Friday, September 30, 2016

Thinking about Josh Gordon

Two schools of thought after Josh Gordon suddenly and surprisingly decided to put his National Football League career on hold and enter an in-patient rehabilitation facility in an effort to straighten out his life.

The first thought was the young wide receiver’s selfishness in teasing the team and fans into believing he would resume his career next week after serving three different National Football League suspensions over the last two seasons for drug abuse.

He was eligible to rejoin the team next week and play in the Browns’ Oct. 9 game at home against the New England Patriots. No word out of Berea indicated there would be a change in course. The timing of this announcement, if nothing else, is curious.

Gordon, whose mercurial and briefly spectacular career has lifted the hopes of the team and its fans for the future, dropped the bomb Thursday in the form of a statement released by the Browns.

“After careful thought and deep consideration, I have decided that I need to step away from pursuing my return to the Browns and my football career to enter an in-patient rehabilitation facility,” said Gordon in the statement.

“This is the right decision for me and one I hope will enable me to gain full control of my life and continue on a path to reach my full potential as a person. I appreciate the support of the NFL, NFLPA, the Browns, my teammates, my agent and the community through this extremely challenging process.”

If that’s the way he feels, and there is no reason to disbelieve it, why did he wait so long to share it with all the parties involved? That’s a question that might never be answered.

In late August, shortly before playing in the final exhibition game of the season against Chicago, Gordon reflected on playing in the previous exhibition against Tampa Bay when he caught two passes, one for a touchdown.

He said it gave him “that sense of nostalgia (that) this is where I belong; this is where I need to be; this stage was meant for me to play on. That’s what I’m meant to do. Just doing it consistently and being here for this team. That’s really where it starts at and that’s what I want to do.”

Something changed between then and now. Maybe in a moment of weakness he caved and abused drugs and didn’t want to face yet another suspension, this time probably for life.  Then again, maybe not. But until Gordon speaks on the record, we will never find out.

The Browns responded to Gordon’s decision with a reasoned reaction. “We support Josh in taking this step to seek additional help and treatment,” said Sashi Brown, the club’s head of football operations. “His singular focus must be on his own health.”

And that brings us to thought No. 2.

Brown is correct. Right now, getting his life together should be the 25-year-old Gordon’s singular focus. Of course, there was no selfishness in his decision Life is too short and often times too complicated to squander at such a young age.

Makes no difference whether he woke up one morning and a light went on or his motivation came from somewhere else. More power to him. Making such a move is difficult in so many different ways.

It’s an admission of weakness. And that’s not easy to do for an athlete who has supreme confidence in what he does on a football field. Separating that and what he does off the field is not easy.

Sometimes the first step is the most difficult one to take on the road to recovery. Gordon deserves to be commended for taking this bold step of getting his seemingly out- of-control life in order.

It has happened before in the NFL. Wide receiver Cris Carter had a bad drinking problem when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. Being cut by the Eagles served as a jolt for the former Ohio State star.

He rehabilitated himself at a young age, went on to a great career with the Minnesota Vikings and eventually wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the Class of 2013. He would be a good role model for Gordon.

And now that he has taken the first steps necessary toward recovery, Gordon should be applauded. He is finally making the correct move, better than any move he ever made on a football field.

Whether his days as a member of the Cleveland Browns are over is a moot point right now. That’s not important. Josh Gordon, the person, is much more important than Josh Gordon, the football player.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Monday leftovers (Dolphins) 

The question is bound to come up quite often now that Carson Wentz has, at least in his first three games as a professional, taken the National Football League by storm.

How in the world did the Browns pass on this guy when he was available with the second selection of the last NFL college draft?  Was this a replay of the 2004 lottery when the Browns passed on Ben Roethlisberger to take Kellen Winslow Jr.?

What’s that about lightning striking twice?

It was bad enough the Browns turned their backs on taking a future Hall of Famer – and an Ohioan, no less – in Roethlisberger. What’s worse is Big Ben was grabbed by the hated-with-a-passion Pittsburgh Steelers and has been fitted for a couple of Super Bowl rings.

The Browns have been searching for a franchise quarterback ever since returning to the league in 1999. They thought they had one in Tim Couch back in ’99 when Donovan McNabb would have been a better choice.

Now, 26 different starting quarterbacks later, they are still searching. Each year, especially those in which the Browns own extremely high picks and solid quarterbacks loom large, the big question arises and is not answered properly.

Will this be the year they finally make the correct choice for the most important position on the team? That question arrived again this past draft when Jared Goff of California and Wentz of North Dakota State topped the list.

The Browns, sitting at No. 2, said no thanks and traded down with the Philadelphia Eagles. And the reason they gave their fans came off as weak. It came through Paul DePodesta, the club’s chief strategy officer (whatever that is).

“In a given year, there may be two or three NFL-ready quarterbacks at the college level,” DePodesta told ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi at the beginning of training camp. “In another year, there literally may be zero. There just may not be anybody that year not good enough to be a top 20 quarterback in the NFL.

“Even though you have a desperate need for one, you have to resist the temptation of taking that guy just because you have a need if you don’t believe he is one of those 20 guys at the end of the day. That’s the hardest part, just maintaining your discipline because you have the need. That’s what we did this year.”

Right now, not selecting Wentz looks bad. Real bad. The Eagles are 3-0 and looking good, real good, after throttling the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-3, on Sunday. The Browns are 0-3 and heading for what could be the worst season in their history.

Even Roethlisberger criticized the Browns for taking a pass on Wentz, who is his physical equal at 6-5, 240 pounds. And that was before the Sunday loss in Philadelphia.

Some day, DePodesta’s words have a chance of landing in the Browns’ Hall of Fame of utterances that should never have been made, right up there with “best pure pass rusher” and “mad dog in a meat market.”

Hue Jackson had to be part of that kind of thinking. Can’t imagine what the Cleveland coach didn’t see in Wentz that the Eagles did to the point where they gave up their top pick next year to move up and grab him.

So far, Wentz has shown intelligence, discipline and poise, attributes that usually accompany success for quarterbacks in the NFL. And he has the size and arm to complete the package. In those three games, he has thrown 102 passes, completed 66 for 769 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.

Yes, it’s only three games with the weak Browns and Chicago Bears providing the opposition in the first two. But Wentz’s performance in Sunday’s rout of the Steelers sure opened up a lot eyes and rekindled the “Why didn’t the Browns take Wentz when they had the chance?” howls.

“Again,” DePodesta said, “it comes down to individual evaluation of a player. We will not always be right on those type of things.” He got that part correct. So far.
*       *       *
Austin Pasztor stands 6-7 and weighs nearly 310 pounds. He is the starting right tackle for the Browns along the offensive line. And Sunday down in Miami, he was as offensive an offensive lineman as you’ll see in the NFL. At least he was when the play called for a forward pass.

Pasztor replaced the eminently better Mitchell Schwartz at the position when the Browns, in their infinite wisdom, decided to let Schwartz test the free-agent market without tendering an offer. He decided he liked it better in Kansas City,

So whether or not you like it, Browns fans, Pasztor is your right tackle for better or worse. And when the game was over Sunday afternoon, worse had a huge lead on better.

The four-year pro was assigned to keep Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake from getting anywhere close to rookie Cody Kessler, who was making his professional debut, on pass plays. He didn’t.

Pasztor drew three flags for holding and two more for false starts. If he didn’t have nightmares just thinking about facing Wake before the game, he sure has good reason to have them after getting up-close-and-personal with the veteran defensive end, who is a shell of his former self after an Achilles injury last season.

Pasztor accounted for 40 of the Browns’ 91 penalty yards all by himself. Kind of makes one wonder what went into the thinking by the Cleveland front office in letting Schwartz escape? In his worst game, Schwartz never put up a performance like that.

