Monday, November 30, 2015

Ripley would not have believed this one

The Browns have lost any number of games in truly bizarre fashion since the return in 1999, but none as strange as Monday night’s 33-27 loss to the visiting Baltimore Ravens.

Not even close.

What happened to the Browns against the Ravens is the football equivalent of the winning run in a baseball game scoring on a balk in that it happens as often as, well, almost never.

It takes more than a mere jog of the memory to remember the last time a blocked field goal with no time left in regulation turned into what ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico called a kick 6.

What else could he call it after Baltimore safety Will Hill picked up defensive lineman Brent Urban’s block of a 51-yard field goal attempt by Travis Coons and returned it untouched 64 yards down the left sideline for the winning score as the crowd, sensing a come-from-behind victory moments earlier, was stunned silent.

The moment was set up by the Browns and Ravens turning the last 107 seconds of the game into a multi episode version of Mystery Theater after the Browns tied the game at 27-27 when Austin Davis hooked up with Travis Benjamin on a 42-yard scoring pass.

In that short span of time, which took at least actual 20 minutes to play with both teams trading and squandering opportunities to win the game, each team had two possessions.

The Ravens went three and out in 24 seconds. Momentum Cleveland. The Browns returned the favor with a three and out that took 27 seconds off the clock. Momentum swing back to Baltimore.

With 56 seconds left, Cleveland cornerback Tramon Williams picked off Baltimore quarterback Matt Schaub on the first play, setting up the offense at the Ravens’ 46-yard line with two timeouts left. Big-time momentum swing for Cleveland.

Perfect situation for Davis, who played well after starter Josh McCown went down with a collarbone injury with about eight minutes left in regulation. All the offense needed to do was get near Coons’ comfort zone of the 30-yard line.

But an apparent communications problem with the Cleveland sideline left Coons three yards shy of that zone after a six-yard pass to Brian Hartline and a Davis seven-yard scramble moved the ball to the Baltimore 33 with eight seconds left.

The drive started with 50 seconds left and the Browns, again perhaps of bad communication with Davis, allowed precious seconds to tick off while running just two plays. And rather than attempting a quick pass with eight seconds left to get closer to the 30, they opted for a Duke Johnson run up the middle that was stuffed.

Four possessions that ended with a hard-to-believe conclusion in a game played by 
two National Football League teams headed nowhere. If nothing else, they put on arguably the most entertaining game of the Monday Night Football season.

That obviously doesn’t make the Browns, who now have further proof they are the most star-crossed team in the NFL, feel any better. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, something like this comes along.

When the 6-7 Urban stuck up his left paw and deflected the ball toward the sideline, the last thing on the Browns’ minds was a touchdown. They were probably thinking the second overtime game with the Ravens this season loomed.

Normally, it is easy to pin any Browns loss on the offense and defense, often times both. The Cleveland offense played in fits and starts against the Ravens, racking 20:39 in time of possession in the first half, but logged just 9:42 in TOP in the second half.

Late in the first half, for example, the offense marched 60 yards, thanks mainly to a 30-yard hookup with Gary Barnidge, and found itself at the Ravens’ 3 with 18 seconds left. Three straight incomplete passes brought Coons on for a 21-yard field goal.

The defense played its usual sloppy tackling game, allowing the Ravens to continually gain valuable extra yardage and failed time and again to come up with big plays. Outside of Karlos Dansby’s pick 6 that gave the Browns their only lead of the game (20-17) early in the third quarter, it was bad tackling, especially after initial contact.

They had several opportunities to flip the field after an Andy Lee punt landed inside the Baltimore 1 late in the third quarter, but couldn’t get off the field for the next eight minutes as the Ravens went 82 yards in 17 plays, converting four third downs and a fourth down en route to a Justin Tucker 35-yard field goal.

The special teams, which rarely have fingers of guilt pointed their way, share a major portion of the blame for this loss. They gave up an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter by Ravens wide receiver Kalien Clay; enabled the Ravens to begin a drive at their 40 that ended in a touchdown three plays later in the second quarter following a short Coons kickoff; and the blocked kick.

McCown, who threw for 212 yards before departing, completed his only touchdown pass of the game with 4:36 left in the first half in a most unorthodox manner.

The quarterback, took a second-and-goal snap at the Baltimore 10, scanned three zones from right to left, ran the ball toward the line of scrimmage then stopped, reversed his field, looked right again before running left and throwing against his body as he hit Marlon Moore heading toward the left pylon.

It was just another unusual moment in a game filled with them. Having two of the NFL worst records, it seems, does not preclude these two teams from putting on an entertaining show. The two games between these teams this season produced 123 points.

Unfortunately for Browns Nation, the latest one did not contain a happy ending as the Browns’ losing streak reaches six games and eliminates any possibility of finishing anywhere but the AFC North basement..

Sunday, November 29, 2015

This MNF matchup a tough sell

It will be very interesting to see how ESPN sells the Monday Night Football game this week to its discriminating national television audience.

It features arguably two of the worst teams in the National Football League in a division battle that could conceivably – and accurately – be called “The Battle for the Basement in the AFC North.”

Now don’t count on the TV monolith selling it that way. That’s why it will be interesting to see just what spin it gives a game that features two teams going absolutely nowhere fast.

In a pairing the national sports network probably regrets scheduling, the 2-8 Cleveland Browns welcome the 3-7 Baltimore Ravens in a game that means nothing in terms of a possible post-season appearance.

The Ravens are in the midst of their worst season since 2007, when they finished 5-11 and Brian Billick’s firing paved the way for John Harbaugh, whose eight-year coaching reign has never produced a losing season.

In Harbaugh’s first seven seasons, the Ravens were 72-40, recording five double-digit victory seasons, and missed the playoffs just once. They made it to the AFC Championship game thrice and won the 2013 Super Bowl.

During that same seven-season period, the Browns were 34-78, recording six double-digit losing seasons, missed the playoffs every year and went through five coaches.

The likelihood of the Ravens coming back and finishing the season strong has been virtually eliminated by crippling injuries. They enter the game with their best quarterback (Joe Flacco), best running back  (Justin Forsett), best wide receiver (Steve Smith) and best pass rusher (Terrell Suggs) done for the 2015 season.

The Browns, on the other hand, have not been crippled as much by injuries. They have been crippled by bad football and top management that can be best described as dysfunctional. They are a speeding train headed for yet another disastrous finish.

Unfortunately for ESPN, the network does not have the luxury NBC enjoys for its Sunday night games. Under the flexible scheduling rules adopted in 2006 and amended in 2014, only scheduled Sunday afternoon games in weeks 5-17 (two games between weeks 5 and 10) can be moved to Sunday night to insure quality matchups.

Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden hopefully will be up to the challenge to make this one sound interesting to an audience that could prove to be the MNF’s smallest of the season. Only a die-hard football fan would want to tune in.

Gruden, who grew up down the road from Cleveland in Sandusky and was a Browns fan when being a Browns fan gave one a prideful feeling, probably was looking forward to the game, especially after Browns coach Mike Pettine announced during the bye week that Johnny Manziel would start the final six games of the season.

Gruden, apparently concerned Manziel needed some tutoring after a disastrous rookie season, worked with the Cleveland quarterback for a few days a week or so before training camp last July, focusing on mechanics and film study.

And in his QB Camp feature with Manziel prior to being drafted by the Browns last year, the Super Bowl winning coach liked what he saw and indicated he wouldn’t mind coaching the former Heisman Trophy winner.

So it is understandable that Gruden had to be disappointed when Manziel had another one of his Johnny Being Johnny episodes during the bye week that angered his coach, dropped him to third-team quarterback and made him merely a spectator for this game.

There is no real positive angle Tirico and Gruden can hone in on. Their best bet is to be brutally honest and admit this might be the worst MNF pairing since . . . well, since no one can remember.

The closest positive aspect of the game they can point to is Baltimore’s 2-1 record in the last three games, but the Ravens will be without Flacco, who blew out two knee ligaments in a victory over St Louis last Sunday.

Flacco, who is 13-2 against the Browns, had started every game since being drafted in 2008. His 122-game starting streak is the fifth-longest in league history behind Brett Favre, the Manning brothers and Philip Rivers.

This will be the Browns’ first appearance in the Monday night spotlight since falling, 16-0, to the Ravens in 2009. They are 15-14 since they and the New York Jets helped launch MNF back on Sept. 21, 1970 at the old Stadium.

The Browns, who enter the game having lost five games in a row and 13 of their last 15, have a chance to sweep the season series for the first time since 2007. Travis Coons’ 32-yard field goal halfway through overtime lifted the Browns to a 33-30 victory in week five in Baltimore.

The Ravens, despite all the injuries, have been competitive all season, their record notwithstanding. They have lost six of their seven games by a total of 24 points and won three by a total of nine points. The lone exception was an eight-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Matt Schaub, signed as a free agent by the Ravens last spring, takes over the Baltimore offense. The 12-year veteran hasn’t started a game since his final season with Houston in 2013 and threw just five passes last season with Oakland.

Conventional thinking would lead one to believe the Browns will attempt to make life miserable for Schaub upon his return by unleashing a blitz package that doesn’t end until the game is over, especially with a Cleveland secondary wobbling after Joe Haden and Donte Whitner were injured.

Before Flacco went down, the Ravens were a predominantly passing team, throwing the ball nearly two-thirds of the time. Look for a change in offensive philosophy against the Browns with a larger emphasis on the ground game and time of possession.

Rookie Javorius (Buck) Allen took at running back over after Forsett suffered a broken arm last week and played well, gaining 115 yards (67 on the ground and 48 through the air) on 27 touches. He ran for 58 yards on just eight carries in the first Cleveland game. The Ravens’ biggest threats through the air are tight end Crockett Gillmore and wide receiver Kamar Aiken.

One thing is certain: There will not be a repeat of the first game when the clubs combined for 63 points. Nor will there be a replication of Josh McCown’s amazing performance.

In that one, you’ll recall, McCown completed 36 of 51 passes for 457 yards (the club had 505 total yards) and two touchdowns with tight end Gary Barnidge catching 10 balls for 139 yards and a score.

With two weeks off to prepare for their national appearance, it is hoped by many in Browns Nation that their favorite team has also finally found a running game, having generated just 205 yards on the ground in the last four games. In fact, they have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game just four times with a season-high of 116.

Conversely, the Cleveland defense has permitted more than 100 yards on the ground to 10 of their 12 opponents with a season high of 181 yards, ironically, in the Baltimore victory earlier.

Monday night, there will be no such numbers as the teams flail for the better part of 60 minutes and show the nation why they bring up the rear of the AFC North. It will be a classic battle of ineptitude featuring numerous turnovers and punters Sam Koch and Andy Lee in the spotlight.

McCown will throw two interceptions, lose a fumble and be sacked five times; Schaub matches the two picks, but winds up with a clean uniform and connects with Gillmore for the team’s lone touchdown; and Allen runs for 100 yards, but loses two fumbles as the Ravens avoid the sweep and bury the Browns deeper in the cellar. Make it:

Ravens 19, Browns 6

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Wrong move again

There was only one move the Browns should have made Tuesday in the wake of the latest Johnny Manziel flare-up and they didn’t make it.

They should have cut the misbehaving quarterback loose. Opened the door and swift-kicked him out on his hind flanks because enough is enough. And yet, they couldn’t do it.

If coach Mike Pettine and General Manager Ray Farmer had any guts, they would have marched into owner Jimmy Haslam III’s office and said, “We don’t want him on this team any more.”

They should have made him an immediate National Football League free agent. Let him go elsewhere and cause headaches for some other team.

The Browns then compounded the situation by relegating Manziel, who was slated to start the final six games of the season, to the third team. What in the world were they thinking?

Naughty boy, naughty boy. Hold out your wrist so we can slap it. Now go sit in the corner, learn all over again how to behave yourself and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll let you out.

When will those who run this franchise ever learn? Learn that despite all his apologies and promises to become a better teammate and representative of the team, Manziel is a lost cause. In some ways, he is self-destructive.

He has yet to grow up. He is still a kid playing in a man’s professional football league and has no clue as to how to handle it. He is not ready to carry the responsibility of being an NFL quarterback. 

His latest off-the-field dalliance was a video that showed him holding a bottle of champagne while having a good time over the weekend at an Austin, Texas, party. Ordinarily, he might be considered a 22-year-old kid just looking for some fun during the Browns’ bye week.

But Manziel is not your ordinary 22-year-old kid. In fact, he is not your ordinary NFL quarterback. He is Johnny Freaking Football. He always will be. He’s the bad boy of NFL quarterbacks. He cannot escape his fun-loving, YouTube-, TMZ-attracting past and present and whatever his future holds.

It follows him wherever he goes, it seems. His biggest enemies are not the front lines of NFL teams. It’s modern technology. More specifically the telephone. Either he doesn’t seem to realize it can take damaging pictures and videos or he really doesn’t care.

He has turned into a sad caricature of himself. He just doesn't get it and probably never will.

In the roughly 20 months he has been a Cleveland Brown, Manziel has been nothing but an embarrassment. Despite his recent assertion after being named the starter for the rest of the season that he will not bring any more embarrassment to the team, it took him less than a week to do just that with his latest antics.

