Tuesday, October 29, 2013

He’s not going anywhere

OK, Josh Gordon, you can relax now.

You, too, Browns fans.

The best wide receiver the Browns have been fortunate enough to draft in a very long time – and yes, that includes Braylon Edwards – is going nowhere.

The rumors that Gordon would be shipped to another team as the National Football League trade deadline neared proved they were just that – rumors. He is staying put.

And Cleveland is where he belongs. He’ll tell you that, too.

“I’m here in Cleveland and I want to make a difference here in Cleveland,” he told the Cleveland media recently. “This is where I am right now . . . my head and space is right here and that’s what I’m focusing on.”

It’s not surprising that the rumors regarding Gordon’s possible departure escalated in the final days. He is quickly climbing the ladder among NFL wide receivers despite having to ply his trade with three different quarterbacks.

The people who make a difference around the NFL have taken notice of Gordon’s talents. It’s very easy to see why they like him.

He’s got the size, the speed, the quickness and, perhaps most important, the game comes easy to him. Watch him and you’ll notice an almost effortless approach as he runs his routes.

There are times when it appears as though he’s not playing at top speed. But no one has yet to catch him from behind. He runs as fast as he needs to.

His ability to get open and make himself available to his quarterback cannot be overlooked. And while we don’t know for certain whether he runs the most precise routes on the team, the fact he averages more than five catches and 18.2 yards a catch this season is evidence he’s doing something right.

Gordon is the most important piece in Norv Turner’s offense. Without him and his quick strike ability, opposing offenses would crowd the line of scrimmage. The threat of Gordon over the top keeps them honest.

Now that Jason Campbell has been installed as the No. 1 quarterback, look for Gordon to light it up in the second half of the season. Campbell had to marvel as watched Gordon from the bench while Brian Hoyer and Brandon Weeden threw to him in five of the first seven games.

It didn’t long for him to strike up an on-field relationship with Gordon in his first start of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday. Yes, the Browns lost, but Gordon’s five-catch, 132-yard, one-touchdown afternoon served as a portent of things to come.

Based on his first game with Gordon, look for Campbell to dial up his number early and often from now on. He aimed 10 of his 36 passes at the lanky wideout, whose drop ratio might be the lowest on the team.

We don’t know how close Gordon was to being moved by the Browns, or how serious Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi were in their negotiations. We probably never will find out the real story because Banner will spin something entirely different to the media.

Bottom line is Gordon will be in the Seal Brown and Orange for the rest of the season. And that is truly good news.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday leftovers

The Browns insist they are not seeking to trade wide receiver Josh Gordon. And there is no reason to disbelieve them.

What they are not saying is there is at least a chance Gordon will be wearing the colors of a different uniform by 4 o’clock Tuesday afternoon.

Technically, the Browns are burning the telephone lines in an effort to move the stylish and very productive Gordon, but not because they initiated those conversations. They are accepting calls from National Football League teams desperate enough to at least inquire on how badly the Browns want to move him.

If it weren’t for the fact the second-year man is one negative drug test away from a year’s suspension, the lead of this notebook would be about something entirely different.

The Browns are listening to teams like San Francisco and New England, teams that have serious wide receiver needs. They also have high draft choices they would be more than willing to part with to take a chance with Gordon. Only problem is those picks will be in the lower portion of rounds.

It must be awfully tempting to Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi to reach for the plunger that would eject Gordon out of Cleveland. After all, they didn’t select him in the second round of the supplemental draft in 2012. Credit that gem to Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. Banner and Lombardi have no connection to Gordon.

If they do make a deal and obtain first- and/or second-round choices in the next college draft as compensation, that would be a mistake. Even bigger than shipping Trent Richardson off to Indianapolis a couple of weeks into the season.

They would be losing a player who has made a surprisingly significant impact on the offense. No one expected Gordon to come right in and play as though he belonged. In 22 NFL games, the 6-3, 225-pounder has caught 82 passes for 1,387 yards, eight touchdowns and 65 first downs. All but 17 of his receptions have produced first downs. And he has fumbled the ball just once.

Want to get rid of production like that? No, no and NO.

Richardson’s absence, as it has turned out, has not seriously harmed the Cleveland running game. That’s because the Browns have no running game. Their offense is predicated on the forward pass. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is a pass-first, run-second kind of guy. That has become apparent.

So if Banner and Lombardi decide they don’t want to gamble that Gordon will stay straight and moving him is addition by subtraction, they would seriously damage what is a decent passing offense by removing the reason it can be called decent.

Trading Gordon and getting very little back from a personnel standpoint is like removing one tire and rim from your car and expecting it to run smoothly. It’s not going to work.

Reducing the wide receivers corps to the likes of Davone Bess, Greg Little and Brian Tyms is ludicrously ignorant. Travis Benjamin is no longer around after suffering a season-ending ACL tear in Sunday's loss to Kansas City.

Sure Jordan Cameron would become the new No. 1 man, But he’s a tight end who is needed for blocking every now and then and would not be available on an every-play basis. Besides, he would become the No. 1 target for opposing defenses and draw at least double coverage.

With Benjamin’s injury, everything now points to the Browns doing nothing with regard to Gordon. He is clearly the most valuable player in this offense. Unless Banner and Lombardi can extract multiple draft choices and a player for him, the buildup to his possible departure will be nothing more than that.

More likely to be moved is Little, whose improvement from year to year can be measured microscopically. He has become a non-factor in the Cleveland offense and might fetch a late-round pick.

If anything, the Browns missed the boat on Little when they didn’t try to convert him into a running back. He was a very good high school tailback and played some at the position at the University of North Carolina.  

When 4 p.m. rolls around Tuesday, status quo might be the order of the day and we can proceed to the second half of the season.

~ All week long before the Browns-Chiefs game Sunday, much was made about the great Kansas City pass rush. And with good reason. When you average five sacks a game, that’s worthy of chest-pounding boasting.

So where was that pass rush against the Browns? Only one sack and four hits on Campbell? Maybe it was an off day. Then again, maybe it was because the Browns’ offensive line played one of its best games of the season from a pass-blocking standpoint.

