Monday, February 24, 2014

If Manziel is there for the Browns, grab him

So why should the Browns hope they are in position to select Johnny Manziel with the fourth pick in the first round of the National Football League’s college football draft?

Three words: He. Makes. Plays.

It’s really that simple. In two seasons at Texas A&M, he made plays on a regular basis. Nothing fluky. Just run-of-the-mill clutch plays when his team needed them. He made them every which way, not including standing on his head.

He has what some call the “it” factor. 

Call what he has accomplished dumb luck. Call it anything you want. You do it long enough and it ceases to be dumb luck. His accomplishments speak volumes for themselves. Manziel is one impressive football player. 

When facing the media for the first time at the National Football League Scouting Combine in Indianapolis recently, he handled himself like a 10-year veteran. Poise oozed from his pores.

Quarterbacks like Manziel do not come along often. But when they do, teams like the Browns need to make certain he winds up in their colors. Cleveland desperately needs a quarterback. And there’s a good chance he’ll be there for the taking.

Right now, there is no question Manziel would much rather be selected by his home state Houston Texans, who own the first pick of the draft. He has made that quite clear. There are those who think the Texans are a good quarterback away from being a playoff contender. If they do take one, Manziel might not be the one they have in mind.

Manziel, who hails from Earl Campbell’s hometown of Tyler, said earlier this week he’d have no problem playing for Cleveland if the Browns drafted him. He handled that possibility like a politician.

He arrives in professional football with a few negatives and truckloads of positives. Yes, he doesn’t have a bazooka arm. Yes, he has trouble staying in the pocket. And yes, he is shorter than former – and failed – Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy. But . . .

He. Makes. Plays.

If there is anyone who can help him make a smooth transition to the NFL, it’s new Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who shepherded Robert Griffin III through his rookie season in Washington in spectacular fashion. Griffin and Manziel operated similar offenses in college.

There are those in Browns Nation fearful that Manziel is nothing more than a smaller McCoy, whose stay in Cleveland was short and woefully unproductive. But Manziel has something McCoy never came close to winning: A Heisman Trophy.

His collegiate numbers in key areas dwarf those of McCoy. They are close in completion percentage (McCoy leading, 70.3% to 69%), but Manziel tops him in just about every other category.

For example, Manziel accounted for 93 touchdowns (63 passing and 30 running) in just two seasons. McCoy needed four seasons to account for 132 (112 passing and 20 running). And Manziel’s 2,169 rushing yards easily top McCoy’s 1,571.

There is something wonderfully magical about Manziel. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but you just know something special is going to happen when he’s on the field. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often enough to the point where you can’t take your eyes off of him.

He is a great play waiting to happen. The only mystery is when.

Too many experts are making a big deal about Manziel’s height, a smidge and a quarter under six feet tall. Small quarterbacks do not translate well to the NFL, they believe. They have to get on their tiptoes to see over their offensive line.

Tell that to Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Fran Tarkenton, shorties who helped guide their teams to the Super Bowl. What they lacked in height they more than made up for with their almost fanatical desire to win.

Brees, Wilson and Tarkenton are (were) overachievers, that small group of athletes who play well beyond what others perceive as talent limitations.

Are they exceptions to the rule? Of course. But who’s to say Manziel can’t be the next exception? Who’s to say he can’t come right in and work his magic on the elite NFL level?

He has that capability. His ability to will his team to play above its talent level is why the Aggies played well enough to appear in a couple of BCS bowl games in his two seasons there.

His critics don’t take into consideration his wonderful feel for the game. That can’t be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. He is not the fastest quarterback, but overcomes that with his amazing quickness. He is a play extender.

Manziel is mindful of another small quarterback who had that innate ability to overcome his physical shortcomings and take the Browns to within a shouting distance of the Super Bowl in the early 1980s.

Brian Sipe was not a big guy. He was listed at 6-1, 195 pounds but stood much closer to 6-0 and maybe 185. He was the classic overachiever who played much better through sheer desire and determination. He was the quintessential leader.

The Browns need a leader like Manziel. They need someone who can lead by example. That’s what he did in College Station for two seasons. There is no reason to believe he won’t be able to do the same thing with the Browns.

All he needs is a chance. The question is whether the Browns, should they get that opportunity, can pull the trigger on a short quarterback whose confidence level couldn’t be any higher.

If there is one franchise that badly needs an infusion of confidence and attitude, especially on offense, it’s the Browns. If Manziel is there when Roger Goodell puts them on the clock with the fourth pick, they have to take him.

But if he’s not, I do not advocate trading up to get him. As much as I like him, and with other viable quarterbacks in the mix, trading draft picks is an ill-advised venture. They are nuggets that must be mined, especially this year with 10 picks in a draft labeled by many as the deepest in a decade.

