Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Options galore for Haslam

It’s called Black Monday, the day on the National Football League calendar when heads roll, jobs are lost, reputations are tainted.

It’s not actually on the official NFL calendar, but it might as well be because it takes place every year on the day following the conclusion of the league’s regular season. And it won’t be any different this season.

That day this season is next Monday, Jan. 4. That’s when several coaches, some general managers and a slew of coordinators will need to haul out the résumé, update it and seek employment elsewhere because there will be an ex in front of their current title.

The carousel began spinning almost a week early when the Philadelphia Eagles stunningly fired head coach Chip Kelly Tuesday along with a high-ranking member of the front office in the personnel department. 

Among others in jeopardy, if the rumors are to be believed, are Browns General Manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine. And why not after what will most likely be a 3-13 season following Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh?

Even though Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III said last summer he would “not blow things up,” the belief is he is leaning heavily in that direction for the third time since becoming owner. He has three options -- and, suddenly, now a fourth -- to weigh before Jan. 4 arrives.

He can decide to keep just one of his top football people; blow it up entirely and fire Farmer and Pettine; surprise everyone and keep both men; and then there's Kelly. More on him later.

The worst mistake Haslam can make is keeping one man. Right now, that one man probably would be Pettine, who surprisingly has received endorsements for his retention from several highly respected veterans on the team.

If only one man is retained, it should be Farmer. Do not interpret this as an endorsement of the GM because he certainly has not come even close to improving the roster from a talent standpoint.

It is only because he should be allowed to pick the next coach. That’s a move most owners delegate to the general manager. Pettine was not Farmer’s choice, although he was with the organization at the time as assistant GM.

Keeping Pettine and releasing Farmer would be worse because the incoming new general manager should be allowed to choose his own coach. By making that move, Haslam would be repeating the same mistake. As the saying goes, those who choose to ignore mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

The only sensible move, even though it would be going against his summer declaration, is a general housecleaning. Get rid of them both because all they have done is perpetuate a losing culture that has lasted far too long.

If, however, Haslam stuns everyone and keeps both men, he is sanctioning what they have accomplished. Those accomplishments include a talent-poor roster (Farmer) and only 10 victories in 32 games (Pettine).

If the owner, whose prime goal is to return the Browns to NFL respectability,  chooses to keep that kind of production around, he has more patience than Job. By doing that, he risks alienating a fan base that is already beginning to crumble.

But now, there is a fourth option for Haslam. Kelly’s dismissal in Philadelphia very well could ramp up the rumor mill again with a possible destination of Cleveland in the future. Kelly and the Browns were linked nearly three years ago.

It was initially reported by various outlets in January 2013 that Kelly was on the verge of becoming the Browns’ new coach, succeeding Pat Shurmur. Negotiating for the club were Haslam and then-CEO Joe Banner.

Kelly, also courted by the Buffalo Bills and Eagles at the time, eventually decided to remain at the University of Oregon. A week later, he changed his mind and signed with the Eagles, with whom he recorded a pair of 10-6 seasons before slipping to 6-9 this season.

One of the main reasons Kelly was let go was his insistence on controlling player personnel in addition to coaching. It’s more than a coincidence his coaching record suffered after gaining control of that department.

Kelly’s availability certainly could complicate matters for Haslam, who eventually settled on Rob Chudzinski shortly after Kelly changed his mind and went back to Oregon. Chudzinski racked up a 4-12 season and was fired.

The last time something like this occurred with the Browns, then owner Randy Lerner couldn’t act fast enough after learning the New York Jets fired Eric Mangini on Black Monday following the 2008 season, Romeo Crennel’s last with the Browns.

Nine days later, Mangini was named Browns coach and guided the team to a pair of 5-11 seasons before he was canned and succeeded by Shurmur.

Will history repeat itself at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.? Stay tuned. Black Monday is right around the corner.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Monday leftovers

There is no question Johnny Manziel has his legion of fans who firmly believe he is never going to make it as a National Football League quarterback.

They point to his lack of height, what they perceive as an average arm and his inability to make big plays. He is not, they argue, ever going to make it in the NFL, let alone make it big.

What they fail to see, at least based on his performance since returning from Mike Pettine’s doghouse, is a decidedly different Johnny Manziel. On the field, that is. He is, so far, better than he was last season and, to a large degree, earlier this season as well.

If you watch closely enough, you can see him backing up his head coach’s words that his improvement this season alone is somewhat remarkable considering where he was at the beginning of the season.

Manziel is a work in progress. His preparation for games is evidenced by the confident manner in which he manages the huddle. He is clearly in command and winning over the other 10 guys.

The one area that seems to have improved more than any other is preparation in the quarterbacks room, in the film room. His ability to better read defenses through that study is evident.

Along with his new leadership qualities, he no longer enters games guessing what opposing defenses are planning. Having injured starter Josh McCown on the sideline to advise doesn’t hurt. His learning curve is definitely heading in the right direction.

But it was his performance in the Kansas City loss Sunday that added another notch to his NFL belt. The grit and determination with which he played in a game that was very winnable once and for all dispelled the notion that he wasn’t tough enough to be an NFL quarterback.

He took some big hits from the Chiefs, whether it was after throwing a pass or scrambling, and bounced up from every one.  There was also a glint in his eye that showed he was truly enjoying himself.

More creative playcalling by offensive coordinator John DeFilippo can bring out what Manziel does best and that doesn’t necessarily mean staying in the pocket on every pass play. He needs to move, sometimes by design, as he showed against the Chiefs.

He is young enough, smart enough, quick enough and certainly fast enough to put different kinds of pressure on opposing defenses. His quick feet more often than not get him out of more trouble than less mobile quarterbacks.

At the same time, Manziel is becoming a very good ball handler, a talent DeFilippo doesn’t take enough advantage of. His excellent play fake of a pitchout froze the Kansas City defense early in the second quarter and resulted in an 18-yard pass to tight end Jim Dray down the seam on a third-and-one at the KC 47.

That’s just one small example of how much he has improved. The biggest hurdles he must overcome are his inconsistency on the field and behavior off the field. But it seems the more he plays, the more opportunities he gets to cut down on his mistakes. Rarely does he repeat them.

