Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A most interesting offseason looms

Jimmy Haslam III, Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine had no idea they would eventually be running a school for wayward juvenile football players when they selected Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel with their first two picks in the college football draft last May.

They thought they were running a franchise in the National Football League. Turns out after just one season with these problem children, the Browns have come to the realization they drafted trouble.

The two wet-behind-the-ears Texans, whose college exploits were strong enough to warrant first-round attention in the lottery, have turned out to be nothing more than gigantic pains in the hind flanks.

Both expected – and were expected – to be valuable contributors on their respective sides of the football. They arrived in what seemed to be entitlement mode, almost as though it was a foregone conclusion they would log significant playing time.

As it turned out, both were loose cannons, players not willing to do what it takes to make the difficult transition from college football to the NFL. The game came almost too easily to them in college. This was entirely different and they weren’t willing to pay the price.

Commitment is such a vital ingredient in the development of a football player in such a transition and neither Manziel nor Gilbert seemed willing to make that commitment once they reached the NFL. Now they are paying a heavy price for their casual approach to their craft.

Both young men were recently either (a) fined or (b) suspended or (c) both for missing team commitments – in Gilbert’s case being late to a team meeting before the season finale in Baltimore; in Manziel’s case, not showing up for treatment of his too-sore-to-play hamstring.

Throughout the season, they severely underachieved and were rewarded accordingly. Gilbert never nailed down a starting role in the secondary and Manziel failed to improve to the point where Pettine could comfortably and confidently hand him the starting quarterback job.

Running a pro football team is hard enough without off-the-field issues. And these two provided more than a season’s worth with their almost casual approach to their jobs. It’s quite clear they need a sizable attitude adjustment. Browns safety Donte Whitner tried to provide one for Gilbert.

“It’s time to grow up and not be a kid anymore,” he said a few days ago. “He has to look at himself in the mirror . . . and understand what he did wrong . . . and when we return (next season) show everybody you have a good attitude and you want to go out there and be the player they drafted you to be.”

Manziel chose to put aside his playboy tendencies temporarily and rely on introspection and self analysis. “I brought this on myself,” he admitted. “I brought these cameras. I don’t think it’s fair to myself, not fair to anybody in this locker room, the distraction I brought at a point in time.” And then he apologized – reportedly not directly – to his teammates.

“I’m sorry to these guys who are veterans in this locker room and know what it takes,” he said. “I’m having to learn the hard way. At the same time, I’m either going to learn or I’m going to find something else to do. It’s time I look myself in the mirror and really hold myself accountable and start making some deals with my life.”

He says all the right words. For such a young man, he is extremely polished and well versed in how to handle the media. At some point, though, Manziel the con man seeps into my thoughts. He’s good, but I have a problem buying his bullroar.

For example, he says he needs to take his job more seriously. “There is not a bit of doubt in my mind that I’m serious about everything I’m talking about,” he said.

“But at the same time, you can talk and say this all you want, but when your actions don’t reflect that and you make a conscious decision to put yourself in that position that you stay out too late and not wake up the next morning, it’s going to cause a lot of trouble.”

Then came the kicker. “There is nothing I can sit here and tell you that’s going to do any good,” he said. “It’s about action and being accountable and doing what I’m going to say instead of looking like a jackass.” Ah yes, self-deprecation.

Less than a day after making those remarks, Manziel was down in Miami having a good time with his friends and hangers-on and football was the farthest thing from his mind. The 2014 season was an immediate distant memory even though it had ended just a few days earlier.

That’s one of the reasons Haslam performed an intervention of sorts last Sunday when addressing the problems some of his young high profile players like Manziel, Gilbert and wide receiver Josh Gordon have with commitment, serving notice at the same time that it will stop or else.

“We’re not going to tolerate people who are irresponsible no matter what round they are drafted in,” the owner said. “We’re going to give them a chance. . . . Hopefully, they’ll grow up. . . . But if they can’t grow up, if they can’t be responsible to their teammates and the coaches and our fans, they then won’t be with the Cleveland Browns.”

He hinted at changes. “Clearly quarterback is an important position in the NFL and we’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “If you look at the Browns and where they have struggled, they have struggled at quarterback. We know that’s a position . . . we’ll have to address.“

Interestingly, he refers to his team in the third person plural rather than first person plural.

In his season-ending news conference, Pettine hauled out the talk is cheap card on Manziel and suggested the quarterback situation “is still very much a question mark. . . . I would say out quarterback situation is muddy at best.”

Even former major league pitcher Curt Schilling, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, weighed in and offered his advice to Manziel about a week ago through Twitter after the rookie quarterback made his frank admission about commitment.

@JManziel2 Didn’t ask for it, but I’ll throw it out there. If being the best doesn’t consume your every waking thought, do something else.

In order for Manziel – and Gilbert – to follow that path, each had to do something that was foreign to them this past season. They have to grow up, get serious and start acting like professionals, not jerks. This isn’t college anymore. They’re playing with the big boys now. They have placed themselves squarely under the microscope.

Let’s give Farmer the last word here.” I would tell you that words don’t mean anything,” he told the Cleveland media Tuesday in obvious reference to Manziel. “We’re all about action.”

Should be a more interesting offseason than usual.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Monday leftovers (Tuesday edition)

Looking for other reasons the Browns could have finished better than a 7-9 record this season? Try this group of figures as one of the main culprits.

Of course finishing three games better than last season is quite an accomplishment, but it could have been so much better. These numbers show why.

They are all about drives, or possession of the football, over the course of the season. They fall into four main categories: Number of drives, number of three-and-outs, number of drives five plays or fewer and number of drives that consumed 10 or more plays.

Winning time of possession in a 60-minute game is one of the main goals of coaches, along with winning the turnover ratio. Both play vital roles in achieving a victory.

The following is a breakdown of how the Browns did with their possessions this season, discounting short end-of-half possessions that had no bearing on the outcome of games.

The Browns started 185 drives in their 16 games with season highs of 15 in the Jacksonville loss and 14 in the loss to Indianapolis. Of those 185 drives, 62 (33.5%) wound up as a three and out.

In other words, one out of every three possessions and the defense was back on the field. The more your defense is on the field, the more likely it will tire. And the more it tires, second-half leads begin to disappear.

