. His hands.

We’re 11 games into the season and no longer accepting the excuse that Little didn’t play college ball at all last season at North Carolina because of some off-the-field problems and thus is rusty. That excuse doesn’t fly anymore. He’s a high draft choice and it’s time for him to step up and contribute.

* * *

Now let’s talk about another wide receiver. This time in a positive vein. Jordan Norwood has been a pleasant surprise in the last two games. Why have the Browns been hiding this guy on the bench?

He has been targeted seven times by McCoy in the last two games and caught five passes for 120 yards, including catches for 51 and 36 yards. The 36-yarder would have resulted in a first-quarter touchdown against Cincinnati Sunday had McCoy not angled the pass closer to the sideline. As it turned out, Norwood scored his first pro TD later in the drive on a 24-yard grab.

The second-year man shows he knows how to get open and McCoy is looking more and more in his direction. The best part is it appears as though he does not have hands made of stone.

* * *

Stream of thought: A few months ago, the Browns rewarded tight end Evan Moore with a contract extension that extends through 2013 at $3 million a year. Only one question: Why? . . . Can one call Paul Brown Stadium the Factory of Sadness southern Ohio campus? After Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, why not? . . . Right guard Shawn Lauvao was completely overwhelmed and overmatched against whoever lined up against him Sunday. . . . Keep an eye on defensive tackle Scott Paxson. A teammate of Norwood at Penn State, this newcomer is aggressive, tends to be where the ball is and gives defensive coordinator Dick Jauron the opportunity to rotate three men at the position without missing a beat. . . . With Scott Fujita apparently sidelined with his broken arm, it would be nice to see Titus Brown get a shot at weak side linebacker. He showed some nice moves Sunday and had one of the Browns’ two sacks.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finding ways to lose

There’s an axiom in sports that can be applied perfectly to what took place Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Good teams always find ways to win games. And bad teams always find ways to lose games.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Cincinnati Bengals are 7-4 today and back in the playoff hunt. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Cleveland Browns are 4-7 today and thinking about next season.

In a game that clearly lived up to the cliché regarding snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Browns’ miserable season took yet another leap backward as they allowed a 20-10 lead with 3:50 left in the third quarter to turn into a 23-20 loss.

The Bengals, outplayed for the better part of three quarters, didn’t get any better in the final stages. The Browns got worse.

To Browns fans used to this kind of loss, this was just another I-wonder-how-they-are-going-to-lose-this-game game that joined numerous other heartbreaking losses in the last dozen years.

It was no different Sunday. Only bad teams like the Browns manage to somehow, some way, fail to find the keys to victory. They have no clue as to how to wrap up a game.

And the fans, at least those who still care enough to care and hang around for more heartache, can almost sense it coming.

Like when Phil Dawson lined up for what would have been the go-ahead 55-yard field goal with 1:51 left in regulation. Money in the bank, right? After all, wasn’t Dawson perfect in seven field-goal attempts from at least 50 yards this season? Of course he was. He has been Mr. Automatic from long distance.

And didn’t he connect on a 54-yarder to carve out the 20-10 lead in the third quarter? Chalk up the three points and make the Bengals come back the hard way.

What could go wrong? Ryan Pontbriand can be counted on. He’s already had his one bad snap this season on the botched field-goal attempt that contributed to the loss to St Louis a couple of weeks ago at CBS.

And Brad Maynard might be one of the worst punters in the National Football League, but he’s one of the best holders on placements. So what could go wrong?

How about another Pontbriand dribble special, a grass cutter that barely made it back to Maynard, who tried hard to get it spotted for Dawson. But the timing was thrown off and Dawson hooked the kick badly left and well short.

Bad teams find ways to lose.

The Bengals, trying to stop a two-game losing streak, had climbed back into the game early in the fourth quarter with 10 points as the Cleveland defense experienced a temporary disintegration on consecutive series.

The Browns had pretty much shut down the Bengals’ big-play capabilities until they responded with a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive that quickly answered Dawson’s 54-yarder. The secondary was torched for passes of 35 yards to A. J. Green and a 22-yard scoring strike to Jermaine Gresham.

In just two and a half minutes, whatever momentum the Browns built had disappeared. All they needed was a stop at that point and the Bengals might never have regained any momentum.

Three plays later, Colt McCoy thinks he’s Brett Favre and tried to make a play few NFL quarterbacks can make. Running right, he heaved a pass off his back foot headed downfield in the general direction of Greg Little. Only one problem. It was 10 yards short.

Instead of just throwing the ball away, McCoy found Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson, who made the easiest pick of his career. It set up what would eventually be a game-tying field goal by Mike Nugent. Just like that, the Bengals were back in business.

Good teams find ways to win.

After the teams traded four three-and-outs, the Cleveland placekicking trio answered the nagging thought most fans have on their minds every time the Browns come close to winning games: Wonder what could go wrong now. Wonder how they’ll screw this one up.

And then they found out the ultimate price of rooting for a bad team.

The Bengals, who took over at their 45 when Dawson missed, faced a third-and-8 at their 47. Each team needed a big play. A third straight three-and-out maybe for the Browns?

Uh, no.

Green beat Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, who overran the play, and was on the receiving end of a 51-yard pass and run that took the ball to the Browns 2 with less than a minute to play.

All Pat Shurmur could do, outside of calling three consecutive timeouts to conserve as much time as he could for a possible comeback, was shake his head in wonderment and silent disgust.

The Bengals plunged the dagger when Nugent kicked his final field goal with 38 seconds left.

Good teams find ways to win.

When Bengals coach Marvin Lewis approached Shurmur for the requisite post-game handshake, he appeared to say nothing. In fact, it looked as though he averted Shurmur’s look of shock.

He knew the Browns lost the game more than the Bengals won it. He knew he was extremely fortunate. He’d never tell that to his team, of course. But he also knew his team had clearly climbed to the next competitive rung with this victory.

The Browns, meanwhile, sink even deeper into the basement of the AFC North as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati battle for post-season invitations.

But even in defeat, Shurmur can take solace knowing that although his team still struggles to find ways to win, it at least is making strides on the offensive side of the ball that were not there in the first eight games of the season.

The Browns sustained drives that consumed nine plays, 14 plays, eight plays and seven plays against the Bengals. Earlier this season, drives rarely exceeded five or six plays.

And they took advantage of a Jabaal Sheard strip sack of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton in the final minute of the first half by scoring a touchdown on a McCoy-Little connection instead of another field goal by Dawson.

A step in the right direction to be sure. The next step is to play well enough to hold on to leads. That’s what good teams do. And right now, the Browns are not a good team.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

More dyspepsia on the way

The last time the Browns and Bengals met, it was the first game of the 2011 season. Hopes were high, everyone was in first place and nearly everybody was healthy.

