Saturday, August 31, 2013

A most fluid roster

Suffice it so say the Browns’ 53-man roster as of 6 p.m. this afternoon will, in no way, remain the same throughout the week leading up to the regular-season opener Sept. 8 against Miami.

It probably won’t even be close, considering the bloodletting Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski unleashed Saturday afternoon as the club got down to the National Football League’s mandatory roster number.

Among the cuts were veteran wide receiver David Nelson, rookie safety Jamoris Slaughter, inside linebacker James-Michael Johnson and both placekickers. That’s right. Both kickers.

That had to be the strangest, most bizarre roster cut in the entire league. A week and a day to the season opener and the Browns most likely will have someone who has never kicked for them doing so a week for tomorrow.

Now it’s possible they might change their minds and bring back Shayne Graham, whose bad back prevented him from kicking in the final exhibition game. Even so, it’s difficult to remember an NFL team slicing both kickers on cutdown day.

That peculiar move aside, the not-so-final roster breaks down this way:

On offense: Three quarterbacks, three running backs (including fullback Chris Ogbonnaya), four tight ends (including hybrid Brad Smelley, who can play fullback), five wide receivers (although only four will dress for the first two games while Josh Gordon sits out his suspension) and an incredible 12 offensive linemen.

On defense: Seven defensive linemen (four ends and three tackles), 10 linebackers (four inside and six outside) and eight defensive backs (four cornerbacks and four safeties).

Taking a closer look at the numbers, nine rookies made the team, including five undrafted free agents; only five players are 28 or older; just two (quarterback Jason Campbell and offensive lineman Rashad Butler) are 30 or older; and not one player has accumulated 10 seasons in the league.

Now comes the truly remarkable statistic. The average age of this team is 23.45 years. Call them the Baby Browns. That figure undoubtedly will change somewhat once Banner, Lombardi, Ray Farmer and Chudzinski nosedive into the cuts of the other 31 teams.

Looking at the final 53, one has to wonder how Martin Wallace, Caylin Hauptmann, Jarrod Shaw and Butler made the team. Don’t know who they are? They’re four of the 12 offensive linemen. If more than one makes it to the Dolphins’ game, I’ll be surprised.

How about Eric Martin and Paul Hazel? They’re two of the 10 linebackers. Martin plays inside and Hazel plays outside. They better be good special teamers because that’s the only way they make the Dolphins game.

Right now, one also has to wonder why only three running backs made the cut. If Trent Richardson, who is expected to be the workhorse, ever breaks down, this team is in big trouble. There is absolutely no speed, quickness or depth at the position.

In the first two games of the season, there also will be no depth at wide receiver. There is no one beyond Greg Little, Davone Bess (oops, overlooked him in original post), Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper. Little and Bess are possession receivers; Benjamin, who played sparingly in the exhibition season, is the speedster; and Cooper is slow, but has good hands.

There is no question the Browns will become tight end centric with four on board. Jordan Cameron, Gary Barnidge, Kellen Davis and possibly Smelley will see plenty of footballs thrown their way in the first two games.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves to incorporate tight ends into his schemes. And now, he’s got a boatload with which to work. Look for a majority of Brandon Weeden’s throws against the Dolphins to be in the short to medium range.

Strictly guessing here . . . Banner and his minions most likely will try to beef up the running back and wide receiver positions at the expense of the offensive line and linebackers corps. Twelve offensive linemen and 10 linebackers? Ridiculous.

Outside of the starters and special teamers, the only players safe this week are long snapper Christian Yount and punter Spencer Lanning. Or are they?

The way Banner & Co. operate, no one is truly safe.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Unwrapping the new package

So the Browns finish the exhibition season with three victories. And Brian Hoyer proved he belongs in the National Football League.

What’s next?

The answer to a lot of questions, not the least of which is just how aggressive will the Browns be this season.

We saw glimpses of that aggression in the exhibition season, but not nearly enough to whet our appetites for the 2013 season, which begins a week from Sunday against the Miami Dolphins at – where else? – home.

For the most part, coordinators Norv Turner and Ray Horton folded their arms across their chests and kept them there. Nothing fancy. Or different, Or daring. Just plain old vanilla football.

And yet, there will be a certain segment of Browns Nation that will puff out their chests and point to their team’s 3-1 record in games that have no meaning whatsoever.

In no way, if we are to believe all that spills out of Browns headquarters in Berea, are we to expect the same kind of football once the games become much more meaningful.

When Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer and Rob Chudzinski were in place in the Browns’ hierarchy, we were told the culture would change. These would not be the same Cleveland Browns we’ve been watching achingly for the last 14 seasons.

No sir, they seemed to say. Watch us grow. Watch us play football the way you’ve wanted. The kind that more typifies the city of Cleveland than what you’ve had to endure since 1999.

OK. That means we can expect the Browns to blitz at least half the time. And the offense will be more creative and inventive, although that doesn’t take much considering how dreadfully mundane it has been for the last decade.

Will we see something other than stretch plays and dive plays from the running game? And something other than five-yard hitch patterns on third-and-7s?

