Thursday, August 30, 2012

Roger is wrong

Roger Goodell is one stubborn son of a gun.

Normally, commissioners or presidents of their respective professional sports league are required to do what is in the best interests of their sport. Right?

In Goodell’s case regarding the lockout of the National Football League’s officials, wrong. Very wrong.

What’s even worse is Commissar Goodell has clamped down on any form of criticism from the owners on down to the water boys. Criticize the scab officials and you can expect reprimands, monetary and otherwise.

Even Dallas Cowboys dictator Jerry Jones, who has been more than generous with his contributions to the NFL coffers with his criticisms through the years, has been suspiciously silent.

What in the world ever happened to free speech? What in the world ever happened to freedom of expression, no matter how damning it might be?

Throughout the exhibition season, we have seen veiled references to the awful and sometimes embarrassing officiating by those poor guys who have been thrust into an untenable situation.

And, barring any last-minute labor deal between the league and its officials, fans will be forced to watch at least one week of the regular season with these relatively incompetent men (and maybe one woman) at work.

Goodell and his lackeys in the league office say they do not anticipate any problems with the scabs as they try to strong-arm the regular officials into accepting a new Collective Bargaining Agreement on their terms. They’re dreaming.

Now that we are on the precipice of the regular season, it’s time the owners, their general managers, coaches and players step up and say, “Roger, this is stupid. Enough of this nonsense. We need the regular officials back. Now.

“Are you willing to risk the health and welfare of players with these replacement officials? Guys who are clearly overwhelmed by what it takes to become at least a decent NFL official?”

Goodell thinks nothing about the league and NFL Players Association negotiating a labor contract in the billions of dollars. But when it comes to a CBA with the officials that will be in the millions of dollars, and the low millions at that, he toes the line.

In what way is that in the best interests of the league? Definitive answer? No way. The man has taken leave of his senses.

Right now, it appears the earliest we will see the regular officials is week two. Hopefully, no one will be seriously hurt as a result of poor officiating.

If the scabs thought they had it rough during the exhibition season, wait until the speed and quickness of the game climbs several notches when the games become more meaningful. Their inexperience with the pace of the game will be severely tested.

Coaches and players no doubt have been put on notice that they are to continue keeping their opinions to themselves. It’ll be interesting to see how the players react once the games begin and the emotions kick in.

What the league fails to realize is that the schedule calls for 16 games per team during the regular season, and because there are so few games, each one takes on a larger degree of importance.

It’s not like a 162-game Major League Baseball schedule or the 80-some games the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association play when teams can coast at times during the season.

All 16 NFL games are precious except, it seems, in the eyes of the stubborn commissioner who is messing with the integrity of the schedule.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Puzzling and baffling

Well, that didn’t take very long.

Pat Shurmur has declared that Brandon Weeden is ready to start the 2012 season and will not play in Thursday night’s final exhibition game against the Chicago Bears in Cleveland.

How ready? “I think he’s very prepared,” said the Browns head coach of his rookie quarterback . “I think he’s had an outstanding (training) camp. I thought he had an outstanding offseason and really he’s kind of improved every day. So for a guy that’s going through that for the first time as a pro, I think he’s ready.”

Outstanding training camp? In what way? Outstanding offseason? Really? Completing less than 50% of his passes is outstanding? No touchdown passes outstanding? Is he serious? Three fumbles and four sacks in three games are outstanding? C’mon.

Weeden is ready, all right. He’s ready to be led to the slaughter, figuratively speaking. He’s not anywhere close to being ready for the regular season.

For Shurmur to blow that kind of smoke at Browns fans is somewhat insulting. I’d like to think the pure football fans of this team, not the sycophants who will believe anything the coach says, those who understand the game know Weeden is ill prepared for what awaits.

Colt McCoy will start and play the better part of the first half against the Bears with Seneca Wallace and Thad Lewis dividing the remainder of the game.

The big news here is whether McCoy or Wallace will back up Weeden. McCoy has played very well thus far in the exhibitions and Shurmur has been effusive in his praise for the third-year pro.

If the Browns are intent on moving McCoy, Thursday night’s game against the Bears will serve as a showcase for other teams looking for help at the position. Then again, if McCoy continues to play well, the Browns might decide to keep him no matter how well Wallace plays.

It’s an interesting situation that probably causes McCoy to wonder what he has to do to get away from Cleveland because he knows Weeden is the man and holding a clipboard is in his immediate future.

Weeden, on the other hand, must feel awfully good when he hears his head coach speak in such glowing terms about him. The danger there, however, is all that praise does is give him a false sense of security.

Now I think Weeden should be the club’s starting quarterback. But by limiting his reps in the practice games, Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress have done him a disservice.

When Weeden lines up under center against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 9 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the speed and quickness of the game he sees will be nowhere near what he saw in the exhibitions.

The game will speed up in his mind so quickly, he will be overwhelmed unless, of course, I have seriously misjudged him and Shurmur and Childress prove to be correct in their assessment.

Word is Shurmur is making this decision because he intends to give the offensive line the night off and doesn’t want Weeden working with the second unit.

However, that starting unit has performed rather poorly thus far and needs the work. And it is getting the night off as a reward.

