Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mid-season report card

Time to take a look at the Browns at the halfway point of the season. For the first time since the 2007 season, it’s not unrealistic to think something good is beginning to take shape so deep into a season.

Unlike many of the previous 14 seasons, the Browns have played representative football in the first nine games. They haven’t been blown out of a game nor have they blown out anyone.

No longer are they the patsy on other teams’ schedule. No longer are they the doormats that can be stepped all over. No. This team is beginning to build a lot of respect around the National Football League.

Slowly and so very surely, the Browns are learning how to win. That’s a bigger step than many would have believed this club would be capable of at the dawn of the season. To be 4-5 at this juncture with some impressive victories bodes well for the future.

Coach Rob Chudzinski has done a solid job of not allowing the season to get away despite some setbacks. He has made a few mistakes, but that is to be expected with rookie head coaches. But he’s shown he is smart enough to learn from those mistakes.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the Browns grade out thus far. Warning: This grader has a tendency to take a harder look than most. His grades are rooted in perceived reality.


If it weren’t for the efforts and performances of Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, the Browns would not be 4-5 at this point of the season. And if weren’t for the performances of Brandon Weeden, the Browns might be undefeated.

OK, so the last part is laced with hyperbole, but the personality of this football team is entirely different depending on who steps under center on any given Sunday.

In games Hoyer and Campbell have started, the Browns are 4-1; with Weeden, it’s 0-4. That’s s bit deceiving, though, since Weeden replaced Hoyer, injured early in the Buffalo game, and the Browns went to win.

Nevertheless, the Cleveland offense is noticeably better with Hoyer and Campbell in control. That’s because Hoyer, lost for the season in game five, and Campbell, who replaced an ineffective Weeden in game eight, waste no time in getting rid of the ball in the passing game.

Weeden, on the other hand, looks worse than he did in his rookie year last season. His indecisive manner and inability to read opposing defenses cause the Browns’ offense to stutter and stammer whenever he’s in there.

Many fans no doubt blame Chudzinski, wondering why he waited until game eight to make the switch to Campbell, arguing that the veteran should have replaced Hoyer instead of Weeden.

There is no question, however, that offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense clearly is better with Campbell, who has thrown five scoring passes with no interceptions, at the controls. With him at quarterback, the Browns now stand a good chance of finishing the season with at least seven victories.

Mid-season grade: C+

Running backs:

Without question the weakest position on the team. And it’s not even close. To be perfectly honest, the Browns’ running game is an embarrassment to the legacy of the team.

This is the franchise of Marion Motley, Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Greg Pruitt, Mike Pruitt, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. No, not Eric Metcalf, who was a wide receiver masquerading as a running back.

The current running game is a joke. It has compiled a paltry 38 first downs, only 734 yards in nine games, a per-game average of 81.5, and one touchdown. Willis McGahee, whom they picked up of the street after trading Trent Richardson to Indianapolis after game two, leads the team in rushing.

McGahee is the master of the three-yard gain on first down. He has run for 262 of those 734 yards. In 100 carries. Doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out his per-carry average.

Chris Ogbonnaya is the second-leading rusher with 101 yards on just 19 carries, but Tuarner, for some reason, refuses to give him the ball on a consistent basis. It seems to think he’s a better blocking back for McGahee.

No, he’s a better running back than McGahee. A better receiver, too, with 28 receptions for another 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Maybe the coaching staff will wake up and discover that before the second half of the season commences a week from Sunday in Cincinnati.

What makes matters worse at the position is that there is no depth whatsoever with only Fozzy Whittaker and MarQueis Gray on the bench. Yikes!

Mid-season grade: D- (and that’s being charitable)

Wide receivers:

If not for the wonderful talents of Josh Gordon, this position would rival that of the running backs as the worst on the team. He is the major reason the Browns’ offense came alive in the third game of the season.

That’s when he returned from his two-game suspension and put a charge into the offense with his ability to stretch the field and make clutch receptions. His uncanny ability to get open made Hoyer and Campbell better quarterbacks.

