Sunday, September 8, 2013

Good news dwells among the bad

First, the bad news. The Browns lost another season-opening game Sunday, this one to the Miami Dolphins. At home. Nothing new there.

They got walloped, although the 23-10 final score does not indicate that, and the Brandon Weeden haters began circling their prey mere moments after the game. (More on him later.) 

And then there’s the real bad news. Even though the faces and attitudes and game approaches are different, it seems as though we’ve seen this act before. It does not play well at all.

Fresh start to the season. Everyone is geared up. The club is unbeaten. The game is being played before a friendly audience inside the former Cleveland Browns Stadium (sorry, I can’t mention that other corporate name). Then this stinker. 

But wait. There’s good news. Yep, even after that sorry performance the Browns put forth against the Dolphins, there really is some good news. The loss is not a total disaster.

The Browns are tied for first place in the AFC North. Or is it last place? In one of those statistical rarities, all four AFC North teams brought shame to the division by losing their opening games.

Of course, that doesn’t make the Dolphins loss seem any better. In fact, all it does is raise more questions as to just how much different Rob Chudzinski’s and Norv Turner’s offense is compared to Pat Shurmur’s of the last two seasons.

Based solely on Sunday’s performance, the Browns seemed to have fine-tuned stodgy, stuck-in-the-mud football featuring one of the slowest offensive teams in the National Football League.

The line, which played reasonably well in the first half, suffered an almost total collapse in the second half and Weeden, again getting little or no cooperation from his receivers who either had trouble getting open or holding on to the ball, looked totally inept.

If Chudzinski and Turner continue to remain blind to the fact that only two of their offensive linemen can be relied on, this season could turn out to be more disastrous than initially believed. Oneil Cousins was an embarrassment against the Dolphins and Miami defensive end Cameron Wake schooled Mitchell Schwartz all afternoon.

Weeden was sacked six times, hurried on at least 25 other occasions and knocked down more than a dozen times. Again, it was a combination of confusing Miami coverage and the inability of Cleveland receivers to get open.

Quickness and speed are foreign words to the Browns’ offense. And using wide receivers and good hands in the same sentence is an oxymoron. Taking nothing away from Weeden, who seemed to have problems all afternoon figuring out just what the Miami secondary was doing, the guys who are paid to catch the football stole some money from their employers.

If it weren’t for the defense, this one would have been a rout. The Dolphins twice began drives deep in Cleveland territory following a turnover early and taking over on downs late in the game, and the best they could come away with were two of Caleb Sturgis’ three field goals.

Based entirely on this outing, the Browns seem to have solved what had been a major weakness almost since the resurrection. The Dolphins ran the ball 23 times and gained 20 yards. That is not a typo.

However, it took the Dolphins the major portion of the first three quarters before they finally decided that maybe throwing the ball might engender more positive results.

Ryan Tannehill hooked up repeatedly – with surprising ease – with veterans Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson when he needed to make an important throw. Hartline and Gibson combined for six receptions against a tired Cleveland defense early in the fourth quarter.

The Cleveland pass rush, which dropped Tannehill four times, never got close to him on a 10-play, 85-yard scoring drive that took five minutes off the clock and gave the Dolphins a 20-10 cushion just when it looked as though the Browns would somehow, some way, stay alive despite a poor showing.

After all, they held a 7-6 halftime lead despite all three of Weeden’s interceptions and some awful play calling. Again, it was the defense that stiffened when it had to, forcing the Dolphins to settle for field goals.

But Hartline’s double move on Buster Skrine (sound familiar?) resulted in a 34-yard touchdown heave by Tannehill late in the third quarter to give the Dolphins a lead they never relinquished.

Of course, it’s only the first game of the season. And you can count on Chudzinski and Turner to say all the mistakes made Sunday (far too many to mention) are correctable (again, sound familiar?).  But next Sunday’s opponent is a much, much better team than the Dolphins.

If the Browns play against the Ravens in Baltimore the way they did against the Dolphins, particularly on offense, the Miami loss will seem tame by comparison. The Ravens are coming off a 49-27 thrashing in Denver and will not be in a welcoming mood.

The Browns have a boatload of problems on offense and a lot of them reside in the coaching room. That must be addressed ASAP.

There have to be better plays for Trent Richardson to run other than dive plays and stretch plays. That, of course, depends on whether the guys up front are capable of executing anything other than those run plays.

As for screen plays, forget them. The Browns tried two against Miami and both failed miserably. Stash screens until the offensive line can execute them properly. If they are incapable, rip those pages out of the playbook and burn them. They’re useless.

Then there’s Weeden, whose most embarrassing pass of the day was a throwaway on fourth down in the final minutes of the game. It was an embarrassingly stupid play, completing an embarrassing afternoon. That’s way too many embarrassments for one paragraph.

The second-year quarterback has an awful lot of damage repair to attend to before next Sunday. If he doesn’t rebound, his detractors – and they are gaining in numbers seemingly by the minute – won’t need to make much more noise because one gets the feeling Chudzinski won’t let the season get too far out of hand and beckon Jason Campbell from the bench.

Now before you go off and sulk about another Browns loss, remember this: The Browns are in first place in the division . . . the Browns are in first place in the division . . . the Browns are in . . . 

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