Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ready or not, more Jackson

When Jimmy Haslam III meets with his football men during the season, there is absolutely no question he is not the smartest guy in the room.

He’s the richest.

How else can anyone in their right mind speak so highly of a head coach as the Browns’ owner speaks about his head coach, who has won just one game in the 32 he has coached in the last two seasons.

What did Cleveland do to be saddled with pro football owners who make bad decision after bad decision? First, it was Art Modell. Then it was Randy Lerner. And now we have James Haslam III.

The pro football world anxiously waited what Haslam would do following loss No. 16 this season Sunday in Pittsburgh. Surely that would be it for Jackson despite Haslam vowing last month to bring him back next season.

It was what Haslam did not do that stunned many observers of the National Football League. Retaining a coach with an ignominious 1-31 record seems like just another bad joke played on some damn good football fans.

Haslam did not announce Jackson is gone after posting such an awful record in two seasons with the club. In fact, it was exactly the opposite following Sunday’s winless season-ending 28-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’ll say what I always say,” Haslam said. “I think we have the best fans in the NFL and when we win, Hue Jackson will be their hero. I’m convinced of that. It’s all about winning and losing and until we start winning, we’re going to catch a lot of grief and we deserve it.”

He sure is right about the fans, but he fails to see how let down those fans feel having to soldier through yet another season of Hue Jackson football. He’s also right about the grief. He’s going to get a lot more than he realizes, mostly from these “best fans” most of whom are probably in a state of disbelief right now.

They see obviously see what Haslam and, apparently his wife, Dee, do not. They see a football man who is a loser as a head coach. He still might have significant chops as an offensive coordinator, but head coaching definitely is not his thing.

The most amazing part is that John Dorsey, the new general manager, is still on board with Jackson, who seems to have perfected the fine art of buffaloing the most important people in his professional life.

Let’s see now. Jackson loses 31 of 32 games and is rewarded with an invitation to honor year three of a four-year contract. Losing sure has its own strange rewards.

Props, though, to Jackson, who has managed to con his owner into believing very little of this is his fault. He managed to win a power struggle with departed de facto general manager Sashi Brown and now is moving up the ladder to the Ivory Tower.

To put this all in perspective, maybe Haslam should cast an eye in the direction of New York where the Jets engaged in a roster purge similar to the Browns' and yet managed to win five games this season.

Accident, blind luck or coincidence? Maybe better coaching?

Haslam tried to justify his decision to retain Jackson. “If you go back two years ago, I think Hue was one of the hottest assistant coaches out there,” he said. “And I don’t think Hue has lost his magic on how to call plays or run an offense or how to coach a team.”

And then he said something that provided some insight into the decision. “Some of you don’t know us that well,” he said. “We do not give up easily. We’re not going to give up. Hell yeah, it’s disappointing. Is it discouraging? To a certain point. But we’re going to get this done.”

Several problems there. More hot NFL assistant coaches flame out when they become head coaches than those who don’t. In addition, Jackson’s offense has been one of the most impotent in the league this season.

As for not giving up, tell that to Rob Chudzinski, Pat Shurmur, Mike Pettine, Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer and Sashi Brown.

The mere fact the losing culture remains at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. as long as Jackson does is bothersome. What he has wrought the last two seasons has stained what used to be a proud, strong franchise. It gets weaker every time decisions like this are made by men who think they know no more than they actually do.

Hall of Shame season

The agony of defeat was never harder to take than the Browns’ season-ending loss Sunday in Pittsburgh.

The 28-24 loss to the Steelers, which completed only the second 16-game winless season in National Football League history, was a lot closer than the two hands of Browns wide receiver Corey Coleman were at the most critical point of the game.

The Browns’ top pick in the 2016 college draft, whose relationship with success has been tenuous at best since turning pro, contributed to his growing arsenal of disappointments as the Browns were driving for the potential go-ahead touchdown in the final moments of the game.

It was reduced to potential when a perfectly-thrown fourth-down pass by DeShone Kizer, delivered after the rookie quarterback escaped a heavily occupied pocket and drifted to his left, sailed cleanly – and improbably – through the hands of Coleman at the Pittsburgh 11-yard line for what would have been a first down.

It was, as CBS-TV analyst Adam Archuleta so accurately put it, a microcosm of the season for the Browns, who join the 2008 Detroit Lions in the NFL Hall of Shame as the only teams to lose all 16 games in a season.

Moments earlier, Archuleta declared, “You’ve got to catch that ball. You’ve got to catch that ball,” as if he felt sorry for the young receiver.

It was a season full of Murphy’s Law type foul-ups at the most inopportune times with this team. When something could go wrong, it generally did. When plays were needed on either side of the ball, they did not arrive. Perfect example, the Coleman miss.

And that, in a rather generic nutshell, is why the Browns are – and will be forever – 0-16 for the 2017 season. A sad ending for what once was one of the most solid franchises in the NFL before 1999.

The last thing fans and players expected as the football sailed toward the wide-open Coleman along the left sideline was an incompletion. It was so inexplicably unexpected, it was almost as though it didn’t happen. Murphy’s Law.

It was a so-close and yet so-far moment when the football slipped between Coleman’s hands, glanced off his right shoulder pad and fell harmlessly to the ground as rookie tight end David Njoku a few yards away slapped his helmet with both hands in abject disbelief.

Coleman’s hands were at least a foot apart as the football arrived, giving him little or no chance of catching it. One would think by now he knows the odds of catching a thrown football rise considerably when the hands are virtually together.

Receivers are taught early on to connect their hands at the thumbs and forefingers in the shape of either a triangle or diamond, depending on the placement of the thumbs, in order to have a better chance of catching the ball. Coleman’s hands were nowhere near either shape. They were solidly apart. He should know better.

Presupposing he had made the catch, the Browns would have had a first down with 1:46 left in regulation and a better-than-decent chance to pull the upset. Then again, given Kizer’s season-long misery in the red zone, that is assuming way too much.

Up to that point, the Browns, mainly because of Kizer’s arm and legs, Duke Johnson’s terrific open-field talent and a defense that stiffened in the second half, actually had a decent shot at knocking off the Steelers and avoiding the infamy of a winless campaign.

The only points the Steelers put on the scoreboard in the second half came courtesy of special teams and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who weaved his way 96 yards with a kickoff after the Browns tied the game at 21-21 early in the third quarter. The tie lasted exactly 12 seconds.

Not one member of the Browns had a clean shot at the rookie wide receiver, who also knows how to catch the football as he tormented the Cleveland secondary all afternoon with a nine-catch, 143-yard, one touchdown performance.

The Steelers played this one without the quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. It may or may not have made a difference, but the Browns nevertheless played probably their most competitive game of the season.

The defense surrendered only 61 yards in the second half after Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones, making his third start against the Browns, helmed an offense that put up 287 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes..