Off the field is where he must make the greatest adjustment. Now that he’s the starter, he has a greater responsibility to not only his teammates, but his owner and the fans. If he can harness the non-football part of his life, he embellishes all he accomplishes on the field.

All of which presents somewhat of a conundrum for the Browns. They must answer the following questions: Is Manziel the future quarterback for this franchise, which has been seeking the so-called franchise quarterback since, well, since they returned in 1999?

Has what he has accomplished in the last few games given the club pause with regard to his future in Cleveland? Is that enough of a template to accurately gauge that future? Is he a late NFL bloomer? Or is this the best they are going to see out of him? Is he the kind of a quarterback around whom you confidently build a team?

He seems to have convinced some teammates – the most notable being perennial Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Thomas, whose endorsement he picked up recently – that we are watching a different Johnny Manziel now.

He also impressed Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, who lives in the Kansas City area. Asked after the game if he thought Manziel is the Browns’ quarterback of the future, the Alliance, Ohio, native pointed to several players in the Chiefs’ locker room.

“Why don’t you go around here and ask the Chiefs’ defensive players who had to run him down all day,” Dawson told the media. “Ask them, ‘Do you think he’s a starter?’ I think he is. He makes plays and most of them are good. That’s what you are looking for in this league, guys who make plays.”

Manziel has one more game at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale Sunday to convince most of the doubters that his immediate future is in Cleveland. The last time he faced the Steelers in mid-November, he threw for 373 yards in a 30-9 loss.
*        *        *
There were only two turnovers in the Kansas City game and both were achieved in a three-play span. Browns linebackers Nate Orchard and Craig Robertson wrestled for an interception of an Alex Smith pass with less than seven minutes left in the second quarter.

Orchard ripped the ball out of Robertson’s hands and returned it 46 yards to the Kansas City 41-yard line. A couple of Chiefs thought Robertson had the ball and tackled him. It was only the fifth pick for Smith this season and the first Cleveland takeaway in four games. Orchard later recorded the Browns’ only sack of the game.

Two plays later after Orchard’s theft, Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters picked off Manziel for his eighth interception of the season on a poorly thrown ball. It prolonged a Kansas City takeaway streak that reached 11 games.
*        *        *
The Cleveland running game has come alive in the last three games. After compiling just 254 yards on the ground in a five-game span leading up to the San Francisco victory on Dec. 13, the Browns have reeled off 556 yards in the last three games. Of course, 108 of those yards in Sunday’s game belonged to Manziel, establishing a club record for quarterbacks.

Included are games of 230 yards (San Francisco), 94 (Seattle) and 232 (Kansas City). What makes the Chiefs’ total remarkable is the offensive line played with backups at both guards. Austin Pasztor and rookie Cameron Erving played strong games.

It was a Pasztor trap block that sprung Isaiah Crowell loose on a 28-yard romp over right guard on the first play of the Brown’ second possession of the game. And Erving was solid in his pass protection. The Chiefs got close to Manziel, but never sacked him.
*        *        *
Notebook: Dwayne Bowe was shut out in his return to Kansas City, The former Chiefs wide receiver was targeted just once by Manziel. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: The rookie running back touched the ball 11 times for 41 yards. . . . Tight end Gary Barnidge continues to be Manziel’s favorite receiver with eight targets against the Chiefs. They connected just three times, Manziel twice missing a wide open Barnidge. . . . The Chiefs ran 19 plays in the first quarter. The Browns ran only seven. After the first three series of the second half, the Browns had run 30 plays and the Chiefs only six. . . . Too bad we had to wait until game 15 to see some bold, inventive coaching by the Browns’ staff. When you are 3-11, there’s not much to lose by gambling. The fake punt was long overdue and well executed.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

In the end, it's still a loss

It was a game that practically begged the Browns to win and salvage at least a small measure of self-respect and end an impressive winning streak.

They came oh so close Sunday in Kansas City, but time ran out and the Chiefs escaped with their ninth straight victory in a game that looked all but over in the first half.

If not for yet another blocked field-goal attempt by Cleveland’s Travis Coons, this one partially blocked from 51 yards on the last play of the first half, the Browns’ final drive of the game very easily could have resulted in a game-winning field goal.

But the woulda, coulda, shoulda axiom just produced another didn’t as the Browns, in spite of a sensational second-half comeback, dropped a 17-13 verdict to a Chiefs team that hung on for dear life in the final 30 minutes.

Those 30 minutes, however, featured some bizarre football, including a fake punt, an offensive lineman catching a forward pass and a long, long, long drive that had to be seen to be believed.

It was a dynamic flip of the script as the Browns, badly outplayed in the first 30 minutes when the Chiefs took a 17-3 halftime lead, completely took charge on both sides of the ball.

The Cleveland defense, on the field for 21 minutes and 14 seconds in the first half, was slapped around by the passing and running of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the first 30 minutes.

Smith picked on Cleveland cornerback Tramon Williams mercilessly. Williams was the cover man on  touchdown passes to Jeremy Maclin in the first quarter and tight end Travis Kelce in the final minute of the second quarter and picked up a 40-yard pass interference penalty in the second quarter.

And then for whatever reason, the Cleveland defense showed up big time in the second half, playing unquestionably their best half of the season. They took stingy to an entirely new level.

In three possessions, the Chiefs ran 14 plays for 58 net yards, took only seven minutes and 42 seconds off the clock and trotted punter Dustin Colquitt onto the field three times. 

Nothing worked for the Chiefs. They looked like a different team. The running game disappeared and Smith, whose first-half scrambling accounted for 54 of the Chiefs’ 136 rushing yards, looked totally inept.

In fact, they looked very much like the Browns have most of the season, like a team barely hanging on to finish the season, not one aiming for their ninth straight victory.

The Cleveland turnaround was very likely inspired by the offense’s first possession of the second half. In the first half, the attack put up only 124 yards, but 47 of those yards were gained against a soft Kansas City defense in the final half minute.

Johnny Manziel, looking more and more comfortable at quarterback, kicked off a nine-play, 82-yard scoring drive with a 34-yard freeze option run around left end. Eight plays later, Isaiah Crowell scampered 10 yards for the touchdown and all of a sudden, it was a game.

