2014 Browns Preview: Overview

The Ballad of Chris Pressley

If you’re looking for an omen for the 2014 Browns, the fullback position might be the best place.

On April 14, the Browns signed Pressley– which seemed to be a welcome sign. The Browns haven’t had a fullback since they decided not to re-sign Lwarence Vickers, after the 2010 season. The non-signing was a correct decision:

  • Vickers had 74 touches in five years, averaging 2.6 yards per rush and 6.6 per catch
  • He was a sixth-round pick– who played a position many teams don’t even use right now
  • Because tough SOBs who like to hit– but have no other offensive skills– are still popular in the NCAA, scads graduate every year, and you can have your pick..

Houston signed Vickers, but cut him after a year; Dallas ended his NFL career after 2012. But due to inept management, the Browns managed to make his loss devastating:

  • 2011: Tom Heckert wasted a #4 pick– two rounds higher than Phil Savage; the 124th pick in the 2011 draft— on Owen Marecic. Marecic made Vickers look like Bronko Nagurski. he fumblrd, dropped passes, committred penalties and had a string of concussions. He’s probably best known for being off the field in the 2011 game where the Browns had the ball on the goal line. Pat Shurmur ordered a fullback run, forcing the Browns to try a handoff to TE Alex Smith (it blew up).
  • 2012: After Marecic dropped a pass in the opener, Shurmur threw up his hands and went with TE Alex Smith. Smith couldn’t run and wasn’t a blocker– but he did catch and avoided getting penalized for false starts and illegal formations. When his deficiencies became obvious, the Browns eventually stopped using a fullback– and let him go..
  • 2013: In a move that demonstrated their incompetence, the Browns opted not to sign a fullback or get one in rounds 6-7, but try to convert RB Chris Ogbonnaya to fullback. Anyone who had watched film in 2011 or 2012 had seen Ogbonnaya struggle to pick up blitzers, nearly getting his quarterback killed. And, sure enough, he bombed and they gave up on using a fullback again.

Pressley clearly wasn’t a world-beater; he was also trying to come back from an injury. But he was (as anyone who saw him on HBO’s Hard Knocks could see), a good kid– and he can bench-press a Buick.

But the Browns waived him after a month, saying they had no use for a road-grading fullback. They became enamored with converting TE MarQueis Gray, which was idiotic for four reasons:

  1. Gray is 6’4″ and 250– far too tall for a fullback. The best fullbacks are squatty little guys with low centers of gravity who can get under opposing defenders and drive them off the ball (Darrel Young, the one Washington used last year, is 5’11” and 248).
  2. Gray, who had played quarterback and receiver at Minneota, had struggled to learn the tight end position. He had 2 catches on 9 targets in 2013 and made several ‘mental mistake’ penalties.
  3. The “Air Coryell” scheme the Browns used in 2013, which he struggled to learn, is the simplest offense currently used in the NFL. It was designed to be easy to learn because Don Coryell originally relied on junior-college transfers at San Diego State
  4. The offense Mike Shanhan and his spawn runs is based on Tom Landry’s “multiple formation system”, which is by far the hardest system to learn.

It soon became clear that Gray wasn’t working as a runner, still having problems catching the ball and not grasping the new zone blocking scheme. The Browns ended up cutting him.

We don’t know if they hoped to get Gray onto the practice squad– but they didn’t got a chance. Minnesota claimed Gray because (a) he played for the Golden Gophers and (b) Norv Turner, who ran the Cleveland offense in 2013 and liked Gray, is now the coordinator for the Vikings.

The Browns ended up with Ray Agnew as their starter. He has the same build as Pressley, spent four years (like Pressley) as a blocking back and (like Pressley) has the same dearth of offensive skills,

Agnew has assets– he’s younger, makes less money, has no health issues and is the son of a defensive lineman who played 11 years in the NFL. He might become a better player. At this point, it looks like the Browns:

  • Wasted all time and effort the 2013 team spent trying to convert Gray to tight end.
  • Wasted all the man-hours they spent trying to train Gray to play fullback.
  • Spent the entire practice season playing a fullback they cut– preventing the offense from jelling.
  • Lost the rights to a player who did have talent, and might work out.
  • Ended up with virtually the same player they had in April..

