These stats tell a different story
The 5-10 record says the Browns are a better team than last season.
So does head coach Pat Shurmur.
“I think . . . as a team, and I’m talking about the way we function and the young players we added, we are much improved from a year ago,” he told the Cleveland media Monday.
How the club functions, Shurmur says without really saying it, is a better barometer to judge the growth of a team than its record.
For sure, one more victory than last season does, from a statistical standpoint, mean the Browns are better. But let’s look inside, way inside, at the other stats. Let’s see if they truly reveal whether these Browns are really better than 2011.
Buckle up. This could be a long, boring ride for those who get bogged down by stats. For those who don’t, there are some interesting statistical revelations between last season’s team and the current team.
We start with the general stats and the team’s National Football League ranking (with some 2011 comparables in parentheses). The only obvious difference is that this year’s team has played one less game.
Through those 15 games this season, the Browns rank 27th overall on offense (29th last season) with an average of 314 yards a game (289 last season). Breaking that down, they are 20th in passing with 217 yards a game (24th and 193) and 25th on the ground with 97 yards a game (28th and 95.7).
Now the specifics.
The Browns have already scored 74 more points (292-218) than last season with a game to go. They average 5.0 yards a play on offense (4.5), flat line last season with 17.4 first downs a game, convert only 30.7% of their third downs (38.6% last season) and have committed more penalties (104-95) with more yardage (926-847).
Sticking with the offense, touchdowns on the ground are up dramatically from four to 12; time of possession (28:09) is down more than a minute from last season’s 29:15; touchdown passes (15) are down one with the one game remaining; interceptions are up from 14 to 17; and the offensive line has allowed 32 sacks, seven fewer than last season.
Still with me? OK, now let’s take a look at the defense. Don’t worry, there’s a bottom-line conclusion ahead.
Going into the 2012 season, many fans believed the strong suit of the Browns was the defense. After all, it ranked 10th overall (second against the pass) in the NFL despite the 4-12 record last season. And most of that group returned with a few draft picks thrown in.
It was the offense about which the fans worried, an offense that was coming off one of the worst statistical seasons in club history. So defense, naturally, was not a concern.
Well, it should have been.
The 2011 defense allowed 307 points, an average of 19.2 points a game. This season, that defense has already permitted opposing teams to rack up 344 points, or 22.9 a game. That’s nearly four more points a game.
Breaking that down, the defense has been in on 1,042 plays this season (second most in the NFL), seven more than all of last season. They flat line in yards per play (5.2-5.1), but the third-down conversion rate is decidedly better this season at 38.1% (41.3%) and it has 36 sacks (32).
However, time of possession for the opposition has risen nearly 90 seconds a game (32:27-31:00). Might not seem like much, but that’s 90 seconds a game times 16 games.
The wonderful pass defense of last season has taken a beating this season because of an improved Cleveland run defense. Last season, the Browns gave up 147 yards a game on the ground. Teams didn’t have to throw that much against them to win. Thus, the overall passing stats skewed in Cleveland’s favor.
The secondary, which gave up just 16 TD passes last season, has allowed 24 so far in 2012, given up 253.5 yards a game (185 last season) and ranks 27th in that category. However, they have picked off 17 passes, eight more than last season, and have 36 sacks, four more than 2011.
This season, the Browns’ rush defense has cut that 147 yards a game to 120.5 and moved up from 30th to 19th in the rankings. All of which meant more passing against a Cleveland defense bedeviled by injuries and youth.
Several conclusions can be reached after examining those very telling statistics.
~ The Browns are considerably better on offense, especially in the passing game, than last season’s very docile edition. Even with the relatively conservative play calling of Shurmur, who seemed too afraid to let his rookies just play the game instead of trying to force the west coast scheme down their throats, they were more of a scoring threat.
~ They are far more effective in the red zone, particularly with the presence of Trent Richardson, the first running back since can’t remember when who has a nose for the goal line. It was a virtual certainty once they got inside the enemy’s five-yard line that the Browns were going to put up six. Didn’t always play out that way, but Richardson is a distinct improvement.
~ Even with Richardson, the Cleveland ground game struggled most of the season, mainly because Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress stuck to west coast offense principles and blocking schemes and refused to take advantage of the rookie running back’s natural talent. He’s as slasher, not a basher.
~ As it turned out, the Browns’ strong suit was not the defense. It was the offense mainly because it could score from just about any place on the field. With Weeden’s strong arm, opposing defenses had to respect his ability to connect on long passes. Unfortunately, Shurmur didn’t call that many during the season.
~ Third down proved a nemesis on offense. The Browns dropped eight percentage points to a puny 30.7 in converting third downs. On defense, though, they improved three percentage points to 38.1 in preventing them. That’s got to even better. So, too, does time of possession. The Browns have owned the ball just a shade more than 28 minutes a game this season. Unless you’ve got a quick-strike offense, that is an unacceptable number.
~ The pass defense, for any number of reasons, is awful this season even though it has nearly doubled its interceptions. But that’s because more teams are throwing more on them. How many times have we seen opposing receivers wide open? It’s happened too many times to blame it on anything other than blown coverages. A stronger and more consistent pass rush would also help.
~ The rush defense is clearly the most improved aspect of the defense. The addition of rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes, plus the return to health of Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, has been the biggest revelation. If they are better next season, the secondary will be even busier than this season.
~ Piling up penalties has to stop. How many times this season did we watch a Browns drive stymied by a pre-snap penalty or an illegal shift or a holding penalty? The correct answer is too many. That has to stop. This team needs discipline in a big way. Maybe the next coach will provide it.
~ Bottom line: The Browns continue to display their inconsistency with a good defense that didn’t play as well as hoped and an offense that played better than expected. It’s the complete opposite of last season. One of these years, they will be good enough to put it all together. Perhaps that’s the reason they’ll chalk up yet another 5-11 season and can’t seem to get off the double-digit loss schneid.