Browns Review: Game #11 (Baltimore)

Opening Statement

I’ll be honest– I was delighted to see the Ravens block the kick. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that the best team should be rewarded.

The Ravens came into Monday’s game with every excuse to quit. They’d had higher expectations for the season than the Browns, so being one win better was a much worse situation. They’d had a couple of players disappoint– but mostly that 3-7 record was injury-driven. Key players on almost every unit were out for the season– often starters and backups. At corner, they’d even lost the veteran (Will Davis) they’d traded for as an emergency replacement.

But they didn’t hang their heads They’d tried to fill holes as best they could; their coaches had worked hard to get the players they had ready. And, despite being undermanned, they’d played smarter, worked harder and shown more character than the Browns.


 

Let me pause to do an essay on why the Browns– and the Indians in the Mark Shapiro era– always seem to have less depth than every other team in the league. It’s because they mishandle the roster.

When the Browns have a player missing, they hang their heads and whine. Rather than look at it as an opportunity to develop someone, they treat it as an excuse to lose. Let’s walk through two object lessons from the last two seasons:

RB Trent Richardson, 2013

When Indianapolis lost its starting back in Game 1, they were desperate for backfield help. Seizing an opportunity to liquidate a busted pick by trading him to a panicked GM, the Browns shipped Richardson for a #1 pick. The Browns wasted the pick by bundling it with a #3 to get a drunk, but the move was prescient.

The Browns could have given Richardson’s carries to Edwin Baker, a player they picked up later that year. In three games, he ran for 171 yards and averaged 4.0 a carry. He’s out of the NFL now, but he might have provided a spark had they gone to him sooner.

They could have used Richardson’s departure as a chance to play Bobby Rainey, who was on the roster. Instead they let him go. He was picked up by Tampa, who needed a back due to the injury of Pro Bowl player Doug Martin. Rainey gained 532 yards in 9 games (averaging 3.9 a carry) in 2013. In 2014, when Martin’s troubles continued, Rainey gained 404 yards, averaging 4.3 a carry.

Martin is healthy this year (1,038 yards; 5.1 yards per carry), so Rainey has carried only 5 times. But the Bucs know where they can turn should Martin go down.

Cleveland could have tried Fozzy Whittaker, who was also on the roster. He got 28 carries and 36 targets in 11 games. He’s now with Carolina. In 2014, he got one start and averaged 4.2 yards per rush in 32 carries. This year he has only 9 carries, but has gotten 3.2 yards a rush.

Compared to the Browns’ gaggle of geese, Whittaker’s rushing average makes him look like Hall-of-Fame back Joe Perry. Not to point fingers, but he has been targeted 52 times on passes in his career. He has 33 career catches; he averages 8.0 yards per completion.

This season’s #3 pick, H-back “Squire” Johnson (he certainly isn’t playing like a nobleman) also has 52 targets. Johnson has 44 catches for 9.2 yards– not significantly better than Whittaker, despite his much higher cost.

What the Browns did was sign 32-year-old Willis McGahee, whose decrepit knees had eliminated his speed and ability to cut. McGahee got 138 carries, gained 2.7 yards and was cut after the season.

Between McGahee (who was on the field for 264 snaps), Whittaker (167 snaps, but only 64 plays for him), Rainey (55 snaps, 17 plays) and Chris Ogbonnaya (whom they were trying to use as a blocking back; he played 521 snaps, but participated in only 126 plays), they consumed 1,007 snaps.

That’s a full season’s playing time– enough to develop someone who could contribute and still be on the roster today. They wasted it.

C Alex Mack, 2014

Mack broke his arm in game 5, after 297 snaps. The Browns:

  • Didn’t look for a center on someone’s practice squad that they liked.
  • Didn’t choose someone who had been waived at the final roster cutdown because he was injured and the team didn’t know when– or if– he’d be back. (As the 2013 Jets did with Stevie Johnson, who gutted the Browns in a late-season game.)
  • Didn’t look for a veteran who had been waived due to a personality conflict.

