Sunday, August 31, 2014

No hand-holding for Browns QBs

Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel are on their own now.

When the Browns surprisingly cut Rex Grossman Sunday, they removed the one presence in the locker room who could help Hoyer and Manziel should they need it this season. The sounding board is gone.

Both quarterbacks struggled in Kyle Shanahan’s offense during the exhibition season. Neither looked comfortable, especially Manziel.

Grossman, accompanied out of Berea by wide receiver Charles Johnson, entered the final exhibition against the Chicago Bears Thursday night and played three series. Even though he was working mostly with players who did not survive the final cut, the offense ran smoother and more efficiently than at any time Hoyer or Manziel were in there.

It looked as though he had quarterbacked them for a lot longer than a few weeks. The Browns piled up 131 yards in those three possessions, posting a pair of Billy Cundiff field goals. Grossman was 4-for-8 for 80 yards, connecting on pass plays of 37, 19 and 11 yards.

It was thought he was signed by the Browns because he knew the Shanahan offense and could teach it to Hoyer and Manziel. How much they gleaned in the few short weeks he was with the club could not have been much.

Manziel, in particular, needs someone to help him assimilate from the wildly different Texas A&M offense to the much more sophisticated National Football League style of offense.

Coach Mike Pettine is betting quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and Shanahan are better teachers for Hoyer and Manziel than Grossman. If that is the case, then, why in the world did they bring in the veteran in the first place? That makes no sense.

Sure they needed to make some roster adjustments after picking up wide receiver LaRon Boyd off waivers from Dallas and running back Glenn Winston from San Francisco. But quarterback? And with a dozen defensive backs?

Winston had 19 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown for the running-back-rich 49ers during the exhibition season. Obviously there is some talent there. The question is where is he going to fit in with the Browns, who have Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell?

In other moves, General Manager Ray Farmer rejiggered the offensive line, claiming guards Ryan Seymour from the 49ers and Caylin Hauptmann from Seattle and waiving tackles Martin Wallace and Karim Barton. That merely changes faces and should not affect the starters.

Subsequent moves will be analyzed as they occur.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nothing final here

Take a quick look at the Browns’ final 53-man roster because it won’t be final for long.

As with most National Football League teams, rosters are fluid shortly after the final cutdown, especially at the back end. They are malleable until the day of the season opener.

Trades, waiver pickups and other similar deals will be made in the next week in an effort to reshape what we’re seeing now and strengthen the back end of the roster.

Right now, that roster is overloaded in the secondary with 12 names. A week from Sunday in Pittsburgh, a dozen defensive backs will not be dressing. Most teams like to dress no more than 10 defensive backs.

Several surprising names appeared on the Browns’ cut list Saturday. Like wide receivers Nate Burleson and Willie Snead, guard Garrett Gilkey, H-Back MarQueis Gray, linebacker Jamaal Westerman, running back Dion Lewis and linebacker Zac Diles.

With the exception of Burleson, whose injured status prevented him from playing the first three exhibitions and sparingly at that, the others made positive contributions.

Other cuts were not so surprising. Like Leon McFadden, who had a miserable exhibition season. And Chris Ogbonnaya and Gray, whose fates were sealed when rookie free agent fullback Ray Agnew did not look like a rookie free agent.

A few more surprises appeared on the list of those who did not receive a call from The Turk. Like safety Robert Nelson, cornerback K’Waun Williams, offensive lineman Karim Barton and wide receiver Charles Johnson. How much longer they stick, however, remains to be seen.

Jettisoning Lewis was not a surprise given the performance of Isaiah Crowell in the final exhibition against Chicago. The coaching staff could have kept four running backs, but chose instead to fortify the defense. The club is clearly stronger at the position with Ben Tate, Terrance West and Crowell.

Burleson’s release was the biggest surprise since the Browns are bereft of quality wide receivers. If nothing else, his vast experience in the NFL would have been beneficial to a receiving corps that could be the worst in the league. The five they have right now do not scare anybody.

Opening the season with Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, Andrew Hawkins and Johnson won’t do much to boost the confidence level of quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.

There is no question General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine are banging the waiver wire in an effort to buttress the position. Somewhere on that vast list of free agents and/or waived players are a couple of receivers who can help Hoyer and Manziel.

One of those could be rangy Stephen Hill, cut by the New York Jets, and old friend Greg Little, picked up by Oakland after the Browns cut him in the spring, but who was trimmed by the Raiders Saturday.

Yes, Little was inconsistent in his three seasons with the Browns, but he did make some sensational plays when he was able to hold on to the football. If the Browns have any regrets cutting him, he’s out there for them now. How much worse can he be than what they have now? He averaged 52 catches a season with Cleveland.

Another area that arguably needs to be addressed is the right side of the offensive line. Guard John Greco and tackle Mitchell Schwartz are clearly the weak links up front.

If the Browns make the same determination, they might want to take a look at offensive tackle Eric Winston, released Saturday by Seattle. Picking up the veteran and plugging him in at right tackle and moving Schwartz inside, where he is more effective, might not be a bad move.

The current breakdown of the roster includes 12 rookies, including all six of the last draft class; seven players in their second season; nine in their third; and six in their fourth. That’s 34 of the 53, or 64% of the roster. Add four more in their fifth season and the percentage jumps to 71.7.

