Review: Exhibition Game 2 (Buffalo)

Opening Statement

And. my, what an exhibition that game was. By far the best thing about the game is that it was telecast by ESPN. That meant Jon Gruden (who has forgotten more about football than Solomon Wilcots will ever know) was broadcasting.

Gruden still takes the “Lake Wobegon” approach to player evaluation (everyone is a great player or a superstar or really underappreciated), but he will stop short of saying something entirely foolish, which Wilcots will not.

When his lengthy monologue about the greatness of Josh McCown– a potential Pro Bowler held back by weak supporting casts– was interrupted by McCown’s second interception– Gruden said, flatly “Well that’s just a terrible decision by Josh McCown.”

Wilcots would have felt compelled, due to embarrassment at the player putting the lie to what he had just said, to explain why the play was the result of 4 factors that were not directly connected to McCown and could not have been anticipated by McCown.

There is a reason that Solomon Wilcots often broadcasts Browns games, and it has nothing to do with his being a former AFC North player. Both he and the Browns are really terrible.

“Really terrible” can serve as my transition to the game itself. I think it was really terrible. My perception of the game– which seems to be diametrically opposed to pretty much everyone who wrote about it– is that holding the Bills to 11 points is an appalling performance.

Performance does not occur in a vacuum– it is often shaped by the weather, the people available to play and the quality of the opposition. It’s not impressive to have held the Bills to 11 points (which would have been 14, had they not hit the goalpost on one attempt). Not given the Buffalo offense:

1. 4 of the top 5 receivers on Buffalo’s depth chart didn’t play. Not Sammy Watkins, who had 65 catches for 982 yards and 6 scores last year. Nor Robert Woods (65 catches for 699 yards and 5 TDs).

I do not consider Percy Harvin or Marcus Easley to be that worthy, but they’re high on the team’s depth chart, so who am I to argue? And a fifth receiver, Chris Hogan (41-426-4), got injured just before the end of the first quarter and caught only one pass.

2. The 5 top running backs on the depth chart sat out. The big pickup, Pro Bowl runner LeSean McCoy, was absent. Both the players who split the role last year– Fred Jackson (525 yards and 2 TDs) and Anthony Dixon ( 432 yards and 2 TDs)– were ailing. 24-year-old Bryce Brown (6 TDs and 1,004 yards– averaging 4.1 per carry— in the three seasons he’s been a backup) was out. So was #5 pick Karlos Williams.

3. By far the best of the team’s starting QBs did not play. Not that Matt Cassel is any great shakes… but he is the only player of the three who has, on occasion, attained a level of performance that most teams would consider acceptable.

Tyrod Taylor, who looked like Russell Wilson’s older brother (7-10 for 65 yards passing; 4-41 rushing), is a former sixth-round pick of the Ravens, who signed with Buffalo when his rookie contract expired.

Since Joe Flacco rarely misses plays, Taylor has thrown only 35 in 4 years. Maybe he can play, but the evidence (sixth-round pick, signed with Buffalo) does not support it.

E.J. Manuel, who shredded the Cleveland defense effortlessly (9-14 for 111 yards and a score,; game rating 112.5) is a technically a former #1 pick… but only because Buffalo reached for him in a very weak draft.

He’s a scatter-armed QB who doesn’t take care of the ball. If the Bills had a QB they trusted, he’d probably be cut.

Let me pause for a moment. Clearly the injury bug bites both ways. The Browns were missing:

  • Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson,
  • Pro Bowl corner Joe Haden.
  • Most of the depth at corner: Pierre Desir, Robert Nelson and K’Waun Williams.
  • Justin Gilbert— who, like Mary Poppins, considers himself “Practically perfect in every way“.

To the degree that you consider DT Phil Taylor (who’s missed 20 games in the last four years) and LB Meowkevious Mingo (7 sacks, 84 tackles, 7 passes defensed, no interceptions) difficult to replace, the defense was further handicapped. by teh absence of the two former #1 picks.

But, no, holding undrafted free agent RBs Cierre Wood, Ricky Seale and Bronson Hill in check isn’t cause for celebration (Buffalo went 29-81 with 41 yards coming on Taylor’s scrambles).

Allowing 16 completions on 23 passes, for more than 7.3 yards per pass– letting WRs Deonte Thomas (2 catches for 35 yards) and TE Chris Gragg (3-56) do some real damage– isn’t OK.

And, as any head coach who was a defensive coordinator will tell you, all of that is more than offset by the next point.

4. The defense gave up the game-winning score. Defensive coaches never want to see their teams give up points. Ever. They want to build a mindset that the team can shut down anyone it faces. And when you give up a game-winning score, it’s the a[pocalypse.

