Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cleveland's Three Stooges 

I attended my share of news conferences in Cleveland while working in The Plain Dealer sports department and in Cleveland radio more years ago than I care to admit.

I heard thousands of questions directed at various sports personalities – athletes, coaches, managers and front-office types – in that time. Most of them, including a few too many from yours truly, were of the softball variety.

They were lobbed with amazing regularity in an effort to avoid antagonizing those at whom they were directed. It was much easier to cultivate a source by asking soft questions.

And while many questions directed at Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner during Monday’s news conference announcing the firing of Rob Chudzinski arrived with a hard-than-usual edge, one in particular stood out for its brazenness.

Never before have I heard such a blatantly direct question asked of any Cleveland sports personality in a news conference. It had a pin attached to it and was lobbed right at Haslam.

Dan DeRoos from WOIO Channel 19 pulled that pin. DeRoos introduced himself as a news reporter, not a sports reporter, about 12 minutes into the conference and asked his question following the preamble:

“This is a small, small sampling from our Facebook page, which, as you can imagine, blew up (after the Chudzinski firing was announced late Sunday night),” DeRoos began and then read several posts.

“ ‘This team remains an embarrassment not only to the NFL, but the fans as well. We deserve better.’

“ ‘Who really cares anymore?’

“ ‘They have lost their fans trying to outsmart the rest of the league and frankly, they’ve encouraged apathy instead of hope.’

“ ‘Totally done with anything Browns. Haslam (and these are their words, interjected DeRoos) Haslam and his stooges Banner and (Mike) Lombardi can pack up and get out of Cleveland.' "

Then DeRoos dropped the bomb. “Jimmy, can you assure the fans – their words, not mine – that you don’t have the Three Stooges running this operation?”

During the 45 seconds it took DeRoos to frame his question, Haslam winced a couple of times and dropped his head another time before gathering himself to answer. He did not look pleased at all.

“Listen, I feel really confident we have the right people to take this organization where we need go, OK?” he began. “I think what the fans need to understand is –and you all have heard me say this on numerous occasions – we have the best fans in the world, OK? And I’ve said our fans deserve better.

“What I want our fans to hear is nobody cares more about winning or is going to work any harder to get us there than the people you’re looking at right now (Haslam and Banner sat side by side), particularly the owner, OK? We take this extremely seriously.”

Nowhere in that answer did he answer the original question. He obviously chose to ignore the Three Stooges reference.

When you have nowhere else to go, mention the greatest fans in the world. It works more often than it doesn’t.

Bottom line is DeRoos needs to get out of news pronto and into sports at Channel 19 so he can attend more news conferences and ask more feet-to-the-fire questions like this.

It’s time those who run the Browns be held accountable. There are a couple in the Cleveland media who do. It's not nearly enough.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Monday leftovers

Is there any question now as to who runs the Browns from top to bottom? It certainly is not the owner.

Sure owner Jimmy Haslam III lays out the big bucks. He’s the owner. He should.

But when it comes to running the whole football show in Berea, there is only one man who controls everything.

After the sacking of rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski mere hours after the end of the 2013 season Sunday night, there is no question that Joe Banner was the motivating force behind the move.

Yeah, Banner, the martinet, probably checked with Low Profile General Manager Mike Lombardi, the club’s mystery man, and assistant GM Ray Farmer to see if they agreed with him that Chud must go. And whattaya know, they did. Shocking!

He also might have solicited the advice of some friends in the business just to make certain he wasn’t making the wrong move. That move, while not unprecedented, was most unusual. It isn’t often in the National Football League that a first-year head coach gets rolled after just one season.

No, this one had Banner’s fingerprints all over it. The Browns were losing and losing badly and he was being embarrassed by their embarrassing play. Something needed to be done. And you can’t fire the players.

But never lose sight of the fact that Banner does it all at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. Lombardi and Farmer are the talent evaluators and chief yes men. But all final decisions regarding football matters fall into Banner’s lap.

The man with a business background now appears to fancy himself a football man through more than 15 years of osmosis as the successful president of the Philadelphia Eagles. He controls the shape of the roster. Lombardi and Farmer are mere lackeys. So was Chudzinski.

Even though he and Haslam owned their mistake of hiring a coach not yet ready for primetime, sitting at Monday’s news conference to explain their actions must have been tough for Banner. Large egos do not handle such situations well.

While he occasionally called a tough question “a fair question” as though trying to balance the emotional scales, he managed to tap dance his way around answers several times. It was an uncomfortable scene he does not forward to repeating.

There is more pressure on Banner to succeed in Cleveland now more than at any time he was in Philadelphia mainly because he basically has become the Jerry Jones of this franchise without owning it. The Dallas owner makes all personnel decisions for the Cowboys.

In Philadelphia, Banner did not make the ultimate personnel decisions. Eagles coach Andy Reid and whoever his general manager was at the time made them. With the Browns, Banner is the man.

It’s a position he appears to relish. And with it goes the future of the franchise. Never before has anyone with such limited knowledge of personnel been in charge of shaping that future for the Browns.

Everyone around the NFL now will watch with perhaps greater interest than normal as Banner begins the newest search for his next head coach. Right now, he’s 1-for-1 in that department, striking it rich with Reid in Philadelphia and missing badly with Chudzinski.

There is one certainty about the next coach. I would be very surprised – no, make that stunned – if Chudzinski’s successor is not an offensive-minded coach. His M. O. suggests that’s the direction he will go.

~ Among the names being thrown out as Chudzinski’s possible successor is New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a native of Barberton, Ohio. McDaniels, who played his high school football at Canton McKinley and college football at John Carroll, has an advocate with the Browns in Lombardi through their working relationship with Bill Belichick.

McDaniels, 37, coached the Denver Broncos for slightly less than two full seasons before being fired in December 2010. He fits the mold Banner is looking for. He is young enough and NFL-savvy enough to at least get an interview and is considered by some to be the early favorite.

Other names being speculated are Todd Bowles and Dan Quinn, defensive coordinators at Arizona and Seattle, and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase. But most of us know Gase is the offensive coordinator in name only. Peyton Manning is the brains behind – and runs – the Broncos’ offense.

If McDaniels somehow winds up with the Cleveland job, don’t be surprised if he tries to bring Tim Tebow back into the NFL. McDaniels shocked the entire league when he selected University of Florida quarterback with the Broncos’ No. 1 pick in the 2010 college draft. The controversial Tebow did not play in the league in 2013.

