Friday, December 30, 2016

Missing Big Ben

They are why the Pittsburgh Steelers came from behind and knocked off the Baltimore Ravens, 31-27, last Sunday.

They are why the Steelers won the AFC North Division championship for the second time in the last three seasons.

They are why the Steelers will return to the National Football League playoffs for the 22nd time since 1972.

They are why the Steelers are considered in some quarters the team you do not want to face in the playoffs.

They are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown and they will not play against the Browns Sunday in Pittsburgh in the season finale.

In addition to those three Pro Bowlers, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin hinted other starters on both sides of the football might join his prize trio as spectators against the Browns.

All of which gives the Browns a fighting chance to pull an upset, right? Not unless you believe the Browns’ first stringers are better than the Steelers’ second stringers.

The Steelers want to enter the playoffs in good health, or at least relatively good health at this point in the season. And right now, the Steelers’ big three on offense are healthy. Playing them against the Browns exposes them to the risk of injury.

Bell has missed the last two postseasons with knee problems and a concussion kept Brown out of a divisional playoff game a year ago. Having those two back and healthy for the playoffs makes Roethlisberger that much more dangerous.

So get ready for large doses of Landry Jones and maybe Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint, wide receivers Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cobi Hamilton, as well as tight ends Jesse James, Ladarius Green and Xavier Grimble.

Roethlisberger understands the move and backs his coach. “If we’ve got a (playoff) spot and the three (third seed) clinched, I think a lot of guys should get healthy,” he said following the Baltimore victory.

In other words, why risk injury in what is the clear definition of a meaningless game for the Steelers. Nothing to gain; nothing to lose. In no way does the outcome of the Browns game impact on where the Steelers finish in the playoff standings or hamper who plays where and when.

They know exactly where they will be next weekend. At home against either the Miami Dolphins or Kansas Chiefs, depending on what happens to those teams this weekend.

Only Steelers starting cornerback William Gay doesn’t agree with resting the starters. “Resting?” he said. “What are we here for? . . . we’re playing the Browns. We’re playing a rival. Who wouldn’t want to be in that game?” Too bad the thinking in Berea isn’t the same.

No matter the situation, the Steelers love to play the Browns, whom they used as a punching bag and launching pad to their current six-game winning streak. When they met on Nov. 13 in Cleveland, they hauled a four-game losing streak and a 4-5 record into the game with four of the next six games on the road.

That game could not have come along at a more appropriate time for the Steelers, who have feasted on the Browns for nearly three decades now. It was perfect schedule timing for the struggling team. A 24-9 victory ignited the current streak.

Here is how badly the Steelers have turned this once-great rivalry, which the Browns owned from 1950 until the early 1970s when native Clevelander Chuck Noll took over as the Steelers’ head coach, into a joke.

The Browns haven’t swept a season series from the Steelers since 1988 when they were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak against them. Other than that, it has been total Pittsburgh domination.

The Steelers have won 39 of the 49 games played since 1990, losing at home only twice. And since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 after a three-year absence, they have bested the Steelers just six times in 36 games, two of them in Pittsburgh.

What Roethlisberger has done to the Browns borders on criminal (latitude to be hyperbolic). At the risk of being repetitious, he has quarterbacked 23 games against Cleveland (22 as a starter) and lost twice, 13-6 in Cleveland in 2009 after winning his first 10 starts, and 31-10 in Cleveland in 2014 after winning another eight in a row.

Those gaudy numbers, barring unforeseen circumstances, will remain the same until the teams meet against next season.

The former Miami of Ohio star has thrown 35 touchdown passes against the Browns, who have pilfered 17 of his 659 throws and sacked him only 36 times. Brown, who also loves to play against Cleveland, has caught 75 passes in 11 games (10-1 record) for 1,130 yards and seven touchdowns.

Bell, another native Ohioan, has played five games against the Browns. (He missed the last half of the 2015 season and both Browns games with a right knee injury.) He has run for 507 yards, scored three touchdowns and caught 21 passes for another 190 yards.

As it turned out, the Steelers did not need Bell for these two games last season, both Cleveland losses, of course. Roethlisberger was 46 of 68 for 728 yards and six touchdowns. Brown checked in with 23 receptions for 326 yards and three scores.

Of course all three would love to play Sunday against their favorite opponent to pad their stats, but common sense and the importance of being healthy for the playoffs trump any such notions.

Defensively, it’s anyone’s guess what Tomlin will do. But that should not make an appreciable difference because the Cleveland offense has staggered all season long, logging the fewest points in the NFL.

It is entirely possible the Steelers’ second stringers and occasional contributors on both sides of the ball might be better than what the Browns can put out there with their starters, especially on the defensive side of the football.

Whether Robert Griffin III (concussion protocol) or rookie Cody Kessler gets the call at quarterback for the Browns, a heavy Pittsburgh pass rush can be expected. In the first game this season against the Steelers, that pass rush bullied the Cleveland offensive line, dropping Kessler and Josh McCown each four times while limiting the run game to just 33 yards.

Sunday’s game will be, in effect, a litmus test for the Browns to determine whether their front-line people can defeat what will amount to be, to some degree, second liners for the Steelers.

If the Steelers continue to prevail, it should send a strong message to those in Berea responsible for the product this season that their best cannot even knock off the irregulars of another team, especially one in their division.

And they will prevail. Even the oddsmakers agree. After spotting the Browns a dozen points in the opening line on the game, they shaved only half those points following the announcement the Steelers’ three offensive stars will sit out this one.

It might not be the rout Steelers fans are accustomed to against the Browns. In fact, it might be close for a half before the Steelers’ superior roster depth begins to dictate the flow of the game. Make it:

Steelers 17, Browns 6

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Monday leftovers (Sunday edition)

Lost in the afterglow of the Browns’ victory Saturday over the San Diego Chargers is the stark reality this team will win only one game this season.

Never mind a few of the first 14 losses could have gone either way. They didn’t. And you know what they say about season records: You are what your record says you are.

And what 1-14 says about the Browns this season is they are the worst team in the National Football League. That is indisputable and a label they will carry into the final game of the season Sunday in Pittsburgh, after which they will be 1-15.

The 2016 season has been a disaster, a reason for owner James Haslam III to step in and admit the experiment to turn over running of the club to analytics experts was not only wrong, but ill advised and ultimately disastrous.

Doing so has trickled down to the dressing room, where players and coaches have been given a team from a talent standpoint that faced overwhelming odds on a weekly basis. Blame for what has unfolded this season is being hurled in the wrong direction.

Those chosen by Haslam to run the franchise (into the ground) have been derelict in their duties. The worst part is Haslam seemingly has done nothing to correct this situation or at the least alleviate it.

Perhaps it’s because he has been criticized in the past for jerking his knees too often, thereby upsetting any possibility of consistency and continuity. Coaches got fired after one season. General managers disappeared quickly. Lack of immediate success had a price.

We don’t know for certain because Haslam has been unusually silent publicly throughout this nightmare, but he might have railed behind the scenes. His public constraint will end shortly, perhaps as soon as the final gun in Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.

But something clearly needs to be done. The sooner the better in order to get rid of the stench that has surrounded this franchise. It is beyond the laughingstock of the NFL. It has become the embarrassment of the league.

Fans have become apathetic. Apathy is the greatest danger to the coffers of any professional sports franchise. Mute evidence of that can been seen whenever the Browns play a home game. Too many orange seats disguised as fans is a dangerous sign.

A lot of fans are beginning to not care about the Browns on a daily basis. With the Cavaliers and Indians performing well, they have become sort of the stepchild in the Cleveland sports community they used to rule.

It isn’t as though it will take an immediate turnaround for this franchise to come back. Because so much damage has been done, that will take time. All it needs is to show its fans it has a pulse. None exists currently.

What it needs is someone at the top who knows what he is doing, an attribute that has been absent at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea for nearly two decades. And what I mean by that is someone with a reputation for rebuilding teams, someone who recognizes true football talent and builds a strong team with that talent.

