Thursday, January 26, 2017

Time for Browns to rule out trading No. 1 pick

It’s still way too early to discuss the Browns’ options with regard to the top pick in April’s college football draft.

That’s why it is difficult to take Browns coach Hue Jackson seriously when he told reporters Wednesday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., that the possibility of trading that selection is not off the board.

“Everything for right now is going to be negotiable and talked about,” Jackson said. “Until we sit down and talk about where we are and what we’re trying to do, then we’ll know. We haven’t had those discussions. Right now, we’re just in the beginning phases of all of it. We’ve got a long way to go before we get to that decision.”

Reading between the lines, he did not rule out the possibility of trading out of the top spot in order to stockpile more picks for this year and beyond. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem. But the brief history of drafting by the current team in place in the war room indicates adding picks is not necessarily the way to go.

The braintrust twice traded down from the No. 2 overall pick they owned last season and wound up with wide receiver Corey Coleman, whose contribution to the offense ranked somewhere between absent (due to injury) and underwhelming (being charitable here).

And with the next 13 picks, they defied the odds and failed to select anyone who can honestly be considered a difference maker. Somewhere along the line, one would think, they would have gotten lucky and stumbled into such a player. Based on that performance, it is difficult to have faith in them.

The very thought they have not absolutely ruled out swapping out of the top spot this year is concerning. Based once again on last year’s disappointing draft choices, it seems as though the talent evaluation bar has been lowered at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

That is why it is imperative that Sashi Brown & Co. sticks with picks one and 12 in the first round and five of the first 65. That is where the best talent resides. It makes no sense to trade down for the Browns, who displayed personnel ignorance in doing so last year.

If anything, they should think seriously about trading up as much as possible to corral that talent. This team’s roster needs a substantial upgrade in talent in order to make a genuine effort to improve.

Last season’s 1-15 record was a direct reflection of the front office’s inability to piece together a roster capable of playing anything that resembled competitive football. Wisdom in the war room is essential if that is to occur.

Based on their initial run last year, though, the likelihood of that happening is, at best, negligible. And Jackson’s pre-draft thinking, albeit way too early, could be construed as a portent of things to come.

The idea of adding picks through trades is intoxicating, for sure. But if you do not select with intelligence, which the current regime has done, then all those numbers mean nothing in the end.

It is nothing more than an exercise in futility, one that has become all too commonplace regardless of whoever is the architect.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Browns need new offensive voice

Hue Jackson appears to be repeating the same coaching mistake he made last season, which, of course, turned out to be disastrous.

Last time I looked, Jackson bore the title of head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Not offensive coordinator. Not defensive coordinator. Not special teams coach. He is the head coach.

The main job of the head coach of any football team, especially one in the National Football League, is to establish the team’s culture with specific directions in all phases.

To that end, his prime responsibility is to coach his coaches. Let his coaches coach the players. After all, that is what they are hired to do. And that is where Jackson makes his mistake for the second year in a row.

Last season, the season when the Browns won only one game and that just barely, Jackson was, for all intents and purposes, the de facto offensive coordinator. The staff did not have, nor do they have now, someone whose title is offensive coordinator.

Pep Hamilton, who recently left to become offensive coordinator at the University of Michigan, was the Browns’ passing game coordinator last season. He and run game coordinator Kirby Wilson drew up game plans. Jackson called all the plays.

He told recently from Mobile, Ala., where he and his staff are coaching the South team in the annual Senior Bowl game, that he is “leaning toward” not filling Hamilton’s spot on the coaching roster.

“The staff we have down here is the staff we have and I want to see,” he said. “I’ve made some adjustments. Greg Seamon (who moves from tight ends coach to quarterbacks coach) will help me with the quarterbacks.”

By immersing himself totally into the offense, Jackson is robbing himself of the ability to make smart, quick in-game decisions with an emphasis on anticipating and solving a problem before it erupts. Instead of looking at the whole picture because he is so fixed on one side of the ball, he sees only a part of the picture.

The reason he has chosen this course of coaching for the second season in a row, it appears, is because of the hiring of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator. “He raises the level of the building,” Jackson said of his new defensive boss.

“He has a belief in how you play defense and it falls right in line with the vision I have or our defensive football team. He wants to be very dominating on that side of the ball as we want to be on offense. So far, so good. It’s a good marriage.”

