Monday, September 28, 2015

Monday leftovers

Judging from the visceral negative reaction from Browns Nation after Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders, the guys in the Ivory Tower now have no choice but to shift into damage control mode.

The fans, even some of those who believe the club can do no wrong, are royally ticked off at their favorite team. Some even threaten to make them their ex-favorite team.

The Browns’ dismal performance against the Raiders, it seems, was the final blow. Playing bad football had been tolerated for too long by the local faithful and it seems as though this one loss epitomized the frustration that had been built up over the years.

There is a lot of damage that needs to be addressed for the front office and frankly, those who make all the command decisions are not in a position to defend themselves because they are unarmed. You don’t enter battles weaponless.

What makes it even more frustrating is that 13 games still remain on the schedule and the Browns will be underdogs in every one. Not exactly something to look forward to at the beginning of October.

All of which makes Mike Pettine’s job that much more difficult. The head coach has to maintain respect, especially during losing times, in his locker room. Or, according to some fans, whatever respect he has left.

This is not to indicate Pettine has lost his room. Far from it. But the longer this type of bad football is played, the less likely he will be able to maintain that respect. His play-like-a-Brown mantra is ringing hollow. Playing like a Brown is playing losing football.

Pettine revealed after the Raiders loss that “our theme for this year is ‘Words Into Action’ and we have to play better.” Those words don’t seem to be translating into anything resembling action.

The coach also didn’t couch words about his team’s performance against Oakland. In a rare moment of brutal honesty with the media, he said. “There were times out there, and I didn’t mince words with the staff, that we looked like a scout team.”

Losing seven of the last eight games dating back to last season isn’t helping his cause. And the loss to the Raiders Sunday, during which the club made the same mistakes repeatedly, serves as a microcosm to what ails this team.

Going back to the drawing board seems to be an exercise in futility in the short term. A coach can pound just so much into a player’s head. Reaching what motivates the players seems to be a hurdle that can’t be topped.

In the Browns’ case, losing begets losing. Instead of a mind-set that gives birth to winning, like stepping up and making a play when it is needed, it seems as though the Browns sit back and wait wonderingly for something to go wrong. That’s a loser’s mind-set.

Think like a winner and you’ll find ways to overcome problems that impede progress. Think like a loser and you’ll never find those ways.

Coaching is as much mental and emotional as it is educational. It is a delicate balance that separates the great ones from the good ones, the good ones from the average ones and the average ones from the poor ones.

It has been the Browns’ misfortune since the resurrection in 1999 to tap into the poor-coaching category with one exception. Butch Davis was a solid coach who became very average because he was given way too much power to run the club from a personnel standpoint instead of concentrating on coaching. It cost him his job.

Pettine, on the other hand, is not a bad coach. He very likely will wind up being one of those many coaches who is a better coordinator than head coach.

Unfortunately, that does not mollify the growing number of Browns fans who once again must prove to the rest of the sports world that you’ve got to be tough to be a Browns fan.
*       *       *
Don’t blame Pettine for this mess. He has been tasked to run a football team that is fundamentally flawed in so many different ways. Yes, his opinion has been solicited with regards to player personnel, but all ultimate decisions rest with a higher authority.

If fingers of guilt are going to be pointed, they should be directed at General Manager Ray Farmer and his crew, most notably Bill Kuharich, the club’s executive chief of staff running the team from a personnel standpoint while Farmer serves his four-game suspension.

Other culprits whose names you never read or hear are Morocco Brown, vice president player personnel; Dan Saganey, manager pro personnel; Brian Decker, player personnel strategist; and Ken Kovash, director football research/player personnel.

There are 25 names, including the aforementioned, linked to the Browns’ player personnel department. That’s 25 men whose main responsibility is to put a winning team on the field. To that end, they have failed miserably.

In this buck-stops-here-world, Farmer should correctly absorb most of the blame for what is about to unfold this season. All Pettine can do is try to extract maximum value out of a talent challenged roster.
*       *       *
So in what ways, exactly, is this team flawed? A 36-year-old journeyman whose success quotient is extraordinarily low runs the offense. His backup is a collegiate hot shot whose predictability factor scares most coaches. And the position they play is the most important on the team.

The wide receivers corps might be the worst in the entire National Football League. The offensive line has forgotten how to run block, which is somewhat ironic because the success of this offense is supposedly geared around a successful ground game.

On defense, stopping the run is only a dream. Whether it’s up the middle or on the edges (another sizable weakness), the Browns cannot stop the opposition. The Raiders came into Sunday’s game averaging 80 yards a game on the ground. They pounded out 155 against the Browns.

In three games, the Browns have averaged 86 yards a game on the ground and given up 158 yards a game. Extrapolate those figures and they will surrender more than 2,500 yards infantry style this season, surely a club record.

The pass rush is hit and miss, the so-called strong secondary has a difficult time  covering  receivers (notice how much trouble the veteran Joe Haden had with rookie Amari Cooper Sunday?) and the tackling has been amateurish. Someone should teach safety Donte Whitner how to wrap up a runner instead of using his shoulder.

And yes, that falls under coaching. But if the talent is lacking, all the coaching in the world is not going to make it better. The talent on that side of the ball is highly overrated.

It all starts up front in football. Run the ball well and stop the run, odds for a winning season rise substantially. Fail to run the ball or stop the run and those odds sink rapidly. It’s really that simple.
*       *       *
If Josh McCown can be blamed for anything in the Raiders loss, it’s for being rusty for the better part of three quarters. Missing the equivalent of two games definitely affected his timing in the passing game.

Once he was dialed in, and with the help of an Oakland defense that kicked it into prevent mode, he threw well until the Charles Woodson interception. He was helped by great catches from Brian Hartline, Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel. 

