Sunday, January 3, 2016

Time to clean house

If Jimmy Haslam III does not make any moves – drastic or otherwise – after what he witnessed Sunday in the season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, then he needs help. Mountains of help.

He needs someone to tell him – no, make that scream at him – that his billion dollar investment, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns, are perhaps a worse football team now than when he purchased them in 2012.

After the display of ineptitude that led to the 28-12 loss to the Steelers, there is no question Haslam has only one direction to head and that’s to lop off the heads of those at the top of the food chain who are responsible for the 3-13 record.

To wait is to delay the inevitable unless, of course, Haslam is satisfied with the progress this team has made the last 17 weeks. And if he does, it begs a singular question: Why?

It’s not as though the owner needs to sit down and break down the season, game by game or quarter by quarter. No deep diving into the whys and wherefores. There is only one conclusion that can be reached after playing 16 games.

The Browns finished 3-13 because they deserved to. There was nothing fluky about it.

It’s as simple as this: The roster is not nearly as talent-loaded as the front office believes. The draft record of General Manager Ray Farmer, especially in the high rounds, is abysmal at best.

Mike Pettine might be a good defensive coordinator, but he was hamstrung as head coach of the Browns with a roster sadly devoid of the kind of talent that helps win games. There were few playmakers on either side of the ball.

More often than not, you could count on the Browns to come up short whenever a play was needed. Be it the coaching or the players, those plays were rarely made and contributed heavily to the losing.

It’s the responsibility of the coaching staff to maximize the talent on board and put it in a position to help win games. The record accurately reflects the belief the coaching failed in this respect. It’s a losing culture that needs to be gone.

This is not the prescription to take into a third season and expect positive results. If no progress is made between years one and two of a coaching-GM regime, what logical reasons are there to warrant another chance?

When thinking long and hard, there are no compelling reasons, logical or otherwise, to keep Farmer and Pettine around. They have got to go. The sooner the better.

Because to wait, as Haslam and his brain trust did after firing Rob Chudzinski a couple of years ago after a similar last-game loss to Pittsburgh, only delays the procurement of high profile – and hopefully qualified – people to replace them.

The culture of this team needs to change. Pronto. Pettine’s motto “Play Like A Brown” has taken on a new and extremely distasteful meaning. To play like a Brown now means playing arguably the worst football in the National Football League.

It was a motto Pettine thought would work psychologically. It was a miserable failure as the Browns many times this season couldn’t get out of their own way.

Sunday’s loss was a perfect example of their futility and inability to play clutch football.. It led to some moments that served as microcosms of how it went this season for the team that plays its games in the appropriately named Factory of Sadness.

For example, the Browns ran 76 plays (to Pittsburgh’s 55) in the game, an astounding 42 of which were in Steelers’ territory. The best the offense could come up with were four field goals by Travis Coons.

The Steelers tried giving the game away with four turnovers – a couple of Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and two fumbles – three of them in Pittsburgh territory and the Cleveland offense said, “No, thank you. We’ll take the field goals.”

Of those 42 plays, 19 were snapped in the red zone. And on those 19 snaps, the Browns gained exactly 35 total yards. Austin Davis, who showed all afternoon why he is nothing better than an NFL backup quarterback, put the ball up 13 times in those 19 snaps with just four completions, a sack and a pick.

One of those microcosms that reflected the season-long futility of the Browns this season took place early in the second half with the Steelers clinging to a 14-9 halftime lead.

On the Steelers’ first possession of the third quarter, Browns linebacker Craig Robertson picked off a Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the Pittsburgh 8. Three plays later, veteran Steelers linebacker James Harrison stepped in front of tight end Gary Barnidge at the goal line and picked off Davis.

That right there best describes what has happened to the Browns this season. That one sudden turn of events encapsulates the frustration fans have felt all season. From joy to abject sorrow in less than a minute.

Pittsburgh fans would argue their team’s transition defense after those non-costly turnovers was the reason the Browns couldn’t take advantage. Browns fans might win that argument by noting that stopping the Browns neat an opponents’ goal line is no big deal.

The Cleveland defense lived down to its maligned reputation by allowing Roethlisberger, now 20-2 lifetime against the Browns, to play pitch and catch with Antonio Brown all day. The wide receiver wound up with 13 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown.

The Cleveland pass rush never got close enough to Big Ben to determine what deodorant he uses. His uniform was as pristine at the end of  the game as it was when he initially put it on. Cleveland linebacker Karlos Dansby was charitably credited with the only quarterback hit all day.

The Cleveland offensive line, meanwhile, provided so little protection for Davis, who must have felt like a piñata while dropping back. He did so 49 times and his inability to escape the pass rush resulted in seven sacks for a whopping 63 yards in losses. Meeting at the quarterback became a party for the Steelers’ defense.

The Browns lost this one despite winning a couple of important battles. They owned the ball for nearly 36 of the 60 minutes and won the turnover battle, 4-3. Teams that win these two categories generally win the game. But when you consider it’s the Cleveland Browns, all bets are off.

It was one frustrating moment after another this season from the opening-game loss to the New York Jets to the finale against Steelers. In between, the Browns bumbled and stumbled helplessly and hopelessly as fans began staying away in droves.

That they knocked off the Tennessee Titans (by two touchdowns), Baltimore Ravens (by three in overtime) and San Francisco 49ers (by two touchdowns) means nothing. Those teams totaled 12 victories this season. Cleveland’s only consolation, if you can call it that, is the No. 2 pick in the next college football draft.

Sure, the Browns were riddled with injuries. So were most teams. They were hurt more by the lack of depth backing up a lack of talent. No one came off the bench and made a significant contribution.

So unless Haslam is a glutton for punishment and shockingly wishes to continue next season with the current crew, look for a complete change in all matters football at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

The black cloud that hovers over Browns headquarters in Berea has lingered there long enough. It’s now up to Haslam to get smart, listen to the right people (hint: pay no attention to Alec Scheiner) and reward his rapidly dwindling fan base. Those long-suffering fans deserve a break after all their years of loyalty..

This will be the owner’s third shot at getting it right. If he is unsuccessful again, there’s no telling what damaging effect it could have on the franchise’s future in Cleveland.

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