Friday, November 30, 2012

Just win, baby

The Browns have played five games on the road this season and been underdogs in each one. Lost every one of them, too. In fact, they have lost a club-record 12 straight away from home

But when the betting lines came out earlier this week, the Browns found themselves in an unfamiliar position: favorites.

That’s right, the smart Las Vegas money says if you put your money down on the Browns against the Raiders Sunday in Oakland, you have to spot the home team a point. Stunning, I know.

A game in the Oakland Coliseum, where the Raiders used to be nearly invincible and the Browns, of all teams, enter as the favorite? Yep. That’s how bad the Raiders, who sport the same 3-8 record as the Browns, have fallen.

Home teams usually get three points for home-field advantage. But oddsmakers are not buying the Raiders, even in front of the famed Black Hole fans.

Black Hole fans used to be extremely hard on visiting teams. The rowdy behavior of fans in sections 104-5-6-7 in the Coliseum makes the their counterparts in Cleveland’s Dawg Pound look tame by comparison.

The garishly dressed fans in those sections project the pirate image the Raiders like to have attached to their name, but they haven’t had much about which to get excited for the last couple of seasons. The Raiders were 3-5 at home last season and are just 2-3 this season. So much for home field advantage.

But these are the Cleveland Browns, the National Football League’s version of road kill. Not even the Raiders can mess this one up. Or can they?

Let’s take a closer look at this team, at one time a member of the NFL’s power elite. It hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing in Dennis Allen’s first season as head coach. In fact, it has been near disaster. And most of the finger pointing is at the defense.

In their 11 games, the Raiders have given up fewer than 22 points in a game only once, They have surrendered 169 points in the last four games, all losses, a 42.25-point average. On the season, they have allowed a league-worst 356 points, or 32.4 points a game.

That they have won three games is a testament to a decent offense led by quarterback Carson Palmer. In order to win games, the Raiders literally have to outscore opposing teams because the defense isn’t shutting down anyone.

And the situation didn’t get any better this week with the defense after third-year middle linebacker Rolando McClain reportedly mouthed off to his head coach and was told he was not wanted at practice. Unless a truce is reached, McClain, the club’s fourth-leading tackler, will be MIA against the Browns. (Update: McClain has been suspended for two games.)

The Oakland defense yields 379 yards a game (131 on the ground), has sacked opposing quarterbacks an NFL-low 13 times this season (the Browns have 28) and picked off just six passes, another league low (the Browns have 13).

It sure looks as though the inconsistent Cleveland offense might finally have some fun this week. That, of course, is if offensive coordinator Brad Childress and coach Pat Shurmur don’t give the sieve-like Oakland defense any respect. That’s not a given.

There is one factor, however, that might mess up whatever plans Childress and Shurmur have. The weather forecast for Sunday in Oakland calls for torrential rain and winds of about 25 miles an hour. But the Browns are used to playing in such conditions.

The entertained the San Diego Chargers on Oct. 28 in a steady game-long rain at Cleveland Browns Stadium with wind gusts up to 40 miles an hour. Those conditions dictated scaling back the passing game and concentrating on the run game. The result was a 7-6 Cleveland victory. That was the game where Chargers wide receiver Robert Meachem dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter.

If the meteorologists are correct, one would think it favors the Browns because the Raiders, who average just 88 yards a game on the ground, rely heavily on the passing of Palmer and receiving of Denarius Moore and tight end Brandon Myers. That tandem has been on the receiving end of half of Palmer’s 18 touchdown passes.

What balances the scales for the Raiders, though, is the return of running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, both of whom suffered high ankle sprains in a loss to Tampa Bay and missed the last four games.

McFadden, when healthy, is one of the NFL’s most dangerous runners. But the Browns’ run defense has been the most pleasant surprise this season. It has allowed just 112 yards on the ground the last two games.

With defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin finally healthy and contributing, word is getting around that running on the Browns this season is not as easy as it’s been the last several seasons. They have limited opposing teams to just 118.4 yards a game on the ground this season, compared to 147.4 a game a year ago.

If the weather forecast is correct, it figures to be a battle of the running games with Trent Richardson and McFadden dueling in the rain. Palmer, who sports a 9-3 career record against the Browns with 25 touchdown passes, and Brandon Weeden will spend most of the afternoon handing off. Trench warfare should dominate the afternoon.

Kicking could very well determine the winner of this one. Phil Dawson has been perfect this season for the Browns, while Oakland thunderfoot Sebastian Janikowski has missed just once, a 64-yarder against Jacksonville. And both men have proven deadly from 50-plus yards.

One last look at the stats reveals the Raiders have allowed 156 points in their five home games this season. That’s 32 points a game. No reason to think the Browns can’t match that and smash that losing streak to smithereens at the same time. The streak ends at 12. Make it:

Browns 32, Raiders 17

Weather permitting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Make Babin a Brown

This one falls under the category “what do they have to lose?”

The Philadelphia Eagles Tuesday placed defensive end Jason Babin on waivers. And wouldn’t he look nice in a Cleveland Browns uniform.

There is no question the Browns need help at defensive end when it comes to making sure opposing quarterbacks feel as uncomfortable as possible when they drop back to pass.

There is also no question the team is much stronger at defensive tackle with the return to health of Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. But the flanks need plenty of help. And that’s where Babin would be a perfect fit.

Outside of Jabaal Sheard, the Browns have no one who can apply pressure from the outside. The second-year man has had to deal with double teams all season. Put Babin on the right side and those double teams disappear.

OK, the Browns are tied for 11th in sacks in the National Football League with 27, but they have been distributed among 16 players. Four players – D’Qwell Jackson, Juqua Parker, Frostee Rucker and Sheard – lead the team with three.

With a weapon like Babin opposite Sheard, the Browns would have two players capable of registering double digits in dropping quarterbacks. Just another weapon for defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to have fun with.

Sure, the Browns are just 3-8 this season. So why do they need someone like Babin right now? He’s 32 years old, in his eighth NFL season and arguably past his peak. And he’s got only 5½ sacks this season, which, by the way, led the Eagles before his release.

So why go after him? Well, first of all, 5½ is 2½ better than anyone on the Browns. Second of all, he had 18 sacks last season with the Eagles and 12½ the season before with the Tennessee Titans. He didn’t ring up those numbers by accident. The man knows how to rush the quarterback.