Tight end Gary Barnidge, neglected all afternoon by the Raiders, cashed in with six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. But when a tight end whose primary job is to block is your leading receiver, you’ve got problems unless that tight end is named Rob Gronkowski.
*       *       *
There are no patsies along the way from now on. The schedule gets only tougher from here on out. All three AFC North opponents have strong running games. That’s six games right there. Then there are dates against Arizona, Denver, Seattle and Kansas City.
*       *       *
Notebook: A perfect example of fundamentally flawed football by the Browns took place in the third quarter. Reserve Oakland running back Marcel Reece hauled in a swing pass from Derek Carr in the left flat and was met almost immediately by safeties Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Gipson tried to arm tackle the 6-2, 240-pounder and whiffed. Whitner bumped him with his shoulder and bounced off. Reece went for a 55-yard romp before being brought down. . . . The Browns have just one interception this season. That was by Gipson, who immediately fumbled and gave the ball back to the opposition. . . . Three of the next four games are on the road with a visit by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos Oct. 18 the only home game. . . . Just how bad is the Browns’ running game? Of their 39 total first downs in the first three games, only 14 have been achieved on the ground. Any wonder why teams stack the box against Cleveland?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The worst is yet to come

It is going to be a long season for the Browns. A very long season. A very, very, very long season.

That much can be gleaned following Sunday’s 27-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders in front of the home crowd.

In three games thus far, we have learned the Browns still can’t stop the run, still can’t produce a running game that can sustain the passing game and still cannot make a play when a play is needed.

And that was against the three easiest teams on this season’s schedule. From here on out, it is going to get much, much tougher with five of the next seven games, including the next two, in hostile territory, three against AFC North opponents.

Heading into next Sunday’s game in San Diego, the next 13 games will be played against teams that did not have a losing record last season. Picking again in the top five in next year’s college draft looks more and more like a certainty.

Sunday’s loss serves as a microcosm of what eventually will go wrong this season unless the Browns can make one of the most miraculous comebacks in National Football League history.

If it wasn’t a rouging the kicker penalty that extended a drive that eventually wound up in an Oakland touchdown, or a Travis Benjamin muffed punt late in the fourth quarter that prolonged a Raiders possession when the Browns desperately needed the football, it was the defense’s inability to get not only a stop following a Cleveland touchdown that made it 20-10, but allowing a ridiculously easy retaliating touchdown.

It was also the Browns settling for a field goal after achieving a first and goal at the Oakland 1 late in the second quarter. Not to mention a quarterback who had miserable timing problems with his receivers for the better part of three quarters. It was a confluence of just enough bad karma to lose a football game.

Those who believe every cup is half full correctly point out the Browns are 1-2 at this point and woke up just long enough to make the Raiders loss interesting at the end. But the sad fact is this team has serious problems on offense, serious problems on defense and has no idea how to play clutch football.

There isn’t one take-charge guy on either side of the ball. That one guy who steps up and makes a play when it counts. That one guy who can be depended on to come through time and again. That man does not wear Seal Brown and Orange.

Their too-little, too-late comeback against the Raiders might serve as a springboard for next Sunday, but it doesn’t make up for the club’s inability to play smart football. Or tough-when- they-need-to-be football.

Their physical and emotional makeup just isn’t there on a sustained basis. They tackle as though they expect the opposition to go down immediately. Arm tackling and shoulder tackling just doesn’t cut it. This team does not know how to fundamentally wrap up a ball carrier. Their tackling is embarrassing.

Running back Latavius Murray, who compiled 109 yards in 26 attempts in Oakland’s first two games, ran for 139 yards in 26 carries Sunday, about 100 of them, it seemed, gained after contact. For the third straight game, the vaunted Cleveland run defense surrendered more than 150 yards.

The pass rush, coming off a seven-sack game, made life comfortable for Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, whose uniform was as dry, clean and unwrinkled after the game as it was before. Replicating their opening-game pass rush fiasco against the New York Jets, the Browns recorded zero sacks and zero quarterback hits.

Carr was free to pick and choose as he carved up the Cleveland secondary for 314 yards and two touchdowns, one each to Seth Roberts and Andre Holmes. He shredded the secondary, hooking up with rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper for 134 yards. A Cooper fumble in the fourth quarter led to the second Cleveland touchdown, but by then, it was way too late.

The Oakland defense, which entered the game hemorrhaging 450 yards a game and compiling zero sacks in two games, sacked Browns quarterback Josh McCown five times and dropped him another seven times as the Cleveland offense went into pass-only mode midway through the third quarter after falling behind, 20-3.

After the Raiders pumped the lead back to 27-13 and the crowd chanting for Johnny Manziel to replace an ineffective McCown, the Browns made a belated comeback when the Raiders went into prevent mode. And of course, all that does usually is prevent winning. Not on this day, though.

McCown, throwing almost exclusively in the second half, actually put the Browns in a position to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. They ran the ball on only three of their 42 snaps in the final 30 minutes

McCown drove his club to the Oakland 35 in the final minute before future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson stepped in front of a wide-open Benjamin at the Oakland 10 with 38 seconds left and stole not only the ball, but the hearts of Cleveland fans as the sadness returned suddenly.

This one was clearly won in the trenches. Most coaches implore their linemen on both sides of the ball to win the individual battles, Win the battles and you’ll win the game, they say. That was never more evident than what the fans witnessed Sunday.

The Raiders, who normally pass 70% of the time, ran the ball on 30 of its 62 plays. Why the switch? All you have to do is look at the statistics. The Browns cannot stop the run. The offensive line pushed the Cleveland defense around most of the afternoon and won just about every important battle.

The Browns’ offensive line? Well, besides the five sacks and seven hits on McCown, the big boys upfront opened enough holes for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. to rack up 39 yards.

It all added up to the Raiders’ first victory in the Eastern Time Zone since December 2009 and snapped an 11-game losing streak on the road.

 Only in Cleveland. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Lakefront fireworks loom

While Browns fans debate whether Mike Pettine made the correct decision to start Josh McCown over Johnny Manziel Sunday against the invading Oakland Raiders, the bigger picture is being ignored.

The Browns’ pass rush and secondary had better be ready because Oakland treats the running game like a stepchild. True to the tradition of Raiders football, throwing the football is far more glamorous, dangerous and productive.

To that end, the Browns should take note that the Raiders last Sunday scored 37 points on a pretty good Baltimore defense as Derek Carr strafed the Ravens’ secondary for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns.