Even if it’s the rump end of the bench doing it, letting Andre Davis get the 14-yard game winning TD at the end of the game– and then Hill catch the 2-point conversion– isn’t supposed to happen.

For the second week in a row, the Browns had no interceptions. Unlike last week, when it recovered two fumbles. there were none this time. And both fumbles by Washington seemed more “unforced error” than turnover

5. Buffalo’s first-team defense manhandled the Browns’ line. I know (I listened to Chucky say it repeatedly) that every member of the Buffalo line is either a Pro Bowler, a Hall-of-Famer or the Greatest of All Time.

But the Browns have a pretty good line– it’s supposed to be the foundation of the offense. And the Bills collected 4 sacks, 5 hits and what seemed like 30 hurries. The Cleveland line boasts 2 first-round picks and 2 second-rounders– and another #1, Cam Erving, playing with the second team this week.

The line played so poorly that it was difficult to determine whether both of the holdover running backs are playing “Alphonse & Gaston” with the starting job for the second straight week, or whether there was simply nowhere for any back to run:

  • Terrance West (11 carries for 42 yards) had only two runs of more than 4 yards. If you subtract his 12-yard run in the first quarter and his 10-yard run in the third, he had a dismal day.
  • Isaiah Crowell (5 carries, 14 yards) got 13 of them on one play. His second-best play was making the tackle on one of McCown’s picks. It looked like the clock had struck 12 and he had reverted from NFL back to undrafted free agent.

When your offensive stars of the game are undrafted free agents (WR Shane Wynn and (for catching the 37-yarder) Darius Jennings) and LB Paul Kruger (5 tackles, 2 for loss; a sack and a QB hit)– it’s not a very good day.

When you add QB Josh “Alfredrick Hughes” McCown playing like an XFL reject, turbocharging the quarterback derby talk, things get really ugly.

The nickname is a private joke. You can Google the name, but unless you were watching the telecast of the 1985 NBA draft, you won’t get it.

Questions?

You picked the wrong stars–
for both the offense and defense.

No I didn’t. I just place weight on different things than many people do.

Third-round pick Xavier Cooper did have two sacks, but he didn’t make any other plays. That’s almost certainly because the Browns only let Cooper play 11 snaps– but that begs an obvious question: “Why?”

Of the 32 different defensive players the Browns used, only fifth corner Aaron Ross played fewer snaps. Why was your #3 pick getting so little time?

If we use deduction and logic, this would suggest that Cooper is having trouble catching on… something I predicted would happen when he was drafted. Cooper has a learning disability; this is a tough defense to learn.

My take on QB Johnny Manziel is that a #1 pick in his second season– playing against the opponent’s third string players– ought to look good. Also:

  • Manziel had another #1 (Erving) blocking for him.
  • On the first drive, he had both West and Crowell in the backfield.
  • He completed 10 of 18 passes; 2 completions (on 3 targets) were to Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin

His one scoring ‘drive’ did go 11 plays for 96 yards. On the other hand, 58 of those yards came in a there-play sequence:

  • A 37-yard pass to Jennings on a rollout, where the Buffalo defense seemed to make a mistake
  • Tim Flanders (why bold his name; he won’t be on the team)
  • The 21-yard strike to Wynn, who was wide open because the defender seemed to be channeling Justin Gilbert.

Taking nothing away from Manziel, but a big gain can occur because the offense played well or the defense played poorly. Gotta give the quarterback credit (notice I’m using his last name, not a nickname), but he had some help.

Also, I wasn’t impressed by the completion to Jennings. Manziel threw across his body, and there wasn’t nearly enough zip on the ball. It worked in exhibition game #2, but it would probably have been knocked down or picked during the season.

He was high or wide on throws most of the night. Of the five balls he threw to Vince Mayle, only one was close enough to be caught.

Look, he played half the game and got seven points. That should indicate that he wasn’t the star of the game.

He had a 94.2 game rating, Geoff.

The rating was developed to measure seasons. Ratings for individual games are somewhat unreliable, because they can be heavily influenced by 2-3 passes. And here we’re talking about half a game.

I know what I’m about to say will sound like I’m trying to tear down Manziel. I’m not. He went 10-18 for 118 yards (6.56 yards per pass). He threw for 1 touchdown with 0 interceptions. That’s a good half.

It’s not great, as you can see if you double the stats. If your quarterback goes 20-36 for 236 yards and 2 TDs, you won;t proclaim him the goat. But it’s not a 300-yard game, because he got 6.6 yards per pass). It was partly because he wasn’t accurate (the league average in 2014 was 62.6%; he was 10% below that) and partly because he was often throwing short.

