5 Questions on the first place Cleveland Browns
Let that sink in for a moment before we move on.
The Browns have reached the top of the toughest division in the NFL by winning five of their past six games, a streak that includes beat downs of division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
They’ve also done it with quarterback Brian Hoyer doing what he does best – win – and with a defense that is starting to look impressive (just don’t look too closely at those rushing stats).
They’ve done it despite not having wide receiver Josh Gordon so far this year and with tight end Jordan Cameron battling injuries. They’ve done it despite losing center Alex Mack to a season-ending injury and seeing the defensive line hit by injuries on what seems like a weekly basis.
Most importantly, they’ve done it because the coaching staff has everyone buying into the program and they are playing as a team. They offense bailed out the defense early in the season; lately it has been the defense’s turn to carry the water.
“I don’t think many people gave us a chance, but the people in that [locker] room believed, and I think the greatest thing about our team is we play as a team,” Hoyer said on Thursday night after win against Cincinnati. “In the NFL, that’s where you have a lot of guys who are out for their selves, and this team plays for each other. As long as we do that, we can do special things.”
Just how special remains to be seen. The Browns have seven games to go and are currently in the playoff conversation as New England and Denver are the only AFC teams with fewer losses than the Browns.
To help everyone get through a Sunday with no Browns, we’ve put together another blue ribbon panel to talk about what the final seven games have in store for the Browns. Joining us today are:
Jeff Rich, a Senior NFL Writer at More Than a Fan; co-host of Rapid React on MTAF Cleveland, which can be heard immediately after every Browns game; and who can also be heard live on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at sportsbyline.com. Find him on Twitter @JRichRadio.
Dave Kolonich, who’s been known to hang around on Twitter @DaveKolonich.
Question: Who (or what part of the team) has impressed you the most this season?
Jeff: This is probably true with good teams, but I don’t know. I don’t think there is a runaway favorite here, but let’s go with safety Tashaun Gipson. When they didn’t retain TJ Ward, I recall a number of people thinking they needed to sign two safeties in free agency. Gipson’s clearly been in the right place at the right time for the league lead in interceptions and playing at a high level as the deepest man in coverage.
Jared: Coaching. While Brian Hoyer has been stable and able to keep Johnny Manziel on the bench, the combination of Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan has been the most impressive thing. Pettine has made establishing a culture his No. 1 priority and he has his players believe. Bringing in Jim O’Neil and trusting him to call the defense so Pettine can focus on the game as a whole is a good sign of a leader who delegates.
Shanahan is loved for his Zone Blocking Scheme but it is the crisp routes, giving Hoyer easy reads, which has really opened up the game for the Browns. The Browns have an identity on offense and Shanahan sticks with it. His play calling has kept defensive off guard for much of the season.
Mike: I mean Karlos Dansby is the most impactful free agent signing we’ve had … ever, and Tashaun Gipson has leapt into a new echelon with his growth, and Joel Bitonio is playing like a solid five-year vet nine games in. But Mike Pettine’s intelligence and poise in front of the press, his stoic presence on the sideline, ability to perform honest-to-god in-game-not-at-halftime adjustments (see the second Steelers game), and his ease with the concept of “how to win at football” borne from living it since birth … these all add up to Mike Junior* easily being the best Browns coach since Marty Schottenheimer, probably since Sam Rutigliano, possibly since Blanton Collier.
Ryan: Where to begin … hmmm … I have to start with the coaching staff. The way Mike Pettine and Co. have been able to take the talent acquired over the past several regimes and get them to mesh and buy in to their schemes has been nothing short of amazing, especially considering how quickly the turnaround has taken place. On the other hand, I always suspected this team was a competent staff and quarterback away from contending and here we are. There was no need for this staff to come in and rebuild. They inherited the pieces, they just needed to create and identity, keep the players who fit that, and get them to play that way. “Play Like A Brown” is more than just an empty catchphrase and it shows.
Dave: For the first time in the expansion era (minus the 2007 blip), the Browns display an NFL-caliber offense. Never had a Browns’ offense featured the combinations of competent quarterback play, a strong rushing and play action game, and receivers getting open. Then Alex Mack breaks his leg and it’s revealed that:
- he’s really good,
- John Greco is terrible without Mack, and
- this team needs like five more Josh Gordons to take the next big leap.
