Thursday, September 8, 2016

It will be a very long season

Some seasons for the Browns are more difficult to predict than others because the club has at least a modicum of talent on the roster. This will not be one of those seasons. Not even close.

This is a bad team through and through, the anticipated protestations from the front office notwithstanding. In all the years I have been writing about the Browns, I cannot remember being so pessimistic about a team. There is nothing remotely positive onto which one can glom.

And while I’m the kind of person who sees the glass as always half empty, that thought is relatively positive to what I see unfolding this season. It is going to be long, frustrating almost beyond belief, anger-filled and end up turning off a lot of young fans.

Major publications have forecast as few as one victory for the Browns this season, which would be an all-time low for the franchise that began in 1946. Even I don’t believe it will be that awful.

And though I’m a pessimist by nature, there is no way the Browns are going to win only one game this season, There is also no way they can play anywhere near .500 ball, as some front-office types either believe or have dreamt.

They will win more than once. Maybe even more than twice. Maybe. But that’s it. Anything beyond three victories is beyond the wildest dreams. The search for three victories thus begins on . . .

Sunday Sept. 11 – at Philadelphia, 1 p.m., CBS –If the Browns are to win just one game this season, this would be the one even though it’s on the road and they are a terrible road team. In fact, season openers have not been kind to the Browns since the resurrection in 1999. They have won only one opener (20-3 over Baltimore in 2004) in that span. The opener this season will be third straight on the road. It will not be a high–scoring game between arguably the worst two teams in the National Football League. Both have bad offenses and suspect defenses. It very likely will turn into a punting duel between Dustin Colquitt of the Browns and the Eagles’ Donnie Jones. The game will turn in the fourth quarter when the Browns intercept rookie quarterback Carson Wentz for the third time deep in Eagles territory and Cleveland kicker Patrick Murray sneaks a 25-yard field goal just inside the left upright for a 6-3 victory.

Sunday Sept. 18 – vs. Baltimore, 1 p.m., CBS – The scoring drought continues in the home opener against the Ravens. The Cleveland defense, which looked decent against the Eagles in the opener, will not fare as well against a Baltimore offense that can score in many different ways. Joe Flacco continues his career success against Cleveland with touchdown passes to Steve Smith, Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman and Justin Forsett runs for a pair of scores in a 35-7 victory. Terrelle Pryor scores the lone Browns touchdown on the receiving end of a 72-yard bomb from Robert Griffin III.

Sunday Sept. 25 – at Miami, 1 p.m., CBS – Same old story against the Dolphins. More defensive woes as Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill strafes the Cleveland secondary repeatedly,, racking up nearly 350 yards and scoring strikes to Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron. The Cleveland attack, meanwhile, staggers along with no ground game against Ndamukong Suh & Co. The Third, forced to throw nearly 40 times, connects with rookies Corey Coleman and Rashard Higgins on a pair of late touchdowns passes in the 31-14 loss.

Sunday Oct. 2– at Washington, 1 p.m., CBS – A possible revenge game for The Third, whose stay in Washington ended bitterly. If nothing else, look for the Browns to be very competitive in this one, especially on offense. The Third will play what turns out to be his best game of the season, clicking on nearly 75% of his passes. Pryor, Coleman, and tight end Gary Barnidge are the major beneficiaries against a befuddled Redskins secondary. Each scores a touchdown, as does Duke Johnson Jr. on a spectacular 62-yard screen pass. The Cleveland defense does not cooperate (surprise!), making Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins look like an All Pro. Cousins keeps pace with The Third with four scoring passes, but is picked in the final moments by cornerback Joe Haden near midfield. Five plays later, Murray boots a 34-yard field with mere seconds left for a 31-28 victory, evening the record at 2-2.

Sunday Oct. 9 – vs. New England, 1 p.m., CBS – Back home with a .500 record only to greet the Patriots in a game featuring Tom Brady’s return from a four-game suspension. The future Hall of Famer shows no rust from the enforced layoff, shredding the Cleveland secondary all afternoon with absolutely no pressure from the front seven. He puts the ball up a relatively conservative 24 times and hits on all but three, connecting with Julian Edelman (twice), Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola on scoring passes, while LeGarrette Blount scores twice from inside the 5 in the 42-10 rout. Josh Gordon returns from the suspended list for the Browns, but is held to just two small-yardage catches.

