Monday, December 31, 2012

New Browns coach will run everything

Now that we know exactly which direction Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner will take as they restructure the Browns’ front office, two thoughts come quickly to mind.

At their broad-based news conference with the Cleveland media Monday, Haslam and Banner made it quite clear a new coach would be picked before anyone else in the football hierarchy.

That said, it is now obvious the new coach will not come from the college ranks unless he has a strong National Football League background. Banner declared the new coach will “play a bigger role moving forward and help decide on the right player personnel director or general manager.”

That immediately eliminates University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly and probably Penn State’s Bill O’Brien, both of whom are rumored to be on the Browns’ short list of candidates, or any other college coach, for that matter.

I can’t see Banner leaning on the advice of Kelly, whose familiarity with the NFL is rather limited, having never coached on that level. Besides, Kelly’s wonderfully successful gimmick offense at Oregon will not translate well in the NFL.

O’Brien, on the other hand, spent four seasons with the New England Patriots before moving on to Penn State, where he surprised just about everyone in the college football world and produced an inspired winning season. Four years with the Patriots does not constitute a strong league background.

No, the new guy almost assuredly will come from within the NFL coaching ranks. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens struck it rich with Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh, a couple of coordinators. Both men possess dynamic personalities. That’s what Haslam and Banner will be looking for.

Said Haslam, “Our goal is to be good for a long time. The type of coach we’re looking for has to pay attention to details and be aggressive.”

In other words, someone who is the anti Pat Shurmur. Someone who attacks the game from all angles and is unafraid to take chances. Someone who is at least two series ahead of his coaching rival.

As for the No. 2 man, there’s a very good chance he will be much more of a personnel guy than a general manager. It was pretty much like under Banner in Philadelphia, where head coach Andy Reid called most of the shots with the personnel input of general managers Tom Heckert Jr. and Howie Roseman.

The new personnel guy might be given the GM title like Heckert and Roseman in Philly, but he will clearly be the No. 2 guy on Banner’s power grid and hang in the background with the coach at the forefront.

Midway through the news conference, Banner, whose sour countenance undoubtedly belies his excitement at retooling the Browns, made an interesting statement regarding the direction of the club. “I’ll be massively disappointed if we don’t make the playoffs next year,” said the CEO.

Pretty bold statement considering the Browns have made the playoffs just once in 14 seasons since the rebirth and come close on one other occasion. Other than that, it has been one double-digit losing season after another.

Banner obviously knows what it takes to build a winner, having done that for so long in Philadelphia. What Browns fans are counting on from him is the ability to be lucky enough to make the absolute correct choice.

Choosing a new head coach in the NFL is as much a crapshoot as the college draft. For every John and Jim Harbaugh, for every Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, you have the Pat Shurmurs, Romeo Crennels and Eric Manginis of the coaching universe.

Most assistant coaches and coordinators are much better at their specific jobs. Only a select few have the chops to break out and become a solid and successful head coach. The dynamics of running the entire show are quite different than being responsible for a certain area. Finding those special men is the ultimate goal.
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The NFL’s Black Monday coaching carousel claimed seven victims. Whacked and heading out the exit with no invitation to return were Pat Shurmur (shocking!), Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Buffalo’s Chan Gailey, Norv Turner in San Diego, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, Lovie Smith in Chicago and Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt. On the bubble are Carolina’s Ron Rivera and Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville.

You probably can add Whisenhunt, Reid and Smith to the possibilities of gaining the attention of Haslam and Banner, Each has been a head coach for a Super Bowl team and each has a strong personality. Whisenhunt was the Browns’ tight ends coach on the 1999 expansion team.
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Notebook: As well, comparatively speaking, as he played in Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, rookie quarterback Thad Lewis’ performance should not be taken too seriously. He might have thrown for more than 200 yards and a touchdown pass, but let's be honest. He does not possess a strong arm and is too small (6-0). He makes a nice third quarterback. . . . Nice call by Shurmur on that fake punt against the Steelers. It set up the team’s only touchdown of the afternoon, Where was that creativity during the season? Why wait until game 16? . . . Defensive end Jabaal Sheard is a strong closer. As a rookie, he had three of his 8½ sacks in the final three games. This season, he had four of his seven sacks in the last four games. Maybe he should start earlier. . . . The Browns pick sixth in next April’s college draft. . . . For the season, Cleveland was 5-7 against the AFC, 0-4 against the NFC and 2-4 within the AFC North. . . . They were 3-5 in games decided by seven points or less. The 11-5 Indianapolis Colts, by way of comparison, were 9-1 in games decided by that margin. The difference, of course, between going to the playoffs and going home.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bring on the future

Now the fun begins.

Forget Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. That serves as nothing more than a bow that tied up yet another disappointing season for the Browns and a backdrop for the fireworks.

Browns Nation watched as Pat Shurmur played Dead Man Walking for three mundane, dull and otherwise uninspiring hours, wrapping up his easily-forgotten two-season career in Cleveland with a 9-23 record.

Shurmur, of course, is gone after two miserable seasons, following in the footsteps of Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. Five coaches, 14 seasons and a boatload of losing. 

That’s what Browns fans, loyal beyond any logical reason, have had to put up with. But all that is about the change. And that’s where the fun begins.

For the record let’s record Dec. 30, 2012 as the date misery ended for the Cleveland Browns and a new age began. That’s when new owner Jimmy Haslam III and CEO Joe Banner dropped the curtain on an era that will be looked at from now on with revulsion.

All the losing and bad football? History. All the bad coaching and poor player personnel decisions? History. That chapter of Cleveland Browns football is best forgotten.

With Haslam and Banner firmly at the controls, the Browns are being aimed in an entirely new direction. Two men with successes strewn all over their resumes are now in charge and will make changes soon.

They will not waste time in finding a new coach and director of player personnel. There is a distinct possibility, however, that there will not be a new general manager to succeed Tom Heckert Jr., whose impending departure will not stun anyone.

Depending on Banner’s power structure, it’s entirely possible the new personnel chief might possibly be given a de facto GM title. Most, if not all, of the roster decisions are expected to be made by the new head coach.

Also arriving in the new regime will be a brand new attitude and a completely different culture. Losing will not be tolerated and the accountability factor will rise dramatically.

If Haslam is smart, he will allow Banner to call all the shots and be there in order to break any ties that might crop up. Other than that, it’s Banner’s show and all the trappings that come with it.