*Bonus – On the Pat Shurmur Scale of Head Coaches, Mike Pettine is somewhere between Meathead,” “Probably Won’t Get Fired After One Year” and “Kind of Good … No, Really.”
Question: What is the biggest obstacle facing the Browns the rest of the season?
Jeff: They’ve got to mix it up on defense, but continue to count on their stars to carry them. Paul Kruger has done a 180 from bust status to legitimate edge rusher in just a season. Barkevious Mingo is a question mark, but Phil Taylor is not. When Taylor is on the field, the front seven is better. They make it easy for a secondary to look like a finished product when they’re on, but too little pressure and too much time to throw create scenarios where we wonder if Joe Haden is worth the cash.
Jared: The AFC, which has 11 of its 16 teams with winning records. All of the AFC North has winning records. That type of clustering in one division can make it very difficult for the Browns to make it to the playoffs. With their record at 6-3 the expectations have changed. They have a few tough games ahead of them, and injuries continue to be a concern, but with the new expectations the biggest obstacle is the fight for the playoffs. Right now the Browns sit in the fifth spot but have six teams behind them by one game or less.
I wrote that bullet prior to the Bengals game and even though the Browns owned the line Thursday … the Bengals are such a soft team with a soft coach. That being said, perhaps I’ve been too harsh on the team that won the line – eventually – against Gerald McCoy and Khalil Mack. I mean, it could be the Raiders and Bucs were harder-to-pass tests than we’ve given the line credit for. The Texans have a real coach in Bill O’Brien, studly run blocking and, of course at least one good player on the defensive line. Get past the Texans with a win and we’re going places.
Ryan: Success. I only say that because we, the fans, are not used to having it. But NFL players wouldn’t be in the league if they weren’t accustomed to success along their journey. That said, I’m very interested to see how they maintain their edge and focus. Again, that starts with the coaching staff and I have the utmost faith in Pettine to keep them grounded. But the division is so damn close that there cannot be a single misstep the rest of the way. The pressure is only going to grow.
Dave: Not getting to play and beat 1-7 and 0-7 teams – and those quarterbacked by Andy Dalton – every week is going to be kind of tricky.
Question: Josh Gordon is scheduled to return for the Atlanta game on Nov. 23. How much of an impact can he make over the final six games?
Jeff: He’s the best player to play the position for the Browns in over 30 years. They’re still treading water in the passing game without him. Get Gordon on the field at the same time as Andrew Hawkins and Jordan Cameron, and then get your popcorn ready. The caveat is that Gordon has to hold on to the ball and get his timing right with Brian Hoyer to make it easier on himself.
Jared: His impact may not look as big when the stats are looked at, but it will be huge. Gordon’s return will do a few things:
- Open up the underneath routes even more,
- Take coverage away from Jordan Cameron, Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin,
- Take safeties out of the box and open up even more run lanes, and
- Give Hoyer a big target when he needs to take a shot, specifically in the red zone.
Gordon may struggle some as Shanahan and Hoyer have excelled with receivers running crisp routes, and Gordon’s long strides do not lend to being great at those, but they will learn and adjust. His mental state is most important.
Mike: Significant. I was screaming at the TV every damn time the announcers tried explaining away Andy Dalton’s numbers with the old “AJ Green has missed three games” rap. Oh really? Brian Hoyer is missing the guy who led the league in receiving yards last season (in only 14 games) – could you maybe mention that as long as you’re in QB-slack-cutting mode Mr. Nantz? I’ve been reading, too, that Gordon has been a model citizen and is even working out with quarterbacks outside of Berea. He will be a huge impact for the stretch drive.
Ryan: They’re winning without him, which is good. But there’s little doubt his return should make life much easier on everyone involved. From Brian Hoyer and Mike Shanahan, to Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, the offensive line and the running game. Even the defense should benefit from his presence and big-play ability.
I believe Josh is a plug-and-play type of guy and I don’t think it will take much to get him up to speed and back in the mix. From all accounts, he has been a model citizen in the facility and is “champing at the bit” to get back. Hopefully, we see a hungry, motivated playmaker who will return just in time to give this team the push they need to make a post-season bid.