One of the main reasons Campbell was hardly touched was his ability to get rid of the ball quickly and decisively. The frustrated Chiefs pass rush was left with nothing but air to grab by the time it got close to the Cleveland quarterback.

Every pass was crisply thrown and not once did a Chiefs lineman stick his hand up and deflect a throw. The 6-5 Campbell’s overhead delivery makes that nearly impossible. And it was refreshing to watch him use his agility and pocket awareness to avoid a sack on at least four occasions.

It would appear the offense is in good hands for the rest of the season. The Browns look like a different team with Campbell in the game.

~ What in the world is wrong with Joe Thomas? The annual Pro Bowl offensive tackle is not having a Pro Bowl season. Not even close. He has accumulated multiple false starts and holding penalties in the first half of the season.

He’s the one guy along the offensive front you usually don’t have to worry about. You know he’s going to be solid in pass protection and produce holes on the left side of the line for the running game. But it appears as though his reputation might be taking a hit.

Based on the first eight games, his play has been disappointing. It’s possible he might be playing through an injury. No one knows for certain and he’s not going to tell. If it’s just a slump, he’s got plenty of time to redeem himself.

~ Credit Ray Horton for making some terrific in-game adjustments. The defensive coordinator changed up his blitz schemes in the second quarter after the Chiefs took advantage several times in the first half.

The Browns must have been tipping off their blitzes and Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith changed the original call, switching to screen passes away from the blitz. And they worked every time, especially on Anthony Sherman’s second-quarter touchdown on, what else, a screen pass.

Horton cleverly disguised his blitzes in the second half and completely threw Smith off his normal rhythm. After converting nine of their first 12 third downs in the first half, the Chiefs converted only one of seven in the final 30 minutes.

~ Notebook: The Chiefs so dominated the first half, they had a 23:00-7:00 lead in time of possession. In the second half, though, the Browns stormed back with a 17:00-13:00 margin. It was 17:00-11:00 before surrendering the ball on downs with two minutes left. Overall, K.C. led, 36:00-24:00. . . . Cornerback Joe Haden had another solid game, holding Dwayne Bowe to just one catch before Bowe left with an injury. The linebackers, however, had trouble with Dexter McCluster. The little scatback caught seven passes for 67 yards and a TD. . . . Inside linebacker Craig Robertson and safeties T. J . Ward and Tashaun Gipson had terrific games. Robertson had 11 solo tackles, while Ward (10) and Gipson (9) combined for 19 solos. . . . Kudos to coach Rob Chudzinski on the gutsy call on a fourth-and-1 at the Kansas City 19 on the first possession of the second half. A field goal would have made it 20-13. In a what-have-you-got-to-lose moment, Chudzinski said nothing to lose. Willis McGahee, with a great push from the offensive line, easily picked up a couple of yards. On the next play, Foswhitt Whittaker circled out of the backfield and Campbell hit him perfectly for a 17-yard touchdown. Well done.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

So close and yet . . . 

The Browns actually played a very good football game Sunday in Kansas City. Too bad they didn’t start playing it until late in the second quarter.

If they had played the first 25 or so minutes the way they played the last 35 or so minutes, they might not have lost, 23-17, to the Chiefs, who extended their unbeaten streak to eight games.

As the game wound down, the Chiefs were hanging on, looking nothing like a team that has yet to taste defeat this season. The Browns were clearly the better team before self destructing midway through the final quarter.

Self-inflicted wounds are the bane of football coaches and serve as the difference, painfully so in this instance, between winning and losing. Good teams do not hurt themselves. That’s why they are good teams.

Bad teams, star-crossed teams and those that just can’t buy a break are the ones that usually lose games like this. Count the Browns as one of those teams as they drop to 3-5.

Teams like the Browns have the Davone Besses of the football world on their rosters. All Bess had to do was hold on to the football in two critical instances in the fourth quarter and the Browns just might have pulled off the upset.

Clutch players make the plays in question. Bess proved beyond a shadow of any doubt that he is not a clutch performer with a pair of hand wringing, forehead slapping, mind-numbing miscues.

The Browns started out the game on both sides of the ball as though they didn’t want to be on the same field as the Chiefs, who ran off to a 13-0 lead 20 minutes into the game and led, 20-7, with a minute left in the half.

After three straight three-and-outs to begin the game, offensive coordinator Norv Turner dipped into the trickeration bag and hauled out the old throwback to the quarterback bromide to kick-start the offense, Jason Campbell hooking up with Josh Gordon for a touchdown after a pitchback by Willis McGahee.

Right after the second K.C. touchdown, the Browns seemed to flip a switch and began playing as though they were actually interested. With about a minute left, they could have sat on the ball. Instead, they marched 54 yards to set up a Billy Cundiff field goal.

And then defensive coordinator Ray Horton who began turning up the heat midway through the second quarter, dialed up even more intensity on the Chiefs, who were held to only 68 (41 net) yards of total offense in the second half.

The Browns shut down the running game and threw up an exquisite and exotic array of defensive looks that absolutely befuddled Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who was sacked six times. On a few plays, he threw the ball away disgustedly as the Browns were about to blow up the play.

Bolstered by solid tackling and a relentless quest to put Smith on the ground (the Browns’ pass rush looked more like the Chiefs’ vaunted pass rush), the defense gave the Cleveland offense its cue.

The Browns opened up the second half with an 80-yard scoring drive, Fozzy Whittaker gathering in Campbell’s pass in the flat and galloping in on a 17-yard circle route. The Cleveland defense then shut down the Chiefs offense in four straight series, limiting them to just 16 plays.

It reached a point where Kansas City had lost all its momentum by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.

And then along came Bess. 

With the Browns clearly owning the momentum and not succumbing to the vaunted Kansas City defense, the Cleveland defense pinned the Chiefs near their goal line with seven minutes left in regulation, forcing a Dustin Colquitt punt.

Punting from his end zone, Colquitt lifted a high kick to the 50-yard line. Bess, subbing for Travis Benjamin on punt returns after the specialist was injured on a return late in the third quarter, was stationed 10 yards into Cleveland territory. He ran up and attempted to catch the ball in mid-step.

