Sunday, November 30, 2014

Quarterback conundrum

It’s going to be a fun week at Browns’ headquarters this week as Cleveland coach Mike Pettine begins to earn his money the hard way. Facing the media with a tough decision to make,

The first question in all news conferences this week will be, and should be, “Who is your starting quarterback? Who will start against Indianapolis next Sunday?”

After Brian Hoyer all but played himself out of the starting role he won in training camp last August and held through the last day in November, which happened to be Sunday in Buffalo, the specter of Johnny Manziel now looms on the Cleveland professional football horizon.

The offensive coaching staff, whose loyalty to Hoyer’s early-season success had spawned a 7-4 record entering Sunday’s 26-10 loss to the Bills, has to at least think about making a switch at quarterback following Hoyer’s fourth and fifth interceptions in the last two games and sixth in the last three games.

And while the interceptions have come at inappropriate times, the Cleveland offense is now stagnating with Hoyer in charge. That side of the ball needs to be addressed and Manziel has to be given more than token consideration.

For the third time in two games, the Cleveland defense gave the offense the ball in plus territory when Joe Haden picked off a Kyle Orton pass at the Buffalo 20-yard line on the third play of the third quarter and the Browns clinging to a 3-0 lead.

Three plays and minus-eight yards later, Spencer Lanning dropped back in punt formation. The Browns’ offense turned a gift from the Bills into a three-and-out and a punt. Backward march. Pathetic.

That should have been the coaching staff’s first clue that Hoyer needed to be escorted to the bench and instructed to stay there. Instead, Pettine stuck with him and paid the price.

Hoyer, a minimally talented National Football League quarterback whose forte has been playing relatively mistake-free football until now, removed all doubt as to his ability to help the Browns any more this season with another mistake-laden afternoon against the Bills.

Will Pettine shrug off Hoyer’s poor performances the last two games – even though the Browns did knock off Atlanta last Sunday – and stick with his man? Or will he correctly make the move to Manziel, who looked good on one drive and awful on another in his debut, to be the man to take it home in the next four weeks?

The Browns are 7-5 at this point of the season and still in the hunt for a post-season appearance. Does the coaching staff trust and then turn to the unpredictable Manziel, whose reputation as a gambler preceded him to the NFL, or stay the course with the more conservative, but less talented, Hoyer?

This is how bad Hoyer was against the Bills. In the seven series leading up to his eventual benching and Manziel’s entrance with 12:01 left in regulation, the Browns gained a net total of 14 yards. Hoyer’s two picks – Bills defenders dropped at least two others – were the direct result of an offense marching in reverse.

In the third quarter alone, the Browns gained (using the word loosely here) a net total of six negative yards on nine plays. That’s when the game turned as quickly as one can blink.

The Cleveland defense hammered the Buffalo offense in the first 30 minutes, playing stout against the run and in the secondary, but gave up an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive to the Bills following Lanning’s punt despite failing to pick up a first down on a third-and-four at the Cleveland 38.

It was the Bills’ eighth straight failed attempt at converting a third down – they would go 0-for-11 before finally converting their first – and Buffalo coach Doug Marrone had seen enough.

Why not gamble? He had nothing to lose. The Buffalo defense had pretty much neutralized the Cleveland offense, anyway. So on a fourth-and two, Orton hooked up with Robert Woods, who fought off Buster Skrine to make the catch at the Cleveland 3.

Orton then hit Chris Hogan in the right flat on the next play, giving the Bills a lead they would not relinquish. But the best (or worst depending on your perspective) was yet to come. Suddenly.

On the ensuing possession, Buffalo linebacker Preston Brown raked the ball out of the grasp of Cleveland rookie running back Terrance West and defensive end Jerry Hughes picked up the loose ball and rambled 18 yards to the end zone. Two touchdowns 10 seconds apart.

Ball game.

And yet, Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan kept sending Hoyer back out onto the field. The Bills, most likely frothing at the mouth with a 14-3 lead that probably seemed much larger considering how inoffensive the Cleveland offense was, threw everything at Hoyer, who was 18-of-30 for 192 yards and the two picks.

Manziel finally discarded his baseball hat, grabbed a helmet and began warming up following Buffalo cornerback Da’Norris Searcy’s second theft of the afternoon with 12:59 left in regulation.

After entering the game, he smartly and smoothly marched the Browns 80 yards for their only touchdown of the afternoon, scoring on a 10-yard scramble with 8:47 left. Then he foolishly flashed the money sign to the Buffalo fans. Enough already.

On his second series with the Browns down, 23-10, and the ball at the Cleveland 18, center Ryan Seymour snapped the ball on third-and-six to Manziel lined up in the pistol, but the rookie was not ready for it.

He bobbled the snap, scrambled after the ball, picked it up and clumsily tried to throw it, but defensive tackle Kyle Williams slapped it into the end zone where cornerback Nickell Robey recovered for an apparent touchdown. Replay reversed the call to an incomplete forward pass.

So why did it take so long for Pettine to yank his starting quarterback’s leash when it was obvious the Cleveland attack was awful? Having coached the Buffalo defense last season, he certainly knew how aggressively the Bills played on defense and that Manziel, much more mobile than Hoyer, couldn’t do any worse.

And now, he’s going to face daily interrogation and criticism no matter which way he goes with his choice. The longer he holds back his decision, the worse it will get.

Following the game, Pettine indicated it was too early to tell to make a call. On who gets the call against the Colts next week, he said, “Sometimes, you just need change for the sake of change. We’ll scope it out to a staff decision.”

Is that a hint? He won’t say for sure.

If he stays with Hoyer, critics will rail and wonder what it will take to finally get a look at Manziel at the beginning of a game. And if he goes with Manziel, Hoyer supporters will accuse him of panicking.

Why pull the trigger on the guy who got you to 7-4? You’re still in the playoff hunt. Why not give him one more game? Maybe this was an aberration.

The difference is that Manziel is the club’s future, not Hoyer, who was adequate before the league finally caught up to him. Manziel is a fresh face. He brings excitement to the game in a variety of ways.

We don’t know what he can do in the NFL. The question has raged all season, but Hoyer stemmed that tide. Until now. And now we get a chance to find out. Maybe. That, of course, depends on Pettine’s decision.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday leftovers

Attempting to crawl into the mind of Mike Pettine, an adventure all by itself.

