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.

A Make-Or-Break Game For The Browns

Today’s home game against the resurgent Seattle Seahawks is a make-or-break game for the Browns.  Although the season is only five games old, the Browns are in a sickeningly familiar position — in last place in their division, losing contact with the leading teams, struggling to win games at home, and playing uninspired and uninspiring football.

The Browns are a team that needs to find itself.  Offensively, they seem to have no identity and no soul.  Are they a running team, or a West Coast offense passing team?  Is Peyton Hillis hurt, or in the coach’s doghouse for some reason?  Quarterback Colt McCoy doesn’t seem to be picking up the new offense, and the Browns’ wide receivers have been close to invisible.  The Browns clearly don’t have a big-play threat, so why not get back to using Hillis as the every-down back and focusing on running the ball with a few passes mixed in?  They’ve used that scheme before with some success, and the pounding seems to wear down defenses until Hillis breaks a big run.

Defensively, the Browns have been pretty good — but any defense gets gassed, and then gashed, if they are on the field virtually every down.  If the Browns could score on offense, the defense could take a few more chances and, perhaps, become a bit more of a big-play unit.  It’s hard to do that, however, when it looks like any score you give up will be insurmountable for your inept offense.

Already the Browns are two full games behind the Ravens, and a game and a half behind both the Steelers and the Bengals.  Another loss today, and the Browns may as well hang it up for the season — and it’s not even the end of October.

Edited to Add:  Well, it was brutal to watch, but the Browns got it done, 6-3.  Credit the defense and Phil Dawson’s long-distance accuracy for the win and keeping the Browns (slightly) in contention.

It’s Never Easy

The Browns won an ugly game today.  As victories go, it was about as repulsive as you can get — but it was a win nevertheless.

After three games, the Browns are 2-1, and will be, at worst, tied for first in their division.  They won today because their defense played a good game against a pretty mediocre team and their offense — which was wretched for most of the game — cobbled together a good last-second drive for a touchdown.  The drive gave the Browns a 17-16 lead, and the defense forced a Miami turnover to seal the win.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves about this Browns team.  The offense clearly is searching for itself, and the defense hasn’t faced any offensive juggernauts.  Still, Colt McCoy’s performance on the two-minute drill was encouraging and may help to kick start this offense into a good rhythm.  And a more productive offense would be a help for the defense, too.  The Browns appear to have some defensive playmakers, and letting them take a gamble now and then might make them into a more effective unit.

I’ll take the win, of course — but with the Browns it’s never easy.

The Browns Bounce Back

Today the Cleveland Browns won a game they absolutely had to win.  By the end of the season this game may mean nothing — but at least a win in a must-win game is a welcome change from prior seasons.

The Browns beat the Indianapolis Colts, 27-19.  It’s not a great achievement, because the Colts without Peyton Manning are like a mighty aircraft carrier without a captain.  Nevertheless, any win on the road in the NFL is a win to be celebrated.  For the Browns in particular, the game is worth relishing because the Browns actually managed to hold onto, and then expand, a fourth-quarter lead and put the game away.  Peyton Hillis’ hard-running 24-yard touchdown gallop gave the Browns a two-score lead, and the defense’s forcing a fumble from Kerry Collins on the next series was the back-breaker.

The Browns have a long way to go, but winning to keep pace with the other teams in the AFC North was crucial.  Today’s game also showed some promising signs.  For the first time since Kamerion Wimbley’s rookie season, the Browns may have an defensive line that can consistently pressure the opposing quarterback without blitzing.  I particularly like the hustling, never-say-quit play of rookie lineman Jabaal Sheard.  Colt McCoy had a reasonably good day throwing the ball, which is essential if you are going to run the West Coast offense.  And the Browns continued to stick with the rushing game, wearing the Colts down until Hillis sprang his clutch run.

This win is a baby step, but it is a baby step in the right direction after last week’s embarrassing performance against the Bengals.

It’s Time For The Browns To Win Their Season Opener

Since the Browns came back into the NFL in 1999, their record in the first game of the season has been stunningly awful.