~ The Browns, who own 10 picks in the 2014 college football draft, including seven in the first four rounds, will select fourth in the first round. With so many areas of need to fill, it will be interesting to see which side of the ball will get the earliest consideration.

The Browns, in no particular order, could use a quarterback, running back, a couple of offensive linemen (guards), a wide receiver or two, a couple of linebackers (one inside, one outside) and a cornerback.

The next draft is considered much deeper than the 2013 lottery. Maybe that’s why Banner and his minions decided to take that draft off and stock up on future picks. Only one problem with the search for the team’s next franchise quarterback: There doesn’t seem to be anyone coming out who fits the mold. The 2015 field will be much stronger.

~ Want to know why the Browns finished 4-12? Check out these statistics.

The offense scored a net 273 points (subtracting defensive and special team stats), eight fewer than last season. The defense allowed a net 378 points (subtracting opposing teams’ defensive and special teams stats), 31 more than last season. 

The rushing offense produced 1,383 yards (1,593 last season); the pass rush had 40 sacks (38 last season); the turnover ratio was minus-8 (plus-3 last season); the offense had 30 touchdowns (28 last season); four were on the ground (12 last season); and the leading grounder was Willis McGahee with 377 yards (950 last season by Trent Richardson).

~ More telling stats . . .

The Browns either had the lead of were tied at halftime in 10 games and lost six. The second quarter was, by far, their most productive on offense with 105 points, or 34% of their 308 total. They scored 56 points (18.2%) in the first quarter, 71 (23%) in the third and 76 (24.7%) in the final quarter. In other words, they started slowly at the beginning of each half.

On defense, they were the strongest at the start of each half. In the first quarter, they allowed just 67 points (16.5% of their 406 points). In the second quarter, it was 121 points (29.8%). They yielded just 73 points (18%) in the third quarter. The fourth quarter was their worst with 145 points (35.7%). Nearly 66% of the points allowed (266) occurred in the second and fourth quarters.

~ Notebook: OK, a few more stats. In their first five games, the Browns sacked opposing quarterbacks 18 times. In the final 11, it was 22. . . . Since 2010, the Browns are 3-18 in December. . . . In the first five games, the Browns allowed 18.8 points a game. In the final 11, that number rose to 28.4. . . . Jimmy Haslam III is learning the hard way how difficult it is to be a Browns fan. When he left the Browns-Steelers game Sunday with half a quarter to play, he no doubt experienced the hollow feeling most Browns fans have had since 1999. The only difference is he can do something about it. Turning the Factory of Sadness into the Factor of Happiness and Joy would be his crowning achievement. Now all he has to do is go out and do it.

A rudderless mess

Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner attempted unsuccessfully to wipe the egg off their respective faces at a news conference Monday trying to explain why they fired Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski late Sunday.

In what seemingly was a knee-jerk move after the club’s dismal 4-12 campaign, the owner and CEO dodged question after question with a deft array of verbal dance moves. These men know how not to answer questions.

An unusually testy Cleveland media badgered the two men – with the notable absence of General Manager Mike Lombardi at the news conference – with questions that did not require yes or no answers.

The normally media softballs were missing, a sign perhaps they did not agree with and were upset by  the dismissal of the rookie head coach. They were actually trying to hold those responsible for the firing accountable for their actions.

One question by a news, not sports, reporter – it was really more of a request – centered on several Facebook remarks severely criticizing the move and asked for Haslam’s response. The owner, who winced a few times while listening to the biting remarks, basically did not quarrel with them, but asserted he understood the anger and that things were going to change.

Haslam was particularly defensive with his answers and came up with some stock answers. “We understand the importance of getting it right,” he said several times. Said Banner, “We’re not going to accept not being successful.”

Perhaps the most telling remark of the entire 32-minute news conference was this one from Haslam: “It galls me to pick up the paper and read ‘same old Browns.’ Our single mission is to change that.”

Haslam is accustomed to success in the business world and being a part of a successful sports franchise. He was exposed to the latter through his minority ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers before purchasing the Browns.

He believed that exposure provided a learning experience in how to put together not only a competitive football team, but one that would annually challenge for appearances in the postseason.

The owner has been accustomed to success his whole life. So when the Browns pulled their spectacular fade to conclude the 2013 season, he was not only extremely disappointed, he was embarrassed. He’ll never admit that publicly, but the disappointment was etched on his face.

It became increasingly clear that Chudzinski’s inability to stem the tide down the stretch cost him his job. All they were looking for, according to Haslam, was to be “better in that last three games (of the season) than we were the first three games.”

The lack of any kind of progress is what sealed Chudzinski's fate. “The lack of progress of the roster and players is really what drove us to be here today,” said Banner, who admitted he stuck with Andy Reid in Philadelphia after he won only five games in his rookie year as a head coach.

It was only several weeks ago – November 13 to be exact – that Banner said the following about his head coach when the Browns entered the bye week at 4-5:

“I’d be hard pressed to think that in nine weeks a first-time head coach can do any better or any more than he’s doing. All of the measurables you’d look to come up with, if you even created a yardstick or measuring at this moment, I just think he’s done an outstanding job.”

What a difference seven weeks can make.

Banner admitted the final decision to jettison Chudzinski was made Saturday, although the move had been in the discussion stage for about a week. So even if the Browns had knocked off the Steelers Sunday, Chudzinski was history. That wasn’t going to happen and those in the Ivory Tower knew it.

In somewhat of an ironic coincidence, the last four fired Browns coaches – Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and now Chudzinski – were let go following a final-game loss to the Steelers.

With one notable exception, there is no question the Browns in the second half of the season played nowhere near as well as in the first half, especially on defense. They played well enough to win the New England game and Patriots coach Bill Belichick as much as admitted it after the game.

The news conference was a study in soft self-flagellation. The two men took full responsibility for the mistake of hiring Chudzinski, but insisted on looking forward. Haslam and Banner reiterated several times that they “understood the importance of getting it right.”

Whether this move is right or wrong is moot at this point. These power men are in a position to make whatever moves they deem necessary to better the product. It is their prerogative no matter what the public thinks.

Or the players, for that matter. Said offensive tackle Joe Thomas, “You look at the great franchises. They don’t fire their coach after the first season. You can’t do it. It sets everything back. You just hit the reset button. It severely damages the organization and lengthens the amount of time it takes to get back to the playoffs and turn the team into a consistent winner. This organization needs continuity.”