Instead they tried

  • G Paul McQuistan (who was 31 and had been cut by two teams for failure to block) at guard, with John Greco switching to center for 116 snaps (41 snaps in game 5, then 75 snaps in game 6).
  • C Nick McDonald for 469 snaps (games 7-12, until he was hurt, then parts of game 15 and all of game 16).
  • G Ryan Seymour for 170 snaps (games 12-15)

That’s 755 snaps– out of a total of 1,052 offensive snaps. It was nearly 75% of a season that could have been used to develop a substitute that could have become a player who could step in if Mack were injured again– or after the season, when he opts out of his contract and goes to another team as an unrestricted free agent.

The Browns got no lasting value from those 755 snaps, because they cut McQuistan, McDonald and Seymour. But there were two outcomes that were even worse:

1. Because nobody ever expects a substitute to contribute, the collapse of the Cleveland running game– 927 yards in the final 11 games– was completely ignored. Nobody expressed any concern– not about the line, the others blockers (backs, tight ends or receivers), the play-calling or the backs. Everyone just said “It’ll be better when Alex Mack returns.”

As we can all see this season, the running game is not better. Had someone treated the problem as if it were a problem, the Browns might have a more balanced offense. Defenses also wouldn’t come after quarterbacks as if they knew Cleveland wouldn’t bother to run.

2. Because the Browns had not used the final 11 games to develop depth, they needed help and decided to fix the problem by wasting their second #1 pick in 2015 on Cam Erving.

Erving, at this point, grades out as a bust. He couldn’t win a job by beating out Greco or RT Mitchell Schwartz— hasn’t been able to at any point. And when he has played, he’s looked horrific.

Good teams do not treat roster spots and snaps this way. They have a “Next Man Up” approach, where the person immediately below the starter on the depth chart gets the snaps. That player isn’t given any mulligans– he is expected to contribute at the same level as his predecessor. If he does not, his chances to keep his spot the following season will be substantially reduced.

Playing time is precious. In this era of the NFL– where teams are phobic about injury and players are rightly concerned about traumatic brain injury– teams have virtually no full-contact practice. A player– especially a lineman– can’t learn skills by going half-speed without pads. With no developmental league (or NFL Europe) to send a player to, teams can’t see whether a player is developing unless he plays in games.

When a player goes down, it is a blow to the team’s hopes. But is always an opportunity to see what the substitute can do. That can be of enormous value.

Had the Boston Celtics not mugged journeyman Kevin Love in the opening round of last season’s NBA playoffs, the Cavs would have been eliminated in either the quarters or semis, as Tristan Thompson sat on the bench for almost every minute of the playoffs, while Love let his opponents move unmolested to the basket.

This season, Thompson would be playing for another team. He would have been allowed to depart via free agency under the impression that he was another developmental pick who never developed. The Cavs would most likely be a a few games over .500, blaming it all on injuries to Iman Shumpert and imagining that PG Kyrie Irving would save them.

I have my issues with Bill Belicheat (obviously), but he wins partly because he is better about using his roster than anyone else in the league. He doesn’t care if you’re a rookie, whether you’re a high pick or a waiver pickup, whether you played in a small school or are coming back from an injury. If you’re on his active roster, you get coached as carefully as everyone else and you practice as much as everyone else. If it’s your turn to play, you’d better play well, or he’s gonna drop you and move on to someone else who intrigued him.

The Browns very possibly lead the league in wasted roster spots every season. The NFL’s decision to release snap counts means we know who doesn’t play. Here’s the offensive list:

  • RB Robert Turbin (64 snaps) consumed a spot on the 53-man roster for five games, played sparingly in games 6-8, didn’t dress in game 9 and then got 24 touches in the next two games. He got cut for fumbling a couple of times, because “Snapchat” Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine threw a tantrum and they don’t have the guts to cut anyone they drafted.
  • TE Rob Housler (41 snaps) consumed a spot in 6 games, then didn’t play for two, then got put on IR and then got waived.
  • WR Dwayne Bogus (38 snaps): Do I need to say anything about this landfill? The Browns would have been better off donating his salary to local food banks.
  • RB Shaun Draughn (10 snaps): They kept him around for six games, cut him and he is now doing more for the 49ers (146 yards rushing, 113 yards receiving) than any running back on the Browns’ roster.
  • TE E.J. Bibbs (4 snaps): He’s used a roster spot for 11 weeks and dressed twice. God knows how he could be significantly worse than Jim Dray (who probably will be cut), but apparently he is.
  • OL Austin Pasztor (4 snaps): Been here all 11 games. No, he isn’t the long snapper. He’s just a guy who has played 45 snaps on kicking teams, 4 snaps on offense and uses a spot that could be given to a productive player.

