None of the four undefeated teams are what I’d consider “strong.” teams who start the season with a lot of wins, usually have three things in common:
- Their roster was pretty much set well before opening day.
- They played a series of weak opponents to start.
- They’ve avoided injuries.
I am reasonably sure the Bengals are the strongest, by process of elimination:
- Carolina has played a phenomenally weak schedule, and is squeezing past opponents by the skin of their teeth.
- Denver is marginally stronger. They’ve played a tougher schedule and last week’s beating of Green Bay was a legitimately good win (Peyton Manning had his first good game against an opponent that could tie its shoes).
- New England has been winning a lot of blowouts because Bill Belicheat runs up the score like Barry Switzer against Oshkosh State: 30-6 against the Weeden-led Cowboys, 51-7 over Jacksonville, 36-0 on Miami.
The Bengals have played the toughest schedule and have the second-best margin of victory, with no games where they were still throwing long with 3:19 left. The offense has been between 296 and 458 yards in every game. The running game has been below 100 yards only twice; the passing game has been under 240 only twice. Its only issue has been turnovers– four games where it allowed two.
The defense has been along for the ride. It’s allowed at least 350 yards in every game except the first (against Oakland). It’s stopped the run only twice (Oakland and Baltimore). It’s had two strong passing games (Oakland and Seattle), and four bad ones. The only thing it’s done well is force turnovers in every game (multiple turnovers in three).
The Bengals have gotten virtually nothing from their draft class (only one rookie has started a game)… and you know Mike Brown never signs any premium free agents. But, unlike most years, they’ve been healthy– only three guys on IR, only three guys on the injury report coming into the game and (best as I can tell) no concussions. Of their five leading receivers, for example:
- A.J Green (46 catches on 66 targets; 649 yards and 4 scores) missed three games last year and was walking wounded in four others. This season, he’s been 100% all year.
- TE Tyler Eifert, their #1 pick in 2013, went down in the first game of 2014 and was out for the year. He’s 32-48 for 341 yards and 6 TDs this year.
- WR Marvin Jones (26-43 for 333 yards and 3 scores) missed all of 2014.
- RB Giovanni Bernard missed 3 games entirely and started only 9.
A friend who works for the Bengals tells me that the big difference is Eifert and Jones. Every quarterback has certain routes they throw better than others, which means they will favor certain receivers. Andy Dalton, he says, really needs a good tight end… and Jermaine Gresham made so many mental mistakes that he hurts the team. Dalton and Jones have chemistry; Dalton and Mohamed Sanu do not.
I’m not 100% sure I buy it… but Dalton (107.6 rating, 8.6 yards per pass, 15-5 TD-TO ratio) is having by far his best season. Another friend says offensive coordinator Hue Jackson (who moved up to offensive coordinator in 2014) has really worked well with Dalton.
At any rate, they don’t think his start is a fluke– and Dalton has played well every time I’ve seen him. Having the line 100% healthy helps too.
The running game has caused some hiccups. In 2014, rookie Jeremy Hill was their workhorse: 1,124 yards on 5.1 a carry, with 9 scores. This year he’s averaging 3.3 per touch, while third-year Giovanni Bernard (680 yards on 4.0 per carry a year ago) already has 436, because he’s averaging 5.6 per carry.
The Bengals aren’t willing to give up on Hill (for good reason), but his inability to get rolling when he gets carries is gumming up the works. (The Bengals are hoping– quite reasonably– that Hill will break loose against Cleveland.)
Defensively, it’s “same old, same old.” They have one new starter (31-year-old LB A.J. Hawk); the youngest player starting is S George Iloka. They rush the passer (20 sacks); led by Carlos Dunlap (6.5) and Geno Atkins (5.0) and hope not to get hurt too badly on the run (they’re now 31st in rushing average).
I’ve been asked to say that CB Adam Jones has shed the “Pac-Man” nickname, settled himself down and become the kind of leader that every team needs. Having heard the speech he gives younger players– how his wild lifestyle cost him $100 million in earnings (probably true; he was out of the NFL for a year and has earned $1 million only 3 times in 10 years)– I’m inclined to believe it.
At the end of the season, owner Jimmy Haslam will have to flush the toilet. (It is physically impossible to blow up a 2-14 or 3-13 team– you don’t have anything built.)
If there was any doubt about what to to with “Cleopatra” Farmer, it was settled during his mid-season presser. It was must-see TV– the best entertainment since Mike Holmgren told writers they couldn’t have any Super Bowl tickets.
His new nickname is inspired by Pam Tillis; if you like funny country videos, this is a good one.
Cleo couldn’t supply anything he’d done wrong– or would do differently in hindsight. He couldn’t identify a single change that might help the roster. Even questions about Dwayne Bowe were waved away. As Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide put it, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
I wasn’t looking for him to come out and flagellate himself… but a tacet admission that he need to stop projecting players would have been nice.
Tom Reed came close to nailing it what’s wrong with Farmer’s drafting, but he blamed far too much of the problem on Haslam. Farmer’s problem is very simple: He keeps imagining– mistakenly– that players will be able to overcome their limitations and move far beyond their current level of play.
- He looked at Justin Gilbert‘s ability– which is admittedly exceptional– and just assumed he could clean up his technique.
