Monday, October 29, 2012

Monday leftovers

For years now, the Browns have been searching for that one running back who can slog with the best of them through any kind of weather Cleveland can throw at them.

That kind of runner can be the difference in the ugly games of November and December when there is no such thing as predictability when the weather is concerned.

The closest the Browns came was when Jamal Lewis gave them one very good season in 2007, but the former Baltimore Raven, who bedeviled the Browns for so many years, was clearly at the tail end of a very good career.

And now along comes a running back in the mold of Lewis, except he’s just starting his career. And if his performance in the Browns’ 7-6 victory over San Diego Sunday is any indication, the Browns have found themselves a mudder.

Ironically, he comes from a part of the country that is the polar opposite of Cleveland. Trent Richardson is a Floridian. He is used to running the football in weather that is dry and relatively warm.

No one really knew what Richardson, who did most of his collegiate running in the warm Southeastern Conference, would do in Cleveland, where weather unpredictability is the norm.

His 122-yard, one touchdown effort against the Chargers in conditions more suitable for fowl than humans answered that question rather succinctly. It’s going to take a lot more than large wind gusts and a steady rain to slow down this rookie.

Running on a slippery field is not easy, especially when you’re a back like Richardson, who is always looking for cutback lanes through which to run. A perfect example was his 26-yard touchdown run on the Browns’ first possession against the Chargers.

It began around right end, but his vision told him to change course and cut back toward the middle of the field. And then he did something that eventually will make him one of the great running backs in the National Football League.

He broke a few tackles before somehow winding up squarely between Cleveland guards John Greco to his left and Shawn Lauvao to his right with nothing but the end zone in front of him. When Lauvao realized this, he pretty much shoved Richardson toward the end zone.

Great runners break tackles. They make defenders miss. They do not go down on initial contact. That’s what separates them from the ordinary backs. One of the most telling statistics for a running back is yards gained after initial contact.

Richardson is still an NFL baby, but you can see he’s beginning to get it. More and more, he’s making quicker decisions on where he wants to go. If a designed play breaks down, he’s looking for an escape.

It took the Browns’ coaching staff eight games to figure it out, but they finally realized Richardson can be just as effective running out of the shotgun as he is in the standard pro set.

A couple of times against the Chargers, he ran a toss sweep left from the gun and gained significant yardage. It’s a play that should be used more often because it enables him to get to the boundary a lot quicker since he’s on the move at the snap.

The fact Richardson was playing with banged-up ribs and rib cartilage made his performance against the Chargers even more impressive. After his eight-carry, eight-yards game against Indianapolis the game before, some questions were raised as to whether he should be rested.

The emphatic answer came Sunday against San Diego. The young man is a warrior. Now let’s see if he can improve on that against the Ravens this Sunday.
*          *          *
It’s a good thing the Browns’ defense showed up and played maybe its best game of the season against the Chargers. It bailed the offense out series after series after series.

That’s because Brad Childress and Pat Shurmur combined to dial up one of the lamest game plans of the season. Maybe they figured that because of the weather and playing conditions, it would be better to be conservative.

Some might call that coaching not to lose. Others might call it trying to manage the game. Either way, the Cleveland offense, after that first possession, played it mighty close to the vest except for one play, which we’ll get to next.

A myriad of high-percentage, low-risk plays played right into San Diego’s hands and resulted in nine straight Reggie Hodges punts. Fortunately, the Browns’ defense, received plenty of help from a San Diego offense that was as vanilla as Cleveland’s.
*          *          *
What in the world was Shurmur thinking when he called as double reverse on the last play of the first quarter? It was raining and the wind was gusting, so let’s call a play where ball handling is paramount, right? Wrong.

It’s time to shelve the double reverse until, say, next season, which means it might never be seen again since Shurmur most likely won’t be back to call it, anyway. Tear it out of the playbook and set a match to it.

OK, it worked once, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee success every time it’s called. This one lost 20 yards when Joshua Cribbs and Travis Benjamin got their signals crossed. The Browns were lucky they didn’t lose the ball.

The stupid call was made on the second play after Billy Winn jumped on a fumble caused by James-Michael Johnson at the San Diego 46. The best play against a team on its heels is a deep pass, not a double reverse.
*          *          *
Confession time: I thought Shurmur was dumb to challenge a six-yard completed pass to San Diego’s Robert Meachem on the first play of the Chargers’ second possession.

First of all, it took place deep in San Diego territory. It was a relatively insignificant play. Why challenge so early? If you lose, you burn a timeout. And timeouts should be treated like precious jewels. Save them for when you really need them.

Besides, the replay showed Meachem got both feet in. Or so I thought. Referee Jerome Boger did not agree and overturned the decision on the field. I immediately made a note to call and make an appointment with my ophthalmologist.

I owe Shurmur an apology. He was right and I was wr-r-r-r-r-ong.
*          *          *
Notebook: It was nice to see defensive coordinator Dick Jauron come up with a much more aggressive game plan for the Chargers. The very active linebackers seemed to be in just about every play and the game stats reflected it. They were the club’s top three tacklers. If his play in this game is any indication, rookie James-Michael Johnson is going to have a nice career. . . . Quarterback Brandon Weeden might have to adjust his release point if opposing defensive linemen continue to deflect or get a hand on his passes. Rolling him outside the pocket a few times helped. . . . Notice that Weeden did not throw an interception or fumble the ball. That’s progress. . . . Only two holding penalties on punts. That’s progress, too.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

From Sadness to Gladness

Does the following sound familiar to Browns fans?

Your team scored seven points Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. After scoring on the first possession of the game, they owned the ball nine more times. And punted nine times.

That was the sum total of what the Browns had to offer on offense all afternoon. After Trent Richardson galloped 26 yards to score the Browns’ only touchdown of the afternoon, the scoring cupboard was bare.

Nine subsequent possessions yielded 48 plays, which gained a net total of 157 yards during the very windy and very wet afternoon inside Cleveland Browns Stadium.

When the Browns score seven points in a game, chances are extremely high that they lose that game. That’s just the way it’s been for this team ever since the return in 1999.

