Browns Preview: Game #4 (@ San Diego)

Opponent Preview

I could make this fairly brief: See Browns, Cleveland (with better skill position talent)

  1. The Chargers are currently 1-2; in third place in their division (same as the Browns).
  2. San Diego is allowing 5.7 points more than they score (Cleveland is -4.7)
  3. The Chargers have turned the ball over 8 times and forced 5 turnovers (the Browns have 7 and 5).
  4. San Diego’s starting quarterback has been sacked on 8.8% of his pass attempts (Cleveland’s has been sacked on 8.1%).
  5. Both teams spent a high pick on a running back to carry the load.
  6. The Chargers average 3.8 yards per carry (the Browns average 3.6).
  7. Both defenses allow 4.9 yards per rush (the Chargers have allowed 135.7 yards per game, the Browns 158.3).
  8. Neither defense has sacked the quarterback in 2 out of 3 games (the Chargers have only 1 sack).
  9. San Diego has 3 interceptions and 11 pass knockdowns; Cleveland has 1 and 12.
  10. Both defenses insist they aren’t worried about their slow start– that, once they make a few minor adjustments, they’ll start pitching shutouts.

The Chargers have a lot more talent at the offensive skill positions than the Browns do, so the odds are that they will outscore them. The Browns are 7.5-point underdogs, but if they respond to the turmoil of the last week by giving this game a really strong effort, they could easily pull an upset.

If you have other things to do, go do them– maybe skip to the bottom to see the score.

But since I haven’t profiled San Diego in years, I can explain how the Chargers got this way, and then address the chaos in Berea.


San Diego is still paying the price for two events. One was a piece of bad luck. The other was astonishingly bad management.

In 2001, the Chargers hired GM, John Butler– the personnel chief who (under Bill Polian) built the Buffalo Bills into second-tier dynasty in the early 90’s. Butler’s first two draft picks were RB LaDanian Tomlinson and QB Drew Brees.

In 2002, Butler persuaded owner Alex Spanos that the team would be better off a with a veteran coach who knew how to win (Marty Schottenheimer) than the string of superstar assistants (Al Saunders, Dan Henning, Kevin Gilbride, June Jones) it had been trying.

The Chargers went from 1-15 to 5-11, and (in Marty’s first year) 8-8 (naturally). And then Butler died, at age 56, a few weeks before the 2003 draft.

Butler was a low-key guy with exceptional judgment; his replacement (assistant GM A.J. Smith) was the exact opposite. San Diego’s best pick in 2003 was P Mike Scifres; in 2004 Smith decided Brees was a second-tier player, and drafted QB Eli Manning. When Manning (who’d told the Chargers not to draft him) refused to sign, the Chargers had to trade him to the Giants for Philip Rivers and picks that became K Nate Kaeding and LB Shawn Merriman.

I remember Giants’ GM Ernie Accorsi’s thoughts about the deal. The Giants picked Rivers with the fourth pick, he said, not because they thought he was the best quarterback available (he preferred Ben Roethlisberger), but (1) he knew the Chargers would have to trade Manning and (2) he knew they’d trade him for Rivers. Rivers was a loser, Accorsi said, with mechanical and psychological issues that would guarantee he would never win a Super Bowl.  Manning would

He might have talking out of his butt, but he wasn’t proven wrong.

As he always did, Marty turned the Chargers into a very good team that underperformed in the playoffs. But he never got along with Smith– and Alex Spanos’s son Dean (who runs the team) always thought the Chargers could do better. When Marty’s 14-2 Chargers lost to New England in the first round of the 2006 playoffs (after many questionable game management decisions), Smith and Spanos Jr. whacked Marty.

A harsh fate, but not an unfair one. After you see Marty do the same stuff over and over, you realize you have to change, because he won’t. But the replacement Smith and Dean Spanos chose was Norv Turner— who’d failed in both Washington (49-59) and Oakland (9-23). Turner is a terrific coordinator who can’t coach defense or kicking teams, and doesn’t see why they’re necessary. This all should have been obvious to San Diego– Turner had been a head coach for nine years.

I’ve been told that they imagined it this way. Turner would eliminate the problem that was holding the team back (Marty’s conservatism on offense) and DC Wade Phillips would keep the defense strong. But when Dallas hired Phillips as head coach, the defense went south.

Having made that bad decision, Smith gave Turner six years to make it look good. His first season, the Chargers dropped to 11 wins; the next year 8. They hung with him, got a fluke 13-3 and then 9, 8 and 7 wins.

At that point, Dean Spanos pitched both Smith and Turner after the 2012 season.

Both his new GM (Tom Telesco) and the head coach the GM hired (Mike McCoy) are shining examples of why you should never hire people who only have one gold star on their resume. Telesco joined the Colts as a college scout in 1998, became an NFL scout from 2001-03, the Director of Pro Scouting in 2004 and then Director of Player Personnel in 2006.

