Thursday, August 31, 2017

Money, money, money and Haden

What in the world did the Browns not see when they released veteran cornerback Joe Haden Wednesday?

It was obviously something the Pittsburgh Steelers saw when they almost instantaneously signed him to a three-year contract. In a matter of just hours, Haden went from Seal Brown and Orange to Black and Gold.

He went from the basement of the AFC North to the penthouse. He went from seven seasons of abject failure to decades of winning football. Just like that.

Metrics showed Haden’s former All-Pro performance had dipped substantially in the last couple of seasons due mainly to a series of injuries that robbed him of his talents. (Not a big fan of metrics. I trust my eyes much more.)

But those talents supposedly reappeared, according to his coach, in the current training camp and he supposedly looked like “the old Joe Haden.” Hue Jackson heaped praise on the young – he’s only 28 – veteran. And yet, he approved the move. Go figure.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who warned Haden in the spring to be ready for a tough camp, also lauded his performance thus far but nevertheless supposedly sanctioned the move.

So what went wrong? Money, something the Browns are swimming in with regard to the salary cap, proved the great separator. Haden was due to make around $11 million this season.

Too much for a cornerback ostensibly on his way down, they figured. Never mind his performance in training camp. Too much money.

They reportedly asked Haden to take a $4 million pay cut. He reportedly declined. And that, according to reports, is when the Browns began shopping the seven-year veteran.

So riddle me this: If the Browns can afford to swallow the $16 million contract of quarterback Brock Osweiler, who probably will begin the season watching rookie DeShone Kizer, why can’t they digest Haden’s $11 million pact? At least he would be on the field and earn it

The Browns, according to the Web site spotrac, are roughly $57 million under the salary cap. Simple math says it shouldn’t have been a problem. All of a sudden they have become penurious.

The Browns are hurting in the secondary. It is easily the weakest area of the defense. And with Haden’s departure, it becomes much younger. With the exception of eight-year veteran Jason McCourty, this is a relatively inexperienced group in the defensive backfield. That is what makes the latest move so puzzling.

And the Browns almost assuredly had to know that by releasing Haden, many teams, including the Steelers, couldn’t contact Haden’s agent quickly enough to procure his services.

They also had to know the hated Steelers are also hurting in the secondary. Adding Haden to that roster would be a step in the right direction.

It is interesting that the biggest booster of Haden in Pittsburgh was All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who heavily lobbied the front office to change Haden’s working address by 120 miles.

Brown and Haden know each other well. They have an up-close-and-personal professional relationship. They entered the National Football League in the same year (2010) and have met on the field numerous times on an annual basis (many times twice a season) and engaged in classic battles.

Haden’s occasional absences due to injury have made a difference against the Steelers. He missed most of the 2015 season, including both Pittsburgh games, with a concussion. Brown torched the Cleveland secondary with 23 receptions for 326 yards and three touchdowns in those games, a pair of victories.

If anything, this move challenges Williams to be even more creative with his various looks in the secondary. His best cover corner is gone, which probably means more zone coverage in the back end.

Unless the front seven somehow plays well beyond its talents, the Cleveland secondary is certain to be a ripe target for opposing quarterbacks and the annual strafing will continue.

A healthy Joe Haden would have helped.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Gone cornerback

Money talks. It also bought a one-way ticket out of Cleveland for Joe Haden.

For the last couple of days, speculation was rampant the Browns were actively shopping the former Pro Bowl cornerback.

They pulled the trigger on the 28-year-old Haden Wednesday, flat out releasing him in a surprise move after apparently failing to put together a satisfactory deal.

One of the main reasons for Haden’s exit, although the club would not disclose it, is the kind of money the seven-year veteran is due the next three seasons, including the upcoming one: $32.5 million. It is not known whether the $11 million due Haden this season is fully guaranteed.

In the National Football League, there is no such thing as multi-year contracts. In reality, they are a series of one-year contracts that can be terminated at any time and the team is not obligated to pay the full amount. The only number that counts against the salary cap is the prorated figure for a signing bonus.

If this wasn’t a move made because of money, it’s hard to comprehend the reasons behind it. Haden, by all accounts, was having a solid training camp. Just ask his coach.

“I think he has had a great training camp,” said Hue Jackson the day before the release. “I think he has played well in our games. He is a huge piece of what we do on defense.”

And now that piece is headed elsewhere.

Haden, who has missed 14 games the last two seasons due to a number of injuries, was thought to be healthy this season. He played in all three exhibition games, logging seven tackles (six solos) in limited time.

Haden started every exhibition opposite Jamar Taylor. His release most likely elevates Briean Boddy-Calhoun to starting status with Jason McCourty, Marcus Burley, Darius Hillary, Channing Stribling and Trey Caldwell battling for the two (maybe three) backup spots.

In releasing Haden, the Browns hauled out all the usual platitudes lavished when cutting a veteran. To wit:

“We want to thank Joe for all he has done for this organization both on and off the field,” said VP of football operations Sashi Brown. “He has been a great teammate and a true asset to the Cleveland community . . . we have the utmost respect for Joe and in my eyes he will always be a Cleveland Brown.”

Added Jackson, “Joe gave everything he had for the Cleveland Browns and that’s all you can ask as a coach. He was a leader on and off the field. I wish him all the best as he continues his career.” What a difference a day makes.

Haden, at one time believed to be one of the best cover corners in the NFL, should have no trouble landing somewhere, especially with the cutdown deadline approaching this weekend.

Teams all over the league will be massaging their rosters and a talent like Haden will not go unnoticed. His reputation is such, there is a distinct possibility a team will snap him up now that he is a free agent rather than wait for the weekend.
(Report: The Pittsburgh Steelers have offered Haden a three-year, $27 million contract. If he accepts the offer, the Steelers likely would give him a crash course in how they play defense and he could be ready to play against his old team in the season-opening game in Cleveland on Sept. 10. Update: Haden signed with the Steelers for the above figures.)
Haden leaves Cleveland with 19 career interceptions, one touchdown and four forced fumbles.
*       *       *
This just in: The Browns found a willing trade partner to take offensive lineman Cameron Erving off their hands and payroll, shipping him to the Kansas City Chiefs for a conditional fifth-round selection in the 2018 college football draft.

At this point, it is uncertain what the conditions are for the former first-round draft pick, who has disappointed at several positions along the offensive line. If the conditions are met, it raises the Browns' haul in the next lottery to 13 selections, including two firsts and three seconds.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Browns-Bucs notebook

The fact the Browns are unbeaten in three exhibition starts this season is amazing in and of itself. Borders on shocking, some would say.

But they are fake games, others would say. They don’t mean a thing. They are as meaningful as pet rocks.

And yet, here the Browns are at 3-0 with the Chicago Bears exhibition dead ahead in the Windy City Thursday night. Browns fans, even those who dismiss such winning largesse, cannot dispute the record.

So what does that have to do with anything? Well, check out the following interesting exhibition statistics this franchise has carved out since 1950 with the exception, of course, of those three still-trying-hard-to-forget years when the National Football League turned its back on Cleveland.

The current club, one of four unbeaten teams in exhibition play this season in the NFL (Baltimore, Denver and Seattle are the others), has an opportunity to join the 1950, 1962, 1982 and 1986 Browns as the only teams that went through the exhibition season undefeated. In 64 seasons, that’s it.

The 1950 team (5-0 in exhibitions) went on to win the championship in its inaugural NFL season. The 1962 team, Paul Brown’s last before being fired, was also 5-0 in exhibitions, but 7-6-1 in games that counted.

The 1982 team was 4-0, 4-5 in a strike-shortened regular season, losing in the first round of the playoffs. The 1986 team was 4-0 and 12-4 in the regular season, losing to the Denver Broncos in the infamous game that featured “The Drive.”

