Monday, August 31, 2015

More meanderings

If the Browns even consider signing Ray Rice and/or trading for Robert Griffin III, they should have their heads examined.

Not that they have a team considered a serious threat for the postseason right now, but adding those two to the roster will in no way strengthen it. If anything, it would do more harm than good. This team does not need headaches like those two.

First of all, Rice was well on the downside of his career when he made the mistake of slugging his then-fiancée in an elevator last year. And The Third peaked as a National Football League quarterback as a rookie.

The Browns have enough trouble in their attempt to become competitive to the point where they can honestly picture the playoffs in their future. Adding a fading running back and bust quarterback does not help.

Slapping their names on a roster does not enhance it. Rice was already beginning to regress in Baltimore and The Third has become known as one of the most injury-prone quarterbacks in the NFL. He is an injury waiting to happen.

The Redskins wanted badly for him to regain the magic that made him one of the most exciting rookies a few years ago. They gave him every chance. But a variety of injuries, which might or might not have contributed to some bad outings, kept getting in the way.

It just wasn’t working and the club finally gave up on him Sunday, naming Kirk Cousins as the starter. Rumors immediately spread that the Redskins were shopping his services to teams with quarterback needs.

The Browns certainly fall into that category with a 36-year-old starter and a mercurial backup with a sore elbow. They would be wise, however, to take a pass on The Third. Some team will find out his best days are well behind him. Hopefully, that team does not reside on the shores of Lake Erie.

As for Rice, the Browns don’t need him. I’d much rather see veteran free agents Pierre Thomas or Ahmad Bradshaw in Cleveland than Rice. Right now, Duke Johnson Jr. can’t stay healthy, but there is nothing wrong with Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West that an effective offensive line can’t resolve.

That line, thought to be one of the best in the league, has not played well in the exhibition season. Once a more sophisticated offense – instead of the vanilla offense used in the exhibitions – is installed for the regular season, that could change.

Remember last season when the Browns had one of the best run offenses in the NFL before Alex Mack went down with a broken leg in game five? The same five men up front are back. Let’s see what new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has in mind for them.

There is no question the ground game will be heavily emphasized this season to take pressure off Josh McCown. Crowell, West and, when he heals, Johnson will get more than their share of carries. It’s up to the guys on the line to provide the holes. They did last season. No reason to believe they can’t this season.
*       *       *
There is also no question we are seeing a brand new Travis Benjamin this season. He looks like an entirely different player. He’s bold, unafraid and playing with reckless abandon in what seems to be his way of saying last season was a fluke.

A more tentative Benjamin was a big disappointment last season, playing as though he was fearful of reinjuring a surgically repaired knee. He fair-caught way too many punts and was not the breakaway threat he was before going down early in the 2013 season.

That fear is gone as a return man – his 53-yard return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay is ample proof – and wide receiver. No longer is he afraid when his pass route takes him across the middle. Benjamin has made a couple of receptions in that area already during the exhibition season.

He also has made some terrific grabs of passes that have arrived behind him. Sooner or later, McCown will time up his throws better as he adjusts to Benjamin’s speed. He is capable of being so much more than a possession receiver. He has the speed to go deep.
*       *       *
The Cleveland running game, as previously mentioned, has been somewhat subpar thus far. But a 17-yard run by West in the third quarter on a scoring drive against the Buccaneers could serve as a portent of things to come.

It was a perfectly executed trap play that sprung West loose for the club’s largest gain on the ground with right guard John Greco pulling left and picking off a defender closing in on West at the point of attack.

With such blocking sophistication, there is no reason to think the Cleveland run game will be successful again. This line is so versatile, there is no reason to believe it cannot successfully run the counter trey, especially against reactive defenses.
*       *       *
With the release of little Shane Wynn Monday, it’s almost a foregone conclusion the Browns will hold on to Terrelle Pryor in some way even though he hasn’t played as down yet.

The Browns are fortified with smallish receivers and return men, so setting the 5-6 Wynn free won’t hurt. Fans wonder why the former Glenville High School standout was trimmed instead of Vince Mayle.

Two reasons: Mayle is as fourth-round draft choice; Wynn was an undrafted free agent. And Mayle is 6-2, 225 pounds and worth keeping around in hopes he will stop dropping passes a la Greg Little. It will take more than three exhibition games.
*       *       *
Players on defense flying under the radar: Defensive tackle Jamie Meder and safeties Landon Feichter and Ibraheim Campbell.  Meder, a first-year man from Ashland, is extremely active in the run game – he led the team in tackles against the Bucs – and the two safeties have an aggressive bent that gets your attention. Meder, Campbell and Feichter had sacks against Tampa Bay. The safeties are tied for the team lead in tackles with 13. Feichter has 11 solos.

