Browns Review: Game 5 (New England)

My review of the Browns-Patriots game in full:

The Patriots stopped the Browns on their opening drive, then took the ball and scored. The teams traded touchdowns; the Browns’ kicking teams managed to put the offense on their own 11. (the New England player who tacked on the kick was Barkevious Mingo, by the way.)

New England’s defense attacked the backfield– as teams normally do when the opponent is deep in its own territory– and the Browns bungled both plays. First Squire Johnson, their busted #3 pick from 2015, lost two yards; then Cody “Trust Me” Kessler, their failed #3 from 2016, got a safety and an injury on the same play.

The safety was a direct result of their decision to hope that Cam Erving, their busted #1 from 2015 could become a competent center. John Greco, forced into the breach, misread the defense and called for the wrong blocking scheme on a screen pass. He went left to double-team– leaving a huge gap, while Donta Hightower roared through untouched.

Kessler didn’t see him or didn’t react– whatever you want to say, the Browns were lucky they didn’t give up a TD. New England banked the 2 points, took the ball on the free kick, scored to make it 23-7 less than three minutes into the second quarter.

The game was over whether or not Kessler could have returned to the game.

In the wake of a beating like the one the Browns absorbed, it’s tempting to simply write it off. The Patriots are a very good team. They feel they did nothing wrong by deflating the balls– that Tom Brady shouldn’t have been suspended for four games. Then their backup quarterback got hurt, which resulted in a loss to a bad team (Buffalo) coached by an marginally competent loudmouth (Rex Ryan) who lives to hurl abuse at the franchise.

New England was in a foul mood; they took it out on the team that happened to be next on the schedule. Which just happened to be the Browns. There’s no point to dwelling on the game. Just move on.

Which is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Some time ago, I had a conversation I had with Don Shula about his 1973 book, The Winning Edge. In the book, Shula said that when he joined the Dolphins (who had gone 3-10-1 in 1969) he told the players that he believed they could go to the playoffs in 1970. But to do that, the team would need to agree to practice three times a day– not two– in training camp.

That would be a violation of NFL rules today. Because player contracts aren’t guaranteed, and the risk of injury is so high, the union added limits on how many days a team can practice and how long the workouts can be,

Even though Miami did go 10-4, making the playoffs, I assumed Shula’s speech was a ploy to get players to work extra– or maybe to see who voted “No”, so he could cut them. I made the mistake of saying it to Shula at an appearance. My assumption infuriated Shula; instead of a few friendly answers, I got the following lecture.

1. The players voted privately and reported the vote to him. If they’d gone along out of fear– if they hadn’t fully supported it– the move wouldn’t have worked.

2. Of course he was telling them the truth, A good coach never lied to his player. If the team didn’t trust the coaches, they wouldn’t follow their instructions. You didn’t need to volunteer everything you were thinking, but you always told a player the truth.

3. He and the coaches had analyzed game films, graded every player and estimated exactly how long it would take each player to reach the level a playoff team required. They could get there with the number of repetitions you could do if they had three sessions a day– but not two.

That stopped me cold. He knew how many repetitions a team could do in practices? How many practices there would be in a year? How many reps it took to acquire proficiency?

The look at his face showed me I was being stupid. “Of course you know,” I said. “You played for Paul Brown; he had everything planned to the minute.”

He frowned (a response I found interesting) and told me that Blanton Collier (Brown’s longtime assistant; Shula was on Collier’s staff at Kentucky) had taught him how to plan an entire season.

I asked what the secret was.

“Managing your time wisely,” he said. Coaches would get a four-year contract and feel they had plenty of time. But you couldn’t think in terms of seasons– it was too large a unit of time. You needed to set goals for every game, and reassess a team after each one. In training camp, you should do it after every practice.

You had 20 games (counting exhibitions) and a certain number of team meetings and practices. A good coach should know from experience how many repetitions a player could perform in practice, and how many plays the team could run per practice.