How much of Turner’s playbook did we get a glimpse of during the exhibition season? Same with Horton’s. The answers to those questions should shine a bright light on what we can expect in the next 16 games.

When you rack up double-digit losing seasons routinely, there should be no such thing as a conservative approach to a season. One of Pat Shurmur’s major failings was his inability to win close games. That’s because instead of playing to win, he played not to lose.

What’s Chudzinski like in that regard? We don’t know yet, of course. He can’t be any worse than the conservative coaching styles of Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Shurmur. Or can he?

It’s always exciting to anticipate the beginning of a season with a new coaching staff. The mystery of what to expect will remain for just the first game. But it’s the consistency of a new coach’s style that remains paramount in the development of a team.

How much of a leash will Chudzinski give Brandon Weeden? How hurtful will it be being without his top receiver for the first two games? Is the secondary deep enough to make a difference? Those are just some of the questions seeking answers.

And then there’s the big one: How much will Chudzinski trust his coordinators? The secret behind successful coaching is the ability of the head coach to coach his coaches and let the coaches coach the players. If you’ve got solid coaches, and Chudzinski is fortunate enough to be in that position, then the rest will take care of itself.

As for Brian Hoyer: Nice game, guy. You’re still the emergency quarterback. At least we know what you can do in an emergency.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Browns and Bears: Ho hum

Does anyone really care how the Browns play tonight in Chicago against the Bears? Really, really care?

The final exhibition game of the season is the epitome of meaningless. If there is something less than meaningless, this game and the other 15 don’t-count games qualify.

The Browns could win, 50-0, or lose, 50-0, and the apathy surrounding either outcome would be palpable. What difference does it make with regard to the regular season 10 days away? If you don’t know the answer to that one, time to move on. You’re in the wrong neighborhood.

Who cares how well Jason Campbell plays at quarterback? No matter how he plays against his former team, he’ll still be holding a clipboard when the Browns entertain the Miami Dolphins in the season opener a week from Sunday.

Tonight’s game is nothing more than an exercise in futility for the die-hard Browns fans who will take it seriously enough to actually comment on it on various Web sites. Those fans are almost as bad as the ones ignorant enough to bet on this game.

Whatever takes place tonight should be forgotten even before the first of what probably will be a mountain of replays. Likewise with the spoken words of the play-by-play guys and their analysts.

The only participants to whom this one means remotely anything are those either battling to prolong their professional football careers or those hoping to make a successful transition from the college game.

The final 13 positions on the 53-man roster are at stake. Decisions on the top 40 have already been made. The mediocre and less-than-mediocre will be on display, making mistake after mistake in an effort to impress the coaching staff.

Some players will play themselves off the team. Others will play themselves onto the team. Get a good look at them because whoever makes the tail end of the final roster will see little or no action once the regular season commences.

Quality football will take its annual back seat tonight in what rightfully could be called one of the biggest sports ripoffs of the year. No wonder National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to stretch the regular season to 18 games and play just two exhibitions.

It’s just another bargaining chip Goodell will use to push his agenda of making more games relevant. And if the unusually high serious injury rate this exhibition season is used as a tool in his argument, the commissioner just might get his way.

If you’re going to get hurt, it’s much easier to rationalize in games that mean something. The downside to the 18-game season argument is that extending the season by two games creates more opportunities for players to wear down and ultimately succumb to injury. But we digress.

When you flip on your television set this evening and watch this game, make sure to have grains of salt nearby if you start to get excited. Try to keep things in perspective. Save the highs and lows for the games that count.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tendencies and predictability

If there’s one aspect of the game that most coaches on either side of the ball pay very close attention to, it’s tendencies.

All teams have tendencies when they line up in a certain formation. The trick, then, is to show one thing and then do something completely different. Some call it the element of surprise

In the Browns’ first three exhibition games, the starters have run 85 plays from scrimmage on offense (not counting a one-play, end-of-the-first-half play) and lined up in the shotgun formation on 38 of them, or 44.7%.

Considering Brandon Weeden played solely in the shotgun or some sort of spread formation his entire career before joining the Browns last season, that’s not nearly enough shotgun plays with which to work.

Last season, he lined up in that formation about 40% of the time in Pat Shurmur’s drive-choking west coast offense. His discomfort factor was high all season. And he was most successful throwing out of the shotgun.

One would think new offensive coordinator Norv Turner would have seen that and tailored a more comfortable offense for Weeden this season. Instead, at least based on the three exhibitions thus far, that hasn’t happened.

You can count on Weeden to throw the football every time he lines up in the shotgun. In those 38 snaps from the shotgun, only two were designed runs. If I’m the opposing defensive coordinator, I’m telling my guys if you see the shotgun, forget the run and rush the quarterback.

In Saturday night’s 27-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Browns’ starters ran 14 of their 36 plays out of the shotgun with only one run. One measly Chris Ogbonnaya run that gained four yards. How much more predictable can you get than that?

Think that puts a little more pressure on the offensive line to hold their blocks a little longer, the wide receivers to get into their breaks a little quicker? You bet it does.

