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