At 6-3, 265 pounds, he is the prototypical defensive end in the 4-3 scheme. He would be the perfect complement to Sheard and relegate Parker and Rucker to strictly running situations.

Whoever claims Babin will be on the hook for $1.64 million for the rest of this season. The surprising move by the Eagles looks like a salary dump. It creates $3.7 million in cap space for them next season.

Babin also has three years and $16.65 million left on his original five-year contract. That money is not guaranteed. He’d be a cheap pickup.

The Browns need a personality on both sides of the ball, but defense is all about attitude and the addition of Babin would go a long way in developing the kind of attitude and swagger this team needs to become more than just fodder on a weekly basis.

Even if he’s around for just two or three seasons, it would be worth it to bring in someone like him to help establish the culture they’re looking for.

If Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner want to create a winning atmosphere, they’ve got to go out and get guys who know how to win and be successful. And Babin, with his Philadelphia connection, is one of those guys.

Banner knows Babin, So do Tom Heckert Jr. and Pat Shurmur. They know what he can do. They know he can be a valuable contributor to the Browns’ cause.

So what do they have to lose by going after him? Absolutely nothing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday leftovers

While writing Sunday’s piece about the Browns victory over Pittsburgh, it occurred to me more than a few times that the Steelers tried mightily to give away the victory.

Rather than make it the crux of the piece, I figured this was a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers for goodness sakes. How often do the Browns beat the Steelers?

Leave it alone, I told myself. Let the fans enjoy this one. What difference does it make how they won the game?

They won.

And then I read something early Monday that made me think again on the matter. Yahoo Sports pro football guru Mike Silver wrote it in his Morning Rush column. Way down at the bottom, in a category entitled Things I Can’t Comprehend, he wrote the following about the Browns-Steelers game:

(I Can’t Comprehend) How the Cleveland Browns could force eight turnovers – including one fumble from each of the team’s four running backs – and still have to sweat out a 20-14 victory . . . The outcome might have been reversed had a dubious down-by-contact call not negated a late Trent Richardson fumble (which Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, out of timeouts, was powerless to challenge). “Eight (expletive) turnovers and we won by only six at home,” said one frustrated Cleveland offensive starter. Added a defensive starter: “We should have scored 50 points.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized my initial reaction was closer to the correct reaction.  So . . .

On second thought . . .

The Browns could have – and should have – won this one by a much larger margin instead of putting their fans though another fourth-quarter nightmare.

How? This is where the Browns started their drives following a Pittsburgh turnover and the end result of that drive. You be the judge.

First quarter, 11:38 left, the Browns start at their 44 following a Rashard Mendenhall fumble and score on a Phil Dawson 29-yard field goal.

Second quarter, 13:41 left, the Browns start at the Pittsburgh 10 following an Isaac Redman fumble and score three plays later on a five-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron.

Second quarter, 3:12 left, the Browns start at the Pittsburgh 34 following a Jonathan Dwyer fumble, go three and out and punt.

Third quarter, 7:05 left, the Browns start at the Pittsburgh 32 following an interception and Richardson scores on a 15-yard run up the middle on the third play.

Fourth quarter, 11:59 left, the Browns start at their 26 following an interception and punt six plays later.

Fourth quarter, 3:00 left, the Browns start at their 19 following an interception and punt after another three and out.

Fourth quarter, 2:25 left, the Browns start at the Pittsburgh 40 following a Chris Rainey fumble and rack up another three and out.

The eighth turnover was inconsequential because it occurred on the last play of the game when the Steelers were locked in desperation mode.

The Browns left many points on the field because of timid play calling by Pat Shurmur. It was almost as though the Cleveland coach was afraid his rookie quarterback would make a critical mistake against the savvy Pittsburgh defense.

The Steelers’ defense had to be angry at the offense because they were back on the field before they could cool off. And the Cleveland defense, which outshone the Pittsburgh defense, had to be angry at the offense for not putting more points on the board.

The Browns started five of their 15 drives in Pittsburgh territory, and three others that began from around their 40, and came away with just 17 points. Eight drives within 60 yards of the Pittsburgh goal line and a paltry 17 points.

Seven of their last eight possessions ended in a punt by Reggie Hodges, who had 10 on the afternoon. Their longest drive was 44 yards and took 10 plays, taking 5:34 off the clock. Twelve of their 15 possessions lasted less than three minutes.

The way Shurmur called the game, especially in the fourth quarter after Brandon Weeden suffered a possible concussion late in the quarter, how could anyone come away not thinking he was coaching not to lose?

Coaching defensively is coaching passively. And that will lose you more games in the National Football League than it’ll win you.

Such conservatism has cost Shurmur in other games this season. In this one, he was awfully lucky Ben Roethlisberger was in street clothes on the Pittsburgh sideline.
*          *          *
Has anyone noticed how slow Richardson is to the hole? His initial burst needs more burst. Perhaps that’s why the hole isn’t there when he arrives at what at one time was an opening.

Too many times this season we have seen Richardson just duck his head into a pile of bodies and try to muscle his way through. Players on opposing teams say the rookie is hard to bring down, but it sure would be nice to see him avoid tacklers rather than trying to go through them.

It’s hard to say whether he sees other holes rather than the prescribed one since he rarely bounces plays outside. Watching him try hard on a weekly basis is painful. In the last two games, he has run the ball 57 times for 180 yards. That’s 3.16 yards a tote. That also is unacceptable. With that many carries, he should be around 230.
*          *          *
Loved the reason the Browns gave for cancelling their Inflatable White Flag promotion for the Steelers game.

“After further and careful consideration, we felt it was in the best interests of everyone involved that we not have a giveaway item at (Sunday’s) game,” team spokesman Neil Gulkis said. “It is something that was intended for fun for out fans and something they could rally around and we regret that some didn’t perceive it that way.”

That’s right. Blame someone else for hooking up with a gimmick that represents the international symbol for surrender. Just admit it was a mistake and move on. Don’t blame others. Look in the mirror for the blame.

The “some who didn’t perceive it that way” most likely were some of the team’s players. Said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, “I’m not a fan of the white flags. It’s just not a message that I like and I’m sure a lot of the other guys don’t approve of.”
*          *          *
What in the world happened to the Browns penalty discipline? Ten penalties for 90 yards in the Pittsburgh game? Five holding penalties on the offensive line? What’s going on here?

