Browns Preview: Game 8 (Arizona)

Opponent Preview

I find articles on how the Cardinals turned a losing franchise around endlessly amusing, because the explanation can be reduced to very simple terms:

  1. For the last 50 years (with two brief variations in approach), the Cardinals have tried to hire the best assistant coach willing to take the job.
  2. During most of that time, the owner (Billy Bidwill) interfered with the coach on a scale comparable to Art Modell, telling him who to draft, who to play and being ungodly cheap on top of it.
  3. Daddy Dearest let his sons take some of the reins in the late 90’s and full control in 2007.
  4. Michael Bidwill isn’t stupid. In 7 of his 9 years at the controls, they’ve been over .500 and the lowest they’ve sunk is 5-11.
  5. The two assistants they’ve hired during that time were offensive coordinators of the Steelers.

There are enough stories to fill a book, but it’s really that simple. It’s the history of the Steelers under the Rooneys (or the Colts under the Irsays). Eventually the family tree produced someone who had a functioning brain stem.

For the record, the “Hire the successful college coach” worked well from 1973-79, because they picked Don Coryell (Bud Wilkinson, not so much). They tried retread head coaches twice (Buddy Ryan, 1994-95; Denny Green, 2000-06).

But the only ‘star assistant’ who really panned out between 1962-2006 was Jim Hanifan (three consecutive winning years between 1980 and 1985). Nobody wanted to coach for Billy Bidwill.

While I respect Head Coach Bruce Arians, I also feel he totally lucked into the job. Arians has been what people call a “blue-collar coach”. He’s not a patrician who dazzles you with concepts; he’s an old-fashioned but a bit of a homespun twang who talks about blocking and tackling. Tom Reed, in a generally admiring profile, still felt entirely comfortable with comparing him to Charlie Manuel (who, Cleveland likes to forget, took the Phillies to two more World Serieses than Mark Shapiro ever did).

Arians spent his NFL career working for guys who could all coach, but had some limitations:

  • !989-92: He broke in as Running Backs coach under Marty Schottenheimer with the Chiefs.
  • 1996: Jim Mora (who got fired in mid-year) hired him to coach tight ends for the Saints.
  • 1998-2000: Mora spent a year out of the NFL (Arians became offensive coordinator of Alabama) but brought in Araians to coach quarterbacks when the Colts hired Mora.
  • 2001-03: Butch Davis hired him to run the Browns offense.
  • 2004-06: Bill Cowher (who’d watched him from the opposite sidelines and worked with him on the Chiefs) grabbed as receivers coach.
  • 2007-11: Mike Tomlin promoted Arians to Offensive Coordinator after Cowher retired.

They all have issues, but all five guys were goad coaches who won championships somewhere (Tomlin and Cowher in the NFL, Davis in the NCAA, Mora in the USFL and Marty finally in the UFL). But none of them were head coaches who have groupies, and could make their assistants seem like superstars.

The media perception about any assistant on the Steelers is always that it’s the system, not the person. The Steelers have a large urn of Kool-Aid in the cafeteria, infused with the DNA of Chuck Noll. Drink enough and you learn to think like Noll, or something.

The notion that the Steelers are simply very thorough and very careful– that they never hire a dolt– isn’t nearly as good a story.

The way the Steelers normally roll, Arians would have been coordinator for life. But after the 2011 season, Tomlin whacked him, to allow the Steelers to restructure, doing less running and more passing. Pittsburgh had gone 55-25 (.688) under Arians, making the playoffs four times in five years and going 1-1 in Super Bowls. But running was being mocked as passe and Ben Roethlisberger wanted to be a bigger part of the offense.

The wisdom of that decision can be best seen in the results. The Steelers have a 31-24 record (.564) from 2012-15 with one playoff trip (a wild-card loss). Many of the losses have occurred because Roethlisberger was either ailing or out, and the team required the quarterback to carry it… But I digress.

So Arians was 60– in a league that has (correctly) decided that senior citizens shouldn’t be asked to work 100-hour weeks. (Nobody should, but they don’t realize that yet.) Under normal circumstances, he would have had to drop back to QB or receivers coach and maybe hope to get back to coordinator for a few years.

But the Colts had hired Chuck Pagano as head coach. Pagano had been Davis’s defensive backs coach from 2001-04, when Arians was the OC. Pagano decided to hire a championship coordinator that he also happened to know well…

And Pagano got diagnosed with cancer in week five, with the Colts at 2-2.

