Monday, December 19, 2016

Monday leftovers 

It is a question Browns coach Hue Jackson hesitates to answer quickly, but you can be almost sure of one thing. Robert Griffin III will be the Browns’ quarterback in the home finale Saturday against the San Diego Chargers.

For the time being, though, the coach is leaving the door to the huddle wide open. “Everything is on the table,” he said after Sunday’s loss in Buffalo. “I’m going to look at everything. I just have to. I owe these guys the best opportunity to win in the locker room. . . I have to give them a leader.”

Perhaps it’s the frustration of losing every game that has messed with Jackson’s head. But there is no question The Third, barring unforeseen circumstances, will finish out the regular season in charge of Cleveland’s huddle. He and the front office need to get a good luck at the injury-prone quarterback. Benching him doesn’t help.

Judging The Third’s worth based on the final four games and his future in Cleveland is, of course, unfair. After fracturing his shoulder in the season opener in Philadelphia, he returned a few weeks ago to take over a damaged football team.

It is not fair to assess what we have seen from him thus far because three games is not nearly enough exposure on which to make a command decision. It would be based on a short-term assessment that does not adequately define the player.

But then again, all is not fair in love and the National Football League. Especially in the Browns’ case because right now, no one knows what is going through the mind of James Haslam III.

Facing the prospect of only the second 16-game winless season in the history of the NFL, Haslam has to be beside himself with embarrassment, anger and who knows how many other different levels of raw emotion.

What Haslam does, if anything, once the season concludes will determine the future direction of his team. Known for his knee-jerk decisions in the past, the owner might surprise everyone and do nothing, figuring the situation surely can’t get any worse.

If he chooses to listen to the men who have created the nightmare that is the 2016 season and writes off the season as an aberration, he very well might lose a part of his large fan base.

Then again, if his knee jerks hard enough and high enough and he chooses to once again blow out his front office and finally decides to bring in someone who has known nothing but success in the NFL, then all bets are off. He holds the key to a lot of what ifs.

His ultimate decision probably will be – and should be – made with the fans in mind. Right now, his team has one of the great fan basses in professional football and it is angry to the point many have either given up or stopped caring until the situation changes. Apathy is the greatest enemy of owners of pro sports teams.

Many of those angry fans will shake their heads in amazement if Haslam stands pat. They will try to understand, but have a tough time rationalizing such a decision. If he makes changes, others will say, “Not again.” It’s clearly a situation where he will not satisfy everyone.

The Jackson-Griffin honeymoon angle pales in comparison to the big picture and becomes moot once the season is over. For right now, though, that seems the only piece of red meat on which to chew.
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Where has Terrelle Pryor gone? You know, the big wide receiver who racked up all those big numbers in the Browns’ first dozen games this season. Yeah, that guy. He’s still with the team, isn’t he?

Of course he is, but he definitely is not the same player who surprised many skeptics around the NFL who found it hard to believe he could make a successful transition from quarterback to wide receiver.

He became one of the league’s best receivers with three 100-yard games and a fourth that was three yards shy of the century mark. Scoffers took notice and he started receiving well-deserved plaudits.

He worked hard to make the difficult switch and the four Cleveland quarterbacks started targeting the big 6-4 target. He rewarded them with substantial yardage, racking up 62 receptions for 855 yards and four touchdowns. He caught six balls for 131 yards just a few weeks ago against the New York Giants right before the bye.

Then The Third returned from his shoulder injury and Pryor all but disappeared. In their two games together since that return, Pryor was targeted just 11 times and caught five passes for only 22 yards. And just like that, he became just another receiver on a team that desperately needs help in that department.

The temperamental Pryor also exchanged words with his quarterback in the Cincinnati loss last week, when he was targeted just three times and caught one ball for three yards.

His four grabs for just 19 yards against the Bills makes one wonder why Pryor has fallen so far down the chart that he is no longer the No. 1 option. It’s not difficult to see he and The Third are nowhere near being on the same page.

Pryor had much better success with Josh McCown and Cody Kessler when The Third was merely a sideline spectator. He had two of his 100-yard games with McCown and one with Kessler, as well as the 97-yarder. In the season opener with The Third, Pryor was targeted seven times, catching three balls for 68 yards.

It will be interesting to see how Pryor, a free agent after the season, performs in the final two games of the season and whether Jackson ramps up the looks he gets from The Third.
*       *       *
How dominant were the Bills on offense Sunday? Of their 66 snaps from scrimmage, 38 were made in Cleveland territory, 20 in the first half.

The Bills were so efficient on first and second down in the second half, they reached third down only twice (once in each quarter) before subs took over with six minutes left in regulation. They failed to convert both, but by then, the game was well in hand.

Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor kept the Cleveland defense off balance with some designed runs – he picked up 49 yards on seven carries – and timely connections with tight end Charles Clay, who scored once and caught every one of the seven passes directed his way.
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Here’s how bad it was for the Cleveland defense against the Bills. It’s just one play, but epitomizes and somewhat encapsulates how the team has struggled this season. . . .

It’s a 10-3 game midway in the second quarter and the Browns, although trailing, are pretty much holding their own. The Bills take over at their 9-yard line following a Britton Colquitt punt and subsequent penalty against the receiving team.

Thirteen plays, 91 yards and seven and a half minutes later, the Bills stretch the lead and, for all practical purposes, ensure the victory. But it’s how they did it that rankles those who still really care about this team.

Midway through the drive, the Cleveland defense, aided by a Buffalo penalty and Emmanuel Ogbah sack (the only one of the game for the Browns), forced a third-and-22 at the Buffalo 44.

Now most teams pretty much give up and run a draw play in such situations. But not against this Cleveland defense. Why waste a draw play when you’re throwing against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL?

So what does defensive coordinator Ray Horton call for? Conservative coverage in the secondary, i.e. zone coverage, and light pressure on the quarterback in order to stop the run. The Bills aren’t going to risk throwing the ball, right? Wrong.

Taylor drops back with token pressure from the Cleveland pass rush and spots wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who finds a soft area right in the middle of that zone in the middle of the field and settles in.  Surrounded by four defenders, he makes the catch 23 yards from the line of scrimmage and extends the drive.

Five plays and 33 yards later, Taylor finds Clay backpedaling into the end zone and the tight end somehow manages to hold on to an underthrown pass that boosts the lead to 17-3 on a drive that should have ended six plays earlier.
*       *       *
And finally . . . The 10 points the Browns put up in the third quarter against the Bills was, believe it or not, a scoring bonanza for that 15-minute period this season. It’s the first time they posted double digits in that quarter. . . . The leading rusher for the Browns in the game was none other than The Third with 48 yards on eight carries. . . . The club’s 17-game losing streak is now the sixth-longest such streak in NFL history. . . For those of you who might have missed it, the last Cleveland victory was Dec, 13 last year, a 24-10 decision over the San Francisco 49ers at home. The winning quarterback? Johnny Manziel. . . . The Browns currently are the lowest scoring team in the AFC with 220 points, topped (bottomed?) only by the Los Angeles Rams’ 197. They also have the worst scoring defense in the AFC with 408 points allowed, bottomed by San Francisco’s 434. But they lead all of professional football with the best (worst?) negative point differential of minus-188. . . . Need some more depressing stats? The Browns are 3-32 in the last 35 games.  The other two victories were against Tennessee and Baltimore. . . . Reviving the Duke Johnson Jr. watch, only because he had a good game against the Bills . . . 10 touches, 93 yards. Five carries for 31 yards, five receptions (on seven targets) for 62 yards.

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