Players on offense flying under the radar: Tight end E. J. Bibbs (a rookie) and wide receiver Josh Lenz, a first-year man.  Bibbs is tied for second on the team with six receptions, while Lenz, an early favorite target in training camp, has three catches for 59 yards, 48 of which was against Tampa Bay. Both are from Iowa State.
*       *       *
As it stands, Bibbs’ strong performance could mean the Browns will go with four tight ends this season. The two-tight-end look works well in the running game. Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge are known more for their blocking. If the coaching staff decides to go with just three, Rob Housler, who has not looked good thus far, could be the victim.
*       *       *
Notebook: Was it me (or is it I?) or were the orange numerals with white piping on the Browns’ brown jerseys difficult to read from a distance? Shouldn’t it be white numerals with orange piping? . . . The Cleveland ground game has averaged just 84 yards a game, but the defense has permitted only 102 a game. . . . The pass rush has generated 11 sacks, six against the Bucs, while the offensive line has surrendered 10. . . . It was refreshing to see four passes targeted for running backs against the Bucs, an obvious effort to improve that aspect of the offense. . . . In addition to the six sacks, the Browns registered eight tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Defense center stage in impressive dress rehearsal

If the so-called dress rehearsal exhibition game is any indication, Browns fans can look forward to some entertaining defense this season.

And if the offense – and here is the key – can stay on the field long enough to give that defense adequate rest, the 2015 season might be enjoyable with emphasis on the word might. It’s going to be an iffy season.

What fans witnessed Saturday night in Tampa can be interpreted two ways. The Browns, walking away with a ridiculously easy 31-7 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, did so against a very bad football team with a rookie quarterback. But they looked awfully good on both sides of the ball in doing it.

Josh McCown, exhibiting tendencies of daring that angered his coach, played an inconsistent game at quarterback, looking at times like a seasoned professional and at other times like, well, like he did when he racked up only one victory in 11 tries in Tampa last year.

He expertly engineered two scoring drives that piled up 158 yards in 27 plays eating up almost 16 minutes on his opening and closing series before departing midway through the third quarter. Brian Hartline and Gary Barnidge were on the scoring end of his touchdown passes.

In between, though, McCown (17-of-23 for 117 yards and the two scores) looked extremely mediocre, often missing open receivers badly. On several occasions, he forced his targets to reach back for the ball in an obvious case of bad timing.

What fans did not see were field-stretching plays to loosen up the Tampa Bay defense. Everything McCown threw was of the short-to-intermediate variety. That might be a portent of things to come this season. Keep everything buttoned down.

A season full of good/bad McCown will not end up well. The good McCown showed what he could do in those two scoring drives. He disappeared until the final drive. That inconsistency is why he is a well-traveled quarterback.

You never know what you’re going to get with McCown under center other than he is not afraid to run. Only problem there is he favors running like a running back instead of the most valuable piece of property on the offense.

Instead of sliding during scrambles as most quarterbacks do, McCown apparently gets a testosterone rush when running and disdains the more prudent move of going feet first to avoid contact.

On his first two scrambles, he ducked his head to take on hits. On the first, which occurred near the Cleveland bench, coach Mike Pettine, shouting to McCown, pointed to his head and admonished him to “be smart” or something to that effect.

It wasn’t until McCown was nearly cut in half on a crushing hit by rookie Tampa Bay linebacker Kwon Alexander on another scramble late in the second quarter that the quarterback finally got the message.

By then the Browns’ defense, which was on the field for just 23 minutes, made Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston look very much like the rookie he is. It limited the Bucs to just 10 first downs and a paltry 177 yards of total offense. They reached the red zone only once.

When defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil wasn’t dialing up blitzes (which he did frequently), he confused Winston with mixed and disguised coverages. Of the four sacks of the kid, two were of the coverage variety.

With the exception of a second-quarter lapse that allowed the Bucs to score their only touchdown on a 19-yard run by Doug Martin, the Cleveland defense was in control. It took control from the start and jacked it up a few notches after Travis Benjamin began the scoring for the Browns with a 53-yard punt return.

Winston and Mike Glennon had precious little time to get rid of the ball most of the evening and connected only when O’Neil went conservative with only three rushers. Other than that, it was relentless pressure.

But it must be cautioned that the Bucs’ offensive line is not among the more elite in the National Football League. We’ll find out in a couple of weeks just how strong this Cleveland defense is when the games start counting.

Now if the Cleveland offense can achieve any measure of consistency – and therein lies the secret to the success or failure of the Browns this season – to match what appears to be a vastly improved defense, anything is possible.

The exhibition finale against the Bears in Chicago next Thursday will not shed any more light on the situation since Pettine will empty the bench from the beginning in easily the most meaningless game of the season.

The starters will watch from the bench while reserves try to impress the coaches in an effort to land on the final 53-man roster. Not exactly must-see television.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Time for action

So the Browns have shut down Johnny Manziel for the rest of the exhibition season. Perhaps it’s time to take this situation more seriously.

It’s time for General Manager Ray Farmer to become proactive. Hoping Manziel’s elbow injury gets better isn’t going to make it better. Farmer needs to act and act now.

It requires a bold, somewhat radical move. And it will have to be made out of desperation because the Browns cannot afford to enter the 2016 season with a 36-year-old quarterback whose backup is Thad Lewis.

There is a quarterback out there who can be had for the right price. Right now, he is firmly ensconced at No. 2 on the depth chart behind rookie sensation Marcus Mariota down in Tennessee. 

Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner seems to have made a smooth transition to the more conventional style of quarterbacking in the National Football League, cementing Zach Mettenberger to the Titans’ bench.