Some coaching decisions puzzle. This one totally baffles.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Give Weeden a chance

If he’s smart – and the jury is still out on that – Pat Shurmur will give Brandon Weeden plenty of reps in Thursday night’s exhibition finale against the Chicago Bears.

Yes, I know the final exhibition means play your starters for a series, maybe two, then allow them to watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. Something about saving them for the regular season and not leaving them open to injuries.

That, of course, is negative thinking, something with which I am somewhat familiar. But I’m not a football coach. And I don’t play one on the Internet.

But if Weeden does not play at least one half of the Bears exhibition, he will be woefully unprepared for the regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles Sept. 9 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Unless Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress have been keeping their money-counts offense under wraps for strategic reasons, their rookie quarterback will unfairly get the rudest of welcomes to the National Football League.

Weeden, who has yet to take a snap in the second half of a game, has learned next to nothing during the exhibition season other than realizing ball security is paramount if you have the remotest chance of winning a game.

He needs as much work as he can get before the games become meaningful. And his exhibition statistics back up that notion. Let’s take a look.

In the first three exhibitions, Weeden has thrown 49 passes and completed 24 for 297 yards, one interception and no touchdowns. In 17 series (one of them just one play), he has produced just one touchdown (on the ground) and five field goals. He has been sacked four times in six quarters and fumbled three times, losing two.

Not exactly the kind of stats you’d want your quarterback to have entering the regular season. If he was a veteran with those numbers, no problem. But he’s a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who has no idea what awaits beginning with the Eagles.

He might think he’s ready. And Shurmur might think he’s ready. He’s not even close,  and failing to give him significant reps against the Bears will be more detrimental than helpful.

With few exceptions, the coaching staff has tied Weeden’s hands. Rarely does he throw the long ball. What’s wrong with stretching the field to loosen up opposing defenses? Could it be the coaches have deemed the offensive starters not ready, thus dumbing down the attack?

Right now, those starters are playing embarrassingly bad football. Sort of like what we’ve witnessed the last four years of Browns football on that side of the ball during the regular season. Very offensive.

Perhaps Shurmur and Childress are being extra cautious because Weeden is a rookie. If that’s the case, then sit him down and let Colt McCoy start. Handling Weeden with kid gloves is not the right way.

He needs to be thrown into the fire with as much ammunition as the coaches can provide. Let him make mistakes. As long as they are mistakes of aggression, that’s OK. But mistakes due to timid coaching are inexcusable.

Not to worry, though. Shurmur and Childress can be counted on play it vest-close against the Bears. Same old, same old.

Only the faces change.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Message received?

Andy Reid sent his buddy Part Shurmur a message Friday night at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Basically, the Philadelphia coach told the Cleveland coach that the Eagles’ manhandling of the Browns in the third exhibition game of the season was nothing compared to what it’s going to be like on Sept. 9 at the same venue.

That’s when the two clubs open the regular season and Reid’s Eagles will be faster, quicker and much nastier when the games become meaningful.

The Browns played more like a team looking for a personality against the much more experienced Eagles in the 27-10 loss. The Eagles found their personality under Reid a long time ago.

Shurmur, who served as an assistant with the Eagles several years ago, didn’t even come close to preparing his men properly for this one. Philadelphia was at least a step and a half ahead of Cleveland all evening.

How else can you account for three fumbles, a couple of interceptions, a blocked punt and a rash of penalties? Does that sound like a prepared team?

Yes, I know it was just an exhibition game. But at least play some representative football. Look like a football team. Do the things you plan on doing during the regular season.

Like tackle. Like run good pass routes. Like play smart football. And that’s just the beginning.

Is that asking too much? With this team, maybe it is. The word “discipline” does not appear in this team’s vocabulary. Yet.

Another fumble by Brandon Weeden. Another fumble by Montario Hardesty, who claim he hasn’t fumbled since high school. Another strip sack of Weeden, courtesy of a porous offensive line.

“We turned the ball over,” said Captain Obvious Shurmur after the game. “We gave up big plays. We did find a way to drive the ball, but you can’t turn it over.”

No kidding.

“All of the things that you can’t do we found a way to do,” he lamented. “It’s not good enough.”

Here it is the end of the exhibition season and Shurmur is already beginning to sound like Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel.

Asked whether he was concerned about his team, he said, “Hold the concern and worry questions. I’m not disappointed or concerned. We’re going to get it fixed (very Mangini and Crennel). We can beat anybody, but we don’t play well, we can get beat by anybody.”

Quite profound.

The Browns can ill afford to gift opponents as they did the Eagles. They cannot make even the slightest mistake because they’re not good enough to recover from them.

For example, marching down to the Eagles’ 2-yard- line in the first quarter, only to commit a holding penalty (yeah you, Jason Pinkston) on first-and-goal and then give up a strip sack of Weeden (yeah you again, Jason Pinskton).

Granted the defense worked with short fields on the first two Philly TDs, but red-zone defense was one of their strengths last season. They also made Eagles rookie quarterback Nick Foles look like a seasoned veteran.

Weeden, still looking for his first touchdown pass, is playing with shackles, throwing downfield just twice. He hit Josh Gordon on the game’s opening play and overthrew Travis Benjamin late in the second quarter.