Dave: Gordon can draw an extra defender away from the line of scrimmage to help the up-and-down running game. Ideally, he piles up some monster games. Or, given that he has to work through three months of rust and learn a new offense on the field, his impact may not be what is expected. And just wait for the media “HOT TAKES” when that happens.
Question: Should the Browns stick with Brian Hoyer the rest of the way, or do they need to “see what they have” with Johnny Manziel?
Jeff: I believe Johnny will one day play the NFL game at a high level, I do. This isn’t the year; “see what they have” time happens before we elect our next president, but certainly not in 2014.
Jared: Even before the win against the Bengals my answer is stick with Hoyer. They have a great idea what they have with Manziel from training camp and with his work in practice. If they believe Manziel is ready to go next year, they keep the leverage via the franchise tag to try to get something out of Hoyer. That doesn’t work if they sit Hoyer. If they don’t believe he is ready, they keep Manziel’s value high by not exposing him – think Kirk Cousins in Washington.
Mike: It would be nice if there were a way to insert QB-B into action when QB-A is not sharp. This imaginary way includes being able to make such changes without provoking any player insecurities or sparking national attention. It’s just “Brian you’re still my starter and will be next week, but you don’t have it today and I think Johnny gives us a better chance to win today.” This pretend place does not exist on Earth, though, so you continue to play Hoyer until he loses. I don’t agree that you play him until eliminated; a change has got to be on the table before that because there’s still a very good chance we can make the playoffs.
That being said, Hoyer’s passing in the Cincy game, in that wind, compared to Dalton, renders the question moot.
Ryan: This is a no-brainer for me. I’ve been vocal about Hoyer playing and letting Johnny sit since camp started. There is absolutely no reason we should see Manziel, barring injury, the rest of the season.
Dave: That’s such a dumb question. The better question is: “Do the Browns regret not fleecing Manziel-loving Jerry Jones for two first rounders back in September?”
Question: Do the Browns have what it takes to make a playoff run over the final two months of the season?
Jeff: I think it comes down to their division record, and if they can run the table to get to 4-2 against AFC North opponents. That means a win in Baltimore and at home against Cincinnati. If they get those, I have to believe 11-5 gets them into the postseason. Getting those is a big IF though.
Jared: They do. Their team concept can travel well. The Browns run game hasn’t been excellent, but the Cincinnati game gave some hope, and their willingness to stick to it opens up the passing game. Hoyer is not perfect, but he is solid enough that he won’t make huge mistakes and will find receivers in stride often. The running game allows the team to not get behind where they want to be on second and third downs most drives. That sets up an unknown for defenses on third and short.
The defense is coming together. The Browns added a bunch of new players and are implementing a new system. They have shown over the past few weeks that now that they have the system down, they are performing at a much higher level.
I predicted the Browns to go 8-8, but with six wins already that needs to be readjusted. Houston will be a tough game, but being at home I think the Browns can pull it off – although it would not shock me if the Browns lose there. The return of Josh Gordon in Atlanta, on their turf, is a win. The Bills have been playing well but I see that falling apart soon. A 3-0 or 2-1 record over the next three weeks seems reasonable. The last four games will all be very tough. Hopefully the Browns can steal one or two of them. My adjusted prediction is not much different: nine or 10 wins on the season for the Browns.
Mike: Well, yeah. All Ten wins. Six reasons why. This is as true now as it was in early September.
Ryan: Absolutely. Again, if they can stay focused and take care of the things they are in control of, there’s no reason they can’t earn a playoff bid. As I type this, they hold the keys to the first Wildcard spot and the AFC North title is there for the taking. With Gordon, Jordan Cameron and Hawkins coming back, and a defense that is finally starting to jell, the “P” word is well within reach. This is going to be fun. Go Browns!
Dave: It depends on the matchups. The Browns have won when they have either been the more physical team or have chased a young and/or overmatched quarterback. The second half of the season doesn’t offer many of those matchups. The hope here is that they finish respectable and don’t fire their head coach again.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images and clevelandbrowns.com)