Kizer, meanwhile enjoyed his best day statistically as a pro after a rough start, throwing for 314 yards and a pair of scoring throws to Rashard Higgins, and running for 61 yards, mosly in scramble mode, to extend drives and keep the Steelers’ defense off balance,

He hooked up with Josh Gordon, Johnson and Higgins for 13 of his 16 completions and 258 of those yards. He found Gordon four times for 115 yards, including a 54-yarder that set up the Browns’ first score, a two-yard scamper by Johnson.

But it’s the one pass that didn’t connect that will be remembered as the possible difference between a winless season and one that might have ended on a much more positive note. Coleman was targeted six times by Kizer and wound up with just one reception for 18 yards.

Kizer tried to console his disconsolate teammate, showing empathy as they sat side by side as the game wound down. He knew exactly how Coleman felt because he has felt that way on numerous occasions during a season he’s not likely to forget.

The manner in which the Browns lost this one will give players, coaches and fans something to talk about during the offseason in what could have been and, in the eyes of the more optimistic fans, should have been a victory for Hue Jackson in what might be his final game as the Browns’ head coach.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Winless season in the bag

It really makes no difference who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they entertain the Browns in the season finale (for Cleveland) Sunday.

(Spoiler alert) The Steelers will win and put a bow on the first winless season in Browns history.

They will continue their amazing dominance against Cleveland since 1999. Whether it’s Ben Roethlisberger or Landry Jones at quarterback, Le’Veon Bell or Stevan Ridley at running back or whomever else Mike Tomlin chooses to sit, the Steelers are by far the better team.

The two former bitter rivals have met 38 times since the resurrection in 1999, the Steelers holding a 32-6 edge. Makes no difference where they play. The Steelers dominate. Four of those Cleveland victories were at home. They have lost the last 14 in a row in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers coach is in a bit of a quandary. His club has clinched a first-round bye, but is in a unique position to possibly gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they beat the Browns and the New England Patriots somehow lose to the New York Jets.

Both teams are 12-3, but the Patriots hold the tiebreaker, having defeated the Steelers a couple of weeks ago.

Early word out of Pittsburgh indicates Roethlisberger and Bell might not suit up and Brown, who suffered a calf injury in the Patriots game, is being held out as a precaution until the playoffs.

Tomlin also might hold out certain other key performers on both sides of the football, as he did in last year’s game, in an effort to be as healthy as possible once the postseason commences.

Exactly one year ago, the situation was identical. The Steelers had clinched the playoffs and Tomlin did not want to risk injury to his big three on offense entering the postseason.

A year ago, though, the Browns were coming off their first (and still only) victory under Hue Jackson after losing the first 14 games. They have embarrassingly trumped that this season.

The Steelers spotted the Browns an early 14-0 lead last year before storming back to win, 27-24, in overtime with Jones, making only his third career start, tossing three touchdown passes in the comeback.

 Jones, in his fifth season as Roethlisberger’s backup, threw his first pass of the season against Houston last Monday. It was incomplete.

Roethlisberger, now 35, has had his typical great season, completing more than 64% of his passes for 4,250 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He has been absolute death on the Browns throughout his 14-year career.

He is 22-2 against them with winning streaks of 10 and eight games and currently working on a four-gamer. He has connected on nearly 63% of his passes for more than 5,700 yards, 37 touchdowns and 18 picks against them and is easily the most hated quarterback in Browns Nation.

Bell is having another All-Pro season. He has compiled nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,291 on the ground), is the second-leading pass receiver on the club with 85 receptions for 655 yards and leads the team with 11 touchdowns, nine on the ground.

Stevan Ridley, signed by the Steelers a week ago, and Fitzgerald Toussaint, figure to see most of the carries if Bell is held out. Third-year fullback Roosevelt Nix from Kent State has touched the ball just twice this season and scored both times.

With Brown idle, expect either Big Ben or Jones to target rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter and tight end Jesse James.

The Browns’ offense will face the second-best pass rush in the NFL. The Steelers, who dropped DeShone Kizer seven times and hit him at least a dozen more times on 40-plus dropbacks in his pro debut in the season-opening 21-18 victory, have rung up 50 sacks.

Former Ohio State standout defensive end Cameron Heyward leads the way with a dozen and the linebacking trio of Vince Williams, rookie T. J. Watt and Bud Dupree has combined for 19 more.

The very active Pittsburgh secondary, which just got ex-Brown Joe Haden back from a broken leg, has swiped 15 passes this season and will be going against the NFL leader in interceptions with 21. Look for Haden to hook up with Josh Gordon in the most entertaining matchup of the day.

So you see it really doesn’t make any difference who wears the Black and Gold Sunday. The Steelers roster is better than the Browns’ at all levels if play.

The Browns’ defense, easily the strongest side of the football all season, might hang in there for a quarter or two, but it will be the impotent offense, which has slammed it in reverse the last half dozen games, averaging 11 points, that will guarantee making the wrong kind of history.

It will extend the list of losing streaks to 17 overall, 33 in a row on Sunday, 17 in a row in the AFC North and be the 49th setback in the last 53 games.

If it’s Ben and Bell, it will be a relative blowout even if Tomlin decides to give certain other members of both units the afternoon off. If those two watch the game in civvies, it will be somewhat closer, but the end result will not change. Make it:

Steelers 34, Browns 6 (with Ben and Bell); Steelers 20, Browns 6 (without)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

More mid-week thoughts

Sam Darnold has spoken about his future as a professional football player and the news for Browns fans hoping he might be the team’s future quarterback is not good.

Asked Wednesday in Dallas how he would look in a Browns uniform now that they own the top pick in the college draft again, he deftly sidestepped giving a direct answer.

“Whenever I come out to go to the NFL, I think I would be honored to play for any team,” the USC quarterback said while preparing to face Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl game Friday night,

“It’s been a dream of mine for such a long time to play in the NFL. Any team that would want to give me that opportunity to be a part of their organization, it would mean the world to me.”

“Whenever” he comes out probably means Darnold is going back to school for one more year before he achieves his long-time dream rather than playing for the Browns, who almost assuredly would take him if he declared for the draft.

He comes out His diplomatic answer was couched in a way that points to yet another season with the Trojans and the likely No. 1 pick in 2019.

It was rumored last month that the red-shirt sophomore might return to school if the Browns owned the top pick. That was before they secured it last Sunday. He denied it then by stating he “did not say anything about the Browns. . . . I’ve never said anything bad about (an NFL) team.”

But the closer he gets to the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to declare their intention to enter the lottery, the hotter the heat becomes for those anxiously watching which way he is leaning.

There are those in the scouting community who believe Darnold is not yet NFL-ready. That he needs to work on his mechanics, polish his footwork before he ascends to a higher level of football.