To be fair, Pasztor blocked well in the run game. But penalties slow down drives and in some cases shorten them. Five such infractions are momentum killers and inexcusable.
*       *       *
So who is this Briean Boddy-Calhoun? You know, the guy who put the Browns’ first touchdown of the game on the board against the Dolphins Sunday with a pick-6 in the second quarter in his first NFL game.

Here is what’s draft analysis said about the 5-9, 195-pound rookie cornerback from the University of Minnesota, who was nothing more than a line of agate in NFL transactions when the Browns picked him up on waivers from Jacksonville a few weeks ago.

“Bottom line: Small cornerback who played outside and from the slot, but must become a full-time slot cornerback on the next level due to his lack of strength and size. (He) allowed entirely too much separation at times and has a difficult time mustering enough closing speed when beaten over the top. . . . Gets overwhelmed by size in the red zone. Gave up a whopping six touchdowns in 2015. Tackling in the pros could be a major issue.”

Boddy-Calhoun, forced into action Sunday when Joe Haden was deactivated with a groin injury, also made four tackles, three solo, but was burned by DeVante Parker on the Dolphins’ first touchdown, a 26-yard strike from Ryan Tannehill in the opening quarter.
*       *       *
After a rough start against the Dolphins, Cody Kessler settled down and had what can be generously described as a decent game. The rookie quarterback was 21-of-33 for 244 yards despite intense pressure most of the afternoon. Not bad under the circumstances.

What we did find out is he doesn’t have the arm strength to stretch the field like Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III can, but showed good accuracy on short- to medium-range passes. He needs to work on ball security, though, showing a tendency to hold the ball in such a fashion it becomes a welcoming target for oncoming pass rushers.

He also has a tendency to take too long to find open receivers and an unwillingness to escape the pocket when it collapses. Then again, this is something he is expected to learn as he gets more comfortable with his new role.
*       *       *
As for the defense, Jordan Poyer, Christian Kirksey and Danny Shelton turned in strong games. Poyer, it seemed, was just about everywhere. The free safety was in on 13 of the Dolphins’ 65 plays, making 10 stops alone and aiding on three others.

Eight of Kirksey’s nine tackles were solos, while Shelton’s four solo tackles and solid anchoring of the defensive line limited the Dolphins to just 115 yards and only one touchdown on the ground.
*       *       *
Now that we’ve seen what Terrelle Pryor can do in his Slash role with the Browns, it will be interesting to see how Jackson incorporates him even more into the game plan against the Washington Redskins Sunday. The only difference is it won’t be a surprise this time. And you can bet the Skins will make certain shutdown cornerback Josh Norman will pay close attention to Pryor when he isn’t behind center.
*       *       *
There was a report Sunday that Jackson and his coaches wanted the club to sign veteran placekicker Robbie Gould, recently released by the Chicago Bears, to replace Patrick Murray after he was injured in practice Friday. But, according to the report, the coaches were overruled by the front office poobahs, who preferred Cody Parkey. The newcomer made half of his six field-goal attempts.

(Update: Jackson contradicted the report. “We made an organizational decision that (Parkey) was the right guy for us,” he told the Cleveland media Monday. “We felt good about watching him kick on tape. We felt good about everything he was doing. . . And we all made the decision together. . . . Any decision that’s made here about our football team we make together. If there’s anything that comes out of this building, it should come from me, okay? Not from anybody else. . . . We took the guy we wanted.”)
*       *       *
And finally . . . Jackson must get plays in much quicker to Kessler, avoiding those maddening delay-of-game penalties. . . . Right guard Alvin Bailey served as the tipster to center John Greco on when Kessler wanted the snap while in shotgun or pistol formation . . . . The Browns ran a season-high 74 plays for a season-high 430 total yards and owned the ball for a season-high 37 minutes and 22 seconds. . . . The pass-to-run ratio also reached a season high of 57%-43% pass-to-run. . . . Miami receiver Jarvis Landry was held to only one catch for four yards in the first half. He responded with six catches for 116 yards and a TD the rest of the way. . . . Ricardo Louis, it seems, has worked his way ahead of fellow rookie wide receiver Rashard Higgins with a three-catch, 40-yard afternoon against the Dolphins. . . . Where was rookie outside linebacker Joe Schobert? He was not deactivated. If he played, it was not noticeable. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touches watch: 15 touches for 81 yards. Much better. Now keep them coming.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pryor's masterpiece all for naught

The disgusted look on Terrelle Pryor’s face said it all as time ran out in regulation Sunday in Miami. He had good reason to wear that look. Here’s why.

Seconds earlier, linebacker Corey Lemonier made what just about every member of Browns Nation on the planet believed was the play of the game, strip-sacking Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and recovering the ball at the Miami 27-yard line. It was a gift.

The Browns had battled back from a 24-13 deficit early in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 24-24 on Cody Parkey’s third field goal of the game with 3:14 left and were staring at something extremely rare to them: a victory.

Hue Jackson had 20 seconds left on the clock in regulation and a timeout in his back pocket. Surely enough time and insurance in case something went wrong to move the ball closer to the Miami goal line to make Parkey’s job that much easier.

What went wrong was totally unexpected. For whatever reason, Jackson went ultra conservative with those 20 precious seconds.

The Cleveland running game, with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. running well, had churned out 160 yards on the ground against a tiring Dolphins defense and rookie Cleveland quarterback Cody Kessler had recovered from early-game jitters.

So what does the coach do? Instructs Kessler to take a knee, run the clock down to four seconds, burn the last timeout and present Parkey, who had signed with the club after Patrick Murray went down with a knee injury Friday, with a 46-yard attempt.

Instead of trying to pound out more yardage with Crowell behind an offensive line that run blocked very well all afternoon, Jackson went conservative. Parkey’s subsequent boot never had a chance as it immediately drifted left of the upright, giving birth to overtime.

It took the Dolphins three plays on their second possession of overtime to nail the 30-24 victory. Jay Ajayi’s 11-yard scamper around left end, on which no Cleveland defender laid a hand on him, climaxed the three-play, 44-yard drive with 8:26 left.

The disappointing finish ruined a virtuoso performance by Pryor, who was an integral part in Jackson’s creative offense from a two-position standpoint. He was the ultimate triple threat.

Any wonder he wore a disgusted, almost angry, look as regulation ended? Jackson’s faux pas at the end of regulation breathed new life into a Miami offense that seemingly packed it in after assuming the 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

After the game, the coach explained himself. “I know everybody will say it came down to field goals,” he said, “but I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on Cody. (He) just got off the plane with us and I don’t know him as well as I know this chair right now.”

That’s a rather strange reason not to at least try and move the ball closer to the goal line. And by taking a knee, he definitely put more pressure on the newcomer. Besides, what does that have to do with a chair in the visitors’ dressing room?

Was Jackson so fearful his offense would somehow, some way screw it up? Why all of a sudden did he have so little confidence in his offense to move the ball closer? He did have the luxury of the timeout. Instead, he whimped out. 

On the plus side, the Browns were down to only one healthy quarterback (Kessler) with working knowledge of Jackson’s offense. It didn’t take long for fans to see what the coach had in his bag of tricks. It was the 6-4, 220-pound Pryor and he was masterful.

The former Ohio State star, who had flunked out as a starting quarterback in the National Football League, entered the game after Kessler’s shaky beginning: A delay-of-game on the first play from scrimmage, a fumbled snap on the second (he recovered it) and a strip sack on the third, which led to Miami’s first touchdown.

Pryor took 11 snaps as a quarterback, ran four times for 21 yards and a touchdown in the comeback, and threw for another 35 yards on 3-of-5 passing. He was also targeted 14 times by Kessler and grabbed eight passes for 144 yards. If you’re counting, that’s 200 yards of total offense. The Browns totaled 430.

It brought back memories of Kordell Stewart, who played quarterback and wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1995 to 2002. Remember his nickname? Slash. As in quarterback/wide receiver.

Could Pryor, whose growth in his transformation as a wideout has been nothing short of remarkable thus far, be the new Slash? Why not?

