Browns Review: Game #14 (@Seattle)

Opening Statement

It’s enormously frustrating to watch a well-organized, well-run team like the Seahawks play a half-baked, fly-by-night outfit like the Browns.

Several years ago, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll realized that changes in NFL rules (done to reduce the number of concussions) had also reduced the effectiveness of traditional methods of tackling. He studied the techniques used by rugby players (who also have to tackle, but don’t wear pads or helmets) and adapted them to the NFL.

The Seahawks believe that their method isn’t merely safer– it is more effective. They’ve released free training videos on how it works.

The Browns don’t use this style of tackling, of course. They don’t even use a single style. Every defender does whatever he feels like. End result: the team misses half a dozen tackles a week and leads NFL teams in concussions reported since 2012.

Even when their players fail to make the tackle, the Seahawks almost always have them in the correct location. Every week, the Browns have 2-3 plays where someone ignores his assignment and does whatever he feels like– and the opposing back runs through the gap he leaves.

This happens for several different reasons. First, 30-50% of the defensive starters in a given year are veteran free agents who were signed in their late 20’s or 30’s: You’re unlikely to get players like DE Randy Starks, LBs Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger, CB Tramon Williams and S Donte Whitner to change, unless they really believe you know better than they do.

Second, is the high turnover among coaches– and their almost uniformly-low level of competence. In their seasons in the NFL, FS Tashaun Gipson and LB Craig Robertson have had coordinators Dick Jauron (3 seasons out of 17 in the top 10 in points allowed), Ray Horton (never higher than 17th) and Jim O’Neil telling them how to play the run, or tackle.

Why would you pay attention to any of those people? Particularly when you see the veterans don’t. Not to single out O’Neil for abuse, but he’s been Mike Pettine’s bobo for his entire NFL career. He’s never worked for an NFL franchise where he didn’t report to Pettine. Unless you were enormously impressed by the 2005 Towson Tigers, O’Neil has given no evidence that he can manage a defense.

Finally you have the draft picks who don’t tackle well because they didn’t come out of college knowing how to tackle. In the last two seasons, the Browns have spent seven picks in the first four rounds on defensive players. I have now read every commercially-available scouting report on these seven players– only two (Chris Kirksey and Ibraheim Campbell) graded as good tacklers:

2014 Round 2015
CB Justin Gilbert 1 NT Danny Shelton
2 LB Nate Orchard
LB Chris Kirksey 3 DE Xavier Cooper
CB Pierre Desir 4 S Ibraheim Campbell

If you draft a player who didn’t tackle well in college, why would you expect him to do it in the NFL? Especially when many of the players didn’t show any interest in doing it. One of the big knocks on Gilbert and Orchard was their visible unwillingness to play run defense.

That chart explains the reason why the defense is terrible. On a team that knew what it was doing, all seven players would be contributing, and five (Gilbert, Kirksey, Shelton, Orchard and Cooper) would be starting:

  • Two-thirds of the line would have been replaced; they would be making like miserable for quarterbacks. Shelton would lock down the middle on running plays and tie up two blockers on passes. Cooper would consistently beat his man off the ball and get into the backfield disrupt plays. If DE Desmond Bryant were the worst player on the line (rather than the best), you’d have a pretty decent line.
  • Half the linebacking corps would be replaced. Orchard’s speed would let him provide a consistent speed rush on passes and run pursuit on other plays. Kirksey would add suffocating run defense and exceptional pass coverage. If Dansby were calling signals and Kruger were playing over the tight end, you’d have a tough unit.
  • Gilbert, meanwhile, would be a shutdown corner on one side of the field; the three other members would be on their way back to the Pro Bowl. Desir and Campbell (who were developmental picks) would pitch in when the defense needed extra coverage– and would have started games when Whitner, Gipson and Joe Haden went down.

At this writing, not one of those picks is worth the gunpowder it would take to blow him to hell. The only players we’re not substantially sure are busts are Desir and Campbell– who were supposed to be coming along slowly.

In compiling the chart, I limited my scope to the players taken by “Snapchat” Farmer and Mike Pettine. Otherwise I’d paste in another column and include the two picks from 2013– LB Meowkevious Mingo (#1) and CB Leon McFadden (#3). That’s a kindness, since Snapchat was in the front office and Pettine has often talked about how much he wanted Buffalo to draft Mingo.

