Saturday, September 29, 2012

Friday leftovers (Saturday edition)

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I came away from the Browns’ 23-16 loss in Baltimore Thursday night not feeling down or discouraged.

Normally, another Cleveland loss triggers even more negative thoughts as I try to figure out why this club just doesn’t seem to get it. However, I did not get that feeling after the Ravens game.

Maybe it was because Brandon Weeden threw the ball better than at any time this season. Even though he completed less than half his passes (thanks to five more drops), he seemed to be much more decisive with where he wanted to go with the ball.

He appeared to have an awareness of the situation, anticipated Ravens blitzes and generally had a firm handle on what he wanted to do. Now that might not count for much on the scoreboard, but it bodes well for the future.

Weeden’s confidence level is on the rise. Now, it’s up to him to take that confidence, build on it and let his natural talent become a part of who he is as a rookie quarterback in the National Football League.

At first, he took baby steps and the coaching staff appeared to hold back and give him nothing but elementary, low-risk plays with which to work. Game by game, you can see the coaches are beginning to open up the playbook.

In the Ravens’ loss, we saw a couple of misdirection plays and at least five rollouts from the shotgun. As the coaches become more comfortable with Weeden’s ability to execute those types of plays, they’ll feed him even more. However, it’s important to reiterate he’s still taking those baby steps, but they are fewer and far between now.

If there is one aspect of Weeden’s game that needs dramatic improvement, it’s his slow release. He needs to be confident enough to release the ball before his receivers make their cuts. Right now, he’s more often than not at least a half beat too late, giving opposing defensive backs a chance to make plays.

He is going to make mistakes, such as the awful hot-read quick-out throw to Travis Benjamin on a Baltimore blitz in the final seconds of the third quarter Thursday night. Instead of drilling the ball to Benjamin, he floated it and Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams had a ridiculously easy pick 6 to basically put the game out of reach.

If Weeden releases that ball a half beat earlier and on a line, the ball gets to Benjamin quicker and Williams is late to the play.

Unless he is denser from the neck up than I think, chances are slim he will ever do that again. Not with his strong arm. The soon-to-be 29-year-old is learning his lessons the hard way these days.

If he is to be successful, he is best judged on a game-to-game basis. Watch him as he grows. Take note of his mistakes – he’ll make many more as the season unfolds – and watch if he repeats them. If he does, all bets  are off.

Young quarterbacks who eventually rise to prominence do so because they achieve a consistency that defines them. That’s what separates the good ones from the journeymen.

Weeden is just starting as a professional quarterback. It’s way too early to judge him, but that’s what a lot of impatient fans have already done.

They don’t take into consideration that he still looks uncomfortable under center in the pro set. His footwork is not bad, considering he has never played in that formation before. But he needs to set up to throw more quickly. That takes a rhythm with which he is not yet familiar. It should come, though, with more work.

To be clicheish, call Weeden a work in progress.
*          *          *
Slowly, but surely, the Browns’ run defense is beginning to look a whole lot different than what Browns fans have seen in the last several seasons.

For example, that defense reduced Ravens running back Ray Rice to non-factor status Thursday night. The superstar was held to just 49 yards on 18 carries. His longest run was 10 yards. Rice also caught eight passes for 47 yards. That’s 26 touches for 96 yards and no touchdowns, something on which to hang your helmet.

It became obvious early on that Dick Jauron’s defense was geared to stop Rice and force quarterback Joe Flacco to throw. The Ravens’ no-huddle offense did not seem to bother the Cleveland defenders, who sacked Flacco four times and pestered him into early throws on another half dozen dropbacks.
*          *          *
The more I see defensive tackle Billy Winn, the more I like him. He’s quick, strong, extremely persistent and very active. He didn’t have one of those four sacks, but I saw him in the Baltimore backfield a lot.

If and when defensive tackle Phil Taylor returns to the lineup, moving Winn to defensive end is a move Jauron would be wise to consider. With Winn and Jabaal Sheard on the outside and Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin working inside, its easy to be confident that the Browns’ run defense problems might be over.

It’s also refreshing to see Sheard break out of whatever funk he was in during the first three games. The club’s leading sacker last season finally got his first this season and generally wreaked havoc in passing situations. He got started late last season. Maybe he’s just a slow starter.
*          *          *
Notebook: Another young defender who seems to make a habit of making plays is outside linebacker Craig Robertson, who picked off his second pass of the season against the Ravens. The free-agent rookie seems to have a nose for the ball. . . . How much do the Browns miss cornerback Joe Haden, who has sat out the last three games while serving a four-game suspension? In those three games, the secondary has allowed 838 yards and seven touchdowns. The run defense, meanwhile, has given up just 319 yards in those games and only one TD, a Flacco quarterback keeper from the 1-yard line. . . . The Browns say they’ve been working with Greg Little on his pass catching. Well something is getting lost in the translation between practice and the games. The big wide receiver was targeted 10 times against the Ravens and caught just four passes, which is two more than he dropped. Some guys just have stone hands. Little might be one of them. . . . Phil Dawson seems to be getting younger. How else can anyone explain why the lone remaining member of the 1999 expansion team has become the king of the 50-yard-or-longer field goal? He kicked three more in the Baltimore loss to give him four on the season. And he hasn’t missed yet in eight attempts overall. Pay the man.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Not buying it

Roger Goodell is making nice-nice with the American football public and it rings hollow and insincere.

In an e-mail letter to those fans, the National Football League commissioner all but apologized for his shameful handling of the officials’ lockout.

“I believe in accountability, not excuses,” he wrote. “And I regret we were not able to secure an agreement sooner in the process and avoid the unfortunate distractions to the game. You deserve better.”

The fans have always deserved better, Rog, only you didn’t take that into account when you allowed scab officials to work into the third week of the regular season. If you really cared about the fans, you would not have allowed this fiasco to reach such a disastrous stage.

“As a lifelong fan,” he wrote, “this wasn’t an easy process for anyone involved. I particularly want to commend the replacement officials for taking an unenviable task and doing it with focus and dedication in the mostly adverse of circumstances.”