That’s an appalling display of talent assessment and management. Time is the scarcest resource a business has. And a business trying completely retool should never waste it.

The Importance of Jim Dray

It’s pretty easy to guess why this happened from looking at the roster– and the cause seems to be an error in judgment that inexperienced coaches make.

  • We only want to keep three tight ends.
  • We already have three tight ends:
    • Jordan “Poke” Cameron as our starter,
    • Gary “Clank” Barnidge as our #2 guy,
    • Jim Dray for third downs
  • If we don’t find another position for Gray, we’ll have to cut him

But here’s a fact that anyone who has watched the Browns know– the Browns don’t have three tight ends. Not by the classic definition– a player who can both (a) block a defensive end or a linebacker and (b) run and catch well enough to require the defense to use a safety to cover him.

The issue with the Browns’ tight ends is that have what is, in effect, a platoon. Poke doesn’t block— a corner can get by him– so the team doesn’t ask him to do it much and defenses assume he’s running a route on every play. Clank, on the other hand, can’t catch (32 career receptions on 55 targets). He gets open a lot because teams assume he will block and don’t assign anyone to cover him– and frankly don’t care if the Browns throw him the ball.

Dray, who only played 51 snaps in pre-season, is a better player than either man in this respect: if he lines up, you can’t be sure what he’ll be doing. He is, like Steve Heiden, a guy who has a reputation as a blocker who actually has good hands (33 catches on 48 targets). Ken Whisenhunt couldn’t grasp then (7 catches in three years), but Bruce Arians say it immediately, Dray, as the #2 tight end, had 26 catches last season

I have heard four different people say that Dray can be one of the big surprises this year– if they let him play and throw to him. But because the team gave Dray only 51 snaps in pre-season and threw to him only twice (he caught both; scoring a TD on one), I don’t think they know what they have.

Given the roster they chose, if the Browns go out with two tight ends, the defense will be able to guess what will happen. Cleveland won’t have Cameron block and won’t throw to Barnidge. Dray is the only one who gives them an element of deception. If they’d kept Gray, and if he’d panned out, they’d have two guys the defense would have to at least wonder about.

And there’s another reason to want four tight ends– because after the season, the Browns might only have three.

The Browns are in the same situation with Cameron that the Indians were in with Justin Masterson a year ago.The Browns signed Cameron to a four-year contract and he was pretty much worthless for the first two: 26 catches for 259 yards total.

Last year he had a big year (80-917-7; second-best in the league statistically) and went to the Pro Bowl. This is the last year of his contract; he’s making (counting his bonus) $1.55 million– the 17th-highest salary . He’ll want to be paid $7.5 to $10 million

The Browns balked at making him a big offer, because… well, the same reason the Indians balked at Masterson. he’s had one good year; it might be a fluke. You wanna give the guy a lot of money and .watch him tank.

They’re slowly starting to realize that it’s too late to sign him.A player’s willingness to sign a deal before his contract expires depends on two things:

  • What are the odds of his being injured?
  • Does he believe he can have a good year?

Most players assume they will have a good year… but they do worry about injures. Cameron got through the first milestone (OTAs and training camp) without getting hurt. He cleared the second hurdle– he made it through the exhibition season without having some opponent roll up his leg, Now he has 16 games until half a dozen teams will be throwing money at him.

As for the season he might have… He’s now clearly the #1 receiving threat, so he;ll get plenty of balls thrown at him. Because both Browns QBs have detractors, if Cameron has a bad year– he drops to 50 catches, 650 yards and 3 TDs– people won’t blame him unless one of the QBs– or a receiver– has an amazing year.

Would you sign? I sure wouldn’t. So Cameron is probably gone… and at the end of 2014, the Browns will be down to Clank and Dray– and they’ll need a tight end.

But, if things go as Norv Turner imagines, 16 games from now, MarQueis Gray will develop and the Vikings will have a tight end who can block and catch passes.

If that happens, it will be a situation where the coaches and the front office can both share blame– the front office for not locking Cameron up and the coaches for letting a project player leave.

But Wait– There’s More…

Most of the problems at receiver can be blamed on Tom Heckert (for drafting Puff Gordon), Joe Banner (for not trading him last season), Ray Farmer (for deciding not to draft Sammy Watkins, when the player fell to him)… and, of course, “Puff” Gordon..

