Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Tardy Monday leftovers

 If the Browns want to keep Baker Mayfield vertical and reasonably healthy for the rest of this season, they had better do something with the offensive line.

If they don’t, those in charge in Berea should be held personally responsible for damaging the one key asset this franchise has on that side of the football, the one player they are counting on to lead them toward a bright future.

Mayfield has been getting beaten to a pulp since taking over for Tyrod Taylor midway through game three of the season. If he is not being sacked (20 times in 5½ games), he is being knocked down (way too many times), hurried (ditto) and generally harassed.

At the rate he is being hammered thus far in his budding National Football League career, there is a good chance he might not make it to the end of this season in one piece. That’s not the way to protect that future. That’s the way to make sure that future will not end well.

Mayfield must be protected at all costs. He is the one player General Manager John Dorsey and whoever the next head coach is rely on to bring at least a modicum of success to a franchise that screams for it after the misery of the last two decades.

It does no good to turn the fresh-faced rookie into a young veteran before he books his first season. And right now, Mayfield is absorbing a battering that very well could have lingering effects as he advances his career.

During the first half of the Pittsburgh loss a few days ago, he was seen limping off the field. And he kept returning in spite of a Pittsburgh pass rush that was relentless all afternoon. That’s not what anyone, least of all the fans, want to see in someone so young, so promising and so talented this early in his career.

In the wake of some of his recent beatings, the kid at one time or another had to have had the following unpleasant thought: “So this is what it’s like being quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.”

The 29 starting quarterbacks who preceded him since 1999 came to that reality along the way and now Mayfield, primarily because he has a terrible offensive line supposedly protecting him, is on his way to joining them.

This should not be happening and it is incumbent on the front office to do something about it before it gets worse. The lack of prescience is the main reason Mayfield’s pro football future is in jeopardy.

The brass most likely never figured he would see the field this season, relying instead on the veteran leadership of Taylor to carry them through the 16-game jungle that is the NFL schedule.

They probably figured Taylor could better handle working behind a questionable offensive line than the prized No. 1 overall draft pick. They figured incorrectly, probably giving little or no thought to the notion that the line was this bad.

The retirement of offensive tackle Joe Thomas signaled a dramatic change for that unit. Unfortunately, Thomas will not – and should not – undo that farewell as he marches back to health after 11 seasons and on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His absence has lowered the quality of the line dramatically. Right now, the best one can say about it is that it has remained healthy as a unit and played virtually every down this season.

On the minus side, it is on pace to at least equal, if not shatter, the team record for most sacks (66) in a season. When it comes to pass protection, their troubles begin at the snap and then get worse.

Unless new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens comes up with schemes that enable Mayfield to unload the football quickly, fans better get used to seeing him under duress constantly because this unit doesn’t handle quarterback pressure well.

It is uncomfortably weak on the edges, where rookie Desmond Harrison and Chris Hubbard purportedly patrol.

Harrison is a turnstile when it comes to pass pro. He has problems with bull rushers (not strong enough) and speed rushers (not quick enough). Other than that, he falls into the category of marginal at best.

The Browns gushed about Harrison’s athleticism in training camp and then surprisingly named him the starter. But when you play the second most important position on offense (protecting the quarterback’s blind side), you better be more than athletic. A lot more.

Harrison has no business playing left tackle on a regular basis. He is not ready. Some day he might be. This is not that day or time. He should be in the bench watching someone else, picking up pointers along the way.

I’m not blaming him, however. That would be unfair. I’m blaming those on the coaching staff who believed athleticism would overcome the fact Harrison is not yet a good football player and Mayfield is paying a stiff price.

Hubbard at right tackle has been a bigger disappointment after playing well in Pittsburgh last season when injuries hit the Steelers’ offensive line. Difficult to say exactly what the problem is. It certainly can’t be the scheme because it’s the same one utilized by now-departed offensive coordinator Todd Haley last season in Pittsburgh.

The only possible solution requires Kitchens to resurrect the exhibition game experiment of moving Joel Bitonio to left tackle and bringing rookie Austin Corbett off the bench, sticking him next to Bitonio at left guard.

What harm can that do? Certainly no more harm than what fans have witnessed in the last five games, or since Mayfield bounced off the bench into the waiting arms of quarterback abuse by opposing defenses.
*       *       *
Sometimes you never fully appreciate the value of a player until he goes down. Such is the case with middle linebacker Joe Schobert, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. It has become quite clear the defense misses Schobert, who suffered the injury in the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in week six.

Christian Kirksey has replaced him in the middle with a modicum of success, while Jamie Collins and rookie Genard Avery man the outside, the latter on the weak side of the formation.  

Collins and Kirksey, who played all 71 snaps, turned in strong games in the Pittsburgh loss, but Avery seemed to struggle with just one solo tackle in his first extended action this season.

Schobert, who calls defensive signals and makes certain everyone is situated correctly before the snap, led the club in tackles before yanking his hamstring. Such injuries have been known to linger for several weeks. It looks as though his absence will continue for at least another week.
*       *       *
One of those statistical sports oddities showed up when the Browns fired coach Hue Jackson Monday. He became the sixth straight Cleveland head coach to be fired after a loss to the Steelers.

Jackson joins a list that includes Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine. But his dismissal is the only one executed before the season was over. The other five were cashiered at the end of seasons when the Steelers were game No. 16.
*       *       *
Nuggets from Monday’s news conference announcing the firings of Jackson and Haley:
Dorsey, asked if the Browns' record would have been different with better coaching: “You are your record.” Then added, “But we still have a lot of football left here.”

Owner Jimmy Haslam III, asked whether the new coach will still report directly to him rather than Dorsey: ‘We’ll evaluate things at the end of the year.” That’s a dodge, but at least he did not rule it out completely.

Dorsey on Mayfield: “We all know that all of a sudden you’re a rookie quarterback and you’re thrust (into games) five games early in the season as a starter and he’s going to see very complex defenses and it’s not going to happen overnight, He’s going to have his ups and downs, but he’s going to learn along the way and I expect to see even more development from Baker moving forward.”

Haslam, on whether the internal discord that led to the twin firings was present for a while and had reached a breaking point: “I don’t know that it does a lot of good to go back and look at the past. I think the actions, the decisions we made today speak for themselves.”
*       *       *
Finally . . . Here’s a question we’ll never get the answer to: Why was tight end David Njoku shut out in the Steelers loss? His name did not show up on the score sheet. He was targeted once on the second possession of the second half on a third-and-4 at the Pittsburgh 6, but was interfered with by Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds in the end zone, thus no play. It set up what eventually became a 1-yard touchdown pass to to Antonio Callaway. . . . Steelers running back James Conner probably wishes he could play more than two games against the Browns each season. The second-year back totaled 404 yards from scrimmage (281 on the ground) and scored four touchdowns. . . . Conner and wide receiver Antonio Brown accounted for all seven of the Steelers’ touchdowns in the season series. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Two carries, zero yards; two receptions, 16 yards. Four touches, 16 yards. Season total: 42 touches, 310 yards. Season average: 7.38 yards a touch. Maybe Kitchens will discover Johnson. Haley sure didn’t.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Semi-cleaning a dysfunctional house

The inevitable became reality Monday morning at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea. Ding, dong, Hue Jackson is gone. That means he is no longer head coach of the Cleveland Browns period. Period.

