Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bottlegate revisited

Every time the Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars meet, it is inevitable the tale of the infamous Bottlegate game of 2001 is resurrected.

So why not again as the two teams meet again Sunday in Cleveland? It lives not only in Browns lore, but National Football League lore as well. And definitely not in a positive way.

It was Butch Davis’ first season as coach of the Browns and he had them at 6-6 with four games to go and an outside shot at qualifying for the postseason entering the Dec. 12 home date with the Jaguars.

The expansion Browns had broken a six-game losing streak against Jacksonville earlier in the season, but the Jags led, 15-10, in this one with 3:02 left in the fourth quarter when the tale began to take shape.

Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch used an aerial onslaught to drive his team downfield, but stalled at the Jacksonville 12 and faced a fourth-and-2 with 1:08 to play. And then it happened.

Couch appeared to complete a three-yard pass to wide receiver Quincy Morgan, who took two steps before being blasted by Jags safety James Boyd. The ball popped loose as he fell, but it was ruled a completed catch.

As the frenzy ramped up in the crowd, Couch immediately spiked the football on first-and-goal at the Jags 9 as referee Terry McAulay ran up waving his arms. The previous play would be reviewed.

Those were the infancy days of video replay as an officiating tool and communication between the replay official and referee was not nearly as smooth as it is now.

The rule back then, as it is now, is that when the next snap is made, what immediately preceded it is moot. And that’s when everything ground to a halt.

As the geeked-up crowd bellowed its displeasure, McAulay called for the replay and after review ruled the previous play an incomplete pass, turning the football over to the Jaguars. And that’s when it got really ugly.

Fans from all over Browns Stadium, unhappy a replay was called for in the first place, rained all manner and variety of debris onto the field, including hundreds, if not thousands, of beer bottles.

After it became untenable to continue, McAulay called the game with 48 seconds left and exited the field. The game ostensibly was over.

Word then came down from the NFL that it must be completed. The two teams returned to the field and the game was completed with the Jags taking two knees.

McAulay, who has subsequently refereed numerous games in Cleveland since then, was fortunate to escape any physical damage as he and his fellow officials, accompanied by the extreme wrath of the fans, left the field.

The embarrassingly ugly scene on the field naturally grabbed the attention of practically the entire scope of the sports world, shining the spotlight brightly on just how badly Cleveland fans behaved that day.

Browns President Carmen Policy sort of minimized the behavior of the fans, almost in a dismissive way. “Those bottles are plastic,” he said. “They don’t pack much of a wallop.”

It was just another dark chapter in the woebegone 19-year history of the new Cleveland Browns, one that very likely will live on for many generations whenever these teams meet.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Been doing some thinking lately about Hue Jackson’s future.

Will it continue in Cleveland after this season? Has he coached well enough to carry on with a fan base ready to string him up and kick him out the door?

When you post only one victory in 25 games, that’s more than a sign that something is wrong. That’s a raging clarion call for change.

A lot depends on what Jimmy Haslam III and his wife, Dee, do at what is hopefully a merciful conclusion to yet another season of football not played the way it’s meant to be played.

Several scenarios popped into mind, not the least of which is Jackson somehow survives this living nightmare and ends up answering next season to a whole new set of bosses who actually know what they are doing.

Call it a reprieve of sorts for Jackson; sort of what Mike Holmgren did back in 2010 when he retained Eric Mangini after taking over as the Browns’ president. He figured Mangini deserved another chance after a 5-11 season. Bad move. Mangini booked another 5-11 season.

That one does not sound too realistic with regard to Jackson. The fan base, which is thinning to begin with, might storm Browns headquarters in Berea if Haslam or whoever winds up on top of the flow chart next season does not add by subtracting.

Jackson’s reputation as an offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer, which has taken several severe hits the last season and a half, is still strong enough to warrant a look elsewhere around the National Football League if he is cashiered by Cleveland.

Teams all over the league are on the lookout for seasoned coordinators during the offseason and Jackson’s name, if he becomes a free agent, is certain to land on many of those lists. He shouldn’t have to worry about his future.

But the thought that intrigued me the most, and the one when you stop and think about it makes the most sense, will see Jackson move back downstate with the Cincinnati Bengals, who have struggled the last two seasons.

Marvin Lewis, one of Jackson’s closest friends in the NFL, is in his 15th season as the Bengals boss. He experienced great success from 2009 to 2105 with a slight 4-12 burp in 2010, winning the AFC North three times and finishing second twice.

Jackson spent four seasons with the Bengals, coordinating the offense in 2014 and 2015, when they were 22-9-1, Since he moved north to lead the Browns, the Bengals are 9-15-1, including a 3-6 mark this season and fading fast with a struggling offense.

At one point during his time in Cincinnati, it was thought by a few observers that Jackson was heir apparent to the Bengals’ top job if and when Lewis decided to retire. That was before he took the Cleveland job. At 52, he is seven years younger than Lewis.

With that in mind, here is what I think will happen at the conclusion of this season.

Both men will be dismissed, or in Lewis’ case kicked upstairs out of loyalty, and Jackson will wind up back down in Cincinnati . . . as the head coach.

His abysmal record with the Browns would not be a factor. Most knowledgeable people around the NFL realize he has been saddled with a talent-starved roster that makes it almost impossible to win games.

Jackson would be a terrific and natural fit down there. He knows owner Mike Brown. He knows many of the players.  He could march right back in down there and be comfortable. It’s not as though he would be a stranger.

Such a move would be a plus for both teams. It would mean a smooth transition of the Marvin Lewis football philosophy for the Bengals and inject new blood for a Cleveland franchise desperately in need of it.

Time will tell how accurate the crystal ball is.
*       *       *
You’ve got to hand it to Tashaun Gipson. There isn’t a disingenuous bone in his body. What you see is what you get from the Jacksonville Jaguars free safety, who began his NFL career with the Browns as a free agent in 2012.

That’s why his anti-Browns remarks on ESPN radio the other day is so refreshing when looking ahead to the Jaguars’ Sunday date with the Browns in Cleveland. He is one of those rare athletes who are remarkably candid about facing former teammates.

Most athletes who face their former team say no, there isn’t a revenge factor in those games. The need to show that team they were wrong to release or trade them is absent. Not with Gipson, There is genuine animus there.

The former Browns free safety, who successfully explored the free-agent market a couple of years ago and signed a five-year, $35 million deal with the Jaguars, is eager to return to Cleveland and show the front office it was wrong to let him go.

He does not mince words about exacting revenge and escaping northeast Ohio. “I truly hope we hang 40 on them,” he told ESPN radio Monday. “Their offense probably shouldn’t score against our defense and I’m excited. That’s the true thing.”

Revenge is not the only factor. “It’s personal,” he admitted, “but yet at the end of the day, you’re still blessed . . . knowing I’m in a situation right now where I don’t look back . . . with any regrets. I’m extremely excited with where I’m at right now, but you know it’s going to be personal, man, for sure.” (The Jags are a surprising 6-3.)

Gipson spent four seasons with the Browns, three of which were very productive. He was second in the NFL with six interceptions in 2014 and was named to the Pro Bowl. He was a core player in the secondary.

However, he stops just short of enjoying the misery his former team is experiencing since he left, winning just once. No schadenfraude there. At least not for the players.

“I feel bad for those guys because . . . it’s nothing they can do,” he said. “They just go out there and play. It’s the guys above them who make these decisions and it’s unfortunate.”

Gipson also cited the Browns passing on quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in the last two college drafts. “It’s things like that you just continue to scratch your head,” he said. “ You’ve just got to look back and say, ‘Man, I’m glad to get up out of there.’ “

Definitely the genuine article. Nothing wrong with that.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Monday leftovers

There is a very good reason DeShone Kizer looked like a National Football League quarterback in the loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday.

It’s called a running game.

The Browns compiled 201 yards on the ground against a very good Detroit run defense, gouging out a significant number of plays more than the normal two or three yards fans have witnessed most of this season.

Isaiah Crowell ran hard for 90 yards on 16 carries in easily his best showing of the season. Kizer, mostly scrambling, added 57 yards in seven attempts.

