Following the Baltimore Ravens since their 33-30 loss to Cleveland on October 11 has been a fascinating experience.
Over the last six weeks, virtually nothing has gone right for the Ravens. WRs Darren Waller and Steve Smith, CB Will Davis, RB Lorenzo Taliaferro and C Jeremy Zuttah were placed on injured reserve. That in addition to the players already out for the year:, which include DE Terrell Suggs, S Matt Elam (their #1 pick in 2013) and WR Breshad Perriman (their #1 pick in 2015).
Last week, QB Joe Flacco and RB Justin Forsett went out of the year as well. The Ravens’ list of injured players also includes two starting offensive linemen: G Kelechi Osemele and T Eugene Monroe are both listed as questionable.
Last off-season, the Ravens signed QB Matt Schaub. The 34-year-old retread will take command of the offense. His ground threat is RB Javorius Allen, their #4 pick this season. He’s averaging 3.9 yards a carry; the top three receivers are:
- WR Kamar Aiken (37-66 for 456 yards and 3 TDs), an undrafted free agent on his third team
- TE Crockett Gilmore (29-42 for 385 yards and 4 TDs), their #3 pick in 2014
- FB Kyle Juszczyk (26-34 for 206 yards and 2 TDs), a #4 pick in 2013
But the Ravens haven’t folded. They haven’t wept at their evil luck or pointed fingers (despite ample cause). 2015 could end up being their worst record since their initial season in Baltimore (they went 4-12 in 1996), but they’re still fighting. No one has suggested that they should even consider taking to get a high pick. The expectation is that they will play to win; the players who are active are expected to perform well if they want jobs on the 2016 roster.
So Baltimore has gone 2-3 since they were beaten by the Browns– only one loss by more than seven points:
- A 25-20 loss in San Francisco
- A 26-18 loss in Arizona
- A 29-26 win over San Diego
- A 22-20 loss to Jacksonville
- A 16-13 win over St. Louis
You’ve seen three of those teams this year and will see San Francisco soon. The only significant difference is that the immortal Casey Keenum, not Nick Foles, was playing quarterback for the Rams.
They might lose their final six games– road games against Cleveland, Miami and Cincinnati; home games against Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. But they could win as many as three (Miami and Kansas City being the others).
In the last two weeks, the defense has allowed Jacksonville 258 yards and St. Louis 211, with 5 turnovers forced. And last week’s game finally gave fans reason to think the offense will take a step up.
The visiting team usually doesn’t win on Monday Night, but that is the biggest factor against the Raven at this point.
Cleveland, meanwhile, have exemplified how a bad team responds to unexpected adversity. Mike Pettine’s attempts to secure his job have made himself look less and less qualified to be an NFL head coach.
I can almost forgive Pettine for lying to the media and the fans about his relationship with failed GM “Snapchat” Farmer. Jimmy Haslam, from what I am told, is very big on loyalty. His response to office politics at Pilot Flying J (when two executives went after each other) was to fire them both. That’s why he whacked “Curly” Lombardi and “Moe” Banner– they were intriguing against each other.
So when Pettine claims that he and his coaches were consulted about every draft pick– and they enthusiastically approved of each decision– he’s trying to keep his job. We can all see that he doesn’t like a number of these players… but if he goes public, it gains him nothing.
But this story is the hallmark of a coach in waaaayyyyy over his head: the public challenge to a unit that isn’t performing well. It’s a complete waste of time, which only highlights the incompetence of the coach.
- The fans and media already knew this. For the last nine weeks, in fact, they’ve commented on the production from the line and secondary. Pettine has been denying that there were any problems every week.
- Presumably the players know this is a problem. A competent coach should be discussing these failings– at length and in heated, profane detail– in the game review meetings every week.
As Ray Horton, Rob Chudzynski, Pat Shurmur, Rob Ryan, Romeo Crennel, Terry Robiskie et al… have demonstrated, if your players don’t play well, you can’t make it happen by talking them up publicly. Begging your players to play well, by appealing to their pride or the history of the team won’t work.
And challenging them is completely useless. Does Pettine imagine the secondary will say “OK, we were loafing, but now that we’ve been caught out, we’ll show everyone”?