The defense boasts 27 members (12 backs, seven linemen and eight linebackers); the offense is comprised of 23 players (three quarterbacks, a fullback, three running backs, five wide receivers, three tight ends and eight linemen).

The three specialists (punter Spencer Lanning, kicker Billy Cundiff and long snapper Christian Yount) return from last season.

But don’t buy your game program just yet. More than a few of the above will not wear the Seal Brown and Orange this season. The changes could come as early as Sunday.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bears exhibition leftovers

It happened in a flash. No one saw it coming.

Not the fans. Not the Browns’ coaches. Not the Chicago Bears.

It was a simple quick hitter on third-and-1 at the Chicago 48-yard line in Thursday night’s exhibition victory over the Bears. It was not designed to result in a touchdown.

When Isaiah Crowell took the handoff from quarterback Connor Shaw, his initial intent was to make the first down. Scoring was the last thing on his mind.

But that’s exactly what happened when Crowell headed toward the line of scrimmage as though shot out of a cannon and, voila, there was a hole between left tackle and left guard with nothing between him and the goal line.

Left tackle Abasi Salimu picked off his man closing from the backside, while left guard Martin Wallace drove his man out and to the right, giving Crowell just enough of a seam to burst through.

And he knew exactly what to do with it, hitting the seam with astonishing quickness and speed, then outracing the rapidly catching-up Chicago secondary to the end zone. It was the type of run rarely seen by a member of the Browns backfield.

Theoretically, every play is designed to wind up in a touchdown. And when it happens, the euphoric feeling is palpable among the fans and players. Coaches, too. It lingered well after the game.

Crowell’s run probably will be remembered as the highlight of the 2014 exhibition season. But it is yesterday’s news and that grows old in a hurry.

Now Salimu, a rookie, will not make the final roster. Wallace, a second-year man, has a chance to be a backup at tackle and guard. And if the undrafted Crowell doesn’t make club with the final cut Saturday, plenty of eyebrows will be raised in surprise.

He just might have played himself onto the final 53 with his 102-yard game, easily eclipsing fellow rookie Terrance West’s relatively lackluster performance in the four exhibitions.
*       *       *
Might not be a bad idea for Johnny Manziel to teach Brian Hoyer how to slide when on the run. The rookie quarterback scrambled out of the backfield twice against the Bears and picked up significant yardage before sliding to avoid the hit. He knows how and when to slide.

Hoyer, who ripped up his knee sliding against the Buffalo Bills last season, is not as agile as the play-extending Manziel, but he will on occasion have to take off this season. He is just one awkward slide away from elevating Manziel to the starting job.
*       *       *
He played just three series, but the Cleveland offense sure looked different when Rex Grossman entered the game midway through the third quarter. There was a cohesion that seems to be hit and miss with Hoyer and Manziel under center.

The veteran quarterback was working with players who most likely won’t be with the club after 4 p.m. Saturday. His first pass to wide receiver Willie Snead on a deep crossing route down the middle was right on target and hit Snead in stride. Not bad for someone who joined the team just a couple of weeks ago.

Familiarity with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme is the main reason Grossman is in Cleveland. Manziel is his main target. The sooner Manziel’s grasps the concepts of the pro game, the better off the Browns will be. But it’s nice to know he can strap on the helmet in an emergency and not embarrass himself or the team.
*       *       *
Fans have discovered rookie linebacker Chris Kirksey to be a ball magnet thus far, but they are also finding out he’s a pretty good tackler, a distinct plus on a team that has trouble tackling.

It shouldn’t be surprising because Kirksey played his college ball at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are noted for turning out fundamentally sound players well prepared to play in the National Football League.

That’s because they are coached up by a staff headed by Kirk Ferentz, Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach with the Browns in the 1990s before becoming a successful Big Ten Conference head coach.
*       *       *
Top draft choice Justin Gilbert, who probably will start opposite Joe Haden at cornerback, had better be a quick learner if the Browns expect him to be an impact player. He arrived with the reputation of being a solid cover corner whose tackling ability was suspect. The latter was apparent in the exhibition season, but his cover skills have been well short of expectations.

Veteran wideout Santonio Holmes, trying to hang on with the Bears, schooled Gilbert in the second quarter, grabbing a short pass near the sideline, faking a move inside, then whirling to his right and speeding down the sideline, leaving Gilbert grasping for air. Instead of forcing Holmes inside, where he had plenty of help, Gilbert did the exact opposite. The result was a 32-yard touchdown.
*       *       *
Notebook: Hoyer wasn’t happy with himself when he missed a wide-open Jordan Cameron in the end zone on his only series of the evening. The Browns scored a few plays later, but Hoyer has to make that play. . . . Manziel’s best throw of the evening was his first, a 30-yard strike to tight end Gary Barnidge, who dropped it with no one near him. It was a tad late, but still should have been caught. . . . Manziel seems most comfortable running the zone-read. His quick feet enable him to break contain and quickly get to the perimeter. . . . The Cleveland running game will be greatly improved this season mainly because of Ray Agnew. The rookie fullback is a terrific blocker, but has also displayed soft hands and could be a factor in the passing game. . . . Manziel has to become more careful with the ball. He sometimes holds it like a loaf of bread. He lost it once against the Bears while being sacked, but got lucky when a teammate recovered it. . . . Stickouts included wideouts Taylor Gabriel and Willie Snead, cornerback Jordan Poyer and linebacker Jamaal Westerman. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

At least there's some momentum

If nothing else, the Browns’ 33-13 exhibition victory over the Chicago Bears Thursday night gave Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau something to think about.