The so-called brains that run this team must be gluttons for punishment. They must think they are embarrassing Manziel by relegating him to the third team. No they are not. They are exposing themselves as fools.

It is obvious Pettine, who made the decision to demote Manziel and start Josh McCown against the Baltimore Ravens Monday night, is fed up with Manziel’s apparent refusal to grow up and become a leader.

The coach gave the impression the decision was his alone, declaring in a statement released by the club that he has “spoken to Ray (Farmer) and Jimmy (Haslam) to inform them of my decision and they are in full support.”

He went on to say that “everyone in this organization wants what is best for Johnny just like we do for every player in our locker room,” adding that he was “especially disappointed in (Manziel’s) action because he has been working very hard.”

Pettine, who warned Manziel to behave himself during the bye week, doesn’t seem to understand that what is best for Johnny is to give him his release now and allow him to get as far away from Cleveland and this franchise as possible.

By keeping Manziel on the roster, Pettine, whether he realizes it or not, gives himself an opportunity to change his mind down the road. Then again, maybe the brass thinks by keeping him on the roster someone might seek to pry him loose from the Browns via the trade route.

Now who would be dumb enough to do that?

The Browns have bent over backwards to help Manziel straighten out his problems. In some ways, they enabled his wild behavior. But it was thought by some that his self-imposed 10-week stay at an alcohol rehab facility last spring would be the dawn of a new era in his life.

That obviously has not been the case and short of hiring a professional babysitter to make absolutely certain something like this does not happen again, it probably will happen again. And again. And again.

Unfortunately, when it came to making a decision on Manziel, his employer didn’t go far enough. They should have put another title in front of his name: Ex-Browns quarterback.

Monday, November 23, 2015

What will Haslam do?

He probably doesn’t want to do it, but circumstances are forcing him to seriously consider it.

After firing his key football people following the 2013 season, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III set his sights on stabilizing that aspect of his team.

That, in large part, is why Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine are still around. That and, of course, a 7-9 record last season that is more deceiving than the numbers show.

Losing the last five games last season certainly can’t be forgotten, or forgiven for that matter, because a telltale sign of season improvement is how a team plays down the stretch.

So Haslam wisely, and correctly, decided to see what year two under Farmer and Pettine would look like. After all, he would have looked foolish making yet another change at those two positions.

Flash forward to this season, one in which the Browns have reverted to their losing ways in rather spectacular fashion. Losing 13 of the last 15 games doesn’t exactly engender anything resembling hope.

Haslam has been unusually silent regarding his team’s 2-8 start this season. The only way he is heard from is by way of his coach, who relays parts of private conversations he has had with his boss.

If Haslam is not happy at all with what he’s seen this season – why should he be? – with six agonizingly long weeks left in the 2015 campaign, then he’s doing a splendid good job of keeping it to himself.

Farmer and Pettine should have their feet on the proverbial banana peel with regard to their respective jobs. Farmer, the general manager, has not improved this team one wit with his player roster manipulations.

And the Browns have not improved one wit on the field for their coach. How they have performed (fill in this blank with your own adjective) is a direct reflection of Pettine and his coaching staff.

From a fundamental standpoint, this team lacks the basics in just about every department. Both sides of the ball share in culpability. The brand of football they play is, at times, embarrassing and, at other times, amateurish.

The offense is getting more offensive by the game. The defense, which we were virtually promised would be improved this season, has slammed it in reverse and is just as awful as last season.

It has reached the point where the talent quotient does not allow the Browns to compete for 60 minutes. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. There is no silver lining in sight.

Haslam sees what’s going on. Considering his knee-jerk approach to his top football people in the past, he most likely is holding on in hopes enough positive developments emerge that he’ll be able to justify keeping them for another season.

In order for that to happen, the Browns must win at least four of their six remaining games and in convincing fashion. Four of those games are at home, where they have won just once this season against the Tennessee Titans, who also check in at 2-8.

Haslam doesn’t want to pull the trigger again, but he might be forced to. Fans have become sick and tired of watching this team flail on a weekly basis and come up short.

Judging from the thousands of posts on various Browns-related Web sites, fans would much rather work in the garden or go out shopping or go to a movie or do just about anything else on a Sunday during the season than watch another Browns loss. They just don’t care anymore. That’s called apathy.

That apathy has led to more and more empty seats at home. And even though those seats are paid for, the vacant look silently represents the fans’ frustration. To pay lots of money to see this product and then not show up is almost as embarrassing as how that product performs on the field.

Right now, the thought of cleaning out his top football people yet again is probably swimming around in Haslam’s mind. This time, though, he can’t be blamed if he follows through if he believes Farmer and Pettine should start updating their resumes.

If he, indeed, does make such as move, then it is high time, as has been stated here before, that the owner finally changes the culture of his team by going after men who know how to win in the National Football League.

No more of these learn-on-the-job types who continue to breed even more of the mediocrity Browns fans have become uncomfortably accustomed to since 1999. That’s got to stop.

Between now and Jan. 4, Haslam has plenty of thinking to do regarding the immediate future of his team. That’s the day after the end of the 2015 season, the day when job terminations usually occur.

That’s the day most fans of this team, if they are still interested, are waiting for. Those long-suffering fans deserve a whole lot better than they have received and are waiting patiently for Haslam to deliver.

This time, though, they will understand the owner is doing the right thing for the right reasons if he chooses to make another change at the top.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pettine needs reality check

Browns coach Mike Pettine is starting to dance the dance of coaches who are beginning to run out of things to say.

His football team is playing bad football. Fans are angry and frustrated. And the correct answers to his problems have not yet arrived.

Sounding more delusional that realistic at times, he addressed the grim situation with the Cleveland media last Monday.

 “As I have said before, this is a pass-fail league,” he said, “and we’ve failed a heck of a lot more times than we have passed and that’s the bottom line.” So far, so good.

And then he comes in with this: “My mind-set hasn’t changed and I have addressed this before. If you start coaching to save your job, then you’re not doing your job. I don’t operate like that. I don’t think that you can work that way or else it just becomes self-fulfilling.”

All coaches, no matter the sport, constantly coach to save their jobs whether they realize it or not. They are tethered to their success rate. They are judged on any number of levels, the win-loss record obviously the ultimate bottom line. Win and you get to stick around. Lose and it’s adios.

Pettine said he and his staff will take the time during the bye week to more closely examine why his team has lost five straight games and how it can be fixed. He got off to good start by admitting “we’re not playing good enough football, playing complete games.

“We’re not playing well enough. We’re not coaching well enough and that has to be improved. . . . We own the fact that our record (2-8) is what it is.”