If a player isn’t playing well, a coach has two weapons: bench him or cut him. If you keep paying them, they’re not going to change.
But it’s clear that Pettine is out of ideas. Last game, when he decided not to play Justin Gilbert, he told the media it was because he wanted to see what Charles Gaines could do. Gaines is a sixth-round pick, who’s undersized (5’11”) and underweight (175 pounds). He’s been on IR all season. If you really think he can do more than your former #1 pick, why is Gilbert still on the team?
Same with K’Waun Williams playing more than Pierre Desir. Williams gets hurt so often that you can’t count on him; Desir is the #4 pick you chose as a developmental player.
And then there is Josh McCown, whom we’ll get to shortly.
There are also other reasons it was foolish to call players out:
1. The offensive line isn’t playing that badly. The Browns don’t have a single tight end who blocks well; their receivers are too small to do it.
Also, they tip off opponents that they’re about to run by only bringing in FB Malcolm Johnson on running plays. He had 11 snaps; they ran 11 times (not counting the quarterback’s three runs). It’s not been that exact, but it has been close. How difficult is this to figure out?
An offensive coordinator who had ever been hired based on merit would realize this. But the Browns, who prefer to hire people who’ve never called plays before, always have to learn these things through trial and error.
On passing plays, they have the same issue: nobody except the lineman can block. Plus, both quarterbacks take forever to figure out who is open– assuming any receiver has managed to get open.
I’m not wild about the grading performed by Pro Football Focus, because it correlates to nothing. The winner of a 21-17 game might be +29.4, while the opponent is -17.8. So a margin of 57.2 on the grades translates to four points? Meanwhile, the winner of a 42-10 game is +25.8, while the opponent is -24.2.
Yet this article is fundamentally correct: the line isn’t playing that badly.
2. It’s difficult to cover a receiver when a quarterback has 10-15 seconds to throw. The Browns are 28th in both sacks and sacks per pass. Not one player on the team has demonstrated any ability to consistently put heat on opposing quarterbacks:
- LB Paul Kruger has 32.5 sacks in 7 seasons. 20 of them have come in two seasons, 12.5 were produced in the other five.
- DE Randy Starks has, in 12 seasons, never had more than 7.0 sacks. That happened in 2009.
- DE Desmond Bryant has never sacked more than five passers (in 2011 and 2014).
The Browns have played quarterbacks who were injured and couldn’t run. They’ve played quarterbacks behind a patchwork line. They’ve played bad quarterbacks. The only quarterback they were able to reach was Marcus Mariota, the rookie QB of another 2-8 team.
3. Pettine’s schemes make things worse. In the ESPN piece I linked to, running back coach Wilbert Montgomery correctly states it is difficult to get into a running rhythm when the coordinator calls 6-7 passes for every run. That’s true
“They Call Him Flipper” (like a dolphin, he dislikes the land) can’t seem to fathom that the element of surprise is a weapon. If you call passes every play, a play-action doesn’t work.
It also didn’t help to have Pettine– for the second consecutive year– discard a popular, successful system. Ditching Norv Turner’s “Air Coryell” system for Mike Shanahan’s offense was unfortunate– but at least they replaced the best and most popular system with one that many other teams use. Teams have won championships using it.
Dumping Shanahan’s scheme for “Flipper’s Fabulous Football Formulary” was idiotic on every count. Because the system has never been used, everyone had to start from scratch. We also have no proof that 4-F works– and since the Browns are 28th in points, the evidence suggest it does not.
Inventing your own system also means you can’t sign any veterans to help you. Shanahan’s system was used in Houston, Washington and now Denver, so Cleveland could sign people who could say “Guys, I know this system– here’s how it works.” Nobody has played this system before– and the chances are very high that, after this system, no one will ever play it again.
Having a rookie head coach is a risky proposition. But when he hires people who have never been head coaches, never been coordinators, never called plays, spent less than 10 years in the league and have never worked for any head coach that was any good– which is pretty much how the Browns do things– things are almost certain to blow up.
On defense (as the ESPN article also mentions), Pettine likes to ask geriatrics (Tramon Williams) , scrubs (K’Waun Williams) and kicking teams players (Johnson Bademosi) playing one-on-one coverage against Pro Bowl receivers. They have to do that, whether or not they have the ability to do it because that’s how Mike Pettine does things.
