Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sashi’s dream world

Browns big boss Sashi Brown says the organization will be “very disappointed if we have four wins” this season. Yep, that’s what he said in a sit-down with the Cleveland media late last week.

Four victories, of course, would be an improvement over last season when the Browns were 3-13. Improving on that, even though it’s only one game, would be disappointing, according to Brown. Talk about abundant optimism.

Well get ready, boss, to be not only disappointed, but really, really, really disappointed. Then head for shocked, dismayed and downright angry that your team won’t come even close to your disappointed figure of four.

If the Browns duplicate last season, be thrilled considering the lack of talent on this team. The prism through which he sees his team is myopic and unrealistic.

If this is the bar Brown is setting for the 2016 Browns, coach Hue Jackson might as well start updating his résumé right now. He will be gone after one season. Maybe sooner. And it won’t be his fault.

It won’t be Brown’s fault, either. The blame in the buck-stops-here world belongs to the man who placed Brown in this situation. That would be James Haslam III, the esteemed billionaire owner.

Haslam knew Brown was not a football man. He is an attorney, the club’s general counsel before being elevated to his current position. He dealt more with the business side of the team.

Not certain how, but he seems to have gleaned enough knowledge of the game to become the club’s spokesman when it comes to expectations. Instead of deferring to the men in the front office who really know the game, he hangs it all out there.

Maybe he gained considerable knowledge about the game of professional football by osmosis. How he arrived at the decision this is a better team than last season’s is hard to fathom.

Four victories for the Browns this season would be just short of spectacular. It would be a tribute to the coaching acumen of Jackson to achieve that victory total.

It’s time for someone in the Ivory Tower to take the boss aside, carefully remove his blinders and be truthful with him. Point out what just about everyone else sees: a bad football team.

All you have to do is listen to Jackson’s words and then read between them.

“We’re a work in progress,” he said after last Friday’s 30-13 exhibition shellacking in Tampa. “I think we all know that. By no means are we going to put our heads in the sand. There’s some stuff we need to fix and we’re going to fix them. I promise you we will.”

Sound familiar? A little like Romeo Crennel? And Eric Mangini? And Rob Chudzinski? And Pat Shurmur? And Mike Pettine?

Am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yes. Who can forget Chris Palmer and Butch Davis?

There is a common thread here. At one time or another, the aforementioned often uttered those very same lines. The words are disturbingly the same. Jackson is merely echoing them.

With the Browns, only the names and faces change. The losing lingers on.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Kruger's slow exit

The new-look Cleveland Browns looked even newer Monday after the club whacked 14 names off the roster.

And they got a lot younger.

One of the victims was veteran outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who should have been whacked a few months ago when the new front office decided to purge the immediate past and jettison the likes of Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby.

Kruger arrived in Cleveland three years ago as the savior who would help revitalize the pass rush. He sandwiched his 11-sack season two years ago between seasons of 4½ and last season’s 2½ sacks. That greased his slide out of town. No big loss.

So why did it take OTAs, minicamps, training camp and three exhibition games for the front office to reach this conclusion? The Browns cited lack of production. Well, duh. What took them so long to figure that out? Slow thinkers anonymous?

It is now obvious the getting-leakier-by-the-moment Cleveland defense will be among the youngest, perhaps the youngest, in the National Football League. In essence, it will be on-the-job training.

Unless the Browns accidentally hit the jackpot in the last draft with the likes of Carl Nassib, Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert, selected for their ability to get extremely up close and personal with opposing quarterbacks, those quarterbacks won’t need their uniforms laundered after the game.

Throw in pro sophomores Nate Orchard, Xavier Cooper and Danny Shelton, and you have the makings of a Cleveland defense that could set all kinds of negative records that could last a long time.

The club released 10 others, mostly roster fodder. They included quarterback Austin Davis, tight end E. J. Bibbs and placekicker Travis Coons.  Two others, including running back Glenn Winston, were placed on injured reserve.

Why the Browns keep Winston at all is puzzling. He’s been with the club for what seems like a decade – actually, this is his third season – and can’t stay healthy. He carried the ball once last season and lost eight yards. That’s his total contribution.

In one other move, the Browns not surprisingly traded Andy Lee to Carolina for Kasey Redfern in an exchange of punters. The Browns also shipped a seventh-round pick to the Panthers and received a fourth-rounder.

The Browns will probably deny it, but Lee’s feeble attempt to tackle Tampa Bay’s Adam Humphries en route to a 73-yard return for a touchdown Friday night undoubtedly led to the change of uniforms.