The infantile, violently anti-labor fixation the media has with salaries– telling the players “The Browns gave you $82 million and this season is all your fault!!!!”— misses two points:

1. The players are meeting rational expectations. No sensible observer thought it was a good idea to give (for example) Starks $12 million over two years. Everyone who watched him in Miami saw that he was running out of gas– that maybe he had a year or two left as a role player.

The reason the local media didn’t rip the deal is that none of them knew it. Virtually none of them are football fans. Of the seven people who opine about the Browns at America’s Worst Newspaper, maybe three (Tom Reed, Dennis Maaloff and Dan Labbe) might care enough about the NFL to watch Monday Night Football each week. Mary Kay Greenhouse and Bud Shaw don’t; Bill Livingston and Terry Pluto are probably watching basketball.

On other papers, Jeff Schudel’s cheapskate employer has him covering other stuff. Marla Ridenour has to fit it in between her seven other assignments and Nate Ulrich is still wet behind the ears.

2. Almost all of the high-salaried veterans were obtained to be bridges to the young talent. By this point in the season, Starks’s playing time was was supposed to be declining, as Cooper and John Hughes (who got $12 million over four years) took command.

But Starks (who played 49.2% of the snaps in game #1) is still playing 40-50% of the snaps. It was down to 36.6% last week, but it was 43.9% the week before– and has been over 50% five times.

You can do the same thing on offense. The Browns were supposed to have added a quarterback (Johnny Relapse), two running backs (Terrance West and Squire Johnson), an offensive lineman (Cam Erving) and a wide receiver (Vince Mayle) punching up the play of their units. They have three busts (West, Mayle and the drunk) and two guys (Johnson and Erving) who have looked bad, but maybe could work out someday.

I’d go on but I know most of the questions will be about the offense, so I’ll just stop there.

Those hard, cold facts will be the reason Jimmy Haslam will have to fumigate the building after the season. No team can improve if it gets zero help from the draft– and its coaches can’t develop any player.

Questions?

Can you explain your insanely low assessment
of the offensive draft picks?

Since Mayle and West aren’t here any longer, I assume I can skip them.

Erving got temporarily upgraded to “jury still out” based on his performance against Seattle. In every other game he played, opponents grabbed him and threw him aside.

But the Seahawks don’t bull-rush– they try to get around the blocker without wrestling him, so they can get to the guy with the ball faster. Surprisingly, Erving handled quickness much better than he did strength.

It wasn’t a great game– but he didn’t get destroyed. He made some plays. Maybe his problems can be addressed with footwork and strength training.

If Kansas City and Pittsburgh trash him, obviously the grade will go back down.

How can you not like Duke Johnson?

This should be self-evident:

  • He’s a running back averaging 3.7 yards per rush– 342 yards on 92 carries.
  • He’s been stuffed– gained either 0 yards or lost yardage– 22 times for -33 yards. That’s nearly 25% of the runs (23.9%)
  • He’s gained 10 or more yards only 6 times (6.5%). Those runs have produced 116 of his 342 yards.

If you spend a third-round pick– the 77th overall pick– on a running back, I don’t think he should average half a year below average and get stuffed three times as often as he makes a big play.

He’s been excellent as a receiver.

He wasn’t drafted to be a receiver. The one thing the Browns were really well stocked after last season was short guys who could catch. More to the point, it’s the same “feast of famine” story– mostly famine. He has 54 catches for 485 yards, which breaks down as:

Catches Yards Avg TD
20+ Yards 7 203 29.0 1
5.1 to 19.9 25 262 10.5 1
5.0 yards or less 22 20 0.8 0

If you like Johnson, you’re focusing on 6 runs and 7 passes where he looked special and ignoring the 33 where he didn’t.

Isn’t he one of the top receiving backs
in the league?

He’s been good, but not amazing. He’s second in percentage of catches (84.4%), and fourth in both receptions (54) and yards (485). But he’s tenth in yards per catch (8.98) and 11th in touchdown passes (2).

There are 26 backs with 75 rushing attempts and 25 receptions this year. Unless you ignore everything but number of catches, he’s in the middle or near the bottom.

He’s a rookie, Geoff. 

He’s in the middle of the pack among rookies. Five rookie running backs have 75 carries and 25 catches. Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon and Melvin Gordon of San Diego were taken ahead of him, so we’ll skip them (Yeldon is better, Gordon is not). But David Johnson of Arizona and Baltimore’s Javorius Allen (you’ve seen both this year) were both taken later. David is comfortably ahead of Squire; Allen is neck-and-neck.