That then would give new Browns General Manager John Dorsey the latitude to trade for a veteran quarterback to helm the offense for at least one season while Darnold would do what the Browns should have done with DeShone Kizer – watch and learn from the sideline.

Just because he would be the top pick next year if he, indeed, comes out does not in any way guarantee he will be plugged in as the starter as a rookie. Kizer has paid a steep price after the club placed him in that very role.

He has learned nothing in his first season except slapping his hands repeatedly against his helmet in frustration and self anger after throwing yet another interception. Mistakes that were made early in the season have not disappeared.

Under Dorsey’s leadership, mistakes like that will be minimized. Part of his job should entail spreading the word around the NFL that the culture in Cleveland has changed. No longer will the Browns be the team players hope won’t draft them.
*       *       *
You’ve got to give Hue Jackson credit. He sure knows how to massage a bad situation and come out smelling like a winner.

The Browns coach reiterated – no, make that declared – the other day that there is no doubt whatsoever he will be back next season as the boss man in spite of a two-season coaching record that is certain to be 1-31 after Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.

“I unequivocally believe without question that what Jimmy Haslam said is what is going to happen here,” he said, referring to the owner’s commitment he would be back next season no matter what. “There is nothing that anybody has said to me to make me feel differently.”

And then he pointed out the reasons why there should be no question that’s the correct decision. “I’ve shown through my work ethic, through our coaching staff’s work ethic and how the players have been and how they respond that I’m the right guy to help get this organization to where it needs to be,” he said.

Sounds like a head coach with an ego out of control, not one who boasts of just one victory in two seasons. Not like the head coach of a team that will join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in the NFL’s  16-game winless-season Hall of Fame (Shame?) on Sunday.

The work ethic of which he speaks on his and his staff’s behalf has produced little or no progress over the last two seasons. Using his team’s no-quit attitude is nice. It would be nicer if it translated into victories. At this point, one or two would be an improvement.

Jackson later went on to buttress his contention that he will be back next season. “I don’t know that anybody else in the National Football League can do this job right now,” he said. “Being in this situation is hard. . . . I have been blessed to have the opportunity to do this. But this is as hard as it gets.

“At the same time, I’m not running from this. I’m part of the reason it is like it is and I’d like to be part of the reason it gets fixed sooner rather than later. I think we will do that.”

He said he was part of the reason? He is the head coach, the guy solely responsible for what happens on the field on Sundays between September and December. The buck stops at his desk. Blaming others for his failings is lame.

If Haslam keeps this loser of a coach after Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, he not only risks angering his dwindling constituency, he sends a message around the sports world that going winless in an NFL season has its rewards.

Haslam and his wife, Dee, have to be convinced there is nothing wrong with breaking a promise – or whatever you call his word that Jackson will be back – if it contributes to the greater good of the franchise.

Right now, that franchise desperately needs a whole lot of help. At the risk of sounding repetitious, making Jackson disappear from the Cleveland sports scene would be addition by subtraction.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Now that it’s official the Browns own the No. 1 selection in next year’s college football draft, the two top-rated quarterbacks have to make a decision.

Quarterbacks Josh Rosen of UCLA and USC’s Sam Darnold are eligible to declare for the lottery, but the idea of being drafted by the Browns, who almost assuredly will grab a quarterback with the top pick if one is there, does not sit well with either young man.

Who can blame them? Who wants to get stuck with a franchise that defines losing in the National Football League? Who wants to get stuck with a coach who has done precious little to win football games and seems to be coaching in the 20th century?

Why would anyone with a bright future want to enter the dysfunctional atmosphere that has plagued the Browns for way too many seasons and shows no signs of changing? Cleveland is the NFL’s version of football hell.

If nothing else, the reticence of Rosen and Darnold with regard to the Browns points out just how off-putting the very idea of being drafted by the team has become.

That’s what Jimmy Haslam III and his myriad of coaches and general managers over the last six years have wrought. His team has become the team for which high-profile players do not want to play.

Rosen has been quoted recently about being drafted by a team that might not be his first choice. “I’d rather be a lower pick at the right team than a higher one at the wrong team,” he told ESPN in Phoenix, the site of the Cactus Bowl Tuesday night.

You don’t have to read between the lines on that one. It was a not-so-veiled direct shot at the Browns, basically intimating he has absolutely no desire to play for them.

Rosen, according to earlier ESPN report, would much rather play for the much more stable New York Giants, who have the second overall pick, and might not declare for the draft and return to UCLA if the Browns signal their intent to take him.

Darnold, meanwhile, has not tipped his hand on where his future lies, but has not ruled out returning to USC for one more season and might be leaning in the same direction as Rosen, remaining in school if the Browns lead off the draft.

They won’t know if either quarterback will be there for them at No. 1 until Jan. 15. That’s the deadline when players eligible for the draft must file declaration papers with the NFL in order to be officially listed.

The Cleveland draft strategy of new General Manager John Dorsey most likely will be determined at that time. Should Rosen and Darnold choose to remain in school, Dorsey probably will concentrate on strengthening other areas of concern first.

Since he has five picks in the first two rounds, including four of the first 36, he might initially try to sign or trade for a veteran free-agent quarterback and then take a second-tier quarterback in this deep class with one of the selections at the top of round two.

But if either or both of the two southern California kids declare, Dorsey and Haslam, especially Haslam, will have a tough sell to convince whomever they choose that Cleveland is the right place for them.

Considering what has transpired the last half dozen years in Berea, it is going to take some dynamic verbal gymnastics to pull it off. The club’s reputation as annual losers is a gigantic hurdle to overcome.

Dorsey has not tipped his hand as to his strategy and probably won’t until it becomes apparent on draft weekend how he thinks, but Rosen is the more-ready NFL quarterback compared to Darnold.

When Jim Mora Jr. was his coach at UCLA, Rosen operated mostly out of the pro set and should have little or no trouble making the transition to the NFL. Darnold is more of a shotgun/pistol quarterback who rarely took a snap under center.

There are too many variables right now to make any kind of a definite prediction on how day one of the draft will unfold, although that won’t stop the mock draft gurus. The only certainty is the Browns’ losing culture will play a large part in determining who will be the club’s franchise quarterback.

Sometime between now and Jan. 15 lies the direction this franchise heads in the immediate future. One fact remains. Without a stud quarterback, that direction points gloomily toward even more gloom.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Monday leftovers

After 15 winless games this season, one would think there has to be discordant feelings in the Browns’ locker room. All this losing wears on emotions.

Not according to Browns outside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who basically says everything in the locker room is hunky dory and Hue Jackson is in firm control of the situation.

“Yeah, Hue still has the locker room,” Kirksey said following the Browns’ latest loss in Chicago Sunday. “As long as I’m playing for this team, I will stand behind Hue. That’s my head coach. Guys are still rallying around him. We’ve just got to get through this phase.”