Never mind the game-to-game strategy and adjustments by the Browns’ head coach. That’s the easy part. It’s the little things that seem to baffle him.

When it comes to certain essential parts of coaching a game, he is a difficult man to figure out. In this case, time management.

Most smart coaches think ahead all the time. They are never in the moment because to them, that is past tense.

Thinking about what happens three, four plays from now is what separates the ordinary, slow-thinking, occasionally successful head coaches from those whose prescient approach to coaching elevates them above the crowd no matter the talent on board.

Coaches like Bill Belichick, the Harbaugh brothers John and Jim, Pete Carroll are examples of National Football League coaches who place maximum importance on the finite aspects of the game.

Case in point, the end of each half of the Browns’ weird victory Sunday over the Falcons in Atlanta.

At the end of the first half with the Browns trailing, 14-13, they launched a drive with 55 seconds left until intermission with three timeouts. Plenty of time to move the ball, get into position for at least a field goal and regain the lead.

After a deep Brian Hoyer pass to Josh Gordon fell incomplete, the Cleveland quarterback hooked up with Gordon for 19 yards to the Cleveland 39-yard line. Remember Pettine still had three timeouts in his back pocket and demurred.

Twenty-two seconds – and still no timeouts yet – later, Hoyer failed to hook up with Miles Austin. With 23 seconds left in the half, Hoyer and Andrew Hawkins collaborated on a 14-yard completion to the Atlanta 47. Still no timeout.

With 14 seconds left, Hoyer and Hawkins again teamed up for a five-yarder to the Atlanta 42.  That’s when Pettine used his first timeout. Following an incompletion to Gordon, he burned No. 2

Three seconds left. Plenty of time for a brain cramp.

Browns placekicker Billy Cundiff, whose long-distance accuracy is suspect at best, especially from more than 50 yards, was called on to attempt a 60-yard field. What in the world was Pettine thinking?

Well, Cundiff told his coach he hit a 60-yarder in pregame warm-ups in Atlanta’s indoor dome. Good enough, Pettine must have thought. He failed to factor in Cundiff would also get a rush from the Falcons’ defense this time.

Why not try for a Hail Mary pass instead of a ridiculously long field goal and hope for something as lucky as a pass interference call? Naw, that’s too risky.

Never mind that Devin Hester, the NFL’s all-time return leader, was stationed in the end zone for the Falcons in the likely event Cundiff was short. Damn it, Cundiff was going to try it anyway. What could go wrong?

If not for the heads-up play of offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, Hester would have turned a one-point Cleveland deficit into eight points. Bitonio chased downs Hester and was the last Brown between him and a 107-yard return for a touchdown.

So many mistakes here.

If you’re serious about putting points on the board in the final 55 seconds after just having lost the lead, then show it. By eschewing his timeouts, Pettine did no such thing. And why burn 22 seconds after the first completion before running the next play?

Saving those timeouts was passive football. In holding them back, he showed absolutely no trust in his offense.  And his ludicrous decision to attempt a 60-yard field goal deserves a place in the Hall of the Not Very Smart.

Now at the end of the second half, Pettine caught a huge break from Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who rivaled the Cleveland coach in brain cramps.

The Falcons trailed, 23-21, when they took possession at their 45 after Dezmen Southward picked off Hoyer’s third interception of the afternoon with 2:42 left in regulation.

Pettine had three timeouts again. So did Smith. Keep that in mind.

The Falcons moved to the Browns’ 43 four plays later as the clock wound down. No timeouts by either coach. Smith did not have to. His team was moving into field goal territory. The more the clock ran, the less time Pettine and his men would have to retaliate if the Falcons took the lead. Still no timeouts as the clock wound down to 63 seconds.

And that’s when Smith reached out and helped Pettine. He surprisingly called a timeout following a short pass that placed the ball at the Cleveland 35, close enough for Matt Bryant to eventually kick a 53-yard field goal.

Had Smith not called that timeout and bled the clock even more, there is no way the Browns get the ball with 44 seconds left and win the game on a Cundiff field goal with no time left.

On both occasions, Pettine got lucky. If he keeps up this wacky clock management, he eventually will get burned much more often than he has.
*          *          *
One more red-zone screw-up near the Atlanta goal line that didn’t make it in the game story.

Opening series of the second half. The Browns trail, 14-13, but move the ball smartly – with one notable exception – 75 yards and reach the Atlanta 5-yard line. Fans envision a touchdown, but fail to take into consideration the red-zone on this day is the dead zone.

Austin dropped a touchdown pass on second-and-goal and Kroy Biermann sacked Hoyer for a nine-yard loss on third down. Cundiff’s third field goal of the afternoon gave the Browns the lead at 16-14, but it could have been so much more.

So make that three drives that landed deep in the red zone and were squandered, ending up with field goals. That’s a 12-point swing.

During that drive, the Browns botched a double reverse with Gordon on the business end. The pitch back by Terrance West was high and bounced off Gordon’s hands. The ball rolled about 20 yards backward.

The wide receiver, who played so spectacularly in his return, had the presence of mind to attempt a forward pass after retrieving the ball, making sure it traveled beyond the line of scrimmage. Fortunately, no offensive lineman was downfield, which would have drawn a flag.

The following play in the possession was a 40-yard pass reception and run by Hawkins that moved the ball from the Cleveland 35 to the Atlanta 25.
*          *          *
Hoyer shouldered the brunt of the blame for the closeness of the game. “I’ve got to play better,” he said, “especially going forward. If we really want to do something, I can’t play like that and I can’t even believe we won.”

He’s absolutely right about that. But the big question is whether he is capable of playing as well as he wants on a consistent basis. He showed flashes of being the Browns' quarterback of the future in the early part of the schedule, but his inconsistency in the last half dozen games brings that into question.

If he can establish that consistency, there’s no telling how far this team can go this season. And that’s the conundrum the Browns face. They really don’t know whether this is as good as Hoyer gets or there is a higher ground.
*          *          *
If he can hold onto the ball with more regularity and learn to pass block, there is no way the Browns can’t think of Isaiah Crowell as anything but their No. 1 running back. He’s got power, speed, finds and hits the hole with sudden quickness and is a load to bring down.

