2015 Browns Preview, Part 3: How to Manage a Game

The term “managing a game” is considered disreputable by fans and media two reasons:

  • It is most often spoken by coaches and executives who are inept.
  • The typical fan, writer or broadcaster is a yahoo who has no idea how games are won and lost.

The image most people have is Pat Shurmur having Charlie Frye run “Metcalf Up The Middle” on first and second downs, followed by a 5 yard-pass to Aaron Shea on 3rd-&-7, while Marty’s “Prevent Defense” lets John Elway march up and down the field, scoring at will.

That’s not how it works. The true meaning of the phrase is  scattered in books by coaches, online copies of presentations at seminars and various research studies. And that Holy Grail can be much more complex and interesting– if the team is doing it right.

And since the success of the 2015 Browns depends on their ability to do just that– manage games–the best thing I can do is to explain how it should work.

Game Managing 101

Let’s start with a few facts. The first two everyone knows; the third has something people forget.

  1. Each of the three units on a team (offense, defense and kicking teams) can produce points while it is on the field; each can let an opponent score if they perform badly.
  2. Each unit can gain or lose yards for the team.
  3. Each unit can cause a turnover— a lost fumble, an interception or by a missed or blocked kick.

Missed kicks are turnovers. Missed kicks can actually be worse than turnovers. If you get picked off on the five, that’s a terrible end to a drive. But the opponent has the ball in the “black zone” (inside their own 20). ll sorts of bad stuff can happen; the odds are very high that it will.

If you miss a 42-yard field goal, on the other hand, the opponent has the ball on their 25– just like they received a kickoff.

Now some numbers– all based on 2014 stats;

  1. In 2014, a mistake (stuffed run, sack, fumble, interception, pass batted down or penalty) happened every 3.6 plays from scrimmage.
  2. In 2014, NFL teams gained 178,249 yards from scrimmage.
  3. Total yardage gained or lost on mistakes was 46,386 yards; 26% of that total.
  4. In the 512 games teams played, they turned the ball over (lost fumble, interception, missed or blocked kick) 926 times– an average of nearly two per game.
  5. Teams had 5,911 possessions last year (11.5 per game). More than 1 in 8 drives (12.1%, or 715 total) ended due to a turnover. (This will not match the official stats because there were 35 cases where the guy running the turnover back turned it over to the original team.)
  6. There were 1,187 rushing or receiving touchdowns. 106 additional touchdowns– just under 10% of that total scored on a fumble, interception, punt, kickoff or blocked kick return.
  7. Total yards gained/lost during punts and kickoffs (which aren’t counted in yards from scrimmage) was 38,402 yards. That’s just over one-fitfh (21.5%) of total yards gained from scrimmage.
  8. 993 punts went inside the 20. 176 (17.7%) were badly kicked or poorly covered and went into the end zone for a touchback, costing a team up to 20 yards.
  9. Of the 2,607 kickoffs, only 1,311 (barely over half) went into or through the end zone for touchbacks. 15 were kicked out of bounds.
  10. Of the 58 onside kicks, only 8 were recovered by the kicking team. And don’t tell me there’s nothing you can do about that, because last season Indianapolis went 3-3 and the Giants went 2-3.

Fans and writers think about offense as the be-all and end-all. But 30% of ball movement happens either due to a mistake or during the NFL’s answer to the “transition game.” 10% of the scoring occurs when the offense does not have the ball.

It’s a huge potential for improvement in possessions, points and yards. And it is easier to do than almost anything else, because many opponents don’t bother with it.

Every year, teams blow home field advantage, or miss the playoffs, or cost themselves games– often getting the coach and/or an assistant fired in the process– by making mistakes that are easy to prevent.

Here’s a fun story. Last season, there were 21 safeties scored. Three of them came against the Green Bay Packers. The first two came in games they lost by 12 and 20 points, so “No harm, no foul.” The third came on December 24, with 1:58 left in a game they were trailing 19-13.

Green Bay had just set itself up for a miracle comeback. They’d stopped Buffalo– using all three timeouts, and forced them to punt.

The Bills, kicking from the Green Bay 47, didn’t blast it into the end zone– they pooched it 37 yards to the Green Bay 10 and got down there fast enough to prevent a return.

On the first play, Mario Williams blew into the backfield, sacked Aaron Rodgers on the 3. Rodgers fumbled, the ball went into the end zone and Eddie Lacy had to fall on it.

Two points for the Bills– making it impossible for Green Bay to win, even with a TD and a two=point conversion. And Green Bay didn’t recover the onside kick.

So Green Bay lost 21-13 and ended up 12-4. It gave them the same record as Seattle, so they lost home field advantage in the NFC Championship.