It’s not a coincidence that his return sparked the club’s three-game winning streak after losing the first two games of the season. He averages five catches a game and leads the team in receiving yards (626) and average per catch (17.9 yards). He‘s a weapon opponents pay close attention to.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much help on the flanks with only Greg Little and Davone Bess to help. Both have been inconsistent and cannot be relied on from game to game. And now that Travis Benjamin is out for the season, there is no quality depth at the position.

Mid-season grade: C- (only because of Gordon)

Tight ends:

Of the surprises thus far this season, this has been the biggest and most pleasant. Most observers knew Jordan Cameron had all the tools to be a difference-making tight end in the National Football League.

He was big, strong, had great hands and decent speed. But the former college basketball player couldn’t stay healthy. Nagging injuries robbed him of proving he belonged. He played only eight games in his rookie season and sparingly in 14 last season, piling up only 26 receptions.

This season, Cameron has caught the attention of the NFL with what, so far, could be considered a Pro Bowl type season. His 50 catches nearly double his first two seasons’ output and his 600 yards more than doubles the first two seasons. Thirty of his catches have produced first downs and he has scored six touchdowns.

Gary Barnidge provides solid support as a blocker when the Browns go to a two tight end look and is occasionally used in short-yardage situations as a receiver. The position overall is solid.

Mid-season grade: A

Offensive line:

Of all the positions on the team, this one caused the most excitement among the fans at the beginning of the season. Everyone returned from last season except guards Shaun Lauvao and Jason Pinkston, who began the campaign on the injured list. But John Greco filled in nicely for Pinkston last season, so the optimism remained high.

When grading this unit, close attention was paid to one part of its job – opening holes for the running backs. The statistics above is ample proof that the performance has been disappointing. What holes there are at the handoff disappear quickly.

And when it comes to executing screen plays or anything of a sophisticated nature, the Browns have to be among the NFL’s worst. Without the ability to keep the opposition off balance with screens, the quarterback’s job becomes that much tougher.

At the beginning of the season, this unit struggled with Oneil Cousins (a natural tackle) playing right guard between Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz. It was disastrous until Lauvao returned from injury. The only aspect of the game that improved upon his return was pass protection.

Joe Thomas, the bellwether of the line, has had a decent season. But for the annual Pro Bowler, that’s not good enough. Numerous times this season, Thomas has been flagged for holding and false starts. Flags for the latter infraction are inexcusable.

Blocking for the run is supposed to be easier than pass pro for offensive linemen. That’s why the ineptitude of this line in the run game is so puzzling. Better coaching is not the answer. Better talent is.

Mid-season grade: C

Defensive line:

By far the most consistent position on the team. In the span of just nine games, the Browns have gone from one of the worst teams against the run to one of the best. No longer do we see opposing runners racking up 100-plus yard games against the Browns, who have not allowed a 300-yard passer or 100-yard runner this season.

What makes this unit special is the depth. There is no dropoff in quality when the so-called second string enters the game. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton leans on his seven-man rotation. They rush the passer every bit as well as stuff the run.

When Billy Winn, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, John Hughes and rookie Armonty Bryant enter the game for starters Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, the status of the quality remains quo. Taylor and Kitchen at nose guard are the main run stuffers, while the other five bring pressure from the edge. Armonty Bryant has been the most pleasant surprise with his pass rushing ability.

The only reason this grade isn’t higher is an inability to create turnovers. And too often, the defense has trouble getting off the field. The third-down defense is atrocious, ranking near the bottom of the NFL. Clean up those problems and the grade here is an A.

Mid-season grade: B+


This is the most important position in Ray Horton’s hyper aggressive defensive scheme, especially the outside backers. And they have responded with 14½ of the position’s 19 sacks (the team has 31 overall).

But it must be pointed out that Paul Kruger, the ex-Baltimore Raven who was signed as a free agent because he specialized in dropping quarterbacks, has just 2½ sacks. He also has just 23 tackles, of which only a dozen are of the solo variety. The man is not earning his money.