That’s what this is, a phase? Are the last 52 games a phase? Winning only four of them is a phase? Losing at least 14 games two seasons in a row is a phase? Really? If so, this has to be the longest phase in the history of phases.

Nevertheless it appears, at least through the eyes and ears of Kirksey, that locker room has Jackson’s undivided attention.

After the Bears loss, he couldn’t be bothered by the Browns clinching the top pick in the next college football draft for the second consecutive year.

“I could (not) care less about the No. 1 pick,” he said. “I’m more so about that locker room. Those guys fight their tails off for me. They work hard. They do everything I ask.”

If that’s the case, then, whey are they still winless this season? Either he must be asking them to do the wrong things or they are just flat out too incompetent to execute them. Whatever the divide, it has produced one teeny, tiny victory in the last 31 attempts.

So what about that 1-30 record, coach? “I’m pissed,” he said. “Let’s be honest and put it out there. I’m disappointed, I’m pissed off because I never saw this being this way. . . . And I know without question we’re going to get this fixed.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life. Hopefully, we’ll get to the other side of this one. We’re going to get this football team where it needs to be. Right now, we’re going to take the lumps. We deserve them.”

Where it needs to be is with a brand new head coach, one who isn’t a silver-tongued snake oil salesman who tap dances his way past a graveyard in an effort to put a happy face on a gloomy situation.

This football team has been headed in the wrong direction ever since Jackson took over in 2016 and shows absolutely no signs of even coming close to turning this thing around. It is a runaway freight train with no brakes.

But the coach is correct about one thing, though. He used the first person plural in acknowledging all the lumps are deserved even though he more than anyone is responsible for a vast majority of them.

The toxic aroma that has emerged out of this historic collapse by any one franchise in National Football League history cannot in any way be erased by anything this coach says.

Rookie tight end David Njoku pretty much summed it up: “It’s embarrassing,” he said

The damage has been done. The last two seasons have been a monstrosity. It has been historic in nature and colossal in its crushing impact on the record book in a terrible and embarrassing way for this franchise. This coach cannot undo that.

As he often says, “It is what it is.” What it is is inexcusable, unconscionable, unforgivable and intolerable. The chief perpetrator needs to disappear.
*       *       *
Fans have had 14 games to see what DeShone Kizer can do as an NFL quarterback – he was benched in the Houston loss – and have been rewarded with arguably the worst quarterbacking in franchise history over a prolonged period of time.

There have been other bad ones along the way among the 27 other starting quarterbacks since 1999, but Kizer has taken the quality of play at the position to a new low.

Yes he is a 21-year-old rookie who was shoved into the starting job well before he was ready. On any other team, he would have learned how to play in the NFL the right way.  By observing.

But Jackson had no choice – thank you, Sashi Brown – but to start the kid. Who else was he going to start? Brock Osweiler was cut. Cody Kessler is a marginal NFL quarterback at best. Kevin Hogan’s talents make Kessler look good.

The mistakes that were expected and made early by Kizer became repetitious. Like holding on to the ball too long; not getting it out quickly enough; timing issues; accuracy issues; showing an inability to make proper adjustments to opposing defenses; forcing passes into windows that looked like slivers.

His performance against the Bears serves as a microcosm of his season. He threw 14 of his 32 passes toward Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman, his best wide receivers, and connected on three for 22 yards. He either overthrew, underthrew or just plain missed them.

It has all added up this season to nine touchdown passes and a league-leading 21 interceptions through the Chicago game with the finale in Pittsburgh against the Steelers dead ahead.

And yet he will not end up as the franchise interception leader unless he throws five picks against the Steelers. Brian Sipe had seasons of 26, 25 and 23 between 1979 and 1983. Hall of Famer Otto Graham had 24 in 12 games in 1952.

Three of Kizer’s scoring passes were against Green Bay and two were against Indianapolis. He has gone eight games without throwing at least one touchdown pass and been picked off at least once in 12 of the 14 games he has started, including his first six and last four.

And yet despite all this, Kizer remains upbeat. Each game is a new challenge, an opportunity to prove Jackson’s faith in him will be rewarded. The only problem is he keeps going out and making the same mistakes that have plagued his rookie season.

He also seems to have adopted a more philosophical approach recently. “It’s going to be one of the more pivotal years in my career in the sense that you have to know what rock bottom looks like before you can climb to the top,” he said.

Rock bottom won’t be reached until after the Steelers game.
*       *       *
When the Browns selected Jabrill Peppers with their second of three first-round draft picks earlier this year, they believed they were getting one of the most versatile players in the entire draft. Sort of an NFL Swiss Army Knife.

At the University of Michigan, Peppers was Mr. Versatility. He played in the secondary and at linebacker on defense. He returned kickoffs and punts. He played some on offense, running and pass receiving. You name it, he did it.

And when he became a member of the Browns, that versatility disappeared. He has yet to play a down from scrimmage on offense. And after a few games as a kick returner early in the season, he has become the club’s main punt returner.

A natural strong safety and/or box safety, the 5-11, 213-pound Peppers won the free safety job on a club overloaded with strong safeties. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made him his “Angel” in the secondary, routinely placing him 20 yards off the line of scrimmage to prevent big plays.

Peppers, whose 53 tackles is seventh-best on the team, was known for his rugged style of play and solid tackling with the Wolverines and was ill-suited to play so far off the ball for Cleveland, although Williams recently has moved him up closer to the football due to an injury to Derrick Kindred.

As for returning punts, he thus far is a non-threat, averaging just 6.3 yards a return on 29 punts in 14 games, his longest only a 25-yarder. He returned 11 kickoffs for 238 yards, including a 116-yard game in the first Cincinnati loss.

To call him a bust would be harsh. He’s been more of a disappointment, but that was not entirely his fault, having been played out of position. The drafting of a true free safety in the 2018 lottery should solve that problem.
*       *       *
Finally . . . The Browns have scored 10 or fewer points in seven games this season. That’s nearly half their games. And it’s with an offensive line that is one of the highest paid units in the league. . . . Time of possession and turnover ratio are vital statistics that indicate how well or poorly a team is doing. The Browns are losing the ball possession battle, 33 minutes to 28. And their turnover ratio is an awful -28, most of which can be traced to generosity of Kizer. . . . In addition to his offsides penalty that nullified a Cleveland touchdown against Chicago, defensive end Carl Nassib also blocked an extra point, was flagged for holding on another point after and drew an unsportsmanlike penalty when he called someone (unidentified) an idiot. . . . The Browns had 11 possessions against the Bears, 10 of which lasted no longer than seven plays. . . .Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 20 yards; seven receptions (on seven targets), 81 yards. Total: 11 touches, 101 yards, 9.2 yards per touch. Season total: 144 touches, 946 yards, 6.57 yards a touch.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Jackson’s exit can’t come soon enough

Jimmy Haslam III has all but promised Hue Jackson will be his head coach next season. The Browns’ owner needs to break that promise. Check that. He needs to smash it to smithereens.