It wasn’t necessarily the 33-point explosion against the Bears’ second- and third-stringers. And it certainly wasn’t the erratic throwing by Johnny Manziel.

What LeBeau should be thinking about is how many different ways the all-of-a-sudden awakened Cleveland offense can put points on the board.

LeBeau, who now heads into his laboratory of fun and games and devises a scheme to shut down the Cleveland offense a week from Sunday in the season opener in Pittsburgh, has plenty from which to choose.

For example, he will find out that Manziel, who will be more of a spectator in the opener, is much more dangerous with his feet than with his arm.

He’ll also see that Brian Hoyer is, at least right now, the better Cleveland quarterback and he’ll have to adjust to a more conventional attack instead of the unpredictability of Manziel.

In addition, LeBeau most likely will notice the Cleveland running game, which has been missing in action the last few years, is much more formidable with the likes of young veteran Ben Tate and rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

The latter, who has been tethered to the bench in the first three exhibitions, introduced himself to the home fans with a 102-yard, one-touchdown effort in the second half as the Browns scored nearly as many points as they did in the first three games (49).

Crowell played against the Chicago scrubs for the most part, but displayed a rare combination of power and speed, especially on his 48-yard scoring burst in the final quarter, hitting the hole with stunning quickness and outracing the secondary. His performance is certain to give the coaching staff something to think about on cutdown day.

Hoyer, who played just one series and directed his team on a 13-play, 85-yard scoring drive, provides stability at quarterback and can be schemed much easier than Manziel. He is much steadier than the flashy rookie, whose passes against the Bears were too long, too short or wobbled en route to the receiver.

Manziel was most effective, and this is where LeBeau most likely will take note, on misdirection bootleg rollouts designed to give him the freedom to pick and choose where to throw the ball or run with it.

For whatever reason, he seems to be much more effective and accurate when out in the open field. Midway through the second quarter, for example, Manziel faced a third-and-10 at the Chicago 28 and had to deal with a furious pass rush while in the shotgun.

He eased slightly to his left in the pocket and encountered too much traffic. So he reversed his field, scrambled to his right out into the open and found Nate Burleson for a 27-yard gain. On the next play, a misdirection bootleg left, he hit tight end Jim Dray in the end zone.

While it has become quite obvious Manziel struggles with the more conventional pro sets, he clearly is at home when on the run. As it turned out, he was the Browns’ second-leading rusher with 55 yards on four carries, two of which were designed plays off the zone read.

There remains the possibility that coach Mike Pettine might sanction the use of both quarterbacks against the Steelers as a change of pace, giving LeBeau something to think about in the next 10 days.

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, played well albeit against the Bears’ second team. All regular standouts Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Co. could do was commiserate with their offensive mates.

Unlike last Saturday’s pungent display of football against the St. Louis Rams, the Browns were a much more aggressive bunch against the Bears on both sides of the ball. The defense recorded only two sacks, but applied pressure on quarterback David Fales all evening.

The only negative was the failure of second-year cornerback Leon McFadden to make up for his poor performance last Saturday. The Bears picked on him unmercifully and he did not respond well. His chances of making the final cut faded with every Bears completion against him and/or pass interference penalty.

So the Browns end the exhibition season at 1-3, but with some momentum into the regular season.

They know for certain the defense will hold up its end of the bargain, the running game will be stronger, the receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired and the quarterbacks right now are of unknown quality. They also discovered some sparks to the offense that were missing in the first three exhibitions.

Whether they were just an aberration or the real thing will be known much better on Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NFL’s foot-dragging hurtful in many ways

If there was any one position on the Browns that could least afford to lose a key player, it was wide receiver. There was All-Pro Josh Gordon and no one else.

And now, there is no Josh Gordon for at least one year after the National Football League on Thursday rejected the wide receiver’s appeal of his indefinite suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Within his statement of apology to the fans, team and coaches shortly after the decision was rendered by the league, Gordon said, “I am very disappointed that the NFL and its hearing office didn’t exercise better discretion and judgment in my case.”

That statement, issued through the NFL Players Association, almost certainly was crafted by Gordon’s legal team and/or representatives, but failed to take into account the irony of those words.

The league exercised as much discretion and judgment as Gordon exercised when he chose to flaunt the league’s substance-abuse policy by smoking pot. How ironic is that?

The exact date when the NFL allows him to apply for reinstatement is unknown at this point. The league stated Thursday that Gordon’s eligibility for reinstatement “will be determined following the 2014 season.” Exactly when is anyone’s guess. The league statement is too vague to hone in on the actual date.

Theoretically, he cannot apply for reinstatement until Aug. 27 next year, one year to the date of the suspension.. If he must wait until that date to apply, he will miss all of 2015 training camp and the exhibition season.

News of Gordon’s impending suspension broke initially on the second day of the league college draft in early May. That’s nearly four months ago.

Why did it take so long to reach this decision? We might never know. I’m not quarreling with it, but the original appeal was made before the team began training camp. It could have been resolved far sooner than this.