So cross your fingers Browns fans aching to see Manziel in Seal Brown and Orange and hope Houston and maybe Jacksonville don't believe he is the next coming of Brees, Wilson or Tarkenton and take a pass.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Thanks, Jim, for staying home

When Joe Banner teased the Cleveland media late in the Browns’ head coaching search with the news of a “mystery candidate,” little did we know how much of a blockbuster effect it would have had on the future of pro football in Cleveland.

If we are to believe the story coming out of the San Francisco area, the Browns and San Francisco 49ers were talking about a deal that would have sent coach Jim Harbaugh to Cleveland for a whole bunch of draft choices.

The Browns were dealing from a position of strength with 10 picks in the May college football draft. They had the ammunition to pull off this kind of deal and bring in a big-name head coach.

Reportedly, Harbaugh and his general manager in San Francisco have not been getting along. And that might have triggered at least some interest on the Browns’ part.

When the story broke Friday about the deal that did not materialize, the Browns did not deny it, stating instead they were very happy with their choice of Mike Pettine as Rob Chudzinski’s successor. The 49ers, however, denied the report.

The report said Harbaugh finally decided to remain in the Bay Area. And why not? All he has done is resurrect the 49ers football program to where it is now among the elite in the National Football League.

For staying put, Harbaugh deserves a huge thank you for coming to his senses. Thank you for sparing the Browns the embarrassment of making one of the dumbest NFL trades since 1999. Maybe of all time.

That was when the New Orleans Saints traded their entire draft (six picks), plus their first- and third-round choices in the 2000 draft to the Washington Redskins for the chance to grab University of Texas running back Ricky Williams with the No. 5 selection.

That’s how badly Saints coach Mike Ditka wanted Williams. It was a disaster. Ditka departed New Orleans after three seasons with a 15-33 record.

Fans should be overjoyed the San Francisco deal never came to fruition. They should be thrilled Harbaugh had second thoughts about such a move and chose to stay. You win games with players, not coaches.

The lifeblood of any franchise is the draft. Each pick is like a nugget that needs to be mined. The more nuggets you have, the greater chance of being successful.

Of the Browns’ 10 picks in the May lottery, called by many experts the strongest and deepest in at least the last 10 years, seven are in the first four rounds. That they were even thinking about trading any of them for a coach is idiotic.

With talent like that looming, what sense does it makes to swap nearly half of them, including probably the first four, for someone who coaches one of the best teams, from a talent standpoint, in the NFL?

Speaking hypothetically, Harbaugh comes to Cleveland with who knows what at quarterback, no running game, a wide receiving corps that is bankrupt except for the most productive wideout in the league, an offensive line that is marginal at best and a defense that is adequate at best. Then what?

Does he come right in a turn this team around? No way. There are way too many problems to overcome before that happens.

In San Francisco, Harbaugh inherited a talented team that was poorly coached by Mike Singletary. As a successful college coach with an NFL pedigree, he easily turned the 49ers into a contender, taking them to three straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.

One more thing. If Harbaugh was, indeed, the “mystery” candidate in the prolonged Browns’ search for a new head coach, there is no way he agrees to come to Cleveland without being totally in charge.

There is no way Banner or Mike Lombardi waltz into the background and say, “Sure, Jim, whatever you want. We’ll just sit back and take all the credit for bringing you to Cleveland.”

In the end, it turned out to be a non-story. But what a sensational non-story it was.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cousins' price too heavy

So the Washington Redskins want a second-round draft choice if some other National Football League team wants Kirk Cousins on its roster.

First of all, parting with a second-round choice for Cousins is the epitome of overpaying for someone. He’s nowhere close to being worth a second-round pick.

He’s not even worth a third rounder. In fact, offering a fourth-rounder for Cousins, who was drafted in that round by the Redskins in 2012, would be too much. He’s not that good. Start thinking fifth round or lower if you want to drop Cousins’ name into any conversation.

He looked like a solid professional against the Browns in his one start late in the 2012 season after a knee injury sidelined Robert Griffin III. Threw for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Skins torched the Browns, 38-21. It is the lone pro victory in his career.

Other than that, Cousins has been the epitome of mediocrity. In eight National Football League games, he has thrown for 1,320 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Subtract the figures from the Browns game and Cousins has thrown for just 991 yards, six touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 53% completion rate in seven games.

And for that the Redskins, who don’t own a first-round pick this year, expect some team to cough up a second rounder in the May draft. Have they lost their minds? Are they delusional?

Maybe this is a not-so-subtle signal to the Browns that if they want Cousins to rejoin new Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, his former offensive coordinator in Washington, it’ll come with a heavy price.

Now if that doesn’t send new Browns General Manager Ray Farmer into almost uncontrollable fits of laughter, then nothing will. Talk about overvaluing a player. Surrendering a second-rounder for someone who will be nothing more than a backup with the Browns makes absolutely no sense.

It’s almost an insult to the intelligence of Farmer to even think he would consider such a move.

