Browns Review: Game 1 (@ Philadelphia)

Well, the clock struck 12 on this season in record time. Other than the 43-0 loss in 1999, which made it very clear that this expansion team wouldn’t be nearly as good as Carolina or Jacksonville, I can’t think of a worse opening day since the franchise returned. In one game we learned that:

  • Mary Kay Greenhouse’s fever dream of RG3 throwing 20 TDs to both Puff Gordon, Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman won’t happen.
  • The offensive line, at least for some time, will be every bit as bad as I feared.
  • The 2016 Browns won’t get any help from the running game
  • The defense will make us look back nostalgically on the 25.4 points per game allowed by Ray Horton’s 23rd-ranked motley crew of 2013.
  • Hue Jackson might produce eye-rolling plays at a pace unprecedented since 1999

Due to unusual circumstances– and the spectacularly poor level of coverage provided by local outlets– some of these points seem to be slipping by unnoticed. So let me get to them.

1. The third-quarter safety wasn’t the game-changer. The game momentum shifted long before that.

Before the game, many people predicted the Browns would win the game simply because Carson Wentz was starting. I very nearly went there in my preview (though I figured Philly would pull it out). There were many good reasons to look skeptically at Wentz:

  • He was a rookie,
  • He attended North Dakota State, which competes in what was once called Division 2,
  • While he played four seasons, he started only two and threw only 612 passes

I hate to give aid and comfort to the front office, but you don’t spend the second pick on a guy whose track record is that thin. The Browns should have traded the pick away. If buyers go nuts and offer you the moon for a player with that much uncertainty, you take it. (Of course this strategy only works when you use the picks well.)

Wentz, who needed work, then got hurt in training camp and played 39 snaps. He didn’t win the starting job– he got it only because (a) Minnesota needed a QB and overpaid the Eagles for Sam Bradford and (b) new coach Doug Pederson decided to emulate Palmer’s handling of Tim Couch– not Andy Reid’s rollout of Donovan McNabb.

I mention those players because Pederson was the placeholder for McNabb in 1999 and then the backup for Couch in 2000. Reid’s justification for not starting his #1 pick from day one was that the Eagles had a new coach, new offensive and defensive systems and too many new players. He wanted to make sure he had a few things in place before he used McNabb.

Palmer threw Couch in after one game and his teammates nearly got him killed.

Some of the veterans (especially on defense) felt GM Howie Roseman and Pederson were punting the season (you remember what it was like when the Browns traded Trent Richardson). There were stories that they were losing the team.

Had the Browns started strongly– put the Eagles in a hole right away– they might have turned the game into a blowout. That’s why Cleveland ‘deferred’ when they won the toss. The strategy was to put Wentz into the game immediately, shut him down hard, then score to take the lead and bring the heat on him.

It was a great plan. But it blew up because none of the units on the team could execute.

First the Cleveland defense went out of its way to be hospitable. On the first play, they let Ryan Mathews gain six yards right up the middle. (Future former #1 pick Danny Shelton showed he is already in mid-season form.)  By giving up 60% of the yardage needed for a first down, the defense guaranteed that the Eagles wouldn’t be facing a long-yardage situation, unless the offense made a mistake.

Philadelphia ran again. They gained a yard. Then, on 3rd-&-3, Xavier Cooper jumps offside.

On TV, Pro Bowl QB Trent Green, who was broadcasting the game, correctly pointed out that the play had to be a confidence booster. On his third play, Wentz had suckered a veteran lineman with a hard count. (If you’re counting, that’s two errors on three plays.)

On first down, the Eagles gave Wentz his first career pass attempt. It fell incomplete, but Wentz’s primary receiver (Jordan Matthews) was wide open and Wentz delivered a catchable (not great) pass. Matthews dropped it, but the kid had done his job again.

The next two plays sent veteran tight ends against defenders who were second-string in 2015. First Jordan Poyer lets Zach Ertz get wide open; Wentz hits him for 14 yards. Then Ibraheim Campbell can’t keep up with Brent Celek– 11 yards.