The last time the Browns won the first three exhibition games was 1994, Bill Belichick’s (and the Browns’) penultimate season in Cleveland before the franchise was uprooted and replanted in Baltimore.

They knocked off the New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons that year before dropping the final game to Tampa Bay. That club finished 11-5 in the regular season and lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

So how does this all impact on the final exhibition Thursday night in Chicago? If the Browns somehow beat the Bears and wind up unbeaten in exhibition play, how far fetched is it to at least try and connect similar past success with the future?

Is it possible the long-awaited Browns turnaround thus far could be a harbinger of things to come in the regular season? Possible? Yes. Anything is possible. Probable? C’mon.

But considering this franchise played four exhibitions and 16 regular-season games last season and emerged victorious just once, a 20-17 squeaker over the San Diego Chargers in game 15, what has transpired thus far this season has been very uplifting in Berea.

And that, at least from a morale standpoint, is a step in the right direction. This is a young team with many new faces, many of whom for nearly a generation have no idea how hard it has been to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

Of course this all means nothing on Sept. 10 and beyond, but fans of this team right now have to be enjoying the success.
*       *       *
Watching the Browns play defense this season is going to be fun for the fans. Coordinator Gregg Williams’ anything-goes attack has produced impressive results in the three exhibitions. And yes, they will mean nothing come Sept. 10.

Nevertheless, the following stats prove that fun-to-watch defense has finally returned to the lakefront, playing the game on that side of the ball the way it was meant to be played.

The impressive Cleveland defense has allowed only 49 first downs, stifled opposing offenses on 31 of 40 third-down opportunities, recorded 12 sacks (two others were wiped out by penalties), surrendered just 274 yards a game (75 on the ground), recovered four fumbles, boasts a plus-3 turnover ratio and has allowed just one touchdown (a two-yard scoring pass at the beginning of the fourth quarter in the 20-14 victory over New Orleans.).

Heading into the Bears game, the Browns have not allowed a touchdown in the last 134 minutes and 57 seconds. That stretch includes 25 possessions by the opposition that produced five field goals, two interceptions, four fumble recoveries, two drives that ended on downs and end of a half and 12 punts.

Now don’t expect the club to produce stats like that in the regular season. But it has become apparent that the manner in which the Browns have taken to Williams’ style of coaching has taken root to the extent that his men will not be pushed around this season.

The Browns will win more games because of this defense than they will through the efforts of the offense, which has played hit-and-miss football so far. If the offense can show some of the consistency displayed by the defense, certain goals are attainable. If not, the 2017 season will be a grind for that side of the ball.
*       *       *
What a revelation Joe Schobert has been. A pass rusher in college and an outside linebacker who seemed to underachieve in his rookie season with the Browns last season, Williams somehow spotted something in him in converting him to middle linebacker.

Now he hasn’t turned into the next Dick Butkus, Sam Huff or Jack Lambert, but Schobert sure has been the most pleasant surprise in training camp. His nose-for-the-football talent had paid off handsomely even after he won the starting job by default when Tank Carder went down for the season.

Schobert, who leads the team with 14 tackles (11 solo), was going to win the competition with his surprisingly good instincts and sure tackling. He recorded four solo tackles and an assist on the Buccaneers’ opening 11-play drive that ended with a Jabrill Peppers interception.

He has added playcalling duties to his areas of responsibility, making certain everyone is positioned correctly before the snap, and been what seems to be a perfect fit between Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins.
*       *       *
The offense, meanwhile, has not shown the consistency coach Hue Jackson expects. It produced just three points with the ones in the first half against Tampa Bay, mainly because it shot itself in the foot twice.

A dropped pass by Kenny Britt that would have placed the ball around the Bucs’ 5-yard line on the first possession of the game wound up as a 38-yard Cody Parkey field goal instead. And Duke Johnson Jr.’s fumble at the Bucs’ 10-yard line midway through the second quarter blunted another scoring opportunity.

This offense is not good enough yet and must take advantage of the limited opportunities it receives. Small mistakes are magnified as a result. When you have the kind of defense the Browns have, maximizing opportunities on offense is paramount.
*       *       *
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor had to be satisfied with his punt coverage and return teams after the first two exhibitions. Then came the Bucs game with three penalties on seven punt-return opportunities. That’s the quickest way to short-circuit a drive.

Not certain whether those who play on the punt return unit have the latitude to try and get away with an illegal block or hold and hope an official misses it. If they don’t, Tabor needs to find players who avoid the yellow laundry.
*       *       *
Speaking of penalties, the Browns committed 14 more against Tampa Bay for 91 yards, bringing the exhibition total to 35 penalties for 233 yards. And that does not take into account penalties that are declined.

Many of them are of the stupid variety. Pre-snap penalties, along with the aforementioned punt return and the occasional kickoff return flags, are the most maddening. That needs to stop pronto. It shows a serious lack of discipline.
*       *       *
Kevin Hogan probably won’t make the final 53, but the young quarterback sure made a case for himself by guiding the offense twice in the final quarter to 10 points and the come-from-behind victory.

Using his feet as well as his arm, he managed to overcome a driving rain with a performance that could give Jackson and his coaching staff pause when it comes to selecting the final roster. Is it possible Hogan, who matched DeShone Kizer’s exhibition season total of one touchdown pass, has passed Cody Kessler on the depth chart? Stay tuned.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Defensive ends Carl Nassib and Tyrone Holmes are making strong cases to make the final 53-man roster. Considering the club’s hyper aggressive approach to the passing game, they would provide solid depth in that area. . . . Corey Coleman looked like a No. 1 draft choice with a four-catch, 66-yard evening, two of which were of the spectacular variety. . . . It appears as though Jackson is bringing rookie tight end David Njoku along slowly, favoring Randall Telfer, a much better blocker, in the run game. Telfer delivered the key block on Johnson’s 37-yard burst midway through the second quarter. . . . All but five of the Browns’’ 40 pass attempts were directed at a receiver or tight end. . . . Four of Kizer’s six completions against the Bucs produced third-down conversions. . . . Can’t figure out why the Bucs’ challenge on what sure looked like a Donteea Dye touchdown catch early in the third quarter, which was ruled an incompletion, was not overruled. Sure looked like one. The Bucs kicked a field goal after the ruling. . . . Six starters for the Tampa Bay defense were given the night off.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It's official . . . Kizer is now THE MAN

There now is absolutely no question as to who the Browns’ starting quarterback is – and should be – in the season-opening game on Sept. 10 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“This is not just for the moment,” coach Hue Jackson told reporters when he informed the Cleveland media via conference call Sunday that DeShone Kizer becomes the 27th different starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999. “We’re going to get with DeShone . . . ride with him through it all.”

Kizer’s elevation to the top spot comes with a caveat from his coach. “It’s not over with yet,” he said. “He still has to earn the right to be the starting quarterback for this team week in and week out.”

All of which means it is entirely possible Jackson will attach a leash to Kizer in an effort to gain as much consistency as possible from him on a game-by-game basis. With a veteran like Brock Osweiler champing at the bit on the bench, it will be interesting to see how far Jackson’s patience stretches.

Based solely on his performance in the team’s three exhibition games this season, Kizer deserves to get the starting nod. Not because he won it. It’s because no else stepped up and played as though he wanted it. It’s almost as though the rookie won the job by default.

This is not meant to disparage his performance, which has been nothing to get overly excited about. On the other hand, disparaging the work of Osweiler and Cody Kessler, both of whom entered training camp ahead of Kizer on the depth chart, is much more warranted.

