Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Back in the saddle 

Observations after watching the Browns split their last two games against Houston and Carolina via DirecTV . . .

Baker Mayfield is the quarterback the Browns have been looking for after nearly two decades of futility. That has become abundantly and unquestionably clear in the last few months.

Statistics are the usual the measuring stick that determines the worth and importance of a team’s quarterback, But with Mayfield, it’s something entirely different.

The rookie passes the eye test. It’s that simple.

He exudes a confidence that is slowly translating into winning football for a franchise that has been wandering in a desert of despair since it returned to the National Football League in 1999.

Fans see it. Players see it and have responded more positively to it than I have seen since that day the NFL corrected a huge mistake and welcomed Cleveland back into the league.

It’s not just about body language, the charisma and a winning attitude, of which has truckloads. Losing is anathema to him. The way he enjoys winning is becoming infectious.

Of the 29 starting quarterbacks who preceded Mayfield with the Browns, not a single one has played well enough to make me declare the search for the franchise quarterback is over. That stops right now.

It has taken him only 10½ games to convince me that the long wait is over. The kid does not play like a rookie. He plays likes a young veteran who gets it, who understands what it takes to win and shares it with his teammates on offense.

It has reached the point where when Mayfield drops back to pass, I believe something good, something positive is about to occur. I can’t remember feeling that way about a Browns quarterback since the days of Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar.

He’ll have his hiccups like the three interceptions (all in one half) he threw in the loss to Houston. He’ll learn from that. That won’t happen again for a very long time.

In the six quarters that followed the forgettable first half in Houston, Mayfield has thrown for nearly 550 yards with no picks. He is the type who refuses to let himself get too down and uses it as fuel to better himself.

His biggest weapons, besides his supreme confidence, are his hard-to-teach feel for the game, especially in the pocket, outstanding throwing arm, particularly on the run, and unerring accuracy.

He almost always gives his receivers an excellent chance to catch the football. He rarely throws a bad ball. Can’t ask much more than that from your quarterback, who is 5-6 entering the final three games of the season. . . .

He hasn’t been with the club for very long, but Breshad Perriman is slowly becoming a wide receiver Mayfield trusts. His 66-yard, opening-play-of-the-game bomb to the former Baltimore Ravens wideout in the Carolina victory proved that.

Perriman and Antonio Callaway now give Mayfield two deep threats in an arsenal that has seen him use as many as eight or nine, sometimes 10 different targets in a game. . . .

Sticking with the offense, Nick Chubb is just 240 yards away from becoming a 1,000-yard rusher in his rookie season. He has become a touchdown machine with 10, eight infantry style. Not bad for someone who was mostly forgotten in the first six weeks of the season.

He is the perfect complement to his fellow rookie in the backfield, churning out the hard yards, and has also become an occasional Mayfield target out of the backfield. . . .

All of which makes me wonder whether Duke Johnson Jr. is in the team’s future plans. Because if he is, it sure hasn’t looked like it this season. The versatile running back logged only 20 snaps in the Houston loss and just 18 in the Panthers victory.

There’s a certain head coach in New England who knows how to use a talent like Johnson a lot better than the Browns. Might be worth exploring a trade with that certain coach. . . .

That’s not to denigrate the contributions of new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. While ostensibly using the playbook of Todd Haley, the new offensive boss has added some new wrinkles.

The plays might be the same, but the execution is much better and more productive. The offense looks so much more cohesive to the point where the numerous three-and-outs that plagued that side of the football have all but disappeared.

The inside handoffs to wide receiver Jarvis Landry that produced a touchdown and a 51-yard gallop did not look like anything fans saw in the first eight games of the season from the Haley playbook.

And the 51-yard scoring bomb Mayfield dropped into Landry’s bucket against a double team in the Carolina victory was a thing of beauty that exemplified that unerring accuracy. . . .

Another weapon in Mayfield’s arsenal are chunk plays, those plays that move the football quickly downfield in chunks (20 yards or more). He logged nine such plays in the Texans loss and four more in the Panthers victory. . . .

Consider this a bit of a niggle with regard to the offensive line, which has surrendered only one sack in the last four games. One reason is Mayfield’s pocket presence, which has enabled him to deftly escape danger.

Left tackle Greg Robinson is hurting the offense with numerous costly penalties.  One long Mayfield-Callaway scoring connection in the Houston game was wiped out by a Robinson hold. The line needs to be retooled at both tackles.

The club needs more athleticism at the position. Notice how few sweeps and traps the Browns run. Completing successful screen passes is a challenge. That needs to be addressed in either free agency or the college draft. . . .

On defense, the return of Joe Schobert at middle linebacker after a three-game absence has made a big difference. The Browns lost all three of those games. With Schobert in the middle,, the club is 5-4-1, including back-to-back home victories for the first time since the middle of the 2014 season.

He’s not the main reason, of course. But it’s more than a coincidence that the Browns play better defense with Schobert making all the defensive calls. . . .

It also helps to have Damarious Randall at free safety. Randall leads the team in solo tackles with 67 (seven assists), intercepted a team-high four passes and recovered a fumble.

And to think all it cost the Browns to take him off Green Bay’s hands was DeShone Kizer and a swap of middle-round draft choices. That just might be General Manager John Dorsey’s best off-season deal. . . .

One more defensive observation: Jabrill Peppers looks like s completely different player at strong safety. A lot different after playing in another area code as a free safety last season. He is much more aggressive and playing with a confidence that was missing in his rookie season.

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