And wouldn’t Mettenberger look good in the Seal Brown and Orange. All it will take is for Farmer, before he begins his four-game suspension at the beginning of the regular season, to make Tennessee General Manager Ruston Webster an offer for Mettenberger he can’t refuse.

He needs to pick up the phone, call Webster and do a whatever-it-takes deal that brings the big quarterback to Cleveland. If that means giving up as high as a third-round choice in next year’s college draft, so be it. Maybe even a second-rounder. 

The 6-5, 225-pound Mettenberger, who has a howitzer attached to his right arm, has what scouts love to call a very high upside. The fact he operated a pro-style offense at Louisiana State University also works in his favor.

There is no way he grows in Tennessee with Mariota, the club’s No. 1 draft pick, firmly locked into the starting role. If Mettenberger can be pried away, the Titans still have veteran Charlie Whitehurst to back up Mariota in the event of an emergency.

Even though Mettenberger was only a sixth-round pick in the 2014 college draft, it would behoove Farmer to consider dangling that very high pick to bring him to Cleveland, where his immediate future would be much brighter since he would have only 36-year-old Josh McCown in front of him.

Mettenberger, who would automatically become the club’s second-best quarterback, also would bring NFL starting experience. He appeared in seven games (six starts) as a rookie for the Titans in the second half of last season and threw for 1,412 yards, completing 59.8% of his passes for eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Skeptics of such a proposal might ask, “Why panic? Manziel will be all right. Settle down.” Let’s take a look at that.

Some quarterbacks normally go through a dead-arm period at some time during training camp. The velocity is down, the ball rotation isn’t there, the sharpness is missing. They usually recover.

But there’s nothing dead about Manziel’s arm. It’s his throwing elbow that aches. It hurts. When the only thing he can do with a football for the time being is just toss to himself in the air to while away the time, that’s cause for worrying.

When the club shuts him down completely until the start of the regular season, that’s a big red flag. There is no guarantee he will be healthy enough to suit up for the regular season. If the Browns have to rely on Lewis and and/or recently signed Pat Devlin to back up McCown, that’s cause for concern.

This isn’t to say the club is minimizing the situation with Manziel, but it is most unusual for any team to shut down any quarterback for a relatively prolonged period of time.

Dead arms eventually come back to life. Elbows that hurt, on the other hand, are much more delicate. Just ask any major league pitcher with an elbow ligament problem. Can you say Tommy John surgery? That’s the surgery for any pitcher with a major elbow injury.

Quarterbacks whose delivery is more over the top usually experience shoulder problems, not elbow pain. Perhaps a change in delivery is in order for Manziel, whose three-quarters release might be the culprit causing his pain.

Browns coach Mike Pettine revealed the other day that Manziel has experienced this pain since high school, which makes his collegiate exploits all the more remarkable. So why are we just now finding out about his elbow woes?

Manziel’s MRI indicates there is no structural damage. If that’s the case, why then is his hinge still bothering him? Something’s wrong inside. Right now, team physicians obviously believe complete rest is the best cure.

But complete rest takes Manziel further away from being ready for the season opener two weeks from Sunday against the New York Jets. Rust begins to grow with inactivity. He is missing the repetitions needed to remain sharp.

Staying mentally ready is one thing. It remains to be seen how the physical inactivity will affect him. How ready is he going to be if something happens to McCown once the regular season commences?

If that’s the case and Manziel’s problems don’t go away, major problems loom. It’s quite clear the Browns need help at the most vital position on a football team. It’s time for Farmer to do something about it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Motormouth Part II

Dwayne Bowe and his mouth returned to the practice field for the Browns over the weekend and the veteran wide receiver was in top form. With his mouth, that is.

After watching (literally because of hamstring problems) the Browns’ offense in the first exhibition two games, Bowe has come to one solid doozy of a conclusion. Watch out for the Cleveland offense this season.

“I’m very, very confident,” Bowe told reporters. “We have a talented core, our group. All it takes is time. We’ll let the doubters doubt. When we get on the field and work, we know what we’ve got as a team.

“When week one comes around, we’re going to show a lot of doubters how a high-powered offense really moves.”

Somehow, high-powered and Cleveland offense do not belong in the same sentence, let alone the same paragraph. It definitely qualifies as an oxymoron. Bowe, who probably looks good sartorially wearing his rose-colored glasses, doesn’t seem to realize this.

That wonderful (starting) offense to which he refers has been on the field for exactly four series in the first two exhibition games and scored a whopping 10 points. Josh McCown, Bowe’s wonderful quarterback, is 12-of-15 for 121 yards in those series.

It can be argued that only one of McCown’s passes has hit the ground. But you’ll lose that argument when you realize two throws wound up in the arms of rookie Buffalo cornerback Ronald Darby in last Thursday night’s loss to the Bills in Cleveland.

Those picks? Hey, that’s what exhibition games are for, Bowe rationalized. “Trying to find new openings, new plays, new schemes to work on,” he said. “That’s what our staff is doing, trying to see what works and what doesn’t work.” Oh.

“I think when the (regular) seasons comes around, (McCown) will pick his poison,” he pointed out. “He’ll know where to throw it and where not to throw it. I’m very confident he’ll make the best decision.”

I’m really not certain what offense Bowe is talking about or how it will do all those wonderful things once the games become meaningful. Oh wait. Of course.