The success of the Cleveland ground game made it much easier for Kizer to throw the ball. He wasn’t placed in throw mode nearly as often because first down was won much more often than not.

Throw in Hue Jackson’s less predictable playcalling and it all adds up to what is arguably Kizer’s best afternoon as a professional quarterback. And no, let’s not prematurely jump on the Kizer bandwagon just yet.

It was still a loss, although the blame for this one could not be directed at Kizer for a change. He was helped by his coach’s playcalling until the final minutes of the game.

For the first time this season, Jackson kept his pledge for a more balanced offense. He did so until the final Cleveland possession, which featured 13 straight passes since the Browns trailed by 14 points at the time.

Of the 63 plays that preceded that drive, which came to a sudden halt with an end zone interception, Jackson had called 34 pass plays and 29 runs, a 54-46 percentage ratio. He needs to maintain that for the remaining seven games.

This was only one game, of course. It does not mean the struggling offense has been fixed. It in no way portends what lies directly ahead. A pattern is established over the course of many games, not just one.

There is no question Kizer exhibited, with one notable exception, the traits coaches like to see in their young quarterbacks. He was poised, executed plays in a confident manner and seemed to be in complete control of the situation.

On two occasions, plays arrived in his headset very late from Jackson and he had the presence of mind to call timeouts rather than take a delay-of-game penalty. Until he was hammered on a blitz at the end of the third quarter, he was in charge and looked the part.

His only screw-up, a few of his teammates acknowledged after the game, was audibling out of the called play and into a sneak from the Detroit 2 in the final 15 seconds of the first half and no timeouts.

Jackson took the blame for the call. He should have taken blame, however, for not instructing Kizer to run the play that was called. Period. A rookie quarterback should not have the latitude to audible in a situation like that.

But what if Kizer had scored? Would anyone have argued? Moot point. He didn’t score. It was a poor decision.

A stern test as to how much the offense has improved lies directly ahead when the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars bring their dynamic defense to the shores of Lake Erie Sunday.

Corey Coleman returns from injured reserve to bolster the receiving corps, a move that cant help but improve the weakest area of the offense. The former No. 1 draft choice’s goal, besides helping Kizer’s stats, is staying healthy the rest of the season.
*       *       *
The New Orleans Saints are a perfect example of a team benefitting from a strong running game. At 7-2, they have already matched their victory total for each of the last three seasons and stand atop the NFC South. The reason? The ground game.

Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but he has been helped immensely this season by a ground game featuring running backs Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, who have 11 touchdowns between them.

No longer do they have to rely on Brees’ arm to win games. His numbers are way down because the offense has produced 14 touchdowns on the ground in nine games, one more than through the air. He’s on pace to throw just 23. His touchdown total the last three seasons is 103, 34 a season.

The solid New Orleans ground attack, which averages 142 yards a game, enables the offense to sustain drives and, at the same time, keeps the defense well rested on the bench. It has paid off with four defensive touchdowns and a +3 turnover ratio.

It all starts with the ground game. At one time, it was proffered that the run game sets up the passing game. That has changed the last several seasons as the NFL turned into a quarterbacks league. The pass sets up the run now. Not with the Saints, though.

Maybe Jackson should take a cue from the Saints’ success this season and help his rookie quarterback better assimilate to the NFL by stressing the ground game a lot more than he has. It helped Kizer produce this best game of the season in Detroit.
*       *       *
Myles Garrett’s return from concussion protocol was expected to produce a better pass rush against the Lions. And it did with four sacks of Matthew Stafford. But the rookie defensive end’s contribution in 38 snaps amounted to one solo tackle and a quarterback hit.

Garrett was pretty much neutralized by Lions offensive tackles Taylor Decker and Brian Mihalik, but it was his presence that enabled Emmanuel Ogbah on the other side of the defensive line to cash in with three solo tackles (all for a loss), two sacks (doubling his season total) and a pair of quarterback hits in 37 snaps.

That was the Ogbah the Browns thought they drafted last season, when he averaged three tackles a game and led the team with 5½ sacks. Apparently all he needed was for Garrett to return and attract the double teams he occasionally saw when the rookie was sidelined.

Linebackers Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert bagged the other two sacks of Stafford, bringing the season sack total to 20, only six fewer than all last season.
*       *       *
Outside linebacker Jamie Collins’ injury-filled season was cut short Sunday. The outside linebacker suffered a season-ending MCL injury after intercepting Stafford on the seventh play of the game, setting up the Browns’ first touchdown of the game three plays later, a 19-yard pass to Kenny Britt.

Collins, who missed three games earlier this season with concussion issues, returned the theft just a few yards before being tackled by Detroit guard Graham Glasgow, falling awkwardly. He had to be helped off the field.

Filling in is second-year man James Burgess Jr., who is primarily a run stopper and is on the sidelines for a fifth defensive back in passing situations.
*       *       *
Crowell finally emerged from his cocoon against the Lions with his 90 hard-earned yards. It was easily his best day this season, bettering his previous high of 64 yards.

He looked especially quick to the hole on a six-yard touchdown run after right guard Kevin Zeitler delivered a perfect trap block to spring him on the first possession of the second half. Nothing wrong with running more traps and counter plays for him.
*       *       *
This is how frustrated (desperate?) Jackson is with his offense. On the third possession of the game and the Browns with a 10-3 lead, the Browns faced a fourth-and-1 at their 44-yard line. Normally, that calls for a Britton Colquitt punt.

Screw it, Jackson all but declared by going for it. Duke Johnson Jr. made the first down by the nose of the ball. The drive ended in a Colquitt punt, anyway, several plays later when holding penalties on tight end Seth DeValve and Zeitler blew it up.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Maybe it’s me, but Britt look a lot more engaged against the Lions than at any other time this season,. He was targeted just three times by Kizer, but caught two for 38 yards, including the first touchdown. . . . That was Kizer’s first touchdown pass since the Indianapolis loss in game three. . . . Stafford now has thrown for 12 touchdowns in three career games against Cleveland.  He threw for 192 second-half yards after a 57-yard first half. . . . The Cleveland offense clicked for a dozen plays of 15 yards or more. . . . The secondary was burned by pass plays of 22, 29, 40 and 50 yards. . . . Jamal Agnew of the Lions had punt returns of 49 and 29 yards, the first wiped out by a penalty. . . . Rookie tight end David Njoku is having all sorts of problems. He was targeted six times by Kizer and caught only one ball for three yards. . .. The Browns’ 10-0 lead after two possessions in the first quarter was their first double-digit lead of the season. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: 10 carries for 54 yards; six receptions for 34 yards: 16 touches for 88 yards.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A glimmer of hope from another loss

Believe it or not, the Browns showed more than a little promise on offense in their 38-24 loss Sunday to the Lions in Detroit.

Too bad the defense didn’t show up to support it, especially in the fourth quarter when the Lions’ offense woke up after a sleepy start and continued a trio of embarrassing losing streaks for the National Football League‘s stepchild.

It was Cleveland’s ninth straight loss this season, 10th straight overall, 17th consecutive setback on the road and the second straight season the Browns have opened 0-9.

Even so, the team panning for nuggets this season when it owned the football finally unearthed a few against a Detroit defense that might have been taking the heretofore inept Cleveland offense lightly.

It was afternoon when the Cleveland running game hummed as it hasn’t in any game this season; when DeShone Kizer finally displayed some progress in his rough rookie season as an NFL quarterback; and coach Hue Jackson seemed to have another time management brain fart moment at the end of the first half.

Looking at the statistics, one would have thought the Browns had breezed in this one. They ran 77 plays to only 49 for the Lions. They owned the football nine more minutes.

They compiled 413 yards on offense, 201 on the ground against one of the NFL’s stingiest against the run, and racked up a season-high 26 first downs, 14 of them infantry style.

It was also an afternoon when Kizer went down after a vicious hit by Detroit cornerback Quandre Diggs, who came clean on a blitz and almost cut the rookie in half with a blow to the solar plexus with six seconds left in the third quarter.

