Browns Preview: Game 6 (@ Houston)

Opponent Preview

When I do a team preview, I look at either (1) the most interesting thing about the team or (2) the most significant factor in their season or (3) the thing most Browns fans want to know. For the Texans, those are one and the same.

The Browns went into the 2017 draft holding the 12th pick. Rather than use it, Cleveland traded it to Houston for the 25th pick (which they used on Jabril Peppers) and Houston’s #1 pick in 2018. The Texans promptly used the pick on QB DeShaun Watson from Clemson.

Watson comes into the game with a 100.7 passer rating (seventh-best). He’s getting 7.4 yards per pass (tied for 12th; above the league average 7.1) and a superb 12-4 TD/INT ratio.  He’s run for 179 yards (8.1 per carry) and scored two TDs. About the worst thing you can say is that Watson has been sacked on 8.2% of his pass attempts– 23rd-best among starters.

So the Browns screwed up by passing up Watson– and everyone who didn’t like him was wrong.

I don’t agree, Even at pick 25, Watson would have been a bad pick for the Browns. He would have been a terrible one at #12. Let’s run through the knocks on him:

1. Likely to be injury-prone. Watson has a slender frame. His draft profiles at TSX, and and Ourlads all flagged him. TSX compared him Teddy Bridgewater and Jared Goff; NFL,com to Goff.

Five games into his NFL career, he hasn’t gotten hurt. That doesn’t mean the assessment was wrong. After playing full seasons in 2014 and 2015, Bridgewater missed all of 2016 with an injury and still hasn’t played this year.

Maybe Watson will avoid injury– Adrian Peterson was downgraded for not being able to stay healthy in college and he missed only 8 games in his first seven years. On the other hand, scouts gave Deuce McAllister the “injury risk” tag. After four healthy seasons, he never played a full year again.

Most importantly of all, the Texans have a championship-quality defense (seventh, sevenths and eleventh in points allowed in the past three years) , but an offense so bad (14th, 21st, 28th) that they struggle to get over .500 and die in the playoffs. Their quarterback situation has been embarassing– they needed to get a young QB.

I know– pot calling kettle. The Browns have thrashed around every season, but Houston has been the opposite extreme. They’ve looked to trades and free agency..

Before Watson, the Texans’ last attempt to draft a QB– in any round– was Tom Savage in the fourth round of 2014. They’d drafted only six quarterbacks in 16 years: T.J. Yates in the fifth round of 2011. Then Alex Brink (7th round, 2008), B.J. Symons (7th, 2004), Dave Ragone (#3, 2003) and David Carr as the first pick of the 2002 draft.

The possibility that Watson might get injured pales next to the certainty that the clock is ticking. Coach Bill O’Brien is 27-21 only because he plays in the NFL’s worst division and gets six easy games. If he and GM Rick Smith don’t reach 11-12 wins and at least an ALCS, they’ll get fired.

A gamble makes more sense for a team with playoff expectations. J.J. Watt isn’t getting any younger, and he’s starting to fall apart (he’s out for the year).

2. Lacks good arm strength. I value a strong arm less than most people– accuracy is what concerns me– but Watson’s passes were clocked at only 45 MPH on the radar gun (you can find the stat on the Ourlads profile). By comparison, Cody “Trust Me” Kessler threw 55.

It’s another similarity to Bridgewater. Concerns about his arm strength were significant enough that he skipped throwing at the combine, rather than have the problem documented.

The Browns play in an open-air, cold-weather stadium in the AFC North. Houston plays in a dome. Also, their opponents in the AFC South include Indianapolis (another dome) Jacksonville (Florida) and Nashville, Tennessee (weather in December in the 40’s and 50’s). At worst– if the Texans play both the AFC and NFC North– he’ll play 4-5 games in cold-weather cities. And some of those games will be in September and October.

Again, a risk. But one Houston can rationalize taking.

3. Better fit for the Texans offense. Neither Watson not Kizer played in a pro-style offense– but other than using a shotgun exclusively, the offenses were very different.

Watson played at Clemson, which uses screens and short throws. A lot of their “pass plays” would be “tosses” or “pitches” if the quarterback weren’t throwing them overhand. Dabo Swinney wants his receivers to have the ball in their hands before the defense realizes where the play is going, so he they can get more yards after the catch. Other than WR Mike Williams (who was 6’1 and became the seventh pick) and the tight end, Clemson receivers are short, extremely fast players– Watson was expected to deliver the ball immediately.

Notre Dame uses a version of the spread that looks to throw downfield more. Brian Kelly wants receivers who can block on running plays, so he uses taller, slower receivers; Kizer was trained to wait for them to come out of their break– and because he has trouble reading defenses, he takes longer than normal to spot the open mando it.

Except for DeAndre Hopkins (6’1″ and 214, but still very fast– 35 catches for 363 yards and 5 TDs), the Texans have short, quick guys: 5’9″ (Bruce Ellington, who is 9-133-1), 6’0 (Will Fuller; 6-92-4), 6’0″ (Braxton Miller; 3-25-0) and 5’11” (Chris Thompson). The #2 receiver on the team 12-135-1) is RB Lamar Miller.

O’Brien runs an offense that values possession passing and avoiding mistakes (sack, fumbles, drops). It is fairly simple to pick up. Watson, who is trained to throw short passes to small receivers quickly, is ideal for that system. Kizer would struggle to fit in at Houston

Also, Watson would be a fish out of water in Cleveland. Hue Jackson‘s playbook is extremely complicated. Like Notre Dame, it looks to throw deep to big receivers, with the quarterback waiting for the big play. The Browns have taller, slower receivers with bad hands; they drop passes.

4. Better supporting cast. Not one of the receivers on the Browns– including tight ends– would be playing significant snaps in Houston. Partly that’s because Houston has spent #1 picks on Hopkins (2013) and Fuller 2016), a #3 on Miller last year and a #3 on backup RB D’Onta Foreman this year.

Mostly it’s that they drafted better. Fuller was taken six picks after Corey “Hands” Coleman last year. Savage and Brock Osweiler threw him 92 passes; he caught barely over half (47). But he gained 635 yards scored twice– vastly better than Coleman. He caught only 33 of the 73 balls thrown to him and gained 413 yards (a full yard less per catch). Coleman did score one more TD– but he also had one serious injury.

Lamar Miller was drafted by Miami in 2012; when Adam Gase was hired, they declined to re-sign Miller, even though ha had seasons of 709, 1,099 and 872 yards. The Browns decided they didn’t need a running back– that “The Crow” and “The Duck” were better. Last year Biller gained 1,073 yards and averaged 4.0 yards; he’s got 331 yards and a 4.0 average again. The two backs the Browns used have been… well, fowl.

5. Better coaching. O’Brien spent five seasons with Bill Belicheat, working his way up from offensive assistant to receivers, to quarterbacks to coordinator. This was after he spent 14 years in college, working for some good NCAA coaches– and a even a year with Chan Gailey (a former NFL head coach, who was an assistant for Dan Reeves, Bill Cowher and Dave Wannstedt.

O’Brien coached quarterbacks, but he also has both a quarterbacks coach (Sean Ryan, who trained under Tom Coughlin) and an assistant QB coach (Pat O’Hara) who works specifically with the backups. This ensures that the non-starters get grooming

Jackson, who has been to impatient to advance to serve an apprenticeship anywhere, spent a year coaching running. backs for Marty Schottenheimer and two years coaching quarterbacks for John Harbaugh. He spent seven years (in two stints) with Marvin Lewis– whose notions of offense are somewhat quaint.

The Browns have a QB coach (David Lee), who has, according to his bio:

helped eight quarterbacks surpass the 3,000 passing yard plateau nine times, including Tyrod Taylor (3,023 in 2016 and 3,025 in 2015), Geno Smith (3,046 in 2014), Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,400 in 2012), Chad Henne (3,301 in 2010), Chad Pennington (3,653 in 2008), Drew Bledsoe (3,639 in 2005), Vinny Testaverde (3,532 in 2004) and Quincy Carter (3,302 in 2003).