Added another member of the Browns, who preferred anonymity, most likely because of the nature of his comment, “We are so dysfunctional.  These billionaires (Haslam) need to pick somebody and stay with them. These aren’t girlfriends. You can’t dump them if they (fail to please you) one time.”

John McMullen from The Sports Network chimes in with: “The Browns only enhance their reputation as a rudderless mess, incapable of any kind of patience or continuity.” Can’t quarrel with that.

After the Randy Lerner regime departed, it was thought the Browns were headed in another, more positive, direction, Turns out, at least based on what we’ve seen in the last year, that isn’t even close to being the case. There is no question the Browns are taking a huge public relations hit with this one and have a sizable P. R. mountain to climb.

And this time, they’d better get it right.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Chudzinski lasts less than a year

Update: Rob Chudzinski has been fired as coach of the Browns after one season. The move came after just hours after Sunday's 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, exactly 352 days after he was hired. That makes him the only head coach in Browns history with a tenure less than one calendar year.

A club-issued statement Sunday night read in part: "We needed to see progress with this football team. We needed to see development and improvement as the season evolved and, unfortunately, we took a concerning step backward in the second half of the year.

" . . . We have high standards and there is an urgency for success. When we believed we were not positioned to achieve significant progress in 2014, we knew we had to admit that a change was needed and we moved forward."

The following is the original post written prior to Chudzinski's dismissal. 

The date was November 3. Remember that date.

The Browns had just climbed a mountain and defeated Baltimore, 24-18, ending an 11-game losing streak against the Ravens.

It elevated their record to 4-5, a lofty mark after nine games considering they are still considered the AFC North’s stepchild. In order to gain respect in the National Football League, you have to earn it. 

So at 4-5 and heading into the bye week, a measure of respect toward the Browns began permeating around the NFL. Pundits began to take notice. Maybe, just maybe, this was going to be their turnaround season.

Even though they didn’t have much of a running game and were working on their third quarterback, other teams started taking the Browns seriously.

And that’s when it all fell apart.

If you had told anyone in the Ivory Tower at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. on November 3 that the Browns would never win another game this season, they would have had you fitted for a straitjacket.

Yet here we are on December 29 and that is exactly what happened. Seven games up, seven games down. From a 4-5 record in early November to a final 4-12 record in late December following Sunday’s 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And don’t think for a minute the residents of the aforementioned Tower are happy. The improbable winless finish in the second half of the season has jump-started rumors that now swirl over Rob Chudzinski’s head and threaten his employment.

When Chudzinski signed a four-year contract last January 11 to succeed Pat Shurmur as the newest Browns head coach, progress was not only anticipated, it was expected.

“I believe we came back with the best person to lead the Cleveland Browns to the kind of winning format that we want to have in Cleveland and we all expect to have,” said owner Jimmy Haslam III at the introductory news conference.

So what else is there to think when last season’s 5-11 team finished with a worst record this season? What else is there to think after the fans have been subjected to losing football on a weekly basis when they had every right to expect something entirely different?

Joe Banner is a mercurial and unpredictable individual. The club’s CEO is not above pulling the plug on a coach if he believes that coach is not getting the most out of his roster. Never mind if that coach has fulfilled only one-fourth of his contract. If one considers the won-lost record as a barometer, then Chudzinski is in big trouble.

It would not be surprising if Banner is the anonymous source close to the team – you can quote me, but don’t use my name – leaking such a possible development. He cannot be the least bit happy when he sees only four victories under the W with three of them arriving in the first five games.

That to the proud Banner is an embarrassment and he does not deal well with that kind of feeling. As someone who led the Philadelphia Eagles to a power position in the NFL for all those seasons before departing a couple of years ago, a season like this is difficult to take.

The only argument against the possibility of Chudzinski’s possible dismissal is such a move would be an admission by Banner and Haslam that they made a mistake with the rookie head coach. Such an admission is hard to swallow.

It’s not as though they inherited Chudzinski and would think nothing of cashiering him. As for paying him off with three years remaining on his contract, Haslam is loaded and the payoff would be a relative spit in the ocean. That thought at least might serve to temper a knee-jerk decision and cause them to take a step back and look at the entire season before making such a rash decision.

Then again, maybe a coach Banner likes but could not get after firing Shurmur has popped onto his radar and he doesn’t want to lose the opportunity of signing him. It could be he wants someone with head coaching experience, thinking Chudzinski wasn’t ready to handle the job.

That’s all speculation at this point, of course. But there is a reason the day after the conclusion of the regular season in the NFL is called Black Monday. Heads roll on this day. And those heads usually belong to coaches who do not win.

Even though it is only his maiden season as an NFL head coach, the extremely disappointing campaign the Browns have carved out for Chudzinski serves to ramp up this kind of speculation.

There is no question the Cleveland roster has a fair degree of talent, divided equally on either side of the ball. There are roughly 15-18 players who can be considered core, players around whom you can build a stronger team.

It’s very possible Banner and his minions believe this is a team that should have finished no worse than .500 with that kind of talent. But second-half collapses in games and awful red-zone defense dogged the Browns the second half of the season and was the main causal factor for the collapse.

The offense stuttered and staggered in the second half despite the efforts of the extraordinary Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. The defense, which played well in the first half of the season, fell apart like crepe paper down the stretch.

Clutch plays became scarce as the schedule morphed into the latter stages. Smart football, something the Browns haven’t played in way too long, never became a part of this team’s fabric. Someone has to take the blame.

Who better than the coaches. They are easier to fire.

Chudzinski received high praise when he brought in Norv Turner and Ray Horton as his coordinators. But neither man achieved a high degree of success all season, unless you consider the achievements of Gordon and Cameron and credit Turner for their development.

Horton talked a good game and his players backed him up with a strong first half. The second half was an entirely different story. If anything, it jeopardized his chances of getting a job as a head coach in the league. He’ll get his interviews, but back-to-back records of 5-11 and 4-12 as a coordinator in Arizona and Cleveland do not bode well for him.

Turner, on the other hand, was dealt a weak hand with the trade of Trent Richardson and injuries to all three quarterbacks and should return if his protégé gets a second chance.  But as the clouds hovering over Chudzinski right now get darker by the hour, that doesn’t look to be the case.

More and more, it’s beginning to look as though Browns fans need to get ready for yet another head coach as the never-ending battle to restore respectability to Cleveland Browns football takes another step.

Let the "here we go again" chant begin. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Don't let the facts get in the way

FACT: The last time the Browns defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh, George W. Bush was in the middle of his first term as president, a gallon of gas cost $1.59 and LeBron was three weeks away from making his professional debut with the Cavaliers. The date was Oct. 5, 2003.