Offensive line coach George Warhop has some explaining to do. That is totally unacceptable. It kills any momentum a team is trying to generate. Where is the discipline?
*          *          *
Notebook: The Browns were lucky the Steelers were out of timeouts and couldn’t challenge Richardson’s fumble right before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. The ball definitely was out, but the whistle blew the play dead. A replay would have given the ball to the Steelers. . . . Correction (since made) in Sunday’s gamer: The Steelers averaged nearly 140 (not 160) yards a game rushing in the last five games before the Browns loss. . . . Will Dawson ever miss a field goal this season? He’s perfect on 21 attempts, including five of 50 yards or more. . . . So long to Mike Holmgren, whose legacy as the Browns’ president is a 12-31 record. He’s a Hall of Fame coach who stepped way out of his league when he said yes to Randy Lerner. Suffice it to say he won’t be missed.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A win is a win is a win

The Pittsburgh Steelers played like the Cleveland Browns Sunday and suffered the same fate the Browns have against Pittsburgh way too many times since 1999.

The Steelers played Santa Claus a month early at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday, coughing up the football eight times, committing nine penalties and generally playing Cleveland Browns football.

Taking nothing away from the Browns, who played a stunningly aggressive (for them) brand of defense all afternoon, but the 20-14 Cleveland victory might have been different if Ben Roethlisberger had been the Pittsburgh quarterback.

We’ll never know, of course, but when it comes to the Steelers, a victory is a victory no matter how you achieve it. It’s only the fifth time in the last 28 games that the Browns have left the field on the plus side of the score.

All Big Ben could do was watch helplessly from the sideline as the Cleveland defense relentlessly outslugged the Pittsburgh offense all afternoon in what can legitimately be called the team’s best defensive effort of the season. The trenches belonged solely to the Browns, time and again beating the Steelers off the ball.

It was no accident that the Browns achieved the trifecta plus two on the afternoon. Four Pittsburgh running backs, eight fumbles, five lost. No matter whom Steelers coach Mike Tomlin tried, ball security was a lost art. The Browns converted three of Pittsburgh's eight turnovers into 17 of their points.

Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey all tried to run and hold on to the ball at the same time. And failed.

As it turned out, Dick Jauron’s aggressive approach – smack them in the mouth before they smack you in the mouth – was the perfect antidote to whatever the Steelers had in mind on offense.

Sure, Charlie Batch quarterbacked the Steelers, but he has beaten the Browns before and the Pittsburgh running game has averaged nearly 140 yards a game for the last five games. But the Browns shut that down in a hurry by stacking the box, forcing Batch to throw.

Of course he’s no Roethlisberger, a playmaker who rarely misses open receivers and is brilliant at extending plays with his feet. Batch, slower than ever at 37, can do neither. And he showed it Sunday with three interceptions.

Does Roethlisberger’s absence cheapen this victory? Absolutely not. This was well earned. It was extremely ugly, but well earned.

It looked real ugly early, though, when Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons intercepted Brandon Weeden on a deflected pass on the fourth play of the game and romped 53 yards with the pick 6. Boy, does this look familiar, moaned at least a few Browns fans.

And when Rainey bounced off the pile at the goal line and raced into the end zone with a second remaining in the first half to give the Steelers a 14-13 lead, it provided another here-we-go-again moment. Sheldon Brown’s mugging of Plaxico Burress in the end zone set it up.

Each club relentlessly hurled bombs of self-destruction with alarming consistency all afternoon. Bad penalties at inopportune times had Pat Shurmur and Tomlin shaking their heads in disbelief at the ineptitude.

The Browns were three of 16 on third down; the Steelers were one of nine. The Browns committed 10 penalties for 90 yards; the Steelers were flagged nine times for 68 yards. Throw in several others that were declined and we’re looking at 200 in penalty yardage.

Good teams don’t play the game in reverse. Backward march is not their mantra. It seemed as though referee Ron Winter’s crew reached for their flags on just about every third play.

But still with all this, the Browns, bless their hearts, couldn’t help by making it exciting down the stretch. How many times have we seen them enter the fourth quarter with a lead, only to somehow find a way to blow it and lose? Answer: too many.

Browns fans have come to expect fourth-quarter letdowns, fourth-quarter trauma and ultimately fourth-quarter losses. They can’t help themselves. It’s in their DNA.

That moment, strange as it might seem, never occurred against the Steelers. That, in large part, was because Roethlisberger was a sideline spectator. That 20-14 lead entering the final quarter never seemed safer. The only way it would have been jeopardized is if Big Ben had gone to the locker room and suited up.

The Steelers’ first drive of the fourth quarter began at the Cleveland 46 and wound up in a Billy Winn interception after Mike Wallace bobbled Batch’s pass and Joe Haden knocked it into the air for Winn to grab.

So far, so good.

Next drive, a quick three and out. What’s going on here? There’s got to be a how-are-they-going-to-lose moment somewhere. After all, these are the Steelers and those Terrible Towels always seem to work their magic.

Third drive begins at the Pittsburgh 15 and ends with a Haden pick on a deep throw to Wallace that was underthrown. Still three minutes to go in the game and the Steelers have all their timeouts.

But wait a minute. Here comes Colt McCoy in at quarterback because Weeden’s helmet and Joe Thomas’ knee collided on the last play of the last series. A healthy McCoy is a lot better than a woozy Weeden.

Three Trent Richardson runs – talk about conservative football, but it worked – and three Pittsburgh timeouts later, the Browns punt and the Steelers begin the drive at their 26 with just one timeout (the two-minute warning) left. Plenty of time to reach for another nail to drive into the hearts of Browns fans.

But it’s Charlie Batch, not Big Ben, under center for the Steelers. No need to worry. Not on this afternoon. Some fans just knew there was no way the Steelers would somehow pull this one out because it wasn’t meant to happen.

And sure enough, Rainey cooperated on the very first play by belching up the football after Haden spun him around and T. J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson sandwiched him, defensive tackle Phil Taylor gathering in the spoils with 2:25 left.

Time to breathe. Relax. This one actually is going to wind up in the win column. You can smile now.

You remember what it’s like after a Steelers victory, don’t you? First time since Dec. 10, 2009.

As it turned out, a pair of Phil Dawson field goals and touchdowns by Richardson on a perfectly executed 15-yard draw play in the third quarter and Jordan Cameron on a terrific five-yard throw by Weeden against a stingy Pittsburgh defense in the second quarter proved just enough to win.

