Welcome, for the fifth time in 18 years, to Chris Palmer’s legendary “Runaway Train.” It left the station in second half of the Browns 28-7 loss to Baltimore.
It says something about how I do things that I actually counted the number of “runaway train” seasons. I decided that five qualified:
- 2000 (Chris Palmer), the team that gave us the phrase. They started 2-1, but finished 1-12, amid a blizzard of injuries. During that losing streak, Palmer said he didn’t think there was much a coach could do in mid-season.
- 2004 Butch Davis), the second straight losing team after the playoff berth. Davis gave up with the team 3-8 and Terry Robiske lost three of the last four.
- 2008 (Romeo Crennel), who were supposed to build on their 10-6 season, but started 3-4… and then finished 1-8, with Crennel becoming more taciturn after loss.
- 2013 (Rob Chudzynski), who started 3-2, but ended 1-10. Chudzynski lost the team fairly early, but continued to express confidence that his sleepwalking players would turn things around until game 15.
- 2015 (Mike Pettine), who finished 1-10, with Johnny Manziel making it more and more obvious that he was a bust.
The common characteristics were:
- A long losing streak with no unexpected wins or strong games.against better opponents.
- Problem areas that kept deciding games– which weren’t fixed, and often not even addressed.
- Quarterbacking close to the worst in the league– often, but not always due to injuries.
- Visible loss of confidence by the players (sometimes open griping).
- The coach and/or front office showing signs they were in over their heads.
Other than Chudzynski, I didn’t include the fist season of any coach– because in every first season except his, the team did make progress in some area. I didn’t include seasons where the offense or defense showed improvement– even if the coach did end up getting fired (Eric Mangini or Pat Shurmur).
The 2016 team doesn’t just qualify because it has lost 10 straight games– 13 if we count the final three games of the 2015 season. It’s not just that the front office predicted progress that it clearly will not achieve. It’s not that the Browns are close to setting a record for futility. It’s that the team has torn up the blueprint that it swore it was going to use– so we know that there really isn’t a plan.
Baltimore’s final score extended the Browns’ defensive streak of futility– which is very near historic.
The Cleveland defense has now allowed opponents to score at least 25 points for 11 consecutive games. The game broke a tie with the 1981 Baltimore Colts and gave them the second-longest streak in NFL history.
The record (13 games) is held by the 1963-64 Broncos (who went 2-11-1 in each year). The Browns can tie Denver before they reach the bye week– and very likely will. This week’s opponent (Pittsburgh) is averaging 23.8 points a game; next week’s (the Giants) have exceeded 25 points in two of the last three games.
Permitting opponents to put up more than three touchdowns and a field goal is a team effort. A bad defense isn’t enough– your offense has to either (a) commit turnovers or (b) be unable to control the ball– and “manage the game.” Football has a clock– each team gets about 10 possessions a game. If your offense can hold the ball for 4-5 minutes on about half of them, the other team won’t have enough time to score.
And if you look at the list of teams, that’s what you see:
1. 1963-64 Denver Broncos (13 games). Denver allowed more points than anyone else in the AFL in both 1963 and 1964– but they were also second to last in points scroed in 1963 and last in 1964.
3. 1981 Baltimore Colts (10 games). The 1981 Colts hold the record for most points allowed in the NFL. They were also 26th of 28 teams in points scored.
4. 1961-62 Dallas Cowboys (9 games). Dallas started play as an expansion franchise in 1960. They were in the bottom three in both points scored and allowed in 1961 and 1962.
Last year’s Browns actually rated higher in defense (29th) than they did on offense (30th). This year, they’re last in defense– but also tied for 27th (only 36 points away from the bottom) in offense. They’re 31st in time of possession (26:38). Also remember, the Browns have padded their offensive stats by scoring late in the Titans, Jets, Cowboys and Patriots games– burning huge chunks of time off the clock as they did so. Remove points scored against defensive indifference and the offense looks much worse.
If you’re wondering, the last time the Browns allowed fewer than 25 points was the 17-13 loss to Kansas City in week 15.
The Browns’ previous high mark was five consecutive games with 25+ point– shared between the 1990, 2013 and 2015 teams. Ray Horton was also the ‘defensive coordinator’ of the 2013 team. Horton was also the coordinator of the 2015 Titans, who allowed 25+ points in five straight games. It’s not entirely about offense.
The frachine record for most points allowed in a season is 462– set by the 1990 Browns (coached by Bud Carson and then Jim Shofner). At their current pace, Hue Jackson’s team will allow 483, breaking that record..