He reached for it, never secured it and the Chiefs recovered the muff. So instead of the Browns with the ball in Chiefs territory and the distinct possibility of no worse than a field goal and a tie game, K.C. retained the ball at its 47.

The emotional tide changed just like that when Bess, who had dropped a couple of earlier passes, couldn’t hold on to a simple punt. And it eventually got worse for the sixth-year receiver.

The defense again held the Chiefs, giving the ball back to the offense for one more try with four minutes left. Even though they had to start at their 16, there was still plenty of time for the Browns to get into position for at least a tying field goal.

Campbell delivered a clutch 11-yard pass to Jordan Cameron on a third-and-9, but a Joe Thomas daily double (holding penalty and false start) contributed to a fourth-and-7 situation at the 31. Time for a playmaker to step up.

Gordon, who had 123 yards and a TD on four catches, and Cameron, with 81 yards on four grabs, had to be the likely targets. Anyone but Bess, right?

Big problem. He was the only receiver who could get open and, like the veteran receiver he is, came back to the quarterback when he saw Campbell in trouble. He made himself available and slid to catch the ball in first-down territory. The ball was delivered low, but on target. And it slithered out of Bess’ grasp.

So with two minutes to go, the luckiest team in the National Football League at that very moment breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Did Bess lose this game? Not totally. He had plenty of help in the first 25 minutes.

This game, as it turned out, was lost when the defense pretty much allowed the Chiefs to do whatever they wanted for much of the first half. And it was lost when the Cleveland offense went three-and-out on its first three possessions and racked up a paltry 13 yards of total offense as K.C. raced out to the 13-0 lead.

Campbell, for the most part, had lots of time to throw all afternoon mainly because of his quick release. It kept him out of a lot of trouble and his pocket awareness enabled him to run for important yardage. He was sacked just once and avoided three others by scrambling for 17 yards.

Campbell, whose quarterbacking makes it easy to forget about Brandon Weeden in a hurry, threw for nearly 300 yards, no interceptions and the two scores after his slow start. He clearly demonstrated why Weeden should be tethered to the bench from now on.

So now that we’ve seen what a Ray Horton defense can do when unleashed and what the Cleveland offense can do under Campbell, the second half of the season just might be something toward which Browns fans can look forward.

If the Browns can come this close to knocking off the last unbeaten team in the NFL, there’s no telling just how much noise they can make in the second half. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

If the Chiefs can do it . . .

What a difference a coach makes could very well be the theme song for the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine the Chiefs are the most improved team in the National Football League this season. From making the first selecion in the college draft to the only unbeaten team in the league in six quick months is nothing short of remarkable.

Might as well give Andy Reid the coach-of-the-year award right now. What he has accomplished in such a short period of time has to make Philadelphia Eagles fans wonder why their team let him go. Probably, they’ll say, because he wore out his welcome there. And they would be correct.

Well, they certainly welcomed him in Kansas City, but even the fans there have to admit they never expected anything like this so soon. The lovefest for their comeback Chiefs is beginning to reach the fever stage. The quest for season perfection continues Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium when the Browns invade.

The Chiefs don’t beat you with offense. More on that later. They do it with defense. Big-time defense, the kind that hasn’t been seen around the NFL in a very long time.

All you need to do is look at the comparative statistics, last season to this season, to understand how the Chiefs quickly escaped have-not status and won their first seven games. They are all on defense.

For example, they have produced 35 sacks in those seven victories, 10 more than runner-up Baltimore. Yes, they had an amazing 10 in one game. So what. You can’t take that away from them. Five sacks a game on the average. Stunning. And scary if you’re the offensive coordinator trying to game plan against that defense.

Last year, the Chiefs racked up 27 sacks . . . for the entire season. They are on a pace to wind up with 80 for this season, eight better than the all-time record of 72 set by the 1984 Chicago Bears.

To put that in perspective from a Cleveland standpoint, the Browns’ record for sacks in one season is 48, shared by the 1992 and 1993 teams that featured Anthony Pleasant, Rob Burnett, Michael Dean Perry and James Jones on the defensive line.

More fun Chiefs stats with last season’s total in parentheses: This season, they have 10 interceptions (seven); nine recovered fumbles (eight); four defensive touchdowns (one); eight touchdowns allowed (47); and a +11 turnover ratio (-24). This is one defensive juggernaut.

New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fortunate to inherit eight returning starters, including two-thirds of the defensive line, three-fourths of the secondary and three-fourths of the linebackers. From an experience standpoint, the Chiefs were set. All they needed was the proper coordinator.

Linebackers Justin Howard, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson and nose tackle Dontari Poe have combined for 27 sacks. Outside linebackers Houston and Hali have 19 of them. Now take into consideration that the Browns’ offensive line has permitted nearly four sacks a game. Yikes!

If the Chiefs have a weakness on defense, it’s stopping the run. They give up 110 yards on the ground on the average. But since the Browns’ running game is virtually AWOL, that very well could be a wash.

The Chiefs’ offense, which will not blow anyone away from a statistical standpoint, feeds off that defense in terms of field position. Reid has, in practically no time, put together the formula that ultimately wins Super Bowls.

Down through the years, with a few exceptions, the team that wins the Super Bowl has a great and opportunistic defense, solid special teams, a strong running game and a quarterback who makes few mistakes. In other words, the Chiefs do not beat themselves, which is somewhat inappropriate to say now since they are unbeaten. 

A classic example of that is what the Baltimore Ravens did in the 2001 Super Bowl. Trent Dilfer was the quarterback on that team and no one will associate him with greatness. He kept mistakes at a minimum, though, while the defense, special teams and the running of Jamal Lewis took center stage. Dilfer just stayed out of the way.

And that’s exactly what Alex Smith does with the Chiefs, who run the ball 47% of the time. His numbers won’t make you go out and draft him early for your fantasy team. He throws for just 225 yards a game on the average with a meager touchdown total of seven and four interceptions.

The Chiefs rely mainly on the strong running of Jamaal Charles, who has scored eight of the club’s 14 offensive touchdowns. (The Chiefs have also scored four times on defense and twice on special teams). Charles leads the team in rushing with 561 yards and receiving with 36 catches for 337 yards. That’s 898 yards on 171 touches. Shut down Charles and that puts the pressure on Smith.