And then he spoiled it. “We can put together a lot of clips – a lot of clips – of us playing at a high level,” he said. “We’re capable of winning a lot of football games. But we haven’t found a way to finish.”

That is so easy to say. Any coach can break down film or tape of games and pick and choose to show only one side of a game story. The negative layers are all too often ignored.

What Pettine did not say was he can also put together a lot of clips – significantly more than the previous group of clips – that show just why the Browns again are scraping the bottom of the AFC North Division.

At least he is correct when obliquely states his team lacks the talent to finish games. That’s one of the big differences between winning and losing. The line between winning and losing often times is razor thin for average teams.

The only consistency the Browns have displayed this season is their inconsistency. You never know what to expect from this underachieving group almost from possession to possession.

And then the coach made a mistake with regards to the way his team plays on game day.

“We get some young guys who fall back into some old habits on game day – things they execute well in practice well – foot work, getting hands on guys and that type of stuff,” he said. “Unfortunately, you get guys in the game and they kind of lose their minds a little bit.”

So that’s it. It’s the players’ fault, not the coaches’.

At no time did Pettine acknowledge that his team can’t run the ball, can’t stop the run and pass, has trouble protecting the quarterback and has a meek pass rush.

He did admit, however, that he has been disappointed with the offensive line and secondary. “We thought (those two groups) were going to be the anchors and both have underperformed for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Underperformed is putting it mildly. Those units have been awful, but Pettine can’t say that. Why not? For the secondary, it’s probably the injury absence of Joe Haden and Donte Whitner. But all teams have injuries, so no tears shed there.

There are no such reasons for the offensive line, although there has been a large degree of consistency with those five grunts. They have been bad from almost the first snap of the season. They are the main reason this offense has been hit and miss all season.

There is no question the Browns play hard. No quarrel there. But playing hard is not translating into victories. Why not? Lack of talent. And that is not the fault of the coach.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Manziel ‘leap’ nets starting job

News: Browns name Johnny Manziel starting quarterback for the remainder of the 2015 season.

Views: Shocking. Stunning. Can’t believe it. Tell me it’s not true. Josh McCown must be devastated. All right, enough with the sarcasm.

But c’mon, what took them so long?

It took the better part of two seasons, but the war between Manziel lovers and Manziel haters is now underway with the latest announcement from Berea. Let the fun begin. Fans finally get to see what the college phenom can do on a consistent basis on a much higher plane.

Coach Mike Pettine made the switch to Manziel based on the quarterback’s performance in one game. At first, the kid’s strong showing against Pittsburgh Sunday wasn’t what convinced the coach. After the game, in fact, he was non-committal.

After all, he watched Manziel throw for 372 yards from one of the worst seats in the house. Then he watched the game tape and saw a different quarterback.

What Pettine saw apparently motivated him to finally make the move. “He showed significant progress,” he said of his new starter. “That was one of the better quarterback performances.”

Other than his poor start, when he fumbled the ball away while attempting to pass on the Browns’ first offensive play of the game, setting up a Pittsburgh field goal, Manziel did not embarrass himself.

“The fact he rallied from that (fumble),” Pettine said, “on the road in that environment – I’ve seen where things have gone bad early and guys go in the tank and they get that glazed look in their eyes.

“He was the exact opposite. He was loose. He was into it. . . . I just thought the improvement he made from the Cincinnati (loss) to this one was a leap. . . . I just wish we had a better result from a team standpoint because he played his ass off.”

You could also see the difference in Manziel’s eyes. They radiated the kind of confidence that seemed to be missing earlier. The deer-in-the-headlights look is gone.

The new poise has helped him confidently make pre-snap adjustments at the line of scrimmage after the initial play call. No longer is he tentative and uncertain. His command of the huddle was definitely obvious in the Pittsburgh game.

He made mistakes, but that is to be expected of someone so young with so little experience at this level. But you can see he is learning. He is trying to do what his coach wants and stay in the pocket as long as possible.

Some fans, hopefully not that many, would be incorrect to call this a bad move, the wrong move. At this juncture, it is best described as a necessary move considering the alternative.

Returning to McCown is like recycling old oatmeal. We know what the National Football League vagabond can do. We don’t need to see any more to know he will be slapping a new sticker on his luggage next season.

There is no question he has been a warrior and has the lumps and aching rib cage to prove it. But he is not the future of this team. Why it took this long to discover that is what disappoints.

You can bet Manziel will be watched closely, especially by his detractors. His every move will be dissected ad infinitum. After all, he’s Johnny Football trying to make his mark in an entirely different arena.

And then there’s all the attention off the field.

Remember what it was like at Manziel’s first training camp about 16 months ago? The scrutiny he received from the national media? All the distractions played havoc with any semblance of order for rookie coach Mike Pettine.

Members from both aisles of the media landscape – local and national – were daily visitors as they charted practically every move Manziel made as though his anointing as the starter was a foregone conclusion. When Brian Hoyer was named starter, as he should have been, the national people disappeared.

And now that Manziel has been elevated to starter status, the national media again will take notice. Count on them returning to Berea. Maybe not as much as before because a lot of the luster has rubbed off, but more than a few will be back with their microscopes.

Playing under a microscope will not be easy, but I get the impression Manziel doesn’t really care at this point. He’s smart enough to realize this might be his best – and maybe only – chance to prove his detractors wrong. The next six games conceivably will serve as a dress rehearsal for the rest of his career.

His first start as the permanent starter will be against the Baltimore Ravens 13 days from today at home in front of a national television audience with the ESPN Monday Night Football crew.

One of Manziel’s biggest boosters coming out of Texas A&M was Jon Gruden, ESPN’s MNF analyst. His comments about the new Cleveland Browns quarterback should make for some very interesting television.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Monday leftovers

In the wake of your favorite National Football League team’s five-game losing streak and its supersonic plunge to the bottom of the AFC North Division, it is not unreasonable to wonder just what that team’s owner is thinking these days.

For someone who is quite vocal with his intent to turn around this franchise, he has remained unusually quiet and out of sight. Or at least away from the media spotlight. If we are to believe he is passionate about this team, this must be eating him up.

We don’t know because that owner has kept a low profile for any number of reasons. Perhaps he’s embarrassed, as well as he should be, by the way his investment is playing the game of football.

Then again, he might be already planning his next moves as he seeks to bring that team’s city something resembling a representative product in order to stem the growing notion that winning football will never be played there again.

It’ll be interesting to see how much longer Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III stays mute with regard to the performance of his pro football investment. What we do know is Haslam is at least talking with his head coach.