This could be one of those games, assuming the Browns don’t fall into the trap of trying to manage the game, where points will arrive often and in bunches. There will be no rest for the defenses in what could be an up-and-down-the-field game.

Now whether the Browns can match that kind of firepower is debatable. With an offense that is far less dynamic than Oakland’s and a defense that has been Jekyll/Hyde thus far, it will be interesting to see how prepare for the Raiders, who put the ball in the air 70% of the time.

Which Cleveland defense pass rush will show up? The one that couldn’t get close enough to New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener to identify which deodorant he used that day? Or the one that treated Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota like a piƱata last Sunday?

It also will be interesting to see how Pettine and his coaches game plan this one. As in the first two games this season, the Browns can expect the Oakland defense to crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the ground game, forcing McCown to throw the ball.

The Raiders surrender 450 yards a game (325 through the air) on defense. So do you take advantage and attack the secondary relentlessly? Or do you stubbornly attempt to run the ball behind an offensive line that has not played well at all?

And on defense, do you forsake the pass rush and play with strictly nickel and dime packages, removing one and sometimes two linebackers? After all, we are led to believe the secondary is the strength of the defense. Time to prove it.

What exactly do the Browns do well on offense? It has been so erratic in the first two games, it’s almost impossible to adequately answer that question. The run game is stagnant. The passing game is hit and miss.

The only positive on that side of the ball that can correctly be singled out is the bust-out season wide receiver Travis Benjamin has launched. He has scored four of the five touchdowns Cleveland has put on the board.

McCown, on the other hand, is the X factor. He played only one series before a concussion abbreviated his season opener. So we don’t really know what to expect from the journeyman.

What we probably won’t get is the aforementioned hit-and-miss performance of Manziel, who has racked up many more misses than hits. In between his hot start and hot finish in the Titans victory, he put up a handful of three-and-outs. The consistency factor was definitely absent.

It is almost certain McCown will involve wide receivers Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe and his trio of tight ends in the offense more than did Manziel. Now whether that will be enough in what promises to be a shootout is another matter altogether.

About the only way McCown can be successful is if the ground game suddenly kicks into high gear. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. showed flashes last Sunday, but it will take a lot more than that to convince the Oakland defense to back off.

Two more questions on the defensive approach to slowing down the so-far dynamic Oakland offense: Try to get to Carr before he can hurt them? Or respect him and try instead to confuse him with mixed coverages in the secondary?

They know Carr will come off the bus throwing. And they know his main targets will be rookie Amari Cooper and rejuvenated veteran Michael Crabtree, who combined for 16 catches, 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns last Sunday against Baltimore.

Getting to Carr against a decent Oakland offensive line is the key. Disrupting his rhythm is essential if cornerbacks Joe Haden and Tramon Williams are to be successful. Both will be tested early and often.

Daring the Raiders to run the ball with only three-man fronts could be another tactic the Browns employ. Second-year man Latavius Murray is the only runner used on a regular basis. That approach could backfire because the Raiders, in the tradition of the late Al Davis, are much more comfortable when the football is in the air.

So do the Browns climb out of their security blanket and attempt to shoot it out with the Raiders (to the delight of the fans)? Or do Pettine and his coaches go the conservative route (shocking!) and try to milk the clock and limit the number of times the Raiders own the football?

What Pettine does not want to see is fans calling for Manziel if McCown struggles. It might be the natural thing to do for fickle fans, but it solves nothing and places the Cleveland coach in an untenable position.

Let’s be perfectly honest here. The Browns are not going to win many games from here on out, certainly not with their rugged schedule. So it’s understandable for fans to believe the club might as well see what Manziel can do to gauge the future.

At some point, McCown will show his true colors and make the kinds of mistakes he has made throughout his career and play his way back to the bench, giving Manziel his chance.. But for right now, though, McCown is the man. How he performs dictates his immediate future.

And the right now says Sunday’s game will turn into a shootout because neither defense can handle the passing game. Points will litter the scoreboard with Carr and McCown trading blows like heavyweight boxers and the team that winds up with the ball last wins the game, much like the Raiders did last Sunday against Baltimore.

That team will be the Browns with McCown and Benjamin hooking up for two of the quarterback’s four touchdown passes, the second with less than 30 seconds left, while the defense gives up two Carr touchdown passes and a Murray TD on the ground. Make it:

Browns 31, Raiders 30

Monday, September 21, 2015

Monday leftovers

There is absolutely no question who should start at quarterback for the Browns Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

It is a no-brainer. It shouldn’t even be given a second thought.

If team doctors tell Mike Pettine sometime this week that Josh McCown is fit to resume his season, there is no way the Browns head coach can logically say no.

Despite his up-and-down performance in Sunday’s big victory over the Tennessee Titans where the ups were Everest-like and the downs were almost subterranean, Johnny Manziel should be a spectator against the Raiders.

There is no question Manziel’s growth as a professional football player is headed in the right direction. But if Pettine looks at the big picture, he also sees an inconsistency in his young quarterback that can be harmful to the team.

That’s why McCown, if healthy, is the correct way to go right now. He brings levelheadedness to the offense. There is no guessing what he’s going to do as there is with Manziel.

What the Browns need now is a seasoned pro to lead the offense and you don’t get any more seasoned than McCown. He has reached the point in his career that when he is entrenched as a starter, he has to play his way to the bench as he did last season in Tampa Bay.

Until he does that, Manziel should return to the sidelines, grab his clipboard and resume the growth process from a mental standpoint. The practical process of that growth needs to be tapped only if McCown falters or is injured again.

Right now, the pundits are divided on who should start against the Raiders. Those on the pro-Manziel side say he’s ready. One decent performance and he’s ready to take charge. A Johnny Football-like performance can sometimes cloud clear thinking.

Those in the Manziel camp tend to overlook a big problem he has with ball security. He got lucky against the Titans where he was stripped of the ball twice on consecutive series only to watch teammates recover deep in Cleveland territory. That’s four fumbles in two games, losing the two he coughed up in the season-opening loss to the New York Jets.

Lose one of those against the Titans and we might not be talking about a Cleveland victory. Sloppy ball security is a surefire way to find yourself back on the bench.

