Monday, November 28, 2016

Monday leftovers

That the Browns trailed the New York Giants by only a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter Sunday was surprising. What followed was not.

On several occasions this season, the Browns have been within striking distance in the fourth quarter only to fall victim to a play or series of plays that have kept them on the winless path this season.

Perfect example was how the Cleveland defense, which played a relatively decent game up to that point, played after the offense scored its only touchdown of the day to creep within seven points of the Giants.

A little more than eight minutes remained in regulation and the defense needed a play. Made no difference who made the play. Getting the ball back for the offense was mandatory. Someone had to step up and make that play.

And as has been the case all season, no one stepped up. Three minutes, six plays and 73 yards later, the Giants regained a 14-point lead and that, for all practical purposes, doused whatever fire the Browns had left.

That’s among the numerous maladies the front office must address in the offseason. When the defense cannot pick up the offense, when the offense cannot pick up the defense, when plays that need to be made are not made, that’s a formula for losing.

This edition of the Browns lacks a playmaker on both sides of the football. Missing is the kind of player who will step up when no one else does and make vital contributions. They need someone to take charge. There is no one on this roster who fits that description.

As has been pointed out before, no one from the 2016 college draft class can honestly raise his hand and proclaim to be that player. With 14 selections, one would figure the odds of getting one or two impact players would be favorable.

Judging from what emanated from Berea during the draft, it appeared as those in charge placed a great deal of importance on production, figuring that production at the college level would translate well to the National Football League.

Thinking like that is foolhardy. The step up to the NFL from college is as different as the manner in which the two styles differ. The pro game is faster, quicker and much more violent. It figuratively separates the men from the boys.

Not every college star or superstar can waltz right into the NFL and immediately fit in. Because of the bellicose manner in which the game is played on the pro level, attitude and passion are more important ingredients than production.

The sooner the Browns’ scouting department realizes this, the quicker it will be able to select players who eventually make a difference.  As will adhering to the notion that good teams are built from the inside out, not the other way.

If this scouting department continues to seek out productive players on the collegiate level, they can expect results similar to what they are receiving from the most current draft classes.

It’s trite, but it bears repeating and is so true. Games are won and lost in the trenches. The good offensive and defensive lines make those who work behind them even better. Without talented plug uglies performing the grunt work, the end result is not pleasant. Just look at the trenches for the Browns.

Personnel boss Andrew Berry and his men have an awfully deep hole from which to extricate themselves. It will take time. In the Browns’ case, it will take a long time. You don’t build offensive and defensive lines in one draft. Or two drafts. It might take as many as three drafts to get it right.

But at least it’s the correct direction to take and the payoff will be well worth the wait. That’s if they choose to head in that direction.
*       *       *
So how close are the Browns to setting the record for the longest losing streak in NFL history? Not as close as you think, although they are starting to get warm. The 15 straight losses still pale somewhat to the record of a couple of pre- and post-expansion teams.

The Chicago Cardinals in the World War II years between 1942 and 1945 lost 29 games in a row for the pre-AFL-NFL (1970) expansion mark. Post expansion, it’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976-77 when they began their NFL adventure by losing their first 26 games.

That recalls one of the greatest quotes of all time uttered by Bucs coach John McKay after one of the losses well into the streak.

“What,” he was asked by a reporter, “do you think of your club’s execution?” Replied McKay, “I’m in favor of it.”
*       *       *
Remember Taylor Gabriel, who caught 64 passes for 861 yards for Cleveland in 2014 and 2015? The little wide receiver was cut by the Browns just before the start of this season and picked up by the Atlanta Falcons a day later.

He languished on the Atlanta bench behind some pretty good receivers until Sunday, when he surfaced in a big way in a victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The 5-8, 165-pounder turned a pair of short screen passes from quarterback Matt Ryan into touchdowns, giving him four scores on the season.

He is with the Falcons because Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who coordinated the Cleveland offense in 2014, remembered Gabriel and recommended him to the Falcons’ front office. He averages 17.8 yards on his 17 receptions.

The Browns cut Gabriel and instead kept Andrew Hawkins, who is five years older. Hawkins averages 10.8 yards on his 25 receptions. That move remains a head scratcher.
*       *       *
Rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah suffered a woulda, coulda, didn’t pivotal moment with 4:16 left in the third quarter in the Giants loss. It’s one of those moments that tend to get lost in the big picture.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning, nursing a 14-6 lead, dropped back to pass on a third-and-8 at his 16-yard line. At the same time, Ogbah dropped into short coverage on a zone blitz from his left end position and was in the way of Manning’s pass at the 16.

He had a clear path for a pick 6. All he had to do was catch the ball and run. No one would have caught him. Maybe it was because he wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the ball that caused Ogbah to drop a pick he should have caught.

Woulda, coulda, didn’t. It would have brought the Browns to within a point of the Giants at that point and there’s no telling how much momentum it would have generated. We’ll never know of course.
*       *       *
Terrelle Pryor is one very, very unhappy young man. Who can blame him? The former Ohio State quarterback has through hard work and dedication become a bona fide NFL wide receiver. And it frustrates the hell out of him that his contributions are being wasted.

Television cameras have caught his displeasure with either some of his teammates or coaches or maybe both. Nothing wrong with that. That displeasure no doubt stems from the fact the Browns have failed to establish any kind of relationship with discovering how to win games.

What makes this important is Pryor is a free agent after this season. The Browns naturally don’t want him to leave. Certainly not after developing him into one of the NFL’s most dangerous wideouts.

He is on pace to catch 83 passes for almost 1,150 yards, figures that could land him numerous votes for the Pro Bowl. At the same time, other clubs surely have taken notice on what Pryor has accomplished and will be interested.

The big question, though, is whether Pryor wants to stick around with the Browns. If body language is any indication, he couldn’t get out of Cleveland quickly enough and have the opportunity to hook up with a team that provides a winning culture, something that hasn’t existed in Cleveland for a long time. This one bears watching.
*       *       *
The constant losing has given birth to the possibility of yet another dubious record the defense is closing in on. The 1990 Browns under Bud Carson and Jim Shofner, who took over following Carson’s dismissal midway through the season, allowed a club-record 462 points.

The 1999 expansion team was bad, but not that bad, permitting 437. But unless there is a sudden and dramatic turnaround, the current crew is on pace to allow 469 points. But the point-differential mark of minus-258, set in 2000, is safe.
*       *       *
And finally . . . There were 28 possessions between the Browns and Giants and 17 ended in punts, nine by Giants punter Brad Wing, who hung five of his nine boots inside the Cleveland 20. The Browns' Britton Colquitt landed only two of his eight that deep in New York territory. . . . Of Colquitt’s 61 punts this season, only 17 have landed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. The low number probably means he is kicking much closer to his goal line than he would like. . . . Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey continues to be a tackling machine with 11 more against the Giants. That gives him 114 on the season, second in the NFL to Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, who has 118. His 70 solo tackles are tied for seventh. . . . Nose tackle Danny Shelton had another strong game even though the stat sheet credits him with only two tackles. . . . The Cleveland defense held the Giants to only 13 first downs, a season low, and just 26 minutes in time of possession, another season low. . . . The three offensive touchdowns by the Giants took only four minutes and 19 seconds off the clock. . . . The Browns have scored more than 20 points in a game only three times this season, a broadside to Jackson’s reputation as an offensive guru.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thankful for the bye week 

How bad are the 2016 Cleveland Browns? Let us count the ways.

First, though, it should be duly noted they lost yet again Sunday at home in front of a crowd that looked outnumbered by empty orange seats.

For the record, the New York Giants won, 27-13, dealing the winless Browns their 12th straight loss and 15th in a row overall as the visitors stretched their winning streak to six games.

Now then, how bad are the 2016 Cleveland Browns? Well, the above stat is a broad clue. Let’s begin.

Browns aging (it seems by the minute) quarterback Josh McCown was sacked nearly as many times (seven) as Britton Colquitt punted the football (eight).

Of the Browns’ 15 possessions, eight ended in punts, including the first four of the second half, another three in turnovers (all fumbles, two by McCown), two in field goals, one on downs and one in a touchdown. The Giants converted two of the turnovers into touchdowns.

For most of the second half, the three interior members of the offensive line were Cameron Erving at center and guards Spencer Drango and Alvin Bailey and the rookie Drango was the best of the bunch. Bailey, who took over at right guard when John Greco went down in the third quarter, is just plain bad and Erving isn’t far behind.