That’s an extreme example, but by no means unusual. Norv Turner got himself fired twice because his team couldn’t kick or cover kicks.

Having an offense that doesn’t have very much talent is a problem.  But a team can get around that if the offense plays error-free football, the defense pushes the other team backwards and turnovers and the kicking teams win the exchanges.

How Not to Manage Games

When I explain all this to people, they snarl at me and say they’ve never seen it work. One one level, it suggests they’ve never watched John Fox, Marty Schottenheimer, Chuck Knox, John Robinson or Marv Levy (to name a few).

More importantly it indicates that they don’t really get the concept. Which, to be fair, is OK, because many coaches who try to do it don’t get it either.

Here’s the key: error-free doesn’t mean “safe” or “boring” or “predictable.” It means that you don’t run plays that you can’t execute successfully.

Let’s talk about “Metcalf up the middle.” Statistically speaking, an inside run is the play least likely to end with a turnover. It is also the run most likely to produce a long (20+ yards) gain.

That’s really true. On a sweep, the sideline cuts off 50% of the runner’s options– who can just shove him out. On an inside run, if Craig Robertson or John Hughes leave a gap to either side, the ballcarrier can shoot through, leaving Joe Haden or Donte Whitner to make the tackle. You’re familiar with how that works, right?

But those facts do not mean that you should run inside– a fumble isn’t the only mistake that can happen:

  • If you run up the middle, and your center and/or guards can’t block, the ballcarrier can get stuffed and you burn a down and lose yardage.
  • Your linemen can get called for holding– you get the down back, but lose yardage.
  • If the linemen are undisciplined– or they lack speed or strength– they’re likely to jump offside trying to get the advantage.
  • If the running back can’t run with power– or he dithers and dances– then you lose a down and maybe lose yardage

You’re better off, if those things are likely to happen, to run wide. Or to throw passes to the back. Or to the tight end or the receiver.

When you are passing, the same rule applies. You do what you can, not what “the book” says you should.

Scatter-armed quarterbacks with big arms tend to struggle throwing the ball short. As first Derek Anderson and then Brandon Weeden demonstrated repeatedly, routes that are “high percentage” for many quarterbacks might be the least safe for yours.

Weeden’s most successful passing split in 2013– and his second most successful split in 2012– was third and long. He didn’t have to try to read the defense (he knew they were coming after him), he didn’t have to go through his short reads (he needed a big chunk. So he just fired long. His quarterback rating when he target was 20 or more yards downfield was better than when it was less.

Brian Daboll’s downfall was his commitment to calling passes that his team couldn’t execute. He’d frequently point out, during post mortems, that he’d called a play that resulted in a mismatch that left people open– without acknowledging that his quarterback frequently couldn’t make the throw or the receiver lacked the ability to make the catch.

Depending on who the opponent is, you adjust accordingly. The goal is to make positive yardage and not make a mistake.

This also applies to defense. You don’t have to use a three-man rush with everyone dropped into zone coverage. You do have to play a defense you can play well.  “Managing the game”, for the defense of the Buffalo Bills (which has Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams) means coming after the quarterback on every play. For a team with a defensive backfield like the Browns, it means pressing receivers and going for the tip or the takeaway.

A year ago, Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan cost New Orleans a win by trying to blitz the daylights out of the Browns late in the game. The Cleveland line picked everyone up, the Saints’ secondary was in single coverage and Brian Hoyer lobbed passes to the receivers it left open.

“Managing the game” means looking at what the opponent can and can’t do and them trying to figure out something you can do that works against them.

Stupid Game Plan Tricks

A game plan is another component of managing a game. Again, you have to adapt, not use a template.

For 45 years, I have heard teams facing an opponent with a great passing attack, they often say “We can’t win a shootout against Peyton Manning (or Tom Brady, Kurt Warner or whoever), so we’ll try to run the ball and control the clock and take the pressure off our defense. “

Well, that’s terrific, Einstein. The only problem is you’re ranked 27th in rushing. By the way, your Pro Bowl guard is on IR and two blockers are guys you picked up on waivers.

Not to mention that everyone tries to do what you just said, so they’re prepared for it. You sure this is the right move?

What you do have is the second-best receiver in the NFL and a top-five tight end. Maybe you should try to shoot it out with them. Maybe that’s better than you gaining 16 yards on your first six carries, going 3-&-Out three times and being down 17-0?

Why Running is Dead (or comatose)

The old-fashioned game management technique– running the ball– was popular into the 90’s, but then it dies out. It has less to do with the run not working– or passes being better– and everything to do with a logistical issue.

The running game is out of fashion for one reason: It takes years to develop one. You need a talented line to open holes; they need to work in unison. They need to play together for 2-3 years.