Are there no running plays out of the shotgun? What about running a few plays from the pistol formation? How about some no-huddle? Anything to get away from the sameness that is now the Browns’ offense.

Sure, it can be argued that Weeden and his crew looked good in the first two exhibitions even with the predictability. But it doesn’t take long for opposing coaches to figure out just what the Browns are trying to do and play the odds with the tendencies.

Where is the creativity? No misdirection plays. No reverses. Nothing remotely resembling ingenuity.

Are Turner and his offensive staff saving the good stuff for the regular season? Wasn’t the Colts game supposed to be the dress rehearsal for the regular season? If so, shut down this show right now.

Coach Rob Chudzinski is flirting with playing the offensive starters for at least two series Thursday night in Chicago against the Bears in the exhibition finale in what might be construed as punishment for such an abysmal showing in Indianapolis.

Conventional wisdom dictates resting the starters in this game and prepare for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 against the Miami Dolphins, injuries being the big concern in a meaningless game.

The defense, which didn’t play that badly against the Colts, should get the night off. The offense clearly needs more work. The guess here is that Chudzinski will change his mind and give all the starters the evening off.

~ Considering defensive coordinator Ray Horton played it close to the vest against the Colts, his men acquitted themselves relatively well since they received no support from the offense.

The normally blitz-happy Horton dialed up more zone coverage than normal, causing some confusion for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who had to scramble four times, which was far more than he wanted.

Once the regular season begins, Horton is most likely going to haul out his blitz playbook and utilize it much more often than he did against the Colts. It would be surprising and somewhat disappointing if he didn’t after hearing all offseason about how much more aggressive the Browns would be on that side of the ball.

~ Weeden nailed the Browns’ problems on offense. “We’ve got to get better on first and second down,” he  said. “That’s where we were really good he first couple of games. We were putting ourselves in position on third down where we were about 50% because they were manageable. It was a little tougher on us tonight.”

Teams that win first and second down are usually teams that win games. Staying out of third-down situations, especially third and long, is paramount to the success of any offense.

~ One positive was the running of Trent Richardson, The second-year running back looked fresh, sharp and confident. Even though the offensive line still doesn’t give him much running room, he seemed to gouge out yardage after contact. If he can stay healthy – and that might not be easy considering the way he runs – and give Turner 20-25 touches a game, he will be a load.

~ Just wondering: Do the Browns have a no-huddle offense in the playbook outside the two-minute drill? We’ve been waiting for way too long to see something as novel as that from this team.

Stodgy football on offense has been a part of this franchise for many seasons. It’s about time fans were treated to something wildly different. Then again, the main reason we haven’t seen it from the Browns is maybe they don’t have the talent to pull it off.

If that’s the case, it would behoove the movers and shakers at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. to get off their hind flanks and do something about it. They talk about shaking things up and we seem to be right back where we started.

~ Final thoughts: The Oakland Raiders have released Joshua Cribbs. And guess who needs a kickoff return specialist? With Deon Lewis out for the season, that leaves only Johnson Bademosi back to return kickoffs for the Browns. If Cribbs is healthy, why not bring him back? . . . It would be surprising if the Browns cut Josh Cooper, who arguably has the best hands of all the wide receivers. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Final 53?

Time to play “Guess Who Makes The Final Roster.”

Yes, with two exhibition games left, it’s that time of the training-camp season to pick up the darts and start throwing them at the roster board in an attempt to pick the Final 53 as the Browns march resolutely toward the opening game of the 2013 regular season.

In many cases, the picks will be ridiculously easy. It’s a matter of selecting those starters from last season who return this season. The difficult part will be correctly nailing players 40 through 53, those men who contribute for the most part on special teams.

Unlike last season, when the Browns played a 4-3 scheme on defense, there will be fewer defensive linemen and more linebackers on the team this season. All the other positions essentially remain the same from a manpower standpoint.

There will be some surprises along the way as Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Ray Farmer, along with Rob Chudzinski and his coaching staff, pare the roster. In fact, it’s entirely possible the final 53 won’t be solidified until the weekend before the season opener on Sept. 8.

With teams slicing and dicing their rosters in the final week, the waiver wires will be loaded with many players who might be misfits for one team and perfect fits for some other team. Last-minute roster changes happen all the time, but are not usually major in nature.

That said, here’s whom the Browns now have on the roster position by position and how I believe it will play out. Let’s start with the offense.

Quarterbacks (3):

Candidates: Brandon Weeden; Jason Campbell; Brian Hoyer.

Should be kept: All three. Why? Because it gives the Browns quality depth at the most important position on the team.

Will be kept: All three, of course.

Running backs (6):

Candidates: Trent Richardson; Montario Hardesty; Dion Lewis; Brandon Jackson; Miguel Maysonet; Jamaine Cook.

Should be kept: Richardson, Jackson, Hardesty and Maysonet. With Lewis down for at least half the season with a broken leg, Hardesty barely survives the cut. Maysonet provides the change-of-pace presence in Lewis’ absence.