As a courtesy, Farmer should at least take his call in the event Washington General Manager Brue Allen makes an effort to secure that high-round selection. And then he should succinctly and firmly reply, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

What’s next?

The best move the Redskins can make this season would be to hold on to Cousins for at least one more season should the seemingly fragile Griffin go down again. That is more likely than unlikely. In his first two seasons, The Third has yet to play a full season.

But it’s entirely possible some NFL team will bite and cough up a second rounder for Cousins. At the risk of sounding repetitious, it better not be the Browns.

If Farmer is as smart as I think he is, the Washington quarterback more likely to wind up in Cleveland is Rex Grossman, the 33-year-old journeyman who has played for Shanahan in two different cities the last five seasons.

Grossman hasn’t played in a regular-season game since the 2011 season, but would fit in nicely as the third quarterback and a mentor to Brian Hoyer and whomever the Browns take in the college draft.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Browns need much more than a quarterback

With all this talk and speculation about which quarterback the Browns are going to select with their first choice in the college draft in May, let’s not lose sight of one indisputable fact.

This club needs help just about everywhere on the football field, most notably on offense.

This is a team that lacks athleticism on the offensive line, has no quality running back or fullback on the roster and is woefully thin at wide receiver. In other words, Kyle Shanahan has his work cut out for him.

Yes, the new offensive coordinator needs a quarterback to help run that offense. And he might just have one on the roster in Brian Hoyer. This is, in no way, anointing the kid from Cleveland in the starting dole.

But it’s natural to wonder what kind of a season the Browns would have had if Hoyer had known how to properly slide while scrambling in the open field in game five last season. Who knows? He stays healthy and the Browns most likely do not lose 12 games.

And Rob Chudzinski is still the head coach.

And Joe Banner is still the club’s chief executive officer.

And Mike Lombardi is still the general manager.

On second thought . . .

Back to reality.

Even though he says he knows which quarterback he would take in the draft, new General Manager Ray Farmer isn’t committing to taking that quarterback in the first round. And he shouldn’t.

He’s been around this team long enough to know there are enough problems on offense that playing a wet-behind-the-ears kid fresh out of college at the most important position on the team is not going to solve those problems.

Farmer knows games are won and lost in the trenches. Right now, he does not have enough talent on the roster, at least on the offensive side of the ball, to win games in that manner.

Fortunately, this year’s draft is loaded with prime players on that side of the ball. There are no potential superstars in this lottery. However, it is unusually deep in quality talent from top to bottom.

The severe dropoff in talent after the first round or so in the past is not there this year. There are players who will be taken in rounds two and three who would have been good enough to be selected higher in previous years.

That bodes well for the Browns, who have 10 picks overall and own three of the first 35 selections and seven of the first 123. There is a wealth of talent in those first seven picks that Farmer, even by accident, is bound to come away with some high caliber players.

Unless he chooses to trade any of those choices, which would be a mistake because he needs to fill his roster with as much young talent as possible, the 2014 Browns should be the antithesis of what we’ve seen the last few years.

Two areas that definitely need to be addressed are speed and quickness on both sides of the ball, especially on offense. The Browns are a plodding team when they own the ball and are vulnerable to teams that are fast and quick.

The defense, to a much lesser extent, needs to be taken care of, especially in the secondary and inside linebacker. If they slap the franchise tag on strong safety T. J. Ward, that temporarily solves one of the problems.

But they need a free safety – Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd? – to complement Ward and a big cornerback to play opposite Joe Haden.

A definite need is inside linebacker. D’Qwell Jackson isn’t getting any younger and he struggles in a 3-4 scheme. Craig Robertson also struggled last season, particularly on pass defense.

So while drafting a quarterback is a must – and let’s not get too excited because I don’t see any future franchise quarterbacks among the current crop – and probably will be taken high, filling in the other gaps should be more of a priority to Farmer.

Every now and then, a college draft comes along for a team that can be labeled defining. On paper, this appears to be that kind of a draft for the Browns. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Time to step back, Jimmy

Now that he has blown out his second front office regime in 16 months, it’s time for Jimmy Haslam III to stop and pull back.

The Browns owner, acting somewhat as mercurially as the victims of his latest whacking, needs to disappear for a while and let the guys he now trusts to do their jobs.

He needs to let Ray Farmer cobble together the kind of football team Browns fans have been aching for since 1999. He needs to let Mike Pettine do what he was born to do.

And he needs to either butt out or sit back and watch silently as these guys do their thing. He has done all that needs to be done. Now, it’s everyone else’s turn.

It’s one thing to stick his nose in everybody’s business. He is the owner and paid more than a billion dollars for the right to do so. But there comes a time when his constant interference becomes an annoyance.

In an effort to get it right, Haslam seems to have done mostly wrong. He is listening to the wrong people. Once he corrects that, he should be OK.