Coach Hue Jackson confronted the three-time Pro Bowler about his lack of effort and apparently did not oppose the swap. Arguably the most consistent performer on the team last season, Lee goes from the sub basement to the NFL penthouse. In his one season with Cleveland, he set club records for gross average and net average.

Redfern, on the other hand, is with his third NFL team, but has never punted in a regular-season game. It is assumed, too, he will be the holder for placekicker Patrick Murray, who won that battle with Coons.

Next and final cut for the Browns, who need to pare one more man from the roster to get down to the required 75, is Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. when they must trim the roster to 53.

Most of the remaining 22 players fighting for their professional football lives are rookies and free agents who will dominate the Cleveland lineup in the final exhibition Thursday night in Cleveland against the Chicago Bears.

With few exceptions, probably draft picks who haven’t received much playing time in the first three exhibitions and are expected to land on the 53-man roster or 10-man practice squad, the lineups against the Bears will seem somewhat foreign to those who pay full price as a vast majority of the starters sit this one out.

It’s time to get used to many new faces as the Browns launch yet another roster reconstruction.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Browns-Buccaneers autopsy

Observations after watching the Browns get dominated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exhibition game No. 3 Friday night in Tampa . . .

The third game of the four-game exhibition season in the National Football League is popularly called the dress-rehearsal game. It’s the only exhibition when the starters play at least a half before becoming spectators.

The Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Friday night played such a game that was witnessed by a national television audience. Based on the result of that game, a 30-13 Tama Bay victory, the Browns are nowhere near ready for prime time TV, or any TV for that matter. Fans across the nation saw how bad this Browns team really is.

If it weren’t for NFL bylaws that require each team to play 16 games during the regular season, Friday night’s contest could be used as evidence that shutting down the show (season?) entirely might not be a bad idea for the Browns. This team is flat out not ready to play for keeps.

The first units of both teams produced a 27-10 halftime lead for the Bucs, who led, 27-3 (it was 17-3 after a quarter), before Robert Griffin III and Josh Gordon hooked up on a 43-yard scoring play with about a minute left to avoid a total embarrassment.

All three units shared the blame for this one. The offense sputtered; the defense, at least in the first half, was AWOL; and the special teams gave up two long punt returns, one for a touchdown,

The defense in the first 30 minutes played as though it was the first exhibition, not the third. This time, though, the awful run defense had plenty of company in the pass defense.

Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston strafed the Browns’ secondary for the first 30 minutes, hitting on one big play after another. The pro sophomore put the ball up 25 times and completed 16 for 259 yards and touchdown passes to Charles Sims III and Mike Evans, who caught five passes for 115 yards.

While it might seem like a good opportunity to blame the secondary for the damage, it would be incorrect. Why blame the defensive backs when the pass rush afforded Winston more than ample time to pile up the yardage.

There is just so much time a cornerback or safety can stick with his man. Lack of cooperation from the guys up front makes it that much more difficult.

On the Sims touchdown for example, Winston had nine seconds to get rid of the ball. No Cleveland defender was near him when he delivered the three-yard scoring strike after rolling out to avoid pressure, such as it was.

It was that way all evening for the Cleveland defense, which racked up a sizzling zero sacks with only two tackles for loss. It is a problem that probably will get worse before it gets better.

This team does not know how to rush the passer. Tampa Bay does not have a great offensive line and yet the Cleveland pass rush couldn’t get close enough to Winston to smell his sweat.

The Bucs, on the other hand, know how to pressure the quarterback. They recorded eight sacks, five in the first half against The Third. The Cleveland offensive line, with two new starters, was overmatched and overwhelmed all evening by a much more aggressive defense.

If the Browns can’t protect the passer and get to opposing quarterbacks with any degree of regularity, it’s going to a longer season than originally thought, making Hue Jackson’s first year in Cleveland seem like an eternity.

The Browns clearly did not arrive ready to play a game of football Friday night. They played passively compared to the home team. The fault there lies squarely with the coaching staff.

There is a lack of talent on this team and it showed against the Bucs. That’s the bad news. The good news is it can’t get any worse.

Or can it?
*       *       *
Random thoughts . . .

Don’t know why Jackson was so upset with punter Andy Lee after Adam Humphries’ 73-yard return for a touchdown in the opening quarter. The coach was very animated in his discussion with the veteran punter, who jogged toward Humphries, but made no effort to tackle him. Does Jackson want to risk his punter in a meaningless exhibition? Apparently so. Late in the third quarter, the Bucs’ Bernard Reedy was headed for another punt return score when Lee shoved him out of bounds after a 43-yard journey. . . .