Wentz has now thrown three passes– none on long-yardage situations. All of his receivers have been uncovered.

The Eagles try the run again; Kenion Barner (a former #6 pick by Carolina) runs for five yards. Wentz throws again to Ertz. He gets 15 yards, going to the Cleveland 20– the edge of the red zone. (Now Wentz has to be feeling pretty great.)

Mathews (the back; he has one “t”) only gets a yard, but then Matthews (the receiver) blows by Tramon Williams and is wide open in the left corner of the end zone. Wentz hits him for a touchdown to make it 7-0.

That’s a nine-play, 75-yard drive, eating up 5:10. Philadelphia made five first downs; they had only one third down– for short yardage. The Eagles, who were 28th in rushing average a year ago, collected 13 yards on four rushing plays (a 4.3 average).

Wentz had open receivers on all five passes– and zero pass rush– so he just had to play pitch and catch. He went 4-5 for 57 yards (11.4 yards per pass) and looked like a star.

Then the Cleveland offense– which might have shifted the pressure back to the Eagles by scoring– went three-and-out, using only 1:19 of the clock. That’s a confidence booster for an Eagles defense that has converted from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the offseason. Plus it puts a tired defense back on the field.

On the second drive, Wentz looked more like a rookie. All four pass attempts were incomplete; the Eagles gained only 7 yards on 5 plays. If Cleveland scores on the next possession, everyone will wonder if the Eagles can answer.

But the Browns go three-and-out again, using only 1:59 off the clock. They punt the ball 59 yards– and then let Darren Sproles run it back 40 yards.

First down on the Cleveland 42. The Eagles are now outperforming the Browns in every area of the game, so their concerns about not being able to win must be minimal.

The Eagles (who had trouble running the ball in 2015) get 18 yards on four attempts. That’s 4.5 a carry, so another concern vanishes. Wentz gets sacked on third down, but Philly is still close enough to try a 46-yard field goal.

They get a bad snap and miss, but they’re still leading 7-0 with 51 seconds left. More importantly, they know the lead could be a lot bigger,

The Browns went three-and-out again, then screwed up a fake punt and gave the Eagles possession on the the Cleveland 35. Wentz drops a 28-yard pass to Matthews on the first play, making it first-&-goal.

The Browns keep them out of the end zone, but the Eagles make it 10-0.

This is where the momentum changed– not somewhere in the third quarter.At this point:

  • The Eagles were up by two scores (and could have had 17).
  • Their defense hadn’t just shut the Browns out– they hadn’t allowed a first down. Cleveland had gained 13 total yards.– eight passing and five rushing– on eight plays.  Of their 5 yards rushing, 4 came on a quarterback scramble.
  • Chris Tabor’s kicking teams weren’t merely losing the field position battle– they handed Philly the ball in Cleveland territory twice.

One last point about the momentum. The Browns never led in this game– other than 0-0, the game was never even tied. You can imagine the Cleveland offense (which scored on its first possession to make it 13-10) would have scored if Cam Erving hadn’t tried to launch the ball into orbit… but that’s speculation.

The way the Eagles would see it, they gave up a 58-yard pass on the first play of the half– then stopped the Browns on three consecutive plays and held them to a field goal. They didn’t give up a drive– they just had one bad play.

More to the point: a safety only counts two points. They were down 15-10.

It should have been easy for a good team. Stop the Eagles (they started on their own 27), then drive down and score. But they didn’t– and that brings us to the next unexplored issue.

2. What we saw might have been Cleveland’s awful defense, not Wentz’s greatness. People often overestimate quarterbacks based on their results in the first game, They don’t have anything but that game to judge on; so they assume what they’re seeing is the offense being good, not the defense falling down.