The coaching staff needs to use him more down near the opposition goal line because he seems to take it up a notch when the club is that close. He has scored half of the club’s 14 touchdowns on the ground and is thatclose to overtaking West for the team lead in yards gained. He averages nearly five yards a carry.
*          *          *
Notebook: Hawkins had a perfect afternoon Sunday. Five targets, five catches, 93 yards. The little guy has been the most consistent receiver through the first 11 games. . . . Bitonio, on his touchdown-saving tackle at the end of the first half: “Pretty cool.” . . . Twenty-nine first downs represent a season high in that category. . . . Craig Robertson, filling in for injured Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker, played a solid game, leading the club in tackles with nine. . . . The Browns were 1-for-6 in the red zone. . . . The Browns said pregame Gordon would play 20-25 plays. He played 23 in the first half and wound up closer to 50. . . . Outside linebacker Paul Kruger was on again Sunday, checking in with a pair of sacks, a quarterback hit and numerous hurries. . . . This is how effective and generous the Browns’ offense was against the Falcons: Spencer Lanning had to punt just once. That was on the opening series of the game.  For the record, it was a 41-yarder. Hoyer’s three interceptions helped keep the Cleveland punter on the bench.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Winning the hard way 

It didn’t have to be that difficult, that close, that harrowing.

It really didn’t.

How can 476 yards of offense, 313 passing yards, 162 yards on the ground and 29 first downs turn into a thriller? Not to mention a dropped pick 6 by safety Donte Whitner.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened to the Browns Sunday in Atlanta.

Try three Brian Hoyer interceptions on an afternoon when he played Good Brian and Bad Brian, an offense that did not take advantage of gifts from the opposition and some questionable coaching.

The Browns took what should have been – and could have been – a laugher and turned it into a thriller in a way only they could and had Browns Nation exhausted at the end.

The last-second 26-24 victory over the Falcons was a mute reflection of how many points the Cleveland offense left on the field. As many as 15 points were not placed on the scoreboard due to offensive ineptitude.

Converting a pair of turnovers in Atlanta territory (at the 23 and 40) early in the second quarter into field goals on consecutive series might have brought joy to the sycophants among Browns fans, but it allowed the Falcons to stay in the game.

Instead of bursting out to a 21-7 lead with some smart football and scoring touchdowns as an answer to the gifts from the Falcons, the Browns as much as said, “No thanks. We’ll just take the field goals. We’re in a holiday mood.  One gift deserves another.“

The Falcons had taken a 7-0 lead in the opening quarter, driving 57 yards in 11 plays, Julio Jones scoring in a 24-yard strike from Matt Ryan. It would never have happened had Whitner not dropped a sure pick 6 on the fourth play of the drive.

So a 13-7 Cleveland lead turned into a 14-13 halftime deficit after the Falcons turned Hoyer’s first pick into a touchdown with less than a minute left in the half. It nearly became a larger lead when Devin Hester caught the Browns’ field goal team flat-footed on the last play of the half.

The National Football League’s all-time leading return specialist caught the short attempt six yards deep in the end zone, then threaded his way 75 yards to the Cleveland 31-yard line and almost scored before offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, of all people, finally ran him down.

Short fields are supposed to be igniters, emotional boosts for the offense provided by the defense. A Joe Haden interception of a Ryan pass produced the first Sunday; a strip sack of Ryan by Paul Kruger created the second.

And all the offense could muster was nine plays for 35 yards, 25 of them on Hoyer hookups with Josh Gordon and Miles Austin. It’s as though the Browns somehow dial up the wrong plays when they get the ball in plus territory.

It’s nice that Billy Cundiff kicked four field goals, including the game winner with no time left, but good teams convert turnovers in opposition territory into something more than three points. In that respect, the Browns are woefully weak.

Even with the return of Gordon, who put on a virtuoso performance with eight receptions (in 16 targets) for 125 yards despite the inconsistency of his quarterback, the Cleveland attack has made visiting the red zone an adventure this season. Actually, more of a nightmare.

On at least three occasions Sunday, Hoyer missed a wide-open Gordon, who showed no signs whatsoever of not playing football for the last three months. He was crisp with his route running, a monster after catching the ball and even chipped in some fine blocking.

As for Hoyer, who threw 17 incompletions in 40 attempts, you never knew which quarterback would show up from possession to possession. He was that inconsistent.

Bad Brian showed up in the fourth quarter shortly after the Browns controlled the third quarter and took a 23-14 lead on a 26-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Crowell, who broke three arm tackles on his way to his second score of the afternoon.

The Falcons, who ran only nine plays in the third quarter, cobbled together a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took nearly six minutes of the clock and cut the Cleveland lead to two with 9:31 left in the fourth quarter.

It looked as though the Browns were going to retaliate with Good Brian leading a well-balanced seven-play 74-yard drive that brought about a first-and-goal at the Atlanta 6. Surely, they couldn’t mess this one up. Or could they?

First and goal at the 6 with Crowell running extremely well and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan calls a pass? A pass!?

Hoyer tried lofting a pass to Gordon near the end line. Too far for the tall wide receiver, but not too far for Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant, who picked if off. Bad Brian.

So instead of taking a nine-point lead again, the Falcons took over. Their joy was momentary as the Cleveland defense forced a punt with 3:37 left in regulation. But fear not. Hoyer wasn’t through.

On the next Cleveland possession, Hoyer overthrew an open Gordon once again on third down and safety Dezmen Southward picked it off at his 45-yard line with 2:43 left to complete Hoyer’s interception fest. Bad, bad Brian. Very bad Brian. Awful Brian.

Browns coach Mike Pettine, perhaps expecting the Falcons to play it conservatively and get into position for a potential game-winning field goal, chose to conserve his three timeouts. The Falcons complied and with 44 seconds left, Matt Bryant nailed a 53-yard field goal for the 24-23 lead.

As it turned out, Pettine’s move paid off, but only because Good Brian decided to come out of the shadows.

Following an incompletion to Gordon, he fired consecutive strikes to Miles Austin (11 yards), Gordon (24 yards), Gary Barnidge (15 yards) and Austin again (11 yards). Four straight completions for 61 yards in 30 seconds.

Good Brian. Very good Brian. Great Brian. Where was this guy earlier?

Browns Nation, most of whom had given up when Bryant nailed his 53-yarder, perked up with each Hoyer completion to the realization that, hey, the Browns could actually win this game.

And when Cundiff sent his 37-yard field goal squarely through the uprights with no time left, fans realized their Browns, who have lost just once in seven Atlanta visits, had won seven games in a season for the first time since 2007.