The Cleveland second unit defense, which featured a majority of youngsters, held the Bucs to just a field goal in the second half and produced the half’s best scoring opportunity after Danny Shelton caused a fumble deep in Tampa Bay territory in the third quarter. But the best the Browns could generate was a Travis Coons field goal after three plays gained only three yards from the 11-yard line. Why Jackson opted for a field at 27-10 is puzzling. It’s an exhibition game. Three meaningless points at that juncture is nothing more than making the final score only a little better. Going for a touchdown makes more sense even if didn’t work. .It’s an exhibition game!! . . .

Josh Gordon is amazing, but you already knew that. Here’s a guy who hasn’t played competitive football in nearly two years and looked in mid-season form with his two receptions for 87 of Griffin’s 119 yards. His touchdown catch was classic Gordon as he maneuvered in front of his defender to be in position to catch the slightly underthrown pass and tumble into the end zone. Too bad he’ll miss the first four games of the season. . . .

Quickies . . . Isaiah Crowell ran hard and effectively, averaging nearly five yards with his eight carries. . . . . Fellow running back Duke Johnson Jr. needs to get more touches. He has the best moves on the team. Just get him the ball. . . . Rookie linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah looked like he belonged in the second half. He was credited with three tackles, but it sure looked like more than that. . . . Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel was targeted nine times, catching six balls for 60 yards. No question the tough little guy makes the final roster. . . . Quick question: Where are rookie wideouts Ricardo Louis and Jordan Payton and why haven’t they played? . . . Another quickie: What is this team’s personality on offense? After three games, I have no idea.

Plumbing new depths

Seen the latest issue of Sports Illustrated? If not, Browns fans, buckle up. It’s going to be a long, a very long season.

In their National Football League issue, SI staffers review how each team will fare this season with a game-by-game prediction of how well they perform. In the Browns’ case, however, the word “well” is, well, an oxymoron.

If you thought last year’s 3-13 record in Mike Pettine’s last season was bad, SI’s prediction makes it look good by comparison. Staffer Jacob Feldman, in a game-by-game graphic above the story, says the Browns will do something this season they have never done in their history: win only one game.

Since the return in 1999, the closest the club came to losing all its games was the expansion 1999 season when it won just twice. On two other occasions, it lost three and compiled five seasons with four victories.

Feldman believes the Browns will lose the first 11 games of the season, then knock off the New York Giants at home on Nov. 27, the week before the bye, before dropping their last four games. The Giants are predicted to finish 8-8.

In 2009, the Browns came somewhat close to winning just one game, rallying to win their last four games after an 1-11 start. 

Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Browns underdogs in every game this season. That doesn’t mean they’ll lose every one, although Feldman believes they’ll come close. But in the NFL, as they say, on any given Sunday . . .

This, it would appear, is how far this franchise has fallen in the eyes of the media. If Cleveland coach Hue Jackson is looking to incentivize his team, he might consider thinking about using this media slap in the kisser as a start.

There is no question the Browns’ roster lacks the talent to put up a winning season, let alone one in which they at least compete. That is not going to happen. But win only one game? Not even this pessimist believes it will play out that way.

Thrice in the last 18 seasons have the Browns gone through a season without beating an AFC North rival at least once. That was 2006 season, when they finished 4-12; 2008, another 4-12 finish; and 2011, yet another 4-12 record.

They have never in the last 18 seasons gone an entire season without at least one victory on the road. And going back to their inception in 1946, the Browns have gone winless on the road in only one season, 1975, when they were 3-11 under coach Forrest Gregg.

Somewhere, somehow, the 2016 edition of the Browns will win more than one game. Maybe even more than two games. And maybe on the road.

But not much else.
*       *       *
Now that he has been traded by the Browns to the New England Patriots, it will be very interesting to watch the future trajectory of Barkevious Mingo’s career.

The lean outside linebacker never really progressed in his three years with the Browns. He was too lean to play defensive end, his position in college, and clearly was out of place at linebacker.

The Browns tried everything with him. They tried crashing him on blitzes; dropping back into pass coverage; and helping with the run. Practically nothing worked.

He went from five sacks as a rookie to two in his second season to zero last season. The former No. 1 draft choice suited up for 46 games, started 15 and wound up with just 108 tackles.

A draft bust? Bill Belichick up in New England apparently doesn’t think so and surrendered a fifth-round pick next year to make that determination. If anyone can successfully tap into Mingo’s talent, it’s Belichick. How well he does bears watching.

We won’t know for a while since Mingo is joining the Patriots so close to the beginning of the regular season. It will take some time for him to learn a new system. But it is intriguing that Belichick at least wants to take a look.