With the Browns down to just one healthy quarterback (not counting Charlie Whitehurst, who is nothing more than disaster insurance), look for Pryor to get more work if Sunday’s performance against the Dolphins is any indication of what he can do. Or at least until one of the injured quarterbacks returns.

One can understand Pryor's reaction when Parkey missed his third field goal of the afternoon at the end of regulation. Putting in the work of two players for more than 60 minutes only to walk off the field a loser had to maddeningly disheartening.

The Browns, playing without six starters, actually held a 13-10 halftime lead in this one on a pair of Parkey field goals and a 27-yard pick six by rookie cornerback Brien Boddy-Calhoun midway through the second quarter.

They were marching toward another score on the penalty-filled opening possession of the second half and reached the Miami 8 in 10 plays before stalling. A holding penalty on offensive right tackle Austin Pasztor – he was flagged for three holds and a pair of false starts on the afternoon – moved the ball back to the 18.

Another delay-of-game penalty marched the ball back another five yards and the drive ultimately wound up on the Miami 24, where Parkey’s 42-yard field-goal effort plunked the left upright and bounced the wrong way.

That seemed to breathe new life into the Miami offense, which looked stagnant in the first 30 minutes. It scored on the next two possessions to take the 24-13 lead.

Tannehill hooked up with Jarvis Landry on a 42-yard score after the wide receiver beat Tramon Williams and juked safety Derrick Kindred at the 13-yard line on the first with 5:17 left in the quarter. Then he hit running back Damien Williams with an 11-yard swing pass to close out a six-play, 64-yard drive early in the final quarter.

At that point, the Browns looked cooked and nearly replied with a three-and-out. But Duke Johnson Jr. kept the drive alive, breaking a tackle a few yards behind the line of scrimmage on a swing pass on a third-and-1 from the Miami 26 and converting.

Six plays and 74 yards later, Pryor romped three yards around left end for the touchdown and Kessler’s fade to Gary Barnidge tacked on two more points as the Browns climbed to within three at 24-21. They had to survive a strip sack of Kessler by Cameron Wake, who was flagged for being offsides.

Parkey’s 38-yard field with 3:41 left in regulation squared the score, setting up what looked like a Cleveland victory once Lemonier separated the ball from Tannehill and recovering it at the Miami 27.

And then Jackson began thinking negatively a little too much, depriving his team – and the fans – of feeling good for at least the next few days. Such opportunities will not come along often this season.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The ineptitude continues

It seems the Miami Dolphins, who entertain the Browns Sunday down in Florida, have encountered similar problems to their visitors thus far this season.

The Dolphins’ defense surrenders way too much yardage, can’t stop the run and has trouble getting off the field on third down, and an offense that can’t run the ball, protect its quarterback or remain on the field.

Sound familiar?

The only difference, it seems, will be the uniforms. Otherwise, at least statistically, these teams have taken almost the same winless path in the first two games.

The Dolphins couldn’t hold a 10-6 lead late in the season opener in Seattle and lost in the final 30 seconds. Last Sunday in Foxboro, the Patriots took advantage of three Miami turnovers in their home debut, raced out to a 31-3 lead before the Dolphins caught up and made the 31-24 final look more respectable.

The biggest difference, especially on offense, is the Dolphins are healthier than the Browns. Not by much with running back Arian Foster iffy for the game with a groin injury, but definitely in better shape. If he can’t go, look for Isaiah Pead or Jay Ajayi to start.

(This just in: It’s official. Browns quarterback Josh McCown has a broken left collarbone. It is not a displaced break, which means it’s probably a hairline fracture. It will sideline him indefinitely.)

The Browns, on the other hand, open up with a quarterback making his National Football League debut, a wide receivers corps that can be best described as marginal and a makeshift offensive line due to an injury.

Defensively, the much more experienced Dolphins have an edge, although statistics in the first couple of games belie that. That defense has given up 815 yards, including 457 in the loss to the Pats last week.

The Miami defense includes ends Cameron Wake and Mario Williams and tackles Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips along the line and Kiko Alonso anchoring the linebackers corps. Hard to believe the Dolphins would give up that much yardage with talent like that.

Wake, who terrorized quarterbacks for so many seasons with the Dolphins before suffering an Achilles’ tendon injury midway through last season, has become a part-time player, sharing duties with Andre Branch. That pass rush has produced five sacks. The Browns check in with two, both in the season opener.

The Dolphins, as the Browns, are vulnerable just about everywhere when the opposition is on the field. They surrender about 290 yards a game through the air and about 130 infantry style.

Only problem there is the Cleveland offense is so weak now with a raw rookie at quarterback, an offensive line that does not afford quarterbacks nearly the time they need to be effective and question marks just about everywhere else, it very well could be the tonic the Miami defense needs to feel good about itself.

The Browns average slightly less than 25 minutes a game in ball ownership, while the defense permits the opposition to convert nearly half of its third downs. Hardly a formula for success.

At the beginning of the season, coach Hue Jackson emphasized his offense would be more well balanced than the past few seasons when passing easily outpaced the run game.

Well, the Browns have run 109 plays – a puny total for two games – and ran the ball only 44 times. That’s 40.4% of the time. You can figure out the passing ratio. So where’s the balance?

With Cody Kessler at quarterback now, that run percentage might rise, especially after Isaiah Crowell’s big game against Baltimore last Sunday. Detractors would point out, though, that 85 of Crowell’s season output of 195 yards came on one run. Subtract the 85 and he averages 3.8 yards a carry.

The Browns’ best bet to win this one rests with the defense, especially the secondary. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill averages one pass every three plays and is accurate on 65% of his passes.

His favorite targets are wideouts Jarvis Landry (17 receptions for 194 yards) and DeVante Parker (eight catches for 106 yards) and former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron (seven grabs for 55 yards and a touchdown).

If the Browns do not get enough penetration against Miami’s average-at-best offensive line, it will be a long afternoon for the backfield. In order to give the secondary a chance, defensive coordinator Ray Horton needs to dial up more blitzes to make Tannehill feel at least somewhat uncomfortable.

That includes occasional run blitzes against a Miami ground game that has produced just 134 yards this season. To give you some idea of just how bad that run game is, Tannehill is the leading rusher with 52 yards on scrambles.

That both teams seek their first victory of the young season tells you all you need to know about the talent level of this game. That this is the Dolphins’ home opener gives rise to the reason they are the league’s only double-digit favorite to win this week. It also tells you how little oddsmakers think of the Browns.

Unless the wheels come completely off for the Browns defensively, this should be a low scoring game. The offense will struggle and force punter Britton Colquitt to more than earn his salary.

Both teams are coming off games they registered three-touchdown explosions within a small time frame. The Browns early against Baltimore; the Dolphins late against New England.

That won’t happen Sunday. The Dolphins’ defense puts together an effort similar to the season-opening loss in Seattle and throttles a weak Cleveland offense all afternoon, limiting it to 185 yards and only 11 first downs. An ineffective Kessler is sacked five times and replaced by Charlie Whitehurst.

Patrick Murray provides the only offense with a couple of field goals as the Browns reach the red zone just twice. (Update: Murray suffered a knee injury Friday and has been placed on injured reserve. The Browns signed Cody Parkey to replace him. He will boot those field goals.)

Tannehill, with little pressure from the Cleveland pass rush, throws touchdown passes to Landry and Cameron and scores on a naked bootleg from a yard out in a game that will, for all practical purposes, be over midway through the third quarter. Make it:

Dolphins 24, Browns 6

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Woebegone Browns

It’s official. There is no more star-crossed franchise in the National Football League, if not the entire sports world, than the one located in Cleveland, Ohio, known as the Browns.

There is such a dark cloud that seemingly hangs perpetually over the team’s headquarters in Berea, the team’s nickname should be changed to the Curse or the Misfortunes.

