Browns Preview: Game #7 (@St. Louis)

Opponent Preview

The St. Louis Rams are a team about as similar to the Browns as a team can be:

  1. Both teams have losing records (2-4 for the Browns; 2-3 for the Reams), and have had losing records for years (2007 for the Browns; 2003 for the Rams).
  2. Both teams have had offenses ranging from bad to wretched, with defenses that were OK some years and poor in others.
  3. They churn through coaches and coordinators, and nothing much changes.
  4. They’ve had an enormous number of chances to change their fortunes in the draft and have blown just about every one.

In the last 10 years, the Rams have had 12 first-round picks– almost always high ones:

  • They had the #1 pick in 2010 and selected QB Sam Bradford (who, like Tim Couch, never could say healthy– for the very same reason Couch couldn’t).
  • They had the #2 pick in 2014 (T Greg Robinson), 2009 (T Jason Smith) and 2008 (DE Chris Long).
  • In 2013, they took WR Tavon Austin with the 8th pick; this year they took RB Todd Gurley at pick 10.
  • Five other picks were chosen in the top half of the draft: DE Adam Carriker (2007) and DT Aaron Donald (2014) at pick 13, DE Robert Quinn (2011) and DT Michael Brockers (2012) at slot 14 and CB Tye Hill (2006) at 15.

Only LB Alec Ogletree (2013) was taken low enough (#30) to require a developmental period. Barring an injury, a player taken in the first half of the draft should start at least 6-8 games, make the All-Rookie team and be heading to the Pro Bowl in 2-3 years– sometimes (like Joe Thomas) in year one.

Those 12 picks have a combined 3 Pro Bowls– 2 for Quinn and 1 for Donald. Browns fans like to moan– and rightly so– about the Julio Jones trade, in which the Browns (holding pick #6 in the 2011 draft), traded it for:

  • A #1 pick (which they bundled with a #3 to trade up and pick DT Phil Taylor)
  • A #1 pick in 2012, (spent on QB Brandon Weeden)
  • A #2 pick used for WR Greg Little
  • A #4 pick wasted on FB Owen Marecic
  • A #4 pick in 2012– which they traded to Minnesota to ensure they could get RB Trent Richardson

Rams fans can go the Browns one better. St. Louis traded the #2 pick in the 2012 draft (which Washington used on Robert Griffin) for three #1 picks and a #2 pick. Then they made the following trades:

  • Washington’s #1 pick in 2012 for Dallas’s #1 and another #2
  • Dallas’s #2 pick for Chicago’s #2 and #5.
  • Washington’s #1 pick in 2013 for Atlanta’s #1, #3 and #6.

Our final total: three #1 picks, two #2s, a #3, and #5 and a #6. Eight choices for one draft choice. And then the front office chose the following players in 2012:

  • Brockers, who has 12.5 sacks in 3+ seasons.
  • CB Janoris Jenkins, who has 9 interceptions in the same period.
  • RB Isaiah Pead, who has a whopping 172 yards from scrimmage and has now lost his job returning kicks.
  • G Rokevious Watkins, who lasted one year.

Two sort-of OK guys, then nothing. In 2013, they came away with

  • Ogletree (3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions in 2 1/3 seaons)
  • WR Stedman Bailey, who has 53 catches as the slot receiver
  • RB Zac Stacy, who rushed for 973 yards as a rookie and fell to 293 the next year and is now behind Gurley.

Again, a handful of beans.

Because Griffin crashed and burned, the Redskins 2014 pick turned out to be second in the draft. St. Louis could have had anyone except LB Jadeveon Clowney. They didn’t merely pass up WRs Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans– and DE-LB Khalil Mack– the tackle they chose (Robinson) now appears to be a considerably worse player than Jake Matthews (who’ll probably join his father Bruce, uncle Clay and cousin Clay Jr. as Pro Bowl picks).

Accumulating picks doesn’t help if you don’t know what to do with them– or if you turn them over to a bad coach.