Will be kept: Same quartet with Richardson, if he stays healthy, carrying the heavy load with Jackson in reserve.

Fullbacks (3):

Candidates: Christian Ogbonnaya; Owen Marecic; Brad Smelley.

Should be kept: Ogbonnaya and Smelley. Both are better blockers and pass receivers.  Ogbonnaya is the best runner of this trio. Marecic, a non-factor for two seasons, finally wears out his welcome. Too bad the Browns didn’t move him to inside linebacker, where he was much more effective as a collegian.

Will be kept: Ogbonnaya and Smelley.

Offensive linemen (17):

Candidates: Joe Thomas; John Greco; Alex Mack; Jason Pinkston; Shawn Lauvao; Mitchell Schwartz; Garrett Gilkey; Oneil Cousins; Martin Wallace; Chris Faulk; Braxton Cave; Jarrod Shaw; Ryan Miller; Rashad Butler; Aaron Adams; Caylin Hauptmann; Dominic Alford.

Should be kept: Thomas, Greco, Mack, Pinskton, Schwartz, Gilkey, Shaw and Miller.

Will be kept: Thomas, Greco, Mack, Pinkston, Lauvao, Schwartz, Gilkey and Cousins. The coaches go with the more experienced Lauvao and Cousins over Miller.

Wide receivers (12):

Candidates: Josh Gordon; Greg Little; Davone Bess; Travis Benjamin; Josh Cooper; Cordell Roberson; Jordan Norwood; David Nelson; Naaman Roosevelt; Mike Edwards; Dominique Croom; Tori Gurley.

Should be kept: Gordon, Little, Bess, Benjamin, Nelson and Roberson and/or Cooper. What once was a club weakness is now a strength and the cuts will be tough.

Will be kept: Gordon, Little, Bess, Benjamin, Cooper, Nelson and Roberson.

Tight ends (5):

Candidates: Jordan Cameron; Gary Barnidge; Kellen Davis; Dan Gronkowski; Travis Tannahill.

Should be kept: Cameron, Barnidge and Davis. Gronkowski and Tannahill are merely training camp fodder.

Will be kept: Cameron, Barnidge and Davis, who will be kept busy all season in Norv Turner’s tight-end centric offense.

Now the defense.

Defensive linemen (11):

Candidates: Ahtyba Rubin; Phil Taylor; Desmond Bryant; Billy Winn; John Hughes; Ishmaa’ily Kitchen; Armonty Bryant; Brian Sanford; Nick Jean-Baptiste; Hall Davis; Dave Kruger.

Should be kept: Rubin, Taylor, Desmond Bryant, Winn, Hughes, Kitchen and Armonty Bryant.

Will be kept: Rubin, Taylor, Desmond Bryant, Winn, Hughes and Kitchen.  The club does not need to overload on the defensive line and Armonty Bryant will wind up on the practice squad if he clears waivers.

Inside linebackers (5):

Candidates: D’Qwell Jackson; Craig Robertson; Tank Carder; L. J. Fort; Tommy Smith.

Should be kept: Jackson, Robertson, Carder, Fort and Smith.

Will be kept: Most likely this quintet with Smith serving time with special teams.

Outside linebackers (8):

Candidates: Paul Kruger; Jabaal Sheard; Quentin Groves; Barkevious Mingo; James-Michael Johnson; Kendrick Adams; Justin Staples; Justin Cole.

Should be kept: Kruger, Sheard, Groves, Johnson and Mingo.

Will be kept: Same as above with Mingo’s injury situation giving Johnson a temporary reprieve here.

Cornerbacks (9):

Candidates: Joe Haden; Chris Owens; Leon McFadden; Josh Aubrey; Buster Skrine; Trevin Wade; Auguste Akeem; Abdul Kanneh; Vernon Kearney.

Should be kept: Haden, Owens, McFadden, Skrine, Wade and Akeem.

Will be kept: Haden, Owens, McFadden, Skrine and Wade. Akeem makes it only if there is a special teams need.

Safeties (5):

Candidates: T. J. Ward; Johnson Bademosi; Tashaun Gipson; Jamoris Slaughter; Kent Richardson.

Should be kept: Ward, Gipson, Bademosi and Slaughter.

Will be kept: Same four guys unless the front office feels a need and signs free agent Kerry Rhodes.

Placekickers (2):

Candidates: Shayne Graham; Brandon Bogotay.

Should be kept: Graham and Bogotay.

Will be kept: Only Graham, which would be a mistake. The Browns need depth on kickoffs and Bogotay provides more than Graham, who is a more accurate kicker.

Punters (1):

Candidates: Spencer Lanning. That’s it.

Should be kept: Lanning by default.

Will be kept: Who else? Unless, that is, the Browns actively seek to pick up someone else on waivers.

Long snapper (1):

Candidate: Christian Yount is the only candidate.

Should be kept: Again . . . who else?

Will be kept: Yep, you guessed it.

That’s 56 players who should make the team. Three have to go. So . . . Bogotay, Akeem and Tommy Smith are gone.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

We knew it all along

Hmmmm. So Rob Chudzinski has decided to name Bandon Weeden as his starting quarterback.


