A. The Cleveland Browns’ victory last Sunday was symbolic. Every battle between the expansion Cleveland Browns over the former Cleveland Browns/now Baltimore Ravens is a reminder that Cleveland’s NFL franchise has been its own worst enemy since its return in 1999.
With each change of owners or general managers or head coaches or coordinators … Indeed, with each change of quarterbacks, there comes an accompanying declaration of a new team personality, a new identity. The announcements of each new beginning are usually similar in tone to those of the late John Facenda, the voice of Ed Sabol’s NFL Films. One of Facenda’s nicknames was “The Voice of God.”
“Professional football in America is a special game, a unique game … It is a rare game. The men who play it make it so. All of them are fearless. All of them are strong, quick. And all of them are part of a story that began long ago. A story written by men who found, in the sport, a demanding measure for their own courage and ability.” –John Facenda
Facenda actually got his gig as the narrator of NFL films when he met Ed Sabol in a bar in 1965. Story has it that as he watched some NFL slow-motion footage being televised at a tavern, he began to rhapsodize about the game. Sabol overheard his soothing, baritone voice and introduced himself.
Over the years Facenda has been parodied by many in the business but especially by those who just can’t bring themselves to believe that the deeper meanings of life can be found in the game of professional football. In the case of the Cleveland Browns, announcements of Big Changes have come way too often and with too much solemnity. Understatement, however, in a business such as the NFL is just not part of the culture. So it was refreshing back in March this year, when Josh McCown signed a three-year contract with the Browns, the announcement was decidedly low-profile. It was another indication the Browns organization gives that it is committed, within reason, to some semblance of continuity in team building.
Most seasons in sports and most teams’ performances are wildly unpredictable. Who could have guessed what the Houston Astros would accomplish this year? Who could have guessed the Cubs over the Cards in the 2015 Divisional Series? Or that the Seattle Seahawks would be only 2-3 and that their franchise quarterback would be getting sacked at a league-leading rate?
Few fans, even the fanatics among us, can guess what’s coming. The Browns, for all their stated intentions, planning, and levels of investment, could only hope at the beginning of the season that their defense against the run and their pass rush would be improved, that their offensive line would regain its impressive early 2014 strength, and that their running game would be more potent.
But given Josh Gordon’s suspension for the 2015 season and Jordan Cameron’s departure via free agency, and given the absence of an early round draft pick at the position of wide receiver, the part of the game the Browns did not dare to be overtly optimistic about concerned the passing game. Josh McCown was the presumed No. 1 quarterback but without fanfare or even a formal announcement about his role as starter. Yes, they signed free agents Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe and they drafted Vince Mayle in the fourth round. They also drafted Duke Johnson Jr. a running back with solid pass receiving credentials, despite his Madden rating. But no one expected much from the passing game and most of the criticism leveled at the Browns by the media and fans have focused on the assumed weakness of the team’s offense, especially as regards the passing game.
B. Well, will you get a load of this? Browns quarterbacks (mainly McCown, of course), are fifth in the NFL in total passing yardage after five games. They’re tied for ninth in the NFL with nine touchdown passes and tied for first with fewest (two) interceptions on the season. Amazingly, Cleveland QBs have been sacked 18 times, third worst in the NFL, so it’s not as if the offensive line is providing a whole lot of time for its hurried and harassed quarterbacks.
Nevertheless, in spite of this lack of protection, McCown has thrown only one interception in 149 pass attempts. That ratio is second only to Tom Brady, who has zero picks in 160 attempts. Josh McCown’s QB rating of 102.8 is ninth best in the NFL. In addition to setting Cleveland Browns records with three consecutive 300-plus passing yardage games, he closed out last Sunday’s game against the Ravens having passed for the most yardage (457) by a Browns quarterback in a regular season game — ever.
So after this increasingly effective performance in the passing game, what does the Browns’ 2-3 record tell us? That the team needs even better quarterback performance? A quarterback change perhaps? Actually, the statements over the past six months by Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine about the quarterback position are beginning to resonate. Prior to the draft, they gave every indication they would not be duped by the notion that a “franchise quarterback” was the silver bullet solution to a team’s shortcomings and, to date, overall team play has only served to prove the point. It takes a team to win in the NFL.