What are Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress waiting for? Time to loosen up opposing defenses. If it was Shurmur’s intention to play vanilla football against the Eagles because the two teams meet again in two weeks, it worked.

The result was a hammering, a beatdown that sent the aforementioned message. If you think this was bad, wait until Sept. 9 when we take the speed and quickness and nastiness up a few more notches.

I wonder what the Browns will bring to that game. Based on what we saw this time around, it can’t be anything worse.

It might be not be a bad idea to watch tapes of this drubbing and concentrate on the Eagles to learn the proper way to rush the passer, protect the quarterback and develop a mean streak.

Couldn’t hurt.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pressure cooker

It appears as though the pressures of the Browns’ training camp are getting to an unsuspecting victim.

During a 7-on-7 drill in Wednesday’s practice, quarterback Brandon Weeden connected on a long pass with wide receiver Travis Benjamin, who was dragged down from behind by cornerback Joe Haden.

Haden reached between the 8 and zero on the back of Benjamin’s uniform and yanked him down. The rookie wideout, who missed the second exhibition game with an undisclosed injury, bounced right back up and jogged to the huddle. End of story, right? Uh, no.

Coach Pat Shurmur immediately scolded Haden on what he probably considered a rough tackle and the two exchanged unpleasantries within hearing distance of the crowd on the last day of open practice to the public. The coach then dismissed the Haden for the rest of the practice.

It was not a horse-collar tackle, which would have drawn a flag in a game. It was a clean play that resulted in no harm and Shurmur clearly overreacted when he saw Benjamin, who missed the second exhibition game with an undisclosed injury, go down that way.

It’s one thing to be protective of a player coming back from injury. It’s quite another to engage in disharmony with one of your best players in front of the fans.

Following the practice. Shurmur refused to discuss the contretemps. ESPN Cleveland reporter Tony Grossi reported the coach got testy when the subject was broached.

“I’m not going to talk about it,” Shurmur said when asked what had happened “That’s between me and the player. I have a great deal of respect for Joe. If you want details, you’re going to have to find it on Twitter.”

Flippant remarks like do not sit well with the media, let alone the media’s constituents, the fans.

“My only apology is that I used bad language, and the fans were here to see it,” Shurmur said. “Joe’s a great competitor and I appreciate what he does and who he is and that’s the last you’ll hear me talk about it.”

A follow-up question was met with a brusque response. “Don’t ask,” the coach warned. “Don’t ask . . . You’ll have to go somewhere else to find out.”

The team, not surprisingly, shut off all communication with Haden, denying any and all media requests. 

Fact is Shurmur lost control. It’s one thing for players to lose it in practice – fights are fairly commonplace during training camp – and quite another for someone on the coaching staff to lose it, let alone the head coach.

Haden returned to the field for the afternoon walk-through session. Shurmur later said that “Joe and I talked and everything’s fine. It’s a dead issue.”

It might be a dead issue in Shurmur’s mind, and maybe Haden’s, but you can bet it got the attention of the other members of the team. They saw their head coach lose it. One veteran, however, said he understood Shurmur’s reaction and blamed Haden.

 “It was a mistake (Haden) did, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” tight end Ben Watson told reporters. “You want everybody healthy for the season. You don’t want things like that to happen.”

Of course not, but you also don’t want to see your head coach totally overreact, especially after watching Benjamin bounce back obviously unhurt.

A quiet private talk with Haden following the practice would have been a much better way to handle the situation instead of embarrassing one of the team’s best players in front of the fans and his teammates.

Often times, common sense trumps emotional reactions. This should have been one of those times.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A second dress rehearsal
OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight.

The Browns, at least according to coach Pat Shurmur, played their dress-rehearsal game last Thursday in Green Bay against the Packers.

So far, so good.

This Friday night at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Browns welcome the Philadelphia Eagles in their third exhibition game of the season.


Eagles coach Andy Reid, however, says that since it’s his club’s third exhibition, he’s going to play his regulars for at least a half because it’s their dress-rehearsal game.

Shurmur originally indicated game two in Green Bay was the dress rehearsal for the regular season because the Browns and Eagles open the regular season just 16 days after meeting in Friday’s exhibition.

Now comes word from Berea that Shurmur has rethought the situation and Cleveland’s ones most likely will play as long as the Eagles’ starters.

Reid has put his former assistant coach on the spot, but he can’t worry about that. He wants to get his men ready for the regular season and this just happens to be the third exhibition game. Call it inconvenient scheduling.

Question is how vanilla will the calls be for the Browns in this one on both sides of the ball? In the first two exhibitions, Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress played the conservative card. Heavily. 

There is every reason to believe the Browns will stress fundamentals in this one and exercise extreme caution. On offense, we most likely will see a lot more off tackle runs and short passes. On defense, mostly straight up. Nothing fancy. Don’t want to give away too much.

The Browns have more to lose by opening up the playbooks on offense and defense since their talent level is nowhere near that of the more explosive Eagles, who probably will be much more daring.

So Shurmur’s plan of just one dress rehearsal has now morphed into a couple. And that’s not a bad thing. The more reps the starters get between now and the season opener, the better. This is a young offense that needs all the work it can get.