It wasn’t an easy process because Goodell stubbornly refused to cave to the men who police the game and help make it the best and most successful product on the sports landscape. In hiring scab officials, he gave the regular officials the finger, never once taking into account the good and welfare of the game itself.

A good commissioner never would have let this nonsense reach the critical mass stage. Goodell, the martinet, made all the wrong moves and paid a dear price.

In a similar situation involving scab officials in 2001, Paul Tagliabue, as weak a commissioner as he was, didn’t allow the mess to progress beyond week one of the regular season because he saw the disastrous results. That lockout ended in a hurry.

What transpired at the end of last Monday night’s game between Green Bay and Seattle should never have happened. It could have been avoided except for the ignorant actions of one man.

And now he's apologizing? For what? Being a dummy? For pretending to care about the fans? Damage control at its worst.

This letter to the fans is too late. The damage has been done. Just ask fans in Green Bay.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Probabilities and improbabilities

Football is a game of probabilities and improbabilities.

Thursday night’s game between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore, for example, foretold a probable victory for the Ravens, who owned eight straight victories over the Browns and had the best home record in the National Football League over the last 35 games.

The game proceeded along at a winning pace for the Ravens until about a minute remained in regulation with the Ravens leading, 23-16, and the Browns in the improbable position of actually tying the game.

The Ravens’ lead would have been smaller had the Browns found a way to slow Baltimore wide receiver Anquan Boldin. A virtual non-factor in the first half, Boldin torched the Cleveland secondary for nine catches (eight in the second half) and 131 yards and helped sustain several drives.

Still, the Browns had a chance to tie the game and coaches never complain when their players give themselves a chance to accomplish that. Pat Shurmur had to be feeling confident when his club forced a punt and began its final drive of the evening 90 yards from the Baltimore goal line with 65 seconds left, trailing by seven and no timeouts.

Sure it was a long way. But Brandon Weeden earlier in the game engineered a beautiful 11-play, 94-yard drive for the Browns’ first touchdown of the evening.

No way would they get close enough to that goal line and put themselves in a position to tie the game and then pull the stunning upset in overtime. But the Ravens, whose defense this season looks more vulnerable than in the past few seasons, did them a favor by dropping back into the dreaded prevent defense.

Before you knew it, the Browns improbably marched down to the Baltimore 33 with 25 seconds remaining and the Ravens doing their best to prolong the game by allowing Browns receivers Benjamin Watson and Jordan Norwood to scoot out of bounds after sizable gains and stop the clock.

Usually, these things happen to the Browns, not by the Browns. If there’s a mistake to be made, you can bet they will find a way and make it. The Ravens are too smart, too savvy to let this one slip away.

So when Weeden’s fourth-down Hail Mary heave into the Baltimore end zone was batted away from tight end Jordan Cameron and only two seconds remained, Browns fans believed they were treated to another maddening loss as the Ravens rejoiced.

But wait. A yellow penalty flag landed on the field near Weeden. What now? Just another slap in the face for the Browns. How much more salt could the officials (the regular guys are back . . . yeah) rub into the wounds of losing this time?

Probably a penalty against the Browns. With only two seconds left, who cares?

But no. It was Baltimore defensive end Paul Kruger who uncapped the bottle of stupid pills, swallowed a whole bunch of them and was flagged for a personal foul after pushing Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas to the ground well after the play.

That’s the kind of idiotic move a member of the Browns usually makes. Also a penalty the scab officials most likely would not have called.

It had to be a mistake. No Raven is that dumb. But sure enough, the replay showed Kruger shoving Thomas fell backward so convincingly, he should be at least nominated for best actor for a dive worthy of some sort of acting award.

He sure fooled the officials. So the Browns breathed new life, albeit brief, and faced the real possibility of actually tying the game from the Baltimore 18 with one shot left.

One miracle please. Just one miracle. Is that asking too much?

First, ponder this. What’s the worst thing that could happen to a team on the opponent’s 18-yard line with two seconds left and trailing by seven points? The very worst thing. A dropped pass? Sure. The Browns had five more of them on the evening.

How about a sack? Probably not. The Browns’ offensive line protected Weeden well all evening. Only one sack, by the aforementioned Kruger.

A throw beyond the end zone? Are you crazy? That would be the ultimate stupid thing to do. Never saw one of those.

And yet, there was Weeden, who threw for 320 yards while completing less than half of his 52 passes, badly overshooting the end zone, rewarding Browns fans with yet another strange and improbable way of losing a ball game. I can’t remember a Hail Mary landing nearly 10 yards beyond the end line. Call it the pass too far.

That was not a rookie mistake. That was a mistake no quarterback should make, whether he’s been around for 10 years or making his first start. There is no excuse for making that dumb a throw. It is unforgivable.

We all know Weeden has a strong arm, although his floater on a quick out to Travis Benjamin was turned into a pick 6 by Ravens cornerback Cary Williams in the final 30 seconds of the third quarter, giving the Ravens a 23-10 lead.

He showed off that arm on occasion against the Ravens and would have brought the Browns to within three points had Greg Little been able to hang on to his perfect throw before dropping it while falling backward into the end zone with 4:40 left in the fourth quarter.

Instead, Phil Dawson kicked the third of his three 50-plus-yard field goals. If Little catches that pass, the Browns would have trailed, 23-20, instead of by seven heading into that final drive.

If the Browns had played this well against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday, they would be 1-3 today instead of 0-4. If, if, if.

The only solace they can take away from this one is that they played the Ravens tough all evening. The defense did not allow Joe Flacco and his no-huddle offense to run away and hide and shut down Ray Rice in the process.

Now they’ve got 10 days to prepare for the New York Giants on the road. Winning that one also falls into the improbable category. Probably.

Goddell shames the NFL Shield

He will never admit it, but Roger Goodell put the good and welfare of Roger Goodell ahead of the good and welfare of the National Football League with his laughable handling of the lockout of league officials.

Making every possible wrong move during the more than four months the officials were told not to prepare for the 2012 season because the two sides didn’t have a Collective Bargaining Agreement, the commissioner brought shame and embarrassment upon the league.

The man who is being paid to protect The Shield and enhance its importance in the sports world has, instead, made it a joke that has spread across the social media landscape on a national basis.