The Colts developed into a powerhouse during Telesco’s tenure– but both Bill Polian and Peyton Manning joined the Colts in 1998. I doubt it was Telesco doing the heavy lifting while those guys coasted.

McCoy has led a charmed life, He was John Fox’s QB coach in Carolina from 2000-2008, during which time he never appeared to be an outstanding offensive mind.

In 2009, Josh McDaniels hired him to run the Denver offense. His task was to try to make a championship team with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton at QB. When that went south and McDaniels got whacked, McCoy normally would have been looking for work.

But Denver GM John Elway made the same sort of decision John Butler had done: “This place is a mess; I need a veteran coach to sort this out.” Elway hired Fox (as close to a Marty as the NFL has now), who decided to keep his former assistant to run the show. The Broncos went 8-8 in 2011, basically by not shooting themselves in the head so much.

But in 2012, McCoy showed his ability to run a world-class offense. He crafted a unit that finished first in wins, second in points and fourth in yards, dazzling with its prowess. Telesco immediately hired this superstar-in-the-making to lead his team.

Well, that’s one narrative. Another possibility is that Denver signed Peyton Manning in 2012, Peyton ran the offense and McCoy served as Manning’s flunkey for a year and leveraged it into a head coaching job.

I know which scenario I’d pick, but you judge. The Chargers, who had gone 9-7, 8-8 and 7-9 in Turner’s last three seasons, have gone 9-7 and 9-7 under McCoy. That’s weaker than it looks:

  • The AFC West isn’t a strong division; McCoy has gone 6-6 against division opponents.
  • San Diego has gone 8-9 against teams with winning records.

In the AFC North, San Diego would probably be 6-10 or 7-9; McCoy has lost to Cincinnati twice (2013 and 2015) and beat the Ravens 34-33 in a game featuring one of the more baffling coaching decisions you will ever see.

You can skip this, but it still fascinates me. It’s been one of Arenaball-type games. Both teams punted once, San Diego committed two turnovers, Baltimore took a kneel at the end of the first half when they got a kickoff with 0:02 left. Other than that, whichever team has the ball has ended up scoring.

There’s 2:34 left in the game; Baltimore is leading 30-27. It’s 3rd & 4; Baltimore has the ball on the San Diego 13.

They take a shot at the end zone and miss. 4th & 4 with 2:26 left. Again, the score is Baltimore 30, San Diego 27. Harbaugh calls time, then kicks a field goal to make it 33-27.

Needing a touchdown to win– the very same position they were in before the field goal– San Diego gets a touchdown.

The Chargers won the first game against Detroit, 33-28. At the time it seemed like a good win, since Detroit had gone 11-5 in 2014. Now the Lions are 0-3 and it isn’t nearly as impressive.

Cincinnati won game two, 24-19. Then the Chargers lost 31-14 to Minnesota.

The Vikings aren’t nearly as good as they look– they’re just playing teams (Detroit, San Francisco, San Diego) in the process of self-destructing. There is no way San Diego should be favored by 7.5 points– even at home. A good team that plays hard can take them.

The question is whether they’re playing such an opponent today.

Browns Preview

I want to talk about meaning of the phrase “the coach/manager has lost the team”– also known as “the players are tuning him out.” It’s not a sports-only phenomenon; it can take place in any industry. It’s means workers have lost so much confidence in management that they stop doing as they’re told. following instructions.

A friend who works in Hollywood once told me how the cast and crew can lose confidence in the director (in movies) or showrunner (in TV) to the point where you have to make a change because anyone will get better results. I have seen this happen on political campaigns often– and in some industries I’ve worked in (newspapers, steel, utilities, restaurants).

An agent friend once put it in the sports context:

“A few of my guys will play 20 years Most will be lucky to play 10. They’ve got a limited time to reach all their goals– and if they want to win, they can’t wait for the front office to buy a clue or hire a manager who knows.

“Some guys don’t care if they win. They want to make money, or they want the spotlight without the pressure. Some just want to play near home.

“But players who want to win will only put up with losing for so long. When they decide the guys running the show don’t have a clue, they quit listening. They mouth off to the media and call me and say ‘Get me the @@#*$^ out of here.”

Good leadership can spur people to do remarkable things. But they have to believe in the people directing their efforts. Once they lose confidence in your ability to get them where they want to be, they stop paying attention and follow their own instincts.

After three games, the 2015 Browns are getting very close to this point. The players have absolutely no reason to trust management:

1. The offense scored 18.7 points a year ago. It has averaged 19.3 now– after the most winnable stretch of games it is likely to have.

2. Part of the reason the offense is struggling is that it had to replace coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He isn’t an elite coach, but he does have the benefit of (a) an offensive system his father developed and used to win two Super Bowls and (b) having years of experience calling plays.

