Browns Preview: Game 14 (@ Buffalo)

Opponent Preview

While there isn’t much doubt in my mind that the Browns are the worst franchise in the NFL, they aren’t the worst in one respect: years since they made the playoffs. Technically, the Browns are tied with the Oakland Raiders for second-longest drought. But since the Browns lost a wild card game in 2002– while the Raiders lost the Super Bowl– I’d give the Browns the edge on tiebreak.

But the longest drought belongs to the Buffalo Bills, who last made the post-season in 1999. The Billa haven’t been nearly as bad a team as the Browns since that season– their worst records (3-13 in 2001, 4-12 in 2010 and 5-11 in 2005) look like typical seasons from the Browns. They’re typically 6-10 or 7-9, allowing fans to think that they just need one more good draft to get good.

When their penuriios, irascible owner Ralph Wilson died in 2014, there was a brief hope that things might get better. New owner Terry Pegula had roots in the area; he purchased the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, the lacrosse team and the minor league hockey team in the region.

The bloom went off the rose very quickly, Coach Doug Marrrone (who inherited a 6-10 team, went 6-10 and then 9-7) had a clause in his contract letting him accept a buyout if the team was sold and he didn’t like the owner. It took one meeting with Pegula for him to decide to exercise it.

Not the brightest move in the world, in some respects. Marrone is the assistant head coach in Jacksonville. They’re 2-11. Since it’s coach Gus Bradley’s fourth year as coach, and he’s 14-47, they’re all pretty likely to get fired. And who wants a head coach who quit his team with a losing record– and went 25-25 at Syracuse?

Pegula’s choice as replacement (Rex Ryan) made sense in some respects. He was familiar to Buffalo fans from his work the the New York Jets. he knew the team and the division. He’d had four seasons of .500 or better in six tries and had taken the Jets to the AFC Championship in two consecutive years. Plus, he’s colorful, he makes news and sells tickets. Upon taking the job, he promised the fans that the Bills were going to be a great team.

The problem is that Ryan had a losing record with the Jets (46-50). His only winning years were his first two seasons (when he was working with  the roster he inherited). Ryan is a fine defensive coach, but a mediocre offensive coach. He’s fond of players who are talented troublemakers, and quarterbacks who can scramble, but (a) have difficulty completing a high percentage of their passes and (b) are skilled at completing passes to opposing players.

Ryan inherited a Bills team that had gone 9-7, scoring 21.4 points (18th) and allowing 289 (18.1, 4th). The offense was being run by Kyle Orton, a player of modest skills. The best one can say for Orton is that he had a winning record (42-40) as a starter, with a rating (81.2) slightly above average. The running game was split between Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and C.J. Spiller; the receivers– Sammy Watkins (21) and Robert Woods (22.)– were both young and talented.

The defense was being by Jim Schwartz– a great defensive line coach, a good coordinator and a terrible head coach– and it had four great linemen (Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes).

Ryan blew the team up, looking for– as he is wont to do– players with more talent and less consistency. When Orton decided to retire, Ryan went with Tyrod Taylor, who could throw long passes and scramble, but took a lot of sacks (36) and fumbled 9 times. RB LeSean McCoy was imported from Philadelphia, WR Percy Harvin (who helped get Ryan fired in NEw York) was brought in.

Ryan replaced Schwartz’s simple, line-friendly scheme (which relied on zone defenses) with his own byzantine alignment (the same one Mike Pettine used here), with oodles of man-to-man coverage.

End result: the record fell from 9 wins to 8, despite playing a weaker schedule. The offense looked exciting, but scored only 2.3 points per game more (up to 12th). The defense declined by 4.3 points (down to 15th).

When the 2016 Bills started 0-2, losing to the Jets, Pegula ordered Ryan to fire offensive coordinator Greg Roman or lose his job. Ryan complied, and the team won four straight games.

Then it lost three straight, prompting rumors that Pegula would fire Ryan again– and then won two straight to get over .500 again.

They come in having lost two straight– 38-24 to Oakland and 27-20 to Pittsburgh– and there are renewed rumors that Ryan might be fired. My guess is that he’ll end up 8-8 or 9-7 again– after he beats the Browns, he’ll play Miami (could go either way) and then the Jets (probably a loss)– so who knows if that’ll be enough.

The Bills are the #1 running team in the NFL– sixth in total attempt, first is yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. McCoy (976 yards; 5.2 per carry) is splitting time with Mike Gillislee (409 yards, 6.2 per carry) and Taylor (471 yards and 6.2). That trio has 22 rushing TDs– and they even have scores from Jonathan Williams and Reggie Bush (who is on the team for God knows what reason).

