Game 10 Review: Houston

1. Get over yourselves. The most astonishing thing about the game was the reaction to it. One of the lunatics in Channel 19’s asylum spoke for an awful lot of people when he said:

“Explain to me, someone, how a 6-3 team loses to 4-5 team.”

Challenge accepted, Dingo. Pick any or all of the following:

A. They weren’t a “6-3 team.” That is, the Browns weren’t had won 2/3 of their games because it was good enough to defeat two out of every three teams it played, no matter which teams it faced. They were, at best, a 6-10 team that had played all its easy games early in the schedule.

B. The Texans weren’t a 4-5 team. After three easy games, the hit five tough opponents in six games. They went 2-4 in those games. To repeat something I’ve said a few times:

Wins in a schedule are not equally distributed

Looking at the rest of the year, the Texans get to play at home against Tennessee (who’s now 2-8), and two games against Jacksonville (now 1-9). Assuming they don’t get upset, that’s eight wins.If they win the home game against Indy or can beat Cincinnati, or the road, they’ll have a winning record.

The records were deceiving because this game was played immediately after Houston’s tough stretch and Cleveland’s easy one.

C. The Browns probably aren’t a 6-10 team. According to the Strength of Schedule rating at Pro Football Reference, Cleveland has played the easiest schedule in the NFL so far.

The PFR system is based on point differential (Points – points allowed) per game. A positive number means the team’s opponents have outscored opponents by that number of points per game. (It’s actually not that simple, but let’s not get into the mechanics). The teams who have played the toughest schedule are all in the AFC:

  • Oakland (4.0– their 10 opponents scored 40 more points than they allowed)
  • Buffalo (3.2)
  • The Jets (3.1)

Since Buffalo (who is 5-5 against winning opponents) will be hosting Cleveland in two weeks, this does not bode well for the Browns

The three teams with the easiest schedule– the teams that the metric suggests are overrated?

  • The 6-4 Cleveland Browns (-4.1)
  • The 2-8 Tampa Bay Bucs (-3.2)
  • A three way tie at -3.1 between:
    • Dallas (7-3)
    • Baltimore (6-4)
    • Atlanta (4-6)

That shouldn’t be surprising The Browns had played four games against teams with winning records and gone 2-2:

  • A split against Pittsburgh (now 7-4)
  • a win against Cincinnati (6-3-1).
  • A loss to Baltimore (6-4)

But the bulk of that 6-3 record is the 4-1 result against teams with losing records (the wins are in bold): New Orleans is 4-6, Tennessee and Tampa Bay are both 2-8, Jacksonville is 1-9, Oakland is 0-10.

new Orleans is the only even close to being good– and the Browns squeaked by on some coaching misconduct.

D. Some of Cleveland’s 6 wins were by the skin of their teeth. Contrary to popular belief, good teams do not win close games.. Good teams do not play close games. Good teams blow opponents out.

The Browns beat Tennessee by one point, New Orleans by two and Tampa by five. They struggled mightily against Oakland before winning by 10. That’s not the hallmark of a good team.

They did wallop Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but the joy of beating their rivals caused fans to overlook a basic fact: neither of those teams are that great.

E. Houston wasn’t really a 2-14 team last year. Yes, I know the Bill Parcells quote. But the Texans played 11 games decided by 7 points or less– and went 2-9. Normally teams play .500 ball in those games.

It also didn’t help that Kubiak decided, when the team started 2-4 and Indy started 4-2, to replace Matt Schaub with free agent Casey Keenum.  Keenum went 0-8, turning the ball over 12 times (6 INTs, 6 fumbles)

But they went 10-6 in 2011 and 12-4 in 2012, and most of those players are still there.

Here’s another way to put it. From 2011 to 2013, Houston went 24-24. In the past three years, the Browns were 13-35– 11 games worse.

In fact, the Texans had more wins in three years– despite a 2-14 season– than the Browns did in five. (Cleveland went 9-23 in the two prior years, meaning they won only 22 games in the five years since Romeo Crennel departed.)

I’m not nuts about GM Rick Smith, but most of my skepticism was related to his hanging onto coach Gary Kubiak, despite weak results. It’s not a laughing-stock franchise– nothing like Randee LernerZ Klown Kollege or 2013’s “The Three Stooges” have been.

The inability of fans and media to realize that Houston was going to win (something I saw clearly) is directly related to the collective decision to say things like “I know it was a sloppy game against a weak team, but I don’t care because the Browns won– WOOOOO-HOOOOOOO!”

How you win or lose a game is (for the purpose of projecting future outcomes) as important as the result.