Wonder what caused this sudden change of mind?

Wasn’t it about a week ago that the Browns’ freshman head coach waffled and called the quarterback competition too close to call? What in the world happened since then to prompt such a reversal?

Weeden and Jason Campbell have played outstanding quarterback in the first two exhibition games. What gives?

Did Chudzinski just wake up Monday morning and decide Weeden was his man? Sounds very much like an epiphany.

All of a sudden he goes from being indecisive to downright decisive, surprising just about everyone in Browns Nation.

He told the media that “it was important for me and us (his coaching staff) to go through the process throughout the offseason so that we could get these guys (three quarterbacks) and see how they would react to a lot of different situations that would come up.

“Based on this process, Brandon has earned this job. . . . He’s gained my complete trust. He’s gained his teammates’ complete trust and his organization’s trust and we’re all behind him.”

Bulletin: We already knew you'd pick him.

So why wait until four days (Weeden was informed on Monday) after the second exhibition to put forth the obvious: He has done nothing to warrant losing his starting status.

It all makes no sense. Yep, that’s it. It sometimes is very difficult to tap into the reasoning of coaches and managers.

Chudzinski went on to say he is a firm believer “that what separates the great quarterbacks from the average quarterbacks is how they react to different situations, whether it’s a game or adversity during the season.”

The big difference could be what appears to be an important change in Weeden’s leadership abilities. He seems much more confident than he did at any time during his rookie season.

“I’ve seen him take hold of the group he’s with,” Chudzinski told the media. “I think that’s the maturation of a quarterback going from a rookie season when you’re not really sure how it works to a second-year guy who understands better what it takes.”

Then again, maybe it’s because Weeden has been given an offense that better utilizes his talents. Last season, he might as well have played with one arm tied behind his back in the ill-advised west coast scheme.

One of the main reasons for Weeden’s success thus far in the exhibition season – and yes, the games will be played much differently once they become more meaningful – is his comfort level with Norv Turner’s wide-open, quarterback-friendly offense.

So all he has to do now is go out and prove his coach made the correct decision. That won’t be easy to do once the speed of the game changes.

He won’t have Josh Gordon, his favorite receiver, for the first two games due to a suspension. Looking at it from a positive standpoint, maybe now he will have to rely on other receivers and develop a rapport with them he wouldn’t have had a chance to do otherwise.

Bottom line is it’s nice to see hard work rewarded even though the coach stretched the mystery far longer than it needed to be.

Hopefully, Chudzinski's in-game decisions will be much quicker. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Taking care of the football

It’s a familiar refrain heard throughout dressing rooms all around the National Football League. Coaches use it all the time as a constant reminder.

Take care of the football.

In other words, possession is nine-tenths of the NFL law of the land. Own the ball and you are difficult to beat. Lose it to the opposition and the odds of losing increase.

Take care of the football.

It seems to be working with the Browns’ offense. The most impressive statistic they have rung up thus far this exhibition season is turnovers. They have none.

In victories over St. Louis and Detroit, the Browns’ offense snapped the ball 122 times in 19 drives and has yet to record its first turnover. Makes no difference whether it’s the first team, second team or third team. Not once has the opposition taken the ball away from the Browns.

Cleveland quarterbacks have put the ball up 63 times with 47 competitions. That’s an astounding completion percentage of 74.6. Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer haven’t come even close to throwing an interception.

On the ground, running backs have 59 carries and no fumbles. On the negative side, they have rushed for just 163 yards. That’s 2.76 yards a tote. Blame a lot of that on poor blocking by the offensive line.

When you do not gift your opponent with fumbles and interceptions, your odds of winning games grow substantially. In the past, you could almost count on the Browns to turn the ball over at crucial junctures of games.

Of course, these are just exhibition games now, but it’s apparent that Rob Chudzinski and his coaching staff have drilled the importance of holding on to the football into the minds of the offense.

~ While the offense, for the most part, has played near flawless football thus far, the defense stole the show in the 24-6 victory over the Lions Thursday night.

Even though we’re only two exhibition games into the season, Ray Horton’s influence on the defensive side of the ball is becoming obvious. You never know from which direction the pressure is coming.

Sometimes, the Browns lined up in a three-man front with two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. Other times, only two defensive linemen put their hands on the ground with two outside backers and as many as nine men in the box.

Safeties darted in and out of the box, faking blitzes, in an effort to confuse the opposing quarterback. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such aggressive defense with man coverage on the outside.

Horton is clearly the master of surprise and probably takes great delight in showing quarterbacks one look and then switching to something entirely different at the snap. If nothing else, it sure is fun to watch.

The Lions crossed into Browns territory only twice Thursday night, once in each half, accounting for their two field goals. The first string Cleveland defense forced four punts in the first quarter and yielded only 41 yards, 28 on the fourth series.

The second- and third-stringers picked up the cue and played stifling defense against their opposite numbers on the Lions. It certainly appeared as though they have taken to Horton’s complex schemes with extreme relish.