A year ago, Marcus Mariota (also the second player taken in the draft) had an even more amazing Game 1: 13-15 for 209 yards and 4 TDs. Since the Bucs didn’t seem to be a bad team– and Love Smith was a good defensive coach– it obviously had to be Mariota’s greatness.

It wasn’t. Mariota had a good rookie year, but the game mostly showed how badly Tampa’s defense (which gave up 31 TD passes and finished 26th in points) was.

The post-game reaction– “Wentz is awesome; the Browns totally screwed up by not taking him” is the reason so many people hate the media. If you thought Wentz was so terrible that the Browns would win simply because he was starting, couldn’t you even consider the possibility that he wasn’t that good? That maybe he went 22-37 for 278 yards with 2 TDs and no interceptions because Ray Horton can’t coach?

That’s not a nutty idea– Horton isn’t Lovie Smith. And it is supported by the performance of the defense:

  • The Cleveland defense (which allowed 27.0 points per game in 2015) allowed 29
  • It forced no turnovers
  • It let the Eagles run 73 plays and control the ball for 39:20
  • It had only 5 negative plays– 2 sacks; 3 “tackles for loss”
  • It knocked down only four passes
  • It committed four of the five penalties (one was declined)
  • The Eagles, who averaged 3.9 yards per rush a year ago, rushed for 3.9 again

Subjectively, Philadelphia receivers seemed to be open almost all day. Joe Haden was struggling; Tramon Williams looked helpless. The tight ends went 7-8 for 69 yards. The bright spot was that Wentz threw 5 passes to his running backs (Darren Sproles got all five targets) and only completed 2. But Sproles gained 24 yards on two receptions– and he is way over the hill.

I’d cut Poyer and Campbell some slack for struggling with the tight ends. Last year Ertz had 75 catches for 853 yards; Celek used to be that good. Also (other than Carl Nassib), they didn’t have any help on the pass rush. But it was a dismal performance.

Yeah, they hit him eight times– that’s the barn door and the horse– after he threw. And it ignores an obvious issue: Horton was sending everyone he could after Wentz.

That’s one of the things fans and media forget– the strategy the defense uses dictates the results. If the Browns had rushed only three men– if they’d dropped everyone into coverage and tried to baffle Wentz with different schemes– the secondary might not have looked that bad. They might have had 8 passes knocked down– and we’d be blaming the front seven for not putting any pressure.. or for Wentz running for 115 yards.

Or the Eagles might have thrown short– and we’d be taking the linebackers apart for giving up 150 yards on 12 completions.

The only thing that is pretty clear is that this defense has some serious issues. How many it has we’ll learn after Baltimore beats them Sunday.

Oh, and if anyone players fantasy football– and you have Wentz on your team, I’d trade him before he has to face Chicago (on the road) in week two or Pittsburgh (week three). In a keeper league, he might be a good long-term decision. But I’m guessing his value will go down by the end of the season.

3. The new two-minute drill. There are times that I wish I covered the team. Had I been at the press conference, I’d have asked what the hell Jackson was doing at the end of the game. His strategy made Eric Mangini’s decision to call timeout at the end of a loss look sensible.

When the fourth quarter began, Cleveland was down 22-10. At the time, they had run the ball 16 times for 58 yards (3.6 yards). By quarter, they had run::

  • First: 4 times for 5 yards (1.25 per carry).
  • Second: 9 time for 43 yards (4.6 per carry). Don’t get excited about the numbers– 20 yards came on an RG3 scramble
  • Third: 3 times for 10 yards (3.3 per carry).

But in the fourth quarter, they carried 5 times for 62 yards. Let me list them:

  • An 11-yard carry by Squire Johnson on 3rd-&-20 with 10:48 left
  • An 11-yard scramble by RG3 on 3rd-&-14 with 3:49 left (yes, discussion of this is coming)
  • A 16-yard carry by Isaiah Crowell on 1st-&-10 with 1:12 left
  • A 20-yard carry by Crowell on 1st-&-10 with :39 left
  • A 4-yard carry by Crowell on 1st-&-10 with :07 left

Was he trying to run out the clock? Or was this the ground-game version of Pat Shurmur’s “We’re losing 27-3 with 8 minutes left, but let’s inflate or stats with eight-yard passes”?