In his only previous season as head coach– in Oakland, in 2010– Hue Jackson’s team allowed 433 points; third-worst in franchise history.
The only good thing that might come from the Browns breaking the record for most 25-point games– or allowing the most points in team history– is that it will end Horton’s career as a coordinator. It will be impossible to defend bringing him back. Also, Jackson will presumably be required to hire a competent coordinator– over whom he will not have final say.
The runaway train might have begun because the Browns hit double-digits in losses. But I believe it was because the Browns have finally shown panic.
Cleveland fans are enormously trusting and passive– though this is fueled partly by a press corps filled almost entirely with incompetents and sycophants. ESPN’s Pat McManamon is, I think, the only person who’s worked as a beat writer at a major media outlet in another city; ESPN-Cleveland’s Tony Grossi, while he knows much less than he believes he does, has at least covered the team for a long time and can recognize a load of nonsense when he hears it.
Everyone else in the region repeated the standard mantra distributed by every incompetent front office upon its arrival:
- The Browns would stop looking for quick fixes and rebuild the team from the ground up.
- They would build through the draft, by accumulating picks.
- Progress wouldn’t be immediate, but by using young players– not veterans– it would last years.
Fans, as they always have, bought it. They haven’t been happy losing every week, but they did understand that the Browns have lost four games by less than a touchdown– and that competent kicking in the 30-24 Miami loss would have meant at least one win.
Also remembet that the Browns botched extra point in the first Baltimore game (which they lost 25-20) also cost them one point, put the Ravens first two on the board and might (if you believe such things) have swung momentum.
But two things have happened:
1. The Jamie Collins trade. Two weeks ago, the front office traded a #3 pick for LB Jamie Collins. This was foolish and indefensible. Collins will be a free agent at the end of the year– he can and almost certainly will walk away at the end of the season.
A friend who hears things says going from the NFL’s best-run franchise to its worst has been a shock to Collins. Apparently it has nudged him from caring only about a big payday to looking– to some degree– at wins and losses. He guesses that if the Browns haven’t extended Collins by the bye week (after game 12), they won’t have a chance.
To make the decision look even worse, the Browns traded that #3 pick to Bill Belicheat– who makes bad decisions less often than any GM in the NFL.
The Browns and their apologists pretend this is a no-risk deal– they give up a #3 pick to get Collins; if he leaves via free agency, they get a #3 pick awarded as compensation. The reality is that they gave New England a pick in the 2017 draft, and the compensation pick (if they get it) will arrive in the 2018 draft.
Bill Belicheat never does anything without a reason. I don’t know what it is (he’s not big on sharing) but I know he has one. Possibilities include:
- As some claim, he made the move solely to get an unhappy player off the club, and didn’t care what year the pick was in.
- He wanted a pick in the 2017 draft– not 2018– because Tom Brady is getting old.
- His choice of years was a comment on the strength of the two drafts– or in the positions he wants to draft this year.
And, yes, New England really thinks about stuff like that. “Here are the players whose contracts expire; these are the people who are getting old, or whose production has gone down or no longer play well with others. Based on what our scouts tell us, these are the best upcoming drafts to get replacements.”
They don’t always get the decisions right, but only a dolt or a homer would imagine the Browns outsmarted the veteran coach-GM.
2. Benching Cody Kessler. I have probably seen more foolish moves than the decision– once Baltimore scored on their first possession of the third quarter to take a 13-7 lead– to bench quarterback Cody Kessler. But I would have to sit down and think about it.
Kessler wasn’t carrying the team on his shoulders, but he hadn’t played badly. Despite the Browns patchwork line, he’d been sacked only once on 18 attempts. He hadn’t turned the ball over.
He was only averaging 5.0 yards per pass– but he hadn’t missed anyone wide open. He was also getting zero help from the running game. Isaiah Crowell had seven carries for 21 yards; as has happened in almost every game, Duke Johnson had been useless.
His play wasn’t a reason to pull Kessler. Four other factors made the decision look even worse. Kessler was:
- A rookie, playing in his sixth game
- Their #3 pick– a player they close even though he was projected to go in the fifth or sixth round
- A prospect they passed up Dallas’s Dak Prescott to draft
- A player Jackson guaranteed would work out– had told everyone of “trust me on this.”
- A player with a good QB rating (95.7), an adequate yards per pass (7.0) and a superb TD-INT ratio (6-1).