The Browns actually played well in that season opener at CBS. They took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter, and the Bengals were forced to play the second half of the game with their second-string quarterback.

Then it all came apart as the Browns collapsed, in large part due to their carelessness, foreshadowing what has turned out to be a very disappointing season that threatens to get even worse.

That was the game, you’ll recall, where the Bengals quick-snapped the Browns, whose dawdling defense was still huddling, and scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown late in a 27-17 victory.

With less than five minutes left in regulation, Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who had replaced injured rookie Andy Dalton in the second half, lobbed a 41-yard scoring strike into the hands of rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, all by his lonesome 20 yards downfield as the Browns scrambled to get back on defense.

“Every once in a while, you lose a game that makes you feel sick to your stomach,” Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita said after the game. “This is definitely one of those games.”

Two series later, Cedric Benson romped 39 yards for another Cincinnati score to add to the dyspepsia, launching the Bengals to what would be their best start under coach Marvin Lewis.

Eyebrows around the National Football League rose when the Bengals, benefitting from a five-game winning streak, surged to a 6-2 record at the midway point of the season. They have since been slapped back to reality after dropping a pair of AFC North games the last couple of weeks to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who demonstrated they are still the class of the division.

But the Bengals remain a dangerous football team that can score and play good defense, while the Browns continue to struggle to find an identity. Two teams clearly heading in opposite directions.

Dalton is back under center for the Bengals. In fact, he returned for game two and has played with the poise of a veteran. And he’s certain to remember what happened the first time he faced the Browns.

The Browns blitzed him relentlessly in the first 30 minutes of that game, sacking him three times in his 18 dropbacks. Browns rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor applied the coup de grace on the final play of the first half, damaging Dalton’s throwing wrist. That’s how Gradkowski entered the game.

Dalton, who played in a spread formation at Texas Christian, has adapted to the pro style quicker than expected and began paying dividends almost immediately. He completes nearly 60% of his passes, has thrown 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, but has been sacked only 11 times since his pro debut.

He is blessed with a fine receiving corps led by Green, who missed last week’s loss in Baltimore with a hyperextended right knee while making a touchdown catch against Pittsburgh the week before. In Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and tight end Jermaine Gresham, Dalton has three extremely reliable receivers unlike Cleveland’s Colt McCoy, who has to labor with the likes of Joshua Cribbs, Mo Massaquoi, Greg Little and Jordan Norwood.

Cincinnati’s well-balanced offense has produced 25 touchdowns in 10 games, compared to Cleveland’s paltry 14. The Bengals have scored 20 or more points in eight games; the Browns have done it just once.

The Bengals’ very active defense has produced 26 sacks with the line accounting for 21.5. In the first meeting, however, the Browns’ offensive line kept the Bengals’ defensive line in check. Cincinnati’s only two sacks were registered by safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker.

The Bengals are most vulnerable to the pass, surrendering 223 yards a game, but stingy against the running game, giving up just 89 yards a game. And they’ll been working at a disadvantage in the secondary Sunday.

Leon Hall, their best cornerback, went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon in the Baltimore loss and is done for the season. Second-year man Brandon Ghee replaces him and you can bet he’ll see plenty of action against the Browns.

The Bengals have been extremely opportunistic on defense this season, recovering 13 fumbles. They are very good at raking the ball.

One thing the Browns will try to avoid is the slow start, which has bugged them all season long. Not just at the beginning of the game, but the beginning of the second half as well.

As the television guys are more than happy to point out, the Browns have not scored a touchdown this season in the first and third quarters. It’s been strictly the Phil Dawson show.

Almost as a portent of things to come, the Browns got off to an awful start in the first Cincinnati game with six penalties, three rushing yards, 13 passing yards, two three-and-outs, one four-and-out and three punts in the first quarter. Ten plays netted 16 yards.

“A season full of mistakes in the first quarter,” lamented Pat Shurmur after the game. “No excuses. I don’t care if you’re a rookie, I don’t care if you’ve been in this thing for a 12 years. You can’t make mistakes.”

Then the Browns went on to nine more weeks of mistakes, but had the good fortune and talented right foot of Dawson to win four games against the dregs of the NFL. All of which means the Browns are that far removed from dreg status.

As for Sunday, there is no question the Bengals have the more talented team. It’s not even close even if Green doesn't play. They have no problem scoring and their defense is aggressive enough to cause McCoy and his guys problems.

They’re also coming into the game sporting a two-game losing streak and figure to arrive at Paul Brown Stadium in a nasty mood. All of which bodes ill for the Browns, especially in the first 15 minutes.

Taking into consideration the Bengals have won 11 of the last 14 games of the series, including five of the last six, it’s hard to find any reason to pick the Browns in this one.

There’s only one logical pick to consider. Make it:

Bengals 28, Browns 10

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday leftovers

Slowly but surely, the Browns’ version of the west coast offense is starting to pay dividends. Kind of makes one wonder where it has been all this time.

Here we are 10 games into the season and there are definite signs that the heretofore-moribund offense actually lives. And the chug-chug offense that bored most of us the first eight games seems to be nothing more than a bad memory.

Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy appears to be finding his primary receiver a lot quicker. The offensive line is opening up some nice holes for Chris Ogbonnaya, who is doing a much better job of finding them.

When he needs to scramble, McCoy is making much quicker decisions to run rather than waste time trying to throw the ball. But he does need to learn how to slide at the end of his scrambles or else he’s going to get scrambled.

The fact the Browns rang up 11 plays of 10 yards or more in Sunday’s 14-10 victory over Jacksonville is a testament that the jell factor has kicked in. Unfortunately, five of the next six games are against three of the National Football League’s best defenses.

After a trip to Cincinnati this Sunday, the Browns have to deal twice each with the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Only a mid-December date at Arizona gives them a breather.

So it might be a little unfair to judge the progress the Cleveland offense has made with opponents like that waiting.

* * *

There’s an old expression in football when it comes to scoring. “Never take points off the board.” And it came back to bite the Browns in the hind flanks against the Jaguars.

On their first series of the second half, the Browns marched from their 15-yard line to the Jacksonville 22, but stalled when McCoy was sacked for a six-yard loss on third-and-3 at the 16.

Phil Dawson came in and booted a 40-yard field goal that gave the Browns a 10-7 lead. However, Jags rookie linebacker Mike Lockley catapulted over the line of scrimmage, using a teammate’s back as a springboard. That’s a no-no and resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, placing the ball on the 11-yard line with a new set of downs..

Pat Shurmur, perhaps influenced because he was so close to the Jacksonville goal line and that his offense seemed to be running smoothly, said no thank you to the points. We’ll take the penalty. Bad move.

