Saturday, September 10, 2016

Off to a good start?

Under normal circumstances, the opening game on any National Football League team’s schedule should be reason enough to get excited.

After all, it signals the end of a boring, seemingly never-ending exhibition campaign and the beginning of arguably the most anticipated season on the annual sports calendar.

For every NFL team, that is, except the Browns, now entering their 18th season since returning from a three-year hiatus caused by league incompetence. Since that return, the opening game of the regular season has been anything but a exciting.

In the previous 17 attempts to kick off a season on a positive note, this franchise has failed a miserable 16 times, a record in futility that is unlikely to be matched in a league where sustained utter ineffectiveness is virtually non-existent.

Makes no difference where the Browns start a season. For the first 11 seasons and 14 of the first 15 since the return, the league awarded them the season opener. The only blemish on an otherwise perfect record of abject futility in 17 seasons was a 20-3 victory over Baltimore at home in 2004.

So they might as well inform the league they are not going to show up and summarily forfeit Sunday’s game in Philadelphia against the Eagles because history shows they are going to lose, anyway. Why even bother making the trip?

But since league laws do not permit forfeits under such circumstances, we might as well look at what most likely will be the least cared-about game in the NFL during opening week.

It features the two worst teams in the league. That’s not an arguable point. They will wage a race to the bottom and compete for the top choice in next year’s college football draft. That’s good news for the Browns, who own the Eagles’ top pick.

The Eagles had a real good shot at winning this game until shipping veteran quarterback Sam Bradford to Minnesota last week when the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater to a wrecked knee. Losing Bradford substantially weakens the Eagles’ offense.

Carson Wentz, whose professional résumé consists of 39 snaps in one exhibition game a month ago before suffering a fractured rib or two, is now the man in charge of the huddle in Philadelphia.

Advantage Cleveland? Yes, depending on how respectfully the Browns’ defense treats the raw rookie, whom the Browns passed on in the last draft. And no, if there is even the tiniest morsel of respect.

If coach Hue Jackson does not allow defensive coordinator Ray Horton to throw everything at Wentz, something is terribly wrong. Horton, a Dick LeBeau disciple, loves to bring the pressure.

So why not bring everything against someone who is a rank neophyte in what real warfare is like in the NFL during the regular season? He got beat up in the one exhibition that sidelined him for the rest of the preseason.

Unload the playbook’s entire blitz package. Make Wentz feel uncomfortable on every snap. Take whatever confidence he has at the beginning of the game and toy with it every time he exits the huddle.

Confuse him with disguised coverages in the secondary. Show him one look and switch to another at the snap. Make him unload the ball before he wants to. And most of all show him absolutely no respect.

If Horton at any time veers toward a more conservative approach, all bets are off. Defense is all about aggression. Steering away from that, especially against a team that isn’t that good to begin with, is asking for trouble.

The only caveat is that Wentz, who operated a pro-style offense in college and is primarily a pocket passer, is a deceivingly good runner. Which means if the Browns do not practice good gap integrity, the kid is capable of hurting them with his legs.

As for the rest of the Philadelphia offense, the Browns should be able to shut down the running game of Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles and render wide receivers Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham ineffective.

Where the Browns could encounter trouble is with the Eagles’ defense, which features a couple of solid linemen in tackle Fletcher Cox and end Connor Barwin and active cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll.

The Eagles’ pass rush probably will give the Browns’ somewhat shaky offensive line problems, especially against Cleveland’s right side. How often the Cleveland offensive linemen get to the second level will determine how well the running game operates.

This one is shaping up as 60 minutes of futility with both clubs plumbing the depths of mediocrity. It very well could turn into a punting duel between Cleveland’s Dustin Colquitt and Donnie Jones of the Eagles. Playing between the 20-yard lines might be the norm.

Cleveland quarterback Robert Griffin III will be harassed all afternoon, rushing a majority of his passes due to the extreme pressure and winding up throwing a pair of interceptions in Eagles territory. Only his ability to escape the rush will keep his sack total to just one.

Wentz will not be as lucky. He will be dropped four times, throw three picks and cross midfield just twice. But his ability to run enables him to be his club’s leading rusher.

After a scoreless first half, during which fans will be given free packets of No-Doz, the Browns strike first midway through the third quarter following a Joe Haden interception deep in Philly territory. Patrick Murray nails a 37-yard field goal for the first points of the season.

The Eagles come right back on the Browns’ next possession, Barwin recovering an Isaiah Crowell fumble at the Cleveland 14-yard line. Caleb Sturgis’ 30-yard field goal squares the score.

The two teams lurch back into futility mode until the final two minutes, when The Third gets hot. He hooks up with tight end Gary Barnidge and rookie wide receivers Corey Coleman and Rashard Higgins on three straight passes to move the ball to the Eagles’ 25-yard line.

With a minute left, the Eagles are forced to burn all three timeouts to conserve time as the Browns resort to the ground game to get closer to the goal line. Three Crowell runs advance the ball to the 12-yard line with just seven seconds left.

Murray’s 30-yard field goal nails the victory and just like that, the Browns are 1-0 after the first game of the season for the first time since 2004. It doesn’t take mathematical wizardry to make the final:

Browns 6, Eagles 3

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