A line from Bad Luck Blues, a rhythm and blues song in 1954 by Lightnin’ Slim, aptly describes what has happened to this franchise since its resurrection in 1999: Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.

It’s almost as though this team was, to slightly alter the title of another rhythm and blues song written in 1967: (re)Born Under A Bad Sign.

It wasn’t bad enough the Browns were already working on their third starting quarterback in three games. Or that the rookie defensive lineman who had shown signs of becoming a force has broken a hand. Or that the second-year center has a bruised lung.

Two games in the books and the team is already looking like a unit in a M*A*S*H hospital. What else could go wrong? When will all this nonsense stop? Better yet, will it ever stop?

When news broke late Tuesday that Browns rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman had also broken a bone in his hand – what difference does it make which hand? – in practice earlier in the day, all those R&B thoughts jumped front and center.

Is there a permanent cloud of misfortune hanging over the Browns’ complex? Even when the sun is purportedly beaming down? Why don’t these unfortunate occurrences happen to other NFL teams? Rhetorical question.

Then again, perhaps this team is suffering from the lingering effects of the Joe Bftsplk Syndrome. Bftsplk is a character in the syndicated comic strip Li’l Abner, which ran from 1934 to 1977.

Joe was a walking jinx, hovering at all times under a dark rain cloud. He was a loner who brought bad luck and extreme misfortune to those who encountered or were near him. Maybe he has quietly taken up residence in Berea all these years.

As for Coleman, who didn’t know his hand was broken until X-rays revealed it after practice, the good news is he will not require surgery to repair the injury. The bad news is he will miss at least a month, maybe more. Surgery most likely would have meant missing most of the season.

The club’s No. 1 pick in the last draft was beginning to show signs of adjusting well to the pro game, scoring both of the Browns’ touchdowns on passes from Josh McCown in the loss last Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens, when Bftsplk struck.

Coleman’s ability to stretch the field enabled other receivers to run underneath routes somewhat more successfully.

His absence means everyone else moves up a notch on the wide receiver ladder. Terrelle Pryor, in really his first season as a wideout, becomes the No. 1 target with veteran Andrew Hawkins, a concussion away from probably retiring, on the other side. The 6-4 Pryor and 5-7 Hawkins form an interesting Mutt & Jeff combination.

Rashard Higgins most likely moves up as the slot receiver with either Jordan Payton and/or Ricardo Louis entering the game in a four- and/or five-receiver set for starting quarterback – and rank neophyte – Cody Kessler.

Anyway you shake it, the Browns enter the game down in Miami on Sunday extraordinarily young and inexperienced at the so-called skill positions.

Yet another challenge for Hue Jackson, the Browns’ offensive coordinator/play caller, as if his job as the head coach wasn’t challenging enough.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Two newbies, two departures

If you’re keeping score on the latest dealings by the Browns’ front office, say so long to inside linebacker Scooby Wright III and defensive end John Hughes and hello to quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and center Austin Reiter.

In the wake of a Sunday loss to Baltimore that saw rookie defensive end Carl Nassib sustain a broken hand, center Cameron Erving suffer a bruised lung and quarterback Josh McCown come up with some sort of shoulder injury, the fluid roster became even more fluid Tuesday.

In the process, that roster became even weaker than it was at the start of the 25-20 loss Sunday to the Ravens.

The already mediocre offensive line dipped in quality with John Greco moving from right guard to center to replace Erving and Alvin Bailey, who has been a spectator in the first two games, moving in at right guard.

The right side of the line on offense is bad to begin with and the latest moves take the talent level down another couple of notches. One can only imagine what kind of protection rookie quarterback Cody Kessler will receive in his National Football League debut Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins.

He’ll be working with a center who hasn’t played the position since temporarily filling in for Alex Mack when the center went down with a broken leg in game five of the 2014 season.

Bailey, a young veteran at 25, couldn’t beat out the very average Austin Pasztor at right tackle in training camp. We’ll find out soon enough whether he can cut it at guard. He’ll face Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh most of the afternoon on Sunday.

Picking up Reiter off the Washington Redskins’ practice squad gives Browns coaches some options in case the Greco-Bailey duo falters against the Dolphins, who have dialed up five sacks in the first two games this season. Greco can move back to guard with Reiter off the bench in the pivot.

It’s interesting the coaches have kept rookies Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango as backups to tackles Joe Thomas and Pasztor on the depth chart. Apparently, neither has been impressive enough to warrant at least a small look elsewhere.

The release of Hughes and Wright raised a few eyebrows. It is believed the recent arrival of free-agent ends Stephen Paea and Tyrone Holmes might have led to Hughes’ departure.

Wright, the club’s seventh-round pick last May, was inactive for the first two games after an exhibition season that saw him flash on a few occasions. The Browns hope he clears waivers so they can place him on the practice squad.

It is known the Arizona Cardinals had planned to sign Wright, a former University of Arizona standout, to their practice squad had he made it through the college draft without being selected. Now they have a chance to do just that.

Whitehurst, meanwhile, will back up Kessler against the Dolphins and cram as much as he can between now and Sunday to grasp coach Hue Jackson’s offense. It would appear rookie quarterback Kevin Hogan will remain on the practice squad.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Monday leftovers

Will lightning strike the Browns’ quarterbacks corps a third time in three weeks? That’s what Cody Kessler must be wondering today.

The rookie third-round pick in the last college football draft is your new starting quarterback when the Browns travel down to Miami to take on the Dolphins Sunday afternoon.

That’s right . . . three games, three different starters at the most important position on the team.  Down goes Robert Griffin III in the season opener in Philadelphia. Down goes Josh McCown in the home opener against Baltimore. Each with left shoulder issues.

The Third won’t be back for at least two more months. The situation with McCown is a little more vague after he underwent tests Monday.

The veteran quarterback, who absorbed a frightful beating in the Baltimore loss Sunday, is listed as week to week, which could mean anything from just the Miami game to sitting out as long as The Third.

Kessler, the wet-behind-the-ear kid from USC, is about to find out what it’s like to play a National Football League regular-season game where the speed and quickness is totally different than in exhibition games and training camp.

Kessler, you’ll recall, is also the kid about whom coach Hue Jackson all but said, “Trust me on this guy,” when there were more highly ranked quarterbacks on the board. Well, it’s time to play “Who Do You Trust?”

Kessler’s promotion means Kevin Hogan, another quarterback with damp ears, probably moves up from the practice squad, giving the Browns two quarterbacks with arms that can generously be labeled as adequate.

The Browns thus enter the Dolphins game with a pair of Pac-12 quarterbacks who played in pro-style systems in college (Hogan at Stanford) and were eminently successful. But all that means nothing at this level.

It also most likely triggers a serious return to the waiver wire by the Cleveland front office to check out which street free agents would be available and willing to come to Cleveland.

That list includes such luminaries as Michael Vick, Matt Flynn, Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson, Josh Freeman, Jason Campbell, Jimmy Clausen, Ryan Lindley, T. J. Yates and Drew Henson. Then again, there’s the trade route for some current backup, which is a more distinct possibility.

Whoever gets the call – and there is no guarantee the Browns will make any roster moves for the position this week – will serve more as a warm body initially because bringing in someone new requires time for him to learn a brand new system.

Because the new starter is a rookie, look for Jackson to dumb down the playbook, simplifying the play calls and pass protections for Kessler. Unless he believes the kid is bright enough to take on the kind of load McCown was given, the coach is smart enough to give his new quarterback something he can handle.

Kessler probably will spend the vast portion of this week getting down his timing down with a set of receivers he rarely threw to during training camp and the exhibitions.

Another imperative is making certain the offensive line protects Kessler as though he were the next Tom Brady. Considering the way they protected The Third and McCown, that could be asking a little too much with this group. The antidote is a series of quick developing passes.

