Monday leftovers (Sunday edition)
Lost in the afterglow of the Browns’ victory Saturday over the San Diego Chargers is the stark reality this team will win only one game this season.
Never mind a few of the first 14 losses could have gone either way. They didn’t. And you know what they say about season records: You are what your record says you are.
And what 1-14 says about the Browns this season is they are the worst team in the National Football League. That is indisputable and a label they will carry into the final game of the season Sunday in Pittsburgh, after which they will be 1-15.
The 2016 season has been a disaster, a reason for owner James Haslam III to step in and admit the experiment to turn over running of the club to analytics experts was not only wrong, but ill advised and ultimately disastrous.
Doing so has trickled down to the dressing room, where players and coaches have been given a team from a talent standpoint that faced overwhelming odds on a weekly basis. Blame for what has unfolded this season is being hurled in the wrong direction.
Those chosen by Haslam to run the franchise (into the ground) have been derelict in their duties. The worst part is Haslam seemingly has done nothing to correct this situation or at the least alleviate it.
Perhaps it’s because he has been criticized in the past for jerking his knees too often, thereby upsetting any possibility of consistency and continuity. Coaches got fired after one season. General managers disappeared quickly. Lack of immediate success had a price.
We don’t know for certain because Haslam has been unusually silent publicly throughout this nightmare, but he might have railed behind the scenes. His public constraint will end shortly, perhaps as soon as the final gun in Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.
But something clearly needs to be done. The sooner the better in order to get rid of the stench that has surrounded this franchise. It is beyond the laughingstock of the NFL. It has become the embarrassment of the league.
Fans have become apathetic. Apathy is the greatest danger to the coffers of any professional sports franchise. Mute evidence of that can been seen whenever the Browns play a home game. Too many orange seats disguised as fans is a dangerous sign.
A lot of fans are beginning to not care about the Browns on a daily basis. With the Cavaliers and Indians performing well, they have become sort of the stepchild in the Cleveland sports community they used to rule.
It isn’t as though it will take an immediate turnaround for this franchise to come back. Because so much damage has been done, that will take time. All it needs is to show its fans it has a pulse. None exists currently.
What it needs is someone at the top who knows what he is doing, an attribute that has been absent at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea for nearly two decades. And what I mean by that is someone with a reputation for rebuilding teams, someone who recognizes true football talent and builds a strong team with that talent.
The Browns moved up and down the last college draft with reckless abandon and selected 14 players when they were done. Not one was an impact player this season. Quantity sufficient. Quality insufficient.
It is a problem only one man can solve correctly. If he fails, the marriage between the Browns and the City of Cleveland very well might be, as they say in Hollywood, headed for the rocks.
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What in the world happened to the Browns’ run defense against the Chargers, holding them to only 34 yards on 19 carries? Well, the absence of Melvin Gordon probably had something to do with it.
Then again, when you have a quarterback like Philip Rivers and your best running back is in street clothes on the sidelines, what do you do? That’s exactly why Rivers attempted 46 passes, completing half of them for 322 of the Chargers’ 356 total yards.
Optimists would say it was because the Cleveland run defense played its best game of the season, which would not be untrue. But when the opposition runs the ball only 19 times, that is raising a surrender flag against arguably the worst run defense in the NFL.
Then again, the defensive front seven expends much more energy against a passing team than one that favors the ground game. In other words, the Browns’ front seven got what amounted to a relative day off in a department that has come up short all season.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton saw that coming and dialed up more blitzes against Rivers than I’ve seen in a long time. He crashed linebackers and brought free safety Ed Reynolds Jr. on numerous occasions, but the best the second-year man could do was get close to Rivers, whose uniform was clean at the end of the game.
Can’t say the same for Cleveland quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Cody Kessler, who went down a season-high (low?) nine times, bringing the opposition sack total against the very bad Cleveland offensive line to a club record 62, two more than the 1999 expansion Browns, with the Steelers game yet to be played.
In their first meeting in week 11 in Cleveland, the Steelers sacked Kessler and Josh McCown four times each in the 24-9 victory and added 14 quarterback hits. The Cleveland pass rush dropped Ben Roethlisberger zero times in that one and hit him four times.
When (hopefully) Haslam hires someone who knows what he is doing, it would be wise to rebuild this team from the inside out. It needs players up front to protect the quarterback and players on the other side of the ball who excel at making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. That’s where it starts. Thinking otherwise is foolish.
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Reynolds is turning out to be a pleasant surprise since gaining starting status in the Cleveland secondary. The 6-1, 205-pounder from Stanford, originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, was signed as a free agent in September and spent the first month on the practice squad before being promoted in mid-October following a season-ending injury to Jordan Poyer.
Relegated to special teams at first, he played well enough to gain starting status in the last six games, flashing several times in recent games, displaying aggression from his free safety spot. He recorded 15 tackles, 10 of them solo, in his last two games.
If the Browns are looking for building blocks in a secondary that has been racked with injuries and underperformed all season, Reynolds might not be a bad place to start.
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The Browns’ offensive coaching staff finally remembered Gary Barnidge against the Chargers. The tight end, whose disappointing stats this season suggest last season’s breakout was an aberration, was targeted six times and caught five for 42 yards and a couple of key first downs.
Barnidge shocked the pro football world last season with 79 catches for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. He was targeted 125 times. This season, he has been targeted just 77 times and scored his only touchdown in the Pittsburgh loss. Last season, Barnidge averaged 13.2 yards a reception. This season, it is only 11.8 yards.
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Sparking of tight ends, why was Antonio Gates open all afternoon Saturday? Either the defensive staff never made the adjustment or maybe it was because no one on the Cleveland defense could stay with the 14-year veteran, who will be a prime candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he retirees.
Rivers targeted his tight end 13 times, connecting on eight for 94 yards and the Chargers’ first touchdown. Inside linebackers Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis could not stay with the former Kent State basketball star.
Gates twice came wide open late in the game when the Chargers desperately tried to avoid becoming the Browns’ first victim this season. Both times the Browns played zone and seemed confused as to who should be where. You don’t give a man who has caught 11,137 yards worth passes in his NFL career room like that.
The Browns were fortunate the Chargers had used all their timeouts by then and Gates’ contributions went for naught. That, of course, and Josh Lambo’s field-goal attempt that sailed wide right.
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And finally . . . The 20 points the Browns scored in the victory Saturday were the most since posting 28 in the 31-28 loss to the New York Jets in week eight. In the six games that followed that one, the Browns scored only 62 points, never more than 13 points in any game. . . . A seasonal sign by a spelling-challenged, but well-meaning fan at the game read: Merry Xmas Browns fans, Keep the Faith Cleveveland. . . . The Browns offense that showed up in the second half against the Chargers more closely resembled the 0-14 team than the one that played the first 30 minutes. The first half produced 166 total yards and 17 points; the second half produced 85 yards and three points. . . . That offense scored only six total first-quarter points in the last six games before Isaiah Crowell and Cody Parkey combined for seven in the opening quarter against San Diego. . . . The Crowell touchdown was the first infantry style since week eight. . . . Because both offenses dominated the first half, there were only two punts, one by each team. The second half became a puntfest with nine. . . . Ex-Brown Travis Benjamin led off the game with a 50-yard bomb from Rivers against Joe Haden. He was targeted only three times after that, catching two for 25 yards. . . . One more positive stat: The Browns owned the ball for 33 minutes.