And when Reggie Hodges punts on nine consecutive possessions, no matter the weather conditions, it’s not incorrect to expect the Browns to come out on the wrong end of the final score. Again.

It’s part of the DNA of a Browns fan. They can’t help themselves. They have come to expect disappointments. Those disappointments come in all different shapes and sizes and emotions. But they still keep on coming.

Oh, and one more item before we move on.

The Browns did have one more possession. They ran the last two plays of the game from the victory formation. Yep, the kneel-down formation teams run in the final moments of game when they have the lead and the opponent is out of timeouts.

As improbable as that sounds, the Browns somehow, some way, managed to eke out a 7-6 victory over the Chargers, but not without several cardiac moments down the stretch.

Before we get to those moments, we bring you two highlights that now allow Chargers fans to know exactly how Browns fans feel when victory literally slips through their fingers.

Nine minutes left in the third quarter and the Browns playing conservatively on defense. Ball is at the San Diego 49-yard line, third and 9.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers drops back and throws a perfect pass right down the middle to wide receiver Robert Meachem who splits two Cleveland defensive backs . . . and drops the ball at the 20-yard line with nothing but green in front him.

Normally, that happens to the Browns. Isn’t that right, Josh Gordon?

Now, let’s move to midway in the fourth quarter. The Browns are pinned deep in their end by a Mike Scifres punt. Second and 6 after a Chris Ogbonnaya four-yard run from the three. For whatever reason, the Browns don’t line up soon enough to run a play and coach Pat Shurmur, clearly perturbed, calls a timeout.

On second-and 6, Brandon Weeden attempts to dump off a pass to tight end Alex Smith in the right flat, but San Diego linebacker Melvin Ingram gets a hand on it at the line of scrimmage it and deflects into the air at the 5-yard line.

Chargers safety Atari Bigby latches onto the ball . . . and drops it. Five yards from giving the San Diego a 13-7 lead and he drops it.

Again, that normally happens to the Browns.

Fate? Maybe? There are times when certain events are meant to happen.

The residue of hard work? Maybe.

As it turned out, the Browns, who failed to run a play in the red zone all afternoon, converted the third down, taking precious time off the clock, and moved the ball to the San Diego 46 before Hodges’ final punt.

Add it all up and there is only one word you can use to aptly explain what took place in these two scenarios.

The Browns were lucky. But when the final score is entered into the record books, no one will be able to tell whether luck played a part in the outcome. That’s the beauty of the final score. It stands alone and means only one thing.

But like most close Browns games, this one did not come without its moments of trepidation and flat out fear. It came down to the Chargers' final possession. Doesn’t it always seem that way?

Much like they did in the final moments of the first half when they played The Price Is Right defense and invited the Chargers to come on down by playing the dreaded prevent (the victory) defense, they allowed the Chargers to march from their 12-yard line to the Cleveland 45 in five plays.

Here we go again, chanted a good deal of Browns Nation. Another heartbreaking loss in the Factory of Sadness on the way.

Nick Novak, who had kicked two earlier field goals for the Chargers, warmed up on the sideline as Browns fans nervously chewed their fingernails down to the quick or what was left of it. All the Chargers had to do was get to the Cleveland 30 in order to give Novak a decent shot at a game-winning field goal.

Browns fans braced themselves for the inevitable. It had happened far too often to think otherwise.

Rivers, inconsistent all afternoon, failed to connect with tight end Dante Rosario and running back Ryan Mathews on the first two downs. He went right back to Rosario on third down, but the Browns all but mugged him. No flag.

Take a deep breath and please pass the nitro tablet.

OK, fourth down and ball game. Here we go.

Uh, no we don’t. Not yet. Norv Turner calls his final timeout. The Chargers coach sure knows how to ratchet up the suspense.

More time to worry. More time to wonder just how the Chargers are going to pull this one out. Surely, All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who had been targeted just four times and caught just two passes, is going to be the primary target. Where’s that nitro tablet?

OK, here we go. Fourth and ball game.

Rivers drops back, has the time to throw despite a furious Cleveland pass rush, and finds Malcolm Floyd open deep enough down the middle to give the Chargers a first down.

Just before the spiral reaches Floyd, cornerback Buster Skrine stretches his hand as far as it could go in front of Floyd and flicks the ball away harmlessly.

Ball game. Time for the victory formation.

It is said that winning teams win because they know how to close out games. And losing teams lose because they do not. But on this afternoon, the hard-luck Browns found the right variety of luck to win.

On this afternoon, the Factory of Sadness was turned into the Factory of Gladness.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Here come the mad, mad, mad, mad Chargers

As if the Browns didn’t have enough to be concerned with this week comes this little challenge.

The San Diego Chargers, their opponents Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, will arrive the day before in what can be best described as an extremely belligerent mood.

Not only have the Chargers lost their last two games, they did so in a most humiliating way. They blew leads in both games, one of them in almost historic fashion.

It wasn’t bad enough that the Chargers allowed the New Orleans Saints to win their first game of the National Football League season by blowing a 24-14 third-quarter lead in week five.

They then turned around in week six and raced out a 24-0 halftime lead at home against division rival Denver on national television only to watch the Broncos outscore them, 35-0, in the second half. It was the fourth-largest deficit overcome to win a game in NFL history.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers committed five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) in the fourth quarter that turned into 21 Denver points and handed the Broncos the improbable victory.

Now if that wasn’t bad enough, the Chargers couldn’t get right back out there and try to play away their problems in week seven. No, week seven was their bye week. So they have had all that time to dwell on two tough losses that prevented them from being 5-1 entering the Browns game.

So there’s no telling how high the Chargers’ anger quotient will be once they hit the field on Sunday.

In the week following the Denver game, San Diego coach Norv Turner announced he is buttoning down his offense. The turnovers will stop, he vowed. Fewer downfield shots will be taken.

He wants safer, shorter passes. Low-risk, high-percentage throws. Sounds an awful lot like the west coast offense.

That, it would appear, is what the Browns have to look forward to Sunday. No, the Chargers will not choose to strafe a Cleveland pass defense that ranks 26th in the NFL if Turner follows through.