The Cleveland defense was even stingier, limiting Pittsburgh running backs to just 49 yards rushing. In 16 series, the Steelers ran a meager 55 plays.

The Browns sacked Batch only once, mostly because the Steelers employed quick developing plays, but forced him to throw before he wanted on several other occasions.

If nothing else, the Browns proved to themselves that hard work, determination and perseverance can translate into winning a game.

Now let’s see if they can do it two weeks in a row next Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, an eminently beatable team.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Steelers ripe for upset

Just about everything points to a Browns victory over Pittsburgh Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger won’t suit up for the Steelers. Troy Polamalu won’t suit up, either. And the Steelers have become an aging team whose window of opportunity is nearly shut.

Oh, and Joe Haden is expected back in the secondary for the Browns after missing last week’s debacle in Dallas with an oblique injury. His presence in that game arguably meant the difference between winning and losing.

Big Ben has been death to the Browns since coming into the National Football League in 2004. In 15 starts, he has left the field a loser just once, a 13-6 loss in Cleveland in December 2009.

In that one, most fans will recall, Roethlisberger was sacked eight times by the Browns while Cleveland running back Chris Jennings rushed for 73 yards and the game’s only touchdown.

Over the years, Roethlisberger has tortured the Browns, completing nearly 60% of his passes and averaging 231.5 yards a game with 20 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Whenever big plays were needed, he provided them.

As a result of attrition at quarterback, however, Charlie Batch will start for the Steelers against the Browns. Yep, that Charlie Batch. As in “is he still in the National Football League?”

Significant injuries to Roethlisberger (throwing shoulder and ribs) and his backup Byron Leftwich (ribs) have left Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin with no other choice than to go with the soon-to-be 38-year-old Batch, whose first pass Sunday will be his first of the season.

He has filled in for Big Ben on seven other occasions over the past several seasons, winning five. One came in 2005 against the Browns in Pittsburgh in a 34-21 victory in week 10. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and ran for one touchdown, but sat out the second half with a broken hand, suffered late in the first half.

Roethlisberger also missed the second half of the Steelers’ 31-0 victory in the final week of the 2008 season, suffering a concussion after being drilled by linebackers Willie McGinest and D’Qwell Jackson late in the second quarter.

Batch, in some ways, is better suited to run offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s ball-management offense. Haley prefers to combine a strong running game with a short- to medium-range passing game and the club’s lopsided time of possession (34-26) is proof positive.

Now that running back Rashard Mendenhall is healthy and contributing, look for a more balanced attack against a Cleveland defense that seems to have at least temporarily solved its problems against the run. It will be severely tested Sunday. The Steelers are averaging nearly 140 yards a game on the ground in the last five games.

Unlike Roethlisberger and Leftwich, who can stretch the field with their big arms, Batch’s range is much more limited. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the Browns, coming off their seven-sack game against Dallas, stack the box, choke off the run, force Batch to throw the ball and blitz all afternoon. If that’s the case, Steelers tight end Heath Miller figures to get plenty of looks.

Injuries to the receiving corps forced the Steelers to bring back Plaxico Burress this week, but they expect Antonio Brown back after missing the last couple of weeks. Drafted originally by the Steelers, the 6-5 Burress would seem to be a likely target for Batch in the short passing game.

With Roethlisberger out, the Steelers lose their emotional edge on offense. He is clearly the club’s biggest playmaker on that side of the ball and it’s no coincidence that the offense falls off considerably when he’s not under center. His innate ability to keep plays alive has turned potential losses into victories over the years.

Polamalu, meanwhile, continues to languish on the sidelines due to a calf injury that doesn’t want to go away. Unless the veteran safety has a miraculous recovery in the next few days, the young Browns won’t have to worry about the Steelers’ best playmaker on defense.

The loss of the club’s emotional leader on that side of the ball doesn’t seem to have hurt that much, however. The Steelers’ defense limits opposing teams to only 259 yards a game, just 90 on the ground.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz scheme will definitely challenge the Cleveland offensive line, which played well for the most part in last Sunday’s loss in Dallas. Even though they’ve registered just 18 sacks this season, the Steelers’ disruptive style of play might confuse the young Cleveland line.

Where Polamalu’s absence has hurt is in the turnover battle. The normally opportunistic Pittsburgh defense has picked off just five passes this season, three by linebackers. The secondary – and the defense overall – clearly misses Polamalu’s playmaking ability.

What makes this game interesting is that the Steelers face a must-win situation in the race for one of the AFC’s wild cards. And with Roethlisberger sidelined indefinitely, the 6-4 Steelers, whose turnover ratio is minus-3, must play mistake-free football.

The Browns, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. And if their coaching staff approaches this one with that in mind, it could wind up in an interesting afternoon. Pat Shurmur, whose job security slips with every loss, must eschew the conservative approach offensively and let it all hang out.

Again, what does he have to lose? It hasn’t been working the other way. If there are any surprises in his arsenal, this would be the game to haul them out. After all, this is Pittsburgh.

Because he’s a relative outsider, it’s hard to figure out whether Shurmur gets the rivalry between these two teams. Some people, most notably Steelers fans, don’t even consider this a rivalry. How can you when the teams have meet 27 times since Cleveland’s return to the NFL in 1999 and the Browns have won just four.

It’s about time the Browns started making this a rivalry again. It won’t be easy because the Steelers still have more talent. However, it’s very tempting to lean in the Browns’ direction because Brandon Weeden is overdue for a big game. What’s holding me back is Shurmur’s conservative coaching when grabbing a lead.

Guessing here he won’t loosen the reins on his rookie quarterback and Batch, provided he remains vertical for the entire game, does just enough to squeeze out a victory. Make it:

Steelers 16, Browns 12

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Inflatable flag fiasco

What in the world are the Browns thinking?

The so-called wise heads in the club’s marketing department have allowed themselves to become a part of one of the most hair-brained ideas in quite some time.

Fans entering Cleveland Browns Stadium for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers will be handed inflatable white flags. Except, of course, those 20,000 or so Pittsburgh fans sporting a bright yellow Terrible Towel.

It appears to be a part of a promotion with the NFL Ticket Exchange.

Isn’t it bad enough the Browns are 2-8 and going nowhere for the umpteenth time in the last 14 seasons? Isn’t it bad enough the club’s record makes it enough of a laughingstock without this kind of distraction?

