2016 Browns Preview (Part Two of Four): What Ray Farmer Knew

The one element of the Ray Farmer-Mike Pettine era that I genuinely will miss is the decision– ridiculed by many but entirely correct– not to prioritize the wide receiver position. If you perform any type of reality-based analysis, you will come to the following conclusion:

  1. If you don’t have an offensive line, you won’t have time to throw.
  2. If you don’t have running backs that the defense respects, they’ll ignore your play fakes and handoffs come after the quarterback on every play. (A running back can also help on passing plays, by either blocking or catching.)
  3. A tight end who can block and catch (not a gussied up receiver, like Jordan “Poke” Cameron) can help you run the ball, block on passing plays or catch the ball.
  4. A quarterback who throws catchable passes is essential.

A wide receiver can only add value after you keep the pass rush off the quarterback and he throws a catchable ball. And running backs and tight ends can pick up at least some of the slack.

Farmer and Pettine also took advantage of the current mania for taller, stronger receivers. It’s nice to have a player who creates a mismatch, but when you can get a receiver who can give you much of the value for virtually no cost, you’re better off.

It’s the whole idea behind Moneyball:  Ignore the assets that are being overvalued and focus on the ones that are undervalued. The Browns managed to start the 2015 season 6-3 by using Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, Miles Austin at receiver, putting Brian Hoyer (whose arm was modest, but whose judgment was excellent) behind a strong line and letting him find the open man.

Since the Browns went 10-22 (4-19 after that start), that style of play has been discredited, and the Browns are going in the opposite direction:

  • Take a quarterback with a gun– but no ability to read the defense or make basic throws,
  • Stick him behind a line that won’t keep him safe,
  • Give him a running game that nobody fears,
  • Have him throw to people with great skills and indifferent performance

This is what Dennis Manoloff, Tony Grossi and Mary Kay Greenhouse (easy to plant things there) have been clamoring for. They’re going to learn that this doesn’t work.

I now have four friends working for NFL teams:

  • A front office guy in an east coast city that has both an AFC and an NFC team
  • A player personnel guy on the west coast
  • A scouting guy at the Mason-Dixon line
  • Someone employed by Jimmy Haslam, but not for performing football operations tasks.

The first three guys roared at the notion that that RG3, Puff Gordon, Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman could form the basis of a championship offense. As one put it, “Three of them are working on their last chance and Coleman has to prove he can play in an NFL offense.”

The 2016 season is almost certain to be a horrific surprise.

Quarterback

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has managed an impressive feat: assembling an NFL coverage team of people who know virtually nothing about the NFL. Other than Dan Labbe (who used to emcee the podcasts but has now, sadly, replaced Tom Reed) and possibly Manoloff, none of them grew up watching the NFL, none of them follows the NFL and none of them pays attention to coverage.

As such, they see Robert Griffin III as a valuable player and an excellent reclamation project. He was rookie of the year in 2012, he struggled with injuries in 2013 and 2014… and then coach Jay Gruden made the inexplicable decision to go with Kirk Cousins. Jackson was able to convince Griffin to join the team, where he is poised to make the biggest comeback since Jim Plunkett (though I don’t know if any of the columnists knows  who Plunkett is).

The player everyone else sees is RG3, whom my west coast buddy described as “The black Johnny Football, or maybe the new Vince Young.” He can’t play in a standard NFL offense, can’t read defenses, has never developed the touch needed for a short passing game and is ready to shake and bake the minute his primary receiver is covered. He has a poor work ethic and a toxic personalaity

The friend who likes him moat– the East Coast guy– says the player comes in two flavors.

Robert Griffin the Third: He describes this player as “a really sweet kid” who wants to do well, but isn’t all that bright. Baylor Coach Art Briles didn’t even try to teach him the fundamentals, and Griffin genuinely doesn’t understand why he needs to know them. As he sees it, he did well enough to become the second pick in the draft, and he went to the playoffs as a rookie.

Griffin will concede that he can learn some things, but he doesn’t think he needs to change completely. He believes the West Coast offense (which both Mike Shanahan and Gruden use) requires a pocket passer who never improvises, so it isn’t a good fit for him. The Air Coryell scheme that Jackson (among others) uses is a better fit for him– a zone read scheme would be even better.

RG3 is… basically the personality my buddy out west thinks. My east-coast friend insists it didn’t need to be that way, though. “He got his head turned by all the attention, [Washington owner] Dan Snyder behaved very unprofessionally, and when he behaves like this, he is almost uncoachable. He assumes he can simply show up on Sundays and beat opponents.”