Maybe he sees a young Willie McGinest in Mingo. The 6-5 McGinest, who played three seasons with Cleveland in the twilight of his career, began his 15-year career in New England at around 255 pounds and beefed up to 270. Mingo is listed at 6-4 and near 250 pounds.

Browns fans will get a chance to see Mingo when the Browns and Patriots play in the fifth game of this season, a game that will see the season debut of Pats quarterback Tom Brady. Mingo most likely will be a bit player in that one.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Random thoughts . . .

The Browns appear to have a philosophical problem with regard to the way they draft for the defense. They don't properly fit the players they select in the annual lottery with their particular talents and maximize those talents.

The Browns the last several seasons have chosen to play defense with the basic 3-4 scheme, which is designed primarily to stop the outside run. So why then do they draft collegiate linemen whose forte is rushing the quarterback from a 4-3 set?

Why select the likes of Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo. Nate Orchard and Emmanuel Ogbah, who put up rather impressive numbers as defensive ends in college, and switch them to outside linebacker in the National Football League?

The answer is quite simple. They aren’t big enough to play along the defensive line in a 3-4 set. Most 3-4 fronts call for linemen who are at least 6-3 and weigh at least 300 pounds.

Because Mingo, Ogbah and Orchard aren’t even close to 300 pounds, they aren’t considered big enough. Instead, they have been shifted outside the line and taken on added duties of stopping the run or dropping back into pass coverage.

In other words, do something they rarely, if ever, had to do while compiling impressive statistics in college as a defensive end. As a result, their contributions on the pro level have been relatively minimal.

If the Browns are so insistent about sticking with a 3-4, draft players who play outside backer in college and can come in ready to play rather than having to learn on the job. The current drafting philosophy makes no sense.

Mingo, Orchard and Ogbah are much more effective with their hand on the ground. Mingo has had so much trouble making the adjustment, the Browns have even tried him at inside linebacker in an effort to find out just where he fits in best.

If the Browns want a better pass rush, hire a defensive coordinator who favors the 4-3 approach. Move Ogbah, Orchard and Mingo to defensive end, where they are much more comfortable, and pound away at opposing quarterbacks.

A 4-3 defensive line would take the pressure off Danny Shelton, who has badly underperformed as a nose tackle in the 3-4. His ineffective play has made it more difficult for the inside linebackers to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Shelton has seen numerous double teams along the way, which can be argued limits his effectiveness. A 4-3 approach would require fewer double teams by opposing offense and conceivably produce better results from the youngster.

Unless defensive coordinator Ray Horton becomes more of a hybrid advocate and features numerous looks up front  throughout the season, do not look for any significant improvement over what fans have been subjected to the last several seasons.

Bear in mind Horton learned his coaching chops under the fabled Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. The biggest difference is LeBeau worked with – and was successful with – something he had that the Browns are striving to achieve: quality talent.

Oh, and the Steelers’ draft gurus knew the difference between a defensive end and outside linebacker.
*       *       *
When they had the second pick in the last NFL draft before they traded it to Philadelphia, the player I wanted the Browns to select was Joey Bosa. That died with the trade and San Diego grabbed the Ohio State defensive end with the third pick.

But Bosa has yet to play a game for the Chargers. In fact, he and the Chargers are in the midst of a contract squabble that has the kid holding out. It’s not about money. It’s about how quickly he receives payments on his $17 million signing bonus and whether offset language is included in the contract.

Hope Sashi Brown is monitoring the situation. Might be a good time for the Browns boss to pick up the phone and give Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco a call. Or maybe Jimmy Haslam III can suggest to Chargers owner Dean Spanos that he has a solution to the problem.

It’s entirely possible the Browns can make the Chargers an offer for Bosa they can’t refuse. They have two extremely high first-round picks in next year’s draft in their pocket. Why not package the lower of those selections and a starter, say offensive tackle Joe Thomas, in exchange for the kid?

What’s that, you ask? Trade a perennial All-Pro? Are you kidding me? That’s a sacrilege.

Settle down. Thomas is on the back end of his wonderful career and probably the biggest name to dangle with regard to having a chance to pick up a player who would bring instant recognition to the Browns.

His Ohio State affiliation would make him one of the faces of the franchise instantaneously and an immediate fan favorite.