I wouldn’t brag about working with those guys, but if it’s the best you have, you go with it. The starting QB gets 80% of the work during the week, meaning that the backups are on their own.

We’ll never know, but had the Browns taken Watson at pick 12, I suspect he would be struggling as badly as Kizer. A bad team makes the players who join it worse.

Browns Preview

The Browns are observing radio silence at present. Everyone is aware that Jimmy Haslam is ready to fire everyone, and trying to keep their heads down.

The problem facing Haslam: he can’t fire anyone and expect to get even marginally competent replacements. A friend who has excellent ties to the front office world says that nobody will consider Cleveland for the following reasons:

  1. He’s fired three coach-GM tandems since taking over in 2012, giving none of them more than two years.
  2. The record of the three previous regimes were: (A) Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur, who went 9-23 (.281), (B) Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzynski (4-12; .250), (C) Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine (10-22; .312)
  3. His current mismanagement team– Sasho, Ando and Paulo Marx, plus Jackson– is 1-20 (.048) which is by far the worst performance of any non-expansion team since teams began sharing revenue.
  4. Heckert is employed by Denver, Lombardi in New England. Chudzynski (Colts) and Shurmur (Vikings) are well-regarded coordinators.
  5. A list of people talking down the team includes all of the fired people already mentioned, plus former coordinators Norv Turner and Kyle Shanahan and Mike “The Walrus” Holmgren and writer Jason La Canfora (who is BFF with Banner and Lombardi)
  6. Haslam doesn’t just take an active role in the operation of the team– he lets his wife Dee weigh in. Because the NFL is nearly as sexist as it is racist, people who run teams get really angry at the idea of a woman making football decisions.

One may question the competence of some of the people, but not everyone. Also, Haslam has nobody willing to speak of his behalf, other than Jim Brown.

Potential candidates for coach or GM (my friend says) assume that they would have to reach .500 within two years, and they would have the owner actively working against them.

It’s now assumed that Haslam ordered the drafting of Johnny Manziel– and was the prime mover behind hiring Jackson. Some people even feel he ordered the cuts of Joe Haden, Gary Barnidge and other veterans. (I don’t.)

Another rumor– one that has been floating around for years– isn’t doing Haslam any good. Haslam graduated from Tennessee– Peyton Manning’s alma mater. It is widely assumed (it was even when Manning was still playing) that Haslam would like to hand the Browns over to him, much as Pat Bowlen did with John Elway.

Manning is not interested at this time— and probably is way too smart to come to Cleveland.

My friend says Haslam wouldn’t have an open path, either. Jim Irsay is thinking about letting Manning take over, if first-year GM Chris Ballard fails. Irsay saw how much fan support the Indiana Pacers (who had Larry Bird running the team until recently) received. Also, Manning is smart enough to do the job.

The belief that Haslam might swing the axes is so strong that Peter Queen– the lead Heather in the pack of Mean Girls that make up the national football media–actually gave him a public warning not to do it. In his most recent column,  (look for the “Ten things I think”, item #2) told Haslam

First, you never make good decisions when you’re angry, or you’re tired. Second, you’re going to go backwards by firing anyone now, or after the season, barring some unforeseen development. Stay the course, stay off social media, and don’t listen to the radio.

One of the plans– to fire Jackson and replace him with Gregg Williams– has had to be taken off the table because Williams’s defense simply isn’t doing well enough. The Browns are 25th in points allowed (24.8), despite playing the fifth-weakest schedule (Indianapolis, Seattle, the Rams, San Francisco). All of Cleveland’s opponents have spent part of the second half killing the clock, because they didn’t need to score.

The Browns can try to acquire a disgruntled veteran in the final year of his contract– like they did with Jamie Collins— but there aren’t any impact players at positions of need available.

Nobody thinks Kevin Hogan will become a star. They’re just hoping he’ll avoid making some of the truly horrible errors that Kizer has been making. The hope is that the offense (31st in points) can stop shooting itself in the foot, and that Collins, Myles Garrett and someone else (your guess is as good as mine) can rally the defense.

Game Preview

This game won’t be the type of one-sided beating that the Texans have been dishing out to the Browns of late. It simply can’t be:

  • Defensive Ends J.J. Watt and Whitey Mercilus are out for the year
  • LB Brian Cushing has been suspended for using performance-enhancers
  • CB Kevin Johnson has another knee injury

Also, both DE Jadeveon Clowney (knee) and CB Johnathan Joseph (groin) will play, but are likely to be slowed by injuries.

The Texans are ranked 28th in defense. They have only 11 sacks and 7 turnovers. Opposing QBs have a 97.5 rating, getting 7.9 yards per pass, with a 9-4 TD/INT ratio. The defense will not be able to stuff Browns running backs in the backfield. (If they do, it’ll be be because the Browns’ running backs suck.)

Hogan will get time to throw; his receivers will be open. If Hogan plays as well as he has been playing in relief (104.8 rating, 9.9 yards per pass, 3-2 TD/INT) the Browns will be able to score points– probably around the 26.0 the Texans have been averaging.

The problem is that the Texans’ offense isn’t the sickly sputtering thing it has been. They’re ranked fourth, averaging 28.8 points a game. In the last three weeks, they scored 33 on New England (which is not solely because the defense sucks), scored 34 against the unbeaten Chiefs– and dropped 57 on the Titans.

That’s a little misleading; Tennessee turned the ball over five times. But the Texans of past years wouldn’t have been able to score 57 if all five turnovers had put the ball on the one-yard-line.

Except for the first game against Jacksonville (93 yards), the running game has been well over 100 every week. You Jacksonville (99 yards passing) in game one and Cincinnati (99 yards) in game two held the passing game in check (or maybe it was growing pains by Watson). But they’ve been over 248 passing yards in the last three weeks.

Other than a 4-turnover debacle against Jacksonville, the offense has taken care of the ball.

So there’s no reason to think Houston will score less than 30 points. Gregg Williams’s defense has held opposing rushers to 2.9 yards per carry… but opposing quarterbacks have a 112.4 passer rating, are getting 7.9 yards per pass and have thrown for 11 TDs and only 3 INTs.

Also there is the small matter of the defense’s rushing stats by quarter, which show that much of the improved defense is merely a matter of opponents killing the clock:

  • First Quarter: 27 carries for 58 yards (2.1 per carry) and 2 scores
  • Second Quarter: 27 carries for 111 yards (4.1 per carry) and 2 scores
  • Third Quarter: 32 carries for 115 yards (3.6 per carry) and 0 scores
  • Fourth Quarter: 48 carries for 99 yards (2.1 per carry) and 0 scores

The first-quarter performance is highly impressive. Run defense in the second and third quarters are acceptable (especially compared to past Browns teams). It’s offset by the pass defense, however:

  • First Quarter: 22-28 (78.6%) for 161 yards (5.8 per pass), no TDs and no interceptions (90.6 rating)
  • Second Quarter: 43-59 (72.9%) for 572 yards (9.7 per pass), 7 TDs and 2 INTs (128.6 rating)
  • Third Quarter: 26-40 (65.0%) for 200 yards (5.0 per pass), 3 TDs and 0 INTs (102.1 rating)
  • Fourth Quarter: 22-26 (84.6%) for 204 yards (7.8 per pass), 1 TD and 1 INT (96.2 rating)

Opponents start out trying to run, quickly realize that they can pass as much as they want to– and then do so until they have a comfortable lead.

In this game, the Texans will probably need to score a lot of points to get a few TDs up on the Browns. The odds are they will.

Game Prediction

There is a small chance– I’d place it at about 15%– that the Browns win> it would require the following things.

1. The players would need to feel they are playing for the jobs of their coaches– and want to do that.

In his memoir, Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas tells a story about the Bills when Hank Bullough was the coach. The day of a game that the papers said might decide Bullough’s future, DE, Bruce Smith told the defense “Anybody makes a tackle today, I’ll beat you.”