The Browns moved up and down the last college draft with reckless abandon and selected 14 players when they were done. Not one was an impact player this season. Quantity sufficient. Quality insufficient.

It is a problem only one man can solve correctly. If he fails, the marriage between the Browns and the City of Cleveland very well might be, as they say in Hollywood, headed for the rocks.
*       *       *
What in the world happened to the Browns’ run defense against the Chargers, holding them to only 34 yards on 19 carries? Well, the absence of Melvin Gordon probably had something to do with it.

Then again, when you have a quarterback like Philip Rivers and your best running back is in street clothes on the sidelines, what do you do? That’s exactly why Rivers attempted 46 passes, completing half of them for 322 of the Chargers’ 356 total yards.

Optimists would say it was because the Cleveland run defense played its best game of the season, which would not be untrue. But when the opposition runs the ball only 19 times, that is raising a surrender flag against arguably the worst run defense in the NFL.

Then again, the defensive front seven expends much more energy against a passing team than one that favors the ground game. In other words, the Browns’ front seven got what amounted to a relative day off in a department that has come up short all season.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton saw that coming and dialed up more blitzes against Rivers than I’ve seen in a long time.  He crashed linebackers  and brought free safety Ed Reynolds Jr. on numerous occasions, but the best the second-year man could do was get close to Rivers, whose uniform was clean at the end of the game.

Can’t say the same for Cleveland quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Cody Kessler, who went down a season-high (low?) nine times, bringing the opposition sack total against the very bad Cleveland offensive line to a club record 62, two more than the 1999 expansion Browns, with the Steelers game yet to be played.

In their first meeting in week 11 in Cleveland, the Steelers sacked Kessler and Josh McCown four times each in the 24-9 victory and added 14 quarterback hits. The Cleveland pass rush dropped Ben Roethlisberger zero times in that one and hit him four times.

When (hopefully) Haslam hires someone who knows what he is doing, it would be wise to rebuild this team from the inside out. It needs players up front to protect the quarterback and players on the other side of the ball who excel at making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. That’s where it starts. Thinking otherwise is foolish.
*       *       *
Reynolds is turning out to be a pleasant surprise since gaining starting status in the Cleveland secondary. The 6-1, 205-pounder from Stanford, originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, was signed as a free agent in September and spent the first month on the practice squad before being promoted in mid-October following a season-ending injury to Jordan Poyer.

Relegated to special teams at first, he played well enough to gain starting status in the last six games, flashing several times in recent games, displaying aggression from his free safety spot. He recorded 15 tackles, 10 of them solo, in his last two games.

If the Browns are looking for building blocks in a secondary that has been racked with injuries and underperformed all season, Reynolds might not be a bad place to start.
*       *       *
The Browns’ offensive coaching staff finally remembered Gary Barnidge against the Chargers. The tight end, whose disappointing stats this season suggest last season’s breakout was an aberration, was targeted six times and caught five for 42 yards and a couple of key first downs.

Barnidge shocked the pro football world last season with 79 catches for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. He was targeted 125 times. This season, he has been targeted just 77 times and scored his only touchdown in the Pittsburgh loss. Last season, Barnidge averaged 13.2 yards a reception. This season, it is only 11.8 yards.
*       *       *
Sparking of tight ends, why was Antonio Gates open all afternoon Saturday? Either the defensive staff never made the adjustment or maybe it was because no one on the Cleveland defense could stay with the 14-year veteran, who will be a prime candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he retirees.

Rivers targeted his tight end 13 times, connecting on eight for 94 yards and the Chargers’ first touchdown. Inside linebackers Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis could not stay with the former Kent State basketball star.

Gates twice came wide open late in the game when the Chargers desperately tried to avoid becoming the Browns’ first victim this season. Both times the Browns played zone and seemed confused as to who should be where. You don’t give a man who has caught 11,137 yards worth passes in his NFL career room like that.

The Browns were fortunate the Chargers had used all their timeouts by then and Gates’ contributions went for naught. That, of course, and Josh Lambo’s field-goal attempt that sailed wide right.
*       *       *
And finally . . . The 20 points the Browns scored in the victory Saturday were the most since posting 28 in the 31-28 loss to the New York Jets in week eight. In the six games that followed that one, the Browns scored only 62 points, never more than 13 points in any game. . . . A seasonal sign by a spelling-challenged, but well-meaning fan at the game read: Merry Xmas Browns fans, Keep the Faith Cleveveland. . . . The Browns offense that showed up in the second half against the Chargers more closely resembled the 0-14 team than the one that played the first 30 minutes. The first half produced 166 total yards and 17 points; the second half produced 85 yards and three points. . . . That offense scored only six total first-quarter points in the last six games before Isaiah Crowell and Cody Parkey combined for seven in the opening quarter against San Diego. . . . The Crowell touchdown was the first infantry style since week eight. . . . Because both offenses dominated the first half, there were only two punts, one by each team. The second half became a puntfest with nine. . . . Ex-Brown Travis Benjamin led off the game with a 50-yard bomb from Rivers against Joe Haden. He was targeted only three times after that, catching two for 25 yards. . . . One more positive stat: The Browns owned the ball for 33 minutes.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Snapping a losing streak the hard way

The way the Browns and their fans celebrated after knocking off the San Diego Chargers Saturday in the home finale of the 2016 season, one would have thought they had won some sort of championship. In a small way, they did.

Players exploded off the sidelines and onto the field to revel in the wake of the 20-17 victory. All manner and variety of high fives were exchanged as Josh Lambo’s 45-yard field goal attempt to tie the game drifted wide right, seemingly in slow motion, as time ran out.

Joy spread all over the field, a season of pent-up emotion caused by the distinct possibility of a winless season released in one huge celebration.

Two losing streaks were quashed, finally putting to an end the most embarrassing and frustrating period in the history of this once-proud franchise. Players danced and leaped excitedly, caring not a whit what the other team thought.

Gone, finally, are the 14-gamer this season unveiled and the 17-game overall streak stretching back to the final three games of last season. The day after a Browns game won’t taste this sweet for everyone in Browns Nation since Dec. 14 of last year. That was the day after the last victory, a 24-10 decision over the San Francisco 49ers.

Yes, it was only one game and means absolutely nothing when bringing into focus the big picture. But it has been a way-too-long drought between celebrations; 377 days to be exact. And celebrating like it was a championship game is understandable and perfectly acceptable to fans of the team.

No longer will the 2016 Browns be mentioned in the same breath as the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went all 16 games without emerging victorious. Cancel that order.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Browns beat writers sat at their computer screens for a few minutes after the game, trying to remember what it was like to write about a Cleveland victory.

The way they played in the first half on both sides of the ball strongly suggested the losing streaks would be history as early as the beginning of the third quarter when they grabbed a 20-10 lead.

Robert Griffin III looked nothing like the bewildered quarterback of the last two games, confidently operated the Cleveland offense with a fair degree of precision, mixing in short passes with a few freeze-option runs. That’s the kind of quarterback he needs to be with this team.

He is not a good pocket passer with flaws that include the inability to get rid of the ball quickly and inability to escape the pass rush. He was sacked seven times by a San Diego rush that made the Cleveland offensive line look inept and had to leave the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit on a scramble early in the fourth quarter.

The Browns scored on their first three possessions – a season first and probably last – with Isaiah Crowell scoring twice, capping drives of 72 and 75 yards, and Cody Parkey booting a 49-yard field goal. If offset an Antonio Gates scoring pass on the first series of the game and a 43-yard Lambo field goal on the second possession.

The first Cleveland score was gift-wrapped by the officials,, who flagged the Chargers for 36 yards in penalties (pass interference and roughing the passer). But when you’re a winless football team, you’ll take all the outside help you can get.

When the Browns took the second-half kickoff into the Chargers’ red zone before settling on a 27-yard Parkey field goal, fans began wondering whether this was going to be the day. The day the nightmare ended. The day the Factory of Sadness would turn into the Factory of Joy for at least one day.