Tagging along with the now former head coach out the door is offensive coordinator Todd Haley, whose firing was more surprising than Jackson’s, whose pathetic tour with the Browns lasted way too long.

If owner Jimmy Haslam III had done the right thing in the first place and dismissed Jackson after last season’s ultra embarrassing 0-16 record, Monday’s news conference would not have been necessary.

Nor, for that matter, would that little power play between Jackson and Haley that ultimately led to the twin firings. Call it a double dose of addition by subtraction.

“We put our organization in a better place today than we did yesterday,” Haslam said. Definitely addition by subtraction.

Midway through the 20-minute gathering with the Cleveland media, Haslam uttered something that resonated. “We’re not going to put up with internal discord,” he said. That’s code for dysfunction.

It has been going on since Haslam bought the club from the Lerner family seven games into the 2012 season. Here we are eight games into this season, almost exactly six years later to the day, and nothing has changed.

Under Haslam’s stewardship, the Browns are 21-75-1, finishing in the AFC North basement every season.

The fact this franchise is still floundering despite a roster overhaul by General Manager John Dorsey casts an embarrassing light around the National Football League on the City of Cleveland and the loyal fans of this team.

A lot of that has to do with Haslam’s seeming obsession of wanting to be a part of everything that is Cleveland Browns, primarily the football side. Of course that is his prerogative as the man who signs the paychecks.

But there is a certain order to the chain of command around most of the NFL that begets success. It shields ownership from the every-day business aspect of running a professional football franchise.

In a large majority of cases around the league, the owner is the final arbiter if there are problems. Otherwise, he relies on and trusts his general manager, or whatever title the chief football man has, to run the day-to-day end of the business.

He is the guy responsible for what the roster looks like, the one whose main goal is to give his coach and coaching staff the players who put the team in the best position to win games.

The head coach, whose main responsibility is to prepare the team on all levels, cultivate a winning atmosphere and make certain everything runs smoothly in the locker room, reports to the GM.

It’s a chain of command that has proved successful over the years. And owners who insert themselves into that equation more often than not wind up hampering rather than helping, Jimmy Haslam is one of those owners.

Everyone who is anyone reports directly to him. In other words, the general manager and head coach. It’s a sneaky way to bypass the general manager and curry favor the GM might object to.

If anything, it can possibly create division between the two most important men responsible for the overall product, the reason they are in business to begin with.

Being a huge football fans, perhaps it is Haslam’s ego and insatiable curiosity that thrusts him into wanting to know every little thing that goes on. And that is where the problem lies as he turns a blind eye to a possible solution.

The Haslam way hasn’t worked for the last six years. But like most stubborn people who believe that doing it their way is the right way, it is mindful of how Albert Einstein once defined insanity.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” the noted physicist said.

Haslam keeps running the Browns the same way and nothing has changed in those six years. It’s not exactly a head scratcher that trusting your general manager to work with the head coach without any outside interference works in the NFL.

Robert Kraft doesn’t tell his people how to run the New England Patriots. The Hunt family in Kansas City stays in the background. The list of hands-off owners who know how to build winners the right way litter the NFL landscape.

The Rooney family stays out of the way in Pittsburgh. Haslam should know all about what makes the Steelers a great franchise, having spent several seasons as a minority owner.

It’s owners like Jerry Jones in Dallas who adore the spotlight who epitomize the meddling owner. He is the face of the Cowboys, not the players or coach. He thinks he knows everything. He doesn’t and the Cowboys have paid the price.

So can Haslam be expected to change his ways? Probably not. Think Einstein.

Dorsey strongly indicated the removal of Jackson and Haley was not a sign of giving up on the season. “This is not a throwing in of the towel,” he declared. “It’s a rebooting if you will, an opportunity to give (the team) a fresh start for their last eight games.”

The new voice in the Cleveland locker room belongs to interim head coach Gregg Williams, who will still coordinate the defense, which has struggled mightily lately. Running backs coach Freddie Kitchens, who has never called plays, takes over as offensive boss.

Asked if Williams will be a candidate for the vacancy in 2019, Haslam did not discount it. “If Gregg is interested in the job and we decide to do a full search, of course he would be a candidate,” he said of what likely will be the most closely watched story once this season concludes.

In a rant on this site last Jan. 15, I wrote the following when the club was still looking for an offensive coordinator and the guessing was Jackson might not make it through 2018.

“There is a coach out there who has received little or no mention this season for a head-coaching job. He is not as high profile as the others, but Dorsey knows all about him.

“It’s strictly a guess, a hunch, but for some reason, don’t go to sleep on Dave Toub, special teams coordinator for the last five seasons in Kansas City and eight seasons before that with Chicago, achieving success at both stops.

“If Dorsey believes Toub, who has no head coaching experience, is ready to make the leap, one way to get him to Cleveland to replace (Chris) Tabor (now in Chicago) without it being a sideways move would be to name him special teams coordinator/assistant head coach.

“That way, when – not if – Jackson self-destructs, however far he makes it into the season, Dorsey can elevate Toub to the top spot, at least on an interim basis, and have his man in place.”

Of course that never eventuated. But now that the landscape has changed, one more reminder: Don’t go to sleep on Toub.

It will be interesting this Sunday when the Chiefs come to town to play the Browns whether Dorsey reconnects with Toub and if his coaching future will be a topic of conversation.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Enough already

How bad do the Browns have to get before James Haslam III and his wife pull the plug on this abject misery? Aren’t the most ardent and emotionally abused fans in professional football being punished enough?

After Sunday’s embarrassment – did you really expect anything different? – against the Pittsburgh Steelers, one has to wonder just what it will take to get rid of the stench that occupies the office of head coach.

The National Football League season is half over and the Browns are regressing at a rate faster than whatever progress they made in the first few games after a 33-18 loss to the Steelers that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicates.

The victory, their 15th straight over the Browns at home, was just another study in domination by the Steelers that has turned this once-bitter and ruggedly contested rivalry into a joke.

Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who all but promised fans they would see a different coach in Hue Jackson after he led their team to the most embarrassing back-to-back seasons in NFL history, are flat out wrong about Jackson.

If they cannot see that this team, the one put together by General Manager John Dorsey and poorly coached by a man who has no business being a head coach of any football team, let alone one that gets paid to be this bad, then they need to see an ophthalmologist pronto.

An eye doctor? Why? Because they don’t see what all of their constituents, those people who pay good money to watch a product that cries for coaching help, see on a weekly basis. Their patience is worn thin  Some of them have not only lost patience, they have lost interest.