In 12 years, the Browns have won their season opener precisely once — beating Baltimore 20-3 in 2004.  In the other years, they’ve lost in every conceivable way.  They’ve lost to good teams and bad teams.  They’ve gotten creamed and they’ve lost 9-6 defensive battles.  They even lost when Dwayne Rudd was penalized for removing his helmet on the last play of the game.  With astonishing, soul-deadening consistency, the old Browns and new Browns have produced the same result.  The season starts with a dispiriting 0-1 record, the team is in a hole, and they never seem to be able to fully claw their way out of it.  It’s no wonder the team has made the playoffs only once in those 12 years.

This year, the Browns need to find a way to somehow win their first game, against the Cincinnati Bengals.  Beating the Bengals is not an impossible dream.  In fact, if the Browns really are heading in the right direction, the game against the Bengals is a game that they should — really, they must — win.

With Mike Holmgren fully  at the helm of the franchise, a new head coach in Pat Shurmur and a new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes, exciting players like Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy, and Josh Cribbs, and a roster stocked with younger players, it is time for the Browns to start slaying the ghosts and demons that have tormented this star-crossed franchise since its return to the league.  It can be done.  For years, the Browns could not win at Three Rivers Stadium — until suddenly, under Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar, they could.  On Sunday, it is time for this Browns team, too, to start turning things around.

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.

The Season Limps To A Close

The Browns play their final game of the year on Sunday.  It will be a home matchup against their bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The game means everything to the Steelers, who are fighting to win the division and get a first-round bye.  For the Browns, the game is all about pride and rivalry, as the Browns have been out of the playoff hunt for weeks.

This game should be a mismatch.  The Steelers are one of the best teams in the NFL.  Their defense is terrific — the best in the NFL against the run — and their offense is balanced and productive.  They are a seasoned team that routinely makes the playoffs, and this game is important to their Super Bowl prospects.  The Browns, on the other hand, seem to have hit the wall both offensively and defensively.  Offensively, the Browns struggle to score points; they have not reached 20 points in the last four games.  Last week, the Ravens shut down Peyton Hillis and the Browns’ running game and picked off rookie quarterback Colt McCoy three times.  The Steelers can also be expected to focus on stuffing the run and harassing McCoy.  Defensively, the Browns seem to be getting worn down.  The Ravens and the Bengals both moved the ball on the ground against the Browns, and the Steelers will try to do the same with Rashard Mendenhall, one of the best backs in the league.  The Steelers, moreover, will bring Ben Roethlisberger and a better passing game, too.

It is disheartening for Browns fans to see another season grind to a close without a playoff berth, but the players and, in particular, head coach Eric Mangini and his staff cannot afford to be disheartened.  They are fighting for their jobs and coming to an end of a season that has seen some progress.  It would be nice to see the Browns’ final record come in at 6-10, rather than duplicating last year’s 5-11 mark.  And, of course, it would be sweet to see the Browns beat the Steelers and throw a wrench into their playoff plans.  Rivalries aren’t really rivalries if the underdog doesn’t rise up and win once in a while.  Now would be a good time for the Browns to do so.

The Battle Of Ohio

Tomorrow the Cleveland Browns play the Bengals in Cincinnati.  The game is called the Battle of Ohio, but this year it is little more than a mild skirmish.  The Browns are mediocre at best, and the Bengals are downright terrible.  There is so little interest in Cincinnati that the game isn’t even a sellout and will be blacked out.  How pathetic — a rivalry game that isn’t even a sellout!

As disappointing as the Browns’ season has been, the Bengals’ has been disastrous.  Their fans thought the Bengals would be a playoff team and perhaps a Super Bowl contender.  Instead, they are awful.  At 2-11, the Bengals have the worst record in the AFC.  They’ve lost 10 games in a  row, their offense is mediocre, their running game is terrible, and their defense has given up yards and points by the truckload.  The team is riddled with dissension, and the bland head coach, Marvin Lewis, presumably is on his way out at the end of the year.

Secretly, every Browns fan is not surprised by what has happened to the Bengals this year.  Most Browns fans have always viewed the Bengals as the gloryhound flyboys who lack the character and toughness to win.  When challenges arise, they fold up and then start fighting amongst themselves.  Cleveland fans like traditional football, where a solid running game and a tough defense are the foundations for success.  The Bengals always seem to go for easy yards through the air and offensive gimmicks — Sam Wyche was famous for them — and they haven’t fielded a strong defense for decades.  Even worse, their fans are of the fair-weather variety, which is why tomorrow’s game isn’t a sellout.