Manziel’s scramble had to make Browns fans wonder why he chose to remain in the pocket in the first half and not use his natural ability to run out of trouble. Playing with determination and grit, he wound up leading the Browns with 108 running yards – the Browns racked up 232 infantry style – in addition to 136 yards through the air.

After the defense blunted the first KC drive of the second half, the Cleveland offense returned and put together, with plenty of daring help from a coaching staff that has been way too conservative this season, easily the most remarkable drive of the season.

After what appeared to be a three-and-out, Andy Lee dropped back into punt formation at his 7-yard line on a fourth-and-8. But snapper Charley Hughlett’s snap never reached him. It went instead to up man Jordan Poyer and the safety broke two tackles en route to a 10-yard gain and a new set of downs.

It extended a possession that transcends belief. The Browns owned the ball for 12 minutes and a second and ran 21 plays that covered, it seemed in slow motion, 62 yards.

Mixing passes with his ability to use his feet, Manziel scrambled six times for 30 of those yards, as the drive took up the final five minutes and 27 seconds of the third quarter and the first six minutes and 34 seconds of the fourth.

Halfway through the seemingly never-ending drive, which took 27 minutes of real time to complete, Manziel was trapped behind the line of scrimmage on a second-and-eight on one of his six dropbacks and heaved the ball backward over his head as he was falling to the nearest white jeyseyed Brown he saw.

Turns out it was offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who caught the ball and sheepishly went to his knee. The faux pas resulted in a grounding call and short-circuited the drive, which had reached the Kansas City 7, and resulted in a Coons 36-yard field goal.

“All that work for just three points,” lamented CBS-TV analyst Rich Gannon.

The defense needed just five plays to get the ball back to the offense, which reached the Kansas City 30, but ran out of downs with 2:52 left in regulation. Not to worry. The defense forced a three-and-out against a conservative Chiefs offense and with 1:52 left, the Cleveland offense was back on the field at its 30 but out of timeouts.

For some reason, the Browns in such cases do not play smart. The Chiefs basically forced everything to the middle of the field, making certain the Browns could not stop the clock with boundary plays designed to take the ball out of bounds and stop the clock.

Manziel crammed 10 plays into that time frame, including one spike following a first down with 28 seconds left and the ball at the KC 32. He threw eight passes, none near the boundaries, and completed three, the last one an 14-yarder to Darius Jennings in the field of play as the clock ticked off the final seconds.

The Browns, who deserved a better fate, scrambled to get off one last play, but time ran out as Kansas City fans heaved a huge sigh of relief knowing their Chiefs nearly blew this one.

Manziel, who often seemed confused by the Chiefs’ pass coverage, attempted no sideline passes as time wound down. Smarter playcalling under the gun might have made the final seconds much more interesting.

It goes down as just another loss for this moribund team, but this was one the Browns had nothing of which to be ashamed. They played one of the hottest teams in the NFL on the road and acquitted themselves well.

Friday, December 25, 2015

These stats do not lie

When perusing the statistics of the Kansas City Chiefs, it’s easy to see why they take an eight-game winning streak into Sunday’s meeting with the Browns at home. The stats tell the whole story.

After winning their season opener, the Chiefs dropped five straight games and became somewhat of an afterthought in the AFC West as it appeared Andy Reid’s coaching magic had lost its power.

During that trying five-week period, the Chiefs scored just 100 points and gave up 139. And then Reid magically found his wand and the winning returned. In the eight games since, the Chiefs have scored 238 points and permitted just 98.

When a team averages nearly 30 points a game over a two-month period and permits just 12, good things happen. And when that team scores 29 or more points and allows 14 or fewer in six of those games, really good things happen.

With the Browns squarely in the Chiefs’ crosshairs, the distinct possibility of that winning streak reaching nine games Sunday afternoon is as likely as the sun raising in the morning and setting in the evening.

Just the Browns’ luck they are required by National Football League mandate to finish the 2015 season, which has been miserable at best up to this point, against three of the hottest teams in the league.

Last Sunday, it was a beatdown in Seattle. A week from Sunday, the piping hot Pittsburgh Steelers roll into Cleveland to help the Browns close out the season. Playing the Steelers in the final game of any season since the resurrection is fraught with peril for the Browns, which means another beatdown lurks.

Since 1999, they have concluded their regular-season schedule with the Steelers six times – four in Pittsburgh – and are still looking for their first victory. On four of those occasions, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski coached their final games in Cleveland. Watch out, Mike Pettine.

But we digress. First, the Chiefs and their dramatic comeback from what seemed like certain disaster nearly halfway through the season. It’s quite simple really how they did what the Browns couldn’t and turn it around.

They had to do it the hard way, too, after Jamaal Charles, arguably the best running back in the NFL, went down with a torn ACL in game five against the Chicago Bears. At the time, both sides of the football struggled.

Instead of feeling sorry for themselves with the prospect of playing the rest of the season without their best offensive weapon, the Chiefs shocked many observers by stringing together a few victories. And then it became contagious.

After floundering in that five-game stretch, everything that went wrong in that period started going right. Both elements of the team began playing opportunistic football.  

The offense, led by quarterback Alex Smith, rarely turned the ball over. The defense cooperated by piling up takeaways at a furious pace to get the ball back into the hands of the offense.

No one will confuse Smith with the best the NFL can offer at quarterback. If anything, he is pedestrian in running a well-balanced attack for an offense that won’t scare anyone. His numbers don’t blow anyone away.

He has thrown a meager 16 touchdown passes this season, six to favorite receiver Jeremy Maclin. That pales in comparison to his four interceptions, three of them in the first three weeks. He went nine straight games without a pick and has been picked off just once in the last 11 games.

His favorite targets are Maclin, who has hauled in 79 passes for 985 yards, and tight end Travis Kelce with 65 catches for 822 yards and four scores. Maclin, signed as a free agent, has been a godsend for Smith, who went the entire 2014 season without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.

In Charles’ absence, the Chiefs have relied on Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, a couple of second-year bruisers who have combined for 850 yards and nine touchdowns.