Mike Pettine revealed to Cleveland media members over the weekend that he has spoken with his big boss, calling his one-on-one with him last week “just a normal middle-of-the-year get together.”

Nothing new or newsworthy came out of the talk other, said Pettine, than the two “covered a lot of ground. . . . It was looking back, looking forward, where we are. We addressed it by unit, by player. . . . We talked about the program A to Z.”

And . . .

“Where we are right now isn’t good enough,” Pettine admitted in classic understatement fashion following Sunday’s embarrassing 30-9 loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. In fact, the Browns are not even in the same area code.

Most NFL teams have their highs and lows, their zeniths and nadirs, during the season. The Browns, it seems, don’t have zeniths and their nadirs come in bunches.

With two weeks to prepare for the invasion of the Baltimore Ravens in two weeks, one would think that’s enough time to change things up just for the sake of changing things up because what they are doing now isn’t working.

Nope, said Pettine. No changes on the coaching staff during the bye week. “We’ve got to get it right as a staff and we’ve got to get it right as a team,” he conceded. ”We’re challenged as a staff to do a little soul searching and come up with some answers and make sure when we come out of this break we’re ready to go.”

It is very possible that how the Browns fare in the final six games of the season, four of which will be at home, will determine whether Pettine returns for a third season.

If he’s smart, Haslam will hang on until the end of the season so he can make a complete evaluation of the situation before making any moves. No sense in making knee-jerk decisions.

If he decides to overhaul his front office again, he needs to line up people well in advance of making such moves. No more lingering and eventually winding up with a third or fourth choice.

If Haslam opts to jettison Pettine at the end of this season, he must get an experienced head coach for his team. No more learning on the job. No more Rob Chudzinskis or Pat Shurmurs or Romeo Crennels. Browns fans deserve better. Much better.

The best head coach the new Browns have had was Butch Davis, who arrived with solid head coaching credentials. Davis eventually ran into problems when he attempted to run the entire organization rather than concentrate on coaching.
*       *       *
Now that Josh McCown is much healthier than he was a few days ago and is virtually certain to be ready to when the Ravens arrive, Pettine once again faces a quarterback controversy.

He has chosen for the time being to sidestep it, other than to admit Johnny Manziel “took a big step forward” against the Steelers. He remained non-committal on whether Manziel will get chance to finish the season as the starting quarterback. He called that possibility “too early for me to stand up here and speak on it.”

It is, however, truly puzzling that a 2-8 team has such a dilemma. What difference does it makes who commands the huddle? McCown or Manziel . . . the Browns will lose either way, right?

But fans, even those who don’t like him, must admit Manziel didn’t look awful against the Steelers Sunday even though the club put points on the board just twice. In fact, he looked downright decent.

It’s time to call out the offensive line. From tackle to tackle, its performance against the Steelers was abysmal. The Browns couldn’t run the ball (again), picking up only 15 yards in 14 attempts.

Manziel was the leading rusher with 17 scrambling yards. Isaiah Crowell checked in at negative five yards on six carries. In the last four games, the Browns have rushed for just 205 yards.

Only two of the club’s 20 touchdowns have been scored via the run. Crowell has one and McCown the other. And to think this was an offense at the beginning of the season that wanted its run game to set up the pass. Oops.

The Browns were within 10 yards of the Pittsburgh goal line three times Sunday and scored just one touchdown. And late in the second quarter, the line couldn’t budge more than a few inches from its own goal line in the final minute, eventually setting up a Pittsburgh touchdown following a short punt. That’s a three-touchdown swing.

Not only can’t the offensive line block for the run, it has trouble protecting its quarterback. More often than not, Manziel was forced to evacuate the pocket within four seconds against the Steelers because his protection broke down.

He was sacked six times, in part because he sometimes had problems locating his receivers, and knocked down six other times. It would have been much worse had he not been able to extend plays. Most of his yardage came when he was on the run.
*       *       *
A rarely called penalty cost the Browns four points against the Steelers. As Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell attempted a 27-yard field goal on a fourth-and-five at the Cleveland 9 late in the second quarter, Browns defensive lineman Armonty Bryant used a teammate to rise up in an attempt to block the kick. He failed, but umpire Carl Paganelli flagged him immediately for leverage.

Rule 12 of the NFL Rules Book under Player Conduct declares leverage falls under the category of unsportsmanlike conduct. Subsection O states that “jumping or standing on a teammate or opponent to block an opponent’s kick” is not permitted. Subsection P states “a hand or hands on a teammate or opponent to give additional height in the block or attempt to block an opponent’s kick” is also not permitted.

The Steelers accepted the half-the-distance penalty, took the points off the board and subsequently scored on the next play, a four-yard scoring pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.
*       *       *
In case you’re wondering, the Browns did not set any club records with their penalty surge against the Steelers Sunday. But they are on pace to shatter team marks for most penalties and most penalty yardage in a season.
They are on course to record 133 penalties (team record 128 in 1989) and 1,189 yards (team record 1,165 in 1978). The 188 yards they accumulated against the Steelers ties for second place the 1995 team against Cincinnati.
Club record there is 209 yards against the Chicago Bears in 1951. Most penalties in a game is 21 in that same game. Also in that game, the teams totaled 37 penalties for 374 yards, both NFL records. The Browns won that Nov. 25 war, 42-21, at the old Stadium.
*       *       *
Notebook: Duke Johnson Jr. watch: The rookie running back touched the ball eight times and gained 28 yards. . . . Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones received credit for the victory Sunday as his team’s starting quarterback. . . . If Manziel doesn’t have a sore neck today after getting his helmet 180 degreed by Pittsburgh linebacker Arthur Moats in the second quarter, he’s got stronger neck muscles than most humans. . . . The Browns’ run defense held the Steelers to just 60 yards, Small consolation for the lack of a pass rush. . . . The Steelers recorded five first downs by penalty. . . . The Browns won time of possession, 32:43-27:17, and that was after the Steelers owned the ball the final 5:42 of the game. . . . The Steelers so dominated the game on offense, punter Jordan Berry was called on just once.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Different game, same result

The Browns are in their 17th season since the resurrection in 1999 and while no one game can serve as a microcosm for the futility that has dogged this franchise since then, Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh comes awfully close.

The dark cloud that has hovered over this franchise keeps getting darker and darker as the losses pile up. Losing has become such a habit, fans are sometimes startled when the club wins a game.

After the 30-9 drubbing by the Steelers, the current losing streak has reached five games. Now that might not seem like a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but consider that Mike Pettine’s team has lost 13 of the last 15 games.

The Browns, who seemingly can’t catch break, thought they had caught one when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a mid-foot sprain last week. So when Landry Jones opened up at quarterback for Pittsburgh Sunday, hope appeared on the horizon.

