Review, Game 4 (@Tennessee)

Opening Statement: Many years ago, I asked a successful coach what his secret to winning was. I can’t (for reasons that will be obvious in a minute) tell you his name,. But he had rebuilt a slew of teams, first as a player, then as as assistant, then a head coach in both school and the pros.

“Two things,” he replied. “First you have to understand what good play looks like, and know how to teach it. And I mean every position on the field. Not your position– not your side of the field. Everybody. If something goes wrong, you should be able to step in and coach the unit until it’s fixed.

“I don’t mean you should step in– it destroys your chain of command. You should have an assistant who knows more than you do, because that’s 100% of his job and only 5% of yours. But if you keep getting sacked and you don’t know how to teach blocking, you’ll keep getting sacked.  You also won’t be able to recruit linemen, because you won’t know what a good one looks like. You’ll be lucky to hire a good line coach, because you won’t be able to identify one.

“But you also have to apply the correct standards at any given point. What is acceptable for a freshman is intolerable for a senior. Your first practice will be worse than your last. Barring injuries or your schedule, your results should improve with each game. Every season should be stronger.

“You never want to demand too much of your players– especially if you are under pressure. That’s how you end up playing your veterans, getting away from playing the ones you need to develop. But it’s equally dangerous to avoid demanding too much. Laziness is never acceptable. We do not tolerate stupid penalties. And the level of play that we demand will rise– and keep rising until we win a championship.”

Your opinion of the Tennessee game boils down to what standards you apply. The Browns were 4-12 last year; they’ve been 13-35 (one game above a 4-12 average) over the last three years. The Titans were a 7-9 team last year; 22-26 (one game better than a 7-9 average) over the past three years.

Any time an honest-to-god 4-12 team beats a dyed-in-the-wool 7-9 team– even by a single point, it’s a good day. Even when the 7-9 team’s quarterback misses 51% of the offensive plays– and Tennessee coaches act like they were betting on Cleveland to win– it’s still an example of what racetrack touts call “stepping up in class.”

Here’s another issue. The Titans were 1-3– scoring 15 points a game; allowing 27.5. Those performance levels are really bad– but every opponent they played was good. Kansas City (whom they beat by 16 points) is 2-3. Yeah, Indianapolis (4-2) Dallas (4-1) and Cincinnati (3-1) all crushed them– but they’re all in first place.

If you look at wins, points and their takeaway-giveaway ratio (6-7), a 29-28 win is bad. If you focus on strength of schedule, it’s good.

I’d be pondering this more deeply if the schedule were configured differently.  But since the next game is against Pittsburgh (whom Cleveland lost to by three points in game 1) and Jacksonville (0-5), Oakland (0-4) and Tampa (1-3) come after them, we’ll know exactly how good a team this is by game 8.

A team that has is making progress will be 5-3 (maybe even 6-2, if they catch the Steelers napping) at the break. Anything less will be a sign that the first two wins were due more to the opponent’s misfeasance than the Browns’ skill.

So what’s your opinion?

They’d be 1-3 if almost anyone except Ken Whisenhunt had been coaching Tennessee. Whiz was a player who lasted seven years in the NFL because he never left anything on the field. He was a ferocious blocker, a demon on kicking teams, fought back from injuries a few times. He’s a testimony to what you can do with attitude and determination– and that’s how he coaches.

Some coaches would have had a better backup quarterback than Charlie Whitehurst… but Whisenhunt was (I’m told) trying to send a message to QB Jake Locker. When new coach inherits a #1 pick who hasn’t played well, he usually says he’s committed to the player… but then he’ll bring in a replacement and the starter begins looking over his shoulder.

Whiz wanted to prove to Locker that it was his team, so he didn’t hang onto Ryan Fitzpatrick (who played 9 games last year, after Locker got hurt, and has Houston at 3-3). Making Whitehurst the backup was a “We believe in you”signal.

When the #1 QB goes down and the inept backup enters, some coaches would toss all or part of the game plan out the window. Whiz thinks that tells the players that you’re panicking and don’t have any confidence in them.  So he didn’t do that.

Running on 4th-and-1 from your own 42 with 3:09 left and the score 28-22? That’s either:

  1. Showing confidence in your offense.
  2. Showing confidence in your offense– but also confidence that your defense can stop the opponent if you don’t get the first down.
  3. Not trusting Ray Horton’s defense to hold the Browns, even if you punt and pin them inside the 20.

I’m told #2 was the reason. And think about what it could have meant to the Titans had they either made the first down or stopped the Browns.

I personally would not do that, but Whisenhunt is big on testing his teams to develop character. In this case, it helped his opponent.

And had Locker not re-injured his wrist, it probably never would have been close.

So no credit to the Browns?

No, not much. Two points:

1. Locker left the game with 3:59 in the first half, with the ball on the Cleveland 11. On Whitehurst’s four plays, he:

  • Threw an incomplete pass
  • Threw an 11-yard TD to Kendall Wright
  • Threw a 75-yarder to Justin Hunter (who beat CB Buster Skrine)
  • Lost a yard on a kneel to end the first half.