The offense to which he refers hasn’t played even one game. That’s because he hasn’t suited up and been able to dazzle us with his incredible talent. Can’t catch football when you’re in street clothes.

Now that he is just about ready to share his talent with the fans, the mouth springs back into action and supreme confidence tumbles out. “It’s just being confident,” he said, “knowing what I can do and knowing how good I feel right now.

“At this position, all you need is to be mentally available and I was there the whole time. I think the skill set will take over after that. I’m pretty talented.” Not to mention modest.

And now that he is finally healthy enough to suit up, Bowe soon will discover he is playing pitch and catch with a quarterback who throws as many interceptions as he does touchdown passes. He now gets his chance to show Browns fans just how talented he is.

Can’t wait.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Meanderings after another loss

Johnny Manziel has one very good series against the Buffalo Bills in Thursday night’s exhibition loss,  Josh McCown’s performance conjures up visions of Tim Couch, Colt McCoy, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn and Todd Philcox, and voila, the nasty QC phrase is unleashed.

QC, a.k.a. quarterback controversy, raises its ugly, little head after the game and now Browns coach Mike Pettine is doing everything within his power to not only stem that tide, but vanquish it altogether.

“I’m not going to sit here and talk about trying to stir up a quarterback controversy,” he said following the game. “Josh is firmly the one.” Of course he is.

Pettine is absolutely right. No need to create any possible locker room upheaval by muddying the situation. This one is a no-brainer.

The Browns brought in McCown, victimized by three sacks and two interceptions against the Bills, to be the No. 1 quarterback because Manziel is still in the midst of learning how to play National Football League style football.

To elevate him above McCown now would be a terrible move and certainly cause General Manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam to wonder whether their head coach is panicking.

Pettine correctly pointed out Manziel’s one good drive was executed with the Browns’ second unit against Buffalo’s second- and third-stringers. McCown, on the other hand, faced the Bills’ starters in his three series and looked awful.

The coach, however, left a little slit in the door. “We’d say it’s possible (for Manziel to overtake McCown between now and the season opener against the New York Jets), but I think . . . that’s a pretty good dropoff from any starting unit down to the twos,” he said. “We’ll evaluate both guys.”

Nothing wrong with the evaluation process. That’s done throughout the season by all clubs. It’s a process that spans 365 days a year.

But to think Manziel is even close to being adequate enough to take control of the Cleveland offense is ludicrous. Unless McCown goes down with an injury or performs as badly as he did last season in Tampa Bay, Manziel should be tethered to his clipboard all season.

Giving Manziel a false sense of security is a mistake at this point. He still has to prove a lot more before he can be even considered for the starting role. He still is a considerable distance from earning it.

Creating a QC at this point of the season – just two exhibition games for goodness sakes – only reinforces the notion of how desperate the team and fans – and the media – are to once and for all settle the quarterback situation.

It’s dumb and totally unnecessary.
*       *       *
Speaking of dumb, did anyone notice how many stupid penalties were committed by both teams that ruined or seriously hampered scoring chances?

Like the facemask penalty on Cleveland’s Jalen Parmele during Shane Wynn’s 58-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. Instead of first down at the Buffalo 14, the Browns began the drive at their 15. A 71-yard difference because of a dumb penalty.

Or a Buffalo offside on a fourth-and-4 with the Browns deep in their territory and desperately trying to win the game in the final minutes. The gift extended the drive, which died a few plays later, anyway.

Then there was a 17-yard Manziel completion to tight end E. J. Bibbs on a third-and-15 that was wiped out by an ineligible man (right guard Cameron Erving) downfield during a frantic Manziel scramble.

There were several other stupid blunders, but these stood out. Dumb penalties on parade in front of a national television audience.
*       *       *
It’s truly amazing how far McCown’s’ terrific half season in Chicago in 2013 has carried him. It seems as though no one wants to point out the Browns are his seventh NFL team in 13 seasons. Good quarterbacks don’t bounce around. Those that do are labeled journeymen. Not McCown.

On Thursday night’s telecast, Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden on ESPN brought up that terrific half season as if to anoint McCown more than a journeyman. For the record, he started five games in the absence of the injured Jay Cutler that season and was 3-2.

He played in three other games and completed two-thirds of his passes for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception. As it turns out, that five-game span was clearly an aberration when one looks at his entire body of work (58.8% completion rate, 61 touchdowns and 59 picks).

What McCown did in Chicago is ancient history. When you look at his career stats, a journeyman is what he is. And if Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and his coaches think he’s better than those stats, they are badly mistaken.

So enough with McCown’s five great games. He is not that quarterback now. And he wasn’t before those five games. So stop it already.

But he is certainly the best quarterback (comparatively speaking) on this team.
*       *       *
The Buffalo game was so dull and unimaginative, Gruden was moved to utter the following late in the third quarter: “They need to make something happen to give them confidence.” Not certain whether he meant both teams or just one.

At the end of the third quarter with both teams plodding along in a 3-3 tie and flailing helplessly on offense, Tirico uttered, “I’m afraid someone might not score the rest of the way tonight.” He was almost right.