With Smith playing almost mistake-free football and the defense compiling takeaways (27) at a brisk pace, no wonder the Chiefs have climbed into contention for the postseason. That defense has created turnovers in all but two games and recorded nine games with at least two.

Only Denver and New England are better at rushing the passer – the Chiefs have dropped opposing quarterbacks 41 times – all of which means Johnny Manziel can expect plenty of company Sunday, especially with backups playing at both guard positions.

However, the Browns could catch a small break here. Outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, two of the best pass rushers in the league and the Chiefs’ leading sackers, might not play. Houston is out with a hyperextended knee and Hali is questionable with a thumb injury.

When he puts the ball up, Manziel will do so against a defense that has swiped 20 passes, led by rookie cornerback Marcus Peters’ seven. Overall, the Chiefs’ +15 turnover ratio ranks second behind unbeaten Carolina in the NFL

The Kansas City secondary, which gives up 261 yards a game, nonetheless should feast against the Browns, whose injury-riddled wide receivers corps does not conjure up thoughts of Dave Logan, Webster Slaughter and Reggie Rucker.

Running against the Chiefs’ defense is even tougher. They have held 10 of 14 opponents under 100 yards.

When looking for Achilles’ heels, the Chiefs are vulnerable in only one vital area. The young offensive line has coughed up 44 sacks. Unfortunately, the Browns are incapable of taking advantage. The Cleveland pass rush has produced 28 sacks, which isn’t really awful until you realize 16 were rung up in two games.

Add it all up and it looks as though the Browns are headed for another shellacking. Their only chance to keep it close is to harass Smith with a relentless blitz package and make him either throw before he wants to or force him out of the pocket.

Look for a lot of rollouts from the Cleveland attack to avoid the KC pass rush. And maybe offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will finally take advantage of Duke Johnson Jr.’s unique talents and get him at least 20 touches to offset the Chiefs’ quickness on defense.

In the end, though, talent always wins out in the NFL. Smith and Maclin will hook up for a couple of touchdowns, West and Ware will each score once, while the defense will pick off Manziel once, drop him five times and recover two fumbles in a game that will be over by halftime. Make it:

Chiefs 38, Browns 6

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy holidays

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all who have visited this site.

May 2016 be the year the Browns finally emerge from the Dark Side and begin to play football in a way that joyously evokes memories of glory days gone by. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Monday leftovers

Add Johnny Manziel to the tiny list of Browns who would like the entire coaching staff back next season, joining safety Donte Whitner, who last week endorsed their return.

Shortly after Sunday’s 30-13 loss in Seattle, the Cleveland quarterback pointed to the immense success of the Seahawks and how stability has played such a vital role in that success.

“They have been doing this for a while at a really high level,” he said. “I think this is the best (Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson) has played probably throughout his career, so I don’t know if I can really picture that (stability) moving forward.

“Well see what happens (in Cleveland). I don’t think anybody really knows. I want these guys to be here next year.”

Manziel wants the players and coaching staff to return “so we can go through the spring and not have to learn what this call is and this play is and be able to go through spring and have some continuity.”

All well and good, but one has to wonder just how much longer it will take for that continuity to pay off because not much has worked the last two years with this group of guys.

The Browns still have arguably the worst corps of wide receivers in the National Football League. The prospect of Josh Gordon returning from his one-year ban is encouraging, but the X factor is whether he can be the Josh Gordon of 2013.

The offensive line has been mediocre at best this season. And the running game is a joke, their strong performance against the San Francisco 49ers eight days ago notwithstanding. That, as it turned out, was an aberration.

The defense is a bigger joke.  All season long, fans have been waiting for that side of the ball to live up to its advanced billing. Fourteen games in and they are still waiting. The club poured more money into the defense and the result has been extremely disappointing.

Right now, the fate of coach Mike Pettine and his coaching staff is in the hands of owner Jimmy Haslam III, who vowed at the beginning of training camp last summer that he was “not going to blow things up, OK? I think we’re on the right track, so we’re not going to blow things up.”

Of course, those remarks were made following a 7-9 season in Pettine’s first year as head coach. The question now is whether Haslam believes now as he did back in August that his team is still on the right track.

As the team staggers toward the conclusion of the 2015 season with a solid shot at finishing 3-13 with upcoming dates against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, the distinct possibility of blowing things up again has to be at least swimming around in Haslam’s mind.

And that’s where Manziel and Whitner enter the picture. How much influence will their opinions have on the direction Haslam chooses to take once the final game is played on Jan. 3?

About 10 days ago, Whitner strongly suggested that Haslam should retain Pettine and his crew, but acknowledged “the call is not up to me. (But) you always understand the second and third year in the system can change. Something can click.”

There is still a chance Haslam hasn’t yet made up his mind on what 2016 is going to look like with the Browns. Endorsements by Manziel and Whitner for coaching retention very well could be an influencing factor in his final decision. It certainly is food for thought for the owner.

If overhauling the staff is not the answer and Haslam does, indeed, heed Manziel’s and Whitner’s words and gives Pettine and his staff one more shot, he risks losing a segment of a rapidly shrinking fan base that is fed up. Empty seats at home games are a mute reminder.

That is what Haslam must weigh before deciding the fate of his front office. New faces mean new ideas, new culture, new approach, new everything. If he believes nothing is working now in year two of the Pettine-Ray Farmer regime, his decision will be easy.

Even if Manziel and Whitner disagree.
*        *        *
The lone shining light in the loss to the Seahawks was the work of rookie running back Raheem Mostert. The 5-10, 190-pound speedster did all his damage running back kickoffs, though, taking five of them back for 159 yards.

He fielded all five in the end zone, ranging from one yard in to nine yards deep, and reached at least the 20-yard line on every occasion. His second return early in the second quarter following Seattle’s second touchdown was fielded five yards in the end zone and brought back to the Cleveland 48.

The offense marched to the Seattle 16 before bogging down, wide receiver Travis Benjamin dropping a slant pass right in his hands inside the 10. The first of Travis Coons’ two field goals made it a 14-10 game. Mostert’s big return was the key factor.

It’s only one game, of course, but Mostert’s performance gives the Browns a dimension in that aspect of the kicking game that has been missing all season. At 159 yards, he is already statistically the second-best kick returner on the team this season.