A quick look at NFL statistics reveals a couple of anomalies with regard to the Chargers. They rank 19th in passing, 18th in the running game, but just 25th overall. Perhaps that’s because they have played just six games, while most others have played one more.

On defense, they are 25th against the pass, second vs. the run (just 71 yards a game) and 16th overall. Again, playing one less game can skew some of the stats.

The Browns, on the other hand, are 27th overall on offense and defense, but are climbing up the offensive standings in the passing game. With Brandon Weeden putting up some strong numbers after his miserable start, they now rank 15th in passing.

So how does all that impact on Sunday’s meeting at CBS?

It’s hard to believe Turner when he says he’s going to dial back his offense. His game is throwing the ball downfield. Strike quickly. Now, all of a sudden, he’s changing tactics? Don’t buy it.

Look for the Cleveland secondary once again to have a busy Sunday. Turner had to have noticed the Browns don’t have much of a pass rush, so why shackle Rivers and turn him into something he really isn’t?

Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, whose vanilla approach in the first half of last week’s loss to Indianapolis proved costly, must take a different, more aggressive tack against the Chargers or else a 1-7 start will come sharply into focus.

Turner most likely will not hesitate to turn Antonio Gates loose. This will be the tight end’s fourth game against the Browns, whom he followed while playing basketball at Kent State University. And he loves playing in Cleveland.

In his first meeting in 2004, his only reception resulted in a 72-yard touchdown in a 21-0 victory at CBS. In 2006, he was held to two catches for 22 yards in a 32-25 loss at San Diego. But in a 2009 victory in Cleveland, he hauled in eight passes for 167 yards, although he did not score in a 30-23 victory.

Cleveland has been good to the Chargers, who have won four in row against Browns and seven of the last eight. They are 8-3-1 overall by the lakefront and haven’t lost there since 2001.

Rivers cannot be taken lightly even though he has thrown just 10 scoring passes this season. He loves to spread the ball around, but Gates is his favorite target. However, his meager running game leaves him slightly vulnerable.

The Chargers’ running game offers no major threat. But neither did Indianapolis’  last week and the Browns surrendered nearly 150 yards on the ground in the loss. If the San Diego offensive line manhandles the Cleveland defensive line Sunday in a similar fashion to what the Colts’ OL did, it’s going to be another long afternoon.

Once again, whichever team wins the battle of the trenches should prevail. The Cleveland offensive line protected Weeden well last week, but failed miserably in the run game. That can’t happen again if they hope to end the first half of the season on a winning note.

But the offense will let them down again. The defense, however, will rescue the offense time and again. The Chargers will spend plenty of time in Cleveland territory following three Cleveland turnovers, but the defense will tighten up.

Nick Novak will be the busiest man for the Chargers as the Browns stiffen in the red zone all afternoon and frustrate Rivers and his men. The placekicker will be called on to kick field goals five times and won’t miss. The last, with less than a minute left, will be the dagger for the Browns. Make it:

Chargers 22, Browns 20

Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday leftovers

Where to begin . . . there’s so much ground to cover . . .

OK, let’s start with the Browns’ biggest problem Sunday in their loss to the Indianapolis Colts. They were outcoached.

The Colts’ M.O. this season has been to throw the ball and run if necessary. Sort of like the Browns.

Sunday, though, the Colts were determined to run the football even though their top running back, Donald Brown, did not play because he had a knee scoped earlier last week.

You’ve no doubt heard the old expression that games are won and lost in the trenches. The Colts’ victory is a perfect example. They ruled the trenches.

Their offensive line beat the daylights out of the Cleveland defensive line all afternoon. Reserve running backs Vick Ballard and Delone Carter rang up 125 of the Colts’ 148 yards. Ballard is a rookie; Carter is a third-year man.

Coming into the game, the Colts had compiled just 431 yards on the ground. That’s 86.2 yards a game. One would figure that shouldn’t be a problem with Cleveland’s defensive line. And one would be wrong.

For a majority of the afternoon, the Browns’ front seven didn’t make initial contact with Ballard or Carter until they were at least three or four yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s how effective the Colts’ offensive line was.

A quick scan of the tackling chart reveals the Browns’ top three in that category were Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine, a pair of cornerbacks, and strong safety T. J. Ward. When your top three tacklers are members of the secondary, you’ve got a big problem.

It wasn’t until the second half that defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who went into the game with a wimpy game plan, changed tactics and dialed up the pressure on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the running game. He keeps forgetting that defense is all about aggression. Not in the first half Sunday against the Colts.

Cleveland played a read-and-react, almost ultra conservative defense until the light went on in the second half and the Colts took full advantage. The Browns’ defense couldn’t get off the field as the Colts nickel-and-dimed them to the tune of 14 first-half points.

The Colts owned the football an alarming 35 minutes and 21 seconds overall, giving Brandon Weeden and his cohorts just 24 minutes and 39 seconds with which to work.

But when the Browns had the ball, their game plan was so far over the top in terms of imbalance, it defied logic. Where the Colts ran the ball 56% of the time, the Browns countered by running it 29% of the time.

The pass-happy play calling of Pat Shurmur actually did the Colts a favor. Apparently, the Browns head coach did not consider that the Colts had surrendered an average of 170 yards on the ground entering the game. In Shurmurland, that, of course, means throw the ball.

And, yes, if Josh Gordon had not dropped that touchdown pass with about six minutes left in the game, the Browns might have won the game and all this would be moot.

But just think if Cleveland’s offensive line has taken advantage of an injury-riddled Indianapolis defense and pounded the ball just like the Colts did, the Browns’ offense might have been much more effective and Weeden wouldn’t have had to throw as often.

OK, Trent Richardson was either hurt or ineffective or both, depending on whose story you believe. The rookie running back said he could have played despite damaged rib cartilage. It was obvious he was hurting by the tentative manner in which he ran. He was totally ineffective in his brief first-half appearance.

So why not give the ball to Montario Hardesty, who at least found and hit holes quicker than Richardson, more than seven times? You do the Colts’ hurting front seven a huge favor by throwing the ball 70% of the time.