Because just about everything is new, expectations by the fans very well could put extra pressure on the new front office. Fans are excited, of course, for what’s about to take place. The anticipation of seeing new faces creates that excitement.

There will be those who, no matter who the new football men are, maintain a skepticism that was born out of all those seasons of frustration. “Show me,” they will say. “Prove you’re better than your predecessors.”

And there is nothing wrong with that. After all, haven’t the Phil Savages and Butch Davises, Eric Manginis and Mike Holmgrens of the world told us in the past that things will change?

Seven years ago, for example, Savage decried the “woe-is-me” attitude of Browns fans when he arrived as the club’s general manager.  “We can’t listen to the woe-is-me around town,” he said at the time. “If myself and the organization believed there’s a validity to that, then we’re wasting our time.”

He went on to talk about “the need to reshape the mentality of the team. There is a woe-is-me, run-for-the-hills mentality that seems to permeate Cleveland in general.”

After his first two seasons, during which the Browns were 10-22, Savage joined the crowd, blaming injuries, difficult schedules and “the lack of a core group of players” on the team’s record. Woe was he.

The expectation now is that Haslam and Banner will put together a package that, once and for all, rids Cleveland of the woe-is-me football stench that has hovered over the city since 1999.

Their moves will be watched even more closely because they arrive as the saviors, the group of men expected to return Cleveland Browns football to its rightful place in the National Football League. In many quarters, they will be expected to succeed.

Banner knows how proud a franchise the Browns once had. He knows the passion of Browns fans. Watching from afar, he knows what they’ve been through. He gets it. That’s the easy part.

Now comes the difficult part. Actually crafting and shaping the Browns in his image is what will distinguish him from his predecessors. He knows the pressure is squarely on him.

And now that the 2012 season is mercifully over, it’s time to look ahead. It’s time to have a short memory and move on. It’s time to look forward to a new beginning, a new attitude, a new culture at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

The last snap of 2012 has been made. What counts from now on is what Browns football will look like after the first snap of the 2013 season.

Friday, December 28, 2012

It will be different this time

This time, Ben Roethlisberger will be in uniform. So will Troy Polamalu. And the venue will be much friendlier.

Just a little more ammunition for the Steelers when they welcome the Browns to Pittsburgh Sunday in a meaningless game featuring two teams that can’t wait for the season to end.

The Steelers bring a three-game losing streak into the season ender and the Browns lug a two-gamer as they wrap up yet another double-digit loss season in what is expected to be Pat Shurmur’s last game as the head coach.

The last time these two AFC North rivals met on Nov. 25 in Cleveland, Charlie Batch was the Pittsburgh quarterback and the Steelers tried mightily to gift the Browns with a runaway victory.

But those lovable Brownies, bless their charitable hearts, had to beat the Steelers the hard way, converting eight Pittsburgh turnovers into a robust 17 of their 20 points in the 20-14 victory.

What should have been a rout was upstaged by the Browns’ maddening inability to take advantage of the Steelers’ largesse. They figuratively clung to the lead, rather than aggressively try and build on it, because of conservative play calling by you know whom.

Roethlisberger, nursing a rib injury, watched as Batch threw three interceptions and Steelers running backs coughed up the ball eight times, losing four, in truly one of the ugliest games of the season. In fact, ugly might not be a descriptive enough adjective.

Hazarding a guess here, but don’t look for the Steelers to play Santa again. Roethlisberger just doesn’t lose to the Browns. OK, he lost to them in December of 2009. But that’s it. And this will be his 16th start against them since entering the National Football League in 2004.

But this one will be slightly different for Big Ben. The Steelers have nothing to play for since their season, for all practical purposes, ended last week with their loss to Cincinnati. It’s a situation with which he is somewhat unfamiliar. How that impacts on his performance is the X factor because he is rarely in this position.

The Steelers’ running game, usually a strength that helps set up Roethlisberger’s play-action passes, is practically non-existent. DRunning backs have piled up, using the term loosely here, only 198 yards on the ground and one touchdown (a one-yard run) in the last three games. In that span, Roethlisberger has thrown six scoring passes and four interceptions following his three-game injury absence.

But we can’t help but go back to Big Ben’s amazing dominance over the Browns, who haven’t swept a season series from the Steelers since, amazingly, 1988, when Marty Schottenheimer was the coach and the Browns finished 10-6.

Since then, the two teams have met 43 times, including this season, and the Steelers have won 33. That’s a .767 winning percentage in what once was one of the great rivalries in the NFL.

The Steelers are getting old quickly. The window of opportunity is closing just as rapidly and the team’s solid reputation for drafting wisely has taken large hits the last several seasons.

The Browns, on the other hand, are getting younger and the window of opportunity hasn’t opened yet, but several positive signs indicate they are beginning to reach for it. These are teams headed in opposite directions. It’s possible the once-bitter and close rivalry might be stoking up for another run.

The Browns enter Sunday’s game banged up. We have no idea who will be under center. With Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy unable to practice this week because of shoulder problems, third-stringer Thad Lewis could make his NFL debut.

That’s a problem because the kid most likely will be no match for the still-solid Pittsburgh defense, which ranks in the top five in just about every category except points allowed (20 a game). But even with the presence of the oft-injured Polamalu back in the lineup, the Steelers have picked off just nine passes.

The very active front seven has yielded just 87 yards a game on the ground this season and with Trent Richardson hobbled by a number of nagging injuries, the Cleveland running game will be severely challenged. The Steelers’ biggest problem on defense is getting off the field. They have allowed opposing teams to convert 42% of their third-down opportunities.

On offense, Roethlisberger will be without tight end Heath Miller, his favorite target who ripped up his right knee last week. And he’ll have to operate behind an offensive line that has sprung leaks all season. Since his return three games ago, Big Ben has been sacked 10 times.

Working against a patchwork Cleveland secondary should tilt this one in favor of the Steelers. Unless the Browns’ inconsistent pass rush decides to show up this week, Roethlisberger should have plenty of time to throw.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, still labors under the shackles of Shurmur and Brad Childress. For once, it would be nice to see these geniuses shed their conservative ways and let it all hang out even if it’s Lewis at the controls.

What has Shurmur got to lose? A game? He’s contributed heavily to 10 losses already. What’s another going to cost him? His job? That ship has sailed.

