When I do a team preview, I look at either (1) the most interesting thing about the team or (2) the most significant factor in their season or (3) the thing most Browns fans want to know. For the Texans, those are one and the same.
The Browns went into the 2017 draft holding the 12th pick. Rather than use it, Cleveland traded it to Houston for the 25th pick (which they used on Jabril Peppers) and Houston’s #1 pick in 2018. The Texans promptly used the pick on QB DeShaun Watson from Clemson.
Watson comes into the game with a 100.7 passer rating (seventh-best). He’s getting 7.4 yards per pass (tied for 12th; above the league average 7.1) and a superb 12-4 TD/INT ratio. He’s run for 179 yards (8.1 per carry) and scored two TDs. About the worst thing you can say is that Watson has been sacked on 8.2% of his pass attempts– 23rd-best among starters.
So the Browns screwed up by passing up Watson– and everyone who didn’t like him was wrong.
I don’t agree, Even at pick 25, Watson would have been a bad pick for the Browns. He would have been a terrible one at #12. Let’s run through the knocks on him:
Five games into his NFL career, he hasn’t gotten hurt. That doesn’t mean the assessment was wrong. After playing full seasons in 2014 and 2015, Bridgewater missed all of 2016 with an injury and still hasn’t played this year.
Maybe Watson will avoid injury– Adrian Peterson was downgraded for not being able to stay healthy in college and he missed only 8 games in his first seven years. On the other hand, scouts gave Deuce McAllister the “injury risk” tag. After four healthy seasons, he never played a full year again.
Most importantly of all, the Texans have a championship-quality defense (seventh, sevenths and eleventh in points allowed in the past three years) , but an offense so bad (14th, 21st, 28th) that they struggle to get over .500 and die in the playoffs. Their quarterback situation has been embarassing– they needed to get a young QB.
I know– pot calling kettle. The Browns have thrashed around every season, but Houston has been the opposite extreme. They’ve looked to trades and free agency..
Before Watson, the Texans’ last attempt to draft a QB– in any round– was Tom Savage in the fourth round of 2014. They’d drafted only six quarterbacks in 16 years: T.J. Yates in the fifth round of 2011. Then Alex Brink (7th round, 2008), B.J. Symons (7th, 2004), Dave Ragone (#3, 2003) and David Carr as the first pick of the 2002 draft.
The possibility that Watson might get injured pales next to the certainty that the clock is ticking. Coach Bill O’Brien is 27-21 only because he plays in the NFL’s worst division and gets six easy games. If he and GM Rick Smith don’t reach 11-12 wins and at least an ALCS, they’ll get fired.
A gamble makes more sense for a team with playoff expectations. J.J. Watt isn’t getting any younger, and he’s starting to fall apart (he’s out for the year).
2. Lacks good arm strength. I value a strong arm less than most people– accuracy is what concerns me– but Watson’s passes were clocked at only 45 MPH on the radar gun (you can find the stat on the Ourlads profile). By comparison, Cody “Trust Me” Kessler threw 55.
It’s another similarity to Bridgewater. Concerns about his arm strength were significant enough that he skipped throwing at the combine, rather than have the problem documented.
The Browns play in an open-air, cold-weather stadium in the AFC North. Houston plays in a dome. Also, their opponents in the AFC South include Indianapolis (another dome) Jacksonville (Florida) and Nashville, Tennessee (weather in December in the 40’s and 50’s). At worst– if the Texans play both the AFC and NFC North– he’ll play 4-5 games in cold-weather cities. And some of those games will be in September and October.
Again, a risk. But one Houston can rationalize taking.
3. Better fit for the Texans offense. Neither Watson not Kizer played in a pro-style offense– but other than using a shotgun exclusively, the offenses were very different.
Watson played at Clemson, which uses screens and short throws. A lot of their “pass plays” would be “tosses” or “pitches” if the quarterback weren’t throwing them overhand. Dabo Swinney wants his receivers to have the ball in their hands before the defense realizes where the play is going, so he they can get more yards after the catch. Other than WR Mike Williams (who was 6’1 and became the seventh pick) and the tight end, Clemson receivers are short, extremely fast players– Watson was expected to deliver the ball immediately.
