Browns

Browns ABC’s: Avoiding Bad Conclusions, Week 15

Against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, the Browns’ final possession began on their own 30-yard line with 1:52 left on the clock. That final drive included a 15-yard Johnny Manziel completion to Darius Jennings, a Manziel scramble for a 12-yard gain, and a Manziel overthrow to a wide open Taylor Gabriel on the right sideline. (CBS analyst Rich Gannon:  “Look at that poor footwork again.”) Then a pass to Barnidge for a first down to the Chiefs’ 32-yard line.

The final four plays, a spike to stop the clock, a pass thrown away when no one was open, an incomplete pass in the end zone to Benjamin with tight coverage, and a pass to Moore with time expiring after the play, were not the difference in the game. The outcome, close though it was, was once again determined by a thousand small cuts of just not being a good enough team.     

What shall we conclude after the Cleveland Browns 17-13 loss to the Chiefs? As with so much of what we get out of the experience, it depends on what we put into it. There are other ways of saying it: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Garbage in, garbage out?

On Sunday in Kansas City, the weather outside was not ideal but it certainly wasn’t frightful, as Sammy Cahn described it in the seasonal song, “Let it Snow.” It was, in fact, a good test for what football is like in the blustery AFC North. After all, it was on such as day as this that the Browns won Cleveland’s last major championship, 27-0 over the Baltimore Colts.

[Related: Manziel cannot stay out of his own way as another video surfaces]

The Kansas City Chiefs have a solid defense. They give up only 18 points per game (2nd best in the NFL), compared to the Browns at 26.9 (29th best). KC yields 337 total yards per game (9th best) compared to Cleveland’s 379 (26th best). Breaking it down, KC gives up 236 passing yards per game (12th in the NFL) compared to the Browns’ 244 (20th best). KC gives up 101 yards per game on the ground (12th best) compared to the Browns’ dreadful 135 per game (worst in the NFL).

With the Browns being one of the worst defenses in the NFL, one wonders, again, why, when they win the toss, they are so eager to defer, to start the game with their weakest group on the field. And, sure enough, against the Chiefs on Sunday, the game began with the Browns deferring, kicking off, and the Chiefs going on a long touchdown-scoring drive. On their second possession, the Chiefs put together another drive that left the Browns trailing 10-0, with the Browns having run only three offensive plays.    

For the game, the Browns gave up 136 yards on the ground to the Chiefs, but only 122 passing, and thanks to their halftime adjustments, they held the Chiefs scoreless in the second half. By the game’s end the Browns had allowed only 17 points for the game, far below their 26.9 average. This defensive performance didn’t come against a hapless offense. The Chiefs score 25.5 points per game (9th best in the NFL) and in their previous eight games had a plus-140-point advantage over their opposition.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Browns needed such an indication of improvement on defense, especially after halftime adjustments, perhaps more than any other item on their fans’ wish list. Whether it is reason for optimism heading into the offseason is an open question, but the Browns have a lot of young players and to see those such as Danny Shelton, Nate Orchard, and others showing late season improvement in their young careers is a welcome sign indeed.

However, as is usually the case with coverage of the NFL game, especially in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Cleveland football, the conversation practically begins and ends with the quarterback position. Starting with the post-game banter, various sources were quoted as saying that the Browns have found their franchise quarterback. What did Johnny Manziel do, exactly, that led to some drawing this conclusion? Well, he ran for 108 yards on 11 carries for a 9.8 yards per carry average. It was exciting, but was it a good idea?

Manziel ran for 108 yards. It was exciting, but was it a good idea?

As for what most good NFL quarterbacks are known for, Manziel did not have a good day. His form and footwork were sloppy, his decision making was questionable, and many of his passes were simply off target. His very first pass to a wide open Gary Barnidge, which would have netted a sizable gain, sailed way over the tight end’s head. He threw behind a number of open receivers. He threw two illegal forward passes: the first, after he was past the line of scrimmage (and probably thinking it was a lateral), and the second to an ineligible receiver, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

He threw a fluttering quail to an open Jim Dray that should have been fired into the teeth of the wind. He threw an interception moments after Nate Orchard’s pick of a tipped pass by Alex Smith, and he threw an ill-advised pass in the third quarter, deep in his own territory, that should have been another interception. Of these acts of desperation, Rich Gannon said what we all know, that ya gotta love Manziel’s competitiveness but, “He’s a Brett Favre-type player…he has a difficult time giving up on a play,” which, by the way, is how Favre ended up throwing the most career interceptions in the history of the game.

