Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Incompetence on parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

Monday leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the consistency, argue critics of previous changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A tale of two halves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

Foggy in London

The last time the Browns – the original Browns – played in London, it was an exhibition game against Philadelphia in 1989. Bernie Kosar was the quarterback, Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne were his prime receivers, Eric Metcalf was the main running back and Ozzie Newsome was in the twilight of his career.

The defense featured the likes of Bubba Baker, Clay Matthews Jr., Michael Dean Perry, Mike Johnson, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. That team went into Pittsburgh in the 1989 season opener and drilled the Steelers, 51-0, in Bud Carson’s heading coaching debut.

Kind of makes you feel good to read that, doesn’t it? That’s when football in Cleveland was really football.

The Browns lost that 1989 exhibition to the Eagles, 17-13, at Wembley Stadium, but went on to finish 9-6-1 that season and advance to the AFC title game before losing to the Denver Broncos for the third time in four seasons.

Now that we have completed that brief nostalgic and wistful trip back in time when the Browns were actually a force in the National Football League, we unfortunately return to the present Browns, who are anything but.

The current iteration of the Browns – same name, same colors, far less talent – returns to London as the worst team in the NFL for a Sunday date with the Minnesota Vikings, who own a three-game winning streak with their starting quarterback and running back shelved with injuries.

They arrive looking more like a M*A*S*H unit than a professional football team with 10 players, including six starters, listed on the injury report. That doesn’t include offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who is done for the season with a torn triceps muscle.

Of the 10, the only one ruled out is rookie defensive end Myles Garrett with a concussion. He did not make the trip. Of the nine others, only sparingly used wide receiver Sammie Coates was a full participant in practice.

The Browns are bad enough when they are healthy, but when defensive backs Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty and Jabrill Peppers; defensive linemen Trevon Coley and Larry Ogunjobi; linebackers Jamie Collins and James Burgess; and wide receiver Kenny Britt are either not practicing or limited, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Eight of the names on that list play defense, clearly the side of the ball that has provided fans a modicum of hope the Browns might have a chance at pulling off the biggest upset of the season and ending a losing streak that has reached eight games, seven this season.

Despite the absence of quarterback Sam Bradford, who has missed a large majority of the season with a bum knee, and rookie running back Dalvin Cook (gone for the season with a torn ACL), the Vikings are sitting pretty atop the NFC North Division.

Case Keenum has more than made up for Bradford’s absence with relatively mistake-free football, completing 64% of his passes. He has thrown only five scoring passes and a couple of interceptions in a Pat Shurmur offense that averages 356 yards a game and runs the ball 46% of the time.

Four of Keenum’s scoring passes have gone to wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is back after missing the last two games with a groin injury. Wideout Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph have been Keenum’s go-to receivers in Diggs’ absence.

The last time the Browns faced a backup quarterback was game three at Indianapolis when Jacoby Brissett strafed the Cleveland secondary for 259 yards and led the Colts to three second-quarter touchdowns en route to a 31-28 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score.

After Cook went down in game four, Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray stepped right in and improved the Vikings’ ground game that averaged 108 yards a game before the injury and 147 yards a game since.

The balanced offense makes it difficult for opposing teams to key on one aspect. It should prove a stern test for a Cleveland run defense that has stunned just about everyone around the NFL with its tenacity.

The Cleveland pass rush, however, will be without its best player in Garrett with no appreciable pressure coming from anywhere else along the line. Unless defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up numerous blitzes against an offensive line that has surrendered only nine sacks, Keenum should be clean at the end of the game.

Over the last four games, the Vikings’ defense has allowed only 57 points. To put that in perspective, the Browns have scored just 47 points in their last four games, 14 of them produced by Kevin Hogan, who probably won’t even suit up for this one.

The stingy Minnesota defense allows 17 points a game, has sacked opposing quarterbacks 21 times and limited the opposition to a 27% conversion rate on third down. This might be the best defense the Cleveland offense has faced this season.

DeShone Kizer returns to the huddle again for the umpteenth time this season for the Browns and the rookie had better be mindful of that pass rush, which is led by defensive right end Everson Griffen, who has nine sacks, including at least one in every game.

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem for the Browns. But now that Thomas is gone for the season, Shane Drango draws the assignment at left tackle to halt, or at least slow down, Griffen and end his streak.

He will need a lot of help, which means coach Hue Jackson probably will go with at least two tight ends, perhaps three, with Randall Telfer, the club’s best blocking tight end, staying home to help Drango in the event he has trouble with Griffen.

On paper, this is no contest. One of the best defenses in the NFL against one of the poorest offenses portends the kind of game that could get out of hand early and force Jackson to yo-yo his quarterbacks again. Stand by, Cody Kessler.

Technically, this is not a road game for the Browns, keeping intact their 16-game losing streak away from home. It also signifies the halfway mark of a season that is seriously threatening to be worse than last season’s 1-15 showing.

The Vikings, to the surprise of no one, will take the mystery out of the outcome quickly with early strikes by Keenum to Diggs and Rudolph, while the defense picks off Kizer early for a pick six and drops him four times in the first half.

Jackson ponders switching to Kessler in the second half, but sticks with the rookie because he threw only one interception. Kessler remains tethered to the bench. Bad move.

Kizer is sacked three more times in the second half and fails to reach the red zone all afternoon. A good defense almost always beats a good offense. A bad offense has no chance. Make it:

Vikings 30, Browns 6

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

It’s Kizer . . . again

Well of course DeShone Kizer will have the huddle Sunday when the Browns entertain – after all it is a Cleveland home game – the Minnesota Vikings in London.

Did you really think Hue Jackson would start Cody Kessler against a Vikings defense that averages three sacks a game? A defense that allows a meager 283 yards a game? A defense that is one of the National Football League’s stingiest?

Of course not.

Kizer will put his 0-6 record as a starter on the line despite slithering into Jackson’s doghouse quite innocently late last week after local news video confirmed after Sunday’s 12-9 overtime loss to Tennessee that the rookie was out having a good time early Saturday morning.

