Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad scientist time in Berea

For those of you excited about the Browns moving Jabaal Sheard from defensive end to outside linebacker this season, I have two words for you.

Kenard Lang.

Lang, some of you will recall, was a career defensive end who played to moderate success with the Washington Redskins and Browns. He played there for three seasons (2002-04) in Cleveland’s 4-3 scheme, racking up 20½ sacks.

Then Romeo Crennel arrived in 2005 and brought along his beloved 3-4 defense. Big problem because the Browns were bereft of enough quality linebackers to make the new defense work.

Lang, at 6-3 and 280 pounds was too light to play on the defensive line. So Crennel, rather than have Lang add weight, descended into his laboratory and decided Lang would shed about 25 pounds and become an outside linebacker. Never mind that he had never played the position at any level. He was going to be a linebacker.

The responsibilities of a defensive lineman and linebacker are as different as, well, Crennel and, say, Bill Belichick. It was in New England where Belichick took Tedy Bruschi, a defensive lineman in college, and turned him into a linebacker.

Bruschi was too small (6-1, 247 pounds) to play on the defensive line. So Belichick moved him immediately to linebacker, made him watch for a season, and then beamed with pride as Bruschi went on to enjoy a very successful career with the Patriots, helping them win three Super Bowl championships.

If it could work for Bruschi, why not Lang, was the reasoning. What harm could it do? The Browns needed linebackers at the time – the only ones they could count on were Andra Davis, Matt Stewart, Ben Taylor and Chaun Thompson – and Lang was tagged it.

The grand experiment did not last long when it was apparent Lang had all sorts of problems making the adjustment. Unlike Bruschi, who was given a full season to learn his new position, Lang was force-fed immediately.

He struggled in training camp and the exhibition games. At the age of 30, he was being remade. Whether he was fighting the change or just couldn’t make his body do what was expected of him, it was an abysmal failure. It was the classic old dog/new tricks syndrome.

Well, get ready for round two of another Cleveland Browns grand experiment with Sheard in the starring role this time. Surprise!! Here comes Ray Horton and the return of the 3-4 and the Browns need linebackers.

At 6-2 and 255 pounds, it is quite obvious he does not pass the sniff test for a defensive lineman in the Horton’s defense. He is too short and way too light. A 3-4 defensive line is comprised of tackles, most of whom weigh at least 300 pounds.

There is no other position for Sheard, who has 15½ sacks in his first two National Football League seasons, and was drafted expressly to fit Dick Jauron’s 4-3 scheme. He must make the transition this season and he will be force-fed by the Cleveland coaching staff.

But he is instinctively a defensive end. His muscle memory is that of a defensive end. His thought process is that of a defensive end. His entire mind-set is that of a defensive end.

In making the switch, he has to reprogram his brain. His instincts have to be changed. Even if they make him a hybrid (combination pass rusher/outside linebacker), he is still not used to lining up in a two-point stance.

If the Browns are insistent on Sheard making the switch, they’ve got to allow him at least one season to make the necessary adjustments. To throw him immediately into the fire is patently unfair despite what he says.

“A change to a new defense will be difficult because it’s about making adjustments,” Sheard told the Plain Dealer in January. “But I’m an athlete and I can play anywhere at any time . . . I move pretty good at my size now and as long as I can drop back (in coverage), it’s no big deal. If I can play and move, no matter the size, you’re good.”

Wait until he actually plays the new position and finds out he has to cover running backs out of the backfield or tight ends running a drag route. Wait until he finds out he has to play in space when he drops back into assigned zones. Wait until he finds out that linebacker is the polar opposite of defensive end.

Unless he’s an extraordinarily talented athlete who makes transitions easily, he and the Browns will discover that the grand experiment will lack the chemical formula to be successful.

And that’s when the Browns will reach for the telephone, call teams that play the 4-3 and wish Sheard well with his new team. 

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