Apathy, the greatest and most dangerous opponent to owners of professional sports franchises, is rearing its ugly head again, especially after the way the Browns have performed the last three weeks.

Optimists would say it's only three games. Chill. Pessimists would then point to the schedule that shows the Browns hosting Kansas City and Atlanta in the new two weeks, two of the most potent offenses in the NFL.

Many fans sensed a comeback of significant proportions for this decades-long moribund franchise after the Browns racked up a 2-2-1 record, which was monumental in and of itself considering what had unfolded the previous two seasons.

And then three consecutive embarrassing losses arrived, each one indicating that progress was merely a hope, a wish that was not being fulfilled. The club was once again falling into bad habits, most of which spelled L-O-S-S.

The bandwagon that began filling up after the first five games when the Browns actually looked decent on both sides of the football is now in the throes of a mass exit.

What Browns fans have witnessed the last three Sundays looks suspiciously like the last two seasons when the offense was extremely offensive, and not in a good way, and the defense was not very defensive, also not in a good way.

The latest loss, their 25th straight on the road, is a perfect example of the problems that have strangled this team since an impressive start that was ruined by questionable – no, make that bad – coaching at the top.

The Browns jumped out to a 6-0 lead after one quarter – no, they’re still looking for their initial first-quarter touchdown of the half-gone season – on a pair of Greg Joseph field goals, one after a Derrick Kindred pick near midfield late in the quarter.

The defense, meanwhile, held the Steelers to only 18 total yards and no first downs on the first three possessions, punctuated by Myles Garrett’s sack of Ben Roethlisberger in the final minute. At this point felt, they felt pretty good about themselves.

And then they played the second quarter. That’s when the real Steelers offense and real Cleveland defense showed up.

The Steelers, who ran just nine plays that gained only seven total yards and took 5:35 off the clock in the first 15 minutes, owned the football for just two possessions in the quarter, taking more than nine minutes off the clock while scoring 14 points.

After Joseph missed a third field goal badly, Roethlisberger needed just six plays to move the Steelers 69 yards, connecting with Antonio Brown from 43 yards all alone down the left sideline for the score, thanks in large part to a blown coverage by Kindred, who failed to pick up Brown in deep zone coverage.

That was followed by the drive that exposed a whipped Cleveland defense that all but collapsed after ex-Brown Joe Haden picked off Baker Mayfield with 7:20 left in the first half.

Playing ball control football the way it is diagrammed followed. It was a clinic by the Pittsburgh offense in dispiriting a Cleveland defense that just couldn’t get off the field and handcuffed its struggling offense to the bench.

James Conner, who destroyed the Browns in the season-opening 21-21 tie, touched the ball half the time during the seven-plus minute possession and gained 38 of the 87 yards in a 16-play drive that ended with another Roethlisberger-Brown connection from a yard out.

Browns cornerback Damarious Randall was tardy as he leaped up for what would have been a 92-yard pick six had he been successful, the pass passing his waiting hands a fraction too late.

By the time the second half started, the Cleveland defense was gassed, the pass rush vanished and Roethlisberger, who completed nine straight passes in the second quarter, had all kinds of time to pick and choose his targets against a weary secondary.

In addition, Conner and his offensive line was just getting started. The second-year back chugged for 146 yards on the ground, mostly in the second half, as Browns defenders flailed at him meekly with harmless arm tackles and halfhearted tackle attempts.

The second-year back, who has Steelers fans not missing contract holdout Le’Veon Bell in the least, added 66 more yards through the air for a 212-yard afternoon and a pair of touchdowns.

Of the two Browns touchdowns, one was an outright gift and the other came in garbage time when the game was clearly headed for the loss column and padding statistics is generally the norm.

After the Steelers were awarded a safety when rookie offensive tackle Desmond Harrison was caught holding in the end zone, they allowed Browns punter Britton Colquitt’s free kick to roll free. The Browns recovered at the Pittsburgh 24 and scored in four plays.

It took two Pittsburgh pass interference penalties in the end to prolong the short drive, Antonio Callaway making a nice one-arm grab for the touchdown while his other arm was held by safety Terrell Edmunds. After Joseph missed the extra point, the Steelers had a deceiving 16-12 lead,

They scored on three of their next four possessions, pushing the score to 33-12 with little trouble and Conner in charge. He gained 60 of the Steelers’ 75 yards in the ensuing possession, scoring untouched from 12 yards out, and 53 of the 65 yards two drives later, punctuating his afternoon with a 22-yard scoring burst.

Overall, this was a typical Browns-Steelers outcome as Roethlisberger upped his record to 23-2-1 against Cleveland and the Steelers pushed their record against the Browns since 1999 to 34-6-1.

This is what the Haslams have been rewarded with since proclaiming their faith in Jackson to be a different coach for this football team. You’ll see, they seemed to say confidently.

Well, if this is different, it’s time for a new face to take the blame for games and seasons like Jackson has provided.

The Cavaliers had the temerity Sunday to fire their coach after six games, a coach who brought them a league championship a couple of years ago.

Will the Haslams follow suit with a coach who comes nowhere close to what Ty Lue did for Cleveland?

Probably not. But there is always hope.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Steelers not fit to be tied

 The last time the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers hooked up in early September, the teams played to a 21-21 standoff in the 2018 season opener in Cleveland.

The Browns, who hauled a 17-game losing streak into the contest, treated it as though it was a victory. At least they didn’t lose their 18th straight game.

The Steelers, on the other hand, treated it like a loss. Why? Because whenever these former bitter rivals get together twice a season since the 1999 resurrection, no matter the site, the Steelers s win nearly every time. Tying is not an option. It is not winning.

Since the return, the teams have played 40 times. The Browns have won six. The deadlock was the first in this long-time series.

So who could blame the Steelers for feeling bitterly disappointed? They sacked Cleveland quarterback Tyrod Taylor seven times. Running back James Conner, filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who still hasn’t reported, gouged out 135 yards on the ground and scored twice.

However, the Steelers were charitable visitors, coughing up the football a ridiculous six times. Even more ridiculous, the Browns were equally charitable, turning those takeaways into just seven points.

If it weren’t for a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback by the Browns, Zane Gonzalez would not have had the opportunity to have his game-winning 43-yard field goal attempt blocked by Steelers linebacker T. J. Watt with seconds remaining in OT.

Most athletes and coaches have long memories and I wouldn’t put it past Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to circle Oct. 28, this Sunday, on the club’s schedule as a reminder that the Browns are coming to town.

You can bet with a large degree of assurance that Tomlin’s message this week revolves around that tie, a game the Steelers tried to give away and were fortunate to escape without an actual loss.

Browns coach Hue Jackson most likely is preaching the same sermon, although he probably approaches it from the standpoint that the Browns this time have a chance to finish the job even though it will be tougher playing in a hostile venue.