FACT: Ben Roethlisberger has quarterbacked the Steelers against the Browns 17 times and lost only once – in 2009 in Cleveland. He’s 8-0 at home against them.

FACT: In those eight games, he has completed nearly 66% of his passes (129-196), thrown for 1,932 yards and 14 touchdowns and been intercepted six times.

FACT: The Steelers are 25-5 against the Browns since the return.

FACT: The new Browns are 0-5 against the Steelers in season-ending games, 6-8 overall.

With facts like those, one doesn’t need to be closeted in a laboratory crunching numbers to figure out which team will win Sunday’s season-ender between the Browns and Steelers at Heinz Field.

These are two teams headed in opposite directions. The Steelers are clearly the better team at this point of the season. They are hopeful for more games. The Browns are hopeful no one gets hurt seriously as they conclude yet another dismal season.

The spin out of Berea is that the Browns could eliminate the Steelers from the playoff picture with an upset. That, too, is a fact. Like that would really mean something. A sort of pride thing that would spread some salve on the wound that is the 2013 season.

Uh, no. The only accomplishment at knocking off the Steelers would be beating all three division rivals in the same season for the first time since the return. That’s it. Nothing more.

There will be no thrill at pulling the plug on the Steelers’ season. That doesn’t even come close to making up for what has unfolded in the first 15 games. It’s not as though a victory Sunday will make the Browns’ season. It won’t.

It’s not as though the Steelers are this runaway juggernaut that will automatically make the postseason if they beat the Browns.  They have, at best, a sliver of hope to extend their season if they win. They also need Baltimore, Miami and San Diego to lose in order to qualify. The Dolphins and Chargers are at home.

The big question is whether the Browns will mail it in, much as some of them did last Sunday against the New York Jets (particularly on defense) or put in an honest effort.

Not certain if it’s just the usual pre-game hype elevating the capabilities of the upcoming opponent or just lip service to keep from laughing, but the Steelers appear to be taking the Browns seriously.

Roethlisberger anticipates a tough game. “I don’t expect anything less from them,” he said a few days ago. “It’s the AFC North. It’s Steelers-Browns. I don’t think much more needs to be said.” Presumably, he had a serious face when he spoke.

The Steelers have made a solid comeback from their 0-4 start. However, it might be too little, too late, which, of course, saddens Browns fans who will shed crocodile tears should Pittsburgh fail to make the postseason.

The Steelers have been on a statistical roll heading into this one, scoring 23 or more points in seven of their last eight games. The biggest problem this season is their inability to be dominant at home with just a 4-3 record there.

The Pittsburgh offense picked up when rookie running back Le’Veon Bell started getting comfortable in the running game, taking some of the pressure off his quarterback, who has racked up another 4,000-yard season

The biggest mystery for the Steelers is the performance of their defense, although it did shut down the Browns several weeks ago. A late touchdown pass from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon made the 27-11 final look a tad more respectable (being kind here).

That defense has surrendered more than 24 points a game, recorded just 31 sacks and given up 18 touchdowns on the ground. (They don’t have to worry about that Sunday. The Browns have no running game to speak of.)

Where the Browns will have difficulty stopping the Steelers is through the air. Unless the Browns’ vaunted pass rush magically reappears, something positive is bound to happen every time Roethlisberger drops back to pass.

In that first game, the Browns hardly touched him as the suspect Pittsburgh offensive line kept him clean. No sacks and just a couple of hits. That’s it. No reason to believe it will be any different Sunday.

Roethlisberger has too many good receivers to throw to; guys like Antonio Brown (quietly having a terrific season with 101 catches for 1,412 yards and eight touchdowns), Emmanuel Sanders (65-714-6) and Jericho Cotchery (43-577-9). The Cleveland secondary once again will see plenty of traffic.

All that remains, then, is the final score. This one is almost too easy. Too many overwhelming reasons to even think the Browns will be in this one, let alone win it. Make it:

Steelers 38, Browns 14

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday leftovers

When the Browns hired Norv Turner and Ray Horton as their coordinators shortly after Rob Chudzinski was anointed head coach, their appointments elicited excitement around the Browns Global Network. (Of course it’s fictitious, but it works here.)

Finally, many fans believed, a pair of guys who know what winning was all about. Finally, two guys who would bring not only respectability to the Browns on both sides of the ball, they would inject a competitive spirit.

So why, then, are the Browns 4-11 at this point of the season? Why are they, for the umpteenth time, one of the laughingstocks of the National Football League? What in the hell happened?

Here we are on the precipice of the final week of the season and the Browns are no better now than they were when we all got excited at the beginning of the 2013 season. Of course, that excitement was generated by a natural feeling we all get when every NFL team is 0-0.

Turner was finally going to bring an offensive approach to the team we haven’t seen since, well, never since the big resurrection in 1999. Except, arguably, the 2007 team that racked up a lot of points but fell just short of the playoffs.

Since then, it has been an offensive desert for Cleveland offenses. The Browns have wandered around trying to become a force when they own the ball. So when Turner, whose reputation as an offensive guru preceded his appointment, arrived on the scene, big things were expected.

Same with Horton, whose defensive philosophy mirrored that of his mentor, famed Pittsburgh Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau. Gone was the frustrating bend-but-don’t-break approach, replaced by a creative bent that highlighted an aggressive, belligerent, nasty tone.

And what did we receive? Bad football. Embarrassing football. Frustrating football. More of the same kind of football we have witnessed for way too long. Six straight seasons of 10-plus losses. Totally and unequivocally unacceptable.

What in the world happened? Why has Turner’s offense turned into a pass-happy circus with nothing more than a shrug given the running game? Why has Horton’s defense surrendered more points than the last two teams under former coordinator Dick Jauron?

Is it the personnel? Is it the coaching? Or is it a combination of the two?

Yes, yes and yes.

A microcosm of the Cleveland offense this season was extremely evident on the team’s third possession in the 24-13 road loss to the New York Jets Sunday. After settling for a field goal on the previous series after stalling at the Jets’ 7-yard line, coach Rob Chudzinski brazenly (and correctly) disdained the three points when the offense stalled again, this time at the New York 2.

First and goal at the 2. Three plays (a run and two passes) netted nary an inch. Quarterback Jason Campbell never saw a wide open Gary Barnidge waving frantically in the back of the end zone on second down and Josh Gordon couldn’t hang on to a quick hitch pass on third down.