Gannon also described Manziel’s tendency to step with his lead foot to his left instead of toward the target. Or to use a baseball term, the tendency to “step in the bucket.” Part of the reason this happens is due to fatigue, and late in the fourth quarter, play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan said of Manziel after another run and hard hit, “He-Looks-Spent!” 

With a little over three minutes to go, and the Browns with a third-and-8 at the Chiefs’ 30-yard line, Manziel threw behind Barnidge. Once again, Gannon commented on the replay of the poor footwork: “A big reason why he’s missing so many throws to his left.”

On the next play, fourth-and-8, Manziel threw to an empty right corner of the end zone while it looked like Travis Benjamin had a step or two on the defender on a skinny post moving right to left.

We know how the game ended, but it was the many missed opportunities and instances of being outplayed that resulted in the 12th Browns loss. And although Alex Smith is hardly anyone’s idea of a classic franchise quarterback, he outplayed Johnny Manziel. He didn’t out-rush him, but he outplayed him.

ESPN

Former quarterback Len Dawson is in the NFL Hall of Fame for his success with the Kansas City Chiefs. Dawson has ties to northeast Ohio that began with his Alliance, Ohio roots. The 1957 NFL Draft includes the entertaining story of how badly Paul Brown wanted to draft either John Brodie or Len Dawson with the sixth pick of the first round to replace Otto Graham. When the 49ers selected Brodie with the third pick and the Steelers selected Dawson with the fifth, Brown’s head slumped onto the table, muttering something like, “I guess we’re stuck with Jim Brown.”

Dawson didn’t prove to be a savior for the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers and, when he became available, Paul Brown traded for him on New Year’s Eve 1959. Dawson didn’t get much of a chance with Cleveland either, and he was released by the Browns before the 1962 season. His fortunes changed when he was reunited with his college coach, Hank Stram, then with the AFL’s Dallas Texans. After one year, the Texans moved to Kansas City, became the Chiefs, and Dawson went on to have a productive 13-year career with them. His career included a Kansas City win over the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV after which Dawson was named Super Bowl MVP. In 1987, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Hank Stram and Len Dawson

Hank Stram and Len Dawson

After Sunday’s game, cleveland.com’s Tom Reed spoke to Len Dawson and asked him about Johnny Manziel. It happens frequently that Cleveland writers seek out the approval of others about Manziel. Most of the time, however, it’s a canned response. Except in cases of moral turpitude, most people in the business have no taste for bad-mouthing players. Even so, Dawson’s positive comments about Manziel did not exactly focus on his passing skills.

“He rushed for 108 yards,” said Dawson. “Tell me how many quarterbacks rush for over 100 yards in a football game? Not many. He’s a very exciting player to watch and he can create a lot of things and he creates a lot of problems for a defense.”

How many NFL quarterbacks rush for over 100 yards in a game? “Not many” is right, and the reason for that is obvious. When NFL quarterbacks are turned into running backs, as often occurs at the college level, the chances of them remaining healthy for an entire season shrink to somewhere around zero. Even casual fans of the sport probably don’t need more than one guess to arrive at the answer as to which NFL position has the shortest careers. Correct: Running backs. And that includes those who have the body type, proven durability, strength, and stamina to absorb the poundings they take on a regular basis. It’s one thing for an NFL quarterback to possess a degree of mobility to extend a play, or to have the rollout in his repertoire, or for the occasional quarterback sneak. But even when quarterbacks are under direct orders to slide to avoid the big hits, they will take big hits. It will happen. I didn’t count the number of times Johnny Manziel was tackled hard on his running plays … six, maybe? On three of them, I would not have been surprised had he stayed down for the count.

Len Dawson is said to have been a mobile quarterback who flourished under the “moving pocket” schemes of Hank Stram. But Dawson was not a running quarterback, and if, in his private conversations, he claims to favor the idea of quarterbacks running for 100 yards, well, I’d have to ask what he’s smoking.

Len Dawson smoking

I cannot believe any former quarterback would think it a good idea to put a team’s most important player (if there is one) — the quarterback — at the same risk that the running backs face. Quarterbacks are not only not built for that kind of pickup truck workload, they’re often looking the other way — downfield — trying to find someone to throw to, when the 250-500 pounds of humanity crashes into them. Mental cobwebs to clear away, you say? No time for that, there’s a voice talking into your helmet, giving you the next play.

Based on everything Mike Pettine and…yes, Ray Farmer…have said about the Browns’ quarterback position, I doubt you can draw any meaningful conclusions about the 108-yard rushing performance by Johnny Manziel on Sunday. Tempting as it might seem, trying to turn your quarterback into a running back would be a bad idea. Just ask Robert Griffin III.