But the situation was exacerbated by three things.

1. WR Nate Burleson is a well-known commodity. He’s a possession receiver and an excellent one. he has, per 16 games played, averaged 45 catches for 667 yards (12.3 per catch) and 5 TDs.

The problem is that Burleson has played 16 games only 5 times in 11 years– 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011. In each of those years, he played part of the season ‘hurt. That’s why he’s been with four teams (Minnesota, Seattle, Detroit and Cleveland)– each of whom needed receivers, Eventually the club realizes:

  • They don’t know if he’ll be able to play– or close to 100%
  • They have to get another player who can step in when he’s hurt
  • If they have someone else– and the guy is any good– why do they need Burleson?

The Lions signed him to a four-year deal hoping he could give Matthew Stafford a second target, so Calvin Johnson could occasionally see double-coverage, not triple. He played 45 out of 64 games– and because he was gimpy, only started 38. He was going to turn 33; Detroit decided to quit hoping.

The Browns signed Burleson, he broke his forearm in the first set of workouts. Average recovery time for an injury like that is 90-120 days– three to four months. Receivers need full use of their arms. Knowing that, it would have made sense to cut Burleson and immediately look for help

But the Browns kept him… and, sure enough, he didn’t get healthy enough to play until game 4– where he looked (unsurprisingly) rusty. At the end of training camp– too late to get a replacement– Cleveland cut Burleson… as much out of frustration as anything else.

There is nothing about that sequence of events that makes sense. It is exactly what happened to the Browns last year with David Nelson. He got hurt early, couldn’t play, they cut him… and then the Jets signed him in Octiober and he wound up with 36 catches (on 60 targets) for 423 yards and 2 scores. 4 of those catches— and both scores– came against the Browns. Pretty impressive, given that Geno  Smith was throwing the passes.

2. While all this was happening, Cleveland elected not to sign Santonio Holmes. There are many reasons not to sign Holmes: he was suspended for 4 games for drugs, got into a fight in a nightclub, had a major injury in 2012 and an unimpressive 2013 (11 starts 23 catches, 456 yards, 1 TD)

On the other hand:

  • He is a former #1 pick, who gained 800 yards or better all four seasons he was with the Steelers and had a competent quarterback.
  • He played for the Steelers– and before that, Ohio State– so he’s well known locally..
  • Being a name, he would have gotten the fans excited and opponents would have respected him.
  • He’s no more improbable a gamble than Burleson, Miles Austin (only 37 of 48 games played) or Andrew Hawkins (35 games from 2011-13).

If he can behave (and 50-50 on that), it’s highly likely that Holmes (even though he will be the #3 option in Chicago) will outperform anyone the Browns use.

3. If you’re not going to use veterans, you’d better commit 100% to trying to find some rookies. You should spent every moment of practice lookign at players with size or speed, hoping someone shows something.

But the Browns, fantasizing that Roger Gooddell wouldn’t suspend “Puff” Gordon for a year, let him play as much as possible in practices and exhibition season.They did this even though (a) Goodell had shown him leniency a year before and been burned for it and (b) Puff committed not one but two violations of the drug policy that would earn him a lifetime ban (the failed drug test and the DUI).

Having taken time away from other players. And the Browns seemed astonished— completely gobsmacked–  that Puff didn’t seem focused on football. Is anyone else surprised by it?.

The Rest of the Story

At quarterback, the Browns made four major misjudgments:

1. From the day after the draft, the Browns said that Brian Hoyer (28, on his fourth team, coming off knee injury. only 4 career starts and 192 passing attempts) would be the starter and that Johnny Football (despite being a #1 pick they traded up to get) would have to win the job. That makes sense– the kid doesn’t know the playbook and he doesn’t work– and you don’t want to encourage his slacking.

But they held a competition, split the reps and both Hoyer (70.4 rating, 1 TD; 2 turnovers) and Football (76.7) struggled.

2. From Day 1, the Browns defended Football’s attitude repeatedly. He continued to have episodes– culminating in an obscene gesture on national TV. The Browns have had to admit he has been out of control — and had to admit he was out of control.