There are people who believe Jeff Fisher is a worse coach than I do, but they live in Houston (where he coached from 1994-96), Tennessee (1997-2010) and St. Louis (2012-current), and have an emotional investment in the opinion. I couldn’t care less about any of those teams. I just happen to believe that a man who has been a coach in 19 full seasons (he took over in mid-year in 1994, after Jack Pardee was fired; we don’t know where the Rams will end up this year) should have more on his resume than:

  • A 164-150-1 record in the regular season
  • Six winning seasons, the last in 2008 (99-00, 02-03, 07-08)
  • Five 8-8 years (the most recent in 2009)
  • Two seasons in the top 10 in points scored
  • Four years in the top 10 in points allowed

Fisher has taken a team to the playoffs six times (the winning years shown above), and is 5-6 in those years. I look at all of this and see “.500 coach” and wonder why he keeps his job. Fisher is 80th in career winning percentage (.522) and only 9 of the 69 guys ahead of him have lasted longer.

Meanwhile, Mike Sherman went 57-39 (.594) in Green Bay from 2000-05 and has never had another job. Mike Smith’s tenure in Atlanta (66-46, .589) will probably be his only shot. Yet Fisher continues.

And before you say “He came within a yard of winning the Super Bowl in 1999”, you might want to check your facts. The Rams won 23-16, so Kevin Dyson was tackled just short of a touchdown that could have given the Rams a chance to win (with a two-point conversion) or tie (with a kick). Had Dyson scored, had the game gone into overtime and had the Rams won the coin toss and driven down for a score, nobody would say Fisher could have won– they’d just say he didn’t.

Jeff Fisher’s problem as a coach is very simple. He’s a defensive coach who (a) prefers not to draft offensive players (not even linemen) and (b) doesn’t know anything about offense.

Since 1978, I’ve been tracking– first on file cards, then on computer– the movements and performance of every assistant coach in the NFL, going back to the 40’s. Fisher has never had any qualified to run an offense in charge:

  • In 1995-96, he had Jerry Rhome (14 years in the NFL with 4 teams and only 4 seasons where his team was top-10 in points)
  • From 1997-99, it was Les Steckel (5 seasons, 3 teams, 2 good years)
  • From 2000-2004. Mike Heimerdinger had the controls (In his 5 seasons, he had 1 top-10 year)
  • In 2005-07, Norm Chow ran the offense (his only 3 years in the league, no good years)
  • From 2008-10, back to Heimerdinger. He’d bombed with the Jets in 2005 and been out of the NFL in 2006 and 2006. In this stint, Tennessee went 14th, 16th and 17th, making his career totals 9 seasons, 3 teams and 1 good year.

Fisher gets hired by St. Louis and hands the offense over to (drum roll)… Brian Schottenheimer. In six seasons with the Jets, Marty’s son had one year guiding a top-10 offense (2008, the year Eric Mangini obtained Brett Favre and got a good year out of him). Under Rex Ryan, Schottenheimer and Mark Sanchez dueled for the title of “The Reason Our Offense Totally Sucks”.

Will it shock you to learn that St. Louis went 25th, 21st and 21st under Brian?

Before you say “The apple clearly didn’t fall far from the tree”, let me hit you with a fact. In 21 years of coaching, Marty Schottenheimer ran teams whose offenses were in the top 10 in points ten times.

Marty won more games (200) than Fisher and had a higher winning percentage (.613) because, unlike Fisher, Marty would delegate the task of running the side of the ball he hadn’t coached. Fisher wants to weigh in on draft picks, schemes, and play-calling. He isn’t qualified to do any of it.

Here’s an example of Fisher at work. In 2013, the Rams had Stacy (whom they took in round #5) come out of nowhere and fall 27 yards short of 1,000. It wasn’t a great year– he averaged 3.9 yards per carry and only 5.4 per catch– but it was still 1,100 all-purpose yards out of a fifth-round pick.

Some teams might have tried to develop him. But Fisher wanted a breakaway back, so the Rams spent their a third-round pick in 2014 on RB Tre Mason. Mason becomes the featured back; Stacy gets 76 carries and ends up at 293 yards.