On the other hand, fellow outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who filled in when Jabaal Sheard went down early in the season with an injury, has four sacks and the same 23 tackles (16 solo) in far less playing time. The return of Sheard a couple of game ago seems to have made a difference, however, returning Mingo to the role at which he excels – situational pass rusher.

The grade slips somewhat because the inside backers have had trouble covering tight ends this season. The opposition has picked on Craig Robertson quite a bit and we can see why. He’s usually a step slow when dropping into coverage.

When one looks at the tackling numbers, inside backers D’Qwell Jackson and Robertson are near the top of the list. That’s because the defensive line attempts to funnel all ground activity their way.

Mid-season grade: C+

Defensive backfield:

One look at the Browns’ inability to pick off opposing quarterbacks and give the ball back to the offense tells you all you need to know about the Cleveland secondary. It’s not very opportunistic.

Opposing quarterbacks have put the ball up 351 times in nine games and the Browns have picked off only six. The team plays a lot of press coverage as part of its numerous blitz packages and still cannot get the ball back.

Safeties Tashaun Gipson and T. J. Ward have four of the thefts (Ward made it a pick six in the Buffalo victory), while cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine have one apiece. 

To be fair, Gipson and Ward have played well on a consistent basis this season, especially Ward, who leads the team in solo tackles with 49 (second overall to Jackson’s 79 with 64 solos). Both men have enjoyed solid seasons in the tackling department.

Two of the biggest surprises have been Skrine, rebounding nicely from a poor 2012 campaign, and Chris Owens, used frequently by Horton on corner blitzes (he has 2½).  Haden has been his usual reliable self, shutting down the opposition’s top receiver with regularity.

Mid-season grade: B- (but getting better)

Special teams:

For the most part, the special teams have played very well. They have not given up any long returns on punts or kickoffs, ranking in the top third in the NFL in average starting position on kickoffs. They also rank seventh in average start of a drive on kickoffs returns.

The only negative might be the reluctance to remove Greg Little as the return man on kickoff returns. It took special teams coach Chris Tabor seven games before realizing Travis Benjamin could be just as effective running back kickoffs as he was returning punts. Benjamin returned his first kickoff 86 yards against Green Bay.

The following week, he went down in the Kansas City loss with a season-ending torn ACL. His most important contribution was club record 179 yards in seven punt returns in the Buffalo victory, including a 79-yard jaunt for a touchdown. The Bills never kicked away from him. They fired their punter the day after the loss.

Mid-season grade: B


If it weren’t for his stubbornness in keeping Weeden at quarterback when it seemed so obvious the team was not responding to him following the injury to Hoyer, Rob Chudzinski earns a higher grade here.

He was the guy who was not afraid to choose his third string quarterback over the second stringer to replace the injured Weeden in game three. It seemed the right decision at the time because Campbell was a journeyman and Hoyer had never really received a shot.

He also trusts his coordinators. Turner and Horton have not let him down. The Cleveland offense has rebounded nicely under Hoyer and Campbell and the defense, for the first time in who knows how long, ranks in the top 10 in all three categories.

As an unabashed Browns fan, Chudzinski also seems to really enjoy where he is in life. He understands the rivalries with his AFC North opponents (unlike most of his predecessors), owning a 2-1 record within the division. And the only loss (to Baltimore) was closely contested.

Believe it or not, the club still has a shot (albeit remote) at the division championship. If they knock off a banged-up Cincinnati Bengals team coming out of the bye and take advantage of the down season the Pittsburgh Steelers are going through, who knows where this could lead?

Right now, Chudzinski has his team believing in itself. And that's more than half the battle. Now that Campbell is ensconced at quarterback and the offense is not playing embarrassing football, the Browns can concentrate on playing some of the best defense seen in Cleveland in a long time. That's a formula that could lead to big things.

Mid-season grade: B

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