It was perceived as lack of dedication for carousing less than 36 hours before the Sunday afternoon home date with the Titans and perhaps reason enough to Jackson to place him in “reset” mode for another week.

Kizer, who added two more interceptions to his already league-leading total, was remorseful when caught. “I’ve learned this was a distraction,” he said after several teammates discussed it with him. The contrition might have led to Jackson’s decision.

The coach also counseled him. “My discussion with DeShone was you have to be careful,” he said. “Decisions you make can affect you. People can see things the wrong way.”

And then a pat of encouragement on the back.

“DeShone is going to grow out of a lot of this,” he said of his 21-year-old quarterback. “He’s working at it. We all saw improvement from him in the first half (against the Titans) until the first (interception). He was doing some really good things and playing well.”

Wait. There’s more.

“He has to make that next jump and take that next step,” the coach said. “How fast can he get there himself? I don’t know at this time.”

That’s because Kizer is consistently inconsistent. Just when you think he gets it, he does something incredibly stupid. But when you stop and think about it, that was his problem at Notre Dame.

That trait caused Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to throw up a caution flag when Kizer declared for the college draft, warning that he was not nearly ready for the NFL. He needed another season to smooth out all the rough spots that plagued his sophomore season.

What Browns coaches and fans are witnessing now is nothing more than an extension of those problems at the college level. He is wildly inaccurate and a candidate just about every time he drops back to throw the football to the wrong team.

As has been proffered here before, Kizer is the kind of quarterback who will thrill you one minute, then break your heart the next.

And yet, Jackson has chosen to stay with him, which is more of an indictment against Kessler than it is an endorsement of Kizer.

For the sake of continuity, though, the coach, now that he has made the decision, must stay with Kizer no matter what happens on the field. No more yanking him out of a game on a whim. That’s not going to accomplish anything. Let him play entire games no matter what the score.

If Kizer is going to learn, it might as well be the hard way. Keep him on the field. Let him learn from his failures. Nothing positive can be accomplished watching from a sideline vantage point.

So was this the right decision? At this point of the season, there is no such thing as a right or wrong decision with regard to who starts at quarterback for the Browns. It’s way too late in the season to label it one way or the other.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

In the two short seasons Hue Jackson has been in the command seat on the field, he has operated the Browns in an autocratic way when it comes to running the offense.

In some ways, he is still living and coaching in the past. If it worked back then, he reasons, it should work now.

That is not, nor has ever been, the way it works.

Football players are different now. The game itself is different now. Adjustments need to be made. Jackson is reluctant to make them. And he is suffering the consequences.

He rigidly believes his system is tried and true and stubbornly forces players on offense to play beyond their capabilities, which is patently unfair. It should be the other way around. Forcing them to play outside their comfort zones rarely results in success.

Since coming to Cleveland, Jackson has had reason to smile after just one of the 23 games he has coached. Time for a memory jog: It was Dec. 24 of last year and the result was a 20-17 home victory over the San Diego Chargers.

When a football team plays that many games over an extended period of time and wins only once, it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to determine there is something very wrong.

Never mind the close losses. A loss is still a loss no matter the closeness of the final score. Just like a victory is still a victory no matter the closeness of the final score.

The players are trying. They really are. If there is one thing you can’t accuse this team of, it’s quitting. At least not yet. Bottom line: They are not talented enough to win games.

The defense has achieved a modicum of success and is clearly the most effective part of this team. The offense, on the other hand, is an unmitigated disaster and the main reason the Browns are still winless.

Fans of any professional football franchise should never have to endure such ineptitude. It is unconscionable that those in charge off the field seem to be meeting this ineptitude with a shoulder shrug.

In essence, they say, “Don’t worry. We’ll get better. Trust us. We’re doing it the right way. Be patient.” Well, the patience has run out. A two-thirds filled home stadium – at least that’s the way it looked on television last Sunday – is mute evidence many fans are fed up.

If Jackson were coaching in just about any other National Football League city and sported a 1-22 record after 23 games, he would have been summarily dismissed long before this with not so much as a "thank you for your services" as he departed.

There are those, on the other hand, who would argue the fault should lie much higher than the coach’s room and that Jackson is doing his best with arguably the worst roster in the NFL from a talent standpoint.

They say he has not been dealt a winning hand or at least a competitive hand. The front office of Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry trashed the roster it inherited a couple of years ago and filled it back up with numbers (bodies?) rather than talent. Quantity trumps quality.

It has cobbled together a team made up of a few free agents and a boatload of players from the last two college drafts whose underperforming contributions add up to a 1-22 record.

The fact Jackson is still around borders on the remarkable. Either that or it is a testament to the belief (not necessarily his) he has a good chance of outlasting the current regime, sticking around when the owners decide to make another change and then benefitting from that change.

That, however, does not address the problem this season. That little conundrum now lies in the laps of the Haslams at the top of the food chain.

If Dee and Jimmy III hold serve in the next couple of weeks, that sends a signal to the paying customers – and Browns Nation as a whole – that the malaise stretches all the way up to their office.

Where is the accountability? The success of any business depends largely on accountability from within. Without it, the chances of being successful diminish exponentially.

Where is the accountability at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.? And why are those accountable for this mess still around?

Now I don’t know much about the business world, but I suspect Haslam, as CEO of Pilot Flying J, would not put up with ineptitude within that company. If he tasks one of his high ranking employees to fix a multitude of company problems and he fixes only one, that person would not be around for long.

It is understandable the Haslams do not want to make yet another front office change. It would be their fourth in five years. But from a business standpoint and for the good and welfare of this franchise for the immediate future, they will have to. And then hope this time they finally get it right.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Monday leftovers

So who starts at quarterback for the Browns when they wind up the first half of the season Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings?

Round and round spins the quarterbacks carousel and where it stops, only Hue Jackson knows.

Based on what the quarterbacks room looks like now, it appears to be a lose-lose situation for Jackson whomever he chooses. The pickings are slimmer than slim. Sort of like choosing the best of the worst trio of quarterbacks in the National Football League.