As he frankly admitted in the news conference Tuesday announcing the latest round of radical changes, he is still learning. “I underestimated this,” he said. “It’s a learning curve to be an NFL owner. If you want to look at me as a work in progress, that’s fair to say or to do.

“I will tell you this: These are the last major changes we’re going to make in the organization.  But we’ll continue to . . . tinker with the organization to continue to finds ways to improve it and make it better.”

Haslam continued the self-flagellation. “I will accept comments and criticism about change,” he said. “I will accept responsibility for some of the changes that have been made. There is no primer for being an NFL owner. It is a learn-on-the-go.”

In a world where those with thin skin have trouble surviving, Haslam has shown some toughness. At the same time, he has either chosen to suspend reality when it comes to outsiders’ perception of his team or decided to ignore it.

He distastes the dysfunction label that has been pinned on the manner in which he has run the Browns. “I would disagree with that,” he said almost defiantly at the news conference.

“I think it’s a perception that you all have set out there. . . . As I talk to people around the league or at the Super Bowl last year, people view this as a great franchise. It’s a great football area.”

There is no question Cleveland is a great football area with a fan base equal to, or better than, any around the National Football League. That’s what makes all this losing for the last 15 seasons so frustrating and hard to take.

Maybe it’s the naïveté of the man, but he has to understand his fellow owners are not going to be perfectly honest with him. They will not point out the many blemishes his club owns. That’s all on him to fix.

It’s now up to Haslam to become a sponge. Watch and learn. Make the Browns, not his truck stop empire, his No. 1 priority. Devote most of his energies to his team.

Maybe it will take a year or two, but when he looks back at what has actually happened during his neophyte year and a half as an NFL owner, he might do so with a more jaundiced eye, see how bad and embarrassing it really was and understand why others came to their inevitable conclusions.

It’s also probably safe to say this is not how Haslam expected his first 18 months as an owner to unfold. The gleam is no longer in his eyes. The luster of being a member of the NFL’s elite Gang of 32 has worn off.

Now it’s time to get down to the business of being a successful NFL owner. Sacking Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi is a good start. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A light shines in Berea

Jimmy Haslam III performed some major surgery on his professional football investment Tuesday morning.

The Browns owner successfully removed the dys from his dysfunctional football team with three stunningly bold strokes.

Gone are CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike (The Ghost) Lombardi. And assistant general manager Ray Farmer had the assistant portion of his title removed.

Strains of “Happy Days Are Here Again” could be heard from just about all vicinities of Browns Nation as an owner determined to get this thing right dispatched the Dark Side of the Browns.

During his 20-minute news conference with a slightly more combative media than usual, Haslam managed to tap dance his way some touchy questions and still maintain the professional dignity of Banner and Lombardi.

He acknowledged that he and Banner agreed in recent days to streamline things at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. The corporate structure was somewhat top heavy and needed to lose some weight.

“The previous setup was a little bit cumbersome,” he explained. A little bit? No other National Football League team had a setup where the CEO, or whoever was at the top of the food chain, was the team’s face while the general manager skulked in the background.

So were Banner and Lombardi fired? Or did they quietly quit and were allowed to walk out with a semblance of dignity? We may never know. Those kinds of secrets rarely are leaked.

But a good guess would be that Haslam had become much more hands-on recently, thus making Banner’s presence as CEO superfluous. 

More and more, it looked as though Haslam was in charge. He is why Rob Chudzinski is no longer the head coach. And he is why Mike Pettine is.

Banner likes offensive-minded coaches. Pettine is a defensive-minded coach. Always has been. His appointment took many by surprise.

The guess here is that Haslam made the call on Pettine 20 days ago and Banner did not like being usurped, although he was a major part of the selection process. It appeared to be a power play that Haslam won.

Then again, maybe Haslam wasn’t pleased that Banner dragged his feet after the Chudzinski firing. The longer the search for his successor lasted, the more the embarrassment and dysfunctional perception lingered.

And while Haslam blew off that perception as a figment of the media’s imagination (“People I talk to around the country think this is a great opportunity in Cleveland”), he’s smart enough to know about whispers around the league that suggested that was precisely the case. Something had to be done to dispel that notion.

What better way than to jettison the two most mercurial members of the front office and elevate the one man who seemed to have a handle on what it was Haslam was trying to achieve.

The only question is why it took Haslam so long to see what others saw. And what exactly was the causal factor for finally making the moves he made? Again, we’ll probably never know.

Perhaps Haslam could more easily cut the cord because the NFL arranged his business marriage with Banner. It was a case of joining someone looking to own a team with someone who brought a wealth of NFL experience to the relationship. “He set us up for success,” Haslam said of Banner.

The owner said the moves were made “to position the organization to be a winning football team.” Then he repeated his consistent mantra. “This owner is committed to bringing a winner to the Browns.”