The Browns have tried Justin Gilbert, Darius Jennings, Shaun Draughn, Marlon Moore and Duke Johnson Jr. in that role this season. Gilbert (12 returns for 339 yards) has been the best. Until Mostert, who showed no fear to make a play no matter where the kickoffs landed.

Mostert, who played with Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey at Purdue University, made a circuitous route to the Browns, his fourth team this season after going undrafted in the last National Football League college draft.

He signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles, but was cut and then signed to the practice squad despite a nice exhibition season when he compiled 510 total yards (348 yards rushing and receiving and 162 returning yards).

The Miami Dolphins signed him off the Eagles’ practice squad in mid-September. He returned two kicks in one game and then was placed on the practice squad. The Baltimore Ravens signed him to their regular roster in mid-October when a spate of injuries hit the running back position.

He dressed for seven games and returned five kicks for 164 yards for the Ravens, who cut him on Dec. 15. The Browns claimed him on waivers the next day. Considering his debut with the Browns, it is safe to assume Cleveland will be Mostert ‘s last stop this season.
*        *        *
Yes, that was Dwayne Bowe. No. 80 in your program, making a special guest appearance and couple of late-game catches for the Browns on their last possession of the game.

The seldom-used veteran wide receiver grabbed passes on the first two plays of the series for gains of seven and 15 yards after spending most of the season, according to Fox play-by-play man Thom Brennaman, “in the witness protection program.” Manziel targeted him again two plays later and was picked off by Seattle corner Marcus Burley.

The expensive (two-year contract for $12.5 million, $9 million guaranteed) free-agent signee upped his season total to five catches on 12 targets for 53 yards in mop-up duty. That breaks down to $1.8 million per catch so far. Nice signing.
*        *        *
The halftime score would have been 17-10 Seattle at halftime if not for a bonehead play by veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, whose play has been uneven this season. The Seahawks began their last possession of the half at their 27-yard line with 16 seconds left. No way can they score in such a short period, right? Guess again.

With two seconds left and the Browns clearly in prevent mode, Wilson and Jermaine Kearse hooked up for a 39-yard gain to the Cleveland 18 when the clock ran out. Williams was one of three Browns taking down Kearse and the only one who grabbed the wide receiver’s facemask, drawing a flag.

Since a half cannot end on a defensive penalty (it is an option, though), the Seahawks were awarded an untimed down and Steven Hauschka booted a 27-yard field. ’Twas an early Christmas gift from the Browns.
*        *        *
Notebook: Duke Johnson Jr. watch: Nine touches, 85 yards, including a 39-yard run and 22-yard pass reception on a well-executed play fake, fake reverse throwback by Manziel. Maybe by next season, the coaches, if they’re still around, will realize Johnson should be the club’s No. 1 running back. . . .  Manziel targeted Terrelle Pryor twice and failed to connect. The former Ohio State quarterback also took a direct snap from center and lost a yard midway through the first possession of the second half. . . . Rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton was aggressive all afternoon and logged his best game of the year with seven tackles (four solo). Perhaps it was because he was playing in front of the home folks. Shelton went to Auburn (Wash.) High School and the University of Washington. . . . The Seahawks’ defense in the last three games has allowed just 26 points, 40 first downs, 153 yards rushing and 657 total yards.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

It could have been a lot worse

The Browns went into the chamber of National Football League horrors Sunday and actually played a decent football game. Relatively speaking, that is.

Unfortunately, they played it against the hottest team in the NFL in the Seattle Seahawks – with all due respect to the undefeated Carolina Panthers – and did not totally embarrass themselves.

Cleveland coach Mike Pettine apparently meant every word he said early in the week when discussing the game.

“We’re going to go up there and cut it loose,” he declared. “We’re going to have a great deal of respect for them, but we’re not going to be intimidated by them. We’re going to travel there and play a good football game.”

Playing against a team that had won four straight games and six of its last seven and plays in a venue that usually devours visitors on an annual basis normally does not usually engender bravado. But the players and coaching staff backed up their head coach to a certain extent. At least on offense.

Against many other less worthy opponents, the Browns might have had a chance to win this one. The 30-13 final in no way suggests they were by far the inferior team. There was no doubt, though, the Seahawks were the better team, but they did not exactly steamroll past the Browns.

They owned just a 10-point lead (20-10) entering the fourth quarter against a team many expected to fold and mail it in. The fact the Browns had at least a statistical chance at that point was surprising.

From an offensive standpoint, it looked as though coordinator John DeFilippo opened up the entire playbook in an effort to confuse a very good Seattle defense that has been getting better and stronger by the game.

The Browns ran several misdirection plays, a few reverses, a couple of fake reverses and a variety of screens that kept the aggressive Seattle defense off balance. DeFilippo even called Terrelle Pryor’s number once on a direct snap that lost a yard. But they were never able to come up with a big play to sustain subsequent drives.

The offense, which gouged out only 230 yards, rarely stopped itself, although it put up only a pair of Travis Coons field goals after Johnny Manziel masterfully crafted a 15-play, 80-yard drive to open the game, connecting on a seven-yard scoring play with Gary Barnidge.

It was the first time this season a team had scored a touchdown against the Seahawks on an opening drive and, as it turned out, was Cleveland’s best possession of the afternoon. It represented 31% of the Browns’ 52 plays.

Perhaps fittingly, Pettine did not boast about his disappointing defense when he spoke so optimistically about this game. That side of the ball, while not intimidated by the Seattle offense, didn’t come even close to cutting it loose.

So when the Seahawks countered the Browns' opening drive with a 16-play, 69-yard scoring drive of their own, it signaled the beginning of yet another afternoon when the Cleveland defense had all kinds of problems getting off the field. So much so that Seattle punter Jon Ryan had to punt just once.

The Seattle offense owned the ball for 34½ minutes, thanks mainly to the Cleveland defense’s inability to make a play, and scored on five of seven full possessions

Before Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson called it an afternoon late in the fourth quarter after throwing three more touchdown passes (that’s 19 in the last five games with no interceptions), two to Doug Baldwin (that’s 10 in the last four games) and one to Tyler Lockett (that’s five in the last five games), he faced 12 third downs and converted nine.