2. Browns Kryptonite, defined. The most disastrous thing about the game is that it confirmed a lesson hinted at in the Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay games. If you watched those games closely and still think the Browns have playoff chances, you’re in denial.

In order to beat Cleveland, a team simply needs to have the following:

  • A front seven with 2-3 Pro Bowl players, so it can stack the line to stop the run, overwhelm the right side on passing plays, and pressure journeyman QB Brian Hoyer into unforced errors.
  • A secondary strong enough to jam the undersized receivers and keep them from getting a clean break in the deep zone. (Skill in coverage optional.)
  • Tall receivers who can outfight Cleveland’s miniature Dawgs (none of the starters are taller than 5’11”) for passes.
  • A strong-armed quarterback who can throw deep balls, even if he isn’t all that accurate or mobile.
  • Offensive linemen beefy enough to not get beaten immediately– just long enough to let the play develop.

If that sounds like I’m reciting the components of a championship team, read it more closely. There are numerous omissions.

The defensive line absolutely needs to be topnotch– it has to fight LT Joe Thomas and LG Joel Bitonio to a draw, and be good enough to best RT Mitchell Schwartz and RG John Greco, who are above-average players.

C Nick McDonald could start for some other teams. Not good teams… but the gap between him and Alex Mack is comparable to the difference between Arian Foster and Alfred Blue

But the opposing secondary doesn’t need to be great in coverage– it just needs to be able to get that initial jam on players like

  • Andrew Hawkins (5’7″, 175): 6 catches on 13 targets for 97 yards, 1 TD
  • Taylor Gabriel (5’8, 167): 5 catches on 13 targets for 92 yards
  • Travis Benjamin (5’10”, 172): 1 for 3 to 23 yards

If you knock them off stride, you can assume that either (a) your line will finish off Hoyer or (b) he’ll make a bad throw, or (c) they won’t catch it. Those three receivers dropped four passes (two more were arguable, and I’m not counting the ball FB Ray Agnew muffed).

All in all, Hoyer was was 20-50, and he averaged only 6.6 yards a throw (the NFL average is 7.3).

Similarly, the opponent’s receivers don’t need to be blindingly fast or incredibly elusive– they can have corners Joe Haden and Buster Skirne (who both had good days) draped all over them. As long as your wideouts have enough strength and reach to pull down balls too high for those guys to knock down, you’ll do OK.

The guy throwing to the big receivers doesn’t need laser-like accuracy. He doesn’t need to be able to scramble (it’s not like this defense can get to him). He doesn’t need to be a great decision-maker. All he has to do is be tall enough to get the ball over the incoming rushers and put some air under it and make sure doesn’t wobble.

Brandon Weeden, on a good day, would probably be enough to beat this club.

An opponent’s offensive line doesn’t need to be able to pancake defenders– it just needs to be able to hold its blocks long enough until:

  • The Cleveland defense takes itself out of the play on runs.
  • The trebuchet behind center launches the pass.

Notice that I haven’t said you need a great running back– you don’t.

Notice that I didn’t say any unit on either side of the ball needs blinding speed– they don’t.

I didn’t say the opposing secondary needs great coverage skills or that the front seven needs great tackling ability– they don’t.

An opponent who has any of those ingredients, in addition to the base features, can make the result even more lopsided. A team falls short in enough areas (as Tampa and Oakland did) might let the Browns win.

But, as I said in the First Impressions for Tampa Bay, looking at the games coming up, it’s very difficult to see a team that the Browns can beat from here on in. Most of the opponents have enough of these components to give the Browns fits

3. The not-so-dearly departed. I’ve been suffering from respiratory illnesses and am somewhat zonked. I wrote most of the preview for the Houston game in advance, set it aside until I finished the review. On Sunday, I realized I hadn’t published it and changed the status without checking to see Houston scratches.

Shortly after I posted it, someone texted me to point out that neither RB Arian Foster not QB Ryan Fitzpatrick would play. “Bet you’d like to take your projection back!”

Actually no. I’d have noted the changes in personnel, so I wouldn”t have looked like a goof. But it wouldn’t have changed what I expected.

QB Ryan FItzpatrick is a 32-year-old journeyman. His career record as a starter is 35-59-1. Some of the losses are due to deficient talent on the teams he’s played for, but it’s primarily because he isn’t very good. Fitzpatrick has a career 78.4 rating (80 is average; 90 is good) and he’s thrown 117 TD passes and 101 interceptions. A good quarterback will have a 2-1 ratio; a competent one 1.5 to 1.