To think it took one of the most egregious officiating errors in memory, recent or otherwise, in order to bring about labor piece with the league’s regular zebras makes the story that much more fascinating.

The more mistakes scab officials made for the first three weeks of the season, the more we heard from the NFL that they were doing a good job. It was business as usual as the NFL Referees Association and NFL conducted on-and-off talks for the last couple of months.

And then came the game-ending play in the Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks that ultimately resulted in getting the two sides to reach an agreement late Wednesday. But you’ll never hear the league never admit that.

Goodell said the two factions were in “intensive negotiations” the last couple of weeks, but admitted that call and the outcry that accompanied it “may have pushed the parties along.”

May have? Is he kidding? Does he expect anyone to take him seriously when he talks like that?

The irony here is that is the league, in defending the call, got it wrong just like the officials on the field and the dude in the replay booth. The league admitted a penalty should have been called on Seattle receiver Golden Tate, but failed to see what just about everyone else saw: an interception by Packers defensive back M. D. Jennings in the end zone.

In fact, the league doubled down on the final decision, absolving all the officials involved in the Hail Mary play, which clearly saw Jennings come down with the interception before Tate placed his hand on the ball for what was termed a simultaneous catch and a Seattle victory.

Until that moment, the NFL had no intention of ending the lockout. The league could call it a coincidence that the agreement was reached about 48 hours after the Twitterverse erupted angrily, except for, perhaps, Seahawks fans, over the MNF call.

It was the impetus that got the two sides to eventually reach an accord because all of a sudden, everyone leaped on the story. Inside and outside the sports world.

From late-night comedians like David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno to political pundits like Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz, Anderson Cooper (trying to be fair and balanced here) to news hens on the cable networks who know practically nothing about football, the NFL became a target.

The story made the NFL look like a joke on many different levels. No thanks, of course, to the man who placed it on that national pedestal to be ridiculed.

No, that’s the play that ultimately will be known as the dealmaker in this dispute. That play will be the causal factor that brings back the Ed Hochulis and Scott Greens and Jeff Triplettes to the consciousnesses of the American viewing public beginning with tonight’s Browns-Baltimore game.

And to think it could have been resolved a lot earlier than this. A lot earlier.

It was a case of the league caving into the officials for what would be something between $100 million and $200 million over an eight-year period. This rigid stance from a league that hauls in many, many billions of dollars from its product.

And who was calling the shots all the way? That’s right. The haughty commissioner, who dug in and would not budge.

The two sides traded public barbs along the way since the lockout in June. Negotiations started numerous times only to recess without a resolution. No one except Goodell and his minions were permitted to talk about the situation. He silenced everyone connected to the game, threatening them with fines.

In a bold stance that flew in the face of the First Amendment, he wielded an authority that basically forced players, coaches and team personnel to just deal with the situation. Even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who never met a microphone or television camera he didn’t like, clammed up for fear of enriching the league coffers.

That’s when you knew when it was serious. Goodell was going to win this battle one way or the other. And he might have if it hadn’t been for that one play.

But he never thought the players would begin to publicly register their feelings and objections. And then the coaches became embroiled with the scab officials. It was a serious miscalculation that gained momentum as the season unfolded.

The league pointed to improved TV ratings as if the scabs had little or no impact on its product. “Everything they did, every call they made,” Goodell said. “They kept the game going. They worked hard and trained hard. They were incredibly focused and dedicated.”

And they were incredibly bad. But they were incredibly bad for both sides.

Now that the regular guys are back, bad calls will be made. After all, they’re only human. But the number of those bad calls will be dramatically reduced because these guys know what they are doing. The scabs had no clue.

Most of them never officiated beyond Division II or Division III and were sadly overmatched by the speed and quickness of the pro game. It became quite obvious early on that a lot of players were getting away with stuff they never would try with the regular officials.

But in the end, it all comes down to the stubbornness of a commissioner who brought shame and ridicule to The Shield. That’s not going to be forgotten for a long time.

And that’s something NFL owners, Goodell’s bosses, should look long and hard at when it comes time to consider extending his contract.

The NFL needs a strong man to be the titular head. Goodell is not that man. Not after this mess.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It won’t be a rout

The Browns should send a thank you card to the New England Patriots for what they did Sunday night in Baltimore.

With more than a little help from the scab officials, the Patriots played the perfect guest and fell, 31-30, to the Ravens in front of a national television audience in a highly entertaining game.

So why the thank-you card?

Can you imagine how ticked off the Ravens would have been for Thursday night’s nationally televised date with the Browns in Baltimore had they lost that game and fallen to 1-2? Thank goodness the Browns don’t have to play the Patriots in Foxboro.

It’s bad enough they have to go to Baltimore, where they haven’t won since 2007 when Phil Dawson kicked five field goals in a 33-30 overtime thriller that featured the flange kick by Dawson with no time left in regulation that tied the game.

Ever since that game, however, it’s been all Ravens for four straight seasons. Eight games, eight Cleveland losses. About half the Ravens have no idea what it’s like to lose to the Browns. That includes core players on both sides of the ball.

So there is no question Baltimore will have a clear psychological edge on the Browns, most of whom have no idea how exhilarating it feels to beat the Ravens.

However, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still around for the Ravens. Even though they are well on the down side of their careers, they almost always seem to make their two meetings a season with the Browns a special occasion.

No one gets his team emotionally and psychologically prepared for a game better than Lewis. There is none better in the league. Too bad the Browns don’t have someone of his ilk who can stir the juices.

Reed, on the other hand, goes about his business quietly. You hardly know he’s on the field until he makes a play and breaks your heart in the process. Doing it twice a year for the last dozen or so years, these men have left a trail of broken hearts in Cleveland.

The two defensive playmakers seem to come up with big plays in clutch situations with uncanny ease and remarkable timing. Both are headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and their performances against the Browns definitely play a significant role.

There is no question the Ravens, whose aspirations this season include something well beyond just making the playoffs, are a better team than the young Browns. From a sheer talent standpoint, it’s not even close.