Of those 62 three and outs, 19 were recorded in the Browns’ seven victories. The nine losses yielded 43. When the offense remained on the field longer, better results occurred.

Now comes a more telling statistic. Of the 185 possessions, 116 required punter Spencer Lanning to enter the game no more than five plays into a drive. That figure includes five that produced touchdowns.

That’s a 62.7% failure rate to sustain drives, almost two of every three possessions. Breaking it down even further, 45 of the 116 were recorded in victories.

Now in drives that lasted 10 or more plays, the Cleveland offense recorded a measly 28, or less than two a game, with highs of four each in back-to-back victories over Tennessee and the second Pittsburgh game. Only 11 were recorded in the nine losses.

So when replaying the season in your mind and wondering where it fell apart and resulted in a frustrating loss or two, consider that the offense failed to do its part, especially in the second half of the season when only 11 of 92 possessions stretched to 10 or more plays and 34 were three and outs.
*          *          *
A lot of fans were impressed with Connor Shaw’s performance in the season-ending loss in Baltimore. Many of them clamored for the undrafted rookie free agent when it was obvious Johnny Manziel was overmatched in his brief time at quarterback.

Shaw, on the other hand, showed poise, toughness, a terrific ability to extend plays with his scrambling and a pocket presence that belied his young age and relative inexperience. But he’s not the answer.

Granted he did not look out of place, but he is at best a marginal National Football League quarterback. He doesn’t have a strong arm and seemed to have trouble seeing over taller defensive linemen in an effort to locate his receivers.

Once he plants his back foot when dropping back to pass, he has a tendency to hesitate instead of getting the ball out quickly. Just about every time he hesitated, he was either sacked or barely managed to escape before throwing the ball.

He’s a nice third-string quarterback just good enough at this level to some day maybe move up and be a backup. But it was sure nice to see him scare the Ravens for the better part of three quarters Sunday. Manziel couldn’t have done it.
*          *          *
Ever notice how infrequently Browns quarterbacks throw to the running backs? It seems as though incorporating the running backs in the passing game is so deep in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s playbook, it is almost an afterthought.

Not sure whether it’s his lack of confidence in the ability for Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West to catch a thrown football. Whatever it is, it certainly makes life easier for opposing defensive coordinators because it’s one less thing to worry about.

This season, Cleveland quarterbacks connected on only 32 passes to Crowell, West and the departed Ben Tate and Ray Agnew. West scored the lone touchdown via that route.

Last season in a much more pass-oriented Cleveland offense, Chris Ogbonnaya alone had 48 receptions and two touchdowns. Five other running backs combined for another 48 catches and two scores.

When he was offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins, Shanahan showed the same disdain for throwing to running backs even though he had a terrific player in Alfred Morris. Most everything was directed at either wide receivers or tight ends.
*          *          *
If Justin Gilbert has any designs on becoming a successful cornerback in the NFL, it might be a good idea to emulate fellow corner Buster Skrine. The little guy (5-9 and 185 pounds) from Tennessee-Chattanooga brings a toughness to the game that belies his stature.

Ever since a shaky start with the Browns in his first two seasons, Skrine has come on strong the last couple of seasons, bringing an aggressive attitude to each game. He was supposed to be the slot corner for the Browns this season, but had no trouble winning the starting job outside and limiting Gilbert’s reps.

If Gilbert can somehow replicate what Skrine brings to games and apply it to his natural talent, then maybe the Browns’ secondary will benefit. That’s a big if, though. It’s all up to the kid. But Skrine would be a nice starting place.
*          *          *
Notebook: At one point in the loss to the Ravens Sunday, the Cleveland pass rush along the defensive line consisted of Sione Fua, Jamie Meder and Scott Solomon. Who were those guys? . . . At the end of the third quarter of that game, the Browns owned a 26:13-18:47 lead in time of possession and a 10-3 lead on the scoreboard. When they outscored the Browns, 17-0, in the final quarter, the Ravens won the TOP battle, 10:30-4:30. . . . The Browns ran 15 plays in the final quarter, eight of them on the final drive, and gained 32 yards. The Ravens ran 22 plays and gained 248 yards. That includes two kneel downs at the end of the game. . . . It’s almost as though the Ravens toyed with the Browns for the first three quarters then decided to stop screwing around.    

Monday, December 29, 2014

Playing the stats game

There are those in Browns Nation who firmly believe the 2014 season, in spite of the five-game losing streak that concluded it, was much more rewarding than anything it has seen since 2007.

After all, the club finished with a 7-9 record when most pundits believed it was a mortal lock to win no more than five. That right there tells you all you need to know about the progress the Browns made under new coach Mike Pettine.

Isn’t the most important statistic a team compiles the won-lost record? Of course it is. It’s the ultimate bottom line and is considered reflective of a team’s worth from a talent standpoint.

But what goes into the record is just as important and allows one to see a little more clearly whether progress was, indeed, actually achieved. Here’s a close look at some of those important stats, some of which might leave you scratching your head wondering just how the Browns could wind up 7-9.

Before we get started, it’s important to note the Browns knocked off only two teams with winning records this season – Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – and defeated five of the seven teams they played with losing records. Their only stumbles were Jacksonville and Carolina, the latter winning its division championship with a 7-8-1 record.

Now then, here’s a breakdown of stats, comparing this season with last season’s 4-12 team. You might be surprised at some of them and wonder just how much this season’s team really wasn’t that much different than last season’s.

For example, the 2014 team registered seven fewer first downs and yielded only 20 more than last season’s team. This season’s club converted an anemic 29.5% of its third downs, a 5.5% drop, but improved by 7% its ability to stop third-down conversions.

Last season, the Browns’ pass rush racked up 40 sacks. Not a great number, but certainly not an embarrassing one like the 31 this season’s team posted. When you don’t pressure the quarterback, the secondary normally suffers.

Not this season. That secondary, arguably the strongest part of 2014’s defense, surrendered only 60 more yards through the air, but gave up seven fewer touchdown passes. The overall defense gave up seven fewer touchdowns.

The run defense, hampered by an injury-ravaged defensive line, produced the biggest shocker. Last season, the Browns allowed just 1,781 yards (111 yards a game) on the ground. This season, that number skyrocketed to 2,265 yards (141.5 a game). You do the math.

