Preview: Exhibition Game 3 (@Tampa Bay)

In 45 years of following the Browns, I can’t ever remember thinking that an exhibition game was a “must-win” game. Until now.

There have been preseason games where I felt player X or Y needed to play well if the team was going to have any chance to win during the yea:

  • It was one of the “quarterback derby” seasons (Sipe-Phipps, Frye-Anderson, etc…) where someone needed to step up.
  • The coach didn’t seem impressed with the front office’s pick. If the kid didn’t show what he could do, he’d wind up so low on the depth chart that he’d spend the year working his way up.
  • The veteran pickup or injured player on the mend had looked so weak that the team would have to write him off.

You could say tonight’s game simply has a lot of those storylines. But there are so many of them– so many guys who need to show what they can do– that it’s impossible for the Browns to get good news from the majority of them and lose.

And because teams always hold their starters out of Game 4, this is the last chance any of these players have to engender some confidence before the games start to count:

RB Duke Johnson: They drafted him in the third round. Mike Pettine just told Tom Reed that Johnson will be the key player in his offense. But he’s been injured and hasn’t been able to set foot on the field. And injuries have been a problem Johnson’s entire career.

Durability is a skill. Some players simply don’t have the ability to sense a collision and get out of the way. Or they don’t know when to run out of bounds, or get ready for a tackle. Johnson needs to prove that he isn’t one of those players

If he doesn’t, the Browns seem like they’re in big trouble. Both Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell have looked awful; RB Coach Wilbert Montgomery has been complaining that nobody has stepped up. If the Browns can’t run the ball, they could break the league record for being shut out in a season

WR Dwayne Bogus: The last time Bogus looked like a good player, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, Regis Philbin was still doing his morning show and Romeo Crennel was his coach. That was 2011.

The last three seasons, the Chiefs have thrown him 100 passes a year and seen and he caught 55-60 of them, for 12-14 yards. He’s had 8 TDs in three years– none of them in 2014.

He’ll turn 31 in September. He didn’t put any points on the board– or have a 100-yard game (his best was 8 catches for 93 yards).

Someone playing Tight End: If you were going based on who looked best, it would be E.J. Bibbs, an undrafted free agent who caught 45 passes for the 2-10 Iowa State Cyclones last year.

Bibbs is 5-43, which is better than all three veterans combined. Rob Housler has 2 catches for 27 yards, Jim Dray 1-11 and Gary ‘Clank’ Barnidge 1-2.

One of the things that should worry a sane person is that Cleveland keeps signing tight ends that good football teams don’t seem to want. Barnidge came from Carolina; both Housler and Dray are players Bruce Ariens didn’t want.

OL Cameron Erving: I know the Browns are trying to make everyone earn a spot, but #1 picks are supposed to look promising in training camp and start as rookies.

Erving has looked like a project player– a converted defensive lineman from a run-only school. He struggled at left tackle in game one and right guard in game two. The thought of him maybe taking over at center if Alex Mack opts out seems faintly terrifying.

CB Justin Gilbert: A friend connected to the Bills organization told me the Bills are convinced that Gilbert wasn’t injured during the joint practice. He was just getting beaten so badly that the Browns were afraid it might break his spirit for good.

Since Rex Ryan and Pettine allegedly aren’t speaking, there’s no way Ryan could know that. But this much is true: If Gilbert weren’t a #1 pick, he’d be in danger of being cut. If he doesn’t play well this week or next, he’ll be lucky to see action on kick returns.

The Entire Run Defense: Tampa wants to take the pressure off #1 pick Jameis Winston, so they’re planning to run a lot (63 runs and only 44 passes in the first two weeks). The Browns played dreadful run defense in week one; last week the entire Buffalo depth chart at running back was hurt.

RB Doug Martin gained 1,000 yards as a rookie and has been hurt most of the last two years. He struggled in game 1, but averaged 9.8 a carry in week 2. Even if you take out the 30-yard run, he still averaged 5.8 yards per carry. QB Jameis Winston can take off too.

It would be nice if they do not run very far.

Both Quarterbacks: When a quarterback has a sore elbow, it isn’t as bad as when a pitcher has one.

It’s worse.

Pitchers don’t have opponents running at them; the team at bat can’t grab their arm. And opponents can’t knock a pitcher down 30-40 time a game. If Johnny Manziel has a sore elbow now– before the season starts– he’s liable to have one all year long.

With Connor Shaw out for the year, it means the Browns are down to two quarterbacks. And one of them has spent 11 of his 12 years in the league proving that he can’t handle the job.

Since I’m working on a piece about the black hole at quarterback, I’ll hold my opinion to Nobody in the NFL thinks Josh McCown can play a lick, and “This piece by Mary Kay Cabot  might be the dumbest thing she has ever written– and she once called Jason Campbell an elite quarterback.”

But if McCown wants to prove that he isn’t pond scum, this evening would be an ideal time to do it:

  • He could show his new team that the bad game last week was a fluke.
  • He could prove to his old team — in front of what is likely to be a very hostile crowd– that he is a better player than he appeared to be last season.
  • He could send a message to Browns fans that Johnny Manziel’s services might not be needed at all– much less after 4-5 games.

It would also be a good night for Thad Lewis— who has become the #2 QB by default– to present evidence that he can play, too.

There”s very little evidence to suggest that he can’t, actually. Lewis has only thrown a pass in 6 NFL games; in his worst performance, he went 15-25 for 193 yards and 1 INT in a game his team won 19-0.

Lewis is not a great player– probably not even good. But if he defense and running game do their part, he could find the open receiver. He’s more likely to play well, over the course of 16 games, than McCown.

Assuming he can still play, He’s now 30 and hasn’t played since 2013. It would be a good night to prove that he hasn;t lost any of his touch– and has, in fact, gained some,

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