The 20-10 lead quickly evaporated when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers marched his men 75 yards in 11 plays, wide receiver Tyrell Williams making a spectacular one-handed grab on a third-and-goal from the 1.

Even so, the 20-17 margin was the first time since game four against the Washington Redskins – and only the third time this season – that the Browns took a lead into the fourth quarter.

Five subsequent Cleveland possessions, including a trio of three-and-outs, ended in Britton Colquitt punts as the offense completely shut down. Rookie Cody Kessler replaced The Third and was totally ineffective as the fans naturally began trying to suppress negative thoughts.

No such thoughts rested with the Cleveland defense. It had limited the San Diego ground game (minus Melvin Gordon) to just 34 yards on 19 carries and forced Rivers to throw the ball on virtually every down.

When a short Colquitt punt enabled the visitors to begin a drive at the Cleveland 33 with 4:49 left in regulation, it wouldn’t have been surprising to think Browns fans wondered “how are they going to blow this one, too?” Again, the defense had other ideas.

Rivers and Williams nearly collaborated on a second scoring strike with four minutes left, but Cleveland cornerback Jamar Taylor stripped Williams of the ball in the end zone and Rivers subsequently misfired with Dontrelle Inman.

That’s when it got interesting.

Lambo, one of the most accurate kickers in the National Football League (he had missed only two field-goal attempts coming into the game) was brought on to tie the game from 32 yards out. Cleveland defensive lineman Jamie Meder got enough penetration, however, and stuck out his big right paw enough to deflect the attempt. 

What is going on here? That usually doesn't happen with this team. A genuine clutch play.

The Browns took over with 3:45 left and managed to burn off two minutes, forcing Chargers coach Mike McCoy to use all his timeouts, It gave Rivers, a seasoned veteran in these types of situations, some wiggle room against a tiring defense. It would also hamper him.

He moved his offense 51 yards, hooking up four times with Gates for 54 gross yards, converting a fourth-and-10 with the tight end for 25 yards when incredibly no one picked him up off the line of scrimmage. That's the kind of play a winless football team makes.

The Browns needed a big break, any kind of divine intervention, and got one when Rivers on a second-and-10 at the Cleveland 35 inexplicably fumbled the shotgun snap and had to fall on the ball as the clock resolutely wound down to 25 seconds.

Instead of throwing toward the sideline in an effort to stop the clock, Rivers instead found Gates for an 11-yard reception – his eighth grab of the afternoon – with 18 seconds left and the ball at the Cleveland 27 in the middle of the field. No timeouts left and fourth down and short loomed.

The Chargers somehow managed to scramble their field-goal team on the field and that’s when fans, even those who still had faith in their team, thought they discovered how the Browns would blow the opportunity to win this one.

The snap from Mark Windt was perfect. The hold by punter Drew Kaser was perfect. Overtime was a certainty. Lambo sent the football airborne with exactly one second left. And the ball drifted right. Lambo stared, almost unbelievingly, at the ground after the miss as if it wasn’t his fault.

The Browns bounced and danced joyously all around him. It seemed like a surreal moment to some of them. They weren’t used to it. How does one behave after a victory? After four exhibition losses and 14 in the regular season, the memory dulls.

It was only one victory for sure. But it was one that very well might be remembered as the one that not only got them off the schneid, but one that might launch them toward brighter, more productive days. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than the last 377 days and nights.

After the game, coach Hue Jackson succinctly put it in perspective. “Today was a good day for the Browns,” he said.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Watch out for the Edwindians this season

It isn’t often that excitement for the Indians begins in late December, but the signing of Edwin Encarnacion late Thursday has taken hot stove talk in Cleveland and stoked it to a raging blaze.

The signing of Encarnacion to a multi-year contract for more money than the Indians have ever rewarded a player rekindles the excitement Tribe fans reveled in last fall in the World Series. The 2017 season cannot arrive soon enough.

If there was one element missing from the Tribe’s lineup last season, and this is in no way disrespectful of the valuable contributions of Mike Napoli, it was a big bat that could be counted on every day. Encarnacion, arguably the biggest name in the free-agent market, now provides that big bat.

He was the one man in the free-agent market who was a perfect fit for a lineup that missed that one key ingredient, that dangerous man in the heart of the order who could almost single-handedly lift a team with his offense.

But Encarnacion was also, some skeptics believed, an unrealistic target because of the excessive amount of money he sought. Surely, other teams would offer ridiculous sums of money to get his autograph on a multi-year contract. The more fiscally conscious Indians were dismissed as players for obvious reasons.

But critics of the team in that regard did not take into account how much the oh-so-close-to-a-World-Series-championship run had affected the Indians’ thinking and altered their fiscal plans.

Because they came thisclose to winning it all against the Chicago Cubs last fall and because this season’s attendance is certain to dwarf last season’s disappointing numbers (they were 28th out of 30 MLB teams), the front office wisely chucked its formerly penurious ways and decided this bold move needed to be made.

After all, the Tribe had the pitching and defense to get as far as they did last season. That was not going to change. All the key elements return. The offense needed improvement from a power standpoint.

With the exception of possibly losing the wildly popular Napoli to free agency and the expected return of left fielder Michael Brantley after two injury-filled seasons, common sense dictated the next step: an aggressive move on Encarnacion.

Why not try? What’s the worst he can say? No? At least give it a shot. If he says no, Napoli, whose clubhouse leadership was key last season, comes back into focus. But that would have meant gambling on a repeat of his magical season in 2016, plus he’s about 15 months years older than Encarnacion.

Ah yes, Encarnacion’s age. A bone of contention. He’ll be 34 years old in a couple of weeks. Has his upside peaked at that age, or does he have a few more seasons left like last season’s 42 home runs and 127 runs batted in?

When that argument arises, thoughts turn to David Ortiz, who retired after last season with career trajectory and numbers that strongly resemble Encarnacion’s. They represent the perfect retort to those who wonder whether Encarnacion’s best days have been recorded. There are numerous parallels.

Both men are from the Dominican Republic. Both got off to slow starts in the major leagues, Ortiz with the Minnesota Twins, Encarnacion with the Cincinnati Reds. Ortiz was drafted by Seattle; Encarnacion by Texas. Both became feared sluggers.

Here’s another interesting parallel from a statistical standpoint, using a five-year period starting at 29, the age when Encarnacion blossomed into a power hitter and two years after Ortiz made the trade from the Twins look spectacular.

From the age of 29 to age 33, Ortiz hit 187 home runs, drove in 590 runs, scored 501 runs and batted .286. Encarnacion from 29 to 33 (last season) hit 193 home runs, drove in 548, scored 451 runs and batted .272.

Ortiz, of course, went on to play seven more extremely productive seasons with the Red Sox before retiring, capping his 20-season career with a 38-homer, 127-RBI season at the age of 40. He is a virtual lock to be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame in five years.

One more parallel between these two sluggers: Neither is a wizard with a glove and both became quintessential designated hitters. Encarnacion, who came up as a third baseman with Cincinnati, still plays some first base every once in a while, a role he is expected to share with Carlos Santana this season.

The only radical difference between these two is Encarnacion hits the baseball far distances from the right side of the plate and Ortiz was a lefty all the way. In other words, it appears as though the Indians have just signed the right-handed David Ortiz.

Encarnacion also has much better bat-to-ball skills than Napoli, who struck out 194 times in 150 games last season while batting .239. The newest Indian struck out 138 times in 160 games (702 plate appearances) last season while hitting .263.

It was just the second time in his 12-year major league career that Encarnacion has struck out 100 times or more. Napoli has fanned 100 or more times seven times in his 11-year career, last season’s 194 the high water mark.

Also factor in how much Encarnacion’s presence positively impacts the Cleveland lineup. It makes a better hitter out of shortstop Francisco Lindor, who almost assuredly will see better pitches in the three hole, and whoever protects him in the five hole.

It all makes the 2017 season the most anticipated since the late 1990s when the Indians ran roughshod over the American League under manager Mike Hargrove and sold out Jacobs Field 455 straight games from 1995 to 2001.