All someone in the club’s marketing department had to say to the National Football League was no, thank you, that’s a stupid idea.

Words fail me as to how embarrassing this is. Brian McIntyre of Yahoo sports couldn’t have put it any better.

“Your team name is Browns,” he wrote. “Your team’s helmets are orange. Each of those colors would have made for a far more suitable choice for a flag than white, which is the universal sign for signaling truce or surrender.”

After all, the Steelers have won 14 of the last 15 meetings between the teams and are 23-4 against the Browns since 1999.

The Web site Deadspin also weighed in with this: There’s nothing that would intimidate the Steelers more than for them to come of the locker room to a stadium full of fans essentially saying, “Stop, please. No more. Mercy.”

That was followed by numerous snide remarks, including “When you sit on (the flags), they play the Browns’ fight song”, “They were going to give away real flags, but reconsidered because we like to throw things” and more pointedly, “As a fan of the better-than-their-record Browns, this makes me sick.”

So are these flags supposed to neutralize the Pittsburgh towels? Are they supposed to serve as a rallying cry in the event the team needs one? What exactly is their significance?

Can’t wait to see how the public relations arm of the team spins this one. The explanation might be more preposterous than the promotion itself.

Memo to Jimmy Haslam III: Can’t you see how silly this looks? You are now the owner and in a position to stop it. Never mind that’s it’s a league promotion. Tell the league to shove it. In a reasonable way, of course.

What takes place Sunday if this promotion is carried out is the definitive answer to the following question: How low can you go?

Time to step in, Jimmy, put a nice bow on it and ship it to another franchise. Like the Steelers.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday leftovers

It’s been 10 games now since Brandon Weeden of the Browns took his first snap as a National Football League quarterback. And by now, you would expect to see some improvement.

That, however, has not been the case.

He’s not the worst quarterback in the NFL by any stretch, but he has failed to show any consistency. Every now and then, he’ll nail a difficult pass, but those moments are outweighed by some throws that make you wince, like the fourth-down fade to Jordan Cameron from the Dallas 1-yard line that sailed out of the end zone.

What you look for in a rookie quarterback is improvement not just from game to game, but from series to series, from snap to snap. Correcting mistakes is paramount in the development of an NFL quarterback.

Weeden, who seems like an intelligent sort, says he’s learning from his mistakes, but judging from his progress thus far, he seems to be a very slow learner.

There is no question he has the arm and can play the game from that standpoint. But some of his decisions are head-scratchers and not even a bazooka arm can overcome them.

Weeden, it seems, has trouble playing the game from the neck up. The game has not seemed to slow down for him. Only the three-step drop and pop plays have been his bread and butter.

His problems arise when asked to take five- or seven-step drops. He seems to take much more time getting rid of the ball. The rhythm of the larger drops, especially from the pro set, is lost on him.

In Sunday’s overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Weeden received near-pristine protection from his offensive line all afternoon. At various times, he had as much as seven or eight seconds to unload the ball, but either failed and took a sack or threw the ball away.

Now the Dallas secondary doesn’t exactly boast a bunch of All-Pros, but Weeden and his receivers failed to take advantage. Maybe he was pumped to play in front of friends and family. Many of his throws were high and behind his targets.

His best throws, of course, were the two skinny posts to Ben Watson that wound up in the Dallas end zone. But he missed several wide open receivers and most of the afternoon either held on to the ball to long or delivered the ball late.

You’d expect to see more than a glimpse or two a game that would lead you to believe progress in Weeden’s most important product. He needs to step up and not just take charge of the huddle, but start making plays, especially in the red zone.

What works against Weeden is his age. He’s 29-years-old and the clock is more an enemy than a friend. If he was, say, 22 or 23, a more cautious call for patience would be exercised.

It has reached the point where he must step up in the final six games of the season and put his vast talents on display. He can’t hold back. He must develop a confidence in his abilities and show the people who count that the Browns didn’t make a mistake in drafting him so high.

He needs to come out strong in those six games and prove that yes, he can learn from his mistakes and develop more consistency because if he doesn’t, the quarterback carousel in Cleveland might spin again.
*       *       *
For a while there, it appeared as though the Browns had finally learned that penalties were to be avoided. It was bad enough they lacked the overall talent to win a lot of games. Penalties only added to the struggle.

So when Ed Hochuli and his crew nailed the Browns for 12 penalties and 129 yards Sunday, the red flag was unfurled again. A dozen penalties, all but two of the aggressive type, proved to be the Cowboys’ best friend. A whopping 10 of their first downs came following yellow laundry.

It became embarrassing for Buster Skrine, filling in for the injured Joe Haden. Skrine tried valiantly, but had no chance against a much larger Dez Bryant and drew three penalties in a vain attempt to slow him down. A concussion took him mercifully out of the game.

Suffice it to say if Haden had played, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo would have picked on Sheldon Brown more. As it was, Brown was the ultimate victim on the 35-yard pass interference call that moved the Cowboys into position for what turned out to be a game-tying field goal with just seconds left in regulation.
*       *       *
One of these days, the Browns are finally going to discover the secret to locking down victories. For some reason, they seem to let up and play more passively on both sides of the ball with a lead, especially in the fourth quarter.

The best way to prevent other teams from catching up is to not deviate from a game plan that got you the lead in the first place. There’s no such thing as leading by too many points. Boot to the throat. Repeat.

With only a minute left in regulation and down by three points Sunday, the Cowboys moved into position for the three-pointer with ridiculous ease. That’s because the Browns failed to make a play. No one stepped up and said, “Uh, uh. Not this time.” That’s what leadership does. And right now, the Browns don’t have such a leader.
*       *       *
Notebook: Weeden didn’t throw any interceptions against the Cowboys, but got real lucky when linebacker Anthony Spencer and nose tackle Josh Brent dropped easy picks. If Brent makes his at the Cleveland 10-yard line on the first play of the Browns’ first series in the fourth quarter, he scores easily and there would have been no overtime. . . . Credit quicker developing plays as the reason the Cowboys were much more successful passing in the second half. Romo took too long to deliver the ball in the first 30 minutes and made the correction at the half. The Browns failed to adjust to the new strategy. . . . With the return to health of Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, it has become obvious interior of the Cleveland defensive line is now considered a strength. Now all defensive coordinator Dick Jauron has to do is move rookie Billy Winn outside opposite Jabaal Sheard to fortify the pass rush from the outside.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Woulda, coulda, didn't

The Browns are the National Football League’s version of The Little Engine that Could. Only one problem. They don’t.