Notre Dame uses a version of the spread that looks to throw downfield more. Brian Kelly wants receivers who can block on running plays, so he uses taller, slower receivers; Kizer was trained to wait for them to come out of their break– and because he has trouble reading defenses, he takes longer than normal to spot the open mando it.
Except for DeAndre Hopkins (6’1″ and 214, but still very fast– 35 catches for 363 yards and 5 TDs), the Texans have short, quick guys: 5’9″ (Bruce Ellington, who is 9-133-1), 6’0 (Will Fuller; 6-92-4), 6’0″ (Braxton Miller; 3-25-0) and 5’11” (Chris Thompson). The #2 receiver on the team 12-135-1) is RB Lamar Miller.
O’Brien runs an offense that values possession passing and avoiding mistakes (sack, fumbles, drops). It is fairly simple to pick up. Watson, who is trained to throw short passes to small receivers quickly, is ideal for that system. Kizer would struggle to fit in at Houston
Also, Watson would be a fish out of water in Cleveland. Hue Jackson‘s playbook is extremely complicated. Like Notre Dame, it looks to throw deep to big receivers, with the quarterback waiting for the big play. The Browns have taller, slower receivers with bad hands; they drop passes.
4. Better supporting cast. Not one of the receivers on the Browns– including tight ends– would be playing significant snaps in Houston. Partly that’s because Houston has spent #1 picks on Hopkins (2013) and Fuller 2016), a #3 on Miller last year and a #3 on backup RB D’Onta Foreman this year.
Mostly it’s that they drafted better. Fuller was taken six picks after Corey “Hands” Coleman last year. Savage and Brock Osweiler threw him 92 passes; he caught barely over half (47). But he gained 635 yards scored twice– vastly better than Coleman. He caught only 33 of the 73 balls thrown to him and gained 413 yards (a full yard less per catch). Coleman did score one more TD– but he also had one serious injury.
Lamar Miller was drafted by Miami in 2012; when Adam Gase was hired, they declined to re-sign Miller, even though ha had seasons of 709, 1,099 and 872 yards. The Browns decided they didn’t need a running back– that “The Crow” and “The Duck” were better. Last year Biller gained 1,073 yards and averaged 4.0 yards; he’s got 331 yards and a 4.0 average again. The two backs the Browns used have been… well, fowl.
5. Better coaching. O’Brien spent five seasons with Bill Belicheat, working his way up from offensive assistant to receivers, to quarterbacks to coordinator. This was after he spent 14 years in college, working for some good NCAA coaches– and a even a year with Chan Gailey (a former NFL head coach, who was an assistant for Dan Reeves, Bill Cowher and Dave Wannstedt.
O’Brien coached quarterbacks, but he also has both a quarterbacks coach (Sean Ryan, who trained under Tom Coughlin) and an assistant QB coach (Pat O’Hara) who works specifically with the backups. This ensures that the non-starters get grooming
Jackson, who has been to impatient to advance to serve an apprenticeship anywhere, spent a year coaching running. backs for Marty Schottenheimer and two years coaching quarterbacks for John Harbaugh. He spent seven years (in two stints) with Marvin Lewis– whose notions of offense are somewhat quaint.
The Browns have a QB coach (David Lee), who has, according to his bio:
helped eight quarterbacks surpass the 3,000 passing yard plateau nine times, including Tyrod Taylor (3,023 in 2016 and 3,025 in 2015), Geno Smith (3,046 in 2014), Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,400 in 2012), Chad Henne (3,301 in 2010), Chad Pennington (3,653 in 2008), Drew Bledsoe (3,639 in 2005), Vinny Testaverde (3,532 in 2004) and Quincy Carter (3,302 in 2003).
I wouldn’t brag about working with those guys, but if it’s the best you have, you go with it. The starting QB gets 80% of the work during the week, meaning that the backups are on their own.
We’ll never know, but had the Browns taken Watson at pick 12, I suspect he would be struggling as badly as Kizer. A bad team makes the players who join it worse.