2. The undermanned Texan defense would need to get bad games out of their substitutes.

3. The Texans would need to come on overconfident– expecting the game to be easy.

4. Jackson and Williams would need to call their best games and use trick plays.

If so, Cleveland could eke out a 21-17 win, where Watson throws for four interceptions and Miller fumbles a few times. It did happen against the Jaguars; I will mention it as a possibility.

But there’s an 85% chance the Browns get gutted like a rotting fish.

Final Score: Houston 49, Browns 27


Review: Game 2, ALDS

I’m not in any shape for complex analysis, so I’ll just go with a few reactions that you’re not likely to find in the papers:

1. I’ll just say it– that “Hit by Pitch” on Lonnie Chisenhall was simply a terrible call by home plate umpire Dan Iassogna.

The play wasn’t exactly a “phantom call”– a play where the official imagines he saw something that didn’t happen. Iassogna did see the ball hit something and change its path. But he was wrong about what it hit.

Iassogna’s strike zone expanded and contracted– seemingly at random– all game. It was not a good performance, and the phantom HBP only made it worse.

2. It’s easy to say Yankee manager Joe Girardi has to challenge the call. After you see the replay– and especially after you see what happened next– it’s a no-brainer.

Here’s the problem with that. According to the Replay Review Procedure (D.1.a):

A Manager must notify an Umpire that the Club is contemplating challenging the play in less than ten (10) seconds after the conclusion of the play. 

Notifying the umpire that he is considering a challenge doesn’t obligate Girardi to challenge. But he has to notify them before he gets a chance to see the replays. Once he notifies the crew chief:

If a Manager wishes to invoke his challenge he must do so within thirty (30) seconds after the conclusion of the play or prior to the commencement of the next play, whichever occurs first.

The rules permit each team to have someone from the club in the booth to see the initial replay, and then inform the manager whether he should do it. But if he doesn’t make the decision within 30 seconds, he loses the right. That gives the review assistant a chance to see maybe one replay. Maybe it gives you enough evidence; maybe not.

So assume there’s no evidence. Do you still challenge?

If you challenge the call and win, it’s “Strike three”, the inning ends and you’re leading 8-3.

But suppose you challenge the call and lose. The bases are loaded with two outs, Francisco Lindor is coming to the plate– and Chad Green, who has (a) had Austin Jackson blast one of his pitched to right for an out, (b) had Yan Gomes blast a pitch to left for a double and (c) already thrown 21 pitches, had to stand around for however long the process  took, stewing.

Do you want Green doing that?

I assumed Girardi didn’t challenge for precisely the reason Girardi gave:

“And probably being a catcher, my thought is I never want to break a pitcher’s rhythm. That’s how I think about it. There was nothing that said he wasn’t hit.”

Naturally the New York writers are all saying “He had to challenge.” But if he does– and he loses the challenge, after which Lindor hits the home run, here’s the headline of every paper in the region:

Girardi Ices His Pitcher

“However lukewarm Joe Giradi looks on the field, we know he likes his water cold. That’s the only possible explanation for Girardi deliberately icing Chad Green last night. With the bases loaded, two outs and Indians superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor waiting at home plate, Girardi’s futile challenge forced his pitcher to stand idly by for precious minutes, while…

That’s the thing about managing or coaching in New York. No matter which decision you make, if it doesn’t pan out, you made the wrong one

3. Speaking of New York writers on decision-making, this is C.C. Sabathia’s game log for 2017. Of Sabathia’s 27 starts, his longest outing was 102 pitches; his shortest 57. Girardi pulled C.C. after 77 pitches. He went longer 21 times, shorter four times and 77 pitches twice.

That does suggest the Yankees could have gone longer with Sabathia. On the other hand, he’d allowed three runs. Of those 27 starts, he was taken out:

  • Five times while pitching a shutout
  • Seven times when he’d allowed only one run
  • Four times when he’d allowed two
  • Twice when he’d allowed three runs

He’d walked Carlos Santana on four pitches to start the inning; He threw two strikes to Jay Bruce– the third was lined hard to short.

The next batter is Austin Jackson, a lifetime .294 hitter against Sabathia– with a career OPS of .914 in 40 plate appearances..

Imagine the column that gets written if Girardi lets Sabathia pitch to Jackson, and he hits a double.

“By going against the percentages. Girardi put Chad Green in a situation with two men in scoring position, one man out and no room for error…”

You can’t win with the New York media. No matter what you do– no matter how many agree with you– there are so many writers, broadcasters and talk show hosts that half a dozen will disagree with you.

4. Terry Francona used eight pitchers in the game– including his top two relievers (Andrew Miller and Cody Allen), each of whom pitched longer-than-usual stints for the second consecutive day.

Cleveland won the game–putting the Yankees under the hammer. Everyone has two days to rest. Should Carlos Carrasco lose Sunday’s game, Francona still has Danny Salazar to pitch on Monday.

If that game doesn’t go well, he can use either Corey Kluber (on four day’s rest) or Trevor Bauer (on five) on Wednesday.

He still took a risk.

5. Question: Suppose Carrasco doesn’t pitch well in Game 3 and Salazar (who presumably has to pitch, since Tomlin worker) loses.

Given what happened in games one and two, are you sure you know which pitcher you want to use in game five?

Situations like that are the reason that (1) we play the games, rather than simulating them based on the stats and (2) being a manager is not a fun job.

6. Possibly the unhappiest man in the city is Paul Dolan. Jay Bruce is being paid $13 million a year— his contract expires at the end of the season.

Bruce drove in three runs in game one. He hit a double, then came around to score the game’s first run. He followed with a two-run homer and a sacrifice fly– meaning he knocked in three runs and scored the fourth.

Today he hit a game-tying home run.

Bruce isn’t worth $13 million– but after what he’s done, how the hell can Dolan justify letting let him go? Mike Napoli made it easy for the Indians to cut ties– he hit .173 in postseason. (Rajai Davis hit .147, so that was an easy call too.)

I’m sure Dolan is thrilled to have the problem, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. He has four other free agents to retain;look how they performed:

  • Santana had a walk, a hit, two runs scored and an RBI
  • Jackson had two hits, a walk, a stolen base, an RBI and two runs scored– including the game winner)
  • Bryan Shaw pitched 2.2 innings
  • Joe Smith came in with Todd Frazier on second and one out in the ninth inning, and got Aaron Judge on a grounder and Gary Sanchez on a called third strike.

7. I thought Edwin Encarnacion had broken his ankle, based on what I saw watching the replay. Athletes are not like normal people– because they’re freaks of nature. They can withstand stress that would cripple normal people; they heal faster than we do.

But I’d be very surprised if he can play for the rest of the season– or, if he tries, play well. Of course Francona might decide that Encarnacion on one leg is still better than Michael Brantley, based on how he looked.

Gee it would be nice to go into the playoffs without a couple of people missing sometime. It would be nice to have Jason Kipnis in left and Brad Zimmer in center.

8. If I ran baseball, I’d ban the photographer who touched the ball for life. You can assume it would have gone off the field, but you can’t prove it. Yankee fans will believe it was about to bounce back to Greg Bird, who would have thrown out Austin Jackson at second (not that it mattered).

These guys should know the rules and not interfere.

Browns Preview: Game 5 (Jets)

Opponent Preview

The first question I always want to know about an opponent is “How good (or bad) are they?” I’m still trying to figure that out, frankly. The Jets went 5-11 a year ago, then lost their first two games. But they won their last two to reach .500, suggesting something good is going on.

The reality is that they lost to Buffalo (which is 3-1) and Oakland (who made the playoffs last year and are 2-2 now). There’s no disgrace to losing to either team.

They beat Miami for a fairly simple reason. Head Coach Adam Gase builds his offense around a superhero quarterback. Ryan Tannehill (who had a 95.5 passer rating last year) went down for the season in pre-season– the best replacement the Dolphins could find was 34-year-old team cancer Jay Cutler (a transaction that, in and of itself, proves Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed).