Ok, it’s a shot in the dark. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Suggesting such a deal has a plausibility quotient that elevates it into the realm of at least making one think.
*       *       *
Quick thoughts on Friday’s exhibition in Tampa . . . Quarterback Robert Griffin III should play at least into the early stages of the fourth quarter. Since he’s not playing in the final exhibition, why not extend him? He needs to be sharp for the season opener on Sept. 11. . . . Minimize Josh Gordon’s participation against the Buccaneers. He’s going to miss the first four games, anyway. Give his reps to the four rookie wide receivers and Terrelle Pryor, who will be there for the first four games. . . . Time to get a little more creative with the pass rush. Nothing wrong hauling out some of the more sophisticated blitz packages. It’s only an exhibition. What have they got to lose? . . . The most telling stats for the Browns  in the Tampa Bay exhibition will be time of possession and number of plays on offense. In the first two exhibitions, the Cleveland offense owned the ball for 40 minutes and 17 seconds and ran 84 plays. Anemic doesn’t begin to describe how embarrassing those numbers are.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Browns-Falcons autopsy

Observations after watching the Atlanta Falcons dominate the Browns in exhibition game No. 2 Thursday night in Cleveland . . .

There are two ways to look at the 24-13 loss. One, the Browns actually led, 13-10, at the half with the first units on both sides of the ball playing a majority of the time. Two, there is still a lot of work to be done with those units.

Forget how the Falcons’ reserves toyed with Cleveland’s in the second half. Most of those players with either play on special teams, sub package teams or be looking for a job in a few weeks.

What should trouble coach Hue Jackson is his team’s inability to play offensive football the way he likes it. It’s all about ball control and sustained, clock-draining drives on offense and getting off the field on third down on defense.

One of the most telling statistics in any game is time of possession. Own the ball a vast majority of the time and your chances of winning increase exponentially. The Falcons game was a classic example of that. In fact, the first two exhibitions have provided what could be a portent of what lies ahead for the Browns if the stats can be used as a guide.

In the opener in Green Bay last week, the Cleveland offense controlled the ball for an embarrassing 20 minutes and 16 seconds. Against the Falcons, they shaved 15 seconds off that abysmal time, owning it for just 20 minutes and a second.

The offense ran 44 plays against the Packers and racked up just 11 first downs, three via penalties. They improved to 12 first downs against Atlanta (again three via penalties), but ran a meager 40 plays.

By contrast, the Falcons, who amassed 498 yards on offense, attempted 36 passes (four shy of the number of Cleveland’s total plays) among their 79 plays and compiled 31 first downs.

Oh, and one more important stat: The Falcons were 11of 17 on third down, The Browns were successful in one of eight attempts. That’s beyond awful.

If nothing else, that tells you the defense was on the field way too long. I know it’s just an exhibition game and defensive coordinator Ray Horton was more vanilla in his approach in this meaningless game than he will be during the regular season.  

But somewhere along the line, one would think the Browns would come up with a run defense that would be at least mediocre. Considering how badly this team has stopped the run the last several years, mediocre would not only be welcomed, it would be celebrated.

But didn’t Robert Griffin III throw a pair of touchdowns passes in the first half and complete six of his eight throws? And didn’t the starting quarterback run three times for 36 yards, including a 22-yard scamper on a naked reverse off an option? And didn’t he slide to avoid injury every time he ran?

Yes, yes and yes. His touchdowns passes to Terrelle Pryor and Gary Barnidge were exquisite, drop-the-ball-in-the-bucket tosses that seemed to leap off the pages of the playbook. And he was the leading ground gainer, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

If the defense does not improve significantly, then the offense will find itself in shootouts throughout the season. And there is no evidence this offense has the kind of firepower to sustain such an approach.

If the defense – and I realize it’s only two exhibition games and many of Horton’s more aggressive schemes will be plugged in by the season opener in Philadelphia – cannot help the offense by getting off the field with more dispatch, the pressure on Griffin & Co. to keep up will be enormous.

If these first two games serve as a microcosm to the regular season, then Jackson’s upbeat approach will be put to a severe test early and often. It has to be demoralizing to an offense to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the defensive unit struggles.

The Browns had the ball for eight full series (not counting the kneel down at the end of the first half), five in the first half Thursday night. With The Third in charge, they ran just 23 plays in the first 30 minutes, the longest a six-play drive that ended in the Barnidge touchdown.

With Josh McCown and Cody Kessler in charge of the huddle, the Cleveland offense ran 17 plays on three drives to Atlanta’s 40 in the second half. Its only final-quarter possession lasted five plays and just three minutes and five seconds.

It’s still too early to point fingers of blame with the coaches still experimenting on both sides of the ball. But the so-called dress rehearsal for the season opener coming up next Friday in Tampa Bay against Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers had better unlock a few secrets or else . . . you fill in the blank.

Other observations:

If the defensive coaches are placing an emphasis on tackling in camp, they need to work even harder because it sure isn’t working. Don’t know the actual numbers for such stats, but the Falcons must have gained at least 125 of their 498 yards on offense either after contact or after the catch.