So what’s going to happen Sunday? Well, it won’t be a rout and it will be relatively close. Shurmur will stay conservative. That’s a given. Big Ben will throw a pair of touchdown passes, a couple of picks and wind up on his keister five times. And Phil Dawson will be the Cleveland attack. Period. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 9

(Update) Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Trent Richardson, Jordan Cameron and Sheldon Brown ruled out of Sunday's game by Shurmur. Thad Lewis starts at quarterback with recent signee Josh Johnson backing him up, and Montario Hardesty starts at running back with Brandon Jackson (is he still on the team?) and Chris Ogbonnaya backing him up. That calls for a revise of the final score. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 3

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

These stats tell a different story

The 5-10 record says the Browns are a better team than last season.

So does head coach Pat Shurmur.

“I think . . . as a team, and I’m talking about the way we function and the young players we added, we are much improved from a year ago,” he told the Cleveland media Monday.

How the club functions, Shurmur says without really saying it, is a better barometer to judge the growth of a team than its record.

For sure, one more victory than last season does, from a statistical standpoint, mean the Browns are better. But let’s look inside, way inside, at the other stats. Let’s see if they truly reveal whether these Browns are really better than 2011.

Buckle up. This could be a long, boring ride for those who get bogged down by stats. For those who don’t, there are some interesting statistical revelations between last season’s team and the current team.

We start with the general stats and the team’s National Football League ranking (with some 2011 comparables in parentheses). The only obvious difference is that this year’s team has played one less game.

Through those 15 games this season, the Browns rank 27th overall on offense (29th last season) with an average of 314 yards a game (289 last season). Breaking that down, they are 20th in passing with 217 yards a game (24th and 193) and 25th on the ground with 97 yards a game (28th and 95.7).

Now the specifics.

The Browns have already scored 74 more points (292-218) than last season with a game to go. They average 5.0 yards a play on offense (4.5), flat line last season with 17.4 first downs a game, convert only 30.7% of their third downs (38.6% last season) and have committed more penalties (104-95) with more yardage (926-847).

Sticking with the offense, touchdowns on the ground are up dramatically from four to 12; time of possession (28:09) is down more than a minute from last season’s 29:15; touchdown passes (15) are down one with the one game remaining; interceptions are up from 14 to 17; and the offensive line has allowed 32 sacks, seven fewer than last season.

Still with me? OK, now let’s take a look at the defense. Don’t worry, there’s a bottom-line conclusion ahead.

Going into the 2012 season, many fans believed the strong suit of the Browns was the defense. After all, it ranked 10th overall (second against the pass) in the NFL despite the 4-12 record last season. And most of that group returned with a few draft picks thrown in.

It was the offense about which the fans worried, an offense that was coming off one of the worst statistical seasons in club history. So defense, naturally, was not a concern.

Well, it should have been.

The 2011 defense allowed 307 points, an average of 19.2 points a game. This season, that defense has already permitted opposing teams to rack up 344 points, or 22.9 a game. That’s nearly four more points a game.

Breaking that down, the defense has been in on 1,042 plays this season (second most in the NFL), seven more than all of last season. They flat line in yards per play (5.2-5.1), but the third-down conversion rate is decidedly better this season at 38.1% (41.3%) and it has 36 sacks (32).

However, time of possession for the opposition has risen nearly 90 seconds a game (32:27-31:00). Might not seem like much, but that’s 90 seconds a game times 16 games.

The wonderful pass defense of last season has taken a beating this season because of an improved Cleveland run defense. Last season, the Browns gave up 147 yards a game on the ground. Teams didn’t have to throw that much against them to win. Thus, the overall passing stats skewed in Cleveland’s favor.

The secondary, which gave up just 16 TD passes last season, has allowed 24 so far in 2012, given up 253.5 yards a game (185 last season) and ranks 27th in that category. However, they have picked off 17 passes, eight more than last season, and have 36 sacks, four more than 2011.

This season, the Browns’ rush defense has cut that 147 yards a game to 120.5 and moved up from 30th to 19th in the rankings. All of which meant more passing against a Cleveland defense bedeviled by injuries and youth.

Several conclusions can be reached after examining those very telling statistics.

~ The Browns are considerably better on offense, especially in the passing game, than last season’s very docile edition. Even with the relatively conservative play calling of Shurmur, who seemed too afraid to let his rookies just play the game instead of trying to force the west coast scheme down their throats, they were more of a scoring threat.

~ They are far more effective in the red zone, particularly with the presence of Trent Richardson, the first running back since can’t remember when who has a nose for the goal line. It was a virtual certainty once they got inside the enemy’s five-yard line that the Browns were going to put up six. Didn’t always play out that way, but Richardson is a distinct improvement.

~ Even with Richardson, the Cleveland ground game struggled most of the season, mainly because Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress stuck to west coast offense principles and blocking schemes and refused to take advantage of the rookie running back’s natural talent. He’s as slasher, not a basher.

~ As it turned out, the Browns’ strong suit was not the defense. It was the offense mainly because it could score from just about any place on the field. With Weeden’s strong arm, opposing defenses had to respect his ability to connect on long passes. Unfortunately, Shurmur didn’t call that many during the season.

~ Third down proved a nemesis on offense. The Browns dropped eight percentage points to a puny 30.7 in converting third downs. On defense, though, they improved three percentage points to 38.1 in preventing them. That’s got to even better. So, too, does time of possession. The Browns have owned the ball just a shade more than 28 minutes a game this season. Unless you’ve got a quick-strike offense, that is an unacceptable number.

~ The pass defense, for any number of reasons, is awful this season even though it has nearly doubled its interceptions. But that’s because more teams are throwing more on them. How many times have we seen opposing receivers wide open? It’s happened too many times to blame it on anything other than blown coverages. A stronger and more consistent pass rush would also help.

~ The rush defense is clearly the most improved aspect of the defense. The addition of rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes, plus the return to health of Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, has been the biggest revelation. If they are better next season, the secondary will be even busier than this season.

~ Piling up penalties has to stop. How many times this season did we watch a Browns drive stymied by a pre-snap penalty or an illegal shift or a holding penalty? The correct answer is too many. That has to stop. This team needs discipline in a big way. Maybe the next coach will provide it.