Bottom line: The Browns once again found a way to lose a game. And a majority of the blame keeps finding the same home: the coaching staff.
*          *          *
How much latitude does Weeden have to change the play at the line of scrimmage when he surveys the defense and realizes the play called isn’t going to work? Well, if the Colts game is any indication, apparently none.

Several times when he approached the line of scrimmage and the Colts showed eight men in the box ready to stuff the run, especially with Richardson in the game, the play was run and Richardson was stuffed.

If he is no longer is a rookie, as Shurmur strongly suggests, then Weeden should have the option to change the play. He did not do that against the Colts, making it that much more difficult to operate on second and third down. 

Shurmur needs to unshackle the chains on Weeden. It’s time to start trusting him. How bad can that be? The Browns are 1-6.

On the plus side, it’s nice to see Weeden finally throwing the ball deep. That’s one of his strengths and it needs to be fed at least four or five times a game. Minimum.
*          *          *
Where is the Browns’ discipline? With about three minutes left in the second quarter and the Colts’ offense stuck at their 23-yard line, the Browns forced a punt. Or so they thought.

Luck had just completed a 13-yard pass to Reggie Wayne on a third-and-14. The Browns called a timeout when the Colts did not send out the punt team. So on fourth-and-1 at the Indy 23, Luck lined up his offense as if to run a play.

Everybody knew they were trying to get the Browns to jump offside. Those watching on television, those folks in the TV and radio booths knew. The beer vendors knew.  Everyone knew this was a ruse, a tactic to draw the Browns offside.

Luck barked out the signals. No one moved. He barked again. Again, no movement. Good discipline by the Cleveland defensive line. Don’t move, everyone in Browns Nation screamed. And then Luck barked again, Third time was a charm. Rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn jolted across the line. Neutral zone infraction.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. As it turned out, the only damage it did was rob the Browns of a few minutes of possession time. But still, it was an alarming lack of discipline. Translation? Bad coaching.
*          *          *
Notebook: Quick question – Is Trent Richardson injury-prone? Just wondering. He hasn’t been 100% healthy yet. . . . Impressive stat: Greg Little was targeted seven times against the Colts and had six catches. More impressive: no demonstrations after each catch. . . . Another stat: Josh Gordon – 10 targets, two catches. Well at least he’s getting into the end zone. . . . The Browns have lost 11 straight road games. Good thing the next two games are at home. . . . Still trying to understand why the Browns burned a timeout with 6:38 left in the game with the ball at the Indy 41-yard line and then decided to punt. What a waste of a timeout. . . . Nine more penalties for 75 yards. Will it ever stop? . . . Thinking out loud: If Shurmur is fired, new CEO Joe Banner has three options on the current staff to choose from for an interim replacement and all are former National Football League head coaches: Jauron, Brad Childress and Ray Rhodes. Can't be any worse than what he has now.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Welcome to the club, Jimmy

The look on Jimmy Haslam III’s face said it all.

It was anger. Pure, raw, unadulterated anger.

It was a look that never would have even crossed the mind of Randy Lerner, the irrelevant minority owner of the team.

But the brand new majority owner of the Browns knows football. He has a visceral relationship with the game. It looks as though he lives and dies with teams he follows. Sunday in Indianapolis, he died a little.

Haslam knows the difference between winning and losing. And he knows what it takes to overcome one and latch on to the other.

Six minutes and 38 seconds remained in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game between the Browns and  Colts when he received his first emotional jolt in his first game as the owner of a National Football League team.

He watched Josh Gordon drop a perfectly thrown 41-yard touchdown pass by Brandon Weeden as he pranced into the end zone. Perfect as in Weeden couldn’t have thrown it any better had he walked up to Gordon and placed the ball in his hands. It would have given the Browns a 20-14 lead.

It brought Haslam to his feet in excitement as he watched the ball descend toward Gordon’s outstretched hands. All he could do was punch the air frustratingly as Gordon allowed the ball to slip through his hands.

What made it even more frustrating, the rookie wide receiver made a nice back-shoulder catch on a 33-yard scoring strike by Weeden at the beginning of the second half that brought the Browns to within 14-13.

Then Haslam was treated to another reason coach Pat Shurmur is an odds-on favorite to be looking for a job at the end of the season.

The Browns, whose defense played back on their heels most of the afternoon, had finally made a play when cornerback Sheldon Brown sacked Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck on a blitz, stripped him of the ball and recovered at midfield with 7:25 left in the game.

It was clearly the best field position at the start of the drive the Browns had all afternoon. Up to that point, their best start on a drive was their 20-yard line. Their average start in the first seven drives was the 16-yard line.

So midfield was the lap of luxury by comparison for the offense, which had previously put together touchdown drives of 90 and 80 yards.

The Browns clearly had momentum in so many different ways. Weeden connected with Travis Benjamin on a nine-yard pass play. Second and short produced an incompletion to Benjamin, followed by the Gordon drop.

So on fourth down with less than a yard to go at the Colts’ 41-yard line, Shurmur called a timeout. Six minutes and 38 seconds left in a 17-13 game and you’ve got the 13.

What to do, what to do. Go for it and give the Colts good field position if you fail? Or play it safe and make the Colts start within the shadow of their goalposts?

Most coaches, those with stones, especially those whose team had won just once in the first six games, would have gone for it. In this case, what’s to lose? Another game? You’re 1 and 5, for goodness sakes. Might as well go for it.

But the staid Shurmur, playing it by the book all the way, decided to call on punter Reggie Hodges, whose bobbled hold of a snap on an aborted Phil Dawson placement following the first touchdown proved a critical mistake. He had decided to play the field-position game. Pin the Colts deep in their territory and force a punt.

Fourth and about 18 inches at the opponent’s 41-yard line in a close game with momentum clearly on your side. Just about everyone hoped Shurmur would go for it. It should have been a no-brainer.

And that’s when we saw Haslam’s disgusted look for all the fans to see. The glare could have melted an iceberg. OK, an exaggeration, but he was clearly unhappy. Coaching from his private box, he was more than mildly irritated that Shurmur had not gambled and instead sent his punt team on the field.

Haslam knew his new team should have gone for it. He knew this moment called for something daring, something bold, something we haven’t seen from a Cleveland coach since Butch Davis.