I don’t share the phobia about playing young players that most local writers or front office executives do. Terry Pluto recently did handsprings bout the Indians paying Mike Aviles $3.5 million– and seemed panic-stricken at the thought their #1 pick, Francisco Lindor might start the 2015 season with the team. Terry, like the Indians’ front office, sees all rookies– because they are unproven– as an unacceptable risk. Replace a veteran– even a terrible one like Aviles (.3 Wins Above Replacement this year; 0.0 last year)– with a guy who hasn’t played and the team will get worse.

It’s based on two mistaken assumptions:

  • Talent is in short supply
  • Professional teams never make mistakes in talent judgment

Terry assumes that any player in AAA (in baseball), in Europe or the D-league (basketball) or on the street or a practice squad (football) is inferior to every other player in the major league. There might be a player or two on the worst teams that a minor leaguer could replace– and some players deemed “prospects” might be able to do the job eventually. But as a rule, if you dump the veteran and play the unproven player, the team will decline.

I approach it differently: It depends on the players involved.

Since I haven’t had  chance to cover them much, let me use an example from the Indians. There’s no doubt that playing Asdrubal Cabrera cost the Indians games. He was 1.3 wins about a replacement placer last year in 466 plate appearances;  to be average (a replacement player is a bad player), you have to be 2.0 or higher. he didn’t hit poorly and his fielding was awful.

Jose Ramirez, in only 266 plate appearances, was 1.8 wins above a replacement player.  (WAR is a counter stat– if you don’t play enough, you’ll have trouble accumulating enough points.) The Indians brought Ramirez up earlier in the season and he struggled in a very brief trial (look at the first half stats), but when he came up in late July, he was more than ready.

At some point between the first trial and the second, it became a bad idea to keep Cabrera and a good idea to play Ramirez. (May might have been the right time to switch, since Ramirez got so little time).

At some point in 2015, it will be a bad idea to play Ramirez (a natural second baseman) at short, Jason Kipnis (a converted outfields) at second and keep Lindor in the minors. But based on the Indians’ track record– Mark Shapiro stupidly believes all players require at least 150 games at each level to develop– Lindor will be lucky to be in Cleveland before August.

Meanwhile Ryan Raburn and David Murphy will be taking at-bats in the outfield that should be going to Kipnis. He’s struggling to handle the defensive load and would hit better at his natural position, much like Carlos Santana did at his (.274 average, .912 OPS at first base).

If you have to have a football example, in the Tampa Bay game. Lovie Smith decided that his best solution at left tackle was was Oniel Cousins. Cousins was here from 2011-13; he did his level worst in the five games he started, to get his backs stuffed and his quarterbacks sacked. It’s impossible for me to believe that some other player– someone on a practice squad or not on a team– could not have done better

My approach to the rookie-veteran issue is 180 degrees removed from the sportswriters. Given a choice between an unknown quantity and a veteran who has proven he can’t do the job, I’ll take the unknown guy every time. If the kid is better, you’ll see improvement. If he’s worse, you can always go back to Willis McGahee or whatever stiff you’re using because he’s a “veteran”.

The quarterback the Texans used, Ryan Mallett, is 26. New England chose him in the third round in 2011, groomed him for three years and then traded their asset to Houston at a profit. Looking at Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Brian Hoyer, what’s the basis for thinking Mallett would be worse than Fitzpatrick?

You can ding him for being “inexperienced.” Or you could say he’s been serving an apprenticeship under O’Brien, Bill Belichick, and Josh McDaniels. He knows the offense O’Brien runs– probably better than Fitzpatrick did..

Plus… not to be mean, but when did it require experience to beat Cleveland?

  • Blake Bortles of Jacksonville beat the Browns in his fifth NFL game.
  • Derek Carr kept the Oakland Raiders nearly evenl for three quarters in his seventh start.
  • Tampa’s Mike Glennon had played 18 games and lost by five points.
  • Charlie Freaking Whitehurst of Tennessee, who’s always been on the bench, nearly beat them.

My take, had I posted it, would have been:

“If Mallett can play as well as Bortles (he went 17-31 for 159 yards, 1 TD and and 3 INTs), he’ll be fine. He just needs to drop a few bombs to his receivers (as Bortles did), and he can put enough points on the board. He isn’t likely to be worse than Fitzpatrick.”

And Mallett wasn’t. He turned out to be more than ready, completing 20-30 for 211 yards (7.0 per attempt). He threw an interception, but also 2 TDs, so his ratio was fine. Having Andre Johnson (7-9 for 68 yards) and DeAndre Hopkins (4-8 for 80 yards) was all he needed.

His rating was a sparkling 95.3, which is better than Fitzpatrick has done in 72 of his 94 appearances.