~ Bottom line: The Browns continue to display their inconsistency with a good defense that didn’t play as well as hoped and an offense that played better than expected. It’s the complete opposite of last season. One of these years, they will be good enough to put it all together. Perhaps that’s the reason they’ll chalk up yet another 5-11 season and can’t seem to get off the double-digit loss schneid.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday leftovers

How long after the season will Browns fans have to wait before Pat Shurmur has the word “ex” attached to his current job?

Let’s see now. When does the season end? Next Sunday in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.

And what time will the Browns’ final loss of the season become official? Somewhere around 4 p.m. local time.

OK, here’s the answer to the original question. Shurmur will be cashiered roughly one minute following that game. Somewhere between the field and clubhouse. If not, he should be.

In the span of two quick and very depressing seasons, Shurmur has managed to do something I believed was impossible. He actually made Romeo Crennel look like a good head coach.

In those two seasons, he has managed to take a bunch of modestly talented players and helped them underachieve. The Browns’ 9-22 (soon to be 9-23) record under Shurmur is not an aberration. It truly represents how poorly he coaches.

Rarely did the Browns show up to play a game of professional football in those 32 attempts. Rarely did they play smart football. Rarely did they play aggressive football. And consequently, rarely did they play winning football.

It became readily apparent early on that Mike Holmgren’s handpicked choice to succeed Eric Mangini was in over his head. When he chose himself to be his offensive coordinator in the first season, red flags were run up the pole.

And when he ceded the coordinator’s job to Brad Childress but clung to play-calling duties, that pretty much sealed it for the offense. As if that weren’t bad enough, he compounded that by forcing his rookie quarterback to play in a system that was foreign to him.

That new system turned the quarterback into something he wasn’t. He was force-fed the entire season and failed to grow as a result. His inconsistencies with the intricacies of the position were evident all season. And the fault lies with Shurmur and Childress.

Some of Shurmur’s critics, including yours truly, believe that if the Browns had been able to outbid Washington for Robert Griffin III, the phenom from Baylor would have been saddled with an offense that would mitigate against his talents.

In Washington, coaches Mike and Kyle Shanahan catered to Griffin’s unique skills and tailored their offense around them. As a result, the Redskins are on the verge of making the playoffs. That never would have happened in Cleveland. Shurmur would have stunted his growth.

To his credit, Shurmur’s best move was leaving defensive coordinator Dick Jauron alone and it paid off it some very competitive games, most of which wound up in losses because of an offense that failed to come through in the clutch.

After it was all said and done, Shurmur can blame no one other than himself for his club’s failings. He can blame no one other than himself for being outcoached on a weekly basis. There are arguably three games the Browns should have won but didn’t because he was outsmarted.

He can honestly say his team played hard for him. Not necessarily smart, but hard. They competed. Never gave up. Crennel said that, too. But in a bottom-line world, it did not add up to what enables coaches to keep their jobs: victories.
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It doesn’t take much research to figure out why the Browns have lost the last two games. It all comes down to play-calling ratio.

In the losses to Washington and Denver the last two weeks, Shurmur called for 33 running plays (15 and 18, respectively) and 79 pass plays. That’s a ratio well above 2-1. It’s also a prescription for failure.

In the previous three games, all Cleveland victories, Shurmur dialed up 99 running plays and 100 pass plays, including 35 in the Kansas City victory and 34 in the Pittsburgh triumph. Don’t have to be a math genius to figure out the difference. Shurmur should turn in his genius card.

The hallmark of most successful teams is a run/pass ratio that settles in around 50/50 or at the very worst 55/45. When you have an offensive line that run blocks better than it pass blocks, why throw more?

It’s not as though the Browns were desperate to play catch-up football. They led the Redskins, 14-10, at the half of that one and trailed Denver by just 14-3 at the half Sunday. There was no need to panic.

Yes, the west coast scheme is a pass-first offense, but not to the almost total absence of the running game. Shurmur’s love affair with the pass, especially with a rookie quarterback still learning how to play from a pro set, is what has led to his soon-to-be disconnect from Cleveland.
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Jauron’s star has fallen so far, it would be surprising if he is asked to return next season. The Browns’ defensive coordinator can use the excuse that the inability for the offense to sustain drives has not given his defense a chance to recover.

It doesn’t wash, especially in the last two games when Washington and Denver hung 72 points on the Cleveland defense. Even though it’s week 16 and teams are tired, the Browns’ defense should still be able to get off the field once in a while.

And because that hasn’t been the case, Jauron’s’ tenure as the coordinator for the Browns might be cut short by whomever Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner select as coach. Not saying it will happen. But it’s a distinct possibility.
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What in the world was Shurmur thinking Sunday when, trailing the Broncos by 22 points, he called a timeout with less than four minutes left in regulation? The game, for all practical purposes, was over. The Broncos had liberally substituted by that point.

What was he trying to prove? That he wasn’t giving up? That the game is played for 60 minutes and he was going to fight to the end? It made absolutely no sense to prolong the agony.

The Browns trailed by three scores, the defense was dragging and the offense was in struggle mode. The coach called his first timeout with 3:45 left after a three-yard gain by Knowshon Moreno on a first-and-10. He called his second on the next play following a 19-yard run by Moreno.

By then, you’d have thought Shurmur got the message. Nope. He called his third straight timeout following a four-yard run by Ronnie Hillman. Apparently, he does not know when he’s beaten. They had to be laughing on the Denver sideline after each timeout. What a joke.
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Notebook: Ten more penalties for 69 yards, a few of them of the pre-snap variety. Hopefully, the new coach will emphasize discipline. . . . Has anyone noticed how reliable Greg Little has become? He’s caught just about everything thrown his way the last several weeks. . . . The only way Brandon Weeden doesn’t start in Pittsburgh is if he can’t raise his right arm. Otherwise, the rookie should be allowed to finish the season. . . . Happy holidays to everyone. May 2013 be the year the Browns finally begin the road back to respectability and long-term success.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Winning with ridiculous ease

It was almost like watching a National Football League team playing against a Division III college football team Sunday afternoon.

It was an unfair fight from the very beginning in Denver. It started when Browns coach Pat Shurmur won the coin toss and chose to defer. Big mistake.

At least give the offense a chance to do something on the first drive rather than playing from behind all day. Give Peyton Manning an inch and he’ll take an entire football field.

Giving Manning and the Denver Broncos’ offense the football right out of the chute, especially at home, is asking for trouble and the veteran quarterback delivered an eight-play, 80-yard drive that took only two minutes and 50 seconds off the clock.

