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. 

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