Along the way, that run defense held the opposition under 100 yards in only four of the 16 games and under 75 just once. The Browns won three of those four games. In the overall picture, though, it had all kinds of problems getting off the field.

Getting back to the offense, which eventually became very offensive in the final 11 games (averaging just 15 points a game), it produced about 240 fewer yards than last season even though the ground game was substantially better.

Rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West gave the Browns their best tandem of running backs since the return in 1999. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took full advantage, rushing the ball 130 more times than last season (eight more per game) and the results were extremely positive.

Crowell, West and the departed Ben Tate scored 16 of the club’s 17 touchdowns via the infantry route, shattering last year’s mark of four scores. It was also the most rushing touchdowns the Browns have scored since the 1986 season, when the team that eventually moved to Baltimore posted 20.

But it was the Cleveland passing game, which looked so strong in the first five games, that proved the offense’s undoing. Brian Hoyer was front and center in that regard.

He accounted for all 12 scoring passes, the third-lowest figure in that department since 1999. He completed only 55.3% of his passes and threw 13 interceptions after throwing just one in the first five games.

There was also a 700-yard dropoff in passing yardage. That’s because Norv Turner, last season’s offensive coordinator, put the ball up about 70% of the time, which also accounted for the lack of production on the ground.

The biggest change, however, was in the important turnover ratio. The Browns improved from a minus-8 last season to a plus-6 this season. The offense, which stagnated as the season wore on, did not take advantage of the sizable swing, scoring three fewer touchdowns than last season.

Even though they won three more games than last season and improved their home record from 1-7 to 4-4, the Browns still scored nine fewer points than 2013. They also gave up 69 fewer points.

One more stat that is easily overlooked and contributed heavily to the Browns’ final record. They had the good fortune this season to play the NFC South in inter-conference play. They were 3-1 as the AFC North battered their NFC rival division with a 12-3-1 record.

So what can be gleaned from these statistics? This season’s club was marginally better in some areas, somewhat worse in others, but took much better advantage this time of playing a last-place schedule. The good news is they’ll be playing the same kind of schedule next season.

Now it’s up to General Manager Ray Farmer and Pettine to make certain the 2016 schedule does not fall into the same category.

Tomorrow: More interesting statistics and other stuff in Monday’s leftovers (Tuesday edition)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Play the whole game

The Browns, whose struggles lately have been rewarded with a nosedive to the bottom of the AFC North yet again, actually played a pretty good football game against the Ravens Sunday in Baltimore.

Considering how poorly they have played on both sides of the ball in the second half of the season, what they accomplished in the first 51-plus minutes against the Ravens bordered on the miraculous.

In no particular order, the defense made Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco look ordinary, made a sensational goal line stand after the Ravens had a first-and-goal at the Cleveland 2 in the first quarter, put the clamps on a very good Baltimore ground game and permitted just six points.

The offense, meanwhile, did something it has been unable to do the last two games. It stayed on the field for long periods of time, enabling the defense to catch its breath. Rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, despite pressure from the Ravens’ pass rush all afternoon, did not look out of place.

Performing much better than the much more heralded Johnny Manziel, the unsigned free agent showed an uncanny ability to extend plays with his escapability. Parlayed with the strong running of Terrance West, the Browns carved out a 10-3 lead after 45 minutes when  the rookie running back scored on a two-yard run to culminate a seven-play, 80-yard drive with 3:29 left in the third quarter.

The offense, which accumulated only 43 minutes of possession in the last two losses, logged slightly more than 26 minutes in the first three quarters against the Ravens. Things were looking very good. Even when Baltimore's Justin Tucker nailed his second field goal of the game with 10:37 left in regulation, there seemed to be no panic. An upset loomed.

And then the Browns played the rest of the fourth quarter. Because the rules book says a game must last at least four full quarters, they had to play the remaining 8:23 after the offense recorded its fourth three-and-out of the afternoon. Too bad.

Two plays after that three-and-out, the Ravens had a 13-10 lead on a pair of passes to Torrey Smith, who beat Joe Haden on the first one with a 53-yard grab and Buster Skrine on the second with a 16-yard scoring reception.

Just like that. Two plays, 69 yards and a very good defensive effort were flushed. And after the next three-and-out on the subsequent Cleveland possession, the Ravens struck again, this time on a six-play, 57-yard drive that took three minutes and 16 seconds off the clock.

Two touchdowns in less than five minutes and all that good work put forth in the first 51 or so minutes went to waste as the Ravens clinched a playoff spot with a 20-10 victory and extended the Browns’ losing streak to the final five games.

It was one of those situations, given the Browns’ predilection for losing games in the fourth quarter, where the average Browns fans wondered either out loud or to themselves, “Wonder how they're going to blow this one.”

Over the years since the return in 1999, the Browns have come up with some bizarre ways to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory. But it is extremely rare for the defense to go from so good to so beaten so quickly so late in a game.

The Ravens, clearly the better team even though they didn’t show it in the first three quarters, did something the Browns are incapable of doing. They have the ability to hang just close enough to take a game into the final quarter with a chance to win and then summon whatever it takes to do so.

They make plays. That, in this case, is what separated the two teams Sunday. Whenever they needed to make a play, the Browns failed.

When the Ravens suddenly had the lead on the two Smith catches, there was still 7:33 left in regulation. Plenty of time to retaliate, although the Baltimore defense seemed to pick it up several notches after taking the lead.

Shaw’s first-down pass to Travis Benjamin near midfield on the first play of the next possession was dropped. Two more incompletions and Spencer Lanning was punting for the seventh time just 33 seconds later.

For some reason, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan experienced brain cramps and dialed up three straight pass plays. There was still half a quarter to play and the Cleveland ground game had taken advantage of the absence of All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

West, who pounded out 94 of the Browns’ 109 yards on the ground against a stingy Ravens defense, was a spectator during that possession. No reason to abandon the ground game with only a three-point deficit. By doing so, Shanahan did the Ravens a favor.

By trying to pressure Shaw all afternoon, the Baltimore defense was more vulnerable to the run. When it came down to making smart coaching decisions from a strategic standpoint, Shanahan drew a blank.

What made the strategy even more puzzling at that point was the Browns’ receiving corps had not helped Shaw by holding on to some of his passes. By the middle of the fourth quarter, the only aspect of the Cleveland offense that worked was the running game.

