Browns Review: Game #9 (@ Cincinnati)

Opening Statement

I skipped the first impressions on my Facebook page and took several days to do this because I was trying to think of something different to say. Week, after week, the Browns get their heads handed to them for the same reasons:

1. They gave up a ton of points and yards. It’s the fifth time in nine games they allowed more than 30 points; the sixth time they allowed over 375 yards. The disturbing thing is that they’re as bad when they hold opponents as they are when they don’t:

  • Cleveland is 1-4 when they allow 30 points or more and 1-3 when they don’t.
  • The Browns are 2-4 when they allow 375 yards and 0-2 when they don’t.

They’re #26 in points allowed– the seventh-worst defense in the NFL.

2. They got gashed on run defense. 152 yards on 37 carries (4.1 average). The only reason it was that low was (as I mentioned in the preview) that Cincinnati required Giovanni Bernard (having a great year; 13 carries for 72 yards– 5.5 per play) to split time with Jeremy Hill (in the midst of a sophomore slump; 15 carries for 52 yards; 3.4 per play), hoping to give Hill a confidence booster.

The reason they allow rushing yards is the same culprit every week– lack of discipline.

Phil Simms is one of the most blatant members of what Howard Cosell dubbed “the jockocracy.” Simms is 60 years old. He played pro football for 14 years; he has been a game analyst for 22. Since his playing career ended before the turn of the century– and he has been a broadcaster 50% longer than a pro QB– he ought to be emotionally capable of doing his job: explaining, to the audience, what happens in a game, even if it requires him to criticize a player.

He can’t do it. It’s the reason he’s now on the NFL Network and not the #1 analyst on CBS’s AFC telecasts. The closest he can come to criticism is to rave about how great a player is– then say “and I know he wishes he had that play to do over again, because he’s too good a player to make that kind of a play.”

But here he is, on the recap of WR Mohamed Sanu‘s 25-yard touchdown run on a reverse, torching DT Xavier Cooper for not sealing the edge. Even Simms doesn’t feel guilt over throwing the Browns’ run defense under the bus.

This is not a scheme issue. This is not a coaching issue. No defense in the history of the NFL has ever said “If you’re on the outside, run in whatever direction you feel like– leave the backside wide open for the runner to cut back.”

3. They got no pressure on the passer. In fairness, let me repeat that Bengals QB Andy Dalton is having a great, great year. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s having a better supporting cast or maybe it’s simply a fluke. But he came into the game with a QB rating of 107.6 and a 15-4 TD-INT ratio. He’d averaged 8.6 yards per pass and had taken only 9 sacks on 231 attempts (3.8%).

Cleveland let him go 21-27 for 234 yards (8.7 yards), with 3 TD passes and no turnovers. He posted a 139.8 QB rating– the fourth QB do have a rating over 100 (Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer) and the sixth (Marcus Mariota, Ryan Fitzpatrick) to have a rating over 90.

It’s easy to gut a secondary when you can stand and wait for receivers to come open. It’s not merely that Cleveland is tied for #22-24 in sacks with 15 and tied for #24-26 in sack percentage (4.7%). It’s that they’re 13th in hurries (47)– they don’t even come close that often.

4. They didn’t run the ball and didn’t run it well. In a moral victory, the quarterback did not lead the Browns in rushing this week. He got only 31 of the team’s 69 yards. Of course, he averaged 7.8 yards, while the stuffing backs (they don’t really run, so we need a new designation) averaged 2.9, so it isn’t like the glorified tackling dummies have anything to brag about.

On the scheme front, it was another great game for the inventor of “Flippy’s Fabulous Football Formulary” (AKA “Brian Daboll’s Greatest Hits”). Cleveland ran 17 times and threw 33– that’s a 34-66 run-pass ratio. That isn’t because they fell behind and had to throw:

  • At the end of the first half, the score was 14-10. The Browns had run 14 times and passed 18.
  • On the first drive of the third quarter, the score was still 14-10. They ran once and threw twice (one turned into a run when Johnny Manziel was chased out of the pocket).
  • On the next drive, they were behind by the overwhelming margin of 17-10. Future Former Offensive Coordinator John “Flipper” DeFilippo called passes on all three downs.
  • The Bengals scored a touchdown on their next possession, at which point DeFilippo showed about as much interest in traveling by land as Flipper the dolphin used to. For the entire rest of the game, the Browns ran once– again a scramble on a busted pass attempt.