Kizer’s accomplishments thus far – he is completing only 51% of his passes – will not blow anyone away, but they far and away exceed the disappointing play of Osweiler and Kessler. He made Jackson’s choice easy for the opener.

It also tells you the club, for the umpteenth time since 1999, enters a new season hopeful, at best, at the most important position on the team. A rookie backed up by mediocre veterans is not exactly the prescription for being sanguine.

Unless Kizer startles everyone in the National Football League universe and puts up a season as no Cleveland quarterback has since Bernie Kosar, Browns fans will have to settle once again for anything from abject failure to mediocrity.

But there is no question Kizer’s modest success thus far – he probably will not play in the final exhibition game Thursday night in Chicago against the Bears – has energized the Browns’ fan base.

The kid from Toledo, who has been the quarterback in the game for 26 of the Browns’ 43 points so far, has not really looked awful. He has not looked as though he doesn’t belong on the same field as everyone else. There is something about him that ignites that hope.

Yes, he is a raw rookie. And yes, we really don’t know what he will do when the money games begin. That’s the intrigue that excites some fans and concerns others.

The anticipation of how Kizer performs against the Steelers’ defense is what energizes the fans in the first group. Based on his seemingly unflappable nature, they want to believe he can carry his modest exhibition success into the regular season.

Then there are those skeptics who won’t join that crowd until they see how he handles the Steelers’ sophisticated defense. It plays out quite differently in the regular season.

Judging from the way Kizer played the first half with the ones in the 13-9 victory Saturday night in Tampa against the Buccaneers, there should at least some reason to be concerned.

His 6-of-18, 93-yard, one interception performance produced only three points in five possessions and was uneven. Four of his six completions converted third downs, however, included easily his best throw of the evening.

On third-and-4 at the Cleveland 44 on the Browns' first possession of the game, Kizer took the snap in the shotgun formation. He failed to spot an open receiver, avoided a defender and rolled left to buy some time to throw.

He spotted Corey Coleman streaking down the left side and dropped a picture perfect pass into his hands as beautifully as if he walked up the wide receiver and handed it to him. Coleman was double covered on the play, which covered 32 yards and set up a Cody Parkey field goal.

He was sabotaged by a few dropped passes and a fumble by his running back deep in Bucs territory, but was decisive and confident in running the offense for the most part.

Kizer definitely is feeling more comfortable when he lines up under center. His footwork when he pulls away with the snap is significantly better than it was as recently as a month ago.

His deep drops on pass plays have smoothed out and he seems to understand the rhythm necessary to make these plays successful. For someone who has never played under center before, his ball-handling is surprisingly smooth.

It is difficult to change when you have been playing in shotgun or pistol formations your entire career, but he seems to have made a successful transition, especially with his play fakes. It proves the more you practice something that is foreign, the easier and more natural it becomes.

Half of Kizer’s 32 snaps (all 16 were in the first three series) in the first half against Tampa Bay were taken under center and produced 164 total yards. But Jackson dialed up six straight plays from the shotgun in the last two series of the half, gaining just 11 yards and ending in three-and-outs.

Kizer also didn’t get flustered when two of his early drives began at the 3 and the 1, the first of which resulted in the Parkey field goal; the second was stopped by a pick on a deflected pass after nine plays. A third started at the Cleveland 9 ended after three plays.

Right now, though, it’s way too early to say Kizer has the ”it” factor. But it certainly is not too early to find out.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Jackson's brazen decision

Browns coach Hue Jackson has decided to punt the 2017 season.

The Browns coach did so the moment Wednesday he all but declared DeShone Kizer his club's starting quarterback when it opens the regular season at home Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Nominating the rookie to start Saturday night’s “dress rehearsal” exhibition against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers means the kid will become the 27th different starting quarterback for this franchise since 1999.

Whoever starts that game on the exhibition schedule is traditionally a virtual certainty to begin the regular season in command of the offensive huddle.

In explaining his choice of Kizer over Brock Osweiler, Jackson said, “Development is so important for a young quarterback. This is the next step he needs to take and he deserves this opportunity.

“We are very excited about seeing DeShone in the role of starter for this week, as he is certainly positioning himself to earn the starting job heading into the regular season.”

The only thing that could possibly change that scenario is a total Kizer meltdown against the Bucs. Unless he goes out and sets off the mother of all stink bombs, he has officially won the competition.

So what do I mean by Jackson punting the season? By starting Kizer, he signals that this likely will be a long season fraught with peril because he is placing the club’s welfare in the hands of an unknown quantity. Losing will be commonplace.

With the veteran Osweiler, he had a shot – not as long as with Kizer – at looking respectable, the tall quarterback’s lackluster exhibition performances notwithstanding.

Starting a rookie quarterback in the National Football League is risky at best. But when that quarterback is clearly not ready, that is asking for a whole bunch of trouble. Even though it’s a popular choice with the fans, Jackson has to know that.

This very well might be a case of the Browns having nothing to lose by starting the kid. Can it be any worse than last season’s 1-15 embarrassment? If the answer is no, then why not go with him? It’s like on-the-job training, only this time it’s real, not an exhibition game.

The decision admittedly ratchets up the intrigue that much more for the 2017 season. Kizer, who arrived with the reputation of thrilling you one minute and breaking your heart the next, is the X factor, the unknown dipping his feet into water that might be a little too deep for him right now.

There is no question that what he sees in the regular season will in no way resemble what he is seeing now. Unless he has an extraordinarily rapid learning curve, chances are he will be swallowed up and spit out in a hurry. How he reacts will be telling.

The Browns’ first four games are against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. That’s a minefield with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton on the docket, not to mention three pretty good defenses.

Three of the four are division opponents; two of them manhandle the Browns on an annual basis. The Browns are 27-82 against the Steelers, (6-31) Ravens (9-27) and Bengals (12-24) since 1999.

Choosing Kizer over Osweiler is simply a case of Jackson falling in love with what Kizer brings physically to the table. Quarterbacks coach David Lee, who might have supplied the necessary input to help Jackson’s decision, agrees wholeheartedly.

“What I see in him is a big, strong guy, which is defined in this division by (Pittsburgh’s) Ben (Roethlisberger) and by (Baltimore’s) Joe Flacco and this kid is in that mold,” Lee gushes. “He is 6-4¾, he’s got a 10-inch hand, he‘s smart, he can run, he can move. . . . He’s got a great future.”

By picking Kizer, Jackson bravely puts his reputation as a quarterback whisperer squarely on the line. “I’ve done this long enough in my career and know what it looks like and what it feels like and what it should be,” he said. “I feel pretty good about it.” Whistling past the graveyard?

Kizer’s meteoric rise to starting status flies in the face of those who believe he isn’t nearly ready to face the NFL grind. That doesn’t seem to bother Jackson. Right now, his biggest concern should be how the rest of the offense is going to handle being asked to trust a wet-behind-the-ears kid who has no idea what lies ahead.

Of all the teams to break in a raw rookie against, the two you don’t want to face are exactly whom the Browns will face right out of the chute. The Steelers and Ravens are past masters at making life miserable for Cleveland quarterbacks since the return in 1999.

Jackson is relying on an age-old blueprint for winning in making his choice. “If we can play good defense and score some points on offense, I really and truly believe in the National Football League that’s the formula for victories,” he said. A strong running game helps, too.

A perfect example of that is the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who won the Super Bowl with the spectacularly mediocre Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Great defense, terrific running game and Dilfer’s ability to minimize his mistakes that season proved valuable in hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

This Browns team is nowhere near as strong on defense as that Ravens club. At least not yet. And it is not in the same neighborhood as that Ravens team with regard to the ground game.

As for Osweiler, he has to wonder if his NFL future lies somewhere other than in Cleveland. He has no one to blame but himself for his dismal play in the first two exhibitions.