The victory, achieved when it looked as though they were going to blow yet another late lead in an effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, was a study in frustration.

It didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Scoring extravaganza in Atlanta

The Browns are 6-4 this season and scraping the bottom of the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Atlanta Falcons are 4-6 this season and enjoying the heady feeling of first place in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints.

Go figure. So much for parity in the National Football League.

The two teams meet Sunday in Atlanta for only the 14th time in this series – the Browns lead, 10-3 – with the Falcons coming off a two-game sweep of division rivals on the road and the Browns reeling a bit from an unexpected loss at home to Houston.

Momentum clearly rests in the Falcons’ corner after a 2-6 start in a division no team seems to want to win. The Browns, meanwhile, couldn’t handle the loftiness of first place.

The reason the Browns are a pair of games above .500 is the dominance – playing fast and loose with comparisons here – of their inter-conference schedule against the NFC South, having knocked off the Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Considering how poorly the NFC South is playing this season, that’s nothing about which to be boastful. Then again, the manner in which previous Browns teams have performed in Atlanta, this trip could turn out to be beneficial. 

They have traveled to the Deep South six times over the years and won five games, the lone loss (17-14) administered in 1993 when Todd Philcox was the quarterback for the original Browns. The new Browns are 2-1 against the Falcons, including a 17-13 victory in their only trip to Atlanta.

Why the success in Atlanta? No one knows for certain. It’s a little like the Jacksonville Jaguars’ success against the Browns over the years, especially in Cleveland (6-2).

A perfect example is the Browns’ trip to Jacksonville in week seven this season against the winless Jags, who proceeded to humiliate them and it wasn’t even close. It cannot be reasoned. It just is.

Who knows? Maybe the Falcons are jinxed when the Browns come to town. They have scored just 87 points against Cleveland in those six games. For the statistically challenged, that’s 14.5 points a game. Amazingly, the Falcons have never scored more than 17 points against Cleveland at home.

Maybe it was a case of the Browns catching the Falcons at home at the right time. At first, that might have been the case after star Atlanta receiver Julio Jones missed a couple of practices earlier this week  with an undisclosed illness. But he returned Friday and is set to battle former SEC rival Joe Haden.

The two have never met on the field in a regular-season NFL game, but were intense rivals when Haden attended the University of Florida and Jones played at the University of Alabama.

As long as Jones is in the NFL, he will be a constant reminder of a trade the Browns and Falcons engineered on college draft day in 2011. It turned out to be draft gold for Atlanta and draft fool’s gold for the Browns.

Cleveland General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. owned the sixth pick overall, but went for quantity over quality when he gave up that pick for five selections that covered two drafts. The Falcons surrendered their first-round pick (No. 27), a second-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2011, and a first-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2012 for Jones.

With those picks, the Browns took defensive tackle Phil Taylor, wide receiver Greg Little, fullback Owen Marecic and quarterback Brandon Weeden. The 2012 fourth-rounder was used as part of the deal to move up and draft Trent Richardson in 2012.

Little, Marecic and Weeden are gone, of course. Little and Weeden are backups with Cincinnati and Dallas after failing miserably with the Browns. And Marecic is out of football entirely.

The lone Cleveland survivor of that deal is Taylor, who has played sparingly this season because of knee problems and is currently on injured reserve.

Jones, meanwhile, has been sensational. He has 241 catches for 3,649 yards and 23 touchdowns in 44 games (he missed the last 11 games last season with a broken foot) and has caught 160 passes that gained a first down.

He has 67 receptions for 912 yards but only three TDs this season, teaming with Roddy White to give the Falcons arguably the best pair of wideouts in the league.

Where the Falcons have had trouble this season is the running game on offense (only 96 yards a game) and the overall defense (403 yards a game). But the Browns have had trouble stopping the run most of the season regardless of the opposition.

All of which means veteran Steven Jackson can look forward to having a big afternoon despite running for just 467 yards this season in 10 games. If the Browns can’t stop the likes of Denard Robinson, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Alfred Blue, Jackson should find little resistance from the Cleveland front seven.

With inside linebacker Karlos Dansby out for at least this week and possibly the season with a knee problem, there is no reason to believe that defense will be any sharper without its best player.

Throw in Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who completes nearly two-thirds of his passes and has a weapon for an arm, and the Cleveland defense could be in for a very long afternoon.

The only chance the Browns have to win this one is on offense. The Falcons yield an average of 122 yards on the ground and another 289 through the air. The Cleveland offensive line must win the trench battles for running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West and keep quarterback Brian Hoyer clean. The latter objective might be easier.

The Atlanta pass rush is an oxymoron. In 10 games, the Falcons have dropped opposing quarterbacks 13 times, nine by the defensive line, two by linebacker Paul Worrilow and two more by the secondary. The 13 sacks are spread around to nine players with defensive end Osi Umenyiora leading the pack with 2½.

With Josh Gordon returning to the lineup after serving his 10-game suspension, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for the first time this season has a wide receiver who can make a difference.

If this one turns into a shootout, the Browns have a shot only because Gordon is back in the mix and makes them that much more legitimate. The X factor is the Cleveland defense, which played way too conservatively last week in the loss to Houston.

Mike Pettine, perhaps because he has little faith in his secondary, has chosen to play much more that way than when he was an aggressive defensive coordinator in Buffalo last season. Look for more of that soft coverage Sunday, especially with the likes of Jones and White.

For that reason, Ryan and his offense will rack up substantial yardage and simply outscore the Cleveland offense in an entertaining game with defense taking a week off. For the first time in this series, the Falcons will score more than 17 points in a game.  A whole lot more. Make it:

Falcons 38, Browns 24

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

News & Views

News: Josh Gordon returns to the Browns after serving a 10-game suspension for abusing the National Football League’s drug substance program.

Views: How much of a difference in the struggling Cleveland offense will the wide receiver make? Certainly not what Browns fans expect.

Most fans expect Gordon, who stunned pro football last season with an incredible string of performances, to step right in and pick up where he left off. That’s not going to happen for any number of reasons.

First and foremost, he is rusty. He might be in good shape from a physical standpoint. From a mental and emotional standpoint, he isn’t even close to being game ready.

The most important aspect in the on-field relationship between a quarterback and his receivers is timing. All plays on that side of the ball require precision, mostly in the aerial game.