Gordon’s prolonged absence will have a deleterious effect on the Cleveland offense. Unlike last season, when nearly two-thirds of the plays were passes, the run-pass ratio this season figures to be much closer to 50-50.

The offense most likely will feature conservative football designed to move the chains methodically, produce time-consuming drives and give the defense, the strength of the team, as much rest as possible. It figures to be dull and relatively sleep inducing.

With Gordon out and no other wideout good enough to scare the opposition, quarterback Brian Hoyer will see many more eight- and nine-man fronts, daring him to throw the ball. The running game, despite better talent at the position this season, will be strangled by suffocating defenses.

Can the absence of one man make that much of a difference to the offense? The answer to that one lies in the stunning statistics Gordon produced last season. His presence enabled Jordan Cameron to become a Pro Bowl tight end and opened up an offense that had no appreciable running game.

With Gordon gone for who knows how long and the Browns’ wide receivers corps arguably ranked the worst in the NFL, Cameron can expect many more double teams, rendering him mostly ineffective. If Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins are your best receivers, you are in a world of hurt.

Gordon’s absence weighs most heavily on offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who now must come up with some creative and innovative football to counter what certainly will be heavy assaults from opposing defenses.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Browns-Rams leftovers

Believe it or not, there were a few positives to latch on to in the wake of the Browns’ latest exhibition loss. Too few, unfortunately.

Chris Kirksey was the only player on defense who actually looked as though he wanted to play that game Saturday night against the St. Louis Rams. The rookie inside linebacker is making a strong case for displacing Craig Robertson opposite Karlos Dansby.

He was near the ball most of the evening. At times, it seemed as though the ball sought him.

His seven tackles, five solo, led the team in both categories. Throw in one tackle for loss and an interception and you just might be looking at Dansby’s new partner. He was quick, showed good speed and displayed solid tackling form.

On offense, the one stickout was rookie running back Terrance West. He had only 17 yards on seven carries, but a 20-yard run was negated by a penalty.

West is a hard runner who never stops moving his feet. Tough to bring down, he is always scratching for extra yards. At times against the Rams, it took three or four men to bring him down.

If Ben Tate cannot avoid the injuries that have plagued his brief National Football League career, there will be no talent dropoff with West backing him up. Don’t be surprised to see offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan try to get him more touches this season.
*       *       *
Speaking of Shanahan, one can only hope the offense we’ve been subjected to in the exhibition season is not the one we’ll see once the regular season begins a week from Sunday.

It is stodgy and almost predictable with absolutely no creativity or imagination. Surely, that will change when games taking on significant meaning.

Maybe that’s the reason the offensive line has looked so pedestrian (trying to be kind here) in the first three games. And with maybe just a couple of series left for the first teamers in the last exhibition, there should be some concern.

Joe Thomas has not played like a perennial All-Pro offensive tackle. St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn dominated him and forced him into a couple of holding penalties. In the past, that would never have happened.

On the other side of the line, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is playing as though he is mired in a mud bog. He is slow out of his stance, his kick step in pass protection is a beat and a half too slow and he looks disinterested. Brian Hoyer’s strip sack on the first play of the second half was a direct result of Schwartz’s sloppiness in pass protection.

The one lineman who stood out in spite of a couple of penalties was rookie left guard Joel Bitonio. He played to the whistle and was always looking for someone to hit. That’s the kind of nastiness his four other buddies should adapt.
*       *       *
Even though Joe Haden sat out the game for the Browns, there is no reason the secondary should have made quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Austin Davis of the Rams look like Pro Bowl candidates, Davis in particular.

The second-year man from Southern Mississippi was 14-of-22 for 198 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A portion of the damage was against second- and third-teamers, but some of it was against the No. 1 defense.

Rookie Justin Gilbert, picked on in Haden’s absence, is learning just how much faster the pro game is to the college game. In time, he should be able to adjust and become a viable member of the secondary. In the meantime, he will learn quickly that a short memory is his best friend.
*       *       *
Is it me (Is it I is correct, but it sounds wrong) or does it seem thus far as though the Browns have not arrived ready to play a football game? Nor certain how Pettine gets his team emotionally ready for a game, but whatever he’s doing, it isn’t working.

Starting off the season with the Steelers just might be the best test for the rookie head coach’s regular-season baptism. If he can’t get his men ready for the hated rival in their own stadium, this could be a long season.

Pettine's perpetual scowl on the sidelines seems to belie the approach his team has to playing a game that rewards aggression. It sure would be nice to see the Browns come out against the Steelers and slap them around.

Readying a team in the fundamentals of the game is one aspect of coaching football. Preparing them in the intangibles is something entirely different. Right now, how Pettine handles the latter aspect is the great unknown.
*       *       *
Notebook: Johnny Manziel looked decent (compared to his last outing) against the Rams. He was more sure of himself, threw the ball well and was much more decisive. His seven-yard touchdown scramble in the third quarter was a portent of the future. Wish he would stash the money sign, though. Classless. The Browns trailed, 23-14, after the score. Save the theatrics. . . . Two plays before his TD, Manziel had trouble getting the play from the Shanahan and had to take a delay penalty. No excuse for that. . . . The Browns’ offense generated just 50 plays and owned the ball for only 20 minutes. . . . Third-down performance is just as important a statistic as time of possession and turnover ratio. Dominate on that down and your chances of winning improve markedly. Against the Rams, the Browns were four of 11 on third down. The Rams were 12 of 19. . . . For whatever reason, the Browns didn’t blitz as much against the Rams as they did in the first two exhibitions. The pass rush in general was not impressive. Maybe Pettine is saving all his sophistication for the regular season.