No matter the distance, Wilson had just about every correct answer. Third and short, third and medium, third and long, made no difference. Manziel & Co. was tethered frustratingly to the sideline.

Where the Browns ever so maddeningly continue to have problems is stopping the run. The Seahawks piled up 183 yards on the ground Sunday with three running backs (minus Wilson’s 46 yards) accounting for 137 of them.

It’s a malady that has plagued this team year in and year out and shows no appreciable signs of disappearing. Even more embarrassingly, those yards were churned out by the likes of Christine Michael, Bryce Brown and Derrick Coleman, a.k.a, Moe, Larry and Curly.

With no Marshawn Lynch (sports hernia surgery) and no Thomas Rawls (broken ankle), the Seahawks were down to bare bones in the running back department. And the Browns made them look like Pro Bowlers.

The Seahawks had already cut Michael once earlier this season and Brown was signed for the third time. It seemed as though they could plug just about anyone into that slot and do well, especially against the porous Cleveland defense.

Manziel, meanwhile, seemed flummoxed by the sophisticated Seattle pass defense. He completed 19 of 31 passes for just 161 yards and the touchdown and seemed nervous in the pocket.

He was sacked only three times, twice on blitzes, but the strong coverage in the secondary by the Seahawks often forced him to vacate the pocket. Strangely, he chose not to run in the first half, but took off twice in the second half for 17 yards.

Part of what makes Manziel effective is his ability to use his feet when in trouble Wilson does it all the time.

The Cleveland quarterback received no help from the running game, which produced just 77 net yards from the running backs. It was due mainly to an offensive line that had problems blocking (surprise!) and a Seattle defense that walked a safety up into the box on what seemed like every play and dared Manziel to throw. 

When an offense is basically one dimensional, especially against a very good team such as Seattle, winning becomes virtually impossible despite encouraging words from the coach.

The good news is the 2015 season is just a couple of weeks away from coming mercifully to an end. The bad news is the Browns those two weekends face the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, teams almost as hot as Seattle.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Coming back down to Earth

Remember that wonderful feeling you experienced after watching Johnny Manziel take three knees in victory formation at the end of the game against the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday?

That’s a formation Browns Nation rarely sees and celebrates these days. Hell, make that since 1999.

Dwell on that feeling in the next three weekends as the Browns wrap up yet another sad chapter of what life is like at the bottom of the National Football League’s AFC North Division.

Remember the feeling as you watch the Browns take on the Seahawks in Seattle Sunday. You will need it as salve as they become this week’s fodder for the hottest team in the NFL.

The Seahawks, whose 2-4 start this season gave birth to the notion there won’t be a third straight appearance in the Super Bowl, are not the team anyone wants to face right now, let alone one of the worst in the Browns.

Seattle has won six of its last seven games, including the last four in a row, in spectacular fashion, averaging 34 points a game. In those four straight victories, quarterback Russell Wilson has been dynamic almost beyond words.

This is what the Cleveland defense will face when the Seattle offense takes the field:

In the last four games, Wilson has completed 75.4% of his passes for 1,171 yards and 16 touchdowns. That is not a typo. He is so far beyond hot, it’s as though he is playing on an entirely different plateau in an entirely different universe.

Biggest beneficiary of Wilson’s extraordinary talent is wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who has caught 17 passes for 321 yards and eight touchdowns in the last three games. Overall, he is 61-860-11 TD.

Wilson has also welcomed Tyler Lockett into his aerial circus lately, connecting with the wideout 20 times for 280 yards and four touchdowns in the last four games. And lest we forget, Jermaine Kearse is 52-503-3 TD this season.

Even more amazing is that Wilson has operated the offense the last couple of games without star tight end Jimmy Graham, out for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

The 6-7 Graham brought a 51-touchdown resume from New Orleans to Seattle in an offseason deal, but was disappointing with only two scores before the injury, both scored in the first three games of the season.

All Wilson has to do now, it seems, is sit back there behind a good offensive line and just pick out any target he wants. After throwing just 10 touchdown passes in his first nine games and inviting comments that maybe the league has caught up to him, something clicked above the neck.

While he has become an elite passer, he has not forgotten how to run with the ball when throwing it is not an option. He has run (mostly scrambled) 87 times this season for 456 yards. To put that into perspective, Browns running back Isaiah Crowell has gained 542 yards.

Where the Seahawks are currently hurting literally is the running game. Marshawn Lynch is out indefinitely after undergoing sports hernia surgery and Thomas Rawls, the spectacular rookie who replaced him, broke an ankle last Sunday and is done for the season.

Right now, it looks as though the Seahawks will go with veterans Fred Jackson and DuJuan Harris, who have played minimally behind Lynch and Rawls, and possibly Bryce Brown, signed earlier in the week for the third time this season.

Entering the 2015 season, it was thought the Seahawks’ strength would be the defense. After all, the Legion of Boom was the major factor in their consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Even though they lead the NFC in fewest points allowed this season, the Seahawks are not nearly as fearsome or intimidating as in the past.

Wilson’s offensive outburst arrived at just the right time to bail out the defense when it had off days. But there have been times recently when that defense conjured up thoughts of the last two seasons.

In winning their last two games at Minnesota and Baltimore, the Seattle defense permitted just 25 first downs, 427 total yards, 59 yards on the ground, logged just 49 minutes on the field and surrendered one touchdown and a pair of field goals.

That’s the kind of stifling defense Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland offense will face in a venue rated one of the toughest, if not the toughest, to play in throughout the NFL.

Then again, the Seahawks have not faced a scrambling quarterback like Manziel in a game. But it won’t be as though they don’t know how to defend against that type of quarterback because they face one like that every day in practice in Wilson, one of the best quarterback scramblers in the NFL.

Combine the improving defense with Wilson’s’ football pyrotechnics in the last month or so and that one-game winning streak the Browns take into the game is in definite jeopardy.

All right, no sense in prolonging the mystery, not that the outcome of Sunday’s game requires a toss of a coin. The betting line in this one opened up with the Seahawks giving 14½ points, which seems a little low considering the opposite direction these clubs are heading bur remained at that number until game day..