There are so many things I get tired of seeing. One is watching an incompetent (a coach who typically has never called offensive plays before he became a coordinator for the Browns and will never do so again) explain, after the game, why dropping back to throw on every play– not trying, even once to cross the defense up and give his quarterback the benefit of the element of surprise– makes sense.

I mean, I know Flipper is only here because nobody else wanted the job, but could the Browns maybe get a guy with enough common sense to look at what other teams do and try to mimic it?

Flipper’s contention that it’s hard to use the run when it isn’t working shows how little he gets technical football. Yes, the Browns have had their runs stuffed 28 times this year (fifth-highest total in the league). Their percentage of stuffs (13.2%, more than one out of every eight rushes) is second-highest; the 71 yards lost is third-highest. Running isn’t a productive use of a play.

But when a team doesn’t run– if the defense knows a pass is coming– it can go after the quarterback on every play. And since quarterbacks drop back to throw, sacks lose much more yardage than stuffs:

  • The Browns have had 28 runs stuffed, for 71 lost yards (-2.54 yards per stuff)
  • The Browns have had 30 passes sacked, for 183 lost yards (-6.1 yards per sack)

Plus, when you get a sack, you risk a fumble and a turnover. And your quarterback can get beaten up.

I could go on, but why bother? Questions?

Can you believe Mike Pettine said he wanted
to keep Johnny Manziel in the pocket more?
Was he trying to get him sacked?

No. He was addressing a legitimate issue in an inappropriate forum.

On both of Manziel’s first-half runs– the one for 7 yards and the one for 4 yards– he had receivers open farther down the field. It was also true on three plays where he left the pocket and threw (two completed, but for fewer yards; one not).

Obviously gaining 11 yards is better than being sacked twice and fumbling once (as Josh McCown is wont to do). But it is better to throw the ball to a receiver who is 10-20 yards deep.

Why didn’t he say that?

Because he was in a @%#%#$ hurry. I need to get out my soapbox here.

Pettine was recently asked why opponents always seem to make adjustments to Cleveland at halftime, while the Browns never do. In the process of his answer, he made the case against halftime interviews.

Pettine said that logistics make it hard to do much coaching. The halftime of an NFL game– from final gun to back onto the field– is 12 minutes. In that time:

  • They have to run to the locker room– which takes a minute or two.
  • While the banged-up guys get treated, the coaches huddle to figure out what to do next.
  • The unit coaches roll the changes out to the players.
  • The head coach does his Knute Rockne.
  • They run back onto the field by the NFL-enforced deadline (which exists so New England can’t claim the door was stuck when they take a 20-minute halftime).

Pettine noted that it is much easier for a veteran team, which has been using the same scheme for years can hear the words “In the second half, we’ll drop packages A and D, and go to B and C” and know what they need to do. On the Browns, half the unit is in its first year with the team, and they’re usually running a new scheme every year– often one that few other teams use. They have to keep it simpler.

But that bit of information– the team has 12 minutes– illustrates why coaches shouldn’t have to talk to some idiot. “It’s only 30 seconds”? That’s 4% of your total halftime. Plus, because you’re trying to think what you need to do and say, you’re distracted.

How do you solve the problem?

I’m I’m a head coach, it’s really easy. I would either:

  1. Respond to every question with a scowl and the words “Are you @&$^$% kidding me?!?”
  2. Pick out the buzzword in the question and say “I gotcher [buzzword] right here!!” while grabbing my crotch.

Roger Goodell would probably suspend me for a year, but I’d sue him and get the policy stopped. I can’t imagine what Buddy Ryan, John Madden or Jim Mora would have said had this idiotic policy been in place when they coached.

The competition committee should either lengthen halftime or eliminate this nonsense. Nobody needs to hear a string of cliches to enjoy the game.

Obviously Pettine could have phrased his comment better– especially since the Bengals lined up wider to make sure Manziel couldn’t roll out of the pocket. But the issue isn’t what he said– it’s that he was compelled to say it at all.