If a quarterback has a game like that, either the running game will need to scoring a couple of times or the defense will have to clamp down to avoid a loss.

But here’s the issue with using the rating to measure less than a game. if you assume his 37-yard pass was a fluke– if you recalc without that one play– his rating drops to 85.7. That’s still a good performance, but it’s not “Oh my God! Wow!” special. It’s a bit over average (though in Cleveland, that’s reason to go “Wow!”)

And if you put that 37-yarder back but remove the 21-yard TD, his rating drops to 69.9  That’s just over the line between “unimpressive” and “bad”, and it offers a better picture of what happened in the game.

Take out that one TD pass– say the receiver drops it– and nobody would be enthused about what Johnny Manziel did… except in comparison to Josh McCown.

He put the team in position to win.

And then he didn’t finish the win off. Let’s go over the fourth quarter:

  • When the Bills punted at the very end of the third quarter, Cleveland got the ball back with 0:03 left.
  • Cleveland ran an 11-play, 101-yard drive (they were penalized for 10 yards; Buffalo was penalized 5) to take a 10-3 lead. That drive uses 5:04 of game time.
  • Buffalo gets the ball back at the 20, with 9:59 left. The Cleveland defense does precisely what defenses are supposed to do in such situations– force Buffalo into a “3-and out.”

Cleveland gets the ball back with 8:53 left. The Buffalo defense was on the field for 5+ minutes of game time; the offense gave it only 1:06 game minutes of rest.

All the Browns need to do is get one or two first downs to lock things up. They run the ball twice for one yard, then Manziel misses connections with Mayle.

How is lousy running his fault?

He could have changed the play. He was doing a lot of that. That was one of the more impressive things– he was calling audibles and checking down.

Anyway. Buffalo gets the ball back with 7:24 left, drives down and scores, getting the extra point to go on top 11-10.

The Browns get the ball back on the 17, with 1:31 left. Buffalo immediately gets a pass interference penalty to move the ball to the 29 with 1:20 left.

In the next minute, they move 16 yards.

So it’s his fault for not scoring?

No, there are 11 men on a team. But:

  • He is a #1 pick.
  • He didn’t have a game-winning drive.
  • On the drive before that, he couldn’t get the first downs needed to lock up the game.

All in all, he had five drives– five chances to score. He succeeded only once. You score 7 points in a half, that’s 14 points a game. Obviously that isn’t good enough.

The play that really frosted me on that drive was the 3rd & 10 from the 29 with 1:13 left . He throws a 6-yard pass; obviously they’ll go for it. But then he doesn’t call time out… Buffalo finally did it (to set their defense) with 50 seconds left.

And then Buffalo had a neutral zone infraction– a five-yard penalty on 4th & 4 for the first down.

The whole drive was a mes.Cleveland had only 2 first downs– both on Buffalo penalties. The Browns committed two penalties– both by lineman:

  • On the first play after the neutral zone in fraction, RT Michael Bowie jumps offside.
  • With 41 seconds left, Manziel scrambles, throws a 17-yard strike to TE E.J. Bibbs… and RG Cameron Erving gets nailed for illegal man downfield.

That penalty, by the way, was Erving’s third in two games. The game before that, he had a false start and a holding, I let that go, figuring that he was playing left tackle against Washington’s first-string defense in his first game– and deserved a little slack. Playing right guard against the third-string, you shouldn’t make that mistake.

I’m not gonna beat Manziel up, but this game wasn’t a strong case for the “Start Johnny Football!!!!!” crowd. Even he seemed to get that in his postgame interviews.

The best argument you have for that, frankly, is “Who on earth wants to watch Josh McCown play quarterback?”

Are you gonna get all worked up over a
sloppy exhibition game?

Nope. I’m just going to point out that Josh McCown is 36, that he has never been able to hold a job and games like these are the reason why.

No one, outside of Cleveland, thinks McCown can win. Everyone I’ve spoken to is laughing at GM Ray “Snapchat” Farmer for making the deal. What he did is what he’s gonna do.

The real concern is what the Browns do after Josh McCown busts out. In 2010, the last time they tried this stunt, they ended up with Colt McCoy playing quarterback after Jake Delhomme (Jake McCown, but without the good years) and Seneca Wallace (who might be what Manziel ends up becoming) blew up.

This team doesn’t have a player nearly as likely to win games for them as McCoy this year

McCoy didn’t win for them– he went 2-6

That’s kinda my point.

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