His only salvation is the club keeps him, Kizer flames out and Jackson has no recourse but to install him as the starter. I can’t see the coach elevating Cody Kessler over him. If he does, that further amplifies the notion that the coach, indeed, is punting this season.

There is a great deal more to quarterbacking than merely handing off or dropping back to throw. The game is played as much, if not more, between the ears as it is with other parts of the body.

There’s calling the correct play. There’s recognition of what the opponent is planning on doing on defense and calling an audible if necessary. Do they show blitz? Are they overloaded on one side? Where are the safeties? Where are the weak spots to exploit? Where can I maximize what I’m seeing? Don’t forget the snap count.

On pass plays, protection calls by the quarterback are the most important part of the play. Calling it incorrectly can mean the difference between a completed pass, an interception or a sack.

Factor in that quarterbacks in the NFL have to make snap decisions all the time with precious little room to be wrong. There are so many different elements that can disrupt the flow of an offense.

Sticking in a raw rookie, especially one who experienced a tough season last year at the college level, tempts fate. Even now, Kizer still looks somewhat uncomfortable lining up under center. But this is the route Jackson has chosen. How Kizer performs will impact him directly.

It’s great that Kizer can laser a pass on an 18-yard out. It’s great that he has the wheels to make something out of nothing. And it’s great he breathes fresh air into a franchise that yearns for it.

But he’s a raw rookie. That can’t be stated enough.

So what? It has happened many times before with a variety of results, mostly negative. There are exceptions, of course. Russell Wilson, for instance, won the job in Seattle as a rookie. Went to two Super Bowls. Won one. Turned the Seahawks into a perennial contender.

Then there is the case of another heralded rookie quarterback back in 1989 who started the season for his team and went 0-11. The team: The Dallas Cowboys, who finished 1-15 that season. The quarterback: Troy Aikman, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

This is not to say this is the beginning of a Hall of Fame career for Kizer. Just one decision that could turn out to be one made for the wrong reasons.

So was it the correct decision? I’ll let you know by Dec. 31.
*       *       *
One other fact, this one concerning season openers: The Browns since 1999 have won just one opener – a 20-3 victory against the Ravens at home in 2004 – and lost an NFL record 12 straight openers. They are 1-13 at home in first games.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Browns-Giants leftovers

D-Day for Hue Jackson is Wednesday. At least that's what he said following the Browns’ 10-6 exhibition victory over the New York Giants Monday night.

So who will it be at quarterback in the season opener, coach, DeShone Kizer or Brock Osweiler?

It’s an interesting conundrum for the Browns head coach in that he has to choose between a young veteran in Osweiler and a raw rookie in Kizer. A distinct contrast to say the least.

Go with the quarterback who has been more productive thus far in the exhibition season or the one who seems to be easing his way toward the regular-season opener against Pittsburgh on Sept. 10? A distinct contrast indeed.

There is no question the raw rookie has been the better performer and under different circumstances would be a slam-dunk choice to open against the Steelers.

But Jackson has been around long enough to know that choosing Kizer over Osweiler is a risk that might please Browns fans clamoring for him to do so, but might be harmful in the end run.

There are few things more distasteful to a football coach than playing someone who is clearly not ready for the big time and ruining what otherwise might be a successful career.

The Browns did that back in 1999 when rookie Tim Couch, who definitely was not ready to be a starting quarterback in the National Football League, was thrust into the spotlight in game two of that first season back from a forced three-year absence.

He was so not ready, but the thinking back then was he would learn on the job. Long story short, he didn’t.

Couch was out of football after five seasons, battered, bruised and ruined (from a football standpoint) because he was hurled into the inferno way too early and suffered greatly as a result.

He was sacked 166 times in his brief NFL career during which he threw more interceptions (67) than touchdown passes (64), completed just 59.8% of his passes and won only 22 of his 59 starts.

Now Jackson knows Kizer, like Couch in 1999, is not ready to become a starting quarterback in the NFL despite his nice showing in the first two exhibitions. The regular season is an entirely different animal.

The speed and pace of the game is ratcheted up tremendously and makes the games now being played seem as though they are in slow motion. Osweiler, who has been exquisitely mediocre thus far, has been there and knows the difference.

The guess here is Osweiler will be Jackson’s unpopular (with the fans) choice to start against the Steelers, but will be attached to a very, very short leash. It will be his job to lose and if he doesn’t step up his game quickly, he will lose it.

The thinking being if the offense continues to stagger under Osweiler’s guidance when the games become meaningful, Jackson might as well punt the season and see what the rookie can do. What have they got to lose after booking 1-15 last season?

Some would argue that comparing Kizer to Couch is not fair. Couch had an average arm; Kizer’s arm is a bazooka. Couch was below average as a runner. Kizer is much more athletic and makes plays with his legs.

Kizer’s chance will come. It’s foolish and unrealistic to think Osweiler will come in right away and be so successful, the rookie will spend most of the season learning from the sideline.

All that awaits now is the ultimate decision by Jackson, whose further employment by the Browns very well might depend on what that is.
*       *       *
Jackson is so madly in love with pre-snap shifts on offense, it seems as though the Browns do it on almost every play. Considering the relative lack of execution after all the shifts, maybe it’s time to at least think about dumbing down the offense.

In order to be successful with all the shifting, and the Browns certainly haven’t been thus far, perhaps it’s time to make certain the offense executes the basic fundamentals of the game first before factoring in all the sophistication.

If the whole idea of multiple shifts is to confuse opposing defenses, it doesn’t seem to be working. Didn’t work last season. In the two exhibition victories, the Browns have racked up only 554 yards of offense and just 30 points.

But it sure was nice to see Jackson follow through on his promise to balance the offense in the Giants game. Four Browns quarterbacks attempted 31 passes and handed off 31 times.
*       *       *
It is very apparent defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ goal this season is to give every defender on the field at least one crack a game to blitz. It sure seemed that way when he sent linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties at the quarterback against the Giants.

He will get burned on occasion with veteran quarterbacks who recognize the blitz in advance and deliver the ball quickly to hot receivers. But more often than not, his gambles will eventually pay off in interceptions or sacks.

As a result, count on the Browns easily bettering their 26-sack total last season and winding up with more than last season’s 10 interceptions.
*       *       *
Could it be the Browns have too many quality defensive linemen and are showcasing veteran Desmond Bryant? What other reason can explain why he was playing defensive tackle with the third teamers late in the Giants victory?

It was thought Bryant, the 31-year-old, eight-year veteran who missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, was a strong candidate to play opposite Danny Shelton in the new 4-3 look.

But the emergence of free agent Trevon Coley and rookies Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley, along with veteran Jamie Meder, might possibly signal Bryant’s departure after four seasons with the club. If the rookies are not deemed ready yet, he probably stays. He wound up with five tackles against the Giants, three solo.

(Update: Bryant was released shortly after this was posted.)
*       *       *
With Isaiah Crowell sitting out the game, with a groin problem, rookie running back Matthew Dayes logged significant playing time following Duke Johnson Jr. and had  10 touches (five pass receptions) for 44 yards.

Playing with a chip on his shoulder after being the penultimate player chosen in the college football draft, the 5-8, 205-pounder was a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield in addition to being elusive and hard to bring down.

He could factor into some passing situations when Johnson either flanks out wide or lines up in the slot and provide another possible target for the quarterback.
*       *       *
Of Kizer’s 31 snaps, 12 were from under center, including the first play of each of his four series, and all resulted in positive plays, the longest of which was a 20-yard completion to wide receiver Corey Coleman.

