When the Cleveland Browns hired head coach Rob Chudzinski, I figured, well, here goes the start of yet another five-year plan. So when he was fired fewer than 365 days later, I was as stunned as one can be over a sports-related story. One year?! That’s all you give the guy? Apparently, the inability to turn water into wine (or at least beer) is sufficient evidence of incompetence in this NFL town on the shores of Lake Erie.
So, along came Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer, a new regime, and when they started cleaning house again, I just reset my internal five-year clock. Here we go again. Wake me when some actual competition starts.
For those students of history, even those who took a not-too-in-depth survey course on Western Civ, the sound of “Five-Year Plan” is enough to curl the lips in disgust. The U.S.S.R., Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev … I won’t go on, but those characters certainly gave the phrase “Five-Year Plan” a permanent bad name. Problem is, it’s a useful concept because some human activities central to our existence just don’t fit very neatly into a 12-month timeframe, including the rebuilding of an NFL team.
The most that can be meaningfully said after only one year of a team starting over is whether it is headed in the right direction. This is not the case with a franchise like the Steelers when, for instance, they replace their head coach. When Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll or when Mike Tomlin took over for Cowher, the Steelers weren’t retreating and dynamiting the bridges behind them and starting over. They were just fine-tuning. The Cleveland Browns, on the other hand, have had more than their fair share of demolition experts, guys who like to blow things up.
Since Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s hiring of the Farmer-Pettine team, he seems to have moderated his position on the time required for judging success. He seems to have carefully eased up on the itchy trigger finger. Good thing.
Back in February when I wrote about the NFL draft and the strategy of drafting the best available player, I described a long-term plan, a system of team building that most of the best NFL teams have used successfully over an extended period. Its success is dependent primarily on a team’s ability to assess talent, to have a better than even shot at knowing, in the first place, who are the best players. But such a strategy also requires a degree of patience with your draftees and the recognition that not every one of them will work out as quickly as you’d like … and some just won’t work out at all. But if a team drafts well, knowing it’s for the long term, hopefully the core of your team in any given year is the product of the previous five or six years of drafts. (According to the NFL Players Association the average player’s career length is 3.3 years. The NFL claims that the average career is about 6 years for players who make a club’s opening day roster in their rookie season.)
During the 2015 NFL draft process, the Ray Farmer-Mike Pettine team described a plan that sounded a lot like the best player available strategy. They are now in their second season and five months past their second draft. It’s pretty evident that, at the start of their tenure, they didn’t see their mission as fine-tuning. Like others before them, they’ve been cleaning house.
Due to salary cap and free agency issues, annual roster turnover in the NFL is probably greater than it’s ever been, but if you look at NFL teams’ average player tenure, you would probably not be surprised that the top 10 teams in tenure are pretty much the top ten teams overall. Also unsurprising is the fact that the Browns’ average tenure is near the shortest.
Roster turnover usually goes hand in hand with head coach/general manager/quarterback turnover. The new guys come in and it’s out with the old, in with the new. New quarterbacks create other kinds of upheaval. The Cleveland Browns, if they aren’t leading the league in these kinds of turnovers, are close to it.
As much as it pains the diehard Cleveland football fan to hear (speaking of desperation), this new Browns group is only in its sophomore year.
A spinoff of the Cleveland Browns, the one that involved the firing of Paul Brown and which ultimately became the Cincinnati Bengals, is an interesting contrast. You probably wouldn’t call the Bengals one of the elite franchises in the NFL, but it isn’t difficult to make the case that they’ve had more success than the Browns during their existence, even before the Browns became the Expansion Browns. Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals head coach since 2003. Sixteen years is quite a commitment to a coach whose record is a shade over .500 and who has never gotten past the first round of the playoffs. That doesn’t happen in Cleveland.
Looking back, though, over the years, you’d probably happily trade the Bengals’ history for the Browns’. You might even wish Modell had moved his team to Cincinnati and left Paul Brown in Cleveland, especially given where the Bengals are in 2015.
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As far as sports-as-entertainment goes, Sunday’s contest against the Chargers was just that. It would have been difficult to walk away in the middle of such a game, warts and all. The Browns were more entertaining, but after four games in the 2015 campaign, Cleveland is 1-3 and is already looking for answers to big questions. They’re just not the ones most people predicted. It was defense that was supposed to be the strength of the team. They were supposed to stop the run more effectively and put more pressure on the passer. But the Browns defense can’t stop the run and they don’t seem able to put much pressure on the opposing QB. The Browns are dead last in the NFL in total yardage allowed and next-to-last in rushing yardage allowed. They are 23rd of 32 teams in net passing yards allowed and 22nd in points allowed. It’s a real stretch to call that a strength.