God forbid that a head coach who was hired only because no one else wanted the job and will probably never be hired again should adapt to the personnel he has, as opposed to what he wants to do?
4. Many of these players can leave. It’s not a wise idea for the coach of one of the worst franchises in the NFL to verbally abuse people who can be free agents. If Pettine thinks his offensive line isn’t playing well, he’ll have a chance to replace 40% of it this off-season. C Alex Mack will opt out; RT Mitchell Schwartz absolutely will not re-sign with the team (unless he gets crazy money).
If he isn’t happy with the secondary? Bademosi and FS Tashaun Gipson are unrestricted.
The Browns will also need to retain their best linebacker (this is not saying much), Craig Robertson. The two receivers that have produced anything (TE Gary Barnidge and WR Travis Benjamin) will be looking for a big payday.
Veterans are starting to phone games in because we’re six games away from the end of the year. The players whose contracts aren’t up know Jimmy Haslam will do the Royal Flush at the end of the year, and the new front office will clean house. They’ll need to find new teams and don’t want to risk tearing a pectoral or jacking up an ACL.
This issue could have been limited had the Browns made any effort to re-sign anyone. A few weeks back, Baltimore extended G Marshall Yanda, because they didn’t want to risk letting him hit the market. Yanda is a four-time Pro Bowl player, so the situation is a little different. But the Browns have so little talent that they can’t afford to let any leave.
Then there’s the handling of Johnny Relapse. Mary Kay Greenhouse’s hyperbolic delivery of Pettine’s planted explanation– which is clearly intended to raise sympathy for the embattled head coach– merely makes him look like a dolt. Let me summarize it:
- The Browns ignored all the warning signs– which were emblazoned in 20-foot neon letters with a laser light show– and spent a #1 and #3 to draft a drunk.
- They were shocked to discover that giving him millions of dollars didn’t convince him not to drink.
- After a very bad season, the drunk had the sense to check himself into rehab.
- As often happens, the first attempt didn’t take and he began drinking again.
- The Browns ignored the relapse.
- He continued to drink and increased his consumption.
- There was a public incident involving the police.
- The Browns ignored that too.
- The drunk left the team to go drinking.
- The Browns told a drunk not to drink.
- He drank.
- When they asked him if he was drinking, he lied.
- They threw a hissy-fit.
Pettine’s story demonstrates how unqualified he is to be a head coach. If you’ve had a drinking problem, know someone who does or understand anything about treatment, there’s no way you read that story and end up angry with Johnny Manziel.
Manziel is a drunk. He’s in the grip of an addiction– it is controlling his behavior. He did exactly what drunks always do– he drank.
I defy Pettine to produce a single source– not John DeFilippo on Substance Abuse, but a book, an article, an outline of a training program, speeches from treatment professionals– that says “If you tell someone with a drinking problem to stop drinking, he usually will.” Exactly the opposite is true– the addict either denies he has a problem, or promises to straighten up and fly right… and then doesn’t.
If Pettine cared about treating Johnny Relapse’s problem, he would have sent the player back to rehab as soon as he heard rumors about the drinking. It absolutely should have happened after the traffic stop.
If Pettine was sick of dealing with his problem player— if he just wanted the guy off the team– the best thing he could do would be play him. Let him complete passes, run for first downs, do exciting things and maybe win against Baltimore and San Francisco, so other teams might want him.
If you sit him on the bench, he won’t get better– and you’ll incinerate his trade value. When you draft Rufus Le Petomane to be your franchise quarterback and try to trade Johnny Relapse, you’ll get no offers. You’ll end up cutting him.
The facts leave you with two rational explanations:
- Pettine’s handling of the issue is grossly incompetent and is prima facie, smoking-gun evidence that he understands nothing about handling addicts.
- He’s doing this on purpose, either to sink the player or get revenge on the people who drafted him.
Of the 754 games played on Monday night, the home team is has 442 wins, 306 losses and 6 ties. That fact– the home team usually wins on Monday night– is the main reason the Browns are favored.
Another is the deluded belief that the Ravens will miss Joe Lack-o.