One gets the impression that he’s going to keep making changes until he finally gets it right. He is unafraid to make those moves. For that, he should be commended, especially considering the relative non-involvement of the previous ownership.

So why Banner and Lombardi together? Why not just one? Because they are a matched set, that’s why.

When Banner came on board in mid-October in 2012, Lombardi was still a free agent. Rumors persisted the controversial former Browns operative in the Bill Belichick era would return. They were neither confirmed nor denied.

They eventually proved true with Lombardi’s appointment as vice president of pro personnel in January of 2013. A few months later, the charade’s mask was removed when he was named the general manager and he immediately was shunted into the media background by the club.

So when it was time for Banner to leave, Lombardi was a natural to follow because he no longer had protection. Haslam was now in charge.

Admitting he still is working on his learning curve of being an NFL owner, Haslam announced, “You’ll see us more here in Berea.”

So how did Farmer, a linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1990s, become the anointed one? “He’s smart, he organized, he’s a tireless worker and he’s been around football his whole life,” said Haslam, who eventually left the podium and turned over the news conference to his new GM.

“We are going to make Cleveland proud going forward,” said Farmer, who arrived in Cleveland last March after spending seven years with the Kansas City Chiefs as director of pro personnel.

The new GM, who used the phrase “moving forward” at least a dozen times during his session with the media, said he received the good news of his promotion Monday night and was most happy for his parents, who have watched him progress nicely through the NFL system.

With the college football draft less than three months from now, Farmer said he would lean on the wisdom of others he declined to name in an effort to be totally prepared for his first shot at the annual lottery.

Update: The Browns have hired former Chiefs personnel director Bill Kuharich to assist and prepare Farmer for the draft. The two worked together in Kansas City for several years. Kuharich is the son of former NFL coach and executive Joe Kuharich.

With 10 picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and significant salary cap space, Farmer has been placed in a most envious position. Other GMs around the league would love to be in his shoes come May 8-10.

With the draft in mind, Farmer was asked where the Browns needed to improve. He came up with the definitive answer.

“We need the most improvement in wins,” he said.

As they say on Family Feud, good answer.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The return of the Browns' running game

Kyle Shanahan said all the right things a few days ago when introduced as the Browns' newest offensive coordinator.

“You see a lot of talent on a team here and an organization committed to winning,” he said. “. . . I feel this is as good of a situation as any. I think it’s a good situation. . . . This is my first time working for a defensive coach . . . There’s a lot of talent on this roster and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Of course it’s a good situation for the young man. After all, the Browns were the first team to offer him a contract since he was fired in Washington. That right there makes it a good situation.

And you know he’s not going to come in and bash the talent on board. As for the club’s commitment to win, isn’t every team in the National Football League committed to win? In Cleveland’s case, what’s taking so long?

All the right things.

As for coaching for the first time with a defensive-minded head coach, that shouldn’t be a problem. Chances are rather strong Shanahan will coach unfettered. The offense will be his baby with no outside interference.

There will be one major difference between last season’s offense and Shanahan’s version of how to matriculate down the field. The 2014 Browns will run the ball much more often than the embarrassing product they put out last season.

Shanahan’s Redskins had a running game. That’s because he recognized the talents of Alfred Morris as a rookie two seasons ago and relied heavily on him to help balance the attack. When you have someone like Morris as a weapon, you use him.

Morris is one of those late-round draft gems teams love to unearth. A relatively unknown out of Florida Atlantic, the sixth-round selection ran for 1,613 yards (101 a game) and 13 touchdowns in his rookie season and put up 1,275 more yards and nine TDs last season.

As a result, the Redskins had a nice 57.5-42.5 pass-to-run ratio last season. The Browns’ pass/run ratio was 63.2-36.8. That’s because offensive coordinator Norv Turner was forced to call a pass-heavy game due to no running attack.

The Redskins rushed for 2,164 yards this past season. The Browns’ infantry churned out just 1,383. That’s a difference of 781 yards, or 49 yards a game.

Overall, the Redskins were ninth on offense in the NFL; fifth when running the ball, 16th throwing it. The Browns wound up 18th on offense overall; 11th passing and 27th (tied with Pittsburgh) running.

So now that Shanahan is on board and he loves to run the ball, who is going to be the Browns’ Alfred Morris? Right now, that player is not on the roster.

Forget about Dion Lewis when he comes back from an injury-plagued 2013 season. He’s more of a third-down back. And while Edwin Baker looked good in the final stages of the season, he is not the answer. Too short for the pounding he’ll take. He’s a nice backup.

It will be interesting to see how the front office helps Shanahan in this area. Whether it’s through free agency (Ben Tate?) or getting lucky in the college draft, the Cleveland running game will take on a new look this season. If that new guy is a rookie, Shanahan will not hesitate to play him.