McCown dropped back to throw the prolate spheroid 50 times in those 15 possessions and tacked on 10 knockdowns and 11 hits to the aforementioned sacks. That’s 28 times the offensive line failed to protect its quarterback. For the optimist, that’s 22 times it did.

That’s also 23 sacks by the opposition in the last four games alone and 45 on the season by a line that either forgot how to pass block or is way too soft to make an appreciable difference. The expansion 1999 team surrendered a club record 60. The current team is on pace to equal that.

And when that line is not tying to protect its quarterback, it isn’t doing much more to help the running backs. Once again, the Browns checked in with less than 70 yards (58) for the fifth straight game as time and again the holes just weren’t there.

The Cleveland running game opened the season strong and actually led the National Football League in the first four weeks in spite of losing every game, compiling four straight 100-yard games (totaling nearly 600 yards) on the ground.   

Since then, they have run for 481 yards, But that figure contains an outlier, the 180-yard effort in the week seven loss in Cincinnati, In that one, Kevin Hogan ran seven times for 104 yards and a touchdown on a variety of designed plays when injuries forced the desperate move to the rookie quarterback after fellow rookie Cody Kessler was injured..

Subtract that 180 and the Browns have racked up a paltry and embarrassing 301 yards on the ground in the other seven games, an average of 43 yards a game. That’s how bad the ground game has been and one of the myriad reasons the Browns are winless.

The offense put together only one successful drive all afternoon against the Giants and that’s because the visitors played extremely soft defense after taking a 20-6 lead when defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul grabbed one of McCown’s two fumbles and rumbled 43 yards for a touchdown with 11 minutes left in regulation.

It took five plays (all passes) for the Browns to drive 75 yards to pull within 20-13 in the next possession, McCown hooking up with rookie Corey Coleman for a 21-yard scoring strike with 8:17 left in regulation.

But the defense, which had played stubbornly up to that point, gave it right back six plays and 75 yards later with Odell Beckham Jr. scoring his second touchdown of the afternoon.

In a season when his team is seriously flirting with becoming only the second team in National Football League history to lose every game, Cleveland coach Hue Jackson seems to play every game as though it means something in the standings. It seems at times as though he loses confidence in his offense, the side of the ball that’s his baby.

Case in point. After Bobby Rainey muffed one of Colquitt’s punts at the New York 30 late in the opening quarter, the Browns squandered an opportunity to even the score at 7-7, advancing at one point to the New York 6 before settling for the first of Cody Parkey’s two field goals from 20 yards.

For some reason, it doesn’t occur to Jackson that the only thing he has to lose at this point of the season is another game. There’s nothing wrong with taking chances and gambling early in games. At 0-11, there’s enough criticism to go around anyway with the quarterback situation leading the way.

McCown epitomizes how bad the quarterbacking is on this team. He has been around long enough to know when to hold on to the ball, when to move either within in the pocket or slide outside it and when to throw the ball away. And he keeps making the same mistakes.

Yes, he threw for 322 yards, connecting with Terrelle Pryor for 131 of them, including a 54-yarder just two plays before Pierre-Paul quickly turned the game around. That’s the maddening inconsistency with McCown. One nice play followed closely by a disastrous play.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning was much more efficient with his 28 dropbacks twice finding Beckham for touchdowns. Beckham had a third score called back when the Giants were caught holding during his 59-yard punt return.

Despite all the losing, despite the frustrating way in which the Browns lose games, despite all the negativity that might show up in the clubhouse from time to time, there is one constant with this club: It tries. It really does.

You cannot really fault the effort level. The talent level for sure. Not the effort. This team is not nearly good enough to overcome mistakes. It plays up to its capabilities, which tells you an awful lot of just how inadequate those capabilities are.

This is a young team not yet good enough to correct and overcome mistakes. The back-to-the-drawing-board approach either doesn’t seem to work anymore or the players have given up on it at this point of the season.

Now everyone has a week off to think just about anything but football during the bye week. And in most cases, that might be the best approach as the worst season in Browns history, one that can't end soon enough, drones on.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Smashing the crystal ball

In the Aug. 29 issue of Sports Illustrated, staff writer Jacob Feldman looked into his crystal ball and predicted on a game-by-game basis how the Browns would finish the 2016 season.

After the first 11 of the 16 games, Feldman is perfect. In other words, he correctly foresaw the Browns losing every one of them. He also foresaw them not quite equaling the winless season of the 2008 Detroit Lions.

When he predicted the Browns would finish with a 1-15 record, he drew the ire of many members of Browns Nation. Surely this young team would accidentally bump into at least a victory or three along the way.

Even your humble blogger, known for his pessimistic outlook on just about everything Browns, thought he saw three victories in what should be considered a stretch even for him. I mistakenly believed (hoped?) they would split their first four games.

So when Feldman, after a thorough evaluation of the 2016 edition of the Browns, reached his conclusion and decided one was the magic victory number, curiosity arose as to which team would help the Browns avoid infamous history.

Hard to believe, but he selected the Browns’ opponent Sunday in Cleveland, the New York Giants, as that team. As in the 7-3 New York Giants. As in the New York Giants, who have won their last five games (four of them at home).

Now Feldman most likely did not expect the Giants to be 7-3 and challenging the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East lead at this point of the season. If he had been that prescient, he most certainly would not have tabbed them as the Browns’ only victim this season.

Not sure, of course, which team among the final four would have received that dubious honor, but that is moot considering Feldman’s leap of faith in the Browns against the Giants last August.

These two teams developed quite a rivalry when the Browns joined the National Football League in 1950 and played numerous memorable games with the Giants in the then 12-team league, meeting each other twice a season.

Perhaps the most famous was the second 1958 game at Yankee Stadium in a snowstorm. The Browns held a one-game lead over the Giants in the NFL East Division. A tie or victory and they would have played the Baltimore Colts for the league championship.

With the game tied at 10-10 and the Giants facing a fourth-and-long with 2:07 left in regulation and the ball somewhere just outside the Cleveland 40-yard line, Giants coach Jim Lee Howell called on placekicker Pat Summerall – yes, that Pat Summerall – to save the season.

Summerall, who had missed an earlier attempt from 33 yards through the mini blizzard, did not miss this time from what was officially listed as 49 yards. They had to guess because the yard markers were obliterated on the snow-covered field.

Said Summerall after the game, “No one knows how far it had to go, but it was more than 50 I’ll tell you that.” The victory required a playoff game between the two teams, which the Giants won, 10-0, the following week in New York.

That Giants went on to play the Colts in what has been labeled the greatest football game ever played, the 23-17 classic climaxed by Baltimore fullback Alan Ameche’s iconic scoring run from one yard out in the NFL’s first overtime game.

On the coaching staff of that Giants team were offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry, both of whom became iconic head coaches whose busts reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But that was then and this is now.

The two teams have met 50 times overall since 1950, the Browns owning a 27-21-2 record. However, they have met only nine times since 1969 and just four times since the Browns were reborn in 1999, mainly because they belong to different conferences and meet only once every four years.

This season’s Giants, the only team to knock off the Cowboys this season, are accustomed to playing close games. Their seven victories have been by one, three, four, seven, five, one and six points. They have lost by two, 14 and seven points.

For most of the first half of the season, the Giants were a one-dimensional team on offense. With running back Rashad Jennings unavailable for three games because of an injured thumb, it was quarterback Eli Manning, a solid group of receivers and not much else.

It wasn’t difficult to game-plan against them. Shut down Manning and your chances of winning increased. But Jennings is back now despite lingering soreness in his left thumb and running well, having gained 172 yards in his last two games.

The offensive balance new coach Ben McAdoo had envisioned this season is finally beginning to pay off. It makes the receiving corps of Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard that much more dangerous against a Cleveland secondary that has seriously underperformed this season.

Beckham and Shepard have combined for 1.295 receiving yards and 11 of Manning’s 17 scoring passes. The pass-to-run ratio, which tilted heavily in favor of the forward pass in Jennings’ absence, is starting to skew a lot closer to 55-45 now that he is back.

Where the Giants have problems is maintaining possession of the football, averaging only 27 minutes a game. A lot of that is due to the minus-7 turnover ratio, caused in part by Manning’s 10 interceptions.