Tribe President Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff deserve most of the credit for staying in the Encarnacion sweepstakes. But it wouldn’t have eventuated without the blessing of owners Larry and Paul Dolan, who opened the coffers. 

Now only one question remains as we await the new season. With Napoli most likely gone from Cleveland, does Fiesta at Edwin’s (full disclosure: pilfered from an anonymous Internet contributor) replace Party at Napoli’s?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Head overrules heart

Searching for reasons why the Browns have at least a chance at ending a couple of miserable losing streaks and finally winning a football game in 2016 . . .

They have played Saturday’s opponent, the San Diego Chargers, 24 times over the years, but have won just eight, including only one of the last six since the rebirth in 1999.

Nope. Can’t go there.

Okay, how about games in Cleveland in December, giving the hometown team a decided advantage when it comes to weather conditions? After all, Cleveland Decembers are generally very cold and snowy and friendly to the home team, especially against teams from southern California.

A quick check shows only one victory and three losses in December climes. Can’t go there, either.

So what does the game-time weather forecast call for? Any snow? Rain? Sleet? Anything to slow down the Chargers and make them feel uncomfortable?

Wouldn’t you know it? The San Diego Chargers come to town and the forecast calls for morning showers with temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s by game time.

Wait a minute. That’s not Cleveland weather in late December. Those conditions should hurt both teams. No Cleveland advantage there. The Chargers come east and get relatively mild weather. It’s supposed to be 58 degrees the day after Christmas. That’s almost San Diego weather at this time of the year. (It’s going to be 56 and rainy there Saturday.)

The weather gods must not be Browns fans and have instead rescheduled blizzard conditions for January and February.

Still searching.

Damn, this is hard. It’s a victory this week or else the Browns join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only National Football League teams to lose all 16 games in one season. Forget the season finale in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day. Plunk that one in the loss column now.

Let’s try this one.

The Chargers enter the game with a three-game losing streak and coach Mike McCoy very well might have one foot out the door, his right hand clutching his résumé, with the other foot not that far behind. Losing to the Browns would be the final blow.

Those three losses have been to Tampa Bay, which is challenging Atlanta for the top spot in the NFC South; Oakland, which has clinched the AFC West; and Carolina, which has heated up after a slow start. The Browns, by comparison, are a relative soft spot in the schedule.

Well, the Chargers are just 2-5 away from home. There’s something to be said for that, no? Yeah, but the two teams they beat on the road, Atlanta and Houston, are on top of their respective divisions.

Damn, is there any way to give the Browns any advantage entering the game and provide fans any hope that this nightmare is finally going to end?

It appears as though Melvin Gordon, the Chargers’ top running back who was a dismal failure as a rookie but who is just three yards shy of 1,000 yards this season, won’t play. He injured his hip a couple of games ago and missed last week’s loss. He has not practiced this week.

Considering the Cleveland defense surrenders 156 yards a game on the ground on the average, that’s a big boost, no? Well, yeah, considering Gordon has scored 12 touchdowns this season (10 on the ground) and considering only rookie Kenneth Farrow and recently obtained veteran Ronnie Hillman are expected to play.

Factor in Farrow fumbled twice last Sunday, losing one, and Hillman is still learning the San Diego offensive system and a flicker of hope emerges.

Now factor in that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who completes around 62% of his passes and has a terrific corps of receivers at his disposal, most likely will throw heavily against a Cleveland pass rush that has sacked opposing quarterbacks only 22 times this season and a secondary that surrenders 255 yards a game.

Kind of balances the scales. So once again, is there any way to give the Browns any advantage and provide their shrinking legion of fans hope this nightmare will end? Afraid not.

Guess it really boils down, then, to the talent on both teams as the criteria for determining who emerges victorious. In that case, there is no question the Chargers win the talent battle.

For example, count on Rivers spreading the receiving wealth. He has thrown 28 scoring passes to six (five if Gordon sits out) different receivers – Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman, tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry and ex-Brown Travis Benjamin.

He has tossed 18 interceptions this season, 11 in the last four games, but the Browns’ secondary has picked off only eight passes this season, none in the last four games. The Chargers have swiped 17 passes, seven by cornerback Casey Hayward.

The Browns offer up Robert Griffin III at quarterback, an unknown quantity after three games as the starter. Terrelle Pryor, his leading receiver, has a broken finger, not to mention an apparent disconnect between the two that has hampered the offense.

And what kind of a pass rush can The Third and Cleveland offensive line expect? Let’s start and end with rookie defensive end Joey Bosa.

The former Ohio State standout, who was drafted third overall by the Chargers and held out until the final week of training camp, missed the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury. But he has been dynamite in the 10 games since his return.

He has 7½ of the club’s 25 sacks, 3½ in the last four games after registering four in his first three games. Thus far this season, he has been credited with 11 quarterback hits, 32 hurries and 57 pressures. Cleveland offensive tackle Austin Pasztor will try to handle him Saturday.

If there is any weakness to the Chargers on either side of the ball, it’s their offensive line, which has given up 36 sacks, 10 during the three-game losing streak. But then you swing on over to the stats on the Cleveland defensive pass rush and notice it has only 22 sacks.

Everything points to a San Diego victory and the continuation of the losing streaks.. There isn’t one glimmer of hope for the Browns unless the Chargers pack it in now that there is really nothing to play for. That is the Browns’ only hope.

But this team is so bad in so many different ways, it will take a lot more than hope to squeeze out a victory Saturday. The talent quotient is the deciding factor. The heart says the Browns somehow will find a way to win. The head says otherwise. Make it:

Chargers 27, Browns 10

Monday, December 19, 2016

Monday leftovers 

It is a question Browns coach Hue Jackson hesitates to answer quickly, but you can be almost sure of one thing. Robert Griffin III will be the Browns’ quarterback in the home finale Saturday against the San Diego Chargers.

For the time being, though, the coach is leaving the door to the huddle wide open. “Everything is on the table,” he said after Sunday’s loss in Buffalo. “I’m going to look at everything. I just have to. I owe these guys the best opportunity to win in the locker room. . . I have to give them a leader.”

Perhaps it’s the frustration of losing every game that has messed with Jackson’s head. But there is no question The Third, barring unforeseen circumstances, will finish out the regular season in charge of Cleveland’s huddle. He and the front office need to get a good luck at the injury-prone quarterback. Benching him doesn’t help.

Judging The Third’s worth based on the final four games and his future in Cleveland is, of course, unfair. After fracturing his shoulder in the season opener in Philadelphia, he returned a few weeks ago to take over a damaged football team.

It is not fair to assess what we have seen from him thus far because three games is not nearly enough exposure on which to make a command decision. It would be based on a short-term assessment that does not adequately define the player.

But then again, all is not fair in love and the National Football League. Especially in the Browns’ case because right now, no one knows what is going through the mind of James Haslam III.

Facing the prospect of only the second 16-game winless season in the history of the NFL, Haslam has to be beside himself with embarrassment, anger and who knows how many other different levels of raw emotion.

What Haslam does, if anything, once the season concludes will determine the future direction of his team. Known for his knee-jerk decisions in the past, the owner might surprise everyone and do nothing, figuring the situation surely can’t get any worse.

If he chooses to listen to the men who have created the nightmare that is the 2016 season and writes off the season as an aberration, he very well might lose a part of his large fan base.

Then again, if his knee jerks hard enough and high enough and he chooses to once again blow out his front office and finally decides to bring in someone who has known nothing but success in the NFL, then all bets are off. He holds the key to a lot of what ifs.

His ultimate decision probably will be – and should be – made with the fans in mind. Right now, his team has one of the great fan basses in professional football and it is angry to the point many have either given up or stopped caring until the situation changes. Apathy is the greatest enemy of owners of pro sports teams.

Many of those angry fans will shake their heads in amazement if Haslam stands pat. They will try to understand, but have a tough time rationalizing such a decision. If he makes changes, others will say, “Not again.” It’s clearly a situation where he will not satisfy everyone.