They drag a couple of losing streaks into this one, having lost 14 in a row in Pittsburgh, dating back to 2004, and 24 straight on the road, dating back to Oct. 11, 2015. Remember the 33-30 overtime victory in Baltimore? Didn’t think so.

The last time these teams met, Baker Mayfield watched as Taylor got beat up and Nick Chubb watched Carlos Hyde begin what turned out to be an all too brief career in Cleveland. And Damion Ratley watched Josh Gordon catch a touchdown pass in his last game with the Browns.

These rookies are now key parts of a Cleveland offense that has struggled the last three games. It will be interesting to see whether the Steelers change their defensive schemes with the new personnel.

If they have been watching game tape on Mayfield, they probably noticed he has been sacked 15 times in the last three games, primarily because he had problems with a leaky offensive line and and holding on to the football too long because he had trouble finding open receivers.

That’s almost like throwing raw meat at the very aggressive Pittsburgh defense, which excels at making opposing quarterbacks feel most uncomfortable in the pocket with a wide variety of blitzes. Mayfield has had problems identifying blitzes lately and paid the price.

Chubb is the kind of runner who could do well against such a defense. In his professional starting debut last Sunday in Tampa, he showed good vision and quick feet to pick up nice chunks of yardage, especially after initial contact.

Ratley, who has seen his snap count rise with injuries to Rashard Higgins and Derrick Willies, has proven more reliable than fellow rookie Antonio Callaway, whose hands still seem to have an aversion to pigskin.

A Browns-Steelers story is not complete without mentioning how much the Browns have contributed to the legacy that is Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career. The litany of his success against Cleveland cannot be understated.

This will be Big Ben’s 26th start against his favorite opponent in a career that has seen him lose just twice and throw for more than 6,100 yards. Makes no difference where these teams play; the Steelers dominate when he is under center.

When plays need to be made, he makes them. It is uncanny how he almost always seems to make the right moves at the right time against the Browns. The tie earlier this season was a mere belch in his legacy.

The Steelers, back on top of the AFC North after their slow start, are coming off a bye. Normally, they need only one week to get ready for the Browns. Having two to prepare is almost unfair,

Even with the latest problems on offense, the Browns are better than a year ago. They compete unlike their two predecessors, which didn’t come close to playing at that level. The biggest problem remains the offense, which has not caught up with the defense.

This team is coming, though, but at a slower rate than expected by the front office. Many of the signs for success are there in the near, if not immediate, future.  But they aren't there yet.

These two teams right now are headed in opposite directions. This time, the Steelers, who are just 1-2 at home this season, will finish the job they failed to accomplish in the season opener and it won’t be pretty. The tie will be avenged easily.

Roethlisberger and wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown will carve up the porous Cleveland secondary and Conner once again will run for another 100 yards and at least one touchdown.

The struggling Cleveland offense, meanwhile, will sputter against Watt & Co. and provide punter Britton Colquitt with another very busy afternoon as the losing streaks continue ad nauseam.  Make it:

Steelers 38, Browns 17

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Mid-week thoughts

 The life blood of any successful football team’s offense flows through the guys up front. It’s really that simple.

As the offensive line plays, so, too, does the entire offense. And right now, you can trace the Browns’ sudden woes on that side of the football to the ragged play of those guys up front.

When you have a raw rookie starting at the most important position on the front line, the gatekeeper of the quarterback’s blind side, and an inconsistent performer on the other side, that’s a problem.

Desmond Harrison at left tackle has been lauded for his athleticism. Truth of the matter is he won the starting job because no one was better at the position in training camp and the coaching staff was prepared to deal with his growing pains.

Chris Hubbard, who played so well as an injury fill-in last season with Pittsburgh, has not played up to those standards with the Browns, encountering way too many problems for someone who has been around the National Football League for five seasons.

It doesn’t get much better in between with the three interior linemen. Guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler, especially the latter, have not played up to their normal high efficiency standards.

Playing next to a pair of problematic tackles very well might have a deleterious effect on Bitonio and Zeitler, whose efforts to help them out in pass protection has affected their performance.

The best (relatively speaking) and most consistent (ditto) performer on the line has been center JC Tretter, whose improvement from last season has been palpable, especially dealing with pass-rushing defensive interior linemen. 

Protecting rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has been a sizable chore for this line and it has failed spectacularly in the last three games, during which the Browns have managed to score only 46 points.

On at least two occasions, this line has failed to score a touchdown when faced with a goal-to-go situation with as few as two yards to gain. A simple quarterback sneak from the one-yard line failed against Tampa Bay Sunday. That’s unforgivable.

This group has difficulty opening up holes – and maintaining them – through which running backs can make a play. If there is a slight timing problem with the handoff, the hole disappears quickly and the result is usually a one- or two-yard gain at best.

As for the ability to run successful screen plays, the antidote to a strong opposing pass rush, it’s not there with the Browns. For whatever reason, the OL seems incapable of making it work.

As for pass protection, surrendering 15 sacks in the last three games is all you need to know about one of the major weaknesses of this line. They are on pace to give up a team-record 71 sacks this season.

Unless Mayfield can get the ball out by the time you are halfway between two and three when counting, something negative is about to happen. Try that counting method Sunday against Pittsburgh and see how often it works out that way.

One of the reasons is Mayfield’s inability to quickly spot open receivers and not paying attention to the clock in his head that warns either get out of the pocket or unload the ball in order to avoid a sack.

Quick-developing pass plays is the panacea that will keep him vertical, but that requires twitchy-quick reaction and exquisite timing by the receivers. And, of course, good hands, which is not always a given with this group.

During his early success after taking over for the concussed Tyrod Taylor in game three, Mayfield was much more decisive with his throws. The ball was gone in plenty of time for receivers to make a play. In the last three games, indecision has replaced that decisiveness.

At this rate, we might see Taylor again this season unless Mayfield proves to be superhuman and survives the weekly onslaught of up close and personal visits from opposing defensive linemen.
*       *       *
There seems to be some disconnect between the Browns’ coaching staff and the players somewhere between their last-minute talk in the locker room prior to the game and their opening possession of the game.

How else can one explain why the Browns are the only NFL team that hasn’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter this season? Seven games in and the offense is still looking for a touchdown somewhere, anywhere, in the first 15 minutes.

Many teams script the first dozen or so plays at the beginning of games. Not certain if the Browns fall into that category. Assuming they do, it stands as an indictment and should be abandoned considering the results in favor of something else. Anything else.

The defense pitched in a little to the first-quarter point total with a safety last Sunday against Tampa Bay, upping it to a booming eight.  And since the offense cannot produce quickly, maybe the defense can break the touchdown-less streak with a pick six or fumble return for a score.