In a league that has free agency– and constant coaching changes– it usually isn’t possible to keep 4-5 linemen playing together and using the same system.

Passing is much easier. The linemen don’t have to move the defense to a specific spot– as they do on running plays. They just have to keep them off the quarterback until he throws. You need an accurate quarterback and a couple of receivers. The guy throwing doesn’t need a huge arm; the guys catching don’t have to be big or fast. They just need to find a seam in the zones that most teams play.

It’s why junior colleges always throw the ball and why teams that use a lot of junior college transfers throw.

I’d recommend the Browns try it with all their smurf receivers, except for one thing. To make it work, you need a quarterback who can stay calm, read the defense, find the open man and deliver a catchable ball to him.

In other words, a guy as unlike Josh McCown as possible.

So that’s why the Browns should run– they don’t have a quarterback. And a team can go “in the neighborhood” of 8-8 (meaning somewhere between 6-10 and 10-6, depending on how good they are, how tough the schedule is and whether they get any breaks) if it can run the ball and stop the run, as long as the quarterback doesn’t:

  • Hold the ball trying to find an open guy and take a lot of sacks (it loses a down and costs yardage)
  • Turn the ball over by fumbling after a sack, rather than throwing it away
  • Panicking and throwing into double-coverage, risking an interception
  • Overthrow or underthrow the receiver, putting the ball in the hands of defenders

Those sorts of games aren’t fun to watch (see Browns, 1985) But if you believe that a boring win is better than an exciting loss, you can accumulate a bunch of them simply by letting an opponent self-destruct, and giving them a hand at the right moment.

Can the 2015 Browns Manage?

Frankly, I don’t know. In fact, there is virtually no reason to believe it can, since only one of the ingredients for success is present.

1. Coordinator John DeFilippo has never been a coordinator at any level and has never called plays.

2. The running back position features:

  • Isaiah Crowell, an undrafted free agent from Alabama State who made only four starts last season.
  • Duke Johnson, a rookie who missed almost all the pre-season with injuries– a problem he has had throughout his career.
  • Shaun Draughn, another undrafted free agent who has been employed, since 2011, by Washington, Kansas City, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Chicago, San Diego and now Cleveland.

3. The receivers position features:

  • Two 6’2″ receivers whom their teams did not re-sign– in fact, told them to look for work.
  • Three receivers ranging between 5’7″ to 5’10”– two of whom were undrafted free agents, one (Travis Benjamin) a huge reach).

4. At tight end, the Browns have:

  • Two players discarded by Arizona (Jim Dray and Rob Housler)
  • Another undrafted free agent (E.J. Bibbs)
  • Gary “Clank” Barnidge, who has 44 catches (on 80 targets) in the past seven years

5. The quarterback position features:

  • Josh McCown, the lowest-rated starting quarterback in the NFC (11 TDs and 14 INTs last season) and very possibly the worst veteran QB in the NFL.
  • Johnny Manziel, the lowest-rated quarterback to start a game (0 TDs, 2 INTs)

Waiver pickup Austin Davis, who posted a rating of 85.1 and threw 12 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions in 2014 (marks that normally signal “journeyman”) looks like the second coming of Dan Marino.

The Browns do have a fabulous line. That can go a long way toward solving problems. DeFilippo’s playbook might ‘borrow’ from the one Kyle Shanahan implemented last year. Perhaps, as Clint Eastwood told the biker gang in The Gauntlet, they “have the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes.”

And they might have an ace in the hole.

While head coach Mike Pettine has always been a defensive or kicking teams coach in the NFL, he isn’t (as so many former coordinators are) entirely inexperienced with offense. He is a former high school and college quarterback; he was an all-star in high school. When he coached high school, he ran the offense and called the plays.

A year ago, Pettine passed up DeFilippo, hiring Shanahan to run the offense. He told Terry Pluto he did it so he could mentor Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neill, who had only one season running a defense (and that at Towson). This season, he gave up running the defense so he could supervise DeFilippo and his staff.

That might simply be spin by a guy who was turned down by every coordinator he tried to hire. It might also be the latest plan of a coach who has made extraordinary progress (in 2001, he was coaching high school), most of it traceable to careful planning and smart decisions.

My respect for Pettine is as high as my loathing of Ray Farmer; I think he’s a keeper. I would be surprised to see him head towards a 2-14 season and a near-certain whacking. I assume he must have something more than what we see.

I’m not very confident about the components of this offense. But I’m not entirely sure– especially with Davis on board– that it is destined to be another “runaway train” either.

There is a way that this unit can be successful. And that’s more than I can say for many of the offenses I have seen since this franchise returned in 1999.


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