Hopefully by this time next week, we won’t be writing about starting Browns quarterback Kevin Hogan.
*       *       *
It took only one game for McCown to realize his new favorite target among the new wide receivers this season was Corey Coleman. Eight targets, five catches, 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Browns’ top draft choice against Baltimore.

The Third targeted him five times against the Eagles and connected twice for 69 yards, including a 58-yard bomb. He also had a 47-yard reception against the Ravens.

It would appear, at least on the basis of his first two games as a professional, that Coleman so far fulfills what the club envisioned when they dropped down twice in the lottery to select him. They wanted speed, the ability to stretch the field and production and he has delivered so far.

Now he is working with his third quarterback in three games (only in Cleveland) and the timing process begins all over again. With Kessler’s inability to stretch the field with his arm, Coleman will have to run short- to intermediate-type routes in order to become available.

One of the knocks on him coming out of college was his unfamiliarity with running the route tree at run-happy Baylor. With Kessler as his new quarterback, he should get plenty of opportunities to sharpen those skills.
*       *       *
Joe Haden seems to be fully recovered from injuries that robbed him of most of last season. And after a slow start in Philadelphia, he looked more like the old Joe Haden against the Ravens.

Yes, he was burned on the first of Mike Wallace’s two touchdowns, but generally played a strong game with a pair of interceptions (one set up the third touchdown) and nearly a third. He was also strong in the run game, often coming up and taking on blockers on sweeps.

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco picked on him all afternoon, but outside of that one Wallace slip, Haden sent notice around the NFL that the 2016 model is much improved over last season’s.
*       *       *
It took one full season and two games, but Danny Shelton finally showed up against the Ravens. The burly nose tackle was mainly responsible for limiting Baltimore’s ground game to only 80 yards on 26 carries. For the Browns, that’s a remarkable figure.

Shelton was credited with eight tackles (two solo) and constantly bottled up the middle whenever the Ravens tried to run between the tackles. The Ravens’ two longest runs from scrimmage were 11 and nine yards.  

He did not get much penetration on passing plays, but tied up a couple of offensive linemen often enough in the first quarter, enabling other pass rushers to get close enough to Flacco to throw off his timing. Unfortunately, the pass rush tailed off in the final three quarters, but it wasn’t Shelton’s fault.
*       *       *
Isaiah Crowell’s 85-yard touchdown run on the Browns’ second possession of the game was the second-longest such run from scrimmage in club history. Only Bobby Mitchell’s 90-yarder in 1959 was longer.

Mitchell was traded to the Washington Redskins as part of the deal that enabled the Browns to sign Ernie Davis out of Syracuse in 1962. Davis, who was supposed to pair with Jim Brown in the Cleveland backfield, died of leukemia in 1963. Mitchell went on to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver with Washington.
*       *       *
Have you noticed how much better the Browns have become at executing screen passes? For the last several years, correctly running screen plays was a mystery. Now with the elusive Duke Johnson Jr. in the backfield, screens have returned. Jackson also threw in a couple of screens for Crowell and they worked.
*       *       *
And finally . . . Kudos to fullback Malcolm Johnson on Crowell’s long run. Without his crunching block on Baltimore strong safety Eric Weddle, who had cheated up into the box, Crowell’s journey would have been a lot shorter. Once he got past that block, the Cleveland running back found another gear and burst between a cornerback and the free safety and was gone. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touched the ball only seven times and gained 56 yards. Gotta be more touches. . . . Inside linebacker Demario Davis had another strong game with nine tackles, four solo. . . . Starting strong safety Ibraheim Campbell better watch out. Rookie Derrick Kindred is outplaying him and getting more reps. . . . The Browns fumbled three times against the Ravens and recovered all three. . .. All three Ravens’ sacks on McCown were by defensive linemen. . . . The Cleveland quarterback was also decked eight times after delivering a pass and hurried on 12 other dropbacks. . . . Didn’t often hear the names of rookie outside linebackers Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert. Second-game blues? Also rookie defensive end Carl Nassib, who was injured in the second quarter and did not make the score sheet. . . . Second-game blues, too, for Terrelle Pryor, who was targeted 10 times by McCown and came away with just three receptions for 32 yards.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

It’s not how you start that counts

If there were any doubts left that it is extremely painful to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns, let those doubts be firmly dispelled after what happened to them Sunday in their home opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

The final score read Baltimore 25, Cleveland 20, but how the teams arrived at that verdict challenges belief in many ways.

For example, who would have believed the Browns would storm to a 20-0 lead with four minutes and 34 seconds left in the opening quarter. One might say they sure played a great game in the first quarter.

The home folks were giddy and somewhat stunned at the same time. Were these really the Cleveland Browns? The sad-sack, probably-lose-just-about-all-of-their-games-this-season Cleveland Browns? Everything, it seemed, clicked in the first 10 minutes.

Rookie Corey Coleman hauled in a 31-yard scoring strike from Josh McCown to climax a 75-yard drive to open the game; Isaiah Crowell rambled 85 yards on the first play of the second possession for a score; and the first of Joe Haden’s two interceptions set up Coleman’s second score on an 11-yard connection.

What’s going on here? Three possessions, three touchdowns. The Browns looked like the Ravens, who in turn looked like the Browns. It was role reversal out of control.

The Cleveland defense made Joe Flacco and his cohorts look rather inept. This certainly wasn’t the Flacco who owned a 13-2 record against Cleveland.

So when Lawrence Guy blocked Patrick Murray’s extra-point attempt after the third touchdown and Tavon Young ran it back all the way to put the Ravens on the board, it looked so innocent. The Browns were in charge, right? Momentary belch.

So who would have believed the Browns’ contributions to the scoreboard were finished for the afternoon at that point of the game?

Certainly not the fans. Their guys had hung 20 points on the dreaded Ravens and hungrily wanted more. Expected more. Greed has no bounds when it comes to hated division rivals.

And probably not the Ravens, who looked flummoxed by the unexpected point barrage early on. Of course, they had no idea that one of the least-seen plays in the pro game turned out in some strange way to provide the momentum they needed when all looked hopeless even though more than three quarters remained.

Instead of trailing, 21-0, hope arrived in the form of the blocked point after. And from that point on, for next last 49 minutes and 26 seconds to be exact, the role reversal game disappeared and what was expected to happen before the game actually happened.

Disbelief in what they had just witnessed had to have accompanied Browns fans out of the ballpark. It was clearly the most bizarre season-opening game since Dwayne Rudd’s famous helmet toss allowed Kansas City to escape with a last-second victory in 2003.

There are numerous culprits in this latest hard-to-swallow loss, the most obvious being the five guys up front hired to protect their quarterback. After what McCown went through, even during the early onslaught, it’s a wonder he could lift his left arm after the game.

The Browns lost their stating quarterback last week when Robert Griffin III played chicken with Philadelphia cornerback Jalen Mills and lost, shelving him for at least the next two months. So it was imperative the Cleveland offensive line protect McCown, who isn’t the fastest or quickest quarterback at age 37. He is one injury away from rookie Cody Kessler becoming the starter.

The fact he finished the Ravens game at all is a testament to either his stupidity or fortitude for not coming out of the game when it was obvious he was dragging his left arm. It was so bad at one point, he couldn’t put his helmet on with both hands. Just the right. He handed off the ball with only his right hand.

He literally took one for the team as the Ravens, sensing blood in the Cleveland backfield, hammered McCown relentlessly, even after he delivered the ball. Often times, he held on to the ball too long.

His left shoulder absorbed a Ravens massaging as he fell. It would be amazing if he didn’t suffer either a separated or dislocated shoulder during the game. It got so bad, Kessler warmed up on at least two occasions.

And yet on very possession, Kessler’s helmet was off and out trotted McCown, who actually drove the Browns down to what would have been the winning touchdown in the final minute.

Adding to the bizarre nature of the game was an unusual call that snuffed out any last hope for victory.