Sunday Oct. 16 – at Tennessee, 1 p.m., CBS – The last time these teams met in the second game of last season, the Browns jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and coasted to a 28-14 victory at home. Johnny Manziel was the Cleveland quarterback, connecting twice with Travis Benjamin on long scoring passes. That was then; this is now. Manziel is gone, Benjamin is in San Diego, Demarco Murray is the new Titans running back and Marcus Mariota is that much more experienced as the Tennessee quarterback. Murray and rookie Derrick Henry make the Titans’ ground game a legitimate threat. And considering how poor the Cleveland run defense remains, that threat is lethal. Murray and Henry pound the defense for 174 yards, score thrice, Mariota heaves scoring passes to tight end Delanie Walker and wideout Andre Johnson and the defense limits the Browns to only 222 yards and 10 points in the 38-10 drubbing.

Sunday Oct. 23 – at Cincinnati 1 p.m., CBS – In the last 12 seasons, the Browns have traveled downstate to Cincinnati a dozen times and won only twice. After this one, it will be two victories in 13 such journeys. Even though Browns coach Hue Jackson knows the Cincinnati offense like the back of his hand, having served as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator for the past few seasons before moving up north, it won’t help on this day. All he can do is admire, probably reluctantly, as he watches what he created destroy his defense. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A. J. Green will play pitch and catch all afternoon; Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will run freely; and the solid Cincinnati defense will smother the Cleveland offense on yet another lopsided victory, 45-13, with The Third and Gordon hooking up for the lone Cleveland touchdown.

Sunday Oct. 30 – New York Jets, 1 p.m., CBS – Limping back home after three straight embarrassing losses, it doesn’t get any easier or more friendly against the Jets, who can beat you in a number of ways. On offense, there’s bearded, Harvard-educated quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, coming off a 3,900-yard, 31-touchdown season. He’s throwing to the likes of Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte, looking to revive a career that took a hit last season, all operating behind a strong offensive line. On defense, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams anchor the line in front of a solid set of linebackers. And then there’s cornerback Darrelle Revis lurking in the secondary. It will added up to yet another humiliating loss, the Browns avoiding a shutout when Josh McCown hooks up with Barnidge in the final minute of a 38-7 loss.

Sunday Nov. 6 – vs. Dallas, 1 p.m., Fox – It’s amazing how much difference one man can make in a football team. With Tony Romo at quarterback, the Cowboys are a very good football team. Good things happen on both sides of the football. When Romo is injured, which is much more frequently as he gets older, the Cowboys become a very average football team. And that’s what the Cowboys bring to Cleveland, Romo still recovering from a back injury suffered in the exhibition season. Rookie Dak Prescott has been decent, but somewhat inconsistent. Up some weeks, down other weeks. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott has been the bellwether of the offense with nearly 1,000 yards in the books. This one very well could produce the Browns’ best offensive output of the season. McCown, replacing an ineffective Griffin at quarterback, throws for three scoring passes to Coleman, Higgins and Gordon. But Elliott rambles for nearly 200 yards and three touchdowns and Prescott and wideout Dez Bryant collaborate for another pair of scores in a 41-27 victory.

Thursday Nov. 10 – at Baltimore, 8:25 p.m., NFL Network – Second time around for these two division rivals, this time in front of a national television audience. And the outcome will be no different than the earlier meeting. The only difference is the Browns will put up more than seven points with McCown in charge of the offense. He and Gordon will provide two of the three touchdowns with Duke Johnson Jr. scoring the other. The Ravens counter with another blistering attack against the beleaguered Cleveland defense. Flacco throws three more touchdowns to Perriman, Smith and Kamar Aiken; former Browns running back Terrance West piles up 102 of the Ravens 198 yards on the ground and scores once; and kicker Justin Tucker tacks on a pair of field goals in the 34-21 victory as the losing streak reaches six games.

Sunday Nov. 20 – vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m., CBS – First meeting of the season between the AFC North’s leaders and cellar dwellers. The game draws more Steelers fans than Browns fans at the former Cleveland Browns Stadium. And they are not disappointed. Ben Roethlisberger returns to wreak his usual havoc on the Cleveland defense. Big Ben, who has faced Cleveland 22 times and owns 20 victories, always seems to elevate his already superior passing game against the Browns. And this one is no different. The future Hall of Famer relentlessly picks apart the Cleveland secondary, hooking up with six different receivers, throwing scoring passes to Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Antonio Brown twice. Running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams combine for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Pittsburgh defense, meanwhile, completely shackles the Browns’ offense, picking off three McCown passes and limiting it to just 187 total yards and an Isaiah Crowell touchdown in the 45-7 victory. Losing streak is now at seven games.