Kizer, who had piloted impressive touchdown drives of 88 and 80 yards on the first two possessions of the second half to give the Browns a 24-17 lead only for the defense to collapse and allow the Lions to tie, left the game for seven plays and went to the dressing room for X-rays of his ribs that were negative.

By the time he returned to lead the Browns’ final possession of the game, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who seemed baffled by some of the defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ early exotic pass coverages, had dialed in and taken advantage.

He broke the 24-24 tie with third-down touchdown passes in the final 15 minutes to tight end Eric Ebron, who beat safety Derrick Kindred on a stop-and-go move on a 29-yarder, and Golden Tate, who scampered 40 yards on a wide receiver screen pass.

Cody Kessler, who replaced Kizer, ran seven plays in his absence and proved beyond a doubt he is the quintessential NFL backup quarterback. He was as awful as one could imagine.

While Stafford was strafing, Kessler completed one of three passes, scraped himself off the ground after three sacks and 22 yards lost, produced a pair of three-and-outs and had a net gain of minus-13 yards. All that in seven plays.

The offense ran much smoother when Kizer returned with 4:28 left in regulation, but his final effort wound up with a Darius Slay end zone interception on a first-and-goal at the Detroit 5. He converted three fourth downs – the Browns were perfect on all four fourth downs – along the way.

Just about everything was working out of the gate. Ironically, it was the defense that set the tone in the first quarter, giving the offense the ball twice in Detroit territory and it took advantage with a short Zane Gonzalez field goal and Kenny Britt 10-yard touchdown catch for a 10-0 lead..

Outside of Kessler’s dismal performance, the only other player hiccup on offense belonged to tight end Seth DeValve, who was stripped of the ball by cornerback Nevin Lawson after a short pass completion. Lawson returned the fumble 44 yards to give the Lions a 17-10 lead with 3:44 left in the half. 

Another hiccup, this one of the strategic variety, occurred on the sidelines in the waning seconds of the second quarter on the possession following the Lawson score.  It sure looked as though it belonged squarely in the lap of Jackson, who appeared to botch an opportunity to tie the game going into the dressing room.

Kizer, who threw for one score and sneaked for another, marched his men 73 yards down to the Lions 2-yard line, converting a pair of third downs along the way, including an 18-yard scramble on a third-and-6 with 19 seconds left.

Out of timeouts, Jackson called for a fade to rookie tight end David Njoku, who caught the ball, but failed to get both feet in bounds. The play took only four seconds.

So with 15 seconds left and no timeouts on second down at the 2, the only call had to be a pass. If completed, it’s a touchdown. If it’s incomplete, the clock stops and there is still time for at least one more play. If not, then a Gonzalez field goal. A running play, unless it produced a touchdown, would be futile.

For whatever reason, Kizer tried to sneak the ball into the end zone from the 2. From the 2!!

The offensive line, which played well most of the afternoon, was stonewalled by the Detroit front and the 6-4, 235-pound quarterback managed maybe six inches. The offense scrambled furiously to spike the ball to kill the clock, but time ran out.

Jackson angrily slammed his headset to the ground. Running back Duke Johnson Jr. slammed his helmet to the ground in sheer frustration when time had run out and was rewarded with an unsportsmanlike penalty.

After the game, the coach shouldered the blame for the botched call, refusing to blame Kizer for what looked very much like it could have been an audible.

“It’s on me,” he said. “I’m mad at myself. It doesn’t matter (whether or not Kizer changed the call). To go around and around about it, I’m not going to do that. . . . It’s on me. I’m taking the fall for everything.” One doesn’t need to read between the lines to interpret that one.

The faux pas didn’t look that important at the time in the grand scheme of things, especially after the Browns stormed out in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead.

It was just another missed opportunity in a season filled with them. But there are definite signs they are getting closer and closer to that elusive first victory.

The Browns return home next Sunday against Jacksonville feeling pretty good about an offense that has stagnated most of the 2017 season. All they need now is for the defense to rebound from Sunday’s uncommon performance. Then maybe that first victory will eventuate.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Taming Lions not Browns' forte

Whenever the original Browns, not the ones who left Cleveland nearly 20 years ago and now go by the name Baltimore Ravens, played the Detroit Lions, it was usually a big game.

The two teams did not meet often back then when it was a 12-team National Football League. But when they did, it was usually in a championship atmosphere.

Of their first seven meetings between 1952 and 1957, four determined the NFL title with the Lions winning three. The Browns, then known in some quarters as the Greatest Show in Football, always had problems with the Lions.

The only Cleveland victory in those seven games was a 56-10 blowout at home, quarterback Otto Graham throwing for three touchdowns and running for three more in the penultimate season of his Hall of Fame career.

The Lions won eight of the first nine games and 12 of the first 14 in the 23-game series, which Detroit leads, 18-5. The only time in 12 trips to the Motor City the Browns walked away feeling good about themselves was a 31-26 victory in 1983.

That was then. This is now. And the situation hasn’t changed much except these Browns are nowhere as talented as those who preceded them.

The current iteration returns Sunday to Detroit, a city that represents sheer misery to professional football teams from Cleveland since 1950. They haul a nine-game losing streak overall and a 16-game losing streak on the road (17 if you include the latest loss in London, which was technically a Cleveland home game).

These Browns own one victory over the Lions in four tries, a 24-14 victory in 2001, their third season after the resurrection in 1999, with Tim Couch throwing three touchdowns passes.

They have had two weeks to correct the multitude of mistakes committed during the first half of the season. Which means coach Hue Jackson and his staff have probably been putting in long hours in an effort to put together a representative performance.

(In case you’re interested in such statistics, the Browns are 6-10 coming out of bye weeks since 2000. They did not have any schedule breaks in the first two expansion seasons.)

Awaiting the Browns is a Lions team that just broke a three-game losing streak after winning three of their first four games and a quarterback who has thrown for 784 yards in his last two games.

Matthews Stafford loves, love, loves to play the Browns. The 10-year veteran has faced them only twice, but has racked up 690 yards, nine touchdowns, just two interceptions and 69 points in a couple of victories. And he has been sacked only once.

The Browns had nice leads in both games, 17-7 at the half of one game and a 24-3 lead 17 minutes into the game of another, and collapsed defensively before Stafford’s onslaught. In the latter game, the Browns led, 37-31, in the final seconds before falling.

In some ways, these teams are mirror images of each other statistically except, of course, in the won-lost column.

For example, each team has 16 sacks; the Browns have allowed 23 sacks, the Lions 26; the Browns allow opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 69% of their passes, the Lions check in at 64%; the Lions give up 252 yards a game through the air, the Browns 229; both teams throw the ball roughly 65% of the time.

Balancing those negative stats for the Lions is their +6 turnover ratio, tied for fourth in that category (the Browns are tied with Denver for last with –12). They have picked off 10 passes, including a pair of pick 6s, and recovered six opposition fumbles.

Neither team has a running game about which to brag. But both brag about their ability to stop the run, the Lions limiting opponents to 90 yards a game and the Browns, fourth best in the NFL, that much better at 84 a game. This one will not be decided on the ground.

The Lions obviously have the decided edge at quarterback with Browns rookie DeShone Kizer struggling with the learning curve in the NFL. Saddled with an awful corps of wide receivers doesn’t make it any easier.

Stafford, meanwhile, will throw against a Cleveland secondary that has surrendered 16 touchdown passes this season. He loves to spread the wealth among wideouts Golden Tate, halfway to a 100-catch season, and Marvin Jones, five touchdowns; and tight ends Eric Ebron and Darren Fells, who have combined for 30 receptions and four scores.

Help for the Browns’ defensive backfield will arrive Sunday with the expected return of cornerback Jason McCourty and free safety Jabrill Peppers, who have missed the last two games with injuries.

Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett, out the last two games with a concussion, is also expected back to fortify a pass rush that has been anemic in his absence. It’s amazing how much of a difference one man can make in this critical aspect of the game.