While it is not known for certain, it would not be inconceivable that Haslam and Shurmur had a nice long talk after the game. And they were not talking about how well Weeden threw the ball.  Or how much of a difference Josh Cooper makes in the passing game. Or the fact that Greg Little somehow has learned to hold on to the ball when it’s thrown in his direction.

No, you can bet the one decision that ultimately cost the Browns a shot at a victory was the primary topic.

As it turned out, Hodges’ punt traveled only 21 yards and the Colts began their next drive with their backs nowhere near those goalposts. So much for that strategy.

To make matters worse, the Colts went three and out against a Cleveland defense that played much better in the second half, but Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee nailed a 52-yarder and the Browns began their next drive at their 31. They drove to the Indy 39 before the Colts held and took over on downs with 1:54 left.

Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, the new owner found out just why Browns fans lead the league in one dubious category: frustration.

With any kind of good coaching, the Browns today enter week eight of the NFL season next week with a record no worse than 3-4 and arguably 4-3. The fact they are 1-6 is a direct result of some highly questionable coaching.

In the bottom-line world of the NFL, you get only 16 shots in a season. You had better make the most of them. And there can be no question that Shurmur has not done that. Not with a 5-18 record in 23 games.

The way he coaches this team will make it that much easier for Haslam to drop the hammer on his coach within 48 hours of the season finale Dec. 30 at Pittsburgh.

If not sooner.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hard to figure out

On paper, after breaking down the Browns and Colts for their Sunday meeting in Indianapolis, one gets the feeling they just might wind up in a tie.

Each club has weaknesses that can be easily exploited. And each has strengths that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The Browns, for instance, have proven much better on offense when Brandon Weeden drops back to throw. So, too, have the Colts when Andrew Luck drops back to throw.

The rookie quarterbacks have traveled a similar course as they take their first National Football League baby steps. Weeden has completed 55.8% of his 231 passes with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Luck has completed 53.4% of his 221 passes for the 2-3 Colts with seven TDs and seven picks.

The biggest difference between the two is that Weeden is the beneficiary of a stronger – but not by much – running game. Thus, Luck shoulders a bigger burden in the Colts offense. In fact, more than 75% of the Colts’ yardage has come through the air.

At least Weeden can rely on Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty on the ground. Luck’s choices have been reduced to just Vick Ballard after starting running back Donald Brown underwent scoped knee surgery this week.

So it’s pretty safe to say Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s job Sunday will be to ignore the run and force Luck into mistakes by applying extra pressure in the form of a heavy dose of sophisticated blitzing.

Because Luck relies so much on wide receiver Reggie Wayne, it won’t be much of a shock if Joe Haden is assigned to cover the veteran, who has averaged eight catches and nearly 120 yards a game with his new quarterback.

Shut down Wayne and the running game and Luck, who has been sacked 13 times, will have to come up with some new wrinkles. But Jauron should be aware that Luck, much more mobile than Weeden, is also the Colts’ second-leading rusher with 103 yards in 17 scrambles. Obviously, he runs more out of necessity than by design.

The Browns should be able to run on the Colts’ defense, which is still trying to adjust to its new 3-4 hybrid look. The switch has taken premier pass-rushing defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and converted them into linebackers.

The defense takes on the hybrid look when Freeney and/or Mathis are allowed to put their hand on the ground and become a defensive end in a four-man front. Sunday, it will be Freeney because Mathis is expected to miss the game with a sprained left knee.

The Indianapolis defense against the run resembles the Browns’ run defense of the last several seasons, surrendering nearly 160 yards a game. Then take into consideration that the Browns have averaged a meager 83 yards a game on the ground and you have what could amount to a stalemate. But Richardson and Hardesty should thrive against the worst run defense the Browns will face all season.

The Browns’ run/pass ratio checked in at nearly 54-46 in favor of the run in the Bengals victory last Sunday, reversing a 65-35 trend favoring the pass that led to an 0-5 start. So unless offensive coordinator Brad Childress changes his mind and reverts to a pass-happy attack against the Colts, look for that more balanced trend to continue.

The Browns are also a much more opportunistic team on defense with 10 interceptions and three fumble recoveries in their six games. The Colts have picked off just two passes and recovered a pair of fumbles.

The only advantage the Colts have in this one is home field. The last time the Browns played under the Indy dome was last season, racking up the first of four victories under rookie head coach Pat Shurmur. But the quarterback for the Colts then was Kerry Collins.

If the Browns are to be successful Sunday, they must dramatically improve their time of possession.  Half of last Sunday’s 16 drives against the Bengals wound up lasting no longer than three plays. That must change.

For the season, the Browns have owned the ball just 26½ minutes a game, which means the defense has spent 33½ minutes on the field. That’s way too long for a defense that has been hampered by injuries.

All of which adds up to what could be a high-scoring game. Two teams that love to throw the ball; two teams with marginal defenses that have trouble keeping the opposition off the scoreboard; two teams that can’t stop each other; and two teams trying very hard to climb back off the scrap heap and make some noise.

The Browns are just coming down from their high of knocking off the Bengals, while the Colts can’t forget soon enough the 35-9 thumping they absorbed last Sunday against the New York Jets.

It’s an intriguing game insofar as it’s difficult to get a definitive handle on it. The strengths and weaknesses of the two teams cancel out each other. It comes down to one team looking to build on something positive, the other in recovery mode.

Grabbing a coin and flipping it one time only results in . . . tails. So . . . make it:

Browns 34, Colts 27

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Don't be surprised if it's Reid

Andy Reid the next Browns head coach?

Don’t discount it.

If the Philadelphia Eagles do not make the playoffs this season, Reid most likely will be asked not to return as the head coach.

Which, of course, will place him on the open market.

Now start fitting the puzzle pieces together in their right places and you understand why Reid might possibly wind up in Cleveland.

There is no way short of the Browns making the playoffs that Pat Shurmur returns as the head coach in Cleveland next season.

Don’t get caught up in the giddy feeling Browns fans had following Sunday’s victory against Cincinnati. It’s nearly mid-week and that victory is ancient history. They’re still 1-5 heading into Indianapolis Sunday.