When he’s not getting Charles the ball, the brainy Smith has distributed his passes to 12 other receivers with Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery among his favorites, although Bowe is listed as questionable for the game.

The stats show the Chiefs, who average a respectable 24 points a game, are not a fun team to watch on offense. In fact, they’re rather dull and methodical. And yet, all they do is win. It’s not always pretty, but it doesn’t have to be. Not with a defense that permits just 11½ points a game.

There’s an old expression in the NFL. Offense wins games; defense wins championships. And right now, the Chiefs are the embodiment of that type of thinking.

When scanning at the Browns’ schedule at the beginning of the season, most fans undoubtedly took one look at game eight and automatically chalked it up as a victory. Little did they, or anyone else in the NFL for that matter, know what was in store.

Jason Campbell will be under center for the Browns against the Chiefs, a cruel present for his starting debut in the wake of Brandon Weeden’s ineptitude. Given the manner in which the Chiefs’ defense plays the game and the Browns’ line protects its quarterback, Campbell will be fortunate to be vertical by game’s end.

So that’s what awaits the Browns’ arrival in K.C. The best Browns fans can hope for is that Weeden will not have a need to strap on his helmet. This one will not be close. Make it:

Chiefs 30, Browns 3

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

Wonder what Jason Campbell is thinking right about now. Can’t be good.

Anointed the new Browns starting quarterback Wednesday, he had to wonder why now? What took you so long? Is that what they think of me?

When Rob Chudzinski had to make a change at quarterback after Brandon Weeden went down with a thumb injury late in the game two loss in Baltimore and missed a couple of games, he chose Brian Hoyer, the No. 3 guy, to replace him.

Not saying that was a mistake. Turns out Hoyer was not just better than Weeden. He was much, much better.

Now consider what must have been going through Campbell’s head at the time. “He picks a journeyman who has started only one NFL game over me? What’s with that? I’ve got several years as a starter in this league and he picks someone else?”

Despite what Chudzinski says about Sunday’s game in Kansas City and how he’s giving the Browns the best chance to win with Campbell, there is no question what the pecking order is at the position. All things being equal and everyone healthy, it’s Hoyer, Weeden and Campbell.

Chudzinski, in large part due to the ineptitude of Weeden, is making a move that can’t be labeled as anything but desperate. He’s not going to say that, of course. And he never will. But that’s exactly what it is.

Parse the words he uttered when he announced the change. “I believe it’s in the best interest of the team ultimately (to make the switch) and gives us the best chance to win,” he said. “I’m excited to see what Jason will do with this opportunity.”

In other words, he doesn’t want the locker room falling apart because that is a distinct possibility if he continues to play a quarterback whose confidence is shot. And of course he’s excited. Watching anyone but Weeden at the position would excite anyone.

The season, with Hoyer out for the year and Weeden playing like a rookie with a deer-in-the-headlights look, is getting away from the head coach. And he’ll do anything to make certain the locker room does not wind up in a fractured state.

In spite of what they say publicly, there is no way the rest of the players on offense still have any confidence in Weeden. He seems to be playing worse not just by the game, not just by the half and not just by the quarter, but by the play.

Something had to be done. The big question is why did it take so long? This is a decision that should have been reached Monday. Maybe even after the embarrassing loss last Sunday in Green Bay.

Not saying that Campbell is the be-all and end-all to the Browns’ problems. Probably not. But he is definitely an improvement over Weeden.

He’ll go out there Sunday against the best defense in the National Football League and make mistakes. Count on it. Get ready for them. But he won’t make the same kinds of mistakes we’ve seen from Weeden. He’ll play a much more representative game than Weeden would have.

He can’t be expected to come right in and be successful with an offense that barely has a running game and an offensive line that can be sieve-like in pass protection and cannot be counted on to play solid football for an entire game.

But when Campbell makes the kinds of plays that make you scratch your head and wonder why he made them, consider this: If you don’t like what he’s doing, remember who is backing him up.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sublimely ridiculous

Have you heard the one about the 43-year-old former National Football League quarterback expressing an interest in coming back to the league?

Yep. Says he feels sorry for one of his former teams and reached out (his words) to that team and said he was ready to come back and play.

Well, he didn’t exactly say he felt sorry for that team (let’s call them the Cleveland Browns), but one got that impression since that team has all kinds of problems with the quarterback position currently.

That’s right. Jeff Garcia, who used to play for the Browns, offered his services even though he hasn’t played in the NFL since retiring about three years ago.

What? Jake Delhomme, Tim Couch and Charlie Frye weren’t available? Maybe they aren’t paying attention. The Browns need a quarterback and Garcia, feeling strangely benevolent, stepped forward.

The Browns, of course, politely (we assume) said no thank you (another assumption) as the circus atmosphere continues to hover over 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

Garcia, whose football talent left his body about 10 years ago, proposed his bizarre comeback attempt on a Cleveland sports talk show Tuesday.

“I actually reached out to the Browns and said, ‘Hey, if you need a guy to come in, work me out, take a look,’ “ he said. “I don’t know if people want me back in Cleveland, but I’m open to the opportunity.”

Well, Jeff, it’s like this. No, people don’t want you back in Cleveland. In fact, they still have a bitter taste in their mouths after that very forgettable year you put together in 2004.

Remember that season? Let’s refresh your memory.

Remember when Butch Davis brought you in as a savior of sorts and you proceeded to set quarterbacking back at least 10 years? Butch quit his job with five games to go that season.

Bet you forgot about your second game as the Browns’ quarterback. That was the 19-12 loss to the Dallas Cowboys when you completed eight of 27 passes for a robust 71 yards and three interceptions.

It was the game in which you managed to do what only a handful of NFL quarterbacks have accomplished in the history of quarterbacking. Your passer rating was an ignominious 0.0. Yep, zero point zero. I’d forget something like that, too.

Garcia, who lives in southern California, must have an awful lot of time on his hands to inject himself back into the consciousness of Cleveland football fans. Why else would he take the time to barge in right in the middle of another disastrous season?

