Browns Review: Game 11 (Pittsburgh)

To: Terry Pluto, The Plain Dealer

Terry:

I know you have to file 30 minutes after a game, but I still don’t understand how you could write a piece like “When it comes to quarterbacks, I’m as lost as Cleveland Browns”. I mean, you’ve been covering the team since 1999; you’ve seen this stuff myriad times before. All you need to do is reread your clip archive.

1. How can you possibly blame the victim for what’s happening?

“Kessler has started eight games this season. Three times he has failed to survive four quarters because he was injured. That’s not a good sign, as Kessler can’t stay on the field.”

Kessler can’t stay on the field? Who could? The Browns are now leading the NFL in sacks allowed (38), quarterback hits (93) and percentage of sacks on pass attempts (8.7%). The play that put him out in this game was a hit by two players.

2. This sentence contains a misleading implication:

“It was harder to know if the rookie quarterback was shaken more by the frigid, wind-whipping, teeth-rattling weather — or the aggressive Steeler defense.”

“Aggressive” could be taken to mean that the Steeler defense was “good.” They’re not. isn’t. Pittsburgh was 14th in points allowed coming into the game– due mostly to games against struggling teams:

  • Kansas City scored 14 points in game four; the Chiefs are averaging 22.2 points a game (19th)
  • Cincinnati was only able to score 16 points in game two. Not surprising; it’s only averaging 19.9 points (25th)
  • Baltimore scored 21; they’re averaging 19.9– tied with the Bengals for 25th
  • The New York Jets scored 13; they’re averaging 17.9 (29th)

I know that seems good, compared to what the Browns were able to do with them (Cincinnati and the Jets scored 31, Baltimore 25 and 28), but it really isn’t. The Steelers have allowed 30+ points three times and 27 in a fourth.

The Steelers came into the game with the fewest sacks in the NFL: 13 in nine games. .Their best pass rusher, Cameron Hayward (3.0 sacks), wasn’t on the field because he’s out for the year with a pectoral tear. But they still managed 8 sacks.

Pittsburgh was “aggressive” in the sense every defense is aggressive– they chased the guy who had the ball and tried to tackle him. The difference between this game and others is that the people trying to prevent that from happening failed.That’s pretty clearly incompetence by Cleveland, rather than great skill by the Steelers.

3. I also don’t understand why you can’t recognize the pattern embedded in the behavior you’re describing

“But his decision making was SOOO … SLOW … it was painful to watch… [H]e took three sacks when he simply held on to the ball for too long. He seemed confused by the defenses. When his primary receiver was covered, Kessler had problems knowing where else he wanted to throw the ball.”

Where have we seen this before? Only with Tim Couch, Charlie Frye and Colt McCoy. The young quarterback who was supposed to be developed over time gets tossed into the starting lineup due to events caused by incompetence.

He has a terrible offensive line, a non-existent running game and receivers who wouldn’t start for 20+ teams in the league and a coach who won’t stop calling pass plays. And because the defense and the kicking teams are awful, he has to win games pretty much singlehandely.

So the team loses pretty much every week and the media is starting the “Cleveland needs a franchise quarterback” song.

So it’s the second quarter and he drops back for the thirtieth time. Everyone is covered. The line can’t hold off the opponent. The defense is pouring in on him.

He knows what he should do– throw the ball away. Except that the coach pulled him last week for not being able to make spectacular plays– and he knows he’s running out of chances. So he figures he’d better make plays, so he stands back there and get blasted.

One of the hallmarks of watching the Browns is watching them bring in quarterbacks who have been successful everywhere else they have been– who came in self-assured, convinced they can and will change the fortunes of the team– and see every bit of confidence beaten out of him. Unlike almost any other team– where players get better over time– Browns quarterbacks tend to get worse the more they play.


As for why this happens, it isn’t brain surgery– you need to look to the history.

1. The front office ignores the importance of the offensive line. The offense has 11 players– five of them (45.4%) play on the offensive line. Unlike the quarterback, receivers or the running backs (whose involvement in a play will vary, depending on what’s being called), the five linemen always have critical responsibilities.

But only three GMs have ever had the sense to draft players who open holes for the running back or keep the quarterback from getting injured:

  • Savage drafted Joe Thomas, signed LG Eric Steinbach and RG Kevin Shaffer and traded for C Hank Fraley, to play alongside RT Ryan Tucker.
  • Farmer and Mike Pettine drafted LG Joel Bitonio and blew a #1 on Cam Erving
  • Tom Heckert drafted RT Mitchell Schwartz, RG Shawn Lauvao and LG Jason Pinkston

No, Mangini doesn’t count– he drafted Mack, but he used John St. Clair and Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack as the right side of his line for two years. . He’s merely better than everyone else, who didn’t bother.