Does he pluck Kevin Hogan off from the spinning carousel again as he did for the 33-17 disaster in Houston? Or does DeShone Kizer deserve yet another chance despite leading the NFL in intercepted passes?

Then again, there’s Cody Kessler, the quarterback who began training camp back in July as the starter before fading into quarterbacks hell as Kizer, Hogan and Brock Osweiler (remember him?) moved into and out of Jackson’s revolving doghouse.

Add up all their accomplishments in the NFL with regard to their record, sans Osweiler, who is now much more comfortable and undoubtedly much happier in Denver, they are 0-15 as starting quarterbacks. That is what Jackson has to choose from.

Until Sunday’s’12-9 home loss to Tennessee, Kessler was an afterthought. He did not suit up for the first six games of the season.

The only reason he was elevated to backing up Kizer, who started the Titans’ loss after his one-game “reset” period, was because Hogan’s ribs were bruised. Health, it would appear, was the deciding factor,

Kessler was healthy and he knows Jackson’s offense. Only problem there was he was supposed to be strictly a backup in the event Kizer went down. Didn’t quite turn out that way, Jackson yanking the rookie for ineffective quarterbacking one series into the second half.

Kessler wasn’t exactly lights out and caught the Kizer interception bug once, but the offense did look more under control, comparatively speaking, when he had the huddle.

So who (whom?) does Jackson choose? Who becomes the next beneficiary of one of his predictable and stodgy game plans? Who will have the opportunity to show Londoners what bad football really looks like? (Ooops. Too late. They already saw that a few days ago when the Los Angeles Rams shut out the Arizona Cardinals.)

It is very possible Jackson might require a coin to make this important decision. Chances are good that no matter who gets the nod, it will not come as a surprise to anyone who follows this team.

It has become abundantly clear Kizer is on a leash that stretches between the sideline and huddle and probably feels like a bungee cord to him. The kid has to be so confused now, he has no idea what to expect from his coach with nine games left in the season.

It is time to put down the quarterbacks yo-yo, unplug the quarterbacks carousel and decide once and for all who the starting quarterback will be for those nine games. Then play him for the remainder of the season no matter how poorly he performs or until he gets hurt.

Playing dartboard quarterbacks is harmful to the well being, such as it is, of the offense. It makes absolutely no sense.

Kizer, of course, has the most experience this season. But after time and again committing grievous errors that put his offense back on the bench, does he have the trust of the other members of that offense?

Football is played as much from the neck up as it is from the neck down. If the other 10 members in the huddle have no faith in whoever commands it, it breeds a defeatist attitude. Sort of gives birth to a what’s-going-to-go-wrong-next approach.

A lack of confidence in the most important player on the offense, if not the team, rarely leads to success. That needs to be corrected. But how?

The offense needs to hear another voice, another set of eyes. And I’m not talking quarterbacks here. I’m talking coaching. Someone who sees things differently other than the one in charge of that side of the ball now because this offense is flat out not working.

Jackson has to set aside his massive ego, emerge from his state of denial and realize his job is on the line. One of the main reasons is his refusal to acknowledge failure. If he doesn’t, he will have no one to blame but his stubborn self when he continues his career elsewhere next season.
*       *       *
If the dysfunctional front office decides to make a coaching change during the bye week, and that is well within the realm of possibility, the most obvious choice to move up is Gregg Williams.

The high-energy defensive coordinator was the main man in Buffalo for three seasons (2001-03), during which he compiled a 17-31 record before heading back to the world of coordinating defenses.

His no-nonsense approach to coaching, as opposed to Jackson’s calmer demeanor, is reaping mostly positive results this season. With the exception of massive brain farts in a couple of earlier games, the Cleveland defense has played solid, aggressive football.

This team needs a personality change, especially on offense, which is not responding at all this season. It’s almost as though that side of the ball is in desperation gear all the time.

It is said sometimes that a team is a reflection of its head coach. His personality trickles down to the players. It sure didn’t work in Buffalo for Williams. If the front office decides to give him a second opportunity, if only on an interim basis, it has nothing to lose. Losing is what occupants in the current Ivory Tower are used to.
*       *       *
Now that offensive tackle Joe Thomas is unable to play any more this season because of a triceps muscle tear, the offensive line is in big trouble. All of which means the offense, which has underperformed all season, is in bigger trouble.

It will be interesting to see what the coaches decide to do this week for the Vikings game on Sunday. So many possibilities exist, including moving players from their natural position.

Spencer Drango, who is listed on the depth chart as a backup at guard, replaced Thomas in the Titans’ loss Sunday. He played well enough to practically insure someone else will be at left offensive tackle against the Vikings.

The coaches could flip flop left guard Joel Bitonio, who played tackle in college, and Drango, who is more effective inside. Or they could move right tackle Shon Coleman to the left side and bring 6-9, 360-pound rookie Zach Banner off the bench. Or they could activate 6-9 Zach Sterup from the practice squad and plug him in somewhere.

Whichever way they go, it will not be the same without Thomas. What once was expected to be the strength of the offense has now become arguably the weakest part.
*       *       *
One of the changes Jackson has to make for the Vikings game is installing Duke Johnson Jr. as his main running back. Isaiah Crowell has proven time and again this season he does not deserve to be the main guy behind or beside the quarterback..

Johnson is a playmaker. Almost every time he touches the ball, he makes things happen. Often times, he makes something out of nothing. His instincts and vision enable him to turn negatives into positives.

Crowell is by far the lesser talent and yet Jackson leans on him more than Johnson in hopes of popping a big gainer. He has turned into nothing more than a good short-yardage runner. When a tough yard or two is needed, give him the ball.

For once I’d like to see Johnson touch the ball 20 or more times in a game and see what it adds up to. His career averages for the last two-and-a-half seasons back up the contention he is being misused badly and should be the No. 1 running back.

In 39 games career games, Johnson has touched the football 351 times (205 as a runner) and accumulated 2,242 yards (880 as a runner), an average of 6.39 yards a touch. Extrapolate that for 20 touches a game and you come out with nearly 128 yards a game. Even analytics nerds know that’s not bad.