Never mind the four short-range passes Shaw completed down the stretch that produced two first downs. By then, the Ravens were in prevent mode and more than willing to give up the short stuff.

In some ways, it was a fitting way to conclude the season. Remember when the Browns entered the second half of the season with a 5-3 record and made serious threats to own first place in the AFC North? After the Cincinnati surprise in game nine, they did.

The last seven games, though, produced just one victory, the 26-24 thriller at Atlanta when Billy Cundiff – remember him? – kicked the winning field goal on the last play of the game. That kick is what separates the Browns from a seven-game losing streak. Little did Browns fans realize that would be the club’s last taste of victory.

So a season that started out so promising has once again ended with such a deflated feeling for Browns Nation. Some fans will look on a 7-9 record as progress. Never mind that five of the victories were against teams with losing records. They won them, OK?

The more Browns realistic fans no doubt will use the final seven games as a barometer of where this team is headed. After all, isn’t it the goal of most coaches to improve as the season unfolds, especially in the second half?

Using that barometer, it looks like a busy offseason for General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine from a personnel standpoint. Many questions were answered. Based on what happened in the second half, there are too many broken pieces and parts to overlook.

The season-ending loss in Baltimore very well could serve as a microcosm of those problems. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

 This one is easy

If there is one thing Joe Flacco knows with a large degree of certainty, it’s that he will be the winning quarterback when his Baltimore Ravens play the Browns. In fact, it’s a virtual lock.

He has faced Cleveland 13 times in his seven-year career and lost just once. That was last season when the Browns snapped an 11-game losing streak against the team that called Cleveland home before moving in 1996. Flacco was at the helm for all 11 victories.

He added No. 12 in week three this season but just barely with Justin Tucker nailing a 32-yard field goal as time ran out for a 23-21 victory. In actuality, the Browns should have won that game.

Billy Cundiff missed one field goal, had another blocked and rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel inexplicably fell after catching a deep pass from Brian Hoyer with no defender within 10 yards and did not score what would have been an easy touchdown.

That was also the game in which Johnny Manziel made a cameo appearance at quarterback midway through the second quarter, retreated toward the sideline after one play, but never left the field. A 39-yard Hoyer pass to Manziel on a trick play was negated by an illegal shift penalty.

That’s about as tricky as coach Mike Pettine has been this season, at least on offense. Otherwise, he is trying to guard against the Browns once again sinking as rapidly as the 2014 season is ending.

The four-game losing spiral the Browns are currently in is not being helped by injury issues that have hit the quarterback position particularly hard. Unless he makes a miraculous recovery from shoulder and bicep issues, Hoyer will be a spectator when the two teams meet in the season finale Sunday in Baltimore.

Even though the Browns signed veteran Tyler Thigpen to what amounts to a one-game contract, fans will be disappointed if rookie Connor Shaw does not get the call to start. He has been with the club all season on the practice squad and knows how to handle Kyle Shanahan‘s offense.

How well he handles that offense against the Ravens is another matter. The Baltimore defense, while not as terrific as it was in the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed era, is still pretty good.

They excel at rushing the passer (45 sacks with outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil racking up 17 and Terrell Suggs 11)) and shutting down the run (87 yards a game). The Browns scored three rushing touchdowns in the first game against the Ravens, but were held to just 85 yards on the ground.

But this time, they won’t have to worry about Haloti Ngata in the middle of the Ravens’ defensive line. The National Football League earlier this month suspended Ngata for the remainder of this season (four games) for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

The Ravens didn’t miss him in the first two games, victories over Miami and Jacksonville, limiting them to only 145 yards on the ground. But they did last Sunday when Houston ran for 123 yards in an upset victory.

The Cleveland ground game lately has been rendered dormant with only a 115-yard effort in the loss to Indianapolis the only bright spot. It has produced double-digit results in eight of the 15 games, including three of the last four. They are 2-6 in those eight games, 5-2 in triple-digit ground games.

Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West have found holes difficult to find lately because opposing teams now stack the box with eight and sometimes nine men, daring whoever is at quarterback to throw the ball. In the early part of the season, an effective running game helped set up the pass. That no longer is the case.

Now flip those stats and look at the Browns’ ability to stop the run. In 15 games, they have surrendered triple-digit afternoons to 11 teams, including 453 yards in the last two games against Cincinnati and Carolina. In the four double-digit games, they are 3-1.

All of which brings us to Sunday’s game. The last time these two teams met, the Browns couldn’t stop rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro (90 yards), making his NFL starting debut, and Justin Forsett (63 yards). Both were filling in after the team terminated the contract of Ray Rice two weeks earlier.

Forsett, who supplanted Taliaferro two games later, has compiled 1,147 yards and eight touchdowns and proven a reliable receiver out of the backfield with 42 receptions for 246 yards. Lately, however, he has struggled, gaining only 138 yards and scoring just one touchdown in the last three games.

Flacco has been the Baltimore offense with seven scoring passes and more than 900 yards through the air in the last four games. His chief targets have been long-distance threats Steve Smith (975 yards and six touchdowns) and Torrey Smith (684 yards and 10 touchdowns), and tight end Owen Daniels (481 yards and four scores).

The Browns pretty much shut down the Smiths in the first game until the final drive of the game when Flacco and Steve Smith, who beat Joe Haden on the play, collaborated on a 32-yard connection that moved the ball into field-goal territory with less than a minute left in regulation.

Nonetheless, the Smiths remain dangerous, especially since the Cleveland pass rush poses no threat to Flacco based on how it has played lately. And with Haden questionable for the game, pressure on the Cleveland secondary will be a prominent factor in the outcome of the game.

So let’s add all this up.

The Ravens have won 12 of the last 13 games against the Browns and haven’t lost to them in Baltimore since 2007. They are among the stingiest teams in the league against the run. And the Browns can’t stop the run.

Cleveland also has had trouble running the ball lately and most likely will start a rookie quarterback making his professional debut against a team that averages three sacks a game. And its offensive line hasn’t exactly been lights out recently.