We had no idea he had such a sense of humor.

Got to give him credit, though. He sure sparked a lot of interest. In a Cleveland,com poll, readers were asked if they would welcome Garcia back to Cleveland. The options were: Yes, he is better than Brandon Weeden, and No.

Of the first 7,240 votes, slightly more than 50% said, yes, he is better than Brandon Weeden. That’s how bad the situation has become with the Browns.

What’s next? Jim Brown coming out of retirement to solve the Browns’ running back problem? Yes, he is better than Willis McGahee, or No.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Monday leftovers

Here’s how bad it was for the Browns against the Green Bay Packers Sunday and a large clue as to why Cleveland annually resides in the poor neighborhoods of the National Football League.

The Packers have something the Browns and other pretenders in the NFL wish they had. It’s called quality depth. And they have in spades.

There’s an expression around the NFL when it comes to opportunity. In a game where an injury is just a play away, the rallying cry is “next man up.” If you are not a starter, be ready because you could be “the next man up” on any given play.

Sunday in Green Bay, the Packers employed three such players and all contributed mightily in the victory over the Browns. In fact, they were a major difference.

The Packers, a 3-4 team on defense, entered the game with three of their starting linebackers injured and unable to play. Gone were All-Pro Clay Matthews III, Nick Perry and Brad Jones. A. J. Hawk was the lone healthy linebacker.

Off the Green Bay bench came linebackers Jamari Lattimore and rookie Nate Palmer and defensive coordinator Dom Capers improvised by frequently employing a nickel look in the secondary.

Lattimore turned in a solid game playing next to Hawk on the inside, making 12 tackles (nine solo) with one sack, a tackle for loss, a pass defensed and got close enough to Brandon Weeden to be credited with a quarterback hit. Palmer had six tackles, half of them solo.

Now imagine the Browns, also a 3-4 team, without Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and Craig Robertson. How do you suppose Barkevious Mingo, Quentin Groves and Tank Carder would have done?

We’ll never know, of course, but with the exception of Mingo, whose play lately has been substandard, there is no way Groves, a pass rushing specialist, and Carder, more of a special teamer, could have at the very least prevented a dropoff in talent.

On the other side of the ball, the Packers entered the game without two of their best wide receivers in Randall Cobb and James Jones. So who steps up and bothers the hell out of the Cleveland secondary all afternoon? Second-year man Jarrett Boykin, who entered the game with only one reception in four games this season.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers targeted Boykin 10 times and connected on eight for 103 yards and a touchdown. Jarrett Who became Jarrett Wonderful (to Packers fans for at least this game) in a hurry.

To compensate for the loss of two wideouts, Packers coach Mike McCarthy went to a two tight-end look most of the game until Jermichael Finley went down with an injury.

Now imagine the Browns without starters Josh Gordon and Greg Little. Wait a minute. Little isn’t a starter. Davone Bess replaced him a few games ago. OK, make that Gordon and Bess.

So that bumps up Little, whose reputation as a solid pass catcher remains in doubt, and Travis Benjamin, whose strength is returning kicks and running reverses. The likelihood of either of them matching what Boykin did is unlikely.

Bottom line is the Packers beat up on the Browns despite the loss of some key personnel. The Browns? All you have to do is look at what they did when guard Shawn Lauvao missed the first few games of the season. Oneil Cousin was the next man up and quickly became the weak link of the offensive line.

Solidifying the roster with capable replacements should be one of the prime goals for Joe Banner and his minions. The way the game is played today, the injured lists of teams are growing at an alarmingly rapid rate.

So who is the player the Browns can most ill afford to lose to serious injury? Easy. That would be tight end Jordan Cameron, whose ability to remain healthy thus far has been a most pleasant surprise. There isn’t a tight end on the roster who can at least equal his production. Lose him and the downhill slide will pick up in velocity. If that’s possible.

~ Once again, tackling has become a big problem for the Browns. When Finley scored the first touchdown of the game for the Packers in the opening quarter on an 11-yard pass, four different Browns had a shot at stopping him before he reached the end zone.

Now Finley is a big guy at 6-4, 250 pounds, but there is no way he would have reached the end zone if proper tackling technique has been applied. In order, Finley shook off Robertson, Tashaun Gipson, Buster Skrine and D’Qwell Jackson, who was late to the play to begin with.

None of these men extended their arms in an effort to wrap up the Green Bay tight end. In a couple of cases, they attempted to make arm tackles. Arm tackles do not work in the NFL. Never have. Never will. Arm tackling means you are out of position to make the proper play.

On several other occasions, the Browns had Rodgers trapped in the backfield attempting to pass and each time, with one exception, he escaped. For a team that prides itself on rushing the passer, that should never happen. Speaking of the pass rush, where is it? Only two sacks in the last two games.

~ The Packers led the Browns, 17-6, early in the fourth quarter when coach Rob Chudzinski made a curious decision that wound up costing his team a touchdown.

The Browns had driven down to the Green Bay 31-yard line with about 11 minutes left in regulation  and the Browns holding their own. Instead of calling for Billy Cundiff’s third field goal of the evening, which would have made it a one-possession game at 17-9, he went for it on fourth-and-15. It would have been a 49-yard attempt, certainly within his range.

Weeden nearly connected with Gordon, open briefly at the Green Bay 3, but the pass arrived late (sound familiar?), giving the Packers’ secondary time to recover and knock it away. The Packers took over at the 31 and scored five plays later when Jordy Nelson grabbed a 1-yard toss from Rodgers on a slant in front of Joe Haden. So instead of trailing, 17-9, the Browns were on the wrong end of a 24-6 score.