Many fans rave about the two long scoring connections Manziel made with Travis Benjamin against the Titans. All well and good. But do not for a minute lose sight of the fact Manziel was extremely fortunate to be in a position to make those throws.

The Browns are so fragile on offense – questionable ground game, way below average receiving corps – that it doesn’t take much to disrupt it. Until his fourth-quarter scoring pass to Benjamin, Manziel was contained nicely by the Tennessee defense for most of the last three quarters.

The Browns had 10 possessions against the Titans. Between the first two, each of which produced touchdowns, and the final one, which produced the insurance score, five of the other seven were of the three-and-out variety. Not exactly a prescription for success.

So if Pettine is as smart as I think he is, look for McCown – and yes, I’m not his biggest booster, but he’s clearly the better quarterback for this team right now – to regain his starting job.

Manziel’s time will come. Just not now.
*       *       *
Of those seven possessions that did not result in any points, one stood out if only because it should have put at least three points on the board.

On the first series of the second quarter with the Browns holding a 14-0 lead, they drove 51 yards to the Titans’ 19-yard line. On third down and about a foot, Isaiah Crowell was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Decision time for Pettine.

Instead of taking the sure 37-yard field goal to make it a three-score game, he listened to the home crowd, in a full testosterone rush, screaming to go for it on fourth down. What made the decision to go for it egregiously awful was the play called.

It was obvious the Titans decisively won the line of scrimmage on the previous play. That should have been a signal that if you try again, don’t do it that way. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo couldn’t have dialed up a worse play.

With the Titans lined up nine across the line of scrimmage for the second play in a row, he called on the relatively slight Manziel (barely six feet and 210 pounds), who had probably never run a quarterback sneak in his life, to run a quarterback sneak behind an offensive line that got its butts whipped the play before.

What in the world was he thinking? Manziel, who still has problems with his rhythm quarterbacking under center, didn’t even come close. In fact, he lost a yard. Why not the larger Crowell again off tackle? Or, surprise!, a pass to one of the tight ends who slips a block and drifts into the flat.

If you’re going to be bold, use a little creativity. Asking a small quarterback to do the job is flawed thinking. And it gave the Titans a boost. The Browns went three-and-out on three of the next four possessions.

I come from the school that says take the points when possible. Don’t leave them off the board. Even as the Browns lined up to go for it, I thought a Travis Coons field goal was the correct move.
*       *       *
Did we see some of the infamous amoeba defense the Browns used in their inaugural season in the second half of the game? Remember the defense where no hands were on the ground just prior to the snap and there was general milling around? It sure looked that way on several snaps.

It was designed to confuse opposing quarterbacks who were ostensibly unable to accurately read what the defense was going to do. It was the brainchild of defensive coordinator Bob Slowik, who lasted just one season with the expansion Browns.
*       *       *
Alex Mack thus far is not having an Alex Mack season. Maybe he isn’t totally recovered from his broken leg a year or so ago. But he definitely is not the Pro Bowl center fans have been used to watching the last several seasons.

He was arguably the best offensive lineman on the club before breaking the leg early last season. In his first two games, he has been semi-abused by opposing defensive linemen and not been strong at all at the point of attack. That needs to change if the Browns continue to make the running game the focal point of the attack.
*       *       *
The Browns also must stop taking stupid penalties at the most inappropriate times. Jordan Poyer’s end zone interception that would have prevented Tennessee’s second touchdown was wiped out by a Desmond Bryant penalty and extended the drive that ultimately wound up in the end zone.
*       *       *
Notebook: The Browns did a poor job of covering the Titans’ tight ends. Anthony Fasano, Chase Coffman and Craig Stevens combined for 10 catches, 139 of Marcus Mariota’s 257 yards and one touchdown in the absence of Delanie Walker. . . . The Browns also couldn’t stop running back Dexter McCluster, who gouged the Cleveland defense for 98 yards on 10 carries, frequently exposing the continuing problem on the edges. . . . The run defense, which surrendered 154 yards in the Jets loss, coughed up another 166 yards against the Titans. . . . Did anyone notice wide receivers Dwayne Bowe (one target) and Brian Hartline (three targets) combined for zero catches? . . . The Browns ran only 47 plays and controlled the ball for just 25 minutes. . . . Andy Lee continued his terrific punting, averaging 53.2 yards on six kicks. . . . The Titans never had a chance to return any of placekicker Travis Coons’ five kickoffs. Adding in Lee’s punts and one series when the Browns turned over the ball on downs, the average start for a Tennessee drive was the 19-yard line. . . . The Browns officially had seven sacks, 11 knockdowns of Mariota and at least a dozen other hurries. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Enjoy Monday Browns fans

Every football game has defining moments. Those little slivers of time that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The Browns faced one of those moments Sunday in their victorious home opener against the Tennessee Titans, who had taken a potential Cleveland rout and turned it into yet another possible broken-heart special.

The Titans had transformed a 21-0 halftime deficit into a 21-14 nitroglycerine tablet grabber for Browns fans with six minutes and 42 seconds left in regulation and the Cleveland offense staggering.

Three of the previous four  possessions, including the last two in a row, had resulted in a three-and-out. The running game had been shut down and Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel had difficulty holding on to the football.

After the Titans crept to within a touchdown with a 15-play, 77-yard drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock and culminated with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota’s second touchdown pass of the afternoon on fourth down to fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, momentum had swung Tennessee’s way.

The Titans had another reason to believe they really had a good chance to at least tie this one and force overtime. Four plays before the touchdown strike, Browns safety Jordan Poyer intercepted Mariota in the end zone. The theft was wiped out when Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant was penalized for a hands-to-the-face infraction.

On the two Cleveland possessions before that Tennessee drive, both three-and-outs, Manziel was strip-sacked twice deep in his own territory only to have teammates Mitchell Schwartz and Duke Johnson Jr. recover. Maybe, just maybe, luck fdavored them for a change.

But the emotional barometer had swung decidedly in Tennessee’s favor. The Cleveland defense was gassed despite a withering rush on Mariota that produced seven sacks, two of the strip variety. And the offense had become virtually non-existent.