The frustration mounting, Chudzinski made up his mind to gamble on fourth down. It was as though said, “I don’t care how we do it. This team is going to score a touchdown here damn it.” And who could blame him?

You’re 4-10. What have you got to lose? Another game? At this juncture, what difference does it make? Does 5-10 look that much better than 4-11? So what does Turner call? The most obvious play in the playbook, the fade to Gordon in the corner. Just about everyone knew that was coming.

The fade is a play that requires touch and perfection. Campbell does not throw that pass well and yet here was Turner calling for it. The veteran quarterback heaved it just far enough where Gordon struggled to haul it in and stay in bounds and juggled it.

All season long, the Browns have struggled in the red zone on both sides of the ball. They kick field goals when touchdowns are required. The defense gives up touchdowns when holding the opposition to field goals is paramount. The red-zone O and D are killing the Browns.

It became readily apparent in the Jets loss that Horton’s defense is tired. It is worn down. It is dragging. The spunk and spark that were there in the first 12 games are gone. The third-down defense is a joke.

It’s almost as though some of the players on defense are beginning to mail in their games with so little to gain now that the season has been flushed down the toilet. If they are not, then this defense is worse than I thought.

The 2013 season has become a total team failure. Fingers of guilt should be pointed directly at the coaching staff. It is now apparent that 4-11, soon to be 4-12, is an accurate barometer of where this team stands. It is an abject failure very few observers saw coming.

~ There is no other way to put it. Greg Little is a running back trapped in a wide receiver’s body. He is not an NFL caliber wide receiver. He has hands constructed of concrete. Throwing him a football is always an adventure.

No one knows whether he will catch it or watch it clank off his hands of stone as it did on the Browns’ second series of the Jets game when he dropped a touchdown pass. When he does catch it and take off on one of his dazzling runs, it makes skeptics wonder what he’d be like if his talent ever caught up to his will to succeed.

Little is a natural running back. You can see that on the runs he makes after catching the ball. He came out of Hillside High School in Durham, N. C., as a tailback. In his junior season, he ran the ball 160 times for 1,166 yards and 26 touchdowns.

At the University of North Carolina, he switched to receiver in his junior (and last) season. As a running back for the Tar Heels, he carried the ball 137 times in two seasons, running for 639 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-2, 220 pounds, he’s got the size and speed to become a force at a position of need.

Based on what we’ve seen from Little at wide receiver thus far in three seasons, there is no question his professional career will be brief if the Browns or any future team continue to play him there.

~ When Edwin Baker barreled into the end zone in the second quarter against the Jets, he became the first Cleveland running back to score a rushing touchdown on the road this season. It should have not been allowed. Left tackle Joe Thomas was holding on the play, but was not flagged. OK, I’m a killjoy.

I like Baker’s running style. He’s shifty, quick to the hole, keeps his feet moving and has good vision. He twice bounced an inside run outside and gained extra yardage because the original hole had disappeared. Chudzinski obviously wanted to see more of the newcomer – he had 17 carries for 64 yards – and had to like what he saw.

~ Notebook: For the second straight week, Campbell was way off with his throws. Maybe he can blame it on the emotional loss to Chicago last Sunday (sarcasm deliberate). He blamed the Bears’ loss to the emotional letdown after losing to New England two Sundays ago. Wonder what he’ll blame this Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh on. . . . The Browns generated just 134 yards of offense in the second half against the Jets . . .  Yep, the Ed Reed who picked off the second of Campbell two interceptions is the same guy who bedeviled the Browns for all those seasons in Baltimore. Well on the downside of what most likely is a Hall of Fame career, Reed has 11 of his 62 career interceptions in 22 games against Cleveland. . . . It was interesting to watch Jets coach Rex Ryan enjoy his victory. The way he reacted, one might think he had won an important game. All he did was beat a 4-10 team. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The kindred spirit syndrome

Rob Chudzinski now knows how Pat Shurmur felt. And Eric Mangini. And Romeo Crennel. And Butch Davis. And Chris Palmer.

He is a kindred spirit with all of the above. And that’s not something of which to be proud.

The current Browns head coach now knows how positively awful it feels to coach a professional football team that makes a date with disaster at the beginning of each National Football League season and keeps it.

Chudzinski, who grew up a Browns fan in Toledo, wanted to be the head man for his boyhood team. He knew the dismal history of this team since the resurrection in 1999 and still wanted to coach it.

As the saying goes, be very careful what you wish for. In this case, Chudzinski had no idea it would be this bad after watching his team drop a 24-13 decision to the New York Jets Sunday in New Jersey. It was the club’s sixth straight loss, ninth in the last 10 games and lowered the season record to 4-11.

Being such a diehard Browns fan, Chudzinski must be feeling the agony and frustration and hopelessness Browns Nation feels after yet another loss. It must be even more frustrating and upsetting for the coach since he is in a position to do something about it.

Just a few days ago, he talked about a plan the club has for the future, a plan that evoked optimism. “I believe in our plan and that’s a long-term plan for sustained success,” he told the media.

Only one problem, coach. In order to sustain success, you first must achieve success. And the Browns right now are light years away from being even close to that station in life, especially when you take into account the way your team played the final 41 minutes of the game Sunday.

Just when fans thought the season couldn’t get any worse, it did against the Jets. And once again, a gigantic second-half collapse by the defense paved the way against a team that has struggled on offense most of the season.

The rapidly fading Cleveland defense actually made Jets quarterback Geno Smith look like a veteran, not the mistake-prone rookie he has become this season. Made him look like a Pro Bowler. That’s not easy considering how poorly his season has gone entering this game.

Smith had thrown only 10 touchdown passes and a frightful 21 interceptions in his first 14 games. But let us not forget these are the Cleveland Browns, who work hard and diligently at perfecting the art of blowing leads and eventually losing games.

Smith threw two scoring passes to wide receiver David Nelson – yes, the same David Nelson who went to training champ with the Browns and then was cut before the season began – and scrambled for a third score.

As for padding his number of interceptions, he didn’t even come close as the vaunted (sarcasm dripping out of control) Cleveland pass rush produced another zero-sack afternoon and afforded him all the time he needed to complete his passes. 

The Browns actually had a 10-0 lead in this one. Yes they did, courtesy, in part, of a special teams brain fart by the Jets, whose fake punt on their first possession of the game wound up as an incomplete pass. The Browns began their second drive of the afternoon at the Jets’ 43.

Thirteen plays and just 34 yards later, Billy Cundiff kicked the first of his two field goals. Right then and there, Browns fans should have known it would be a long afternoon for the offense.