Naturally, this has cut into the passing game a lot. You can argue it’s less effective because Watkins has missed eight games with foot problems or because Taylor’s passer rating has dropped from 99.4 to 85.6 . Despite his ability to run, he’s taken more sacks (39) than any quarterback in the NFL– and it’s not just because the line has issues (Pro Bowl C Eric Wood is out for the year with a broken leg; T Sentreal Henderson violated the drug policy). Like Robert Griffin or Josh McCown, Taylor tends to stand around waiting for someone to get open deep. The notion of deliberately throwing an incomplete pass to avoid losing yardage seems unmanly to him.

The defense, unsurprisingly, is down to 18th in the league. At the end of the 2015 season, New Orleans coach Sean Payton finally got tired of giving up points because defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was calling an all-out blitz and leaving holes all over the place. When he fired Rob (who was on his last chance), his big brother hired him.

Needless to say, the Buffalo defense is sending more people, leaving its secondary in single coverage and getting them beat. They’re seventh in sacks (33) third in percentage of sacks (7.2%)– but they’re allowing nearly a point a game more.If you can get the ball away, you can complete passes. They’re also 20th in run defense (4.2 per carry).

As you can probably tell, I’d dearly like to see the Ryan brothers make their exit from the NFL stage. But unless Pegula is more itchy than I think, it probably won’t happen until they manage to finish under .500.

Browns Preview

When the good news is that the team will be playing a game in London– meaning one less game the fans have to endure– you have an idea of what kind of a year it’s been.

The Browns have told Mary Kay Greenhouse that they won’t get either Terrelle Pryor or Jamie Collins signed– but Sashi Brown is sure that they’ll be able to keep both.

The reality, of course, is that if a bad team doesn’t re-up players with expiring contracts before the season ends, they’ll almost certainly lose the players. The only incentive a player has to sign with a bad team is the risk of an injury– which can take his market value to zero. Once the season ends, there’s no reason to sign. You’d be foolish not to go on the market and see if another team is willing to offer you a bundle. Every off-season, a GM who’ s desperate to show improvement will sign a player for a lot more than he’s worth.

Someone will give Pryor and Collins the money. And, in all likelihood, Austin Pasztor. The Browns can only franchise one of them– if they do anyone at all.

All season long, people close to the Cowboys have been saying that rookie RB Darius Jackson has looked astonishingly good– that he’d be starting if the Cowboys didn’t have Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris. Dallas waived him so they could add Darren McFadden to the team for the playoffs– and the Browns grabbed him. What they’ll do with him when they can’t find enough time to play Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson, isn’t clear. Maybe it means Crowell will be allowed to leave (he’s a restricted free agent) if someone offers him money.

Hue Jackson also made a Freudian slip about Robert Griffin, saying what everyone already knew:

“Let’s go through this week and see where he is and see if he improved or not before we just write him off.”

It isn’t a surprise– Griffin has had ratings of 55.0 and 38.4 in his two starts, with no touchdown passes, two interceptions and six sacks (10% of his attempts). You’d have to be insane to support him based on that performance. The only reason to play him is that (a) they have nobody else they desperately need to look at and (b) if he could be fixed, he’d be a good player.

But saying that he’s a game or two away from being benched is the sort of thing a competent head coach never does.

Game Preview

The Bills have the best rushing attack in the NFL. The Browns have the fourth-worst run defense in the league (4.6 yards per carry).

The Bills struggle with the passing game, because they give up a lot of sacks. The Browns have the fewest sacks in the league (21), and sack the quarterback on only 4.6% of his pass attempts. Opposing QBs have a rating of 104.2 against the Browns, with 30 TD passes and only 8 interceptions.

It’s simply going to be a question of whether Buffalo wants to be smart and run– or try to throw in terrible weather. I wouldn’t rule the second option out, but one would think Ryan would have better sense.

The Bills sack the quarterback a lot. The Browns have allowed more sacks than any other team– and their quarterback gets sacked a higher percentage of the time (9.2% of attempts) than anyone but the Bills.

Plus Robert Griffin hates cold weather and the game will be played in miserable conditions.

Gee, I wonder what will happen….

Game Prediction

The only unknown here is how much weather conditions will permit anyone to score. It could be one of those days where nobody can do anything and one play decides the outcome. The Browns have won games by scores like 8-0 and 6-3, and lost 13-6. If you tune in and you can’t see the hashmarks for the snow– or you can’t see the field, thanks to whiteout conditions– then it’s anyone’s game.

Assuming that doesn’t happen? As Mr. T. said, when asked to predict the result of his first with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III, “Pain.”The score below assumes the weather is playable– but very cold.

Buffalo 23, Browns 3

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