Player
Rushes
Avg
Catches
Avg
David Johnson
105-517
7 TDs
4.9
30-335
4 tds
11.2
Squire Johnson
92-342
0 TDs
3.7
54-485
2 tds
9.0
Javorius Allen
105-399
0 TDS
3.8
34-286
2 tds
8.4

If we restrict the list to backs under 25– meaning first, second or third year in the league– a bunch of guys are as good or better: Giovani Bernard of the Bengals, Devonta Freeman of Atlanta, Charles Sims of Tampa, Latavius Murray of Oakland, Miami’s Lamar Miller and T.J. Yeldon of Jacksonville.

Injuries held him back.

It’s the player’s job to avoid injuries– if he can’t, he’s Montarrio Hardesty all over again. Johnson has been bad at staying healthy. He had injury problems in college and now here. I wouldn’t cut him, but there’s no way you would say he’s a proven success.

How can you call Johnny Manziel a bust?
He’s made a lot of progress.

I thought he did OK last week. But a player becomes a bust when one of two things occurs:

  • One or more players at the same position– drafted sometime in the next 30 picks– become clearly superior.
  • It’s obvious that he won’t deliver anywhere near the value you invested in him.

Both designations apply. The Browns traded the 26th and 83rd picks in the 2014 draft to get Johnny Relapse. If they’d drafted QB Derek Carr (the 36th pick), they’d be vastly better off. Carr is a lot better and probably will be for the rest of his career. Teddy Bridgewater (pick 32) is comfortably ahead. I don’t think he;s a star– but he clearly can play in the NFL. We don’t know if Johnny Relapse can.

What makes the pick an epic bust is the trade involving the #3 pick. Had Cleveland spent it on WR John Brown (pick 91; he now has 106 catches, 1,629 yards and 11 TDs for Arizona), or RB Jerick McKinnon (pick 96; playing well for Minnesota when Adrian Peterson isn’t available) or TE Richard Rogers (pick 98; 50 catches and 7 TDs in Green Bay this year), they’d be well ahead. (Let’s not even talk about pick #103, RB Devonta Freeman.)

Also, Cleveland will have to trade Johnny Relapse for one low pick in the 2016 draft. They can’t possibly go forward with him.

Why do they have to trade him?
He played well Sunday.

He played acceptably. The most impressive thing about his play was the inability of the fastest defense in the NFL to get to him before he could release the ball. Since he rarely had receivers open– and his guards were Erving and Austin Pasztor— being sacked three times (most late) really isn’t bad.

His QB rating for the day (69.9) is 10-20 points lower than it could have been. His receivers had six balls go through their hands. Some weren’t great passes (he threw behind the receiver twice), but he hit them in the hands.

Also, given the quality of the receiving corps, we can’t be sure that the receivers were in the right spot, and the pass wasn’t. You can’t say “Hey, Taylor Gabriel doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes.”

But there are still two good reasons to trade him– problems that aren’t likely to go away:

His mechanics are still terrible. He throws across his body (watch the replay of his touchdown to TE Gary Barnidge) and off his back foot. A good quarterback never does either.A quarterback who doesn’t turn his body towards the receiver and step towards him as he throws loses both velocity and accuracy. Throwing off the back foot means the player can’t get his legs into the throw– all the energy has to come from the shoulder and elbow. It’s harder for receivers to catch the passes (and they often get clobbered when they do) and easier for defenses to intercept them.Throwing across the body– rather that with the arm out and away– also takes velocity off the pass. Because the muscles resist, it also hurts accuracy.

Also, the more a quarterback gets hit in a game– the sorer he gets– the more zip he loses on his throws. As he gets older– and the pounding piles up– his arm styrength will get worse.

And, remember, this player has tendinitis– has had it for a while. The mechanics are probably part of the reason why.

Can’t you correct that issue with coaching?

You’d be trying to break a habit that he’s been doing for 15 years. According to the coaches who know how to develop quarterbacks, it takes years of work– tens of thousands of reps– to break that habit. Most players never get there.

Bernie Kosar got along fine throwing like that.

He didn’t do either. When Bernie was under pressure, he sometimes threw sidearm– or while he was stepping backwards– but he didn’t make either of those mistakes.

Also, can we not hold Bernie up as an example? He was finished as a starter by age 30 and had only two seasons (1987 and 1991) that I’d classify as “good.”