Now let’s compare that with Crowell’s numbers. He has touched the football 703 times in three-and-a-half seasons (622 as a runner) and accumulated 3,248 yards (2,552 as a runner), an average of 4.62 yards a touch. Extrapolate that for 20 touches a game and you come out with 92.4 yards a game, a difference of nearly 36 yards a game.

The only outlier: Crowell has scored 20 touchdowns, 19 on the ground. Johnson has scored only six, three on the ground. That’s because Crowell receives every opportunity to score the closer the Browns get to the opposition’s goal line. If Johnson had those chances, too, his scoring numbers probably would be higher.

Case closed? You be the judge.
*       *       *
Finally . . . It seemed as though Christian Kirksey was everywhere in the Titans loss. If the outside linebacker wasn’t covering a tight end or running back out of the backfield, he was sticking his nose in a run play. He accumulated 17 tackles, eight of them by himself. That means he made a play on 23.6% of Tennessee’s 72 snaps . . Middle linebacker Joe Schobert was also busy with nine tackles, five solo. . . . Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett was in on 52 snaps and acquitted himself well against Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, registering one of the Browns’ two sacks and four tackles, three solo. . . . The Cleveland offense was just 3-of-13 on third down; the Titans were just as bad at 5-of-17. . . . It can now be stated unequivocally the Cleveland run defense is the best it has been in years. It shut down a Tennessee run game that had been averaging around 140 yards a game to just 72, not counting an eight-yard scramble by quarterback Marcus Mariota. Accomplishing that is what kept the game close for so long. . . . The Browns’ pass-run figures against the Titans: 42 dropbacks, 25 designed runs. That’s a 62.7%-37.3% ratio. So much for the excuse of abandoning the run after falling too far behind to run in a 12-9 game decided in overtime. Try another excuse.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Decisions, decisions, decisions 

It seemed like an insignificant moment at the time because it occurred so early in the Browns’ 12-9 overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans Sunday.

The home crowd had barely settled in their seats when Browns coach Hue Jackson was faced almost immediately with a decision that involved a 15-yard penalty on the opening drive of the game.

On the seventh play of the drive, an incomplete pass on a third-and-one from the Cleveland 32, Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan grabbed the facemask of Browns rookie defensive end Myles Garrett with his left hand, drawing a flag from referee Terry McAulay.

McAulay turned to Jackson, indicated the penalty, but the Cleveland coach declined to march the Titans back 15 yards. It would have moved the ball back to the Cleveland 47 and brought up a third-and-16.

When Jackson gave the I’ll pass signal to McAulay, I immediately jotted down something like “is he crazy?” Third and long from near midfield as opposed to makeable field-goal distance for a good kicker? Declining is not the correct decision.

You want to push the opposing team as far away from your goal line as possible. Make it that much more difficult to put points on the board. Declining that penalty only made it easier.

Playing fast and loose with the would haves, could haves, should haves and second guesses of life, if Jackson had accepted that penalty, Ryan Succop probably would not have been in position to boot the first of his four field goals for the Titans.

On that fourth-and-one play, Cleveland defensive tackle Danny Shelton jumped offside – the first of five such penalties on the afternoon – to give the Tennessee offense life, setting up a 43-yard field goal by Succop five plays later.

Without that field goal, the two clubs would have been locked in a 6-6 battle down the stretch and Zane Gonzalez’s third field goal of the day from 54 yards with 47 seconds left in regulation would have provided a 9-6 Cleveland victory. 

It would have ended a seven-game losing streak, including the first six of this season, and been a more-than-justifiable reward for a defense that turned in by far its best effort of the season and did not deserve to be on the losing end of the score.

The home folks witnessed a classic defensive struggle that featured three more Cleveland intercepted passes, the possible crowning of another starting quarterback next Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings and the end of one of the most remarkable streaks in all of sports.

Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, whose election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be a mere formality five years after his retirement, went down with 5:35 left in the third quarter with what was called a triceps injury in his left arm as he was pass blocking.

At that point, he had played 10,363 consecutive snaps since being selected in the first round by the Browns – he was the third overall pick – in the 2007 National Football League draft. It is a record that will never be broken.

Meanwhile, the Browns’ swarming, aggressive and determined-not-to-lose defense, playing with half the secondary (cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Jabrill Peppers) out with injuries, kept the score close despite three interceptions, including two more by DeShone Kizer and a third by Cody Kessler, who entered the game early in the second half.

Jackson had seen enough of Kizer four plays into the third quarter and yanked him in favor of Kessler 90 seconds into the half after the rookie rolled right and delivered a pass into the waiting hands of safety Kevin Byard, who banked all three picks

A sensational goal-line stand by the Cleveland defense after that pick was the closest either team came to scoring a a touchdown. It blunted four straight shots from the 1-yard line with Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, Travis Coley and Emmanuel Ogbah in starring roles.

Kizer’s first interception with 19 seconds left in the first half was a fastball to an open Rashard Higgins at the Titans’ 10, but sailed over his head right to Byard. A changeup might have netted a first down. Neither error, as it turned out, resulted in Tennessee points.

Kessler wasn’t much better statistically, but the Cleveland attack seemed to run smoother when he was under center. Until, that is, he badly overthrew a wide-open David Njoku with six minutes left in regulation and Byard was there again to capitalize.

At that point, it looked as though the seventh straight loss this season was inevitable. But the defense, as it did all afternoon, came to the rescue again and bailed out the offense, stiffening and forcing a punt after a three-and-out.

Ten plays, 33 yards and three-and-a-half minutes later, Gonzalez, the seventh-round draft pick who missed a couple of easy field goals earlier this season and caused Browns Nation to wonder whether the club made another draft mistake, improbably knocked through a 54-yarder to knot the score.

The kick looked weird off his right foot, heading well left of the goal post, then somehow straightened out and sailed clearly through the uprights.

The overtime was typical Jackson as the offense went three-and-out on two straight possessions. See if this sounds familiar.