Monday, August 25, 2014

And the beat goes on

Catching up with the Browns’ latest embarrassment . . .

As I watched Saturday night’s exhibition against the St. Louis Rams unfold, I found myself saying to no one in particular, “Why does this team look just like last year’s team? And the year before’s team? And the year before that?”

But didn’t that new video board at the stadium formerly known as Cleveland Browns Stadium sure look nice?

It seems the only things that change with this football team are the names and faces. The lethargy, the inability to play representative football, the sleep-inducing offense . . . they are still there.

The 33-14 loss to the Rams was just an exhibition, I know. I’m trying to convince myself that what we saw against the Rams in no way is indicative of what we’ll see once the Browns start playing meaningful games.

Somehow, some way, Browns coaches will sprinkle magic dust over those fortunate enough to make the final roster and the team we see against the Steelers in Pittsburgh a week from Sunday will play a different brand of football.

It was evident from the opening kickoff that the Rams were prepared to play a game of football, while the Browns were prepared to go through the motions. At least it seemed that way.

The Rams were quicker, faster, hit harder and played smarter than the Browns, who controlled the ball for a whopping 20 minutes. If Mike Pettine isn’t at least looking for the panic button, then something is terribly wrong.

That was an embarrassing display in front of the home folks, who had to be muttering “same old, same old” all the way home.

To rattle off the statistics in this one would be adding fuel to the blaze. Suffice it to say, with maybe one exception (rookie linebacker Chris Kirksey), the Cleveland defense was a step and a half, maybe two full steps, slow all evening.

And the tackling – what tackling, you ask? Well, so do I. The tackling, especially in the secondary, was abysmal. Let’s not forget the so-called strength of the defense, the guys up front. The Rams gained 142 of their 472 yards on the ground.

They put points on the board seven times in their first nine possessions. It was an unfair fight because they came to play. The Browns arrived disinterested.

They got beat by two quarterbacks – Shaun Hill and Austin Davis – who are second and third on the depth chart. After starter Sam Bradford left with what later was diagnosed as a torn ACL, Hill and David picked apart the Cleveland defense.

This was supposed to be the dress rehearsal for the regular season. Brian Hoyer, anointed the starter for the opener, played listlessly and carelessly, and was inept and ineffective.

And he will not get much of a chance to hone his craft in the final exhibition Thursday night in Cleveland against the Chicago Bears. That’s the game where the starters play one, maybe two series and then take off the rest of the evening.

What Pettine should – but won’t – do is punish the starters and play them well into the third quarter against the Bears. This offense is not nearly ready to open the season. Its mind-set is decidedly out of whack.

After the game, the coach took the high road and sort of pronounced himself satisfied with his quarterback. “I think there are some plays (Hoyer) would want back,” Pettine said. “He missed a few reads, but overall, I think he’s been solid.”

Which makes me wonder? Were we watching the same game? Missed a few reads? Solid? Really? If that’s solid, perhaps consideration should be given to changing the meaning of the word.

Overall, the Browns are in disappointingly miserable shape. They have no decent receivers to speak of, an offensive line that is vastly overrated and a quarterback whose confidence level cannot be anywhere near what it was when he took over for Brandon Weeden last season.

The defense, thought to be the team’s strong point, was a rumor all evening against the Rams. The Rams converted one third and long after another. Third and 25? No problem. The Rams had the Browns right where they wanted them. Third and 11, third and 19? No sweat. The Rams converted every one of them, 12 of 19 overall.

The loss was truly a team effort. The offense was awful. The defense was two beats slow all evening.

With the final exhibition just a few days away and roster cutdown around the corner, there’s not much “back to the drawing board” time left.

But, hey, didn’t that new video board at the stadium sure look nice? The Browns stunk out the joint in high definition.

No truth to the rumor that the stadium had to fumigated minutes after the last fan left.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paging Dr. Pettine

Mike Pettine must fancy himself an amateur psychologist.

How else can one explain what the Browns coach said Wednesday to the media as he named Brian Hoyer his starting quarterback for the season opener in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7?

“I don’t want to make a permanent commitment to any starter,” Pettine said. “I just don’t think you can do that. I think you make more of a commitment to your quarterback because of the unique circumstances that surround the position.”

He went on to say, “I think you need all your guys on the roster running scared a little bit that ‘hey, listen, if I don’t perform in this performance-based business, if I don’t perform, I’m not going to be in there.’ “

What??!! Playing the scared card is certainly not the way to inspire confidence.

How’s that for a confidence boost, Mr. Hoyer? Sounds like the coach is trying to crawl into your mind and mess with it.

Screw up against the Steelers and Johnny Manziel is breathing down your neck, a snap away from handing you a clipboard. Think you can handle that kind of pressure with Quick Draw Pettine watching your every move? That sure must have gone over well in the locker room.

