Sunday’s game can reasonably be described as a “must-win” game. Four of the first five games (New England being the exception) could or should have been winnable, If you look at the Browns schedule after this game, there are no games where you can say “Yes, they can definitely beat those guys.”
The Browns might win before December 24 (the date Pat McManamon, channeling his analytics department, predicts the Browns’ first win), but it would take injuries or help from the opponent to get that.
The good news is that the Tennessee Titans could help Hue Jackson buy himself some time. They’re 2-3, but the wins came against a weak Detroit team (by one point) and Miami. A year ago, the offense was scoring 18.7 points per game (28th in the NFL). This year it’s down to 18.4 (24th).
Head coach Mike Mularkey is, I feel, incredibly overrated. This is his third chance to be a head coach. He went 14-18 in Buffalo in 2004-05, then 2-14 in Jacksonville in 2012.
Last season he was the QB coach when the front office decided it was sick of Ken Whisenhunt (an understandable reaction, given that he was losing the team). They fired Whiz after the team started 1-6; Mularkey was the logical one to run the show. He was a two-time head coach– and you certainly wouldn’t want to promote Ray Horton from defensive coordinator.
But when Mularkey went 2-7 (only a fraction of a win better; .222 winning percentage to .143), they retained him. Go figure/
So now the offense isn’t any better, despite adding DeMarco Murray from Philly. Murray had a poor season last year, which I attribute to his not fitting anything Chip Kelly was trying to do. Terry Robiskie, Tennessee’s new coordinator, is still running the same “run a lot and throw dink passes” offense that he was using when he ran the offense for Art Shell in the 1990’s, so Murray is having a comeback of sorts:
- He’s leading the team in both rushing yards (461) and rushing average (5.0), forcing #2 pick Derrick Henry (151 yards and 4.4 a carry) to take a back seat.
- He’s leading the team in receptions (24) and fourth in total yards (172– 53 yards back).
Since Murray is 28, I don’t see this as anything a rebuilding team ought to be doing, A year ago, QB Marcus Mariota looked like he might be as good a player as the “Chamber of Farts” (the annual off-season ritual where writers make ridiculous claims about the top draft picks) suggested be would be. Now he’s struggling:
- Completion percentage down from 62.2% to 60.6%
- Yards per pass off from 7.6 to 6.6.
- TD-INT ratio down from 19-10 (almost the 2-1 ratio you expect from a good QB) to 7-5 (the results a Browns QB normally produces).
- QB rating down from 91.5 to 81.6
The only positive thing you can say is that Mariota was sacked 38 times last year (on 9.3% of his throws) and that is down to 7 (4.2%). But it’s hard to know if that is his development or the result of LT Taylor Lewan (the 11th player chosen in 2014) and RT Jack Conklin (the eighth pick this year) shutting down defenses. With free agent C Ben Jones, they have 60% of the position covered with reliable options, and they’re hoping Quinton Spain and Josh Klein can turn into guards.
At receiver, the primary target is 32-year-old TE Delanie Walker. To be fair, Walker has had two good years (he went to the Pro Bowl). I still see him as a stopgap for a rebuilding team. At receiver, either (a) the entire NFL has been wrong about Rishard Matthews and Takae Sharpe or (b) they’re a couple of journeymen.
Not to prick a sore point, but 27-year-old Kendall Wright, whom the Browns wanted to take in round one in 2012, has 3 catches for 23 yards. Like many small receivers from Baylor (he’s 5’10” and 194, almost exactly the size of the Browns’ #1 pick), he’s spent a lot of his career hurting and the rest underperforming.
On defense, Tennessee has made remarkable progress. I credit it to current Browns DC Ray Horton being fired and replaced by 79-year-old Dick LeBeau.
Last year, Horton’s unit was allowing 26.4 points (27th of 32 tyeams). This year, it is allowing 10.2 (10th), despite starting 10 of the 11 players they did last year.
Since the one new starter is 30-year-old free safety Rashad Johnson, who had started only 51 games in seven seasons in Arizona, I’m not going to credit him. And only DE DaQuan Jones (25) and LB Avery Williamson (24) are young enough for any rational person to believe they ‘developed’.
Horton, I have no doubt, can explain why it isn’t his fault that his defense was 16 points worse than Lebeau’s. A rational person would conclude they’re playing better because LeBeau, even at his advanced age, is a vastly better coach than Horton.
I don’t think they’re a top-ten defense; they’ve just played bad offenses. But they are improved, and will be better than their opponents today.
Last week’s game blew up the notion that the Browns were making incredible progress toward a championship. The Marx Brothers and their pets in the media are rolling out the “unfathomable number of injuries” spin.