The Jackson-Griffin honeymoon angle pales in comparison to the big picture and becomes moot once the season is over. For right now, though, that seems the only piece of red meat on which to chew.
*       *       *
Where has Terrelle Pryor gone? You know, the big wide receiver who racked up all those big numbers in the Browns’ first dozen games this season. Yeah, that guy. He’s still with the team, isn’t he?

Of course he is, but he definitely is not the same player who surprised many skeptics around the NFL who found it hard to believe he could make a successful transition from quarterback to wide receiver.

He became one of the league’s best receivers with three 100-yard games and a fourth that was three yards shy of the century mark. Scoffers took notice and he started receiving well-deserved plaudits.

He worked hard to make the difficult switch and the four Cleveland quarterbacks started targeting the big 6-4 target. He rewarded them with substantial yardage, racking up 62 receptions for 855 yards and four touchdowns. He caught six balls for 131 yards just a few weeks ago against the New York Giants right before the bye.

Then The Third returned from his shoulder injury and Pryor all but disappeared. In their two games together since that return, Pryor was targeted just 11 times and caught five passes for only 22 yards. And just like that, he became just another receiver on a team that desperately needs help in that department.

The temperamental Pryor also exchanged words with his quarterback in the Cincinnati loss last week, when he was targeted just three times and caught one ball for three yards.

His four grabs for just 19 yards against the Bills makes one wonder why Pryor has fallen so far down the chart that he is no longer the No. 1 option. It’s not difficult to see he and The Third are nowhere near being on the same page.

Pryor had much better success with Josh McCown and Cody Kessler when The Third was merely a sideline spectator. He had two of his 100-yard games with McCown and one with Kessler, as well as the 97-yarder. In the season opener with The Third, Pryor was targeted seven times, catching three balls for 68 yards.

It will be interesting to see how Pryor, a free agent after the season, performs in the final two games of the season and whether Jackson ramps up the looks he gets from The Third.
*       *       *
How dominant were the Bills on offense Sunday? Of their 66 snaps from scrimmage, 38 were made in Cleveland territory, 20 in the first half.

The Bills were so efficient on first and second down in the second half, they reached third down only twice (once in each quarter) before subs took over with six minutes left in regulation. They failed to convert both, but by then, the game was well in hand.

Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor kept the Cleveland defense off balance with some designed runs – he picked up 49 yards on seven carries – and timely connections with tight end Charles Clay, who scored once and caught every one of the seven passes directed his way.
*       *       *
Here’s how bad it was for the Cleveland defense against the Bills. It’s just one play, but epitomizes and somewhat encapsulates how the team has struggled this season. . . .

It’s a 10-3 game midway in the second quarter and the Browns, although trailing, are pretty much holding their own. The Bills take over at their 9-yard line following a Britton Colquitt punt and subsequent penalty against the receiving team.

Thirteen plays, 91 yards and seven and a half minutes later, the Bills stretch the lead and, for all practical purposes, ensure the victory. But it’s how they did it that rankles those who still really care about this team.

Midway through the drive, the Cleveland defense, aided by a Buffalo penalty and Emmanuel Ogbah sack (the only one of the game for the Browns), forced a third-and-22 at the Buffalo 44.

Now most teams pretty much give up and run a draw play in such situations. But not against this Cleveland defense. Why waste a draw play when you’re throwing against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL?

So what does defensive coordinator Ray Horton call for? Conservative coverage in the secondary, i.e. zone coverage, and light pressure on the quarterback in order to stop the run. The Bills aren’t going to risk throwing the ball, right? Wrong.

Taylor drops back with token pressure from the Cleveland pass rush and spots wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who finds a soft area right in the middle of that zone in the middle of the field and settles in.  Surrounded by four defenders, he makes the catch 23 yards from the line of scrimmage and extends the drive.

Five plays and 33 yards later, Taylor finds Clay backpedaling into the end zone and the tight end somehow manages to hold on to an underthrown pass that boosts the lead to 17-3 on a drive that should have ended six plays earlier.
*       *       *
And finally . . . The 10 points the Browns put up in the third quarter against the Bills was, believe it or not, a scoring bonanza for that 15-minute period this season. It’s the first time they posted double digits in that quarter. . . . The leading rusher for the Browns in the game was none other than The Third with 48 yards on eight carries. . . . The club’s 17-game losing streak is now the sixth-longest such streak in NFL history. . . For those of you who might have missed it, the last Cleveland victory was Dec, 13 last year, a 24-10 decision over the San Francisco 49ers at home. The winning quarterback? Johnny Manziel. . . . The Browns currently are the lowest scoring team in the AFC with 220 points, topped (bottomed?) only by the Los Angeles Rams’ 197. They also have the worst scoring defense in the AFC with 408 points allowed, bottomed by San Francisco’s 434. But they lead all of professional football with the best (worst?) negative point differential of minus-188. . . . Need some more depressing stats? The Browns are 3-32 in the last 35 games.  The other two victories were against Tennessee and Baltimore. . . . Reviving the Duke Johnson Jr. watch, only because he had a good game against the Bills . . . 10 touches, 93 yards. Five carries for 31 yards, five receptions (on seven targets) for 62 yards.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hang in there; it's almost over

How many different ways can one say how bad the Browns are this season as they chug along on the Winless Season Express?

Thank goodness there are only two more games left to dwell on that subject.

The inconsistency of this team in every phase of the game this season is mind rattling. Game in and game out, there appears to be no rhyme or reason as to what the coaches want the players to do for 60 minutes. Either that or the players are incapable of fulfilling those wants.

It isn’t just one particular area that has contributed to the most embarrassing season in what used to be the illustrious and proud history of this franchise. It is in all areas. And the great fans of this team, dwindling by the moment, do not deserve it.

Quarter by quarter, possession by possession, play by play, this team epitomizes what bad football is all about. And it is getting worse as the stigma of being only the second team in National Football League history to lose 16 games in one season looms.

The Browns have only two cracks left at ending this nightmare, which reached 14 straight losses this season and 17 overall with Sunday’s 33-13 humiliation against the Bills in suburban Buffalo.

The first is next Saturday in the home finale against the San Diego Chargers with the season finale set for New Year’s Day in Pittsburgh, which means they really have only one crack unless they can pull off the biggest upset in this lopsided series since the 1999 expansion team knocked off the Steelers, 16-15, in Pittsburgh.

It’s high time coach Hue Jackson flat out admits this team is not good enough win football games. Way too often, it can’t get out of its own way. When plays need to be made, they are not and for a very good reason. The roster lacks playmakers.

There is not one player on this team who can be labeled a clutch performer. Someone who steps up, takes charge and leads the way. Leadership by example is noticeably absent on the field.

It is one thing to not know how a team is going to play from game to game because every game is different. But with the 2016 Browns, the mystery of how they will play disappears the moment they show up.

Whether it’s the defense being shredded in the run game or an offense that knows not the meaning of the word consistent, the Browns’ weekly – or is it weakly – effort is nothing more than that . . . an effort. With few exceptions this season, this team tries and it tries hard.

And therein lies the problem. If effort translated into something – anything – resembling a victory, all this wrangling and gnashing about the joyless, winless season would be relatively unnecessary.

The specter of losing every game is now very real and therefore ratchets up the pressure to win. No one wants to be the team the 2016 Cleveland Browns beats and will work that much harder to avoid that embarrassment.

The Bills, whose only two victories in the last seven games came against teams that have totaled three victories this season, made certain they would not be that team with a relentless ground game and fierce pass rush.

After giving up 460 yards in last Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, including 236 to Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and putting up only 67 of their own on the ground, they arrived Sunday with a whole different mind-set against the Browns.

LeSean McCoy, arguably the best running back in the NFL, hammered the Cleveland defense all afternoon.  He ran for 153 of the Bills’ 280 rushing yards and scored twice on only 19 carries, ripping off runs of 20, 24, 19, 10, and 17 yards, adding 14 more yards on a swing pass.