Roethlisberger has destroyed the Browns throughout his 12-year career. Browns Nation does not need to be reminded of the gaudy numbers Big Ben has posted against Cleveland throughout what probably will be a Hall of Fame career.

He was uniform just in case something went wrong Sunday. Now factor in that these were the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, where Murphy’s Law (at least for Cleveland) hangs around, at least when Cleveland is in town.

It didn’t take long for something to go wrong. Jones limped off the field after right tackle Marcus Gilbert fell into his ankle while he threw a scrambling third-down pass on the Steelers’ second possession of the game. A taped-up Landry returned in the second quarter, but this was no longer his game.

Roethlisberger, watching the game from the sideline, immediately took off his baseball cap, retrieved his helmet and asked for a football to warm up. Didn’t even consult with coach Mike Tomlin. After all, these were the Cleveland Browns.

It was at that moment, shortly after Chris Boswell’s 24-yard field goal gave the Steelers a lead they never relinquished, that the game, for all intents and purposes, ended for the Browns. Nothing they did following that turn of events weighed in their favor.

Johnny Manziel threw for 372 yards, completing 33 of his 45 passes. But the only time he could get into the end zone – a six-yard throw to Gary Barnidge – was after the Steelers’ backup quarterback, who passed for three touchdowns, delivered his only pick of the game – on a deflection – early in the fourth quarter,

By then, Roethlisberger had fun playing mad bomber against a banged-up Cleveland secondary and a pass rush that pretended to rush the quarterback. He threw for 379 yards in relief, 286 of those in the first half.

Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown, the Mutt and Jeff of the Pittsburgh receivers corps, were targeted 24 times and rang up 16 catches for 317 yards and the three scores. They made the slow Cleveland secondary look sluggish.

It was obvious Big Ben babied his bad foot, which was protected by a specially padded shoe. He lined up primarily in the shotgun, occasionally stepping up under center for a quick handoff or an even quicker pass.

The Browns, meanwhile, had all kinds of trouble on offense whenever they approached the Pittsburgh goal line or were backed up against their own goal line.

In the first quarter, Manziel, whose fumble on the first play of the game resulted in a Pittsburgh field goal, found Travis Benjamin for a 61-yard pass and run to the Steelers’ 10-yard line. Three plays and zero net yards later, Travis Coons evened the score with a 23-yard field goal.

Late in the third quarter, a nice 12-play drive ostensibly produced a Manziel touchdown on a 12-yard scramble and dive into the end zone. The score was overturned on replay (all scoring plays are reviewed), but the Browns had a first-and-goal inside the 1. And then Murphy poked his head into matters.

Isaiah Crowell scored again, but rookie left guard Cameron Erving was caught holding Pittsburgh linebacker Arthur Moats. Crowell picked up three yards on the following play, but the Browns were penalized for an illegal formation. It was self destruction personified.

The backward march continued with Manziel dropped for a nine-yard loss by Ryan Shazier. So first-and-goal inside the 1 turned into a second-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 25. After two completions to Andrew Hawkins moved the ball to the 9, Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell ended the threat with a goal-line interception.

Later in the fourth quarter, Manziel drove the Browns again to the Pittsburgh 5 only to watch Benjamin drop a touchdown pass on second-and-goal before a couple of completions ended the day for the Cleveland offense.

The offense also had a problem at the end of the second quarter when the defense, which played exceptionally stout against the run for a change, stiffened at the goal line and kept the deficit at 14-3 with just 95 seconds left in the half.

With the ball just shy of touching the 1-yard line, the offense went soft, especially the five grunts up front. All the Browns needed was a solid push or two from that line and their halftime deficit would have been only 11.

A Manziel sneak gained about three inches. Timeout Pittsburgh. A Crowell dive gained maybe a couple of more inches. Timeout Pittsburgh. Tomlin wasn’t fooling around. He had the timeouts and used them expertly. It was psychologically effective.

The Pittsburgh coach realized his backup quarterback was hot and wanted to give him another shot. After a Manziel incompletion and Andy Lee punt, the Steelers were in business at the Cleveland 47 after the Browns had burned only 30 seconds off the clock.

A false start moved the ball back to the Pittsburgh 48. That only delayed the inevitable. Roethlisberger hit Brown for 20 yards with his first pass and Bryant for the remaining 32 yards for a 21-3 lead. It took him exactly 28 seconds. Two plays, two passes, seven points. Ball game.

In the second half, the secondary had all kinds or problems with Bryant and Brown, On an 80-yard drive that produced Boswell’s second field goal of the game midway through the third quarter, 77 of the 80 yards were a result of pass interference.

Overall, the secondary, which missed injured veterans Joe Haden and Donte Whitner, committed four pass interference penalties (Charles Gaines, Johnson Bademosi and two by Tramon Williams) adding up to 151 of the team’s 188 penalty yards.

The fourth PI occurred in the end zone late in the fourth quarter and the ball was placed at the Cleveland 1. As the final minute wound down, Tomlin mercifully (embarrassingly for the Browns?) had Roethlisberger take two knees.

The Browns now have two weeks off to recover from extending yet another long losing streak. The bye has arrived at just the right time. Browns fans can take the next week off and contemplate about anything other than football, which shouldn’t be difficult.

Next up, if you still care, is Baltimore in 15 days at home in front of a national television audience. And don’t think the Ravens don’t remember what happened in week five in Baltimore. Yep, that’s the last time the Browns wound up on top of a final score. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Steelers ripe for upset?

As hard as it is to believe, when the Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Death Valley Sunday, it’s entirely possible they will do so in the role of bully. At least on defense.

OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but consider the Steelers, who have dominated (not a strong enough word) their division series with the Browns since 1999, will be without their two most valuable weapons on offense.

Last week’s last-second victory over Oakland cost the Steelers’ their two most valuable weapons on offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger banged up a foot and running back Le’Veon Bell tore his medial collateral knee ligament.

Bell is done for the season and Roethlisberger, although he practiced some this week, probably will watch this one from the bench. In other words, the Pittsburgh offense is playing with one hand tied behind its back.

All of which means if the Browns can’t knock off a team that is handicapped on that side of the ball, they are worse than we thought. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t that good in the first place.

When Roethlisberger and Bell are in the lineup, the Steelers’ offense is one of the most potent in the National Football League. Because of injuries and suspensions, they have been together for only one full game and parts of two others this season.

Landry Jones, who will start Sunday, replaced the injured Michael Vick, who replaced Roethlisberger the first time around when he had kneed issues that kept him lout of four games. The Pittsburgh offense becomes much more conservative when the third-year quarterback is under center.