Sunday Nov. 27 – vs. New York Giants, 1 p.m., Fox – Sports Illustrated predicted the Browns would win only one game this season. And this one, inexplicably, was the one. Not going to happen. The Giants’ offense with Eli Manning at the controls and the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz running routes for him and Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen running the ball is too much for a Cleveland defense that is working overtime on a weekly basis. McCown recovers from the Pittsburgh disaster and delivers scoring passes to Gordon and Barnidge and is picked off just once. Manning’s workmanlike 247 yards passing and touchdown passes to Beckham and Cruz are aided by a ground game that piles up 127 yards and a pair of scores. The Giants’ defense sacks McCown four times and holds the running game to just 72 yards in the 31-14 victory. And the losing beat goes on for the eighth straight week.

Sunday Dec. 4 – Bye – And not a moment too soon.

Sunday Dec. 11 – vs. Cincinnati, 1 p.m., CBS – Aaaah. A whole week off between games. Another whole week then to recharge the batteries and do something about that eight-game losing streak. And get ready for . . . ugh . . . the Bengals. Yep, the same team challenging Pittsburgh for the top spot in the AFC North. So much for a soft return. The last time these teams met back in week seven in Cincinnati, the Bengals spanked the Browns by 32 points. This time, the game is much closer because the Cleveland offensive line puts together its best game of the season, keeping McCown’s uniform clean all afternoon. The quarterback responds with a 300-yard day and scoring passes to Coleman and Higgins and Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. rack up 125 yards and a Johnson TD. But the Cleveland defense is no match for the Cincinnati offensive line, which leads the way for Hill and Bernard to ramble for 184 yards and two touchdowns and permits Dalton to connect on TD passes to Green and tight end Tyler Eifert in the 31-24 victory.

Sunday Dec. 18 – at Buffalo 1 p.m., CBS – What do Buffalo and the middle of December conjure up? That’s right, snow and plenty of it blowing in off Lake Erie as a football game between the Browns and Bills begins. It winds up just about the way you would expect. With the grounds crew furiously trying to keep the playing field playable, this one turns into a game full of fumbles, bad snaps, intercepted passes, slipping and sliding and really nothing resembling a professional football game. The game is played primarily between the 20-yard lines and turns into a tactical and strategic game of field position. Neither team penetrates the red zone in the first half. The Browns finally cash in on linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah’s strip sack of Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor at the Bills’ 21-yard line with Murray breaking the scoreless tie with a 25-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. On the next Cleveland series, Bills safety Aaron Williams picks off McCown inside the Cleveland 30. For once the Cleveland defense stiffens, forcing a Dan Carpenter field goal from 28 yards. With timing running down and the teams apparently heading for overtime, Crowell botches a handoff from McCown deep in Cleveland territory. Rookie defensive end Adophus Washington recovers at the Browns’ 21-yard line with less than a minute left. Three running plays later, Carpenter extends the Cleveland losing streak to 10 games with a 31-yard field goal.

Saturday Dec. 24 – San Diego, 1 p.m., CBS – Never in their long history have the Browns gone through an entire season without winning a home game. Both of this season’s victories were achieved on the road (Philadelphia and Washington). After this one, that rather dubious honor remains in tact. If you are going to play the Chargers in a season, it’s best to do so at home when it’s 18 degrees at game time, some 60 or so degrees chillier than San Diego. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is rendered ineffective by a gusting wind. Wind-blown passes rarely find the hands of receivers Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin and Antonio Gates. And running back Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead find little traction on the icy field. The Browns, meanwhile, resort to ball control and managing the clock. For the first time this season, they win time of possession and complete a game without a turnover. It isn’t pretty, but it’s effective. McCown throws only 14 passes and guides two long drives that result in touchdowns by Crowell and fullback Malcolm Johnson. The defense, playing its best game of the season, limits the Chargers to only 68 yards on the ground and 178 through the air in the 14-6 victory.

Sunday Jan. 1 – at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m., CBS – Nothing like heading into the season finale with a victory in this victory-starved season. And wouldn’t you know it. It’s in Pittsburgh, where the Browns haven’t won a game since 2003. Twelve straight losses in the Roethlisberger era and it continues on this first day of 2017. Happy New Year, Browns, you have drawn the short straw for the last game of the season. This time, the Steelers are protecting a one-game lead in the AFC North and must win this one to gain a bye in the first round of the playoffs. No sweat. Roethlisberger again strafes the secondary to the tune of 422 yards, four touchdowns (one each to Brown, Bryant, rookie Eli Rogers and Bell) and the offensive line paves the way for a 122-yard day for Bell. The Pittsburgh defense brings McCown and his offense back down to earth with five sacks, a couple of picks and a fumble recovery in the 48-13 victory.

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