Ball game.

Huh? Ball game? How can that be?

Eight plays, 80 yards in less than three minutes? C’mon. That was way too easy. It was as though the Cleveland defense offered no resistance. Come to think of it, they didn’t.

But didn’t the Browns respond with a nice 14-play, 63-yard drive that led to a Phil Dawson field goal? Yeah, but those 63 yards took nearly eight minutes to negotiate and ultimately wound up as the club’s best shot all afternoon.

That opening drive was a merely sneak preview of what was to come in an afternoon filled once again with frustration for fans, who had hoped the Browns, now 5-10, would avoid racking up their fifth straight double-digit loss season and ninth in the last 10 seasons.

Manning was just getting started against a Cleveland defense hemorrhaging yards and touchdowns at a pace the last two weeks that kind of makes one wonder just how safe Dick Jauron’s job is for next season.

He responded with a 15-play drive for another 80 yards in a more pedestrian seven minutes to reestablish domination that basically told the Browns there was no way they would prevent the Broncos from winning their 10th straight game.

The Broncos put together two long drives and score two touchdowns.The Browns put together one long drive and escape with a field. Sound familiar? It should. Field goals don’t win games or even keep you competitive in the early going unless your defense decides to show up.

On this day, the Browns’ defense was AWOL. It couldn’t get off the field in the first half, mainly because Manning had most of the right answers, especially on third down.

The defense forced the future Hall of Famer into seven third-down situations in the first 30 minutes. He converted the first four and five of the first six as the Broncos owned the ball for nearly 17 minutes. He went on to convert eight of the first 10.

The Broncos put up only 14 first-half points, but that was mainly due to a brief period of ineffectiveness by Manning late in the second quarter, when safety Usama Young picked him off in the end zone in the final seconds of the half. It was his only mistake of the afternoon.

He wound up strafing the weakened Cleveland secondary for 339 yards and three touchdown passes in the 34-12 victory, which wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. To put that in perspective, Manning entered the game with only two career touchdown passes against the Browns in five games.

In the last two weeks, the Browns’ defense has been hit with 72 points and 887 total yards. In the previous four games, that defense surrendered just 61 points. To make matters worse, the opposition had the ball for nearly 70 minutes (out of 120).

Manning toyed with the secondary all afternoon, getting little or no pressure from the Cleveland defensive line, which didn’t get close enough to him to say bless you if he sneezed. Allowing the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player to freewheel in front of the home folks begged for disaster and he delivered.

Shortly after Manning guided the Broncos to a 21-6 lead with a 12-play, 91-yard, 6½-minute drive midway through the third quarter, Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took the wraps off his vaunted pass rush. Turned ‘em loose is what he did.

When you’ve got pass rush specialists like Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, a 21-6 lead and a home crowd frothing for some quarterback meat, there is no other course of action. And they delivered big time with 3½ of the club’s six sacks.

That pass rush, blanked in the first half, concentrating instead on shutting down the Cleveland running game, pounded quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy, after knocking Weeden out of the game with a right shoulder injury, the entire second half.

Weeden went down when Miller came clean on a blitz on a second-and-10 at the Cleveland 20 late in the third quarter. Cleveland right tackle Mitchell Schwartz unwisely chose to take on the left defensive end’s inside rush and left his quarterback vulnerable on the outside.

The extremely quick and mobile Miller arrived at Weeden just he finished his short drop back from the shotgun. The rookie had no chance as Miller drove his right shoulder into the turf, ending his afternoon. It then was McCoy’s turn to take a pounding. It began on the very next play when Denver defensive end Derek Wolfe got him.

From that point on, McCoy shifted into scramble mode, but did manage to squeeze out a touchdown pass to Greg Little against a Denver prevent defense midway through the fourth quarter.

Just one more game to go now against the Steelers next Sunday in Pittsburgh. And then the fun will begin.

Heads certainly will roll, faces definitely will change and a new culture will descend on 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea in the next month or two, if not sooner. And just like that, the 2012 season will take its place as nothing more than just another forgettable Cleveland Browns season. The sooner forgotten, the better.

Nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Manning is ordinary against Browns

There is absolutely no question that five years after he throws his final pass in the National Football League, Peyton Manning will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

No one can dispute what this marvelous football player has accomplished over his stellar career. He has taken the quarterback position and given it dimensions only a few have.

When it comes to understanding the game with its many nuances, no one has elevated it better than Manning, who will face the Browns Sunday in Denver. (More on that later.) He has, in some ways,  revolutionized the way his position is now played.

Others may have had stronger arms, been better throwers or fortunate enough to have extraordinary wide receivers. But no one has had such an important impact on the way successful quarterbacks play the game as Manning.

His secret is simple. He plays the game well from the neck down, but from the neck up, no one does it better. As well, maybe, just not better.

In essence, Manning is his own coordinator. He calls his own plays. He’s like a conductor on the field. He’s a two-legged mobile playbook with a baton.

For 13 seasons, fans of the Indianapolis Colts enjoyed winning football primarily because of the 6-5 Manning, who guided his club to 11 postseason appearances, missing only his rookie season in 1998 and 2001.

The only blemish on his otherwise superb résumé is his inability to win the so-called big games. The Colts made the Super Bowl just twice with Manning, knocking off the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in the 2007 game, and dropping a 31-17 decision to the New Orleans Saints in 2010.

When quarterback discussions are launched, his name always will be mentioned with other preeminent passers, not only of modern day, but of yesteryear as well. That is how good he is.

He accumulated statistics far beyond those predicted for him when he entered the NFL as the top pick in the 1998 college football draft. With the Colts, he completed 65% of his passes for nearly 55,000 yards and 399 touchdowns.

Several neck operations idled him for the 2011 season and the Colts, to the dismay of many of their fans, took no chances on his health and allowed Manning, who had never missed a game with the Colts, to become a free agent, knowing they would draft Andrew Luck with the first pick of the 2012 draft.

Many skeptics believed Manning’s career was over and couldn’t understand why Denver Broncos Vice President of Football Operations John Elway would swoop in and sign him to a five-year deal.

Well, after 14 games this season, the answer has become obvious. In those 14 games, Manning has completed 67.9% of his passes, thrown for 4.016 yards (he’s on pace for 4,560, which would be the second-highest season total of his career), 31 touchdowns and led the Broncos to an 11-3 record, an AFC West championship and another trip to the postseason.