Now that the Browns have placed Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on season-ending injured reserve, the Cleveland secondary is that much more vulnerable and can expect a day-long strafing by Wilson, who won’t have to worry about being sacked nine times like San Francisco’s Blaine Gabbert last Sunday.

The diminutive Seattle quarterback tosses four more scoring passes, Jackson runs for 100 yards and a touchdown and the Seattle defense shuts down the Cleveland run game and neutralizes and confuses Manziel with a variety of blitz packages in a game requiring a wave of the white flag by halftime. Make it:

Seahawks 42, Browns 3

Monday, December 14, 2015

Monday leftovers

If there was any question Johnny Manziel doesn’t belong on a National Football League field, it was dispelled in Sunday’s 24-10 romp over the San Francisco 49ers.

Yes, he still has a tendency to leave the pocket early and doesn’t seem to have a good feel yet for the amount of pressure applied by the pass-rushing component of opponents’ defenses.

Slowly but surely, though, he is beginning to become more comfortable with – and confident in – what offensive coordinator John DeFilippo lays out for him on a game-to-game basis.

Right now, Manziel’s biggest problem is his height. At a tick under six feet, he often fails to see open receivers because he has trouble peering over onrushing linemen. And if he isn’t in complete rhythm, that’s when he bails and tries to make a play improvisationally.

For example, he failed to see tight end Gary Barnidge break wide open down the seam late in the second quarter as the Browns were driving nicely downfield. He pirouetted out of the pocket, moved to his left and spotted Brian Hartline wide open in the middle of the field at the 49ers’ 31-yard line.

Throwing across his body, he heaved a floater that was intercepted easily by safety Jaquiski Tartt (a Key & Peele alumnus?) and returned 25 yards into Cleveland territory. After watching the play on his Surface tablet, Manziel realized the error of his ways and banged the tablet against his head five times.

If he’s smart, he’ll never again throw against his body late over the middle because that’s always a recipe for failure. Besides, he’ll save himself from repeatedly giving himself headaches.

His most impressive throw, though, came on the first play of the second possession of the second half. It kicked off a 78-yard drive that consumed eight plays and gave the Browns a 17-3 lead.

On the play, Manziel faked a handoff to Isaiah Crowell, faked another handoff on a reverse, dropped straight back two steps and launched a perfect strike to Hartline in stride crossing from right to left near the left hash mark that went for 34 yards.

It was a thing of beauty, an exquisitely timed play that looked as though he had done it his entire career, and definitely one DeFilippo should dial up much more often. The confused San Francisco defense had no idea what was happening.

It showed Manziel has the ball-faking ability to pull off such a play. Certainly there are other companion plays in the Cleveland playbook that DeFilippo can incorporate to make his young quarterback that much effective.

Right now, Manziel is clearly a work in progress, but there is definite progress being made. He is no longer the wide-eyed kid of a year ago who had no idea what he was doing when thrown into the fire at the tail end of the season.

He now has a pretty good idea of how to read a defense, change the call at the line of scrimmage if need be and has developed a ton of confidence in his ability to throw the football. But he is still far from being a finished product.

What he did Sunday was against a very bad defense. Let’s see what he can do against much better defenses in Seattle and Kansas City and in his second game against invading Pittsburgh in the season finale.

In the first meeting against the Steelers in week 10, the Browns put up only nine points, but Manziel raked for 372 yards on 33 of 45 and a touchdown pass to Barnidge, but was sacked six times.
*        *        *
The emergence of Hartline as a reliable receiver lately is no doubt the result of injuries to fellow wideouts Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel.

He was treated almost like a lost cousin for the first seven games of the season, when he was targeted just 25 times and had only 12 receptions for 150 yards. In the last five games, Hartline has been targeted 52 times with 34 catches for 373 yards. He was Manziel’s favorite target against the 49ers with 10 and grabbed eight passes for 107 yards. 

Unfortunately, the former Ohio State Buckeye, who played his high school ball at GlenOak High School in Canton, will watch the rest of the season on injured reserve with a broken collarbone suffered in Sunday’s victory.

So unless either Hawkins or Gabriel make miraculous comebacks, DeFilippo is challenged to come up with some new wrinkles as he tries to get as many reps for the likes of Travis Benjamin, Dwayne Bowe (no joke), Marlon Moore and maybe Terrelle Pryor, who made a brief appearance against San Francisco.
*        *        *
Was that really Isaiah Crowell who ripped off runs of 50 and 54 yards against the 49ers? The real Isaiah Crowell who bashed the San Francisco defense for 145 yards on 20 carries?

Where has that Isaiah Crowell been this season? Racking up one-, two- and three-yards gains all season has been his specialty. C’mon, that wasn’t really Crowell, now, was it? He even caught a pass for nine yards on a checkdown.

Granted you take away those 104 yards on two runs and Crowell ran for only 41 yards on the other 18 carries. (He also had a 19-yarder nullified by a holding penalty.) But he did, in fact, make those runs, hitting the hole quicker than at any time this season. All of which proves he can do it. He just needs to recognize where the hole is and hit it quickly.
*        *        *
How good was the Cleveland secondary against the Niners? So good, in fact, it held veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin to just two catches for 22 yards and speedster Torrey Smith to a lone grab for 17 yards.

San Francisco quarterback Blaine Gabbert, when he was vertical long enough to get off a pass, was forced to throw to the likes of rookie tight end Blake Bell and little-used Quinton Patton and Travaris Cadet. Boldin and Smith, who have bedeviled the Browns in the past while with the Baltimore Ravens, were targeted just five times.
*        *        *
And how efficient was the Cleveland offense? It reeled off 10 plays for 15 yards or more yards that counted (not including Crowell’s 19-yarder). The Browns had touchdowns drives of 84 yards (six plays), 78 yards (eight) and 91 yards (nine) that took nearly 13 minutes off the clock.
*        *        *
Notebook: Crowell’s first touchdown of the game with 5:38 left in the first quarter, was only the second TD scored that way by a running back all season and the first since Crowell scored in game two against Tennessee. The other score infantry style score was by quarterback Josh McCown in the 33-30 victory against Baltimore in week four. . . . Pryor made his Browns début with 3:45 left in regulation and the game already wrapped up. He appeared as a wide receiver flanked wide to the right side on a run play. . . . The 49ers’offense generated just 48 total yards in the first half. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: The rookie running back touched the ball 14 times (once as a receiver) for 84 yards (78 on the ground). . . . Defensive end Armonty Bryant was easily the most active Brown on that side of the ball with seven solo tackles, a pair of sacks, a couple of hits on Gabbert and a whole bunch of hurries. . . . The defense limited the 49ers to just a pair of third-down conversions in 13 attempts. . . . Travis Coons’ third blocked field goal in the past few weeks just might prompt the Browns to scour the list of free agents in that department.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Now that was enjoyable

Take it easy, Browns fans. Easy with the euphoria. What you witnessed Sunday at home was your Sunday heroes knocking off a very, very bad football team.