I’m hoping that Colt McCoy returns to the lineup tomorrow, and that the Browns go back to an offense that is less predictable and more instructive about the team’s future. Let’s give McCoy the opportunity to use the full offensive playbook.  Let’s see if our wideouts can make tough catches and beat defenses deep.  And while the Browns will want to use Peyton Hillis, let’s see if the other running backs can move the ball on the ground.  On defense, let’s focus on shutting out Chad Ochocinco, an overrated loudmouth whose reputation is built mainly on marketing and easy catches.  I’d like to see the Browns thump the Bengals physically.  Those crybaby quitters from the south, and their fans who won’t even come out to support the team, deserve nothing less.

No Quitters Here

The Browns play today in Cleveland against the Carolina Panthers.  The Browns stand at 3-7, the Panthers are 1-9.

This is the time of the NFL season where some teams are still in it, and some teams are out of it.  The Browns and the Panthers are in the latter category.  Some teams in the “out of it” category just quit.  Our neighbors to the south, the Cincinnati Bengals, are a good example.  The Bengals started the season with high hopes and have been putrid.  The team appears to be riddled with dissension, the coach is on his way out, and the players look like they have given up.  If I were a Bengals fan, I would be furious and embarrassed.

Last year the Browns did not quit, even after a string of early losses eliminated them from playoff contention.  It was a tribute to their coaching and the professionalism of the players.  We will see if, this year, Coach Eric Mangini can work the same magic.  Unfortunately, the Browns will be without the enthusiastic play of quarterback Colt McCoy, who is out with a high ankle sprain, and instead will turn to the aged Jake Delhomme.  I’m hoping the Browns can get back on the winning track against a dismal Carolina team.  Even if the playoffs are out of reach this year — and it certainly looks that way — I want to see some character and grit.  The Browns need to show that they aren’t the Bengals.

Looking To Get Back On Track

The Browns travel to Jacksonville today to play the Jaguars, looking to bounce back from last week’s heart-breaking overtime loss to the Jets.  It will be one of those crucial games that will determine whether, for the rest of the season, the Browns are playing for a playoff spot or playing out the string.

Nine games into the season, the Browns stand 3-6, three games behind AFC North Division leaders Baltimore and Pittsburgh.  If they win today, they remain in the hunt.  If they lose, they will effectively be eliminated from the race for the playoffs.  With seven losses, the Browns probably would have to win out to even have a chance — and even then it is unlikely that a 9-7 record gets them into the playoffs.

The Browns go into this game banged up, with Josh Cribbs out on offense and Scott Fujita out on defense.  In Jacksonville, the Browns will be facing a very unpredictable opponent.  The Jaguars are 5-4, but have lost the four games by more than 20 points each.  The Jags have a hot quarterback, a good running back, and a good corps of wide receivers; they will test the Browns’ very creative defense.  The Jaguars’ defense has given up a lot of points and their secondary is particularly questionable — but the Browns don’t exactly have a bunch of stud receivers.  Although Colt McCoy has played very well since he took over the starting job at quarterback, I don’t expect to see a pass-happy Browns offense today.  I think we’ll still see lots of Peyton Hillis running the ball, mixed in with short passes to tight end Ben Watson and an occasional long ball.

The Browns need to figure out a way to win this game.

Hump Game

Tomorrow the Browns welcome the New York Jets to Cleveland Stadium.  It will be a crucial hump game for the 3-5 Browns, who are trying to claw their way back into contention.  If the Browns win, they will be 4-5 and will have completed a three-game winning streak against three of the best teams in the NFL.  If the Browns lose, they will fall to 3-6 and have a very tough time working their way back to respectability.

Ahtyba Rubin and the Browns' defensive line will be tested by the Jets running attack

The Jets clearly are one of the best teams in the AFC.  They are 6-2 and tied with New England for the top spot in the AFC East.  Offensively, the Jets have lots of weapons.  LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene are their two excellent featured backs, and their efforts have put the Jets fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per game.  Mark Sanchez is their celebrity quarterback, and he throws to Braylon Edwards — the cocky ex-Brown — and Dustin Keller.  This is a solid offense that will pose a huge challenge for Rob Ryan and the Browns’ quirky defense.  The Jets’ running game will test the Browns’ defensive line and linebackers, who have played extremely well in recent weeks, and Sanchez and Edwards will target the Browns’ secondary — and probably specifically Eric Wright, who has struggled at times this season.  This is another game where the ball-hawking Browns will be hoping to force turnovers to stub out Jets’ drives.