~ Watching Weeden play pitch and catch with Jordan Cameron against the Lions brought back memories of Colt McCoy and Evan Moore in the 2011 season. Both of Cameron’s touchdowns Thursday night were high throws only the 6-5, 255-pound tight end could catch.

McCoy and Moore hooked up for four touchdowns in 2011 with McCoy throwing the ball high enough where only the 6-6, 250-pounder could catch it. Cameron and Moore each showed the ability to get open and each has shared the unfortunate inability to stay healthy long enough to contribute on a full-time basis.

If Cameron can stay healthy, then the Browns just might have a weapon that enables the wide receivers to become even more effective. And now that Weeden has discovered him and seemingly trusts him, it’ll be interesting to see how much coordinator Norv Turner incorporates him into the offense.

Turner loves working with pass-catching tight ends. He has cultivated a reputation for maximizing that position in his offensive scheme.

~ Some observations . . .

Notice the amount of man coverage on pass defense? With eight, nine and sometimes 10 men in the box at the snap, Horton has no choice but to use that approach. And I love it.

Mano y mano has always been my favorite type of coverage. Of course, its good to mix it up once in a while and throw some Cover 2 or Cover 3 in there, but there’s nothing like chin-to-chin coverage.

In order to be successful at it, though, the pass rush has to be just as successful. Not getting to the quarterback in time and allowing him to throw whenever he wants can result in negative plays. It’s a gamble Horton seems to enjoy.

That pass rush has not shown up much in the first two exhibitions. Maybe Horton is ramping it up in stages so that by the time the regular season starts, it will be ready with the full arsenal. . . .

Injuries are finally beginning to take their toll. With Jason Pinkston (ankle), Barkevious Mingo (lung), Dion Lewis (broken leg), Brandon Bogotay (groin) and Gary Barnidge (shoulder) out of action, we’ll see just how deep this team really is.

Brandon Jackson brings a nice, hard-nosed attitude to the running game, but Lewis’ speed and quickness will be missed. The Browns are strong enough at outside linebacker to be patient in awaiting Mingo’s return. And Garrett Gilkey acquitted himself well filling in for Pinkston against the Lions. . . .

One very noticeable change on defense, except the obvious ones, is that the tackling is a lot crisper and sharper thus far. Have yet to see a broken tackle, a plague that has deviled this team for so many seasons. . . .

The offense seemed a bit sluggish at the beginning of the Lions game, but Turner and Weeden didn’t take long to figure out the problems . . . If Bogotay is healthy, it would be incumbent on the Browns to keep him for no other reason than his strong keg on kickoffs. Making the opposition start each drive after a kickoff from the 20-yard line makes it that much easier on the defense and tougher on opposing offenses. . . .  Travis Benjamin is making a lot of fans forget in a hurry who Joshua Cribbs was.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Not horseshoes or hand grenades

All right. Enough. Enough already, Rob Chudzinski.

Who do you think you’re trying to fool with this idiotic talk about not knowing who your starting quarterback will be in the regular-season opener?

You know damn well who will be under center – or at least in the shotgun – when your Browns play the Miami Dolphins on the second Sunday of next month. It’s going to be Brandon Weeden.

If it isn’t, you’re asking for more trouble than you dreamed of in your rookie season as a head coach. There is only one quarterback who can run Norv Turner’s offense and run it well on this team. Yep, Brandon Weeden. And you know it.

So what’s this nonsense we’re reading about the quarterback competition in training camp being a “close” battle”?

“I think it’s still close,” you told the media the other day when asked for your assessment of that competition. “We are finding out every game. These games are important opportunities for guys to show what they can do.”

Are you kidding me? Somehow, I find it hard to believe you actually feel that way. What does Weeden have to do to warrant your seal of approval? Complete every pass? Never get sacked? Part his hair on the correct side?

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’re playing head games with your quarterbacks through the media. And what purpose, if that’s what you’re trying to do, would that serve?

In the process, you’re taking the psyche of a quarterback (Weeden) coming off a rookie season working with an offense that was the polar opposite of what he ran in college and messing with it.

What purpose does it serve to crawl into the head of that quarterback when what he needs much more is some solid backing from his head coach and offensive coordinator? He goes out and has a pretty good game in his exhibition debut and yet, the competition is “still close.”

While you’re handling it all wrong, at least Weeden is handling it correctly. “I’m confident that I’m going to be (the starting quarterback), but I’ve got to prove it to the other guys, the guys upstairs that I’m the guy,” he said. "It’s just one more obstacle I’ve got to overcome, but I’ve just got to worry about what I can control.”

There is no question Jason Campbell is the more experienced of the two candidates for the starting job. He has started 71 National Football League games (30-41 record) and is more familiar with Turner’s offense.

But Campbell has carried on an affair with mediocrity his entire NFL career. What makes Chudzinski, Turner or any of the other members of the offensive coaching staff believe he’ll be anything other than that with the Browns?

Right now, the Browns are striving to shed their loser label. They don’t need retreads to help them achieve that goal. And that’s exactly what Campbell is: a retread. He best serves his new team by holding a clipboard.