Then there’s the Browns offensive line. They were supposed to be the strength of the offensive unit, even if it was not possessed of great playmakers. The line, however, is still showing signs of trying to regain last year’s best days. The Browns ran the ball somewhat more effectively against the Chargers, but Josh McCown was under intense pressure on a surprising percentage of plays, especially given San Diego’s supposed weakness in that area. Offensively the Browns aren’t among the leaders in the NFL, but they rank better than their teammates on defense. The offense is 17th in total yards, 9th in passing yardage, 25th in rushing yardage, and 19th in total points.
While it may be surprising to some, the play of the quarterback room has been impressive. Both Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel have ratings just below 100, which puts Cleveland quarterbacks in the upper third in the NFL.
Brandon Weeden, by the way, is at an impressive 108.8, while wunderkind Andrew Luck is ranked next to last with a 65.1 rating. (What a bum! If I were the Colts, I would trade him to the Browns for a sixth-round draft pick.)
It should be noted that Josh McCown has been sacked nine times and Manziel five times. Fourteen sacks in four games is not a good sign. McCown, who got sacked 36 times last year playing for Tampa Bay, may have noticed that his replacement, Jameis Winston, is on pace to get sacked exactly 36 times himself this year. On the other hand, if the Browns continue to allow 3.5 sacks per game, that would end up totaling 56 for the season. As far as quarterback performance goes, it would seem the Browns passing game is not being helped immensely by the O-Line, which is evidenced by both the stats and by the look and feel of game video. There has been lots of pressure on Cleveland QBs.
On the plus side, for all the hoopla over the loss of Jordan Cameron in the offseason and the signings of free agent Rob Housler and undrafted free agent E. J. Bibbs, Gary Barnidge is becoming a major force. What an asset! What hands!
Travis Benjamin on Sunday not only caught a career-high six passes for 79 yards, he is also looking more and more comfortable as a punt returner. He is 6th in the NFL with an average of 17.8 yards per return. And speaking of returns, Justin Gilbert may have found a way to contribute in a significant way — as a kick returner. He showed excellent speed and instincts with the ball and maybe that gives Gilbert an opportunity to gain some aggression and confidence that translates to the defensive backfield.
Then there are Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. They are surfacing as an impressive duo. Crowell ran for 63 yards on 12 carries including an outstanding 32-yard run. He also caught three passes for another 62 yards. Johnson finally showed what kind of versatility of talent he can bring to a roster. He ran eight times for 31 yards and caught nine passes for 85 yards including that 34-yard touchdown pass. Eight Browns receivers caught passes for 356 total yards. The total output for the offense was 456 yards, 27 points and an advantage in time-of-possession, 34:19 to 25:41.
So far it’s looking like the Browns kept the right guy in the kicking game. Travis Coons is 7-for-7 in the field goal department and 8-for-8 on those long extra points. Andy Lee leads all punters in the NFL in average distance (52.7) and net average distance (47.4).
And that takes us back to the debit side of the ledger. Twelve penalties on the Browns for 91 yards against the Chargers. After four games the Browns have the seventh-most number of penalties (34) in the NFL and the eighth-most penalty yards (290). Twelve of the 34 penalties have been pre-snap infractions. Nine of the 34 have been for offensive holding (tied for fifth-worst in the NFL). Six have been false starts. The Browns are tied for second place with three flags for unnecessary roughness.
How does this happen? In the Browns’ first game against the Jets the team looked a little too desperate to prove itself. McCown’s reckless dive into the end zone was a perfect example of that mindset. And so far this season, the team still doesn’t look sure of itself. Could the high-strung jumpiness account for some of the penalties? All this seems understandable to those of us who think more in terms of a five-year plan rather than a 12-month about face for a start-up organization. Bill Belichick has acknowledged the mistakes he made in his first stab at the head coaching job here in Cleveland. Modell fired him, of course. Those who worked for Modell were accustomed to his impetuous decisions.
Will Jimmy Haslam maintain his poise and patience and allow this front office to grow in experience and expertise? Or will he pull an Art Modell and start another purge?