Thursday, September 10, 2015

Gonna be another long season

It will not be difficult to predict how the Browns will fare this season. It’s relatively cut and dried.

The 2015 version of the Browns will be, in fact, one of the most predictable teams in the National Football League, especially against one of the league’s toughest schedules.

Because of severe deficiencies on offense, most notably with the lack of so-called skill players, the Browns will not light up scoreboards. Instead, they will have to rely on the defense to keep the games competitive.

That defense is another matter altogether. It is the saving grace of the team; the backbone of the team; easily the strongest part of the team.

But defenses, no matter how stout, break down eventually if they receive no help from the other side of the ball. And that is precisely what is going to happen this season in Cleveland.

It might take half a season, but the Cleveland defense will be so hang-dog tired by mid-season, not even the coaching expertise of Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll and Don Shula will be able to prevent a total collapse. The offense will be incapable of rescuing it.

If you’ll recall, the Cleveland offense died last season following game 11 with the Browns owning a 7-4 record. The exhausted defense, which had played reasonably well up to that point, with the exception of stopping the run game, disappeared.

The coaching staff was do desperate and frustrated with the offensive ineptitude, it panicked and benched quarterback Brian Hoyer in favor of the totally unprepared Johnny Manziel and eventually dropped down to third stringer Connor Shaw for the season finale.

It was a complete meltdown reminiscent of previous seasons. And the chief culprit was the offense, which received little or no help from the front office during the offseason unless you consider the addition of wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, both with fading skills, improvement.

Josh McCown, a 36-year-old itinerant quarterback whose luggage contains more tags than many world travelers, is this season’s Hoyer. Do not expect much from the journeyman, who has never provided much in the past during his tour of NFL cities. Consider Cleveland only his latest stop.

Isaiah Crowell is back at running back for now almost by default since the club traded Terrance West. Until someone else healthy is added to the roster he will be run ragged in an offense that is expected to heavily feature the ground game.

Cutting quarterback/wide receiver Terrelle Pryor Thursday in favor of adding injured running back Robert Turbin to the roster will not help. Turbin, claimed off waivers from Seattle, is just another body. The strange move is palliative in nature.

And since only rookie Duke Johnson Jr. is behind Crowell for the time being and we really don’t know what to expect from him since he can’t stay healthy, Crowell won’t have to complain about non-use. It would help McCown, though, if he improved his pass blocking.

As for the passing game, again do not expect much with a corps that does not feature a No. 1 guy. Or a No. 2 guy. It has a boatload of No. 3 guys. Just enough mediocrity to spread around.

McCown who throws as many interceptions as he does touchdown passes, is as consistently inconsistent a quarterback as you’ll find around the league. He’ll thrill you one minute and break your heart the next.

The defense is an entirely different matter. The front office attempted to improve the awful run defense by drafting defensive linemen Danny Shelton and Xavier Cooper. The pass rush should be better with outside linebacker Nate Orchard. And the secondary, at least statistically, is one of the best in the NFL.

But most opponents last season ran roughshod over the Browns, thus limiting the number of passing attempts. Why throw when the opposition can’t stop you on the ground? Makes no sense.

When it became apparent midway through last season that the best way to beat Cleveland was by winning every battle in the trenches, it became a relentless pounding on a defensive line beset by injuries all season.

This season, it will be different with a new and improved run defense. But if the offense can’t stay on the field, that means more playing time for the defense.

Look for that to happen because once teams figure out the Browns’ passing game is poor at best, McCown & Co. will face more stacked boxes within five yards of the ball in an effort to shut down the run and force the Cleveland quarterback to throw the ball.

When you force McCown to throw the ball, especially to his way below average group of receivers, bad things happen and the defense comes trotting back out onto the field. As the offense goes this season, so will go the Browns.

Keys to the Browns’ success this season lie in the plus-minus ratio in giveaways and takeaways and time of possession. They are so bereft of overall talent on the offensive side of the ball (with the exception of the line), they must win both of those battles in order to have a chance to win games.

As for that line, it is just one injury away from repeating its rapid decline last season after a strong start when center Alex Mack went down with a broken leg early in the season. There is no help on the bench unless you place rookie Cameron Erving in that category.

But Erving’s performance during the exhibition season was disappointing at best. The Browns had to figure their second pick in the first round of the last college draft was good enough to supplant someone on the right side of the line. Didn’t happen.

This season starts off easy enough with teams (at New York Jets and home games against Tennessee and Oakland) that finished below .500 last season. They might be the only games on the schedule where predicting a victory is not a wild guess.

The next 13 games, however, are against teams that finished at or – in most cases – well above .500. Not a loser among them, which makes forecasting a victory much more precarious.

After the first trio of games, the Browns play five of their next seven on the road, including all three division rivals. At one point, they play division opponents Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati again four straight games with the bye in between.

If – and this is a monstrous if – the Browns are in contention at that time, they finish the season with four of the final six games at home.

Last season, the Browns took advantage of one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and posted a 7-9 record, which, with a stronger offensive performance in several games, could easily have been 9-7 or better.

That’s not going to happen this season. They aren’t good enough or talented enough to hang with the teams this tougher schedule presents.

It all begins Sunday in New Jersey against the New York Jets in a game featuring the two teams that inaugurated Monday Night Football on ABC-TV 45 years ago on the 21st of this month.

The Jets feature a new coach (Todd Bowles), a new quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick), a strong run game featuring Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, a nice addition in wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a solid offensive line and an aggressive defense led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Season openers have not been kind to the Browns since the resurrection in 1999. They have won just one season-opening game since then, a 20-3 victory over Baltimore in 2004. They finished 4-12 that season.

Believe it or not, this will be only the third time since 1999 the new Browns have opened the season on the road, losing to the Buccaneers in Tampa to begin the 2010 season and in Pittsburgh last season.

It’s hard to pick the Browns over the Jets given their miserable record in the first week of the season, but the odds favor their first opening-game victory in 11 seasons.

The Jets will try too hard for their new coach and make silly mistakes. Fitzpatrick, a bit of a vagabond himself (the Jets are his sixth team), has thrown 123 career touchdown passes, but has been picked off 101 times in 89 starts. He has faced the Browns four times, winning three with six TDs and three picks.

This very well could be a game where each team plays just badly enough to keep it close with turnovers. If it is, it favors the Browns, who were surprisingly opportunistic last season when they were reasonably healthy.

The teams will combine for seven turnovers in a low-scoring game with the outcome still in doubt heading into the final minutes. The team with the ball will win with a last-second field goal. That team will be the Browns. And that kicker will be Travis Coons, who will sneak a 27-yarder just inside the right upright. Make it: Browns 17, Jets 14

Oh, yeah, the rest of the season.

The Browns will win their first three games, eliciting cries of “the future is now” and “the corner has been turned” only to watch those cries disappear quietly when the club is forced to play the rest of the schedule.

They’ll win only two of those next 13 games, probably the Dec. 6 game at home against Cincinnati and the season finale at home against Pittsburgh to finish 5-11. By then, other cries will be heard seeking yet another change in the ivory tower. Someone will have to pay.

This time, though, coach Mike Pettine will survive. He cannot possibly win with what offensive weapons General Manager Ray Farmer has given him. This time, the man responsible for the lack of offensive talent on the club whips out and updates his résumé. The man who coaches that talent gets one final reprieve.

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