~ Notebook: Here’s a hint on whom to use as the kickoff returner: On the kickoff following the Nelson touchdown, Travis Benjamin was the return man for the first time in the game. He returned it 86 yards to set up the club’s only TD of the game.  Ya think maybe he should do it a little more often? . . . Foswhitt Whittaker, a.k.a. Fozzy, did all right in that department, too, with 103 yards on three returns with a long of 56 yards. . . . Loved those 1929 season replica uniforms the Packers wore. Would love to see the Browns follow suit and play a game in their inaugural 1946 season replica uniforms. . . . Adding insult to injury: Mike McCarthy challenged (unsuccessfully) the spot following the Browns’ successful fake punt late in the first quarter. He was already up, 14-0, at the time. Nervy. . . . The Browns have to work on their onsides kicks. After pulling to within 24-13 with 6:09 left in regulation, Joe Haden fell on the ball following the first kick, but Tank Carder was offside. The Browns also recovered the second attempt, but it did not travel the required 10 yards. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Time to make a change

It’s time. As a matter of fact, it’s high time. It’s high time to introduce Brandon Weeden to the clipboard.

Yep, the professionalizing of Brandon Weeden as a football player has bottomed out on the National Football League level. He’s not nearly the quarterback he was for a couple of years at Oklahoma State.

If anything, he is regressing and he’s taking the Browns’ offense down with him. And if head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner don’t see that, then there’s no hope for them, either.

Sunday’s putrid performance in the 31-13 loss to the Packers in Green Bay stands as ample proof that Weeden, at best, is a backup quarterback in the NFL. The only way he should play is if another quarterback is injured.

And since Jason Campbell, the only other quarterback on the Cleveland roster, is in perfect health, well . . . draw your own conclusions.

Not that Campbell is the quarterback of the future for this franchise, but at least he can play a more representative brand of football than Weeden, who still seems overwhelmed at how the game is played on the NFL plane.

He is hurting this team more than perhaps even he realizes. With any kind of a performance that approached decent, the Browns might have had a shot to make it a game because the Packers, in large part due to a Cleveland defense that played well after a slow start, did not play that well.

The game seems too fast for Weeden, who looks somewhat bewildered in the pocket and too frequently makes the incorrect throw or takes a sack. When he holds the ball for more than four seconds, count on a negative play of some sort.

His pocket awareness if woefully abysmal. He does not seem to feel or sense when the opposition is getting close and is painfully slow to react or recognize when trouble lurks. When he does, it’s usually too late and he either goes down or makes a dumb play. It’s almost as though the light comes on a second or two after it should.

It’s maddening to the fans when Weeden doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. He keeps repeating them and no amount of coaching is going to straighten him out. If he made them yesterday and today, he’ll no doubt make them tomorrow. He is who he is and he can’t be changed. That has become painfully obvious.

Somewhere along the line, it was hoped he would show a modicum of improvement. You know, it’s like anything else. If you do something enough times, you probably will get better at it. Not Weeden. He is clearly regressing. With him, the correctable is not correctable.

For example, remember that bonehead pass (Weeden’s words) he threw in last Sunday's loss to the Detroit Lions? The one he sort of shoveled sideways that was intercepted and eventually went viral on You Tube?

Well, he did it again against the Packers, this time underhanding the ball toward Chris Ogbonnaya on the Browns’ final possession of the game late in the fourth quarter. The only difference is this one fell incomplete.

Defenses are designed, of course, to confuse quarterbacks. And it’s working all two well with Weeden, who seems to be confused, dazed and befuddled on nearly every pass play.

The recognition factor is really not a factor with him. Rarely does he get rid of the ball in three seconds or less. And against the Packers, he had all sorts of time because the offensive line was solid in pass protection most of the afternoon. His 17-for-42, 149-yard effort was embarrassing.

Yes, the receivers dropped a few of his passes. But that in no way factored into the final result. When clutch throws were needed, they arrived as incompletions. They were either overthrown (twice) in the end zone or underthrown, resulting in an interception.

If Chudzinski and Turner stubbornly insist on staying with Weeden even though the  game hasn’t slowed down for him, they can expect performances similar to the one we witnessed in Green Bay.

Weeden does not deserve to be this team’s starting quarterback anymore. He has done nothing to prove to the coaching staff or the front office that he belongs under center on a weekly basis.

And it’s not a matter of being spoiled by the way Brian Hoer played the position when he was healthy. There is a clear difference between the way Hoyer and Weeden play the game. Hoyer, to be perfectly blunt, is way more cerebral and brings that to his game.

During Packers week, Chudzinski had nothing but good things to say about Weeden. “I thought he’s had his best couple of days of practice . . . very focused and receptive to coaching,” he said.

“You can see him doing things. Specifically working to improve in areas that we’re talking about where he needs to improve. . . . I have confidence in him, like the team does, to go out and play his very best."

Well, if what we saw Sunday in Green Bay was Weeden’s very best, then the bar has been lowered substantially. How focused did he look against the Green Bay pass rush? Practicing well means squat.

There are good practice players, those guys who always look good leading up to a game. They look downright brilliant working against their teammates, then disappear when the game means something.

And then there are game players, those guys who come out, no matter how they practice, and perform a whole lot better when the game means something than they do in practice.

Give me the game player, the guy who goes out there and performs at or above his capability. My game players will beat your good practice players every time.

And that confidence of which Chudzinski spoke? Wonder where it’s at now.

For a front office that has not been shy about its intention to look to the collegiate ranks for its franchise quarterback, there is still some pride to salvage. After all, there are still nine games left.

Weeden has been given every opportunity to prove his worth to the front office and coaching staff. And he keeps failing. Unfailingly.

They have to drop the hammer on him at some time if for no other reason than the players will begin to wonder just how important winning is to them and begin to lose confidence.

It’s time. It’s high time to go in a different direction. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lambeau not so friendly anymore

The last time the Browns paid a visit to Green Bay to play the Packers, they slinked out of Titletown with a victory.

The date was Sept. 18, 2005. The final score was 26-24. Brett Favre was the Packers’ quarterback. He threw 343 yards and three touchdowns that day, but two interceptions did him in.

Trent Dilfer was the Cleveland quarterback. It was to be the only season he played for the Browns, He threw three touchdowns passes also for 336 yards. But he had no interceptions.

The Browns, despite a furious 17-point fourth-quarter comeback by Green Bay, improved to 1-1 for the season and handed the Packers their second straight loss. They wound up 4-12 that season; the Browns checked in at 6-10. Favre was gone after the 2007 season, finally giving way to Aaron Rodgers.