The Buffalo front seven partially erased last week’s humiliation, dropping Cleveland quarterback Robert Griffin III five times, making him evacuate the pocket on six other occasions to avoid a sack because he had problems all day locating open receivers and generally manhandling the Cleveland offensive line.

The Browns’ offense, which seems to be getting worse by the game, produced just 269 net yards and went three and out on half of its 10 possessions. It gained those yards in only 54 plays, aided immensely by a nine-play, 72-yard drive on its last possession. It owned the ball for a shade less than 26 minutes.

But that offense somehow managed to pull within 17-10 of the Bills with nine minutes left in the third quarter, The Third scoring on an 18-yard scramble after, yep, failing to find an open receiver.

The Bills, who had taken what seemed to be a commanding 17-3 halftime lead on a Mike Gillislee short run and 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charles Clay, answered immediately with a six-play, 75-yard drive, McCoy going the final four yards for the first of his scores. He added an 8-yard scoring run on the next series.

The offense paid two other visits to the red zone and came away with only a pair of Cody Parkey field goals

On the second possession of the game, The Third drove his men down to the Buffalo 5 before slamming it in reverse. And this is where the inconsistency on that side of the ball comes in.

Three plays from the 5 netted minus yardage, winding up at the 17 after The Third was sacked twice for losses of four and six yards and Isaiah Crowell, whose 25-yard burst early in the drive got the ball to the 17, was dropped for a two-yard loss.

On the second red-zone visit, a 28-yard connection with tight end Gary Barnidge plus a questionable roughing-the-passer call on Bills linebacker Zach Brown (The Third was scrambling on the play) placed the ball at the Buffalo 13 late in the third quarter.

What would go wrong this time? You just knew that in this season of despair and misery, something would go wrong at the wrong time. And sure enough, it did. This time, it was backward march again, courtesy of a hold by the usually reliable Joe Thomas.

The ball eventually wound up at the Buffalo 22 after an incomplete pass, another Crowell loss from scrimmage and a three-yard scramble by the Third. Yet another microcosm moment in a season full of them.

And as he watched his team fall apart in so many different ways, Jackson, who seemed rooted in one spot most of the afternoon, merely shook his head in what seemed to be bewilderment at just how bad this team is.

It’s almost as though this is all a nightmare and isn’t really happening. That is what makes it that much harder to take and understand.

And watch.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Buffaloed again?

What in the world is going on in Buffalo? The wolves are sniping at Bills coach Rex Ryan, suggesting his stay in western New York might should be limited to two seasons..

The voluble Ryan boasted at the beginning of his coaching tenure in his new home that his defense would be the best in the National Football League, but has seen his team perform exactly the opposite and is suddenly sitting on a hot seat.

The Browns invade Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday against a team embarrassed last Sunday by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now being embarrassed by the Steelers is nothing new around the NFL. But when it occurs at home, that’s an entirely different matter.

The Steelers mauled the Buffalo defense for 460 yards and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell made the game his own personal tour de force with 298 yards from scrimmage in a 27-20 victory in a snowstorm.

The annoyingly boastful Ryan, whose twin brother Rob runs the Buffalo defense, took over the Bills last season after being unceremoniously cashiered by the New York Jets and rang up an 8-8 record.

Buffalo fans obviously expected improvement this season, but have been rewarded with a 6-7 mark thus far by the streaky Bills, who boasted a four-game winning streak earlier this season (including a 16-0 shocker over New England) but who enter Sunday’s game on a two-game skid.

In the last seven games, they are 2-5, the victories coming against the one-win San Francisco 49ers and two-win Jacksonville Jaguars. And the way the Browns have played this season, odds are pretty good the Bills will add the no-win Browns to their victims list.

Now if the Browns somehow manage to pull off the biggest upset of the NFL season, the seat on which Ryan sits becomes scalding hot. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

The Bills have gone 16 straight seasons without a postseason appearance and the front office pinned its hopes on a coach who is now on the verge of personally missing the postseason for the sixth straight season, the first four with the Jets.

The Browns enter the game double-digit underdogs, a justifiable spread considering how poorly the offense has played for most of the winless, humorless, shameful season.

And with Robert Griffin III back again in charge of the huddle after last Sunday’s debacle in the Cincinnati loss and having all kinds of problems shedding the rust accumulated by a three-month recuperation from a broken shoulder, look for more struggles.

Weather in the Buffalo area probably will be a factor again. Similar conditions that showed up for the Pittsburgh game are in the forecast with a 90% chance of snow showers and a game high of around 30 degrees. The big difference is the Browns have no one who can come close to duplicating what the Steelers’ Bell did.

The Cleveland defense, which has recently shown glimpses of actually being decent (unfortunately not nearly enough), will be challenged by a fairly predictable Buffalo offense. The Bills run the ball as much as they throw it and run it much better than they throw it.

When you have a running back like LeSean McCoy, that’s what you do. McCoy, who missed one game earlier this season with a thumb injury, is 24 yards shy of another 1,000-yard season, his fifth in eight seasons.

The versatile McCoy is just as dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, ranking second on the team with 41 receptions and a touchdown in addition to his 10 infantry style. And when the Bills get close to the goal line, Mike Gillislee, who has scored six touchdowns, takes over.

The Buffalo air attack got much better recently with the return of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the club’s top draft pick a couple of years ago. Watkins, who missed eight games with a foot injury, scored his first touchdown of the season in the Pittsburgh loss. One more worry for the beleaguered Cleveland secondary.

But that secondary might get some help from the defensive line if last week’s four-sack game against Cincinnati is any indication. The Bills’ offensive line is nearly as bad as Cleveland’s at protecting its quarterback, surrendering 40 sacks.

The key to this one for the Browns – talking vicariously here as though they really have a shot at ending two long losing streaks – is simple. Shut down the Buffalo running game and force quarterback Tyrod Taylor to throw the football.

The Bills, who have the NFL’s best ground attack with 155 yards a game, rank 31st in passing (the Browns are 28th). Taylor has thrown only 13 scoring passes (and six picks) and averages just 194 yards a game passing, but has picked up nearly 500 yards with his legs and has scored six times.

If the Bills had a decent quarterback, the offense would be that much more dangerous. It has been suggested that Cardale Jones, the big Ohio State quarterback drafted in the fourth round last May, is being groomed to be the starter down the road.

On the other side of the ball, the one Rex Ryan boasted of when he arrived in Buffalo, the defense surrenders nearly 22 first downs a game, yielding 371 yards, 126 a game on the ground.

It has registered 33 sacks and tends to funnel the opposition’s ground game toward the middle, where inside linebackers Zach Brown and Preston Brown are 1-2 in tackles. Zach Brown’s 123 tackles rank third in he NFL. Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander provides most of the quarterback pressure with 10 of the club’s 33 sacks.

If the Browns have any chance to at least give the Bills a representative game, the offense will have to doing something it hasn’t done all season: Step up.

The Dawg Pound Update on the team’s Web site points out the main problem in a story leading up to the game. “Browns still searching for offensive identity” blares the headline. Bulletin: Water is wet.

This one will be decided fairly early and save Ryan’s job for at least one more week. McCoy shreds the Cleveland defense for another 100-yard game and score twice; Watkins catches a scoring pass for the second straight week; the Buffalo pass rush sacks The Third four times and knocks him out of the game; and the Cleveland losing streaks reach 14 and 17, respectively. Make it:

Bills 31, Browns 10

Monday, December 12, 2016

Monday leftovers

As the Browns approach record territory with regard to losing streaks, more information as to just how bad they can be has surfaced.

Since 1962, a year after the National Football League expanded to a 14-game schedule, seven teams entered week 14 winless. After the Browns’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, make that eight.

Two of those teams lost them all – the expansion 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (in a 14-game season) and 2008 Detroit Lions (in a 16-game season). All the others (the 1962 Oakland Raiders, 1980 New Orleans Saints, 1986 Indianapolis Colts, 2007 Minnesota Vikings and 2011 Colts) escaped infamy.

The 1986 Colts finished 3-13, the 2011 Colts wound up 2-14, while the Raiders, Vikings and Saints all won just one game.

