Browns

Browns ABC’s: Acknowledging the Bitter Catch-22, Week 8

A. There’s no way around it. If you’ve decided to rebuild your NFL team it will be virtually impossible to get through it without appearing hapless and helpless for an indeterminate period. Neither Rome nor a Super Bowl winner were built in a day, but if you admit that’s part of the growing pains-process of rebuilding, you will be swarmed by midges and hyenas for being hapless and helpless. So you stick to the script: “Saw some positive things … successes to build on … teachable moments …”, knowing these responses will be met mostly with skepticism, if not scorn.

The term, “Catch-22” originated with the 1961 satirical novel by Joseph Heller and described a situation in which a desirable outcome is impossible to achieve because of the inherently illogical, contradictory — even absurd — rules that govern the predicament.

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NFL football is filled with apparent Catch-22‘s:

We absolutely must establish the running game, but the opposition knows that and will focus primarily on defending against it. But if we just pass, the opposition will be able to rush the passer without fear of being vulnerable against the run.

We should win as many games as we can, even if we’re not going to the playoffs because that instills a winning mindset, but that will result in draft picks lower down in the order. Or we can just take our medicine and not worry about winning, that way we’ll get higher draft picks. But then we’ll just blow the draft picks.

Another paradox for NFL franchises such as the Cleveland Browns is that they rely heavily on the publicity of the media covering them, all the while knowing that the media’s view of their purpose in life is to expose and exploit the team’s weaknesses. With such a raison d’etre, the team will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

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When the NFL is described as a “pass-fail league” it is the kindest of spins. The league and the ever-hovering media drones make for a culture of alpha-dogs, bred for hard hits, hype and scandal. This is no longer the 1960’s. Gone are the days when a public figure, even one running for the presidency, could give reporters a heads up by making an “off the record” comment. Today, no one, absolutely no one, gets the benefit of the doubt.

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If you think the ultimate solution to this perpetual warfare is for a team to win a championship, it’s true, this will usually muzzle the snarling dobermans, but only for about 22 minutes. Last year, in October, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns, 31-10. After decades of success and a string of playoff appearances and Super Bowl victories, you might have thought the Steelers’ loss to the Browns could have been absorbed in stride, if not with grace. But, no, the media and fans went on the warpath, calling for the firings of head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and even suggesting it was time to dump Ben Roethlisberger. At the end of the season, after the smoke of battle had dispersed, there were the Steelers again, in the playoffs.

This season, when the Ravens lost to the Browns, 33-30 in overtime, one Baltimore reporter called it the “sign that the Apocalypse is upon us and life as we once knew it is over.” Apparently, the most effective way to elicit the most imprudent of comments from your fans and reporters is to lose to the lowly Browns.

Ah well, one can only assume that those involved knew what they were in for when they signed up. Still, from a fan’s standpoint, wouldn’t it be interesting to separate the chaff from the wheat when it comes to sports reporting in general and critiques of the Browns in particular? Those speaking for the team, however, are in no position to do the separating. There is nothing to be gained by publicly defending their positions and there’s another Catch-22. Take the heat in silence or defend yourself and generate more heat. Aware of the challenges of rebuilding, they must surely be asking themselves continually where is progress being made or not made? The bitter pill, however, is that their analysis and their self-defense can only be in private.

B. One of the oft-heard comments of late is that, with a 2-6 record, it’s time for the Browns to see what they have in Johnny Manziel. It’s time to see whether he is the quarterback of the future. These comments are yet another part of the Catch-22 dilemma. The Manziel lobbyists would have us believe that the Browns coaches don’t already know what they have in Manziel, though Mike Pettine has repeatedly said he plays those who give the team the best chance to win. To bolster his position Pettine would have to say what he surely believes, that he doesn’t need to put him out there to know, essentially, what kind of talent he is, that, in fact, they do know, and they prefer Josh McCown, even a Josh McCown who is gasping for air after getting the wind knocked out of him. Saying so, however, would be to feed the frenzy, and to undercut Manziel’s confidence (not to mention his trade value).

Realizing they may be pushing their case somewhat to the extreme, the Manzealots have come up with another strategy, which is to assert that it’s time to see what other young players are capable of. Why not play Justin Gilbert at cornerback, Cam Erving on the offensive line, Nate Orchard at linebacker? (See? I’m not just focusing on Johnny Football.)