For those keeping score, the Browns in seven games have had 20 first-quarter possessions and emerged with just the six points. The following are their deepest first-quarter penetrations in each of those games:

Pittsburgh’s 48-yard line in the first game; New Orleans’ 21 in the second (close enough for a Zane Gonzalez 39-yard field goal); the 48 of the New York Jets; Oakland’s 1-yard line (first and goal at the 1) on a 15-play, 68-yard drive, settling for a Greg Joseph 25-yard field goal after winding up back at the 7; Baltimore’s 35; the 34 of the Los Angeles Chargers; and Tampa Bay’s 49 last Sunday.

If it’s any consolation, at least the offense managed to cross midfield in every game. Yeah, probably not,
*       *       *
If nothing else, the Browns lead the NFL in one category: Most tight ends on one roster. Pharaoh Brown was promoted from the practice squad Tuesday, joining fellow tight ends David Njoku, Darren Fells, Seth DeValve and Orson Charles. Perhaps offensive coordinator Todd Haley can come up with the first all tight end pass formation. Now that would be truly unique.
*       *       *
Scraps . . . Notice something different about Mayfield in the Buccaneers game? Yep, the full beard is gone at least for the time being. The only hint of a hirsute appearance was what looked like a three-day growth. . . . . By holding the Browns to 23 points, the Bucs shaved two points off their points-against average (34.6 to 32.6). . . .  Another reason for the offensive ineptitude: 32.1% success rate on third down, fourth-worst in the league ahead of only Dallas, Buffalo and Arizona. . . . They have converted only three fourth-down conversions in 10 attempts. Time perhaps for Hue Jackson to think about kicking field goals on fourth down. . . . Conversely, the defense ranks sixth on third-down success at 33.3%. . . . Of Mayfield’s 34 pass attempts against Tampa Bay, he targeted wide receiver Jarvis Landry and Njoku nearly 62% of the time. . . . And finally, Britton Colquitt by far leads the league in number of punts with 54 (nearly eight a game), a whopping 12 more than Arizona’s Andy Lee. He also owns the longest punt with his 79-yarder against the Bucs, nine yards longer than one by Minnesota’s Matt Wile.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Monday leftovers

Clouds are beginning to form over 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea. They are dark and filled with anxiety, frustration, conflict, all the wrong things and show no signs of going away.

Hue Jackson has placed the Browns’ offense on the critical list, an offense that has not been the same for the last three games. So he has decided to step in and apply a Band-Aid.

When you look at it from his standpoint, the lack of production from the Cleveland offense has a solid connection with the good and welfare of Jackson’s job and a direct bearing on his status as the Browns’ head coach.,

By inserting himself into the picture on one side of the football, (notice he won’t touch the defense, which hasn’t exactly excelled lately), Jackson is slowly but surely talking his way out of Cleveland with his latest little diatribe.

For the good and welfare of the franchise and fans, Jackson needs to be out of Cleveland pronto, yanking his abysmal and embarrassing record as head coach of the Browns along with him. The sooner, the better.

He needs to take everything associated with him as far away from Cleveland as humanly possible to remove the acrid stench that has hovered over this franchise for the last year.

Jackson’s latest gambit involves possibly commandeering the offense from Todd Haley, the coordinator he personally okayed to be his successor while he concentrated on being the head coach.

“I’ve got to jump in head first, all hands, feet, everything, and go figure it out,” said the man responsible for (not even arguably) the absolute worst offense in the National Football League the last two years.

This all hit the fan moments after the Browns dropped yet another heart-breaking game, this one a 26-23 overtime loss down in Tampa Sunday to the Buccaneers. The solution to the club’s miseries on offense, he told reporters, was to reinsert himself into the picture.

“It’s just that simple,” he said. “I think I have to. That’s what I know. I’m not going to continue to watch something that I know how to do keep being that way. That’s just the truth.”

That, of course, would fly in the face of inevitably confronting the fiery Haley, who ostensibly had been given carte blanche to run the offense with no interference from the head coach.

“That’s nothing against anybody is our building,” Jackson said with obvious reference to a possible clash with Haley. “I just think that’s what I do, And I think I need to be a little more involved.

“I’ve been respectful. That’s why you bring guys in and make them coordinator. Again, that’s something we’ve got to fix fast to get this thing back to where it needs to be.”

What about a possible confrontation with Haley? “It’s not going to be about butting heads,” Jackson assured and then leaned on a favorite authoritative, maybe even combative, bromide.

“I’m the head coach of the football team,” he declared. “I will do what I feel I need to get this team where it needs to be. I’m the head coach of the football team, period. Period. There is nothing else that needs to be said. Nothing. I am the head coach of the football team.”

On Monday, Jackson backtracked. indicating Haley would still call the plays, perhaps cooling down the situation temporarily.  “When I decided to bring Todd here, I made a commitment he would have total autonomy of the offense,” he said. “. . . He has my full support (calling the plays) and I’ll continue to support him in that way.””

Airing dirty laundry in public won’t win points for the insecure Jackson, who must know he won’t last much longer, especially with a nasty part of the schedule dead ahead starting Sunday in Pittsburgh.

An eventual showdown with Haley could turn this into a him-or-me moment for the offensive coordinator, as in one of us goes, either him or me.

“Trust me when I say I’m not trying to create an issue here,” Jackson said Sunday. “The offense is not playing well – and we haven’t over a period of time.

“Being a head coach and an offensive guy who has done this, I think I have every right   . . . to jump in here and see if I can help and assist and get this thing to where it needs to be. . . . I need to be involved more and I will be.”

It’s almost as though Haley, who ran the wildly successful Steelers offense the last six seasons, has become stupid all of a sudden. This one clearly has no chance of turning out well.

In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some politicking and lobbying between the locker room and Ivory Tower involving Jackson, Haley, General Manager John Dorsey and owner Jimmy Haslam III with each trying to curry favor with the big bosses.

And to think all this could have been avoided had Haslam done the right thing and pulled the plug on Jackson after last season’s historical 16-game journey through football hell.
*       *       *
Most good football teams capitalize on turnovers with solid transition teams on both sides of the football.

Good transition defense limits the opposition to minimal damage following an interception or fumble by the offense. It is their job to either get the ball back or make certain the damage is limited.

Good transition offense is obviously just as important, perhaps more so, especially on teams that rack up major numbers when it comes to takeaways. Taking advantage of the other team’s mistakes is a great morale booster.

The Browns this season have not experienced anything that resembles a symbiotic relationship between their offense and defense when it comes to capitalizing on ball control and time of possession.

Gregg Williams’ defense this season has gotten the ball back for the offense 20 times in seven games. That’s a 16-game pace of an incredible 46 takeaways. But all that means nothing because the transition offense hasn’t enjoyed the fruits of their counterpart’s labors.

On those 20 occasions when the defense earned a rest, the offense converted them into only 30 points – three touchdowns and three field goals. Seven ended in punts.

The Browns’ transition defense has fared worse with fewer opportunities to succeed. The offense had turned over the ball only 10 times, but the defense has permitted points in six of them, 34 points in total.