On the very next drive, the Browns needed 11 plays to march 74 yards down to Jets’ 2 with the help of roughing-the-passer and unsportsmanlike penalties on the Jets. An Edwin Baker run and two pass plays gained zip and Chudzinski was in no mood for another Cundiff field goal on fourth down.

Norv Turner called for a fade to Josh Gordon in the left corner. The normally reliable Gordon, who had trouble holding on to passes all afternoon, juggled the football as he went out of bounds. 
All that work and no points to show for it. If the Browns don’t lead the NFL in squandering opportunities in the red zone, they must be awfully close to the top.

The game turned out to be a battle of red-zone proficiency and that’s why the Jets prevailed. The Browns made four trips to -- and ran 20 plays in -- the red area and came away with a touchdown (a Davis 5-yard run in the second quarter) and the two field goals. That’s 13 points out of a possible 28.

The Jets entered the red zone three times all afternoon, ran 10 plays there and scored three touchdowns. That’s 21 points out of, hmmmm, why that’s 21 points. When the awful New York Jets offense takes maximum advantage of all of its opportunities in the red area, you are just as bad as they are. Maybe worse.

These were the same Jets whose offense was so bad in the first half, they didn’t run their first play in Cleveland territory until their fourth possession with about four minutes remaining in the second quarter.

At that point, the Browns' defense was in the process of collapsing ingloriously as the Jets subsequently rattled off one 13-play and a pair of 14-play scoring drives totaling 251 yards as the gassed Browns defenders offered absolutely no resistance.

During those three drives, that defense had the Jets in a third-down situation a staggering 10 times. Ten opportunities to get off the field. Ten opportunities to give its offense a chance to awake from its slumber. Ten opportunities . . . aw, forget it.

The Jets converted all 10. That is not a misprint. That is just plain bad defense.

The conversions ranged from third and 1 to third and 10, third and 12 and third and 13. Each time Ray Horton’s defense was asked to deliver, it failed miserably. It was almost as though no matter what the third-down yardage, it was advantage Jets.

How can any team win when the defense, for all practical purposes, shuts down? Don’t answer. That’s a rhetorical question.

Failure to score touchdowns in the red zone, failure to prevent the opposing team from scoring touchdowns in the red zone and failure to get off the field on third down is a prescription for, you guessed it, failure.

All season long, Horton has boasted about his defense and its ability to stop the run, or at least control it. Last Sunday, Chicago’s Matt Forte became the first 100-yard runner against Cleveland this season. Add Jets running back Chris Ivory to that list with his 109 yards. Overall, the Jets gouged the Browns for 208 yards on the ground and 422 total. So much for run defense dominance.

At one point early in the game, the Browns did play dominant football. They owned the ball more than 13 of the first 19 minutes. From that point on, the Jets took over, winning the time of possession battle, 27:03-14:14, the rest of the way.

Anyone who puts a positive spin on what happened Sunday in New Jersey is either dreaming or on drugs. And with Pittsburgh looming large next Sunday, there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news? It’s the Steelers . . . in Pittsburgh. The good news? It’s the final game of the season and the nightmare ends.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A coin-flipping dilemma

There are so many good reasons to pick the Browns to break their five-game losing streak Sunday in New Jersey against the New York Jets.

And there are a few good reasons to pick the Jets. More on that later.

So why pick the Browns? Because the Jets’ offense stinks. There is no other way to put it.

Think the Browns have problems when they own the ball? Compared to the Jets, their offense borders on championship caliber. At least they’ve got a couple of outstanding playmakers in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron.

The Jets have no one on whom they can rely. There isn’t a member of their offense who can stand up and say, “Follow me,” and be reasonably assured that will happen. On offense, the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jet, Jets are B-A-D-D, bad, bad, bad.

They have no quarterback – unless you consider rookie Geno Smith a quality National Football League quarterback – and that spells offensive disaster. Smith is a statistical nightmare.

He has thrown just 10 touchdown passes this season, connected on 21 other passes to the opposition and throws an interception every 18 attempts. He averages an anemic 189 yards a game.

Thrust into the starting position at the beginning of the season by coach Rex Ryan out of default, Smith has experienced growing pains unlike most rookie quarterbacks.

Mark Sanchez was ticketed to be the Jets’ starting quarterback, but fell into disfavor for some unknown reason and was relegated to the bench during the exhibition season. Smith, the club’s second-round selection in last April’s college football draft, was given every opportunity to win the starting job.

When Sanchez went down with what eventually turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury in mop-up duty in an exhibition, Smith was anointed. And it has been a decidedly more difficult season than he envisioned.

Because of his generosity with his passes to the opposition, the club’s turnover ratio is an astounding minus 19. Five of Smith’s picks have been returned for touchdowns. That they are 6-8 entering the Browns’ game with stats like that is rather remarkable.

The Jets have scored 61% of their 246 points in five games, compiling a 4-1 record. They have lost only one game when scoring 27 or more points. When they score 20 or less, they are 2-7. And they have scored only 20 offensive touchdowns.

Their defense is on the field way more than it deserves to be. It is a testament to Ryan’s defensive staff that the Jets, who have lost four of their last five games, have a shot at finishing even on the season.

The only reason they are at 6-8 and the Browns slumming along at 4-10 is the Jets hold serve at home, where they are 5-2. The Browns finished 3-5 at the Factory of Sadness.

This is the kind of game the highly overrated and underperforming Cleveland defense has a solid shot at winning. Even if cornerback Joe Haden is unable to suit up, the Browns’ secondary should have no problem locating Smith’s passes.

And the Cleveland pass rush, which has operated on peaks and in valleys all season, should have no problem working against an offensive line that has surrendered 47 sacks in front of a quarterback who is supposed to be mobile.

Then again, when you consider Smith’s favorite targets are tight end Jeff Cumberland (tight ends have been a season-long problem with the Browns) and wide receivers Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson, how frightening is that? Cumberland and Kerley have caught seven of Smith’s 10 scoring throws.

So why pick the Jets when there is overwhelming evidence that the Browns really have to screw this one up to lose? Let’s start with the stronger side of the ball for the Jets.

Defensively, they are geared to stop the run, limiting opponents to just 86 yards a game. That’s good enough to be ranked near the top of the NFL. Considering how poorly the Browns have run the ball this season, this aspect of the game should be conceded to the Jets, although I’d like to see a lot more of newcomer Edwin Baker than we saw last Sunday.