The Giants’ defense has been the saving grace. The secondary averages a pick a game with strong safety Landon Collins leading the way with half of them, one a pick-6.  He also leads the team in tackles and solo tackles and has three sacks.

Along the defensive line, which most likely will give the Cleveland offensive line problems all afternoon, look for ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon (each with four sacks) to harass Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown early and often. Pierre-Paul should have a big day against Cleveland offensive tackle Austin Pasztor.

Because the Giants with the one exception have played tight games this season, there is no reason to believe the Browns can’t hang in there with them for at least a half Sunday and give Feldman some hope of being correct.

But (and there is always a but with this team) the Browns will spoil that by doing what they have done so alarmingly often in the second half of games this season: Disappear.

After battling to a 7-7 tie in the first 30 minutes, the Cleveland defensive line will collapse against a good Giants offensive line and the visitors will pull away behind Jennings and the Manning-Beckham connection, which will account for three touchdowns.

So it looks as though Feldman’s perfect record of picking the Browns’ wins and losses correctly this season will come to an end. But the Browns’ losing streaks will not, reaching 12 in a row this season, 15 straight overall and 22 of the last 23. Make it:

Giants 28, Browns 7 (Correction from initial post)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monday leftovers

After what unfolded in Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is now obvious Cody Kessler is not the quarterback of the future for the Browns. And he shouldn’t be the quarterback of the present, either.

The rookie quarterback was exposed by a Steelers defense that had not performed well at all this season and looked a lot better than it probably is.

Kessler has played enough games in the National Football League and seen enough to be declassified as a raw rookie just finding his way. After eight games, he is not improving in any way shape or form.

He still has a below-average throwing arm. Unless he somehow discovers a formula that turns his right arm into a bazooka, opposing defenses will continue to crowd the line of scrimmage and dare him to beat them deep. He cannot.

Granted he plays behind an offensive line that affords him less-than-adequate protection and isn’t any better at opening holes in the run game, but he does not help with what appears to be lack of recognition.

By now, one would think he would recognize defenses to the point where he could change his protection calls before the snap. Several times against the Steelers, he had little or no time to throw because he failed to call the right protection.

Add to that his inability to find open receivers – there is almost always a checkdown receiver open on most plays – in order to avoid a negative play. If you own limited physical talents, at least play with some degree of intelligence.

In the beating he absorbed against the Steelers, Kessler showed none of the above and paid a dear price when Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons literally knocked him out of the game with a concussion at the end of the third quarter after he completed a jump-ball pass to Corey Coleman.

Up to that point, the Cleveland offense staggered aimlessly except for one third-quarter drive that produced a Cody Parkey 24-yard field goal after reaching the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. And then it was backward march.

First and goal at the 1 turned into fourth and goal at the 6 and three points after Isaiah Crowell was rudely thrown for a two-yard loss, Kessler was sacked for the fourth time of the afternoon and then forced to scramble for a two-yard gain.

The kid apparently hasn’t learned to throw the ball away when trouble lurks. For whatever reason, he holds firm in the belief he can always make a play. And much more often than not, he can’t and makes the wrong decision.

If he had a big arm and a quicker release, these would be problems that could be overcome with experience. It’s that aspect of his game that will shorten his professional football career as a starter.

Coach Hue Jackson saw something in Kessler’s game that encouraged him to strongly suggest choosing the kid from Southern Cal in the third round on the last college draft with other harder throwing quarterbacks still on the board. Maybe it was his ability to complete nearly two of every three passes he threw in college.

Accuracy is one of the most important attributes coaches look for in a quarterback. But unless you have a strong arm that can back it up, teams in the NFL will find out quickly enough and expose you.

Consider Kessler exposed.

Unless the Browns make any drastic moves with their quarterbacking next season (Josh McCown, who will start Sunday against the New York Giants, almost certainly will not be back), Kessler will return. If he is the starter, look for more of what you are seeing this miserable season.

He has already suffered two concussions in his eight-game career. At USC, that number was zero. The jump to the NFL from college is huge even for the quarterback of a perennial power.

Kessler has been sacked 19 times in eight games for a reason. The offensive line cannot assume full responsibility for that statistic. Kessler’s inability to overcome an obvious weakness is a contributing factor.
*       *       *
While the defense has taken its share of the blame for what has transpired this season, the offense recently has joined that parade. In a word, what the Browns do with the football when they own it is embarrassing.

And while Jackson and the front office are reluctant to admit it, there is a serious lack of talent on both sides of the football with this roster. The defense, however, showed up Sunday against the Steelers, allowing just 17 points and ratcheting up when they neared the red zone.

The offense the last three games has been worse than abysmal, producing just 26 points. The running game is stuck; the passing game is almost amateurish. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for what Jackson seeks with his play calling.

Here are some statistics in those three games that should embarrass the offensive coaching staff:

The Browns have racked up three touchdowns (one in each loss); 41 first downs (five of those in the last drive Sunday when the Steelers played soft on defense); run 133 plays (17 on that last drive); gained 575 total yards; ran for 111 yards; and thrown for 464 yards. Those should be two-game totals, not three.

Of those 133 plays, 39 have been called runs, or 29.3%. All of which means Jackson has called pass plays more than 70% of the time. An incredible 16 of those called passes have wound up as sacks. That’s right, 16 sacks in the last three games after allowing 22 in the first eight games. Yikes!!
*       *       *
Remember way back at the beginning of this season when Jackson promised a more balanced attack? You know the kind where you run the ball almost as much as you throw it? That was when he thought he had some talent with which to work. That went out the window about five or six games ago.

Unless he’s into delusional thinking, Jackson now knows three months and 11 games later that he has a much bigger problem than he initially thought at a time where 0-0 allowed one to be much more positive. Oh and 11 delivers a rude jolt of reality. Maybe next year.
*       *       *
More telling stats: The offense has owned the ball for just 27 minutes a game this season and scored only 20 touchdowns with a turnover ratio of minus-7. While the offensive line has sieve-like in protecting the quarterback, the defense has delivered only 16 putdowns of opposing quarterbacks.

The offense, at one time this season in the top two in NFL rushing (that seems like such a long time ago), barely cracked the 1,000-yard mark in the Pittsburgh loss and now stands at 1,023 yards. That’s 93 yards a game (37 in the last three games). At one point, it was well over 140 yards a game.
*       *       l*
If you’re looking for something positive to glom onto, try this: The Cleveland offense was perfect on five fourth downs against the Steelers after converting only four of 15 third downs. Four were on the final drive. On second thought, consider that a false positive because it reflects the frustration and desperation of the head coach.
*       *       *
And finally . . . It seems a little unfair that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a rather pedestrian game Sunday and still won. The big guy was 23-of-36 for only 167 yards and did not throw a touchdown pass as he raised his record against the Browns to 21-2. . . . That’s because Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had his best game of the season. He touched the ball 36 times (28 rushes) out of 64 plays – that’s 56% of the time – and compiled 201 of the club’s 313 yards, scoring the  Steelers’ lone touchdown of the game. . . . Steelers inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier combined for 15 tackles. Timmons was especially effective with eight tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, three quarterback hits and general mayhem.  No one on the Browns’ defense came close to numbers like that. . . . The Pittsburgh defense, treating Cleveland quarterbacks as if they were piƱatas, had 10 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hits in addition to the eight sacks, which totaled 70 yards. All the Cleveland defense could produce was four quarterback hits. . . . McCown was the Browns’ leading rusher with 11 scrambling yards on two carries. . . .  Believe it or not, the 24 Pittsburgh points represents a season low for the Browns in that department. . . . Coleman was targeted 12 times and caught just four balls for 39 yards. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: Never mind. Jackson underuses him. We’re done. Again, maybe next year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Close doesn't win games

Judging by the final score, someone who did not watch Sunday’s Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game might have thought it was not a close game.

The scoreboard read Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 9, the loss extending the Browns’ interminably embarrassing losing streak to 11 games this season and 14 in a row overall, the Steelers snapping a four-game skid of their own.

It was, however, very much a game up for grabs with 9:45 left in regulation, the Browns scoring their only touchdown of the afternoon when Josh McCown hooked up with Gary Barnidge on a 14-yard scoring strike, creeping to within eight points of the Steelers at 17-9.

Despite an extra-point miss by Cody Parkey, it still remained a one-score game despite the Steelers overwhelming the Browns on sides of the ball for a major portion of the snowy Cleveland afternoon.