It’s a marriage that is barely a week old and already the head coach has anointed the newcomer as thebe-all and end-all cure for what ails the Browns on defense. It also is an indictment against Ray Horton, the man Jackson cajoled and ultimately convinced to return to the Browns after a couple of seasons in Tennessee.

Truth be told, the defensive side of the football was not the only embarrassment for the Browns this past season. Embarrassment lived everywhere up and down the roster, including Jackson’s offense.

That offense, which ranked 31st out of 32 teams in points scored, scored only 264 points, while Horton’s defense, which ranked 30th in points allowed, surrendered 452.

The offense, which scored only 29 touchdowns all season, topped more than 20 points on only four occasions. The defense, which gave up 56 touchdowns, allowed 27 or more points in 12 games. The statistics were a litany of embarrassment and futility.

Instead of bringing in a true offensive coordinator, whose focus would be entirely on moving the football, Jackson piles more responsibility onto his shoulders. It sounds as though he is either unable to trust anyone else to run the offense or has a vastly overinflated opinion of himself.

He is basically doubling down on proving to the fans that what they witnessed in 2016 was an aberration. That this team is really not that bad when it owns the football. In so doing, he takes away from his effectiveness as a head coach.

Most successful teams have a clear division of authority within the coaches’ room. Rarely will you see a successful head coach who doubles as a coordinator, especially one so relatively inexperienced as Jackson, who has only two seasons as a head coach on his résumé.

He needs to take a rather large step back, look at the big picture and reassess. This is a big season for him and his job security. Another season like the one the fans endured very well could give owner Jimmy Haslam III great pause to wonder whether allowing Jackson to do double coaching duty again was wise.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

 Catching up with the Browns

. . . after a brief respite with some news and views . . .

News: Browns fire Ray Horton as defensive coordinator and hire Gregg Williams.

Views: Full disclosure: I liked the appointment of Horton as DC the first time a few years ago and again this past season. I apologize . . . twice. So let’s try this again.

The reason I liked Horton was his aggressive approach to defense, something he brought when he arrived from a couple of seasons as the defensive boss with the Arizona Cardinals

He learned defense from Dick LeBeau, his mentor in Pittsburgh and one of the great defensive minds in National Football League history. I thought he would incorporate many of LeBeau’s successful schematics into his approach. That he did not hastened his departure from Cleveland . . . twice.

Now then, Gregg Williams, who brings his own style of defense to Cleveland. It is the antithesis of his predecessor. Defense is all about aggression. And Williams’ reputation bathes in that aggression.

That reputation says he is tough and demanding. You play his way or you play for someone else. He does not appear to be a coddler. That’s only a small part of the kind of discipline the Browns desperately need on that side of the ball.

This is a good hire. Williams is a devotee of the 4-3 scheme. Horton was a 3-4 guy with personnel much more suited to the 4-3. In fact, the Browns played some 4-3 when Horton moved rookie Emmanuel Ogbah from outside linebacker to defensive end, where he was more effective, for several games.

The Browns entered the season finale in Pittsburgh with just 22 sacks – forget the four they had against backup Landry Jones – in a season where dropping opposing quarterbacks was foreign. That number will change dramatically under Williams.

A strong, successful pass rush has a direct impact on the secondary. Give the quarterback enough time to throw and he will pick apart even the best of secondaries in the NFL. The Cleveland secondary suffered mightily all season as a result.

Putting pressure on the quarterback – make him throw before he wants to, make him feel extremely uncomfortable, plant doubt in his mind – takes loads of pressure off the secondary in coverage. Timing is everything in the passing game. Tamper with it successfully and bad things happen.

Twenty-six is not – and shouldn’t be – an acceptable number for a season sacks total. The big question is whether the Cleveland front office will provide Williams with the personnel necessary to accomplish his mission.

To that end, the move to the 4-3 will be a perfect reason for the Browns to select Myles Garrett of Texas A&M with the first overall pick, resisting what probably will be an overwhelming urge to take North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. More on that later.

The 3-4 is basically three defensive tackles along the line. With the 4-3 about to make its comeback in Cleveland, Ogbah and fellow rookie Carl Nassib will be thrust into Williams’ crosshairs with regard to the pass rush.

Ogbah was, relatively speaking, clearly the best of the 14 draft picks last year. But he was not an impact player, a difference maker. He did not stand out above all the rest on defense, making key play after key play.

