Sunday, December 16, 2012

Shurmur's slippery slope slipperier

If there was even a scintilla of doubt left remaining as to the job status of Pat Shurmur as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, please be advised the Browns will have a new head coach next season.

The tattered remains of his job were left on the turf at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday disguised as a 38-21 victory for the Washington Redskins, who were led by a rookie quarterback.

And no, that quarterback was not Robert Griffin III, who watched the proceedings unfolding in his warmup gear while fellow rookie Kirk Cousins made Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden seem like a rank amateur by comparison.

One can only imagine how bad the outcome would have been had the spectacular Griffin’s health allowed him to play. As it was, the Browns could not keep up with the Redskins’ speed and quickness.

The victory was so ridiculously easy, it slapped some tarnish on the reputation of Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who has been given large doses of credit for improving the club’s defense the last two seasons.

Sunday, though, the Cleveland defense, after a quick start, looked much more like the defenses of the last dozen or so seasons. After the first four drives, the Redskins compiled three three-and-outs, threw an interception that led to the Browns’ first touchdown and totaled seven yards of offense. Never got beyond their 25.

And then the National Football League said the Skins had to play the rest of the game. Well, OK, they said, if we must.

Bad news for the Browns. Only they didn’t know it at the time.

A 54-yard Cousins scoring connection with Leonard Hankerson got the Skins off the schneid on the first play of the fifth drive, beating the triple coverage of Sheldon Brown and safeties T. J. Ward and Usama Young.

The Browns’ offense, which sputtered all afternoon thanks mostly to the inconsistency of Weeden, produced a 14-10 halftime lead on the first of Trent Richardson’s two short touchdown runs culminating a 75-yard drive.

And then the NFL said the two teams had to play the second half. More bad news for the Browns.

The Redskins, who owned the ball for more than 36 minutes, converted five second-half drives into four touchdowns on a seemingly helpless Cleveland defense.

The Skins gave Cousins some vanilla offense with which to work in the first half, then realized the Browns couldn’t keep up with his speed and quickness and ran off a bunch of misdirection plays. And the Browns bit on just about every one.

Time and again, when he wasn’t handing off to fellow rookie Alfred Morris, Cousins rolled out away from the flow and either hit his receivers with unerring accuracy or tucked the ball and outran Cleveland defenders.

While the Washington coaches made the necessary changes in strategy, the Cleveland coaches came out in the second half with pretty much the same game plan with which they began the game.

Cousins never was bothered in the second half, even when he remained in the pocket. The Cleveland pass rush was non-existent. That’s why he was 26 of 37 for 329 and two touchdowns in his first professional start.

The Browns’ offense, meanwhile, was just that. Extremely offensive. In 13 drives, they were forced to punt six times, surrendered the ball on downs twice and tossed a couple of interceptions, both of which led to touchdowns.

Their longest drive of the afternoon was the nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the second quarter. Nine of those 13 drives lasted four plays or less.

You cannot win games with offensive stats like that unless your defense is picking up the slack. And that defense did the exact opposite against Washington. After the first four drives, it ran up the AWOL flag.

On both of his interceptions, Weeden was late with the throw. His intended receivers were open both times, but for some reason, he held on to the ball instead of just firing it. “He’s very tentative,” Fox Sports game analyst and former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz said of Weeden. “He’s got to turn that ball loose.”

He did turn it loose to Travis Benjamin on a 69-yard scoring play early in the fourth quarter when the rookie wideout beat his man down the right sideline and caught a perfect throw from Weeden. It was the only time he went deep all afternoon.

Which makes one wonder just why Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress are so wedded to the west coast scheme. It is so obvious their rookie quarterback is much more comfortable when called on to air it out.

It’s almost as though Shurmur and Childress tie one arm behind Weeden’s back and expect him to throw what they call. He is being force fed to play quarterback in a manner to which he is unaccustomed even though he’s been doing it since training camp.

It appears at times as though Weeden is trying to be perfect with his throws to the point he doesn’t pull the trigger on time. That, more than anything, can absolutely destroy the timing of the play. And that’s where he gets into trouble the most.

The Redskins have the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. The entire league. There is no solid reason the coaches can give as to why the Browns offense could not exploit it.

And there is no solid reason the coaches can give as to why the Washington offense looked more like the New England Patriots' offense doing what it did with a rookie making his first pro start.

No, this loss, which smashed the Browns’ three-game winning streak to smithereens and snapped them back to reality with a sickening thud, was truly a team loss. Offense, defense, special teams and coaching all had a hand in this one.

By week 14, this is not the direction fans expected to see their team headed. It showed there is still a long way to go. Not as long as a few years ago, but long nevertheless.

The Redskins are not one of the elite teams in the NFL and yet, they clearly were the better team Sunday. When the Browns needed a big play on either side of the ball, it was lacking. The same could not be said about the Redskins.

Just two road games left and neither gives rise to hopes for a six- or seven-victory season. All of which serves to grease the skids for Shurmur and a good portion of his coaching staff on their eventual way out of town.

Suffice it to say, they won’t be missed. 

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