The Browns’ punt team will have to wary of Lions defensive back Jamal Agnew, who has 291 return yards and has scored twice to lead the NFL in both categories.  He averages nearly 20 yards a return.

The only way the Browns can hang with the Lions and their penchant for turning Stafford loose is to make him throw the ball before he wants to which means a strong pass rush.

Having a healthy Garrett back is a step in the right direction. It is possible he will have to face offensive tackle Taylor Decker, the Lions’ top pick in last year’s college draft who has missed the first half of this season with a shoulder injury.

If the former Buckeye is not activated for the game, Garrett will take on another Ohioan, Avon Lake’s Brian Mihalik, who played his college football at Boston College and is also a second-year pro.

This one will be close for maybe a series of two before Stafford finds his rhythm and strafes the Cleveland secondary. The Browns will stop the weak Detroit run game, but that will be nullified by the Lions, who will counter by forcing Kizer to throw and we all know what that will lead to.

Stafford runs his touchdown total against the Browns to 13 in three games, the opportunistic Detroit defense pads its turnover ratio by three with a pick 6 and two fumble recoveries as the Browns enter the red zone, Agnew chalks up another punt return for a score and Jackson yanks an inconsistent and inaccurate Kizer again midway through the second half. Make it:

Lions 32, Browns 10

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Mid-week thoughts, Part II

Sashi Brown, the barrister turned de facto general manager of the Browns, took the stand in front of the Cleveland media earlier this week and defended himself in a 26-minute news conference.

The get-together covered a wide array of topics, including a suggestion that sabotage was at the root of the trade that wasn’t a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals last week when the Browns failed to consummate a deal because they missed the trade deadline.

“That’s wholly untrue,” Brown declared. “We were all in there together. Hue (Jackson), myself and a couple of other staff members who work on these things at a time we were trying to get the trade done, so I’m not worried about that internally,

“Externally, I can just put it to bed (because) that is just not the case. To sabotage a trade just wouldn’t make any sense.”

The deal would have sent one of the Browns’ second-round picks and a third-rounder in next year’s college football draft to the Bengals in exchange for backup quarterback AJ McCarron, a deal many observers considered tilted heavily in Cincinnati’s favor.

The timing of the deal cast suspicion on whether Brown either got cold feet at the last minute and did not know any other way to cause it to fail or the Browns were just plain careless in its execution.

This front office has engineered enough trades in the last two years to blow this one up by accident. That is why some veteran observers in other front offices around the league reportedly suspect this one had a distinctly different aroma.

“Cincinnati and us tried our damnedest to try and get the paperwork in at the last minute,” argued Brown, “and we’re talking about minutes and seconds before the deadline ended. . . . I do think Cincinnati in earnest tried. I know we did everything humanly possible to get it done. It just didn’t happen. It is truly that simple.”

As for waiting so long and so close to the deadline to finalize the transaction, Brown acknowledged, “That’s the one place we were talking about this morning about what we would do differently next time. That’s a fair critique. Deadlines do make deals, but they don’t have to so we can get better there.”

As for the Browns’ winless season this season and winning only one of the 24 games on his watch, Brown said, “Certainly, our standards are much higher than that and our expectations are higher than that. . . . It’s easy to get lost in the certainty of the wins and losses.

“There has been some progress. . . . I have liked the contributions of some of our free agents. At the end of the day, guys, it is my responsibility to deliver a roster here that is talented enough to win week in and week out and we haven’t done that yet.”

Now tell us something we don’t know.  

“We are confident as we move forward that we will be able to add – you guys know we are well positioned – the requisite talent to bring this roster back to being a contender for this division and beyond,” he said, “but we are not there yet. We have to own that and we will.”

Well positioned? For what? The offense is a mess with a line that doesn’t block well for the ground game; the quarterback situation is a disaster; and the club has arguably the worst wide receivers room in the National Football League. It’s somewhat better on defense, but the secondary needs a lot of work.

It’s very apparent Brown sees the glass as half full. The eternal optimist. He is not just a smooth talker, he is delusional.

Is he watching the same games the rest of us are? Doesn’t he see the numerous blemishes on this talent-starved roster? If he does and chooses to internalize them, then he is fooling only himself. He has no idea what he is talking about. He is a business guy masquerading as an NFL general manager.

In defending his reasons for seeking McCarron, he said, “AJ is a guy who is experienced with our system. Obviously he has played in NFL games (eight to be exact, four as a starter when Andy Dalton was injured late in the 2015 season).

“Hue has a lot of familiarity with him so for all those reasons. He is a young quarterback (he’s 27) with promise on the field and has familiarity with our system. That is a very rare combination.”

It’s also not a reason to swap two high draft selections for someone who has yet to prove himself, especially in the middle of a season when your team is oh and eight and floundering.

As for reports there are sharp disagreements between the front office and coaching staff, Brown said, “Obviously, I can’t go to every single report that has been out there. As I said, I think in these (roster) builds and in these moments, there is a lot of adversity that will put pressure on people and we have to stay united internally. I would not address it other than that, but we are working together and that is what I would say to it.”

This guy would be a terrific spinmeister in politics.

With regard to his failures thus far, he offered, “As I have said from day one, we want the winning to start as soon as possible and it is one of the reasons we so aggressively have tried to position ourselves in terms of I think we are going to end up with something close to about five drafts in three years, the equivalent of that.”

Stockpiling draft choices are us. Choosing wisely not so much.

“We are realistic first of all,” he said, “then secondly, I want to arm our coaches and our personnel staff wants to arm our coaches with as much talent as we possibly can have to go out there and win every Sunday. There are certainly a lot of opportunities out there and we are realistic.”

So why after two drafts, 24 players selected and 24 games are Brown’s Browns 1-23 with no immediate help in sight? He talks like a con man who conned the Haslams into elevating him to this job.

“We are not going to be perfect,” he said. “That is not the name of the game, but it is to be better than the others. We have a very aggressive plan as we move forward to bolster this roster in a huge offseason, probably the most important we have coming up and we plan to execute it.”

So it’s build the team first, then get the QB or vice versa?

“Kind of a chicken-and-egg question that goes on in this league I think you have seen people debate this one way or the other,” he said. “. . . It is different in every building. It is different on every roster. It is different with every quarterback and his personality and makeup. 

“For us, I think the first thing we realized was how far we had to come in terms of replenishing our talent. As we have made decisions to trade back at different times, that has been a theme of that. We are, I promise you, very intent of addressing the quarterback situation. “

The reason they had to come so far was due to purging the roster prior to the 2016 season of at least a half dozen core players who contributed significantly to the cause.

“We are confident in what we are doing moving forward, but these things will always be second-guessed until we win,” Brown said. “We understand that. We certainly have high expectations for ourselves and we are not going to sit here and cry for ourselves. No one is crying for us. This is football.”

Crying? There’s no crying in football!! Where’s Tom Hanks?

What about misevaluating quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson? “You take off your hat to both of those young payers who are off to hot starts in their careers,” Brown said. “. . . I think we have some really good processes in place. I am pleased with the guys we have pulled out of the draft.”

What he didn’t say is his draft people were badly mistaken passing on Wentz and Watson in consecutive years. And of course he is pleased with the guys he has drafted the last couple of years. He’s not going to trash those selections.

“I think they are performing well almost to a man,” he said. “At the end of the day, we always can get better and we will always look to get better certainly, including the quarterback situation, absolutely.”

What about the quarterback he drafted in the second round this year and the other two young quarterbacks on the roster? “DeShone (Kizer) is doing a good job in terms of his resilience and focus,” Brown said. “All three of those guys are working hard. Cody (Kessler) and Kevin (Hogan) have been ready when their numbers have been called.”

So with the wonderful job he seems to think he is doing, has Brown received any assurance he and his front office will be back next year as a reward?” No, it wouldn’t be a conversation I would have, either,” said the man who has brought this franchise to its knees in a remarkably short period of time.

“I think the most important thing for us to do is stay really focused on our task at hand. We have eight other opportunities this year. Our guys have been resilient and focused. I think you expect no less from the front office and coaching staff and that is what we will continue to do.”