Too often, Browns defenders either were out of position to make a tackle or overran the play. Instead of fundamentally tackling a ball carrier by driving through them with the shoulder, they were guilty almost all evening of arm tackling.

It falls under the category of not just bad tackling, but amateurish tackling, the kind we see on the high school level. . . .

Nose tackle Danny Shelton was drafted last year to be the linchpin of an improved run defense. Instead, he put about 30 more pounds on a 330-pound frame and severely underperformed.

This year, he dropped the 30 pounds. That’s about the only thing that has changed. Based on the first two exhibition games, Shelton has continued to underperform. Playing well into the second half against the Falcons, he was a relative non-factor as the Falcons ran relentlessly.

When he went one-on-one with former Browns enter Alex Mack in the first half, Shelton rarely made it past the line of scrimmage. Mack outmuscled him. If he can’t keep his inside linebackers clean, it will be a long season for Demario Davis and Chris Kirksey. . . .

Overheard: Following the Griffin-Pryor 50-yard connection for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter, Browns television analyst Solomon Wilcots exclaimed, “The long ball is back in Cleveland and I’m not talking about the Indians.”

When the game was winding down and the final score all but obvious, play-by-play man Mike Patrick waxed philosophical. “When there is hope on the horizon,” he said regarding the Browns’ future, “that’s a good thing.”

The good . . . Inside linebacker Dominique Alexander once again stood out in the second half. On one play in particular, he shot the gap on a sweep and brought down the ball carrier for a loss. . . Defensive end Carl Nassib showed nastiness in his pass rush that should earn more playing time. . . . Cornerback Jamar Taylor, a bust with the Miami Dolphins, was picked on several times, but responded with a couple of pass breakups. . . . Andy Lee averaged nearly 56 yards on five punts.

The bad . . . Justin Gilbert is moving closer and closer to becoming a roster casualty. While the former first rounder’s coverage skills have improved somewhat, his tackling skills have eroded significantly. . . . Shelton for reasons stated above.

And the ugly . . . Travis Coons had one shot at an extra point against the Falcons and blew it. His attempt following Barnidge’s touchdown drifted wide right. . . . Center Cameron Erving’s skyscraper snap with The Third in shotgun formation in the second quarter was a (sarcasm alert) thing of beauty (end alert) that sailed high and mighty for 24 yards. Looked like a bad punt. Fortunately, Atlanta’s Sean Witherspoon grabbed The Third’s face mark as he recovered the errant snap, thus negating the huge loss.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

So where are the Indians' fans?

Just got done watching the Indians’ comeback victory over the Chicago White Sox Thursday night on the MLB Network.

Exciting in a number of ways – not the least of which was the manner in which they overcame a 3-0 deficit after one inning – and disappointing, exceedingly disappointing, in one very important aspect.

The city of Cleveland, supposed home of some of the best and most savvy sports fans in the country, apparently does not believe the Indians are one of the best teams in not just the American League, but all of major league baseball.

This is a first-place team in the AL Central Division, a team that leads its division by six games with only 43 games left and shows no signs of packing it in.

Why, then, did this first-place team, this team that has surprised most observers of the game and not only held onto first place with a zealous fervor but did so by stretching its lead, why, then did only 12,982 fans show up at Progressive Field Thursday night for the finale of the White Sox series?

Why did this first-place and very entertaining team draw only 41,210 fans for the entire three-game series in a ballpark whose capacity is 35,225? That’s not only embarrassing, it’s pathetic. 

The players on this fun-loving team have to wonder where are all the fans of Cleveland? Playing in front of more empty seats than seats that are occupied  must be frustrating.

Just what do the Indians have to do to warrant support from the community? Play perfect baseball? Seems like it.

Isn’t this the city that lovingly supported the Cavaliers in their march to the NBA championship? The city that annually falls in love with a professional football team that annually embarrasses it?

So why are the Indians and Oakland Athletics neck and neck for the second-worst home attendance in the majors? Were it not for the Tampa Bay Rays, who play in probably the worst parks in the majors, they would be last.

Cleveland was once hailed as one of the best baseball towns in the1990s when the Indians sold out what was then called Jacobs Field for 455 regular season-games from June, 1995-April 2001.

Where has that support gone? Did everyone blow all their sports entertainment money on the Cavaliers? The lack of support for the Indians this season has been downright shameful.

Other franchises are putting the Indians to shame. The Detroit Tigers, who trail the Indians by six games, drew 34,469 fans Thursday . . . in an afternoon game. The defending World Champion Kansas City Royals, struggling to play .500 ball this season, lured 30,599 fans Thursday night.