Week in and week out, they chug up that mountain toward a victory – I think I can, I think I can – only to somehow, some way manage to lose. The difference between winning and losing at times can be minuscule. The Browns have proven that far too often.

Losing games the hard way has become somewhat of an art form over the last dozen or so seasons for this franchise. Sunday’s penalty-filled, rollercoaster-ride 23-20 overtime loss to the Cowboys in Dallas, for example, could serve as a microcosm to this season.

Shoot out to a 13-0 halftime lead after battering the Cowboys on both sides of the ball, play soft defense in the second half, especially against the Dallas receivers, and then watch the Cowboys take full advantage and take a 17-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

And when Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer strip-sacked Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and recovered the fumble at the Cleveland 18 on the next series, fans began blowing Taps for the Browns and reaching for the hammer to drive the nails into the coffin.

But the Browns would not slink away. Instead, they came right back resiliently and strip-sacked Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who was dropped seven times overall, getting the ball back at the Cowboys’ 35 with five minutes left in regulation. Six plays later, they had a first and goal at the 6.

I think I can, I think I can.

Two Trent Richardson bull rushes moved the ball to the 1 and that’s when we found out Richardson has no leaping ability. Instead of kicking him outside, the Browns called for the 5-9, 230-pounder to take it airborne. So did Dallas linebacker Dan Connor, who made a similar launch and stuffed the Browns rookie.

A fourth-down fade for Jordan Cameron was badly overthrown. Terrible throw by Weeden, whose inconsistency all afternoon makes it look as though he’s regressing.

Using all their timeouts and benefitting from some seriously bad play calling by Dallas’ Jason Garrett, who called for three runs against a stacked line of scrimmage, the Browns forced a punt. They received a huge break when Dallas’ John Phillips was called for a horse collar tackle when all he did was yank Joshua Cribbs’ braids.

It took Weeden just one play to hook up with Ben Watson from 17 yards out for their second touchdown of the afternoon with 67 seconds left, giving the Browns a 20-17 lead.

I think I can, I think I can.

That’s a way too much time for someone like Romo. But he had a lot of help from the Cleveland secondary. A borderline helmet-to-helmet penalty on T. J. Ward and 35-yard pass interference penalty on Sheldon Brown produced 50 of the 66 yards needed to allow Dan Bailey to tie game with a 32-yard field goal with six seconds left.

So much for I think I can.

It was only a matter of time before the Cleveland patchwork secondary, working hard but decimated by injury, would be the casual factor for the loss. Romo relentlessly went after it.

A highly questionable incomplete call on a pass to Dez Bryant on the Cowboys’ second possession in overtime allowed Dallas to move into position for the game-winning 38-yard field goal by Bailey with 6:09 left in overtime.

It appeared as though the Dallas wide receiver caught a pass, took two steps and then was stripped of the ball at the Cleveland 25 and was recovered by the Browns. It was ruled incomplete, although replays showed he had possession of the ball. Good teams, it seems, receive more breaks from officials.

Tough loss. Maybe the toughest of the season.

The climb to the top is worth it only if the other side is reached. And there is no question the effort is there every week.

But is it any wonder the players haven’t given up? Absolutely. Losing begets losing, which begets frustration, which begets not really caring anymore.

To their – and the coaching staff’s – credit, the Browns cannot be accused of packing it in, although it would be very easy to do so with nothing more to play for now expect perhaps pride and the love of the game.

But that’s awfully hard to do when you see the fruits of your labor continue to wind up in negative results. In order to know how to win, one has to first win. And that’s the mountain the Browns keep failing to successfully negotiate.

This team plays just well enough to lose. Can’t argue the facts. However, the Cowboys loss sure looks as if the Browns are getting that much closer to the day when all that will change.

Several times, this season, they have had victory within their grasp in the fourth quarter only to see it slip away. They keep finding creative ways to lose games they should win.

This one was just another of those agonizing losses in a game they played well enough to win. When Bailey’s overtime field goal sneaked just inside the right upright halfway through overtime, the Browns had every right to hold their heads high as they left the field.

Yes, it was their club-record 13th straight road loss. And yes, it dropped their season record to 2-8, but they gave the much more talented Cowboys a lot more than they expected.

Losing is always hard to swallow, especially when you play gritty football. And that’s exactly what we got from the Browns in Dallas.

Sometimes, I wonder why the Browns can’t catch a break and get lucky. Why couldn’t Bailey’s attempt for the tying field goal drift wide right? Why, for once, can’t we see a receiver called for pass interference instead of someone in the Cleveland secondary? Poor Buster Skrine, valiantly filling in for  the injured Joe Haden, couldn’t keep his hands off Dallas receivers.

This club is not as bad as its record. With better coaching – and we can look forward to that next season unless Joe Banner shocks everyone and retains Pat Shurmur – we wouldn’t be looking at 2-8.

It’s coming. What we saw against the Cowboys just might turn out to be a sneak preview of things to come. Except, of course, the outcome.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dallas blowhard at it again

Rob Ryan sure has a big mouth. And he’s not shy about using it.

Upholding what seems to be a family tradition of yapping just to hear yourself yapping, the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator said Friday he can’t wait to play the Browns Sunday down in Dallas.

Why? Revenge. That’s why.

Seems that Ryan, never at a loss for words unless he has laryngitis, has a beef with the Browns, for whom he worked for two very long, very vocal and very unproductive seasons as Eric Mangini’s defensive coordinator.

For those two seasons, all we heard was Ryan boasting about how he would turn around the Browns fortunes on his side of the ball. And all we got was empty promises.

Then the Browns had the temerity to fire the self-anointed best defensive coordinator in the National Football League. Oh, and by the way, the Browns were 10-22 under Mangini and his wonderful defensive coordinator.

Asked by the media in Dallas how often he has talked with his defense this week about his problems with the Browns, Ryan said, “Honestly, I’m going to say none. Honestly. Honestly. Honestly, I’m not going to say no. Honestly, I haven’t talked about it. Honestly, I don’t know how that got out there. Honestly, I don’t know.”

Honestly? Huh?

Then he admitted it Sunday will be personal. “Any time you pour everything you have into it and apparently management didn’t see it as if it wasn’t good enough, of course it’s personal,” he said.

