Browns ABC’s (and D’s): About the Browns Composure and Discipline, Week 9

After the Cleveland Browns’ 31-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Thursday night, Jimmy Haslam’s team has participated in nine games and 1,291 plays.  Six other teams have played nine games and 24 teams have played only eight games. On Monday night, the Bears played their eighth game and the Chargers played their ninth. At any rate, I’m passing on the advanced math to take into account how the different number of games might skew year-to-date statistics, but the Browns’ problem with penalties is, nevertheless, a stark portrait of this team’s lack of composure and discipline.1

Buffalo (4-4) leads the NFL at this point with 85 accepted penalties. Tampa Bay (3-5) is next with 81, New Orleans (4-5) is third at 75 and Cleveland (2-7) is fourth with 71. Adding in the penalties that have been declined, the same four teams rank one through four. Buffalo has been flagged 102 times, Tampa Bay 96, New Orleans 87, and Cleveland 79.

The overall statistical picture of the Browns and their penalties is not that they’re the worst team in the league. They’re near the bottom, but they’re not the worst. The relevance is that a great deal of the problem is well within the control of the coaches and players. And as Mike Pettine has continually emphasized, working on the challenges over which one has actual control is at the heart of figuring out how to get it right.

Two specific stats offer a compelling illustration: The Browns lead the league in pre-snap penalties with 34. Glossing over this problem is difficult. The best you could say of it is that Green Bay is fifth in pre-snap penalties, Cincinnati is ninth, and Denver is 11th and they’re doing okay, aren’t they? But that’s not a terribly effective defense. The better approach might be to consider those teams who have been doing many things well for many years: The New England Patriots are 29th of 32 teams in pre-snap penalties with only 15. The Pittsburgh Steelers have only 16.

Another telling stat regarding the 2015 Browns is that its offensive line has committed more than one-third of the team’s penalties and is the group primarily responsible for the league-leading pre-snap penalty count. Seventeen false start penalties against the league average of 9.16. It would be one thing if you could point to the growing pains of a first or second-year player, but why does Joe Thomas lead the team with five false start penalties?

(AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

On the agenda for those penalties under a team’s own control, lining up offsides ranks up there as the silliest of mistakes, but taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct run a close second. Some would disagree that taunting should even be a penalty, but guess what: It is. What does it take, exactly, to internalize that simple fact.

At what point do these questions about discipline (public or otherwise) for very highly paid, professional athletes shift to a focus on self-discipline?

Thirty-five Browns players have been penalized for one thing or another and in those cases when critical mistakes are made at the most inopportune times, you hear fans begin to wonder aloud why the offending player is not immediately removed from the field and chewed out by the head coach. But that unseemly demand for public flogging misses the point. Why are the infractions still occurring with such frequency? And why are some of the Browns’ most experienced and highly regarded players committing them at the most crucial moments in a game?

At what point do these questions about discipline (public or otherwise) for very highly paid, professional athletes shift to a focus on self-discipline?


As for the play of Johnny Manziel (and in recognition of No. 2 being the No. 1 item on many agendas), the second-year quarterback continues to display some improving splash and dash. He shows a stronger arm than he did in his rookie year and he also looks faster on his feet. The quickness of his release is certainly above average and he throws on the run better than most.

One aspect of their game the Browns receivers could improve upon, especially with Manziel at quarterback, is that when the quarterback scrambles, too often receivers turn into spectators. When the play breaks down, they need to keep moving, they need to find an opening in the secondary to run to, keeping one eye on the QB who could throw to them at any moment.

On the Browns drive in the first quarter which resulted in a field goal, Manziel scrambled to the left on second down looking for an open receiver. One of the receivers, Duke Johnson Jr., shadowed by a defender, just stood in the front corner of the end zone but should have cut back toward the middle. Ultimately the pass to Taylor Gabriel was incomplete in the back corner of the end zone.

(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)


Mike Pettine probably wishes he had not made the comment he barked out at half-time about Manziel, but only because he knows by now that Manziel is a cause célèbre, a polarizing figure who tends to bring out a degree of raw and ragged emotion to any discussion of Cleveland football. As for the substance of what he said, however, it wasn’t surprising. He was correct about his young quarterback, that although Manziel has above average skill at scrambling and throwing on the run, he was not spotting open receivers quickly enough (or at all) while in the pocket. He was not going through his progressions very effectively. And even on two big completions to Duke Johnson Jr., he should have thrown them sooner. This was readily apparent in the replays and was a problem pointed out by CBS analyst and former quarterback, Phil Simms. Simms also noted on one scramble by Manziel that his primary receiver, Johnson, was wide open over the middle but Manziel ran up the middle and got hit—hard.

Before Manziel fans continue their demands for him to start the rest of the season, they ought to give Stephen White of SBNation a read. His column, Johnny Manziel isn’t ready to start, not even close, is a thorough and methodical analysis of Manziel’s play using the All-22 video of the Browns-Bengals game. If ever you wanted to hear what the Browns are likely saying privately about Manziel, but can’t say publicly, this is it.

Not only does Mr. White burst the bubble about “letting Johnny be Johnny” he also makes an excellent argument why that’s not in the best interest of the team, short-term or long-term.

Manziel’s shortcomings, by the way, are not only typical for young quarterbacks in the NFL, they also reflect Manziel’s style on a historical basis. Therefore, two big questions remain as to Manziel’s future in the NFL: Can he improve with regard to his self-discipline in the pocket and his processing speed? And how sustainable is his scrambling style? No one can answer the former with assurance, but the latter question is even more important. Not only is frequent scrambling difficult to sustain over an entire game, purely in terms of stamina, it’s also difficult to sustain, game-to-game without incurring serious injury. When Manziel scrambled up the middle trying for a first down (the play where the spot was reversed and resulted in a punt on fourth down) not only did he miss an open receiver, he also took a hard hit from two defenders. How many times do you suppose that can happen before Manziel finds himself in street clothes on the sideline next to Josh McCown … watching Austin Davis behind center?

As for who should start against the Steelers, there is this to remember about the Farmer-Pettine regime: Both have said repeatedly they will strive to acquire the best players and, once they’re in the building, they’ll play the best players, regardless of how high they were drafted or how high their salary is. This is undoubtedly music to the ears of the guys busting their butts for minutes every day without the added benefit of a cult following or a stratospheric guaranteed paycheck. If the Browns stick with their philosophy it’s doubtful the coaches will turn the season into a seven-game audition. On the other hand, if Josh McCown needs more time to recover from repeated pummelings, fine, let him rest. He deserves it. (And supposedly, Austin Davis is ready in the event he’s needed).

On the other side of the field it will be interesting to see if some guy named Landry Jones suddenly begins to look like a franchise quarterback against the Browns defense.

Quarterback-centric discussions about a team’s future are almost always distractions. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms spoke at length last Thursday night about Andy Dalton, his reputation, his standing in the QB community. Nantz was adamant that Dalton has been getting a raw deal, that he hasn’t gotten his due because his team has not gone anywhere in the playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals (now undefeated at 8-0) and Andy Dalton (with a 111.0 QB rating and second only to Tom Brady) are coming into their own. The Bengals, at  least this season, are resembling one of league’s elite teams, and are being led by a guy who is resembling an elite quarterback.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

  1. Statistics courtesy of []