ESPN’s “Total Quarterback Rating” tries to rate a quarterback’s running, ability to avoid sacks, his propensity to fumble and place statistics into the context of the game (meaning that it discounts meaningless touchdowns late in the game). It gives Kessler a 55.6 rating– 24th in the league– and not nearly as high as the NFL formula (which has him 13th). But it does place him higher than Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz and Blake Bortles, suggesting that he isn’t entirely pond scum.
Plus, he was just about the only player on offense that was offering any reason for hope. Opposing defenses have noticed Terrelle Pryor, and aren’t letting him run unmolested. He now has 51 catches on 91 targets; there are 156 other NFL receivers who come down with the ball more often. He’s 24th in total yards (627) but 61 other players are getting more yards per catch than his 12.3 mark. He’s in a tie for 21-39th in touchdown receptions.
And, of course, Pryor is 27 and he will be a free agent at the end of the year.
If a young player is struggling so badly that he seems to be going backwards– if he’s getting pummeled so ferociously that you’re worrying about his health– it makes sense to pull him. Otherwise, you use the playing time to develop him.
But with the team 0-9, Jackson panicked. And he lost his composure as visibly as possible. During a nationally-televised game, he put 37-year-old Josh McCown into the game.
That decision was simply indefensible. It’s not merely that McCown is 37 and obviously not a foundation that you can use to more into the future. It’s that he is one of the players least likely to help a team win. According to Pro Football Reference, McCown has only five fourth-quarter comebacks in his NFL career. .
But he’d thrown two TD passes in the first game against Baltimore, so Jackson decided to see what he could do. What he could do was turn the game into a blowout:
- First drive (9:36 left, third quarter): He threw an interception on the third play, putting the ball at the Cleveland 40. The defense intercepted Baltimore’s Joe Lacko, so it didn’t hurt the team.
- Second drive (6:39, third quarter): McCown was sacked on the third play of his next drive, fumbling the ball. He recovered, but the Browns had to punt; a short kick put the ball on their own 43. The Ravens drove down and scored, got a two-point conversion and opened up a 21-7 lead.
- Third drive (2:05; third quarter): McCown threw wildly, off his back foot, into the
end zone. The Ravens intercepted, took the ball on their own 20 and drove 80 yards to put themselves up 28-7.
- Fourth drive (6:21; fourth quarter): McCown took another sack, fumbled again and lost the ball.
I’m very careful about calling something a “momentum changer”– it’s a subjective judgement applied to bolster a weak argument. And Horton’s defense has no excuse for ever getting discouraged– it has contributed as much to the 0-10 start as the offense. But it certainly seemed like everyone– on both sides of the ball– stopped playing after McCown entered the game.
They can certainly be forgiven for believing they no longer had any chance to win. In the past two seasons, the Browns are 1-9 in games McCown starts– 1-10 in games he’s played
One of the other reasons the runaway train has begun is the arrogance of the unproven and untalented front office– buttressed by a coaching staff that, with two exceptions, has never been successful.
I christened Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry “The Marx Brothers”, partly because they were the successors to “the Three Stooges” — but largely because they came out of a common background. All Ivy League grads are arrogant to some degree– Harvard being the worst– because they really do assume they are what David Halberstam called “The Best and the Brightest.” It’s helpful to remember that he applied that term to the Kennedy Administration advisers who got the US into Vietnam.
This season, they were foolish enough to tell people they expected to make at least some progress this season. Sashi Brown said he would be disappointed by a 5-11 record (two wins better than last year’s 3-13). Clearly that won’t happen– the Browns would be lucky to go 3-3. And injuries can’t be blamed for the problem. The most significant losses have been:
- DE Desmond Bryant missing the year, due an off season injury (which Brown knew about when he made the statement)
- LG Joel Bitonio getting a season-ending injury in game 5
- FS Jordan Poyer (who was supposed to take over for Tashaun Gipson) going down for the year with a kidney injury in game 6
- DE-LB Nate Orchard being missing since game 3 (the Browns drafted players at his position in the second and third rounds)
- WR Corey Coleman has played only four games, due to injuries.
Bryant and Bitonio are middling players, but neither is capable of providing enough value to win even one game. Coleman looks like a deluxe Travis Benjamin– a speedy receiver who won’t help on anything but deep routes and might have trouble staying healthy.
Brown might have expected Robert Griffin to play much of the season and play well. Maybe he thought Puff Gordon would be back. If he did, he was ignoring reams of evidence compiled over years.
My guess at what happened? The coaching staff was largely responsible for the front office’s arrogance.