The defense, which looked solid, sharp and very much engaged in the first half, couldn’t get off the field in the final 30 minutes. The visitors ran 41 plays in the second half to only 21 by the Browns. At that point, nothing was clicking for the Browns. It looked gloomy.

Thoughts of here-we-go-again began invading the minds of Browns Nation after the great – and most unexpected – start. It wasn’t what could go wrong now. It was what will go wrong now. In what bizarre manner will they blow this one?

Then, quite unexpectedly, one of those defining moments arrived.

The Browns had built their halftime lead on a Manziel-Travis Benjamin 60-yard scoring connection on their second play of the afternoon, an 11-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Crowell and a 78-yard punt return by Benjamin. And yet, they still needed a big play to save this game.

The coaching staff clearly did not trust Manziel to throw the ball in the second half in an effort to protect that big lead. He had one completion and the two strip sacks on his four second-half dropbacks as the Browns ran only 12 plays up to that point.

They went ultra conservative on the deciding drive, alternating Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. on six straight running plays. But the Tennessee defense tightened and forced a third-and-6 at midfield. The Browns needed a miracle and Manziel, a specialist at performing miracles at Texas A&M, delivered.

On a rollout to his left, the quick-footed Manziel barely eluded the sack attempt of Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, who had sniffed out a similar play earlier in the game and forced the Cleveland quarterback to throw an awkward incompletion.

Not this time, though. Manziel beat Orakpo to the flank, stopped, set his feet and launched a 50-yard bomb to Benjamin (who else?), who caught it in stride and pranced into the end zone.

Cancel that nitro tablet grab.

It put to rest, at least on this afternoon, the notion that yet another disappointing finish was about to unfold. On this afternoon, the Factory of Sadness definitely was transformed into the Factory of Joy and Happiness.

But choosing to sit on the big lead and button down the offense was not a wise move. It’s not as though this team is good enough to protect such a large lead by going conservative. Obviously, Mike Pettine believes otherwise. Trying not to lose often times gets a lot of teams and coaches into trouble and winds up the exact opposite.

Once the boot is placed on the throat of the opponent, it’s much wiser to apply it even harder. The Browns basically allowed the Titans to stick around and eventually get back into the game.

If it weren’t for that little miracle, that little defining moment, we might be talking about an entirely different result, not a 28-14 victory that was a lot closer than the final indicates. Those miracles and positive defining moments do not come along often in the National Football League.

When Manziel was successful early – he completed six of his first nine passes – the ball was coming out quickly and accurately. Instead of staying with the program, the coaches went to the ground game, which was hit and miss all afternoon.

So now the debate begins. Who starts for the Browns next Sunday when the Oakland Raiders, who knocked off the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, invade the lakefront? Will it be Manziel, who had the first two-touchdown game of his career, or Josh McCown?

The answer to that is easy. If he’s healthy, it better be McCown. Not that he’s anyone to get excited about, but he is certainly the better of the two quarterbacks and should get the nod if fully recovered from the concussion he suffered in the season opener against the New York Jets.

Sunday was a great learning experience for Manziel. He ostensibly convinced fans he could make plays with his arm, not just his feet. He also learned his coaching staff does not quite yet trust him to be the linchpin of an offense still trying to find its identity.

But at least for one game, he gave Browns Nation a reason to be happy on a Monday.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Titanic triumph

It is easy for most Browns fans to look at what happened in the opening game last Sunday and wonder what direction the 2015 season will take as a result. Was that a portent of things to come or an aberration?

Not only were the Browns humiliated physically and emotionally by the New York Jets, it appeared as though they didn’t care one way or the other. With the exception of safety Donte Whitner, who publicly apologized for the dreadful performance, relative silence emanated from the locker room.

The here-we-go-again cloud that has hovered over this team since the resurrection in 1999 was not referenced, although no one would have blamed anyone for bringing it up. It was only one game for goodness sake.

All of which makes one wonder whether the anger that should have spilled over from that game is being internalized and saved for Sunday’s home opener against the Tennessee Titans.

Emotion is such a huge part of the game in the National Football League. The Browns showed none in the Jets beatdown. That, in large part, can be blamed on the head coach, whose main job is to make certain his team is ready to play on all levels.

In the NFL, there are times when the emotional aspect of the game lifts an average team to play well beyond its talents. There is a large degree of truth to the notion that “on any given Sunday in the NFL, anything can happen.”

The phrase, originally coined by NFL Commissioner Bert Bell in the 1950s, means that despite what oddsmakers think of the game, any team is capable of beating its opponent no matter the disparity in talent.

Now the Browns are point-and-a-half underdogs to the Titans. That’s right. Home opener – the home team normally gets three points for home field advantage – and they are 1½-point dogs to a team that finished 2-14 last year. That’s almost as humiliating as the Jets loss.

Perhaps it’s because Johnny Manziel will start at quarterback for the Browns while Josh McCown recovers from his concussion. It’s somewhat understandable why the experts believe the Browns are not as strong a team offensively with Manziel in charge. More on that later.

Sunday’s game presents a different kind of problem for the Browns. This is the same Titans team that slapped their own brand of humiliation on the Buccaneers in Tampa last Sunday with Marcus Mariota severely outplaying Jameis Winston in a battle of the top two picks in this year’s college draft.

You can also see why the so-called experts believe the Titans will deliver another blow to the Browns and render the Factory of Sadness even sadder. After all, they are coming off the drubbing of the Bucs while the Browns . . . well no need to be repetitious.

Don’t expect Mariota, who threw more touchdown passes (four) than incompletions (three) against Tampa Bay, to replicate that performance in Cleveland. He certainly can’t better it. There is no way to better perfection (a 158.3 passer rating). Only equal it and that’s not going to happen.

The Titans are certainly a better team than last season and the talented Mariota is clearly the future of the franchise. Talented skill players like running back Bishop Sankey, wide receiver Kendall Wright and tight end Delanie Walker make his job that much easier.

The Titans, however, are a run-first team with Sankey and former Brown Terrance West their main men. Mariota threw only 16 passes in the Tampa Bay victory. The offense totaled just 309 yards.