They are better just about everywhere on offense and defense. The only weak spot might be the young, relatively inexperienced offensive line. On defense, not even a deep probe can find a weak spot unless it’s at outside linebacker with Terrell Suggs still out with an Achilles injury.

And in John Harbaugh, they have one of the sharpest coaches in the National Football League.

The Ravens can beat you in so many different ways. On offense, if it isn’t diminutive Ray Rice gouging holes in the run defense, it’s Joe Flacco playing pitch and catch with a group of outstanding receivers.

And this season, coordinator Cam Cameron has swung his offense clearly in Flacco’s direction. In a bold display of confidence in his young quarterback, Cameron has Flacco throwing the ball on nearly two of every three plays.

Rice’s production has been reduced in favor of the strong-armed quarterback, who hasn’t disappointed, connecting on nearly 65% of his passes for 913 yards and six touchdowns. Even so, Rice has scratched out about 70 yards a game on the ground, giving Flacco good reason to go play-action on occasion.

It’s on defense where the Ravens are showing a little wear and tear. A check of the stats reveals they have surrendered more than 400 yards a game, including 290 through the air, and 26 first downs an outing.

All of which stands to reason that Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress figure to target the Baltimore secondary Thursday evening. Considering the Ravens probably will hang a bull’s-eye on Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson and force Brandon Weeden to throw, that seems to be the preferred course.

It’s never easy to win in Baltimore. The Ravens’ crowds are among the loudest and most boisterous in the NFL. Look for the possibility of a few false starts from the Browns.

So is it too much to expect Weeden, Richardson & Co. to go into that hostile stadium and do the unthinkable? Is it too much to expect Shurmur and Brad Childress to come up with a game plan that makes sense and could be successful?

Yes and yes. But it won’t be as ugly as some would believe. The Browns fall to 0-4, but it’ll be a lot closer than you think. The Ravens win it late. Make it:

Ravens 20, Browns 16

Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday leftovers

At the beginning of the season, most Browns fans were excited at the prospects for the 2012 season mainly because of one very misleading statistic.

They saw the Browns were ranked second in the National Football League in pass defense last season and believed that would carry over into this season. Never mind that they were 4-12 and lost six games by seven points or fewer.

They just saw “ranked second” and that, added to an improved run defense this season, made a lot of people feel sanguine about this season even though the schedule was tougher.

Well, the Browns have played three games. Let’s take a look at the pass defense stats this season. Prepare to be surprised.

Last season, the Browns permitted 2,959 passing yards and just 16 touchdowns. Not bad for a 4-12 team, right?

This season, Michael Vick, Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick have thrown 128 passes and completed 77, a 60% clip, for 821 yards (274 a game) and eight touchdowns (halfway to 2011’s total). Extrapolate those numbers and the Browns this season will give up nearly 4,400 yards through the air and 42 touchdowns.

In the first three games last season, the Browns faced Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski of Cincinnati, Indianapolis' Kerry Collins and Chad Henne of Miami. In winning two of those games, the Browns limited those quarterbacks to a .564 completion percentage, 206 yards a game and just four touchdowns.

Of course, this season’s pace will not be maintained, but the numbers will be significantly higher than last season. That’s because the Browns will face some high-powered quarterbacks.

Up next are Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Eli Manning of the New York Giants, neither of whom is considered shy when it comes to unloading the football. And their receivers might be even better than what the Browns have faced thus far.

Down the road lurk such flame throwers as Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Philip Rivers, Dalton, Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning, Flacco again and, depending on whether he’s still standing, Washington’s Robert Griffin III in December. It is a schedule loaded with quarterbacks who, for the most part, live in the upper echelon.

It has been suggested here on many occasions that last season’s pass defense stats were skewed, if not bogus, because most teams chose to run the ball on the Browns because of their weak run defense. (FYI: The Browns have yet to give up a rushing touchdown this season.)

That reduced the pass totals in every category and thus presented an incorrect picture of just how mediocre the Cleveland pass defense was.

This season, apologists will point to the four-game suspension of cornerback Joe Haden, the club’s best defender in the secondary, and use it as a causal factor in the larger numbers. That has some validity, given the Browns have given up six scores through the air in the two games Haden has missed.

Still, one has to take into account that the Browns’ pass rush is mediocre at best, passive at worst. Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could have played a couple of games of Sudoku in the pocket waiting for the Cleveland pass rush to arrive Sunday.

He won the prize for having the cleanest uniform of the day. It was an award he undoubtedly shared with his offensive line, which made the Cleveland defensive line seem like strangers in the Buffalo backfield.

It’s fairly safe to assume a No. 2 ranking on pass defense is clearly not going to be repeated.
*          *          *
It sure was nice to see tight end Jordan Cameron get some reps against the Bills. But would he have been in there if Alex Smith had been healthy? Probably not.

But that doesn’t subtract from Cameron’s contribution of five catches for 45 yards. That’s only nine yards a pop, but it sure got the Bills’ attention, especially when Brandon Weeden overthrew him when he went deep in the second half.

Cameron has enough athleticism where the Browns could use him in deeper patterns, which include the deep seam route down the middle. It was a play that kept Evan Moore on the Cleveland roster for a few seasons.
*          *          *
There must be something in the coaches’ manual of post-game quotes that implores them to say something nice about the losing coach after a game. Chan Gailey is the latest perfect example. Following the Bills’ thorough 24-14 dismantling of the Browns Sunday, Gailey pulled out the ultimate cliché when discussing the Browns.

“I called them relentless earlier in the week,” he told the assembled media. “and that’s what they are. They roll a bunch of good football players through that defense.” Harmless enough.

OK, here it comes. “I’m telling you,” Gailey continued, “they’ve got to be one of the better 0-3 teams (in the NFL).”

Yes, he said that. He really, truly said that.

Considering the only other 0-3 team in the NFL is the New Orleans Saints, that’s not saying very much. Unless you take into consideration the Saints have scored 83 points (to the Browns’ 57) and allowed 102 (to the Browns’ 75).