 “Any time you bring in a rookie and play them right away,” he told the Cleveland media, “you have to find out what they do well . . . You don’t want to make it too complicated for them .. . The most important thing is to ask them to do what they’re great at and then work to improve other aspects of the game.”

That’s the kind of progressive thinking this coaching staff needs.

With a renewed effort to reestablish the run, a part of the game that traditionally used to be a staple of a Cleveland offense, the passing aspect of the Browns’ offense this season should benefit greatly. No longer will the opposition be able to disdain the run and concentrate on shutting down the aerial game.

In theory, the Kyle Shanahan offense should be much more versatile than the ones Browns fans have been subjected to the last several seasons. If successful, it portends good times ahead.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Redefining Browns history

Every now and then, someone in the Browns’ organization comes along and utters a phrase that sticks to him like super glue.

Enter Ray Farmer and his bid for the “I Wish I Hadn’t Said That” Hall of Fame.

The Browns’ assistant general manager Tuesday joined the ranks of “Best Pure Pass Rusher” and “Mad Dog in a Meat Market” with the following prediction to

“I think Cleveland is primed and I think we’re in a position to redefine the history books,” he said, explaining why he removed his name from consideration for the general manager’s vacancy with the Miami Dolphins. “I think change is on the horizon and I didn’t want to miss what’s going to happen in Cleveland.”

Considering the plight of the professional football team that employs him since its rebirth in 1999, that, indeed, is quite a mouthful. Brave? You bet. Dumb? Unless he knows something we don’t, absolutely.

When your team limps along at snail’s pace for the better part of the last 15 years, it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut. As the saying goes, ‘tis better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt.

Either Farmer hasn’t fully studied the history of the newest iteration of the Cleveland Browns or someone has sold him a quality bill of goods. By making such bold statements, he exposes himself as someone who does not really have a grasp on the recent history of this franchise.

Let’s break down some of what he said.

Not exactly certain what Cleveland is primed for unless it’s more heartbreak and frustration because that’s what Browns fans have been primed for for way too long. 

In what way are the Browns in a position to redefine the history books? What kind of hyperbole is that?

At one time, the Browns were one of the National Football League’s most stable franchises. For the better part of the club’s first 50 years, they were the antithesis of what we’ve been subjected to the last 15 seasons.

And what kind of change is on the horizon?  We already know the coaching staff will be radically different from top to bottom. Is that the change of which Farmer speaks? If so, then yes, change is not only on the horizon, it’s already here.

“I knew what I had here,” he told “I know what I think is going to happen here and I know what we have in place. So to that degree, the known is better than the unknown.”

Let’s break down that one, too.

What the Browns have is a 4-12 team that lost its final seven games last season. They are a franchise that has registered just one double-digit winning season in 15 years. Winning as many as six or seven games a year is considered progress. Some might even call it a miracle.

Right now, they have a one-dimensional offense with one superstar, one budding star and that’s it. They have a team with a marginal offensive line. And the worst quarterbacks corps in the AFC North.

What Farmer either does not see – or refuses to see – is one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NFL. It is a franchise that, no matter who occupies the Ivory Tower, continues to struggle and make mistake after mistake after mistake.

Obviously, he does not see it that way. Whether he chooses to do so myopically is another matter entirely.

 “People in Cleveland have their issues with the Browns and some people say rightfully so,” Farmer told “Some people would say it’s a new regime, time to give them a clean slate. I didn’t come to Cleveland to relive the negative history. I came to write a new chapter. I think that’s why a lot of us came here.”

Sold him a bill of goods.

And wouldn’t you know, Joe Banner knows exactly why Farmer decided to remove his name from consideration in Miami.

“He turned down the job primarily because he’s extremely happy here and he’s extremely optimistic and he enjoys the people he’s working with,” the club’s CEO told “He’d have to find exactly the right situation because he’d be leaving something he’s very, very happy with.”

Yep, it’s one big happy family at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

Tell that to Robert Chudzinski.

And Banner is sanguine about Cleveland being a future landing spot for future players and coaches. “”Some of the most desirable people in all of sports have come to Cleveland since Jimmy (owner Jimmy Haslam III) and I took over,” he told, “including Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner, Ray Horton, Mike Pettine, (club President) Alec Scheiner and (Executive Vice President, General Counsel) Sashi Brown.”

Let’s see. Chudzinski . . . gone. Turner . . . gone. Horton . . . gone. That didn’t take long. But wait, there’s more from Banner.

“Players like Des Bryant and Paul Kruger chose us over other cities, not to mention all of the people who desperately wanted this head-coaching job.”

OK, that’s enough.

Desirable people want to come to Cleveland? Define desirable. And candidates desperately wanted the head-coaching job? Really?

What bullroar. That doesn’t even come close to passing the sniff test.

As for Bryant and Kruger, they are wearing Seal Brown and Orange because the Browns paid them more money than anyone else. Which, considering what they contributed, was a smart move on the part of those teams that didn’t sign them.