And you wonder why they are 2-4-1 at this point? Above is hard evidence this team fails miserably in the opportunistic department.
*       *       *
 It has become quite obvious in the last three games that opposing defenses have become smarter in defending against Baker Mayfield, whose numbers directly reflect the club’s offensive woes in the last three games, one stat in particular.

He has completed less than 50% of his passes (48.8%) for 795 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions over those three games, during which the offense has scored just 46 points.

The alarming stat is the 15 times Mayfield has been sacked, in part attributable to an offensive line that has trouble holding pass blocks, but in larger part to the fact the rookie is having a difficult time finding open receivers.

That very well could be due to his relatively short stature, which prevents him from getting a good look at the field over the big uglies in front of him. Teams are now beginning to engulf him, shutting off any possible escape routes from the pocket.

Mayfield had little trouble escaping the pocket in his first two games, but those 15 sacks in the last three games is an indication opposing teams have figured him out and adjustments need to be made.
 *       *       *
It was only one game, but defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah finally showed up and played a terrific game in the Buccaneers loss. If it weren’t for Ogbah and fellow edge rusher Myles Garrett, Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston would have had all day to pick apart the beleaguered Cleveland secondary.

The third-year pro had five tackles, four solo, 1½ sacks, a couple of quarterback hits and numerous hurries as he spent plenty of time in the Bucs backfield. Garrett benefitted and upped his season sack total to seven with two more on Winston along with three hits and a forced fumble

Now all Ogbah has to do is show he can play like this every Sunday and it would more than justify not selecting Bradley Chubb in the last college football draft with the fourth overall pick. He has not displayed that consistency thus far.  
*       *       *
Some fans probably held their breath when Nick Chubb took over as the Browns’ lead running back following the trade of Carlos Hyde to Jacksonville. It didn’t take long for them to realize it was solid move.

Hyde was good for two, three and sometimes four yards a crack and was a reliably hard runner. Chubb is quite different, but in a very good way. His ability to break long runs leads one to believe a play is never over until this grinder is on the ground.

The most important statistic when evaluating Chubb is his yards after contact number and he picked up plenty of them with his hard-to-bring-down style against Tampa Bay, churning out 80 yards in 18 attempts with one touchdown. He’s going to be fine.
*       *       *
Referee Shawn Hochuli’s explanation for a flag being picked up after Mayfield was the victim of a helmet-to-helmet hit by Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday was weak. And wrong.

After Mayfield scrambled 35 yards after escaping the pocket, Whitehead drilled him along the sidelines bonnet to bonnet as Mayfield began this slide, drawing a flag for what most believed was a personal foul for unnecessary roughness.

After huddling with other officials, the flag was picked up and Hochuli announced that since Mayfield the quarterback became Mayfield the runner, he was fair game for such a hit. That’s bullroar unless the National Football League has changed its rule about getting rid of such hits on anyone and kept it secret.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Former Browns defensive end Carl Nassib, now with the Bucs, gained a measure of revenge with a two-sack afternoon, working mainly against rookie offensive tackle Desmond Harrison. . . . The Bucs’ defensive line, with veterans Gerald McCoy and Vinny Curry nursing injuries, manhandled the Cleveland offensive line all day. . . . Browns punter Britton Colquitt punted nine times, averaging 51.2 yards a boot. His 79-yarder late in the second quarter, had to be the longest in the league this season. . . . Fourteen more penalties for the league-leading Browns in this department for 114 yards. A holding penalty was declined or it would have been worse. . . . Free safety Damarious Randall played a lot of cornerback against the Bucs and recorded 12 tackles, 11 solo. Briean Boddy-Calhoun, relegated to the bench the last few weeks, came off it and posted 10 solo tackles, , , , Mayfield targeted Jarvis Landry a whopping 15 times and tight end David Njoku six times, accounting for 14 receptions, 149 yards and two touchdowns.. . . . Duke Johnson Jr, touch watch: One carry for minus four yards; four receptions for 23 yards. Total: Five touches for a net 19 yards. Season total:  38 touches, 294 yards. An average of 7.74 yards a touch. Sigh . . .

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Will it ever end?

The open-mouth look on Baker Mayfield’s face at the end of the game Sunday silently said it all. It accurately reflected abject and total disbelief.

As Chandler Catanzaro’s field goal sailed cleanly through the uprights from 59 yards to give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 26-23 overtime victory over the Browns, the rookie Browns quarterback’s face wore a bewildered, I-don’t-believe-what-I-just-saw look.

Not even Robert Ripley would have believed what unfolded for more than three-and-a-half hours Sunday down in Tampa. It was that alternately bizarre, frustrating and entertaining all afternoon.

In some ways, Catanzaro’s game winner with 1:50 left in overtime was a fitting ending in an afternoon that saw the Bucs snap a three-game losing streak and extend the Browns’ losing streak on the road to 24 in a row in agonizing fashion.

The afternoon saw each team squander numerous scoring opportunities, especially the Browns, who turned four more turnovers into just seven points. The game reached overtime, the fourth for the Browns this season, when Catanzaro’s 40-yard field goal attempt on the final play of regulation was a foot outside the right upright.

Ironically, the only turnover by the Browns all afternoon late in OT extended a Tampa Bay possession after the defense held the Bucs to a three-and-out. And wouldn’t you know it. Chalk this one up to, ta da, the special teams.

Jabrill Peppers returned a Bryan Anger punt 14 yards to the Cleveland 38, but was stripped of the football and the Bucs resumed their, as it turned out, game winning drive after recovering at the Browns’ 48.

Still, the defense was headed for yet another three-and out, when rookie linebacker Genard Avery jumped the snap on third-and-3 and was rewarded with the Browns’ sixth penalty of the afternoon on third down that gave the Bucs a first down. It was the club’s 14th penalty of the day, a sad commentary on the team’s discipline.

The defense earlier in the extra session blunted a promising Bucs drive when Jamie Collins picked off Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston deep in Cleveland territory.

The final result appeared headed for a tie when the Cleveland pass rush sacked Winston on consecutive plays totaling 19 yards, pushing the Bucs well out of Catanzaro’s range.

A 14-yard completion to DeSean Jackson against soft coverage looked innocuous enough as the Browns stood ready to take the field again, figuring Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter would send out Anger.

What they didn’t realize until a few minutes later was the only time they would take the field again would be to trot to the dressing room after yet another improbable, agonizing, why-is-this-still-happening-to-us loss.

They not for one moment believed Catanzaro, who has a 60-yard field goal on his résumé, would be successful from long distance. But this was no ordinary afternoon and the improbable became reality.

The stunning and sudden end ruined a Browns rally in the second half after playing miserable and mistake-laden football the first 30 minutes, during which they trailed, 16-2. Their only score was a safety on Tampa Bay’s initial possession.

They looked suspiciously like the Browns teams of the last way too many seasons when virtually nothing worked on both sides of the football. Fans has to be asking themselves, “Where have I seen this before? Oh yeah. That’s right. The last 19 seasons.”