The big question was whether Mariota could transition from the super-speed up-tempo spread offense he ran at Oregon to a more disciplined pro style offense. He thus far has shown that is not a problem.

The weakness on offense for the Titans is up front on the line. If the Browns, who struggled with the pass rush against the Jets, have an advantage, it will be against a very average Tennessee offensive line.

Defensively, only the Browns ranked lower in stopping the run last season than the Titans, who sacked opposing quarterbacks just 39 times. To that end, the Titans brought in former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to help Ray Horton integrate the zone-blitz scheme. It worked last week with four sacks of Winston.

The Titans also will have revenge on their minds in this one. The two teams met in week five last season with the Browns escaping with a 29-28 victory in Nashville after trailing, 28-3, late in the second quarter.

Brian Hoyer connected on a pair of late fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Travis Benjamin and special teamer Tank Carder blocked a punt out of the end zone as the Browns outscored the Titans, 19-0, in the second half.

As for Manziel, who had some positive moments in the Jets loss, how well he performs depends on the kind of packages John DeFilippo gives him. The offensive coordinator has to understand his quarterback needs to get rid of the ball quickly or else his feet take over and that’s not necessarily good.

Manziel needs to be given high-percentage, low-risk passes. The ball needs to be gone within three seconds. The longer he holds on to the ball, the more likely something negative will occur.

He does not yet know how to step up into the pocket to avoid the pass rush. His first step when he is trouble is to the side and that’s where there is usually a lot of traffic. That’s why quick-developing plays should be inserted into his arsenal.

The Browns need this one if only to prevent the season from slipping away. Lose and this could very well mushroom into the start of the franchise’s worst season ever. Worse than the 2-14 the expansion 1999 team recorded as the all-time low. That’s how critical this game is.

After next Sunday’s game at home against the Oakland Raiders, the Browns play the next 13 games against teams that either had winning records or a .500 record last season. That includes five of the next seven on the road. They will be underdogs in just about every one.

This Sunday, however, they will show Mariota the NFL isn’t nearly as easy as it was in week one and bring him crashing back down to earth with something he rarely saw against the Bucs – solid defense. Look for the Browns to disguise their coverages to confuse the rookie.

The pass rush that wasn’t there against the Jets will show up with the addition of rookies Nate Orchard and Xavier Cooper to the lineup. The offense will still struggle somewhat, but that won’t matter because the defense will help this week with a strip sack and by picking off a pair of Mariota passes.

The Cleveland offensive line, which failed to live up to its reputation as one of the league’s best against the Jets, will rebound against the Titans and provide the necessary holes for running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. and protect Manziel, who will keep mistakes at a minimum.

What the oddsmakers don’t know is this Sunday will be one of those anything-can-happen Sundays and that anything is a Cleveland upset.

Crowell and Johnson will combine for 164 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, Manziel will throw another touchdown pass to Benjamin and his usual pick, but the defense will completely flummox Mariota and drop him three times. Make it:

Browns 24, Titans 13

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Not just another QB signing

It was an insignificant signing. Worth nothing more than an agate line of type under National Football League transactions in your local newspaper.

The Browns, hurting physically somewhat at the quarterback position depending on the condition of Josh McCown, signed quarterback Matt Blanchard Tuesday and placed him on the practice squad.

Just another body in camp in the event other club quarterbacks go down. And the reckless manor of Johnny Manziel’s performance in Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets indicates that’s a distinct possibility.

Get ready, Austin Davis. If McCown doesn’t pass concussion protocol by Sunday’s home opener against the Tennessee Titans and Manziel decides he is more running back than quarterback, you are the next man up.

So why, then, is Blanchard even a story? Well, let’s begin by suggesting that the mere mention of his name in Alliance, Ohio, is like uttering a dirty word.

Alliance is the home of the University of Mount Union (formerly Mount Union College), which boasts arguably the preeminent program in Division III college football. Since 1993, the Purple Raiders have appeared in a remarkable 18 Div. III championship games, winning 11. They missed appearing only four times.

The Purple Raiders currently have a 10 consecutive title-game streak, nine of them against the Wisconsin-Whitewater. The Warhawks, whose dominant uniform color is also purple, have won six of those games.

The two teams are so well coached, it is almost a foregone conclusion they will meet again in the championship game later this year in Salem, Va. It seems to have become an annual event.

Check this out: In the last 10 years, the Warhawks are 139-6 with the Purple Raiders inflicting half of those losses. Mount is 143-7 over that span, six of the losses dealt by the Warhawks.

So what does all this have to do with Matt Blanchard? The Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback in three of those title-game victories (2009-11) over Mount Union was none other than the 6-3, 225-pound Blanchard, who transferred to Whitewater from Northern Michigan after his freshman season.

He never lost a game in three seasons with Whitewater, throwing for 5,106 yards, 44 touchdowns and completing 70% of his passes. At one point, he threw 212 straight passes without an interception. Even so, it wasn’t good enough to rate being a selection in the 2012 NFL college draft.

The Chicago Bears signed Blanchard to a free-agent contract that year and he wound up on the practice squad. He subsequently spent time on the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad and was in Green Bay’s training camp this year before being released.

The only Div. III quarterbacks to make an NFL roster and play with at least a fair degree of success are Jack Kemp from Occidental with the Buffalo Bills back in the 1960s and Augustana’s Ken Anderson, who spent 16 seasons (1971-86) with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Blanchard, now 26, arrives with the reputation of having a strong arm and a high degree of accuracy. For right now, though, he’s just another player for whom rabid Browns fans can get excited.

The odds of Blanchard becoming anything more than that line of agate type are not good. Only time will tell whether Cleveland is just another stop in his career or he is the next Jack Kemp or Ken Anderson.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Monday leftovers

Looking hard for something positive to say about the Browns following their extremely disappointing performance in the season opener Sunday against the New York Jets.

Besides punter Andy Lee, that is.

How about Travis Benjamin? The wide receiver/punt returner looks like a new man. The confidence he displayed as a rookie is back. He is fully recovered, mentally and physically, from his ACL surgery a little less than two years ago.