McCown hooked up with Terrelle Pryor on a 20-yard pass to the Ravens’ 10-yard line on a first-down with about 30 seconds left in the game. The Cleveland receiver and Baltimore safety Lardarius Webb rolled out of bounds on the play.

As he stood up, Pryor appeared to blithely toss the ball to one of the officials, but it glanced off Webb. Head linesman Wayne Mackie, running down the sideline toward the play, saw it as taunting and yanked his yellow hankie.

When it landed, so did the Browns’ chances of winning this one. It was the second penalty on the play – a holding call on Webb preceded it– and resulted in offsetting penalties. It wound up as a NO PLAY in the play-by-play.

If that was taunting, Pryor should have gotten his money’s worth and jammed the ball in Webb’s facemask, making it obvious.

To make matters worse, McCown was intercepted by Ravens linebacker C. J. Mosley near the goal line on the next play with 21 seconds left. It neatly wrapped up a nice – and somewhat surprising – comeback by the Ravens.

Flacco, who completed just eight of his first 19 passes for 60 yards, hit on 17 of his next 26 for 262 yards and a pair of touchdown throws to Mike Wallace.

But his favorite target of the afternoon by far – and the guy who bailed him out of mess after mess all day – was Dennis Pitta. The big tight end did not score, but caught nine passes for 102 yards, several of them on third down when the Ravens struggled.

And the Baltimore defense, battered for 261 yards in the first 30 minutes, shaved that to just 126 yards in the second half. They held the Browns to just six first downs following intermission after surrendering 11 in the first half.

The result of this game should be a blazing neon sign for the young Browns: It’s not how you start the game that counts; it’s how you finish it. And this finish clearly did not match its beginning.

As the game unfolded, you could almost sense a shift in the momentum. Then it became more than a sense. It became a reality and then an impending nightmare.

Some losses are harder to swallow than others. This was one of the hardest and was decidedly Cleveland Brownsesque in nature.

The pain lingers in the Factory of Sadness.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

No trifecta for McCown

It would be incorrect, maybe even preposterous, to suggest the Baltimore Ravens are frightened at the prospect of facing Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown in the Browns’ home opener Sunday.

After what the veteran quarterback did to the Ravens last season, one can only imagine grudging respect would be the correct approach from a Baltimore standpoint.

In splitting the season series last year, McCown put the ball up 85 times, completing 56 for 689 yards and four touchdowns. The torching of the Baltimore secondary certainly got the attention of Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

“He’s had a lot of success against us,” he said in the media run-up to the game. “He’s been on fire against us. . . . I just remember the guy having no conscience. . . . So we have a lot of respect for him. . . . ” But can he do it a third straight time?

McCown, who will helm the Cleveland offense until (a) Robert Griffin III returns from a broken shoulder or (b) he joins The Third on the sidelines with an injury, will work with a significantly different set of receivers this year.

Gone are wide receivers Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel and Brian Hartline, who combined for 24 catches, 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the two Baltimore games. Benjamin, now with the San Diego Chargers, was 14-173-1.

In their place are Terrelle Pryor, still learning the nuances of the wide receiver position, veteran Andrew Hawkins and rookies Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis and Jordan Payton. In other words, it’s the Browns’ version of inexperience central.

Tight end Gary Barnidge, who burned the Ravens for 15 receptions, 230 yards and a touchdown last season, is back, of course, but his inauspicious 2016 debut (two targets, two drops last Sunday in Philadelphia) does not bode well for the immediate future. Maybe a change at quarterback will help.

The big difference for the Ravens this season will be the defense, which led the way last Sunday in the 13-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills, who were limited to 160 total yards, just 95 through the air.

The return of veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been a factor. Suggs, who has torched the Browns numerous times over the years, tore his Achilles’ heel in last season’s opening game and missed the entire season. He registered a sack last week against the Bills.

The improved pass rush figures to get even better once outside backer Elvis Dumervil recovers enough from offseason foot surgery. He will not be ready for Sunday’s game. Albert McClellan fills in.

Where the Ravens have improved the most is in the secondary, where Lardarius Webb has moved to free safety after seven seasons as a cornerback and strong safety Eric Weddle was signed as a free agent.

Factor in the very young Cleveland receiving corps and the new look Baltimore secondary and torching that group again might prove a little more difficult for McCown this time around.

Offensively, at least considering how they began the season, the Ravens are somewhat of a puzzle. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who loves to play against the Cleveland, is back after missing last season’s second game with the Browns with a torn ACL.

He has faced Cleveland 15 times and owns 13 victories, including the first 11 in a row starting with his rookie season. Both losses were 33-30 overtime verdicts. During that stretch, he has thrown 19 touchdown passes and just seven picks.

This season, the Ravens’ receivers corps has gained speed with the addition of veteran Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, a No. 1 pick who missed all of last season with knee problems. Wallace and Flacco hooked up on a 66-yard bomb against the Bills.

Veterans Steve Smith Sr. and Kamar Aiken along with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore give Flacco more strong options than McCown has with his young receivers. The depth at running back includes former Brown Terrance West, Justin Forsett and Buck Allen.

Where the Ravens are vulnerable offensively is up front, where rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis operate on the left side of the line. The Bills sacked Flacco four times last Sunday and hit him on several other occasions after delivering the ball.

It’s incumbent, then, on the Cleveland defense to take advantage of that youthful presence. Oh, wait. The Browns are just as young as the Ravens along the front seven with the likes of rookies Carl Nassib, Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert.

The outcome of this one depends, in large part, on the Browns’ ability to get up close and personal with Flacco and force him to either throw before he wants or entice him to leave the pocket to avoid trouble. And to do something they couldn’t do in the season opener against the Eagles: move the ball consistently, not in fits and starts.

Cleveland coach Hue Jackson has a reputation as an offensive guru to uphold. Granted it’s just one game into the season and we don’t really know how to label his offense. One more game won’t answer that puzzle, either.

Jackson strongly hinted during training camp that he wants a balanced offense. Last Sunday, he did not achieve it with 29 called passes and 21 runs, a 58-42 ratio. That’s not even close to being Jacksonian.

A closer look shows the last three plays were runs, which accounted for 40 of the 120 yards on the ground, because time was running down and the Eagles were in a massive prevent defense while leading by 19 points.

If the Cleveland defense can get off the field often enough – and right now, that’s a huge if – and prevent the offense from getting cold on the bench, then the Browns have a shot. It also has to apply pressure on Flacco and disturb his throwing rhythm.

Now the question is whether defensive coordinator Ray Horton will dial up more blitzes against the Ravens quarterback than he did last Sunday against Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. If he goes conservative, forget it.

And now that McCown, a much better pocket passer than The Third, is in charge of the huddle for the foreseeable future, will Jackson look at what the veteran did last season against the Ravens and lean more on the forward pass to get the job done?

The fact remains the Ravens have more talent up and down the roster to withstand any upset bid the Browns. Flacco continues his mastery of the Browns by completing 16 of just 20 passes for nearly 300 yards and scoring throws to Smith and Perriman.

Why only 20 passes? Because the Ravens smartly use the ground game to set up the passing game and batter the Cleveland defensive line for 151 yards, led by West and Forsett, who each score a touchdown.

Once again, the Cleveland offense lacks consistency against an aggressive Ravens defense and controls the ball for just 49 plays, forcing Britton Colquitt to punt six times. One of those plays is a 62-yard bomb to Pryor that sets up Isaiah Crowell’s two-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter.

It ties the game at 7-7 and is as close to the lead as the Browns will get all afternoon. Make it:

Ravens 31, Browns 10

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Of the coach and The Third

Catching up with Browns coach Hue Jackson and injured quarterback Robert Griffin III . . .

First, Jackson quotes to file and remember for future use.

“The fans might not like me for a while, but they’re going to love me here pretty soon,” he said the other day, less than 48 hours after the season-opening loss in Philadelphia Sunday. “That’s OK. Eventually, they will love me. I promise you that.”