I have a friend who works for the team. Unlike most of my friends– who are pretty shrewd and not inclined to extremes– “Steve” (not his name) is a relentless homer. Over the spring and summer, he told me Hue Jackson would turn the team around. Jackson ridiculed the offense Mike Pettine had been using. The 2015 Browns scored 278 points (17.8 per game; 30th in the NFL). Jackson said the 2016 Browns would score 25 points a game (400 points total; 122 more) simply by using his scheme and adding the players he would bring in.
One of Steve’s predictions: Griffin would be comeback player of the year and Coleman would be rookie of the year. I don’t know if that was his exuberance or whether he was repeating something Jackson was saying.
Horton, Steve explained, blamed the 2013 team’s performance under his leadership (406 points allowed; 25.4 per game; 23rd) on two statements that in all honesty) were true:
- He didn’t a full slate of draft picks (the Browns, correctly feeling the draft was weak, traded almost entirely out of it).
- GM Mike Lombardi paid no attention to his recommendations (Lombardi always assumes he’s the smartest guy in the room).
Horton said he would have the 2015 team (432 points, 27.0 per game, 29th) playing 100 points better. (What he said was “A touchdown better”, which I assume he meant “per game”; 7 times 16 is 112 points.)
I was hearing this from May through July. And if those predictions had happened, the 2016 Browns would have finished at least 8-8. As a rule, for every 30 points you add to points scored (or subtract from points allowed), you can expect to win about one more game.
Mike Pettine’s 2014 team allowed 38 more points than it scored; they finished 7-9., one game below .500. His 2015 year allowed 154 more points than it scored. You’d expect the team to go five wins below .500; they went 3-13.
Jackson’s boast was unduly optimistic– but at least within the realm of possibility. He’s run the offenses in six different seasons and only hit 400 points twice:
- In Washington, in 2003, his team scored 287 points.
- The 2007 Atlanta Falcons scored 259 points.
- The 2010 Oakland Raiders scored 410 points.
- The 2011 Raiders (the year he was head coach) scored 359
- The 2014 Bengals scored 365.
- The 2015 Bengals scored 419.
Also, in the two seasons Robert Griffin was their quarterback, Washington scored 436 and 334 points. So that was pushing things too– but it was possible. But Griffin, as has happened four tines in four seasons, couldn’t stay healthy and Coleman hasn’t (as yet) blossomed.
Steve didn’t tell me this, but my guess is that Jackson felt having Griffin, Coleman and Gordon– who all played at Baylor under Rape Coach Art Briles– would help. And I’m positive Jackson believed that he could keep Puff clean.
Horton’s boast was ridiculous. He was taking over a team that allowed 432 points (due largely to Joe Haden missing 11 games), so they had room for improvement. But Horton’s defenses had allowed 348 points in 2011, 357 in 2012, 406 in 2013, 438 in 2014 and 423 in 2015. There was no reason to believe he’d make any major progress.
And he hasn’t. They’re on pace for 483 points.
I should, I suppose, reiterate something I haven’t said in a while: I don’t believe Kessler has an arm strong enough to allow him to succeed. I care about “tools” probably less than almost anyone else– more precisely, I value other skills as much as height, speed or arm strength. Knowing where and when to throw the ball– and, just as importantly, when not to– gets systematically underrated.
Brian Hoyer (16-15 as a starter; 84.8 career rating, 44-26 TD-INT ratio) isn’t remotely as gifted as McCown (18-41; 78.0 and 77-69)– but he’s accomplished more (winning season, starting playoff game) than McCown ever will. And one wonders how many other Hoyers have gone unnoticed during McCown’s career, because nobody like Bill Belicheat (who has enough of a reputation to elevate a player simply by keeping him on a roster ) picked them up.
But you do need arm strength in order to get the ball through coverage. The weather gets nasty in Cleveland. Kessler has already struggled throwing long; if the weather ever gets cold, rainy and windy, he might be completely unmasked. I thought Kevin Hogan looked more promising and still do.
But benching Kessler to play McCown makes no sense. Nor does playing Griffin. Kessler is unlikely to develop arm strength– but one guy still has wretched mechanics and the other won’t keep himself healthy. Play the player with the chance to succeed– no matter how small– rather than the ones who don’t.
The real cost of decisions like this will be felt after the season.
Part of the rebuilding process is getting talented players through the draft. But that won;t help unless you can retain them– and attract free agents who’ve completed their rookie contracts. You can only retain your picks– or attract players– if they buy into what the team is doing. And that only happens if they believe the front office, the head coach, the coordinators and the position coaches know what they’re doing.