Four plays and a Joe Thomas holding penalty later, McCoy tried to hit Ben Watson in the end zone, but Jaguars safety Dawan Landry cut in front of him and picked off the pass. No points, a tie game and an old expression that should have been heeded but wasn’t.

* * *

Ogbonnaya is starting to show some running chops now that he’s the No. 1 running back by default. If he continues to run as he has the last two games, the Browns should have decent depth at running back next season.

Peyton Hillis almost certainly will not return, but Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson will and that bodes well. That is, of course, they remain healthy. Jackson met up with the injury jinx in training camp and is on injured reserve.

Hardesty, still nursing a sore calf, has missed three games and is expected to miss at least a couple more. The big question is whether Hardesty is strong enough to withstand the rigors of the game long enough to put in a full season. If the Browns have their doubts, running back might pop up on their draft and free-agent radar.

* * *

Did anyone notice a Cleveland pass rush against the Jaguars? Neither did I. The Jacksonville offensive line is not that good, but the Browns’ front four had all kinds of problems getting to know quarterback Blaine Gabbert up close and personal. He was barely touched.

The only lineman who came close to Gabbert was rookie end Jabaal Sheard, but his close-up visits were few and far between. If the Browns are going to be successful against the pass, they must find a way to get to opposing quarterbacks.

With Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger on deck, it is almost imperative that defensive coordinator Dick Jauron finds ways to disrupt their rhythm and flow.

* * *

Interesting that the NFL assigned referee Terry McAulay to work the Jaguars game. Close observers of pro football will remember that McAulay was the referee for the famous Bottlegate game at CBS almost 10 years ago. Further irony is that the opponent that day was the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Late in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 16, 2001 game, the Browns trailed, 15-10, but were driving in the final minute when Cleveland wide receiver Quincy Morgan caught a pass deep in Jacksonville territory on a fourth-and-1. Quarterback Tim Couch quickly spiked the next snap before a replay review.

McAulay halted play after the spike and announced the Morgan reception would be reviewed even though another play had been run. He later blamed the delay on communication problems with the replay booth. He then determined Morgan did not control the ball and ruled the pass incomplete, giving the ball back to the Jaguars on downs.

Fans littered the field with plastic beer bottles, striking players and officials. McAulay then called the game, but NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue overruled him and sent the teams back on the field, where they finished the game’s remaining few seconds with debris flying all over the place.

* * *

Stream of thought: There sure were a lot of orange seats at CBS Sunday. Bad sign when fans spend good money and yet don’t show up to watch a product that continues to disappoint year after year after year. . . . The Browns crowed when they signed safety Usama Young as a free agent. Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis loved it, too. He massaged Young for seven catches and 64 yards and was open most of the afternoon. . . . Another game, another poor Brad Maynard punt. His first effort against the Jags traveled a majestic 23 yards in the first quarter. How does this guy keep a job? . . . Jags bowling-ball running back Maurice Jones-Drew was “held” to only 87 yards rushing, 58 of them in the first half. More than half of those yards were gained after initial contact. . . . Who knows what the score would have been had Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown not missed easy interceptions. Haden dropped one at midfield early in the third quarter with only the Jacksonville goal line in front of him. . . . The Browns had 26 first-down snaps. Twelve were runs that gained 39 yards. Fourteen were pass plays that gained 89 yards. Kind of makes you go hmmmmmmm.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A win is a win is a win

It sure looked as though the Browns were going to suffer yet another one of those agonizing, frustrating, damn-them-to-hell losses Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

It began when Phil Dawson missed a put-the-game-away field goal from 38 yards that would have given the Browns a 17-10 lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars with 2:49 left in regulation.

This time, unlike last Sunday in the 13-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the snap from Ryan Pontbriand was perfect. The hold by Brad Maynard was perfect. And Dawson’s approach to the ball was perfect.

Everything was in exquisite alignment except for the ball, which came off Dawson’s right foot and immediately headed toward the right upright. It continued to veer in that direction as it passed directly over the upright. It clearly did not pass between the uprights.

And that’s why the back judge, standing directly under that upright, checked with the field judge under the opposite upright before signaling no good. Shocked members of Browns Nation immediately entered the state of apoplexy as another victory began to ostensibly slip away.

All the back judge did was obey the rules book. In the NFL Rules Book – Beginner’s Guide to Football on, it reads: For a field goal to be “good,” the placekicker (or field-goal kicker) must kick the ball through the goalpost uprights and over the crossbar.”

No mention of the kick being good if it crosses over one of the uprights. It has to clearly be between the uprights and over the crossbar. Period. Damn. Here we go again.

Browns fans can take only so much. Yeah, the Browns still held a 14-10 lead, but fans of this team, since 1999 anyway, have been down this path too many times to feel even a shred of optimism.

What’s going to go wrong now? What twist of fate awaits us as we watch yet another victory yanked away? Do I have to watch? Must I watch? I can’t take this any longer. Blindfold me.

Hey, it’s just the Jacksonville Jaguars. C’mon now. This isn’t Pittsburgh or Baltimore or Green Bay. It’s the Jags, who are just as bad as the Browns. You just know something is going to go wrong.

After passing on the nitroglycerine pills, we watch as the Jaguars, whose only touchdown of the day was an 18-play, 92-yard drive that took nearly 10 minutes off the clock in the first and second quarters, suddenly begin to replicate that earlier scoring drive.

In that long series, the Browns’ defense whiffed on four third-down opportunities to get off the field. Surely, it couldn’t happen again.

Hey, these are the Cleveland Browns, masters of the bizarre. If there’s a bad play to be made, a dumb play to be made, a boneheaded play to be made, you can almost count on the Browns to make it. Who was it going to be this time?

Raise your hand, Phil Taylor. On a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 34 with about 90 seconds to go, the big rookie defensive tackle, obviously anxious to make a game-saving play, couldn’t contain his anxiety and crashes the line of scrimmage.

Only one problem. The ball had not been snapped. Encroachment. First down Jacksonville. Yep, it’s happening again. Murphy’s Law out of control. What else could go wrong?

Three incomplete passes later . . . make that two incomplete passes and one pass interference against Browns cornerback Joe Haden later, the Jags have the ball at the Cleveland 14 with about a minute left. Looked like a bogus call as Haden had perfect coverage on Jason Hill. Oh-oh, here we go again. Again.

Browns fans sense the agony of defeat dead ahead, especially after the Jaguars advance to the Cleveland 2. Someone has to make a play. Anyone? Bueller?

The defensive line engulfs miniature Jags running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who killed them in the first half but struggled in the second half, on a first-down carry at the 1. Twenty-five seconds left. Tick, tock, tick tock. Why isn’t Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio calling timeout? He’s got one left. What is he waiting for?