You knew how good your players were from your film study. You knew how good they needed to be, based on your knowledge of the league. You knew, based on experience, how many repetitions a player needed to go from point A to point B,

That meant you could estimate exactly how long it would take a player to develop. You could also judge, at any given point, whether he was making the necessary progress or whether it was time for you to make a change.

A lot of that sounded like gobbledygook. I had no idea how smart it was until I took project management training years later. Once I learned about current states, future states, timelines and units of measure, I knew exactly what Shula meant.

Given that context, let’s talk about Sunday’s game. Counting the four exhibition games, we’re nine games into Hue Jackson’s 80-game contract– over 10% of the duration.

None of those games have ended with wins. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that if you ask “Where is the team better, and which players have made progress?”, it’s hard to identify any positives.

Offensive Line: They’re not an eyesore, but they’ve taken a large step backward. Joe Thomas will turn 32 in December. He’s not a problem, but he isn’t going to get better. Joel Bitonio is playing better than he was last year, but not a lot better than his excellent rookie year. Greco is 31, and switching between center and guard isn’t helping.

And since Bitonio hurt his foot, they need a guard. They claimed Jonathan Cooper, a former #1 pick who has busted out of two teams. Arizona drafted him with the seventh pick in 2013, but after he missed his rookie season and started only 11 games in 2014-15, they traded him with a #2 to New England for Chandler Jones.

The Patriots hoped he could give them some depth, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to play at all this year. They finally decided they didn’t need him– the players who’d been filling in for him were developing– and cut him.

So a contending team feels he isn’t worth the trouble. But a team that claims to be rebuilding takes him.

Erving has been a disaster. He’s been hurt, he’s blown blocks and committed penalties. They need to look for someone else. And unless draftees Spencer Drango or Shon Coleman step up, they’ll also need to find a right tackle. Austin Pasztor isn’t a terrible player, but he’s clearly a step backwards from Mitchell Schwartz.

Receivers: Here’s an exciting though. After five games:

  • Two of the five players retained from the 2015 roster– Duke Johnson and Gary Barnidge—  are on course for worse seasons.
  • Two players (Isaiah Crowell and Malcolm Johnson) will be better– but infinitesimally so.

Andrew Hawkins will do measurably better than he did in 2015, but he’ll still a shadow of his 2014 self. Here are the 2015 stats and the projections for 2016. The problem players are in red:

Crowell 19 9.6 22 10.8
Hawkins 27 10.2 38 10.5
 Johnson 4 3.8 13 5.8

I didn’t include touchdowns, because they don’t project. Typically they come in bunches. But if I had included them, Barnidge would be a huge concern. He had nine last year and has none this season.

Obviously these projections can change if someone has 9 catches for 130 yards and two scores on Sunday. But Jackson and receivers coach Al Saunders were supposed to be working miracles. After 30% of the season you’d expect to see someone making progress.

It’s true that Corey Coleman has taken some opportunities. But his projection (23 catches for 554 yards and 6 TDs) is well behind Travis Benjamin’s 2015 numbers (68-966-5).

No, we should not adjust the projection because Coleman has been hurt. Injuries are common in the NFL; the ability to avoid injury is one of the things players get graded on. Coleman is a slightly-built receiver (he’s 5’11” and 194) who has been hurt twice already.

The only receiver actually playing well is Terrelle Pryor, whose stats (24-338-1) project to 77 catches for 1,082 yards and 3 scores. But there are a few hitches with that:

  • Almost all his production came in two games. He had 8 catches for 144 yards against Miami and 3 catches for 68 yards against Philly. In the other three games, he’s had 13 catches for 126 yards and a score.

Pryor’s production is still pretty good even if we project off those three less-impressive games: 68 catches for 655 yards and 5 TDs. It’s better than what Brian Hartline, (46-523-2) or Miles Austin (47-568-2) did. But it’s not lights-out production. Then we run into the other issue:

  • Pryor’s contract is up at the end of the year. He could decide to stay with the worst-run franchise in the NFL, passing up lucrative offers from other teams. But it would be much smarter to try to sign him.