The more he plays under center, the more comfortable he becomes. And he is athletic enough to some day line up that way and not have to think about how he moves his feet and sets up to pass.
*       *       *
Loved the misdirection pass play to fullback Dan Vitale that led to the evening’s lone touchdown. It was second and seven at the New York following Jason McCourty’s strip of Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard late in the second quarter with the Giants clinging to a 3-0 lead.

The execution was perfect as the entire flow at the snap was to the strong side of the formation. Kizer, in shotgun formation, took a few steps in that direction then pivoted back to the weak side and hit Vitale in the left flat. The fullback rambled 16 yards to the Giants 9. Three plays later, Kizer muscled into the end zone.
*       *       *
Quick memo to Jackson: Duke Johnson Jr. is not a between-the-tackles runner. He is a slasher, a cutback runner. That's where he gains most of his ground yardage. Crowell is your best bet up the middle. 
*       *       *
Finally . . . The Browns owned the ball for 35 minutes, mostly because the defense did not waste much time shutting down the New York offense and getting off the field. . . . Kizer led the club in rushing with 35 yards on five carries, three of which were designed. That’s flirting with danger. . . . Cody Kessler was perfect on seven throws during his three series, but botched a fourth-quarter handoff to Terrence Magee at the Cleveland 16 that resulted in a Giants recovery. One play later, the defense got it back for Kessler when linebacker Dominique Alexander recovered a Wayne Gallman fumble at the Cleveland 8. . . . Nine penalties, 70 yards. Too many. . . . Fourteen different receivers caught the Browns’ 22 completed passes – six wide receivers, four running backs and four tight ends.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Only one big decision left

The clock is ticking. Hue Jackson has a decision to make. He has until Saturday to make it.

In actuality, he most likely will make it sooner because preparations for the regular season for the Browns begin Tuesday morning in Berea.

Jackson and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have a pretty good idea who the starting units will be on both sides of the football. Except for the most important position of them all.


When the Browns take the field Saturday evening in Tampa for exhibition game No. 3 (the dress rehearsal game), fans will know who Jackson’s starting quarterback is.

The quarterback in the dress-rehearsal game against the Buccaneers is always the guy who lines up under center for the regular-season opener, in this case against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home on Sept. 10.

After Monday night’s 10-6 victory over the New York Giants in the second exhibition, it’s anybody’s guess who wins the most important position competition on the team.

Will it be Brock Osweiler, who looked pedestrian in the victory? Or will it be DeShone Kizer, the only quarterback of the evening who put points on the board against the Giants?

Osweiler has done nothing to cause Jackson to make a no-brainer decision and name him straight out based solely on being a veteran of the National Football League wars. Kizer, on the other hand, has simply outplayed the veteran in the first two games.

Jackson has to decide whether to throw the raw rookie into the cauldron against the Steelers in his first NFL game and risk exposing him to a Pittsburgh defense that has been known to devour rookie quarterbacks.

The quickest way to shatter any kind of confidence that has been built up by a rookie in exhibition season is to throw him into the fire when he is not clearly ready. And that is what Jackson has to be thinking.

Only he knows what he is going to do and for the time being, he’s not saying. The only certainty is it won’t be Cody Kessler or Kevin Hogan.

“We’ll see,” Jackson coyly told the media after the game. “I think I’ve seen enough. I’ve done this long enough in my career and know what it feels like and what it should be.” He later added, “I kind of want to put this thing to bed by Wednesday. I kind of want to say, ‘Here is what we’re doing.’”

Osweiler played only two series against the Giants, completing six of eight passes for 25 yards and an interception caused by a deflected pass attempt deep in New York territory. The Browns gained only 29 net yards in 12 plays with him.

Kizer helmed the huddle for 31 plays in four series, completing eight of 13 passes for 74 yards and rushing five times (thrice on designed plays) for 35 yards and the lone touchdown of the game. He was also sacked twice.

It’s a tug of war between Jackson’s ears. On the one hand, many fans want to see Kizer open up the season. Why not? What do the Browns have to lose besides a game by starting the kid? What harm would it do?

Given Osweiler’s extremely mediocre performances in the first two exhibitions, it might be hard for Jackson to reasonably explain to the fans why Kizer starts the season wearing a turnaround baseball cap.

One thing is certain, however. Jackson has nothing about which to worry on the defensive side of the ball. Based on the first two exhibitions, it appears the Browns finally have a defense. It definitely was the star of Monday night’s game.

Besides limiting the Giants to just 13 first downs, 65 yards on the ground and 212 total yards, it set up the game’s only touchdown late in the second quarter.

Kizer scored from a yard out five plays after cornerback Jason McCourty stripped New York wide receiver Sterling Shepard of the ball after a completed pass at the Giants 28 late in the second quarter.

The rookie opened up the second half by directing a 15-play, 68-yard drive, prolonged by a fortuitous penalty when a defensive hold nullified an interception, ultimately resulted in a 39-yard field goal by rookie Zane Gonzalez.

Jackson had Kizer run more plays under center in an effort to get him feeling more comfortable in that formation. He looked better in his deep drops than in the first exhibition.

Williams, who entertained the sparse crowd – many fans were disguised as seats – with a wide variety of blitzes, served notice the Cleveland defense this season should not be taken for granted.

Until the latter stages of the game, when the Browns played some prevent in an effort to keep the clock moving, the New York offense had problems developing any kind of rhythm.

The starters blunted the running game, made wide receivers work hard to get open and blanketed running backs coming out of the backfield on designed swing passes and checkdown passes.

Rookie safety Jabrill Peppers made his starting debut and seemed to be all over the field, from the deep secondary to sneaking up to the line of scrimmage on occasion. He wound up with four tackles, three solo. Oh, and he had punt returns of 31 and 36 yards (the latter wiped out by a hold).

Joe Schobert continued his solid play at middle linebacker with an occasional trip to defensive end, from where he registered one of the Browns’ two sacks; Myles Garrett had the other.

Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who seems to enjoy playing for Williams, provided the hit of the game on the second play of the second quarter, leveling Giants star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after an 18-yard reception.

Boddy-Calhoun’s shoulder appeared to cave in the outside of Beckham’s left knee on impact. The wideout limped off the field and did not return. The hit was deemed clean by ESPN commentators at the half.

The Giants offense began the game with a pair of three-and-outs resulting in minus-3 net yards. Eli Manning’s five series produced just five first downs, a meager 87 total yards and a Mike Nugent field goal.

The tackling by the Browns was sure and swift until the latter stages of the game when those who won’t make the final cut had a few problems.

Williams’ coup de grace was a series of jailbreak blitzes on the final Giants possession of the evening deep in their own territory. They resulted in three incomplete passes because quarterback Josh Johnson unloaded the ball before he wanted to.

Now that the defense seems to be on its way to recovering from the mess that was last season, all that remains now is who is going to direct an offense that has yet to scare anyone.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pound the ball; stop the run

What to watch for when the Browns welcome the New York Giants and a national television audience for exhibition game No. 2 Monday night:

On the offensive side of the football, look for coach Hue Jackson to try and improve the ground game, something he failed to do in the exhibition opening victory over New Orleans.

If you say you are going to do something – and Jackson made it clear in the run-up to training camp and in camp itself that the run game would be emphasized – then do it. Either Jackson isn’t listening to himself or he has a short memory.

Considering offensive tackle Joe Thomas (rest) and left guard Joel Bitonio (knee problems) will not suit up against the Giants, it will be interesting to see how the head coach/offensive coordinator calls the game with regard to the infantry aspect of the offense.

Chances are pretty good with a weaker left side of the line and second-year man Shon Coleman at right tackle, it is possible working on the ground game very well might have to wait until game three down in Tampa against the Buccaneers.

