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.

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.

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 Browns On The Coaching Carousel, Again

The Eric Mangini years are over, and now Mike Holmgren has to find a new leader to coach the Browns.  Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has an article identifying some of the possible candidates and their competing qualifications.  They fall into familiar categories — the failed former head coaches, the respected up and coming assistant coaches, and the hot college coaches.  The categories are familiar to Browns fans because the Browns have, since their return to the NFL, picked at least one coach from each category.  Mangini was a failed former head coach, Romeo Crennel was the respected up and coming assistant, and Butch Davis was the hot college coach.

Obviously, the Browns know from firsthand experience that none of the categories is a sure path to success.  Picking an NFL head coach and hoping that he “fits” with your organization is a crap shoot, but there are some qualities that seem to be required.  The person has to be hard worker who will sacrifice a lot of free time for success on the football field.  He has to be able to recruit and manage capable assistant coaches and weld them into a cohesive staff.  He has to have some idea of what kind of team he wants to put on the field.  Is it a spread offense or one that focuses on a grind-it-out ground game?  Will the defense play 4-3 or 3-4?  The coach has to be able to identify and coach up talent and fit that talent together.  And does the individual have sufficient football smarts that, when he looks at film of the opposing team, he can spot weaknesses to exploit?

This time around on the coaching carousel, at least, the Browns have someone, in Holmgren, who clearly knows what it takes to be a successful NFL head coach because he was one himself.  He may be right or wrong about whether an individual has those qualities and characteristics, but at least he knows what they are.  That’s a good start.

The issue is whether Holmgren will try to find a candidate whose scheme and approach fits with the abilities of those members of the Browns who are likely to survive to next season.  Clearly, the Browns have some talent — they wouldn’t have spanked New England and New Orleans and played the Jets to a standstill without some NFL-caliber players — but equally clearly they have a ways to go to become one of the better teams in the league.  For example, the Browns have a good offensive line, a good tight end, and a good big back.  Those pieces may be useful to a head coach who wants to build off the running game, but they might not fit so neatly with some who plays the spread.

It would be nice to see the Browns pick up a coach whose scheme would readily accommodate the Browns’ existing NFL-level talent, so that the emphasis is on finding missing pieces through the draft or free agency rather than wholesale changes.  I’d like to see the Browns focus on making the playoffs next year.  I don’t want them to bring in a coach whose approach is so inconsistent with the existing talent that the team has to rebuild — again.

When Mike Holmgren Earns His Pay

What should the Browns do with Eric Mangini?  With two games left in another mediocre regular season, the question lingers.

The Browns look to be heading toward their second straight 5-11 season.  Last year, they closed with a rush, winning their last four games.  This year, they have played many close games and won against two of the best teams in the NFL.  Unfortunately, however, they have lost a lot of winnable games, and they will miss the playoffs — again.  Mangini seems to have brought some order out of chaos and has made some progress, but the Browns still have not gotten over the hump.  Can they do so with Mangini at the helm?

That is the question Mike Holmgren has to answer.  It is a tough question.  5-11 records are not acceptable, obviously, and the team’s lackluster performance in the last two games is not encouraging.  On the other hand, constant coaching changes are not a good thing, either.  For decades, the Browns had one of the most respected front offices in the NFL, marked by competence and stability, with virtually no coaching turnover. Since the Browns have come back into the league, however, the team has been a coaching carousel and experienced constant front office change.  It has not turned out well for the franchise. I’m confident that Holmgren recognizes that.

I’m inclined to withhold judgment on Mangini, for now.  He has tried to establish an approach and a system and has made some progress — slow progress, to be sure, but progress nevertheless.  I’d like to see whether the Browns play with some spirit in one of the last two games, when they will be competing against two of the best teams in the AFC, at a time when both Pittsburgh and Baltimore are gunning for playoff position.  If the Mangini can lead the Browns to a victory in one of those two games, I think it would say something about his ability to coach, inspire, and lead.

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.