Other than that, sure, why not believe it. Imagine that. The Browns are right up (down?) there with the New Orleans Saints. They surely have to be one of the better 0-3 teams in the league. One really is. The other definitely is not. Guess which one.
*          *          *
NOTEBOOK: Something is wrong with Joe Thomas. The perennial All-Pro offensive tackle is playing nowhere near that level in the first three games. He’s accrued a season’s worth of holding penalties and false starts in those games. Either he’s playing hurt or his dropoff has to concern the coaching staff. . . . Alex Mack, the other stalwart on an otherwise below-average offensive line, has encountered penalty flag problems lately. Could it be he’s trying to do too much because two distinctly bad guards flank him? . . . The Browns’ run defense was so bad against Buffalo, it allowed third-stringer Tashard Choice 91 yards rushing after C. J. Spiller went down with a shoulder injury. . . . The Bills entered the game allowing the opposition to convert third downs more than 50% of the time. The Browns were three for 11 on that down. . . . Now comes Baltimore and the New York Giants, who have a pretty good idea of what to do on the defensive side of the football.

Cleaning house

It’s time to get rid of Mike Holmgren and the stench he has brought to Cleveland.

If the Browns’ president is a believer in the buck-stops-here mantra, then he has to know there is no question he has outlived his stay in Cleveland.

When he arrived a few years ago, everyone was thrilled that a real football man finally was coming to Cleveland. Finally, a real football guy was going to right the wrongs that had been committed over the years.

He had all the credentials. He knew how to put together winning football teams. He had done so in Green Bay and Seattle. Of course, he had a lot of help in Green Bay with Ron Wolf, but he was a major factor in the Packers’ return to glory.

Finally, the 4-12 and 5-11 seasons in Cleveland would disappear, replaced with seasons that would recapture the glory this once-proud franchise enjoyed.

Finally, the name Cleveland Browns and winning football would be synonymous. Finally, finally, finally,

So what do we get in the last two seasons and three games? The same old, same old that preceded Holmgren. In 35 games under Holmgren, the Browns stagger in at 9-26, a winning percentage of .257.

Only the faces change when it comes to professional football in Cleveland.

But now that there’s a new sheriff in town in the person of new owner Jimmy Haslam III, that is going to change. The question is when.

If Haslam is smart, and we have to assume he is, that change can’t come any quicker than when he’s approved as the new Browns owner by the National Football League sometime next month.

If Holmgren is not booted out of his office and sent packing back to his beloved Seattle within days of Haslam’s takeover, it should raise more than a few eyebrows. Pay the man off and be done with him.

It wouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction, either. Haslam knows football. He knows when bad football is played. All he has to do is watch the team he purchased a couple of months ago.

He didn’t drop a billion bucks into Randy Lerner’s coffers to watch bad football. He will do something about the current situation.

Here’s one vote to start right now. Don’t wait for the fans to stop caring. Apathy is the worst thing that can happen to any professional franchise.

If Sunday’s dismal performance by the Browns against the Buffalo Bills isn’t enough to put Haslam over the edge and spur some sort of change, then nothing will. How much longer can the fans put up with timid coaching?

That’s what they are getting with Pat Shurmur, who should have never been hired in the first place. Ex-Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green once said following a bitter loss, “We knew who they were.” That applies to Shurmur.

We knew who he was before he showed up in Cleveland and anointed the newest head coach before the 2011 season: A journeyman assistant coach with no proven track record about which to get excited.

And he has proven it. He has taken a bad team and made it worse, if that’s possible. The word progress does not appear in his vocabulary. He has managed to take a potentially exciting game like football and make it dull.

Fans pay a lot of money to watch the Browns. They are faithful, almost to a fault, and have been rewarded with this crap.

It’s time for the Browns to finally become a solid franchise once again. But it’s going to take a whole lot of work and Haslam seems like the kind of guy who won’t stop until he achieves that goal.

The fans do not deserve what they’ve been served thus far this season. Time to reward them with a product of which they can be proud.

Haslam can start by expelling Holmgren and the coach he brought with him. That, in some circles, would be called addition by subtraction.

In Cleveland, it would be called progress.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who said it couldn't get worse

It was just a minute after the Buffalo Bills hung a 24-14 loss on the Browns Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The Factory of Sadness emptied quietly as the two teams gathered for the usual post-game handshakes. But someone was missing from that little ritual.

Trent Richardson sat alone on the Cleveland bench as the CBS television cameras honed in on him. All his teammates were on the field exchanging pleasantries with the Bills after yet another loss. And yet, Richardson did not move.

The look on his face as this all unfolded said it all. He didn’t want to be out there with his mates. And who could blame him?

He wasn’t displeased. Oh, no. That would be too mild.

And he didn’t look quizzical. When you’re team is winless in its first three games, that might be a normal expression.

No, the rookie running back looked angry. Very angry. Frustratingly angry.

The camera held the shot of the glaring Richardson for several seconds before moving on. But it was a telling look.

This loss burrowed deep into Richardson’s mind. After last Sunday’s breakout performance in the loss in Cincinnati, this was the game that was going to vault the Browns into the victory column.

You could see it on his face after scoring the Browns’ first touchdown in the second quarter to pull them to within 14-7 after the Bills nearly ran away and hid following a 14-point first quarter, during which the Browns recorded a trio of three-and-outs and 13 net yards.

Returning to the sideline, Richardson went from player to player, beseeching them to step it up even more. Just about everyone received his attention. The rookie was taking charge. You could see the fire in his eyes.

He wanted no part of oh and three. It gnawed at him.

For all we know, Richardson has never been a part of a team that has lost its first three games. Not at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla., and certainly not at the University of Alabama.

He is used to winning football. This feeling was quite foreign to him.

Only one problem. His teammates responded by playing emotionless football. In a game that requires extreme emotion, the Browns arrived at CBS bankrupt in that department. Except for Richardson, that is.

It became abundantly clear early on that the Browns were being outpunched, outhustled and generally mauled by the Bills in the trenches.

It’s a standard axiom in the National Football League – hell, make that football in general – that the team that wins the battles in the trenches is usually the team that wins the battle of the scoreboard.

The Bills, a team that entered the game with an eight-game road losing streak and could have been had Sunday with any kind of effort, took it to the Browns all afternoon despite losing star running back C. J. Spiller to a shoulder injury early in the game.