Back to the puzzle.

Now that Jimmy Haslam III is officially the team’s majority owner, Joe Banner is about 10 days away from becoming the club’s Chief Executive Officer. Forget Mike Holmgren. He’s gone.

Banner, as most fans know, is the former president of the Eagles, the man who anointed Reid as a National Football League head coach in 1999 following a successful assistant coaching career with Holmgren in Green Bay.

Banner is no longer around in Philadelphia to protect his man. Reid is out on the coaching plank with no safety net.

If the Eagles, who have split their first six games of the season and not looked good in doing so, cut Reid loose, it only makes sense for Banner to take a substantial interest in him.

It has been speculated in Philadelphia that Reid’s shaky position with the Eagles was one of the main reasons he fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo Tuesday.

He needs to turn this team around and he’s not getting any help from his quarterback. The Eagles have scored the fewest points of any NFC team that has played six games, averaging just 17 points an outing.

Now everything is predicated on the Eagles not qualifying for the postseason. If they do, then all bets are off. But that is unlikely to happen.

So do not rule out the distinct possibility that the big man from Philadelphia, who is only 54, could wind up as the brand new coach for the Browns next season.

No question Haslam will strongly suggest that Banner confine his search to someone who has a high profile. Someone like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. Or Andy Reid.

Ever since their return in 1999, the Browns have been saddled, for the most part, with head coaches who failed to get the most out of the players. The lone exception might have been Butch Davis, but he self-destructed when he chose to control the entire organization, thus reducing his effectiveness as a head coach.

Now it’ll be interesting to see just how Banner handles the situation. He was Browns General Manager Tom Heckert Jr.’s boss in Philadelphia. In fact, Heckert held the same title there.

But he was the GM in name only. Reid ran that organization from a player personnel and coaching standpoint. Heckert scouted, but Reid drafted.

If the Eagles choose to go in a different direction with Reid and he winds up on the lakefront, that could jeopardize Heckert’s role in Cleveland. Would Heckert agree to work under the same conditions in Cleveland that he did in Philadelphia?

Probably not.

So while Banner won’t have to hit the ground running, he’ll be faced with some interesting choices. And because Haslam is no hurry this season, which is pretty much down the drain, anyway, Banner likely will take his time in reconfiguring the Browns' football structure.

But do not rule out the possibility of Reid wearing the Seal Brown & Orange next season.

It might not happen, but it’s definitely within the realm of possibility if the Eagles flame out this season.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Monday leftovers

Lost in the euphoria of the Browns’ victory over Cincinnati Sunday was a comment made by Montario Hardesty that bears close scrutiny.

“We got our stadium back today,” said the Cleveland running back, who filled in admirably when Trent Richardson went down with a rib injury. “It was great. The crowd was going crazy. Now we have to build on that feeling.”

Hardesty got one thing right. Yes, the club has to build on the feeling, but he doesn’t take into consideration just why the 67,000 in attendance reacted as they did.

This is Hardesty’s third season with the Browns, meaning he has witnessed, one way or the other, the behavior of a Cleveland crowd in 19 games during that time. Injuries have limited his participation, so he hasn’t attended all those games.

What he fails to understand is the frustration of Browns fans down through the years since 1999 at the ineptitude of the team, especially at home. They are used to seeing their team lose.

The Browns are 38-69 in 107 home games at Cleveland Browns Stadium for a winning percentage of .355. So much for home-field advantage. And in the 13-plus seasons since the return in 1999, the Browns have had only one winning season.

That was in 2007 when they dropped the opening game of the season to Pittsburgh, then ran off seven straight victories and fell just short of the playoffs. Now that was a truly euphoric season except for the abrupt ending. Since that season, the Browns are 11-24 at CBS.

They came close to a winning home season in 2001 and 2005 when they split the eight games. Other than that, it’s been mostly 2-6 and 3-5. The last three seasons have been a consistent 3-5.

One game like Sunday’s against the Bengals does not mean or insure the Browns got their stadium back. What it means is that on one Sunday in mid-October, the fans reacted as they did because not only were they overjoyed, they were surprised almost beyond belief.

They paid good money and were rewarded with the kind performance they have longed for since CBS opened in 1999. Games like that don’t come along very often on the lakefront, but when they do, reactions like Sunday’s occur.

Players quite often allow themselves to get caught up in the euphoria of such a victory. But when they allow themselves to closely examine the situation, they can’t help but notice that winning is the ultimate aphrodisiac to the fans.

Winning at CBS is such a rarity, it’s almost as the fans don’t quite know how to react when the scoreboard reveals the Browns have scored more points than their opponent on that day when zeroes adorn the scoreboard.

We’ll know a whole lot better by late afternoon on Nov. 25 whether Hardesty’s brag holds any legitimacy. By then, the Browns will have played home games against San Diego, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

If they can hold serve at CBS against those teams, then we can look back on what Hardesty proclaimed Sunday and say, “Well done.” Until then, however, we remain skeptical.
*          *          *
The last time the Browns scored at least 21 points in a quarter, as they did in the fourth quarter of the Cincinnati victory, they lost the game. They put up 24 points in the first quarter in Detroit against the Lions, then went on to lose the game, 38-37, on Nov. 22, 2009.

That was the game, you recall, that rookie Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford hit tight end Brandon Pettigrew with a one-yard scoring pass on an untimed play. The previous play, a Hail Mary by Stafford, resulted in a pass interference call on Cleveland defensive back Hank Poteat in the end zone with no time left in regulation.

Since a game cannot end on a defensive penalty unless it is declined, the Lions were awarded the ball on the one-yard line. Stafford injured his non-throwing shoulder on the play and was taken off the field. Daunte Culpepper took his place, but never ran a play.

That’s because Browns coach Eric Mangini called a timeout to make certain he had the right personnel on the field. Then he inexplicably called another timeout. This allowed Stafford to lobby Jim Schwartz to go back into the game. The Lions coach complied and the rest is history.