Mess with that just a little bit, disrupt it even the slightest, and the likelihood of executing a successful play shrinks. That’s what quarterback Brian Hoyer and Gordon have to guard against this week in preparation for Sunday’s game in Atlanta.

It won’t be easy. Gordon has no idea the kind of ball Hoyer throws this year. Watching him throw in the first 10 games is not the same as being on the field to see how much spin he puts on the ball.

Does it tail? Does it drift? Does Hoyer wait for his guy to make a break in running his route before throwing the ball or does he throw the ball to a specific area before the break and rely on his man to be there when it arrives? He’ll find out beginning Sunday.

It’s not as easy as a game of pitch and catch. Only the great quarterbacks can do that and Hoyer is still an NFL quarterback baby.

Don’t for a moment think opposing defenses won’t pay extra special attention to Gordon wherever he goes on the field. That target on his back starts out large and grows by the game for the next six games.

The opposition wants to minimize Hoyer’s options in the passing game. They see the wide receiver corps without Gordon has been mediocre at best in the first 10 games and will strive to keep it that way.

But what about last season. Didn’t Hoyer and Gordon, who sat out the first two games due to another suspension, do well last season? Yes and no, but briefly.

Hoyer debuted as the Browns’ starting quarterback in the third game last season against the Minnesota Vikings and targeted Gordon 19 times. He connected on 10 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown in a 31-27 victory.

In the next game against Cincinnati, also a victory, Hoyer threw nine passes Gordon’s way, connecting on four for 71 yards. One game later, Hoyer tore his ACL in the first quarter, targeting Gordon once.

What made the lanky wide receiver’s season so remarkable was he caught all but one of his nine touchdown passes and compiled most of his receiving yards from three different quarterbacks on a team that lost its last seven games after starting 4-5.

The overwhelming majority (86.8%) of his 1,646 yards and touchdowns were compiled when Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell were under center. They were the perfect quarterbacks for Gordon’s stretch-the-field talents.

That presents another problem. Weeden and Campbell have strong arms. Hoyer does not. It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan game plans for his newest wide receiver.

Also bear in mind the Browns threw the football on two of every three plays last season because they had no running game. Gordon was targeted a very generous 11.4 times a game, enabling him to pile up those great statistics.

This season, the Browns have a running game and do not throw the ball two-thirds of the time. So do not expect big things from Gordon right away. It might take as long as a few weeks for Hoyer and Gordon to establish the necessary rhythm to be successful.  

One thing is certain, though. Those Hoyer passes that have sailed over the smallish Cleveland receivers’ heads all season will not sail uncaught when thrown in the much taller Gordon’s direction.

News: The Browns release running back Ben Tate.

Views: What took them so long? Was it because he opened up his mouth last week and declared his unhappiness at being the third option at his position?

First of all, there are two reasons the Browns placed Tate behind Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West on the depth chart: They are better. And they are rookies.

None of this would have happened if Tate had displayed some of the talent he exhibited in his first three seasons with the Houston Texans when he ran for nearly 2,000 yards and 10 touchdowns while serving as Arian Foster’s backup.

That’s what the Browns expected when they signed him to an incentive-laden contract when no one else in the NFL showed any interest. All he had to do was come close to replicating those numbers and everything would have been all right.

After injuring a knee in the opening game and missing three games, he returned and played well in victories over Tennessee and Pittsburgh, piling up 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

After back-to-back lackluster efforts (62 yards on 31 carries), Mike Pettine decided his rookies couldn’t do any worse. That started Tate’s slide out of Cleveland.

His last contribution against his former team last Sunday: Two carries for minus-9 yards. How fitting.

Don’t let the door . . .

News: Karlos Dansby goes down with a knee injury. Could miss rest of the season.

Views: Bad news all the way around. The linebacker was the hub of the defense. He was the linchpin that made it somewhat respectable.

With Dansby gone for at least the next month, the Cleveland defense will not be the same. He played as much from the neck up as he did with his large body. The defense will miss the mental aspect of his contributions.

His ability to recognize certain offensive formations and call the correct defense against those formations will also be missed.

He tackled well, was superb with his pass drops and was the glue that held the defense together. He was the antithesis of his predecessor D’Qwell Jackson.

Big loss.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Monday leftovers

The Browns need to hire a psychologist to find out just what makes this team tick. It has turned into a team with a split personality right before our very eyes.

It has reached the point in the 2014 season where you never know which team is going to show up and play a game of football on any given Sunday (or Thursday night).

Will it be the team that raced out of the gate in the first five games with some very impressive offensive numbers that opened up the eyes of the rest of the National Football League?

Or will it be the team that pretty much mailed it in the next three games against the dregs of the league and escaped with a pair of victories?

Then again, maybe it will be the team that went down to Cincinnati on four days’ rest and humiliated the Bengals in front of a national television audience with their best performance of the year.

And just when a lot of fans began to believe that team was the real Cleveland Browns, they come out and lay a gigantic egg Sunday in front of the home folks against a team with a rookie running back and a quarterback making his professional debut as a starter.

What in the world is going on here? Just when you think the Browns have finally figured out how to win games – and winning six of the first nine certainly qualifies for that label– they resurrect the old expansion days with a pitiful display against the Houston Texans.

Hire that psychologist now. Pay him whatever he demands. There are still six games left in the season. All is not lost.

Someone has to figure out what makes this team tick because the coaching staff certainly can’t.

Sunday’s loss to the Texans in submissive fashion is solid proof the Browns arrived at the ballpark ready to play a game of checkers. Or chess. Or badminton. Football was not uppermost in their minds.

Defensive end Desmond Bryant as much as admitted it after the game. “I don’t think we were really prepared the way we should have been,” he said. What a damning indictment on the coaching staff.

“We may have been sitting back a little bit, kind of catching more than we were delivering.”

Added linebacker Paul Kruger, “Our overall mentality was just not where it needed to be.”

Don’t need to read between the lines to understand what they mean. All afternoon, the defensive game plan clearly appeared to give Houston quarterback Ryan Mallett way too much respect.

Rarely did the Browns blitz. And when they did, it was never more than five men. The Houston offensive line had no problem blunting what little effort was put into making Mallett uncomfortable in the pocket.

It was as though the defensive coaching staff for the Browns invited a loss with its peculiar game plan and the Texans obliged.