The Browns failed time and again to capitalize on their few opportunities. If it wasn’t a penalty that negated one of the few plus plays of the afternoon, it was Dimitri Patterson dropping a sure pick-6 on a tipped pass late in the second quarter that would have tied the game at 14-14.

As the TV guys said at the time, the ball hit Patterson in a bad place – between the 2 and 1 on his uniform. Good teams, even mediocre teams, make the easy play. Bad ones do not.

Draw your own conclusions.

The players ultimately wind up taking the greater amount of the heat following a loss. But this one must be blamed on the Cleveland coaching staff, most notably head coach Pat Shurmur.

When you play the Buffalo Bills, a team that will not make the playoffs this season, especially at home, you should win. The Bills are not that good. The Browns are just that bad.

They were not prepared well, nor placed in a good position to beat Buffalo. The offensive line was beat up all afternoon. It was an unfair fight as the Bills’ front four consistently beat the Browns off the snap. Brandon Weeden barely had time to throw for the most part.

The Bills, who had only five sacks entering the game, racked up four more and came dangerously close to doubling that. The rookie Cleveland quarterback will wake up Monday morning, assuming he sleeps at all, with some nasty bruises and welts on his body.

For those who thought this was bad, awaiting Weeden and his highly overrated offensive line in the next two games are the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants, who know a little bit about pressuring quarterbacks. Both games are on the road.

And let’s not dismiss the Cleveland defensive line, which put virtually no pressure on Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick for what seemed all afternoon. The only sack credited to the Browns was when an attempted pass slipped out of Fitzpatrick’s hand as the Bills were driving for a third touchdown early in the second quarter.

It was ruled a strip sack, a fumble and a Cleveland recovery after Shurmur successfully challenged the ruling on the field. It was his best move of the day. All it did was delay the inevitable.

That’s because the Cleveland offense, with the exception of a two scoring drives, fired blanks. Throw in at least four dropped passes and pass protection that went from worse to awful and you have the ingredients for a loss.

Other than a nine-play, 67-yard TD drive late in the second quarter that ended with a six-yard scoring jaunt by Richardson, and a 13-play, 80-yard march that concluded with a 22-yard scoring strike to Travis Benjamin on a nice throw by Weeden late in the third quarter, the offense was MIA.

In the other 10 drives, the Browns generated 93 yards and seven first downs in 38 plays. The Bills’ front four dominated, especially up the middle. In a test of wills, the Browns wanted no part of the Bills.

The final insult was delivered by Buffalo coach Chan Gailey, although Shurmur might not see it that way.

After Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin picked Weeden with 1:43 left and returned the ball to the Cleveland 1, Gailey instructed Fitzpatrick to take three knees rather, I suspect, than be accused of running up the score and embarrassing his counterpart.

The Browns were out of timeouts and could not stop the clock. So Gailey, the nice guy, chose the charitable course. Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick would have rammed the ball down Shurmur’s throat.

Gailey needn’t worry about embarrassing Shurmur. The Cleveland coach has already embarrassed the franchise with his 0-3 start and 4-15 record thus far.

Soon-to-be new owner Jimmy Haslam III cannot like what he has seen thus far. It’ll be interesting to see what he does in the next few weeks, especially after the Browns take an 0-5 record into their Oct. 14 game at CBS against Cincinnati.

We didn’t see Haslam after the game, but it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the same look on his face that Richardson wore.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Are you ready for a victory?

Normally, home field advantage in the National Football League rates three points for the home team.

Which means oddsmakers believe the Browns are quite a bit worse than the Buffalo Bills after installing the Bills as three-point favorites for Sunday’s get together at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Apparently, the Browns’ 27-point explosion in last Sunday’s loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati didn’t impress the guys who play with these numbers. Neither did the Browns’ almost victory the week before against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Normally, it is said these guys know what they are doing. They’re not wrong very often. After all, isn’t that how they make their money? The fact the line hasn’t budged is testament to that.

So are the Bills really six points better than the Browns when you factor in home field advantage?

Not when you factor in that they have lost eight straight games on the road. And they are 3-14 on foreign fields since Chan Gailey took over the head coaching duties in 2010 following the firing of Dick Jauron.

Yes, that Dick Jauron, the guy who now makes a living with the Browns as their defensive coordinator.

Now Jauron most likely won’t say it, mainly because he’s a soft-spoken guy who probably doesn’t believe in grudges. Somehow, it wouldn’t be surprising if he has a few tricks in store for his old team.

There is no question the Bills can put points (63 in two games) on the board at a furious pace. When you have a running back like C. J. Spillers chewing up chunks of real estate – he averages 10 yards a carry – and a quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is not shy when it comes to throwing the football, the Bills are tough on offense.

But they also allow the opposition to put points (65) on the board at a similar pace. What was supposed to be an improved defense, mainly through the acquisition of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, has been somewhat of an early disappointment.

Williams and Anderson, sack specialists brought in to juice up the pass rush, have zero sacks and a combined six tackles in the Bills’ first two games. One gets the feeling the Browns’ offensive line will be severely tested as the Bills’ frustration mounts.

Despite forcing and recovering four fumbles this season, the Buffalo defense has been rather generous, permitting 806 total yards, 538 through the air. They made New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez look like an All-Pro in the season-opening 48-28 loss.

Now Brandon Weeden is no Mark Sanchez, but his surprising near-flawless performance in last Sunday’s loss in Cincinnati gives rise to the hope that facing a worse secondary than the Bengals’ could produce a similar, if not better, result.

The rookie quarterback seemed to have a better understanding of what needed to be done and it showed in his confident throwing. There is no reason to believe we won’t see something close to a repeat against the Bills.

With Trent Richardson slowly becoming the kind of running back who can keep the pressure off his quarterback with his strong running, Weeden’s play-action passes will be that much more effective.

The key, however, will be the Browns’ ability to slow down – it’s too good to be shut down – the Buffalo offense. The Browns, who average four sacks a game, face an offensive line that has kept Fitzpatrick clean all season. They must make him unload before he wants and generally harass him. If he gets time to throw, watch out.