Stafford completed his fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon to Pettigrew, stealing yet another victory from the Browns. Ironically, it was arguably the best day of Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn’s career. He threw for 304 yards and four scoring passes.
*          *          *
For someone as tall as Brandon Weeden, it’s somewhat of a concern to see four of his passes either knocked down or tipped at or near the line of scrimmage. One of them wound up as his only interception of the day.

At nearly 6-4, there is no reason anyone should be getting a hand on his passes. It is obvious he’s going to have to adjust his release point or else this could become a nagging problem.

Most of the tips or deflections have come when he backpedals after setting up under center. When in the shotgun, the ball comes out of his hand quicker because defensive linemen have farther to travel to get to him. It should not be too difficult an adjustment for him.
*          *          *
Notebook: Did anyone notice the Browns held the Bengals to just 76 yards on the ground Sunday? Either the Bengals’ offensive line is worse than I thought, or the Browns’ defensive line is maturing rapidly. Rookie defensive tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes didn’t generate much of a pass rush, but the holes for Bengals running backs were non-existent. . . . Very quietly, rookie offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz is having a solid season. The big guy from California still needs to work on his run blocking, but his pass pro is a lot better than I thought it would be. . . . John Greco did a nice jobs filling in for flu-ridden Jason Pinkston at left guard. When Pinkston returns, it might not be a bad idea to let Greco take over for Shawn Lauvao at right guard. . . . Don’t look now, but Phil Dawson is perfect on his 12 field-goal attempts this season. Pay the man. . . . Owen Marecic might be an adequate blocking back, but the Browns should remove all pass plays involving the fullback from the playbook. Two more drops Sunday. . . . Joshua Cribbs looked like his old self on his 61-yard punt return and 44-yard kickoff return. He’s getting close to breaking one. . . . Now that we know Josh Gordon can stretch the field and Weeden can find him, let’s see if he can be relied on with the short and intermediate routes as well.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's about time

You can wipe that worried look off your faces now, Browns fans. At least temporarily. And those of you who couldn’t stand to watch the final moments Sunday, you can uncover your eyes. It’s OK to come out now.

Because what you saw at Cleveland Browns Stadium, at least those brave ones with their eyes wide open, was an actual Browns victory. An honest-to-goodness, well-earned victory. And that, for Browns fans, calls for a celebration.

That’s how bad it has been the last several seasons for fans of this team that one victory should send them into feelings of rapture. Only Browns fans understand what that means.

But it took a strip sack by defensive end Emmanuel Stephens and a recovery by defensive tackle Billy Winn with 2:25 left for all fans to exhale when the Browns decided to play prevent (the victory) defense after taking a 34-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

No longer can they be called the winless Cleveland Browns. No longer can they be looked down on as the sad sack of the National Football League. No longer will hapless be the adjective attached semi-permanently to their name. And no longer will Monday seem like the longest day of the week. Call it temporary euphoria.

At least until next Sunday against the Colts in Indianapolis.

The 34-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals snapped a number of dubious marks the club would have set, the most important of which was an overall 11-game losing streak. A loss to the Bengals would have established a team record for futility.

Then there’s that pesky 12-game, 105-week long losing streak against the AFC North that went bye-bye. Ending losing streaks is always nice, but it’s extra special against a division opponent.

If nothing else, the Bengals beatdown proved this year’s team will never be out of a game because it now has an offense that cannot be ignored. Yes, even though it rang up what amounted to eight three-and-outs overall in 16 series.

The Cleveland offense racked up seven straight series of just three plays (one of which wound up with a Phil Dawson field goal following a Joe Haden interception), at one point, but you can’t ignore the 27 points (plus a pick 6 by Sheldon Brown) it slapped on the scoreboard.

The Browns have scored 134 points in six games this season, an average of 22.3 a game. Extrapolate that number over the course of a season and it puts them at 357 points.

Compare that will last season’s pop-gun offense under Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace that rang up an embarrassing 218 points in 16 games. At the rate they’re scoring this season, they will exceed last season’s total halfway through game 10 Nov. 18 in Dallas.

Slowly, but surely, Brandon Weeden and his buddies, when given the opportunity by a still-timid coaching staff, have the tools necessary to gain a larger degree of respect from opposing defenses than in the past.

Just about every time Weeden was permitted to throw downfield against the Bengals, he connected. When limited to those maddening four-yard routes on third-and-6, and six-yard routes on third-and-9, the young quarterback struggled and the fans screamed in frustration. You know that’s true.

It has become more than obvious he is much more comfortable when allowed to show off his strong throwing arm. The ball gets from here to there significantly quicker and much more accurately than any of his immediate predecessors.

The Browns drafted Weeden, who turned 29 Sunday, because of that arm and its ability to help stretch the field. It’s when those aforementioned diffident coaches tie one hand behind his back that his efficiency dips.

Maybe he’s too shy to approach Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress and say, almost pleadingly, “Trust me. I can get the job done. I think that’s why you drafted me. Please don’t hold me back.”

OK, so he has just six professional games on his resume. But wasn’t it Shurmur who said last week that Weeden being a rookie is no longer an excuse. If that’s the case, then, open up the playbook and play to his strengths.

Several times against the Bengals, Shurmur dialed up a screen pass. Each time, the Bengals were ready for it and blew it up. Once, they nearly picked off a pass. Twice, he threw the ball to the ground disgustingly and in frustration in order to avoid a negative play.

If you don’t do something well, and it looks as though Weeden is most uncomfortable with a play that requires exquisite timing and a good offensive line to execute properly, you abandon it. Shurmur called for it way too often.

First of all, the Browns don’t have a good enough offensive line to execute such a play. It seems as though their favorite plays in the run game are the dive play and stretch play.

A couple of traps,  a smattering of draw plays, only a couple of misdirection plays and nothing even resembling a counter play. This is an unsophisticated offense that leaves little to the imagination.

And can the Browns go no-huddle in the middle of a game? Or the beginning of the game? Please. Why use it only when they’re desperate? Change it up, for goodness sakes.

When the coaches dipped into the misdirection part of the playbook seven minutes into the fourth quarter and the Browns clinging to a 20-17 lead, they uncovered a sweet little three-yard pass to tight end Benjamin Watson, all alone in the end zone in the left flat. No Bengal within 10 yards.