The Marx Brothers– the successors to The Three Stooges– were no exception. It didn’t take a degree from Harvard to see that the Browns were on very shaky ground:

  • Alex Mack wasn’t coming back and Cam Erving had played badly. Giving a former #1 pick a chance to prove himself (or play his way out of Cleveland) was the correct decision. But they didn’t have a backup in the event that Erving got hurt or played badly.

Switching John Greco– a 31-year-old guard– to center isn’t a backup plan. It’s like the Indians saying “If one of our starters gets hurt, we’ll put Andrew Miller to the rotation.” You’re closing one hole, by opening another.

Switching Greco is something you try in an emergency if your center is injured in mid-year. You don’t begin the year with it as a plan, unless you know exactly who you can turn to if Greco has to play. The Browns thought it might be Spencer Drango or maybe Alvin Bailey. But they didn’t know.

  • Austin Pasztor had struggled in 2015. They got by with him– sort of– at guard, but it was clear he couldn’t play tackle. But first they cut ties to Mitchell Schwartz– and then they wasted a pick on Shon Coleman.

And, yes, Terry, spending a third round pick on a player who has played 22 snaps in 11 games is a busted pick. They signed him to a four-year deal; nearly 75% of his rookie year has passed without any value. Thanks to his health problems, he turned 25 today– and they still don’t know if he can play. A player who can’t beat out Pasztor for a starting job is demonstrating that he shouldn’t have been taken that high.

  • Joel Bitonio had missed nearly 20% of his career with injuries. When a player gets hurt during rookie contract, it should raise a red flag. Maybe that injury (Bitonio missed the last six games of 2015) is a one-time thing; maybe it isn’t.
  • Greco and Joe Thomas were both aging. Thomas on the downhill side is better than most players in their prime, but he can’t seal the left edge singlehanded anymore. Greco was 31 on opening day, and only pro bowl guards last past 32.

In short, they had issues at all five spots and didn’t do anything about it– unless you consider Bailey and Drango potential solutions.

2. They bring in another nitwit coach who doesn’t bother about the running game. After 11 games, the Browns have 224 rushing attempts. They’re 29th in total carries, for who knows how many times since 1999. And, as usual, they’re in the top-ten (ninth) in pass attempt again.

At 399 passes to 224 rushes, their run-pass ratio (64.0%) is nearly 2-1. That’s 36 passes and 20 runs per game. And that doesn’t factor in either the 38 sacks (which should all be passes) or the 41 quarterback rushes (many of which began as dropbacks).

One of the many things about this team that makes me sick of this team is the new coach’s first press conference. The Browns hire Joe Jakovaszar, and he says, in his opening press conference:

  • “I understand the proud tradition, the great rivalries and the greatest fans in the NFL.”
  • “We will play the kind of tough, hardnosed football that typify the championship teams in the AFC North”
  • “We’re going to do this right, by building through the draft. It won’t happen overnight, but when we do, we won’t let anyone in the media who said mean things have any of our Super Bowl tickets.”
  • “I will take long, warm showers with Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar every week.”

After that inspiring speech, Coach Jakovaszar’s team leads the league in pass attempts, dropped passes, missed tackles, mental mistakes and stupid penalties until he gets fired for cause. And then the new coach delivers the same speech and punts on that too.

It’s very simple. If you can’t run the ball– or won’t run it– teams know you’ll pass and can come after your quarterback. The more they hit your quarterback, the more likely he is to get hurt.Plus, if the defense actually believes you will run, play-action passes begin to work.

Also a running play– unless the ballcarrier is pushed out of bounds– burns 45 seconds off the clock. This lets your defense rest and keeps the other team off the field, so they can’t score.

But there have only been three seasons since 1999 (2014, 2009, 2004) where the Browns were in the top 16 teams in rush attempts. Only three running backs– Reuben Droughns in 2005, Jamal Lewis in 2007 and 2008, and Peyton Hillis in 2010– have gained 1,000 yards. And neither Droughns nor the 2008 version of Hillis could gain 4.0 yards a carry.

Here’s a fun fact: only 12 players have managed to get 250 yards in a season and average 400 yards. I would bet money that most people can’t even remember all 12 players (I drew a blank on Jason Wright).

Query Results Table
Games Rushing
Player Year G Att Yds Y/A TD
Josh Cribbs 2009 16 55 381 6.93 1
Tim Couch 1999 15 40 267 6.68 1
Lee Suggs 2003 7 56 289 5.16 2
Duke Johnson 2016 11 51 257 5.04 1
Jason Wright 2007 16 60 277 4.62 1
Chris Ogbonnaya 2011 11 73 334 4.58 1
Jerome Harrison 2009 14 194 862 4.44 5
Jamel White 2002 14 106 470 4.43 3
Jamal Lewis 2007 15 298 1304 4.38 9
Peyton Hillis 2010 16 270 1177 4.36 11
Isaiah Crowell 2016 11 129 561 4.35 5
Montario Hardesty 2012 13 65 271 4.17 1
Isaiah Crowell 2014 16 148 607 4.10 8

If you can’t run the ball, your quarterback will probably end up hurt– even behind the best of lines. And the Browns’ lines line are rarely even average.