McManamon’s iteration is easily the most clear-eyed. He points out that 17 starters have been ruled out of games this year, second only to Pittsburgh’s 25. It’s a bit misleading in three respects:
- It’s the number of players– not number of games missed.
- It does not, based on the stories published about other teams, include anyone hurt in pre-season and put on IR. Minnesota QB Teddy Bridgewater isn’t being counted.
- It presumes, without foundation, that the players the Browns are missing are any good.
I went through this in the review, but Robert Griffin was an injury waiting to happen and Josh McCown being knocked out of a game was a foregone conclusion. Joe Haden is hurt more often than healthy of late; Cam Erving has been hurt continuously. Corey Coleman has been hurt twice. Joel Bitono has missed parts of the last two seasons.
A lot of what happened is the result of two things. First, the Browns got rid of a bunch of people who played a lot of minutes in 2015. Then they assumed they could bring in players who could play just as well, and nothing would happen.
A year ago, the Browns decided they didn’t need Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin. It turned out those players were not easily replaceable– that they were productive starters for good teams. This off-season:
- The Browns sent Craig Robertson away– he has been one of the few bright spots on a dismal Saints defense.
- The team decided it (a) could have only one small receiver and (b) that Andrew Hawkins ought to be that receiver. Taylor Gabriel was cut free and joined Atlanta, where he has played only 76 snaps, but has 7 catches in 8 attempts, for 101 yards.
I have a friend who works for the Browns (not in the front office), and he was wailing about Desmond Bryant and Nate Orchard. If those guys were such great players, then why did you draft Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert in the first four rounds?
The Browns cut players who, while not what they once were, are still in the NFL. They decided to fill the starting lineup with players whose ability to stay healthy– and, yes, that is an ability– was in question.
Not to be mean, but a tattered roster wasn’t difficult to foresee, and the consequences were predictable. The Browns aren’t New England or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati– a team that can spot talent that other teams miss, train it on the fly and not miss a beat. If they want to ensure that they don’t have problems, they need to be more cautious than normal, not less.
Last week the Browns played a team with two good tight ends and a large receiver (Chris Hogan is 6’1″ and 209). Hogan went 4-5 for 114 yards, Rob Gronkowski was 5-7 for 109 yards and Martellus Bennett 6-8 for 67 yards and three scores.
The Patriots simply sent a bunch of big guys crossing over the middle, who easily outdistanced the pass defense. The quarterback had time to throw, because the Cleveland defense got absolutely no pressure.
There’s no reason Tennessee can’t do the same thing with Murray, Henry and Walker. (Other than Terry Robiskie being unable to call that game plan). The Titans have a line in vastly better shape than the Patriots– who, by the way, were missing three starters on their offensive line last week.
Tennessee should have no trouble scoring 3-4 touchdowns. I mean, everyone does. Horton’s defense is allowing 29.6 points, which is 30th in the NFL. Horton’s high-water mark this season was 25 points to a Ravens team missing its running backs and using an offensive coordinator (Marc Trestman) they have since fired.
The Browns are averaging 17.4 points (29th), so you can see where this is heading. Their big outburst was 24 points against a Miami team that was trying to hand them a game.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb: When your best offensive performance (24, against the 1-4 Miami Dolphins) is lower than your best defensive performance (25, against Baltimore), some part of the team is going to need to step waaaaaayyyyyy up for you to have a chance.
One may say this is due to injuries, but nobody forced them to sign Griffin, retain McCown, play McCown after he was injured (which might have exacerbated things) and then inflict Charlie Whitehurst on their helpless fans.
TE Randall Telfer spent all four seasons and USC battling injuries and then missed the 2015 season after the Browns took him. Nobody told Hue Jackson to make Telfer their second tight end. Or to give away a draft pick to get Seth Devalve from the Ivy League and think he could play.
Or to keep a selfish player with a “me-first” attitude like McCown on the team. I’ve been told that Kessler is hurting, but he’s playing because the coaches are afraid to sit him down.
McCown keeps telling everyone that he can play. He says the injury is so his other shoulder, so it shouldn’t effect him– even though he had all kinds of trouble against Baltimore.
Jackson isn’t prepared to play Kevin Hogan (promoted from the practice squad) and he also didn’t want to cut McCown or put him on IR. So Cody “Trust Me” Kessler has to go, even though some people think he’s only at 50%.
The Browns will try to run the ball; Tennessee (4.2 yards per carry) is about as good at run defense as the Patriots (4.4 per run, but against better teams). That doesn’t look good. Tennessee has 12 sacks; the Browns have a line where the center, left guard and right tackle don’t belong in the NFL. That should be painful to watch.
Tennessee plays down to the level of its opponents; three of the five games were decided by seven points or less. But they beat Miami 30-17 last week and I’m betting this game will be even easier for them, not that the Patriots have shown how to win.
Titans 34, Browns 10