Mason had injury problems; he played only 12 games, but he got 179 carries and gained 765 yards (4.3 per pop) with 4 scores. He even added 16 receptions for 148 yards and another score. (It’s a better year than either Terrance West or Isaiah Crowell had last year.)

But Fisher decided he didn’t like Mason, because he was only 5’9″. He prefers tall backs with “good vision”, like Eddie George. So he complained and badgered and pressed, and St. Louis took Gurley (who is 6’1″) with the 10th pick and put Mason on the bench. Gurley is having a fine season (314 yards. 5.7 average)… and Mason has 23 touches. and the Rams burned a #5 and #3.

Of course Fisher doesn’t mind small receivers. He urged the front office to trade a #1, #2, #3 and #7 to Buffalo, so he could get the sixth pick in 2013 and take Austin (who, at 5’9″ and 174, would fit in nicely in Cleveland). Austin has speed but lacks size and hands. He has 87 catches for 804 yards in 2+ years… and the Rams have asked him to run the ball 58 times.

To catch passes, the Rams have WR Kenny Britt (who played for Fisher in Tennessee in 2009-10), TE Jared Cook (who also played for Fisher in Tennessee in 2009-10) and RB Benny Cunningham (an undrafted free agent who had 565 yards rushing and 565 receiving in three years).

To throw passes, they acquired QB Nick Foles, who had mediocre years in 2012, 2014 and now 2015, but did have a fantabulous season in 2013. He was traded for Bradford because Fisher was angry that Bradford couldn’t stay healthy behind the patchwork lines he provides his offenses.

This year’s coordinator is Frank Cignetti, who had an undistinguished career until Fisher hired him to coach quarterbacks in 2012 and then promoted him to run the show this year. I’m highly confident Cignetti won’t provide the magic that the Rams have been lacking.

Defensively Fisher was a protege of Buddy Ryan, so his defense runs a 4-3, where the main component is a pass-rushing line. In addition to Pro Bowlers Quinn and Donald, the Rams have Long and Brockers. LBs Ogletree and Jim Laurinitis also bring some heat.

They don’t really play the run well, and the coverage (Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson) is spotty. But at least they produce something on defense… as opposed to their counterparts on the opposing team.

The bottom line: after seasons of 7-8-1, 7-9, and 6-10, Fisher has the Rams on course for either 6-10 or 7-9. He remains my favorite counter-argument for people who say the Browns’ big problem is that they change coaches too often.

Browns Preview

At some point during every season, the denizens of Lou Groza Boulevard begin to comprehend that the season will not be going as fantasized, and the flow of unpleasant stories begins:

  • The offensive or defensive scheme, the playcalling or the use of players is ridiculed.
  • A coordinator under fire says his scheme requires the recent high pick(s) to produce.
  • A disappointing rookie in questions admits he’s started slowly, but says he knows he will be an All Pro soon.
  • A high-priced free agent says be isn’t being used correctly (or as promised).
  • When asked, the coaches say the griping veteran lost his spot to younger players who’ve worked harder.
  • As one or more players miss a growing number of games with injuries, their to the team is questioned.
  • A veteran in his options year seems curiously reluctant to discuss his contract situation.
  • Other veterans say they hope to stay, but the team isn’t negotiating with them.
  • The front office has no comment about who (if anyone) they’re trying to re-sign.
  • Stories about various players misbehaving in some way surface.
  • A player who was mentioned as a possible breakout star gets cut.
  • Multiple stories in the national media say “The problem with the Browns is really simple. They’re a mess because…”.
  • Every story finishes the sentence by citing a different problem.

We’ve had most of those already. I could link to the examples, but other than this one, you’ve probably read them.

For what it’s worth, the SI story is wrong. Pettine’s scheme is the same Zone Blitz/46 scheme that Rex Ryan and myriad other teams use. It works for them.