One more item with Banner in the starring role.

With regard to the club keeping The Ghost under wraps and away from the media, the CEO said there was a good reason. “I’ve never see a sports team have more than one voice other than the head coach that speaks for the organization,” he said. “That’s what we did in Cleveland, but somehow that has become controversial.

“Teams don’t put out multiple layers of people and usually the media doesn’t want to speak to anybody other than the kind of decision makers and as high up as the organization as they can get.”

In most other NFL cities, the head coach is the primary face of the franchise. That is true. But that does not mean to the total exclusion of those decision makers in the front office who do make themselves available to the media. In those cities, the GM is not off limits.

It seems as though Banner has successfully created his own autocracy, along with Haslam. And that is one of the reasons Farmer’s words very well could come back to bite him in the hind flanks.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Let the copycatting begin

The National Football League has the reputation among its coaches of being a copycat league. Especially around this time of the season.

Watch how the Super Bowl champion plays the game and how it wins the game and chances are at least a few coaches will take note and begin mapping plans to replicate it if at all possible.

Take, for example, Sunday’s dismantling of the great Denver Broncos offense by the even greater defense of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48. Now that was a brilliant lesson in how the game should be played from a defensive standpoint.

The 43-8 victory was as close to being a perfect game for the Seattle defense as you will ever see. It wasn't a fair fight. One can make an argument that it was even better than the 1985 Chicago Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens, both of whom had amazing defenses.

Seattle totally dominated Denver’s record-setting offense from the outset, making Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning look more like a journeyman quarterback than a future Hall of Famer.

It was as though Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn somehow managed to tap in on Manning’s brain waves all evening and come up with the perfect defense for just about every play.

The veteran quarterback had absolutely no chance to succeed against one of the best defenses I’ve seen in a long time. The Seahawks knew exactly what the Broncos were going to do and didn’t appear to miss an assignment.

This was a total team defensive effort by a team that plays not only with passion, but with brains. They rarely were caught out of position. That side of the ball set the tone for the evening.

Seattle defenders’ flew to the ball as if drawn by a magnet. As soon as a Broncos receiver caught a ball, he was hit almost immediately. Their sudden quickness and tremendous ability to actually tackle whoever has the football is a treat to watch in this day and age when that aspect of the game is practically deemphasized.

The ability of all 11 players on the Seattle defense to close on the ball carrier so quickly and arrive with an attitude that can truly be labeled truculent is such a joy to watch. Few teams can play that way for an entire game.

Why not? Because most teams don’t have the kind of athletic football players the Seahawks have. Notice I put athletic and football side by side. It’s hard to find good athletes who are also good football players. They are either one or the other.

The Seahawks’ defense is loaded with athletic football players, especially in the back seven. The upfront four-man defensive line does it the hard way. By themselves. Rarely did Seattle blitz Manning and yet he received solid pressure most of the evening.

The Browns wish they had linebackers like Malcolm Smith, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin and K. J. Wright. Or large members of the secondary like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Byron Maxwell.

They are all quick, have a nose for the ball, tackle well and tackle with a viciousness that makes the opposition wary of making plays in the middle of the field. It is a defense for the most part constructed through the college draft. Many of them were selected on the second or third day of the lottery.

It’s the kind of defense new coach Mike Pettine no doubt aspires to have with the Browns. Only one problem. He does not have the pieces and parts with which to cobble together anything close to what we saw in the Super Bowl.

That’s because the Browns’ roster on defense is clogged with players who are either too slow or possess mediocre football instincts. In many cases both.

Browns fans would love to be able to watch a defense like Seattle’s. But until the club’s philosophy changes on the type of player it seeks, we’re going to be subjected to the same results.

Now here’s where the copycat thing comes into focus. If – and this is a monstrous if – Joe Banner, Mike (The Ghost) Lombardi and Ray Farmer begin looking for players like Seahawks General Manager John Schneider has brought to Seattle, then maybe we’ll see some improvement.

Perhaps Pettine can put in a good word or two to at least get their attention in the event Banner and his minions paid more attention to the commercials than the game Sunday.

There’s an old axiom in football that was proven thoroughly by the Seahawks in their victory. With few exceptions, a great defense will always beat a great offense.

Offense, as they say, wins games. Defense wins championships.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Can't get excited about new boss of offense

While it isn’t official – and reportedly won’t be until sometime early next week – it appears as though the Browns have completed what seemed like a global search for their new offensive coordinator.

When he returns from a family vacation, according to those reports, Kyle Shanahan will be the new boss of the Cleveland offense. Yep, he is the best the Browns could come up with, making it difficult to work up any excitement.

That’s because they flatulated around for so long looking for a new head coach, they put new coordinators on the back burner and some of the good ones signed elsewhere. The Browns, it seems, specialize in slow-motion coaching appointments.