Not to repeat what I said before, but the guy is a mediocre player, who occasionally has big games. Because Peter Queen and the Mean Girls are wont to imbue certain games with mystical significance, they often promulgate the belief that a team who plays well in a given game (or a player who does well) is a magical player. If you look at what he actually does, you see:
- A player with a career rating of 84.7 (80 is average) and only two years over 90.
- A passer who gains 7.0 yards per attempt (the average is 7.3).
- A quarterback with 162 TDs and 102 interceptions.
As for him being a gamer? He’s had some good performances in post-season, but a great player often steps up his game when his team hits a patch of adversity. Since he went 19-35 for 210 yards with 1 TD against Cleveland, helping his team to lose in overtime, he’s
- Posted a rating of 85.2
- Gained 6.98 yards per pass
- Thrown 6 TDs and 5 INTs
That’s exactly what his career averages are. He also took 8 sacks in five games, fumbled twice and lost one.
His replacement, Matt Schaub, has the following career stats:
- A career rating of 89.5 (nearly five points higher than Flacco), with five full seasons in the 90’s.
- 7.6 yards per attempt (over half a yard higher).
- 130 career TDs and only 86 interceptions.
Schaub is five years older, has injury issues, can be wildly inconsistent (often wretched) and his performance in pressure situations is often bad. But he’s reached the Pro Bowl twice and played for teams that were substantially worse than Flacco’s.
I’m not guaranteeing Schaub will play well– not even predicting it. But he hasn’t started a game since December 29, 2013, so it’s not like it couldn’t happen, either. Plus, he’ll be playing out the season (no worries that he’ll be replaced), facing Cleveland and Josh McCown and the Ravens can’t make the playoffs.
The QB change on the other side of the ball isn’t likely to go as well. For some reason. Cleveland fans still have this notion of McCown as a gamer– a consistent performer who always provides a solid day’s work. The following evidence:
- He’s reached the age of 36 without ever starting for a team with a winning record.
- He’s 18-38 in his starts– including 1-6 this year.
- His career rating is under 78.7, his career yards per pass is 6.7 and his TD-INT ratio is 72-63.
They attribute to sunspots, bad luck or statistics not proving anything.
The reality is that he’s had three good games and two decent ones only if you focus solely on categories in the QB rating formula. The sacks he takes after 4-5 seconds, the number of fumbles (despite missing nearly four games, he’s still leading the NFL), the off-target throws (which are often caught but cost the team yards after the catch) all get ignored.
This is why it is almost always a bad idea to pay attention to people who don’t understand statistics– or only use them to support a position they already hold. They don’t understand when and where they are valuable. Total passing yards, by itself, is the least important yardstick for measuring a quarterback
Another bit of McCown blindness is the assumption that he’ll pick up where he left off. That hasn’t been his history. He got hurt, then he lost his job. Now he has it back solely through stupidity– and the coach is responding to the blowback by saying maybe Johnny Manziel might play again.
The odds are McCown will press. And he doesn’t play well under pressure.
In the first game against Baltimore, he threw for 457 yards because the Ravens couldn’t figure out how to cover Barnidge (8-10 for 139 yards and a TD), Benjamin (6-12 for 83 yards) or Taylor Gabriel (4-5 for 74 yards). Isaiah Crowell also had one of his less miserable games (49 yards on 13 carries and 2 passes for 38 yards and a score). Nobody could cover the middle zones.
Baltimore’s defense followed that atrocity by allowing Colin Kaepernick to smoke them for 340 yards and 2 TDs. Carson Palmer only got 275 yards and 2 scores against the Ravens– but largely because Araizona gained 150 yards on 27 carries. Then Philip Rivers got 301 yards and 3 scores.
But they stopped Blake Bortles and Case Keenum– and they’re both as competent as McCown. Also, it’s been a while since the Browns’ receivers did well (Benjamin did have a good game against the Steelers).
We can assume Cleveland won’t run well, that they won’t stop the run and won’t get a pass rush or any interceptions. Plus there’s the difference between a team fighting to salvage what it can from the season and one that’s counting the snaps until the final gun of game 16. I could see the Browns winning, especially if Schaub has one of his 19-35 for 173 yards and 3 picks games.
But if Baltimore plays as hard as it has since the last time they played Cleveland, they’ll win.
Game Outcome: Baltimore 18-13