First play on the first possession: Isaiah Crowell off right guard, no gain. Incomplete pass to Kenny Britt. Incomplete pass to Kasen Williams. Britton Colquitt punts. Second possession: Crowell over right guard, two yards. Incomplete pass, a Kessler throwaway when no receiver popped open. Kessler sacked by Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, loses 12 yards. Colquitt punts.

Six plays, two runs for two yards, three incomplete passes, a sack and two Britton Colquitt punts. Six plays, -10 net yards. No ball movement, no imagination, no victory.

The Titans finally broke the malaise, but not without one last defensive effort from the tiring defense, which forced Succop to boot a 47-yarder for the game-winner.

Even that had a little drama. The game clock was stopped for the two-minute warning in the extra session a split second before Succop launched. That kick caromed off the left upright. The second sailed true and straight.

At the end, two main questions remained. Is Thomas’ injury bad enough to sideline him for an extended period of time? And who (whom?) will Jackson put in charge of the huddle next Sunday in London? Your guess is as good as anyone's at this point.

After the latest loss, it would appear as though it will take more than an outstanding defensive effort for the Browns to finally win a game this season. That side of the ball needs help and it is not arriving anytime soon.

If fingers of guilt were to be pointed at anyone associated with this latest loss, a good start would have them pointed squarely at the offensive coordinator.

So far, we have heard nothing from that coordinator that would indicate he shares at least some of the responsibility for such a bad offense.

Maybe the head coach could shed some light.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The never-ending battle to win

Winning football games is difficult. The Browns have proved that notion over and over and over for the better part of the last two decades. They’ve raised it to an art form.

That’s why when they entertain the Tennessee Titans Sunday they are not expected to win. It’s so bad, in fact, oddsmakers have installed the visiting team – the visiting team, for goodness sake – as a six-point favorite.

In the National Football League, where the expression “on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team” is occasionally intoned, you figure the Browns somewhere along the way would accidentally stumble into a victory.

Coaches through the years have popularized that phrase, initially uttered by former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell several generations ago, after their more talented teams had lost to lesser teams. Used it sort of as a reason they lost.

Upsets in the NFL are rare. For example, who would have believed the winless New York Giants last Sunday would go into Denver, where the Broncos lose a game as often as the Browns win a game anywhere these days, and walk away no longer winless?

Or that the woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars would pound the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens earlier this season by a combined score of 74-16? On any given Sunday . . . Yep, it works every now and then.

Browns coach Hue Jackson labors at his job with a roster filled largely with mediocre talent (and that’s being kind). It has to be difficult for him to maintain a positive attitude with his men when it seems as though the constant losing will never end.

Demoralizing losses to winless Indianapolis and Cincinnati in weeks three and four perpetuated the notion that the Browns, indeed, might be headed in a similar direction as last season, when they won just once in 16 games.

It was then thought the losing this season would finally end when the New York Jets, a team believed to be tanking the season in an effort to be in position to select a quarterback in the next college draft, arrived in town a few weeks ago. Ex-Browns quarterback Josh McCown took care of that in a hurry with a 17-14 victory.

When a team gets beat on the scoreboard and beat up on the field, as the Browns were last Sunday in Houston, winning a game, any game, becomes a challenge that is harder to achieve as the schedule unfolds. It can have an exponentially deleterious effect on a team.

Frustration mounts. Fingers are pointed. Blame is parceled out. It all falls apart quickly despite the effort. Losing begets losing.

That hasn’t happened yet with the Browns, except for the losing, of course. And that’s mainly because Jackson somehow is holding this team together. The question is how much longer can he do that?

One more season like 2016 pushes that envelope to its limits. When does the players’ patience run out, especially among the younger players not used to this in college? Losing all the time wears on them, wears them down.

Future opponents are gleeful when the Browns game appears on their schedule, especially if their season is not going well. Well maybe not gleeful, but extremely optimistic. It provides momentary relief. A victory awaits. It has become almost automatic. Pencil it in even before it is played.

It gives the opposition a psychological edge. Hang around just long enough and the Browns eventually will find a way to lose. It’s uncanny how this franchise since 1999 has improbably snatched defeat after defeat bizarrely from the jaws of victory.

And now along come the Titans, a team wallowing in mediocrity in a division filled with it. Where a 3-3 record puts you in a three-way tie for the AFC South lead.

It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for coach Mike Mularkey’s team, experiencing highs with efforts of 37 points against Jacksonville and 36 points last week against Indianapolis and lows like a 57-14 walloping at Houston.

The Browns are first up on the docket for the Titans as they journey through the AFC North the next four games.

These teams met in Nashville last season, the Titans holding on for a 28-26 victory despite a 336-yard, two-touchdown afternoon by rookie Cleveland quarterback Cody Kessler, who was sacked six times. Marcus Mariota threw for 284 yards and three scores for the Titans.

The Browns catch somewhat of a break with the Titans coming off their Monday night victory over the Colts. One less day to practice and recover from that game. At this point, the Browns will take anything they can get.

Mariota missed a game and a half with hamstring problems earlier this season before guiding his club past the Colts while pretty much tethered to the pocket to protect the injury.

Unless he is a quick healer, the pocket is most likely where the Cleveland pass rush will find him Sunday, assuming a good Titans offensive line can protect its semi-mobile quarterback. Mariota, who has thrown for nearly 1,100 yards and four touchdowns this far, has been sacked only three times in more than 150 dropbacks.

That line will have to deal with Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ multitudinous and unpredictable blitz packages. In all probability, Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie (remember him from Butch Davis’ staff more than a decade ago?) will follow last week’s script to keep his quarterback vertical.

In order to neutralize an improving Cleveland pass rush, look for quick developing plays with Mariota delivering the ball within three seconds. If successful, that in turn will put that much more pressure on the beleaguered Cleveland secondary, which has surrendered an average of 241 yards a game.

Another interesting battle will feature the Titans’ strong run game against the Browns’ stingy run defense (that feels so weird to write after all those years of futility against the run). Successfully shutting down DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry puts an entirely different spin on the situation. But that’s a pretty big if.

The Tennessee defense, under the guidance of 80-year-old Dick LeBeau, is not scary, either. It allows opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 61% of their passes (giving 50% Cleveland thrower DeShone Kizer some hope) and also permits 241 passing yards a game.