But if you don’t have people who follow instructions, it doesn’t work. If you have people too old to run, too weak to fight off blockers or too dimwitted to realize where the play is going, you give up yards and points in large chunks.

There’s nothing the team can do to stop these stories, other than win. If the Browns keep losing, there will be more like them every week.

Game Preview

There’s no reason the Browns shouldn’t win. The Rams are 31st in scoring. They’ve scored 9 TDs in 5 games– with 7 coming in 2 games. They’ve scored as low as 6 points (against Pittsburgh) and 10 points (against Washington and Green Bay). Their high is 34 (against Seattle) and they got 24 against Arizona. The identity of the teams they beat up on might make you think they’re good, but Fisher’s teams have proved to be consistently inconsistent.

Gurley is the key factor. I’d bet my life he’ll be the most drafted player in the fantasy leagues this week. After missing the first two games and playing poorly (6 carries, 9 yards) in the third, he has 146 yards (7.7 yards per rush) and 157 yards (5.7) in his last two games. Needless to say, the Browns– giving up 5.0 yards per carry, which is 31st in the league– cannot be expected to stop him.

Foles might be a factor. He’s been wretched (6 TDs, 5 INTs and only 6.8 yards per pass), but there is a reason why. Foles probably passes sooner (fewest number of seconds elapsed) than anyone in the NFL– he takes one look and fires. His choice of targets in Philly was somewhat questionable– and then he came to the Rams, who have worse receivers and have had horrific pass protection for years.

A year ago, St. Louis quarterbacks (Austin Davis and Shaun Hill) were sacked about 60% more than Foles has been now– even though the 2015 Rams arguably have a weaker line than the 2014 team.

Fisher’s defenders point to the number of offensive linemen he drafts, but they omit a pertinent fact: one doesn’t arrive until someone else leaves. He drafts Greg Robinson, but rather than keep Jake Long, lets him sign with Atlanta. His teams rarely build the kind of critical mass the Browns have now.

This week Foles faces a team that puts virtually no pressure on opposing passers. He could, given more time, slow his game down, take a longer look and do more damage. Or he might not. Quarterbacks often can’t break bad habits, as Josh McCown shows.

Defensively, St. Louis will do what Fisher’s teams have done for the last two decades. They’re third in sacks with 19 (very impressive, since they already had their bye week). 12 came from the defensive line. We know they’ll put pressure on Cleveland. We know Cleveland’s line will slow them down (they handled Denver’s pressure very well).

We don’t know if McCown will get rid of the ball when he sees people coming. (He didn’t last week against Denver.)

St. Louis forced three turnovers total in the first three games– then three in each of the last two. I have no theory as to why. It isn’t a new scheme; the coordinator (Gregg “Bounty” Williams) isn’t new. The Rams drafted offensive players in each of the first six rounds of 2015; they didn’t get anyone back from injuries after game three. And Green Bay had been good at avoiding mistakes (Arizona– especially Carson Palmer– not so much.)

The Rams aren’t doing a great job against opposing rushers… but the Browns are 26th in rushing, and they’re that high only because the quarterbacks and Shaun Draughn had 19 rushes for 93 yards.

You’d think Cleveland couldn’t score… But last week, against the NFL’s #2 defense, they scored 23, Denver’s second-highest total (and only one below their season high of 24).

I could predict that the Browns will do even better against the Rams… but the notion that McCown, Gary Barnidge and Travis Benjamin will do damage against anyone still comes hard

The thing that will probably make the difference is being in a dome. The Browns are built for grass and bad weather– sturdy but slow. The Rams are designed for speed. Also McCown is 1-9 in games played in domes.

Over the last three games, the Browns have played a little better than they did in the first three. But they haven’t put a good game in every area together– and they’re still missing Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson, the two guys best at producing turnovers.

I can’t see them putting everything together, on the road, in a dome, against an opponent that pressures the quarterback and is coming off the bye and has had two weeks to prepare for them.

Prediction: St. Louis 23, Cleveland 16


One thought on “Browns Preview: Game #7 (@St. Louis)

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