Dropped passes, few running lanes and poor pass protection on offense; loose coverage in the secondary and too much arm tackling on defense were the lowlight culprits. The closest they came to scoring in the first half was when Christian Kirksey recovered a Cameron Brate fumble at the Tampa Bay 19 with 50 seconds left.

With the way the offense was operating, it shouldn’t have been a surprise the brief drive ended when Mayfield, carrying the football like a loaf of bread, was stripped of the ball, which rolled backward out of bounds one yard shy of the line to gain on fourth down after he had initially gained the necessary yardage.

The Bucs, meanwhile, put together scoring drives of 55 yards and 75 yards, Jackson and Winston reaching the end zone on the ground, Jackson on a 14-yard reverse and Winston on a 13-yard scramble.

The Browns totaled only 74 yards and three first downs on offense in seven drives and surrendered 243 yards and 18 first downs on defense. They looked like an entirely different team in the second half.

It began when Myles Garrett strip-sacked Winston and Avery returned the fumble to the Bucs 26. Three plays later, Mayfield, looking much more confident, hooked up with David Njoku on a 15-yard scoring strike.

Winston, who entered the game with a 1-10 record in his last 11 starts, led a 13-play, 73-yard retaliatory drive, rookie Ronald Jones bolting the final two yards for the first touchdown on the ground for a Tampa running back this season.

The rejuvenated Cleveland offense immediately came back with a seven-play drive that covered 75 yards, Nick Chubb scoring from a yard out. It was helped immensely by a pass interference call in the end zone.

Chubb acquitted himself well in his first pro start, replacing the traded Carlos Hyde as the lead back. He gained 80 tough yards, many of them after contact, on 18 carries with the one score

The Browns, running smoothly now on offense, came close to pulling even on their next possession, traveling 79½ yards to the Tampa Bay one-foot line in nine plays. Mayfield’s sneak on fourth down was ruled short with 4:55 left.

The defense, replied with another three-and-out, but this time, Peppers responded with a 32-yard return (yes, no flags!) to the Bucs’ 16-yard line. One play later, Mayfield and Jarvis Landry, who wound up with 10 receptions for 97 yards, collaborated to pull even with 2:28 left.

And that’s when the bizarre twists and turns took center stage, each club threatening until Catanzaro solved the mystery of the final score with his extraordinary leg as the Browns added yet another chapter of misery and frustration to a book too full of them.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Brace for another scorefest

 The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who greet the Browns Sunday down in Florida, might be just 2-3 this season, but they also might be the best 2-3 team in the National Football League. On offense, that is.

Defense? Forget it. That’s why they are 2-3.

The buzz saw that is the Bucs’ offense is sixth in the league in average points per game at 28.2, which ordinarily would suggest their record should be substantially better than it is.

That’s when you take a close look at the defense, or what passes for defense, and discover that side of the football has hemorrhaged nearly 35 points a game. That’s five touchdowns a game on average.

That, in theory, should be easy pickings for the Browns, who could use a break on offense after scoring just 23 points in the last two games. It also might be enough to break them out of their first-quarter doldrums, which have produced just two field goals this season.

But what about the Cleveland defense, which disappeared last Sunday at home against the Los Angeles Chargers? If the Chargers can plaster 38 points on the scoreboard, imagine what the high-powered Bucs offense can do against a Cleveland defense beset with injuries.

Then factor in the home debut this season for Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who missed the first two home games while serving a three-game suspension for a personal conduct violation.

Winston took over the offense midway through game four after Ryan Fitzpatrick, who kept Winston’s seat warm while he was serving his suspension, guided the Bucs to stunning victories over New Orleans and Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and lost by only a field goal to Pittsburgh.

The veteran was so spectacular (78-of-111 for 1.230 yards, 11 touchdowns and four picks), Bucs coach Dirk Koetter stuck with him when Winston returned. For one half, that is. Fitzpatrick returned to his normal self in the first half of a brutal loss to Chicago and Winston took over.

It took him exactly one game to replicate Fitzpatrick’s outstanding statistical contributions early on, completing 30 of his 41 passes for 395 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to Atlanta. That’s what the Cleveland secondary can look forward to Sunday.

Winston has outstanding receivers in Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel’s favorite receiver at Texas A&M, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, and tight ends O. J. Howard and Cameron Brate. They combine for 15 of the club’s 16 touchdowns through the air. Brate has only seven receptions, but three arrived in the end zone.

So who does rookie cornerback Denzel Ward cover? Zone coverage might be the best strategy against arguably one of the best receivers’ corps in the NFL. Or a combination of zone and man-to-man because straight-up man and/or press coverage won’t work against this group.

Evans, Godwin and Jackson are probably the most dangerous, which is two too many for a Cleveland secondary that is banged up and has been exposed as vulnerable the last few weeks. If the pass rush, which has registered only three sacks in the last two weeks, doesn’t improve, it will be a long afternoon for the guys in the back end.

The Bucs bludgeon their opponents almost strictly through the air. Their ground game is an afterthought. Just about everything about the offense, which produces 450 yards a game and a hefty 7.2 yards per play, flows through the forward pass.

Peyton Barber is the leading rusher for the Bucs, who run about a third of the time, with a paltry 230 yards. Fitzpatrick scored the club’s lone touchdown via the run. That tells you all you need to know.

The Browns lug a league-record 23-game road losing streak into Raymond James Stadium. The best shot they have at ending the road misery right there is to simply try to outscore the Bucs. Baker Mayfield will have plenty of opportunities against a pass rush that has only 11 sacks.

Veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the ex-New York Giant, owns five of those sacks and he’ll be squaring off mostly against rookie offensive left tackle Desmond Harrison all afternoon in what in all probability will ultimately be labeled an unfair fight.

The Bucs, however, have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 78% of their passes, an astounding statistic even by today’s standards. Their secondary has picked off just one pass . . . one pass . . . in five games.

All of which fits perfectly into the Mayfield profile. He is known for unerring accuracy when given time to throw, which has been problematic the last two outings. If he has the time and the cooperation of his receivers to actually catch the football when thrown their way, this one has all the earmarks of a scoring bonanza.

The Bucs defense was so bad, it cost defensive coordinator Mike Smith his job. Bucs fans probably wondered why it took so long to cashier the former Atlanta Falcons head coach. Mark Duffner takes over the thankless job of trying to make chicken soup out of chicken feces.

It will be interesting to see how the Browns attack the porous Tampa Bay defense, which has allowed 356 yards a game to opposing quarterbacks and just 84 yards a game on the ground.

The stodgy and boring ground game would have featured bulldozing running back Carlos Hyde in this one, but the bruising running back was traded unexpectedly to Jacksonville Friday for a fifth-round draft selection next year.

That means reps that would have gone to Hyde will now be shared by the more versatile and dangerous Duke Johnson Jr. and rookie running back Nick Chubb, who has delivered big time in his limited opportunities.