Plus, Kosar was half a foot taller– with much longer arms. He could whip a sidearm pass with more force than Johnny Rehab.

Anyway, we still have the other issue:

He’s a drunk. His drinking isn’t under control; at some point, it will blow up. The odds of it being in the next 12 months– especially after the draft– are very high.

How do you know that?

Because substance abuse always does. The last legitimately great quarterback who drank a lot was Ken Stabler, and he had some real stinky seasons (1975, 1978).

Times have changed since the days of Bobby Layne and Joe Namath. Name a consistently successful quarterback who’s had the sort of issues Johnny Relapse has had– altercations, arrests, embarrassing situations, disciplinary issues. Joe Montana? Dan Marino? Jim Kelly? John Elway? Steve Young? Troy Aikman? Kurt Warner? Tom Brady? Eli or Peyton Manning? Drew Brees? Aaron Rodgers?

Other than Brett Favre and Ben Rothlisberger– who never got nearly as out of control– there isn’t anyone. There never will be. It’s gotten to be too tough a job. And neither of those guys had his mechanical issues.

I’d hate to see the Browns give up on him
now that he’s finally straightening out.

Would you prefer to see the Browns pass up the topnotch quarterback they could get at the top of the draft? They’ve done that before:

  • In 2004, Butch Davis passed up Ben Roethlisberger with the seventh pick to trade up and take Kellen Winslow.
  • In 2005, Phil Savage decided Braylon Edwards would be a better choice at the third pick than Aaron Rodgers.
  • In 2012, Tom Heckert traded up to get Trent Richardson, instead of just taking Ryan Tannehill.

Since I don’t follow college sports, I have no idea if there is anyone worthy of being picked that high. Often there isn’t. Every year, the media builds up players– often well past their actual level of ability– to the point where I have christened the annual franchise player “Rufus Le Petomane.”

I do not believe in trading up to take the given year’s Le Petomane– all it takes is one hit to turn him into Robert Griffin. It is foolish to take a quarterback before you have an offensive line to protect him– that’s what happened to Sam Bradford.

It is foolish to reach for a player, saying “If we don’t take him now, he’ll be gone before we pick again.” That’s how teams end up wasting a #1 on Mark Sanchez, E.J. Manuel, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder or Blaine Gabbert.

But if you already have the pick and if there is someone really good available, it would insane not to take him. Former GM Charlie Casserly recently addressed this issue. If you make a mistake, don’t double down, hoping to break even.

Manziel is really maturing.
Did you see how he said he wants to be here?

The piece translates as “Please retain the coach who lets me do whatever I want to.” Players with problems can’t say enough good things about coaches who enable them.

What about all the other players who want Pettine back?

This isn’t a popularity contest. Plus, no disrespect intended, but none of the people supporting Pettine understand, from firsthand experience, what it takes to build a winner:

  • In Whitner’s 10 seasons, he’s made the playoffs three times– all under Jim Harbaugh, who cracked the whip hard.
  • Joe Thomas has never been to the playoffs– he has only one winning season.
  • Barnidge saw the Panthers lose in the first round of the playoffs as a rookie. They went 8-8 in his second season. Other than that, he’s only played for losing teams.

All three of them are over 30– they’re playing out their final contracts. One way to read their remarks is “Don’t stir the pot again… I just want to finish my career in peace.”

Now if Paul Kruger (who spent his career playing for winning teams with the Ravens, and has won a Super Bowl) were to support the status quo– if he said “This is as good a coaching staff as any I have ever seen”– it would mean something. He understands what it takes to build a championship team.

The same thing applies to Tramon Williams (who got the same exposure in Green Bay). I found it very revealing that Tom Reed recently gave him every opportunity to endorse the current regime. He didn’t.

But if Brian Hartline says it… well, who really cares?

So you think you know more than the players? 

No, but I’m more disinterested. Often the first thing a championship-caliber coach does is clear out all the high-salaried veterans who are over the hill. If Cleveland changed coaches, Whitner, who has played 79.2% of the snaps (third highest on the defense) would probably find himself either sharing time with Campbell (10.7%) or behind him.

Anyway, I would not fire Pettine. I would fire Snapchat Ray and let the new GM decide what he wants to do. Presumably that would mean changing coaches– the GM needs a coach he feels confident about, and Pettine hasn’t done anything to inspire any.

Unless you’ve got other questions, I need to do Christmas shopping. I’m looking for a baseball general manager with the sense not to sign 35-year-old players.

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