That ostensibly means the first two games of the exhibition season will virtually ignore a vital part of the offense with only the so-called dress rehearsal game left in Florida.

That means quarterbacks Brock Osweiler, DeShone Kizer and Cody Kessler had better practice long and hard on their dropbacks because that’s what they’ll be doing on a majority of plays against the Giants because the ground game isn’t nearly ready to do damage to opposing defenses.

Jackson called a pass on 42 of the club’s 64 plays against the Saints, which is not even close to the pass/run ratio he seeks this season. It’s unclear what that ratio is. Last season’s was nearly 65% pass to 35% run.

That, of course, must change this season. And Jackson has only one more game (not including the Giants game) to get the running game untracked because the regular season’s first two games are against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, teams with notable strong defenses against the run.

From the looks of the situation right now, the likelihood of that eventuating is not encouraging.

If the ground game disappears, sustained drives also disappear. Losing the time of possession game means one thing: The defense will see more playing time than coordinator Gregg Williams wants.

Last season, the defense was on the field for nearly 33 minutes a game for the same reason that stat might be repeated this season. The pass-happy – and more often than not pass-failure – game shortened drives and repeatedly brought the defense back on the field and wore it down as the game progressed.

It also means punter Britton Colquitt more than likely will earn his salary again this season. The punter might have been the most effective player on the team last season, dropping 22 of his 83 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with only two touchbacks and no blocks.

Now if Williams’ bellicose defense is stout and opportunistic and becomes a unit that repeatedly gets the ball back for the offense and shortens the field, that’s an entirely different story.

The Browns finished 29th in the National Football League in turnover ratio at minus-12 last season because the defense had only 13 takeaways in poor support of a bumbling offense. Of the 13, only three were fumble recoveries.

Williams coached the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams defense the last three seasons, recording 25 takeaways (13 interception) in 2014, 26 takeaways (half of them interceptions) in 2015 and 18 takeaways last season (10 picks).

His refreshing new approach to defense in Cleveland produced five sacks last week against the Saints with pressure arriving from just about everywhere. And this is with a mostly vanilla approach. The sophisticated stuff arrives beginning with the Steelers game.

The run defense, which has plagued this franchise since 1999, limited the Saints to just 82 yards on the ground. That, in and of itself, is a story even though it was a meaningless game. A Cleveland defense holding any team to less than 100 yards is a feat.

In the still-trying-very-hard-to-forget 1-15 record the Browns posted last season, the defense held the opposition under 100 yards only four times and under 80 yards just twice.

Williams’ defense with the Rams the last three seasons produced 22 games holding the opposing team under 100 yards on the ground, including 10 last season with a 4-12 team. The Cleveland defense over the last three seasons has held the opposition under 100 running yards a paltry 12 times, just twice under 50 yards.

Based strictly on what fans saw against the Saints and Williams’ out-there bravado and swagger with regard to his side of the football, look for a swarming-to-the-ball party on just about every play against the Giants.

Members of this very young defense have bought into his infectious style. Unlike last season’s defense, this one plays to the whistle. That might sound unfair until you realize the 2016 Cleveland defense surrendered 28 points a game.

The only weakness in the defense this season is the secondary, but a stronger pass rush should help alleviate many of the problems that hampered the defensive backfield last season. Arriving at the quarterback quicker and with more attitude should provide members of the secondary with many more opportunities for interceptions.

With the first-team defense scheduled to play well into the second quarter, keep an eye on how often Williams brings pressure from a variety of areas on the field. At first blush, he appears to be a master at disguising blitzes.

Also keep an eye on the defensive line, which will be without tackle Danny Shelton (out with a knee) for the first time since he arrived a couple of years ago. Fans will get an idea of just how deep that unit is –or isn’t – in his absence.

The litmus test against the Giants will be provided by 36-year-old quarterback Eli Manning, 33-year-old wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham Jr., arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A black cloud hovereth

Injuries, as any football coach will tell you, are part of the game. And right now, Browns coach Hue Jackson is doing his best to get his team ready for the regular season in spite of injuries to two key members of the team.

Both play in the trenches, that vital area closest to the football where supremacy arguably determines who wins and loses games.

Joel Bitonio and Danny Shelton are extremely important parts of the units that make a living in those trenches and knee injuries to both men in recent days will have an impact on the beginning of the 2017 season in just a few weeks.

Bitonio is an important cog on the offensive line. And it is anticipated that Shelton, after spending his first two seasons in the National Football League as a nose tackle, will benefit from a switch to Gregg Williams’ hyper-aggressive 4-3 scheme on defense.

The key to any successful offensive line in football is the ability – and good fortune – to stay healthy. This unit more than any other relies heavily on each other. It is truly a group effort up front.

So when Bitonio was scratched for the second exhibition game Monday night at home against the New York Giants, red flags are prepared. Ditto for Shelton. More on him later.

Bitonio has played in only 15 games the last two seasons due to multiple injuries and is coming off Lisfranc surgery on one of his knees. Staying healthy for 16 games is a must for the Browns’ offensive line.

An injury-plagued Bitonio is of absolutely no use to the club. Never knowing when he will be healthy enough to play is a warning sign that trouble continuously lurks around the corner.

When healthy, Bitonio is one of the best left guards in the NFL. He is strong in pass protection and has the athleticism to get out in front of running backs and reach the second level in the ground game.

When he is not in uniform because of another injury, the Cleveland offense suffers. It’s not just Bitonio who makes the ground game hum. It takes five men to make it work.

Those five behemoths up front are fragile in a way. Cohesion and rhythm are their best friends. When an offensive line clicks, it means everyone is pulling his weight simultaneously. One breakdown among those five guys on any given play can destroy it. One weak link and the entire line breaks down.

Right now, Jackson is counting on left tackle Joe Thomas, Bitonio, center JC Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Shon Coleman to provide the heavy work for the skilled players.

Even if Bitonio and Tretter, who has also had health issues in his brief NFL career, make it through all 16 regular-season games, a possible weak link exists with Coleman, who appears to have bested Cameron Erving for the starting job.

Coleman is the X factor. No one knows what to expect from the second-year man from Auburn. He is the blank canvas the Browns hope will turn into a handsome picture.

But if Bitonio’s most recent injury is a precursor to the regular season, all bets are off regarding the running game, which Jackson said he would emphasize this season. There is not enough quality depth along the offensive line to compensate for his loss over a prolonged period of time.

Shelton, meanwhile, injured a knee in practice Wednesday and, according to an ESPN report, will miss anywhere from three to six weeks.

If the report is true, that means it is entirely possible the third-year man is iffy, at best, to start the regular season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10 at home. He is officially listed as week-to-week.

The Browns are downplaying the seriousness of the injury, the extent of which has not been identified. “He has a knee,” said coach Hue Jackson, “and like the other guys, nothing I think is way over the top. . . . We’ll get Danny back as soon as we can.”

If the injury is more serious than Jackson is letting on, Shelton will definitely miss Monday night’s exhibition date with the Giants if not the rest of the exhibition season.

Shelton, who totes 335 pounds on those knees, was AWOL in the exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, failing to make the stats sheet. He was clearly a non-factor for the little time he was on the field.

His absence moves veteran Jamie Meder and rookies Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley and Trevon Coley up the depth chart at one of the deepest positions on the team. Coley, a free-agent pickup, has been the biggest surprise in training camp and might be rewarded with a starting job next to Desmond Bryant.

That, of course, is if the injury bug doesn’t bite him.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It’s Osweiler

It’s all but officially decided. Say hello, Browns fans, to your new quarterback.