Arians became interim coach for five reasons. Partly it was because he was a coordinator. Partly it was because he was older (60) than DC Greg Manusky (who was 46). Partly it was because he’d been a head coach in college (not a good one; he went 21-39 at Temple). And partly he had been to two Super Bowls.

But partly it was because Arians had been quarterbacks coach of the Colts from 1998-2000. Those were Peyton Manning’s first three seasons in the NFL; people remembered him. And 2012 was Andrew Luck’s rookie year. The meme writes itself.

Arians went 9-3, getting the Colts into the playoffs– the same year that Ken Whisenhunt was getting himself fired by Arizona. And Whisenhunt, remember, had come to Arizona from the Steelers.

As head coach, Arians has been… well, what the hell would you expect a guy who coached for Marty, Mora and Cowher to be like? He’s gone 10-6 and 11-5 in his first two years– after this game, he’ll probably be 6-2 and on pace for 12-4.

He missed the playoffs in year one by going 3-2 in December and lost the wild-card game last year, so he has the post-season thing down as well.

Arians’s big skill is being able to spot good (or at least capable) players in bad situations. He revived 34-year-old QB Carson Palmer, getting him and a #7 pick for a #6 and #7. Palmer isn’t a great quarterback who can carry a team, but if you give him some guys who can run, a decent line and a couple of receivers and he’ll give you fits.

Arizona hung onto WR Larry Fitzgerald, who is now 32. They wanted to partner him with Michael Floyd, but that hasn’t entirely worked, and John Brown seems to be moving by him this year. Tight end has been in a state of constant flux, because Cleveland keeps raiding Arizona (first Jim Dray, then Rob Housler), so this year they’re trying the “Rehabilitate a Former Bengal” approach on Jermaine Gresham.

Arizona keeps trying to find a running back, but nothing has worked out yet. Arians has platooned people (currently it’s Tenessee retread Chris Johnson and this year’s #3 pick Dave Johnson).

Defensively? If you’re old enough to remember Marty, Mora and Cowher, you know what front they play (3-4), where most of the talent is (the secondary) and the emphasis on speed, intelligence and discipline. They try to keep the unit young, with 2-3 veterans in the front seven for leadership. Everyone knows their assignments, everyone stays in their lanes.

Here’s a fun statistic. Arizona has only 12 sacks (tied with San Diego and Cleveland for 23-25). But they also have 12 interceptions (tops in the league) and are second (to Tennessee) in the percentage of attempts picked off.

And three of those picks have been returned for touchdowns– tied with Denver for the NFL lead.

Just the defense you want to see facing Josh McCown, huh? Me too

And their kicking teams are terrific. CB Patrick Peterson still returns punts; David Johnson ran a kickoff back 108 yards.

Browns Preview

During the midweek teleconference with the Cleveland media, Arians told them he had wanted to coach the Browns. The statement is true (he wanted to be the beloved guy who ended the drought), but he also wanted to be the head coach of about 31 other NFL teams, so don’t place too much stock in that.

It is true that the Browns hadn’t shown him any interest in 2009, 2011 or 2013. The reason they ignored him was very simple– he never fit their agenda:

2009: Owner Randy Lerner is a soccer fan who detests the NFL. He would never have bought a team and would have sold the Browns as soon as he inherited it, had the terms of his father’s will not required him to retain the franchise for at least 10 years.

Lerner spent his entire career as owner looking for someone to outsource the team to. First he kept the Coach-GM he inherited (Butch Davis). Then he let the media pick his front office (Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel). After that, he just wanted shed of the team. Eric Mangini (who had just been fired as coach of Lerner’s hometown Jets. convinced Lernee that he was Bill Belicheat Jr.

2011: Team President Mike Holmgren (Lerner’s last outsource decision) wanted a patsy who would take orders– someone to let him run the team by proxy. One of his conditions (as he told Peter Queen, chief correspondent of the Mean Girls Gazette) that he wanted a coach who would run ‘his’ offense and defense. Pat Shurmur was the only man willing to run same offense and defense the Packers and Seahawks had run.

2013: New owner Jimmy Haslam, wanting an experienced hand at the tiller, chose Joe Banner as Team President. Unfortunately, Banner (like Holmgren, Savage and Carmen Policy before him) also wanted to run the team by proxy. He chose Mike Lombardi as GM and Rob Chudzynski as coach because they were the only guys desperate enough to let Banner make decisions that he should never have had authority over.