The Browns are in the throes of a four-game losing streak and playing arguably their worst football of the season. There is absolutely nothing positive to grasp unless it’s the anticipation to see what the rookie quarterback can do. That’s how far this club has fallen in the second half of the season. This one’s easy. Make it:

Ravens 28, Browns 6

* Connor Shaw named the Browns' starter. Prediction remains the same.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Scraping the barrel's bottom

That’s right, Browns front office. Why not wait until Christmas week to ask Rex Grossman if he’d like to make about 50 or 60 grand and sign what amounts to a one-week contract?

Great timing.

Shouldn’t be shocking to learn Grossman said no thanks, although there are those in the media community who look snarkily at the decision and make fun of the Browns.

I’ve got plans to spend time with my family this week, Grossman sorta kinda told the club, and the thought of working out this week with you guys doesn’t exactly sound appealing.

OK, I made that last part up. But Grossman’s snub gives you some idea of just how miserable this season has become. It has devolved into one gigantic mess. Thank goodness there is only one game left.

With Johnny Manziel gone for the season and Brian Hoyer finding it difficult to raise his hand to go to the bathroom, the front office scrounged to find someone, anyone, to back up Connor Shaw, who has come off the practice squad and is the odds-on favorite to start Sunday in Baltimore against the Ravens.

In their exhaustive search to find anyone who would say yes, they remembered Tyler Thigpen, who spent about a week and a half in training camp before being let  go last summer. He remembered them, too, and couldn’t say yes fast enough.

Yep, he’s the same Tyler Thigpen who was arrested a month ago in Myrtle Beach, S. C., and charged with driving under the influence after being found asleep in his car in a fast food drive thru.

So the Browns, all alone in first place in the AFC North after week 10, will play the 2014 finale with a third-string quarterback backed up by the season’s starting quarterback who is backed up by training-camp fodder.

Just when Browns fans thought things couldn’t get worse . . . 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday leftovers

This is not what Johnny Manziel envisioned when he decided to leave college a year early and take on the National Football League. He did not expect his rookie season in the NFL to wind up as nothing more than a footnote.

But that is exactly the way this season will end for the Browns' quarterback, who has been  declared out for the season finale in Baltimore next Sunday. His 2014 resume will show just six-plus quarters of action, one touchdown running and a truckload of futility.

Instead of helping the “wreck this league” this season, the league wrecked him. He leaves nursing a badly pulled hamstring and a very bruised ego. He never saw coming what eventually unfolded.

With one Heisman Trophy and a whole bunch of passing records in just two years at Texas A&M, college football became too small for the equally undersized Manziel. He deemed himself ready to make the big next step.

But when team after team after team, including the Browns, passed on him in the first half of the first round of the college football draft last May, the kid’s revenge factor kicked into high gear. They’ll all be sorry they didn’t draft me, he no doubt thought to himself.

When the lottery drifted into the second half of the round and his huge ego continued to take a beating, Manziel finally found a partner in your Cleveland Browns, who had an extra selection courtesy of a deal with Buffalo earlier in the round and traded back up to No. 22 to get him.

Vowing to “wreck this league” for and with the Browns, his selection signaled a brand new era in Cleveland professional football. The circus that surrounded him during his spectacular two seasons as quarterback at Texas A&M moved to Cleveland.

Whether he or the Browns liked it or not, Manziel was the new face of the franchise even though he hadn’t taken a snap. The national media made Berea a daily stop.

When it became apparent Brian Hoyer was the better quarterback and the more logical choice to open the season at quarterback for the Browns, Manziel took what had to be an uncomfortable back seat. He would bide his time, knowing it would come eventually.

And when it came in game 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Manziel received the rudest of rude awakenings of just how much better the pro game is than the college game. Watching it from the bench was one thing. Experiencing it was quite another. In the 30-0 pounding, he looked like a high school kid playing his first game.

It didn’t get much better in last Sunday’s game in Carolina, where the far less talented Panthers showed him the Cincinnati debacle was not a fluke. He was just as ineffectual despite some new wrinkles thrown in by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

One was a designed run around left end. That’s when Manziel found out just how fast and quick NFL linebackers and safeties are. It was the last play he will run this season.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Colin Jones closed so fast on Manziel, he couldn’t even make it back to the line of scrimmage. It’s the kind of a play he made routinely at Texas A&M.

Unless and until he gets it under control, Manziel’s ego might turn out to be his greatest enemy. His “wreck this league” comment at the draft went viral, as did his familiar money rub. Unless he can back it up, talking and acting this way will come back to haunt him.

Even though he played very little this season, he did so with a bull’s-eye on his back. The Bengals were all over him with mock money rubs whenever they made a play against him, which was often.

As he grows older, either in Cleveland or elsewhere, chances are he will eventually develop a relationship with humility. If he continues to think he can bluster his way through the NFL, he’ll find out, as he did briefly this season, that’s not going to work unless he can back it up. And right now, he’s as far from that possibility as he can be.
*          *          *
Mike Pettine most likely will be the happiest guy in Berea next Monday. The season that looked so good and turned so bad so quickly will finally be at an end. The team that takes the field in Baltimore is as bad as its record the last month.

The offense has all kinds of problems putting points on the board and staying on the field. The defense has all kinds of problems stopping the opposition and getting off the field. In other words, the offense is dead and the defense is on life support.

Sunday’s game against the Ravens will be a good test to see if Pettine can actually get his men to overachieve. They haven’t come close since the Atlanta victory, which happens to be the last time they won a game. Being emotionally ready to play a football game seems to have escaped the Cleveland locker room.

That falls on the coach and his staff. There is no excuse for what has turned into yet another late-season collapse. At some point, veteran players have to step up and play the pride card. What was it Pettine said when he took the job? He wanted his new team to “play like a Brown.” I don’t think this is what he meant.
*          *          *
With apologies to Jim Mora in regard to the Browns’ pass rush this season: “What’s that? Pass rush? Don’t talk about  . . . the pass rush. You kidding me? Pass rush? I just hope we can win a game! Another game.”

And without a pass rush, which has been absent more often than not this season, winning the final game against the Ravens becomes virtually impossible. Whatever schemes Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil have employed this season haven’t worked.

Last season, the Browns racked up 40 sacks. Going into the Ravens game, that number is 30 and outside linebacker Paul Kruger (10) and Desmond Bryant (5) have half of them. No wonder the secondary is so frazzled and beat up. Linebacker Scott Solomon, fresh off the practice squad, had the lone sack against the Panthers.
*          *          *
That Billy Winn interception of a Cam Newton pass midway through the third quarter in Sunday’s loss should have resulted in a touchdown and tied the game at 10-10. I rarely criticize officials, but referee Ed Hochuli really screwed this one up.