He needs to rid the Cleveland sports scene of the most incompetent and inept head coach and/or manager in the history of Cleveland sports. And there have been quite a few. Jackson has easily dethroned them.

What Jackson has done, albeit somewhat unwittingly, is bring shame to the city and its pro football fans, who are embarrassed to the point of humiliation and anger. And the sooner he leaves, the better they will feel. Consider it addition by subtraction.

There is just one game left to the 2017 season. It’s one game separates the Browns from joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only National football League franchises to lose every game in a 16-game season.

It’s in Pittsburgh next Sunday and you can already put it in the loss column. There is no way the sad, sad, sad 2017 Cleveland Browns, the stepchild of the NFL, will knock off the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

The Browns actually had a chance to end a series of losing streaks Sunday in Chicago, but they arrived not ready to play a game of football. The offense was listless and the defense clueless as the Bears easily won, 20-3.

Their performance against was extremely disappointing, especially since the players knew what was on the line. They knew another loss would land them even deeper, perhaps permanently, in the NFL record books for abject futility. Pride to prevent it seemed AWOL.

The coaching was even worse if you come from the school that says don’t blame the players for everything. The playcalling on both sides of the ball practically insured the Browns had no chance to win this one.

Smart football, something that has been foreign to this team the last two seasons, continued its absence. There is a good reason the once-proud Cleveland Browns are 0-15.

Why, for example, did Jackson call running back Isaiah Crowell’s number a dozen times in the first half – he ran for 44 yards – and then totally ignore him in the second half with the Browns trailing at intermission by only 6-3?

The loss was the 15th in a row this season, setting a record as the only team in the nearly 100-year history of the NFL to lose 15 games two seasons in a row. They also clinched the top pick in the college draft for the second straight year. 

It was their 16th straight loss overall, 48th in the last 52 games stretching back to 2014 and the 32nd in a row on a Sunday, all in the Jimmy Haslam era. The last Cleveland victory on a Sunday? A 24-10 victory over San Francisco at home on Dec. 13, 2015.

On and on it goes as the rest of NFL nation laughs at Cleveland. This franchise has become the NFL’s version of The Mistake on the Lake, as well as the butt of late-night television jokes.

Going winless for the first 15 games in a season is extremely hard to do. One would figure that somewhere along the way, even a bad NFL team would somehow stumble into a victory, such as the Browns did last season in game 15 when they squeezed past San Diego after dropping the first 14.

Before he leaves, Jackson has to practice his swimming technique because of something he said after the Browns beat the Chargers to snap that streak.

“We’re not going 1-15 next year,” he declared. “You can write it if you like. Hue Jackson said it. It’s the way it is.  I’m not going 1-15. No. I’ll be swimming in that lake over there somewhere. That’s not happening.”

It has become painfully obvious new General Manager John Dorsey faces a massive rebuild. But first, he has to march into Haslam’s office first thing Monday morning and continue to lobby for Jackson’s departure.

He needs to say something like, “You brought me here to fix things. Well the first thing that needs fixing is the man in charge of the locker room. He needs to go. Playing hard for him is nice, but it’s not working. Nothing is working. Let me help you out here. You need a new coach.”

What Dorsey doesn’t have to say is what should be silently inferred. Haslam owes a head coaching change to his constituents, the fans. The misery he has subjected them to the last six seasons since he took over, the last two in particular, need to be addressed pronto.

It goes beyond all reason to think Haslam will not make a move sooner rather than later. It’s also entirely possible Jackson himself might pull the plug on himself. Surely he must realize the shame and embarrassment he has brought to his reputation and his team.

The very thought Haslam and his wife, Dee, have put up with such incompetence for so long in the face of a worsening product strains the boundaries of credulity. The surprise is Jackson was not fired long ago.

Having lasted as long as he has can be traced to his ability to convince the owner and his wife that what was unfolding was not his fault. And to some extent, that is true. But that argument loses its clout the longer the situation continues.

The coach has steadfastly, at least on offense, refused to place his men in a position to succeed. A perfect example is DeShone Kizer, who has been saddled with an offense that does not cater to his talents.

The rookie quarterback, who threw two more interceptions against the Bears to bring his season total to a league-leading 21, was put on speed dial from the beginning rather than nurturing those talents.

Jackson also stubbornly refused to turn over the playcalling duties to someone else even though Al Saunders, his wide receivers coach with the Browns, was his offensive coordinator in Oakland in 2011.

We’ll never know whether a new voice, a new set of ideas, a new attitude on that side of the ball would have worked because Jackson so adamantly and zealously clung to running the offense. If anything, it diminished whatever ability he had to be the head coach.

He oddly ceded all aspects of the defense to coordinator Gregg Williams and while the run defense has made substantial improvement, the porous pass defense has been hampered by some strange calls.

The Bears, not exactly the beacon of good offense in the NFL, took full advantage Sunday by gouging the defense on several occasions with screen passes, taking advantage of the canyon-like Cleveland secondary when free safety Jabrill Peppers played 20 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky used his arm and legs to flummox the Cleveland defense, scoring one touchdown and setting up a pair of Jordan Howard touchdowns with timely passing.

The only highlight of the game from a Cleveland standpoint also became a lowlight and just another microcosm of why the Browns are the laughable losers of the league.

Bad things happen to bad football teams. And the Browns have played fast and loose with Murphy’s Law for the better part of the last 19 seasons: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. To wit:

After Cleveland defensive tackle Trevon Coley deflected a Trubisky pass into the air on the first play of the second half, rookie defensive end Myles Garrett grabbed it and romped 42 yards into the end zone. Only one problem. Defensive end Carl Nassib was clearly offsides. Dumb football.

Then in the final minute of the third quarter, Cleveland wide receiver Rashard Higgins was headed to the end zone with a Kizer pass when he was hit from behind at the 3 by nose tackle Eddie Goldman and fumbled into the end zone, where cornerback Prince Amukamara recovered it.

It was the closest, perhaps fittingly, the Browns got to the end zone all afternoon. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

There’s a Christmas Eve gleam

There isn’t any question the Browns’ game Sunday in Chicago against the Bears is the most important game of the season.

And why is it more important than the 14 that have preceded it? Because it will be their last chance to win a game in 2017. There is absolutely no way they are going to march into Pittsburgh a week from Sunday and knock off the Steelers in the season finale.

Even if Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, half the offensive line and half the defense don’t suit up if the Steelers cannot improve their playoff position, the Browns will lose.