That’s when the Browns scored on a 96-yard touchdown drive and the Bills replied with a long scoring drive of their own, winning it with a two-point conversion, sparing the fans overtime.
*       *       *
Once again, the Cleveland defense had problems setting the edge. With rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton helping shut off anything up the middle, the Bills successfully attacked the edge on both sides of the formation.

Unless defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is able to correct that situation, we’re going to see teams attack the Cleveland flanks as often as possible. It’s not clear the Browns have anyone on the roster strong enough to bolster what obviously is a huge problem that will be exploited by other teams during the regular season.
*       *       *
Notebook: What in the world is Travis Benjamin doing catching a punt at his two-yard line in the first quarter? Instead of getting the ball at the 20-yard line after a touchback, he tried to return it and got to the 18. A holding penalty brought it back to the Cleveland nine, which makes the point moot. Still, he should know better. . . . The Cleveland run game needs work. Even with Alex Mack back, the offensive line looked sluggish and holes were nearly impossible to find. . . .  Mack still has some rust to chip off. The veteran center, battling back from a broken leg last season, was badly beaten by Buffalo defensive tackle Marcell Dareus for a second-quarter sack. . . . It appears as though Travis Coons’ leg is stronger than Carey Spear’s as the two battle to become the Browns’ placekicker. At least he reaches the end zone on his kickoffs. . . Rookie wide receiver Darius Jennings is not hurting himself by making plays when called on. He made a nice catch on a low Manziel throw during the 96-yard scoring drive. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

That was football?

In what was laughingly called a professional football game Thursday night at the Factory of Sadness in Cleveland, two National Football League teams played embarrassingly bad football.

It was a three-hour study in how not to play the game as it was meant to be played. In the history of NFL exhibitions, this was one where the fans had every right to demand their money back.

It was bad football from the beginning. And don’t let Buffalo’s 11-10 victory over Cleveland fool you. With offenses that sputtered and spattered almost all evening, it’s a wonder that many points were scored.

And the worst part of it all? This snoozefest was nationally televised by ESPN with Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden gulping No-Doz tablets from time to time. Yes, it was that boring and the nation was its witness.

Tirico tried valiantly to inject positive little tidbits about two of the NFL’s most moribund teams and Gruden resorted to platitudes about certain individual players. To the more sophisticated fans, it had to sound like attendant noise.

It was 60 minutes of two teams with significant injury problems trying to see which one could play worse football on offense. By the time each team scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to make it mildly interesting, most of America had tuned it out. And no could blame them.

As for evaluating how much of an effect this one will have on the regular season, consider that the starters on both clubs played a majority of the first half and put a stunning six points (three by each team) on the scoreboard.

If you’re looking for a bright spot for the Browns, you might start with Johnny Manziel, who, for the first time in his brief professional career, actually looked like an NFL quarterback, if only for a brief moment or two.

The biggest moment came with 10 minutes left in the final quarter when he culminated an 11-play, 96-yard drive with a well-executed 21-yard touchdown pass to little Shane Wynn, a Glenville High School graduate, in the back of the end zone.

The mere fact he did not score a touchdown with his feet is a huge step in the right direction for Manziel, whose transformation from college spread quarterback to pro-style quarterback has been – being charitable here – laborious.

On his scoring throw to Wynn, Manziel executed a perfect play fake to running back Tim Flanders, freezing the Bills’ secondary, stepped up in the pocket and lofted his perfect strike. It was a sight Browns fans had not seen before.

If nothing else, it proved to them he could do it. More important, it proved to him it could be done. Now he knows how it feels to throw a pro type pass in rhythm and see it pay off. Yes it was against second- and third-stringers. At this point, what difference- does it make?

Other than that, all this game proved was that both teams love to blitz. I mean really l-o-o-o-o-o-ve to blitz. Both coaches turned it loose on what seemed to be just about very play,

Each team had four sacks, a whole bunch of quarterback hits and even more quarterback hurries. Browns quarterback Josh McCown had precious little time to throw and when he did, he looked like the quarterback he was last season in Tampa with three sacks and two interceptions.

And let’s not forget the penalties. Seventeen infractions were called and at least a half dozen others were declined in the sloppy game. Both clubs nullified big plays on both sides of the ball with stupid penalties.

The Bills, for example, had a first-and-goal at the Cleveland 1 with less than two minutes left in the game, but due to penalties wound up scoring on a fourth-and-14 pass from E. J. Manuel to rookie Andre Davis. A two-point conversion to Davis accounted for the final score.

Yes, it was only an exhibition. It counts as much as last week’s loss to Washington and the outcome of the final two games in Tampa and Chicago. But it was the nasty aftertaste of the performance against the Bills that should give Browns fans great cause for concern.

It is quite obvious the coaching staff needs to see a considerable amount of improvement from this stodgy and unimaginative offense before the season opener against the New York Jets. They have only two games in which to accomplish it and the final one is a throwaway when the starters play probably only one series.

Good luck.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pryor prediction time 

Brash prediction: Terrelle Pryor will make the Browns’ final roster. Book it.

Why? How?

He hasn’t done anything up to now except watch others in training camp and the first exhibition game due to a pulled hamstring muscle. He hasn’t given the coaching staff any plausible reason to make him one of the final 53.

So why and how is he going to wind up on that sheet?

Simple. He’s a quarterback. Arguably the second-best quarterback on the team behind Josh McCown. More on that later.