My did the Browns ever look good. It was also very much of a case of the 49ers looking so bad they made the Browns look good.

Well, you wonder, aren’t the Browns bad, too? Yes, of course, but not that bad. What you saw Sunday was maybe the worst team in the National Football League that did not represent the city of Cleveland.

Taking nothing away from their ridiculously easy 24-10 victory over the awful 49ers, the Browns played the kind of game you wont see again the rest of this season.

Check that. Considering the last three opponents on the 2015 schedule, you very well might see that kind of game with the Browns on the receiving end. More on that later.

The Cleveland offensive line, finally, was sharp against the 49ers throughout the game as the offense produced 500 total yards, 230 of them on the ground with Isaiah Crowell galloping for 145 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Duke Johnson Jr. chipping in with 78.

With Johnny Manziel confidently guiding the attack and looking more comfortable with every series, Cleveland moved the ball easily on offense, owning the ball for nearly 38 minutes. That enabled the defense to tee off on poor 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Gabbert dropped back to throw 40 times and managed to get off only 28. That’s because the frustrated Cleveland pass rush, which entered the game with only 17 sacks and had been considered missing in action since their seven-sack effort against Marcus Mariota in game two, put on a pass rushing clinic against the brutal San Francisco offensive line.

Down went Gabbert nine times, the most sacks for a Browns team since 1993 when the original team (the one now playing in Baltimore) dropped New Orleans Saints quarterback Wade Wilson nine times. Bill Belichick coached that team and his defensive coordinator was Nick Saban.

(For you stats geeks, the club record remains at 11 sacks by the 1984 Browns against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski. Sam Rutigliano coached that team and the DC was Marty Schottenheimer.)

Gabbert, who also scrambled for positive yardage on three occasions, was dropped 12 more times after delivering a pass and hurried 17 other times. The relentless Cleveland defense never gave him a chance to deliver a clean ball until the latter stages of the game when defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil went into prevent mode.

Seven players combined for the nine sacks with Armonty Bryant and rookie Nate Orchard each racking up a pair. The manner in which the Browns absolutely manhandled the San Francisco offense and defense allowed them to generally have everything under control to the point where the end result was never in doubt.

They looked, in clearly a comparative sense, like one of the elite teams in the NFL, winning just about every battle in the trenches all afternoon. It was the kind of performance Browns fans are not used to.

If it hadn’t been for the uniforms, you’d have sworn the 49ers played like the sad-sack Browns on both sides of the ball. And the Browns played up to the lofty standards of two other AFC North rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, as they snapped a couple of ugly losing streaks.

The victory shattered a seven-game losing streak that produced some of the worst football in franchise history and snapped an 11-game losing streak in December games that dates back to exactly four years ago to the day.

One has to wonder just how the Niners entered the game with a 4-8 record, including 2-2 in the last four. Their offense with Gabbert at the helm was, at best, awful. The defense was even worse.

Seven of the 49ers’ 11 possessions ended in a Bradley Pinion punt and two perished on downs. Their deepest penetration in the first half was Cleveland’s 26 and ended in a 44-yard Phil Dawson field goal. Until their scoring drive in the final minutes, their deepest penetration into Cleveland territory in the second half was the 43.

The Browns owned just a 10-3 halftime lead despite holding San Francisco to only 48 total yards in the first half and did almost everything correctly except get into the end zone more frequently.

It seemed as though they caught just about every break in this one. For example, when Manziel was about to be sacked for a safety by Corey Lemonier late in the second quarter, the blitzing linebacker grabbed his facemask, nullifying the safety and prolonging the possession.

And just when it appeared a long Cleveland drive had stalled when Manziel threw an incompletion on a third-and-goal at the San Francisco 6 midway through the fourth quarter, Niners cornerback Marcus Cromartie was flagged for holding.

Crowell, who hasn’t run this well since can’t remember when, scored the second of his two touchdowns from three yards out two plays later to cap a nine-play, 91-yard drive and bump the score to 24-3.

The only negatives in an afternoon filled with positives from just about every angle were a Johnson fumble, a Manziel interception and a special teams lapse that allowed a 36-yard punt return by Bruce Ellington that set up Dawson’s field goal.

Johnson’s bobble was recovered by San Francisco near midfield late in the first quarter, but the defense blunted it five plays later with the first of Orchard’s two sacks on a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 30.

The Manziel pick was a result of committing the cardinal sin of never throwing late over the middle. That’s exactly what the Cleveland quarterback did late in the second quarter, throwing against his body while scrambling left. San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt cut in front of intended receiver Brian Hartline for an easy interception. But again, the Cleveland transition defense forced a Pinion punt.

Manziel, 21 of 31 for 270 yards, recovered nicely in the second half, teaming with tight end Gary Barnidge for his lone touchdown throw from two yards in the final seconds of the third quarter. The eight-play, 78-yard drive featured connections of 34 yards to Hartline and 21 yards to Barnidge.

It was a fun game to watch from beginning to end. Not once did Cleveland fans have to wonder how the Browns would blow this one. So little went wrong, however, fans naturally wonder why the Browns cant play this like this more often. The answer to that one is easy. San Francisco is not on their schedule often enough.

So enjoy it, Browns fans. This very well might be the last time you feel this euphoric following a Cleveland victory this season with the likes of Seattle (away), Kansas City (away) and Pittsburgh dead ahead.