That’s eight more opportunities to duplicate how the first half of the season has unfolded. That’s eight more opportunities to drag this franchise even deeper into the abyss.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Mid-week thoughts (Part 1)

Is Josh Gordon a ticking time bomb?

That’s a question that has to be seriously pondered in the wake of the troubled wide receiver’s frank admission in a magazine piece that he was either high or drunk in every professional football game he played.

And since the team for which he played resides on the north shore of Lake Erie, that presents a major problem now that Gordon has returned after an enforced long-term suspension by the National Football League for substance abuse.

Should the Browns take him back since he is technically still under contract? It appears that’s what they are going to do since he reported to Berea Tuesday. Apparently there have been no thoughts of flat out releasing him.

The Browns plans to play Gordon in the final five games of the season in December after he gets into game shape. It will be the first time he has suited up f in almost three years. What football shape he is in after such a long layoff is the unknown.

The lifting of Gordon’s suspension by Commissioner Roger Goodell is conditional. He must stay substance free or else face what most likely will be a permanent lifetime ban.

The marvelously talented wide receiver, who revealed in the magazine piece he started drinking in seventh grade, must pass all drug tests after reporting in order to be eligible to play.

But if what he says is true about his wild relationship with drugs and alcohol while performing in an All-Pro manner for the Browns in 2013 when he startled the league with a spectacular 1.646-yard, 87-catch, nine-touchdown season in 14 games?

He was tested back then for possible substance abuse and apparently found clean. How did he do it? And if he could do it back then, what’s to say he can’t do it again this time around?

When he plays those last five games this season, how will we know he is clean? How will we know there is nothing in his system that will help him perform as he did several years ago?

Supposing he is clean for those five games, how will that affect his performance? Did the booze and marijuana merely enhance his natural talents back then or did they help him reach those heights?

And if he fails to live up to the expectations of the fans and coaches in those games, will he gamble and try again to beat the system in an effort to prolong his twice-interrupted career?

I don’t profess to be an expert on matters such as this. Far from it, in fact. But one has to wonder what makes this time different than any other in Gordon’s career?

He claims to have seen the light, realizing that if he screws up one more time, that’s it. He can kiss away any thoughts of making a comeback in a game for which he has superb talents.

The Browns, swimming aimlessly in a sea of ineptitude, are desperate enough to welcome back Gordon. He automatically becomes their best wide receiver. It is a win-win gamble they can’t lose

If this all works out and Gordon rediscovers what made him such a prized player in 2013 and stays clean, the Browns win. If he falls off the wagon again and becomes just another sad NFL story, well, the Browns have been there before.

It falls under the category of nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Thursday: Mid-week thoughts Part 2, Sashi Brown

Monday, November 6, 2017

Monday leftovers

Well, here we are having survived the bye week, but not without a controversy of minor proportions. Never a dull moment for Cleveland’s professional football team.

The trade that wasn’t a trade aside, Hue Jackson is still the head coach of the drama-laden Browns, Sashi Brown is still the de facto general manager and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have managed to maintain the status quo, such as it is.

As the winless Browns continue their journey through the desert of ineptitude that is the 2017 National Football League season with a visit to Detroit, the second half portends even more trouble.

The first half of the schedule was thought to be easier when it was unveiled. Then they started playing games and sure enough, it was. Even so, the Browns duplicated the start of the 2016 season with eight straight losses.

The results show they lost half of those games by three points, which would seem to indicate they had a chance to win. That would be wrong with one exception.

They played reasonably well enough in the 21-18 season opening loss against Pittsburgh, shaving a 21-10 deficit in the final moments of the game. It gave rise to the hope this season would not look anything like the 1-15 they posted in 2016.

Then they were blown out by halftime in the 31-28 loss in Indianapolis when the defense collapsed. Only a strong second-half comeback made the final score look respectable.

In the 17-14 loss to the New York Jets, Jackson began playing yo-yo with quarterback DeShone Kizer, yanking the rookie for Kevin Hogan at the half despite trailing only 3-0. A late touchdown by Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass made this one look closer than it was.

The touchdownless 9-6 overtime loss to Tennessee at home, during which they lost offensive tackle Joe Thomas for the season, qualifies as the only game they could have – and should have – won.

A 54-yard field goal by rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez with 47 seconds left in regulation sent this one into overtime, but the offense stalled in the extra session and Ryan Succop put it away for the Titans with a 47-yard field goal.

Kizer’s off and on, in and out season pretty much encapsulates Jackson’s coaching style to the point where the kid, no doubt confused at this point, has no idea what to expect next.

He has started all but one of the team’s games. Hogan quarterbacked the entire Houston loss while Kizer “reset” (Jackson’s term) on the sideline. Of those seven, he has played the entire game just three times – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and the Minnesota game in London.

He missed part of the Baltimore loss with a migraine; was benched for Hogan on the final series of the Cincinnati loss after the Bengals led, 31-0, at one point; was relieved by Hogan in the Jets loss; and gave way to Cody Kessler in the third quarter of the Tennessee loss after throwing his second interception of the game.

Kizer most likely will have the huddle in Detroit with the same cast still searching for that elusive first victory against a team that has struggled out of the gate with a 3-4 record entering Monday night’s game in Green Bay, losing three of four at home.

The only good news that emanated during the bye week, the lifting of Josh Gordon’s suspension conditionally by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, gave rise to the anticipation of the Browns’ best wide receiver suiting up during the last month of the season.

Which means Kizer must play the next three games, assuming his coach does not invoke another “reset” along the way, with arguably the league’s worst set of wide receivers before Gordon returns.

There is no guarantee the troubled wideout, who hasn’t played a game in nearly three years, will step right in and perform as he did during that magical 2014 season, when he took the league by storm in record-setting fashion.

Kizer’s main problem is accuracy and connecting with members of the opposing team with alarming regularity. But he is unfairly hamstrung by a coach who has given him an offensive system better suited for a seasoned veteran.

Now get ready for some interesting statistical comparisons.
*       *       *
Let’s start with the quarterbacks, who are on pace to throw the most interceptions in any season since the resurrection in 1999. Kizer, Hogan and Kessler have thrown 17 of them in just 307 attempts – Browns quarterbacks threw only 14 in 567 attempts last season – and are on pace to throw 34 picks, significantly more than the 26 thrown in 2013. . . . The passing game has produced 223 yards a game this season, eight yards a game fewer than 2016.
*       *       *
The ground game has been awful and that’s being kind. Isaiah Crowell averages 44 yards a game. Remove the ground stats of the three quarterbacks (mostly scrambling) and the Browns average only 68 yards a game. . . . How bad are the receivers? Running back Duke Johnson Jr. is the club’s leading pass receiver with 36 receptions. That’s how bad. . . . The leading wide receivers are Ricardo Louis with 23 and Rashard Higgins with 14. . . . Kenny Britt, simultaneously trying to escape Jackson’s doghouse and heal nagging knee and groin injuries, checks in with 10 grabs in five games. . . . The secondary has picked off only five passes, three by Jason McCourty, and is on pace to match last season’s 10 thefts.
*       *       *
The improved offensive line has permitted only (compared to last season) 23 sacks this season and is on pace for a 46-sack season. That’s 20 fewer than last season’s franchise record-setting 66. . . . The pass rush has generated 16 sacks, four by rookie Myles Garrett in just three games, and is on pace to beat last season’s 26. . . ,The secondary, believe it or not, has allowed 19 fewer yards per game this season than last (261-242). . . . The number is down dramatically on run defense, which permits just 84 yards a game. The last three seasons, those numbers were 143, 128 and 143. . . . The defense has permitted 21 touchdowns this season (a 42-TD pace), much better than last season’s 54. And the offense has scored 13 touchdowns, slightly behind last season’s 28. . . . The offense converts only 29% of the time on third down. Last season, it was 36%. The defense is 39% on third down, better than last season’s 45%.
*       *       *
Individually, linebackers Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins are the heart and soul of the defense with 168 of the club’s 547 total tackles. That’s nearly 31% of the stops. Schobert, tied for fifth in tackles in the NFL, is on pace for 142 tackles in his first season as a middle linebacker. Kirksey, on pace for 134 tackles, ranks eighth. . . . Rookie tight end David Njoku owns three of the club’s seven touchdown receptions through the air. . . . Johnson also has three scores, two on the ground. He has touched the football 70 times and gained 500 yards, an average of 7.14 yards per touch. . . . Britton Colquitt is quietly having a Pro Bowl season, averaging 49.2 yards on 41 punts with no touchbacks, landing 13 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Last season, he averaged 45.3 yards with only two touchbacks.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The trade charade

The more that is unearthed about the trade that wasn’t a trade, a.k.a. the Great Ohio Pro Football Fiasco, the more I believe this was nothing more than a charade wrapped around a power play by the folks who work at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea.