The defensive end made an acrobatic diving catch of the ball at the Cleveland 46 and rolled onto his back, cradling the football Not one Panther was within five yards of him when safety Jordan Poyer leaned over Winn, grabbed the ball from his grasp and ran 54 yards to the end zone. No signal from an official.

Hochuli immediately ruled Winn had “given himself up” and was down by contact. Not sure what he meant by that because, again, no one from the Panthers was within five yards of him to establish contact. Because it was a turnover, it was subject to a video review, which Hochuli said confirmed the call on the field.

According to the rules, the only way a player gives himself up is by deliberately kneeling to keep the clock moving, usually late in a game, or when a quarterback slides to avoid contact during a scramble. Winn’s actions fall into neither category. It should have been a touchdown.
*          *          *
Notebook: Fourth-round pick Pierre Desir acquitted himself well in his first start at cornerback. Filling in for the underachieving Justin Gilbert, Desir made seven solo tackles, was extremely active, defensed a couple of passes and did not look out of place. . . . Looks as though Connor Shaw might be the Browns’ third quarterback to start a game this season. Manziel is out and Hoyer’s throwing shoulder is giving him problems after taking a sack Sunday, , , , In the last three games, Josh Gordon has been thrown to 18 times, catching nine for 108 yards. In his first game back from suspension, he was thrown to 16 times, catching eight for 120 yards. Make of that what you will. . . . Two more injuries along the defensive line, the hardest hit position this season. Latest to leave are Ahtyba Rubin and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen. The Browns are down to three relatively healthy defensive linemen: Winn, Bryant and Sione Fua. . . . Hard to believe, but the Browns were credited with no quarterback hits against Carolina. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

And the nightmare continues

The 2014 National Football League season can’t end quickly enough for the Browns, on the cusp of a season-ending five-game losing streak following Sunday’s 17-13 road loss to the Carolina Panthers.

This team is in such disarray on both sides of the football, going back to the drawing board for the last game of the season next Sunday in Baltimore would be an exercise in futility.

This team has trouble moving the football, trouble preventing other teams from moving the football and generally fails time and again to make clutch plays when they are most needed.

Right now, it is not a good football team. Not even close. It hasn’t been good, with one notable exception, since winning three of the first five games featuring an offense that captured the attention of the rest of the NFL.

The defense took five games to catch up to the offense and when it did, the offense punched the AWOL card and hasn’t really returned. With that one exception.

Since knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals in humiliating fashion on that Thursday night on national television in game nine, the bottom dropped out. The defense kept the Browns in games, but the offense disappeared. And then the defense collapsed under the weight of spending too much time on the field.

That’s basically the story of the Carolina game. The Cleveland offense, first with Johnny Manziel and then Brian Hoyer, couldn’t stay on the field for long periods of time. The physically spent defense futilely turned the ball over a couple of times to an offense that snubs its nose at opportunity.

Manziel, coming off his awful starting debut last Sunday against the Bengals, looked better. Comparatively speaking, that is. Just showing up and not making mistakes constitutes improvement in this case.

The rookie went down with a hamstring injury with 1:49 left in the first half after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Carolina safety Colin Jones while losing a yard on a designed run around left end. He never returned after running just 16 plays for 56 yards, half of them on a 28-yard hookup with Andrew Hawkins.

Hoyer, still looking tentative in the pocket, beat the blitz, connecting with Jordan Cameron on an 81-yard scoring play five minutes into the fourth quarter to give the Browns their only lead of the afternoon at 13-10.

The tight end split the coverage, gathered in the ball at the Cleveland 40, and outraced the Panthers’ secondary to score the Browns’ first offensive touchdown in more than nine quarters, a span of about 140 minutes.

It was also the perfect time for the defense to rally in support of the sudden – and, as it turned out, brief – awakening of the offense. The Browns needed a stop to maintain momentum and gain an emotional edge. But this was game 15 and the defense, more cumulatively than anything else, was cooked. Worn out. Nothing left.

Tasked with something as important as protecting a lead with 10 minutes left in regulation was asking way too much for this defense. Case in point: The Panthers racked up just one three-and-out in 10 possessions. The Browns had four in 10, the first two orchestrated by Manziel and No. 3 split between Manziel and Hoyer.

The winning Carolina drive was helped along by a successful replay challenge by Panthers coach Ron Rivera on a 14-yard pass reception by wide receiver Brenton Bersin at the Cleveland 9 that was initially ruled an incomplete pass.

Replay correctly overturned the call and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who had runs of six and 13 yards on a naked bootleg (on third down) along the way, found running back Jonathan Stewart all alone in the end zone after what seemed like 10 seconds.

The Cleveland pass rush, absent most of the afternoon, failed to put pressure on Newton, playing just 12 days after fracturing a couple of transverse processes in his lower back. He was sacked only once and picked up 63 yards (in addition to his 201 yards through the air) on the ground.

The Panthers were 9-of-16 on third down – the Browns were 3-of-12 – and controlled the ball for 38 minutes. In last week’s loss to Cincinnati, the Bengals owned the ball for 39 minutes. When your offense has the ball for only 43* out of a possible 120 minutes, winning not only becomes impossible, it becomes improbable.

Once the Panthers grabbed the lead, the ultimate outcome became inevitable even though the Browns received a massive break on the first play of the ensuing possession.

Hoyer attempted to connect with Travis Benjamin on a deep route and was picked off at the Carolina 38 by Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who returned it 33 yards to the Cleveland 29, only to fumble it right back to the Browns.

Benjamin, to his credit, did not give up on the play and peeled back in an effort to make a play. He caught up to Norman, punched the ball out of the corner’s grasp and recovered for a net gain of nine yards on the play. No truth to the rumor the Browns immediately put that play in their playbook.

Still, it made no difference. The offense, which registered only eight first downs (up from last Sunday’s five), went back into dormant mode and advanced to only midfield six plays later, the big play a seven-yard sack of Hoyer by defensive tackle Kawann Short.