LeBeau likes to blitz on occasion, too, but his zone blitz scheme is not quite as effective as when he was designing defenses for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It provides some hope for a Cleveland offensive line that has underdelivered most of the season.

For the second week in a row, this one on paper could turn into a crowd-pleasing shootout. But Kizer has to elevate his game to levels he has never attained as an NFL quarterback in order to stay with Mariota. And Isaiah Crowell is no DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry. Nevertheless . . .

On any given Sunday this Sunday? Uh . . . uh . . . no., not this Sunday. Browns Nation mourns once again as Mariota outperforms Kizer and the Tennessee ground game prevails as the Browns’ losing streak reaches seven at the aptly named Factory of Sadness. Make it:

Titans 27, Browns 13

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

He’s b-a-a-a-a-a-ck

There was good news and bad news for the Browns Wednesday.

The good news? DeShone Kizer is back as the club’s starting quarterback.

The bad news? DeShone Kizer is back as the club’s starting quarterback.

There is no way the team’s second-round draft choice learned all that much in his one-week “reset” period (OK, it was a benching) after playing bad football in the first five weeks of the season.

Kizer’s one-week reset, as coach Hue Jackson likes to call it, is not going to do the trick. When you get right down to it, the coach really had no other choice after Kevin Hogan dropped a stink bomb in Houston last Sunday to stretch the club’s winless ways this season to six games.

According to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, that makes 20 changes in starting quarterbacks by the Browns in the last 43 games, going all the way back to the last five weeks of the 2014 season.

From Brian Hoyer to Kizer, nine different quarterbacks have started a game for Cleveland in that span. That’s roughly a different quarterback every other week. In case you’re wondering, the Browns are 4-39 since defeating the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 23, 2014.

For the present and immediate future, it sure looks as though Kizer is the man for the next 10 games no matter what happens from here on out, despite Jackson’s cautious approach to what transpires the remainder of the season.

“I’m not going to say the rest of the season,” he said in explaining his decision to bring back Kizer, “ but I know he’s the guy right now. I hope he is. I hope there are no more times we have to take him out and let him reset (there’s that word again) himself.”

There’s a lot of hope in that statement.

Jackson offered no regrets for the reset. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “In fact, I know it was the right thing to do a week ago. I think we’ll be better for it and I think he’ll be better for it and hopefully we’ll see some growth.”

Sounds like a pep talk.

Jackson did not mention the disappointment he must have felt as he watched Hogan go down in flames in Houston. He most likely did not expect to haul Kizer back into the starting lineup so soon, preferring to give him a few more weeks to settle down (reset?) before returning.

Hogan was dropped to the No. 3 slot behind Kizer and Cody Kessler, who will suit up for the first time this season Sunday against the invading Tennessee Titans. Bruised ribs was the reason given for Hogan’s descent to No. 3.

So now the Browns have a starting quarterback who has nine interceptions in less than five games as a pro and is winless in five National Football League starts, a backup quarterback who is winless in eight NFL starts and a No. 3 quarterback who is winless in one start. What’s that about hope?

Jackson’s latest move is not a knee jerk reaction. It’s recognizing Hogan isn’t even close to being ready to lead a pro offense, so he might as well stick with Kizer and determine once and for all whether the kid can be an honest-to-goodness NFL quarterback.

The next 10 games will answer that question for Jackson and the front office, which, if it is still around at the end of the season, has to determine if Kizer is the man or turns its attention to the strong quarterback class in next year’s college draft.

Kizer said the week off his resetting “definitely sparked my competitive juices. It definitely motivated me throughout the week to make sure I’m doing extra.

“I think the most important thing I got to see from my perspective last week is what the process is and what our process is as a unit and how in this league you have to talk less and do more.”

Huh?! Sounds as though Jackson’s coachspeak is rubbing off on the returning quarterback.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on how Jackson game plans his offense for the Titans’ game Sunday.

Will he dumb down the offense in an effort to ease Kizer back into the flow? Will fans see quick-developing plays that require the ball to be out of Kizer’s hand within three seconds? Will the stretch-the-field approach Jackson favors be shelved? Will he finally ratchet up the running game to take pressure off his young quarterback?

Kizer’s slow – and often times hesitant – pass release in the first five weeks of the season was a major factor in his dismal showings. Refining his ability to quickly recognize and identify opposing defenses and make the necessary adjustments is a key factor.

On numerous occasions this season, Kizer started to throw the ball, then pulled it back and by the time he determined what he wanted to do with it, the rhythm of the play was disturbed enough that he was either sacked, intercepted or he made an ill-advised throw.

He said earlier in the season the game was slowing down for him. That he was having only a little trouble adjusting to the speed and quickness of the game, as opposed to the exhibition season.

That’s a little hard to believe considering how poorly he is making the adjustment to pro ball. He’s trying to make plays when trapped in the backfield that he was able to make at Notre Dame. That doesn’t work in the NFL, where the players are faster, quicker and a whole lot smarter than in college.

He still looks uncomfortable under center in the pro set, a formation that has proved much more successful in the ground game than either the pistol or shotgun formations. It’s an adjustment he has to make.

So get ready, Browns, fans, for more of the same with No. 7 in charge of the huddle. The highs will be sparingly high and the lows will be alarmingly low.

If you think the road has been bumpy so far, buckle up for what very well could be an even bumpier ride right through to New Year’s Eve day in Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Mid-week thoughts

Some football coaches are so pig-headed, so stubborn and their thought processes are so out of focus, they are totally blinded and have a hard time distinguishing the difference between perception and reality.

Such a football coach is Hue Jackson, whose tenure as head coach of the Browns has been significantly damaged and compromised by the performance the last 22 games of his offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson.

The offensive coordinator probably believes he is doing a good job. The head coach’s 1-21 record in those 22 games suggests otherwise in a most alarming way.

The two talk quite often. But the head coach for some reason has no problem with how the offensive coordinator is doing his job. The fact the team has only one victory since he took over doesn’t seem to bother him.