Pettine has no one to blame but himself for the problem that is now the Browns’ quarterback situation. He could have avoided it by using the first two exhibition games in a more conventional manner to decide the starter.

Most coaches with a quarterback quandary play one quarterback the first half of the first exhibition and the other most of the second half. In the second game, the roles are reversed. That is called a fair shot.

Why Pettine chose to play quarterback roulette with Hoyer and Manziel in the second exhibition against the Washington Redskins is anyone’s guess. It was foolish thinking. It appears as though the rookie head coach is outthinking himself.

What did he expect to accomplish by alternating quarterbacks in the Washington loss? He’s been around the game long enough to know you can’t establish an offensive rhythm – and offense is all about rhythm – by switching quarterbacks on what seemed to be a whim.

What harm would it have done to start Manziel in the second game, let him work the first half and then let Hoyer take over in the second half? Conventional wisdom says that should have been the case.

Another question: Why didn’t Hoyer play with the second team in the first two exhibitions? Only Pettine knows for sure. We can only guess the coach didn’t want him working with the second team because of his surgically repaired knee.

There was absolutely no flow to the Cleveland attack against the Redskins as fans played a guessing game called “who’s in there now?” When a huddle hears two different voices, it takes all the stability out of an offense.

This offense is fragile enough without any kind of interference screwing around with it. And it was unfair to both quarterbacks. It was a situation that spelled disaster from the outset.

Hopefully, Pettine will learn that playing mind games with his players is punching a ticket for trouble. If he doesn’t have their backs, who does? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Of course it's Hoyer

It was as surprising as the sun coming up in the morning. Or the Browns finishing last again in the AFC North.

Yep, Brian Hoyer will be under center for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7. Stunning, I know. Didn’t see that one coming (sarcasm clearly intended).

When coach Mike Pettine, after emerging from the think tank with his coaches, chose Hoyer over Johnny Manziel, it raised few eyebrows

Both men have polluted the National Football League exhibition landscape with what can charitably be called less-than-average football. Neither deserves the job based on those performances.

It was a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. And it was the correct move.

Hoyer played decent football last season after taking over for the ineffective and injured Brandon Weeden at the beginning of the season before slicing and dicing his ACL against Buffalo. Based on that, he got the nod over Manziel.

But last season was last season and does not necessarily translate to this season. Hoyer’s limited success last season does not mean we can expect the same from him this season. That’s taking way too much for granted.

There is no question, though, that his experience had to be the determining factor with Pettine and his offensive staff, not to mention Manziel’s failure to translate his talent to the professional game at this time.

Never mind that he flashed the victory sign minus the index finger at the needling Washington bench in frustration a few nights ago. If Pettine and his guys seriously factored that into the equation, then they need to reevaluate their evaluating system.

The kid lost his composure. So what. All he has to do is make plays once he is promoted to the starting job and the trash talking will stop. But that won’t happen for at least one game as Pettine seems to be the kind of coach who will make his starting quarterback selections on a game-to-game basis.

Right now, it looks as though Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was wrong about which Cleveland quarterback to game-plan for and will have to rejigger his plans for Hoyer, whom he has never faced before.

But not too much. Unlike the more active Manziel, Hoyer will be much easier to locate for the Pittsburgh defense because of his relative immobility. He usually does not stray far from the pocket.

Pettine’s decision only delays Manziel’s inevitable debut. Unless Hoyer unveils an unbelievable season, the kid’s many fans can expect to see him sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as the third game of the season against Baltimore at home.

In the meantime, it is incumbent on the coaching staff to make certain Manziel does not regress the rest of the exhibition season. It would not be a mistake to start him in game four against Chicago Bears on Aug. 28 and play him well into the third quarter.

He needs to be put on a fast track and playing him on a sustained basis, something the Browns have not allowed him to do thus far, would be much more beneficial than harmful.

Makes no difference that he would be facing the Bears’ second-and third-stringers. He needs the experience. We need to see what he can do. And so do the Browns. They didn’t draft him to back up Hoyer. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The day after the bad dream 

Meanderings of the mind in the wake of yet another head-scratching game by the Browns . . .

No matter whom Mile Pettine chooses to be his opening-game quarterback, one thing remains perfectly clear: The Browns are desperately seeking an offense.

Based strictly on what we’ve seen thus far of Kyle Shanahan’s offense – and, yes, most of it is vanilla-based because, you know, this is just the exhibition season – it is going to be a long season.

With Brian Hoyer expected to be named the starter for the season opener in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7, the Browns’ offense won’t look much different than the last few seasons.

Unlike last season, though, Hoyer won’t get much help from his receiving corps. That’s because the Browns have arguably the worst set of wide receivers in the National Football League.

With the impending Josh Gordon suspension – and didn’t he look totally disinterested in the Monday exhibition loss to Washington? – and the emergence of no one to replace him, who is Hoyer going to throw to?

It won’t be Jordan Cameron often because opponents now will begin taking the tight end out of the equation by double-teaming him. That leaves the likes of Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and Travis Benjamin. Scary bunch, no?

It won’t be long before General Manager Ray Farmer starts experiencing feelings of regret, if he already isn’t, for not selecting at least one wide receiver in the last college draft. He did absolutely nothing to help his quarterbacks.