With about 3:30 left in regulation, Mike Pettine chose to punt on fourth-and-13. It is easy to second guess and suggest he should have gone for it, but conventional wisdom says punt on fourth-and-13 when you can pin the other team deep in its territory and you have two timeouts in your pocket.

Unfortunately, Spencer Lanning’s sixth punt of the afternoon landed in the Carolina end zone. Still enough time left (3:24) and fairly decent field position from a defensive standpoint. Can’t second-guess the coach even though his defense was in collapse mode. A solid stop, a punt and the Browns would be right back in business. Just one time.

But for the umpteenth time during the game, the defense could not come up with a big play, giving up a 34-yard pass to tight end Ed Dickson on a second-and-9 and a 30-yard run by Stewart on a third-and-5 from the Cleveland 40 right after the two-minute warning.

All Hoyer and Pettine could do was watch hopelessly from the bench as the Panthers, who grabbed a 10-3 halftime lead largely on the arm and legs of Newton, who scored on a naked bootleg from the 2-yard line in the second quarter, put the game away.

What at one time looked like a promising 2014, when the Browns were 6-3 and in first place in the AFC North, is descending into just another one of those nightmarish finishes this franchise has been used to for most of the last 16 seasons.

Mercifully, it ends next Sunday in Baltimore.

* (In the paragraph stating the Browns' time of possession the last two games, I initially erred in the actual number of minutes. It has been corrected to 43. I was never good at math anyway.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Are you ready for an upset?

You’ll have to excuse Derek Anderson if he has decidedly mixed feelings about who starts for his Carolina Panthers when they welcome the Browns Sunday in Charlotte.

Anderson’s role with the Panthers is to back up Cam Newton at the position and he has fulfilled that role admirably this season.

When a balky knee prevented Newton from starting the season opener In Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers, Anderson, in his third season as Newton’s backup, stepped in and led his team to victory.

Then last Sunday, Newton sat out again against the Bucs with a couple of transverse fractures in his lower back, courtesy of an auto accident, and Anderson stepped in again and led his team to victory.

So when the schedule turned and next up were the Browns, history poked its ugly little head out from hiding. After all, Anderson spent five rather tumultuous seasons with the Browns before landing in Carolina and did not leave on a happy note. More on that later.

Suffice it to say, it would be only natural that Anderson would love to face his former team. But Newton seems to have made a remarkable comeback and, at least according to Panthers coach Ron Rivera, will start Sunday.

Feelings of ambivalence must be coursing through the former Cleveland quarterback. On the one hand, he wants his team to win and if Newton is the quarterback, so be it. But down deep, you know he wants a crack at his former team.

Remember when Anderson was carted off the field in late November in 2008 with what turned out to be torn knee ligament? Fans, not exactly fond of his quarterbacking, foolishly cheered his exit.

“I will never forget getting cheered when I was injured,” he said in an e-mail sent to a Cleveland writer all those years ago. “I know at times I wasn’t great. I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and (we) roll them.” He called Browns fans “ruthless” and said they “don’t deserve a winner.”

This week down in Charlotte, the subject was brought up again when it looked as though Anderson might have to fill in again for Newton. “I said some things I regret saying when I left,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “It’s all over with. I’ve moved on. I’m happy. I wasn’t in a great place when I left. I’m in a lot better place now.”

Watching from the sidelines is not going to be the panacea that mollifies those feelings. It will take extreme self control for Anderson to bottle them up, although he says he has mellowed in that regard. Might he secretly harbor hopes Newton’s back problems act up and make it difficult for him to last for the entire game? Nah.

Any other team Sunday and he wouldn’t be thinking that way. As much as he might wish for something deleterious to happen to Newton, the competitor in him most likely wishes nothing but success for Newton because that keeps the 5-8-1 Panthers in the playoff hunt in the very weak NFC South.

Since Anderson left, the Browns have had eight different starting quarterbacks: Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer and now Johnny Manziel. The Cleveland quarterback carousel never stops.

Manziel, anxious to atone for what had to be a colossal embarrassment in his pro starting debut last Sunday against Cincinnati, will face in the Panthers a team that will not carry even close to the emotional baggage the Bengals brought to Cleveland a week ago – revenge against a hated division opponent.

First of all, this is an inter-conference game against a team the Browns face once every four years. They have met only four times previously with the Panthers winning the first three before losing, 24-23, in 2010 when Delhomme, a former Panther, led a fourth-quarter comeback after the Browns blew a 21-7 lead.

Playing against the NFC South this season has been a blessing to the Cleveland record. Three of the Browns’’ seven victories have come courtesy of that division. A sweep assures them a finish no worse than .500 this season, a stark improvement over the last several seasons.

The Panthers, just a half game behind division leader New Orleans, can be a very dangerous team on offense, especially with a healthy Newton, whose rocket arm and dangerous running ability has given opposing teams fits.

They strike primarily through the air – Newton has thrown for 16 touchdowns, but has been picked off 11 times – with rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen the primary targets. Benjamin has caught 67 passes for 952 yards and nine TDs; Olsen checks in at 81-960-6 TDs.

But the Carolina defense permits 25½ points a game despite the presence of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the team again in tackles with 10 a game. It has allowed 38 touchdowns, 24 through the air. Lately, though, that defense has tightened up, permitting 19 points or less in three of the last four games.

In their first three games against the AFC North earlier in the season, the Panthers surrendered 112 points, gaining only a tie with Cincinnati. In fact, the AFC Central owns the NFL South with a 12-2-1 record.

The Browns, of course, have been stumbling badly on offense lately and the defense, which is having as much trouble getting off the field as the offense has staying on the field, is wearing down.

All of which points to the Browns’ fourth straight loss as the AFC North basement begins to feel that much more comfortable for the umpteenth straight season. With or without Anderson, picking against the Panthers at home in a game so important to them would be foolish.

And yet, that’s exactly what is going to happen. There’s a reason the AFC North has dominated the NFC South this season. Don’t know exactly what it is, but numbers, as a general rule, do not lie.

Call it a wild stab, but somehow, some way, Manziel is going to make up for that abomination last Sunday with just enough of a relatively mistake-free performance, combined with a defense that makes life miserable for Newton all afternoon, to pull off the upset. Make it:

Browns 23, Panthers 20     

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday leftovers

Never in the short history of the new Cleveland Browns has so much pre-game buildup ever been met with such extreme disappointment.

