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.

Seeking A (Winning) Streak

Today the Browns take on the Tennessee Titans in Cleveland Browns Stadium.  The Browns will be trying to do something that has been a rarity since their return to the NFL — put together a winning streak that lasts for more than two games.

Although the season is young, this game is an important one because the Browns schedule is “back-loaded.”  The Browns don’t play the Steelers or the Ravens until December — and then they play those two teams four times in the last five games.  If the Browns hope to be in the playoff hunt as the season winds down, they have to win the winnable games early in the season and then hope to take a few games from these two powerhouse divisional rivals.

Today’s game against Tennessee is one of those early-season games that the Browns really need to win.  The Titans, like the Browns, are 2-1, and are led by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is off to a fast start.  They are primarily a passing team on offense, without much of a running attack.  The Browns defense has been able to put pressure on the quarterback in each of their first three games, and they will be trying to sack and harass the 36-year-old Hasselbeck.  Offensively, the Browns will be looking to get off to a fast start for the first time this season.  The Browns’ first half performance in their games so far has been brutal, and they need to start to develop a consistent offensive rhythm that works throughout the game.  Having Peyton Hillis back, with the increased confidence that should come from last week’s last-second winning touchdown drive and breakout performance by Montario Hardesty, should help.

At the end of every NFL season, teams that don’t make the playoffs look back at the results and can always identify games they should have won — but didn’t.  The Browns already have one such game — the season opener against Cincinnati — and they can’t afford another.

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.

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.