The Browns are observing radio silence at present. Everyone is aware that Jimmy Haslam is ready to fire everyone, and trying to keep their heads down.
The problem facing Haslam: he can’t fire anyone and expect to get even marginally competent replacements. A friend who has excellent ties to the front office world says that nobody will consider Cleveland for the following reasons:
- He’s fired three coach-GM tandems since taking over in 2012, giving none of them more than two years.
- The record of the three previous regimes were: (A) Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur, who went 9-23 (.281), (B) Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzynski (4-12; .250), (C) Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine (10-22; .312)
- His current mismanagement team– Sasho, Ando and Paulo Marx, plus Jackson– is 1-20 (.048) which is by far the worst performance of any non-expansion team since teams began sharing revenue.
- Heckert is employed by Denver, Lombardi in New England. Chudzynski (Colts) and Shurmur (Vikings) are well-regarded coordinators.
- A list of people talking down the team includes all of the fired people already mentioned, plus former coordinators Norv Turner and Kyle Shanahan and Mike “The Walrus” Holmgren and writer Jason La Canfora (who is BFF with Banner and Lombardi)
- Haslam doesn’t just take an active role in the operation of the team– he lets his wife Dee weigh in. Because the NFL is nearly as sexist as it is racist, people who run teams get really angry at the idea of a woman making football decisions.
One may question the competence of some of the people, but not everyone. Also, Haslam has nobody willing to speak of his behalf, other than Jim Brown.
Potential candidates for coach or GM (my friend says) assume that they would have to reach .500 within two years, and they would have the owner actively working against them.
It’s now assumed that Haslam ordered the drafting of Johnny Manziel– and was the prime mover behind hiring Jackson. Some people even feel he ordered the cuts of Joe Haden, Gary Barnidge and other veterans. (I don’t.)
Another rumor– one that has been floating around for years– isn’t doing Haslam any good. Haslam graduated from Tennessee– Peyton Manning’s alma mater. It is widely assumed (it was even when Manning was still playing) that Haslam would like to hand the Browns over to him, much as Pat Bowlen did with John Elway.
Manning is not interested at this time— and probably is way too smart to come to Cleveland.
My friend says Haslam wouldn’t have an open path, either. Jim Irsay is thinking about letting Manning take over, if first-year GM Chris Ballard fails. Irsay saw how much fan support the Indiana Pacers (who had Larry Bird running the team until recently) received. Also, Manning is smart enough to do the job.
The belief that Haslam might swing the axes is so strong that Peter Queen– the lead Heather in the pack of Mean Girls that make up the national football media–actually gave him a public warning not to do it. In his most recent column, (look for the “Ten things I think”, item #2) told Haslam
First, you never make good decisions when you’re angry, or you’re tired. Second, you’re going to go backwards by firing anyone now, or after the season, barring some unforeseen development. Stay the course, stay off social media, and don’t listen to the radio.
One of the plans– to fire Jackson and replace him with Gregg Williams– has had to be taken off the table because Williams’s defense simply isn’t doing well enough. The Browns are 25th in points allowed (24.8), despite playing the fifth-weakest schedule (Indianapolis, Seattle, the Rams, San Francisco). All of Cleveland’s opponents have spent part of the second half killing the clock, because they didn’t need to score.
The Browns can try to acquire a disgruntled veteran in the final year of his contract– like they did with Jamie Collins— but there aren’t any impact players at positions of need available.
Nobody thinks Kevin Hogan will become a star. They’re just hoping he’ll avoid making some of the truly horrible errors that Kizer has been making. The hope is that the offense (31st in points) can stop shooting itself in the foot, and that Collins, Myles Garrett and someone else (your guess is as good as mine) can rally the defense.
This game won’t be the type of one-sided beating that the Texans have been dishing out to the Browns of late. It simply can’t be:
- Defensive Ends J.J. Watt and Whitey Mercilus are out for the year
- LB Brian Cushing has been suspended for using performance-enhancers
- CB Kevin Johnson has another knee injury
Also, both DE Jadeveon Clowney (knee) and CB Johnathan Joseph (groin) will play, but are likely to be slowed by injuries.