“Eric (Mangini) is a good friend. He hired me to do a job. Hell, I did it and got everybody fired anyway. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t in charge of that decision. But I plan on doing something about it.”

Ryan, whose brother, Rex, and father, Buddy, have cornered the NFL market on chutzpah, has coordinated defenses for three NFL teams – the Oakland Raiders (five seasons), Browns (two) and now Cowboys (halfway through his second).

The combined record of those teams during his tenure, including this season’s 4-5, is 42-95. No, that is not a misprint. Last season’s 8-8 with the Cowboys is the closest he has come to a winning season. Throw away the last season and a half and the Ryan record as a coordinator is 30-82.

He has never experienced the wonder and excitement of a playoff game, let alone a winning season. He has been associated with nothing but losers, whether it’s Oakland, Cleveland or Dallas.

None of his teams has led the league in any statistical defensive category. But Ryan, in a cheap move to motivate his team this weekend, hauled out the old bromide about exacting revenge against a former employer.

Never mind that the Browns are 2-7 and headed for the garbage heap once again. Yeah, beating them will be a real accomplishment and give Ryan the warm and fuzzies.

Now the Cowboys might come out and play a hell of game against the Browns, but take into consideration the Cowboys have a more talented roster and should win.

If this is what Ryan needs to motivate his men, that’s a sad commentary. It’s just one game out of 16. Where was he all the other times his teams needed him to coach them up instead of opening up his big mouth?

And once Sunday’s game is over, it’ll be business as usual with Ryan except he’ll have to wait another four years to exact more revenge on the Browns. By then, maybe the rest of the NFL will realize he talks a much better game than he coaches.

America's team? Are you kidding me?

The myth that is America’s Team continues to live hale and hearty down in Dallas, Texas.

Truth of the matter is the Dallas Cowboys have lived that lie now for more than 15 years. They are no more America’s team than the Browns right now.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but when the two teams meet up Sunday in Jerry Jones’ palatial football stadium, the chasm that separated the two franchises no longer exists.

The Cowboys are not the scary team that dominated the National Football League in the 1990s. No, the Cowboys of the last 15 years have become quite normal, quite mediocre.

Since 1997, they’ve had their ups with six playoff appearances and their downs with three straight 5-11 campaigns and only seven winning seasons. For the Cowboys fans, that’s considered near disastrous. They are 124-125 in their last 249 regular-season games. Their inconsistency should be proof enough the title of America’s Team is a misnomer.

Jones has hired and fired almost as many coaches since 1997 as the Browns have since the return in 1999. Count ‘em: Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, the current sacrificial lamb.

The one constant is Jones. That’s because he can be. The Arkansas oilman calls all the shots. He’s the owner, president, general manager and team spokesman. He is the Dallas Cowboys. And if Roger Goodell would allow him to coach, Jones probably would do that, too. Everything, it seems, does not move without his approval.

Jones was smart enough to hire Johnson (after firing the legendary Tom Landry) when he bought the team in 1989. And then lost all his smarts when he fired Johnson in a battle of egos and power in 1994 after Johnson won him a second straight Super Bowl.

Jones last hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 1996 when Switzer led the Johnson-built team past the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since then, it’s been a parade of mediocrity. But you’d never know it by the fawning media.

Every year, it seems, many members of the national media hop on the Jones bandwagon and every year, Jones is left lamenting his club’s failures but never accepting responsibility for those failures.

This season is no different. The Cowboys are a mundane 4-5 entering Sunday’s game against the Browns, who are 1-2 against the Jones-era Cowboys, but the lone victory was registered by the old Browns in 1994.

These Cowboys have a distinct Cleveland favor with the Brothers Garrett, who attended and played football at University School in Hunting Valley. Jason is the head coach, brother John is the tight ends coach and passing game coordinator and brother Judd is the club’s director of pro scouting.

The Garretts spent their time in the Cleveland area when their dad, Jim, was an assistant coach for Sam Rutigliano’s Browns from 1978 to 1984. Jim III still lives in the area and teaches English at US.

The Cowboys got off to a rough start this season, losing four of five after winning two of their first three games. One of the main reasons was the club’s inability to establish a strong running game.

Dallas can’t keep its running backs healthy. If it isn’t DeMarco Murray missing games with a sprained foot, it’s Felix Jones missing games with a bruised knee. Jones is expected to start against the Browns with Murray, absent the last four games, a game-time decision.

The Cowboys average just 85 yards a game on the ground, but let’s not forget these are the Browns they’re facing. The Browns surrender 132 yards a game against the run, but that could change with the return of regular tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin from injury.

The Cowboys’ strength on offense is definitely through the air with quarterback Tony Romo hitting on 67% of his passes, However, the veteran is prone to mistakes as his 13 interceptions certainly prove.

His favorite target by far is tight end Jason Witten, who has caught 66 passes, but don’t be fooled by that impressive number. His effectiveness contributes to extending drives and moving the chains. He has had only one end zone visit this season, a remarkable number considering the frequency he is targeted.

In fact, 31 of Witten’s receptions were recorded in two games. He caught an NFL  record (for a tight end) 18 passes, but did not score, in a 29-24 loss to the New York Giants and 13 more (in 14 targets) with  his lone TD in a 34-18 loss to the Chicago Bears. Expect Romo and Witten to play pitch and catch most of the afternoon against the Cleveland secondary.

Romo’s wide receivers can be just as lethal. Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree check in with 112 catches for 1,603 yards and 10 touchdowns. And with Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden questionable with an oblique injury, trouble looms unless the Browns can get to Romo before he wants to throw.

The Browns are a different team with Haden in the lineup. When he served a four-game suspension for illegal drug use earlier this season, the Browns coughed up 122 points (30.5 a game) in four losses. With Haden in the lineup, the Browns are 2-3 and have permitted just 17.8 points a game.

Considering defensive coordinator Dick Jauron prefers a conservative approach to rushing the passer, the Cleveland secondary could be in for a very long afternoon if Romo stays clean.

Defensively, the Cowboys have been unusually subdued this season. Unusual because defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is an out-there kind of guy who loves to blitz. For whatever reason, though, he seems to have mellowed and eschewed that strategy and it shows in the club’s defensive statistics.

The Cowboys average just two sacks a game and have picked off only four passes. All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer own 13 of the club’s 18 sacks. Ware is his usual quarterback abusing self with nine sacks and four fumble recoveries from the Jack linebacker position.