If you remove the runs in garbage time, but the running game looks awful. Johnson has 11 yards on two carries, but Crowell plunges to 9 carries for 22 yards (2.4 yards). Feed the Crow? Maybe we should emulate Alice In Chains and “Snuff The Rooster.”

Since the Browns didn’t draft anyone, this issue won’t go away.

The other thing I would do if I worked at a newspaper. I would institute the following rule– Anytime a running back doesn’t lead the team in rushing average, the running game gets an “F.”

Maybe I would make an exception in games where a gadget play let a scrub run 43 yards. But in 2015, the quarterback outgained his backfield week in and week out (even Josh McCown and Austin Davis managed it). It’s time to stop using the works “read option” or “designed scramble” as fig leaves for what is simply incompetence. The most effective rusher was RG3, who averaged 7,4 yards on five carries.

4. Robert, we hardly knew ye. The sea of ahistorical, thoroughly ignorant commentary about RG3 continues. Pat McManamon of ESPN– the only grown-up in the region– says what needs to be said. Griffin has never had enough sense to try to avoid a hit.

As to the play itself, three people who should know a little tore Griffin to shreds. Former Pro Bowl free safety Ryan Clark (12 years with the Giants, the Boehners and the Steelers) starts, Pro Bowl QB Tim Hasselbeck (who is 38 and apparently retired) and former coach Herman Edwards all say the same thing. It was third down, they were going for it on fourth down– there was no reason to turn his shoulder upfield and hope to bull by a defender.

I know people blaming Gary Barnidge for not blocking CB Jalen Mills out, or Mills for hitting him funny. It’s all nonsense– all Griffin needed to do if he wanted to not get hit was slide. He wouldn’t, and that will probably be his last chance.

I will say one other things. Griffin also has a loooonnnnggg history of being selfish– of refusing to do what is best for the team, by taking the time to heal. And of lying about his physical condition. And of making a scene in the papers when the doctors and the coaches say that he isn’t ready and shouldn’t play,

I can write Mary Kay Greenhouse’s stories for her:

  • RG3 promises to take time to heal completely
  • RG3 making remarkable progress– nearly healed even before surgery.
  • RG3 says he could play if 0-6 Browns need him
  • RG3 to file grievance to try to get off IR early
  • RG3 says doctors are wrong– feels 90% now.
  • RG3 gets in uniform, runs around, throws passes, pronounces himself cured
  • RG3 says team refusing to play him to avoid his incentives
  • RG3 wants chance to go to new team if Browns won’t play him

That last story usually comes before the season ends..

It might be a little different, since NFL rules are involved hers. But I’m guessing not. Griffin isn’t the kind of guy who can sit around and reflect– if he isn’t playing, he’s going nuts. The Browns shouldn’t dump RG3 now– that just creates another media debacle. But you insist that he follows the doctor’s orders and NFL rules, and you don’t let him on the damned field. And if he won’t accept that, you cut him loose.

The Browns can’t go into 2017 thinking RG3 is their starter.. But, no, they can’t spend another draft pick to get a veteran or a prospect. Not this front office and coach, anyway. They blew a #3 on Kessler’s “Smooth As Silk” Whiskey last year, so they have to commit to playing him until he’s off the team.

5. The Stealth Drafts. The member of the Browns who should be happiest about the safety is future former #1 pick Danny Shelton.

Had Shelton been a #4 pick from East Tennessee, you’d be thrilled by his play. Facing Jason Kelce– who, to be fair, has been to the Pro Bowl once– he made three tackles on runs that gained only seven yards and an assist on Jamie Meder‘s run-stuff for a three-yard loss. He had no impact on the passinggame, but it was a a solid day by a two-down player who could be part of an effective D-line rotation.