Yes, the running game has improved. Ben Tate and Terrance West grinded out some tough yardage against a good Redskins defense Monday night. But unless the run game is complemented by the passing game, opponents soon will be able to shut that down, too, and dare the Browns to pass.

Right now, we have no idea what Shanahan wants his offense to look like. Not certain even he knows. It is disjointed, has no identity and is heading in too many different directions.
*       *       *
Based on their performances, Hoyer and Johnny Manziel took Pettine’s pre-game challenge of stepping up and laughed at it. What other conclusion can one come to with such awful performances?

On more than one occasion, we saw both quarterbacks slap their helmets in frustration with both hands after missing easy passes. Executing the basic fundamentals of the game escaped both men. And there was no good reason for it.

Both knew what was on the line and they gagged. Yes, it was only an exhibition, but it’s possible it foretold what lies ahead. That’s the pessimistic view. Optimists will say it was a meaningless game and it can’t get any worse.
*       *       *
The NFL’s crackdown on grabbing and holding bit both clubs Monday night. Officials are now flagging all contact outside the five-yard area beyond the line of scrimmage and the players are having problems adjusting to it.

It all stems from the antics of the extremely active secondary of the Seattle Seahawks, whose clutch-and-grab tactics were a factor in their successful march to a Super Bowl championship. Many coaches complained officials let the Seahawks get away with them.

The league complied and the result is a preponderance of illegal contact and holding calls. Unless the league steps in and backs off or the clubs make dramatic adjustments in their pass coverage to comply, the laundry will fly often this season.

They are just five-yard penalties, but they carry an automatic first down with them. What hurts the most – and is the most frustrating – are those penalties on a third and long that negate a good play. They help sustain drives and take away defensive momentum.
*       *       *
Not certain what Pettine said to his club in his pre-game remarks, but whatever it was, it did not work. For the most part, especially on offense, the Browns arrived not ready to play a football game. The Redskins were active on both sides of the ball.

The Cleveland defense had its moments. Four turnovers, a solid goal-line stand, but spotty tackling. Not certain how the latter can be improved since teams no longer place a great emphasis on that phase of the game.
*       *       *
Consider Mike Foss, who writes the ForTheWin column for USA Today, an optimist in regard to Manziel’s future in the NFL. “It isn’t Johnny Football’s time,” he wrote. “Now, he has a chance to be ready when it is.”

Manziel fans can rationalize by saying it can’t get any worse than this. His detractors can reply, “Or can it?”
*       *       *
Notebook: Only plus from the game? No one was seriously injured. At least that we know of. . . . Defensive end Armonty Bryant made a strong push to get more playing time with his second straight solid game. . . . Veteran safety Jim Leonhard will prove a valuable contributor to the secondary. His savvy feel for the game is invaluable. . . . We’ll get a much better idea of just how strong the defense is in the St. Louis exhibition Saturday night in Cleveland when they play into the third quarter. . . . Curious as to why we saw just a few misdirection bootleg plays by both quarterbacks. They seemed to work well in the exhibition opener against Detroit. . . . Backup Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins must enjoy playing against the Browns. As a rookie in 2012, he beat the Browns, 38-21, with a 26-37, 329-yard, two-touchdown performance while filling in for an injured Robert Griffin III. Monday night, he dissected the Cleveland secondary again, albeit the second- and third-teamers, 12-21, 145 yards and a TD. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

No one deserves the QB job

Who should the Browns start at quarterback in the season opener in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7?

Based on Monday night’s exhibition game against the Washington Redskins, Connor Shaw.

That’s because the rookie free agent, whose best shot at making the team would be the practice squad, was the only Cleveland quarterback who actually looked like a National Football league quarterback in the 24-23 loss.

Not that Shaw looked that great, but he was outstanding compared to who preceded him in the first three quarters.

Many observers looked on this game as the one that would determine who starts Saturday night’s third exhibition against the St. Louis Rams in Cleveland, the so-called dress rehearsal for the regular season.

On the audition stage for the nationally televised game were Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel – the incumbent against the upstart rookie.

Much has been made about the battle between these two for the starting job. That battle has been reported on and dissected daily by the national media ad nauseam.

Both flunked the audition, at the same time placing Mike Pettine in an awkward and somewhat delicate position. The head coach said he would name the starter Tuesday for the meaningless Rams game based on what he saw against the Redskins.

Considering what he saw, he should name neither man, further complicating a situation he had complicated by foolishly alternating his quarterbacks against the Redskins.

There was absolutely no continuity or flow to the Cleveland offense. Both men were rusty, tentative, making bad throw after bad throw.

At the half, ESPN’s Chris Berman suggested that “maybe the Washington defense had something to do with (the pungent Cleveland offense).” Berman was either trying to be charitable or was totally ignorant of what was unfolding on the field.

When Cleveland receivers were open, which wasn’t that often, Hoyer and Manziel missed them badly. Hoyer had wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wide open in the end zone in the second quarter and threw the ball high and behind him. If the 5-7 Hawkins were 6-2, it would have been a TD.

The way Manziel played, he proved himself absolutely correct when he said the other day that “I’m not ready for Pittsburgh” on Sept. 7. He’s not even close.

He entered the game on the third Cleveland series after Joe Haden picked off a Robert Griffin III pass with 5:26 left in the opening quarter. His first throw was behind open tight end Jordan Cameron.