And why is that? “Because,” he said, “I do plan on winning here and I do get it. I know every loss there’s another dagger that drags you down another few feet deeper. That’s OK. I’ve been there before. I’m a fighter. We’re going to get back up and we’re going to keep swinging. We’re going to be fine.”

But wait. There’s more.

The coach said he didn’t take the Cleveland job “to be average and just win a few games and go about my business. I came here to help this organization win a championship.

“How fast that is going to happen? I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s going to be a ton of struggle before there’s a ton of great times, but I don’t worry about people not being happy right now.

“I’m going to do the best job I can with our staff and these players and we’re going to keep working at it. My point is eventually (the fans) will love me because we’re going to win. We’re going to win a championship here for the Cleveland Browns.”

All this over-the-top rhetoric arrives after only one game as head coach of the Browns. One can only imagine what it’s going to be like if (when?) the Browns are still winless after, say, seven or eight games, which is a distinct possibility.

It’s almost as though Jackson senses the annual woe-is-me attitude of the fans toward the Browns and is trying to plug what he thinks is a hole in the their enthusiasm’s dike.

What he fails to realize is there are so many holes in that dike over the years, the fans have become accustomed to the perennial losing. They almost expect it. This is nothing new to them. The annual anger becomes almost commonplace to them.That’s what happens when your team wins only one season-opening game in 18 seasons and puts up only two winning seasons in that time.

But you have to give Jackson some credit. The man sure can shovel it. He is a walking, talking quote book.

At the same time, he definitely has brought a level of energy and positive thinking to Berea that has been lacking ever since the departure a dozen years ago of Butch Davis, whose own brand of motivation carried the franchise to its only playoff appearance since 1999.

Unfortunately, that energy and positive approach is difficult to translate into victories because the current talent is severely lacking in quality. Jackson obviously is not factoring in that dynamic. It was on full display against an Eagles team Sunday that will challenge the Browns for ineptitude this season.

So there you have it. File and remember the aforementioned quotes by the Cleveland coach as the season unfolds. It will be interesting to see how they change.

And now for The Third.

Remember how he wound up on injured reserve? That ferocious collision he had with Philadelphia cornerback Jalen Mills along the sideline late in the fourth quarter Sunday? The one in which he broke his left shoulder and will sit out at least two months?

It sure looked as though the Cleveland quarterback deliberately ran over Mills, who was disengaging from a block by Browns tight end Gary Barnidge at the time. He denies it, saying the collision occurred because Ron Brooks, another Eagles corner, shoved him in the back and that he wasn’t trying to run through Mills.

He defended himself by suggesting the tape of the play supports him. “I did get pushed in the back and at the last second, (Mills) came off (Barnidge) and hit me and I didn’t have the opportunity to protect myself,” he said.

The tape shows Brooks barely touched The Third and Mills did not hit him as much as absorbing the blow. He was struck just as he straightened up after shedding the Barnidge block and took 100% of the impact because the Cleveland quarterback chose a direct path to him rather than slide.

“ . . . I wasn’t trying to run anybody over or make it a bravado moment,” he said. The tape, the one he says backs up his contention, strongly suggests otherwise.

At this point, though, that situation has become moot. The Third is a spectator for the foreseeable future and has nobody to blame but himself even though he doesn’t appear to see it that way.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monday leftovers (Eagles edition)

Well, now we know why the Browns hung on to Josh McCown as the backup quarterback to Robert Griffin III.

If you had one game in the pool to guess how long The Third would last this season, congratulations, you are the winner.

So it’s understandable why the Browns resisted any and all efforts to pry McCown loose this offseason. Maybe they had the same feeling about The Third’s durability and saw this coming. Just not so soon.

The Browns’ starting quarterback collided with – actually more like plowed into – Philadelphia cornerback Jalen Mills along the sideline after scrambling for 11 yards with about 3½ minutes left in Sunday’s 29-10 season-opening loss and broke his left shoulder.

Mills was being blocked by tight end Gary Barnidge along the sideline when The Third, declining to at least duck to absorb some of the contact, came roaring through at full steam. Mills took the major brunt of the collision.

Thinking it was merely a sprain, The Third reentered the game on the Browns’ final possession and handed off to running back Isaiah Crowell on three straight plays. An MRI Monday delivered the grim news.

The seemingly fragile quarterback was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return. McCown moves up as the starter and rookie Cody Kessler is the backup. If McCown goes down next Sunday against Baltimore in the home opener, Kessler is your quarterback.

It thus behooves McCown, who also was injured in last season’s opening game and sat out one game before returning, to remain healthy and do nothing foolish for at least the next eight weeks, or however long The Third remains on IR.

With McCown taking over, look for coach Hue Jackson to alter the offense to suit his talents, which are quite different than The Third’s. There will be fewer rollouts for the less mobile veteran.

He is also a much better pocket passer and it wouldn’t surprise to see Jackson change his offense at least against the Ravens Sunday and incorporate the running game more than he did against the Eagles.

McCown had success against the Ravens last season, splitting the two games. He was 36-of-51 for a club-record 457 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-30 overtime victory in Baltimore. In so doing, he became the only quarterback in Browns history to record three straight 300-yard games.

In the second Ravens game, he was 20-of-34 for 232 yards and two more touchdowns before leaving with a shoulder injury late in the 34-27 loss.

The only constant now that he is in charge of the huddle is that McCown will throw to the same corps of receivers, most of whom had trouble getting open against the Eagles.

It wasn’t until midway through the second quarter that The Third invited a wide receiver into the game plan, throwing exclusively to running backs and Barnidge. Andrew Hawkins and Barnidge are the only receivers who have caught passes from him.

We also might see a change in the blocking scheme up front with the less mobile McCown either under center or in shotgun formation. That could involve two tight end sets or making fullback Malcolm Johnson a full-time partner with Crowell in the backfield to afford maximum pass protection.

At this point, there is far less margin for error with Kessler as the only backup.
*       *       *
While he’s at it, Jackson might as well shelve those gimmick plays. What in the world was that ridiculous maneuver on fourth down in Cleveland territory early in the second quarter Sunday against the Eagles?

Not sure exactly what that was. It looked like a fake punt with punter Britton Colquitt and long snapper Charley Hughlett on the line of scrimmage. Duke Johnson Jr. was alone in the backfield about seven yards behind center Cameron Erving. It fooled no one and gave the Eagles a gift field goal.

Gimmicky moves are made by desperate coaches looking for anything to shake things up. What the Browns need to do is concentrate on playing fundamentally solid football first before trying to get cute. There is not enough talent on this team to get exotic. Rip those plays out of the playbook and incinerate them.

That includes the equally ridiculous play where Erving lines up over the ball flanked by guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco and everyone else splits about 12-15 yards wide on either side of the trio. Looked extremely unorthodox and equally stupid. I expected them to shift back into a more conventional set. But no. That play didn’t work, either.

Rip and incinerate.
*       *       *
One of the topics I scheduled Sunday right after the game to be discussed here was how long The Third would last this season. Since that has been answered, time to move on to another area of great concern.

That being why was Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz so easily able to torch the Browns’ secondary? And why were Philadelphia receivers able to get so wide open with apparent ease?

With veterans like Joe Haden, Tramon Williams and Jamar Taylor back there, that shouldn’t be happening. And when Wentz beats Haden and Williams with his first two touchdown throws as a professional, it kind of makes one wonder just what is going on.

If as snot-nosed kid from a small college team can come in and do that, what in the world will the likes of Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton going to do in the Browns’ six AFC North games this season? The mind boggles.
*       *       *
Another exhibition trend raise its ugly head in the Eagles loss. It’s the first down-number of plays-time of possession trifecta.

In the first two exhibitions, the Browns averaged 11½ first downs, 42 plays and 20:07 in time of possession. That improved somewhat in games three and four to 14 first downs, 60 plays and 28:30 time of possession.