Nassib got off to a nice start, broke his hand early and was ineffective upon his return once opposing teams discovered how to handle him. He was a 4-3 end clearly out of place in the 3-4. Garrett should have no problem securing a starting spot if selected.

The lineman who figures to benefit most from the 4-3 is Danny Shelton, whose main responsibility as nose tackle in the 3-4 was tying up two offensive linemen and keeping his inside linebackers clean. Under Williams, he will have company inside and rushing the passer will be among his primary functions.

If nothing else, Williams will bring a culture back to the defense that has been missing for far too long. What kind of culture? Nasty, of course.

News: Mitch Trubisky declares fort the 2017 college football draft.

Views: Free advice to the Browns’ front office: Resist, resist, resist. And then resist some more until it becomes a natural reaction. Do not draft this kid.

On the plus side, selecting Trubisky would be a natural public relations move as the No. 1 pick. He’s from Mentor and is coming off a successful – resisting here to call it great – season with the Tar Heels. But – and here comes the negative side – he is not nearly ready to play in the NFL.

Can’t remember the last quarterback to come into the NFL and play well with only 13 collegiate starts on his résumé. Trubisky, who languished for three seasons at North Carolina before getting his chance last season, is a relative neophyte to the football wars and nowhere near being ready to make the significant jump to the NFL.

If the Browns fail to resist the temptation and make him the lottery’s first overall selection, they not only will derail any hopes for a shot at respectability, they will seriously harm the future of the hometown kid.

Someone in the ivory tower – I believe it was chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta – explained that the reason the Browns traded down from the No. 2 pick when they had a chance to pick Carson Wentz last season was because Wentz was not a top 20 quarterback.

Using that reasoning, the Browns would look foolish taking Trubisky at No. 1 because nothing he has accomplished in his 13 starts screams top 20 quarterback. He would arrive as nothing more than a project. Wentz was NFL ready and proved it.

Because he has become the flavor of the month in the eyes of those who zealously follow the draft, Trubisky most likely will be a top 10 selection, maybe as high as No. 2 with San Francisco.

This is not nearly as deep a draft for quarterbacks as was last year’s. Somewhere in the middle rounds, though, lurks a quarterback who will surprise. A Tom Brady. A Dak Prescott. A Russell Wilson. That hidden gem who arrives quietly to little fanfare and then surprises.

The Patriots got lucky with Brady, the Cowboys with Prescott and the Seahawks with Wilson.

The Browns thought they uncovered that gem last year with Cody Kessler. No such luck no matter what Hue Jackson says. “Trust me,” the coach said shortly after the Browns drafted the USC quarterback in the third round as if he was the quarterback of the future. No he wasn’t. He is not NFL starting material.

Selecting Trubisky No. 1 would be a mistake for any number of reasons, not the least of which is this team needs help just about everywhere else up and down the roster. Drafting someone who most likely won’t play for at least one season is flat out wrong.

Re-crafting and rebuilding this roster also requires the ability to correctly judge the talent available. And based on its performance in the last lottery, those in charge in Berea fell woefully short in that department.

What I most fear is the Browns trading out of the top spot in order to stockpile more picks throughout the seven rounds. They need to keep what they’ve got and make intelligent decisions. They need help in the trenches, especially the trenches when they don’t have the ball. Time to stock up there.

News: Jimmy Garoppolo’s name linked to Browns-Patriots trade rumors.

Views: The Browns do not need another question mark at quarterback and that is exactly what Garoppolo is. He has started two games in his three seasons with New England. He was supposed to start four while Brady served his four-game session in the Deflategate case, but suffered a sprained shoulder halfway through start two.

He won both games, is clearly an unknown quantity, but it’s fun to suggest what it would take to bring the untested veteran to the Browns. Rumors suggest Bill Belichick wants to extract a heavy price for the 25-year-old, like maybe a first-round pick.

The Browns have two of those in Nos. 1 and 12, but surrendering either of those would be unwise. No, make that stupid. Garoppolo is worth nothing more than a third-round pick. It is not a given he could come to the Browns and provide an immediate panacea.

News: Johnny Manziel will hold two autograph sessions at a Houston area mall just prior to the Super Bowl.