Same exact situation occurred in the final game of the 2016 season and the Browns still lost, 27-24, in Pittsburgh when backup quarterback Landry Jones threw three touchdown passes after Cleveland jumped out to a 14-0 lead.

The fate of the first winless season ever in the history of this once-proud franchise rests solely on the trip to Chicago. The Browns had excellent shots at preventing such a calamitous season against Tennessee, the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay and failed.

That’s why they drag a 14-game losing streak this season, 15 straight overall and 31 in a row on Sunday against a team that has struggled all season and is ripe for an upset, having lost six of their last seven games.

But take into consideration whom the Bears have defeated on their 4-10 journey through the season thus far and it’s no wonder oddsmakers have installed them as 6½-point favorites. They can make it an AFC North sweep with a victory after previously defeating Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore.  

Now insert three rather interesting facts into the equation. Fact No. 1: The Bears have been favorites to win seven times under coach John Fox, six at Soldier Field, and are 0-7.  The Browns were not one of those teams.

Fact No. 2: The Browns haven’t won a game in Chicago since 1969, when the Bears played at Wrigley Field. The time frame on this one is a little deceiving, though. The teams have met only 15 times since 1950, the Browns holding a 9-6 edge. They have met just nine times since 1969, three of them at Soldier Field, all Browns losses.

Fact No. 3: This game is being play on Christmas Eve afternoon. Hue Jackson has coached two Christmas Eve afternoon games as a head coach in the National Football League and won them both. He is unbeaten on Christmas Eve afternoon.

The first time was with the Oakland Raiders in 2011 at Kansas City. Then the Browns snapped a 14-game losing streak last season at home against the then San Diego Chargers. So if nothing else, Jackson has that going for him Sunday.

The Bears are keenly aware of the historic nature of this game from a Cleveland standpoint. The Chargers were embarrassed last season as the only team the Browns beat last season. The Bears are in prime position to be the Chargers of 2017.

“We won’t be that team,” declared Bears 6-5, 320-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks, who leads the Bears in sacks with eight. “Simple as that. We won’t let that happen.”

Bulletin board material? At this point of the season, just about anything would qualify as bulletin board material in the Cleveland clubhouse.

Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky, the kid from Mentor and the University of North Carolina the Bears traded up for in this year’s college draft, is treating this like just another game on the schedule.

“I don’t think it will be emotional (for me) at all,” the rookie quarterback told the Cleveland media earlier this week from Chicago. “I’m an even-keeled player so I’m not going to get too high, not too low. . . . I just want to go out there, do my job and enjoy playing the game of football.”

His only motivation is to win.” We have a bunch of competitors and we’re trying to finish out our season strong,” said Trubisky, who grew up a Browns fan and is well aware of his childhood team’s plight. “We don’t care who rolls in here.”

He took over the huddle in week five after veteran Mike Glennon won only one of the first four games and was brought along carefully until recently when he was turned loose and responded with games of 250 and 306 yards.

The normally conservative Chicago offense, which runs the ball almost as much as airing it out, produced 831 total yards in those games, easily their highest two-game total this season.

When you have a running back like Jordan Howard, you make sure he gets a lot of touches. He averages nearly 20 a game and has produced 1,165 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns.

Outside of Bell, Leonard Fournette and Joe Mixon (in the second Cincinnati game), Howard presents the biggest challenge for a Cleveland run defense that ranks in the top 10 in the league.

The underlying motivation to win this game is off the charts for the Browns. It means the difference between dynamiting, at least temporarily, one of professional football’s most odious records and suffering continued humiliation as the worst football team ever in the nearly century-long history of the NFL.

This team is faced with the daunting task of not just winning a game for the first time this season. It’s the last opportunity to once and for all grasp at least a sliver of respect and hope for the future and, at the same time, give some balance to the immediate past.

To do so, they must somehow summon whatever emotion they have left of their 2017 pride and play this game on a plane much higher than they have ever played it this season. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Jackson reaches down and actually calls a smart game on offense, makes correct decisions with regard to time management, while the defense neutralizes the Chicago offense and the Browns as a team rise to that plane of overachieving for 60 minutes and shatter the numerous losing streaks. Jackson remains unbeaten as a head coach on Christmas Eve afternoon. Make it:

Browns 20, Bears 17

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Jimmy Haslam III is going to have a tough time explaining to the growing-angrier-by-the day Browns fan base why he as much as promised Hue Jackson will be back next season as his head coach.

After watching his team set historic records for futility that most likely will never be broken because one cannot imagine another National Football League team ever again being this awful, the Browns owner cannot honestly justify keeping around one of the main symbols of this awfulness.

While it might be partially correct for Jackson to blame this living nightmare on the front office’s inability to provide the kind of talent that can win games, there has to be more reason than that to retain his services.

In what way have the Browns improved this season? Has there been any day-to-day progress? Any week-to-week progress? Any game-to-game progress? If so, I missed it.

For the last almost two seasons now, I have watched the same mistakes being made over and over and over. It’s been like Groundhog Day for this franchise for the past two seasons. There has been scant or no progress.

The only thing that changes is the weekly opponent. That’s it.

On the plus side of the Jackson ledger is how his club performs despite going through tough emotional times. Playing for a loser on a weekly basis for two seasons is extremely deflating.

Players love to win. They are emboldened by winning. It feeds their egos. It makes them feel good. Fans share in their joy. Losing constantly has the exact opposite effect.

Do the Browns play hard? Yep. Do they ever mail it in? Nope. One would understand though, if they packed it in with two games left in the still winless season and the embarrassment of setting historic records for futility already solidified.

The last two seasons have been one gigantic kick in the teeth for one of the most ardent, emotional and passionate fan bases in the NFL. Arguably the most. Their love for this team has been rewarded with utter incompetence.

In the end, a vast majority still cares. And they do so with a never-ending hope that some day, that passion will be rewarded justly with the kind of football that makes them proud to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

In a lot of cases, it will be even more special to those fans whose fanaticism traces back to when the old Browns played the kind of winning football that made Cleveland one of the strongest cities un the NFL. I remember when they labeled themselves, and deservedly so, the Greatest Show in Football.

With all due respect to the Indians and Cavaliers, whose achievements in the last several years have more than balanced the emotional scales of Cleveland sports fans, the city is still a football town.

It will take a lot more than being the NFL’s stepchild for the last nearly two decades to displace the Browns at the top of that list. But the erosion is palpable.

One has to wonder why this franchise, this woebegone, dysfunctional and jinx-ridden franchise, still has enormous appeal. The only rational explanation is that fans have a deep-seated fear they will lose this team again.

The NFL had absolutely no good reason to allow the old Browns to move to Baltimore following the 1995 season. It created an undeserved void. It also created an emotional scar that still exists with many fans. They are afraid it might happen again and this time, there is a good reason.