So it very well could turn out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the Browns if Reid plays his strong hand. Considering Brandon Weeden has yet to throw his first touchdown pass – and his receivers haven’t exactly been scintillating in running their routes – this extra work cannot hurt.

But there is one certainty that will emerge from Friday night’s meeting. The Eagles’ defense Weeden sees in no way will bear any resemblance to the one he sees on Sept. 9 at CBS.  That’s when the tempo of the game changes radically. The speed and quickness of the game shift dramatically when the meaningful games begin. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Weeden metamorphosis
It has become more than obvious that Browns coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress are determined to turn Brandon Weeden into a pro-set quarterback.

In the Browns’ 35-10 victory over Green Bay Thursday night, the rookie quarterback took 39 snaps in what Shurmur labeled the dress rehearsal for the regular season. An incredible 31 of those snaps, or roughly 80%, saw Weeden under center Alex Mack.

Why is that so incredible? And what’s the big deal?

Before taking his first snap under center during OTAs this past spring, Weeden was a shotgun quarterback. Lining up seven yards behind the center and latching on to a sailing snap was his comfort level. That’s all he knew.

At Oklahoma State University and at Santa Fe High School in Edmond, Okla., the ball slapping against his hands on a direct snap from the center was foreign to him. His view of opposing defenses was anything but up close and personal.

All that is changing now with the Browns. We are witnessing a transformation, a reinvention, so to speak.

Weeden is used to that. The reason he became the 22nd pick in the first round of last April’s college football draft was because he reinvented himself as a football player after a failed pro baseball career.

And if anyone can make the switch with seamless ease, it’s Weeden. Watching him make his three-, five- and seven-step drops against the Packers in effortless fashion, one would guess he’s been doing it his whole career at all levels.

It’s much easier taking a shotgun snap and surveying the field. More time for the receivers to get open, more time for the offensive line to pass protect, more time to be successful.

And yet, there was the force-fed Weeden making plays from the pro set. Not once did he stumble back after taking the snap from Mack. Not once did his feet become entangled as he set up to throw. He made no apparent mistakes.

He threw no interceptions, even though one should have been picked off, and was not sacked, although Packers cornerback Brandian Ross nailed him hard in the ribs late in the first half a split second after releasing a pass.

He completed 12 of his 20 passes (would have been 14 if not for two drops) for 118 yards on five drives, not including the first drive when Montario Hardesty fumbled away the ball on the first play of the game, and the last drive with just seconds remaining in the first half.

Of the eight shotgun snaps, all were passes. That’s got to change. Otherwise, it becomes predictable. Some run plays need to be used from the formation.

Five shotgun passes were on third down with three completions, none resulting in a first down. Half of the eight shotgun snaps occurred late in the half when the Browns ran the two-minute drill.

Other than that, Weeden looked extremely comfortable. That’s because he’s a good athlete who seems to have very good pocket awareness, something you can’t teach.

Whether or not it was by design, he rarely threw downfield. Stretching the field was not in this game plan. He’s got a strong arm. Use it. Keep opposing defenses honest. That might not happen, though, with a play-calling head coach who leans toward the conservative side.
*       *       *
Much like last season, the Browns are relying too much on the field goal. The offense scored just two touchdowns against the Packers. That’s not enough. If that trend continues, we could see a replication of last season when the club averaged just 13.6 points a game.

When Phil Dawson is your best offensive threat, you’re in trouble, although you can’t quarrel with field goals of 53, 47 and 52 yards. His 56-yard attempt sailed wide in the closing seconds of the first half. The guy’s not Superman.

Still, Shurmur and Childress have to be able to give the offense a better chance to put points on the board while Dawson watches from the sidelines. The veteran placekicker would like nothing better than to add to his extra-point total.
*       *       *
If Colt McCoy was trying to impress scouts from other National Football League teams in his brief stint against the Packers, he succeeded. The kid from Texas maximized his one-series appearance, taking seven minutes and 22 seconds off the clock with a near-flawless 14-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter. He was 4-of-6 passing, including strikes of 19 yards to Josh Gordon and 21 yards to Dan Gronkowski.

That has to impress Shurmur and his staff. Question is whether the Browns hope to use that showing as a springboard for a trade, or will it convince them that holding on to McCoy is the road better traveled.