When you have receivers like Stevie Johnson, tight end Scott Chandler and Spiller out of the backfield, Fitzgerald can hurt teams in many ways. The Cleveland secondary, torched last Sunday by Cincinnati's  Andy Dalton, will be busy.

On third down, the Bills are a Jekyll/Hyde team. They convert 52% (11 of 21) of the time on that down, yet allow the opposition to convert 54% (15 of 28) of the time.

It promises to be a high-scoring game, one the Browns might not have been able to win a year ago because of an anemic offense. With Weeden, Richardson & Co. playing as well as they did last week, the Browns rarely will ever be out of a game.

This one is no different. Against a Buffalo defense that might be worse than Cleveland’s, this will be the week the Browns get off the schneid. Make it:

Browns 27, Bills 21

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's time to act, Rog

Memo to Roger Goodell:

It’s time to start acting like you’re the big cheese of the most powerful sports league on the planet.

It’s time to start acting like you really care about what’s going on in that league.

It’s time to stop your Gestapo tactics of censoring players, coaches and executives when it comes to commenting on the officiating of your games.

It’s time you stepped in and did something you should have done a month ago. Maybe even two months ago.

It’s time, for crying out loud, to step in and bring to an end this foolish lockout of your officials. Only you can do it.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m sick and tired of listening to you and your minions tell us the scabs, er replacement officials, are doing a good job.

No they are not. And you know it. You’re just too stubborn to admit it.

The officials’ union says it is unwilling to come to the negotiating table. The owners say the same. Through you, of course. You are their spokesman, which automatically makes you a prejudiced observer.

It’s a pissing match to see which side blinks first.

And who loses? The fans, that constituency that helps pay your enormous salary. And the players, who are getting away with just about anything on the field short of felonious assault.

Some fans don’t care who officiates games until one of them screws up and costs their team a game.

You threaten team owners and players and team execs with fines if they speak negatively about the shabby officiating for a product that deserves much better.

And right now, you sit in your plush office or fly in your private plane to league destinations to represent the National Football League when you feel the need to get out.

Are you proud of what you’ve seen thus far this season? You’ve been around long enough and seen enough professional football to know that these poor scabs are ruining the product.

There is only one man who can right this wrong. You’ll find him by looking in the mirror each morning.

It’s time, Rog, to get both sides in a room, lock the door, limit their food supply and instruct them not to leave until an agreement is reached. If it takes more than a day, so be it.

Do not let them out of the room under any circumstances short of a bathroom break.. They’ll come to an agreement soon enough.

They used to do it that way back in the old days. Sometimes resorting to old tactics works.

What have you got to lose? Absolutely nothing.

Get off your duff, stop playing fast and loose with the truth and earn your keep. Make the NFL whole again. Make both sides blink and declare each the winner.

If you can do that, the biggest winners will be the fans.

If you don’t, that’ll send a big, fat message to those fans that says you don’t really give a rat’s hind flanks about them.

Monday leftovers (Tuesday edition)

There is no question the Browns’ offensive explosion – relatively speaking, of course – caught a lot of us by surprise.

Given the stodgy, old-fashioned, buttoned-down approach to offense the team displayed in the exhibition season and first game of the regular season, it’s fair to say the 27-point salvo they laid on the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday was eye-opening.

It was a where-did-that-come-from kind of afternoon. Most fans obviously were pleased, but at the same time had to wonder just where was this offense earlier?

The return of rookie running back Trent Richardson definitely was a factor. After missing the entire exhibition season with knee surgery, no one counted on him being healthy enough to be considered a factor until at least the fifth or sixth week of the season.

But all it took was one sensational run by Richardson on the final play from scrimmage in the third quarter to stun Browns fans all around the globe into the realization that maybe their woebegone team has finally struck gold.

Followers of the college game knew all about this stud. They knew he was something special. But they did not know whether his game would translate to the National Football League. After all, they play the game on a much higher level there.

So when Richardson went down in training camp with a bad knee, doomsayers figured this was just another blown draft pick. Just another notch in the club’s bad-luck belt. And when he returned last week in the season opener against Philadelphia, he looked below average.

Then came the Bengals game, where Richardson used Paul Brown Stadium as his personal stage to introduce himself to NFL defenses in a most spectacular way.

It’s only one game, to be certain, but based on that performance and the notion that the coaching staff will finally realize the talent this kid has and design an offense that maximizes his enormous talents, there’s no telling how much of an impact he can have.

That TD against the Bengals, officially a 23-yard pass and run, was really a three-yard dump off as Brandon Weeden’s second choice on the play, and he turned it into the second of his two scores on the afternoon. What made it special was his innate ability to see the field so clearly, he made Bengals defenders look foolish.

Most great runners have speed, quickness and the ability to break tackles. But the one asset most people overlook is vision. Great peripheral vision allows that kind of runner to anticipate another player’s move and counter it before he can make it.

That’s what happened in Cincinnati. Three Bengals honed in on Richardson in those final 20 yards. All three flailed and grabbed nothing but air as he anticipated their moves and was gone by the time they arrived. Basically, he sees the game in slow motion.

And that, with help from the offensive coaching staff, can be a difference maker. Richardson, who compiled 145 yards (109 on the ground) on 23 touches,  is a playmaker. He just needs the opportunity to make those plays. That’s where good coaching comes in.

Brad Childress coached Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. He knows how to handle superstar running backs. As the Browns’ offensive coordinator, it’s incumbent on him to bring out the best in Richardson.

It could make the difference between yet another moribund season and a season filled with hope and optimism for the future.
*          *          *
Lost in the aftermath of the loss in Cincinnati was the fine game turned in by Mo Massaquoi. The wide receiver was targeted seven times by Weeden and caught five passes for 90 yards.

He consistently gained separation in the Bengals’ secondary and made some nice catches. He looked nothing like the skittish receiver who seemed to tiptoe through opposing secondaries after a two-concussion season last year.