Last season, he played so tentatively, the Browns replaced him for a short period on punt returns and worked him only sparingly into three- and four-receiver packages.

This season, it has been different. The slender wideout from Miami of Florida has stood out in training camp, the exhibition games and now in the first game of the regular season. He had only three receptions for 89 yards against the Jets, but one was a 54-yard scoring strike.

The speed that was missing last season is back. And it’s that speed and lightning-like quickness that quarterbacks Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel are going to have to get used to. If Benjamin had not adjusted to Manziel’s underthrown pass Sunday, he might not have scored.

He is clearly not a possession receiver. Unlike just about everyone else on the wide receivers roster, he can stretch a field. It’s up to the two Cleveland quarterbacks to make the necessary adjustments to take advantage.

It’s also incumbent on offensive coordinator John DeFilippo to dial up at least two or three go routes a game for Benjamin just to keep opposing defenses honest. Why he didn’t go back to it later in the Jets game, especially after the Jets jumped out to a big lead, is puzzling.

When you have weapons such as Benjamin, you try to take advantage. Lord knows the DeFilippo offense is stodgy and boring. No reason not to spice it up with someone who can be useful deep in opposing secondaries.

And when you’ve got a weapon like Benjamin, sending him across the middle or out on a hitch or stop pattern is wasting his talent. This team has so little quickness and speed on offense, it makes much more sense to maximize what you’ve got.
*       *       *
The Browns won one of the two pivotal battles against the Jets, owning the ball for nearly 32 minutes. That paled, however, to the turnover ratio. The minus-4 is the main reason they were drilled.

When you cough up the ball five times – Manziel had one interception and lost two fumbles – and force only one turnover, which they promptly gave back, that puts that much more stress on the defense.

That defense has an awful lot to atone for next Sunday in the home opener against the Tennessee Titans. That’s the same Titans team that scorched Tampa Bay, 42-14, Sunday with Marcus Mariota racking up a perfect passer rating of 158.3, completing 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards and four touchdown passes in his first game as a pro.

If the Cleveland offense ignites another stink bomb, it will be up to defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to make certain there is not a repeat of what happened against the Jets.

The strength of this team is the defense. Here it is only one game into the season and we’re already strongly suggesting that side of the ball start behaving and playing like most fans expect.
*       *       *
One of these days, the Browns’ brass is going to realize that drafting Smurfish players for the secondary is an exercise in futility. All you had to do was watch Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall singe Browns cornerback Joe Haden time and again to realize something must be done to correct that height disparity.

Haden, listed at 5-11, gave away fine inches to the 6-4 Marshall, who made some easy catches over the much smaller Haden. Perhaps Haden feels more comfortable working against 5-7 teammates Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel and the 5-10 Benjamin in practice.

Pierre Desir, at 6-1, apparently isn’t good enough to play and 6-0 Justin Gilbert looks more and more like a huge draft mistake. Nickelback K’Waun Williams, who is 5-9, also was on the burning end of a touchdown pass to Eric Decker of the Jets. Decker is 6-3.
*       *       *
A telling statistic: The Browns converted six of their first eight third-down situations against the Jets. They were still in the game at the time, trailing by just 14-10 early in the second half. They faced eight more third downs the rest of the way and converted just two.

Manziel’s lone interception on a poorly thrown ball to Brian Hartline was on third down with the Browns driving. Marcus Williams’ pick and subsequent 18-yard return set up a 28-yard Jets scoring drive that took all the momentum away from the Browns.
*       *       *
Two of the inactives Sunday were outside linebacker Nate Orchard and defensive tackle Xavier Cooper. Unless we missed it, both men were healthy scratches. These two, at least we have been told, are highly regarded draft choices, both of whom, again we are told, excel at rushing the passer.

And since the Browns recorded a whopping zero sacks (and one measly hit) of Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, is it all right to wonder just why these two guys weren’t suited up?
*       *       *
Notebook: The Jets arrived in the red zone six times against the Browns and put points on the board on four of those occasions. The Browns, meanwhile, arrived twice and scored once (a Travis Coons field goal). . . . On the way to that field goal, Hartline made a remarkable catch of a Manziel pass on a third-and-10 from New York 35 late in the second quarter. While on his knees 11 yards downfield, the veteran wide receiver from Ohio State reached back with his right arm, caught the ball and cradled it before completing the play. Jets coach Todd Bowles challenged the catch and lost. . . . Manziel’s TD pass was the first of his National Football League career. . . . Because of penalties, Coons attempted the extra point following the Cleveland touchdown three times before finally hitting. . . . It was that kind of an afternoon for everything Cleveland Browns.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Please pass the oxygen

OK, Browns fans. Take a deep breath. A really long, deep breath.


After the season opener Sunday in the Meadowlands of New Jersey against the New York Jets, you are going to have to get used to taking very long, very deep breaths if that's an indication of what lies ahead.

The 31-10 drubbing the Jets hung on the Browns in no way was indicative of how easily this victory was achieved.

It wasn’t as though the Jets could do no wrong. It wasn’t as though they thoroughly dominated the game from beginning to end. Oh no. They had help. Lots and lots of help.

The Browns, who lost their 11th straight season opener, must have thought it was Christmas, sending five beautifully wrapped turnovers the Jets’ way. Not only did the Jets say thank you very much, they turned the gifts into 21 points.

The Browns lost the game in just about every conceivable way. Through the air. On the ground. They played about as well as they did in their four exhibition games. Someone forgot to send the memo that this one counted.

They were a step slow on defense, had practically no pass rush against a veteran quarterback who would much rather stay in the pocket and were roasted in the secondary on key plays by that same quarterback.

The run defense, which was supposed to be fixed with the drafting of nose tackle Danny Shelton, surrendered 154 yards. Granted a lot of them were gained in the second half when the outcome became clear. Why throw the ball when the opposition can’t stop you?

Jets All-Pro center Nick Mangold and guards Willie Colon and James Carpenter schooled Shelton, who played about half the snaps, all afternoon. The kid had only one solo tackle, rarely got past the line of scrimmage and was nothing more than a cipher along with his linemates.