He finally calls it . . . with eight seconds left. Clock management gone wild. Still plenty of time to lose this one, but with a much narrower window of opportunity.

Fans hold their breath as Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert hits Jason Hill in the corner of the end zone on second down, but Hill drops the ball. Could it be? Could it be that Jacksonville is pulling a Cleveland?

Hold on. There are still three seconds left. It’s not over yet. Please pass the Maalox.

Gabbert gets one more shot at the end zone. This time, he targets Mike Thomas running a slant across the end zone as Jones-Drew drifts out of the backfield and comes wide open in the right flat.

Gabbert goes with his first read, but Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is there to break it up as the Jaguars complete their own version of a Cleveland Browns meltdown.

This was not a pretty victory by any stretch, but it showed brief glimpses of creative football by a Cleveland offense that, when given a chance, is not as bad as initially feared. Coach Pat Shurmur actually tried to play vertical football.

And the offense responded with some entertaining football. It looked relatively crisp compared to the stodgy performances it has given the last six or seven weeks. There was a smoothness, a flow that seemed to be lacking earlier.

Colt McCoy seemed much more comfortable, much more confident as he stepped into his throws. His receivers ran better routes and his offensive line produced some nice holes for Chris Ogbonnaya.

It resulted in scoring drives of 87 yards that required nine plays, and 85 yards that took 12 plays. Another 12-play drive was aborted by a McCoy interception at the goal line, his only mistake of the afternoon.

Bottom line: Two touchdowns on the afternoon. Woo-hoo. First touchdown since the loss in San Francisco on Oct. 31 and the first TD at home since Oct. 2 against Tennessee. Double woo-hoo. It was a veritable bonanza of points by comparison. Not a lot to be sure, but it sure beats cheering for the Phil Dawson Field Goal Machine.

In the next six weeks, we’ll see whether this was an aberration or a sign of things to come as the Browns embark on the roughest part of their schedule.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Crossing fingers

Think the Browns’ 6-3 victory over Seattle a few weeks ago was a monstrosity and an insult to good offensive football? Well, get ready for what very well could be Part Deux, otherwise known as Sunday’s game between the Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars.

These teams have set offensive football back a few decades with their ineptitude this season. In 18 combined games, they have managed to score just 246 points. To put that in perspective, the Green Bay Packers have scored 320 points all by themselves in nine games; Houston has put up 273 points in 10 games; New England has scored 259 in nine games; and the Detroit Lions have scored 252 in nine outings.

The Browns and Jaguars have totaled 22 touchdowns this season. Think about that. In 72 combined quarters, these poor excuses for offensive football have managed to hit the end zone just 22 times.

And yet, these two very bad teams have each cobbled together a 3-6 record in spite of numerous and very serious flaws when they have the football in their possession. Of those six victories, the Jags own two over teams with winning records, knocking off Baltimore and Tennessee. The Browns? Zero.

You know it’s bad when the top offensive weapons on both teams are the placekickers. Josh Scobee of the Jags and the Browns’ Phil Dawson are having mirror-image seasons. Scobee has scored 47.8% of his team’s points, while Dawson (correcting an earlier stat) has accounted for 45.8% of the Browns’ scoring this season. Both are perfect from 50-plus yards.

Kind of makes you wonder just how bad is the coaching with embarrassing stats such as these. The Jaguars have assembled a 19-man coaching staff under head coach Jack Del Rio. Browns coach Pat Shurmur is working with a staff of 18 assistants.

What a waste of money.

Fingers of blame for the offensive problems definitely point in the direction of Shurmur and Dirk Koetter, who claim to be the offensive coordinators for their respective clubs. They are more like the very offensive offensive coordinators.

The Jags have scored as many as 20 points in only one game this season. And that was in a loss. The Browns, meanwhile, have scored more than 20 points just once in nine games. That was the 27-point “outburst” in the week 2 victory in Indianapolis.

We all know how well Shurmur’s west coast offense is not working. It hasn’t been working on a more spectacular basis at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Browns have scored just five touchdowns and 65 points in five home games and have not seen the end zone since scoring a garbage-time touchdown in the waning moments of the 31-13 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 2.

If you’re going to the game, don’t forget to bring along some No-Doz. You’re probably best off taking it just before the opening kickoff because what follows is almost certain to be sleep inducing.

I could throw more homely statistics at you, but that would be just piling on. By now, the message has been received.

OK, maybe just one more stat. Oddsmakers have pegged the over/under on this game at 34 and a half points, one of the lowest over/unders of the season. Maybe the lowest.

They got it wrong. It’s not low enough for teams that average 14.5 (Cleveland) and 12.5 points, respectively. Based on those numbers, betting the under would be a no-brainer. Only aberrant offensive football by these teams would fly in the face of those numbers.

The only offensive weapon (other than the kickers) either team has is the indefatigable Maurice Jones-Drew, who has gained 854 yards on the ground (78% of Jacksonville’s rushing yards) even though the opposition knows he’s going to carry the ball more than two-thirds of the time the Jags go infantry.

At 5-7 and 208 pounds, he is extremely hard to bring down because he keeps his pad level so low. He is virtually unstoppable even though opponents stack the line of scrimmage against the Jags, almost daring rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert to throw the ball. MJD’s 962 yards from scrimmage account for nearly 43% of Jacksonville’s offensive production.

Gabbert, like the Browns’ Colt McCoy, has struggled, completing just 47.9% of his passes after replacing Luke McCown in game 2 of the season. And yet, Jacksonville enters the game having won two of its last three games against Baltimore and Indianapolis.

That’s because Gabbert has kept mistakes at a minimum. As coaches like to say, he has “managed” the game very well, throwing for just 122 yards a game with only five interceptions all season to go along with his six TD passes. Unless the score gets out of hand, the Cleveland secondary will be more active in trying to stop the run than defending against the pass.

Jacksonville’s defense can be a game-changer. The Jaguars’ stunning 12-7 home victory over Baltimore on Monday night a few weeks ago showed the nation that a strong defense can stop a strong offense.

The Jaguars are tougher against the run than defending the pass, yielding 107 yards a game. Against the pass, they surrender nearly 190 yards a game. But they have shown they can get to opposing quarterbacks with 21 sacks. Defensive ends Matt Roth, Jerome Mincey and John Chick own 10 of them.

This game, of course, has all the trappings of a low-scoring affair. The Browns can’t score touchdowns at home. The Jags play poorly on the road, where they’re just 1-4, scoring just 57 points. And this will be their third straight game away from home.