The evermore refreshing angle on this story is the manner in which Josh McCown stays focused on the team game and how he’s handled the environment of Cleveland’s professional football subculture. Whether he reads and listens to much of the chatter about himself as a Cleveland Brown, he has undoubtedly heard some of the protests and laments over his career backup status, his signing, his starting over college phenom, Johnny Manziel, and, mostly about his 1-10 record in 2014 as the starting QB for the awful 2-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In his press conference following the Ravens game, McCown talked of being “humbled and proud” to be part of this group of players in Cleveland. And while he said, “I’m thankful to have those people around me who support me the way they do and to remind you what kind of player you are and what kind of player you can be,” every time the questions got around to his personal performance, his stats, his record-breaking numbers, he brought the conversation back to the team: “That’s cool stuff to look back on and be proud of after you’re done playing … but there’s other things I want to be the first Browns quarterback to do … and that involves stuff with our team.”
Again, asked about his personal accomplishments and personal satisfaction, he said, with self-effacing humor, “This is my 14th year professionally, 13th year in the NFL. I mean, I played in the UFL for cryin’ out loud, so personal satisfaction kinda flew out the window … but at the end of the day, when you’ve played that long, there’s a lot of things I’m thankful for … and it’s fun to win and how I’m wired it’s just fun to do with people, to do it together …”
What could be more refreshing in the world of sports where egos are bigger than the great outdoors?
C. Josh McCown is performing in much the same way he did in 2013 when he played for the Chicago Bears. To some observers this does not come as a shock, but rather as a validation of the idea that the NFL is the ultimate team game. The only surprise is that McCown is playing at this level without what you’d call a top-tier offensive line. The Browns are 28th of 32 teams in the NFL with an average 88.4 yards rushing per game and they’re allowing sacks at a rate of 3.6 per game. It’s improving we’re told … but perhaps there’s another element to this storyline worth considering.
In addition to the NFL being the ultimate team game, it’s also the ultimate game of adjustments. Even before the season began the Browns made it clear they would be a run-first team. That was a virtual invitation to their opponents to focus primarily on defending against Cleveland’s rushing attack, which is exactly what they did. If this was evident to fans sitting on their favorite comfy chairs, it was certainly obvious to the Browns coaches. And to their credit, they’ve made adjustments.
Conventional wisdom in the NFL sometimes borders on insanity. Cue up the Facenda voice: First you have to establish the ground game. Then, and only then, can you establish the air attack. This notion has been proven wrong so many times and in so many different ways that the NFL broadcasters handbook should list it under prohibited phrases. What the Browns are demonstrating this season is that there are no rules (outside of the actual NFL Rulebook) governing how to attack an opponent’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities. And to our delight, the Browns have discovered their passing attack can include a multitude of receivers and an infinite variety of patterns and distances. Perhaps with the added benefit of this element of surprise the offensive line can be more effective.
Quite obviously, this is no longer your grandfather’s run-first offense. McCown has the arm to throw it fifty times a game if necessary. He can dump it off to a back behind the line of scrimmage or he can throw it sixty yards downfield. And when opposing defenses are loosened up a bit, beware of the quick-hitting, slashing run up the middle.
Five games into the season, the Browns are a different offense, much more unpredictable and multi-faceted. The Browns’ Sunday opponent, the Denver Broncos, are undefeated at 5-0 and lead the NFL with the fewest yards allowed per game (278). They’re second in points allowed per game (15.8). Conversely, the Denver offense is third from last in the NFL in yards per game (302.6) and 17th in points per game with 22.6. It will be an interesting test for the Browns on Sunday to see how effective they can use creativity and unpredictability in a matchup such as this.
The announcement on Wednesday that Josh McCown was named the AFC offensive player of the week will undoubtedly be met by McCown with a statement that it is an honor to be shared with the entire organization, with Ray Farmer who signed him, with Mike Pettine who has stuck with him as a starter, with offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, who is, himself, growing and adapting in his new role, and with all his teammates.
He might even acknowledge Ohio State coach, Urban Meyer, who said last year during all of the Buckeyes’ quarterback changes, that a team’s quarterback is, essentially, the sum of the parts around him. Even John Facenda couldn’t have said it better.