Miami scored 19 points against the Chargers (who are 0-4), then 6 against the Jets. Last week they were shut out by the Saints.. an achievement New Orleans has achieved only one other time in the century (2012, against Tampa).

Last week New York beat Jacksonville late in overtime, after the Jaguars punted from their own two. The punt traveled only to the Jacksonville 47, was returned for 7 yard (to the Jacksonville 40) — at which point Jacksonville was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. That gave the Jets a first down at the opponent’s 25 in sudden death– something even free agent QB Josh McCown couldn’t screw up.

Whose crew could miss a player being blindsided by an opponent– but throw the flag when he shoves the guy? Gene Steratore, rapidly moving into the realm of of dreadfulness occupied by Ed Huchuli, Terry McAulay and Jeff Triplette.

I’ve followed McCown from a distance and still consider him the best argument for reform of the passer rating. He’s compiled an 87.8 rating because:

  • He’s completed 82 of 117 passes (70.1%)
  • He’s gained 826 yards (7.1 per attempt)
  • He has 3 TD passes and 3 interceptions– and TD passes are grossly undervalued.

McCown has been sacked 12 times (tied for eighth-highest)– on 9.3% of his throws (seventh-highest) and lost 88 yards (also seventh)– but none of that counts. He’s fumbled a league-leading 6 times, losing 2 (tied for second):

None of that– the sacks, the fumbles (which, like sacks, cost you a down and lost yards), the fumbles lost (which are turnovers, and often more within his control than interceptions– which can be tipped by a receiver) or the points or yards gained on the runbacks– is included in the rating.

McCown threw three interceptions against the Bills. One interception came on a two-point conversion attempt (which isn’t counted, because the NFL doesn’t consider it an official play). The second killed a drive on the Buffalo 23. The third was a desperation heave with 1:44 left and New York down by 9 (thanks to the missed two-pointer), so meaningless.

The other interception also came against Jacksonville, giving the Jaguars the ball on the Jet 35, which set up a field goal.

I mention this for two reasons. First, McCown’s fans treat his frequent mistakes as things it would be unfair to blame him for.

Second, if the Browns have any chance to win, it will be partly because they pressure McCown into errors.

Mistakes won’t happen if New York runs the ball. Bilal Powell is averaging 4.8 yards a carry, Matt Forte 4.1, and Elijah McGuire 6.8 (but on only 23 carries).

105 of McGuire’s 156 yards have come on only five carries– but he’s had a couple of long runs in each of the last three games, and his total carries have gone from 0 in game one to 6 to 7 to 10 last week.

He also caught two balls for 38 yards last week– meaning he could make mincemeat of the Cleveland linebackers if they give McCown time to throw. Since Forte is expected to miss the game with a toe injury, his touches will be going somewhere.

The Jets don’t have nearly as good a line as they had last season; WR Brandon Marshall went away and Quincy Enumwa is on injured reserve. But the Jets got Jeavon Kearse from Seattle and got Jeremy Kerley back from the 49ers. Undrafted free agent Robby Anderson caught 42 passes last year and has 12 so far– he’s a deep threat.

I’ll mention TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (acquired late last year from Tampa) for two reasons. First, he isn’t any good (never had more than 21 catches; this is his fourth year), but the tight end usually burns the Browns. Second, because “Austin Seferian-Jenkins” is fun to say, and I’m hoping he’ll be guarded by Briean Boddy-Calhoun, just to torment the announcers.

The Jet defense is ranked 21st, which probably states its quality accurately. Turnovers (two other Jets have fumbled and lost it) have put them in a hole a lot. On the other hand, they’re playing bad offenses. New York has traded most of its high-salaried players; DL Muhammad Wilkerson (shoulder injury; probably won’t play) and CB Buster Skrine are the only ones still around.

Hey, remember when Terry was talking about how the Browns had gotten Tramon Williams (3 years, $21 million) for less money than Skrine (4 years, $25 million) — and how “Snapchat” Farmed believed Skrine would be out of the league before Williams?

He isn’t. Williams is technically still in the league (he’s played seven snaps for the Cardinals), but he’s not likely to last. Skrine also reworked his contract to save the Jets $2.5 million.

Browns Preview

The 31-7 loss to Cincinnati set off a finger-pointing spree that is still iterating. People in Cleveland are picking all different sides. The rest of the universe sees it pretty simply:

  • Gregg Williams has been a successful coordinator for years and was 17-31 as a head coach. He’s also been missing overall #1 pick Myles Garrett, Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins and backup DT Danny Shelton (a former #1).
  • Hue Jackson went 8-8 as a head coach in Oakland, was a successful assistant when Marvin Lewis was riding herd on him and always has a juicy quote for reporters.
  • The Marx Brothers (Sasho, Paulo and Ando, successors to The Three Stooges) have never worked in college scouting, have barely worked at all (Sasho was a lawyer for the Jaguars; Ando did Pro Personnel for the Colts) and are now 1-20 running the show.
  • Jimmy Haslam has fired (1) Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur, (2) fellow Stooges Moe Banner and Curly Lombardi, and Rob Chudzynski and (3) Snapchat Farmer and Mike Pettine. Jimmy also lets his wife weigh in on all decisions.

There are people cutting Haslam slack because he’s friendly to reporters, also gives good quote– and, frankly, isn’t going anywhere unless he gets convicted of a federal crime.

His detractors note that he’s on his fourth management team since 2012, and some of those people are working for other clubs:

  • Heckert is in Denver’s front office.
  • Shurmur (Minnesota) and Chudzynski (Indianapolis) are running offenses
  • Curly Lombardi has a sinecure from his friend in New England– but the reigning champs are still paying him

The people blaming the front office point to the number of wins, and blown draft picks (pretty much everyone).

Since I’ve been asked, the five best players from the draft are probably:

  1. RT Shon Coleman (the 76th pick in 2016), has started four games, played 279 snaps and only committed two penalties.
  2. DE Emmanuel Ogbah (32nd pick in 2016), who has 7.5 sacks– but 4.5 in three games against the Bengals, and is considered to be a one-dimensional pass rusher– a young Armonty Bryant.
  3. TE Seth Devalve (who would have gone undrafted, had the Browns not used pick 138 on him in 2016), who is 19-30 for 261 yards and a TD.
  4. DE Carl Nassib (taken 65th in 2016) might become a decent blue-collar player.
  5. DT Larry Ogunjobi (taken 65th this year) had made some plays in his 81 snaps.

Other than Coleman– Ogbah, if you believe it’s coincidence that 60% of his production comes against Cincinnati– nobody is doing well, given where he was taken.

You could argue LB Joe Schobert (though he can’t cover) or K Zane Gonzalez (who’s missed one of his three field goal tries) belongs on the last two spots. If I had to fill out the top ten, it would be those guys, Garrett (on potential), Spencer Drango and Derrick Kindred.

RB Isaish Crowell is furious that not getting 20 carries a game in which to average 3.0 yards. He intends to leave. If the Browns did offer him a new contract (they won’t) he would turn it down unless it included a huge signing bonus. Jackson is denying that Crowell is in the doghouse, but not giving him much to do.

Meanwhile, “Duck” Johnson is wondering why he isn’t getting more touches. (He’s not angry, I’m told– he’s guessed that Crowell is on his way out.)

The front office won’t cut WR Kenny Britt, but Jackson has no plans to play him. Meanwhile Terrelle Pryor is providing ammunition for both sides. He’s on pace for 52 catches, 744 yards and 4 TDs– better than anything the Browns have, but not close to last year’s production (much less what he wanted to be paid).

Also, Pryor caught 55.0% of his throws, and blamed his quarterbacks for not giving him catchable balls. He’s catching 54.2% of the balls from Kirk Cousins, whose stats (107.6 rating, 8.3 yards per pass, 7-1 TD-INT ratio) make it fairly clear that he isn’t the problem.