It did not help the franchise in any respect when Future Former GM Ray “Snapchat” Farmer texted him and drove him away. His replacement, John DeFilippo, has neither of Shanahan’s assets, and the scuttlebutt is that head coach Mike Pettine was furious about some of his calls last week.

3. The running game, which averaged 3.6 yards a game a year ago, is gaining 3.6 again. But the leading rushers are Josh McCown (7.7 yards a carry) and Johnny Manziel (4.5). Shaun Draughn, who has one carry for four yards, is the team’s best back. Isaiah Crowell (3.5 yards a carry) and #3 pick Duke Johnson (3.0) have been almost useless.

There’s no reason to feel confident in Johnson, since last year’s #3 pick, Terrance West, and the big free agent of 2014, Ben Tate, are also gone.

4. Part of the reason the quarterbacks are the team’s leading rushers is necessity. A year ago, Browns’ quarterbacks were sacked on 5.9% of their passes. This happened despite:

  • An injury to center Alex Mack that threw the unit into disarray.
  • Manziel not knowing the playbook and having a dreadful (42.0 rating) season
  • Undrafted free agent Connor Shaw being forced to start a game.

This year, Manziel has turned his career around and the line has been 99.999% healthy (RG John Greco missed three plays). The Browns are allowing a sack on 9.4% of their attempts– nearly double.

Something is wrong, and I’m pretty sure the answer is that 40% of the line has quit.

5. A year ago, the receivers didn’t have an outstanding season, but:

  • Nine players caught at least 10 passes
  • Eight averaged at least 12 yards a catch (3 were over 17)
  • Eight caught a TD pass and 8 caught at least two.

Defenses couldn’t be sure who would get the ball, so they couldn’t double-cover anyone; QB Brian Hoyer woudl simply hit the open guy. Andrew Hawkins (63-824-2) had a fine season; Miles Austin (47-568-2 in 12 games) a good one and Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin and TE “Poke” Cameron combined for 78 catches for 1,359 yards and 6 scores.

This season, Benjamin (10 catches on 17 targets for 249 yards and 3 scores), TE Gary “Clank” Barnidge (10-15 for 160 yards, and 1 TD) and Brian Hartline (7-15 for 116 yards and no scores) are having decent seasons and everyone else has been competing to see who can be the most useless (Currently Dwayne Bowe is winning the prize).

6. A year ago, Hoyer played well for 7 of the first 8 games before falling apart. The Browns correctly replaced him– but they did it with McCown, whose career has been a litany of failure. His flawed play in weeks one and three surprised no one who was watched McCown.

7. The defense, which allowed 21.1 points a year ago, is allowing 24.0.

8. The defense, which allowed 4.5 yards per rush in 2014 (worst in the league) is now allowing 4.9, even though it hasn’t faced a single player who has gained 1,000 yards in his career.

9. The 2014 Browns had 30 sacks, 21 interceptions, and 98 pass knockdowns, the last two of which were superb.

If we prorate the stats, the 2015 team is on course to beat the 2014 total in sacks (it has 7, which would project to 38). But since this defense had no sacks in either game #1 or game #3, that projection is unreliable. If Cleveland faces four more teams with lines as weak as Tennessee, they can beat their 2014 total. If they keep playing lines as good as Oakland and the Jets, no.

The Browns have 1 interception and 12 knockdowns; barring some miraculous development, it is obvious they won’t come near their 2014 totals.

10. A year ago, only one draftee (LG Joel Bitonio) played well enough to justify the pick. Only #4 pick CB Pierre Desir even flashed ability. Farmer traded up to draft Manziel, West and CB Justin Gilbert, all of whom has played badly. His reach for #3 pick, LB Chris Kirksey, is already looking bad.

While this year’s #1 pick, NT Danny Shelton, is playing well, five of his next six picks (Johnson, C Cameron Erving, LB Nate Orchard, DE Xavier Cooper and SS Ibraheim Campbell) either can’t get on the field or look bad when they do. Another #4 pick, WR Vince Mayle, has been cut.

In short, all the evidence to date suggests the Browns are making zero progress. There isn’t any area where things have improved this year; if anything, the team seems to have gone backwards, and the people running it look in over their heads.

Given that fact, the barrage of stories– gossip site TMZ claiming the offense doesn’t want McCown to play, the players denying it, OL Coach Andy Wallace finally removed after the latest charges of drunkenness and abuse, SS Donte Whitner, FS Tashaun Gipson and CB Joe Haden continuing to claim that they are the greatest secondary ever, the coaches scoffing– aren’t surprising. Pettine is losing the team.

One of the ways this is affecting the team: Eight players can leave the team at the end of the year, it is safe to assume that the Browns have already “lost” seven. They’ll try to play well enough to ensure they get a good contract, but their primary goal is to try to avoid an injury.