End result: He as has a slew of retired players openly criticizing him and rooting for him to fail.

3. The Browns apparently didn’t notice that it would be essential to get Hoyer off to a good start due to the schedule. In 2014, the bye week comes after the third week of the season; games #1-3 look almost unwinnable. Pittsburgh (in Pittsburgh) is usually a rout. Game two features New Orleans (whose defense is run by Rob Ryan, who feels the Browns mistreated him). Game three is against Baltimore.

It’s highly likely that the Browns will go into the bye week 0-3, with the offense looking uncoordinated and Hoyer playing wretchedly– and many fans and most of the national media clamoring to see Johnny Football play..

All of it was predictable– including the probability that Hoyer might be sluggish after the knee injury. But they let it happen.

4. Head coach Mike Pettine, seemiingly on a mission to demonstrate why he is nicknamed “Blunt Force Trauma”– has been talking like a man with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. He has been suggesting that the Browns might rotate quarterbacks.

There is some precedent for this. In his rookie year, Joe Montana started only one game, but played 16. The 49ers would, at various points in games, bring him out to give Steve Deberg a breather. Montana would run a series of plays (which were scripted, and which he had practiced) and get some experience in the NFL.

Because he’d practiced the plays, he knew them– and he executed. He’d go 1-1, or 3-4 or 4-6. It was a nice way to break him in

The problem, as Lloyd Bentsen once commented to Dan Quayle, Is that Mike Pettine isn’t Bill Walsh and Johnny Football ain’t no Joe Montana. Now this might just be Pettine playing games with opponents (though I doubt any defensive coordinator sees Johnny Football as a threat). If Football plays well, there could be a QB controversy… and if he plays badly, and they stop using him, there’s a QB controversy. It’s a fine mess, and the rookie head coach created it with his mouth.

5. At running back, the team cut the two most effective players from 2013 (Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker, ho averaged 4.9 and 4.0 yards per carry last year) and will go into the season with two rookie backs— one of whom played poorly and one of whom barely played.

Ogbonnaya and Baker aren’t world-beaters… but Terrance West played for a non-BCS school and Isaiah Crowell has a drug test and a firearms issue. They could both be busts– and Ben Tate has had injury issues.

6. In the defensive backfield, the Browns have had some players injured and held others out as a precautionary measure. They have 12 defensive backs, leaving them shorthanded at other spots. Since they haven’t played together, the probability of mental mistakes is extremely high

7. Even though one QB has knee problems, the other is a rookie and there have been games where the team had to play three quarterbacks due to injury, the Browns elected to keep only two quarterbacks

8. Of the six draft choices– all made in the first four rounds, only G Joel Bitonio (and arguably LB Chris Kirksey) have played well. 

Who’s In Charge Here?

In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that any of this has happened. Nobody here has demonstrated that he knows how to do his job:

  • Ray Farmer is first-time GM
  • Mike Pettine hasn’t been a head coach since 2001– in high school
  • Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan is, for all intents and purposes, a rookie. He has never been the coordinator of a team, that didn’t have a head coach who ran the system he uses.
  • Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neill has never been an NFL coordinator– and has only one year of experience as a coordinator in college (Towson, 2005)

In both the Pat Shurmur era and Rob Chudzynski’s Reign of Error, there were at least some people– coordinators, front office staff– who understand what might happen and what to do. If things melted down QB Coach Dowell Loggains (who ran the Titans’ offense in 2012 and 2013) could step in. On defense, there’s nobody.

On the less apocalyptic side, this might all be due to growing pains or inexperience. If we look at the fullback issue, the team eventually wound up making a substantially correct decision… and MarQueis Gray could turn out to be a colossal bust. Many of the decisions the Browns had to make were tough ones; you could argue the opposite way on many.

Plus, much of what has distressed me might be growing pains. It’s not fatal to make a mistake– as long as you do it when it isn’t costly and learn from it.

Pettine was a very successful high school head coach who managed his career exceptionally well. He seems very bright.

The six draft picks all have displayed ability, even though four haven’t played well. Any or all of them could develop very quickly and and make the draft look great. 

But based on what they’ve done so far, it’s hard to see a team better than 4-6 wins in 2014

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