Consecutive three-and-outs by the Steelers’ offense following the Cleveland touchdown elicited hope among the Browns’ faithful. Was this the game the losing would cease? Against the dreaded and hated Steelers, no less?

So when the Cleveland offense returned to the field with 3:49 left and momentum generated by a defense that had struggled somewhat up to that point, hope had a chance to turning into reality. And then reality struck.

After all, these were the Cleveland Browns. The 0-10 Cleveland Browns. The team that always seems to get in the way of winning a football game, any football game at this point of the season; the team that seems to find new ways to lose. Let us keep everything here in perspective.

McCown, in the game because rookie quarterback Cody Kessler was concussed on the final play of the third quarter, began what fans hoped would be a drive that would at least tie the game with an incomplete pass from the Cleveland 13-yard line.

And then, sure as Sunday follows Saturday, disaster stuck. Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier strip-sacked McCown at the Cleveland 1 on the next play, the ball rolled into the end zone where rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave fell on it and cradled it.

The Steelers, who piled up yardage with ridiculous ease on offense and harassed Cleveland quarterbacks unmercifully throughout the game on defense, never got the ball back after that. They didn’t need to.

The Browns put together a 17-play drive that covered 61 yards – they had run only 45 plays that totaled just 148 yards until that point – and was moot in importance because time had expired and it died without the scoreboard changing.

The Steelers, who had only three first-half possessions, did just about everything right on offense except score touchdowns in the first 30 minutes. They marched methodically down the field against a Cleveland defense that had plenty of bend and practically no break.

They put together 16-play drives on their first two possessions totaling 150 yards and the best they could come up with was a pair of Chris Boswell field goals. The red zone was a dead zone due to a surprisingly sturdy Cleveland defense.

On his club’s third red-zone trip in the final minute of the half, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, clearly fed up with the lack of touchdowns, eschewed a third Boswell field goal with the ball at the Cleveland 3 and 10 seconds remaining with no timeouts.

He was determined to score more than three points, damn it, and right in front of the Dawg Pound, by this time throwing all kinds of objects onto the field. Despite his macho stance, Tomlin needed outside help from the officials.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was more of a game manager than the mad bomber he has been against Cleveland in the past, twice tried to connect with Antonio Brown, his favorite receiver in the end zone. Both failed and both drew flags for holding and pass interference.

Because a half cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Steelers were rewarded with a pair of back-to-back untimed plays. Le’Veon Bell, who had run through and around the Cleveland defense all day, hammered the final yard on the second of those untimed downs. A successful two-point conversion gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead.

And then the Pittsburgh defense, which had limited the Browns to just 50 total yards in the first half with an assortment of blitzes that baffled Kessler and completely shut down the Cleveland running game, really took charge.

But stopping the Browns’ run offense is not really much of an accomplishment because that ground game has been idle for the last six games. Coach Hue Jackson might have to file a missing persons report in order to find the miscreants and correct an obvious weakness.

The offensive line once again was the chief culprit. Holes for the running backs were not there. Keeping the quarterbacks clean proved a mostly impossible task. The Steelers entered the game with only 13 sacks. They entered the locker room after the game with 21.

Kessler, seven-of-14 for 128 yards and only his second pick this season, was ineffective from the beginning. He had trouble identifying where the pressure was coming from and held on to the ball way, way, way too long.

The Pittsburgh pass rush sacked him four times, Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons dismissing him from the game with a vicious (and flagged) hit at the end of the third quarter.

The Browns’ offense ran much smoother, except for the strip sack, with McCown in charge of the huddle. But he, too, could not handle the extreme pressure and was dropped four times by a defense that reminded some of the old Steel Curtain seasons of the 1970s with its bellicose approach.

That they were in the game until the final five minutes, at least mathematically, suggests the Cleveland defense can be tough in the red zone. Making that even more significant is that defense was on the field for nearly 34 minutes and did not give up any easy points. The Steelers’ offense had to earn every one of those points.

The offense, on the other hand, is a huge problem and the fact the head coach is an offensive-minded guy with a reputation of fixing things should be troubling to those in charge in Berea.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Another beatdown in store?

Yeah, yeah. We all know the litany.

Whenever the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers get together on a football field, like this Sunday in Cleveland, it’s almost always a one-sided affair. It’s not even close to being a fair fight.

It’s certainly not fair what the Steelers do to the poor Browns, especially since professional football was reborn in Cleveland in 1999 after a three-year National Football League absence. 

Even though the expansion Browns believe it or not won two of the first three meetings – they were back-to-back – since the return, it has been a Steelers gallery of victories ever since.

Since those two shocking early victories, the Browns have won only four more games, three of them at home. The Steelers, meanwhile, have feasted on the Seal Brown and Orange to the tune of 28-4 since October 2000.

That includes winning streaks of six, 12, four, four and the current two in a row. It has removed the true meaning of the word rivalry from what used to be one of the best rivalries in the NFL.

When one team beats the other so often and, in many cases, so decisively, the only rivalry that exists is purely geographical. The Browns over the years, it seems, just don’t get it whenever they face the Steelers.

They have no concept of the importance of winning these games. Yes, they are intra-division games, but they are so much more, especially to the fan bases of both franchises.

The Steelers, on the other hand, definitely get it, playing the game at a much higher level whether in Pittsburgh or Cleveland. These are two games on the schedule that call for that much more intensity, that much more aggressiveness, that much more meaning.

To the Browns, the two Steelers games on the schedule are, well, just another two games on the schedule. They do not get the meaning of the former rivalry. And it reflects in the outcomes.

These teams have meet at least twice a season – except for that three-year absence in the late 1990s – since 1950. Sunday’s game will be the 129th in the series. The Steelers, who have steadily pulled away in recent years after pulling even about 10 years ago, own a 70-58 lead.

It has been a series that features one-sided domination through the years. For example, the Browns at one time led, 32-9, in the series. Since 1990, the Steelers are 38-10 against Cleveland.

There is a long, storied history to the series, mainly because the two cities are so close geographically. They are roughly a two-hour drive from each other, depending on how fast you drive. Both are tough towns with a blue-collar bent and extremely passionate fan bases.  

The biggest difference on the football field is the Steelers more accurately reflect their city than do the Browns, whose approach to football is not nearly as aggressive or pugnacious. And this Sunday, they will arrive in an extremely nasty mood. That’s because they have lost four straight games, two at home.

Nothing like looking at the schedule and seeing a soft spot, Cleveland, as the next opponent and thinking about getting healthy at the expense of a team seriously threatening to become only the second team in NFL history to go through an entire season without winning.

The Pittsburgh defense has surrendered a very un-Steelers like 113 points in those four games. But don’t worry. The Browns are next. That defense will improve in a hurry, at least for one week.

On the other side of the ball, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee in a loss to Miami and underwent surgery Oct. 17. Doctors said he would be out at least four weeks.

One game and a bye later, he was back, looking rusty in a loss in Baltimore, but he looked like the old Big Ben in a 35-30 loss to Dallas at home last Sunday, throwing four touchdown passes.

After the game, the veteran quarterback was frank in his assessment of the team. “We are undisciplined and not accountable,” he told the media. “That’s why (the Cowboys) are one of the best in the business and we’re not right now.”

The Steelers thought they had the Cowboys game wrapped up when Roethlisberger hooked up with Antonio Brown on a 15-yard scoring pass with 42 seconds left in regulation for a one-point lead. Less than a minute later, Ezekiel Elliott raced untouched with a short pass for his second touchdown of the game,

As for how it got this bad, Roethlisberger was flummoxed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Is it players? Is it coaches? I don’t know, but we need to get there quick.”

One glance at the upcoming opponent and the ability “to get there quick” became much more realistic than after the loss to the Cowboys.

Roethlisberger, an Ohio native, loves playing the Browns. And why shouldn’t he? He is 20-2 against them. It’s almost as though all he has to do to beat the Browns is throw his helmet onto the field and they shrink away. In case you are wondering, his only losses were 13-6 in Cleveland in 2009 and 31-10 in Cleveland in 2014.

The Browns arrived in Pittsburgh 53 weeks ago knowing Roethlisberger was sidelined with a foot injury. After starting quarterback Landry Jones was injured on the Steelers’ initial possession, Roethlisberger, sore foot and all, came off the bench to throw three touchdown passes in a 30-9 victory.