4. Don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you. Everything said about Fitzpatrick can be applied to the recently-departed Ben Tate.

  • Replacing the Ben Tate who backed up Foster from 2011-13, gaining 1,992 yards and averaging 4.7 yards a carry, pitching in where necessary,  is a tough chore.
  • Replacing the guy who gained 6.83 yards per touch in game #1– but then missed three games (giving Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell a chance to play) is another.Tate gained 22 yards on 124 carries in his first game back, then didn’t get over 3.4 yards a carry since. Eventually he started pouting because West and Crowell were playing, and stopped trying. That made him even more replaceable.

Tate is pissed off because Gary Kubiak, his old coach, believed a starter should never lose his job due to an injury. Every time Foster got hurt, Tate would step in and play very well. But every time Foster came back, Tate went back on the bench. Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan don’t play by those rules.

Tate’s agent (who will be referred to as an “NFL Source”) will be telling Mary Kay Greenhouse (good place to plant things) that the rotation never gave Tate a chance to get going– that he performs better when he had more carries.

It’s nonsense. Scroll all the way down to the Quarter splits and you’ll see he doesn’t get better late in the game. Or go here to the “By Pass attempts” (they mean rushing) and check each of the year-by year data (ESPN doesn’t have splits for career totals) and you’ll see that Tate’s carries 1-10 are generally better than 11-20 or 21-30.

5. Same old, same old. Had I written an update about RB Alfred Blue starting for Foster, it also would have said “Hey, no big deal”, but for substantially different reasons.

Foster is an outstanding running back. Blue is a rookie– #6 pick from LSU. But the other factors didn’t change:

  • Houston’s line could still block. Houston’s starting left tackle, Duane Brown, made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2013. The starting center, Chris Myers, made it in 2011 and 2012. Two other players were high picks (first four rounds) in the last three years. It was a quality line.
  • Cleveland still couldn’t play the run. As I pointed out in the game preview, the Browns had the #31 run defense (yards per carry) and #28 (total yards) going into the game.

Those results aren’t accidental. The Browns have given up yardage to high picks, like Jeremy Hill of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. But it has also had trouble stopping less distinguished players:

  • Mark Ingram (a journeyman) and Khiry Robinson (undrafted) of New Orleans
  • Lorenzo Taliaferro (rookie; #4 pick) and Justin Forsett (29 years old, on his 5th team) of Baltimore
  • Denard Robinson (#5 pick in 2013) of Jacksonville
  • Darren McFadden (first round bust; 2008) of Oakland
  • Bobby Rainey (waiver pickup) of Tampa.

Many of these players didn’t post big fantasy league numbers– but mostly because they didn’t get a lot of carries. McFadden averaged 5.0 yards a carry… but Oakland only ran him 12 times.

Khiry Robinson has averaged 5.2 yards per carry this year. You don’t remember his game against the Browns, because he got only 8 carries– and he got stuffed on one of them. Denard Robinson, on the other hand, got 22 carries, so his 5.8 per carry turned into 127 yards and a score for Jacksonville.

Blue’s total yards (156) are striking not because of his average (4.3 yards a carry; the league average is 4.1)– but because Houston ran him 36 times, and the Browns couldn’t stop him. Jonathan Grimes’s 54 yards were also produced with a moderate average (4.2 yards; 13 carries).

  • The Texans have always had depth in the backfield. Arian Foster is a fine player, he’s always had trouble staying healthy. He’s been been in the NFL since 2009– had he played every game (five 16-game seasons and the 9 this year) he’d have 89 career games played. He’s played in 67.

Because Foster gets dinged up a lot (one cause of Hoston’s 2-14 record was his missing eight games last year). Its why GM  Rick Smith has always had players who could step in for Foster. Coach Bill O’Brien came out of the Patriots system. New England seems almost impervious to injury; they always seem to have competent backups when injuries hit.

So why would you assume that Houston– after they decided to let Ben Tate leave– wouldn’t have found a backup who could play?

6. Depth 101. Browns fans and media are always gobsmacked when an opponent loses a starter, uses his backup and the substitute turns out to have some degree of skill.

Their assumption seems to be “Since we can’t find quality starters, what are the odds that they were able to find two?

Pretty good, actually. Scouting is a two-step process: (a) understanding what skills are required to perform work and (b) identifying people who have those skills.

If you’re good at both things, you will be able to identify people who have some of those skills (even if they don’t have all of them)… and obtain a person who is available.

The play of K’Waun WIlliams is an example. The negative is that he’s small and slow, which is why his play in college wasn’t so hot. On the other hand, he’s a quick learner who works hard and keeps the play in front of him.