The way Packers backup quarterback Graham Harrell played against the Browns, it wouldn’t be surprising if Green Bay is thinking about knocking on the Browns’ door. Or maybe the Arizona Cardinals, who have experienced quarterback problems.
*       *       *
It’s nice to see the defense show up against the Packers, although their regulars played just three series. Still, you can’t quarrel with four turnovers, one pick six and a run defense that limited Green Bay to a paltry 69 yards. Subtract Aaron Rodgers’ 24 yards on a couple of scrambles and the Packers compiled just 45 yards on 16 carries. And that was with veterans Ahtyba Rubin and D’Qwell Jackson on the sidelines.
*       *       *
Other observations: The defense was unusually active pre-snap against the Packers, giving Rodgers and Harrell many different looks. . . . Hardesty redeemed himself nicely after the opening-play fumble with some hard running. If he can stay healthy, and that’s a huge if, the Browns are in good shape at running back. . . . That’s two weeks in a row now that safety David Sims has made a spectacular interception. His 38-yard pick six early in the third quarter gave the Browns a 23-7 lead. . . . Fellow defensive back Trevin Wade had another strong game. The rookie is not afraid to stick his nose in there on run support. . . . Browns offensive tackle Oneil Cousins should be ex-Browns offensive tackle Oneil Cousins after his performance on special teams. He racked up 25 of the Browns’ 67 penalty yards, once on a hold and the other a facemask. Both were on placements. . . . Unless the Browns are willing to overpay his salary for his special teams contribution as a gunner, it’s hard to see Joshua Cribbs sticking around. Based on early returns, Cribbs is no longer a threat on punt and kickoff returns. And it’s already a foregone conclusion by most fans that he is not a reliable wide receiver.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Flawed thinking
So the Browns, really coach Pat Shurmur, have decided that Thursday night’s exhibition game in Green Bay, their second practice game of the season, will serve as the club’s dress rehearsal for the regular season.

Generally, the third game of the exhibition season is considered the dress rehearsal with the starters playing at least one half and sometimes the first series of the second half.

But since the Browns’ third exhibition opponent is the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom they open the regular season on Sept. 9, that game will be handled personnel-wise like the fourth game. In other words, starters play one of two series and then sit.

Which makes one wonder just how the coaching staff will handle the final exhibition against the Chicago Bears. It makes that one that much more intriguing.

So let’s recap. The dress rehearsal has been moved up to exhibition game No. 2 for the starters with just three series (14 snaps) under their belts. And that’ll pretty much be it until the season opener against the Eagles.

All of which means the starters will not see significant game action between Aug. 16 (this Thursday) and Sept. 9. That’s 24 days between meaningful snaps for the starters.

Is that any way to begin a season, especially one filled with such hope now that the club has been sold and there’s new blood flowing in Berea?

Who’s in charge here? How in the world did this happen? And what difference does it make when the so-called dress rehearsal game is played?

Is Mike Holmgren on vacation? Where does he stand on this matter? His silence is deafening. Does he agree with this move? As a former coach, he knows the importance of being ready for the regular season. He knows 24 days is too long to keep an offense under wraps.

In this case, it makes much more sense to schedule the dress rehearsal gig for the fourth game against the Bears on Sept. 1, eight full days before the season opener. That way, there can be no doubt the team will be as ready as it can be.

As it stands now, if Shurmur and his staff stubbornly refuse to budge from their stance, the Browns will enter the season as the most unprepared team in the National Football League. The rigid approach most likely will burn them.

A rookie quarterback learning a new system and working from a position (under center) that is foreign to him with limited snaps is not the prescription you want to enter a season. Brandon Weeden needs to get plenty of reps before the speed and quickness of the game ramp up. He won’t get them this way.

Again, if Shurmur does not change his strategy, he will be doing his offense a huge disservice. At the risk of being repetitive, offense is all about rhythm and timing, and the only way to hone that is by getting as many reps as possible.

Where is the common sense here? Just because it says the dress rehearsal must be the third game (of the four exhibitions played) doesn’t mean it has to be moved up rather than moved back.

Does Shurmur really want to send Weeden and his offense onto the field against the Eagles on Sept. 9 with just a handful of exhibition snaps? And 24 days between meaningful football?

Apparently he does. That kind of thinking brings back memories of Romeo Crennel.

‘Nuf said.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A decent start
Observations while watching the Browns get off to a good start (at least on the scoreboard) in exhibition season . . .

First of all, notice I call these practice games exhibitions, not preseason games even though they are games played before the regular season, which technically makes them preseason.

For some reason, the haughty National Football League does not like to use the term “exhibition” when labeling these meaningless games. And yet, that’s exactly what they are: exhibitions.

Maybe the league feels guilty for charging regular-season ticket prices for these outings and by calling them preseason games, it takes the sting out of charging so flagrantly.

Now then, the 19-17 exhibition victory Friday night in Detroit.
*       *       *
Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress did not see enough of Brandon Weeden and the first-string offense to come away with a definitive judgment. That unit should have played more than the first three series. Much more.

Granted it was just the first exhibition of the season, but there are only four of these games and the final one, for some stupid reason, has become a platform to configure the bottom part of the roster. In that final game, most coaches rest the regulars for fear of exposing them to injuries.

That, of course, is nonsensical since football is a collision sport rife with injuries. And for that reason, that game becomes a momentum killer for the starters, especially for young teams like the Browns.

It’s not like these Browns are seasoned veterans and don’t need much work to get ready. This is a virtually remade offense that needs all the work it can get to be sure the timing is ready in time for the season opener.

Weeden, his receivers and his offensive line need to get in more than three series (14 snaps) if they want to be ready to roll when the games begin to take on meaning. And playing just a relative handful of plays is not going to accomplish that goal.

With a young offense, the more plays you can run, the better chance that offense has of cutting down on mistakes. It’s not like Weeden needs just a couple of series to get used to the banging again.