If what the Philadelphia Eagles did against the Cowboys last week is any indication, look for the Browns to attack rookie Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne early and often. Claiborne had his hands full with veteran Eagles receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, who combined for 13 catches.

Now whether Cleveland offensive coordinator Brad Childress chooses to exploit this apparent weakness is another matter. The Browns this season have consistently shied away from taking advantage of other teams’ weaknesses. Perhaps having an extra week to prepare for the Cowboys will make a difference.

How much of a difference will the bye week be for the Browns? Hard to say. We can go only by what they did last season in coach Pat Shurmur’s rookie season.

After splitting their first four games of the season, they emerged from the bye against the Raiders in Oakland. And lost, 24-17.

Some things never change. That will hold true Sunday. The Cowboys drive another nail into Shurmur’s coffin. Make it:

Cowboys 24, Browns 17

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bye-week thoughts

More and more, especially on the collegiate level, we are witnessing the disappearance of the offensive huddle.

That little respite where players get a chance to catch their breaths and prepare for the next play is going the way of the telephone booth.

And it’s not as though some National Football League teams haven’t noticed. Just about every NFL team has a no-huddle scheme in its playbook. Only problem is most use it only when in desperation mode, such as battling from behind with precious little time left in the game.

Then there are those teams that break out the hurry-up in the middle of a game. Or at the beginning of the game.

It is a strategic little gem that teams brave enough to use it usually succeed because it generally catches the opposition off guard. And in the sophisticated football world of today, that mitigates against situational substituting.

The idea of the no-huddle is to keep the opposition from changing personnel between snaps, creating an immediate advantage. If you don’t change your personnel, they can’t. Not enough time.

Teams like the New England Patriots, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and even the Indianapolis Colts run the no-huddle effectively. Why? Smart quarterbacks. Quarterbacks who have no problem identifying opposing defenses on the fly and making the correct call to beat them.

So why do the Colts have a rookie guiding their offense? Because he’s smart, that’s why. Oliver Luck, who has the perfect pro football pedigree, has stepped right in with the Colts and performed like a seasoned veteran.

Sure, he has made mistakes, but his knowledge of the game from the neck up might not be as good right now as that of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, but he’s catching up rapidly.

There are others in the NFL capable of running the no-huddle like New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers, but their coaches are satisfied they can be just as effective operating outside that world.

The no-huddle is all about quickness and execution, two of the reasons Browns coaches probably have no plans to break it out in the middle of a game. Catch the opposition off guard. Control the tempo of a game. That’s primarily what an effective no-huddle does, requiring the aforementioned attributes.

But it’s not as though Brandon Weeden can’t operate the hurry-up. He gathered plenty of experience in that scheme in his final two seasons at Oklahoma State, where Cowboys coach Mike Gundy’s offense dials up up-tempo for 60 minutes.

Weeden thrived in this offense at OSU, throwing for 9,004 yards in 26 games with 71 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, and completing 69.8% of his 1,075 passes. Breaking that down, he averaged 41.35 passes and 346.3 yards a game, all the while operating the no-huddle from the shotgun.

Weeden obviously has the brain power to operate such an offense. But this is the NFL, where defenses can be complicated and confuse a young quarterback. However, those defenses lose their effectiveness when called on to do something out of the ordinary. Like remain on the field and get ready for the next snap in a matter of seconds.

All it takes is streamlining the play calls. Instead of the complicated nomenclature coaches love to assign plays, a much easier approach is using a number or letter to designate the play. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen in Cleveland. At least not with this coaching staff.

When Pat Shurmur leaves, his successor hopefully will be much more flexible in his offensive approach to the game. He needs to be open to any and all avenues that take advantage of the personnel on hand.

Shurmur is trying to fit that square peg into that round hole with Weeden and it’s not working. By refusing to take advantage of Weeden’s natural talent by stubbornly jamming the west coast offense scheme down his quarterback’s throat, he’s greasing his slide out of town.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s not a bad thing after all.
*          *          *
Then, there’s the pass rush. Or lack of same.

The Browns have racked up 20 sacks thus far this season, which puts them on a pace to better last season’s total of 32.  But a perusal of the figures reveals some interesting conclusions.

Of those 20 sacks, 10 have been produced by the defensive line, six by linebackers and three by the secondary with one team tackle. Of those 10 sacks, eight were recorded in the first two games and 13 in the first four games.

In the last five games, the Browns have totaled seven sacks, including four in the loss to Indianapolis in week seven. In four of the last five games, they have sacked the quarterback two or fewer times.

The inconsistency is startling and has to be a concern for the coaching staff, which doesn’t seem to know what kind of a defense it wants. Sometimes, it lies back and plays zone, relying on the four men up front to create pressure. Other times, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron employs the blitz with man coverage.

The Cleveland defense does not have a personality. You don’t know what you’ll see from series to series. There’s nothing wrong with disguising the defense. But choosing one approach and sticking with it might not be a bad idea.

Aggressive or passive . . . that’s the question. I’m an aggressive guy who likes to create havoc against the offense and that means pounding the quarterback at every available opportunity. Make him throw the ball before he wants.

Will that happen with the Browns in the final seven games? With the passive Jauron calling the shots, probably not.
*          *          *
New Browns President and CEO Joe Banner says in an interviews with the Plain Dealer that wins and losses will not be the determining factor in how he structures his front office and coaching staff.

He also says the possibility exists that Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. will survive what most believe will be a purge of that front office.

Pardon my cynicism, but I don’t believe a word of that. Not one syllable. At least the part about Shurmur.

But if I’m wrong and Shurmur is retained as the head coach of the Browns next season, it will prove once and for all that this franchise can’t help itself from making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

The dark shadow of doom continues to hang over this franchise. When Mike Holmgren was brought on board, I thought the culture in Berea would change. And then he retained Eric Mangini as his coach.

What is it about this franchise that leads relatively smart men to make dumb moves? Takes those same smart men and moves them in the opposite direction of where they should be heading?

What did Cleveland do to deserve such backhanded treatment? Their fans do not deserve this. Hopefully, Banner is ducking behind a smoke screen and calming any nerves that might be on edge in the current front office.

This offseason should prove mighty interesting. Unfortunately, we’ve been saying that far too often.

For the Browns’ sake, changes better be on the docket.