If the Browns don’t win this game, then they’re in deeper trouble than we all thought. If they can’t beat the Jaguars, fans will ratchet up their anger and disgust and demand answers to some very tough questions.

With that in mind, and the fact that the easy part of the schedule concludes with this game, it becomes an imperative to finally call for a Cleveland victory. With fingers crossed, make it:

Browns 14, Jaguars 9

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday leftovers

When Pat Shurmur agreed to become the new head coach of the Browns, he undoubtedly knew there would be good days and bad days.

What he didn’t realize was that in Cleveland, for whatever reason, the bad days vastly outnumber the good days for the head coach. Just ask Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini.

Shurmur found that out big time following Sunday’s 13-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams when he faced the media, the necessary evil within the framework of his job. The Browns could have – and should have – won that game any number of ways and the media wanted to know why they didn’t.

Although they didn’t couch their questions that way, Shurmur was fair game to explain why his club couldn’t beat the 1-7 Rams. And he reacted in a manner that belied his normally stoic persona.

Asked why tight end Alex Smith was called on to carry the ball from the fullback position inside the St. Louis 10-yard line on what was supposed to be the winning drive late in the fourth quarter, Shurmur said that was the play called even though Smith had never been the recipient of a handoff in his career. He fumbled it, but the Browns luckily recovered.

Shurmur claimed he knew Smith was in the game at the fullback position because Owen Marecic had suffered an injury a few plays earlier. And still, the play was dialed up.

Asked a second time about that play, the seemingly imperturbable veneer cracked and we saw another side of the head coach. “C’mon now,” Shurmur said in a scolding manner. “We tried to hand (Smith) the football and he dropped it. That’s the thinking. From the moment that it was in there, that’s what happened.

“We’ve got to do a better job. There were so many things that happened in that game. Missing the kick (Phil Dawson’s botched field-goal attempt), dropping the . . . there are a lot of things. There was a lot of good, there was a lot of bad. All right?”

Shurmur looked uncomfortable. It was as though the last place he wanted to be at that moment was facing the media after such a wrenching loss. The news conference couldn’t have ended soon enough for him.

At one point, he got strangely personal. “I promised everybody that I would be genuine,” he said. “From day one to the last day. And I’m genuine right now in saying that. We can focus on what we want to focus on, but we lost (pounding the lectern) the game. That’s genuine.”

Just another case of a Browns coach having difficulty handling what turned out to be, at least for the fans, just another loss snatched from the jaws of victory. It’s happened so often the last dozen seasons, fans have come to expect them.

The what-can-go-wrong-and-usually-does syndrome, a.k.a. Murphy’s Law, is alive and not doing very well in Cleveland.

* * *

A clear sign that the engine dragging the Browns through the 2011 season is on the wrong track and gaining speed is the performance of the special teams. Last season, they were the one staple as the offense and defense collapsed.

This season, special teams have joined their offensive and defensive brethren as trouble spots. And when all three phases of the game head in the wrong direction, disaster looms. The infection has spread.

You know it’s bad when Joshua Cribbs fumbles a punt, Ryan Pontbriand has a bad snap and Dawson misses a short field goal. Combined with an offense still seeking its personality and a defense wearing down because it is on the field so much, is it any wonder why it’s so difficult to be optimistic about the rest of this season?

* * *

This is how bad the offense has become: The Browns have scored just 40 points in the last four games and Dawson has 34 of them. The other six points belong to Cribbs, who caught a touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter of the San Francisco loss in week eight.

In nine games thus far, the Browns have scored more than two touchdowns only once. That was against the awful Indianapolis Colts in week two. Other than that, they’ve scored two TDs three times (Cincinnati, Miami and Oakland) and one TD twice (San Francisco and Tennessee). They have been held without a touchdown in three games.

At home, where they are 2-3, the Browns’ offense has scored a robust five touchdowns, the last coming with 3:24 left in the 31-13 Tennessee loss in week four. Since then, all 18 points at CBS have come off the right foot of Dawson. Since that Ben Watson TD catch against the Titans, the Browns have gone 123 minutes and 24 seconds without scoring a touchdown at home.

And this is with a west coast offense. Somewhere, the ghost of Bill Walsh is blushing with embarrassment.

* * *

Stream of thought: Colt McCoy seems much more comfortable in the shotgun and his 20-for-27 afternoon against the Rams reflects that. Don’t be surprised if we see a lot more of that as the season progresses. . . . Where has the run defense gone? Weren’t Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard supposed to make a difference? . . . Nice to see veteran linebackers Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong have solid games against the Rams. Now let’s see if they can perform at that level against the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. . . . Great quote by Dawson after the Rams loss: “What is it that Darrell Royal (former University of Texas football coach and athletic director) would say? If worms had guns, birds wouldn’t eat them.” . . . The Browns still haven’t scored a touchdown in the first and third quarters this season. . . . One last Dawson stat: The Browns have scored 131 points this season. Dawson has 65 of them, or 49.6%.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Center of attention

In his eight-plus seasons with the Browns, Ryan Pontbriand has been the quintessential quiet man of the roster. You rarely, if ever, see his name in a game story.

That’s because Pontbriand is the Browns’ long snapper, the most anonymous member of the 53-man roster. He’s the guy whose responsibility is to make certain the football arrives cleanly to either the punter or the holder on placekicks. That’s all he does. He snaps the ball and he does it well.

He works as far under the radar for the Browns as the trainer and equipment man. And that’s the way he likes it. He and the coaches know how valuable he is to the team. That’s all that counts.

Pontbriand enters the game for anywhere from eight to a dozen plays. But you’d never know it unless you are a football purist who pays attention to every facet of the game.

He was so highly thought of coming out of Rice, the Browns selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. Drafting a long snapper was believed then– and still is today – a most unusual move. But Pontbriand has more than justified Butch Davis’ decision to draft him by being unfailingly reliable every season, every snap.

He has missed only five games – the final five of the 2005 season with a bad back – in his eight-plus seasons with the Browns. His expertise was recognized with Pro Bowl selections in 2007 and 2008.

The last time his name popped up was the 14th game of the 2007 season when the Buffalo Bills and a snowstorm descended on Cleveland at the same time. The Browns won that blizzardy game by the lakefront, 8-0, no thanks to the precision snapping of Pontbriand.

He was perfect on seven snaps to punter Dave Zastudil as the swirling wind played nasty tricks with the ball, and added two perfect snaps on Phil Dawson field goals. The Browns added the extra two points when Buffalo long snapper Ryan Neill sailed the ball over punter Brian Moorman’s head into the end zone for a safety.

Those are the kinds of games Pontbriand quietly dreams of, the type he treasures. Quite unlike the one he experienced Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium against the St. Louis Rams. That turned out to be a nightmare. A 13-12 nightmare.