You can’t use him as a starting DB– frontline receivers will beat him. But he can work in a nickel or dime (against the second-tier players) and be… well, a poor man’s Haden or Skrine.

This is one of the more hopeful developments of the 2014 season. Normally, Cleveland teams (in all three sports) do go into a season with no depth– just a hope that nothing bad will happen. One of the most pleasant developments about Pettine and GM Ray Farmer is their ability to find players– Crowell, Williams, Nick McDonald– who can step in and carry the load.

Now if only they could do as well drafting. One of the disturbing things about the game– as many people have mentioned– is that Cleveland’s #1 pick, CB Justin Gilbert, played only 7 snaps– all on kicking teams. Since their other #1 isn’t playing either, the draft looks like a huge bust.

6. Ball of Confusion. A friend wondered, after the game, why Cleveland can’t seem to play good run defense. “Every year we upgrade the talent,” he moaned. “but it never gets any better.”

I asked who he meant. “Dansby, Whinter, Kirksey and Gibson. Mingo and Kruger last year. John Hughes and Billy Winn. Phl Taylor and Jabaal Sheard, How much talent do we need to add?”

The answer to his is “They haven’t upgraded the talent needed to play run defense.” They’ve added players with more athletic ability, which isn’t the same thing.

In 1987, I got the chance to speak to a man who who is a legendary defensive coach, who has won a Super Bowl at some point in his career.

There’s a reason I’m being coy; you’ll see why in a minute.

The Browns had traded LB Chip Banks away and had lost DE Reggie Camp for the year. Yet they appeared to be playing better defense– especially against the run. How could they be playing better– especially against the run– with less talent?

“You don’t need talent to play run defense,” he replied. You need two things:

  • 75% is discipline— doing your job on the play, fighting off blocks, controlling your gap, staying in your lane, not biting on fakes etc…
  • 25% was fundamentals– using proper technique, choosing the correct pursuit angles and observing correct tackling procedure.

He mentioned, in passing. that there were six methods, depending on where you were on the field and what the score was), for tackling an opposing  player. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked him to explain, but I didn’t want to get sidetracked.

On run defense, a player who would do exactly what he was told was more valuable than someone who gifted, but didn’t follow orders. He put both Banks and Camp in that category, and pointed to five players who had very little ability, but executed the game plan perfectly: DEs Carl Hairston and Sam Clancy, LB Eddie Johnson, safeties Ray Ellis and Felix Wright.

“I wouldn’t give you a hoot in hell for Al Baker. You can’t build a defense around him, because he’s never where he’s supposed to be.”

Now you know why I’m not identifying him– Johnson is a fan favorite and Baker is a local businessman.. He did say Hairston (who joined the Browns when he was 32) had been a very good player in his 20’s.

You really don’t need talent? “I guarantee you that if all 11 men stand still. the man with the ball will run towards them. They’re standing between him and the end zone, so he has to”

Pass defense was exactly the opposite– because the quarterback could throw to any spot on the field if you gave him a chance, you needed an enormous amount of talent to rush the passer or cover receivers. He pointed to LBs Clay Matthews & Mike Johnson, and CBs Hanford Dixon & Frank Minnifield as examples of players you couldn’t play good pass defense without.

The players he liked most were Johnson and Matthews, saying that they were enormously unselfish, would do anything to help the team and were skilled enough to do anything. Neither corner was big enough to play the run well, and he didn’t think either liked to tackle.

If you didn’t have great athletes, you’d have trouble against running backs like Curt Warner or Eric Dickerson. But as long as you had disciplined players, you could defend the run against everyone else.

If you weren’t disciplined, you’d have trouble against everyone. Even an average back could beat you, as long as he knew how to hit a hole and cut back against the pursuit.

Losing LB Karlos Dansby iwith 8:58 left in the second quarter was a major blow. He’s helped. SS Donte Whitner ihas been to a Pro Bowl twice.

Jabaal Sheard doesn’t get a lot of credit, because the Browns keep shifting him around (positions and roles), without much thought to the role he is best suited for (weakside end in a 4-3). But he has played pretty well in whatever role he’s asked to do. Haden and Skirne are too small to play good run support, but they give it their best.

Sheard’s contract is up at the end of the season and Cleveland should try to re-sign him now, before he begins thinking about joining other teams.

The rest of the defense? Pfffftttt….One of the tasks in the off-season will be flensing the roster of Rubin, Hughes, Taylor, et al and finding some people who can close lanes and stand their ground. It’s too easy to fake these guys out of their jocks.

There are a few other reasons the Browns lost, but since they fit better with the preview for the Falcons, I’ve decided to hold them for that piece.

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