Defense is all about aggression. And the head coach whose nickname supposedly is Blunt Force Trauma – he’s also the man who oversees the defense – left that aggression at home.

He either needs to apologize to Browns fans that expected a lot more from the defense this season or at the very least explain why they have been forced to watch something entirely different.

Some fans think the latest loss was as bad as the one down in Jacksonville several weeks ago. Uh, no. Not even close. The Jaguars stink. Houston is a pretty good team with quarterback problems that just might have been solved in Cleveland.
*          *          *
Speaking of quarterback problems, let’s take a detailed look at the body of work for Brian Hoyer this season. See if you can spot where the problem lies.

This will be broken down into seven categories (team and individual) based on how he played in the first five games of the season and then again in the second group of five games. The only commonality is that the Browns were 3-2 in both periods.

In the first five games, the Browns scored 134 points (all but seven by the offense) , an average of 26.8 a game. They accumulated 111 first downs (22.2 a game), 1,224 yards (244.8 a game) and converted 22 of 61 third downs (36.1%). Individually, Hoyer completed 90 of 149 passes (60.4%), threw seven touchdowns passes and was picked off only once.

In the next five games, the Browns scored 82 points (16.4 per), accumulated 92 first downs (18.4), compiled 1,318 yards (263.6) and converted 21 of 74 third downs (28.4%). Hoyer threw 176 passes and completed 91 (51.7%), tossed four scoring passes and was intercepted four times.

Found the problem yet?

Virtually the same cast for the first 10 games on offense (with the exception of Alex Mack, who was injured in game five, and Jordan Cameron, who has missed the last three) and the numbers are significantly worse in the second group of five games.

The Cleveland offense has scored 52 fewer points, recorded 19 fewer first downs and saw the third-down conversion rate, which wasn’t anything to proud of to begin with, dip 7.7%.

Individually, Hoyer threw 27 more passes and completed only one more, threw three fewer scoring passes and four times as many interceptions and saw his completion percentage drop nearly 10%.

So if you’re wondering why the Cleveland offense in the last five games in no way resembles what we saw in the first five games, you’ve now got your answer. Start pointing fingers of blame in the direction of the quarterback. These statistics do not lie.

They tell a tale that is not going to get any better. The main reason the Browns knocked off the Bengals a couple of weeks ago is the running game, which was largely responsible for the offense’s success in the first five outings then disappeared for three games, Rip Van Winkled.

It fell back asleep against Houston, leaving Hoyer all alone to try and save the game. He is not capable of carrying a team by himself. Those numbers above more than prove that.
*          *          *
Mallett, who had problems with touch at the collegiate level, appears to have solved that problem. His 2-yard fade to defensive end J. J. Watt in the left corner of the end zone produced the game’s first touchdown and was a thing of beauty.

When Watt entered the game, the Texans all but announced over the public address system what they were going to do and the Browns still couldn’t stop it. Mallett made a great throw, dropping the ball perfectly into Watt’s waiting arms despite solid coverage by Cleveland linebacker Chris Kirksey.

It was like lobbing a hand grenade into a small bunker and squarely hitting the target. Hoyer doesn’t make that throw.

Despite his size (6-5, 290), Watt showed the grace and athleticism of a wide receiver, managing to make the catch and keep his feet in bounds.
*          *          *
Hoyer on the loss: “We were just outplayed. We just realized we’re not there yet. We’ve got to get better.” Not certain where “there” is. If “there” is the playoffs or playoff worthy or playoff-bound, then yes, the Browns aren’t “there” yet.

Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, ever the optimist, on the loss: “We’re 6-4, so the season is not over. . . . We’re still in control of our own destiny.” Not if you and your teammates continue to play as you all did against Houston.
*          *          *
Notebook: Rookie Houston running back Alfred Blue, who bruised the Cleveland defense for 156 yards, couldn’t contain his glee after the game. “It was fun out there,” he said. “It was really like playing in the backyard.” Embarrassing stuff. . . . Kind of the opposite of what Cincinnati rookie running back Jeremy Hill said after the loss to Cleveland. Remember this? “They’re not that good . . . They’re probably worse than I thought.”  . . . This is how bad the Cleveland offense was at the beginning of the second half: In their first 18 plays, they gained 18 yards. . . . Now that they’ve knocked off the Browns, let’s see if the Texans can go back home and do the same to the invading Bengals Sunday. . . . Lost in the postmortem: Marlon Moore’s 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that was wiped out by a holding penalty on tight end Ryan Taylor, who wasn’t on the roster a week ago. It’s nothing more than a footnote.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

From contenders to pretenders

Remember how the Browns felt when they traveled down to Cincinnati 10 days ago and dismantled the Bengals?

Remember how good they looked in the process? Nothing went right for the Bengals and just about everything fell into place for the Browns, who bullied their intra-state rivals the entire game.

Well now they know how the Bengals felt back then after the Houston Texans rolled into Cleveland Sunday and played bully for the better part of 60 minutes en route to an astonishingly easy 23-7 victory.

They beat up on the Browns on both sides of the ball, shattering their three-game winning streak and putting an end to a three-game victory streak at home.

The first-place Browns looked much more like the cellar-dwellers they have been for most of this century. The Texans, who have split six road games this season, were never seriously threatened.

It was disappointing from a Cleveland perspective on many different levels, not the least of which was to actually look as though they were completely prepared for the Texans. They weren’t close.

The trenches belonged solely to the Texans. If the offensive line was not blasting the Cleveland defensive line four and five yards off the ball in the running game, it threw up an almost impenetrable wall around quarterback Ryan Mallett. It all made quarterbacking his first full game in the National Football League look easy.

The Cleveland defense, which lost linebackers Karlos Dansby and defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard to injuries, once again resembled a swinging gate through which the Houston running game sauntered with relative ease.

The Texans ran for 213 yards (not a misprint). Rookie Alfred Blue, starting for the injured Arian Foster, ran for 156 yards of that real estate, nearly half after contact. Tackling the ball carrier seems to be a foreign act for the Cleveland defense this season.

The Houston offensive line also provided a clean pocket for Mallett. At the end of the game, he had the cleanest uniform for the Texans. No need to place that jersey in the laundry basket. The only time he left his feet was to sit on the bench between possessions.

The Browns, blanked in the sack department, were officially credited with two hits (not seen by these eyes) on Mallett, who looked much more like a seasoned veteran than one making his starting debut as a professional.