As an agent once explained it to me
“It boils down to convincing the player he would be better off with you than he would anywhere else.
“Depending on who he is and what he wants, you can do it a lot of different ways– money, winning, the city, the teammates. But the one that works best is the Army pitch: be all you can be– our coaches and our scheme make you better than any other team.“
Right now, Hue Jackson is enjoying a honeymoon– he’s an offensive wizard taking on a difficult task. But everyone understands that good coaches don’t make the team worse. If the Browns win fewer games in 2016 than they did in 2015 (much less go 0-16) his reputation will take a hit.
If Jackson ping-pongs between quarterbacks for the next six games– Kessler against Pittsburgh, McCown against the Giants to get him into the bye week, RGIII until he gets hurt again (they have Cincinnati, Buffalo, San Diego and the Steelers), then Hogan and maybe Kessler– nobody will say “What else could he have done?” They’ll offer a slew of suggestions.
A lot of them will point out that the Browns are in this position by choice. They entered the 2016 draft with the second pick. Other than Jared Goff, they could have had any quarterback in this draft. Even after they traded out of the second spot to acquire picks, they could have had anyone except Goff and Carson Wentz. But they chose other players– none doing terribly well:
- Denver’s Paxton Lynch went with the 26th pick; he had two adequate games. Cleveland took Corey Coleman with pick 15.
- The Jets chose Christian Hackenberg (whom, for some reason,. they aren’t playing) with the 51st pick– the Browns spend pick #32 on Emmanuel Ogbah.
- The Patriots took Jacoby Brissett with the 91st pick; he played there games, started two and won one. The Browns passed him up twice, choosing DE Carl Nassib with the 65th pick and reaching for T Shon Coleman (who has played only 18 snaps) with the 76th.
- Oakland took Connor Cook with pick #100– the Browns chose Kessler seven picks earlier.
- Prescott was the 135th pick. The Browns chose LB Joe Schobert (#99), WR Ricardo Louis (#114) and FS Derrick Kindred (#129)
Taking Kessler over Prescott already makes Cleveland look bad. Writing off Kessler off after 178 career attempts– which is what benching him for McCown and then Griffin would be– would be a public admission that Jackson and the Marx Brothers have no idea what they are doing.
It’s not just that they took him– it’s that they took him 2-3 rounds sooner than anyone else imagined he would go. Plus, Jackson acknowledged the negative opinion about Kessler — then said “you have to trust me on this.” If you say “I’m smarter than everyone else”, then you had bloody well be smarter. Otherwise you look like an arrogant idiot.
Worst of all, giving up on Kessler because his arm isn’t strong enough— the weakness that was flagged here and here and here and here (to name the first four that showed up on a search)– means you didn’t do your homework.
The fallout might be even greater because Jackson won’t have Marvin Lewis in his corner. Lewis (who hired Jackson in 2004, when he was 39) has always touted him to reporters around the league. The relationship survived after Jackson left him to join the Falcons in 2007– but when Jackson took the Browns job, it cooled.
Lewis, who dislikes the gossip and sniping that so many people in the NFL engage in, took the highly-unusual (for him) step of telling people that Jackson had decided not to stay in Cincinnati as Lewis’s heir (Lewis is 58), making it clear that he disapproved of the decision.
The Browns won’t be able to sign anyone of value– or retain anyone they want.
I haven’t talked much about the game– but what is there to say? I thought Baltimore’s first-half offensive struggles were almost entirely self-inflicted. Possibly the Ravens would fix things at halftime– just as possibly, they would not. But I didn’t think the efforts of Ray Horton’s defense would have any bearing on that. Then the Cleveland offense started handing the Baltimore defense big plays, and it all went down the toilet.
I can think of two other things to say. First, the Browns are the only team I know who can think that two sacks in the first half is an exceptionally strong pass rush.
Second, the proper way to evaluate running backs is yards per carry. But because Jackson calls so few running plays, these guys appear ridiculously overvalued. Isaiah Crowell has 4.6 yards per carry. But because he gets only 12 carries a game, he averages 55 yards per game..Squire Johnson’s 5.0 average is even more misleading. He gained 103 yards in September and 108 yards in October– a month where they played five games. After two of the four games in November, he has 36 yards.
I assume their averages would plummet if they got more carries. But in the interests of not setting the recrod for most games with 25+ points allowed, it might be nice if they would try.