Views: Who cares. That is not a question. It is a statement. The ex-Browns quarterback is ancient history. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Monday leftovers (Wednesday edition)

If you want to know how Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry wound up on top of the Browns’ flow chart a year ago, the answer appears in an interesting column by Conor Orr of last Nov. 30.

It details the input of Korn Ferry International, an executive search firm out of Los Angeles, and how that company factored into Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III forming his new front office a year ago following the departure of General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine.

Haslam, perhaps because he was at his wits’ end as to how to fix a broken franchise with no relief in sight, obviously solicited the help of Korn Ferry before making his final decision. Nothing else worked in his first four years, so why not try something different.

The result of those moves by the Browns owner after the overtime loss in Pittsburgh Sunday, of course, is a 1-15 record, a mark that will live in infamy for a franchise that was once one of the proudest and strongest franchises in the National Football League. Neither the pride nor strength exists today.

So when the question was asked at the conclusion of the 2015 season as to how low could it go after Farmer and Pettine were cashiered, we now have the answer as the Browns fandom shrinks exponentially.
*       *       *
And now that the disaster known as the 2016 season has concluded, talk now turns to the NFL college draft. It’s the time of the year, unfortunately, most looked forward to by fans of the team in lieu of something, anything, of a positive nature.

So where do the Browns, who own the first overall pick, need help the most? Just about everywhere on the roster except linebacker, easily the strongest and deepest position on the club with inside backers Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis and outside backer Jamie Collins.

“We need to use it wisely and make good decisions,” Haslam said Sunday after the Pittsburgh loss. “The reason we were 1-15 . . .  is that the Cleveland Browns, including on our watch, have not made good decisions in the draft. It’s real simple.”

And yet, the same people in charge of last year’s lottery, during which the team made 14 selections in seven rounds after moving up and down several times, returns after trying and missing the bull’s-eye on each one. Fourteen picks and not one difference maker.

If Haslam hired someone to run his truck stop business and they missed the mark after 14 attempts on a project, that employee would be fired, probably well before attempt No. 14. And yet, these guys get a second chance. (Sound of one scratching one’s head.)

The Cleveland troika of Brown, DePodesta and Berry has 13 more shots at the draft this season unless, of course, they get the up-and-down-the-draft itch again and cull a few more. They own two picks again in the first round at 1 and 12, courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles, and four of the top 50.

Unlike last season, this is not a quarterback-rich draft and none of those who have declared are worth a top pick or even a 12th.  The Browns need too much help elsewhere to be thinking quarterback in the first two rounds.

Most mock drafts have them actually making a pick with their first selection, instead of trading down, and the name most guessed is Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, a 6-5, 270-pounder with impressive statistics. More on Garrett in a bit.

A few mock draft “experts” believe the Browns will opt for North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who starred for the Tar Heels in his first season as a starter. Choosing Trubisky, who hails from Mentor in suburban Cleveland, would be a public relations dream.

Two problems: He has not declared for the draft. And there are those who believe he is not ready yet for the NFL and would benefit from another year in school. If he decides to stay in school, the argument to pick him becomes moot. If not, the argument begins: Garrett or Trubisky.

When you are drafting No. 1, you select the highest graded player on your board regardless of position. Garrett, according to most experts, is a no-brainer. He will fit in right away and make a difference. Trubisky is a roll of the dice whose grade will be lower.

Garrett arrives in the NFL with some impressive credentials such as 32½ sacks and 48½ tackles for loss in three seasons with the Aggies. The two areas for the Browns that need the most help are the offensive and defensive lines. Garrett can provide some of that help. Unless, of course, the bright lights running the Cleveland draft trade down.

Choosing Garrett would be a good start for a team that needs to rebuild the trenches on both sides of the ball. I can’t say enough times how important it is to be strong at the line of scrimmage. Sack the opposing quarterback and protect your quarterback. Win there and everything filters back.
*     *       *
Now that he has indicated he is rewarding his front office for its sterling efforts with at least another season, it has to be assumed Haslam is also retaining his current coach. That’s the way it should be.

It is not Hue Jackson’s fault he was handed a roster that might be one of the worst – nah, make that the worst – roster in recent memory. That roster did not get any better as the season unfolded.

The only significant move the front office made was the acquisition of Collins from the New England Patriots in mid-season. The former Pro Bowler made an immediate impact and is a building block on a team that doesn’t have nearly enough of them.