You can’t give Locker credit for the last 11 yards, nor deny Whitehurst credit for a 75-yard “drive”– or even subtract the 41 yards after the catch that Hunter added. Hence the splits are somewhat misleading. Only the time of possession really shows the difference

Player Time of Possession Plays  Yards Points
Locker Won 16:23 to 9:38 33 198 (5.8) 14
Whitehurst Lost 14:20 to 19:39 35 212 (6.0) 14

If you were to remove the first half data, Whitehurst, drops to:

  • Losing time of possession 13:49 to 16:21
  • Gaining 126 yards on 31 plays (4.1 yards per play)
  • Scoring no points.

I don’t believe in throwing data out, but it represents a more accurate portrait. It took the Browns a few minutes to realize that Charlie Whitehurst was a poor man’s Brandon Weeden; once they did, they contained him.

And in the first look at the game, I mentioned the play-calling– especially getting away from the run. Having watched the replay a few times, I still don’t understand what Whisenhunt was doing.

The Browns played better in the second half, but much of that seemed to be confidence that Charlie Whitehurst couldn’t do anything against them unless they made mistakes.

2. My assessment of the Browns’ offense is biased. I knew Ray Horton (Cleveland’s coordinator in 2013) was running their defense; I grew to loathe him as the season went on:

  • In his first public statement after taking the job, Horton dissed Rob Chudzynski by talking about how much he respected Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner– but not mentioning the head coach.
  • After Chud told the media that he thought the defense might alternate between the 4-3 and 3-4, Horton said (in effect) “Like hell it will. I don’t report to that jagoff.” Horton backed off a little by saying he could adapt, but he was sure his defense (which is actually a copy of Dick LeBeau’s scheme) wouldn’t need to.
  • When the defense was playing well, Horton took credit
  • When it didn’t, he:
    • Quoted misleading statistics to the media
    • Challenged the players to do better

They allowed more points and forced fewer turnovers The Browns went 4-12; in 6 losses, the defense gave up the lead in the second half.

The defense at the end of the first half– where the Browns took over at their own 10 with 2:44 left and moved 90 yards on 9 plays– was vintage Horton.

Let’s set this up. The Browns have just allowed the 75-yard pass to make it 28-3 with 2:55 left. The Titans kick off into the end zone, Travis Benjamin has two choices:

  • Take the touchback, putting the ball on the 20 with no time off the clock. For reference:
    • The average kickoff return was 23.4 last year
    • The Browns averaged 23/3
    • Except for an 86 yard return in 2013, Benjamin’s longest kickoff return in 29 yards (he’s had longer punt returns).
  • Try to run it out (which costs you seconds, which you might need), risk getting taken down before the 20– and maybe a turnover.

Benjamin, displaying his brilliant judgment, takes the ball out, gets to the 24– and Johnson Bademosi gets a holding call. It runs 11 seconds off the clock (two plays) and puts the ball at the 10.

There are three ways a defense can go:

1. Stay in the base defense, and have a series of mismatches. An offense always lines up with (1) a quarterback, (2-6) the five offensive linemen and (7-11) eligible receivers.

Depending on the offensive set, there might be as few as 2 and as many as five wide receivers. If you come out with four defensive backs, you will need to use a linebacker to cover at least one person… and that assumes you want to play the others man-to-man.

2. Bring in extra pass rushers and go after the QB. If you sack the QB or force him into a bad throw, you stop him.

3. Bring in extra DBs to work the clock. What people call a “prevent defense” is what coaches call a “two-minute defense.” The goal is not to (as D’Qwell Jackson once ignorantly stated) “trying to keep them out of the end zone” by “giving up short and intermediate passes.” It is to force the offense to use all the remaining time before they can score.

A typical NFL play takes 5-7 seconds to run; after the play, if the clock hasn’t stopped, the referees will give the defense 5-10 seconds (defending on how far down the ball went) to get into position.

That’s 10-15 seconds lost on every play run.

There are two goals to what people call a “prevent defense”

  1. Keep the clock running after every play, unless the ball is incomplete or the offense uses a time out, by eliminating completions to the sideline.
  2. Eliminate the deep ball, so the opponent never moves more than one first down at a time.

I once asked a future defensive coordinator to give me a good rule of thumb for judging whether a two-minute defense is working. He thought about it and said “Count time yards and the time. If it takes them more than 30 seconds to travel 20 yards, it’s working.”

Horton’s defense bungled this frequently last year and this was another example. Let’s do play by play:

  • (2:38) 21-yard pass deep right to Benjamin, who runs out of bounds at the 31.

This is the worst outcome– the offense gains more than twice the first down– and it also stops the clock.

  • (2:26) Isaiah Crowell runs right for 1 yard.

Whoa– stop. Why’d they waste time running?

Because Kyle Shanahan knows more about the mechanics of a two-minute drill than I expected. There’s 2:26 left– the clock will stop at 2:00 (or thereabouts) no matter what. It takes 10-15 seconds to run a play in the hurry-up, unless there is (a) an incomplete pass, ( b) a penalty, (c) a timeout called or (d) or you throw a quick out to a guy standing on the sidelines.