And Sunday, he has a chance to pad those stats against a Browns team that lost two defensive starters, T. J. Ward and James-Michael Johnson to injured reserve. Advantage Manning? Not really if past performances are any indication.

This will be Manning’s sixth career start against the Browns and he has won the first five by margins of 1, 5, 3, 7 and 4 points. That’s right, the mighty Manning barely scraped by when he played the Browns.

In those five victories, he completed 65.9% of his passes for 1,117 yards, an average of 223.4 a game. Now comes the interesting set of stats. In those five games, Manning threw just two touchdown passes (both in the same game) and six interceptions. But the Browns sacked him only twice.

That’s right, the Browns over the years have been able reduce the great Peyton Manning to ordinary status. In those five games, he directed the Colts to only nine touchdowns and just 89 points, 57 of them in the first two meetings. But luck also was on his side.

He had absolutely nothing to do with the 10-6 victory in 2008. The Browns owned a 6-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter of that game when Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney strip-sacked Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson and Robert Mathis romped 37 yards with the recovery for the only touchdown of the day.

Yes, the Colts never lost to the Browns with Manning under center (but they did lose last season with Kerry Collins at quarterback). And yes, the most important stat is, and always will be, the final score.

But Manning’s new team plays a much better brand of defense than the Colts, allowing the fewest points in the AFC this season. Led by All-Pro linebacker Von Miller and pass rush specialist Elvis Dumervil, they have permitted opposing teams to convert just 31% of their third downs.

Miller, who has 16 of the team’s 42 sacks, has chipped in with six forced fumbles and turned his only interception into a pick six. Dumervil adds nine to the sack total for the Broncos, whose defense has been impressive under new coordinator Jack Del Rio.

The only way to attack that defense successfully is through the air. Doing it on the ground, where the Broncos limit the opposition to just 91 yards a game, has proved fruitless. Even then, the Denver defense has picked off 16 enemy passes.

Offensively, the Browns have to hope Manning has another typical Peyton Manning day against them. If not, this one could get out of hand quickly. In Eric Decker and Demaryius Moore, he has two extremely reliable receivers. And running back Knowshon Moreno has been hot lately.

There’s no question the Browns will have to battle more than the mile-high altitude Sunday. On paper, this looks very much like a runaway for the Broncos, still playing for a first-round bye.

After losing two of their first three games this season and three of their first five, the Broncos have rattled off a nine-game winning streak and are 6-1 at home. Look for those figures to improve.

In a game that won’t be close after the first 15 minutes, the Broncos send the 5-9 Browns reeling into double-digit loss territory for the fifth straight season – and ninth in the last 10 – in humiliating fashion. Manning throws for three touchdowns, Moreno runs for two more and the Denver defense sparkles. Make it:

Broncos 45, Browns 14

Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday leftovers

Looking to lay the blame on someone for the Browns’ offensive woes lately? Here’s a shocker. Let’s start with Pat Shurmur and then quickly bring in Brad Childress.

When these two are released by the club at or shortly after the end of the season in a few weeks, the only people they can correctly blame for the failure to improve the club’s offense can be found by looking in a mirror.

Shurmur, with a much less talented cast, tried to do it all by himself last season by coordinating the offense and callings the plays. That didn’t work, so he brought in Childress after an exhaustive (sarcasm intended) search, but clung to play-calling duties.

After 14 games, it’s safe to say that plan hasn’t work well, either, although it’s somewhat better than last season. That doesn’t cut it with the fans, many of whom can’t wait for the season to end so Shurmur will get his building pass to 76 Groza Blvd. revoked. Childress, too.

These two have managed to take a couple of extremely talented rookies in Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden and turn them into mediocre performers.

OK, Richardson will probably be a 1,000-yard rusher – big deal; that’s 62.5 yards a game – and will wind up with at least 12 touchdowns in his first National Football League season. And Weeden will wind up with about 3,700 yards, probably 16 or 17 touchdowns passes and roughly 20 interceptions in his freshman campaign.

Not bad, you say? Au contraire. 

With any kind of decent coaching, the kind that would have allowed these solid talents to really shine, those numbers almost certainly would have been higher. Shurmur and Childress tried to fit the square peg in the round hole with both of these young men.

Weeden is not a west coast quarterback and has proved it time and again with his troubles in completing the short-range passes so important in that scheme. He’s a spread formation quarterback who is best at airing out the football. We saw evidence of that Sunday on the 69-yard scoring play to Travis Benjamin.

Wonder why Weeden has had so many passes (21) batted down at the line of scrimmage this season? Shurmur’s and Childress’ insistence at relying on short crossing routes. They are timing routes and Weeden has been unable to get that timing down.

“If the defensive linemen aren’t getting to me, they just kind of stand there, watch my eyes and stick their arms up,” Weeden said by way of explanation, then touched on the real reason. “I’m trying to throw over guys three yards down the field and that can be challenging.” Try a pump fake or two.

Better yet, Shurmur and Childress should strongly consider ripping those plays out of the playbook and shred them.

Richardson, meanwhile, is not a running back who can just power his way past a wall of tacklers. He’s fine when the Browns are deep in the red zone and that’s why he has scored so many touchdowns.

But when it comes to punching out the long-yardage runs that were the hallmark of his career at Alabama and the reason the Browns made him the third pick of the draft, Shurmur and Childress failed once again.

The stocky running back has only a dozen runs of 10 or more yards this season and just three have been for 15 yards or more. That’s because the blocking schemes Shurmur and Childress have devised mitigate against what Richardson does best.

He is a cutback runner and the holes for the cutbacks are never there. Or maybe his vision is not what we thought and he doesn’t see the cutback lanes. Either that or the offensive line is a lot worse than we thought.

How many times have we seen Richardson try to run the dive play or wham play and meet a wall of tacklers? Or the stretch play, which the offensive line has trouble executing. Most of his yards this season seem to be gained after contact at the line of scrimmage.

There is precious little sophistication in the running game. Rarely do we see the draw. Or the trap, Not once have we seen my favorite the counter trap and/or counter trey.

And running the ball 15 times in the loss to Washington Sunday is not the recipe for winning football games. I realize the west coast if a pass-first offense, but 15 runs in a game? That’s an invitation to lose.