But isn’t he listed as a wide receiver? Sort of. For some reason, the club has curiously chosen to list the former Ohio State quarterback thusly: QB/WR.

Kind of makes one go hmmmm.

Because there are only three exhibitions left and the learning curve for Pryor is dramatically shorter, there is no way he can prove to the coaches he can make a successful transition to wideout.

Unless he’s superhuman, that’s way too short a period to catch the attention of – and then wow – position coach Joker Phillips and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. That’s not going to happen.

He’s too inexperienced right now to help out what is the one of the weakest wide receivers corps in the National Football League. So why not just cut him?

Because if McCown is either injured or performs so poorly Mike Pettine has no recourse but to bench him, who moves in as the starter? Johnny Manziel? That’s who probably would be next man up. But what if he stumbles? Or gets hurt?

Pryor is not a neophyte when it comes to starting an NFL game. He has 10 starts as a quarterback (all with Oakland). He’s much more athletic than Manziel, has a much stronger arm and is familiar with the DeFilippo offense. 

In no way is this meant as an endorsement of Pryor to be yet another in the seemingly never-ending list of quarterbacks for a franchise well beyond hungry for a difference maker at the position. It is merely a prediction that he will make the final roster.

If nothing else, it also gives the club flexibility. He can be a backup quarterback – better certainly than Connor Shaw and Thad Lewis – and a backup wide receiver.

How many repetitions he gets during the week – and where he gets them – is entirely up to Pettine and DeFilippo. Think of the many gimmick plays the new offensive coordinator can come up with.

As foolish as this seems, such a move allows the Browns to give Pryor more time to make the transition to wide receiver and, at the same time, be a safety valve in the event McCown and/or Manziel fail.

Pettine maintains Pryor “is not guaranteed a spot” on the final roster, “but I also wouldn’t write him off. . . . We are certainly not going to just hand him a spot based on potential. He’s got to show us, but what he has showed us so far has been encouraging.”

Pettine talking out of both sides of his mouth is one more reason to expect Pryor to be one of the final 53 when the final cutdown is made in just a few weeks.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Rambling thoughts on exhibition opener

Musings on the Browns’ 20-17 loss to the Washington Redskins Thursday night in the exhibition opener at home . . .

Two of the Browns’ main objectives as we get closer to the beginning of the 2015 season are improving the run game and stopping the run. Very simple and equally basic. Follow that rule of thumb and you’re going to win your share of games.

If you can establish a strong ground game, the passing game falls into place. And if you prevent the opposition from establishing that strong ground game, your chances of winning increase.

If their performance against the Redskins is any indication, this will be a very long season. Major fail. They couldn’t run the ball (45 yards), while the Redskins pounded away to the tune of 153 yards infantry style. It was nearly as many yards (170) as the Browns had overall.

To be fair, it should be noted this was just the first exhibition, not the third or fourth. And the starters played just the opening series. Then again, it was also the Redskins’ opener and they looked significantly better on both sides of the ball throughout the game. Washington won just about every battle in the trenches.

Bottom line: The Cleveland run defense was not very defensive all evening. And the run offense was extremely offensive.
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Second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert got off to a rocky start when he watched Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III too much on the game’s first series and allowed Pierre Garcon to break free behind him. Fortunately, the wide receiver dropped what should have been a touchdown pass.

Gilbert, burned moments earlier on a 22-yard pass, chose to take the positive route after the game, labeling his performance as “flawless” after the early miscues. Props to him for the attitude, albeit somewhat misguided.

Being beaten like a snare drum does not exactly pile up points in the correct column for Gilbert, the club’s top pick in last year’s college draft. If not for injuries to Joe Haden and Pierre Desir, he doesn’t start against the Redskins.

Again to be fair, his performance did improve (it couldn’t have gotten any worse) when Washington’s second- and third-stringers entered the game. He still has a long way to go.
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Quarterback Josh McCown played just the first series and he was, to quote Gilbert but more accurately, flawless. Five passes, five bull’s-eyes and a touchdown to a wide-open Travis Benjamin in the corner of the end zone following a scramble.

Just as important was his demeanor on the bench once his evening was over. He was constantly offering advice and encouraging Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw. Unlike last season when Brian Hoyer appeared to avoid Manziel like the plague, McCown is much more accommodating.

Maybe it’s because he knows he’s clearly the No. 1 guy and Manziel is not a threat. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s been around long enough to know it is counterproductive to cold-shoulder a fellow quarterback. It was refreshing to see.
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Manziel was a workmanlike 7-for-11 for 42 yards while working into the early stages of the third quarter and, as he did in last week’s scrimmage, did not look out of place. He did not make any obvious mistakes, although lack of protection hampered his ability to spot open receivers.

His natural instinct to run enabled him to score on a 12-yard scamper in the second quarter when the Washington defense provided what looked like a highway to the end zone. Notably absent was the Manziel money sign, which fortunately seems to have been retired.
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On the other side of the equation, where was the Cleveland pass rush? Only one sack (by rookie defensive lineman Xavier Cooper late in the game), while the offensive line surrendered five.