Several weeks later, the sore foot feeling much better, he threw three more scoring passes in a 28-12 victory in Cleveland. Roethlisberger, who has thrown at least one scoring pass in all but four games against the Browns, has strafed the Cleveland secondary for 5,323 yards and 35 scoring passes over the years.

OK, this Sunday’s game.

Even though they drag along a losing streak, the Steelers are by far the better team. The schedule has provided the right opponent at the right time this weekend. The timing, in fact, couldn’t be better.

With Roethlisberger back and throwing touchdown passes again, it really makes no difference what the Pittsburgh defense does, at least against the Browns, because the Steelers are capable of simply outscoring a weaker opponent.

Brown, an All-Pro wide receiver whose statistics suffer with Big Ben sidelined, is a different player with his quarterback healthy. And that means problems for the poor Cleveland secondary.

It also probably means more touches for running back Le’Veon Bell, another Ohioan, who has struggled this season. He has been more effective as a receiver than as a runner this season and has scored just twice.

The Browns will open with Cody Kessler back at quarterback after coach Hue Jackson unceremoniously yanked the rookie early in the second half of last week’s loss against Baltimore. How long his leash is probably depends on what his coach thinks he sees as the game unfolds.

Kessler enters the game with an impressive streak. He has thrown 119 straight passes without an interception. His lone pick of the season was made by Washington’s Josh Norman midway through the fourth quarter of a 31-20 loss in week four. Since then, he is 80-of-119.

Considering the Pittsburgh pass defense has swiped only four passes this season and linebackers own three of them, Kessler’s streak has a good chance of extending at least another game.

In the end, though, there is no question the Steelers have a much more talented roster. The sorry Cleveland offense, with a running game that looks as though it is running in mud and a passing game that cannot stretch the field, will make the very average Pittsburgh defense look like the old Steel Curtain for at least one week.

Jackson will yank Kessler’s leash once again and opt for Josh McCown to start the second half. But it will be far too late. The Steelers jump out to a three-touchdown lead at the half and the defense mauls both Cleveland quarterbacks for five sacks and two turnovers as another Steelers rout of the Browns unfolds.

The losing streaks reach 11 (this season) and 14 games (overall) as once again the Factory of Sadness lives up (down?) to its joyless nickname. Make it:

Steelers 38, Browns 6

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Only one man to blame for this mess

In this buck-stops-here world, there is only one man who can be held responsible for what very likely is going to be a winless season for the Cleveland Browns.

He is Sashi Brown, whose name appears at the top of the so-called braintrust chart in charge of running the National Football League franchise (into the ground). Everything flows from his office.

He is a Harvard-educated attorney who, for some bizarre reason, was unwisely chosen to make all the command decisions for the franchise. And just about every one of those decisions has rewarded the team with its current embarrassing status.

This ill-equipped so-called football man sat down Monday for an informal conversation with the team’s beat writers and radiated hope and confidence for the future.

“We like the path we are on,” he said unbelievably, not for a minute adjusting his blinders. “We always knew this was going to be a major challenge where we sat with our roster, our (salary) cap situation and where we were standing at quarterback as well

”. . . we knew what we were undertaking and not at all necessarily (had to) rethink it. We always want to learn, but no, we are steadfast in our plan and we feel we’re on the right course.”

Right. The Ivory Tower is steadfast with a program that has steered this team so far away from the essence of playing the game, it will take years to plow out from under the rubble that surely awaits if something isn’t done soon.

Brown called what has unfolded thus far this season a major challenge because of the roster.  Really? Monumental challenge is more like it.

After allowing five veterans who were major contributors last season to escape in free agency, what did he expect? He basically, with few exceptions, tore the roster apart, making it one of the youngest and least experienced in the NFL.

If Brown considers this the right course, he is either delusional or watching an entirely different team than most of us. The Browns are rightfully 0-10 at this point with all indications pointing toward only the second winless season in league history.

Either Brown doesn’t realize what is happening and the fallout caused by it or he just doesn’t care. During the exhibition season, he said he would be disappointed with four victories this season. How about zero? Talk about blind optmism.

“We are disappointed, but we also know the process we’re on and how hard the challenge that this going to be,” he said. “I can appreciate the fans’ (concern).” He must have figured out that one after losses nine and 10.

He then stated the obvious. “It’s hard to look at this other than wins and losses,” he said. Again, isn’t that the essence of why they play the game?

“I can certainly appreciate that,” he went on. “ I’m disappointed for our fans and the folks here working in the office. We don’t want to be there. But we also think we’re on our way to a much brighter future.” Blinders adjustment required.

Brown is talking like a snake oil salesman. The fans are not stupid. They see the kind of football this team has played this season. They hear and/or read words like that being uttered by him and scratch their heads.

Let’s take a look at his first – and hopefully only – college draft. Seven rounds, multiple trades and 14 players selected. Can you, or Brown for that matter, name one player in that class who has been an impact player this season? Of course not.

Corey Coleman? Injured. Carl Nassib? Injured. Shon Coleman can’t break into the starting lineup. Cody Kessler? Accurate but with an average throwing arm. Joe Schobert? Contributes nothing. No need to continue. Nobody there worth mentioning.

Seven rounds, 14 bodies and not a one who has made an impact. The closest is outside linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah, who has been inconsistent at best. One week he’s up; the next he disappears.

Of course others in the front office besides Brown are responsible for the players selected. But the buck ultimately stops at the desk of the titular head of this team: Brown, the executive vice president of football operations.

What this team needs – and has for a very long time – is a solid front-office football man. Someone who has been around the NFL for a long time. Someone who has successfully rescued struggling franchises in the past. Someone who can fix things.

I’m not talking about a football man like Mike Holmgren, who swept into Cleveland several years ago and managed to steal money for a few years before being found out and jettisoned. Holmgren was a great coach. Off the field, he was abysmally bad.

Jimmy Haslam III knows how successful front offices work, having been a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers before having the courage to put up a billion dollars to purchase the Browns. He knows how successful the Steeler way is.

He tried that route initially after taking over with a veteran football man in Joe Banner, but Banner’s ego and autonomous way of running things hastened his exit. Right idea, wrong man.

There are others out there without the temperament of a Banner and much more capable of taking this woebegone franchise and turning it around. Neophytes like Brown, who has no business running the football side of the Browns to begin with, is not the way to reshape this franchise.

Brown was asked how confident he was about his status with the club in the wake of this terrible season. “I can’t worry about that one, “ he said, “but I’m confident. I’m confident we’ll have the opportunity to build it and keep our ownership well informed. They also see signs of progress.” Really?

When you go out game after game and lose, just about everything can be considered as progress. The mere fact they show up every week is progress. Unfortunately, the only progress the Browns have made this season cannot be measured in wins and losses.

As for Brown’s status with the team, here’s hoping the owner is smart enough to realize this can be fixed. The noble experiment of an analytical front office has failed. Time to get back to football without the analytics.

Get back to winning and losing, especially the former.

It behooves Haslam, who must be livid and totally embarrassed at what he’s been forced to witness this season, to make a move within his Ivory Tower. It is time to get serious about turning this once-proud franchise back into one fans can be proud of again.

There is only one man above Brown in the club’s hierarchy. If he doesn’t make a move at the end of the season, he deserves everything he gets from that point on.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Monday leftovers (Friday edition)

Let’s get one thing straight. Hue Jackson is a good head coach. That needs to be said.

It also sounds like a strange statement to make in the wake of his coaching performance Thursday night in the 28-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Jackson will always be known as the only coach in Browns history to lose his first 10 games. He’ll also be known as the coach who was crippled strategically and tactically by injuries to his quarterbacks corps

Losing game after game after game has a telling effect on the coach not only from a strategic standpoint, but a personal standpoint as well. The season seems to be wearing Jackson down. He suffered a brain cramp against the Ravens and had trouble justifying it after the game.

Without warning, he yanked rookie quarterback Cody Kessler from the game after one third-quarter possession, a three-and-out, and inserted travel-weary, baggage-enriched journeyman quarterback Josh McCown.

The Browns clung to a 7-6 lead at the time and Kessler had done nothing egregiously wrong up to that point. Jackson thought otherwise and tried to explain the switch after the game.

“I made the switch at quarterback because I felt we needed a spark,” he said. “I didn’t think we were doing some things even in the first half I thought we could do. Nothing against Cody, It’s tough when you’re a young player and you come in, you play a week and you’ve go to play on a Thursday.”