- Johnny Relapse‘s behavior problems– which led most teams to shy away– would, Cleo imagined, go away once the Browns handed him a few million.
- Terrance West and Danny Shelton— who don’t play nearly as physically as the NFL requires– would trust the coaches who told them to change their ways, rather than refuse (West) or accede only after he getting bulldozed (Shelton).
Some scouts and GMs can look at a player who doesn’t look special to anyone else and see a star. George Young of the Giants had a remarkable ability to find players from small schools. Bobby Beathard, when he was with Miami and Washington, could look into the future and see what a player would do when his body filled out. Mike Shanahan had the ability to see hidden greatness in running backs and receivers.
Most guys don’t try that– it’s too hard. Even the great ones (Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Bill Belicheat) draft players based on what they’ve proven they can do– not what they hope will happen.
Cleopatra, Queen of Denial is hopeless… other than Pierre Desir and Joel Bitonio, he’s been wrong every time he tries.
The Browns can’t hope Cleo will recognize what he’s doing wrong and fix it– they can’t even assume he’ll acknowledge that he has a problem. Butch Davis never could– he just kept insisting that the finished product he had envisioned would show up if everyone waited a few more years.
There’s an even better parallel: Mike Brown (the Cavs coach, not the Bengal owner-GM). He knew less than nothing about offense, but wouldn’t cede control of it. You don’t argue with people like that; you just move them out and let them try to fix their flaws someplace else.
As for Pettine? Terry Pluto’s scribbles are right in one respect: we don’t know how much input the coach had into the picks and signings. Maybe Farmer was leaning toward picking CBs Kyle Fuller (Chicago) or Jason Verrett (San Diego) with the ninth pick– and Pettine nagged him into Gilbert.
But, other than that, what Terry has is just scribbles. There’s no analysis there. Numbered observations are fine, but they have to lead the reader to a conclusion. This doesn’t.
And there’s a reason for that. Terry doesn’t want the team to make changes. He never does. Like the late, unlamented Mark Shapiro, he fears change. Rather than imagine the new person (say, David Blatt) might be an improvement over the status quo, he worries about starting over– and what if it doesn’t get any better?
The hard cold fact is that problems never improve until you fix them. And, in the NFL, change doesn’t take long. Here’s what needs to happen:
- The Browns have to get a GM who knows what he’s doing– they can’t let Cleo blow any more picks.
- That new GM has to sit down with Pettine and decide if he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he’s been hamstrung by an incompetent, and is just being a good soldier. Maybe he’s been fully on board with every stupid move.
My take on Pettine, until last off-season, was very positive. I think he could be a successful coach– maybe would be, if he had someone smarter getting him players. But I don’t know that is true… and his public statements haven’t done much to inspire confidence.
Aw, jeez– What do you think will happen?
To be fair, the Browns have a chance. They’ll go out without CB Joe Haden and SS Donte Whitner, but they’ve both been playing pretty badly. If Desir and #4 pick Ibraheim Campbell (who was drafted to replace Whitner and played after Whitner got hurt) go out there and provide a spark– if they mesh effectively with Tramon Williams and Tashaun Gipson— the Browns would have a secondary bigger and faster than the one they’ve been playing, and might cover effectively and force some turnovers.
Remember, the Bengals had 8 turnovers– 4 games with 2.
Physically, Green towers over Haden. In 8 games against the Browns, he has 35 catches for 474 yards and 4 scores– mostly because Dalton (73.3 rating, 11 TDs and 11 INTs) has been dreadful. Desir might match up better.
Not having a player who hasn’t been playing well isn’t a loss. Unless Pettine sends out Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Poyer in their places.
And if he does do that, it would move me a few steps toward the “Give ‘him the heave-ho” camp. There is no excuse, with the veterans out and the season down the drain, not to play the kids you drafted.
Not having WRs Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline also doesn’t strike me as a big loss. In the Tennessee game– the only full game Thursday’s starting QB has played this year– Hawkins played 38 of the 49 snaps. He was thrown to only 4 times; he caught 3 for 43 yards. I’d guess he could be replaced by Taylor Gabriel.
Hartline had 20 snaps, 3 targets and 0 catches. Even Bowe could duplicate that.
Also there is this: Cincinnati is one of the few teams in the NFL playing worse run defense than Cleveland. The Browns are allowing 4.8 yards per rush (39th), but the Bengals allow 5.0 per carry.
And this: his performance in the game will determine Johnny Manziel’s future. If he wins this game– or at least plays well– the pressure to give him another game (and/or to let McCown skip the Steelers, the last game before the bye week) will be immense.
I’m still not wild about this jabronie, but he does have a reputation of being a big-game player. He has history of rising to the occasion– even the Patriots’ scouting report acknowledged that.
Plus, this game provides an ideal opportunity for Manziel to show everyone how much progress he has made. He started against Cincinnati last year and looked absolutely miserable: 10-18 for 80 yards (4.5 yards per pass), 3 sacks (for 26 yards; one third of what he gained) and 2 interceptions.
If he plays well– against an undefeated team that beat him up last year, on a national telecast– he has a chance to kick-start his career.
Would I bet that he does it? No way. But the probability that he performs better than Josh McCown would– especially McCown in The Walking Dead mode– is pretty high.
Anyway, it’s as much hope as I can offer.
Prediction: Cincinnati 38, Cleveland 13