Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday leftovers

There’s got to be a whole bunch of mixed feelings floating around the upper reaches at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. these days.

On the one hand, the Browns have won their last two games and taken up temporary residence with Baltimore and Cincinnati in first place in the AFC North.

On the other, it seems that one of the main reasons the Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts nearly two weeks ago was to weaken the team and position themselves for a high pick in next April’s college draft so they could get their franchise quarterback.

So while the vastly improved performance of the team recently has captured the imagination of Browns Nation and most likely put smiles on the faces of Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Jimmy Haslam III, it has seemingly jeopardized the possibility of nailing that really high draft pick.

In other words, Brian Hoyer and his cohorts on offense have joined what has become a very good defense and, at least on the surface, spoiled any plans of drafting a Teddy Bridgewater or Brett Hundley or Johnny Manziel.

To be in a position to do so requires bad football. Really bad football. And the Browns are playing anything but these days.

So those Mona Lisa smiles emanating from on high might be for show because, well, you know, this is not what they expected when Brandon Weeden banged his thumb against a helmet and forced coach Rob Chudzinski to choose Hoyer as his replacement.

After all, he could have picked Jason Campbell and nobody would have complained since he was No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart. And he has a brief history with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Who knows where the Browns would be with Campbell under center – 1-3, maybe 0-4?

So while the choice of Hoyer was surprising, it has turned out far better than anyone would have imagined. The Cleveland offense has looked like an entirely different unit since Chudzinski tapped him to replace Weeden.

It’s nice to win games, of course, but not this many. Each victory costs the Browns a position in the draft order. A few more and all of a sudden, they’re picking a cornerback instead of a quarterback.

Then again, maybe, just maybe, Hoyer is the guy the club has been looking for all these years of wandering in the National Football League desert of losers. The way he has played has definitely caught the attention of those who follow the league religiously.

Of course, we’re just four games into the season and anything can happen. Hoyer could get hurt and we see the reemergence of Weeden, returning to the abnormalcy that was the beginning of the season.

But until that happens, if it happens, Banner & Co. are stuck with a team that has shown a resilience not seen in these parts since 2007. And it could, with scrumptious irony, backfire and blow up their plans for the future franchise quarterback.

With the Buffalo Bills coming up Thursday night at home, it is conceivable the Browns could be 3-2 after week five and gaining more national attention as they strive to escape the list of NFL bottom feeders. (This just in: Hoyer will start that game for the Browns even if Weeden's thumb is healed. Shocking!)

Yes, the Bills knocked off the Ravens Sunday, so they won’t be a pushover. But the Browns are playing with such confidence right now, it’s hard to believe it won’t carry over to this game.

Who knows? Those Mona Lisa smiles could turn into the real thing if this short burst of good football continues. And if it does, who cares whether the club’s best-laid plans are blown up? Isn’t it all about winning? Makes no difference how you get there.

~ It’s somewhat humorous that some of the most successful plays Hoyer has executed were of the play-fake variety. In order to be successful with play action, you need a running game. The Browns don’t have one.

In the 17-6 victory over Cincinnati Sunday, Hoyer attempted 11 play-action passes and completed eight for 64 yards and a touchdown. The score was a little one-yard throw to Chris Ogbonnaya after faking a handoff to him in the backfield.

All the running back had to do was carry out the fake and then sneak into the right flat for Hoyer’s soft toss. The Bengals’ cornerback on that side bit on the fake and was late covering Ogbonnaya. It was almost too easy.

Hoyer’s ability to sell the run is the difference. If the Browns don’t come up with a running game soon, future opponents won’t buy the play fake and hone in on the Cleveland quarterback.

~ That said, it was encouraging to watch Willis McGahee run on the last scoring drive, a 91-yarder in the fourth quarter that took six minutes and 37 seconds off the clock and gave the Browns a commanding lead.

The veteran running back, who wound up with just 46 yards in his 15 carries, saved his best for that drive. The previous series wound up as a three-and-out, so it was essential for the Browns to milk the clock. McGahee was the driving force, carrying the ball six times and piling up 33 yards on the 12-play drive.

Turner effectively rotated McGahee, Ogbonnaya and rookie Bobby Rainey out of the backfield, keeping them all fresh and perhaps leading to the notion that the Browns have a decent running game.

~ The Browns’ secondary, fingered as the chink in the armor of the defense as the season began, has surrendered just two touchdown passes this season. Brian Hartline caught a 34-yarder in the third quarter of the opening-game loss to Miami and Marlon Brown caught a five-yarder in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore loss.

That’s it. Mute evidence that the symbiotic relationship between the front seven and secondary is working much better than at first believed. The fact the front seven has made life generally miserable for opposing quarterbacks thus far has been a major factor.

Add to the equation defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s sophisticated coverages and disguises to confuse those quarterbacks and it seems to be adding up, at least so far, to a solid year for the secondary.

~ Jordan Cameron is having himself a Pro Bowl year. With 30 receptions for 360 yards and five touchdowns, the third-year tight end has already bettered his career totals. In his first two seasons, he played in 22 games, caught 26 passes for 259 yards and scored one touchdown.

If he stays healthy, there’s no telling how good he can be. Right now, he seems to be Hoyer’s go-to guy with 43 targets. But it doesn’t take long for word to spread around the NFL regarding hot players. So Cameron can expect a lot of attention from now on.

What separates him from most tight ends are his soft hands. The way he catches the ball, you can tell he played some wide receiver in the past. Now let’s see if he can sustain this early success.

~ Notebook: No running back has had a 100-yard day against the Browns’ run defense this season. The closest was Adrian Peterson’s 88 yards in the Minnesota victory. They have given up only 316 yards in 110 attempts on the ground, a stingy 79 yards a game, or 2.87 yards an attempt. . . . The Cleveland running game, meanwhile, has mustered a meager 304 yards. . . . Irony of the day in Sunday’s victory: Billy Cundiff misses field goals of 37 yards (off the left upright) and 49 yards (partially blocked and wide right) in the second quarter, but hits on a 51-yarder with no problem in the third quarter. . . . Not certain why punter Spencer Lanning, subbing for Cundiff on kickoffs, squib-kicked the kickoff after the Browns’ first touchdown late in the first quarter. It gave the Bengals excellent field position near midfield and led to a gift field goal. 

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