Pryor is close to losing his status as most favored receiver to fourth year man Chris Thompson (14-21 for 235 yards– 16.8 per catch– and 2 TDs).

The poor play of the defense– 26.8 points per game (29th), 2 interceptions (tied for 22-25), and 9 sacks (16th) has also blown up any plans to cut Jackson loose and put the club in the hands of the analytics-friendly Williams. According to ESPN, he’s blitzing more than any other club. It isn’t working– doesn’t even look like it might work if he had Garrett, Collins and Shelton, so he’s taking criticism.

It’s likely the reason Garrett is going to start even though high ankle sprains don’t normally heal this quickly. Collins probably has recovered from his concussion (thanks to Mike Holmgren, the NFL now takes that seriously).  SHo knows if Shelton (also expected to play) has.

Jackson (who said he doesn’t have enough talent to win this year) isn’t making his case effectively. Nobody can understand why Jackson has called the fourth-highest number of pass attempts (161, tied with Green Bay, behind New England’s 195, Arizona’s 183 and the Giants’ 166). It’s putting enormous pressure on DeShone Kizer (50.9 rating, 5.4 yards per pass, 3-8 TD-INT, 11 sacks).

The team definitely isn’t pulling together. It’s unclear how close they are to coming apart at the seams.

Game Preview

The Jets play a phenomenally dreary brand of football. Their game plan consists mostly of sucking– a lot on offense and a fair amount on defense– and hoping the opponent sucks worse. They run the ball and throw dink passes, hoping to avoid turnovers, while they force opponents into turnovers.

The hitch is that they’ve forced only four, but give up (thanks to McCown) seven. And he has a sore shoulder, but will play anyway.

There is no excuse for the Browns failing to win this game. The game is at home; the Jets are 0-2 on the road this year and went 2-6 last year.

The Jets are allowing 4.7 yards per rush. They’ve gotten only six sacks; Wilkerson and DT Leonard Williams have no sacks. Ealy won’t play. Kizer will get none of the pressure he’s received in the last four weeks.

Skrine and Morris Claiborne (dumped by Dallas after five disappointing years) are the corners; Rookies Jamal Adams (the sixth pick in the draft) and Marcus Maye (the 39th) are the safeties. They’re both highly rated, but neither Adams (16 tackles, a sack and two knockdowns) nor Maye (19 tackles; nothing else) have lit up the league.

The Jets can run the ball, but Forte, who was getting 25% of the carries, won;t be playing.

When McCown played the Rams two years ago, Williams pressured him to death, sacking him four times and hitting him seven other times. McCown fumbled twice, losing them both– and didn’t finish the game. The line committed four false starts and two holding penalties.

The Browns don’t have the pass rush the Rams did– but the Jet line doesn’t have Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz and Joel Bitonio. New York has allowed 12 sacks. That’s largely because McCown won’t throw the ball away– he holds the ball until he’s brought down. But, for whatever reason, it’s an opportunity. And if McCown goes down, Bryce Petty was dreadful last year.

If the Browns can’t win this, it’s almost impossible to see any other wins on the schedule. Maybe the Chargers, or Chicago in week 15.

Game Prediction

I really am tempted to pick Cleveland to win– I could even see this becoming a blowout. But my rule is “If a team is on a roll, bet it continues until they show you differently.” I can see all kinds of scenarios where the Browns can win– but I could see those in each of the last three weeks. I didn’t pick them to win– and they didn’t.

Currently, there is no evidence that the Browns can score until the other team is playing a prevent. They haven’t yet shown they can run the ball– or that they want to. I have no idea who they expect to throw to; other than the Duck, nobody has been able to catch the ball. TE David Njoku (9-12) and Crowell (5-8) have caught a handful of passes. Everyone else is 50% or worse– largely due to drops.

The Jets got 163 yards rushing out of Powell last week, and 93 from McGuire, with both guys breaking runs of 69 yards or more. The Browns have been playing good run defense on straight-ahead stuff, but they still don’t seal the edges; they still let opponents cut back. It the back gets past the 8 guys up front, Cleveland has given up some big runs.

Every week, the opposing tight end– and a pass-catching running back– tears them to pieces.

Last week the kicking teams missed a field goal and let 34-year-old Pacman Jones run a punt back 40 yards.

Plus, they don’t sound like a team pulling together– they look like one coming apart. That’s what I’m guessing will happen.

Prediction: Jets 24, Browns 10

Review: Game 1, ALDS

Well, that was fun. After a while.

As the preview made clear, I thought this was a game the Indians were going to win– Gray hadn’t pitched well against the Indians on two of his three starts this year, while  while Bauer had beaten the Yankees at the beginning and the end of August. New York was playing well by that time.

But you never know how someone will play in post-season until you see them.  It’s why they play the games.

Random thoughts about the game.

Continue reading “Review: Game 1, ALDS”

Playoff Preview: ALDS

People often begin a speech by saying “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…” I know what they mean. I’ve been predicting for fun and profit for 31 years, but I’m unaccustomed to calling a Cleveland team the favorite. There was one season during Marty Schottenheimer’s tenure that I picked the Browns to advance to the Super Bowl, but lose. I liked the Indians a few times in the John Hart era, but not the years they did well.

But I never thought the Indians would win when Mark Shapiro was running the show. The Cavs in the Mike Brown era were always unlikely. It was fairly clear that the Cavs in LeBron James II: The Sequel were going to the NBA finals. But I never predicted them to win the championship. (If you remember that the NBA suspended Draymond Green for one game, you can argue they wouldn’t have won.)

But, yes, I’m predicting the Indians will go back to the World Series. I mean, why wouldn’t I?

  • They had the best record in the American League and the second-best record in baseball
  • They’re third in the AL in runs scored and first (by a wide margin) in runs allowed
  • They’re well ahead of everyone in Wins Above Replacement
  • They have experienced, successful field management
  • The players have the experience and confidence that comes with reaching game 7 a year ago

The only shortcoming: They’re a much worse defensive than two of their opponents. Or, at least, they were.

Frankly, I’m as surprised to be saying this as anyone. Actually, a lot more so– I predicted the Indians (who went 94-67 last year) would struggle to match that record, and would probably finish with 84-89 wins.The issues I was concerned about were:

  1. Neither Michael Brantley nor Jason Kipnis (now both 30) being able to play a full season– much less at their his past level.
  2. Tyler Naquan not duplicating his career year– and neither he nor Austin Jackson playing acceptable defense in centerfield.
  3. Neither Lonnie Chisenhall nor Brandon Guyer staying healthy– or duplicating their production
  4. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco being high risks for injury– and Josh Tomlin being a dead bang cinch
  5. 34-year-old Edwin Encarnacion continuing his three-year-long decline
  6. The team playing substandard defense–especially in the outfield– which was hurting the pitching.

I thought they had solutions. The big one was to use Jose Ramirez at second base, replacing him with (depending on whether you wanted offense or defense) Yandy Diaz or Giovanny Urshela, sending Kipnis to the outfield. Kipnis was a converted outfielder– a good one in fact– who would probably hit better and stay healthy there

In center, Brad Zimmer probably wouldn’t hit if they brought him up from AAA; Greg Allen certainly wouldn’t (they’d have to get him from AA). But both would give them good outfield defense, a few singles and a lot of speed– and they would eventually develop. (I really said that– go look.)

If they were willing to play Urshela at third– which I felt they should, since Urshela might win half a dozen gold gloves– Diaz could play right.

I was sure Mike Clevinger could be an effective starter, which solved one of the problems.

Since the Indians have usually been reluctant to use unproven players– Mark Shapiro always preferred a shopworn veteran, even if he was on the downhill slide– I assumed that most of that would go untried.

But I’ll be damned if they didn’t do all of it. Not as quickly as I wanted– it took an injury to Kipnis to get Ramirez to second and Zimmer breaking his hand to get Kipnis into the outfield. And it pretty much all worked.

