When Chuck Noll took over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 he warned his bosses that it wasn’t going to be easy and, at least for awhile, it wasn’t going to look pretty. He was right. In his first three years his teams were 1-13, 5-9 and 6-8. It couldn’t have been easy to live through that inauspicious start and it certainly wasn’t pretty.
It must have been a challenge for the Rooney family to stick with Noll, the youngest head coach in NFL history when he was hired, but they did. Historians can be kind when things go well, when everything works out in the end. So the Rooneys are viewed through the prism of hindsight as having acted with wisdom and foresight. And, who knows, maybe they did. But maybe the Steelers simply reached the point where the Cleveland Browns are in 2015, where they really don’t have much choice but to stick with what they’ve got because to start over again would be, well, unthinkable. Noll ended up serving as the head coach for 23 years. That kind of tenure for a head coach in Cleveland seems as possible as time travel.
Noll, the consummate teacher, was always meticulous in teaching the detailed nuances of the game, and the players who came through his system either dedicated themselves to the team’s approach or they were gone. Coupled with this attention to detail on the practice field was a run of some of the best drafting in the history of the league. Player acquisition … player development. General Manager … Head Coach.
When the Browns lose a game as they did on Sunday to the St. Louis Rams, it’s difficult to find a silver lining, let alone to peer into the future to know whether it’s all going to work out in the end. And by “work out in the end” don’t even bring up the subject of a Super Bowl victory. Let’s just settle for getting to that place where your team is, on occasion, among the best half dozen or so teams in the league with a reasonable chance to go beyond the first round of the playoffs.
The oh-so-difficult question today is whether these 2015 Browns are exhibiting growing pains … or just painful performance. Admittedly, that’s a tough, though I hope not mean-spirited, question. But there you have it. We’re talking about the mean streets of the NFL, the place where players don’t tackle an opponent just to stop his forward progress, but to break something, to put him out of the game, to render him unconscious.
If it’s meanness you like, you will delight in the criticisms Browns quarterback Josh McCown has been receiving lately for not getting rid of the ball more quickly as the reason for the numerous poundings and sacks he’s endured. That was one of the critiques aimed in his direction last week for a strip-sack during the Broncos game. I watched that replay several times and counted, thousand one, thousand two, thousand th— at which point a linebacker, untouched and running with a full head of steam slammed into him.
Against the Rams on Sunday, McCown was hit so many times I lost count. But at several crucial points of the game’s replay, I got out my stop watch:
- At 09:15 of the first quarter on a third down play, defensive end William Hayes blew by Mitchell Schwartz so fast that in three seconds flat he whacked McCown’s arm causing a fumble.
- Late in the third quarter, McCown was sacked 3.2 seconds after the snap.
- Midway through the fourth quarter after the Browns had driven from their own 13-yard line to the Cleveland 47, McCown experienced a replay of the big hit he took in the Denver game, when safety/linebacker Mark Barron, again untouched, took all of 2.55 seconds to collide with McCown’s chest at full speed as the pass was being released.
- After that hit by Barron, McCown nevertheless continued to move the team downfield, but at 5:24, on 2nd-and-10, McCown’s arm was hacked from behind 3.23 seconds after the snap. It was ruled a fumble and the Rams recovered. Shortly after that play, lucky number 13 was escorted to the locker room, done for the day.
In the privacy of the McCown household the question has undoubtedly already been asked about the rate at which he’s getting walloped, in contrast with the off-season reputation of the Browns’ offensive line: “Josh, this isn’t what we signed up for, is it?”
As a reward for his toughness, resolve and leadership under these trying circumstances, he was asked at Monday’s press conference, “Would you be surprised if the Browns started Manziel on Sunday, even if you’re healthy?” Where are the yellow flags for roughing the passer when you really need them?
Cleveland’s offensive line has been a puzzler all season. Where’s the running game? Where’s the pass protection? What’s with all the penalties? Is it the scheme? The play calling? The players themselves?