The Browns will be hoping that Colt McCoy doesn't need to do too much tomorrow

The Jets’ defense also is good.  It has been especially stout against the run, and this is where tomorrow’s game should get interesting.  The Browns have been very successful running the ball of late; last week Peyton Hillis ran through, over, and around New England for more than 180 yards.  With rookie Colt McCoy probably starting at quarterback, the Browns will want to establish a running game to take the pressure off McCoy.  If the Browns can’t move the ball on the ground and the offense has to move the ball exclusively through the air, it likely will be a long game for Cleveland.  I would expect the Browns to continue to pound at the Jets, even if they aren’t having much initial success, unless and until the score requires them to focus on the passing attack.  I also expect that the inventive play-calling that has been so successful in the past two games will be seen in tomorrow’s game, too.

The Browns’ excellent play in the last two weeks has Cleveland fans everywhere getting their hopes up.  This will be the biggest home game for the Browns in years.  I expect Cleveland Stadium and the Browns fans to be loud and proud tomorrow, at their boisterous and bellicose best, hoping that their cheering and rooting and jeering of the Jets can bring their team to victory in a vital game.

Passing The Test, In Smashing Fashion

Yesterday I wrote that the Browns’ game against New England would be an “acid test.” Today the Browns passed that test, and in smashing fashion.  They pulverized the Patriots, who came into the game with the best record in the NFL, 34-14.

There was a lot to like about this game.  Offensively, the Browns were aggressive and took the game to the Patriots.  The Browns’ offensive line was stellar.  On running plays they smashed the New England defensive line, and Peyton Hillis — a big back who can deliver a crushing blow at the point of impact, yet who is nimble enough to hurdle a tackler or get far downfield and catch the ball on the wheel route — blew through the Patriots for more than 180 yards and two touchdowns.  (Brady Quinn’s greatest contribution to the Browns was being traded for this guy!)  The line also provided good pass protection, and Colt McCoy played a careful, error-free game that featured a brilliant scrambling run for a touchdown.  On that play, Joshua Cribbs delivered a de-cleating, pancake block.  Cribbs also played a key role in the Browns’ other touchdown, where he handed off from the wildcat formation on a modified fumblerooski play that caught the Patriots totally off-guard.

On defense, the Browns forced key turnovers and also kept Tom Brady and his corps of receivers off their games.  The Browns’ ever-changing and inventive (some might say downright weird) defensive formations and schemes clearly bugged Brady.  Having to deal with no down lineman sets, then three-lineman sets, then corner blitzes, acted on Brady like a combination of itching powder and atomic balm in his jockstrap.  He seemed irritated and frustrated throughout the game.  The Patriots’ offense, one of the better offensive units in the NFL, was never able to get untracked.

Of course, this is just one win for the Browns, who are still only 3-5 — but it is a very satisfying win.  Let’s hope the Browns have found their stride.  Next up is the New York Jets, next Sunday.

Acid Test

Earlier this season I wrote off the Browns and decided to keep my Sundays to myself.  Two weeks ago, however, the Browns limped in to New Orleans with a 1-5 record and somehow came out with an impressive win over the defending Super Bowl champions.  They did it by forcing turnovers, scoring on defense, pounding the ball on the ground, and pulling just about every play imaginable out of the playbook.  The unexpected win has encouraged some Browns fans — who are desperate for good news — to believe that the team has turned a corner.

I saw a bit of the win over the Saints, and the Browns played well, but one game does not a season make.  The Browns had a bye last week, and the banged-up team has had a chance to heal.  This week they have a tough game, at home, against the 6-1 New England Patriots.  If the Browns want to make a statement about where the franchise is headed, this is the week to do it.

If the Browns hope to beat the Patriots, the defense will have to play like it did against the Saints.  It will have to force turnovers and confuse Tom Brady.  It isn’t clear whether Seneca Wallace or Colt McCoy will start at quarterback, but the real key to the Browns offense will be the offensive line and big back Peyton Hillis.  If the line can get a push and Hillis can successfully pound away at the Patriots defense, keeping the Patriots offense off the field, that will be more than half the battle.  Against the Saints the Browns were able to grind away on the ground, racking up crucial first downs and milking the clock.

This week will be an acid test for the Browns.  Was the win against the Saints a fluke?  Or, was it the start of a turnaround?