Then Jackson leaned on an old excuse. “I thought there were some plays we left out there on the field, so I wasn’t going to sit there and keep watching plays be missed,” he said. “You’ve go to try something different.” Leaving some plays on the field has been a common occurrence all season with this offense. Why should this time be any different?

That, it would seem, is the reason Kessler exited in favor of McCown. What a weak excuse. Jackson is oh and nine at this point of the season. What the hell does he have to lose by sticking with Kessler? Another loss? So? Is he that desperate?

“I don’t think it’s desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said, then used faulty reasoning. “ I think it’s any situation if you feel like something is not going the way you want to, you’ve got to change it every now and then. That’s what I decided to do. Obviously being up 7-6 was good. I’d like to have been up 20-6.”

Even after McCown’s sorry performance – five possessions, three turnovers, two punts on 20 snaps – Jackson offered no regrets. And remained dispassionate on the sidelines.

He said he never contemplated returning to Kessler after McCown’s struggles. “No,” he said. “Once I put the other guy in, I’m going to stay with him. I’m no going back and forth.”

That is so old school. It’s as though the coaching manual states that once you make a switch at the most important position on the team, you stay with it unless the new guy is either maimed or bumped off. 

Old school coaches tend to be inflexible, even stubborn at times. They coach by feel and are unwilling to look at how a game is unfolding in a logical, rational manner. With each McCown mistake against the Ravens, and they were coming at a furious pace, all Jackson could do was shake his head in disbelief as the game slipped away.

As for what happens at quarterback now, Jackson bristled, “What do you mean what do I do now?” he said. “Cody is still the quarterback. I took Cody out of the game because I wanted a spark.”

Oh yeah, the spark. That’s what the Baltimore defense extinguished the entire second half while Jackson did nothing.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town a week from Sunday, Kessler will be back in control of the huddle. If he looks behind him every now and then, you can bet it will be to check on how long his leash is.
*       *       *
Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs didn’t exactly light up the game statistics sheet, but there is no question he had a significant impact on making the Browns’ offense look inept (being kind here).

He was credited with only one tackle (it was solo and for a loss), a sack, a pass defensed, a couple of quarterback hits, one caused fumble and general mayhem, which does not show up on the sheet.

The 34-year-old veteran, who assumed the club’s emotional leadership role after fellow linebacker Ray Lewis retired a few years ago, was either making plays or setting them up all evening. The Browns ran only 48 plays, nearly two-thirds of them through the air, and Suggs seemingly disturbed every one of them. Look for the ball and more often than not, he would be close by.

Most of the evening, he worked against Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas with the battle pretty much ending in a draw.  Even though he was playing with a torn left biceps, Suggs got the better of Thomas on two vital occasions in the second half, altering McCown’s motion on one of his two interceptions and later on causing the fumble.

He is the kind of player the Browns need – but lack – on that side of the ball. The kind of player who torments the opposition on a weekly basis. The kind of player who makes plays and inspires his teammates to overachieve.
*       *       *
After the game, McCown looked at the Browns’ situation pragmatically. “It’s fair to say we didn’t expect to be here (winless), but it’s fair to say we expect to grow from this,” he told the media.

The only problem there is it is difficult to grow if the talent is not there. This is a very young team that learns the hard way. The Browns have come close on a few occasions this season, but always seem to find a way to lose.

If and when the growth arrives, McCown will not be around to be a part of it. He will be long gone. Can’t imagine the Browns will invite him back next season. So when he uses the pronoun “we”, it’s done so in the very short term.
*       *       *
Linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins got fat statistically because the Ravens ran 77 plays from scrimmage. Kirksey is rapidly becoming more consistent and looking like the solution to a problem after his move inside this season. He was credited with 13 tackles, eight of them by himself.

And you can see why the recently acquired Collins is already a star with this defense. His quickness, speed and football intellect enable to him to be in the right place most of the time.  He had nine tackles, seven solo, a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.

He is tough against the run, drops back into pass coverage smoothly and might be the Browns’ best edge rusher. At 27, he is in the prime of his career. It’s only two games, but it looks like he is the real deal. Now it will be up to the Browns’ brass to sit down with Collins’ representatives at the end of the season and hammer out a well-paying, long-term contract to keep him in Cleveland.
*       *       *
Isaiah Crowell’s problems running with the football continue. He ran the ball nine times against the Ravens and gained 23 of the Browns’ 33 yards on the ground. In the last six games, the club’s main running back has carried the ball 60 times and gained 157 yards, an average of 2.62 yards.

Whatever the reason for such poor stats, it’s obvious Jackson and his offensive staff are clueless as to how to make those numbers climb. You can blame the mediocre offensive line just so much. The again, maybe it’s opposing defenses zeroing in on stopping the run and daring Cleveland quarterbacks to throw the ball.
*       *       *
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh sure is a cutthroat coach. After his team took a 19-7 lead on the Browns in the third quarter and the Browns in non-threatening mode to make a game of it, Harbaugh ordered a two-point conversion and got it.

Then with the score 28-7 and the Browns pinned at their 1-yard line with about 3:30 left in regulation, he challenged a spot after Crowell barely escaped the end zone. Three-plus minutes left, a three-touchdown lead and he’s challenging a spot? Cold. He lost the challenge.
*       *       *
The touchdown scored by Baltimore wide receiver Breshad Perriman midway through the fourth quarter really wasn’t a touchdown. Even though referee Jerome Boger said it was after watching the replay, it wasn’t.

Perriman did not totally control the ball as he fell into the end zone. The ball moved and touched the ground before he secured it. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant has had touchdowns taken away with the same kind of ball movement.
*       *       *
And finally . . . Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had thrown only six touchdown passes in the first eight Baltimore games. He had three against the Browns Thursday night while raising his record against Cleveland to 15-2. . . . We finally found out what tight end Seth DeValve can do. The last of the Browns’ four picks in the fourth round of the last college football draft is also known as “who’s he?” He ran a nice route to score the club’s only touchdown in the second quarter on a 25-yard pass from Kessler. . . . Fellow tight end Gary Barnidge caught only one pass for eight yards. What’s with that? He was targeted four times. . . . Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun experienced the highs and lows in this game. He picked off Flacco once and was the victim of the Perriman not-really-a-touchdown catch. . . . In the last seven quarters of the season series, the Ravens outscored the Browns, 51-7. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: two carries, six yards; three pass receptions, 25 yards; five touches, 31 yards.

Browns reach new nadir

Entering Thursday night’s game in Baltimore, it had been 333 days since the Browns won a National Football League game. For the record, they hadn't won since defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Cleveland last Dec. 13.

After the Baltimore game, make that 334 days and counting.

Playing in front of a national television audience, the team that represents this once-proud franchise set one record for futility that might never be broken and another that definitely will never be broken.

For the 10th straight week, the Browns came out on the wrong end of the score, this time a withering 28-7 loss as the Ravens swept the season series. It’s the first time in club history they have gone this far into the season without winning at least one game. Overall, it was the 13th straight setback.

The franchise that once called itself The Greatest Show in Football – because at one time a long time ago it was – has fallen to .500 since winning their first game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1950. The loss to the Ravens lowered the overall record to 461-461-10.

It isn’t easy playing winless football for an entire season the NFL. It has been done only once. Somewhere in a 16-game season, one would think the worst team in the league, which the Browns clearly are this season, would somehow stumble their way to a victory.

They actually led the Ravens, 7-6, at the half and looked fairly decent on both sides of the ball in the process. Forget embarrassingly calling time out even before the Ravens ran the first play of the game because they opened up on defense with 12 men on the field

Forget the second timeout taken only five plays into their first possession, which eventually turned into one of the Ravens’ four sacks.  Even with those laughable faux pas, the narrow halftime lead still fostered hope for the second half.

Turns out it was false hope because this team for whatever reason plays an entirely different kind of football in the final 30 minutes of games. Scoring seems to be a  foreign act for the Browns.

For the second straight game, they failed to put points on the board in the second half. It would have been three if Andrew Hawkins hadn’t scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left in the Cincinnati loss a few weeks ago.

The Browns have been outscored, 151-51, in the second half this season. And if fans feel compelled to point fingers of guilt for what unfolded in the second half of the Ravens game, one and all should direct them at Hue Jackson.

For whatever reason, the Cleveland coach felt better about inserting Josh McCown at quarterback in the second half after rookie Cody Kessler did nothing to embarrass himself in the first half or the first series of the second half.