The flow went right. The play went left. Weeden carried out a perfect play fake. Just like it was drawn up. It was almost too easy. It culminated a smooth six-play, 63-yard drive and shoved the Bengals back on their heels.

Now if Shurmur and Childress can haul out a play like that at a crucial point in the game, what’s preventing them from getting even more ostentatious with their kiddie offense at other junctures of the game? Play to their strengths.

Shurmur’s football philosophy naturally bends toward conservatism. But even he has to see that approach isn’t working when you enter the game 0-5. He had to have seen the result of loosening the reins on Weeden.

The Bengals victory has served to temporarily chill the coaching hot seat on which he sits. When conversations on NFL coaches in trouble ensue, Shurmur’s name invariably crops up. And more than a few place his name squarely on top of the list.

Weeden, a defense that came up with the big play when it was needed and a couple of special runbacks by Joshua Cribbs helped put a smile – at least I think that’s what it was because it seems as though he has a perpetual dour look– on Shurmur’s countenance Sunday.

Let’s see how long it lasts.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Smelling a Browns upset?

The way the Browns have played this season, and the manner in which they have been coached, it would be so easy to predict another loss Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals pay a visit.

Before we head in that direction, let’s examine the landscape for the game, starting with how well the Browns have fared against their AFC North rivals lately.

Well is the not really the operative word when discussing the Browns’ adventures within their division. Doesn’t even come close.

In the last 26 games against the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers over the last four-plus seasons, the Browns have celebrated a victory in the club house just three times.

Let that resonate. Let that percolate. Let that swim around for a while before you wrap your mind around it.

Statistical wonks won’t hesitate to tell you that’s a winning percentage of 11½. Now factor in that the Browns have lost 12 straight games to division opponents since knocking off the Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium 105 weeks ago.

No wonder division rivals chuckle and relax when they see the Browns coming up on the schedule. It’s their twice-a-season breather.

When you’re 3-23 against the teams you have to beat in order to have any chance of even thinking about the postseason, something is definitely wrong. And no one seems to know how to correct that.

The Browns have accomplished this most dubious feat with three different coaches. But at least Romeo Crennel knows what it’s like to beat an AFC North team. So does Eric Mangini.

Pat Shurmur, however, has been to the plate six times against the division and whiffed every time. He’s come close a few times, like three-, six- and four-point losses last season. But you know what they say about horseshoes, hand grenades and close.

It is said good teams just know how to win. Somehow, they almost always find a way. And bad teams just know how to lose. Somehow, they almost always find a way.

OK, enough about the recent past. Theoretically, that shouldn’t be a factor Sunday. After all, more than half of the current roster has no idea how badly the Browns have played against their division rivals. All they know is they have dropped a pair of seven-point games this season to the Bengals and Ravens.

The last time Browns faced the Bengals in week two, the offense starred and the defense and special teams bombed in a 34-27 loss. But it provided a glimpse into what could be a bright future from an offensive standpoint.

Brandon Weeden racked up his best game of the season statistically. The rookie quarterback, who will celebrate his 29th birthday Sunday, strafed the Cincinnati secondary for 322 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 70.3% completion rate.

Fellow rookie Trent Richardson busted loose for 109 yards and scored two spectacular touchdowns, one in infantry style and the other on a take-your-breath-away 23-yard run after receiving a flat pass from Weeden.

To give you some perspective as to how bad the Bengals have been on defense this season, Cleveland wide receiver Greg Little caught five passes – he was targeted seven times – and scored the last touchdown.

Perhaps that’s why oddsmakers have made the Browns just 1½-point dogs for this one. What they haven’t taken into consideration, however, is the improvement the Bengals’ defense has shown in the last two games.

In their first three games this season, the 3-2 Bengals surrendered 102 points, but in splitting the last two decisions, they have limited the opposition to just 27 points. Nearly half (eight) of their 18 sacks were recorded in those two games.

The Browns’ offensive line, meanwhile, has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the last two games. In the first three games of the season, Weeden dropped back 128 times and was sacked eight times. In the last two games, he has been sacked just once in 92 dropbacks.

It’s no coincidence the Bengals’ pass rush has improved with the insertion of Vontaze Burfict into the starting lineup at outside linebacker on the weak (right) side in week three. Chances are the free agent and Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas will lock up more than once.

Burfict is the Arizona State linebacker who went undrafted because he showed up overweight and out of shape at his individual workout and was considered a huge risk because of his temper, which resulted in numerous personal fouls (17 in 35 games) and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

His out-of-control reputation took a hit, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis took a chance and it has paid off. The Browns had a shot at him in the seventh round, but chose instead to draft fullback/tight end Brad Smelley after taking linebackers James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho earlier.

Johnson backs up D’Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker, while Smelley is on the practice squad and Acho landed on injured reserve and is out for the season. Draw your own conclusions.

The Cincinnati offense runs the ball 42% of the time, but they do so ineffectively. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been a big disappointment at running back. The former New England Patriot has rushed for only 300 yards and scored just twice.

That hasn’t helped quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been sacked 15 times (six times in the Cleveland victory) in five games. Without any kind of a running game, the second-year man is a sitting duck. But when he is able to throw, he completes nearly two of every three passes. Three of his nine touchdown passes were against the Browns in week two.

Wideouts A. J. Green and Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jermaine Gresham will be his main targets. But the Browns’ secondary gets cornerback Joe Haden back from his four-game league suspension and you can bet he’ll glom onto Green.

The X-factor on defense for the Browns will be the availability of Jackson and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, both of whom were injured in last week’s loss to the New York Giants.

If Jackson, who sacked Dalton thrice and picked him off once in their first meeting, plays on a short leash because of his concussion last week, and Rubin can’t go, look for the Bengals to ratchet up the running game.

Like their first encounter this season, this one should be a high scoring game. But the outcome will be different.

Weeden throws three touchdown passes, Joshua Cribbs returns a punt for a touchdown, the Browns sack Dalton four more times and Shurmur gets his first victory of the season that ends that nasty 11-game losing streak. Make it:

Browns 34, Bengals 27