The game, as it turned out, came down to one play. It was going to be a chip-shot field goal for Dawson, who was perfect on his first four field goals of the afternoon. It was going to put the Browns in front, 15-13, and snap a two-game losing streak.

Coach Pat Shurmur trusted Pontbriand, holder Brad Maynard and Dawson so much, he eschewed going for a touchdown although he had a first and goal at the Rams’ 8-yard line with about three minutes left in the game.

A touchdown would have put the Browns up by six points and forced the Rams to score a touchdown to beat them. Instead, Shurmur went conservative and called for three straight running plays. That’s called coaching passively.

He got lucky on the second play when he called for a handoff to tight end Alex Smith, who lined up directly behind quarterback Colt McCoy. What Smith, who probably hasn’t taken a handoff like a running back since probably never, was doing there is baffling.

McCoy never got the ball cleanly to Smith, but Joshua Cribbs rescued the botched play by falling on the ball. It made more than a few people wonder what the hell was Shurmur thinking.

As it turned out, the coach's trust and passive nature came back to take a huge chunk out of his hind flanks and cost his team a victory.

When Pontbriand’s snap dribbled back to Maynard after the ball brushed against the leg of Alex Mack, it threw off the timing Dawson needed to do what he does so well. Maynard did an amazing job of spotting the ball, but had no time to spin the laces of the ball away from Dawson. He was fortunate just to get the ball teed upright enough for the kicker's attempt.

Placekickers like the laces away because they create drag on the ball as the ball travels through the air and it has a tendency to hook or slice away from the intended target. Laces away produces a truer kick.

That’s why Dawson’s 22-yard effort was low and hooked left almost immediately after leaving his foot and had no shot at passing through the uprights. It was just another bizarre way for this team to lose a football game.

Too bad because Shurmur chose this afternoon to emerge from his cocoon of dull football and showed he actually had some creative chops.

Sure, there was a lot of Chris Ogbonnaya off tackle, between the tackles, then off tackle again. He was not predictably Mister First Down as it turned out. He carried 13 times on first downs, but the Browns actually passed the ball on the other 14 first-down plays. Yes, they did.

Midway through the second quarter, they stunned the crowd with an old-fashioned dipsey-doodle play involving Cribbs, Seneca Wallace and McCoy. Cribbs took the wildcat formation snap and flipped the ball to Wallace coming back around from the right side. Wallace flipped the ball back to McCoy coming back toward the formation and then headed down the left sideline.

McCoy hit him with a perfect 21-yard pass as the crowd sat amazed before realizing there really is some creativity in the Shurmur playbook. Yes, there is. It set up Dawson’s second field goal.

Late in the first half, McCoy, who received his best pass protection in a month, showed off his arm strength by connecting with Greg Little on a 52-yard bomb that led to Dawson field goal No. 3. The ball traveled 55 yards in the air. It was a rare display of downfield passing, which has been missing from the Cleveland offense most of the season.

Unfortunately, however, most of the talk around the watercooler Monday will center – no pun intended – on the botched snap by Pontbriand, who will emerge from his anonymous status for at least a day.

Then he’ll go back and continue to be one of the NFL’s best long snappers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Going down

We’ll know soon enough just how fast that elevator is traveling to the bottom of the National Football League barrel for the Browns.

The next two Sundays, they face two of the worst teams in the NFL in St. Louis (Sunday) and Jacksonville (a week from Sunday) with both games at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Normally, there is a home-field advantage for most NFL teams. But there is nothing normal about this edition of the Browns, whose victories this season are against teams with a combined record of 3-22.

From the soap opera that is Peyton Hillis to the stunning ineptitude of the offense all season to the sudden collapse of a defense that has been on the field way too long to the obvious overmatched and game-after-game outcoached head coach, normal is not the word to describe what has transpired this season with the Browns.

And now with two teams with a combined record of 3-13 heading to the lakefront, we will get a much better reading on just what kind of a team the fans are forced to put up with on a weekly basis.

Based on how well the Browns play against poor teams, one would think the St. Louis and Jacksonville games have an excellent shot at winding up in the win column. A fait accompli, so to speak. A slam dunk.

If – and right now, that’s a massive if – the Browns should somehow knock off the Rams and Jaguars, they would wind up with perhaps the most deceiving 5-5 record in the history of the NFL.

Is there any question that the professional football team that represents the city of Cleveland is playing not just bad football right now, but uninspired football, dumb football and inexcusably sloppy football?

We are halfway through the season and the Browns are regressing. Yes, injuries have robbed them of several key performers, but the lack of depth on this team is palpably noticeable.

You know it’s bad when the Browns’ placekicker has scored about 40% of the team’s points this season. You know it’s bad when the quarterback gets bounced around like a piñata on a weekly basis. You know it’s bad when the team’s biggest threat is a return specialist.

In the Rams, the Browns face a similarly inept team on offense with one main exception. The Browns have no one even remotely close to matching the talents of running back Steven Jackson, who enters the game with 579 yards rushing (that’s just 78 yards less than the Browns have as a team) and four touchdowns. And with the Cleveland run defense collapsing faster than a tower of playing cards, there’s no telling what kind of numbers Jackson will put up.

After that, it’s an uphill struggle. The Rams’ offense has averaged a measly one touchdown a game in their eight games. They have converted just 28% of their third downs. Their offensive line has surrendered 31 sacks. Their two best pass receivers are hobbled by injuries and probably won’t play Sunday.

In Sam Bradford, they have a quarterback experiencing the same second-year woes that Colt McCoy has encountered. In six games – he missed a couple of games with a high ankle sprain – he has just three TD passes, three interceptions, a completion percentage of only .544 and he’s been sacked 25 times.

Defensively, as hard as it is to believe, the Rams against the run are worse than the Browns, giving up 154 yards a game. No team in the NFL is worse. Only one problem. The Browns have run out of quality running backs and most likely will make the Rams look good.

The Rams’ pass rush, however, is a tad better than the Browns’ statistically, racking up 20 sacks. But the big weakness in on the back end with the secondary picking off just six passes.

The Browns enter the Rams game having lost four of their last five games. Their only victory was that very forgettable and super homely win over Seattle a few weeks ago in a game that set the sport back a generation.

They have handed their heads handed to them in each of those four losses. Getting beat up physically and psychologically in their last two games by San Francisco and Houston has jolted the fans back to reality.

One can only hope the Rams and Jaguars provide the Browns with the opportunity to reverse course and smooth out what thus far has been a very rough ride for rookie head coach Pat Shurmur.

Unfortunately, that will not be the case as the Rams experience the euphoria of victory for the second time this season. And they’ll do it on the ground with Jackson pounding his way to three touchdowns.