He was involved in 43 tackles (31 solo) in eight games with the Patriots and busted loose with 69 tackles (48 solo) in his eight outings with Cleveland. The free agent is a must sign in the offseason.

Other than that, this roster seriously lacks the kind of talent that wins games. And the fault for that lies squarely with the troika suggested to Haslam by Korn Ferry.

Someone, maybe it was Bill Parcells, once said a head coach is only as good as the players he works with. Which means Jackson never really had a chance to show why he was the correct choice to succeed Pettine. He battled personnel issues – lack of talent – all season long.

His mistake at the beginning of the season was coaching this team, at least from an offensive standpoint, as though it had more talent than it really did. Instead of coaching down to their level, he treated them as though they were like the successful Cincinnati Bengals offense he coordinated before arriving in Cleveland.

He asked the players on offense to perform beyond their capabilities. Asked them to run plays that more often than not failed because they were not good enough or talented enough to execute them successfully. Winning, it is said, is an attitude. But if the talent is lacking, attitude goes just so far.

There were moments throughout the season that produced positive glimpses of the future. Unfortunately, there were far too few of them and did not last very long.

A change at the top within the ivory tower with emphasis on seriously upgrading the talent quotient of the team is the only saving grace for Jackson. Give the man talent and he will more than justify his selection as head coach and erase, or at least shove far into the background, the memory of the 2016 season.
*       *       *
Final statistics and league rankings Browns coaches and personnel people should pay very close attention to, especially the sacks totals, as they prepare for the draft . . .

Offense: Overall 311 yards a game (30th in the 32-team league), 204 yards passing (30th), 107 yards running (19th). Defense: Overall 392 yards a game (31st), 143 yards running  (31st), 250 yards passing (21st). Penalty yards: 736 yards (31st surprisingly, only 10 yards more than Cincinnati)  Points scored: 264 (31st); points allowed: 452 points (30th ). Time of possession: 28:16 a game (30th). Sacks: 26 (tied for 30th with Detroit). Sacks allowed: a club record 66 (a distant 32nd, 17 more than runner-up Los Angeles). Turnover ratio: -12 (29th). And last but certainly not least, 138 quarterback hits (32nd). Is it any wonder the Browns went through five quarterbacks (not counting Terrelle Pryor) this season?
*       *       *
And finally . . . The final stats more specifically say Pryor was by far the most productive wide receiver, enhancing his chances of escaping Cleveland as a free agent. He wound up with 77 catches for 1,007 yards, but only four touchdowns. . . . The leading touchdown maker was running back Isaiah Crowell, who scored seven and came within 48 yards of a 1,000-yard season, He also caught 40 passes, after catching only 19 last season, for 319 yards. . . . Quarterback Robert Griffin III was dropped 22 times in five starts. . . . Longest kickoff return: 36 yards by newcomer Mario Alford; longest punt return: 18 yards by Duke Johnson Jr. Come back Travis Alexander. All is forgiven. . . . Most tackles: Christian Kirksey 148, including 96 solo. . . . Most sacks: Rookie Emmanuel Ogbah with 5½. . . .Interceptions: just 10, three each by Jamar Taylor, Joe Haden and Brien-Boddy-Calhoun and one by Tramon Williams. All 10 picks were by cornerbacks. That’s an indictment. . . . Cody Parkey missed five field goals, all between 40 and 49 yards. . . . Final Duke Johnson Jr. watch: 126 touches for 872 yards. That’s 6.92 yards a touch. Maybe next season.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Discovering the Browns' future QB 

I saw a glimpse of the future Browns quarterback Monday night in a college football bowl game. He’s a 6-4, 225-pound, green-eyed redhead from Southern California named Sam Darnold.

Remember that name. The redshirt freshman threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns in USC’s come-from-behind 52-49 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

Darnold still has one more season with the Trojans before becoming eligible for the 2018 National Football League college draft. If the Browns are smart, they will not attempt to solve their quarterback problem next season, choosing instead to play as well as they did this past season so they can get that top choice again when Darnold is eligible.

The kid is the real deal. He’s only 19 years old (he’ll be 20 in June), but plays like a seasoned veteran, showing uncommon poise for one so young. And he has a great throwing arm, snapping off lasers at times with a mere flick of his wrist, throwing into extremely tight windows with unerring accuracy.