3. Get quarterbacks who have no chance of lasting 16 games. What happened this season was entirely predictable. In 2010, the Browns started the season with Jame Delhomme (the erratic veteran who’d missed 21 games in the last four season) and Seneca Wallace (career backup with all kinds of mechanical problems) in front of Colt McCoy.

You knew the kid would end up playing– just like anyone who’d paid attention to the careers of Robert Griffin and Josh McCown knew they might both go down in the first game of the season.

2004 was another one of those years. 34-year-old Jeff Garcia and Butch Davis weren’t a good fit, 31-year-old Kelly Holcomb was at the end of his run– rookie Luke McCown (not Ben Roethlisberger) was going to be playing by year’s end.

Year in and year out, the Browns stock the quarterback position with people whose careers have shown that they won’t last a full season– either because they get hurt or because they can’t play— and tell the media and the fans “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.” Most of them don’t

And, by the way, it is relevant to discuss Roethlisberger. It’s not just that Butch Davis passed on Roethlisberger– it’s that he  traded up to take Kellen “Endo” over Roethlisberger– and then wasted a #4 on McCown even though his brother Josh was already showing he was a bust.

It’s not just The Marx Brothers ending up with Corey Coleman and a pile
of beans instead of Carson Wentz. It’s doing that– then taking Cody Kessler on a hunch–when everyone else who watched him said wouldn’t be able to throw hard enough to play in Cleveland.

The Browns picked Tim Couch over Donovan McNabb because they didn’t think McNabb could play in Chris Palmer’s scheme. They passed up Aaron Rodgers because Phil Savage didn’t know how he’d handle Cleveland’s cold weather (about as epic a fail as you can make) and thought Braylon Edwards catching passes thrown from Charlie Frye would help more.

Jimmy Haslam ordered Ray Farmer to take Johnny Manziel over Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater.

There have been times when bucking the crowd was a good idea– while Eric Mangini wasted every other draft pick he got in this trade down, Alex Mack was a better player than Mark Sanchez. The Browns would have been better off not pulling the trigger on Quinn. But they have passed up a lot of guys who were considered to be “can’t-miss”, not just Roethlisberger.


What happened against Pittsburgh is something I’ve addressed so many times over the years that I’ve gotten sick of discussing it:

  • The Browns took the opening kickoff and ran three times and passed three times– a 50-50 run-pass mix.
  • The Steelers took possession on their own four, ran eight times, passed eight times and kicked a field goal– a 50-50 run-pass mix.
  • The Browns took the kickoff, ran twice and passed five times– a 29-71 mix.
  • The Steelers kicked a second field goal, after running six times and passing nine– a 40-60 run-pass mix.
  • The Browns ran twice (once on a 3rd-&-21, which I’m not going to count) and passed three times– 25-75%

The Steelers ran only twice and passed 11 times on the next possession– a 15-85% run pass mix. But since they took over the ball with 1:51 left in the half, they had good reason to do it.

And here we come to another “Classic Browns” issue, best dealt with in bullets. At the end of the first half:

  • The Browns had run 7 times for 19 yards– a 2.7 rushing average.
  • Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh didn’t run anyone else) had run 16 times for 85 yards– a 5.3 yard average.

How many seasons have we seen that before?

Stuff like this is the reason that I ridicule Pro Football Focus. Danny Shelton is now one of the NFL’s top run stuffers? Where was he on those 16 plays when the Browns were getting blasted? Where were all the other guys that PFF and Doug Lesmerises insist– with no evidence to support them, other than their subjective opinions– are playing well?

Can’t run the ball, can’t stop the run– but let’s talk about the rookie quarterback and not mention the passes dropped. And let’s bring in the veteran failure, so he can give us the worst pass attempt since Brandon Weeden’s flip-flap-flippity-flop against the Lions.

So let the Browns play McCown– not Kevin Hogan– against the Giants. Let things stew for two weeks, then bring back RGIII. Let him play as many games as he can survive (not likely to be many) and then… well, who cares? Let’s bring back Ken Dorsey or Thaddeus Lewis. (If I were Kessler, I’d refuse to play. Why get yourself beaten up before you get cut?)

What happens to the Browns is not a mystery. And if they want it to stop, all they have to do is hire me as GM. I might not make the team better, but I will certainly avoid doing the same damned, dumb stuff they’ve been doing for the last 18 years.

Best,

Geoff

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