It was 79 degrees and partly cloudy Thursday night in downtown Cleveland. A perfect evening for baseball. No excuse not to come down and watching this entertaining team of baseball players.

This is not a losing team. Its longest losing streak remains at three. It owns one of the best starting pitching staffs in the majors. And the keep-the-line-moving lineup has produced surprisingly solid offense.

Maybe the fans believe the Tribe will fold down the stretch. Just another big buildup for a bigger letdown. That will not happen. Too bad the great sports fans of Cleveland won’t be there in person to witness it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Browns-Packers autopsy

Observations after watching the Browns and Green Bay Packers play what was generously called a game of professional football Friday night . . .

I call these four meaningless games teams play before the launch of the regular season in the National Football League exhibitions. The league obviously detests the word and calls these efforts pre-season games.

What the Browns and Packers slogged through in the 17-11 Green Bay victory was clearly an exhibit of truly bad football. But what else did you expect when the teams played someone other than themselves for the first time in more than seven months?

It’s just nice to see the game once again, right? Of course the score does not matter. Just getting out there and hitting someone other than your teammate is what counts. Sure it’s nice to win. But it was just an exhibition, one that produced more safeties  (three) than touchdowns (two).

The cry of same old Browns is bound to reverberate around Cleveland and its environs after this one. The 2016 season will not produce the kinds of results most Browns fans want. We saw a microcosm of that against the Packers.

This will be a learning season under new coach Hue Jackson. The team initially has to learn how to compete. That won’t be easy with a roster cleansing by the new front office that has shredded both sides of the football.

Then once it learns how to compete, the team will begin learning how to win; learn what it takes to win. Right now, it is too young and relatively inexperienced to jump to that phase. Perhaps next season.

That will take time as evidenced by the Packers loss, a tiny slice of what we can expect for the next roughly four-and-a-half months. Friday night was just a sneak preview of a bad team.

There were, of course, some encouraging, yet all too brief, shining moments. Like rookie Cody Kessler throwing a touchdown pass to fellow rookie Rashard Higgins on his first NFL pass for the Browns’ lone scoring visit to the end zone.

No, it doesn’t really count. And neither do the two safeties Kessler took after being overwhelmed by the Green Bay defense with the ball in the shadow of his goalpost and playing behind what seemed like a fifth-string offensive line that played ole’ football in pass protection.

Factor in that the club’s first units played only two series each and there is no way one can determine what lies ahead. Also factor in that Packers stalwarts Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews III, Randall Cobb, Julius Peppers and Jordy Nelson were in street clothes.

Did the Browns’ first-unit offense look bad in its two efforts? Not really. The pinnacle was reached on the first play of the evening when Robert Griffin III and Terrelle Pryor hooked up on a 49-yard strike. No one can question the strength of The Third’s arm.

Then he spoiled it later by leading tight end Gary Barnidge too much on a seam route and wound up with his first pick of the season. It was a bad throw.

Backup quarterback Josh McCown almost put the Browns on top in the second quarter with a 25-yard scoring pass to tight end Connor Hamlett that was taken away because McCown delivered the ball a yard beyond the line of scrimmage. The Browns settled for a long Patrick Murray field goal.

The final score is somewhat deceiving. The game was not that close. The Packers owned the ball for nearly 40 minutes and ran 80 plays to Cleveland’s 44. The Packers ran the ball 41 times for 151 yards

In those 20 minutes of ownership (just eight in the second half), the Browns racked up 11 first downs, three by penalty, and a meager 172 yards. The Packers had just 19 first downs, but converted nine of 22 third-down opportunities.

On the plus side, Cleveland committed only five penalties, including a running-into-the-punter no-no that extended a Green Bay drive. Other than that, both sides of the ball played disciplined football.

So who stood out on offense?

It looks as though Terrelle Pryor’s transition from quarterback to wide receiver has progressed to the point where Jackson feels confident enough to work him into an offense that could use some size at the position.

Running back Duke Johnson Jr. touched the ball only once against the Packers and ripped off an 11-yard run off tackle in what very well could be a portent of things to come for a running game that needs to improve.

Elsewhere, Barnidge looked right at home in his limited time; Higgins showed the ability to get open; and there is a paucity of quality depth along the offensive line (most notably at tackle with Erie Ladson and Cory Tucker). On at least three occasions, Kessler was given little time to throw the ball and was drilled. He logged three of the four Cleveland sacks allowed.

The good and bad on defense . . .