Hopefully, the club next season brings in a coaching staff that caters to the strengths of these two talents. Otherwise, the first round of the 2012 college player draft will be considered nothing more than just another blown draft opportunity by the Browns.
*          *          *
With only two games left on the schedule, neither of which is winnable, Browns fans once again face the prospect of another double-digit losing season. That makes 11 such campaigns since The Return in 1999, five in a row and nine of the last 10. In fact, the team has experienced just two winning seasons in the last 14.

Only the 10-6 miracle Romeo Crennel rang up in 2007 and the 9-7 Butch Davis compiled in the club’s only playoff year in 2002 stand as something about which Browns fans could be proud. Four- and five-victory seasons have been the norm.

This franchise, which will have a 73-151 record in the last 14 seasons after the losses in Denver and Pittsburgh, has given a whole new meaning to the word pathetic. That’s a winning percentage of .335. Maybe that’s why the fans welcome the new ownership of Jimmy Haslam III.
*          *          *
Richardson took Sunday’s loss a little too hard. “Today, we let ourselves down and we let the whole city of Cleveland down, especially the season-ticket holders” he told reporters following the game. “I feel bad for them and I want to say as a man, I just want to . . . apologize because this was the last home game. . . . It was a big ballgame and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”

The kid, who never had to worry about losing games at Alabama, is being a little too hard on himself. He did, however, go so far as to obliquely blame the coaches for the absence of the running game. “The game plan we had at the beginning of the game, we should have stuck with it,” he said. “But we didn’t. “
*          *          *
Weeden may have also taken an oblique shot at his coaches when discussing how well fellow rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins played for the Redskins. “Coach Shanahan put him in a great spot,” he said, referring to Washington coach Mike Shanahan.

“They tailored what he does well. It seemed like they were doing naked (bootlegs) and play-action passes through the middle. . . . I think Kyle Shanahan (the coach‘s son and Washington’s offensive coordinator) called a great game and tailored what they do very well to the personnel they have.”

Tailored, as in why don’t my coaches tailor our offense to what I do well? He didn’t actually say it, but you don’t have to read between the lines to catch his drift.
*          *          *
Notebook: Shurmur, on whether Weeden will ever become a top-flight quarterback: “I think he’s a rookie and he’ll be much better in his second year.” Fortunately, he won’t be around to witness it. . . . The Browns planned for a massive dose of RG3 Sunday and instead get a massive dose of KC1. Kind of figure the Redskins knew what they were doing when they grabbed Cousins in the fourth round of the draft. . . . The Washington loss showed just how much farther the Browns have to travel to become a winning team. They’ve moved up to competitive status. That last hurdle could prove the toughest. . . . Joshua Cribbs may have played his last game in Cleveland as a member of the Browns. He’s not the same since the kickoff rules were changed. . . . The sooner the Browns get rid of punter Reggie Hodges, the better. They can certainly do better. He was a far better punter a couple of years ago. . . . Up next, Peyton Manning in Denver and a relatively healthy Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, looking to avenge a loss several weeks ago in Cleveland. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Shurmur's slippery slope slipperier

If there was even a scintilla of doubt left remaining as to the job status of Pat Shurmur as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, please be advised the Browns will have a new head coach next season.

The tattered remains of his job were left on the turf at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday disguised as a 38-21 victory for the Washington Redskins, who were led by a rookie quarterback.

And no, that quarterback was not Robert Griffin III, who watched the proceedings unfolding in his warmup gear while fellow rookie Kirk Cousins made Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden seem like a rank amateur by comparison.

One can only imagine how bad the outcome would have been had the spectacular Griffin’s health allowed him to play. As it was, the Browns could not keep up with the Redskins’ speed and quickness.

The victory was so ridiculously easy, it slapped some tarnish on the reputation of Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who has been given large doses of credit for improving the club’s defense the last two seasons.

Sunday, though, the Cleveland defense, after a quick start, looked much more like the defenses of the last dozen or so seasons. After the first four drives, the Redskins compiled three three-and-outs, threw an interception that led to the Browns’ first touchdown and totaled seven yards of offense. Never got beyond their 25.

And then the National Football League said the Skins had to play the rest of the game. Well, OK, they said, if we must.

Bad news for the Browns. Only they didn’t know it at the time.

A 54-yard Cousins scoring connection with Leonard Hankerson got the Skins off the schneid on the first play of the fifth drive, beating the triple coverage of Sheldon Brown and safeties T. J. Ward and Usama Young.

The Browns’ offense, which sputtered all afternoon thanks mostly to the inconsistency of Weeden, produced a 14-10 halftime lead on the first of Trent Richardson’s two short touchdown runs culminating a 75-yard drive.

And then the NFL said the two teams had to play the second half. More bad news for the Browns.

The Redskins, who owned the ball for more than 36 minutes, converted five second-half drives into four touchdowns on a seemingly helpless Cleveland defense.

The Skins gave Cousins some vanilla offense with which to work in the first half, then realized the Browns couldn’t keep up with his speed and quickness and ran off a bunch of misdirection plays. And the Browns bit on just about every one.

Time and again, when he wasn’t handing off to fellow rookie Alfred Morris, Cousins rolled out away from the flow and either hit his receivers with unerring accuracy or tucked the ball and outran Cleveland defenders.

While the Washington coaches made the necessary changes in strategy, the Cleveland coaches came out in the second half with pretty much the same game plan with which they began the game.

Cousins never was bothered in the second half, even when he remained in the pocket. The Cleveland pass rush was non-existent. That’s why he was 26 of 37 for 329 and two touchdowns in his first professional start.

The Browns’ offense, meanwhile, was just that. Extremely offensive. In 13 drives, they were forced to punt six times, surrendered the ball on downs twice and tossed a couple of interceptions, both of which led to touchdowns.

Their longest drive of the afternoon was the nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the second quarter. Nine of those 13 drives lasted four plays or less.

You cannot win games with offensive stats like that unless your defense is picking up the slack. And that defense did the exact opposite against Washington. After the first four drives, it ran up the AWOL flag.

On both of his interceptions, Weeden was late with the throw. His intended receivers were open both times, but for some reason, he held on to the ball instead of just firing it. “He’s very tentative,” Fox Sports game analyst and former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz said of Weeden. “He’s got to turn that ball loose.”