The remaining receivers have played a combined 266 snaps (about four full games) and produced 9 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. Only two (Ricardo Louis. Connor Hamlett) have catches; Jordan Payton, Seth Devalve, Rashard Higgins, Randall Telfer has brought nothing.

Running back: Crowell (5.6 yards per carry) and Johnson (5.3) still look like top backs. But most of their production came againbst Miami and Washington; the probability that it will continue to fall seems high. The Patriots aren’t a great run defense; they were allowing 4.4 yards a carry going into the game. The ease with which they stopped both players is discomfiting. The Browns have nobody else that even appears to be a prospect.

Quarterback: I’m willing to argue that the Browns are better at the position than they were in 2015. Last year they played developmental prospect Austin Davis (66.2 rating in three games), a violent drunk (Johnny Manziel) and 36-year-old journeyman Josh McCown. Unless you imagined that someone would perform alchemy on Davis, they had nobody the team could hope to build around (unless you performed alchemy on Davis).

Cody “Trust Me” Kessler looks like a journeyman– I am certain that he lacks the arm strength needed to be successful. On the other hand, he’s completed 66.7% of his passes, has a TD-INT ratio (2-1) in line with what you expect from a good player and his QB rating is 87.9 rating. He’s not looking overwhelmed; you can at least imagine him as a “manage the game” quarterback for a 9-7 team.

And, no– N-O no, no way, fuggedaboudid– the Browns have not had bad luck. They have had exactly the luck they deserve. At the beginning of the season, a poll of coaches and executives conducted by ESPN rated the Browns 32nd out of 33 at the quarterback position. Everyone outside of Cleveland knew that Robert Griffin would get hurt because he doesn’t stay in the pocket, and that McCown (who didn’t stay healthy in Chicago or Tampa– or in Cleveland last year) would get hurt because he doesn’t throw the ball away.

All through the pre-season, I harped about the danger of the Browns– who would be playing with a patchwork line– using two veterans with injury histories and a rookie. Not only could you lose both veterans, it might happen in the same game. If so, they would be playing Kessler.

One of the reasons to use analytics is to be able to avoid mistakes. You calculate probable outcomes of each strategy– when something bad seems likely to happen, you stay away from it. If you ignore the odds and do it anyway, you don’t get to whine if it blows up.

At least the Browns have returned to partial sanity. After signing Charlie Whitehurst– an utterly worthless 34-year-old veteran– and then playing him, they cut him. When McCown began insisting that he could play Sunday– even though he had a broken collarbone– they designated him as “Out” to eliminate calls for him.

Now they’ve they promoted Kevin Hogan from the practice squad. That is a good thing, at least in some respects. I strongly doubt that Hogan (a fifth-round pick this year) will be any good– he’s immobile and doesn’t throw catchable passes (they’re usually off-target, forcing the receiver to jump stretch or dive). But at least he has a future. There are people who compare him to Philip Rivers, because he can read a defense, he does throw hard and at 6’3″ and 221 pounds, he’s strong and tough.

Hogan and Kessler give the Browns a chance to hope they could be (if they each maxed out on their projections) Tom Brady and Joe Montana. It’s not likely to happen, but it it much higher than McCown or Witehurst leading the Browns to a Super Bowl in 2018. Or, after Griffin’s latest injury, his chances of having a lengthy career in the NFL.

Defensive line: For this unit, the New England game represented progress. With 7:27 left5 in the third quarter, Jamie Meder collected their first sack since Carl Nassib got one in game #1. After five games, this defense has only seven sacks.  A year ago–  when the Browns finished 29th in sacks– they had 29.

In five games, they’ve combined for 53 tackles. The theory behind the 3-4 is to let the linemen tie up blockers and the linebackers make the tackles. But there are 65 plays in an average game. They’re averaging 11.