Like Darrell Green, my East Coast friend views the decision to divorce his wife as a bad sign– a disconnection from his roots–  and says it is an indication that the RG3 personality is winning. He said, very forcefully, that being around Puff Gordon is a terrible idea (he thinks the Browns should trade Puff ASAP). He sees the signing as a logical gamble, but one doomed to to fail.

Since I’m quoting him at length, I obviously do too. The only think I will add is that Griffin has had a lot of injury trouble because he struggles to avoid the rush and get rid of the ball. He could have a season-ending injury at any moment.

West Coast guy says “Quit using running quarterbacks from Texas– none of them have any damned sense” and Mason-Dixon (who says he would not have taken either quarterback) did say that Griffin is likely to be a distraction.

I didn’t ask anyone about Josh McCown because I don’t need to. He’s 37, he missed half the season because he wouldn’t try to avoid contact and he turned the ball over more often than he scored. If he plays behind this line, he’s likely to get hurt even faster– and more seriously– than he did a year ago. When even Jerry Jones realizes that trading for McCown is a bad idea, it’s an indication of how foolish it is to have him on the team.

If there was any real doubt about Jackson’s decision to waste a #3 pick on Kessler’s “Smooth As Silk” Whiskey, it was eliminated during pre-season. He threw 28 times and gained 92 yards. He was sacked 7 times (twice for safeties).

Kessler’s was so bad that the Browns signed Kevin Hogan (the Stanford quarterback taken by the Chiefs in round five) to the practice squad, to reduce the probability that they have to play him.

Running Back

Of the players in the 2015 team who ran more than twice, the leading rusher (measured by rushing average) was a quarterback.

OK, OK, you might say, Johnny Football (6.2 yards) was drafted because he scrambles. The #2 man in yards per carry was also a quarterback: McCown (4.9 yards). The #3 man… was QB Austin Davis (4.7 yards).

It says something about this front office that it decided not to address the backfield issues despite this fact.

At #4, you finally get to a back: Isiaah Crowell (3.8 yards per carry). That was down from 4.1 yards as a rookie. Crowell blew up whatever goodwill he had by saying mean things about the police.

And, yes, sometimes he has caught passes and run a long way. But it in two seasons, he’s caught 28. It’s not a weapon that has been deployed often.

The #5 rusher in 2015 was Squire Johnson, who was downgraded from Duke after gaining only 3.6 yards a carry. To be fair, Johnson did catch 61 balls… but:

  • He was drafted in the hope that he could carry the ball a few hundred times, not catch it less than 100.
  • He averaged fewer yards per catch than Crowell (8.8 yards to 9.6).

After promising that he was going to develop a new role for Johnson, Hue Jackson let him carry the ball nine times and catch it four times.

There’s no reason to think these guys will be any better in 2016

Offensive Line

In the words of Stan Laurel, “They certainly are.” The Marx Brothers presided over the destruction of what had been the team’s strongest unit and most valuable asset. Possibly there was no way the team could have retained Pro Bowl C Alex Mack (though going to Atlanta isn’t going to get him to the playoffs any time soon.) But RT Mitchell Schwartz definitely could have been retained.

Without those two assets, the Browns are in roughly the same shape they have always been in since 1999.

LT Joe Thomas is signed through 2018, and has let everyone know that he will end his fabulous career after that. Thomas is about to turn 32, so that is a good decision.

Thomas has played every snap of his nine-season career, and has been voted to the Pro Bowl every time. He’s no longer the force he used to be, but I think he can get through this season and maybe the next without looking like a problem.

C John Greco is 31 and nobody will confuse him with a Pro Bowler– or even a good player. But he has played 58 out of 64 games– at center and both guard positions– in the last four years, and started 54. He is what they call a “blue-collar player” who brings his lunch and gives you everything he can.

Yes I know he isn’t listed as the starting center yet. I’m listing him where he is going to play.

LG Joel Bitonio had a very strong rookie season and a very mediocre sophomore year. The consensus is that he will turn himself around and become one of the better guards. But until he does, he represents a question mark.

RG Austin Pasztor will need a bit of luck to last until he moves into this spot. He’ll start the season at tackle, which he simply doesn’t have the quickness to play. He’ll get beat a bunch of times by speed rushers; at that point, a sane coach will move him inside to guard. He can play guard; his lack of quickness and coordination won’t be as damaging– and his willingness to battle in close quarters will be an asset.

The problem is that if Pasztor gives up a sack at a critical time– one that costs the Browns a game or gets the quarterback hurt– Jackson will blow a gasket and cut him. “We’ll find someone,” he’ll say. “Trust me.”

People always say it takes years to judge a draft. Actually when a healthy rookie isn’t winning playing time and impressing onlookers during his first training camp, it’s a pretty clear sign that it didn’t go well.