The Browns, meanwhile, will continue to struggle on offense as the offensive line continues to break down. The only time they'll see the end zone will be when safety Mike Davis scores on a pick six in the first half.

Other than that, it will be the Phil Dawson show once again as he connects on three more field goals of more than 50 yards as the Cleveland offense scuffles all afternoon. Make it:

Rams 21, Browns 16

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday leftovers

What is it about Pat Shurmur during a game that leads me to wonder whether or not he really cares about what’s going on?

Perhaps it’s the hair. Not one follicle out of place. No matter what the situation, it remains perfectly still.

Then again, maybe it’s the expression on the Browns coach’s face. It never changes. If there is joy . . . nothing. If he’s angry . . . nothing. If he’s excited . . . ditto. You can’t tell. If anything, he’s expressionless.

Maybe he’s concentrating so much on the game, he’s in a zone. He appears to be in his own little world.

In some corners, there is the notion that the demeanor of a football team is a direct reflection of the personality of its coach. Look at some of the most emotional coaches in the National Football League and the performances of their teams.

Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan, John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin and Tom Coughlin are just a few of the highly emotional coaches around the league. And their teams feed off that emotion to produce year after year.

Some would argue that Belichick should not be placed in this group because of his more cerebral approach to the game, but the New England coach has become one of the most active sideline coaches in the NFL. He dials it back only when dealing with the media.

The one argument against that notion is what Jim Harbaugh has done with the San Francisco 49ers. Harbaugh, who knows full well about emotion and the role it plays in football having played the game on that level, is an NFL rookie head coach who succeeded Mike Singletary, a former player several notches above Harbaugh on the emotional scale.

Shurmur, meanwhile, is Mr. Unflappable. Nothing seems to bother him. If it does, the expression on his face belies it. As the offense he heads tumbles deeper and deeper into the commode, he stands stoically, almost as though he is satisfied with the results.

The man is hard to figure out. It’s as though he has no emotions whatsoever. The players can’t help but see that. There is a lack of fire among the Browns. They have a serious lack of emotional leaders. Not once this season have they come out of the gate ready to play. All that can be traced back to the coaching.

As the Browns once again march toward another unrewarding season, one of the underlying reasons for it very well could be their stolid head coach.

* * *

Could this season get any worse? Here we are halfway through and Shurmur has none of his starting running backs with whom to game plan; his best receiver has been out of the lineup more than in it; his wide receiver corps is arguably the worst in the NFL; his offensive line can’t protect his quarterback; his quarterback is one severe beating away from shellshock; his linebacker corps is mediocre at best; his team lacks speed and quickness; he never knows what he’s going to get from his defensive line from game to game; and five of the remaining eight games are against division opponents, who are 18-7 this season.

Therefore, the definitive answer to the original question is a resounding yes.

* * *
The Browns’ next two opponents represent what appears to be a relative break in the schedule. St. Louis and Jacksonville, who arrive on the lakefront the next two Sundays, are a combined 3-12. But don’t be fooled.

The Rams might be 1-7, but they knocked off the tough New Orleans Saints about 10 days ago and have recently played better ball defensively. The Jaguars showed a national television audience that they know how to play a little defense while upsetting the Baltimore Ravens a couple of weeks ago.

Both teams feature young quarterbacks who would love nothing more than to come into Cleveland and show up Colt McCoy. And both clubs have strong running games. So don’t think either game will be a walkover.

* * *

Didn’t take long for Tony Pashos to hit the sidelines. The most fragile offensive lineman in the NFL is useless. And it’s about time the Browns acknowledge this. It’s also about time the Browns admit the offensive line presents a major problem that seriously needs to be addressed in the offseason.

They had the opportunity in the last college draft to fix the problem, but chose instead to draft only Jason Pinkston late in the lottery. By ignoring the problem, they were fooling only themselves.

The surprising aspect of the club’s draft is that General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. chose defensive linemen with his first two picks last April when the Browns clearly needed much more help on the other side of the ball.

* * *

Stream of thought: At the rate he’s getting hit, McCoy will not last the season. He’s playing with a gun that has no bullets in it. The black-and-blue factor should kick in shortly, especially after facing the pass rushes of the Rams and Jaguars. So Seneca Wallace had better bone up on the playbook because he’s going to get his shot sooner than he thinks. . . . Don’t know if anyone noticed, but the Browns ran two successful screens against Houston on Sunday. That’s all they ran. Why not a few more to slow pass rushers? . . . As the Texans blitzed on just about every play, one would think McCoy would have some hot receivers to throw to. Not once was there an available hot receiver. Draw your own conclusions. . . . Let’s hear it for Phil Dawson, the Browns’ best offensive weapon this season. The older the veteran placekicker’s right leg gets, the stronger it becomes. How else can you account for six field goals (in six attempts) of more than 50 yards? Take away those 18 points and the Browns are flirting with the century mark in the scoring column. Dawson has scored 48 of the team’s 119 points. That’s 40% of the team’s scoring. That also makes him a strong candidate for the club’s most valuable player on offense.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Time for some accountability

OK, Mike Holmgren. Time to fess up.

After watching your team get hammered by the Houston Texans Sunday, time to step forward and explain to the fans of this team just what’s wrong. What in the hell is going on?

Here it is game eight of the season and everything is getting worse. Not by just dribs and drabs. Everything is falling apart at an alarming rate.

First, it was the offense. That side of the ball has been embarrassing all season. And you, as a so-called offensive guru, know that. Unless, of course, you have chosen to don your blinders.

It’s quite humorous to watch Pat Shurmur cover the speaking end of his headset so opposing teams won’t be able to tell what play he’s calling when he relays them to Colt McCoy. Makes no difference. They’re not going to work, anyway. Might as well be open for the lip-reading coaches of the opposition. It’ll produce the same results.

And now the defense, which really hasn’t played all that badly this season, except for that blip against the Tennessee Titans when Matt Hasselbeck blew up your secondary, has been exposed.

Sunday in Houston, the Texans blew a hole in the myth of just how good that defense is by rushing through, around and past it for more than 260 yards on the ground, outgaining the entire Cleveland offense by 90 yards en route to a 30-12 victory.

The Texans’ offensive line made the Browns’ front seven look like members of a mediocre college football team. They were a step or three late on just about every running play all afternoon as the Houston offensive line operated with exact precision.

The ease with which Arian Foster and Ben Tate ran the ball was startling. Their quickness and ability to change directions suddenly made the Browns look as though they were playing in a mud bog.

It’s bad enough to surrender a 100-yard rushing afternoon to one running back, but when two accomplish the feat, that’s downright awful. Embarrassing is not a strong enough word.