They solved part of the problem by acquiring Jay Bruce. I wasn’t happy about it… since he’s hitting .248 (.222 in September), I think my guess was proved right. But the psychological value– “Hey, we got a three-time All-Star to fill the gap!”— was very helpful.

The big surprises have been:

  • Carrasco stayed healthy all year. He led the team in starts, hit 200 innings for the first time and looked like a player you would trade Cliff Lee to get.
  • Bauer cut his ERA for the second straight year and managed to stick around long enough to get 17 wins.
  • Ramirez showed an enormous increase in power– 10 more doubles (led the league), nearly tripled his homers (11 to 29)– and did it without increasing his strikeouts or hurting his defense.
  • Encarnacion dropped a few points in batting average, but walked 17 more times– in 33 fewer plate appearances. His 104 walks was second– higher than Carlos Santana.

Unlike last season, when they overachieved, they’re going into the playoffs as legitimate favorites. They have six viable starters– four more than last season– are better at every position (except third base) and have a year of experience

How can they lose? Very simply:

1. Too much of their talent is in the staff. Pitching hasn’t been 90% of the game since the introduction of the lively ball– and it certainly isn’t 90% in a five-game series. The Indians have six starters– at most, they’ll need four. That means a significant part of their edge won’t be used.

The simplest way to show it is to give you the four teams, ranked by Wins Above Replacement:

Cleveland 26.5 13.8 6.7 6.0
Yankees 18.8 5.7 5.3 7.8
Houston 18.6 2.7 -3.5 19.3
Boston 7.4 3.8 4.7 -1.1

The Indians have a weaker lineup than anyone except Boston. And since more than 50% are those six starters– two of whom will not start– most of their edge over the competition vanishes,

The Astros, on the other hand, can use 100% of the talent in their lineup. Their bullpen is wretched– but if they get a large enough lead, that won’t matter.

Terry Francona’s bizarre decision to start Trevor Bauer (the least consistent of their big three)– and to use Josh Tomlin (the worst of their six starters) in game four– means that he’s negative even more of their value.

2. They have a lot of questions. The value of having an Aaron Judge in right isn’t merely that he’s a great player– it’s that he played 155 games. Brett Gardner played 151 games in left; Jacoby Ellsbury 112 in center. Joe Girardi has no decisions to make.

The Indians, on the other hand, will need to decide which three of their six outfielders (Greg Allen, Brantley, Bruce, Chisenhall, Jackson, Kipnis) will play. Brantley, Chisenhall and Kipnis are coming off injuries and might or might not be sharp; Allen is a rookie.

Also, if Urshela makes even one mistake, the pressure to pit Kipnis back at second and move Ramirez over will be irresistible.

3. It’s a short series. Anything can happen. A couple of lucky breaks– or bad bounces– and the better team can lose. One midding guy on a hot streak– or a star having a cold spell– can shuffle the outcome.

If you gave me a choice of catchers over the season? Obviously, I would take Gary Sanchez. In a short series, Rafael Perez and Yan Gomes could very possibly out play him.

It’s the reason we have to play these games.

Still, I always go with the odds. And, unlike last year, the odds entirely favor Cleveland

1. The Indians won 11 more games. That indicates a stronger team.

2. They have a run differential 66 better than the Yankees. Clevelane scored 40 runs less but allowed 106 fewer runs. The Yankees are slightly better at scoring runs, but the Indians are much better at preventing them.

3. Cleveland won 5 of the 7 games played this year. They didn’t win squeakers– they outscored New York 31 to 20.

4. The Indians have a substantive edge in game one. Sonny Gray pitched three times against Cleveland this year; Trevor Bauer pitched twice against the Yankees. Their lines:

  • Gray: 1-2, 4.85 ERA. Allowed 15 hits and six walks in 16.2 innings.
  • Bauer: 2-0, 1.38 ERA. Allowed 11 hits and six walks in 13 innings.

The lifetime stats are different– but since both teams have a lot of players who are new to the majors, it’s not significant. Sonny Gray went 2-0 with an 0.75 ERA in 2014. Since neither Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion nor Jay Bruce played in those games, that has no value.

5. C.C. Sabathia, the starter in game two, has not pitched well in postseasons. Corey Kluber has. Sabathia’s lifetime ERA is 4.53. In 12 playoff serieses, he’s had an ERA of 4.50 or higher in seven of them.

That isn’t all Cleveland In 2012, he had ERAs of 1.53 and then 12.27. In 2011, it was 6.23. In 2010 they were 4.50 and then 6.50. He is 9-5, because the Yankees have always scored lots of runs.

That isn’t likely to happen this time– his opponent is Corey Kluber.

6. The game 3 starter, Masahiko Tanaka had an ERA of 4.74 this year. He isn’t the same pitcher he was in 2014– or even last year. Tanaka allowed more hits than innings for the first time since 2010. He allowed 35 homers. He’s only 28; I don’t see him enough to know what is wrong. But something is wrong,

I’m surprised Girardi is using him. After an OK June and July– and a very good August– he had an ERA of 4.99 in five starts in September

If Carrasco is on, this shouldn’t be much of a contest.

6. The Indians have a big edge in post-season experience. The Yankees lost the wild card two years ago. They reached the ALCS in 2012. But because they are the Yankees, that was an entirely different team. Gardner, Ellsbury and Holliday are the only hitters with more than a game of post-season experience; Gray and Sabathia the only starters.

I stress this fact because, every year, some heralded player goes into the playoffs for the first time and humps the bunny. We never know who it will be. Bryce Harper hit .130 in his first post-season and .235 in his third. Corey Seager has yet to have an OPS over .661 in a series, and his averages have included .188 and .130. Don’t assume Judge will do any better.

The Indians, meanwhile, went to game 7 of the series last year. Every major player except Brantley and Urshela has significant experience. (Bruce and Encarnacion have it with other clubs.) Carrasco and Bauer (no, last year doesn’t count) are new– so is Tyler Olson. Nobody else is.


I’m always wary of saying “Team on a mission”. That said, the Indians went to Game 7 of the World Series– and nobody expected them to. They won more games this year, almost everyone improved.

The odds say they’re going to win in three or four games. I’ll be conservative and say Indians in four.

Browns Preview: Game 4 (Cincinnati)

Opponent Preview

In the wake of the Bengals’ 0-3 start, I’ve seen a lot of “What’s Wrong With The Bengals?” pieces.Permit me to offer my considerably shorter take:

  1. Their offense has sucked, because
  2. Their coordinator was a nitwit

Nothing more complex needs to be said. Here’s a look at the Bengals– wins, points scored and allowed, and their rank among the NFL teams (highlighted in yellow)– for every season in the decade  With one exception, the defense has never been the problem, but (with two exceptions) the offense has been:

You know you have a good defense when finishing 12th in points allowed (as they did in 2014) seems like a bad year. Except for 2010, they’ve played great every year in this decade. Marvin Lewis was the defensive coordinator of that 2000 Ravens team, which won the Super Bowl with an awesome defense, despite an offense that struggled to avoid losing games.

The offense? Not so much. Two seasons in the top 10; five in the top half of the league.

It’s easy to explain the playoff ‘jinx’: The Bengals roll up points against the weak sisters and struggle against good teams. Once they get in the playoffs– where pretty much every team has a good defense– they sputter and die.

It’s his own fault that Marvin Lewis is in danger of getting fired. He’s hired subpar offensive staff and stayed with them– to the point where he put his own job at risk.

2010, for example, was the tenth and final season that Bob Bratkowski ran the offense. Bratkowski had three seasons in the top 10 in points (2005-07; the years Carson Palmer was playing well), but he had five seasons where the offense was ranked 20th or below. After the Bengals fired him, Jacksonville hired him– and they finished 30th.

Let me note something for the record: Bratkowski is the son of Zeke Bratkowski, the longtime backup quarterback (among other places, for Vince Lombardi’s Packers). Zeke was also quarterback coach or offensive coordinator on various NFL teams between 1969-95.