The pass rush – what pass rush, you ask; good question – produced no sacks and just one hit on Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw scoring passes to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker in recording his fourth victory against the Browns in five starts.

Marshall had no trouble catching passes against cornerback Joe Haden, who is supposed to be one of the best cover corners in the league.

The vaunted Cleveland defense got no help from the offense. Shocking! But it also couldn’t get off the field in key situations.

It’s easy to blame this disaster on the offense, which lost starting quarterback Josh McCown to a concussion late in the first quarter. McCown was attempting to score on a 14-yard scramble only to surrender the first of four fumbles, which was recovered by the Jets in the end zone.

McCown, who played just two series, and Johnny Manziel, who provided the Browns’ only touchdown with a 54-yard strike to Travis Benjamin early in the second quarter, scrambled all afternoon.

A lot of the blame should be shared by the offensive line. Yep, the same one many people consider one of the best in the National Football League. Not only did it fail to adequately protect the quarterbacks, it did no favor to the run game.

The Browns rushed for 104 yards against a strong defensive line, which dropped Manziel three times. But when your leading ball carriers are Manziel (35 yards) and McCown (23 yards), something is terribly wrong.

Duke Johnson Jr., Isaiah Crowell and Shaun Draughn combined for 46 yards infantry style. If Mike Pettine and his offensive coaches don’t point fingers of guilt squarely at the offensive line this week and come down hard, it really is going to be a long season.

If this is the kind of offense fans can look forward to this season, hang on. The key to the success of coordinator John DeFilippo’s brand of offense is running the ball successfully. If the ground game is stopped, so is the Cleveland offense.

We saw a lot of that against the Jets, who crowded the line of scrimmage and practically dared McCown and Manziel to throw the ball. It won’t take long for the rest of the NFL to discover that little secret.

The only time the Browns attempted to the stretch the field was on Benjamin’s touchdown grab that gave the Browns a 7-0 lead. Other than that, the Cleveland offense played giveaway. The Jets started three of their drives in Cleveland territory.

Give any team a short field and bad things happen. Even the Browns capitalized, beginning a late second-quarter drive at the Jets’ 35 that led to a Travis Coons field goal (ending the Cleveland scoring for the afternoon).

The Jets, who won only four games last season, were clearly the better team in just about every phase of the game. The only exception, on second thought, was the superb punting of the Browns’’ Andy Lee, who averaged 60½ yards on two boots.

The Jets capitalized on just about every Cleveland mistake, of which there were too many. The Browns embarrassingly couldn’t take advantage even after creating their only turnover of the afternoon.

On the New York drive following Benjamin’s touchdown, Cleveland free safety Tashaun Gipson swiped a Fitzpatrick pass deep in Browns territory, monetarily shifting the momentum.

However, the alert Marshall, for whom the pass was intended, ripped the ball out of Gipson’s hands when he started to return the theft and the Jets recovered at their 9-yard line. Two plays later, they were on the board with the first of Chris Ivory’s two scores and the romp, although no one knew it at the time, was underway.

It’s so easy to blame this one of Manziel, who is an easy target. He actually looked decent some of the time. No, this one belongs totally to the entire team (except Lee) and the coaching staff. Twelve penalties for 109 yards also suggest lack of discipline. That’s on the coaches.

It was somewhat surprising the Jets controlled the line of scrimmage, especially on offense. They did nothing fancy. Just straight in-your-face, smashmouth football and the Browns were either not ready for it or don’t have the horses to handle it.

The hardest part to accept is the Jets were one of only three teams on this season’s schedule that had a losing record last season. The future does not portend many happy moments.

So don’t forget to take a deep breath. A really long, deep breath.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Scraps R Us

Probably wasting my time, but trying to figure out what makes Austin Davis and Robert Turbin so darn valuable that Mike Pettine is practically drooling over obtaining them is causing a headache.

Can’t understand the two latest roster moves because of what they yielded: more mediocrity. Just what this club needs.

The Browns couldn’t leap on Davis and Turbin quickly enough when their names appeared on the waiver wire. Neither player has exactly distinguished himself thus far in their respective National Football League careers.

One has to wonder why the St Louis Rams waived Davis and the Seattle Seahawks parted ways with Turbin. Hmmmm. Maybe it’s because they’re not that good. The Browns seem to be in the business of picking up scraps.

Explained Pettine to the media Friday, “We had a chance to add a player (Davis) we had positive reports on and a guy (Turbin) we had done a lot of research on before.” The Turbin move bumped quarterback/wide receiver Terrelle Pryor from the roster in what seems to be a bizarre move given the excitement surrounding his signing.

Davis was waived because the Rams were satisfied with Case Keenum and Sean Mannion backing up Nick Foles. And Turbin became available when the Seahawks picked up Fred Jackson following his release by the Buffalo Bills.

So what makes these two guys so special that the Browns practically soiled themselves when they popped up on the waiver wire?

In Davis’ case, perhaps it’s the fact he’s right now a better NFL quarterback than Johnny Manziel, whose sore elbow makes him probably the league’s weakest backup quarterback this weekend.

Davis, an undrafted free agent who has hung around the NFL for the last three seasons with the Rams and Miami Dolphins, started eight games for the injured Shaun Hill in St. Louis last season.

He knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks en route to a 3-5 record and has completed 63.4% of his 284 career passes for 2,000 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Turbin, meanwhile, has been tethered to the Seattle bench for most of the last three seasons, watching Marshawn Lynch shred opposing defenses. He arrives with a high ankle sprain he says will take another month to heal.

Strictly a north-south runner, he appeared in all 48 games in the last three seasons, starting three (all last season). He has compiled 928 yards on the ground and another 427 yards through the air, scoring just twice.

Based on those stats, no longer does one have to wonder why Davis and Turbin wound up on waivers. They wore out their respective welcomes. The only thing they have in common is they were jettisoned because, at the risk of being repetitive, they were deemed not good enough.

And now, they are getting second chances on a team that seems to be just desperate enough to gamble on them. The offensive side of the ball needs all the help it can get. After all, what have they got to lose? The Browns, not Davis and Turbin.