The Browns and Cincinnati Bengals have been in the National Football League long enough to know how the league works when it comes to consummating trades. It is not that difficult.

So why and how did the Browns and Bengals screw up a simple trade Tuesday afternoon? Why is AJ McCarron still the backup quarterback in Cincinnati? And why is the rest of the pro football world laughing at the Browns?

After all I have heard and read about what happened, I am thoroughly convinced this was nothing more than an outgrowth of a civil war within the Browns’ organization and the Bengals were the victims.

Without really knowing exactly what goes on behind closed doors in Berea, it has been reported on several different fronts that a divide, philosophical or otherwise, exists between de facto general manager Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson. It, of course, has been denied. All the more reason to believe it is true.

Brown and his minions are in charge of the 53-man roster. Jackson and his coaches are in charge of making certain those 53 players are ready to play a game of football on 16 Sundays during the regular season.

How that roster is shaped from day to day and week to week is thought to be a consensus opinion of these two men. But there have been differences, which is not out of the norm.

Brown and his guys have made personnel changes in the past that have been met with displeasure by the coaching staff. Case in point: Trading linebacker Demario Davis to the New York Jets in the offseason for safety Calvin Pryor. Davis is by far the Jets’ leading tackler this season. Pryor was cut after a training camp incident.

It has been reported that deal did not sit well with the coaching staff, most notably defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Jackson lobbied Brown to seek a trade for the Bengals’ McCarron after efforts to pry Jimmy Garoppolo loose from New England failed repeatedly. Brown finally acquiesced and hooked up with the Bengals on trade-deadline day Tuesday.

In what would have been the first trade between these two Ohio teams that are rivals in more ways than one, Brown, after some haggling, finally agreed to part with one of the club’s three second-round picks and their third-rounder next year for McCarron to mollify his coach.

Seemed like an extremely expensive price to pay for a career backup to come to a team that already had three young quarterbacks. But Jimmy Haslam III reportedly was on board and endorsed the deal.

Here’s where it gets dicey. And a little fishy.

The Browns supposedly sent their paperwork to the Bengals, who then filed their properly signed paperwork to the NFL a few minutes before the 4 p.m. trade deadline and then notified the league. That much has been established.

The Browns, who should have known better, relied on the Bengals to send their (Cleveland’s) paperwork to the league (without a proper signature) and notify the league.

When all proper measures to finalize a trade were not taken by the Browns, the NFL correctly declared no deal.

Brown has been around the NFL long enough to know how to successfully consummate a trade. And he has been around long enough to know what it takes to conveniently mess it up.

Of course he is not going to admit it was a ploy all along. A conspiracy theorist, though, would strongly suggest Brown knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the league would turn it down. It was a subtle, but direct shot at his coach.

Jackson wanted this deal in the worst way. He knew the three young men currently in the quarterbacks room gave him practically zero chance of winning a game this season. He needed McCarron, who is familiar with his system from their days in Cincinnati and was his only hope of extracting one or two victories this season.

So when the NFL rejected the deal, Brown followed proper procedure and appealed to allow the deal to go through, all the while probably knowing it wouldbe futile. The rejection was almost immediate.

Scorecard for this little exercise: Sashi Brown – winner; Hue Jackson – loser; Dee and Jimmy Haslam – baffled.

Call me naïve, but I believe this was nothing more than a charade that looked credible to the casual observer, but a lot more devious to those who know how things work in the NFL.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Thinking about what might have been, what could have been and whispering . . .

Two of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League halfway through this season are Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, either of whom could have been – and, some say, should have been – quarterbacking the Browns this season.

The club is taking a beating in the national media for passing on Wentz and Watson in the last two college football drafts. For a team that desperately needed to upgrade the quarterback position, Cleveland said no thanks. Not yet.

And wouldn’t you know it, Wentz and Watson are having fabulous seasons. Wentz, in fact, is being mentioned prominently as a strong candidate for most valuable player honors. Watson is running away with the rookie-of-the-year award.

So why is Wentz in Philadelphia and Watson in Houston? Why did the Browns choose to head in a different direction twice in two years and get burned both times? And what would it be like in Cleveland these days if the Browns had pulled the trigger on one of them?

Wentz, who could have been snagged with the second overall pick in the 2016 lottery, was not deemed a top 20 quarterback by the club. Watson could have been had at No. 12 this past draft, but the draft-till-you-drop Browns were more interested in obtaining Houston’s top choice in next year’s draft.

Wentz was 7-9 in his rookie season and has already matched that victory total this season with the 7-1 Eagles, throwing 19 touchdown passes – he had 16 last season – and only five interceptions (14 last season).

Watson, who took over the Texans’ offense after Tom Savage played awful football in the season opener, has been spectacular in six games as a starter, throwing 19 touchdown passes – he has also run for one – and compiling nearly 1,970 total yards.

The formula for their success is simple, Draft them and build the offense around them. Take their natural talents, blend them with the talents of others and reap the benefits.

The Eagles have surrounded Wentz with a strong offensive line, a terrific set of receivers and a running game that just got better with the acquisition of Jay Ajayi from Miami.

The Texans already had a strong offense. All they needed was someone to come right in and give it a spark. It took coach Bill O’Brien just one game to discover that spark. The reason the Texans are 3-4 right now is not because of an offense that averages 30 points a game. It’s the awful defense.

OK, enough about now. Time to play a game of “Let’s Pretend.” It’s all hypothetical of course.

Would Wentz’s and Watson’s brief NFL careers have had the same outcomes had history landed them anywhere but where they are now? Say in Cleveland?

Let’s pretend the Browns said yes at No. 2 in the 2016 draft and picked Wentz. He would have joined a team that had purged the roster of a half dozen core players who made major contributions.

He would have joined a club that had a terrible offense with an awful receivers corps, an offensive line that was terrible at best and a running game that was iffy. Given that to work with, does anyone really believe Wentz would have gone 7-9 as he did in Philadelphia?

And then there’s the nine – and still counting – draft picks the draft-pick hungry Browns front office gleaned from the trade with the Eagles. Where would the Browns be without them? Does 1-15 last season and 0-8 this season answer that one?

No, Wentz would have been almost as bad as DeShone Kizer has been this season because all the necessary ingredients a quarterback needs to be successful were not there. And they are still not there one year later, although the offensive line is somewhat better.

Now let’s pretend the Browns decided Watson was their man last April and selected him to be their quarterback of the future. If he had not been bypassed, he would have walked into a flaming cauldron of offensive ineptitude in Cleveland.

He would not have had DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller to throw to. (They have 14 touchdown receptions between them halfway through the season.) He would have had Ricardo Louis, Kenny Britt, Sammie Coates, Rashard Higgins, Kasen Williams and injury-prone Corey Coleman. Yikes!!

That right there, not to mention the difference between the two teams in the running games and offensive lines, would have stymied the kind of growth Watson has already experienced in Houston.

So let’s be honest here. Had the Browns selected either of these two quarterbacks instead of going a different route, there is no guarantee they would have enjoyed similar success in Cleveland.

(Full disclosure: In the 2016 daft, I hoped the Browns would choose Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, who went later to San Diego. And in this past draft, I was rooting for the Browns to take another Buckeye, safety Malik Hooker, who went later on to Indianapolis, at No. 12. I thought Watson was Robert Griffin III lite.)