The mistake most coaches make with rookies, especially those ticketed to start right away, is not giving them enough reps to hone their craft. Let them make their mistakes and then learn from them. The more reps, the more mistakes and more chances to correct those mistakes.

Look for that group to play most of the first half of Thursday’s exhibition in Green Bay and then play into the third quarter of the exhibition against Philadelphia on Aug. 24 in Cleveland, the so-called dress rehearsal for the regular season. And that poses another dilemma.

The Browns open the season at home Sept. 9 against the Eagles, roughly two weeks after the exhibition against them on the same field. How buttoned down will the Cleveland offense be in that exhibition as a result? How can Weeden & Co. make any progress that way in that dress rehearsal?

Weeden and his men must get as many reps as possible before the season opener. They need to be sharp. They won’t be if they watch a majority of the exhibition season from the bench.

Unless Shurmur and Childress wise up and force-feed this offense in the next three exhibitions, the Eagles will find their season opener much easier than anticipated.
*       *       *
Unless the Browns increase their team speed on both sides of the ball, this is going to be another long season. With the exception of rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin, there is no appreciable speed on offense.

And the defense seemed a step slow against Detroit. The Lions’ running game piled up nearly 200 yards against the young Cleveland front seven. Sure veterans Ahtyba Rubin and D’Qwell Jackson didn’t play, but it was alarming to watch the Lions open up significant holes.

OK, it was just the first exhibitions and the players were getting their game legs. So were the Lions, though, and they didn’t seem to have much trouble with the Cleveland defense.

Weeden, on the other hand, had what can charitably be called an uneven game. He showed surprising dexterity running the offense from under center, something he has done little of in his football career. He’s an athlete and it showed.

His three- and five-step drops were flawless and he made quick decisions, a few of which were incorrect. For someone who played in the spread his entire college career, he also showed dexterity in the play-action fake while operating under center.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Childress incorporates seven-step drops into Weeden’s repertoire. When Trent Richardson returns and the running game takes shape, the rookie quarterback’s play-faking ability should come in handy and be effective.

Weeden seems smart enough where he can correct his errors before others surface. That’s how you learn to play quarterback in the NFL.
*       *       *
Other observations: As long as the coaches keep Benjamin away from the middle of the field, he should be all right. The slight wideout also showed nice hands on his two receptions. . . . Weeden, at times, made the rookie mistake of locking onto his primary target. It resulted in his interception. He has to look off his primary. He would have had two picks had Dwight Bentley not dropped an earlier one. . . . Before he left with a back injury, second-year tight end Jordan Cameron impressed with two nice catches. . . . Rookie offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz will not forget his opening series as a pro. He was flagged for a false start on a third and 10 at the Detroit 23, then gave up a strip sack to Detroit defensive end Willie Young that resulted in a turnover. . . . Mo Massaquoi should retire before he is seriously injured. The veteran wideout, who has had two concussions the last two seasons, caught the first pass of Weeden’s pro career on the Browns’ first offensive play of the evening, then left the game with another concussion. . . . Good sign: Safety T.J. Ward is back healthy and starting to hit people. . . . Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade replaced the injured Dimitri Patterson and did not play like a rookie, showing the willingness to stick his head in there on run support and making nice plays in the passing game. . . . Punter Reggie Hodges, back after missing the 2011 season, appeared in mid-season form, dropping a couple of punts inside the 10-yard line. . . . Nice pick by veteran corner Sheldon Brown in the first quarter off Matthew Stafford. . . . And a great pick by David Sims in the final seconds to seal the victory. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Nothing more than a blip?
Well that was quick.

Just when Browns fans were in a can’t-wait-for-the-exhibition-season-to-begin mode, bad news hits them like a sledgehammer.

The Browns announced Tuesday that rookie running back Trent Richardson’s left knee is sore and he might miss Friday night’s exhibition opener in Detroit against the Lions.

Great. The club’s top draft choice and the guy many expect to be a major factor in the club’s offensive comeback this season lands on the injury chart.

This might be nothing more than an overreaction, but for once, I’d like to see this team experience some good luck. Why couldn’t a third-string defensive back go down? Or someone who has as much chance of making the club as you and I.

Why the biggest name, the guy who has a chance to become the face of the franchise? The one player who can really make a difference.

On the brighter side, perhaps this might be nothing more than a cautionary move. Let’s err on the side of being certain it’s nothing more than soreness related to his arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus six months ago.

A pessimist might think this is just the beginning, the tip of the injury iceberg for Richardson. Next up will be the meniscus on his other knee. Then an ACL or MCL or both. Look what happened to Montario Hardesty.

An optimist would think it’s better to make certain Richardson is perfectly healthy for the season opener rather than risk further injury during the exhibition season.

When it comes to a player like Richardson, who arrives in the National Football League with more fanfare than any running back since Adrian Peterson, fans almost froth at what he could accomplish if he stays healthy.

Running backs take more pounding than any other player on offense. It’s not unreasonable for the Browns to make certain he is as close to 100% as possible for the 16-game grind.

For a player who has the reputation of being a terrific runner, above-average receiver out of the backfield and a devastating blocker, he needs to be on the field for every one of those games.