He displayed a quick release, was decisive with his reads, made no glaring mistakes (unless you call Joe Haden’s interception of a deflected pass a mistake), rarely missed his open targets, looked comfortable (too comfortable) displaying his big arm and seemed in total control in the battle of Tom Brady backups.

Brian Hoyer, on the other hand, was inconsistent all afternoon for the Browns, who fell into a third-place tie with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North at 6-4. How can that be, you say, when he threw for 330 yards? It took 50 passes to achieve that misleading statistic. That’s how.

Yes, he was victimized by several drops, but most of his throws were either off target, late or not thrown with enough velocity. He struggled with his rhythm the entire game. The none-too-pleased fans, expecting much more from their first-place team, let him have it in the fourth quarter.

The Houston defensive line blunted just about every Cleveland attempt to start its offense. J. J. Watt proved again he is at least the best player on defense in the National Football League if not maybe the best player period.

The man did it all. Registered had three tackles for loss, had a strip sack, recovered a fumble, caused a fumble and caught the touchdown pass that put the Texans on the scoreboard in the opening quarter. Forget his two second-quarter roughing-the-kicker penalties, one of which was marginal at best. The man was a force.

The Browns took advantage of the second roughing call, scoring their only points of the afternoon on a 32-yard strike to Andrew Hawkins to draw even at 7-7 with 8:58 left in the second quarter.

Most of the afternoon, Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel wisely lined up Watt opposite Cleveland offensive right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who had a nightmarish game. When Watt lined up against left tackle Joe Thomas, which wasn’t often enough to suit Browns fans, he was relatively silent.

The Browns, who never owned the lead, played from behind once the Texans grabbed a 14-7 lead with 23 seconds left in the first half on a 20-yard strike from Mallett to tight end Garrett Graham, who broke a tackle at the 4-yard line.

As the game wore on, fans patiently waited for another of those dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks by the Browns after the Texans made it a two-score game on a Randy Bullock field goal in the third quarter.

But the real dagger was plunged by the Texans early in the fourth quarter, a not-so-subtle indication there was no way the Browns were going to win this one. Call it brazen, call it ballsy, call it a testosterone rush. Call it anything you want.

It turned out to be a microcosm of the game for both teams.

A Houston drive stalled at the Cleveland 38-yard line with 12:45 left in regulation. Too long for a Bullock field goal – he missed one in the third quarter from 52 yards – and too short a field for punter Shane Lechler.

What to do, what to do.

Initially, Bullock and the field goal unit went onto the field. Then Texans coach Bill O’Brien called a timeout. Why punt, he must have figured, when my guys are beating up on their guys? That makes no sense. Let’s play some big boy football.

So he yanked Bullock and sent Mallett back on the field with his offense for the fourth-and-3 play as if to challenge the Browns to “stop us if you can. We don’t think you can.” And they didn’t as Mallett drilled a bullet to Andre Johnson for a 10-yard gain against tight coverage by Haden.

The Texans got only three points (on Bullock’s second field goal) out of possession six plays later, but they took three more valuable minutes off the clock.

Ball game.

On this mid-November afternoon, a time of the NFL season when contenders and pretenders separate themselves from the pack as the playoffs loom in the distance, the Browns appear to have revealed themselves as pretenders after enjoying a week in the former category.

Not that the Texans are close to contender class, but the Browns played like anything but a first-place team Sunday when the opposite was the goal. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

It’s much more than Brady Backup Bowl

The Browns-Houston Texans game Sunday in Cleveland is being billed as the Tom Brady Backup Bowl. Why?

Other than it being a coincidence the quarterbacks for the two clubs backed up the future Hall of Famer for the New England Patriots, it’s a reach to sell it that way.

It sort of sounds as though Brian Hoyer for the Browns and Ryan Mallett for the Texans are equals when they are, in fact, quite the opposite. The only commonality is they spent a year together in 2012 backing up Brady and are pocket passers. Other than that, they are almost total opposites.

Hoyer is 6-2, 215 pounds with an average at best throwing arm. Mallett is 6-6, 245 pounds with a bazooka masquerading as his throwing arm. He is the Travis Rosenthal and Aroldis Chapman of the National Football League.

Hoyer makes his 13th NFL start Sunday. Mallett makes his debut as a starting professional quarterback. He’s an NFL baby right out of the womb.

Hoyer plays the game from his shoulders up. We have no idea how to describe Mallet’s style because he has no body of work. We can only assume he has no changeups in his arsenal.

Mallett received his brief NFL baptism in 2012, appearing in four games long enough to complete one of four passes for 17 yards and an interception. He watched Brady all last season and was traded to the Texans this year when Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in New England.

This season, he has taken one snap, a kneel-down on the last play of the Texans 30-14 victory at Oakland in week two. Other than that, he has been a spectator while Ryan Fitzpatrick guided his team, which has lost three of the last four games, to a 4-5 record.

New Texans coach Bill O’Brien, Hoyer’s and Mallett’s quarterbacks coach in New England before he succeeded Joe Paterno at Penn State, had seen enough of Fitzpatrick and decided to make the switch during the team’s bye week.

Mallett is a blank canvas. No one knows what to expect from him Sunday. Obviously not the Browns. There’s no tape of him to study other than his college tapes at Arkansas. They have no idea what his weaknesses are on this level. All they can do is guess and quickly exploit what weaknesses they find during the game.

O’Brien doesn’t know, either. Neither do his teammates. They can go only by what they see in practice where he has played the opposing quarterback until now.

They all know he can throw the ball with extreme velocity. But can he be effective with his short and intermediate range passes? For what it’s worth, he had problems with those types of passes in college.

What kind of a leader can he be? How confident will he be in the huddle? How much of Brady’s brilliance in that area has rubbed off on him? It has with Hoyer, whose 6-3 record this season has elevated his stature in the huddle.

The Browns’ defense will know where to find Mallett, though. He will be in or very near the pocket. That much is certain. If his college stats are any indication, he has the agility of a giraffe.

In his final two years at Arkansas, he ran the ball 102 times, most of them scrambles, for minus-103 yards. He also threw for 7,493 yards and 62 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. But he was sacked 50 times in 26 games, losing 305 yards.

So how are the Browns going to defend Mallett? Play it safe and give him room to make mistakes? Or pound him relentlessly with a series of blitzes to see how he handles the pressure?