When coach Hue Jackson Wednesday named Brock Osweiler as the starter Monday night against the invading New York Giants in exhibition game No. 2, it pretty much ended rampant speculation that rookie DeShone Kizer had a shot at starting the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The quarterback many thought was nothing more than an expensive way for the Browns (taking Osweiler’s $16 million contract off the Houston Texans’ payroll) to obtain another second-round selection in the next college draft will be the team’s opening-day quarterback against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10.

The club has not made an official announcement to that effect. That most likely will arrive within days (if not sooner) following the third exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the so-called dress rehearsal game, on Aug.  26.

Barring any unforeseen developments, such as an injury or the team shockingly trading him, the lanky kid from Kalispell, Mont., and Arizona State University will become the 27th starting quarterback for the team since 1999. And, by the way, the tallest ever at 6-7.

Jackson begged to differ with those who surmise Osweiler has won the quarterback competition. “It (starting the Giants exhibition) doesn’t mean anything for the regular season,” he argued. “This is (for) this game.” Whatever you say, coach. Tell that to your left tackle.

“Now I could be totally wrong,” Joe Thomas told the media. “I might be going out on a limb here, but I think they’re grooming Brock to be the starter in week one based on what I’ve seen.”

The only way Kizer had any chance of facing the Steelers was starting against the Giants. The situation was perfect. It is a home game in front of a friendly crowd and he would be working with the first team.

It would have given Jackson the opportunity to see his prize rookie in a situation that would be the closest to mirroring a regular-season game. That’s not going to happen now unless he starts Kizer, sans starters, in the ultra meaningless fourth exhibition in Chicago.

Kizer will take over for Osweiler against the Giants probably sometime either midway through or late in the second quarter before turning the huddle over to Cody Kessler and maybe Kevin Hogan in the second half.

Unless Jackson wants to stretch his starters into the second half, chances are Kizer will work with second and third stringers. All of which means he is Jackson’s choice to back up Osweiler in the regular season.

Maybe that’s because the coach doesn’t believe Kizer is ready to start against live fire once the meaningful games begin, preferring the much more experienced Osweiler, especially against a team like the Steelers.

Throwing the rookie into that cauldron right out of the chute could be harmful since he has not seen the real speed of the game – it ratchets up significantly – when money is on the line.

Kizer says the game has slowed up for him in training camp. Maybe it has relatively speaking. But he has no idea what lies ahead. Jackson does and, after witnessing and charting Kizer’s progress, apparently has decided the kid’s starting debut in the regular season will have to wait. Smart move.

Osweiler, in the meantime, hasn’t exactly wowed Jackson and the coaching staff in training camp, but the coach cannot ignore his 21 National Football League starts in the last two seasons and 13-8 record as a starter. That’s the big difference.

He has a strong arm, knows how to command a huddle and is the only quarterback in camp comfortable lining up under center. Considering the rugged start of the schedule (home to Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, at Indianapolis and home to Cincinnati), Jackson made the wisest choice in choosing him.

The fact he is still on the roster is somewhat of an upset since the Texans surrendered the second rounder – the Browns now have three selections in that round – in next year’s draft as a reward for taking Osweiler’s massive contract for this season off their hands.

After a contentious 2016 season with the Texans, just about everyone believed he wasn’t long for Cleveland after the trade. But when Browns’ front office could not swing a deal to dump him and his salary, he just hung around.

He kept his mouth shut, worked hard on the field and in the classroom and now here he is the starting quarterback. He did everything the right way and has reaped the rewards.

Kessler, favored by many observers to win the starting job at the onset of training camp, disappointed with an uneven performance and most likely will end up as the third quarterback with Hogan, if he clears waivers, back on the practice squad.

For right now, Osweiler is THE MAN.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Crowell not worth breaking the bank . . . yet

So Isaiah Crowell wants to be paid like Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, on whom the Falcons recently lavished a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension that included a $15 million signing bonus and $22 million guaranteed.

The Browns running back is hoping to use Freeman’s new deal as a standard bearer in his quest to extract a similar – if not better – deal from the Browns, who have used him as their feature back the last two seasons.

Citing the Freeman deal as a market changer, Crowell can point to only one statistic as evidence he belongs on the same plateau from a performance standpoint. Both men averaged 4.8 yards a carry last season.

The big difference? The Falcons went to the Super Bowl. The Browns finished 1-15.

There are other statistics where the two men differ that point where Crowell’s argument falls apart. As late-night talk show host Seth Meyers would say, “For that, it’s time for a closer look.”

Both men entered the National Football League in 2014; Freeman was a fifth-round selection from Florida State in the college draft, Crowell was signed as a free agent out of Alabama State after leaving the University of Georgia due to off-the-field problems.

Crowell, 10 months younger than Freeman, is by far the larger of the two, three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier at 5-11, 225 pounds. The only other commonality is both men have started 29 games in the NFL.

There are some neighborhood similarities. For example, Crowell has gained 2,265 career yards on the ground (607 as a rookie); Freeman stands at 2,383 (only 248 as a rookie). And each man has fumbled the football five times and lost four.

But that is where the similarities end.

Breaking down the last two seasons further shows Freeman has run for 2,135 yards; Crowell has accumulated 1,658, a difference of 477 yards.

Before we dive into more stats, take into consideration it should be pointed out Freeman plays for a team with a much better quarterback (Matt Ryan) and an offensive line (strengthened last season with the addition of center Alex Mack) that ranks as one of the best in the NFL.

Freeman, who pretty much served as a backup to Steven Jackson in his rookie season, has put up consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since then with that supporting cast.

Crowell, who can become a free agent next year, has yet to post a 1,000-yard season, although he came close with a 952-yard effort last season working behind arguably one of the worst offensive lines in the league.

Freeman also is much better when the ball is thrown to him, whereas Crowell was almost forgotten in that aspect of the game in his first two seasons. Freeman has caught 157 passes for 1,265 yards; Crowell has only 68 grabs (40 last season) for 588 yards.

Freeman is also a more consistent performer; Crowell is more hit and miss.

A perfect example was Crowell’s performance last season. He bolted out of the gate with 392 yards in his first four games (6.46 yards a carry) to rank among the league leaders.

Then he virtually disappeared the next eight games. That’s half the schedule. From game five through game 12, he ran for only 211 yards on a meager 84 carries, an average of just 2.5 yards a pop.

Freeman has never had an eight-game stretch like that. He has also booked seven 100-yard games, including three in a row in 2015. Crowell has five.

More than half of Crowell’s 952 yards (518) last season were gained in four of the 16 games. All were for 100 yards or more. And if it hadn’t been for a 152-yard game in the season finale in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rested many of their starters, his final stats would have been less impressive.

Part of the blame can be dropped on the desk of head coach Hue Jackson, whose offense was so pass heavy, Crowell never really had the opportunity to display his talents as a runner. Only 84 carries in eight games as the main running back, including just 23 over a three-game span? What in the world was Jackson thinking?

And therein lies another problem. Crowell has carried the ball 20 times in a game only once in his career, a 145-yard effort in a 2015 victory over San Francisco. Freeman has logged nine games with 20 or more carries.

Why doesn’t Crowell get the rock more often? Well, he just might this season. Jackson has pledged – no, make that stated – his goal this season is to emphasize the run more. A 42-22 pass-to-run ratio in the opening exhibition is not exactly a step in that direction.

If you haven’t been bored to tears yet with all the stats, here’s one more significant one. Freeman has scored 27 touchdowns the last two seasons, 22 on the ground. Crowell has scored only 12 times in the last two seasons, 11 on the ground, after scoring eight as a rookie.

So if Crowell’s representatives in negotiations point out the 4.8-yard average the two men posted as evidence they are on the same level from a salary standpoint, it would appear playing that game falls short in lieu of the last two seasons.