He took over as the starter after senior Max Browne failed to live up to the success Cody Kessler (now with the Browns) enjoyed with the Trojans. After USC coach Clay Helton promoted Darnold, the team’s fortunes skyrocketed.

The kid took over after the Trojans lost two of the first three games under Browne, a senior captain. The only blemish on his otherwise pristine résumé was a last-minute 31-27 loss to Utah in his starting debut before reeling off nine straight victories including the bowl game.

The Utah loss was the only one where Darnold failed to throw a TD pass. With him in charge of the huddle, that offense flourished, averaging 38.6 points a game en route to the Pac-12 Conference championship and bowl appearance.

Other gaudy stats in his 10 starts include a 67.5% completion percentage, 2,950 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He has thrown at least two scoring passes in each of the last nine games, including three five-TD games. He has 29 touchdown passes overall with eight interceptions.

Darnold is strictly a pocket passer, which would be perfect for the NFL, with a pocket awareness that has enabled him to limit his sacks to just five. He seems to have an innate sixth sense to know where the pressure is coming from and has the ability to slide away from it. That can't be taught. 

Barring unforeseen circumstances, he will be the prize catch in the 2018 lottery. And barring unforeseen circumstances, like foolishly dipping again into the quarterback waters this year after failing with Kessler this past season, the Browns should play just badly enough to snatch the top spot again and be in position to select Darnold.

Forget Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer and Deshaun Watson in this year's draft. They aren't nearly the quarterback Darnold is. Be patient and wait for the kid from USC.

Hue Jackson has a reputation for being a quarterbacks whisperer. Hopefully, the Browns coach was stationed in front of his television set Monday night and saw Darnold perform. If he did, he was witnessing the quarterback who can come to Cleveland and make him the successful coach he envisioned when he took the job.

It then behooves Sashi Brown and his minions to seriously consider bringing back Robert Griffin III, Kessler and Kevin Hogan for the 2017 season and stocking up on players in the trenches, where the games are won and lost. Lose another 14 or 15 more games in 2017 to get that top pick in 2018.

It could turn out to be a case of bad timing by the Browns with regard to USC quarterbacks. They drafted the wrong one in 2016, but can make up for that by selecting the right one in 2018.

With Darnold waiting in the wings and the Browns continuing the misery for just one more season, it will be worth the wait for Browns fans. They’ve waited this long. One more awful season will be worth the reward.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A delusional owner

After the Browns’ 15th loss in this 16-game season Sunday in Pittsburgh, team owner Jimmy Haslam III was cornered by the Cleveland media and offered his thoughts on the future of this franchise.

The man envisions a bright outlook in the immediate future for his team and said he “could not be more pleased with the job the staff is doing. I’m really pleased with our personnel group. I think we have the right people in place.”

One normally hears praise like that from an owner basking in the glow of another appearance in the postseason, not one who has labored torturously through a season that produced just one victory and that one was fortunate because a field goal that would have made 2016 winless sailed wide right.

“This time last year,” Haslam said, “we said it was going to be a multi-year rebuilding. Was this year harder than we thought it would be? Yes.”

Then he went on to cite three objectives – he called them keys – for next season. “We’ve got to resign our key players,” he said. “Number two, we have to be appropriately aggressive in free agency and three, we’ve got to have a great draft.”

While he lauded the work of his current front office, Haslam accepted the blame for the club’s performance. “Our record as an owner is terrible,” he admitted. “But we’re not giving up. Has it been fun? No. Has it been discouraging at times? Yes. But we are not going to give up. We are more determined than ever to get this thing right.”

More Haslam realism: “We were 1 and 15. I don’t want too sugarcoat things. We’ve got a long ways to go.”

And finally this: “It’s important to have continuity (in the front office). I think until you get the right people in place, you’ve got to keep making moves. Like I said before, I think we have the right people in place.

“I’m excited about working with that group going forward and more determined than ever to turn this around. I think they are working exceptionally well together.”

And with that, this personal plea is offered.

It’s time, James Haslam III. It’s time. Time to rip apart your professional football team. Time to recognize nothing has worked since you took over in 2012.

In the five years of your stewardship, your team has done nothing but fail. That means you have failed. No matter who you select to run the club, you fail. The buck stops at your desk.

The numbers do not lie. They say your Browns have won 20 games in those five very long, very arduous, very frustrating, very sad seasons. Those teams have lost 60 times.