It’s an enormous indictment of the front office that neither Shon Coleman (the #3 pick) nor Spencer Drango (the #5 pick) have taken over at RT. They combined to play 47 snaps in game three and 52 in game #4. Pasztor played more snaps than either in both games.

Maybe one of them will come along. but since teams don’t rotate offensive linemen the way they do defensive guys, it’s very hard to imagine one of them stepping in and playing well

I don’t know what will happen to Cam Erving. I’m guessing he’ll last out the season, because he’s in year two of a very affordable contract. But he hasn’t played well enough to deserve to stick around. There is no way he’ll be able to handle center, matched up against the nose tackles the other teams play.

Because I don’t watch the NCAA, I have no idea what happened. He came out of college billed as a very gifted, very raw athlete who would need coaching– but would have no trouble picking up the skills he’d need to excel as either a center or a tackle.

But he hasn’t. H’s slow to react, his footwork is awful and he can be knocked off balance easily.

Since none of the quarterbacks can handle a rush, the Browns picked the worst year to screw up the protection.

Receiver

This is likely to be a huge mess. The position has too many players who either didn’t get a lot of playing time, didn’t play well or have obvious questions marks

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Puff Gordon absolutely will not lead the Browns to a title. Assuming he doesn’t get himself suspended again, he has one year left on his contract. If he can finish out the year, he’ll go on the open market, get a ridiculous offer (probably from Miami) and leave.

The smart thing to do would be to trade him, but the Browns might not be willing to do it.

Next in obviousness: Terrelle Pryor looked great on his 49 and 50-yard catches, but he only caught three other passes– and they were for a total of 28 yards. He looks great running deep sideline routes, but he struggled doing timing patterns, going across the midle, or doing any of the myriad things good receivers do.

Part of it was that his quarterbacks can’t do anything but throw long sideline passes– McCown cost him a touchdown by throwing an uncatchable ball. But I wouldn’t assume a player can do something until I see it.

Right now it looks like Pryor might get 40 catches (if he gets 80 balls thrown his way) getting about 15 yards and 5 TDs. That’s a pretty good return on a free agent, but it’s not a championship receiver.

As for #1 pick Corey Coleman, he put up great stats at Baylor (74 receptions for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns)… but everyone who looked great at Baylor has struggled in the NFL.

Puff had 42 receptions for 714 yards and 7 scores. Good, but not awesome.

Coleman had hernia surgery last year and his hamstring has been giving him fits. He looked very rusty on the field– or, if you want to be negative, uncomfortable in an NFL offens. Maybe this will turn out to be growing pains, but lots of receivers taken in the first round bust out.

So the most reliable receiver the Browns have is Andrew Hawkins. They also have the three rookies they drafted, but none of them flashed much:

  • #4 pick Ricardo Lewis had no catches
  • #5 pick Jordan Payton had 2 catches for 13 yards
  • #5 pick Rashard Higgins had 4 catches for 33 yards and a score.

To be fair, none of them had many catchable balls. They didn’t play with Griffin and McCown completed 51.4% of his passes for 5.2 yards a play (he got sacked 4 times on 37 attempts, too). But that takes us back to where we came in: unless he’s making killer blocks on running plays– or decoying the bejabbers out of the defense– a receiver can’t contribute until he gets a catchable ball. If you don’t have a quarterback who can throw a decent pass, receivers don’t help.

And, to quote the only sensible thing Sam Rutigliano ever said, “You cannot throw the football from horizontal parade rest.”

This leaves me with only the right ends and I’ll do them quickly. Randall Telfer played every game in both 2011 and 2012. In 2013, he missed 7 games, in 2014 3 and in 2015 all 16. has been hurt I couldn’t count on him for too much. Especially since his best season at USC was 26-273-5.

If Seth Devalve of Princeton– who somehow managed to get drafted in the fourth round– has a productive career, one of my friends has promised to perform oral sex on me. For that reason, I am rooting against Devalve. But I do not think my rooting against him will make much difference.

Gary Barnidge is a big target who is highly useful in emergencies… but RG3 doesn’t like to throw to his tight ends. Of the 258 passes he completed in his rookie season, only 25 were to his tight ends (17 were to tight end-fullback combo players). He’s not comfortable throwing those patterns; Barnidge might see his production plummet.

If McCown– who does like to throw to tight ends– is playing, you’ll see Barnidge start catching balls. he probably won’t stay healthy long.

Lord knows who Kessler’s likes to throw to. Maybe the guys wearing the opponents’ jerseys.

There certainly will be fewer throws to Barnidge. There will have to be. If the Browns are trying to get the ball to Puff, Pryor, Coleman and the other three picks– plus a bunch of passes to Squire Johnson– Barnidge will get fewer chances. That’s how it works when you have only one football.

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