Brian Hoyer? Third stringer all the way. He shouldn’t even be in the same conversation.

Leave it to Weeden to come up with the perfect solution to what appears to be a manufactured problem. “If I continue to improve and do all the things (he needs to), then everything will take care of itself,” he told he media. “I’ve just got to worry about me and the rest will kind of follow suit.”

Chudzinski still believes in his plan “to find the right guy. At whatever point is the right time to do that, we will name a starter.”

If you think it’s not going to be Weeden, raise your hand. Not you, Campbell. Or you, Hoyer. Get ready to watch No. 3 no matter what his coach says now.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thoughts on the Rams victory

Day-after-the-day-after thoughts on the Browns’ 27-19 exhibition victory Thursday night . . .

The best part of the victory? No turnovers and three takeaways. Any time you ring up numbers like that you’re going to win a vast majority of the time.

Other quick impressions:

~ For the first exhibition of the season, the offense looked unusually sharp. The only downside on that side of the ball was the below-average run blocking. It looked a lot similar to the Pat Shurmur run-blocking scheme. It’s obvious that aspect of the offense needs a lot of work.

On the other hand, the pass blocking was strong for the most part, helped by a large number of quick-developing plays. Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer getting rid of the ball quickly certainly didn’t hurt.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on offense was how effectively the Browns ran screen passes. That aspect of the passing game was downright awful the past few seasons. But Weeden executed to perfection a couple of screens against the Rams. If they can do that in the regular season, it adds yet another weapon to a burgeoning arsenal.

~ The defense is going to fun to watch this season. Unlike seasons past when the Browns played much more of a read-and-react style, this season’s edition does little reading and a whole lot of charging in a northerly direction.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s main goal is to get to the quarterback and although the Browns sacked St. Louis quarterbacks only once, they felt pressure most of the evening. It’s an extremely active and nasty defense with blitzes coming from anywhere. As the season unfolds, expect to see even more exotic looks.

Early on the Browns gave Rams quarterback Sam Bradford a five-man look up front with three down linemen and the outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance. It became a guessing game on whether both outside backers would rush or drop back in coverage. Sometimes, both rushed; other times, just one.

Add a strong safety in the box in intimidating fashion on more than 50% of the plays and you have the makings of an exciting – and, yes, daring and dangerous – defense that will bring an aggressive bent to Cleveland football that we haven’t seen in a very long time. It will get stung on occasion, but will sting more often than it gets stung.

~ It has become somewhat obvious the Browns will be not be a slow, plodding football team this season. While not among the speediest or quickest teams in the National Football League, they are much faster and quicker than they have been in recent seasons.

With the likes of Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves on defense and Travis Benjamin, Dion Lewis, Miguel Maysonet (if he makes the team) and Josh Gordon on offense, the Browns no longer play the game as though they are rooted in cement.

~ Standout players against the Rams included Lewis, whose quick-twitch talents should prove invaluable should anything happen to Trent Richardson; free safety Johnson Bademosi, who seemed to be around the ball quite a bit; reserve guard Garrett Gilkey, whose quick feet and bellicose style of play should earn him a spot on the club; and nose tackle Phil Taylor, who created the first turnover of the season and whose large presence in the middle of the line should help the run defense this season.

~ Weeden had only three incompletions in 13 attempts against the Rams, but one of those incompletions might have been his most impressive pass of the evening.

On a third-and-goal at the St. Louis 7 on the first series of the game, Weeden looked for Greg Little in the right corner of the end zone. The pass barely tipped the fingertips of Little, guarded closely by Courtland Finnegan, before falling harmlessly out of bounds.

It was a pass only Little could have caught. Even though it was incomplete, it was a large step in the growth of Weeden as an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t make that kind of throw last season. If he had, it most likely would have been picked off. Bottom line: it put three points on the scoreboard.

~ Running back Brandon Jackson, who spent most of last season tethered to the bench for some unknown reason, looked awfully strong against the Rams. He wound up with only 32 yards in 11 carries, but he also caught five passes for 22 yards and showed a strong second effort all evening. If I’m Montario Hardesty, I’m worried about making this team.

~ Tidbits: The Browns were 9-of-16 on third downs, a rate that should please Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner, but allowed the Rams to convert 6 of 13 on third down, a rate that cannot please Horton. . . . Did you notice very little pre-snap motion by the Browns? Under Shurmur and Brad Childress, it seemed as though the Browns last season motioned on just about every play. . . . If Jordan Cameron can stay healthy and Gary Barnidge plays as well as Chudzinski believes he will, Turner should have fun designing plays for these two tight ends . . . . Even though he had only one tackle in two series, it looks as though inside linebacker Craig Robertson is quite comfortable in Horton’s defense. . . . Lots of flat passes and hitch patterns to keep the Rams’ defense honest a positive sign.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Too early to get excited

It’s only one game. And a meaningless game at that.

That’s why the Browns’ 27-19 exhibition victory over the St. Louis Rams Thursday night can’t be taken too seriously from the standpoint of the quarterbacking.