Apathy is the greatest threat to any professional franchise. And right now, the Browns are on the precipice of experiencing that threat. More and more fans are jumping off the bandwagon.

When the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 after a three-year forced absence, fans were excited. Even though it was with an expansion team, they were thrilled to have the NFL back in town.

They envisioned an eventual return to the good, old days when the Browns were not only competitive, but winning division titles and making serious runs at the Super Bowl. Even though that has not eventuated, the fans remained patient.

Until the last two seasons.

This is where they appear to have drawn a rather large line. Even the most passionate fans are fed up. They are embarrassed, they are angry and they are rightly demanding a better product.

If Haslam does not see the bottom line shrinking, he is either delusional, not paying attention or both. He is taking a fifth crack (in six seasons of ownership) at finally getting it right in the front office. He has made a strong first step with the hiring of John Dorsey as his general manager.

Now he needs to let his new GM do his job. That means allowing him to choose his own head coach. Haslam’s strange loyalty to Jackson is not understood in just about every corner of Browns Nation. No matter how hard Jackson tries, it isn’t working.

If he is still the head coach after the Browns finish either 1-15 for the second straight season or become only the second team in NFL history to lose all 16 games in a season, Haslam will lose whatever credibility he has left with a good chunk of the shrinking fan base.

To avoid that, he must relinquish control of choosing the head coach to his new general manager rather than saddle him with someone not of his choosing. It’s clearly the right move to make.
*       *       *
How bad have the Browns been since 1999? This bad:

The won-lost record over the last almost 19 years is staggeringly abysmal and embarrassing. Since the return, they have played 302 games and won 88 for a winning percentage of 29.1. The litany of losing is absurdly mind-boggling.

The Browns have recorded only one double-digit winning season, winning 10 games in 2007 but failing to make the playoffs. Their only playoff appearance in 2002 resulted in a wild-card loss to Pittsburgh.

They have finished in the division cellar 15 times. No wonder fans believe they have taken up permanent residence there. Eight head coaches have racked up only two winning seasons (Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel).

Since he took over his billion-dollar investment in 2012, Haslam’s Browns are 20-74 heading into the final two games this season. That includes 29 losses in the last 30 games and 47 in the last 51. They have lost 79% of their games and finished last in the division all six seasons.

They have redefined the term losing football.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Monday leftovers

Hue Jackson was asked a question by the media about his rookie quarterback in the wake of Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the home finale.

It had to do with DeShone Kizer’s maddening and very annoying habit of repeating the same mistakes ad nauseam, almost as though he is not learning from them. Will he ever get it, coach?

“I think that’s a fair question if he’ll ever get it,” the Browns’ coach answered. “I think he will, but he has to keep working.”

Working is not the problem. No one can accuse Kizer of not working. It’s the execution, or lack of same, that’s the problem. He makes mistakes at the most inopportune times.

Ball security, for example. Kizer leads the National Football League with 19 interceptions. He has lost six fumbles, thrown six of his interceptions in the red zone, seven fourth-quarter picks and one in OT. The Browns have turned the football over 36 times this season; Kizer is responsible for 26 of them.

When you keep making the same mistakes, as Kizer has, all the learning in the world is not going to help. It makes one wonder what exactly is he learning? Whatever it is, it is not transitioning well to the field.

I read somewhere a while ago that Kizer has slow eyes. In other words, he has a problem coordinating what he sees with what is actually happening. The recognition aspect of the passing game is not working. That could account for his late delivery of passes at times. The timing is just not there.

It all seems to be adversely affecting him after 14 games. He had a glazed, almost bewildered look on his face after throwing his second interception of the game early in the fourth quarter Sunday. He attempted to hit running back Isaiah Crowell, who was triple covered in the end zone.

Two possessions prior to that, he was strip-sacked in the end zone, gifting the Ravens with an early Christmas present touchdown. One dumb play after another after another has made this a nightmarish season for the young quarterback.

Even though he previously said Kizer is his quarterback for the rest of the season, Jackson indicated he would think about sitting Kizer for Sunday’s game in Chicago against the Bears. “I’m going to watch the tape and make the best decision for our team because we’re still trying to win,” he said.

“We’re not here just trying to get through the season. I don’t look at it like that and I’m not going to let our players look at it like that. We’re trying to win. I need to see where he is.”

Right now, Kizer is probably in a state of confusion. He no doubt wants to think he belongs, but the results suggest otherwise. He might outwardly display confidence in his ability to handle the huddle, but he has to be hurting inwardly.

“This is tough on a young player,” Jackson said. “Let’s be honest. This guy has been battling as hard as you can all year. . . . I want to see where he is because this is about his future as a quarterback in the National Football League.”

There are those who strongly believe Jackson has put the kid in untenable situations, stubbornly attempting to make the quarterback fit his system rather than creating a system to fit his talents.

That problem, one way or the other, will be corrected with a new quarterback next season because it would be difficult to imagine Kizer leading the Browns’ offense in 2018. He will be doing something he should have been doing this season – learning through observation.
*       *       *
One of the most important statistical measuring sticks for success at any level of football is the turnover ratio. The higher you are, the more likely your team is winning.

We already know how generous the Browns have been this season with ball security on offense. Give the ball away 36 times in 14 games and you can understand why the Browns are 0-14. So what about the defense?

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ crew, while playing much better against the run and competitively in all phases in general, has taken the football from the opposition only 11 times this season (six picks and five fumble recoveries). They are dead last in the NFL in opportunism.

It gives the Browns an NFL worst (by a mile) -25 turnover ratio. The Denver Broncos are next worst at -15. The best? The Ravens at +17 overall and +7 against the Browns.

That important stat has had a deleterious effect on the Cleveland offense, which has started way too many drives in its own territory. The severe lack of takeaways, in many cases creating a short field, forces the offense to sustain long drives and it has not been able to.
*       *       *
Sounding embarrassed, Jackson issued a public apology to local fans with regard more to what the Browns didn’t do this season than why they didn’t.

“I apologize to our fans that we were not able to . . . get them a victory in our stadium,” he said. “Hopefully, this is the end of all that. I’m not going to make any guarantees because you never know . . . what happens from year to year. At the same time, it can’t get much worse than this, true?

“There’s no way. There’s not a bone in my body that thinks this will ever be like this again. I know I said it a year ago that I didn’t think it would be this easy heading into next season. It is. I was wrong. There is no way this organization, this football team, this city .  . the rest of the people in this organization can stomach this again.”

This season, he admitted, has worn on him. “I’m not coping with this very well,” he said. “I haven’t for two years. . . . We have to fix this. That is what we are committed to doing. . . . We’re going to turn a corner here . . . turn the page on this.”