Two of those players are offensive linemen. Mack can opt out of his contract at year’s end; RT Mitchell Schwartz is an unrestricted free agent. Both players don’t look like they’re trying as hard as they did in past years.

The other unrestricted free agents are the two leading receivers (Benjamin and Barnidge) LB Craig Robertson (the only LB playing well at this point), Gipson (whom Farmer chose not to lock up) and #4 corner Johnson Bademosi. They can probably keep TE Rob Housler, but who’d want to?

The disturbing thing is the number of veteran players who haven’t, so far, spoken ill off the team. Bowe has one of the biggest mouths in the league; so far he’s restrained himself to saying that both he and McCown would be on the Pro Bowl– and then that he would be healthy soon and opponents would rue the day,

When he comes back, demonstrates that he has nothing left and gets benched, he will begin to complain. Loudly.

He’s been an ideal player so far, but when LB Karlos Dansby gets unhappy with his team or the coaches, he has spewed obloquy without restraint. Whitner also likes to sound off… and Haden is moving into their class.

LB Paul Kruger can’t be happy about having his role shifted from the linebacker who makes sacks to the one who battles tight ends.

Hartline isn’t seeing as much playing time– or as many balls– as he had hoped. At his present pace, he’ll have 38 catches for 610 yards, which will cement the league perception that he’s just a guy, Hawkins has seen his role cut by nearly 50%.

DE Randy Starks and CB Tramon Williams are both 32. Presumably they aren’t here merely for the generous paychecks.

LT Joe Thomas has begun to speak up more and more. He has always been intelligent and restrained, but he’s acknowledged that its been hard to watch other players win championships while he has been a member of a losing team every season but his rookie year.

The Browns can avoid a having the season blow up, but they have to start winning. Now is not only a good opportunity to do it, but close to the last chance. A 1-2 team can say it had a bad start or that it’s under .500 because they lost a game. A 1-3 team has played 25% of the season– that is simply a bad record.

Game Outcome

I honestly have no idea what will happen. It depends entirely on how hard the Browns play.

Had I had the same feeling I did a year ago at this time, I would have had no qualms about picking Cleveland over San Diego. The Chargers are a troubled finesse team with a lot of holes. A good opponent could handle it with no problem.

The Chargers are missing half their offensive line; the Browns should be able to overwhelm it on both running and passing downs. If this goes as it ought to, Shelton should have a big game. The Browns drafted Orchard and Cooper for their pass rush ability; they let Jabaal Sheard go partly to give his playing time to Meowkevious Mingo and Armonty Bryant. All four players, if the Browns know how to draft, ought to have huge games.

If Rivers gets time to throw to WRs Keenan Allen. Malcom Floyd (not a typo; there’s no “l”) and Stevie Johnson (the old Buffalo guy), he’ll cut the Browns to ribbons. RB Danny Woodhead can also catch passes. TE Antonio Gates is missing his fourth game for violating the performance-enhancing policy, but Ladarius Green has done OK.

The Chargers drafted RB Melvin Gordon in the first round this year. He has averaged 4.3 per carry, but hasn’t had a lot of carries or seen a lot of holes. Behind San Diego’s line– facing all the defenders the Browns signed and drafted– he should not be able to run.

Assuming, of course, that the Browns chose defenders wisely.

On offense, San Diego’s defensive line can’t stop the run and has only one sack. Unlike the Raiders, they aren’t a young team with a new coach and defensive talent up front. They should continue to struggle. Cleveland’s offensive line should steamroller the Chargers, giving Johnson and Crowell gaping holes to run through and McCown plenty of time to throw.

By the way, this analysis of what the Chargers are doing wrong on run defense is excellent. It’s the same problem the Browns have too.

The Chargers have a weak secondary– and now injuries have hit. CB Craig Mager (their #3 pick this year) definitely won’t play and Jason Verrett (their #1 last year) won’t be close to 100%, if he plays at all. McCown isn’t a great QB (he got pantsed by a 39-year-old player last week) and the Browns’ receivers aren’t world-beaters, but they should be able to exploit the pass defense

If the Browns play hard and play well. I don’t know that they will.

A year ago, Pettine seemed to be assembling units who worked together, had bought into the system and were excited at seeing the results of their hard work and training pay off. I had grave doubts about the drafting; I thought he had too many friends coaching and not enough good technicians.

But I didn’t think he was a bad coach. I thought he would do well.

This game will be one of the three where we find out. The Browns could beat Baltimore next week, have no chance against Denver and will probably (as usual, Jeff Fisher hadn’t bothered with an offense) be able to compete with St. Louis.

This game, they should win. But I don’t think they will. The prediction below might need to have the team names switched. But based on what I have seen and heard from Berea, I just can’t pick the Browns.

Prediction: San Diego 27, Cleveland 10

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