Therefore, no matter what you do, you will probably be able to run only two plays.

You’d expect a team not to run, because it burns time– so there’s a good chance you might get through, But even if you don’t, you still have them wondering if you might run again. And as long as you hustle, you can probably get the next play off before the two-minute warning.

So it’s a psych job?

It’s a psych job in the worst-case scenario– if Tennessee stuffs the play. if Crowell gets through, it’s a long gainer.

  • (2:03) 12-yard pass to Agnew, pushed out at the 44.

So in 35 seconds, the Browns have moved 34 yards– largely because Horton’s defense let the receiver get out of bounds twice. This is exactly what happened to the Browns against New England last year– the Patriots traveled 19 yards on 3 plays in 15 seconds, because the Browns didn’t keep them in.

  • (1:56) 31-yard pass deep left to Austin, to the Tennessee 25 (Pass interference penalty declined)

That was another feature of the New England game too– the defense kept committing penalties, which stopped the clock. At this points, the Browns will score unless they self-destruct. They’ve moved 65 yards in 48 seconds. and still have 2 timeouts left

  • (1:48) Tate runs 6 yards over left tackle to the Tennessee 19.

They have time to burn, and there’s a chance they can get a score. A 25-yard run isn’t unusual. Remember, they have two time outs

  • (1:25) Tate runs 5 yards up the middle to the 14.
  • (1:01) Tate runs 13 yards up the middle to 1.

At the 1, the Browns run Tate again– which the Titans stuff– and then call timeout, fake the run and throw to Jim Dray for the score.

And nothing about that seems impressive?

Not if you apply the standards of an NFL team.– as opposed to the Browns. I get why people who only watch this team were stunned:

1. Hoyer made only 7-10 substandard passes, and none were of the “Oh my God, how could you do that?” variety.

He had help from referee Gene Steratore, whose crew clearly felt it would be a shame to break up the string of consecutive quarters without a turnover. But Hoyer’s worst throws were things of beauty, compared to Brandon Weeden, Daniel C. McCoy, Jason Campbell, et al…

Contrary to what we have seen her, many teams do not make these errors.

2. The Browns didn’t let the half expire due to poor clock management. They didn’t advertise this blog. They had only two plays where they had to call timeout with the clock running down. They had no plays where people ran into each other, or seemed to be running different plays.

This is in sharp contract to Pat Shurmur, Brad Childress, Brian Daboll and Maurice Carthon, but standard procedure at other teams.

3. There were no appalling drops, or balls bouncing off the chest or the hands and into a defender.

4. Not once did Hoyer appear to be deliberately throwing the ball toward the hands of the pass rushers, so they could begin a tip drill, or get a free down.

5 The Browns committed 7 penalties for 74 yards. Four were on defense, two on kicks and only one on offense:

  • 29-yard pass interference on Joe Haden
  • 5-yard offsides on Paul Kruger
  • 10-yard holdng (on a return) by Bademosi
  • 5-yard defensive holding on Skrine
  • 10-yard roughing the passer on Skrine
  • 10-yard holdng (on a return) by Bademosi
  • 5-yard false start by Joel Bitonio

There were offsetting penalties on Chris Kirksey (roughness), Craig Robertson (illegal block– also on a return) , Jordan Cameron (holding) and Joe Thomas (roughness). Only the last two were on offense; only one (Cameron’s) was a performance failure.

Performance failure?

Meaning that he was getting beat and had to commit a penalty or his opponent was going to make a big play. Bitonio made a mental mistake (He either didn’t get the snap count or though he heard Hoyer). Thomas just lost his temper

This seems preternaturally good if you’ve been watching people like John St. Clair, Shawn Lauvao and Oneil Cousins and assume that all offensive lines let their QB get blasted– or draw 3-5 flags and blow up drives.

In point of fact, many NFL teams do this every week– even when they are not playing 1-3 teams.

Boy you really seem angry.

This game should not have been as close as it was. It should not have required assistance for the officiating crew or the opposing team. A game that hinges on the coach playing Charlie Whitehurst half the game– and then throwing nearly twice as many passes as Jake Locker– is a gift.

The defense has had excuses for giving up big plays in the first three games, but there was not enough talent to justify allowing four touchdown on defense

I’m willing to allow for growth, as well as the “2 steps forward, 1 step back” approach. I’m not going to blame this regime because Mike Lombardi blew the 2013 draft. But good teams do not make Locker and Whitehurst look as good as they did.

I was never impressed by the Kardiac Kids. Good teams do not win lots of close games, because they don’t play lots of close games. They blow out teams when they have superior talent.

This should have been an opportunity to demonstrate that how much progress the Browns had made in the first three weeks. It suggested that the Browns had regressed– or had decided to play down to the level of the opponent.

I’m not as appalled at the game as “Gotta Make Boom Booms”– who always assumes that the performance level of the most recent game is how they will play every remaining game. But he wasn’t wrong to suggest that one of the few positive things about the game was the final score.

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