If you want to win games in the NFL you have to out-play and out-score your opponent. Football can be a complex game but not as much as some let on. Out-playing your opponent boils down to out-running him or overpowering him. It involves the mastering of some basic fundamentals that help players block and tackle more effectively than their opponents.
Football is not espionage or guerrilla warfare. There are very few secrets in this game. Coaches can make a difference at the margins, but generally speaking, better players win games over lesser ones. Nothing reveals this simple fact more starkly than what happens when offensive and defensive lines confront one another. In the Bengals’ 37-3 thumping of the Browns on Sunday the Cincinnati offensive line opened holes for its runners and kept the Browns defenders a nice safe distance from their quarterback. When the Browns had possession of the ball, the Bengals defensive line shoved the Browns blockers back or ran around them or out-maneuvered them all afternoon, harassing Browns quarterback Austin Davis, sacking him or just putting a lick on him as he was releasing the ball. They also stuffed the Browns running game for all but a few respectable gains.
The 2015 Bengals are a very good team, 10-2 at this point in the season, but this kind of scene, wherein the Browns are simply no match for their opponents in the trenches, has been replayed over and over in almost every one of their games this year.
Elsewhere on the field, the contrast between the defensive backfields of the Bengals and the Browns revealed more of what the Cleveland team lacks. It’s a familiar sight for those who have been watching the Browns for any length of time. Browns receivers, when they make a catch, often do so in tight quarters or in a crowd. You can sometimes see it in their body language when, as they make a catch, they flinch, expecting to get hit as the ball arrives. The opponent’s receivers by comparison are often roaming in open pasture, and you find yourself saying in unison with the TV announcers, “wide open.”
Browns defensive backs in recent years have often looked overmatched. Far too often on long passes, they are not in position to look back for the ball as it’s in the air. That seems to be the least of their concerns. Just keeping up is about all they’re hoping for.
This is not to disparage any individual player in the NFL. Every one is among the best in the country, about 2,000 out of the tens of thousands who have pursued the dream of playing in the NFL. But when one player lines up across from another, the better athlete will win most of the battles. And it is those few, select blue-chip players who more often than not have the most impact on the game.
Go back to 1999 and look at the draft picks of the Cleveland Browns and see how many elite players they’ve managed to acquire. On occasion their tosses of the dart at the draft board hit a target (usually with offensive linemen), but with such infrequency, they seem no better than accidental. Unfortunately, one of the facts of life in the NFL is that those blue chippers are more often than not found in the first round or two. More than any other factor, the Browns failure to acquire top-tier players has left them uncompetitive. Go through the Browns current roster and ask yourself, how many of these players are among the best in the league?
Certain positions are more dependent on the support of other players, most notably the position of quarterback. Without a capable offensive line no quarterback can thrive. Likewise, running backs can accomplish very little without a few holes punched into the opposition’s wall of defenders. The most impactful positions on the field are those which come down to dominance in one-on-one matchups: defensive linemen, especially those who have significant responsibility for rushing the passer; linebackers, the best of whom are so fast and strong they cannot be thwarted; and cornerbacks who can match up with the biggest and best of the wide receivers and at least stay close.
On the offensive side of the ball, the wide receivers who are among the biggest and speediest in the league can be the most potent of weapons. They almost always win the one-on-one matchups, so most teams put one-and-a-half or two bodies on the Calvin Johnsons, Antonio Browns, and Julio Joneses of the league.
Ernie Accorsi, former General Manager of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and New York Giants, was interviewed on Cleveland radio recently. Accorsi, who was hired last month by the Detroit Lions to consult with them on the hiring of a new GM, was asked about his basic principles for building a team. He cited three building blocks: quarterback, a dominant pass rusher and a dominant deep threat at wide receiver. It’s hard to argue with this short list, but as mentioned, the pass rusher and wide receiver are not as dependent on those around him as is the quarterback. J.J. Watt would probably flourish with the Browns. Tom Brady would not.
In the Browns most recent draft in 2015, they selected 12 players. Eleven are still on the roster. Only Vince Mayle, one of their two fourth-round picks, failed to make the team and, after a brief stint on the Cowboys roster, is now out of the NFL. It’s far too early for final grades on the 2015 class, but, for now at least, there don’t appear to be any blue chippers among the group. Once the red-shirted cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, gets an opportunity to play in 2016, the 2015 draft’s grades will be closer to complete.
Five of the six 2014 draft picks (Terrance West being the exception) are still on the roster, including starter Joel Bitonio. Blue chippers? None in sight. Will the two number ones, Gilbert and Manziel, even be with the team for the 2016 season? If not, only Christian Kirksey and Pierre Desir would remain.
Right now, then, 16 players are on the roster from the last two drafts. Eleven rookies and five second-year players. That part of the roster makes this a young team. If most of those players can stick, their maturation and experience can improve the team, even without a superstar among them. But can they stick and will they improve?
The remaining active players obtained prior to the 2014 draft are a sad commentary on the Browns roster building. 2013 first rounder (No. 6 overall) Barkevious Mingo and seventh rounder Armonty Bryant are still on the team. In 2012, the Browns picked 11 players. Both first rounders (Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden) are long gone. Only Mitchell Schwartz and Travis Benjamin are still on the team.
Who else is left? No one from among the eight players drafted in 2011, only Joe Haden from the eight players selected in the 2010 draft, only Alex Mack from the eight selected in the 2009 draft, no one from the five selected in 2008, and, from the 2007 draft, only Joe Thomas remains.
If the Browns are going to get better, they have to draft more effectively. They especially need to hit on those first-round picks. They especially need more blue chippers at those important, individual playmaker positions on both offense and defense. And yet, the truth about success in football lies in the collective success of those groups in the trenches, the linemen. Filling those needs — and balancing them — is the great challenge for the NFL’s general managers.
The Browns also have to refine what kind of players are best suited for each position. For example, given what the team has attempted to do lately at the wide receiver position (short of actually drafting one high) they at least seem to be acknowledging that bigger is better, even if Dwayne Bowe offers no evidence to support the theory. The same holds true for the Browns approach to the quarterback position. Johnny Manziel may get more opportunities this season to play QB in brown and orange, but everyone waiting in the wings, and everyone the Browns are likely to consider for the job in the near future, will be a lot closer to the current NFL prototype than the Fran Tarkenton model.
If you could wish upon a falling star you’d probably like to see Terrelle Pryor blossom by next year into an explosive wide receiver and join Josh Gordon to form a dual threat of the big and fast. But the Browns need more than fortunate accidents and Jiminy Cricket in the front office to produce something with their wish lists. They need top-notch player evaluations. They need some blue chippers in brown and orange. They have to stop swinging and missing.