And then it got worse when Mitchell Schwartz missed a block, allowing Ryan Kerrigan to sack Manziel.

Hoyer produced no points and no first downs in four series. A premature snap by Alex Mack on the first play of the game resulted in a sack and a subsequent false start against Joe Thomas got the Browns off to a rollicking start.

It was a sign, a portent of what was to eventuate. It has to make Pettine wonder if he might have made a mistake by making his quarterback intentions known too soon. After what he saw Monday night, he might have to reevaluate his situation and delay his nominee for the season opener.

Although neither quarterback can hold his head high after this one, there really is only one decision Pettine can make if he insists on sticking with his schedule and that is to name Hoyer as his starter.

Based on what Manziel has shown thus far, he in no way deserves to be even considered for the Pittsburgh opener. He looked uncomfortable all evening, especially when he lined up under center. He is clearly out of his element.

Right now, it seems as though the speed and quickness of the game has overwhelmed him. And if he thinks the game is fast now, wait until the regular season when the speed and quickness of the game is ramped up even further.

The frustration of the evening for the rookie showed when he flipped the Washington bench the bird following a third-quarter incompletion. Got to have thicker skin than that.

“ I felt like I did a good job of holding my composure throughout the night and you have a lapse of judgment and slip up,” he told reporters after the game. Was it wrong? “I don’t think it was a positive,” he said, citing a lack of composure at that moment.

The defense tried to help the two Cleveland quarterbacks with three turnovers in the first half. The best they could do with it was a 29-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. Opportunities like that do not come along often and must be taken advantage of.

The defense also came up with a strong goal-line stand early in the second quarter, but the offense did not take the cue.

The offense under Manziel produced 11 first downs, six by penalty on an evening when the officials called more than 20 penalties. At several points, it seemed as though referee Terry McAulay’s crew grabbed for the yellow laundry on every other play.

Only one of the Browns’ touchdowns came via a legitimate drive (16 plays, 68 yards) with Dion Lewis punching it in from the 8 on a middle screen pass from Manziel early in what turned out to be a 20-point fourth quarter for the Browns.

Veteran safety Jim Leonhard’s pick 6 agave the Browns a 17-14 lead and tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi caught a Hail Mary pass from Shaw in the end zone on the game’s final play after a deflection by Willie Snead to pull within a point at 24-23.

The Browns went for two points, but Shaw’s pass intended for Charles Johnson was overthrown.

The Redskins scored most of their points against the Cleveland reserves with cornerback Royce Adams burned twice on scoring throws, one by Kirk Cousins and the other by ex-Brown Colt McCoy.

If nothing else, this game proved the defense will not be a problem this season as long as the offense pulls its weight. Right now, though, it looks as though that offense isn’t even close to locating its personality.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A premature defense

If it isn’t one controversy at Browns camp with regard to their top two quarterbacks, it’s another. The hits just keep on coming.

First, it’s the daily story of how much progress Johnny Manziel has made in his quest to unseat Brian Hoyer as the club’s starting quarterback.

Then it’s the team and coach Mike Pettine denying the report that Manziel has moved ahead of Hoyer after less than three weeks of training camp and one exhibition game.

Then Pettine announces Hoyer gets the start in the second exhibition, forcing him to tell the media Friday that neither man has a permanent lock on the starting position.

Welcome to Camp Confusion.

“Quarterback is different from other positions in that you do want to make a commitment,” Pettine said. “(But) I don’t know if you can necessarily make a permanent commitment. So much can change over the course of an NFL season, the circumstances.

“ . . . I think that’s the one position where you probably have to have a little bit more patience maybe than some others as far as if a guy’s not performing to the level you think he can and you’re not getting results, then you’d go ahead and make a move.

“Its somewhere in between. I don’t want whoever the starter is to feel like ‘if I make one mistake, I’m out.’ But I also don’t want him to feel like ‘hey, I’ve achieved something. This is my team for the year.’ ”

That’s a lot of words that, when parsed, mean exactly what? Beats me. Pettine seems to be taking something simple and complicating the hell out of it.

In the National Football League, it’s as simple as naming your quarterback, sitting back, letting him succeed or fail and then making a move depending on his body of work. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification, but it sure beats what Pettine is trying to explain.

Is the Browns’ coach prematurely justifying switching quarterbacks if that needs to be done? Sure sounds like it. I think.

If Hoyer is named the starter for the season opener in Pittsburgh on Sept. 7, for example, he should keep that job until he proves he no longer can handle it.

Don’t do what Chris Palmer did in the inaugural season in 1999 when he yanked Ty Detmer after the disastrous first game and replaced him with Tim Couch. Or what Romeo Crennel did in 2007 when he replaced Charlie Frye with Derek Anderson after the first game. 

But why say that now? Pettine is  the head coach and can do whatever he wants for whatever reason and whenever he wants. The title head coach before his name entitles him to do that.

And to say he can’t use the word “permanent” for whomever he anoints to start the season opener is assumed. Why rationalize a future move now?

What Pettine is doing, in essence, is admitting he has a problem at quarterback and reserves the right to make a change. He doesn’t have to defend it at this point of the season. That defense comes later when he actually has to make that move.

To do so now is so premature, it’s almost laughable.