And after a rocky 6-10 start in 2008, Rodgers has been virtually unbeatable at Lambeau Field. Four of those 2008 victories were at home, foretelling just what was in store for fans of the smallest home to a professional sports franchise.

Since that 2008 season, the Packers are 30-4 at Lambeau, losing only to Cincinnati and Minnesota in 2009, Miami in 2010 and San Francisco last season.

And now here come the Browns, coming off perhaps their worst game of the season. They had 10 days to prepare for the Detroit Lions – at home, no less – and played miserably for three quarters.

The Browns these days can’t seem to put a complete game together. If it’s not the offense causing problems, it’s the defense. And vice-versa as coach Rob Chudzinski attempts to right the ship.

The defense, for the first time this season, sprung more than a few leaks against the Lions and the offense it will face Sunday is far better than the one it faced last Sunday. Rodgers is the linchpin.

As he goes, so goes the Packers’ offense. And that offense can hurt you in so many different ways, not just through the air as has been the case the last several seasons as the Packers couldn’t find anyone to furnish a running game good enough to complement Rodgers’ passing and take pressure off him.

They finally found him at the bottom of the second round of the college football draft last April. Eddie Lacy, who succeeded Trent Richardson as Alabama’s lead back last season, landed neatly in the Packers’ lap.

He has rewarded them with 270 yards in four games – he missed the third game of the season with a concussion – with most of those yards coming between the tackles. He’s Richardson, only with more speed.

As a result, the Packers, who average 450 yards of offense, have been able to trim the pass-run ratio to 55-45 in an effort to achieve a more effective balance. The result has been a 141-yard average on the ground, fifth-best in the National Football League.

And with the Browns’ run defense showing the effects of being on the field too long lately, they most likely will see a lot of Lacy. Look for the Packers to probe Cleveland’s front seven early and often.

Rodgers, meanwhile, has had a lot of fun playing pitch and catch with Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, who have caught 67 passes for eight touchdowns. Until last Sunday, that list included Randall Cobb, whose right leg met the shoulder of Baltimore safety Matt Elam and landed him on injured reserve with a broken fibula.

The Browns’ only hope to even have a chance to win this game lies with the offense, which has been inconsistent this season. The Packers’ defense has been less than reliable this season, surrendering an average of three touchdowns a game.

Most of that damage was courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals, each scoring 34 points in handing Green Bay its two losses. The Packers have given up only 46 points in the three victories.

However, the Browns won’t have to face the nastiness of outside linebackers Clay Matthews III (broken thumb) and Nick Perry (broken foot) and inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring), which should be good news for offensive tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz. Matthews and Perry have six of the club’s 17 sacks and caused four fumbles.

Most vulnerable is the Green Bay secondary, which has produced only one interception. The other belongs to defensive end Mike Neal. It gives Brandon Weeden the opportunity to dial up the long distance passing game with Josh Gordon in the crosshairs.

The Packers’ defensive front seven, led by defensive end B. J. Raji and inside linebacker A. J. Hawk, allows just 78 yards a game on the ground, but the secondary has been ripped for nearly 300 yards a game. That’s most likely going to be the focus of the game plan.

So what’s the likelihood the Browns again walking out of Lambeau with smiles on their faces and climb back over .500? About as likely the Packers losing their fifth home game since 2009.

This one will be over early and it won’t be a pretty sight. Rodgers, getting little to no pressure from the Browns, will have his best day of the season. We all saw last Sunday what Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who rates well below Rodgers on the talent scale, could do with that kind of resistance.

The pitch-and-catch game continues between Rodgers and his talented receivers, while Weeden, yet again, has trouble figuring out just what Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is throwing at him. Even without Matthews, Perry and Jones, this one should be a romp for the Packers. Make it:

Packers 41, Browns 13

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Call them the second-quarter Browns

Fiddled around with some numbers for the Browns after six games and discovered some very interesting revelations.

In their three victories this season, they have outscored the opposition, 85-57. Broken down, it’s 48-30 in the first half, 37-27 in the second half.

But it’s in their three losses that the numbers reveal a significant weakness. It’s called the second half.

In the first 30 minutes of their three losses, the Browns have outscored opponents, 30-13. In the final 30 minutes, they have been outscored, 55-3. That is not a misprint or a typo. Those are correct and alarming figures.

Since Billy Cundiff’s 39-yard field goal late in the third quarter of the season-opening loss to Miami, the Browns have not put a second-half point on the board in a loss.

Here are a few more revealing stats.

Breaking it down by quarters, the Browns have been outscored in every quarter except the second. Opposing teams have outpointed them, 27-17, in the first quarter; 45-13 in the third quarter; and 37-27 in the final quarter.

In the second quarter, though, the Browns hold an astounding 61-16 edge in scoring through six games. That’s slightly more than half of their season total of 118.

Simple addition also reveals the Browns have been outscored, 82-40, in the second half overall.

It’s abundantly clear the coaching staff either does not make the correct adjustments at halftime or doesn’t feel the need to make changes. Maybe it’s the second-quarter blitz that makes them sanguine. The if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it syndrome does not work in professional football.

Other teams make adjustments no matter the score. The good teams always mix it up in the second half of games, figuring the opposition has figured out a way to stop them. If the Browns are doing that, they’re going about it the wrong way.

A simple explanation, statistically speaking, for the up-and-down season shows the Browns play only one good quarter out of four and lose games when they don’t score in the second half. Scoring anything in the second half portends a victory.

There’s something very wrong with this picture. And there is only one person to blame. That would be the head coach.

It is his responsibility to make certain his men are emotionally ready to play a game of football from the opening whistle to the final whistle. They do it only 16 times a season. Based on their performances thus far, it takes a full quarter before the Browns kick it in gear.

The assistant coaches get the players ready to play on Sundays, but it’s the head coach who sets the emotional tone. Some teams have players who handle that job. A good coach will let them go. Ray Lewis was a perfect example of that in Baltimore before he retired.

What makes the 3-3 record worse to swallow is the fact the Browns have led at halftime in every game. How hard is it to keep that emotion at a high level at the beginning of the second half? With any kind of effort in the second halves of games, the Browns very well could be 4-2, maybe 5-1.