Yes, I know other clubs suffer as a result of injuries to key players. It just seems as though it happens more to the Browns than other clubs. Some fans will lament that someone up there doesn’t like their favorite football team.

Hopefully, it’s nothing more than scar-tissue adhesions providing the soreness and Richardson will be ready to strut before the schedule for games that mean nothing ends.

It looks as though the fans will have to wait a little longer to see the kid. Which, when you stop and think about it, might not be so bad. Good things await those who wait. And what Richardson can deliver is one of those good things definitely worth waiting for.

As long as nothing more serious happens to the rookie between now and the Sept. 9 season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns Stadium, this latest little blip on the radar will be just that – a little blip.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Of course it's Weeden
Brandon Weeden named starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.

Shocking. Absolutely shocking.

What in the world is Pat Shurmur thinking? Has he lost his senses? Has he no respect for Colt McCoy? Or Seneca Wallace?

Naming a rookie who has never taken a snap as a professional as the starting quarterback even before he takes his first snap as a professional? Unheard of. Blasphemous.

OK, enough with the sarcasm. Time to get serious.

Speaking of getting serious, what took Shurmur so long to do what many of us expected him to do the day after Weeden was drafted? What in the world was he waiting for?

Did he expect McCoy to develop arm strength? Or Wallace to gain three inches in height?

Any way you cut it, this is the correct decision. Shurmur’s job depends on how well Weeden and his young offense performs this season. In many ways, Weeden is Shurmur’s lifeline.

It’s incumbent on the head coach and offensive coordinator Brad Childress to shepherd the 28-year-old rookie through the third-toughest schedule in the National Football League.

It won’t be easy. There will be numerous rough spots along the 16-game schedule. The highs will be inordinately high and the lows will be depressingly low. That’s to be expected, even anticipated.

Naming Weeden the starter now removes any and all doubts that might have existed in the locker room. Everyone now knows who the boss of the huddle will be. They know their fortunes ride on his strong arm.

Offense is all about finesse and rhythm, especially in the passing game. The more Weeden and his offensive line and receivers work together in practice, the sharper they should be in games. Precise timing is essential.

So all the pressure is off now. Or is it?

Up until now, who would start at quarterback was a guessing game, although it had to be in the back of Weeden’s mind he’d be named the starter. If anything, his confidence level has risen with each practice.

The question is how will McCoy handle being Weeden’s caddy? He had to know the deck was stacked against him. He has acted in a professional manner in training camp, saying all the right things. But one has to wonder how much longer he’ll be satisfied to play that role.

Wallace is an entirely different matter. He says he would be upset if he was the No. 3 quarterback on the roster. Fact is he’s just hanging on and is happy to be on an NFL roster.

The way McCoy is throwing in camp, not many tears would be shed if Wallace wound up in another uniform this season. Add to that McCoy’s friendly contract and perhaps that’s the road the Browns should travel.

I’d much rather have McCoy come off the bench than Wallace in the event of an injury or a blowout.

But for right now, Weeden is the man. He’s the quarterback of the present and future. And that’s the way it should be.

Maybe, just maybe, he’ll perform as well as another 28-year-old rookie in the NFL a long time ago. That’s how old Roger Staubach was when he took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1970. And we all know where his bust resides.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The prescient GM
Tom Heckert Jr. must have suspected something when he selected a couple of linebackers in last April’s college football draft.

The Browns’ general manager knew he was going to lose Scott Fujita for three games at the beginning of the season due to the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. But he never would have guessed what happened to Chris Gocong the other day.

When the veteran outside linebacker’s right Achilles’ tendon ruptured in a non-contact play Saturday and short-circuited his 2012 season, the Browns’ least talented position was dealt a severe blow.

The Browns have veteran depth at just about every other position on the team. Linebacker was where they could least afford an injury.

But that’s where Heckert’s prescient ways come into play. Who knew when he drafted James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho that those two would play a vital role this season?

Heckert apparently did.

Gocong’s unfortunate injury could very well pay off for the two rookie linebackers, who put up significant numbers in college. Whether that translates well to the National Football League is, of course, an entirely different matter.

But if there’s one position on the team that college players have an easier time assimilating to in the pro ranks, it’s linebacker. Especially if that’s a position they’ve played on a full-time basis.

Johnson, a tackling machine at the University of Nevada, comes in with a reputation as a ball magnet. Some say the ball finds him, but more likely he finds the ball. He always seemed to be around the ball at Nevada.

And if Acho can duplicate the accomplishments of older brother Sam, who emerged as a starting linebacker as a rookie last season with the Arizona Cardinals, he could be something special. He’s lighter (240 pounds to Sam’s 260), but owns the same football instincts.

Right now, Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is relying on Kaluka Maiava to fill the hole created by Gocong’s injury. But Maiava’s size is a mitigating factor. He’s not big enough (5-11, 230) or strong enough to help the run game, which needs all the help it can get.

His work ethic cannot be questioned. But the results fall far short of expectations and that’s where Jauron has to decide if gambling on a couple of rookies is the way to go.

If that proves too much of a gamble for Heckert, the only other route to travel is the waiver wire, where the pickings are thin. Veterans Stephen Cooper, Kevin Bentley, Gary Hackett, E. J, Henderson, Ernie Sims Jr. and Matt Roth are out there. But those street free agents arrive with some sort of baggage.