And speaking of question marks, lots of attention and resources have been invested in trying to improve on last year’s dismal showing on defense, primarily with stopping the run. Yet here they are again, at the bottom of the heap. Has there been any improvement from 2014 to 2015 in players? In scheme? In football acumen?
Take your pick of these questions about the offensive line and the defensive front seven, however, and the issues eventually circle back to whether actual progress is being made under Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine. If the Browns at the beginning of 2014 were, indeed, back to square one as an expansion team, 22 games is hardly a definitive time frame to measure success. Perhaps there has been latent progress, you know, concealed, except to those who are expert enough to recognize it.
From the standpoint of a fan who would like to be engaged and entertained it’s been a hard sell. On Sunday, less than two minutes into the game after the Rams went three and out, Travis Benjamin fielded the punt, but Ibraheim Campbell was flagged for an obvious illegal block in the back. Instead of starting on their own 37-yard line, the Browns began their first series at their own seven. Now really, how difficult is it to find players who know better? Is that not a rule one learns in high school? Has he not been coached adequately as a pro?
In the second quarter at about 08:45, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz were flagged with back-to-back false starts. Later, at 01:53 of the second quarter, Joel Bitonio was penalized for a false start. Gentlemen, we would probably agree that Canadian football may have a better idea, that you should be allowed to twitch a muscle without yellow flags flying all over kingdom come, but until we catch up in common sense to our neighbors up north, you have to figure out a way to overcome the twitching. Somebody on this continent knows how to teach a solution to this problem. Find him! Hire him!
Cleveland began the second half, with an effective drive that resulted in a field goal to make the score 10-6. Following their kickoff, they held the Rams to a three-and-out and got the ball back. On first-and-ten on their own 25-yard line, Jim Dray was charged with a false start: First-and-15. On the next play, Gary Barnidge was caught holding: First-and-25. Impressively, however, McCown and Barnidge hooked up on a 33-yard completion for a first down, but a short time later, Cameron Erving was flagged for holding. Again, incredibly, McCown completed a long pass to Benjamin at the Rams’ 22-yard line, but more incredibly, the completion was nullifed when Joe Thomas was penalized for holding.
With the number and frequency of these infractions, and considering that nearly everyone is getting into the act, yes, it does raise a question about the coaching. Add to the penalties the numerous breakdowns in protection that regularly risk the life and limb of their quarterbacks and, again, one has to assume that either these experienced players are not getting what they need in the meeting room or on the practice field, or the schemes are askew.
As for play calling, Mike Pettine made an interesting comment at his Monday press conference. Part of his answer to why the Browns’ protection wasn’t as good as it needed to be, he said, “… I thought on the 50/50 downs when it was play-pass, when it was first down or second-and-manageable, your protection is better because they are having to play the run first and then convert …” Broken record time: Yes, so why not throw more when they’re not expecting it? Why not throw more on first down?
After the Benjamin fumble/Rams touchdown in the Browns first series, the Rams had to be thinking, “They just gave up a touchdown on a pass and fumble. They’ll be gun-shy, they won’t want to throw on first down here.” The Browns ran and lost three yards. The Rams were all over it. Cleveland’s offensive series seem to play out that way several times each game.
Special teams? The punting of Andy Lee and the place kicking of Travis Coons have been exemplary and coverage teams have been good (except for those occasional illegal blocks), but after the Rams’ final score put the tally at 24-6, the kickoff went to Justin Gilbert, nine yards deep in the end zone. He brought it out to the 13-yard line. At that point I found an interesting program about baboons on the National Geographic channel.
Thomas Paine, revolutionary-era pamphleteer and sports blogger once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Can the Browns organization hang in there? Can it stick with the plan and with their second-year head coach and general manager, or will one or both join the swollen ranks of Cleveland football’s here-today-gone-tomorrow? Concerning the Browns’ performance on Sundays, however, inevitably the questions, doubts and frustrations will coalesce into Mike Pettine becoming the primary target of those who can no longer bear the wait … or don’t have the fallback of the National Geographic channel.