A coach like Arians, who (1) sees the value of having a GM to scout while he’s busy coaching, (2) believes a coach should work with the front office, but (3) wants the final say over conduct of his roster was a terrible fit in each search. He would have had no interest for Lerner, because he wasn’t enough of a megalomaniac. He was a non-starter with Holmgren and Banner because he wanted too much control (to not be interfered with).

He’d be a good choice when Haslam decides to flush current management… but of course he won’t be available.

Each week, the Browns inch a little closer to what white separatists call “The Day of The Rope.” It’s quite clear that QB Josh McCown will play at considerably less than 100%– that even if he were entirely healthy, there would be good reasons not to start him. But when your backup QB is being investigated by the NFL for falling off the wagon, driving 90 MPH down crowded roads and manhandling the drunken skank he sleeps with, it’s hard to change horses.

One of the more depressing storylines of the Rams game was the realization that future former GM Ray “Snepchat” Farmer screwed the pooch on draft day again.

The #1 pick, NT Danny Shelton saw only 21of the 53 snaps– free agent Jamie Meder played 24. Shelton didn’t have a tackle– much less a sack or a stuff. Meder had four.

The picks in the second and third rounds– who were supposed to bolster the run defense and provide a pass rush– both had no tackles and two assists.

  • The #2 pick, LB Nate Orchard, spent much of last Sunday polishing the turf with his uniform.
  • The #3 pick, DT Xavier Cooper, missed a tackle on Todd Gurley’s 48-yard run.

The two sacks were made by thirty-something free agents Randy Starks and Desmond Bryant, who are in no danger of losing their designation as the team’s best defensive linemen. The top pass rusher is 7th-round pick Armonty Bryant.

With #4 pick (WR Vince Mayle) off the team, with the other #1 pick (OL Cameron Erving playing a handful of snaps when the line wants an extra blocker and #3 pick Duke Johnson amassing only 439 total yards after 7 games, it’s now almost certain that Farmer and Head Coach Mike Pettine went “O-fer” on Draft Day 2015.

Plus, WR Dwane Bowe has been useless and the value of Brian Hartline can be best measured by an electron microscope. With Starks clearly on the decline, free agency wasn’t a roaring success.

At the end of this game, half the 2015 season will be complete. With the team out of contention– needing to go 5-4 just to match last season’s record– the long list of free agents are likely to focus more on staying healthy that giving their all.

And, remember, C Alex Mack can opt out of his contract at the end of the year.

The question isn’t if the runaway train will make its appearance. It is simply when— and how far out of control things will get.

Game Preview

The result here depends on the mental attitude of the home team. The Cardinals arguably should be undefeated, not 5-2. Over the last four weeks, they’ve shown a disturbing inability to close the deal. They did beat Detroit 42-17, but they also

  • lost 24-22 at home, to the Rams.
  • lost 25-13 to a Steeler team quarterbacked by Landry Jones.
  • beat Baltimore only 26-18 at home.

Teams run by Marty, Mora or Cowher would struggle with good teams, but grind weak opponents– like those three- into mush.

If you really believe in the character of the Browns– their pride and determination– I will hold out the possibility of a 24-19 Cleveland win. In this reality (which has a 1 in 3 chance) CB Joe Thomas and FS Tashaun Gipson return from the injury list, inspire their teammates and wreak havoc on the overconfident Cards in front of the cheering throngs in the dog pound.

The most likely outcome (an 50% chance) is one of those old-time grinders like Arians’s mentors used to produce. Palmer struggles to complete balls against a ballhawking defense– and if Haden plays well, having Pierre Desir as the nickel back will upgrade the pass defense enormously.

But Arizona’s ground game (ranked #3 in yards per attempt at 4.8) runs for 250 yards against the tattered Browns’ run defense, the Cardinal defense forces a few turnovers against McCown and the end result is a “not as close as the score suggests” 24-13 loss.

Or, if Cleveland has given up the ghost– something we won’t know until we see them play– it could be a blowout. In addition to the 42-17 beating Arizona handed the Lions in Detroit, they stomped Chicago 48-23 in Chicago.

Arizona has the bye week after this game, and they’ll want to go into it string. Plus, Arians did want to be the coach of the Browns and they did snub him. Because his players really like him and he made a thing about it, they will want to win for him.

So I’ll say “What is skunking for 800, Alex?”

Prediction: Arizona 33-13


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