The Texans are ranked 28th in defense. They have only 11 sacks and 7 turnovers. Opposing QBs have a 97.5 rating, getting 7.9 yards per pass, with a 9-4 TD/INT ratio. The defense will not be able to stuff Browns running backs in the backfield. (If they do, it’ll be be because the Browns’ running backs suck.)
Hogan will get time to throw; his receivers will be open. If Hogan plays as well as he has been playing in relief (104.8 rating, 9.9 yards per pass, 3-2 TD/INT) the Browns will be able to score points– probably around the 26.0 the Texans have been averaging.
The problem is that the Texans’ offense isn’t the sickly sputtering thing it has been. They’re ranked fourth, averaging 28.8 points a game. In the last three weeks, they scored 33 on New England (which is not solely because the defense sucks), scored 34 against the unbeaten Chiefs– and dropped 57 on the Titans.
That’s a little misleading; Tennessee turned the ball over five times. But the Texans of past years wouldn’t have been able to score 57 if all five turnovers had put the ball on the one-yard-line.
Except for the first game against Jacksonville (93 yards), the running game has been well over 100 every week. You Jacksonville (99 yards passing) in game one and Cincinnati (99 yards) in game two held the passing game in check (or maybe it was growing pains by Watson). But they’ve been over 248 passing yards in the last three weeks.
Other than a 4-turnover debacle against Jacksonville, the offense has taken care of the ball.
So there’s no reason to think Houston will score less than 30 points. Gregg Williams’s defense has held opposing rushers to 2.9 yards per carry… but opposing quarterbacks have a 112.4 passer rating, are getting 7.9 yards per pass and have thrown for 11 TDs and only 3 INTs.
Also there is the small matter of the defense’s rushing stats by quarter, which show that much of the improved defense is merely a matter of opponents killing the clock:
- First Quarter: 27 carries for 58 yards (2.1 per carry) and 2 scores
- Second Quarter: 27 carries for 111 yards (4.1 per carry) and 2 scores
- Third Quarter: 32 carries for 115 yards (3.6 per carry) and 0 scores
- Fourth Quarter: 48 carries for 99 yards (2.1 per carry) and 0 scores
The first-quarter performance is highly impressive. Run defense in the second and third quarters are acceptable (especially compared to past Browns teams). It’s offset by the pass defense, however:
- First Quarter: 22-28 (78.6%) for 161 yards (5.8 per pass), no TDs and no interceptions (90.6 rating)
- Second Quarter: 43-59 (72.9%) for 572 yards (9.7 per pass), 7 TDs and 2 INTs (128.6 rating)
- Third Quarter: 26-40 (65.0%) for 200 yards (5.0 per pass), 3 TDs and 0 INTs (102.1 rating)
- Fourth Quarter: 22-26 (84.6%) for 204 yards (7.8 per pass), 1 TD and 1 INT (96.2 rating)
Opponents start out trying to run, quickly realize that they can pass as much as they want to– and then do so until they have a comfortable lead.
In this game, the Texans will probably need to score a lot of points to get a few TDs up on the Browns. The odds are they will.
There is a small chance– I’d place it at about 15%– that the Browns win> it would require the following things.
1. The players would need to feel they are playing for the jobs of their coaches– and want to do that.
In his memoir, Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas tells a story about the Bills when Hank Bullough was the coach. The day of a game that the papers said might decide Bullough’s future, DE, Bruce Smith told the defense “Anybody makes a tackle today, I’ll beat you.”
2. The undermanned Texan defense would need to get bad games out of their substitutes.
3. The Texans would need to come on overconfident– expecting the game to be easy.
4. Jackson and Williams would need to call their best games and use trick plays.
If so, Cleveland could eke out a 21-17 win, where Watson throws for four interceptions and Miller fumbles a few times. It did happen against the Jaguars; I will mention it as a possibility.
But there’s an 85% chance the Browns get gutted like a rotting fish.