The Browns Suck . . . Again

Here are some words that describe the Cleveland Browns franchise:  Suck.  Blow.  Dismal.  Putrid.  Woeful.  Hopeless.  Unrelentingly, inevitably awful.  Hey, does anyone have a thesaurus handy?

We are at the end of the NFL season.  The Browns are long since out of the running, while the other teams in their division — the mighty Steelers, the hated Ravens, even the usually laughable Bengals — are fighting for playoff spots and home field advantage.  It’s as predictable as the crowds of shoppers returning unwanted Christmas presents they received from Aunt Mildred.

Every year, there is supposed to be a new savior for this cursed franchise.  Once it was Tim Couch, or Butch Davis, or Phil Savage, or Braylon Edwards, or Romeo Crennel, or Eric Mangini.  Lately it is supposed to be Mike Holmgren, Pat Shurmur, Colt McCoy, or Peyton Hillis.  Of course, the Browns are never saved — they might bob up to a level of mediocrity every third season or so, but then they sink back down to their accustomed record of disaster and futility.  This year they are 4-11 and are ready to get waxed, again, by the Steelers in their last game.

The worldwide Browns Backers are among the most faithful fans in the world, but they also have a ridiculous capacity for self-delusion.  Right now they’re talking about maximizing the Browns’ draft position, like it is some great positive.  It isn’t.  The Browns have frittered away countless high draft choices before, and they’ll do it again.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  I repeat:  Suck.  Blow.

The Browns, And The Horror

If you wanted to encapsulate all of the awfulness, and the futility, and the anguish of being a Browns fan in one contest, today’s putrid loss against the woeful Cincinnati Bengals in a pelting rainstorm would be a good way to do it.

We Browns fans have seen this before — and not just because, for the 12th time in 13 years, the Browns have gagged away their season opener.  Once again, the Browns failed to show the toughness and killer instinct to put the game away when they had the Bengals on the ropes.  Once again, the Browns lost the lead in the fourth quarter against a team that they should have beaten and then failed miserably in their attempt to mount their own two-minute drive.   Once again, there were crucial breakdowns that led to plays that made the Browns look like an uncoached pee wee team from Finland being introduced to American football for the very first time.

It is all so tiresome, so embarrassing, and so predictable.  The players change, the coaches change, and the front office officials change, but the horror of being a Browns fan goes on, and on, and on.

Riding The Browns Yo-Yo

On Saturday the Cleveland Browns beat the Green Bay Packers in the teams’ first preseason game.  To hear some fans afterward, you would have thought that the Browns had won a crucial game that qualified them for the playoffs.

This is a problem.  Browns Backers have been wandering in the wilderness for so long, and have seen so many putrid performances, that they seize upon any decent outing and promptly begin to build sandcastles in the air.  Colt McCoy looks sharp for a few series, and suddenly he is the reincarnation of Otto Graham.  Josh Cribbs makes a good catch, and  he becomes the answer to the team’s void at receiver.  A few stops by the defense, and it is the Steel Curtain reborn.  Watch Bruce Drennan’s call-in show, All Bets Are Off, on the Sports Time Ohio channel after a Browns game if you think I’m exaggerating.  And the problem, of course, is that the Browns’ yo-yo always seems to go way down, and stay way down, after every hopeful upward movement.

So, I’m going to remember that the Green Bay game was just a meaningless exhibition.  I’m going to bear in mind that this team finished far out of the running last year and plays in a division that includes two perennial playoff contenders in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.  And I’m going to remind myself that the Browns have gotten my hopes up before, ripped my guts out, and stomped them in the dust.  I’m not ready to make the necessary deep emotional commitment quite yet.

That said, you have to admit that Colt McCoy did look pretty good Saturday night.

 

Questions Of Fit And Fitness

The Browns have hired a new head coach, the 13th full-time head coach in the team’s history.  His name is Pat Shurmur.  Shurmur was the offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams for the last two seasons, and before that he was the tight ends, offensive line, and quarterbacks coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.  So, the Browns have gone with someone whose coaching background is exclusively on the offensive side of the ball.

No one who watched the Browns struggle offensively at the end of the season will question the need to focus on scoring points.  That said, Shurmur’s resume is somewhat thin.  Philadelphia was one of the best teams in the NFL when he was an assistant there, but it is hard to say how much of the Eagles’ offensive success was attributable to Shurmur as opposed to the head coach, the offensive coordinator, and the Eagles’ talented players.  In evaluating Shurmur’s record, therefore, the focus should be on St. Louis, where Shurmur was the offensive coordinator for only two years.  This past year, the Rams finished 7-9 and were not exactly an offensive juggernaut.  The team ranked 21st in the NFL in passing yards and 25th in the league in rushing yards, and failed to score at least 20 points nine times.  The main point on Shurmur’s resume may be that he coached a new quarterback, Sam Bradford, who had a good year for a rookie.

This is one of those situations where the fans simply have to trust the evaluation and judgment of team management on the fitness of the new head coach.  There is nothing in Shurmur’s resume to indicate that he is an offensive wizard who can turn the Browns into a point-producing machine, but he may well have the qualities that are needed to make him a good NFL head coach.  Shurmur was the pick of Mike Holmgren, who knows Shurmur and who was himself a successful head coach.  We can reasonably expect that Holmgren considered whether Shurmur has the attributes that are crucial to head coaching success — such as the willingness to work incredibly hard, the ability to recruit and shape a team of assistant coaches who are themselves excellent coaches, the skill to spot talent that is available through free agency and the draft and to identify players who can positively fill gaps in the current team roster, the organizational savvy to structure a training camp that gets the team ready for the season, and the football knowledge to spot and then exploit weaknesses in opponents.  The reality is that you cannot tell whether a coach will succeed in a particular time and place until they actually get that opportunity.  No one who watched Bill Belichick coach the Browns in the early ’90s would have guessed that Belichick would later turn the New England Patriots into a mini-dynasty.