It took them nearly four weeks to decide Mike Pettine was good enough to replace Rob Chudzinski at the top of the coaching staff. But it took about a week to bring over Jim O’Neil from Buffalo to be his defensive coordinator.

That one was comparatively easy, though, since O’Neil and Pettine have worked together for the last several seasons and know each other well. Oh, and by the way, the Bills hired Jim Schwartz as their new coordinator and he wanted his own guys, anyway.

Hiring a few more assistants from that Buffalo staff makes Pettine’s transition to the Browns that much smoother, at least from a defensive standpoint. Coordinating an offense, however, was an entirely different animal.

If there was one critical appointment to the new staff, it was offensive coordinator. That’s because Pettine ostensibly will have nothing to do with that side of the ball. He’s a defensive guy and will channel all his coaching efforts in that direction.

And now that Shanahan is locked in as the offensive boss, that means he will have what amounts to total control. From strategy and philosophy to implementation, he will be the man. No input from the head coach. It would appear as though he will be autonomous. Or is it autocratic? Or both?

Pettine, who has absolutely no coaching background or experience on offense, makes all the calls for the defense; Shanahan will do the same for the offense. That, folks, is a dream job for a coordinator. It also is a possible recipe for disaster.

As the man responsible for the entire football package, it is incumbent on Pettine to become involved in the offense and not just in an oblique way. Head coaching decisions, far different than those decisions made by coordinators, must be made with the focus on the whole picture.

It’s a guess at this point, but it wouldn’t be surprising to eventually learn later on that the decision to hire Shanahan was only approved by Pettine, not made by him. Pettine obviously knows Shanahan by reputation. But that’s about it.

No, this one very much looks as though it has the fingerprints of Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner all over it. Banner is an offensive-minded guy and Haslam appears to be. The fact the Browns wound up with a defensive-minded head coach raised more than just a few eyebrows.

One of the big questions now is whether the Browns will go after a quarterback with their initial first-round pick in the college football draft in May. And if that is the case, how much input will Shanahan have in that selection?

Probably none since Banner, Mike (The Ghost) Lombardi and Ray Farmer will conduct the draft. Shanahan most likely will be nothing more than a spectator. By now, Banner & Co. should know it’s up to them to give him the help he needs to be effective.

It has to be assumed that before hiring him, the Browns were comfortable with the kind of offensive system Shanahan plans to implement. That could be a clue as to just what direction they’ll go in the draft.

It is no secret the Browns must improve all aspects of their offense. From the offensive line to the running game to the passing game, no one area is considered strong and it will be up to Shanahan to become Coach Fixit in a hurry. It won’t be easy.

There are many huge negatives that must be overcome, such as finding a quality starting quarterback and at least two more quality wide receivers, and developing an athletic offensive line that helps produce a running game that isn’t considered a joke.

Shanahan, a veteran coordinator at 34, knows the highs and lows of his profession. He has coordinated top 10 offenses on several occasions. And then there was the disaster that was last season in Washington, which should prepare him well for his new job.

He was Robert Griffin III’s coordinator with the Redskins the last two rather tumultuous seasons. One of the reasons he and his father, Mike, became coaching free agents this offseason was their failure to turn around the Redskins’ fortunes, including a 3-13 record last season. Griffin’s inability to stay healthy was a factor.

Shanahan has the reputation of being a west coast offense disciple, although he ran more of a hybrid west coast/spread option (pistol formation) scheme in Washington when Griffin arrived. His father supposedly called it an east coast offense.

So if Banner and his merry men have designs on drafting Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel with the first pick of the draft, Shanahan would feel right at home with directing an offense catered to Manziel’s talents.

Or if the Browns could somehow pry backup quarterback Kirk Cousins loose from the Redskins before the draft, that could possibly open up the distinct possibility of the club taking a wide receiver with the first pick to complement Josh Gordon.

It was during Griffin’s rookie season in 2012 that the Browns were first introduced to Cousins and not in a kind way. With Griffin sidelined by a knee injury for the week 15 game in Cleveland, Cousins started and completed 26 of 37 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-21 victory.

Should Cousins somehow wind up with his old coordinator, that would give the Browns two former Michigan State quarterbacks (Cousins and Brian Hoyer) fighting for the starting job. At this point, of course, that is nothing more than speculation.

We know some of the positives Shanahan brings to the Cleveland offense. John Keim, who covers the Redskins for, wrote that an opposing defensive coach called him “an above average coordinator.” His flaws, according to the same coach: managing the game and play calling in critical situations.

Other complaints of Shanahan over the years, wrote Keim: He threw the ball too often and sometimes got too cute with his play calls.

So is Shanahan a bad hire? No. A good hire? We’ll get a lot closer to the correct answer to that one after the draft and at the start of training camp when we see what he has to work with.

For right now, this seems like a move that is swimming in a gray area.