Kessler’s 25-yard scoring pass to rookie tight end Seth DeValve culminated a seven-play, 75-yard drive that gave the Browns a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter. The second of Justin Tucker’s two field goals made it a one-point game at the half.

McCown surprisingly took over on the second possession of the second half after the Ravens had taken their first lead of the game at 13-7 on a Joe Flacco four-yard scoring pass to tight end Darren Waller.

And when he entered, down went the Browns chances of emerging with a victory. As soon as he entered the game, Murphy’s Law tagged along. The only thing McCown did right all night was return to the correct bench after making one mistake after another.

In his five possessions, the offense ran 20 plays and produced 38 net yards. Seven of those plays and 37 of those yards were recorded late in the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. They owned the ball for only eight minutes and 33 seconds while he ran the huddle.

By the end of the game, the Cleveland defense, which played moderately well in the first half, was spent, logging 20 minutes and 36 seconds in the second half after playing 18 in the first half. It’s the 10th straight game this season in which that defense surrendered at least 25 points and the ninth in which it gave up at least 28 points.

The offense, which has scored only 17 points in the last two losses, provided no help whatsoever. Three of McCown’s possessions ended up in turnovers, the other two in Britton Colquitt punts.

In addition to being sacked three times, he was picked by Jerraud Powers, a throw altered by linebacker Terrell Suggs, and Eric Weddle, and stripped of the ball later by Suggs. Three of his passes were either tipped of batted down.

The Baltimore offense, which failed to convert its first four third downs, succeeded on the next six in a row, two ending up as touchdown passes to Waller and wide receiver Steve Smith in the third quarter.

A Joe Haden interception in the end zone wiped out Powers’ early third-quarter theft, but Weddle’s pick at the beginning of the final quarter led to a 12-play, 91-yard drive touchdown march that took seven minutes and 27 seconds, Breshad Perriman on the scoring end of Flacco’s third touchdown pass.

McCown’s performance was unquestionably one of the most miserable displays of quarterbacking in recent Browns history and that takes in a whole lot of territory. The final stats showed him with six completions in 13 attempts for 59 yards, two picks, the fumble and three sacks for a loss of 29 yards.

And yet Jackson kept sending him back into the game, as if he believed something magical was about to happen, while Kessler, who was 11-of-18 in the first half for 91 yards and the touchdown, lingered on the sidelines. It made no sense.

Earlier in the week, Jackson said he planned to play Kessler the remainder of the season in order to find out whether the rookie is, indeed, the quarterback of the future for this moribund franchise. Well, that didn’t last long.

The coach now has 10 days to decide whether to grant Kessler a reprieve and ready him for the invasion of the Pittsburgh Steelers a week from Sunday in Cleveland or continue to start a 37-year-old journeyman quarterback who saw his best days a long, long time ago. There is a reason he is a journeyman.

It’s not as though Jackson is coaching for his job. The choice should be easy. If he wants Kessler to prove himself, yanking him midway through a game he is winning, albeit just barely, is not the way to show any confidence or get answers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sweep time for Ravens?

It’s only halfway through the National Football League season and the AFC North, once one of the strongest divisions (with one notable exception) in the league, is now arguably the weakest in the eight-division league.

Tied at the top with 4-4 records are the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, teams thought by pre-season prognosticators to be among the strongest in the league. The Cincinnati Bengals, another pre-season favorite, are a half game behind at 3-4-1.

That, of course, does not mean one, perhaps two, of them will bust out and live up to expectations. But the fact remains the quality of play in the division hasn’t been this low for many seasons (with one notable exception).

That notable exception, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns, has set franchise records for futility this season that might never be broken. It has become impossible on a yearly basis for this team to drag down its division any more than it has this season.

The interminable beat of the schedule this season drones on Thursday night when the winless Browns roll into Baltimore in an effort to salvage a split in the season series with the Ravens, who have registered 11 sweeps of Cleveland in 17 seasons.

After having won the first meeting, 25-20, in comeback fashion back in Cleveland in the second game of the season, one would think the Ravens would be super confident for this one. Hardly the case.

These aren’t your normal intimidating Ravens, a perennial contender for the postseason that beats you on both sides of the football. No, not this season. Or last season, for that matter. This team is different.

Something is missing. The Ravens struggle to win. Last season, they finished 5-11 and a downward trend seemed to kick in. They won the first three games this season by a total of 13 points before losing the next four. 

John Harbaugh-coached teams rarely are mired in prolonged losing streaks. That domain is comfortably owned by the Browns, who put a nine-gamer this season – and 12 straight overall – on the line Thursday night. One more loss sets a club record for most losses to begin a season and extends the mark for the other.

The Ravens climbed into the division tie at the top by knocking off Pittsburgh last Sunday with a stingy defense – clearly the hallmark of this year’s team – that successfully fought off a furious fourth-quarter comeback by the Steelers.

The Ravens are not going to beat anyone with their offense. In fact, they were fortunate to defeat the Browns in week two, giving the Browns hope this might be the week the losing streak ends.

In that first meeting, the Browns were driving for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of regulation when a strange call by an official negated a big play and slammed the door on any possibility of winning.

Terrelle Pryor caught a 20-yard pass from Josh McCown at the Baltimore 10 with 20 seconds left and the Browns trailing by five. The Cleveland wide receiver innocently tossed the ball to the nearest official, but a trailing official threw a flag in addition to one that had been thrown seconds earlier.

Ravens defensive back Lardarius Webb had been penalized for holding Pryor, whose ball toss was ruled taunting by the trailing official. The bogus call effectively drained all the momentum the Cleveland offense had built up for the first time since scoring 20 first-quarter points.

The offsetting penalties brought the ball back to the Baltimore 30, from where McCown’s next heave was picked off by linebacker C. J. Mosley at the goal line. That was as close as the Browns have come this season to winning a game.

And now, Thursday night looms as a national television audience anxiously awaits (momentary loss of control of my sarcasm gene) the next big NFL game featuring Color Rush uniforms.

Will the Browns wear their all-Seal Brown uniforms? Or maybe the bright orange uniforms. The Ravens probably will wear their all purple uniforms. Perhaps the Browns wear all white. Inquiring football minds want to know.

The key to this one lies in the Browns’ ability to do something they haven’t done in the last five games: run the football effectively. That and the inability of their defense to stop anyone have been the major contributors to the team’s woes.

In those five games, the Browns have rushed for 321 yards, but that figure is deceiving because 180 of them were in one game. Fourth-string quarterback Kevin Hogan, inserted into the Cincinnati game due to injuries, ran for 104 of those yards.

Subtract Hogan’s total, which is an outlier, and the five-game net total becomes 207 yards, or 41.4 yards a game. Isaiah Crowell has toted the ball 51 times in that span for 134 yards, or 2.63 yards a pop.

Putting that in perspective, Crowell gained 133 of the club’s 145 yards against the Ravens in their first meeting, breaking off an 85-yard touchdown romp in the big first quarter. That was when fans wanted to believe the Cleveland offensive line didn’t miss Alex Mack or Mitchell Schwartz, who opted to leave as free agents.

This one could very well end up a lower scoring affair than the first game since neither team has shown the ability to put points on the scoreboard with any degree of regularity.

We all know how bad the Cleveland offense is from a scoring standpoint. The Ravens, believe it or not, live in the same neighborhood. They average only 19.25 points a game; the Browns are at 18.7. They have scored only 11 touchdowns. Their highest scoring output was 27 points in a loss to Oakland.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, a Browns nemesis over the years, has thrown only six scoring passes (and seven interceptions) this season, four to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace. The ground game averages only 82 yards a game. Former Brown Terrance West leads the way with just 445 yards and three touchdowns.

The standout Baltimore defense is the difference. It allows just 72 yards a game on the ground. Crowell’s big day in the first game was an anomaly. What the Ravens offense misses, the defense cleans up. Each of their games has been decided by eight points or less.

And then there are the Browns, who rank 31st in the NFL against the run, 28th against the forward pass and sit all alone at the bottom of the statistics in overall defense.  Is it any wonder they hunger for their first victory?

So what is Thursday’s game looking like? Like a game where you want to have No-Doz handy just in case. It’s going to be an NFL Network snoozefest that could set the game back several years.