He did turn it loose to Travis Benjamin on a 69-yard scoring play early in the fourth quarter when the rookie wideout beat his man down the right sideline and caught a perfect throw from Weeden. It was the only time he went deep all afternoon.

Which makes one wonder just why Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress are so wedded to the west coast scheme. It is so obvious their rookie quarterback is much more comfortable when called on to air it out.

It’s almost as though Shurmur and Childress tie one arm behind Weeden’s back and expect him to throw what they call. He is being force fed to play quarterback in a manner to which he is unaccustomed even though he’s been doing it since training camp.

It appears at times as though Weeden is trying to be perfect with his throws to the point he doesn’t pull the trigger on time. That, more than anything, can absolutely destroy the timing of the play. And that’s where he gets into trouble the most.

The Redskins have the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. The entire league. There is no solid reason the coaches can give as to why the Browns offense could not exploit it.

And there is no solid reason the coaches can give as to why the Washington offense looked more like the New England Patriots' offense doing what it did with a rookie making his first pro start.

No, this loss, which smashed the Browns’ three-game winning streak to smithereens and snapped them back to reality with a sickening thud, was truly a team loss. Offense, defense, special teams and coaching all had a hand in this one.

By week 14, this is not the direction fans expected to see their team headed. It showed there is still a long way to go. Not as long as a few years ago, but long nevertheless.

The Redskins are not one of the elite teams in the NFL and yet, they clearly were the better team Sunday. When the Browns needed a big play on either side of the ball, it was lacking. The same could not be said about the Redskins.

Just two road games left and neither gives rise to hopes for a six- or seven-victory season. All of which serves to grease the skids for Shurmur and a good portion of his coaching staff on their eventual way out of town.

Suffice it to say, they won’t be missed. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Of course The Third will play

Will he or won’t he play Sunday?

One of his teammates doesn’t think so. His father, however, does.

He thinks he will. So do the Browns, who are preparing to face him in his first visit to Cleveland Browns Stadium.

One way or the other, Robert Griffin III will show up at CBS when his Washington Redskins furnish the opposition. Whether it’s in uniform or street clothes remains to be seen.

The Third, the most talked about rookie quarterback in the National Football League despite the presence and success of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, is nursing a sprained right knee, suffered in the club’s victory over Baltimore last Sunday.

He’s got a couple of important things on his side as he recuperates: youth and the ability to heal quickly. Even though the Redskins have not officially announced it, he’ll play. Officially, they say it’ll be a game-day decision.

Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon said flatly earlier this week that The Third would not play. Robert Griffin II essentially said nonsense, he’s going to play. Does Daddy know something no one else knows?

Washington coach Mike Shanahan has a chance to make the playoffs – the Skins are just a game behind the division-leading New York Giants – and he’s not going to risk putting Kirk Cousins, another rookie, under center against a Cleveland defense that has played well most of the season.

All of which makes The Third’s appearance that much more intriguing. Chances are he will not be as mobile as in the club’s first 13 games. And it’s that mobility that has allowed him to become one of the most dangerous players in the NFL.

He has been directly responsible for 25 of the Skins’ 34 offensive touchdowns, 18 with his arm and seven with his feet. He has compiled 3,650 of the team’s 5,027 yards. That’s 72.6% of the offense. A staggering number, especially for a first-year player.

It’s extremely safe to say that as The Third goes, do so the Redskins, who enter the game 7-6 on the season, splitting their six road adventures.

The fact he is somewhat hobbled, although reports from practice indicate he feels well enough to play, is a bit of a break for the Browns, who do not possess the team speed needed to neutralize him when he is healthy.

But his unerring accuracy – he completes 66.4% of his throws – is what has set him apart from the other rookie quarterbacks. His touchdowns to interceptions ratio, 18-4, gives credence to the notion it didn’t take him long to assimilate to the pros.

But the Redskins are a lot more than The Third. Reminiscent of when he plucked running back Terrell Davis in the sixth round of the NFL college draft in 1995 while running the show in Denver, Shanahan grabbed little known running back Alfred Morris in the sixth round of this year’s draft.

Davis, of course, was the missing piece of the puzzle who helped John Elway win a couple of Super Bowls in Denver. Morris, from little Florida Atlantic, will make the race for rookie of the year interesting. He has rung up 1,235 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in 13 games and more than justified Shanahan’s faith in playing him over some veterans.

When it comes to throwing the ball, The Third shows absolutely no favoritism. Five of his receivers have caught 24 or more passes. But when he looks to the end zone, his favorite target is Santana Moss with seven scores, followed by Garcon’s four.

The former Mount Union Purple Raider has been slowed this season by a torn toe ligament in his right foot, but his appearance on the field seems to be a lucky charm for the team. The Skins are 6-1 when Garcon is in the lineup.

The Redskins are more than just two hotshot rookies on offense. Although they’ve given up the fourth-most points (329) in the NFC, they are an extremely opportunistic bunch, averaging nearly two turnovers a game. Six of their 40 TDs have been delivered by the defense.

They have picked off opposing quarterbacks 15 times, returning three for touchdowns, recovered 10 fumbles and own a turnover ratio of +11. Given his propensity for throwing into coverage, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden had better be extra careful against the Washington secondary.

Most teams nevertheless prefer to pass on that secondary, scoring 27 touchdowns and averaging 289 yards a game. And with the distinct improvement of the Cleveland passing game, that assault figures to continue Sunday.

Running against the Redskins defense will prove more difficult for the Browns, whose ground game has been stuck in neutral for the past few games. Trent Richardson has not shown the burst and quickness he displayed earlier this season, but facing an old Pensacola, Fla., friendly rival in Morris might wake him up.

The Redskins like to funnel the run toward the middle, where linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley have combined for 216 tackles. Outside backers Ryan Kerrigan and Rob Jackson have accounted for 10 of the team’s 23 sacks.

Oddsmakers see this one as the lowest scoring game in the league this week, setting 37 as the over/under. That’s not the way it’ll go.

The Third makes his CBS debut a smashing success with three scores, two through the air to Garcon and Josh Morgan. Weeden matches him with three passing TDs, but Morris is the difference maker with another 100-yard game and two touchdowns while Richardson struggles.

The teams will pass the 37 points by halftime en route to the highest scoring game of the season as the Redskins bring the Browns’ three-game winning streak crashing down. Make it:

Redskins 42, Browns 27