With regard to the coaching situation down in Cincinnati, where Marvin Lewis is rumored contemplating stepping down as Bengals coach at the end of the season and Jackson’s name has come up in speculation, the Cleveland coach demurred. “I’m not going to run from this,” he said. “I have never gone any place and left it worse than I found it.”
*       *       *
Remember the days when the Browns and Bengals were bitter rivals? The Browns and Baltimore, the city that stole the original Browns, were even bitterer rivals? And the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers were the bitterest of rivals?

Those were the six games on the schedule that meant a whole lot more than the other 10. Those were the games that must be won, that had to be won from a prestige standpoint.

The dictionary definition of rivalry is “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.” That rivalry exists among the other three teams in the AFC North. Not in Cleveland.

The Browns the last two seasons are 0-11 against the division and have been outscored, 291-148, heading into season finale in Pittsburgh. Overall, they are winless in the last 16 games against the division, having been outscored, 450-209, an average score of 28-13. They haven’t won a division game since October 2015, a 33-30 overtime victory in Baltimore.
*       *       *
Finally . . . From the department of don’t–think-I’ve-ever-seen-that-before comes this little gem: On the Browns’ second possession against the Ravens, Kizer completed two passes to Crowell for minus 11 yards. An offense slammed into reverse. . . . In somewhat ironic fashion, the Browns’ lone touchdown Sunday was achieved solely on the ground. Five plays, 96 yards, all infantry style. Ironic because Jackson’s offense is predicated on the forward pass. . . . A disappointed fan at the game held up a Seal Brown Cleveland No. 99 jersey with the words Sad Since above the number, reflecting the mood of most fans since the club returned in 1999 after a three –year forced absence. Well done. . . . The Browns haven’t won a game in Chicago, their destination Sunday, since 1969 when the Bears played at Wrigley Field. That’s because the Browns have played only three games in the Windy City, losing all three at Soldier Field, since ‘69 in the 15-game series, which the Browns lead, 9-6. . . . Sunday’s crowd at the home finale was announced as 56,434. Judging from the television pictures. Half of them were disguised as seats. . . . Duke Johnson Sr. touch watch: Seven carries for 23 yards and a touchdown; five receptions for 40 yards. Total: 12 touches for 63 yards.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Offense offensive once again

Let’s see now. What went right for the Browns Sunday in the home finale against the Baltimore Ravens? Nothing.

Okay, what went wrong? Just about everything you can imagine.

The Browns, at least on offense, played their worst game of the season and that takes some doing by a team that is winless in 14 games this season, 15 straight overall, 1-29 in the last 30 games and the lowest scoring team in the National Football League.

The offense new Browns General Manager John Dorsey saw in last Sunday’s loss to Green Bay did not show up against the Ravens. That one was somewhat of an aberration.

The real one, the one that has underwhelmed most of the season, showed up against the Ravens and once again revealed the numerous blemishes that have prevented any progress.

It’s the same thing with this crew week after week after week.  The results do not change. The only things that change are the final numbers on the scoreboard at the end of those games.

The only thing the Ravens lost Sunday en route to an overwhelming 27-10 victory over the NFL’s most hapless team by a long shot was a challenge by coach John Harbaugh of a completed pass to Duke Johnson Jr. midway through the final quarter.

Just about everything else went their way. None of it was luck. It was all earned.

The Baltimore defense, which had five takeaways in the first meeting of the season in week two, created four more Sunday, converting them into 14 points. The Cleveland defense had zero takeaways, raising their turnover ratio to -25.

The Baltimore offense was steady and mistake-free, taking advantage of Browns’ defensive mistakes like a blown coverage on a 33-yard scoring pass from Joe Flacco to Benjamin Watson and no one near Flacco when he scored from two yards on a quarterback draw.

Watson’s touchdown, the 10th scoring pass caught by a tight end against the Browns this season, arrived late in the second quarter, three plays after Johnson lost a fumble near midfield, and gave the visitors a 17-7 lead.

Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was picked off thrice and fumbled the ball away in the first game, produced two more interceptions – both poorly thrown passes – and a strip-sack that turned into the Ravens’ final touchdown in the third quarter, their sixth on defense this season.

Then there is Ravens punter Sam Koch, who was an effective field position weapon, dropping two punts at the Cleveland 4 and generally keeping the Browns pinned deep in their own territory at the beginning of drives. All but two of the Browns’’ possessions began at or inside their 25-yard line.

The Cleveland offense, at its best, was one nice possession away from being totally awful. With the exception of a five-play, 96-yard scoring drive, all on the ground, in the second quarter, it was achingly missing in action.

The defense, which eventually wore down because the offense couldn’t stay on the field, was exhausted after spending nearly 37 minutes on the field because it couldn’t get off, although it experienced a brief moment of glory.

Back-to-back possessions created the only two highlights of the afternoon for Browns fans early in the second quarter. The sparse crowd – it looked as though the stadium was a little more than half-filled – just didn’t realize it at the time.

The defense fashioned its best goal-line stand of the season, turning away four attempts to score from the 4 as the Ravens were determined to take a 10-0 lead. Terrific plays by James Burgess Jr. and Caleb Brantley blunted the final two runs by Alex Collins.

That’s when the offense, which produced negative five yards on 11 plays in the opening quarter, took the cue and unfurled its stunning, how-in-the-world-did-that-happen touchdown drive to take the Browns’ only lead of the game, Johnson romping the final 12 yards shortly after Isaiah Crowell bolted 59 yards on the first play.

That, for all practical purposes, was the Cleveland offense for the day. Not much else worked. To be brutally honest, nothing else worked.

Kizer proved once again he is not a starting caliber NFL quarterback, making mistake after mistake, many of which fans have seen before. He is learning nothing from his past mistakes.

It has become obvious he and coach Hue Jackson are clearly not on the same page, let alone the same playbook. Whether it’s Jackson stubbornly not catering more favorably to Kizer’s talents or the rookie just not competent enough to handle the coach’s offense, it just isn’t working.

Several times, his receivers had to be contortionists in order to make acrobatic catches in an effort to bail him out. His passes were all over the place, several of which were well off target. As it was, he threw for just 146 yards.

Josh Gordon was targeted 11 times and caught five balls for only 47 yards, but had to be a contortionist to grab a few others that were in the vicinity of his hands. He’s too good and too valuable to be saddled with a quarterback like Kizer.

As Jackson trotted off the field after exchanging a congratulatory handshake with Harbaugh, he had to wonder whether this would be the last time he helms the Browns in front of the home folks.

There are plenty of fans who no doubt wonder the same and won’t be unhappy if his tenure as the worst coach in Cleveland Browns history comes to an end before next season  in spite of what owner Jimmy Haslam III says.

With two games left, both on the road, Haslam’s patience will be severely tested, especially if the Browns become only the second team in the long history of the NFL to lose every game in a 16-game season, joining the 2008 Detroit Lions.

That one definitely bears watching.