These numbers do not lie. And lacking a Browns petition to the National Football League to bypass the second halves altogether, they will continue to speak the truth. Loudly.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Monday leftovers

If the Browns are entertaining any thoughts of playing competitive football in the next 10 games, the defense will have to carry the major load.

That’s because the offense, no matter who is under center, is not good enough to share that load. Certainly not the way they played against the Detroit Lions Sunday.

But if the defense repeats its Sunday performance against the Lions, all bets are off and the Browns are headed for another one of those double-digit loss seasons. They entered the game at 3-2 mainly because of that defense.

Falling apart as the defense did against Detroit portends for trouble. And not just this Sunday in Green Bay.  The only patsy left on the schedule are the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they don’t arrive until Dec. 1. That’s six games down the road.

The defense was stunningly awful in the second half against Detroit. It had numerous opportunities to shut down Matthew Stafford and failed time and again to do so.

The Lions were 5-for-6 on third down as they quickly overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit to take a 31-17 lead. Among them were a pair of third-and-6s and a third-and-7.

Good defenses – and it is assumed the Browns think they’ve played well enough to rate that adjective on that side of the ball – make plays. The Lions’ defense made those plays when they needed to in the final 30 minutes.

The Cleveland offense was oh-for-6 on third down in the second half before Brandon Weeden hooked up with Jordan Cameron on a third-and-10 during garbage time in the final minute. When the Lions needed a play, they got it. When the Browns needed a play, they whiffed. They found a way to lose this game.

Brian Hoyer is no longer around to put a charge into the Cleveland offense. And if Weeden continues to display the characteristics that hold him back from progressing to a status where his coach feels comfortable with him, then Rob Chudzinski has no choice but to take the clipboard away from Jason Campbell and stick him under center.

Suffice it to say the defense holds the key to how the Browns finish this season. Coordinator Ray Horton knows what it’s like to be in this position, having served as Arizona’s defensive coordinator last season with an offense that might be worse than the current one in Cleveland.

Horton needs to point out to his men the importance of this predicament, especially since the Cleveland offense will be facing some excellent defenses in the next five games. If the club's defense doesn’t match them, the road ahead becomes arduously long.

What looked promising as recently as the Buffalo victory in game five seems to have turned decidedly in the opposite direction. It’s a direction headed toward figurative disaster and yet another disappointing season.

Unless, of course, the offense stuns us all with some respectable play or, much more likely, the defense remembers how well it played in the first five games and regains that muscle memory.

The ever-optimistic (and idealistic) Chudzinski waxed philosophical after the Detroit loss. “It’s one game,” he said. “This is a long season. I expect it will improve.”

No it won’t.

~ Calvin Johnson didn’t play as much as he probably would have liked against the Browns Sunday, but his mere presence on the field seriously affected the manner in which the Browns defended the pass.

As it turned out, the National Football League’s best receiver was more of a decoy even though Matthew Stafford targeted him eight times. He caught only three (two of them for critical first downs on third down) for 25 yards and dropped two others, but helped open up the rest of the field for Kris Durham, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria.

The 6-6 Durham was targeted 13 times and caught eight passes for 83 yards, most of them in the early stages when Johnson was a non-factor. But it was the production of Pettigrew and Fauria, the tight ends, that hurt the Browns the most.

Half of Pettigrew’s four grabs (in four targets) converted third downs. Fauria was pristine with three catches in three targets and three touchdowns. The undrafted rookie has been targeted nine times this season with seven receptions and five touchdowns.

~ There is no question the Browns need to get bigger in the secondary. They run out a relative bunch of midgets every game compared to the size of some of today’s receivers.

As good as he is, 5-11, 195-pound Joe Haden is no physical match for the 6-5, 240-pound Johnson. And 5-9, 185-pound Buster Skrine going up against the 6-6, 220-pound Durham is a joke.

For some reason, the Browns seems to like their secondary on the short side (relatively speaking). Pure athleticism is not going to work when you’re giving away five or six inches in height and 25 to 30 pounds in weight. It’s just not going to work.

A lot of other teams have recognized that fact and have moved in that direction. One of the main reasons the Seattle Seahawks are so good on pass defense is their large secondary of 6-3 Richard Sherman and 6-4 Brandon Browner at cornerback and 6-3 Kam Chancellor at strong safety.

If the Browns harbor any desire to get better on defense, they must address the secondary first and not accept anyone whose height begins with a 5.

~ As it stands right now, the Browns’ offense consists of Josh Gordon. That’s it.

For all practical purposes, there is no running game. Opponents know that and have begun to relentlessly attack the quarterback, which puts Weeden’s football life in jeopardy every time he takes the snap.

That, in turn, puts that much more pressure on an offensive line that has problems protecting its quarterback to begin with. Weeden does not have a quick release like Hoyer and has more difficulty pre-snap reading opposing defenses.

With the strange play calling of Norv Turner, the Browns have become predictable, which makes Gordon’s contributions that much more impressive. He has caught 25 passes for 429 yards in just four games since returning from a two-game suspension.

Even though frequently double-teamed, the second-year man knows how to get open and seems to be the only receiver Weeden trusts. Extrapolate his figures and Gordon is headed toward a 1,500-yard season in 14 games.

~ Notebook: For what it’s worth, referee Walt Anderson blew it when he disagreed with Chudzinski’s challenge and upheld the call on the field as an incomplete pass on what should have been a 26-yard sideline reception by Browns wideout Greg Little on a second-and-25 early in the fourth quarter. Little appeared to just barely get both feet in bounds, but apparently the replay was inconclusive. Had it been ruled a catch and Detroit coach Jim Schwartz challenged, he would have lost, too. . . .  On the Browns’ second series of the game, Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh deliberately lowered his head and buried the crown of his helmet in Weeden’s chest a split second after he delivered the pass. It should have been flagged. If you’re not going to call that, might as well get rid of the rule. . . . Special teams good/bad: Every one of Billy Cundiff’s kickoffs sailed out of the end zone and Spencer Lanning averaged 47.3 yards on his six punts. Now the bad. After his record-setting week against Buffalo, Travis Benjamin field three punts against the Lions for minus 10 yards.