Now if Jackson steps up and, indeed, makes Crowell a large part of his offense – much like Freeman is down in Atlanta – and makes certain he gets at least 20 carries a game on a consistent basis, not to mention being part of the passing game, then maybe the big back would deserve Freeman money.

Crowell, making $2.75 million this season after receiving a second-round tender by the Browns, considers himself a top tier running back. Is he as good as, say, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson, DeMarco Murray, Jordan Howard or Jay Ajayi? Rhetorical question.

All ranked in the top 10 in rushing last season. Crowell came in 15th. His per-game average of 59.5 yards ranked 18th (Freeman was 12th).

The Falcons obviously believe Freeman is a major part of their offense and rewarded him thusly despite statistics that are not what you might call overwhelming. His contract averages $8.3 million a season should he play long enough to fulfill it.

All that, of course, caught the attention of Crowell, who will be running behind a vastly improved offensive line this season. He believes he should be compensated equally even though the numbers do not add up.

So is Crowell a top tier running back? The stats and inconsistency say no. It will be interesting to see how the Browns view him in the coming weeks and months with regard to furthering his career in Cleveland.

Stay tuned.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Browns-Saints notebook

Brock Osweiler has been around the National Football League enough to know that his poor performance in the Browns’ 20-14 victory over New Orleans Thursday night means very little in the grand scheme of things.

The fortunes of quarterbacking in the NFL can turn so abruptly, all he has to do is remain patient and hope coach Hue Jackson doesn’t read too much into what he accomplished – or didn’t accomplish – in his four series under center.

It wasn’t until the fourth series that he was able to produce a first down and eventually lead a 13-play that eventually petered out at the Saints 3-yard line when he thrice failed to connect in the end zone with wide receiver Kenny Britt.

Should he worry, especially in light of DeShone Kizer’s string performance in the second half? Yeah, probably, given Jackson’s predilection of going with the hot quarterback.

Quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns right now is not anyone’s job to lose because no one has stepped up and taken charge, although a teeny, tiny case can be made for Kizer. No one is a clear-cut favorite at this juncture.

Starting off the game with a pair of three-and-outs and a four-and out with the starters did not exactly win points with the coach. Never mind this was Osweiler’s first time working with the ones. It shouldn’t take four series to get untracked.

The saving grace for Osweiler, who was 6-of-14 for just 42 yards, was his ability to recognize blitzes and avoid sacks. Other than that, it was a flat showing he no doubt hopes merits at least one more shot at winning the job.
*       *       *
Top draft pick Myles Garrett arrived in Cleveland with great fanfare about his ability to play disruptive football. And although he was in for just a few series against the Saints, he more than backed up that contention.

Playing some of the time in what appeared to be a version of the wide-nine defense popularized by the Philadelphia Eagles several years ago. Garrett lined up several yards well to the right of his defensive tackle, creating a difficult blocking angle for the opposing offensive left tackle.

It enabled him to use his quickness and speed to appear in the Saints’ backfield before the offensive tackle could adjust and recover, giving him greater opportunities for a sack or at least disrupt a play,

It looked as though new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams used it only with Garrett on the right side, but it was very effective with the rookie almost relentlessly putting pressure on quarterback Garrett Grayson.

It could be a sign of things to come in Williams’ ultra aggressive style of playing defense. And that defense registered five sacks, seven quarterback hits and numerous hurries.

Garrett also flashed his speed on the second Saints series when running back Alvin Kamara bounced outside after being stopped on a dive play and rambled 22 yards down the right sideline. Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden finally made the stop, but Garrett was right there to finish him off. Impressive.
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Even though the Browns will be playing with three linebackers about 20% of the time this season, it became apparent that Joe Schobert will be the middle backer with a strong performance against the Saints.

It probably relegates Tank Carder, who is outstanding on special teams and was hoping to win the starting MLB job, back to what he does best.

Schobert, who looked out of place at outside linebacker as a rookie after a productive college career as a pass rusher, is new to the position, but sure didn’t look it. He looked very comfortable and seemed to enjoy playing Williams’ upbeat defense, registering a sack, a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss.
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Nate Orchard, another college pass rusher turned linebacker by the Browns last season, is back at defensive end and causing some havoc. He was credited with a pair of tackles, a half a sack (should have been a sack and a half) and a quarterback hit.

Williams now has a vast array of natural pass rushers at his disposal in Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Orchard in addition to a wealth of players in the secondary who love to be part of the coordinator’s many blitz packages.

Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who had two tackles for loss (both on blitzes), seems to be thriving with the new approach to stopping the opposition. The most spectacular hit was on the Saints’ first series of the second half.

On a fourth-and-goal at the Cleveland 2, Boddy-Calhoun came untouched on a corner blitz and dropped wide receiver Tommylee Lewis on a wide receiver sweep for a seven-yard loss. Fans would never have been treated to that last season.
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The Browns forced only one turnover, but it contributed to their first touchdown of the game early in the second quarter. Free-agent tackle Trevon Coley stripped Grayson of the ball and Nassib fell on it at the New Orleans 21.

Cody Kessler took over for Osweiler at quarterback and needed five plays to score, rookie running back Matthew Dayes, showing good vision, running the final yard. The play was designed to go up the middle, which was plugged, but Dayes saw daylight at left tackle and cut it back to score.

Coley, perhaps the biggest surprise on defense in training camp, was in on seven tackles, four of them solo, and racked up one of the club’s sacks. Right now he is outplaying draft picks Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley (out with a broken finger).
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We have already highlighted who looked good. Who didn’t? Let’s start – and end – with offensive, very offensive, tackle Cameron Erving. A little background first.

Erving was a left tackle at Florida State University and was so bad, the Seminoles had to switch him to center, where, it has been said, he played decently enough that the Browns made him a first-round pick a couple of years ago.

He failed to impress anyone on two Cleveland coaching staffs his first two seasons, although given the opportunity to win a regular job. When Alex Mack bolted for Atlanta in free agency last season, he was handed the starting center job. He was so bad there, too, he was replaced by a variety of players.

Favored to win the vacant starting job at right tackle this season, Erving is listed behind Shon Coleman on the depth chart. He started at left tackle Thursday night when Joe Thomas was given the night off.

Erving was flagged for a false start and holding on two of the first three Cleveland plays of the game and was more or less a turnstile on pass plays, getting beat routinely by his man. If he makes the final roster, that will tell you how bad the offensive line depth is this season.
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Rookie safety Jabrill Peppers learned a valuable lesson on his first punt return opportunity late in the opening quarter. For some reason, he signaled for a fair catch with the closest Saints defender 13 yards away.

He immediately realized his error and slammed the ball against his hand in frustration. He later returned a punt for 13 yards and added a 27-yard kickoff return to his evening’s performance on special teams. “I feel like I should have broken both of those,” he said after the game. “Just have to stay on my feet, finish what I start.”

Prediction: Peppers will score at least two touchdowns this season returning kicks and punts.
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Notebook: Big difference this season on defense is more swarming to the football. That’s all on Williams. . . . Defensive tackle Danny Shelton was a huge (pun intended) non-factor. He planted a big zero on the stats sheet. . . . Britt should have had a touchdown in that second-quarter drive that ended on downs. All he had to do was drag his back foot as he was running out of the end zone and he would have had six points. . . . Bad stat: 12 penalties for 72 yards. . . . For some reason Jackson incorporated more pre-snap shifts than usual on offense. . . . Where’s the balance on offense? The Browns ran the ball only 34% of the time. . . . Thirteen players caught at least one of the 22 completed passes. . . . And finally, long snapper Charley Hughlett was the third-leading tackler with three solo tackles. This might be the only time you see Hughlett’s name all season.