That means coach Hue Jackson, who has promised more carries for the rookie for a couple of weeks now, has to deliver on that promise. In fact, Chubb could possibly become the lead back.

Up to now, it was believed he was relatively forgotten because his pass blocking was a huge work in progress and threatened the safety of his quarterback. His pass-catching ability was an unknown since he rarely was thrown to at run-heavy Georgia. Fans will find out beginning Sunday.

With a wide receivers’ corps that is rookie laden and sort of stitched together, it should not be too much to expect offensive coordinator Todd Haley to give Johnson and Chubb more reps, especially now that Hyde is headed to Florida.

Unfortunately, I do not see the stubborn Haley changing the script much. The result will be a pass-heavy shootout that delights fans and television viewers, but will drive Cleveland defensive coordinator Gregg Williams nuts.

One other possibility: Both quarterbacks are also threats to run, which will add to the entertainment value should the respective pass rushes somehow find ways to cause them to leave the pocket.

Unlike last Sunday, this one could be determined by which team has the stronger second half. The Browns manage to hang in there, score some first-half points and stay with the Bucs through the better part of three quarters before fading in the final 15 minutes. Make it:

Buccaneers 38, Browns 24

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Mid-week thoughts

 Hue Jackson is perilously close to losing his job as head coach of the Browns. He just doesn’t realize it yet. The danger signs are lurking.

You can bet the rabid fan base, which has every right to be angry after last Sunday’s disappointing 38-14 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, won’t mind his departure at all. The sooner, they believe, the better.

Those fans expected a lot more than what they got in that loss, magnifying its importance.  It wasn’t just another loss by a franchise that has made losing routine. It was a loss that followed the first five games of the season in which the Browns actually played well enough to win all five. But didn’t.

So was the L.A. setback an aberration? Just one of those games in a season where nothing goes right for whatever reason, not nearly indicative of how good the team really is?  Not necessarily.

It is entirely possible, given the ragged effort put forth in the Chargers’ debacle, that Jackson no longer has his team’s ears. They hear him, of course, but are not listening. When a team no longer listens to the head coach, red flags fly.

Has he totally lost the team? Probably not yet. But again, the danger signs loom. There was absolutely no reason for this team to come out flatter than a crepe against the Chargers.

When a team comes out emotionally vacant in an important game, the blame automatically, and correctly, falls on the head coach. That team was not properly prepared emotionally to play a game of football. With only 16 chances a season, that is inexcusable and unforgivable.

General Manager John Dorsey and owner Jimmy Haslam III had to be extremely upset as they watched the Browns get embarrassingly slapped around by the Chargers for the better part of 60 minutes and not retaliate in some form.

A whole lot from now on will depend on whether the Browns rebound down in Tampa Sunday or replicate their showing against the Chargers. If they reprise their last game, there is no way Jackson survives the gauntlet that lies immediately ahead.

The only way he and his short leash escape impending unemployment and last the entire season is to negotiate an upcoming treacherous minefield of games in the next six weeks and emerge with at least two or three victories.

Anything less against the likes of the high-scoring Bucs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, all high-scoring teams, will not be enough to keep Dorsey from making a change.

Right now, the defense is starting to level off. It is not playing with the same intensity and purpose. The offense is still searching for an identity. And the special teams remain the most consistent part of the team – awful. It is entirely possible the fans have seen the best this team has to offer.

The question now is how close Dorsey is to removing that leash from around his coach’s neck and finally making a move that, in reality, should have been made at the end of last season. The odds Jackson survives the entire season in charge are clearly not in his favor as the schedule toughens.

And when –not if because I can’t see the GM and Haslam subjecting the fans to even more misery by keeping him – Dorsey makes his move, it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

Does he elevate one of his coordinators (guessing offensive boss Todd Haley) to the top spot and slap an interim tag on him? Or make him the permanent boss. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had someone else in mind (with another team now) for the long term.

Jackson has been the face of awful football for the better part of the last three seasons and brought embarrassment to the franchise, as well as the city of Cleveland. That sad era is teetering on the verge of becoming one that is best forgotten forever.
*       *       *
Jackson’s judgment can be called into question on more than a few occasions. One in particular leaped out entering the final quarter of the Chargers game.

Why in the world did he keep sending Baker Mayfield out for more punishment until the end of the game? The rookie quarterback twisted an ankle midway through the first quarter after slipping on an orange down marker after scrambling for several yards.

The Chargers had a 35-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The game was lost. There was absolutely no reason for Mayfield, bum ankle and all, to be in there. Weren’t five sacks and numerous other punishing hits enough to warrant being a spectator while Drew Stanton handled the fourth quarter?

What in the world was he trying to prove? When is enough enough? It was obvious the kid was overmatched and overwhelmed. And yet, Jackson kept trotting him out (with a slight limp) for more punishment.

Considering the way the Browns’ offensive line protected Mayfield, it apparently never occurred to the coach that he was placing the club’s top pick, the future face of the franchise, in harm’s way unnecessarily.
*       *       *
Dorsey is scrambling to plug unexpected holes on the wide receivers’ front. With Rashard Higgins and Derrick Willies out for at least another week or two and Antonio Callaway blowing opportunity after opportunity, the GM has called up Da’Mari Scott up from the practice squad and signed free agent Breshad Perriman, who failed miserably with Baltimore.

Right now, Mayfield’s outside targets include three rookies (Callaway, Damion Ratley and Scott), the speedy and highly unpredictable Perriman, who has never taken a snap with Cleveland, and Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry, who has dropped five passes this season.

Ratley, called on in an emergency when Rod Streater broke a bone in his neck in the first quarter on punt coverage Sunday. acquitted himself well with six receptions after dropping a touchdown pass in the end zone against the Chargers.

Landry, who has averaged 100 receptions a season in four NFL seasons, had 20 catches for 278 yards in his first three games this season, but has tailed off considerably with only 11 grabs for 114 yards in the last three. A statistic that foretells problems ahead.
 *       *       *
Scraps . . . When Tyrod Taylor was at quarterback, the Browns turnover ratio was +9. Since Mayfield took over midway through the third game, that ratio is -2. A coincidence? Probably, but make of it what you will. . . . Mayfield has thrown five interceptions and been sacked 13 times. But he has thrown for 1,066 yards and four touchdowns. . . . The offensive line has given up 26 sacks already this season. At this pace, it will surrender 69 sacks, shattering the old mark of 66 set season before last. That’s what happens when you have a raw rookie at one tackle and mediocrity at the other. . . . In addition to adding Scott to the main roster, the Browns also waived linebacker James Burgess injured and brought linebacker Xavier Woodson-Luster up from the practice squad.  . . . C Christian Kirksey moves over from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker while Joe Schobert rests his ouchy hamstring for the next few weeks. Rookie Genard Avery, who has played well enough to warrant more reps, takes over for Kirksey on that side (the right side) of the formation.