Relax, folks. Yes, Brandon Weeden looked good in his brief stint. But let’s not get carried away and hang a star on him just yet.

Granted, he looked far better that at any time during the exhibition season last year. But he was a rookie then, working in a system that was totally foreign to him.

Now he’s being coached by someone far more competent than his handlers last season and it shows. It was obvious he played at a comfort and confidence level against the Rams he never reached all last season.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He stepped into throws, showed a relatively quick release and displayed a self-assurance that was missing last season. His 10-for-13 evening, one touchdown was the biggest surprise.

As for the other quarterbacks on the roster, let’s also not get too excited about Jason Campbell’s 6-for-7 performance or Brian Hoyer’s touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. By the time the regular season starts, those accomplishments will be a well-faded memory.

At the risk of belaboring the point, Weeden will be under center – or in the shotgun and maybe even the pistol – when the Miami Dolphins invade for the Sept. 8 season opener. Chisel it.

Between now and then, he’ll play about half of the exhibition against the Detroit Lions next Thursday, roughly three quarters of the third exhibition in Indianapolis on Aug. 24 and maybe a series or two in the exhibition finale in Chicago on Aug. 29.

In that time, he’ll throw some nice passes, probably a few interceptions and sometimes make you wonder just how in the hell could he throw that pass. It’s all part of getting ready for the games that mean something.

Because he’s in a new system, it’s almost imperative that coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner maximize the number of snaps Weeden needs to be sharp for the Dolphins. He needs to reach a comfort level that would buoy his confidence.

One of the reasons Weeden got off to such a slow start last season was the minimal number of snaps he took in the exhibitions. The snaps he needed to effectively run the offense were left in the locker room.

However, don’t look for Chudzinski and Turner to deviate from the time-honored plan that has been followed ever since the National Football League pared the exhibition schedule back to four games in 1978. It’s a formula from which coaches will not deviate.

Weeden thus will not get the reps he need, Once the regular season begins and the speed of the game ramps up, he most likely will not be prepared for the change.

In order for him to be sharp, he needs more game to time up with his receivers. Offense is all about timing and rhythm. The more snaps you take, the more polished you become. It becomes almost like rote.

The great quarterbacks don’t require it as much as the younger ones. They acclimate faster to the regular season. Right now, Weeden is nowhere near that status.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Beware of Turner coachspeak

Norv Turner the other day pretty much proclaimed that Brandon Weeden would be the Browns’ starting quarterback when they open the regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 8.

Not exactly breaking news from the club’s offensive coordinator. Anybody who thought it wouldn’t be Weeden either isn’t paying attention or has an extreme dislike for the guy.

Turner touched on Weeden’s inconsistency in training camp, but didn’t seem too worried about it. It’s what he said about backup quarterback Jason Campbell that raised an eyebrow or two.

“I really like what Jason has done,” he told the Plain Dealer. “People say he’s been in the system, but he found out right away it’s a lot different than what we’re doing, You can tell when he’s in there that he’s played. He’s played a lot of football.

“So he’s very comfortable in the pocket. He’s very comfortable in terms of going through the progressions and then like the other guys, he’s learning a new offense, so there are ups and down, but to me, he’s been very, very consistent.”

Well . . . an extra “very” to solidify his remarks. He hasn’t spoken that glowingly yet about Weeden.

So what are we to glean from that effusive discourse? Not one thing. Turner knows Weeden will be the man on Sept. 8 and Campbell will be holding the clipboard.

Along the way, he’s not going to trash Campbell or third-stringer Brian Hoyer. He’s been around long enough to know that if there’s any trashing to be done, it’ll be done behind closed doors.

When asked about Campbell, what else is he going to say? “He’s having trouble picking up the system” or “we’re disappointed in him so far.” That’ll never happen.

Asked later about Hoyer, Turner replied, “I like Brian. He’s obviously been exposed to a lot of different things. He’s getting zeroed in on what we’re doing. He’s willing to take a chance with the ball and sometimes that ends up good and sometimes it ends up bad.”

Wow! What a dazzling display of coachspeak. Shades of Romeo Crennel. Having coached as long as he has in the National Football League, Turner has not missed many classes on how not to answer a question.

Again, he will not belittle a player in the media. Praise him with words that, when strung together, carry little significant meaning.

Turner admits the offense hasn’t looked good thus far with Weeden in charge, but that’s not exactly a bulletin. During the early stages of training camp, the defense is usually way ahead of the offense. Why? Offense relies on timing and precision. Defense relies on aggression.

It’s much easier to assimilate to a new defensive system than it is a new offensive system. Fewer mistakes are made on the defensive side of the ball. It happens with all teams. It takes time. That’s what the four exhibition games are for.

And with a quarterback in just his second season (and in a decidedly different system), that timing and cohesion might take a little longer. Turner presumably is a patient man. That patience will be tested heavily this season.

Not to worry. Turner’s resume suggests his success rate with quarterbacks is higher than that of any other offensive coordinator the new Browns have employed.