The Bucs eventually went on to lose their next 12 games in 1977 before winning their first-ever game. Their 26 straight losses stand as the NFL record. In case you are wondering, the 2008 and 2009 Detroit Lions combined for 2-30 record.

The Browns are just three Sundays away from joining the 2008 Lions as the only teams ever to lose every game in a 16-game season. And the manner in which they are currently playing strongly indicates that eventuality is more likely than previously thought.

This severely under talented team keeps plumbing new depths as the season slogs mercifully to a close. There are no areas at which to point indicating progress is being made. It’s the same-old, same-old every Sunday.

The offense operates in fits and starts. There is no rhyme or reason to coach Hue Jackson’s play calling. The defense, meanwhile, has trouble getting off the field because it has problems making plays at critical times. The opposition’s 48% conversion rate on third down is ample evidence. And it has created only 11 turnovers.

The special teams are dreadful. The longest punt return has been just 18 yards; the longest kickoff return only 24 yards. There isn’t one dangerous threat on the roster who can break a long return and give the offense decent, if not good, field position.

And the seemingly constant flow of penalty flags on punt and kickoff returns buries the weak offense deep in its territory more often than not at the start of a drive.

There hasn’t been a shred of evidence that indicates progress has been achieved on a consistent level from the very first series in the season opener in Philadelphia to the final series Sunday against the Bengals.

The only consistency is the inconsistency on both sides of the football. One good play is rewarded with three or four that make you shake your head in wonderment. It has been like that all season.

Jackson says all this losing eats at him. But he’s fooling only himself if he thinks his team is better than its record because it isn’t even close. And if his bosses believe it is better, then the coach has a bigger problem on his hands besides his team.
*       *       *
What a strange season Isaiah Crowell is putting together. The running back has three 100-yard games, including the 113-yarder he produced Sunday against the Bengals. At one point, he was among the league leaders in running the ball with 394 yards in his first four games.

And then he disappeared. Not literally. Figuratively.

In the five games preceding the Cincinnati game, Crowell ran for 110 yards. Total. That’s three fewer yards than he crafted Sunday in just 10 carries (why only 10?). And in the eight games since his big start, he piled up just 211 yards before Sunday.

For whatever reason, Jackson does not want to lean on Crowell as his main masher. He has never carried more than 18 times in any one game, which is strange for a coach whose offensive beliefs favor evenly balancing his offense between the run game and passing game.

Granted the offensive line behind which Crowell operates is vastly overrated and has been hit with numerous injuries throughout the season. But the one he ran behind against the Bengals might be the worst of the season talent-wise. And yet he banged out 113.

It’s a puzzle no one, including Jackson, has been able to solve. But it does seem Crowell picks up most of his yards on quick hitters up the gut such as the 42-yarder he ripped off Sunday behind right guard Jonathan Cooper, who was making his starting debut.

Once he is in the open field, Crowell is a hard man to bring down and his surprising speed and strength enable him to break tackles along the way. But it’s his inconsistency that is a conundrum for the personnel people, especially with a number of good running backs expected for the next college draft.
*       *       *
Outside linebacker Jamie Collins has been with the Browns for just five games now after being obtained in a trade with the New England Patriots in early November. In those five games, the 6-3, 250-pounder has racked up 49 tackles, 32 of the solo variety, and a pair of sacks.

Those tackles numbers are more associated with an inside linebacker, whose primary job is to stop the run and thus is in the middle of the action more than the outside backer, whose job is to cover the flank.

So when Collins, a free agent after this season, was credited with 15 tackles against the Bengals, 13 of those by himself, one had to take notice and wonder whether the front office noticed as well.

Right now, the current roster aches for playmakers and Collins more than qualifies. While the defense continues to struggle as a whole, the newcomer continues to shine despite playing for the worst NFL team in this decade. If he is allowed to escape, the front office’s priorities are all screwed up.
*       *       *
Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah also had a strong game with six tackles, 1½ sacks, three hits on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and several hurries. He also seems to enjoy playing against the Bengals with all but one of 4½ season sacks against them.

The rookie’s only problem is he seemed to have hit a wall or two several games ago.  He was sackless in his first five professional games before recording one against Tennessee and two in the first Bengals games in October. He had gone five games without a sack before Sunday.

Assuming he eventually achieves consistency and can be counted on every Sunday, the 6-4, 275-pounder should be a load now that he has settled in at defensive end after starting out the season as an outside linebacker.
*       *       *
One of the reasons the Cleveland offense had problems against the Bengals, especially in the first half, was where they started drives. They never crossed midfield in the first 30 minutes because they began drives at their 7, 12, 31, 2 and 6. The closest they got was their 42-yard line on the third possession.

The second half was much better, relatively speaking, with starts at their 25, 20, 19, 26 and 20, putting points on the board with possessions seven (touchdown) and eight (field goal). Lack of a solid return man is definitely a large contributing factor.
*       *       *
Terrelle Pryor, object of a belittling post-game rant by Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones who called the big Cleveland receiver “garbage”, was totally ineffective against his former team in the two games this season.

He was targeted only seven times, catching three passes for 21 yards with Jones his main adversary. His longest gain was a 13-yarder in the first game. If not for a late third-quarter grab for three yards Sunday, he would have been shut out.
*       *       *
And finally . . . Think Bengals middle linebacker Karlos Dansby didn’t want to show the Browns they made a mistake by releasing him after last season? Check out these Dansby stats from the two games: 23 tackles, 20 solo, leading his team in both categories in each game. . . . Bengals running back Jeremy Hill also loves playing against the Browns. After running over, around and through that defense for 168 yards (on only nine carries) in the first meeting, he added 111 more Sunday. . . . Even without favorite receiver A. J. Green, Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton was solid in raising his personal winning streak against the Browns to five games. . . . How bad was the Cleveland offense against the Bengals? It registered only three first downs in the first half and one was on fourth down deep in their territory . It also ran only 53 plays and owned the ball for just 25 minutes. . . . In their last 16 games, the Browns have held a fourth-quarter lead just once – against Washington in game four this season. . . . Two more miserable stats and then we're done: The Browns have lost 23 of the last 24 games and are 3-31 in their last 34.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The good, the bad, the ugly

This just in from the Browns’ good news-bad news department . . .

First the good news: Quarterback Robert Griffin III played his first game of the season Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals since fracturing his shoulder in the season opener and finished it completely healthy.

Now the bad news: He was awful.

More good news: The defense permitted only three points in the second half, easily its best scoreboard performance of the season.

More bad news: The Bengals scored 20 points in the first half, scoring with ridiculous ease.

Even more good news: Isaiah Crowell broke out of his funk with a 113-yard afternoon on only 10 carries.

And finally, even more bad news: The Bengals, who gained 271 yards on the ground in the teams’ first meeting a couple of months ago in Cincinnati, added another 213 infantry style Sunday with Jeremy Hill picking up 111.

There is no other way to put it than to say the Browns emerged from their bye week vacation looking worse than they did entering it. Fault for their abysmal performance, especially on offense, falls into the lap of coach Hue Jackson.

Can’t totally blame him for the defensive collapse in the first 30 minutes because coordinator Ray Horton must share at least some of the blame for the men on his side of the football.

There is no question this team did not come ready to play a game of football against the Bengals, a club struggling in its own right to regain some dignity after starting the season 3-7-1.

Apparently dignity appears nowhere in the Browns’ vocabulary. Certainly not after the way they played in the first 30 minutes of the 23-10 loss in front of half a snowy stadium by the lakefront.

That, of course, extends the club’s losing streak this season to 13 games and 16 games overall since the last victory exactly one year ago against the San Francisco 49ers.

Even though the final score did not indicate it at the time, this one was a rout shortly after it commenced. The Bengals’ opening 73-yard drive required only six plays – tight end Tyler Eifert making the first if his two touchdown catches – and took just 2:39 off the clock. It was the appetizer.

The next time they owned the ball after a Britton Colquitt punt, they drove 45 yards in nine plays, Hill doing the honors from a yard out. But the point-after attempt Mike Nugent provided some comic relief, jolting the small crowd out of impending slumber.