It should be easy for the head coach to wake up, glance at the National Football League standings every once in a while and notice his club is winless in six games this season and playing a far less competitive game of football than last season’s 1-15 bunch.

This season has been sliding downward precipitously since a promising 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh in the season opener. It is getting exponentially worse not only on a weekly basis, but a quarter-by-quarter basis.

While the defense continues to play more consistently than their offensive counterparts, the coach/offensive coordinator stubbornly asks his quarterbacks to perform in a manner opposite to their particular talents.

Rookie DeShone Kizer is more than capable of stretching the field with his big arm, but he is wildly inaccurate, is not capable of feathering some of his passes and is highly susceptible to interceptions.

Kevin Hogan, on the other hand, doesn’t have the big arm, but is unfairly asked to be like Kizer and fails. They are polar opposites when quarterbacking a football team. Hogan’s talents lie in the short- to medium-range game.

Kizer’s showing thus far, which earned him a seat against Houston, should not come as a surprise. He came out of Notre Dame advertised as inconsistent and inaccurate. He has done nothing to dispel that notion. There’s a reason he was there for the Browns in the second round of the college draft.

Jackson does not coach to the talents of either of his quarterbacks. He expects their talents to adapt to him. And therein lies the big problem. It won’t change or get better unless he sees the errors of his ways and adjusts. There are no Andy Daltons or Joe Flaccos on this roster.

Coaches like to say their goal is to put players in the best position to succeed. Jackson has said that on more than one occasion. How much success has the Cleveland offense experienced as a result? He might preach it, but he does not follow through.

There is little or no imagination or creativity to the Hue Jackson offense. That makes it easier to defend. After Sunday’s loss in Houston, Hogan marveled at how the Texans’ defense seemed to know what was coming.

That’s good coaching recognizing tendencies and game planning for them. That’s why the Cleveland offense did not get into the Houston end zone until the final moments of a game that was essentially over by halftime.

The Cleveland offense is as predictable as a draw play on third-and-33. The Browns rarely throw the ball on first down. Fans are fed up watching Isaiah Crowell run for a yard or two on first down, putting the club in second-and-long consistently.

The run game is, for the most part, a mere afterthought. Opposing teams know the Browns are going to put the ball up on two out of every three plays, so why bother to even stop the run?

And when they do run, it’s usually a stretch play. Stretch right, stretch left. They rarely run traps, counter traps or power sweeps. Maybe they’re not good enough at executing them because they lack the athleticism. If they do have the athleticism, however, it makes no sense to abandon those plays.

Kizer is very athletic and yet his coach rarely rolls him out behind a moving pocket to create better opportunities for the receivers to get open. There is very little movement on most plays.

As for the other facets of the passing game, when was the last time a Browns tight end ran a seam route down the gut of a defense? Gary Barnidge was golden on that route in 2015 and on a few occasions last season before being released.

Jackson loves to shift out of initial formations presnap, but the end result is almost always the same. More negative or failed plays than those that work.

It is not because this team is not trying. On occasion, it appears as though the players are mailing it in. The reality is this team lacks talent in so many vital areas, they lose even when that talent performs up to their capabilities.

For the five zillionth time, the 2017 edition of the Cleveland Browns has a serious lack of quality talent up and down the roster. There are some studs, to be sure. But not nearly enough talent to sustain a winning approach for a week, let alone a season.

The current roster is good enough to hope it can win a game or two, not know it will win a lot more than a game or two. The attitude going into each game might be there; the talent to carry it out to a successful conclusion is an entirely different matter.

This all falls on a front office that seemingly has buffaloed owner Jimmy Haslam III into believing they are headed in the right direction. If that direction is down, then yes, they are definitely headed in some sort of a direction.

Browns fans have been patient to the extreme, but that patience is getting Nutrisystemed, so to speak. It is getting thinner with each pathetic loss and long-time fans, eager to celebrate when (if?) this whole thing turns around, are starting to dribble away.

This is the 19th season of professional football in Cleveland since the NFL welcomed the city back into the fold. Not once in those 19 seasons have the fans been rewarded with a front office that produced teams anywhere near the great Browns teams of the past.

The greatest enemy to any professional sports franchise is apathy. The Browns are beginning to see vestiges of that apathy on Sundays at home with the number of empty seats slowly increasing.

According to the latest figures, the Browns through the first six weeks rank 21st in the NFL in average attendance at 65,135, but 26th in percentage of seats filled at 89.7%. That’s slightly better than last season, when they ranked 25th and 29th, respectively, for an entire season.

It is difficult to determine whether those figures indicate the number of people who actually pass through the turnstiles. Some teams count empty seats that have been purchased in advance and include them in the final attendance figure.

As the club continues to lose this season, more and more fans will either stay home and watch on television or do something that has nothing at all to do with the Browns. Sort of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind day.

There are four more home games left this season, including Sunday’s invasion of the Tennessee Titans. The game a week from Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings is a Cleveland home game.

Unless Jackson somehow between now and the end of the season magically uncovers the mystery of why this is such a bad football team, one can only imagine how many seats will be filled for the remaining three home games in November and December.

Maybe then Haslam and his wife, Dee, will open their eyes and see the reality their coach does not. Maybe then they will sit down, think it through and do what should have been done years ago.

Hire a sagacious football man (not an attorney) to oversee the football operations. Someone with a reputation for taking over struggling teams in the past and successfully putting them back on the road to success and respectability.

Then step back and let him do what others before him could not. There’s a solution out there on the NFL landscape. All the Haslams need to find it.

They are fortunate to have the most caring, dedicated and passionate fan base in the NFL. Those fans deserve much more than they have received for almost a couple of decades with regard to their football team.

Care about those fans. Not with words. With deeds.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Monday leftovers

At the risk of being wrong (to a certain extent) two weeks in a row, it sure looks as if coach Hue Jackson saw enough of Kevin Hogan last Sunday to realize he made a mistake by making him the 28th starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999.

Hogan’s abysmal performance in the loss to the Houston Texans proved beyond a doubt he is a much better relief pitcher than starter. And DeShone Kizer once again will have the huddle when the Tennessee Titans invade Sunday.