I could go through it on defense, but you know the names of the people who’ve played less than 100 snaps: SS Ibraheim Campbell (91), LB Tank Carder (77), CB Justin Gilbert (50), CB Charles Gaines (35), LB Scott Solomon (33) and S De’Ante Saunders (9).

And spare me the homer apologists why claim this has something to do with Pettine’s belief in strong kicking teams. For one thing, Campell, Carder and Gilbert are the only guys who’ve played a significant amount during the NFL’s “Transition Game.”

For another– as was just proven– the Browns’ kicking teams pretty much blow.

Campbell is great example of how the Browns screw themselves. SS Donte Whitner is playing mostly on pride. He’s giving 100% of what he has left, but a smart team would replace him. FS Tashaun Gipson has had salary battle and won’t be back. It would be in the Browns best interests to develop him before he gets tossed into the lineup next season.

But the Browns see more value in giving playing time to waiver pickup Jordan Poyer. Which is why they’re the Browns.


Had the game gone into overtime– and had Cleveland won– I would have felt the outcome was just. The Ravens hadn’t played well– they’d had a 17-3 lead and then blown it. They’d let a journeyman quarterback and a guy who hadn’t played all season throw for nearly 300 yards and allowed the Browns an absurdly-high (give that this is the Browns) 3.5 yards a carry.

Thanks to Peter Queen’s “LEAVE BRETT-NEY ALOOOONNNNE!!!!” campaign to ruin “Sudden-Death” overtime, the Ravens would have had at least one possession. Had they failed… hey, they had a chance.

But the idea that the other 44 players should lose because QB Matt Schaub— a veteran quarterback who appeared to be an entirely reasonable signing as Joe Flacco’s backup– made a ridiculously bad throw with 56 seconds left? That seemed unfair.

I guess the Browns agreed, because they did their best to give the game away.

Let’s set the stage here. The Browns had the ball on the Baltimore 46– 63 yards away. They needed, thanks to a puzzling decision made months earlier, to move at least 20 yards to have a chance to win.

In training camp, you might remember, the Browns had two kickers in camp– both of whom had been eligible for the draft in 2014. Carey Spear was a Mayfield Heights native who had made a name for himself at Vanderbilt for his ferocious tackles. If you go to the link, you’ll see some highlight reels of his hits. Spear had worked out with the Eagles, but lost out to Corey Parkey, who ended up making the Pro Bowl.

Spear’s leg strength wasn’t in question. His accuracy was.

Travis Coons, who beat him out, had a weaker leg, but better accuracy. But the coaches had so little confidence in his leg strength that the Browns didn’t ask him to try a field goal longer than 44 yards all year.

Cleveland had 50 seconds left and two time outs. They somehow managed to run only three plays– traveling only 13 yards– in 47 seconds:

1. QB Austin Davis threw a pass into the short middle to WR Brian Hartline. It gained six yards. The Browns didn’t call a time out at the end of the play. Instead, they let the clock run down to 18 seconds.

32 seconds is enough time for a competent two-minute offense to run 5 plays. This is entirely on Pettine.

2. With 18 seconds left and the ball at the Baltimore 40– 57 yards away, 15 yards too far for Coons– Davis dropped back to pass, and didn’t see anyone open.

Unlike Josh McCown— who stands there looking until he’s wearing several opponents– Davis ran to his right for 7 yards. But then he committed a phenomenally stupid mistake. Even though there was no tackler close to him– even though he could probably have gotten to the sidelines, Davis slid.

A slide– which was put into the rulebook to protect running quarterbacks– stops the play immediately, at the spot where the quarterback leaves his feet. Davis’s slide ensured that he stayed in bounds and kept the clock running.

The Browns called time out with 9 seconds left and the ball at the 33. They were 50 yards away; 7-8 yards too far for Coons.