Houston put on a clinic of how to run the ball, while your guys put on a clinic of how not to stop the run. They displayed two kinds of tackling all afternoon: Missed and no. Foster and Tate gouged holes with relentless determination.

Heading into the game, the Cleveland defense ranked a very misleading fifth overall in the NFL. No doubt that was based on their second-place standing against the pass. That’s probably because opposing teams don’t need to pass that much to be successful against the Browns, who ranked 26th against the run entering the game and proceeded to showed why.

From the beginning, this was an unfair fight between two former expansion teams clearly heading in opposite directions.

The Texans, the National Football League expansion team of 2002, have their sights set on the playoffs for the first time in their short history. The Browns, the NFL expansion team of 1999, are plunging so quickly toward the bottom of the AFC North, all hope for the playoffs has shown up dead on arrival.

This one was decided as early as the game’s opening drive when the Texans marched 81 yards in nine plays with ridiculous ease. One Chris Ogbonnaya fumble and six plays later, it was 14-0 and the rout was on. The Browns never seriously threatened until the latter stages of the game after the Texans had taken a 30-6 lead.

So where does the buck stop, Mike? You? Tom Heckert Jr., your general manager? How about Mr. Unflappable, your head coach? The fans want to know. They demand answers. And they’re damn well angry. They’ve seen this act before. Only the faces have changed.

It’s the mid-point of the season and your team is regressing. It should be the other way around. Teams with new coaches usually get better, even exponentially, as the season unfolds. There hasn’t been a shred of improvement in this offense. And now, the defense shows signs of wear and tear. It was on the field for 35 minutes Sunday.

McCoy, on the other hand, is like a target in a shooting gallery on a weekly basis. The poor guy gets little or no protection from his offensive line on pass plays. It’s got to be frustrating to see the eyes of an opponent up close and personal just when you set your feet to throw. That happened far too often against the Texans after defensive coordinator Wade Phillips unleashed blitz after blitz.

Whoever was supposed to watch Houston linebacker Brooks Reed should be embarrassed in front of his teammates in offensive line meetings this week. Reed nailed McCoy for sacks and knocked him down on three other occasions. Don’t expect Reed to send the Cleveland quarterback a get-well card.

Following the game, Houston coach Gary Kubiak approached McCoy, surprisingly still vertical after the beating he took, and said something as the two exchanged a handshake. Probably went something like this: “Are you all right? Sorry about this afternoon. Nothing personal.”

Sunday’s sad performance against the Texans is only a preview of what’s to come in the final six weeks of the season when the Browns have to play four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who own two of the NFL’s top defenses.

That is, of course, if you can put your finger on what’s wrong. That shouldn’t be too difficult, considering how pathetic they’ve looked this season on offense. It is a joke and you know it..

When will you and your general manager admit it was a mistake to allow Shurmur to call the shots on offense? When will you and your GM and admit your team needs a lot more speed and quickness on both sides of the ball? And when will you and your GM finally come to the realization that the Colt McCoy experiment is not working?

If and when you come to those conclusions, then games like Sunday’s beating in Houston will become nothing more than just a bad memory.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Can you say rout?

OK, so Andre Johnson will not make his return to the Houston Texans’ lineup when the Browns invade Sunday. Has a hamstring that refuses to heel properly.

Break for the Browns, no?


The Texans are a very good football team without Johnson, who has missed the last four games. With him, though, they legitimately challenge for their first-ever appearance in the postseason. It makes sense to rest him one more week. He won’t be missed. Certainly not against the Browns.

Take into consideration what the Texans have done during the absence of the National Football League’s best wide receiver. After losing their first two games without him, they rebounded nicely to win division games against Tennessee and Jacksonville.

The Texans, who entered the NFL as an expansion team three years after the Browns returned, have made many more strides toward respectability in the last five seasons than have the Browns.

Not counting this season, they are 37-43 during that span under coach Gary Kubiak, while the Browns limp in at 28-52. Kubiak has been a constant since taking over in 2006, while the Browns have gone through three coaches.

As the Browns flail at attempting to become at least competitive, the Texans have quietly climbed that ladder to the point where other teams do not take them for granted.

They can beat you in many different ways. Infantry style, they come at opponents with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. When Foster, who had a sensational 2010 season with 2,200 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns, missed the first two games of the season with a hamstring, Tate stepped in and ripped off games of 116 and 103 yards.

Both men have rushed for more than 500 yards in the first eight games this season with Tate averaging 5.2 yards a carry. And Foster seems to have regained his 2010 form with 532 yards in just six games.

When the Texans decide to go up top, they become even more effective despite the loss of Johnson. Quarterback Matt Schaub, who completes 60% of his passes, is a master of ball distribution and does not hesitate to spread the ball around.

Of his 13 touchdown passes, tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreesen have split six. And (sarcasm alert!) we all know how well the Browns have dealt with tight ends this season.

In Johnson’s absence, Schaub includes veteran wideouts Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones in his repertoire, and relies heavily on Foster out of the backfield on screens and dumpoffs.

The Texans also excel at ball control, averaging 33.5 minutes a game. That means their defense is on the field just 26.5 minutes a game. A rested defense is a dangerous defense. Something has got to give there because the Browns average 31 minutes in time of possession.

The Texans, who average 395 yards a game on offense, present a formidable challenge for Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. However, they have shown the capability of adjusting depending on how opposing defenses scheme them. It’s possible Jauron will try to stop the Houston running game with a variety of fronts and run blitzes, forcing Schaub to beat them with his arm.

The Cleveland offense, based solely on the way it has played in the first seven games this season, most likely will struggle against a very good Texans defense. Now that Wade Phillips has taken over as coordinator and transformed them into a 3-4 team, they have flourished.

Even though Mario Williams, the world’s biggest linebacker at 6-6 and 285 pounds, is through for the season with a pectoral injury, the Texans excel when the opposition has the ball, allowing just 17 points a game.

The Browns are most vulnerable on offense when Colt McCoy drops back to pass. The offensive line has not provided him with the kind of protection he needs to have a shot at being successful. And throwing the ball is the best way to beat Houston.

The Texans flat out stop the run, permitting just 97 yards a game on the ground. With Peyton Hillis out again, Cleveland’s chances of anything remotely resembling a successful running game disappears.

And the Texans will be waiting in the secondary, which has picked off 10 passes this season. Off-season acquisitions Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning have solidified a defensive backfield that was shaky last season.

So that’s what the Browns have to face Sunday. Doesn’t seem like a pleasant task as coach Pat Shurmur approaches the halfway point of his rookie season.

Oddsmakers have established the Browns as 11-point underdogs. The oddsmakers are wrong. Give the points. Make it:

Texans 30, Browns 10