When asked on Tuesday if Manziel, Gilbert and other young players should start so the Browns can fully evaluate those players, Ray Farmer’s answer was entirely predictable: “Nobody should be given anything. I’ve always been a fan of a guy [who] has to earn it and the guy that earns it should play. Whether he’s a college free agent, whether he’s a first-round pick, the guy that earns it should play.”

Manziel may, indeed, start at quarterback against the Bengals on Thursday night, but if he does, the important story is not about him, but about the Browns offensive line. The team hasn’t had much of a running game, and the success of the passing game is often in spite of, rather than because of, the protection afforded its quarterbacks. Hence, once again Josh McCown is praised for being tough because of the beatings he’s been taking without complaint. Yes, there have been a few times when McCown has held the ball too long trying to find an open receiver. That’s not an uncommon problem with quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and many others have had to work on that stubborn habit. But three seconds, from snap to getting hammered, is not too long. Of course, Catch-22, Mike Pettine can’t describe the problem that way. That would be tantamount to sicking those dobermans on the offensive line.

During the off season, the Browns gave up on 30-year-old Brian Hoyer, who went on to sign a two-year contract with the Houston Texans, and gave 36-year-old Josh McCown a three-year deal. Halfway through the 2015 season, Hoyer (97.1) and McCown (95.2) are ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, in the league. In fact their overall stats are very similar. Ratings in the mid-90’s or better put both of them in the top third of the NFL. To date, the Browns are 2-6 and Houston is 3-5. Last season’s red-hot quarterback controversy: Are we not right back where we were last year, with major concerns regarding the offensive line? Except for the fact that the guy from Cleveland is in Texas, and the guy from Texas is in Cleveland, what else is different?

Nevertheless, the Browns felt they couldn’t stand pat in the off-season. They were snagged in another one of those Catch-22’s.

C. Against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday, here are some keys to the game from a personal point of view.

When the Browns were up, 20-7 and after the Browns recovered the Cardinals’ fumble on their own 8-yard-line with 1:41 left in the first half, they chose to eat up the clock with three straight running plays, rather than make a serious attempt to get a first down. Then they punted. Sure enough, the Cardinals moved the ball quickly, almost got a touchdown, and ended the first half with a FG as time ran out to make it 20-10. Another example of timid play calling? Halfway through the season, the offense has been more reliable than the defense at crunch time. Why not loose them, and let them go?

To begin the second half, Duke Johnson Jr. ran for three yards on first down. McCown then threw an incomplete pass against tight coverage, then a Browns delay of game penalty, then the incomplete pass on third down as McCown was smothered by four defenders. Four defenders! What is going on with an offensive line that allows four guys to hit your QB? That looked to be the play that had McCown playing in pain the rest of the game.

The next series for Arizona produced a Palmer-to-Floyd 60-yard touchdown pass over Joe Haden: 20-17.

On the very first play of the Browns next series, Frostee Rucker ran right past John Greco, untouched it appeared, and flattened McCown again as the pass was released. On third-down, Hartline dropped an accurate pass by McCown on a scramble to his left. The Browns then punted from their own 30 but Arizona’s Patrick Peterson returned it to the Cleveland 43, a 13-yard net punt.

On the very next play, Palmer hit Jaron Brown, for a 39-yard completion, followed shortly thereafter by a touchdown pass.

McCown continued to make a number of quality throws while playing hurt and getting hit. Finally, he floated the pass that got intercepted in the Cardinal end zone and after the pick, the Cardinals drove 80 yards for another touchdown.

Enough!

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These plays tell us what? That the Browns second-half meltdown on Sunday was the result of major breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams. McCown, Manziel, Hoyer, whoever … it’s just not about one guy. Never was.

Still, there was a time not long ago when fans needed to set aside only about thirty minutes on Sundays to watch the Browns because by 1:30 the writing was clearly on the wall. On the other hand there has been some entertaining football this season. Consider that last Sunday the Packers and Broncos, both undefeated, matched up in Denver. The Broncos won, 29-10. Aaron Rodgers went 14-for-22 with a total of 77 yards passing, a 3.5 yards-per-pass average and a quarterback rating of 69.7. Two weeks earlier in Cleveland, the Browns actually gave the Broncos a more competitive, entertaining game, eventually succumbing in overtime, 26-23.

But here’s the catch: We’d rather not invest three hours in a game that is simply not entertaining. On the other hand, if it is a good game, watching it live rather than pre-recorded is what makes the experience special. As long as we’ve been waiting, we just don’t want to miss the live broadcast of that turning point when the season suddenly becomes historic. And there you have it, another Catch-22.

Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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