How badly would you say Manziel played?

Not badly at all. Let’s put his effort into context. A year ago, he played the Bengals (who had some players out and others not at full strength). He went 10-18 for 80 yards (5.9 per pass), threw no touchdown passes, was intercepted twice and sacked three times. His QB rating was a sparkling 27.3.

Let’s look at the second half of this game, where everyone agrees he struggled:

  • He went 5-15 for 88 yards– a worse completion percentage, but roughly the same yards per pass.
  • Manziel threw no TD passes and was sacked three times (all in the fourth quarter). But he threw no interceptions.
  • Manziel was sacked three times– partly because the defense was coming after him on every play. But he didn’t fumble– and he even avoided two sacks by throwing the ball out of bounds.
  • His improvement is reflected in his higher QB rating for both the third quarter (57.3) and the fourth (39.6) quarters.

In the first half, before the Bengals adjusted (and the Browns quit running), Manziel went 11-18 for for 128 yards (7 yards a pass), with a TD and no sacks. That produced a rating over 101.

That’s a pretty big improvement, year over year. And it gets better with adjustments.

Also, he was victimized by four dropped passes. Cleveland is now 14th in percentage of dropped passes (up from 30th in 2014). Brian Hartline, despite not playing, is tenth in dropped passes. Taylor Gabriel, who had three, is now tied for 25th. Counting the four times he threw the ball away, Manziel had eight incompletions that weren’t bad throws.

There were points in the second half (as Manziel wryly noted in his postgame press conference), where he seemed overwhelmed and it felt like the 2014 game. But there were many more moments where he seemed in control, and got good results.

I’m not a huge fan of the guy, but it was his fourth career NFL start. A 71.3 rating isn’t ridiculously poor performance, given how early in his career it is.

Would you start Manziel next week?

Absolutely– it’s a no-brainer for two reasons alone:

1. Letting Manziel start give McCown his best chance to get healthy. Say you believe McCown is having a great year and deserves to keep his job. Then it makes no sense to start him.

  • Everyone concedes he isn’t close to 100%.
  • The Browns will be facing the Steelers– who beat quarterbacks up.
  • Pittsburgh will be playing without Ben Roethlisberger and LeVeon Bell, so the defense knows it will need to step up.

Most importantly, after Sunday’s game, the Browns have the bye.

McCown last started on November 1. If Pettine holds him out of the Pittsburgh game– and doesn’t start him until week 11 against Baltimore– he won’t play until November 30. He’ll have nearly a full month to heal as much as he can.

2. The remainder of the season will be Cleveland’s last chance to see Manziel. The Browns will be lucky to finish 3-13 (San Francisco or maybe KC), so they’re likely to have one of the first three picks in the draft. If Jimmy Haslam’s new GM doesn’t draft a quarterback in round one and a receiver in round two, the Browns might as well move to Montana.

Once they draft Rufus Le Petomane, they’ll have to move Manziel. They can keep McCown around as the veteran stiff who plays a few games until Le Petomane is ready. Austin Davis makes a good developmental player/backup. But you don’t want a former #1 pick with an entourage hanging around.

So this is Cleveland’s last chance to see what, if anything, Manziel can do– and maybe get another team interested in offering more than a #7 (or waiting for the Browns to cut him).

Do you think he should take McCown’s job?

It’s not the worst idea I’ve heard. If we look at the full spectrum of performance, it’s neck and neck.

Because the quarterback rating formula doesn’t calculate results based on sacks (McCown has 22), yards lost on sacks (131) and fumbles lost (6, leading the league), people have been treating these events as if they didn’t take place and haven’t hurt the team.

Yes, McCown has 11 TD passes and only 4 interceptions. But if you counted lost fumbles as interceptions– which you should, because they turn the ball over every bit as much as an interception– then you would say that he had 11 TDs and 10 turnovers, which everyone would see was a problem.

Basic statistics also can’t measure the number of off-target passes McCown has thrown, where his receivers made good catches on. Gary Barnidge‘s TD against the Chargers, where he used all four limbs to catch it– how much credit do you really want to give McCown for throwing that ball? There have been half a dozen passes in every game where a receiver gathered in an off-target ball.