With his job in danger, Lewis fired Bratkowski and hired Jay Gruden— younger brother of Jon Gruden. He was the coordinator from 2011 through 2013, and the offense finished 18th, 12th and 6th.

When Washington hired Gruden as their head coach, Lewis hired Hue Jackson– who is not related to anyone in the NFL Jackson got the Bengals to 15th and 7th, before he got hired as a head coach.

To replace him, Lewis promoted QB coach Ken Zampese— son of longtime coordinator Ernie. This legacy was even worse than Jay and non-silent Bob. They scored 96 less points in 2016– this year they were dead last.

You could make excuses for 2016– and I did. Owner Mike Brown let both the #2 (Walter Jones) and #3 (Mohamed Sanu) get away in free agency. TE Tyler Eifert, their #1 pick in 2013 (and a Pro Bowl player in 2015) missed half the season (he’s missed 27 games in four seasons).

But Zampese couldn’t decide who his #1 back was. Jeremy Hill averaged 14.8 carries a game, Giovanni Bernard got 9.1 and Rex Burkhead got 4.6. None played really well.

Zampese also gave 30-year-old Patriots castoff Brandon LaFell more targets (107) than potential Hall-of-Famer A.J. Green (100). Green did miss six games– on the other hand, Tyler Boyd started only two games and still got 84 targets. (Green, normally a very quiet player, made a few comments about the way he was being misused.)

It got worse this season. Brown ditched Burkhead and drafted Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon in round two. But Zampese still kept three players rotating, and it wasn’t working. Through the first two games:

  • Mixon had 17 carries for 45 yards (2.6 average)
  • Hill had 12 carries for 43 yards (3.6)
  • Bernard had 12 carries for 51 yards (4.2)

The passing game looked equally confused. Green had 18 targets, LaFell 12 and Boyd (a #2 pick in 2016– who had a better rookie year than anyone on the Browns) had only four. And the three backs had 12 throws.

After losing the first two games– scoring only 9 points; gaining 516 yards– the offensive players went to Lewis and said “Fire this clown.” Lewis did.

Bill Lazor isn’t exactly a topnotch replacement (he was Joe Philbin’s coordinator in Miami) but he did coach quarterbacks for Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren and Chip Kelly, and spent a year with Dan Reeves. (Plus,. he isn’t related to anyone.)

In Lazor’s first game, the offense scored 24 points and gained 301 yards. QB Andy Dalton, who’d looked dreadful under Zampese (47.2 rating, 6.0 yards per pass, no TDs, 4 INTs and 8 sacks) went 21-27, getting 7.7 yards per pass, throwing two TD and posting a 124.1 rating.

Mixon got 18 of the 28 carries and gained 62 yards; Green had 10 catches for 111 yards and a score.

Unfortunately for Cincinnati, their opponent was Green Bay. It normally takes at least 30 points to beat the Packers (who were 10-1 in games they allowed 27 points or less last year).

Cincinnati is 0-3. But the defense is in the top 10 again. And there is a plausible reason to expect the offense to be better than it was under Zampese.

Browns Preview

In the season preview, I noted that the Browns often go 1-1 against Marvin Lewis. Since this game is at home, I had them penciled in to win this one.

Not anymore. The Browns are 0-3; Chris Pokorny, of the Dawg-Gone Awful Blog is probably the only person who remembers they went 4-0. Terry Pluto, who thought they were going 4-12, is now scribbling about how long it takes to build a team.

The wheels are beginning to come off. The fans have been incredibly kind to DeShone Kizer, but Hue Jackson classified their comments as “crucifying.” When a defensive coordinator is citing statistics to demonstrate that his defense is playing pretty well, that’s always a sign that things are going south. Gregg Williams has been doing that.

Danny Shelton is saying that he’s playing hurt. Jamie Collins isn’t playing. He had a concussion; he certainly shouldn’t rush back. But he hasn’t even been saying “I’m almost ready to play”– which is what a player eager to get back on the fiels normally proffers.

The normal amount of time missed after a high ankle sprain is 6-8 weeks– with another 4-6 weeks where the player is visibly below par. The Browns announced that #1 pick Myles Garrett was close to making a miraculous recovery… and then said he won’t play.

Isaiah Crowell reluctantly admitted– to everyone who came within earshot– that he’s been distracted by thinking about the status of his new contract.

Earth to Crowell: You won’t get a new deal before the end of the season. If you don”t play a lot better, you won’t get one at all. You’re acting a lot like Payton Hillis— but he gained 200 more yards in his career year.

Worst of all, last week’s drop-fest (making it clear that there isn’t a bona-fide #1 receiver on the team) only added to the chaos. Bringing back another receiver who couldn’t make the opening day roster (last week Rashard Higgins, this week Jordan Leslie) — then seeing said receiver outshine everyone else– emphasizes that the team has a group of guys.

The Browns are very close to being back into the kind of free-fall we saw in 2016.

Game Preview

In week one, the defense got scorched by its inability to cover on the the NFL’s top receivers (Antonio Brown). In game three, another one (T.Y. Hilton) burned them for 7 catches, 161 yards and a score. This week, they’ll face Green. This should not end well.

If the Bengals choose to throw to TE Tyler Kroft or their backs, the linebackers should get beaten for large gains. S Jabril Peppers and Derrick Kindred made a series of bad decisions last week as well.

Kizer didn’t have a good game last week. His stats would have looked much better if his receivers hadn’t dropped the ball 4-6 times (depending on what you consider a drop), But he threw three interceptions– and the Colts have a substandard pass defense.

The Bengals have a good secondary– and they’re sixth in sacks. Rookie DE-LB Carl Lawson had 2.5 last week,giving Geno Atkins a partner.

The Bengals have a habit of blowing games where they are clearly superior, but there is no area of the Browns that is functioning well. The brightest area is probably tight end– but the Bengal linebackers cover well. Emmanuel Ogbah did most of his damage against Cincinnati last year and I’d normally predict a big day. But he’s banged up, so that seems unlikely.

Game Prediction

The Bengals should have absolutely no trouble. Bengals 27, Cleveland 6

Browns Preview: Game 3 (@ Colts)

Opponent Preview

In any given year, only 30% of the head coaches in the NFL will be people I’d consider hiring. They range from Bill Belicheat and Mike Tomlin (clearly proven they know what they’re doing) to Marvin Lewis and Andy Reid (visible limits on their ability, but teams could do worse).

The largest slice (about 50%) are people I’m not sure about. Dan Quinn took over an Atlanta team I thought was being mismanaged. The front office also brought in a ton of talent at the same point it changed coaches. He’s gone 21-13, and could have won a title. Maybe he’s a great coach. But Atlanta folded under pressure… and I don’t know how much of the improvement is him.

I’m not impressed with Ben McAdoo; Adam Gase seems very overrated. I know their records look impressive… but Todd Bowles went 10-6 his first year and now looks hopeless.

John Fox has been a very solid coach for a long time. But he’s now 9-25 in Chicago. Has he lost it– he’s in his 60’s and seems to have lost something. But his GM hasn’t made his life easy.

About 20% are coaches I know I wouldn’t hire. Mike Mullarkey has struggled with three teams; Bill O’Brien understands nothing about handling quarterbacks.

Then there are people like Chuck Pagano, the Colts coach. I have no idea how he got hired, much less how he keeps his job:

1. Nothing in his resume suggests that he can coach. He spent 20 seasons coaching defensive backs (including four years with the Browns under Butch Davis) and only three seasons as a coordinator (UNLV in 1991, North Carolina in 2007 and the Ravens in 2011).

2. He had immense luck. Indianapolis went 10-6 in 2010– then lost Peyton Manning for the entire 2011 season. They went 2-14, got the #1 pick, hired Pagano… and the #1 pick in the 2012 draft turned out to be Andrew Luck, a gifted quarterback almost identical in style to Manning.

