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.

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