The Houston offensive line gives up two sacks a game and Mallett is not the most nimble man in or out of the pocket. His success lies in his ability to get rid of the ball quickly.

Where he has an advantage, and where the Browns are weakest, is the Texans have a solid running game. The Browns have allowed 134 yards a game on the ground this season. However, they have pared that figure to 92 a game recently during their three-game winning streak.

Arian Foster, who ranks behind only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray in rushing this season, has compiled 10 touchdowns, seven on the ground. He is just as dangerous a receiver (229 yards) as he is a runner (822 yards).

With Fitzpatrick at quarterback, everything ran through Foster, who averages 5.62 yards a touch. The Texans run the ball almost 55% of the time. That most likely will change with Mallett, whose forte is the forward pass. When you have wide receivers like Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, you need to keep them busy.

Foster is currently listed as questionable with a groin injury suffered in a loss to Philadelphia two weeks ago and is expected to be a game-day decision. Groin injuries can be cranky and linger. If he doesn’t go, rookie Alfred Blue gets the call.

If it’s Blue, that doesn’t mean the Cleveland defense gets a break. It has struggled this season against runners making their starting debuts. Jacksonville’s Denard Robinson and Lorenzo Taliaferro of Baltimore leap immediately to mind. Losing Phil Taylor for the season does not help.

The game provides Browns fans with their first opportunity to watch the best defensive player in the NFL in end J. J. Watt, who has racked up 48 sacks in just 57 games.  Watt and Akron native Whitney Mercilus have 12½ of the club’s 20 sacks.

Watt plays mostly on the weak side, which means he’ll be matched up most of the afternoon with Browns tackle Joe Thomas in a battle of former University of Wisconsin Badgers. Now we’ll find out just how good Thomas is in what promises to be the best matchup of the day. Whoever wins that battle could determine who wins this one.

One stat to ponder: The Browns have surrendered only 13 sacks in nine games this season. Draw your own conclusions.

The outcome of this game will be determined by how many battles the Browns win in the trenches and how often they make Mallett as uncomfortable as possible in the pocket at the outset.

Then mix it up by disguising coverages, baiting him into throwing ill-advised passes. Show him one coverage presnap, then switch to something entirely different at the snap. In other words, take full advantage of his inexperience.

If Mike Pettine chooses to be conservative on defense and give Mallett too much credit, the Texans have a shot at ending the Browns’ winning streak. If he opts for a more bellicose approach, that winning streak reaches four games. Look for much more of the latter than the former. Make it:

Browns 27, Texans 13

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Falling in love can be dangerous

It is so easy to fall in love with Brian Hoyer.

After all, the Cleveland kid has quarterbacked the Browns to a 6-3 record and first place in the AFC North. And he has an 8-3 record in games he has started and finished.

What’s not to like?

Heady stuff for the former St. Ignatius High School quarterback. So much so that fans are anxious to know how far the Browns will go to make certain he remains the team’s leader.

Hoyer becomes a free agent at the end of this season. And considering the manner in which he has led the Browns thus far, many of those fans will be upset if he does not continue to wear the Seal Brown and Orange.

The thought of seeing him in another team’s uniform next season angers the fan base. “Pay the man,” many of them have declared. “Look what he’s done. The Browns are relevant for the first time in a long time. So pay the man.”

Others proclaim he’s the best homegrown product since Bernie Kosar a generation ago. “Don’t let him get away,” comes the cry.

There are even a few who have tried to make comparisons between Hoyer and Tom Brady. Don’t go there. Just because Hoyer spent three seasons as Brady’s backup in New England does not put him on the same level as the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Not for a second. Not for a moment. Not for a season. And most likely not for a career. The only connection here is osmosis. He sat in the same quarterbacks room with Brady. That’s it.

Hoyer’s strong showing this season presents a conundrum the Browns are not willing to deal with at the present time. There is a season to complete first and any outside distraction will not be tolerated.

Then there is the Johnny Manziel factor.

The Browns didn’t select him in the first round of the National Football League college draft earlier this season to sit on the bench. Hoyer has spoiled whatever plans they had to work him into the starting lineup.

The thought of the Browns signing Hoyer to a long-term contract now flies in the face of those plans. Thus the conundrum.

Who is the quarterback of the future? Hoyer or Manziel? And can they coexist beyond this season when Manziel’s patience is certain to be tested?

The Browns certainly won’t do what the Green Bay Packers did with Aaron Rodgers, another first-round pick, sitting him for three seasons before finally cutting ties with Brett Favre following the 2007 season.

That won’t happen in Cleveland.

First of all, Rodgers did not win the Heisman Trophy. And Hoyer is no Brett Favre.

The timing in Green Bay couldn’t have been any more perfect. The Packers nurtured Rodgers until he was ready. The Browns cannot be that patient. There is no reason to believe Hoyer will sustain his success that long.

At the beginning of this season, when the Browns played five straight solid games on offense to open the schedule, fans caught up in the euphoria clamored for the team to take care of Hoyer now.

He averaged 284.5 passing yards in those five games with seven touchdown passes and just one interception. He completed a career-high 61% of his throws working with a receiving corps that was, at best, ordinary.

Jumping onto the bandwagon became the order of the day.

Then Hoyer inexplicably cooled off during a portion of the schedule that featured the three worst teams in the NFL. His completion percentage dropped to 54.4, his per-game yardage to 263 and he offset his three touchdowns passes with three interceptions.

He became ordinary, although the Browns won two of those games. Talk of a new contract all but disappeared.

But now that talk is back and louder than ever following the Browns’ impressive 24-3 victory last Thursday night in Cincinnati. “Pay the man,” again come the cries.

Never mind what happens in the final seven games of the season. Never mind that Hoyer’s greatest fault is his inconsistency. And never mind that he will be 30 years old next season.

Which Brian Hoyer will we see in the next seven games? The one who played as he did in the first five games and is looking for a big payday? Or the one who played as he did in the games against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay and doesn’t deserve that big payday?

Be careful what you fall in love with, Browns fans. Don’t let the record fool you, at least not yet.

Falling in and out of love with Hoyer before seeing the complete picture is a very easy trap to fall into. His body of work for this season won’t be finished until Dec. 28 in Baltimore.

That’s the time to fairly judge whether he should be pursued or it’s time to see what Manziel can do. Not now.