Nassib has an excuse. He broke his hand in game two, missed games three and four– and was useless in game five. A defensive lineman uses his hands to grab blockers and throw them aside. He won’t be productive until his hand heals– which means he shouldn’t be playing. Meder has an excuse too– he’s an undrafted free agent. He tries hard, but the talent fairy didn’t leave him many presents.

Xavier Cooper? Another blown pick by Ray Farmer. Danny Shelton is having a pretty good sophomore year– if he were a fourth-round pick from East Carolina. The rest of the people are just bodies– Gabe Wright, Stephen Paea, Tyrone Holmes.

Linebackers: As it happens, all three of the front office people I know work for teams who have watched Browns games this year– either because they played Cleveland, or had upcoming games against Browns; opponents.

I asked all of them about Chris Kirksey“He’s a player,” the guy from the team with the good front seven said.

Really? I thought he’d been pretty ordinary.

“No, no no–,” my buddy replied, “I didn’t mean ‘a player’. I mean, he’s a guy. He runs after the ball too much, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to his assignments. He’s a good hitter– and at least he looks like he cares. Not like that other guy.” (It turned out he was referring to Demario Davis.)

I asked him to rank Kirksey. “I dunno– 20th, 205h. There are a lot of guys out there like that.”

Another guy– who has watched Davis the most– defended him. “He cares,” he said. “He just doesn’t have a freaking clue. He never knew what Rex Ryan wanted him to do. No way he’s going to figure out a fire zone.” (The defense the Browns use.)

The third simply said the Browns would have to replace them both.

“They don’t make enough tackles,” he said. “And they making them in the secondary. They don’t get to the ball faster and they’ve been playing far too long to imagine than will ever change.”

All three guys snickered at the notion that Cam Johnson (2.0) and Corey Lemonier (1.0) were first and second on the team in sacks, when the Browns had spent so many high picks on edge rusahers.

Since I’ve now mentioned the players who have five of the seven sacks, I’ll complete the list by saying that Kirksey has one and the other is by Briean Boddy-Calhoun.

The good news is that they all blame the line for the linebackers’ failure to get a pass rush. The three linemen are supposed to sacrifice themselves– tie up four (five if one of the ends is a good player)– so at least one linebacker can get a clean shot at the passer. Nobody has open routes. As my source for the front seven put it: “Teams are handling your ends one-on-one.”

Emmanuel Ogbah looks overwhelmed; nobody has noticed the absence of Nate Orchard. The only player on the front seven who intrigued anyone (other than Nassib) was Joe Schobert. “He’s too small (6’2″, 247) to provide a pass rush,” my second buddy noted. “But he knows what he’s doing.”

The other comment made was that the Browns didn’t have a single linebacker who could cover either tight ends or backs– much less possession receivers. The Patriots torched them with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett; nobody had any luck with Jordan Reed of Washington, either.

“Your linebackers aren’t being attacked,” friend #3 noted, “Because it’s too easy to get yards on deep throws or up-the-middle runs. That would become a problem if you solved either the line or secondary issues.”

Secondary: The single worst development of the season has been the realization that the Browns can’t count on Joe Haden any longer. He’s missed 80 of the 361 defensive snaps– and when he plays, he often seems to be struggling.

This is why teams are always looking for corners. They have short careers (8 years is about as long as most last), and they can go at any minute. It isn’t helping Haden to have a terrible front seven ahead of him. He’s sixth in solo tackles (15), behind Jordan Poyer (25, second), and Jamar Taylor and Derrick Kindred tied for 4-5 at 19).

Which brings up an issue: you should not see corners high in solo tackles. Those are the plays where you’re one-on-one with the defender and you bring him down. “Assists” can be polluted– the scorer sees two players there and gives them both credit (even though the first guy tied him up and the second knocked them over). Solos are pretty clean.

