Saturday, December 12, 2015

49ers provide relief

There are only four games remaining in the 2015 season for the Browns. The easiest, in clearly a relative sense, is Sunday at home against the San Francisco 49ers.

From that point on, nothing but danger and three hot football teams lurk. That’s why knocking off the Niners Sunday represents the Browns’ only realistic opportunity to win three games this season.

That’s how history will remember the 2015 team that couldn’t get out of its own way in playing bad, inconsistent and cringe-worthy football. Losing to the 49ers only delays the inevitable: The worst season in franchise history. Even worse than the 2-14 expansion team of 1999.

Worse? Really? In what way?

An expansion team is expected to lose a large majority of games in its inaugural season. Throwing together a bunch of players no one wants makes it extremely difficult to win.

A team that is 17 years old – that’s what the born-again Browns are – should never come even close to matching the worst record in club history. And not just since 1999. The worst record since 1946 when the original franchise was born. It defies the laws of progress. 

What we have witnessed from the Browns this season is beyond embarrassing. It is almost unimaginable. The only way to salvage whatever self respect this team has left is to replicate what Eric Mangini managed to pull off in the 2009 season, his first as the Cleveland head coach.

The Browns lost their first four games that season before defeating Cincinnati at home in overtime, then dropped the next seven. From out of nowhere and in truly unexpected and unexplained fashion, the 1-11 Browns won their final four games to escape looming shame and, as it turned out, save Mangini’s job.

Mangini, who kept his job in Cleveland for just one more forgettable season, will have a definitive hand in what happens Sunday. He is returning with retribution in his heart as defensive coordinator of the 4-8 49ers.

After a miserable start when his defense allowed the team’s first five opponents to average 28 points a game, Mangini’s men have reduced that figure by seven points a game and cut the total yards average by nearly 30 yards a game.

The Niners’ defense needs to play well because of an offense that doesn’t scare anyone and needs that defense to keep the score close. If you think the Cleveland offense is awful, check out the 49ers, who have scored a league-low 178 points and own the largest net-points differential from a negative standpoint at minus 113.

A change in quarterbacks from a surprisingly ineffective Colin Kaepernick to Blaine Gabbert following game eight has paid off in the win-loss department (2-2), due mainly to the improved defense. But there are other departments factored in that measure the effectiveness of a quarterback and Gabbert, obtained in a trade with Jacksonville last season, fits very few despite his .500 record as a starter.

Last Sunday, the Niners trailed the Chicago Bears late in the game, racking up well under 200 total yards on offense and heading for yet another loss. But Gabbert rumbled 44 yards for the tying touchdown in the final minutes and connected with wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 71-yard scoring strike to win the game in overtime.

On paper, the Browns should have no problem with San Francisco on either side of the ball.

For example, the 49ers’ offense has scored only 17 touchdowns this season; controlled the ball just 26½ minutes a game; averaged a paltry 15.7 first downs a game; and the offensive line has given up 36 sacks. If the woeful Browns’ pass rush has problems with that group, they are worse than initially believed.

The 49ers have generated only six touchdowns and just 62 points in Gabbert’s four starts. His top receivers are veterans Anquan Boldin, more of a possession threat, and Smith, the deep target.

How bad is the 49ers' running game? Their main running threat is Shaun Draughn, picked up on waivers from the Browns following an injury to Carlos Hyde. In four games, Draughn has run for 182 yards and a touchdown. That’s how bad. A decided break for the awful Cleveland run defense.

Put that running and passing game together and you truly have a bad offensive football team, one with which the Browns should have little trouble. The Niners are a perfect fit for what ails the Browns, which is just about everything.

The San Francisco defense, despite the efforts of Pro Bowl inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, allows 395 yards a game, 125 on the ground. Good news for Duke Johnson Jr. – that’s if offensive coordinator John DeFilippo uses him – and Isaiah (Three Yards and a Chunk of Turf) Crowell.

And with Johnny Manziel returning to the Cleveland huddle, look for DeFilippo to dial up a large dose of passes against a defense that surrenders 270 yards a game in that department.

But Manziel, the Browns' third different quarterback in three games, will be working with a handicap.  Brian Hartline is questionable with a sore hip and might join Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel on the sideline. That could mean another appearance by Dwayne (Yes, He’s Still on the Team) Bowe, whose contributions this year have been – being kind here – negligible.

The Browns realistically have an opportunity to thrive against San Francisco in departments that have plagued them all season. Like stopping the run, mounting a run game, effectively rushing the passer, protecting the quarterback and strafing the secondary.

The Browns should be able to (1) run against this team; (2) be effective in the passing game with  Manziel's return; (3) shut down the running game; and (4) put Gabbert on his back at least four times. If they can accomplish half that, they have an excellent shot at winning.

Be cautioned, though, that due to the high ineptitude quotient on just about every level on both sides of the field in this one, this very well could turn out to be a game that features the resistible forces against the movable objects.

If the Browns can’t beat this team, which has lost seven of its last eight road games, then they are unquestionably the worst team in the National Football League this season.

That said, look for Manziel to come close to duplicating his nice game against Pittsburgh (33 of 45 for 372 yards) before his coach sent him to timeout for two games. Oh . . . and the Steelers sacked him six times.

He will pocket another 300-yard game, throw scoring passes to Johnson, Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge and score on one of his did-you-see-that quarterback scrambles. The defense plays its best game of the season and nearly pitches a shutout, but ex-Brown Phil Dawson kicks a pair of second-half field goals. Make it:

Browns 28, 49ers 6

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