You paid a billion dollars for a team that has logged winning seasons only twice (2002 and 2007) since returning to the National Football League in 1999. It has logged double-digit losing seasons in all but four of those 18 seasons.

The Cleveland Browns have become the NFL’s quintessential losers. You have done nothing to remedy that situation in your five seasons. That is your fault. Do not point fingers of guilt at anyone but the man you see in the mirror.

Not that you haven’t tried, but you seem to have made numerous unwise choices as your team annually successfully defends its title of laughingstock of the NFL. You’ve gone through head honchos Tom Heckert Jr., Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer and now Sashi Brown.

Then there are the coaches under your watch: Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and now Hue Jackson. Only the names change. It is a litany of failure. The results have not changed. And this season’s 1-15 is a low that most likely will never be replicated.

You think you have the right people in place. No you don’t and the sooner you realize that, the better. Sashi Brown has no business being anywhere near the football side of your organization.

You need more help than you think. You need someone who can reset the culture of the Cleveland Browns because the one now in place has produced horrendous results with no relief in sight despite your protestations to the contrary.

There is someone out there on the periphery of the NFL landscape who can help. Someone who has totally rehabilitated several moribund NFL franchises before and knows exactly what it takes to be successful.

He’s retired right now. He doesn’t work for the league, but has an indirect connection with it as an analyst for ESPN. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Oh, and he is 74 years old; a spry 74. With him, age is but a number.

Bill Polian is an experienced hand at taking franchises on life support, pumping life back into them and making all the right moves to rebuild them. He did it in Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis. He is a six-time NFL executive of the year and wears a Super Bowl ring. Right now, no one on your payroll owns credentials like that.

I’m not exactly sure how he did it with those franchises, but it’s easy to see that whatever formula he uses, it works. Resetting the culture of a losing football teams is like second nature to him.

Now I’m not certain Polian would come out of retirement at his age, but it sure would be interesting to find out whether taking on the ultimate challenge of turning around the Browns would be that appealing and intriguing to him. It would be the greatest challenge of his distinguished career.

He wouldn’t have to control everything on a day-to-day basis after resetting the culture. Just oversee it with his wizened ways. Be there when important questions need answering. Issue a guiding hand when direction is required.

Let him initially chart the future of a franchise that hasn’t had proper direction in at least two generations. He knows how to craft winners. Turn him loose, let him do it his own way and pay close attention to how he does it.

This franchise needs a sagacious guide to the immediate future, someone to finally point it in the right direction and instill stability.  Polian provides all the essential attributes in that regard. That can’t se said of anyone currently in Berea.

It is worth a shot by Haslam to gauge Polian’s interest in such a venture. Bring him in for two years to right all the wrongs that have been foisted on this franchise. That’s all it will take. Let him structure the new front office in his image. Then sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor.

What harm would that do? After what happened this season, it is time to get dead serious about changing the direction in which this team is headed. The 1-15 record was not an aberration, but a confirmation of just how bad this team was. Enough is enough. Time to be proactive and finally get your money’s worth.

But based on what Haslam said Sunday in Pittsburgh, that’s not going to happen. And you know what they say about people who fail to learn from history. They are doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Miserable end to a miserable season

If any one game served as a microcosm of the 2016 season for the Browns, it was Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the season finale.

Committing enough mistakes to lose more than one game, the Browns had the game won on two different occasions and squandered each opportunity with the goal line mere yards away.

It proved more than anything that this season’s Browns have no idea how to put a game away. They somehow, some way, unfailingly find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

They had this game won in regulation, their second straight victory of the season following the 14 losses that opened the campaign virtually assured, and gave it away with generous doses of self-inflicted wounds.

With the score tied at 21-21, they had a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line with less than a minute left in regulation following a beautiful Robert Griffin III-Terrelle Pryor hookup.

A rare victory in Pittsburgh, something treasured by all of Browns Nation despite the fact Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown did not suit up for the Steelers, not only loomed, it was as close to a lock as one could imagine. What could go wrong?

Isaiah Crowell, whose 67-yard serpentine gallop set up the George Atkinson’s game-tying touchdown with 3:28 left in regulation, provided the answer when Steelers defensive end Jarvis Jones stripped him of the ball at the 3. Safety Mike Mitchell, who would factor in a later dustup, recovered.