A year earlier, the #1 pick was Cam Newton. He’s a find player, but he had growing pains– and wouldn’t have fit the system at all. A year later, the draft was historically weak, and the best quarterback was E.J. Manuel.

3. 20% of his wins belong to someone else. He’s credited at 49-33, but he missed 12 games in his first season due to cancer, and Bruce Arians went 9-3 as an interim coach.

4. His win total is inflated by his schedule. The AFC South is, by any standard, the NFL’s weakest division by far. The Colts have gone 22-8 against their division rivals:

  • 10-0 against Tennessee, scoring 289 points and allowing 204.
  • 6-4 against Jacksonville, scoring 250 and allowing 178.
  • 6-4 against Houston, winning by a combined 224-194 margin

The Colts are 4-7 against the AFC East, 4-4 against the AFC North (with two wins coming against the Browns), 6-5 against the West and 12-8 against the NFC.

5. I don’t see any area of strength. With a good coach, you see areas of strength. With Pagano, it’s been fairly random. The defense– supposedly his area of expertise– has been bad.

11-5 18 21
11-5 14 9
11-5 6 19
8-8 24 25
8-8 8 22

Remember, in five seasons, the only good quarterback any divisional opponent has offered is Marcus Mariota.

A list of the Pro Bowl players by year is also enlightening. Other than Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton, they’ve all been players he inherited, free agents signed or kicking teams players:

  • Three Selections: QB Andrew Luck (2012-14); WR T.Y. Hilton (2014-16)
  • Two Selections: DE-LB Robert Mathis (2012-13); SS Mike Adams (2014-15), CB Vonta Davis (2014-15), P Pat McAfee (2014, 2016)
  • One Selection: WR Reggie Wayne (2012), LS (long snapper) Matt Overton (2013), LB D’Qwell Jackson (2014), K Adam Viniateri (2014)

Yes, that’s Mike Adams the former Brown. Pagano hasn’t developed anyone to take up the slack for Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Every so often, a player has a career year (last year, 31-year-old Erik Walden had 11 sacks), but basically the defense has been very ordinary. It hopes Luck has a big game, and that it can hang on.

In five years, Pagano hasn’t found any offensive linemen to protect Luck. That’s why he has taken 156 sacks, missed 10 games in 2015-16 and been out for the first two games on 2017. There’s no young running back to diversify the attack (they’re using 34-year-old ex-49er Frank Gore) and no weapon other than Hilton (last year it was Gore, TEs Jack Doyle and Dwayne Allen).

If you like Pagano, you can say the problem is GM Ryan Grigson. I wouldn’t argue– he did trade a #1 pick for Trent Richardson in 2013. Owner Jim Irsay apparently thought Grigson was the weakest link– Irsay fired him and brought in Chris Ballard from the Chiefs.

Ballard, like Grigson, is a first-time GM. He signed DE-LB Jabaal Sheard to bolster the defense, and drafted defenders in each of the first four rounds. They’re starting. Whether they’re doing well is debatable.

The offense got dicey enough that Ballard traded WR Philip Dorsett (a former #1 pick in 2015, with 51 catches in 98 throws) to New England for QB Jacoby Brissett on September 2. After saying he wouldn’t rush Brissett, Pagano started Brissett against Arizona last week.

That’s a crisis that could have been avoided had Pagano simply done what he said he would. It illustrates why I dislike him.

Browns Preview

The reaction to Sunday’s 24-10 loss to Baltimore– a game that many people had thought the Browns could win– was predictable.

  • Now that WR Corey “Hands” Coleman is out for the year with a broken hand, coach Hue Jackson (who wanted to keep Terrelle Pryor) is screaming at Kenny Britt that he needs to do better. Terry Pluto blasted Britt as well, meaning that either the coach or front office has the knives out for him.
  • RB Isaiah Crowell, (26 carries for 70 yards– 2.6 per touch) has told the media that he needs more carries and his #1 concern about the season is getting an extension. The way this front office reacts to criticism, that’s a good way to prevent one.
  • The Marx Brothers simultaneously claim that (a) they knew all about QB DeShone Kizer‘s migraines and (b) it never caused him to miss a practice or a game at Notre Dame. If he never missed time, how did they know? Players rarely volunteer than sort of issue.
  • LB Jamie Collins (who got barbecued by 37-year-old Ben Watson) has a concussion. I don’t think he’s faking, but it just adds to the chaos.

This, of course, is the problem with dumping all the veterans and bringing in people from all over the league. Nobody knows anyone, so nobody looks up to anyone– which means nobody can rally the troops. The other day I read a story that said “Browns secondary surprised that Jason McCourty can play pretty well.”

He actually isn’t that good– he just hasn’t been targeted when there are so many other options, But of course the players think that– how would they know?

Game Preview

It’s difficult to tell how bad the Colts really are, after two games.My guess is that:

They’re not nearly as bad as they looked against the Rams in game one. Los Angeles won 46-9 because they  (a) added receiver Sammy Watkins (who can play), (b) subtracted Jeff Fisher and his incompetent coordinator Rob Boras and (c) added QB coach Matt LeFleur (who worked for the Shanahans) as their coordinator. They scored 20 points against Washington and 41 against San Francisco, so the beating looks more respectable.

The Colts also started Scott Tolzein at quarterback in that game. Tolzein is 30, is with his fourth organization and had thrown only 128 passes before this season. His career rating was 66.7; he had 2 TDs and 7 INTs and had taken 7 sacks.

He was sacked four times, threw two picks , fumbled once (recovered) and a ball that Hilton caught but fumbled. He ensured they wouldn’t score, putting unneeded extra pressure on the defense.

The Cardinals game was misleading. Arizona’s offense has gone into the toilet– at 38, Carson Palmer has looked washed up for more than a year. The Cards also lost their franchise RB David Johnson in game one, putting former #7 pick Kerwynn Williams into that role.

On the other hand, Arizona still has a world-class defense. Even last year, when it was on the field most of the game, it was only 14th in points.

Which means that losing 16-13 in overtime isn’t the worst offensive showing ever… but the defense ought to hang its head.

Brissett played nine snaps in relief against the Rams and looked decent. Arizona gave him fits– four sacks, a fumble and a pick. They held Gore to 46 yards on 14 carries– and rookie Marlon Moore (a #4 pick) to -3 yards on six carries.

But, of course, the Browns do not play defense nearly as well as the Cardinals.

Another factor clouding the issue: Indianapolis has many starters injured. Most won’t play– if they do, the probably won’t play well.

Can they beat the Browns? The opportunities will be there.

Cleveland has done a hideous job against backs and tight ends– now Collins is out. Davis, Gore and Mack should be open all day. Brissett isn’t a high-percentage passer– but if he calms down, he’ll be able to complete balls.

The Browns haven’t played good run defense. Gore doesn’t seem to have much left (his contract expires at year’s end, and he’s been telling writers he’s probably done). That said, he still knows how to follow blockers– and Mack does have a burst.

Kizer is starting and there is no reason to think he’ll be any better about avoiding the sack. Sheard, as you might remember, has a nice strip sack move. That could produce a fumble or two.

The Colts haven’t played good pass defense, but they spent a #1 on S Malik Hooker and a #2 on CB Quincy Wilson. Most young players get better over time. Plus, the Browns have a bunch of receivers (other than TE Seth Devalve) who can run fast but struggle to catch the ball.

The game could boil down to “Who makes the last mistake?” or “Who makes the most egregious error?” That could be the Browns– or it might be the Colts.

This would be a good spot for Jabril Peppers– and one of the backs– to show up.

If I liked Pagano better, I’d expect him to be able to rally the troops. It’s a home game against a bad team, Luck will be back soon. But his team often underperforms.

On the other hand, Hue Jackson hasn’t been able to get anyone playing for him either, and they’ve been rotating receivers in and out, seemingly at random. The Browns aren’t on the same page at all.

The Colts are playing at home; they have better kicking teams. This might make the difference

Game Prediction: Colts 13, Browns 10