Bottom line: Hypothetically speaking, of course, if Wentz had been drafted by Cleveland, the Browns probably would have been somewhat better than 1-15 last season and certainly better than 0-8 this season. And if Watson had been selected instead of trading down this year, they probably would have won at least one game.

This, in no way, is meant to defend what the Browns’ front office did. Rather, it is an indictment of a bumbling braintrust that has no clue as to how to put together a winning football team on either side of the ball, but most notably on offense.
*       *       *
As for whispering, Hue Jackson, that noted quarterback whisperer, has been whispering so softly, it has resulted in a 1-23 record in his season and a half as the head coach/offensive coordinator/whisperer of the Browns. So much for that reputation.

Jackson has been fortunate in the past to work with talented quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Carson Palmer at USC and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. He just made them better.

What about his failures like Patrick Ramsey at Washington, Joey Harrington in Atlanta and Jason Campbell in Oakland? Or Griffin, Cody (“Trust Me”) Kessler, Kevin Hogan, Brock Osweiler and Kizer with the Browns? They had talent, too.

The starting quarterbacks he has worked with in Cleveland the last season and a half have been anything but successes. Whispering goes just so far, I guess. Maybe he should turn it up a notch or two.
*       *       *
One more thought on Tuesday’s Bengals bungle: It smacked of desperation that the Browns would mortgage the future to solve the problems of the present. Kind of flies in the face of their analytics philosophy.

One can only imagine how Kizer, Kessler and Hogan feel right now. Going after AJ McCarron sends them a loud and clear message: We don’t think you’re good enough to help us.

It is a resounding clue as to what they have every intention of doing with what probably will be the first overall selection in the college draft for the second consecutive year.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Incompetence on parade

Looking for another reason for Jimmy Haslam III to cashier his entire front office? Try what reportedly happened at Confusion Central in Berea Tuesday.

With the National Football League trade deadline winding down to 4 p.m. Eastern Time, the Browns and Cincinnati Bengals reportedly beat the deadline with a deal in principle with five minutes to spare.

The Bengals agreed to send backup quarterback AJ McCarron to the Browns in exchange for one of the Cleveland’s three second-round picks next year and their third-rounder. The agreement, again reportedly, was reached right around 3:55 p.m.

Only one problem. The Browns reportedly failed to file the paperwork to the NFL clearing house by the 4 p.m. deadline. The Bengals did at 3:55 p.m.

Supposedly, and again reportedly, the Browns’ brass was celebrating the trade and did not file in time. 

Too late said the NFL. No deal. The Browns’ appeal reportedly was rejected. It was as though it never happened.

The Browns, who have failed to execute properly on the field so spectacularly the last 24 games, failed in similar fashion off the field with this one.

The rejection undoubtedly ticked off both clubs. The Browns have been angling for McCarron for a couple of years, or since Hue Jackson joined the club as head coach. He was McCarron’s offensive coordinator in Cincinnati before heading up north.

The Bengals had to be royally ticked off because the Browns’ tardiness cost them two valuable draft selections next year.

In a way, though, this could be a blessing in disguise for the Browns. Sometimes the best deals you make are the ones you don’t make.

Since when is 27-year-old AJ McCarron worth two fairly high draft picks? Take Jackson’s word for it? Not after what we’ve seen from his quarterbacks the last season and a half.

First of all, the Browns were offering way too much for a quarterback who was a fifth-round draft pick in 2014 and has no history that would suggest he would be the answer to the Browns’ quarterback problems. A fourth-rounder and conditional third-rounder maybe. Not this.

The former Alabama star has started only four games as a professional, all in 2015 after Andy Dalton broke his thumb in week 14. He has thrown eight scoring passes with four interceptions.

Hopefully the new front office (fingers crossed) will see things a lot differently than this one. Much more on that in Wednesday’s mid-week thoughts.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Monday leftovers

Despite his confident protestations regarding his job status in Cleveland, Hue Jackson has to be at least a little wary of what awaits his fate as the Browns' head coach the next two weeks.

The bye week can seem awfully long to a coach who has won only once in 23 attempts, especially when that break comes exactly midway through the 16-game season. And you never know what ownership thinks.

Up to now, owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III have been eerily silent. “I totally have the support of Mr. and Mrs. Haslam,” Jackson boasted following the Minnesota loss Sunday in London.

The dreaded vote of confidence, that harbinger of doom in the sports world, has not been uttered by anyone who is someone at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. Everyone, it seems, is tight-lipped.

Maybe that’s because Jimmy Haslam III is gun shy about beginning yet another makeover for his billion-dollar investment. There’s a chance he is conflicted. His previous history of being trigger happy with regard to the front office and coaching of this team has drawn criticism in the past.

Where is the consistency, argue critics of previous changes.

But it’s not like progress of any sort is being made on any front, whether it’s in the front office or the coaching on the field. The Haslams’ investment, for whatever reason, has become a joke around the National Football League.

If the team showed any signs of progress, it would be a different story. But it’s the same thing week in and week out. There has been precious little progress, certainly not enough on a consistent basis to dispel any notion of making changes.

This team has problems from top to bottom. The only consistency is it always manages to find ways to lose. It has become habit forming and more often than not eventually has to lead to frustration in the locker room. The fact it hasn’t yet borders on remarkable.

If nothing else, the Browns are No. 1 in the NFL in dealing with losing. They are so used to it, it has almost become commonplace. Maybe now after eight games the players have figured out the roster as now constituted is unable to overcome numerous mistakes because it does not have enough talent to do so.

Someone has to pay the price. But is paying that price right now the correct solution from a timing standpoint? That depends solely on who is eventually brought in to straighten out this mess.

If the Haslams do, indeed, choose to make the move in that direction now instead of waiting until the day after the final game of the season or shortly thereafter, you can bet it has been done surreptitiously through back channels.

This franchise is on a downward spiral that shows no signs of getting even close to reversing direction. There are teasing moments along the way. That occasional positive glimpse within a game that causes fans – and probably coaches – to think maybe there is hope.

And then it all comes crashing down like a house of cards when the team reverts to the myriad reasons that have caused a 4-41 record since the latter part of the 2014 season.

The monotony of losing week after week after week with no hope remotely in sight wears on the players. It also wears on Browns Nation, that global-wide group of ardent fans of this franchise who still cling to the fantasy of being around to celebrate when this all changes.

That all rests with the decisions of the Haslams. The big question is how much more of this can they take?
*       *       *
Jackson offered an explanation for his team’s inability to score more points than the opposition at the end of games. It was part truth, part bullroar.

“Everything has to be perfect for us to have a chance to win a football game,” he said following Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. “We get it and we work that way. But we all know that’s not how football is played. You can’t be perfect. (Really?!)

“You’re going to make mistakes. But that’s where we are. . . . Today, we didn’t make as many (mistakes), so we were in the game for quite a while. . . . And then the game flips.” If two-and-half quarters constitute a while, then yes, he is correct.
*       *       *
Spencer Drango was the first player other than Joe Thomas to start at offensive left tackle for the Browns since the final game of the 2006 season. And he did very well against Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who entered the game with nine sacks in seven games, including at least one in every game.

Drango helped keep DeShone Kizer clean until the final stages of the fourth quarter, when the Browns were in pass-only mode attempting to make the final score look more respectable and the Vikings were in full attack mode.

The second-year tackle had occasional help with Griffen from left guard Joel Bitonio, fullback Danny Vitale, running back Isaiah Crowell and a tight end. Griffen wound up with just one tackle, one tackle for loss, five quarterback hits and a sack that came on the final play of the Browns’ penultimate series.
*       *       *
Even though it wound up as an incomplete pass, a late third-quarter play proved Jackson does have at least one creative page in his playbook.  If rookie tight end David Njoku had held on to a perfectly thrown pass by Kizer on a misdirection play, the Browns would have been well into Vikings territory down only 23-16.

The Cleveland offense is so predictable, anything other than zone blocking right or left on a run play, a rare trap play, an even rarer screen play or a long pass along the boundaries is a surprise.