If the Browns’ guards can get to the second level on running plays and neutralize inside linebackers David Harris and DeMario Davis, who have combined for 212 tackles this season, then maybe Baker and Willis McGahee can do something few teams have done all season against the Jets – move the ball infantry style.

But that’s a big if because that is something those guards have been unable to do this season. In small part, that’s one of the reasons the Browns’ running game is an embarrassment.

The entire Cleveland offensive line will have to be sharp, too. Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and outside linebacker Calvin Pace are constant threats to opposing quarterbacks. They own half of the club’s 38 sacks: Wilkerson with 10; Pace with nine.

You beat the Jets by throwing against a team that has picked off just eight passes. Considering how little Jason Campbell connected with Gordon and Cameron (iffy to play this Sunday due to concussion issues) last Sunday, look for more aerial fireworks their way.

If anything, there are more good reasons than not to pick the Browns in this one. And yet, there is the nagging feeling they do not play well on the road, although they sure looked formidable in New England a couple of weeks ago.

If that performance against the Patriots can be replicated against the Jets, the pick is easy. But if the Jets’ mastery at home trumps the Browns’ inability to win on the road, that’s an awfully persuasive argument to go the other way. This one looks like a coin flipper.

Considering it will be played in the venue that hosts this season’s Super Bowl, look at it this way. This might not be the Super Bowl for the Browns, but winning where it will be played is the next best thing. OK, that’s a stretch; a big stretch. And yes, I’m stalling.

The coin has landed on tails. The losing streak ends.  Make it:

Browns 17, Jets 13

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday leftovers

There’s an excellent reason Jason Campbell is considered nothing more than a journeyman quarterback in the National Football League. And it was on display Sunday in the home finale against the Chicago Bears.

Consistency is the great separator when it comes to judging quarterbacks. The ability to play well on a consistent basis separates the wannabes from those who rise above others and excel. Campbell is a wannabe.

Playing well one or two games in a row means nothing if they are followed by games that make one wonder if this is the same quarterback.  Playing well occasionally doesn’t cut it. Eliminating those kinds of performances is something Campbell has been unable to do.

He plays just well enough to be called an NFL quarterback. One week, he will thrill you with a brilliant display of quarterbacking. The next week, he’ll make you scratch your head with a miserable performance.

And that, more than just about anything, is the clear definition of journeyman quarterback. He’s good enough to belong, but eventually he’ll break your heart and move on to another team that believes he belongs until he breaks that team’s heart.

That’s why the veteran has been with several NFL teams in his nine-year career. Cleveland is his fourth stop after stints in Washington, Oakland and Chicago. He’s good enough to hang on to just in case your starting quarterback goes down. We now know why the Redskins, Raiders and Bears let him go.

In examining Campbell’s career statistics, it’s easy to see why he’s 32-45 as a starter (he’s 1-5 with the Browns). He has thrown 86 touchdown passes and 57 interceptions in 84 total games.  That’s one touchdown a game.

Maybe that’s why Rob Chudzinski, no doubt lobbied hard by Mike Lombardi, chose third stringer Brian Hoyer over Campbell when Brandon Weeden suffered a concussion in the second game of the season in Baltimore.

And when Hoyer went down in game five, Weeden was brought back again only to fail again. That’s when Chudzinski had no choice but to turn to Campbell.

To be honest, Campbell has had a few good games for the Browns. And then he went out and played as though he is just learning how to play the position. He’s just good enough to rack up some nice totals, then exposes himself with games such as the one he unfurled against the Bears, for whom he played last season.

One would think playing against your ex-team might be enough motivation to take your game to a new level. After all, he was coming off maybe his best game of the season against New England the previous Sunday.

Rather than show off his strong arm against his ex-mates, Campbell became Captain Checkdown for the umpteenth time this season. Only 11 of his 39 passes were thrown 10 yards or more with just three completions. One was a 43-yard scoring bomb to Josh Gordon in garbage time.

Receivers were getting open in the Chicago secondary, but Campbell kept missing them if he wasn’t checking down. Many of his passes were off target. Now maybe the capricious winds off Lake Erie Sunday were a factor, but that didn’t stop Bears quarterback Jay Cutler from airing it out.

Cutler is a first-rate quarterback. Campbell is not. Never was.

Solid games, such as the ones he had against New England, Kansas City and the second Baltimore game, often lead to the notion that if he can do it in those games, he should be able to do it all the time. And that is where the great separator comes in.

So if you are asked what defines a journeyman quarterback in the NFL, all you have to do is point to Campbell as a perfect example. Good enough to hold a clipboard, but unreliable when called on to produce on the field on a consistent basis.

~ When Ray Horton was named the Browns’ defensive coordinator, most of us (me included) hailed the appointment. Finally, we believed, the dog days of bad defense were over. Passive football on that side of the ball was dead. Well . . . that hasn’t exactly been the case.

When the Bears roared to three fourth-quarter touchdowns in their come-from-behind victory Sunday, Horton’s reputation took a huge hit. It was almost as though his defense wasn’t on the field. In only 17 plays, the Bears racked up 21 points. The third-down and red-zone defense was embarrassing.

As pointed out here yesterday, the second- and fourth-quarter stats for the Cleveland defense in the last five games have been downright awful. Through 14 games, the defense has given up 130 points in the first and third quarters. In quarters two and four, that number jumps to 232. In other words, 64.1% of the 362 points the Browns have allowed this season were scored in the final 15 minutes of each half.

The defense’s net figure is 334 when factoring in the four touchdowns opposing teams’ defenses and special teams have scored this season. Last season, that defense allowed a net total of 347 points (368 total). In other words, this season’s defense will be statistically worse than last season’s unless, of course, the Browns can shut out the New York Jets and Pittsburgh in the final two games.

~ Paul Kruger surely has to feel at least a little bit guilty about stealing money from his employer. Well, maybe not stealing. Taking it under false pretenses might be a better way of putting it.

The outside linebacker, who burst onto the national stage with his post-season performances (13½ total sacks) with the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens last season, was supposed to be the Browns’ best free-agent signing. He’ll fit in perfectly with Horton's defense, is what they said. That five-year, $41 million contract with $20 million guaranteed will be well worth it.

Through 14 games thus far, the pass rush specialist has 36 tackles (17 solo) and 4½ sacks. In Sunday’s loss to the Bears, the $41 million man checked in with no tackles and one quarterback hit. Played the entire game with no tackles. He is clearly the biggest disappointment on the team.