If this is a portent of things to come, that makes Weeden even more effective. It gives him another big target to go with Greg Little, who finally hit the score sheet with his first five catches of the season in Cincinnati.
*          *          *
It was nice to see Chris Ogbonnaya get a shot Sunday. Filling in for Brandon Jackson (guessing Jackson must have been hurt), Ogbonnaya caught all six passes thrown his way for 73 yards. Kudos to Pat Shurmur and Childress for sticking with Ogbonnaya after a second-quarter fumble on his second touch of the game short-circuited a brief Cleveland drive late in the second quarter. It came at the tail end of a 21-yard play and was the only Cleveland turnover. The defense picked him up and forced a Bengals punt.
*          *          *
Notes: It’s only two games, but veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is playing at a Pro Bowl level. His tackle total is down somewhat, but he’s helping the young linebackers get into position to make plays, making certain they line up correctly. And he’s making plays all over the field. His three sacks and two interceptions lead the club. . . . Throughout training camp, we were told second-year tight end Jordan Cameron was going to be a contributor. His contributions thus far have resulted in no catches and limited playing time. Maybe the coaching staff overrated him. . . . So far, Joshua Cribbs looks like any ordinary kick returner. In other words, nothing special. Based on the past, fans expect Cribbs to break either a punt of kickoff for a touchdown just about every time he grabs the ball. The relatively new kickoff rule, which went into effect last season, has definitely hurt him . . . Tough work ahead for the run defense. After holding the Bengals to 80 rushing yards last week, their assignment Sunday at home to Buffalo is shut down C. J. Spiller, who leads the NFL in rushing with 292 yards and three touchdowns. The Bills are coming off a 35-17 victory in Kansas City.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An offensive awakening

Whether it was a blip on the pro football radar or the real thing, it sure was fun watching the young Browns offense grow before our very eyes Sunday in Cincinnati.

Sure, the team lost its fourth game in a row to the Bengals, but this time, the offense awoke from Rip Van Winkle land and provided some excitement along the way. This one was lost due to a defense that couldn’t stop the pass and poor special teams play.

The Browns sent fair warning to the Bengals that this just might be the beginning of something big, not only in the series between the two teams, but as a broad hint that they no longer consider themselves a soft spot on the schedule.

If there is any solace to be gained from this loss, it’s that the offense came alive. The 34-27 final is much easier to swallow because that offense, which showed absolutely no signs of life last week against Philadelphia, began making plays.

Trent Richardson ran like a top draft choice. Brandon Weeden threw just like he did in his final two years at Oklahoma State and the Cleveland offense performed as it hadn’t in a long, long time.

The Bengals were hanging on at the end. And when you break down the game, the difference was Pacman Jones’ 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter when five different Browns missed tackles.

After a very forgettable debut against the Eagles, Richardson showed why he was considered the best running back to come out of college in the last five years. He displayed a burst and speed that is tough to defend.

He rang up 145 total yards and two touchdowns in 23 touches and didn’t look as though he was just six weeks removed from knee surgery. He clearly provided the spark this offense has longed for. Barring injury, this is the kind of performance we can expect from him every week.

Once the Browns’ coaches realize there are other running plays besides the boring dive play, Richardson should become an impact running back. His slashing style is tailor-made for misdirection plays.

Weeden, meanwhile, did not look like a freshman college quarterback as he did last week. He was confident in the pocket, did not stare down receivers for the most part, saw the entire field much more clearly and was extremely decisive in delivering the ball, especially on checkdowns.

It was as though he suddenly opened up his eyes and saw the game in a completely different way. He did not rattle and was precise with his reads.

And then there’s that throwing arm. We heard about it when he was drafted, but hadn’t seen any evidence of its worth. But against the Bengals, thrown footballs arrived at their expected destinations with great velocity and almost unerring accuracy, two facets of Weeden’s game that was AWOL against the Eagles.

Weeden arrived in the National Football League known for his accuracy of nearly 70% in college. So was last week’s 34.3% completion rate an aberration? Or did the Eagles just get lucky? Perhaps Weeden was nervous in his NFL debut.

Coming back and completing 70.3% of his passes with no interceptions against the Bengals should hold off those howlers (yours truly included) who wondered if the step up to the NFL was too big for him. Based on what we saw Sunday, no way.

Critics will throw up the caution sign and warn it was only one game. No need to get too excited. He has shown us he can put up significant numbers. Now comes the hard part for Weeden. He has to do it again and again and again. He has to show he can be consistent.

In the meantime, he can’t be happy the Browns lost. And he can’t be thrilled the club is 0-2. But Sunday’s performance should act as a confidence booster, not only to him, but his cohorts on the offense.

It took the better part of two seasons under coach Pat Shurmur, but we finally saw receivers get separation in the opposing secondary. And we final saw a game where only two passes were dropped.

Of Weeden’s 26 completions (in 37 attempts), 12 were caught by wide receivers, a meaningful statistic. If he can maintain that ratio of apportionment with the wideouts, then maybe, just maybe, a light has flickered in that tunnel.

The self assurance that begins in the huddle with the quarterback seems to be spreading. The offensive line threw up a more solid pocket for the rookie. Then again, maybe it seemed that way because Weeden was getting rid of the ball on time.

It all added up to a 439-yard afternoon, the most net yards a Cleveland offense has posted since throwing a similar number at the Lions in Detroit  in a 2009 loss. After what we’ve seen the last two seasons, it was clearly an eye opener.

An offense even remotely resembling that last week against the Eagles, when they posted just 12 first downs and 210 yards of offense, and we’d be talking about a .500 Browns team.

What disappointed the most was the inability of the defense and special teams to prevent the big play and the 10 penalties that stymied drives on offense and prolonged them on defense. There is no excuse for three holding penalties (Shawn Lauvao, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack) and two false starts on the offense.

That shows a lack of discipline and if there’s one thing this team needs now that Weeden shows signs of belonging, it’s discipline. This young man needs all the help he can get.

The secondary, supposedly the strength of the defense, was exposed for the second week in a row and has now surrendered 601 yards through the air. The run defense, supposedly a weakness, has allowed 230 yards in two games, including just 80 against the Bengals.

Last week, the defense and special teams held up their end of the bargain. This week, it was the offense. Just the offense. One of these weeks, this team just might put it all together.

And won’t that be something.