This play had the Minnesota defense fooled except for one defender who recovered and arrived late to momentarily disturb Njoku’s concentration. Had the pass been delivered a second or two earlier, Njoku might have been able to pick up a large chunk of yardage.

More plays like this please.
*       *       *  
Full disclosure: I heartily endorsed the selection of placekicker Zane Gonzalez in the seventh round of the last college draft. Great pick. He’ll be the team’s kicker for many seasons.

Halfway through the season, Gonzalez has been a large disappointment. Not that his foot is the difference between winning and losing. It’s not. But his inconsistency is baffling.

The youngster from Arizona State is a modest 7-of-11 overall on field goals. But he has missed half of his four attempts from 30-39 yards and is 2-of-3 from 40-49 yards, distances that are practically automatic to good NFL kickers.

The Browns score rarely as it is, so it’s almost paramount Gonzalez be almost perfect inside midfield. To add to his misery, he tacked on his first missed extra point of the season after the first touchdown against the Vikings in the opening moments of the game.

Wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson holds auditions for a new kicker during the bye break in an effort to scare the kid.
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Carl Nassib, standing in for the injured defensive end Myles Garrett, had a strong game with three solo tackles, one tackle for loss, two passes defensed, a quarterback hit and the club’s lone sack of Case Keenum. He also used his 6-7 height to deflect two passes, the first of which led directly to a Joe Schobert interception and the Browns’ first touchdown.
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Finally . . . The Cleveland linebackers had a terrific statistical game against the Vikings. Schobert rang up 11 solo tackles, Christian Kirksey had eight stops (seven solo) and Jamie Collins checked in with seven solos. That’s 26 tackles in 85 snaps, all but one solo. . . . From the department of great stats: The Browns have lost the last 25 straight games played on a Sunday dating back to mid-December in 2015. Their only victory last season was on a Saturday. . . . Jackson on not playing wide receiver Kenny Britt, who suited up: “I made a decision to start the other guys and play them. I just knew I was going to play some different people at X and try my hand at that, so that’s what I did this week. . .. No (discipline) issue at all. I just felt I was going to put the best version of our football team out there and that’s what I did.” Roughly translated: Kenny Britt is in my doghouse and will remain there for the foreseeable future. . . . The Browns committed five penalties (that were accepted) for 74 yards. All resulted in Minnesota first downs. . . . Running back Jerick McKinnon and wide receiver Adam Thielen combined for 210 of the Vikings’ 375 yards Sunday. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Six carries for 33 yards; four pass receptions for 10 yards. Total: 10 touches for 43 yards before he left the game with concussion symptoms. He cleared protocol following the game.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A tale of two halves

With apologies to Charles Dickens, the Browns’ 33-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday in London brought to mind the great English author's classic “A Tale of Two Cities.”

It was the best of times for the Browns in the first half, lugging their first halftime lead of the 2017 season, 13-12, into the dressing room.  And it was the worst of times for them in the second half when all that went right in the first 30 minutes went terribly wrong in the final 30 minutes.

The misery that has encompassed this franchise for the last nearly two decades produced another first – the club’s first regular-season loss on another continent. And it unfolded much like numerous others in the last 19 seasons.

It extended the Browns’ latest losing streak to eight games this season and nine times overall. It was also their 41st loss in the last 45 games stretching back to the 2015 season.

The Browns in the first 30 minutes of this game looked a lot like the team that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers all kinds of fits in the season opener before succumbing.

Middle linebacker Joe Schobert picked off a Carl Nassib deflection of a Case Keenum pass on the sixth play of the game. Two plays and 29 seconds later, Isaiah Crowell cashed in with a 26-yard ramble for a touchdown.

Zane Gonzalez’s missed extra point was a portent of what was to come, but the Browns still had something they had not owned for about 98% of the season – the lead. It happened so blinkingly fast, Browns Nation probably thought it was a dream.

It looked even better when good transition defense after a Bryce Treggs muffed punt was recovered by the Vikings on the next series limited Minnesota to the first of Kai Forbath’s four field goals.

The defense, which played superbly until it flat ran out of gas in the second half because the offense had disappeared and couldn’t stay on the field, gave the Vikings, who owned the football for nearly 38 minutes, all kinds of problems until late in the second quarter.

That’s when free safety Ibraheim Campbell blew a coverage and allowed a wide-open Adam Thielen to score from 18 yards out. The wide receiver was open from the time he left the line of scrimmage and caught the ball flat-footed in the end zone.

The Cleveland offense, meanwhile, looked steady, if not dull compared to what fans have witnessed the last several games. It never allowed the good Minnesota defense to draw a bead on quarterback DeShone Kizer.

Kizer, who racked up his first game, complete or otherwise, without an interception, unloaded the ball on quick-developing plays before the Vikings’ pass rush could reach him.

The rookie quarterback directed an eight-play, 82-yard drive that regained the lead at 13-9 with 40 seconds left in the half, wedging his way into the end zone from a yard out. A 38-yard desperation shuffle pass to Crowell was the key play in the drive.

But then Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, known for his aggressive approach to defense, mystifyingly called for his men to play prevent defense and virtually handed the Vikings a gift Forbath field goal with no time left, but the Browns still took the one-point lead into the dressing room.

Then because they had to, they played the second half. And it was definitely the worst of times. It didn’t take long for the momentum to shift.

As quickly as it shifted to the Browns on the opening series of the first half, Crowell returned the favor, regurgitating the football on the first play of the second half. And the rout, although no one saw it coming at the time, was on.

More solid transition defense held the Vikings to just another Forbath field goal, but it put the Vikings in front temporarily at 15-13. But the Cleveland offense, the one fans were used to seeing in the first seven games of the season, returned.

It squandered a 72-yard kickoff return by rookie Matthew Dayes and came up empty when the inconsistent Gonzalez was wide of the left upright on a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 12 minutes left in the third quarter.

One possession later, Gonzalez finally connected from 23 yards to give the Browns their last lead with 5:34 left in the quarter after driving to, and stalling at, the Minnesota 5.

And that is when the Cleveland offense, with the exception of a loosely defended drive late in the game with the outcome no longer a mystery, all but vanished.

Three straight three-and-outs, sandwiched around Minnesota scoring drives of 75 yards and 84 yards, which consumed 17 plays, gave the Vikings a 14-point lead (with the help of a successful two-point conversion) in the next 15 minutes and secured their fourth straight victory.

The first of those three-and-outs produced a sneak preview of what was to come. Rookie tight end David Njoku dropped what would have been a 39-yard gain to the Vikings’ 36-yard line on the first play.

It was a beautifully designed and almost perfectly executed misdirection play with Kizer rolling right, stopping and throwing back to his left. The pass arrived on time and hit Njoku’s outstretched hands perfectly. His failure to pull it in blew it up.

The next eight plays on offense produced a six-yard run, two completed passes for nine yards, four incompletions, a sack, eight net yards, three Britton Colquitt punts and took only three minutes and 16 seconds off the clock. That’s how much rest the frazzled defense by this time had to recover.

The Vikings offense almost literally wore down the Cleveland defense to the point where it moved the ball almost at will in the second half because their defense shut down just about everything the Browns tried and got the ball back.

The only breather was when the Vikings loosened their defense in the final moments when the outcome was well in hand and all they wanted was the clock to move faster.

So now the Browns, for a record second straight season, and for the first time in their illustrious (prior to 1999) history, take a winless record into the second half of the schedule.

The bye next Sunday allows this franchise to lick its first-half wounds and no doubt spark all kinds of speculation as to whether Hue Jackson will be the head coach when the season resumes Nov. 12 in Detroit.

Jackson’s record in Cleveland plunges to 1-23, a mark of futility unlikely to be duplicated in this or any other lifetime by a Browns head coach. Whether he gets a chance to better that mark most likely will dominate the Cleveland sports scene until then.

After the game, Jackson said he was not worried about losing his job. "I totally have the full support of Mr. and Mrs. Haslam," he said assuredly of owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam.

Time will tell on that one. Bye weeks occasionally produce surprises around the National Football League with regard to coaching changes.