3. At this point, the Browns called a play that is absolutely incomprehensible. Flipper, their dimwitted inexperienced, offensively-challenged coordinator, decided to run the ball.

It was only the second run (not counting scrambles) the Browns had tried in the second half. The first had taken place with 14:54 left in the third quarter– the second play of the second half.

I’d love to see the rationale for this. Flipper (like his namesake in the TV reruns) hadn’t been comfortable trying to travel by land in the previous 29:45 of clock time. Presumably this was because the Browns’ running game is best at moving backwards.

So why, when you need eight yards, would you turn to “Metcalf Up The Middle” with Squire Johnson– a running back whose problems running between the tackles as so obvious that the Browns prefer to line him up as an outside receiver?

It got stuffed and Cleveland called their last time out with 3 seconds left. They’d run three plays and not tried for the end zone even once.

When a kicker with a weak leg has to kick a long one, he typically changes his motion. Instead of trying to kick a high fly– which he knows will probably fall to earth short of his target– the kicker will usually try to hit a line drive. More of the energy from his leg will be transferred to the ball’s forward motion– so it will travel longer. But it will also be lower, making it easier to block.

Here’s another reason why the Ravens beat the Browns. The player who blocked the kick was DE Brent Urban, the Ravens’ #4 pick in 2014 (he was taken a few slots after CB Pierre Desir).

In his first training camp, Urban tore his ACL and missed the year. In his second, he tore his bicep and missed the first 10 games. went on this season.

Monday was the first regular season game Urban had ever played. He only played 11 snaps. But Urban was credited with 1 solo tackle and 1 assist, which was:

  • As many as LB Nate Orchard, Farmer’s #2 pick in 2015, But since Orchard missed two tackles, Urban outgained him, all things considered.
  • More than Farmer’s #1 pick in both 2013 (LB Meowkevious Mingo, 1 solo tackle), 2014 (Gilbert, 1 solo tackle) and 2015 (NT Danny Shelton, 1 assist).
  • A lot more than three high picks who got shut out: the #3 pick in 2015 (DT Xavier Cooper) and #4 picks in both 2014 (Desir) and 2015 (Campbell).

Plus he blocked what would have been the game winning field goal. And the blockers he beat to do it were the two #1 picks this season: Shelton and Erving.

You want to know why the Browns will end up with the first or second pick in 2016, that’s why. The Ravens also got a touchdown out of Kaelin Clay. He was Tampa’s sixth-round pick in 2015. After he was cut, the Lions signed him to the practice squad.

Baltimore signed him to their roster on November 17th, gave him 4 snaps on returns against St. Louis on the 22nd, then 11 snaps on December 1.

The Browns never get that sort of production, because their front office and coaching staff are too inept.

I’m at 3,00 words already, so I’ll take three shortquestions.

Do you think the Browns have won
if they had played Johnny Manziel?

 

Probably. Davis played one competent quarter, and that was nearly enough to win.

McCown was terrible. His stats were right on the borderline (80.2 rating. 5.6 yards per pass). But he also threw two interceptions– both of which Baltimore dropped– and he threw his usual off-target passes.

Johnny Relapse would have been facing his third consecutive zone blitz defense– with players weaker than both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. He probably would have had an excellent game.

Again, there were only two options that made sense– back to rehab or start him. Sitting him down because he got photographed drinking just eliminates his chance to drive up his trade value.

Would you start Austin Davis?

 

Of course. And it has nothing to do with sending a message to the drunk,

Johnny Relapse won’t be on the 2016 Browns. This has been obvious to anyone with a functioning brain stem for months. The Browns will finish with one of the first two picks, they’ll draft Rufus Le Petomane, McCown will be the bridge to him, Davis will be the insurance and the drunk will be S.O.L.

Had the Browns not announced that they intended to dump the player when they demoted him, you could make a good argument for his playing. Now, they might as well begin to work with Davis.

Can you believe Terrance West averaged
5.3 yards a carry against the Browns?

 

Well, yeah– he was running against the Browns.

Also, many people thought he had talent. The Ravens were thinking about taking him in round four or five. Baltimore is close to where West played in college; being cut by two teams often gives a player incentive to do harder.

But the main thing is this: Why would you assume that not succeeding with the Browns tells you anything about a player’s ability?

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