Normally the linebackers and safeties will be way out in front– with maybe a defensive end  (maybe a tackle too, if it’s a 4-3 team) also at the top of the tackles chart. But here is the Browns’ chart for everyone who has played 100 or more plays

Player Plays Tackles
Christian Kirksey 361 32
Demario Davis 350 20
Jamar Taylor 345 19
Jordan Poyer 330 25
Joe Haden 281 19
Emmanuel Ogbah 255 9
Derrick Kindred 253 19
Danny Shelton 227 9
Xavier Cooper 209 7
Jamie Meder 191 5
Tramon Williams 154 9
Ibraheim Campbell 136 9
Joe Schobert 134 5
Briean Boddy-Calhoun 123 4
Stephen Paea 120 3
Carl Nassib 115 3

Kirksey has played all 361 snaps, and is and leading the team. His total is actually low for the run defense linebacker in a 3-4. Vince Williams of Pittsburgh has 25 tackles (seven less) on 176 snaps (less than half the plays). But he is at least in the spot he ought to be (first in plays and tackles).

But Davis, who has missed only 11 snaps, has only 20 tackles. He’s third– behind Poyer and barely in front of the corners. He has no sacks, no interceptions and only one pass knockdown, so the low tackles isn’t because he’s playing stellar pass defense.

I know why Taylor (who has played 345 of 361 snaps) and Poyer (330) are high in tackles– they’ve been on the field almost every play. But why does Poyer– the free safety– have only five more solo tackles than a corner?

Kindred (19 tackles on 253 plays) is a strong safety; he should have more tackles than Ogbah (9 tackles on 255 snaps), a linebacker the Browns fantasize will be a force on the pass rush. But double?

Lemonier (7) and Cam Johnson (5) aren’t on the chart because neither had 100 plays on defense. They’re journeymen– but they show up the players the Browns drafted high.

The only guy who deserves a break is Shelton (9 tackles), because the nose tackle is always in the middle of the play. Because he is surrounded by teammates who swarm the ball, he shouldn’t get solo tackles. Haloti Ngata made the Pro Bowl for five straight seasons, for example, and got between 23 and 46 every year. That’s not a favorable comparison between the two– just a point of reference.

The best news from the scondary is that Taylor looks like a good pickup– a guy who won’t get beaten too badly and that Poyer is only 50% worse than Tasshaun Gipson was. The strong safeties (Kindred and Campbell) are both ordinary– but they aren’t a lot worse than an aging Donte Whitner. There’s a hope one might step up– even though there is probably no chance of either intercepting a pass.

The bottom line here, in my opinion, is that most of the people covering the team are talking nonsense. It isn’t too early to be concerned, and we should be seeing progress somewhere.

Rebuilding isn’t like puberty– one day you wake up, see your body has all this neat new stuff and can suddenly do things it could never do before. It isn’t like playing the lottery– keep buying Shon Coleman tickets every week and hoping. Then one day you get a Pro Bowl tackle. .

What happened with Nassib or Corey Coleman is how rebuilding works. You get a new player, he looks interesting in practices, he does some things in exhibition games. Then he does them in regular season. Eventually he does them all the time.

When Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan put in a new offense in 2014, it didn’t take 1/3 of the season for people to see progress– they saw it in the first game. It turned out to be progress the team couldn’t maintain– players hit the ceiling on their ability and that was all the better the team got. But it wasn’t like Christmas, where we had to wait months to get exciting presents.

I don’t know if the coaches are worried– and just staying quiet– or if they don’t know. I would guess the latter. Most of the assistants aren’t that competent. Receivers coach Al Saunders– who has coached great teams– certainly knows what progress should look like. But he is also showing progress (Coleman, Pryor). And he is also close to retirement age.

Jackson ought to know that his offense isn’t performing well, but he views critical thinking as a form of disloyalty, so he might be in denial. Nobody else on that staff has been a good enough assistant for me to believe they realize what’s going on isn’t normal and that the light at the end of the tunnel is close. (Maybe line coach Hal Hunter.)

I didn’t expect the Browns to win– or even come close. But it is very disturbing to see what I saw. And if they can’t win against Tennessee, then they are in bigger trouble than I believe.


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