Flacco will play just well enough to quell the defense’s urge to lobby Harbaugh for backup quarterback Ryan Mallett as kicker Justin Tucker bails him out with a pair of first-half field goals, equaling Cody Parkey’s output for the Browns.

He recovers in the second half, hooking up with Wallace and tight end Dennis Pitta for third-quarter scores, while the defense completely shuts down Cody Kessler and his merry men if. Make it:

Ravens 20, Browns 6

Monday, November 7, 2016

Monday leftovers

All right, it’s time to set something straight about the quarterbacks the Browns did and did not select in the last college football draft.

They had three selections in the third round. With the third pick, they grabbed Cody Kessler, a solid performer from Southern California. Experts said he was a reach. That he would have been there in the fifth round.

Dak Prescott was also there in round three. The Browns said no, they liked Kessler better. A round later, the Dallas Cowboys fell in love (forgive the hyperbole) with the Mississippi State quarterback and grabbed him as a compensatory selection shortly before the Browns took tight end Seth DeValve.

An injury to the starting quarterback in the exhibition season suddenly elevated the fourth-round rookie into the starting spotlight with the Cowboys and his dazzling performance – his team is 7-1 – is causing all kinds of concern in Big D now that the starter is healthy again.

In Cleveland, meanwhile, the third-round rookie started as the third quarterback, but was forced into the starting role by injuries by game three. He was not nearly as dazzling – in fact he wasn’t dazzling at all – as his winless team fell into a hole and had trouble climbing out.

The two quarterbacks met for the first time Sunday in Cleveland and the fourth-rounder bested the third-rounder rather handily, leading his team to a resounding 35-10 victory. He threw three touchdown passes and looked like a seasoned veteran.

All this prompted the second guessers – media and fans alike – to surface and question the Browns’ player personnel judgment with regard to the quarterback of the future.

“Should have drafted Dak Prescott,” say some. “Look at what he has done in Dallas. If the Browns had drafted him, they wouldn’t be 0-9. What were those guys thinking?”

Let us, for the sake of argument, say the Browns did, indeed, make Prescott a third-round pick. And let us run him through the same scenario Kessler has experienced.

Before you start poking holes in what I’m about to type before I type it, stop. The following is strictly a hypothesis engendered by nonsensical thinking on the part of the fans and media.

Prescott would have made no difference in the Browns’ record. Compare the talent around him now with the talent that would have surrounded him in Cleveland. The Browns would still be 0-9 at this point and Prescott would be hobbling around, like Kessler, after taking a severe beating.

In Cleveland, he would have operated behind one of the worst offensive lines in the National Football League. In Cleveland, he would have handed off the ball on running plays to a pair of running backs who have problems running behind that line. And he would have been throwing to a mediocre-at-best wide receivers corps.

He has the ideal situation with the Cowboys. He operates behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. He hands the ball off to a sensational rookie running back and a backup who at one time was one of the league’s best runners.

As for the receivers, he has a future Hall of Famer in his tight end and a corps of playmakers who actually make plays for him. If he was with the Browns, he would have none of those luxuries. As it turned out, the perfect team drafted him. It has been a perfect fit.

So I don’t want to hear that Prescott would have been a better fit for the Browns. No he wouldn’t have. The Cowboys, on the other hand, would not be 7-1 without him. That’s because he is good for them and they are good for him.
*       *       *
Browns inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who has played like a demon lately, said something interesting following the Dallas loss Sunday after apparently being asked about the possibility of a winless season.

“We are not going to go oh and 16,” he declared defiantly. “That’s for a fact. We’re not going to do that. Things are going to get on a roll. We’ve got to keep fighting.”

If some of his defensive mates play like Kirksey does, there is no question the Browns won’t join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only NFL teams to go through an entire season without a victory. But the road ahead the next two months is daunting.

Up next, a Thursday night trip to Baltimore, where the Browns have won only four times in 17 attempts since 1999. Last season, however, they registered one of their three victories there with a 33-30 overtime win on a Travis Coons field goal.

In the second game this season in Cleveland, the Ravens spotted the Browns a 20-0 lead in the first quarter, then won the rest of the game, 25-0, in a reversal that sort of set the tone for the rest of the season.

After the Ravens come consecutive home games against Pittsburgh, the New York Giants and Cincinnati with a bye slipped in between the latter two games.

Beating Pittsburgh anywhere is difficult for any Browns team since 1999, let alone this underachieving bunch, with only six victories in 35 meetings. Four were registered at home.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has lost only twice to the Browns in 21 games. Both were in Cleveland. So maybe they have a chance on Nov. 20, especially against a Steelers team struggling to play .500 ball this season.

The hot and cold Giants could be the game that keeps the Browns out of the record books. Sports Illustrated predicted the Browns’ lone victory of the season would be against the Giants. Everyone laughed back then. They aren’t laughing now.

The Bengals, believe it or not, offer the best chance for a victory between now and New Year’s Day in Pittsburgh even though they have demolished the Browns, 67-3, in their last two visits to Cleveland. Hue Jackson would like nothing better than to gain revenge against his old team for the 31-17 pounding in Cincinnati Oct. 23.

The Browns finish the season in Buffalo, the home finale against San Diego and the dreaded journey to Pittsburgh. The Bills are 3-2 against the Browns at home since 1999. Mark this one down as yet another possible victory because of the uncertain weather in Buffalo on Dec. 18.

Unless Cleveland is hit with a heat wave on Christmas Eve, put the Chargers game in the possibility column. A warm-weather team usually does not do well in wintery conditions. As for the second Steelers game, forget it. Not gonna happen.

So while Kirksey might sound like someone whistling past a graveyard, he most likely will be right. The 2008 Lions will remain alone in their infamy. The question is who will be the team embarrassed by losing to the Browns?
*       *       *
Most fans probably noticed how easily the Dallas receivers made themselves available for Prescott’s passes Sunday. All three of his touchdown passes were delivered to receivers so wide open, they all but waltzed into the end zone.

Jason Witten took advantage of a coverage breakdown by linebacker Jamie Collins in the first quarter on his 26-yard scoring catch. When he turned after making the catch, the big tight end hesitated slightly before realizing there was no one between him and the goal line.

On Cole Beasley’s six-yard TD, he and Dez Bryant lined up in a short stack against Cleveland cornerbacks Joe Haden and Tramon Williams. At the snap, Haden and Williams appeared confused as to who had what responsibility and Beasley came wide open in the left corner. All Prescott had to do was flip the ball to him.

Tight end Gavin Escobar merely sneaked out into the left flat after blocking down on a second-and-goal at the Cleveland 2 with nary a Cleveland defender within five yards of him. He easily made the catch, his first of the season.

It added up to a total breakdown on all three scores. And it is not going to get any better with some pretty good quarterbacks and receivers coming up.
*       *       *
The seat Jackson sits on gets hotter by the game. Every loss boosts that heat as his team sets a record for futility on a weekly basis. The fans want some answers. So apparently does he.

It starts with me,” he said matter-of-factly after the Dallas loss. “We have to coach better and get them to play better, put them in better situations.” That came right out of the coaching manual with regard to explaining losses to the media.

Then: “There are things I know we can do better and will do better, but there are things rearing their ugly heads.” As for the dwindling number of fans at home games, he added, “We have to give them something to keep coming for.” And that’s the biggest challenge as the season continues to careen out of control.
*       *       *
One quick rhetorical question: How in the world did the Browns’ defense permit the Dallas offense to hog the football for the last seven minutes and 48 seconds of Sunday’s game?
*       *       *
And finally . . . Collins played well considering he has been with the club for just a few days. He had eight tackles, five solo, and provided the only hit on Prescott. . . . How bad is the Cleveland offense? It scores just 18.6 points a game, a figure bettered only by the Los Angeles Rams’ 16.25 and Chicago’s 16.4. . . . And how bad is the defense? It has allowed 30.3 points a game. Only San Francisco’s 32.5 points a game is worse. . . . In other words, the Browns own the worst offense and worst defense in the AFC.  . . . Of the five Browns penalties called, three were for being lined up in the neutral zone. Maybe someone should teach the defensive linemen where the ball is located. . . . Another bad day at the office for the Cleveland running game: 13 attempts netted 45 yards. . . . Why was tight end Gary Barnidge targeted only three times against the Cowboys? He caught all three for 23 yards. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: Five rushes for 30 yards; two receptions (in two targets) for 16 yards. Seven touches, 46 yards.