DeAngelo Williams replaces Bell for the second time, having filled in the first two games of the season while Bell served a two-game suspension. The 10-year veteran racked up games of 127, 77 and 170 yards (in the Oakland victory) when Bell was unavailable. In spot duty, he has just 106 yards in six games.

With Jones and Vick at quarterback, the Steelers focus more on the running game and average less than 20 points a game. It’s as though Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley doesn’t trust either quarterback. With Roethlisberger in charge, the Steelers have scored 124 points in three full games and parts of two others.

Most affected by Roethlisberger’s absence is Antonio Brown, arguably the best pass receiver in the NFL. But the All-Pro is far less lethal with either Jones or Vick. For whatever reason, the number of times he is targeted drops significantly with Big Ben as a spectator.

The 5-10, 180-pound Brown is coming off a ridiculous 284-yard game against the Raiders during which he caught 17 passes (but did not score). With Roethlisberger playing well into the fourth quarter in that one, Brown was targeted 23 times.

To give you some idea of how much Brown is virtually ignored with Roethlisberger sidelined, consider he was targeted just 31 times in the four full games his main man missed. It’s possible that with at least half of the Cleveland starting secondary absent due to injury, Haley might dial up more passing plays and work Brown into the game plan on a broader basis.

In Roethlisberger’s absence, the Pittsburgh defense will be relied upon more than normal. That’s because Big Ben is more than capable of putting points on the board in the event that defense is having an off day.

In order to be effective against a very ordinary (for them) Steelers defense, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo needs to swing quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the backfield where he is much more effective. He is especially adept at misdirection rollouts.

That, however, plays against what coach Mike Pettine wants his quarterback to do: Stay in the pocket and make quick decisions. The coach believes straying against what he labels Pittsburgh’s “exotic” defense could prove detrimental.

The Steelers still run a basic 3-4 front, but new defensive coordinator Keith Butler has modified his approach and does not run a zone blitz scheme as often as his predecessor and mentor Dick LeBeau.

Keep an eye on the run-pass ratio for the Browns. DeFilippo has become so pass-centric, the offense seems to have only one tendency. He needs to run the ball more to keep the Pittsburgh defense honest. But he’ll need cooperation from an offensive line that has been disappointing.

If there is abject failure in that department, look for a repeat of what took place 10 days in the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s rather ironic the Browns have turned into a pass-heavy team considering the run game was believed to be the strength of the offense when the season began.

The Steelers, limping along at 5-4 this season, need a Browns game at this point of the schedule to get healthy enough to make a strong run for the postseason. They are looking for their first AFC North victory after losing earlier to Baltimore and Cincinnati.

The Steelers are 27-6 against Browns since they returned to the NFL in 1999, having reeled off winning streaks of six games, 12 games and a pair of four-gamers. But the Browns enter the game with a one-game winning streak, having won the second meeting last season.

The last time the Browns won two games in a row against their hated rivals was 1999-2000. And it will stay that way after Sunday. The Pittsburgh defense, mimicking what the Bengals did to neutralize Manziel, will hem in the Cleveland quarterback and force him to throw from the pocket. Pettine gets his wish.

Manziel, who has not thrown an interception in his two starts this season, coughs up two picks; the Cleveland ground game grinds to a halt once again; Williams runs for another 100-yard game and a touchdown; and Jones plays error-free football, connecting on scoring bombs to Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. The Browns counter with a Manziel sneak for a score and a trio of Travis Coons field goals as the losing streak reaches five games. Make it:

Steelers 23, Browns 16

Thursday, November 12, 2015

McCown? Really?

Is there any question Browns coach Mike Pettine is reaching for the panic button?

His team has lost four games in a row with an upcoming schedule that portends to something much, much worse.

So why did he say Tuesday that Josh McCown, if healthy, will open under center Sunday when the Browns invade Pittsburgh to play the Steelers?

First of all, McCown hasn’t been completely healthy since he got clobbered at the tail end of the first possession of the season opener against the New York Jets. If not a concussion, it’s sore ribs. If not sore ribs, it’s a sore ankle. If not a sore ankle, it’s a sore wrist. The guy can’t stay healthy.

Yes, he put up three consecutive games of more than 300 yards and established a club record in doing so. But how many games did the Browns win in that span? The correct answer is one.

McCown, thanks to a leaky offensive line, has been battered silly all season. In what amounts to six full games, he has been dropped 22 times. He might as well wear a bull’s-eye on his uniform.

Opposing teams laugh at the Cleveland ground game and concentrate on whoever lines up behind or under center Alex Mack. And Pettine wants to put his relatively immobile, bashed-up quarterback in there?

Does he honestly in his heart of hearts really believe this season can be salvaged? That his team, which hasn’t played a single complete game all season, can string together 60 minutes of solid football? If so, he is completely delusional.

He is clearly panicking. He sees the losses piling up with no relief in sight, each one moving him closer to the end of the head-coaching unemployment line. Never mind the future because he might not be part of that future.

That, perhaps, makes it more understandable why he favors a war-torn McCown over Johnny Manziel, who is much more a part of the future of this team than McCown.

If he didn’t have to worry about job security, Pettine might otherwise have plausible rationale to shut down McCown and see what Manziel could do. And that is the big problem.

Pettine is dancing as fast as he can, hiding behind his best-chance-to-win philosophy with McCown, his main man. “ . . . we are tasked as coaches to put the roster out there that’s going to give us the best opportunity to win,” he told the media.

Never mind that McCown is a football vagabond who has won only two of his last 18 starts. Never mind that he won’t be here next season. The future-be-damned approach would be much more understandable if the Browns were at least a .500 team. Not being even close shines a completely different light on the situation.

It’s entirely possible the quarterback dilemma would be a moot point if Manziel were more like McCown. His (to Pettine) annoying habit of often leaving the pocket too early most likely is a key factor in wishing McCown a speedy recovery.

Manziel’s ability to extend plays apparently is not being factored into the quarterback equation by Pettine. Had McCown been at quarterback inn the Cincinnati loss last Thursday, his sack total would have gone up significantly under a withering pass rush.

As it was, Manziel was dropped three times, all late in the game, but he was hampered by an offensive coordinator who stubbornly refused to call a run play even though the Browns were still in the game as late as the early part of the fourth quarter.

Here’s hoping McCown takes his sweet old time getting healthy enough to take snaps on Sundays. Nothing personal, but I sure would like to see what Manziel can do over an extended period of time.

If he can’t get on the field instead of a half battered veteran whose address will be different next season, then get rid of him now and chalk up drafting him last year as a bad mistake. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Monday leftovers (Friday edition)

Might as well get it out into the open right now. Buckle up for a quarterback controversy swirling somewhere in Berea. Maybe even today.