Jackson has not publicly stated that will be the case, but if he starts Hogan again this week against the Titans, more than a few seeds of doubt as to his decision-making will be planted.

No matter how poorly Kizer plays, he is the man from now until he is either (a) injured or (b) so battered but able to stand that Jackson has no choice but to mercifully save him from further punishment.

After the loss in Houston, the coach explained why he did not make a change at halftime when it was apparent Hogan was in way over his head, having thrown three interceptions in the second quarter.

“I made a decision I was playing Kevin for this game,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be fair to put DeShone into the game. I made a commitment to doing this for the week. That’s what I did whether for good or bad.” Resisting snarky remark here.

Jackson reminded the media that he told them Kizer would be strictly a spectator no matter what against the Texans. “I told you guys I wanted (Kizer) to see the game from a different lens,” he said. Regardless of whether that lens was corrected to 20/20 vision, the show was ugly.

Hogan most likely will lobby that he deserves another shot at starting. “I really trust my talent and I trust in my ability to lead this team,” he said after the Houston game. “ I know the guys trust me and I know I can make plays out there. I have so much confidence in myself, I definitely feel like I’m going to be ready to go.

“I’m not shaken from this at all. I felt like I was seeing a lot of things out there and they made a lot of great plays. Felt like they had a game plan for us. At the end of the day, it’s all about making plays.”

Of course the Texans had a game plan for the Browns’ offense and yes, they made plays all afternoon. They won so handily because they made those plays.

The Texans knew exactly what to expect from Hogan. They had three games’ worth of tendencies on tape to figure out what he liked to do and what bothered him the most. And they accomplished it without J. J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, their two best players on that side of the ball, out with season-ending injuries.

“This was a tough first experience but definitely something to learn from and grow from and I think there are some positives to take from it,” Hogan said. He sounds like a guy who is either shell-shocked or delusional. Maybe both.
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As Jackson’s coaching record in Cleveland slips to 1-21, I can’t help but think of the late John McKay, who set the National Football League mark for coaching futility after becoming the head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.

McKay was a great head coach in college at USC, having won four national championships, when he decided to give the NFL a try. It didn’t take long for him to be humbled by the efforts of one of the worst teams in league history; arguably the worst.

The Bucs lost every one of their 14 games in their inaugural season and the first 12 the following season. Twenty-six straight games without a victory. After one of those games in the second season, McKay was asked what he thought of his team’s execution.  “I’m all for it,” he quipped.

So why think of McKay with regard to what’s going on with Jackson in Cleveland? Well, McKay went on to win his division’s championship in his fourth season and eventually advanced to the NFC title game before losing.

If Jackson can hold on and survive the current regime, it’s possible he could still be around when a newer, hopefully wiser front office takes over and finally provides him with players who can actually make him look good.

One big difference: McKay had coaching gravitas. Jackson isn’t even close.
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He has played only two games, but there is no doubt Myles Garrett is the Browns’ best draft selection since they selected Joe Thomas in the 2007 lottery. If he can stay healthy playing a game where health is not guaranteed, he is headed for the same destination as Thomas five years after he retires.

Garrett, idled the first four games with a high ankle sprain, played half of the Browns’ 66 snaps against Houston and registered five tackles (two solo), one sack, two-and-a-half tackles or loss and four quarterback hits. Quarterback hurries are not an official statistic, but he must have nearly a dozen so far.

That brings the defensive end’s two-game total to seven tackles (four solo), four-and-a-half tackles for loss, three sacks and six quarterback hits in 52 snaps, all the while playing with a sprain that has not completely healed.

It’s not difficult to imagine what Garrett can do when completely healthy and able to play every down. He is a force around whom opposing offensive coordinators will have to game plan differently. That ostensibly will create more opportunities for his fellow linemen.
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Wide receiver Kenny Britt did not suit up for the second week in a row. Groin and knee injuries, according to the club. His status for the Titans is uncertain.

Addition by subtraction says his growing legion of detractors. They point to his eight catches (on 23 targets), 121 receiving yards, one touchdown and boatload of dropped passes in four games as evidence the Browns blew it by giving him the same contract Terrelle Pryor turned down.

Jackson approaches the Britt situation in a more diplomatic manner. “We need to get the best version of Kenny Britt,” he said. “That’s what is important. If there is anything I think is not right, then obviously I would hold him.”

Unfortunately, the best version of Kenny Britt played last season with the Los Angeles Rams, for whom he caught 68 passes for 1,0002 yards and five touchdowns. It was a career season that quite probably will never be replicated.
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The big question on defense remains why rookie Jabrill Peppers is not game-planned to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He’s not playing deep, deep, deep safety as much as in earlier games, but it seems his greatest strength is making plays at or near the line of scrimmage. He is a fearless tackler when given the opportunity.

He is not used to playing in space and proved it by taking the wrong angle in the first quarter Sunday on Houston wide receiver Will Fuller, who gave him a simple juke in the open field and collaborated with Deshaun Watson on a 39-yard scoring strike for the Texans’ first touchdown of the afternoon.

All Peppers could do was futilely try to catch him, the victim of another rookie mistake. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams needs to either park his free safety closer to the line of scrimmage or play him where he really belongs – at strong safety. Otherwise, his rookie season will be a dismal failure.
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Finally . . . Jackson once again strayed from his goal of a more balanced offense against the Texans, who jumped out to a quick lead and took away the Cleveland running game. Of the 63 plays from scrimmage, 43 were designed pass plays. It took the Browns 13 possessions to accumulate those 63 plays. . . . Britton Colquitt, who punted only twice last week, booted seven times and averaged a terrific 51.1 yards. . . . The reason Colquitt was so busy – the Browns were three for 14 on third down. . . . Eleven more penalties for 72 yards. Discipline, discipline, discipline.. . . . The three Cleveland linebackers totaled 33 tackles, 14 solo against the Texans. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert had 13 overall. Peppers chipped in with six tackles, five by himself, . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Five carries, 40 yards; three receptions, -1 yard. Oy!