On second thought, maybe stealing is the correct verb here.

~ Notebook: Hard to believe, but T. J. Ward’s pick of a Cutler pass in the end zone on the first series of the game was the Browns’ first takeaway in the red zone in 10 games. . . . A thought: Greg Little is a running back masquerading as a wide receiver much like Joshua Cribbs when he was with the Browns. . . . Nice to see tight end MarQueis Gray, a college quarterback, run consecutive plays from the wildcat formation on the drive that led to the Browns’ first offensive touchdown in the third quarter. Two plays netted 30 yards and then he disappeared. Nice coaching. . . . Campbell targeted Gordon and Jordan Cameron 16 times and connected on just six passes. . . . Best players on the field on defense were Ward and Tashaun Gipson, the safeties. If Gipson times his leap better, Alshon Jeffery does not make that sensational TD catch on the first of the Bears’ three fourth-quarter scores. . . . Kudos to the offensive line, especially tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, for keeping Campbell clean. . . . Offensive bust of the year: Davone Bess. . . . The Browns announced Sunday’s crowd as 71,513. Looked as though half were disguised as seats. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fourth-quarter blues . . . again

The Browns’ defense is an enigma. Just when you have it figured out, it goes in a completely different direction.

Take, for example, Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears in the home finale.

The Cleveland defense, which produced 14 of those points by the way, came out in rip-roaring fashion at the beginning of both halves and virtually shut down the Bears’ offense.

Only seven Chicago points went up on the scoreboard in the first and third quarters. They came out of the dressing room ready to play even though the only thing they had to play for was pride and, to get sappy, the love of the game.

But when quarters two and four unfolded, that pride vanished. So did a pair of leads as the Bears unfolded 31 points. The inability to sustain a good start to a half is a malady that has plagued this defense during the team’s current five-game losing streak.

In those five games, the Cleveland defense has shut down the opposition with only 35 points in the first and third quarters. In quarters two and four, that figure zooms to 130 (64 in the second quarter, 66 in the final 15 minutes).

And you wonder why this team has lost five in a row and eight of its last nine? This is not an accident. It is not a trend. It has happened too often this season to become anything less than a huge problem that hasn’t yet been fixed.

Sunday’s loss is a perfect example of how this team falls almost completely apart when it matters the most. The fourth quarter was a microcosm of the extremely frustrating afternoon.

The Browns clung to a 24-17 lead at the end of three quarters mainly because of that defense. Safeties Tashaun Gipson (44-yard pick 6 in the second quarter) and T, J. Ward (51-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter) outscored the offense at that point.

In the fourth quarter, it was as though the Cleveland defense turned everything off and stopped playing, and the Bears’ offense could do no wrong. Welcome to the Browns’ fourth-quarter meltdown.

Three possessions, 17 plays, 209 yards and three touchdowns later, the Bears erased that seven-point deficit and turned it into a 14-point advantage. Just like that. It took just seven minutes and 56 seconds off the clock.

Quarterback Jay Cutler, playing his first game in a month after an ankle injury, shook off the rust after a rough beginning and connected with Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery to begin that fourth quarter, and Michael Bush put the bow on the victory with a 40-yard burst over right guard with 2:17 left.

Drives of 95, 36 (following a 21-yard punt return by Devin Hester that set up the Bears’ offense in Cleveland territory) and 78 yards were accomplished in ridiculously easy fashion as the Cleveland defense disappeared.

And it had no one to blame but itself. On the first drive, which began at the Cleveland 5, the first two plays were incomplete Cutler passes. But cornerback Leon McFadden was flagged for pass interference on the first and fellow corner Buster Skrine was nailed for illegal contact on the second. A 35-yard free gift from the Browns.

Four times on those drives, the Bears were in a third-down situation and four times, the Cleveland defense whiffed. For the afternoon, the Bears were 9-for-14 on third down.

While he did not get into the end zone, Chicago running back Matt Forte was a thorn all afternoon and became the first back to run for 100 or more yards (127 on 24 carries) against the normally stingy Cleveland run defense.

He picked up a significant amount of yardage on a misdirection counter pitch play where the flow went right and the two guards pulled backside and led him to sizable gains on four occasions.

So how did the Cleveland offense answer the three Chicago scores? With a three-and-out and a five-and out after the first two. On the three-and-out, the Browns were penalized on the first play of the drive for delay of game at their 14-yard line. A delay penalty on the first play of a drive?  What’s wrong here?

The offense, which had sputtered hopelessly most of the afternoon, looked nothing like the offense that gave the New England Patriots fits last Sunday. Jason Campbell had a terrible afternoon. His numbers (23-of-39 for 273 yards) were respectable, but also misleading.

Two of his passes wound up in the hands of Chicago cornerback Zack Bowman, who took the second one 43 yards to the end zone on the third play of the third quarter, and a couple of others were nearly picked off. He looked shaky and somewhat confused most of the afternoon.

It wasn’t as though the Bears’ defense harassed Campbell. He had time to throw and missed wide-open receivers. On a couple of occasions, his receivers either ran the wrong route or he threw where he shouldn’t have.

The running game, meanwhile, was its usual awful self against the worst run defense in the National Football League.

However, newcomer Edwin Baker ran well in his NFL debut. The 5-8, 200-pounder, who joined the team this week after being picked up off the Houston Texans practice squad, ran for 38 yards on eight carries. He ran hard and scored one of the two Cleveland offensive touchdowns.

The other was scored by Josh Gordon, a virtual no-show until he and Campbell hooked up on a 43-yard touchdown pass with a minute left in regulation and the Bears, who owned a two-touchdown lead at the time, loosening their coverage.

Once again, the running game failed to produce 100 yards (just 93). To give you some idea of how much faith the coaching staff has in this running game, that staff came up with a curious call when the Browns were in a third-and-1 situation at their 31 on the third series of the game in the second quarter.

Third-and-1 and Campbell lines up in the shotgun. That, right there, should tell you this staff has no faith whatsoever in this team’s ability to pick up a first down in a short-yardage situation. An incomplete pass later, Spencer Lanning punted.

Not certain whether that lack of faith lies with the offensive line or running backs. Probably both. Maybe someone should inform the Browns this is the NFL where the big boys play and third-and-1 calls for a big-boy play.

As the losses pile up and another 10-plus-loss season is a reality with this setback, one thing stands out: This team plays just well enough to lose.

As it sinks deeper and deeper into the sinkhole known as the basement of the AFC North, the last two games can’t come and go quickly enough.