Keep an eye on the run defense as the exhibition season unfolds. We don’t know what the first unit can do to fix a huge problem because it hit the bench after two series. But it sure needs to be addressed.

Rookie linebackers Emmanuel Ogbah, Scooby Wright III and Dominique Alexander all flashed.

Ogbah showed good speed for a big man and could be one of those hybrids who can play with his hand on the ground or from a two-point stance. He led the team with six tackles (all solo), two quarterback hits, a pair of tackles for loss and a sack.

He and fellow rookie Carl Nassib accounted for the team’s two sacks. Nassib looked clumsy at times, but the big defensive end showed the ability to at least get close to the quarterback with his long arms.

Wright and Alexander played in the middle for most of the second half and acquitted themselves well, Alexander in particular. He showed a disciplined aggressiveness that had to catch the attention of defensive coordinator Ray Horton. He had five tackles (all solo) and a tackle for loss.

On the down side, two words: Barkevious Mingo. On the one chance he had to sack the quarterback in the fourth quarter, the linebacker whiffed. Instead of wrapping up Marquis Williams, he pushed the Green Bay quarterback, who spun away and picked up a first down on a fourth-down play.

Special teams?

Punter Andy Lee averaged 51.3 yards with his four boots. One pinned the Packers at their 1-yard line and resulted in a Cleveland safety for the first score of the game. No problems there. . . . Placekicker Patrick Murray showed a strong leg with a 46-yard field. . . . Raheem Mostert had an uneven game with a 27-yard run from scrimmage, 52 yards in four returns and losing a fumble after running 20 yards to catch a short punt following the Cleveland safety.

Summing up, it is way too early to form any solid opinions about the 2016 Browns based on the first exhibition. There was some good, some bad and some awful. Next Thursday’s exhibition at home against the Atlanta Falcons should unlock some of the mysteries of this team.

For certain, The Third and his first-unit teammates will get significantly more reps. Same with the other side of the ball. And we’ll get a look at top draft pick Corey Coleman, whose training camp exploits have drawn raves. Assuming, that is, his hamstring woes disappear.

In the end, though, it sure was nice Friday night, regardless of the outcome, to get back into the football mind-set.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Berea shock


In a shocker, Browns coach Hue Jackson named Robert Griffin III his starting quarterback Monday.

Stunning, no?

Who would have guessed The Third would beat out Josh McCown, Austin Davis and rookie Cody Kessler for the privilege of running the Cleveland offense this season?

Hold on a minute. Recalibrating my sarcasm meter. There . . . much better.

The move is a shocker only in that the new Cleveland coach waited so long to make his pronouncement. And he did so in a club release, not a news conference.

Foregone conclusions aside, why did it take him so long? Did McCown, Davis or Kessler really have a chance? Rhetorical question. Of course they didn’t.

There was absolutely no doubt the former Washington Redskins quarterback was in seal brown and orange for only one reason: To resurrect a career that started off brilliantly before derailing ingloriously.

“It’s time,” said Jackson, who added that “Robert has earned the right to be named starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.”

Citing The Third’s growing confidence and daily improvement throughout the offseason and training camp process, Jackson branded his new quarterback “ready to handle this role.”

It sorta, kinda justifies the club signing him to two-year, $15 million contract in March as a free agent shortly after the Redskins cut him. Then again, not winning the job would have been much more of a shock.

What this does is embolden The Third to step right up and become a leader, although he is still a relative stranger to the offensive scheme and many of the players who execute it.

The big question is how much The Third will play during the exhibition season. It’s not as though he is a veteran with the club, knows what it wants to do offensively and just glides through the exhibition season.

No, he needs to be ready in every conceivable fashion for the season opener Sept. 11 in Philadelphia. He needs as many reps in the exhibition games as he can get

Offense is all about precision and timing. The Third has been charged with directing a completely different kind of offense than he led in Washington. The more reps, the better. He needs them for that offense to be at least semi-sharp against the Eagles, especially in his timing with his wide receivers.

Under normal circumstances, the starting quarterback plays one or two series in the exhibition opener, a half and maybe one series into the third quarter of the second meaningless game and the entire game (the so-called dress rehearsal) in game three. Game four is spent watching the other quarterbacks play.

Jackson cannot allow his new quarterback that luxury if he expects any degree of precision against the Eagles. So it will be interesting to see how he parcels out the reps in the exhibitions.

The Third becomes the 25th starting quarterback for the Browns since the resurrection in 1999, an astounding statistical fact that has handcuffed this franchise for way too long.

That said, what are the odds No. 26 rolls into Cleveland within the next two years? The answer to that question lies in the performance by No. 25 this season.