It seemed as though Cleveland’s quarterbacks could never get into a rhythm because the offensive line was leaky all evening. The only time McCown, Manziel and Shaw could complete a pass was either on the run or by getting rid of the ball quickly.
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Rough outing for rookie offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who played a large part of the game at left tackle in place of Joe Thomas, given the night off after a scare a few days ago.

Erving, the Browns’ second first-round pick in the draft behind defensive tackle Danny Shelton, had all sorts of problems in pass protection and looked slow off the ball in the run game. He can’t get anything but better.

If he has any designs of cracking the starting lineup, he’s going to have to do it on the right side of the line, where John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz reside. But he’ll have to hike up his game several notches if that’s going to happen. Very disappointing.
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Shelton, on the other hand, was comparatively spectacular at nose tackle. He was credited with just one tackle, but applied the kind of pressure up the middle that was missing last season, when the Browns brought up the rear on run defense.

His quickness off the ball, strength to handle double teams and relentless style of play will pay dividends in the run game if he is schemed correctly. On several occasions against the Redskins, he faced triple teams and on one play had to battle four players.
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As for the new uniforms, it’s going to take an acquired-taste mentality to accept them. At first blush, I did not like them. Second blush was worse. And third blush made me wish those who designed them should go back to school and take up something else.

I guess I’m from the old school. There is nothing wrong with the classic look of the basic Cleveland Browns uniform. The new version is anything but classic. They do not need the name Browns running from mid-thigh to the top of the kneecap on the outside of the pant legs. It looks garish.

And why does the name Cleveland have to be stripped across the chest? It’s not like we need that to know those are the Cleveland Browns on the field. Nothing wrong with subtlety. This is not a fashion show. It’s not how you look that counts; it’s how you play.
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Notebook: The Browns forced two turnovers, one on special teams, and turned them into 10 points. Good start. . . . There something about the Browns that turns Kirk Cousins of the Redskins into a great quarterback. He beat them during the regular season a couple of years ago replacing an injured Griffin and was 12-of-14 for 154 yards Thursday night. He has trouble beating everyone else. . . . Would like to see more of rookie wide receiver Darius Jennings returning kickoffs. He was thatclose to breaking what turned out to be a 54-yard return. . . . Andy Lee quietly showed why he is one of the best punters in the National Football League by placing four of his five punts inside the Washington 20. . . . Two nice blocks in pass protection by veteran running back Jalen Parmele prevented the Washington sack total from reaching seven. Perhaps he can teach the proper technique to Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and Duke Johnson before he’s cut. . . . Time of possession: Washington 36 minutes, Cleveland 24. Room for improvement. Lots of room.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

No Rice, no way

News: Browns coach Mike Pettine reveals the club has discussed the possibility of signing free-agent running back Ray Rice.

Views: Here’s a piece of advice to General Manager Ray Farmer and his minions: Don’t. Talk about something else. Anything else. Just not that.

Ray Rice and the Cleveland Browns should never be uttered in the same sentence. The Browns have enough to worry about with Rice still a free agent. They don’t need the trouble that would accompany him.

“We have talked about it, but I don’t think we’re there at this point,” Pettine told Where “there” is is open to conjecture. Pettine would not be specific.

The question is why in the world would the Browns even consider a running back well on the downside of his career when an elevator surveillance camera caught him slugging his future wife more than a year ago?

Is the Browns’ running back situation so bad that position coach Wilbert Montgomery brought up Rice’s name? We’re just two weeks into training camp and nervous fingers are already reaching for the panic button.

Montgomery knows Rice. Coached him for six seasons in Baltimore.  So surely he must know Rice is nowhere near the running back he was in his first six National Football League seasons.

Rice is just 28 years old, considered by some the prime age for a running back. And yet, no NFL team has shown even the slightest bit of interest in him because he is considered toxic.

Until now.

Since Rice’s name has been brought up in the Cleveland Ivory Tower, the decision on whether to go after him certainly has spawned arguments pro and con. One con is how the public would react if they signed him.

Would there back a backlash by fans because Rice has become what one writer labeled “the face of the league’s domestic violence program”?

“I don’t think it has gotten to that point to say, ‘Hey, I’d kind of be comfortable with it,’ “ Pettine told “But I think it would get to that point if we arrived at it from a football standpoint then asked that question. Instead of working the process backwards, why bother with asking the question if the need never presents itself?”

It appears as though Montgomery is jumping to conclusions way too early with his current crop of running backs and invoking the name of someone generally looked upon with disfavor by the rest of the NFL. Rather than letting the situation play itself out during the exhibition season, he seems to have panicked.

It’s time for cooler heads to prevail and Pettine, at least on the surface, appears to have somewhat chilled the Rice talk. Not entirely, of course, which always leads to wild speculation.

If such talk reaches the locker room, perhaps it will serve as a slap in the face to running backs Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and rookie Duke Johnson, whose performance are being counted on heavily by a team determined to make the running game the cornerstone of the offense.

If Ray Rice is going to get a second chance in the NFL, better he get that somewhere other than Cleveland.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Now comes real test for Manziel

After watching Johnny Manziel perform at the Browns’ intrasquad scrimmage Friday night in Columbus, it’s easy to see why some fans have glommed onto some hope for the brash Texan following his miserable rookie season.

He actually looked like a National Football League quarterback in 7-on-7 drills and 11-on-11 matchups with the defense.

