Saturday, September 7, 2013

New faces, same result

At the beginning of the Browns’ training camp last month in Berea, I had a good feeling about the 2013 team.

New head coach, solid coordinators on both sides of the football and a seemingly different culture that translated into a welcome change of direction from the woebegone days.

My usual pessimism (realism?) was slowly being chipped away, giving birth to a feeling of hope. It was a strange feeling, one that hasn’t been felt since the Browns’ run at the playoffs in the 2007 season.

I envisioned a definite uptrend from the massive number of double-digit loss seasons. For the first time in a long time, the club seemed headed in the right direction.

A .500 season became a distinct possibility while reasoning out just how the Browns would fare this season. Anything more than that would be wishful thinking considering the tough division in which they play.

Brandon Weeden finally gets to work in an offense with which he is much more familiar after being handcuffed with a stodgy scheme in his rookie season. The young wide receivers are a year older and, hopefully, a year better.

Even though the offensive line still lacks for guards who can be effective in the run game, that can be overlooked because the Browns will put the ball up about two-thirds of the time this season.

A couple of problems, though, on offense.

The club has just five wide receivers, only one of whom has more than two years experience. Josh Gordon misses the first two games of the season on suspension; fellow wideout David Nelson, expected to be a significant contributor to the offense, was cut; and Travis Benjamin, who subs for Gordon, is a distinct downgrade.

The Browns have only one running back on whom they can count. Trent Richardson is the entire backfield. Dion Lewis and Montario Hardesty are injured and gone for the season. Brandon Jackson was released. Only 5-7 rookie Dennis Johnson and 5-8 second-year man Bobby Rainey remain and they joined the team just a few days ago.

It looks as though offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s desire to stretch the field will take a hit in the early going with tight ends figuring heavily in what probably will be a replay of last season.

On defense, we have no idea what to expect except what coordinator Ray Horton has promised almost since the day he took the job. In the exhibition season, we saw mostly vanilla looks.

What we see Sunday against the Miami Dolphins in the season opening game most likely will look nothing like what we saw in the practice games. But Horton will have to begin the season somewhat short of full manpower.

Defensive end Desmond Bryant’s back is acting up and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo’s bruised lung will severely limit his contribution early on. Now comes word that cornerback Buster Skrine and defensive end Ahtyba Rubin are questionable for the game, leaving the defense that much thinner.

And then there’s the secondary. In Horton’s world, the defensive backfield will play an awful lot of press coverage because he intends to blitz opposing quarterbacks as they step off the bus. That kind of thinking necessitates man coverage.

That might be asking too much of a Cleveland secondary, which has just one member taller than 5-11. Only safety Johnson Bademosi is a six-footer and just barely at 6-0,

That backfield is midget-sized compared to other secondaries around the National Football League with three men at 5-9, two at 5-10 and a couple at 5-11. With the trend toward bigger wide receivers, it is vitally important to match them with larger defensive backs.

After six weeks of training camp and four exhibitions, I am not nearly as sanguine about the Browns chances of achieving break-even status. Certainly not when the club’s brass whacks two kickers on cutdown day and holds a tryout the week of the season opener.

There is an air of uncertainty that emanates from on high in Berea. One gets the feeling Joe Banner and his minions are far from being satisfied with the roster as it now stands.

At one point, I honestly thought the Browns had a chance to get to .500 this season. Not anymore. I do, however, believe they will flirt with avoiding another double-digit loss season, but come up just short and finish at 6-10.

Entering the season woefully thin at running back could be hazardous to Richardson’s health. And the absence of Mingo, at least early on, could have a negative effect on Horton’s avowed campaign to make life miserable for NFL quarterbacks.

Along the way, though, the Browns will show flashes of what the future holds. Once Gordon returns, Turner will remove the shackles from Weeden’s arm and permit the ball to be thrown vertically.

As for Miami, its offense is one year older and that much wiser. Last season, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill got his NFL feet wet with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, his coach at Texas A&M. Tannehill’s stats were somewhat disappointing with just 3,330 yards, 12 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and a 58% completion rate.

The Dolphins have given him a deep threat with former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Wallace and a couple of strong possession receivers in Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson. Second-year man Lamar Miller, who will operate behind a huge offensive line, handles the running game.

On defense, the Dolphins rely heavily on end Cameron Wake to bring the pressure. The former Penn State star has racked up 43 sacks in four seasons, including 15 last season. If Browns offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz can neutralize Wake, Weeden’s afternoon should be relatively pleasant.

Much like the Browns’ suspect secondary, the Dolphins are vulnerable to the passing game. Which means this game very well could turn out to be a scoring bonanza with most of it coming through the air.

The key on defense is the effectiveness of Horton’s blitzing tactics. If Cleveland can disrupt Tannehill’s timing, then the Browns have a shot. On offense, the key will be winning first and second down, which was a problem during the exhibition season.

Winning opening games has been foreign to the Browns since the resurrection in 1999. This will be the 15th season opener (14 at home) since then and the best they could do was a 20-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. One victory in 14 openers. After Sunday, make that one victory in 15.

Tannehill throws three touchdown passes, two to Wallace, and Miller runs for 102 yards and a score, but the Miami defense cannot stop Weeden and the short passing game. The Cleveland quarterback connects on scoring throws to Cameron Jordan, ex-Dolphin Davone Bess and Richardson, who tacks on 123 yards on the ground.

It will come down to whichever team has the ball last in a scoring marathon. It will be the Dolphins with rookie Caleb Sturgis kicking a 27-yard field goal with four seconds left. Make it:

Dolphins 38, Browns 35 

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