So, the question of Shurmur’s fitness must await the test of actual games.  The question of his “fit” with the Browns’ players also will remain unanswered until then.  The Browns’ best offensive players this year were a big running back, Peyton Hillis, and tight end Ben Watson.  Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy showed some promise but stumbled at the end of the season, the offensive line was average, and the receiving corps aside from Watson was not NFL-caliber.  Does Shurmur’s offensive scheme “fit” with Hillis and Watson, and if not does he have the flexibility to modify his scheme to accommodate their considerable talents?  Or, will the Browns need to rebuild, again? The fact that Shurmur successfully coached a big back in the Rams’ Steven Jackson and that the Rams made significant use of a platoon of tight ends gives some cause for hope.

Browns fans can only pray that Shurmur has the attributes needed to turn around the sagging Browns franchise.  The Cleveland Browns have been wandering aimlessly in the wilderness since their return to the NFL.  During that period the team has often been an embarrassment to devoted Browns Backers.  We can only hope that Holmgren and his hand-picked coach can lead the team to the promised land of the NFL playoffs and back to the record of consistent excellence that characterized the Cleveland Browns for decades.

A Missed Opportunity

There are two ways to get to the playoffs in the NFL.  First, you can build a core of talented players and coaches, establish a system, and maintain the system notwithstanding the ravages of free agency and personnel changes.  The Patriots, Colts, and Steelers all fall into this category.  The second option is for a less talented team to take advantage of opportunity — a soft schedule, the unexpected emergence of a previously unheralded player, and a favorable bounce or two — and come from nowhere to win enough games to make the playoffs.  Once you are in the playoffs, anything can happen.

The Browns are a long way, talent-wise and system-wise, from falling into the first category, although I believe that is where Mike Holmgren and, if he is retained, Eric Mangini are aiming.  Therefore, the Browns’ only hope of making the playoffs this year was to fall into the second category — and it is there that the Browns have, I think, missed an opportunity.  They had a chance to come roaring out of the gate with some easy initial games.  They built upon the run-oriented success they had at the end of last year by finding a big back, Peyton Hillis, whose tough running style put them in a position to compete against the better teams in the league.  And the Browns’ defense played much better than expected.  With some grit and determination, and a lucky bounce or two, at this point in the season the Browns could be in the thick of the playoff fight.

It hasn’t happened that way.  The easy initial wins did not materialize, and after last week’s very disappointing loss to Buffalo the Browns stand at 5-8 and are on the outside looking in.  The game against the Bills neatly captured the Browns’ shortcomings this year.  After a good opening drive, the Browns stalled on the one-yard line and kicked a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down.  After the defense forced a turnover, the offense gave the ball right back through a Peyton Hillis fumble.  And when the game turned into a defensive struggle, the Browns offense stuck with a predictable run, run, pass on third down offensive style that Buffalo easily defended.  The fact that Jake Delhomme is really no longer an NFL-caliber quarterback and the Browns’ wide receiver corps is lackluster isn’t helping, either.

If you are one of the less talented teams in the NFL, you have to be willing to take some chances.  You need to gamble on fourth down, run a few trick plays, and maximize your scoring opportunities.  The Browns’ defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, understands this.  His defensive takes risks and looks for big plays and turnover opportunities.  The Browns’ offense also did this in some games, such as their signature wins against the Saints and the Patriots.  For some reason, however, they stopped taking risks in recent games, and their one-dimensional offense has not done the job.  And so, for yet another year, the Browns Backers of the world are disappointed, and thinking wistfully of what might have been.

For Love Of The Browns

I’ve posted before about the Browns Backers — the fanatical network of diehard fans of the Cleveland Browns with outposts found coast to coast.  Last year, Russell, UJ, and I watched a game with the Westerville Browns Backers, and we had a wonderful time.

The Huron Browns Backers bus

When we were up north recently I happened to pass the Huron Browns Backer bus, which was parked in a lot adjacent to the Knucklehead saloon near the intersection of Route 2 and Rye Beach Road.  It is a most impressive piece of work.  Resplendent in the familiar team colors of orange and brown, the bus has been tricked out to look like a bloodthirsty dog from the front and is inscribed with the names of the Browns’ head coaches, favorite players, and the years when the Browns won the All-American Football Conference and the NFL championship.

The classic reflection of the world view of beaten down Browns fans, however, is found in the sign at the right rear of the bus.  It says the Browns will be Super Bowl champions “2 – – – ?”  In other words, the Huron Browns Backers are confidently predicting that the Browns will win the Super Bowl — not in the next year, the next decade, or even the next century, but sometime during the next millennium.  In view of Red Right 88, The Drive, and The Fumble, who can blame them for hedging their bets?

Hanging With The Browns Backers

UJ has invited me to join him and the Westerville Browns Backers at Jimmy V’s in Westerville for prior Browns’ games, and today Russell and I took him up on the invitation.  The Browns Backers is a world-wide organization of Browns fans.  If you find yourself in a strange city on Sunday and want to watch the Browns with some kindred spirits, you can go to the Browns Backers website and see whether there is a local Browns Backers club that watches the game at a particular bar.  Russell and I did that some years ago and watched the Browns’ lone playoff game in recent years with the San Diego Browns Backers.

It was fun watching the game with a bunch of rowdy Browns fans, and Russell and I were impressed when UJ consumed an entire hummus platter after eating a gyro with chips.  We drank a few beers, cheered for the Browns, and were happy when they won their third straight game, beating the Raiders 23-9.  Good idea, UJ!