Against the Eagles, it was 14 first downs, 50 plays and 20:40 in TOP. Those are the kinds of figures a team puts up when the offense does not – cannot? – generate anything resembling an attack and the defense can’t get off the field. Put those together and you’re asking for trouble.

Bears watching in the next 15 games.
*       *       *
Time for the good, the bad, the ugly and this week the really, really ugly from the shellacking in Philadelphia:

The good – The play of rookies Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, new inside linebacker Demario Davis and the punting of Colquitt. Nassib, the big defensive end, seemed to be near the ball fairly often and contributed a sack. Ogbah, who should be a down lineman, was very aggressive and made a few nice plays. Davis, due mainly to the failure of the defensive line to hold the line of scrimmage, did a good job of cleaning up the mistakes in front of him. Colquitt averaged 50.2 yards on five punts.

The bad – Barnidge and nose tackle Danny Shelton get the honors here. Barnidge was targeted just twice by the Third and dropped both passes that were extremely catchable. As they say, they hit him in a bad place . . . the hands. Shelton was supposed to be a force in the middle. The only thing he’s good at is getting stood up at the line of scrimmage.

The ugly – Eagles defensive Connor Barwin embarrassed Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas on a sack of The Third midway through the fourth quarter. It was a sack the Cleveland All-Pro would not have allowed in previous seasons.

And the really, really ugly award goes to – Erving for his shotgun snap that sailed so far over The Third’s futile leap in the third quarter and sailed into the end zone, Yao Ming could not have snagged it. It gave the Eagles a 15-10 lead at the time and, some believe, was the turning point of the game. Erving was credited with a fumble.
*       *       *
And finally: One more “good” from the game. The Browns committed only four penalties for 15 yards. There is something to be said for that. I’m not sure what, though. . . . Jackson has to figure out a way to involve Duke Johnson Jr. more into the offense. The playmaker touched the ball only six times against Philadelphia and gained 50 yards. That number needs to be much closer to 15-20 touches. . . . Statistical oddity: safeties Jordan Poyer, Ibraheim Campbell and Derrick Kindred each had six solo tackles in the game. . . . Cleveland wide receivers made only five catches on 15 targets.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nothing new here

The way the Browns played the game of football Sunday in Philadelphia, they would have been better off forfeiting the game instead of settling for a 29-10 loss against the Eagles.

It was an exercise in futility almost from the time they exited the buses that carried them to the stadium. Practically nothing worked on both sides of the ball. It sort of looked disturbingly similar to the way they played during the exhibition season.

It was almost as though no one told them this one was for real. This one was one of the 16 that counted. If that message was, indeed, delivered, it was ignored.

The only difference between this game and the four exhibition games was the regulars played the entire game instead of sparingly. Which means this, Browns Nation, is what you can expect the rest of the way.

If the Browns cannot beat one of the worst teams in the National Football League, does that theoretically makes them worse? Well, yeah. And you’ll probably get no argument from those who watched painfully on television and are honest with themselves.

Perhaps, some might argue, this was merely a case of the Browns being the Browns in an opening game. After all, they won only one season opener in the last 17 seasons since the return in 1999.

They tried. They really tried. You can’t fault their effort. Their execution maybe, but not their effort. They are just not that good. They can’t help themselves. This, it appears, is as good as it’s going to get.

With the exception of only a few performers (more on that Monday), their best was not good enough against a team that is not nearly as good as it undoubtedly believed after the game. If the Eagles use this game as the barometer for what lies ahead, they are in for an enormously rude surprise.

Carson Wentz’s NFL debut couldn’t have gone any smoother. The rookie Eagles quarterback, passed up by the Browns in the last college draft, threw for 278 yards – it would have been much closer to 300 if not for three dropped passes – and a pair of touchdowns and did not look like someone making his professional debut.

The Cleveland defense, just like the last several seasons, had trouble getting off the field. The Eagles had 23 first downs (to Cleveland’s 14), owned the ball for nearly 40 minutes and did not turn it over. Numbers like that generally add up to a victory.

The Browns’ pass rush, non-existent in the first and fourth quarters, picked up steam in the middle two quarters and dropped Wentz twice. And the run defense? Typically poor, allowing 133 yards.

And any time your offense runs 50 plays, that’s a red flag. The again, when it comes to the Browns, it’s the byproduct of an offensive line that is just a notch or two above awful. It has problems opening running lanes for running backs and offers little, if any, protection for the quarterback.

Robert Griffin III was smacked around like a piƱata most of the afternoon. On his 30 dropbacks, The Third was sacked three times, knocked down on six other occasions and hurried nine times. That, too, is on the offensive line.

He was also intercepted once on a poor throw behind rookie receiver Corey Coleman in the second quarter, but was also victimized by four dropped passes, two by the reliable Gary Barnidge. Not that they would have made a difference, but those have to be caught.

It would appear, at least based on what we’ve seen from Hue Jackson’s offense thus far, that the Cleveland attack consists of chucking the ball as far as possible in hopes of someone making a great play, and running up the middle.

The Third racked up 102 of his 190 throwing yards against the Eagles on two bombs. Terrelle Pryor made a sensational catch on a 44-yarder that gave the Browns a first-and-goal at the Philadelphia 9 en route to their only touchdown of the day, a two-yard run by Isaiah Crowell in the second quarter.

And on the first play of the second half, The Third hooked up with Coleman on a 58-yarder that was underthrown and poorly defended by three members of the Eagles’ secondary. Outside of that, the Cleveland offense stuttered and sputtered.

It ran four or fewer plays on 10 of 13 possessions and gift-wrapped two points for the Eagles on an awful shotgun snap by center Cameron Erving deep in Cleveland territory that bounced out of the end zone for a safety early in the third quarter.

Add to that two highly questionable coaching decisions – OK, they were boneheaded – by Jackson that led to 10 more Philadelphia points.

The coach called for a fake punt on a fourth-and-5 at the Cleveland 41 on the second play of the second quarter. Not the Philadelphia 41. The CLEVELAND 41. It fooled no one.

Duke Johnson Jr. took the direct snap with punter Britton Colquitt lined up on the line of scrimmage and was hit almost immediately by linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill. It led to a Caleb Sturgis field goal.

Then with 3:41 left in the game and trailing, 22-10, Jackson gambled again, this time on fourth-and-3 at the Cleveland 15. The Third, who had taken a ferocious hit to his left shoulder on an 11-yard scramble on the previous play, overthrew Andrew Hawkins in the left flat. The Eagles were in the end zone four plays later.

The Third was the Browns’ leading ground gainer until the final minute when, with the game clearly in hand, the Eagles’ defense went prevent and allowed Crowell to ramble for 40 of his 62 yards on three straight plays to close out the game.

But Wentz, rightly so, was the story of this game. Elevated to the starting position following the trade of Sam Bradford to Minnesota, he showed the poise of a veteran rather than someone making his initial NFL start.

Was he great? No. Very good? Not quite. Solid? Getting closer. Impressive? Ding, ding, ding. Then again, keep in mind against whom he was making his debut. Veteran Cleveland cornerbacks Joe Haden and Tramon Williams, each burned by a Wentz scoring pass, had to be impressed.

Then late in the fourth quarter, Wentz victimized Haden again by squeezing a pass to wide receiver Jordan Matthews into an extremely tight window on a third-and-5 near midfield to extend a drive. It might have been his best throw of the afternoon.

There is a bottom line here with the Browns even though they have played only 60 minutes of meaningful football. It’s as simple as this: If they can’t compete with a poor team like the Eagles, let alone knock them off, the 2016 season will seem like a never-ending nightmare.

After the game, Coleman summed up the afternoon this way: “We have stuff to work on. That’s it.” No kidding.

Said Jackson, “I saw a team that was sporadic to start. Then I saw a team that was fighting.” Fighting, he will find out soon enough, does not translate into winning. Fighting doesn’t count for much if you don’t have the talent to back it up and this team does not.