Long snapper Clark Harris’ snap arrived flat to holder Kevin Huber, who could not set the ball up quickly and the kick was blocked. And with the new rule that allows a team to return a blocked PAT for two points, the Browns, of course, tried. At that point, they would try just about anything to get on the scoreboard.

Considering how the offense played in the first half (it did not cross midfield, compiled just 52 yards of offense. racked up three first downs and owned the ball for slightly less than 11 minutes), this opportunity represented, as it turned out, the best chance for the Browns to put a number on the board in the first 30 minutes.

But just like the offense, it died with the ball, following four laterals, winding up at midfield.

The Third, clearly showing rust from his long inactivity, had no rhythm with his receivers. He was uncertain in the pocket, had all kinds of problems locating open men and when he did, his throws lacked zip.

He completed just a dozen of his 28 attempts (on 33 dropbacks) for only 104 yards. His longest throw was 15 yards to rookie Corey Coleman, whom he targeted 11 times and hit just thrice for 26 yards.

He targeted the increasingly frustrated Terrelle Pryor, easily the team’s leading receiver in every department, a puzzling three times. They weren’t on the same page all afternoon. That has to be a concern for Jackson.

The Third saved his worst throw of the day on the first play after Huber pinned the Browns at their 2-yard line with a punt midway through the second quarter. It was one of Pryor’s three targets and came on the tail end of a flea flicker play.

The quarterback handed off to Duke Johnson Jr., who took two steps toward the line of scrimmage and pitched the ball back to his quarterback. The Third launched a 50-yard rainbow into triple coverage, somewhere in the vicinity of his target.

Cincinnati free safety George Iloka made the easy pick at the Cleveland 47 and returned it 21 yards. Five plays and 26 yards later, quarterback Andy Dalton hooked up with Eifert on their second score of the day.

This time, Nugent made the extra point, but the former Ohio State placekicker was wide right on a 36-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half. He also scored the Bengals’ only second-half points with a 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

The Cleveland offense finally awoke from its deep sleep on the second possession of the second half, crossing midfield for the first time in the game on a 42-yard run by Crowell on a draw play over right guard with 12:34 left in the third quarter.

That monumental achievement definitely wakened the crowd, who watched as The Third complete passes to Gary Barnidge, Andrew Hawkins and Coleman. A horse-collar call on the latter throw placed the ball at the Cincinnati 2.

After rookie fullback Dan Vitale dropped a perfect throw for a score, Crow wedged out a yard before Griffin barely sneaked into the end zone. It was so close, it required a lengthier than usual replay review.

And when referee Gene Steratore moments later announced, “After review, the ruling on the field stands . . . touchdown” and raised his hands, the crowd seemed somewhat stunned. After all, it was only the second touchdown the Browns have scored in the third quarter all season. They have three field goals.

After forcing a punt, the offense had a chance to make it a one-score game with still plenty of time left, but after driving 57 yards to the Cincinnati 12 and stalling, Jackson opted for a Cody Parkey 26-yard field goal in the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Instead of gambling on fourth down, which he did successfully at his 21 on the second possession of the game, he went conservative and kept it a two-score game. That, for all practical purposes, insured the losing streak would continue.

And the bad news continues to flow from what used to be one of the truly proud franchises in the National Football League with no good news in sight.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Brace yourself Browns fans

It has become a four-game season for the Browns.

Never mind the first 12 games. Never mind they lost all 12. Call them the Dirty Dozen.

All that is ancient history. They are gone. They can be replayed only in the mind. But only a masochist would do so.

It has now become a four-game season and it starts Sunday in Cleveland against the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the 11 teams that defeated them (Baltimore did it twice).

The winless Browns have had the better part of two weeks, courtesy of the bye week, to recover psychologically and emotionally from what has unfolded this season.

If coach Hue Jackson in any way, shape or form references what took place in those 12 games, he is making a mistake. The future of this team does not lie in its past and he needs to hammer home that point.

Films and/or tapes of those games should have been burned beyond recognition. They are as useful as yesterday’s garbage.

The Bengals also have their problems, but not nearly as drastic as the Browns’. They languish in third place in the AFC North, a division they have won two of the last three seasons, missing by just a half game in 2014.

The Bengals who arrive in Cleveland Sunday are not the same team that thrashed the Browns, 31-17, in week seven down in Cincinnati, piling up 559 total yards, 271 on the ground.

It also represents of one of only two victories in their last seven games. Since then, they tied Washington and suffered losses of one, four and five points before last Sunday’s 32-14 thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagle at home. It will take a miracle for them to qualify for the postseason for the sixth straight season.

They are a wounded team in many ways, especially on offense, which operates minus A. J. Green, its best receiver, and Giovani Bernard, its most productive running back. A sprained hamstring has kept Green, who has demonized the Browns in the past, idle the last several weeks. Bernard tore an ACL several weeks ago.

Quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed eight passes to Green for 169 yards in the first meeting, now has wideouts Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, James Wright, Alex Erickson, and Cody Core and tight end Tyler Eifert as his targets. Only Eifert poses a threat.

Dalton enjoys playing against the Browns (what quarterback doesn’t?), winning eight of his 11 starts, including the last four in a row and five of the last six. In those last four outings, the Bengals have scored 129 points (the Browns have scored 30).

With Bernard out, Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead have shared the running game. In the first meeting, Hill ran only nine times, but piled up 168 yards and a touchdown. He injured an ankle a couple of weeks ago, but returned in the Eagles’ victory and rushed for only 33 yards in 23 attempts.

If after witnessing it time and again, you believe struggling teams get healthy quickly against the Browns, then you probably believe there is no way they snap their overall 15-game losing streak and split the season series with the Bengals.

Of all the remaining teams on the schedule (at Buffalo, home to San Diego and at Pittsburgh), this one has arguably the best chance of winding up in the column on the left for the Browns even though the Cincinnati defense has been somewhat stingy this season and could pose the biggest problem Sunday.

That defense will face Robert Griffin III, who has been cleared for full-time duty after fracturing his shoulder in the season-opening loss in Philadelphia. It gives Jackson a chance to reopen his playbook for the veteran quarterback.

It should be a welcome relief for Jackson to know he’ll be game-planning for a quarterback who can come closer than any quarterback on the roster to accomplishing what he wants.

If the injury-prone quarterback can remain healthy for the entire game, the Browns have a good shot at the upset. However, the extremely shaky offensive line, which became even shakier with right guard John Greco landing on injured reserve, must protect him against a decent Bengals pass rush.

But it will be The Third’s legs that will save him, especially on rollouts that enable him to buy time to throw the ball, a talent his Browns predecessors lack. That, in turn, will open up a running game that has gone AWOL in the last six games.

The defense, which played well for the most part against the New York Giants a couple of weeks ago, will take the cue and slow down the Cincinnati attack, especially with Green and Bernard absent.

The Third throws scoring passes to Andrew Hawkins and Terrelle Pryor, Isaiah Crowell emerges from wherever he has been hiding the last month and a half and runs well and the defense gives up its fewest points of the season.

Not counting this season and 1982 when a players strike abbreviated the season and they met only once, the Browns and Bengals have played each other twice a season 42 times since 1970.

The Browns have swept the season series just eight times, only once since the rebirth of the franchise in 1999. The Bengals have swept it on 11 occasions, six since the rebirth. They have split the series 23 times, 10 since the rebirth.

Since these teams tend to split the season series much more often than sweep it, the temptation to lean in that direction for Sunday’s game is somewhat overwhelming. Odds say a split, i.e. a Browns victory guaranteeing that split, is more likely than another Bengals sweep.

That said, and with nothing more than a feeling based on very little evidence to back it up, this is where the losing streaks end. The 12-gamer this season and the 15-gamer extending from last season will be history. The Factory of Sadness becomes the Factory of Joy for at least this one Sunday in 2016, but it won’t be easy. Make it:

Browns 20, Bengals 17 (overtime)