The huge letdown that was the 30-0 mauling the Cincinnati Bengals hung on the Browns Sunday falls into two camps.

On one side, there are those fans of Brian Hoyer who most likely enjoyed every minute of Johnny Manziel leading a Cleveland offense that was spanked as it had almost never been before.

Some people would call it schadenfreude, or as the dictionary defines it, the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. And the Browns’ performance against the Bengals belched a series of misfortunes.

On the other side, the Manziel groupies and supporters quietly slinked as far into the background as possible until the next game. Their man, the one they’ve been trumpeting all season, let them down just when it seemed he was primed and ready to do the opposite.

After all, hadn’t the Texas Whiz Kid relieved Hoyer in the Buffalo loss and immediately guided his offense to a touchdown? It was almost too easy. It was also too little, too late, but at least the offense showed life.

So when Mike Pettine finally anointed his rookie quarterback as the starter for the Bengals game, many supporters, except maybe for the Hoyer backers, jumped on the hype wagon and pretty much declared the future was now.

The situation was perfect. The Browns’ offense was reeling under Hoyer’s leadership. There was still a chance for the playoffs. And the Bengals, who they knocked off in early November, were next up on the schedule.

All week long, the world of professional football heralded the professional starting debut of Manziel, the mercurial and dynamic young man who played for two dazzling years at Texas A&M.

But this is the National Football League, his detractors cautioned. This is where men play the game. Let’s not get too excited about him. He hasn’t done anything yet, Merril Hoge, one of ESPN’s numerous resident critics, went so far as to call Manziel a sixth-round talent.

After the abysmal way Manziel and his offense performed against the Bengals, that might be considered a compliment. In his wildest dreams, though, the rookie never would have imagined such a performance.

It was embarrassing. It was thorough. Murphy’s Law, a frequent visitor to the Factory of Sadness over the years, spun furiously out of control. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong and not just on one side of the ball. It was a 60-minute beatdown by the Bengals.

And though he’ll never admit it, at least publicly, Manziel was embarrassed. He looked at his performance clinically after the game. “I felt like it was a fail on my part for the position and it’s tough,” he said. “It’s going to take time. It’s a process for sure.”

Notice he did not blame anyone but himself for the loss, although he had plenty of reason to. His offensive line was awful and that’s being complimentary. His receivers had difficulty getting open all afternoon.

The two interceptions? Both on him. No question about it. Both were poorly thrown, as was a third pick that was nullified by a Cincinnati penalty. He was a rookie, said Pettine, who played like a rookie.

“I’m not using the rookie excuse,” Manziel said. “It’s not me . . . I needed to play better.”

He labeled it a process. Others would call it growing pains. But he definitely has time on his side. He’s not going anywhere. He’ll be at the helm again next Sunday in Carolina and the season finale in Baltimore. The Browns want to see him as much of him as possible.

Hopefully, the coaching staff in the next two weeks will put him in a much better position to at least have a chance of competing. The game plan against the Bengals was way too predictable.

Three games is not nearly enough of a tableau by which Manziel can be judged. Just like they would not be enough even if he had stunned the pro football world and starred in a victory over the Bengals. It’s easy to rush to judgment in just one game. In this case, ‘tis better to slow down.
*          *          *
It sure looked as though offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had no idea how to play to Manziel’s strengths. Rarely did he roll out the rookie and when he did, patterns run by the receivers were either well covered by the time he was ready to throw or broken down and he had to throw the ball away.

It was as if Shanahan drew up an entirely different looking offense for Manziel than he did Hoyer. None of the pass plays looked even vaguely familiar. Playing to his strengths means getting rid of the ball quickly. We saw maybe one naked wide receiver screen, and no slants, crossing patterns or seam routes.

Even on the 10 throws he completed, Manziel did not look comfortable and in rhythm. He used his feet to escape a few sacks and extend plays, but in general made the Bengals’ defense look better than it was.
*          *          *
Microcosms of a victory . . .

When the Bengals’ stalled at the Cleveland 37-yard line on their second drive of the third quarter, they faced a fourth-and-1. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis eschewed a 55-yard field-goal attempt by Mike Nugent or a short punt by Kevin Huber and decided to play big-boy football. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson called for a sneak by quarterback Andy Dalton, who gained a couple of yards with ridiculous ease on the tiring Cleveland defense.

And to show you how everything rolled the Bengals’ way all afternoon, consider this: When Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball at his 31-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the ball rolled perfectly to Bengals center Clint Boling as if it was a magnet.
*          *          *
The Browns did not record their initial first down of the game until 4:18 remained in the second quarter. It was actually a fourth-down run of two yards by Isaiah Crowell on a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 39.

At that point with the Bengals leading, 20-0, and his team showing no life whatsoever, Pettine must have figured, “What the hell. I’m going for it. What do I have to lose? I’m already behind, 20-0.”

Four plays later, Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga picked off Manziel, but Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry was offside on the play and the Browns retained position on what turned out to be their longest drive of the afternoon. Two plays later, Adam Jones picked off Manziel in the end zone when the quarterback’s throw to Taylor Gabriel floated in and arrived late.
*          *          *
This is how mindlessly the Browns played Sunday. Following the two-minute warning in the first half, they had to take a timeout because they had only 10 men on the field. Turns out fullback Ray Agnew was the missing Brown. That is on the coaching staff. It was embarrassment upon embarrassment upon embarrassment.
*          *          *
Notebook: The Browns wore their all Brown uniforms against the Bengals. Here’s a suggestion; Burn those unis and never ever wear that combination again. And not because the Browns lost. I’d say that even if they had won. That combination conjures up too many dirty thoughts. Use your imagination. . . . Didja catch the look on Jimmy Haslam III’s face when the television cameras zeroed in on the owner  in the second quarter? Couldn’t tell whether it was extreme glum or abject anger on his face. . . . Considering how often the Bengals mocked his famous money rub, Manziel should strongly consider retiring it. Too juvenile for the NFL. . . . Barkevious Mingo played his best game as a Brown. The outside linebacker had six solo tackles among his eight overall. But it was his roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-down incompletion on the first series of the game that prolonged the drive that ultimately led to the Bengals’ first touchdown. Good call, too. It was a helmet-to-helmet hit and didn’t have to be.