The problem is that Shelton was drafted in the upper half of the first round to be the centerpiece of the run defense– and a terror in opposing backfields on passing downs.

A team should never cut a productive player because he isn’t as good as they hoped. The only exception would be salary cap issues that force you to make a move. That’s not an issue here (Shelton is on a rookie contract).

But it is clear that he’s on this ice. Horton, who can never manage to avoid a dig, actually said “I hope Danny, at the end of the year, is better than he is now.”

Horton would say that he didn’t mean it to be that nasty, but I’m told that he made it clear that he’s not impressed.

Anyway, Jamie Meder (who played 44 snaps) looks like a #1 pick about as often as Shelton (who played 42) does.

I have three friends in front offices. Two of them are teams with very effective pass rushes, dating back years (meaning, they didn’t get strong by being lucky on one guy). Neither thought Shelton would have the impact you expect from a #1 pick.

As for Cam Erving? There was pressure up the center all game. Unless you think it was John Greco or Joel Bitonio‘s fault, that’s on him. The bungled long snap (not his first) is on him. When players start to have trouble making the long snap, they often psych themselves into more.

Yeah, he could get better, but we’ve been saying that for more than a year. Erving didn’t look like a #1 pick when he played any position a year ago– and he doesn’t look like a center now.

And it doesn’t help to have Austin Pasztor at right tackle, because neither #3 pick Shon Coleman nor #5 pick Spencer Drangio looks close to being ready.

And that’s going to be a problem for The Marx Brothers.

With RG3 gone, there ought to be a spirited debate about whether the Browns go back to Josh McCown (who is obviously a stopgap), or whether they should just move into the future by going with their #3 pick, Kessler’s “Smooth As Silk” Whiskey.

Nobody is having that debate because Kessler’s played so poorly in pre-season that nobody even dreams that he could survive a regular-season game. A third-round pick shouldn’t be incapable of playing (Colt McCoy, who was also a #3, looked decent with much less talent around him).

There’s a sullen acceptance that most of the draft picks won’t contribute much because– other than Nassib (and, for one pass, #1 pick Corey Coleman)– nobody is even close to being ready. Nobody is asking why Drango and Shon Coleman aren’t starting. Or why Emmanuel Ogbah (a 3-4 linebacker who was on the field for 56 of the 77 defensive snaps) made only one tackle Sunday

Receivers Ricardo Louis (2 snaps), Seth Devalve (3) and Rashard Higgins (1) were all drafted; they played less than both FB Malcolm Johnson (10) or TE Randall Telfer (10).

At some point, someone will notice that the draft picks the Browns are supposed to be building with aren’t playing, much less contributing. (Since WR Andrew Hawkins has a hamstring injury, that might be as soon as next week.) At which point, the “We’re supergeniuses from Harv-baked who are building through the draft” line will start to get questions.

That only holds up if (a) you actually seem to be building and (b) the people you draft are playing.

6. The “Nine-point swing”: There was no such thing– it’s a delusion of the guys on Channel 19.  A “swing” means that a single play– at most, a few plays– caused a sudden, sharp swing in the score. “We were in the red zone and we threw a pick-six” is a swing. “Our field goal attempt was blocked and recovered on our own 20” is a swing.

After the safety, the Browns kicked the ball and Philly took possession on their own 27. They had to go 73 yards to score. They did– and it took then nine plays and 4:10.

At any point during that drive, the defense could have forced a turnover– or simply made a string of good defensive plays to force a punt. Neither happened.

To be fair, Cleveland did hold on a 3rd-&-4, to force fourth down with the ball on their own 40. But Pederson decided to go for it (too long a field goal; a punt from the 40 probably winds up in the end zone, for a touchback).

And on fourth down the Eagles made the yardage they needed.

But even then they were 35 yards away– and then Wentz threw for a TD on first down.

And this was one of the winnable games. This could get very ugly.

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