The Browns also had the game won in overtime before questionable playcalling cost them a chance to end it right there with a touchdown on the first possession after winning the coin toss.

They marched resolutely down field, much as they did when they shot out to a 14-0 lead in the first half on scoring drives of 55 and 67 yards, The Third connecting on scoring passes to tight ends Seth DeValve and Gary Barnidge.

The veteran quarterback expertly guided his offense 79 yards to the Pittsburgh 2-yard line in the extra session, converting three third downs along the way. They landed at the 2 after Mitchell and Corey Coleman grabbed each other’s facemask after the rookie Cleveland receiver gained only four yards on a third-and-goal pass.

The closest official to the play did not see Coleman’s grasp and flagged Mitchell, who was caught by the field microphone complaining bitterly about the call. After clapping happily because he initially thought Coleman drew the flag, he screamed, then bellowed, “Omigod! He grabbed mine! Please look at it. Please look at it.”

Plays when penalties are involved are not reviewable and the ball was placed at the 2. Victory was a short six feet away. Seventy-two measly inches from doing something they rarely do: Win in Pittsburgh. Score a touchdown and the Steelers don’t get a chance. That simple. But with this team, nothing is simple and they went on to prove it . . . again.

After an incomplete pass to tight end Randall Telfer . . . wait a minute. What is Telfer doing in the game? The two catches this season for four yards Randall Telfer? Where were Barnidge and/or DeValve and why weren’t they being targeted? Anyway . . .

After an incomplete pass to Telfer, coach Hue Jackson dialed up a bubble screen to the weak side. Why? Did Crowell’s previous game-losing fumble cause him to think pass this time? Why not just give the ball to him and take your chances?

After all, Crowell had already gained 152 yards on only 19 carries up to that point. What are the odds of another fumble? And why risk calling a play that rarely works that close to the goal line?

Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins caught the ball in the left flat with fellow wideout Pryor there as a one-man screen. Pryor, who passed 1,000 receiving yards on the season during the game and is a much better receiver than blocker, then proved it by failing to clear his man so Hawkins could score.

Hawkins was trapped at the 5 and then made a mistake one might see from a rookie, not someone who has been around the National Football League for six seasons. He reversed field and was ultimately brought down 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

So instead of third-and-makeable, it was third and goal from the 16. A subsequent incompletion to Pryor brought Cody Parkey into the game for a 34-yard field goal and the lead, thus giving the Steelers the opportunity to score since the Browns botched the touchdown opportunity.

The Steelers, who generated only 52 yards of offense in the first half and failed to convert their first nine third-down opportunities, went 75 yards in nine plays for the game-winner.

Landry found 6-2 Cobi Hamilton from 26 yards out after he got behind 5-9 cornerback Brien Boddy-Calhoun to give the Steelers their seventh straight victory and 30th over the Browns in the last 40 meetings.

The rookie Cleveland corner thought he had his second pick-6 of the season with 3:22 left in the third quarter and the Browns leading by seven (14-7), swiping a Jones pass intended for Demarcus Ayers at the Cleveland 32.

Winding his way down the right sideline, he extended his left arm as he approached the goal line and the official ruled touchdown as the ball trickled into the end zone. It would have given the Browns a 14-point lead again. Would, coulda, didn’t.

A replay review – all scoring plays and turnovers are reviewed automatically – revealed Pittsburgh wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey stripped him of the ball from behind a yard from the goal line and the ball wound up in the end zone, where Jones covered it.

The story of the first half was the much-maligned Cleveland defense, which made the early two-touchdown lead stand up for most of the half. But it was victimized by the offense, which turned the ball over on consecutive snaps late in the second quarter, the second of which led to a Steelers score.

The defense overcame a Griffin interception in the end zone, but a high snap by rookie center Anthony Fabiano, making his first start, was costly when The Third failed to cover it at the Cleveland 37 after it sailed over his head.

It took Jones, who seemed energized by the gift, seven plays to move the ball the 37 yards, connecting with running back DeAngelo Williams, who turned the flat pass into an 11-yard score after linebacker Jamie Collins whiffed on an open-field tackle at the 11. It halved the Cleveland lead.

And then those nasty self-inflicted wounds returned in the second half and overtime periods to punctuate a fitting, as it turned out, ending to the most miserable, frustrating and easily forgettable season in the history of this once-proud franchise.