The best of the lot might be Roth, who logged a productive season and a half with the Browns before opting to jump to Jacksonville last season. The outside linebacker preferred to play in the Jaguars’ 3-4 scheme after the Browns converted to a 4-3. Then the Jags released him after switching to the 4-3.

No one has expressed interest in him so far and you have to wonder if he’ll acquiesce and play OLB for a 4-3 team. At 6-4, 275, he could be valuable in the run defense.

Cooper might be the next best bet if he has recovered from injuries that virtually wiped out his 2011 season. He’s 33 years old now and that could be a negative factor, but he’s smart enough to hold down one of the outside positions until next season, when Gocong will return.

Heckert no doubt is scrambling to shore up the linebacker roster. Excluding Fujita, Maiava and veteran D’Qwell Jackson, Quinton Spears is the only backup on the roster with more than one NFL season. He has two as a reserve.

Panic time? Not really. With an offense expected to far exceed the accomplishments of last season’s team, Heckert knows that the defense, while it might not exceed the achievements of last season, won’t be in as much trouble so long as the offense can score.

Nevertheless, the GM won’t stop trying to strengthen that vital area. But you can bet it’ll be high on his priority list for next year’s draft. Provided he’s still here with the new ownership.

Had to put in that caveat because in the business world, you never know what’s going to happen with a new ownership.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A good beginning
After watching the new owner of the Browns in action Friday, one adjective immediately leaps to mind.


After his roughly 25-minute debut news conference with the Cleveland media, one gets the feeling Jimmy Haslam III is the kind of owner fans of this team have hungered for the last 13 years.

Displaying a supremely confident air, Haslam fielded questions like someone who has no problem addressing a large group. He was relaxed, friendly and extremely poised.

If first impressions mean anything, Browns fans around the globe are in for a screeching turnaround in the fortunes of this formerly dysfunctional team. Unless he’s a con man, Haslam appears to be everything Randy Lerner is not.

That’s not intended to be mean, although one can understand it might be taken that way. Lerner was a reluctant owner after taking over the team following the untimely death of his father in 2002. He guarded his privacy zealously.

When you’re the owner of a National Football League team, however, you are automatically thrust upon a gigantic stage. Lerner was uncomfortable on that stage. He and the spotlight were strangers.

Haslam, on the other hand, can’t wait to take over the team. Judging from his first exposure to the Cleveland media, he relishes being on that stage.

He answered all questions with the aplomb of someone who has been doing it his entire life. He deftly and politely deflected those few questions better answered by someone else. The southern gentleman was smooth and downright charming.

Several times throughout the news conference, Haslam praised the person asking the question by preceding his answer with “that’s a great question” or “that’s a good question.” That’s a nice trick of making the persons asking the question feel good about themselves.

Nothing wrong with it, of course, but that shows the savvy that has helped him rise in the business world.

The Browns need someone strong at the top. Someone who can come in, establish the proper culture and make certain every man is doing his job. It has become painfully obvious over the last 13 years that aspect has been absent.

Haslam, who has known nothing but success in his professional life, appears to be that kind of individual. “Our style is we’re going to be involved,” he said. “You’ll find we’re going to be open and transparent. We’re going to be there selling the Cleveland Browns all the time.”

Look for the new boss to be much more involved and proactive than Lerner. “The most important decisions we make are going to be the people we surround ourselves with,” he said. “Who you surround yourself with is very, very important.”

He went on to call himself  “a big believer in collective wisdom. If you have five smart people around a table, it’s better than four.”

Unlike Lerner, whose football interest seems more rooted in England, American football is a huge part of Haslam’s life. “We’ve been around football all our lives,” he said.

As the highly successful CEO of Flying J truck stops all around the country, it’s easy to see Haslam is used to winning. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the losing culture that has gripped this franchise since the return in 1999.

Having been a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers for the last four years, the new Cleveland owner is well aware of the rivalry that exists between the two franchises.

“I get the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland,” he said. “Our main goal is to return that to a real rivalry.” It was an obvious reference to the Steelers’ domination of the Browns since 1999.

In putting his stamp on his new toy, Haslam hinted that the name of the stadium could change. The NFL’s only generic stadium name, Cleveland Browns Stadium, could he history.

Ever the astute businessman, Haslam has to know that income from stadium naming rights will not hurt the bottom line. Too bad. There’s something about CBS that sets it apart from all the other corporate named ballparks.

As do the Browns’ logo-less helmets. If there’s one thing Haslam should keep his paws off, it’s the helmet. It is truly unique and sets it apart from the rest of the league.

Change the uniform if you must, but leave the colors and helmets alone. They are the last vestiges of what all Browns fans, young and old, hold special.

Haslam’s ultimate goal, of course, is to turn the Browns into a winning franchise. Maybe Lerner’s goal was the same. He just went about it the wrong way for the last 10 years. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with the wrong people.

Haslam, who plans to log plenty of air miles between homes in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Cleveland area, is a welcome breath of fresh air. How long it remains that way depends strictly on how he conducts business.

And, of course, how well the team responds to his stewardship.