Thanks largely to McCown, the line has been blamed for 22 sacks– all lost downs– and 131 negative yards. In five consecutive games, he was sacked four or more times: Oakland (5), San Diego (4), Baltimore (4), Denver (4) and St. Louis (4). The first three teams were all having problems pressuring the passer going into the game– San Diego (21st, with 16) and Oakland (24th; 15) still are.

Arizona had only one sack against McCown, but only because they can’t rush the passer. They’re tied for 27th with 13.

You’re blaming McCown for the line?

No, I’m blaming him for standing behind the line until he gets sacked. I’m not a fan of the subjective grades offered by Pro Football Focus, but this article contains objective data all the way until paragraph 10 (when they start assigning responsibility for sacks. As they put it, “Josh McCown has the 10th-highest percentage of passes that take 2.6 seconds or more, and Johnny Manziel is even worse at fourth-highest, with 55.6 percent of his passes taking longer than 2.5 seconds. The offensive line is simply being asked to pass block for longer than most teams.”

So why go to Manziel?
He gets sacked even more often. 

His sack percentage is 8.8%; McCown’s 8.0 is lower. On the other hand, Manziel started against Cincinnati (who is fifth in the league in sacks) and Tennessee (seventh), and played most of the game against the Jets (19th).

McCown started against Denver (first), St. Louis (second) and Baltimore (tenth), but he also faced three teams who don’t pressure the passer. Two out of Manziel’s three opponents did– and tthe third was a team he didn’t practice against.

Plus it was his fourth start.

Manziel couldn’t connect to our playmakers.

Cleveland doesn’t have any playmakers. A playmaker is someone who can make plays even when the opposition knows the ball is probably coming to him.

Travis Benjamin, in his last three games, has caught 10 of the 19 balls thrown his way, for 95 yards. Defenses have figured out that:

  • If you chuck him hard at the snap, he’ll get knocked off stride and need a few seconds to get going.
  • His best routes, other than quick slants, are deep balls.

If Benjamin doesn’t get what teams call a “free release” he won’t be able to get open before the protection breaks down.

Defenses used to let Barnidge move unmolested. Until this season, he had 44 catches (for 603 yards) in 7 seasons. He was getting covered by linebackers; now he’s getting strong safeties.

Duke Johnson has been useless running the ball; he’s gained 50 yards receiving in 4 games and less in the other 5. He did get open and catch a TD, but he didn’t notice that his quarterback was in trouble for a good long while.

McCown had the offense performing at a level
Manziel hasn’t matched.

And he did that against three of the 10 worst defenses in points allowed this year:

  • Oakland is 21st in points allowed, averaging 26.4 points a game. McCown scored 20 points.
  • Baltimore is 22nd in points allowed (also 26.4). McCown scored 33.
  • San Diego is 31st in points allowed (27.7); McCown put up 27 points.

The expected points, based on the average, was 80.5; Cleveland scored 80.

No one can make any rational statement about how Manziel would have done in those games. He might have played worse, he might have played better or he might have done the same.

Against the three good defenses McCown faced– #1 Denver (17.4 points allowed), #6 St. Louis (18.2) and #7 Arizona (19.1)– the expectation was 54.7 points; he scored 49.

The only knock you can make on Manziel is that he has produced fewer points (48) than expected (61.4):

  • He scored 10 points against the #4 ranked Bengal defense ( 17.8 points)
  • He led the Browns to 10 points against the #8-ranked Jet defense (allowing 20.0 points)
  • He scored 28 points against the Titans (ranked #14; 23.4 points)

But those are the sixth, seventh and tenth games of his pro career. And in six of his ten games, he threw eight passes or less.

McCown is 36– his career is close to the end. His body clearly is breaking down. His his determination to play when he hasn’t been healthy has hurt the team. He arguably should have been held out of the Oakland game (which they lost), should (at the very least) have been pulled in the second half of the Arizona game (ditto) and should never have started the Rams game (ditto)

Against that, you have the Browns’ 1-1 record in games he hasn’t started. And Manziel didn”t look terrible in either game. It’s time to put him in the lineup before he gets replaced by another #1 pick.


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