After Johnny Manziel’s moderately successful first-half performance in Thursday night’s loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati, it’s only natural that talk will surface regarding the immediate future of the quarterback position for the Browns.

He was just good enough in the first 30 minutes to make some fans actually think that maybe, just maybe, he has improved his game to the point where he will not embarrass himself or his team.

In the next 10 days or so, until the club pays a visit to Death Valley, er, Pittsburgh to play the Steelers, the main story will center on who starts that game. Will it be Manziel or Josh McCown, who had to sit out the Bengals game with painful ribs?

Mike Pettine will be pestered, probably on a daily basis, with questions surrounding his next command decision. The answer should be obvious, but he’ll probably stretch it out to just before game time a week from Sunday.

Let’s be honest. The Browns are 2-7. They have lost their last four games. They are 2-12 in their last 14 games and on a train headed speedily toward yet another cellar finish in the AFC North. At this point, why not start Manziel? What does the head coach have to lose? Another game? So?

What difference does it make whether the Browns wind up 2-14 or 3-13 or 4-12? It’s time to find out just what Manziel can do. Let’s see what he’s got on a more permanent basis. Seven games remain. Barring injury, he should start them all.

A lot of questions about him need to be answered. Now would be the perfect opportunity to get them answered. So . . . why not start him now?

Assuming Manziel is considered the quarterback of the future for this franchise, that future definitely is now. Not next season. No need to waste time watching the veteran McCown struggle through another futile season.

But what about the crutch most coaches lean on that says you play the man who gives you the best chance to win? Ordinarily that would make sense. But this is neither an ordinary team nor an ordinary situation.

McCown is 36 years old and probably won’t be with the team next season. He has been a solid addition from a morale and toughness standpoint. The beating he has endured the last five games would put most quarterbacks out of commission for the season. Time to give him the rest of the season off.

According to his coach and some of his teammates, Manziel is not the same deer-in-the-headlights rookie from last season. He has matured to the point where he actually looks like a National Football League quarterback.

On several throws against the Bengals when he did not stray from the pocket, he displayed the perfect throwing rhythm of an NFL quarterback. His best throw, off a play fake, doinked off the left knee of wide receiver Taylor Gabriel in the third quarter. It could not have been executed any better.

It’s not as though Manziel can’t do it. And the more he plays, the more comfortable he will feel. Pettine owes him at least that much as a reward for his hard work.

To haul him back to the bench if McCown is ready to go for Pittsburgh would be a mistake. To be deliberately repetitious, McCown is not the future of this team and continuing to play him will retard whatever growth pattern Manziel has established.

But what, say the critics, about how awful Manziel looked in the second half of the Bengals game? Good point until you take into consideration his offensive coordinator did not give him anything resembling a ground game to offset any pressure from the Bengals. Only one rushing attempt in the second half.

Throwing three- and four-receiver packages at the Cincinnati defense on every play sent a blaring message: We’re going to throw the football. And it was party time for the Bengals’ front seven.

The fact Manziel was sacked only three times down the stretch is somewhat remarkable. Under similar circumstances, McCown would have been battered even more.

If nothing else, Manziel’s ability to extend plays weighs much more heavily in his favor. At least he gives himself a solid chance to complete a play when it breaks down. And with the very ordinary Cleveland offensive line protecting him, that happens more often than not.

So what to do? In defense of Pettine, all he wants to do is win games. His job depends on it. Staying with Manziel would be considered by some to be a gamble. But the bottom line shows each quarterback has produced a victory this season.

Maybe he should flip a coin.
*       *       *
When Pettine suggested during his halftime chat with Tracy Wolfson that Manziel should “calm down a little bit” in the second half so he could be more productive, I yelled at the television screen, “No, don’t calm him down. He’s at his best when he operates in a reckless manner.”

He seems to play much better when he freelances after being flushed from the pocket. His unpredictability makes it more difficult on opposing defenses.

Yes, it’s highly unorthodox. But it sure worked for smallish quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton and Russell Wilson. Besides, it’s much more fun watching Manziel work his magical escapes out of trouble. And he is smart enough to know when to throw the ball away, which he did several times against the Bengals.

If Pettine starts Manziel in Pittsburgh, it behooves offensive coordinator John DeFilippo to be more creative in his play selection, knowing how mobile his quarterback can be. He’s not a standing target like McCown. The threat of rollouts in either direction, sometimes as misdirection, can keep a defense honest.
*       *       *
What in the world is wrong with Andy Lee? The usually reliable punter had two poor boots against the Bengals that gave them great field position they translated into 10 points.

Lee, who has been forced to punt the ball 29 times in the last five games, as opposed to just 16 times in the first four games, shanked his first punt of the game only 34 yards. It set up the Bengals at their 37 from where they scored the game’s first touchdown 10 plays layer.

Then a 28-yarder didn’t even make it to midfield (Cleveland’s 49-yard line) after the Browns’ first possession of the second half. Nate Orchard’s sack of Andy Dalton on a third-and-2 at the Browns’ 5 saved a touchdown. A Mike Nugent field goal stretched the Bengals’ lead to 17-10.

Maybe we’ve come to expect too much from the Pro Bowl punter. His four other punts in the game averaged 53 yards.
*       *       *
Nice to see Dwayne Bowe contribute to the cause. With wideouts Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline sidelined with injuries, Bowe stepped up with three catches for 31 yards. He made his first reception of the season, a four-yard slant, with 2:02 left in the first quarter.

Then in the final minutes after Marlon Moore blocked a punt with 3:28 left in regulation, Bowe stepped up again with catches of 16 and 11 yards, accounting for the only positive yardage on a drive that died at the Cincinnati 12. Welcome to the offense, No. 80.
*       *       *
Notebook: When Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu scored easily on a 25-yard reverse early in the fourth quarter to climax an eight-play, 91-yard drive, there wasn’t a Brown within 10 yards of him down the left sideline. It was so clean, Dalton couldn’t find anyone to block along the way. . . . It looks as though tight end Gary Barnidge does not hold the same favored status with Manziel as he does with McCown. He caught only two passes in seven targets. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touched the ball only five times, scoring the Browns’ only touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Manziel after running a circle route. He carried the ball just three times for zero yards. . . . The Cleveland run defense returned to normal, surrendering 152 yards that included a couple of knees taken by backup quarterback A. J. McCarron at the end of the game. . . . The Browns recorded 13 first downs, two in the second half, and totaled 213 yards. They owned the ball for just 24 minutes in the turnover-free game. That’s 29 first downs, 49½ minutes (out of 120) in time of possession and 467 total yards in the last two games.