He looked nothing like the ill-prepared, frightened, deer-in-the-headlights-look  quarterback who played briefly before an injury closed out his first professional season. His body language was different. Everything seemed natural, not forced.

He displayed confidence, command of the huddle and the ability to get rid of the ball quickly and to the correct target. His three-and five-step drops taking the snap from under center were smooth. So was his footwork.

It was a transformation that was unexpected considering reports his progress was coming along slowly.

And yet, Manziel downplayed his 9-of-11, 93-yard, two-touchdown performance. “I wouldn’t make a huge deal about it,” he said. ”But it’s progress for me. It’s better than I played last year in the scrimmage.”

The fact his production came against second-and third-teamers doesn’t diminish the notion that he is not the same quarterback we saw in 2014. Considering the hype that accompanied his arrival last season, he might have been putting too much pressure on himself.

But Manziel is absolutely correct. Let’s not get carried away here. He is still learning the rudiments of playing like an NFL quarterback. The fact he looks more comfortable than the knee-jerk, run-first quarterback he was last season is a large step in the right direction.

Now let’s see how he plays against someone who does not wear the Seal Brown and Orange, players who do not pull up because he wears the don’t-you-dare-touch-him orange jersey in training camp.

Let’s see if he can properly read opposing defenses, call the correct blocking scheme for his offensive line, throw the ball to the correct receiver. We’ll find out Thursday when the Washington Redskins invade for the opening exhibition.

One thing is certain with regard to who starts at quarterback in the season opener against the New York Jets: Barring injury, it will be Josh McCown no matter how Manziel performs.

The only way he wins the job is if he suddenly turns into Russell Wilson. He is still a long way from being the kind of quarterback in whom the coaching staff has confidence. Even though he looked good in Columbus, he still has a long way to go before he earns a starting nod.

The fact he has improved so much – at least he passed the eye test – is the kind of news most Browns fans didn’t see coming. Now it’s up to him to refine and then hone the skills he showed in Columbus.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

One frustrated position coach

Well, isn’t that interesting.

No one, it seems, wants to win the starting job at running back for the Browns. At least that’s the way running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery sees it.

Considering the running game is expected to be the backbone of the offense this season, it seems quite odd nobody has stepped up 10 days into training camp in Berea and declared the job was his and no one was going to take it away from him.

“Nobody wants a role,” Montgomery lamented to the assembled media Sunday.  “You’d think the guys who participated, who were here last year, you’d like for them to have more of a lead role in that aspect of it.”

To be fair, the position has been hit hard with injuries with only Isaiah Crowell escaping. Duke Johnson (hamstring), Terrance West (calf) and Shaun Draughn (hand) are not expected to be ready for the exhibition opener Thursday night against the Washington Redskins.

What really bothers the puzzled Montgomery is not necessarily the injuries, but the fact the running backs appeared to take a laissez faire approach toward the beginning of camp.

“The disappointing thing,” he said, “was all those guys approaching here are not in tip-top shape. . . . That was a total setback and now, they’re climbing back uphill. That’s why they’re taking a back seat right now.”

Bouncing back quickly from injuries is essential for running backs. “Each day, you’ve got to be healthy and ready to go and you’ve got to play injured,” said Montgomery. “You’ve got to play sore and you’ve got to play banged up. If you can’t play with those things, you really can’t play.”

Apparently, that message has not reached the young men for whom Montgomery is accountable. Dealing with it frustrates the former running back, who had 1,515- and 1,402-yard rushing seasons during his eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles.

He’s having trouble understanding why the hunger isn’t there. Why the desire to excel isn’t there. It frustrates him.

Crowell hasn’t stepped up yet. Perhaps he’s saving it for the exhibition season. But he has to understand coaches grade players all the times and that includes training camp. It’s all part of the process in determining the shape of the roster.

And when Montgomery declared, “No one wants the role,” that resonates with coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. “It bothers me that guys don’t want to be the lead bell cow guy.”

All he wants is for someone, anyone, to, as he puts it, “strap the saddle on and just say, ‘Hey. I want the job.’ Right now, it’s not a close race.”

Sure, it’s still relatively early. And sure, there is no need for major concern now because most of these guys are young and heal much quicker than those who have been around for a while.

But what Montgomery is most likely looking for here is someone, anyone, with an attitudinal approach to the game that will make his job that much easier and enjoyable and less frustrating.

The Cleveland offense this season definitely will rely much more heavily on the running game with that aspect counted on to set up the passing game. Strength on the ground, at least in theory, will make it easier for the below-average (being kind here) passing game to operate efficiently.

It worked last season for a while. At the beginning of 2014, Cleveland’s running game was one of the best in the National Football League, racking up 732 yards through the first five games. That’s 146.4 yards game. Then center Alex Mack went down with a broken leg and the running game fell apart.

The Browns gained just 992 yards on the ground the next 11 games, dragging down with it the passing game. That’s how vital the ground game is to this offense this season.

With Mack back, it theoretically should get better. But first, Montgomery has to see tangible evidence that someone, anyone, on this team is assertive enough to stand up, look him right in the eye and declare “this job is mine” which would put a smile back on his position coach’s face.

Until and unless that happens, his frustration level can only grow.