Browns delivering latest in a series of strange seasons
Even when you take into account all the strange things we wish we could unsee from the Cleveland Browns since 1999, this season has still been one of the more stranger ones from the guys in Orange and Brown.
Once 6-3 and dreaming of the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2002, the Browns must win on Sunday in Baltimore to avoid posting a losing record for the seventh consecutive season.
And they may be forced to do it with a third-string quarterback starting the season finale for the third year in the row and the fourth time in the past five seasons. (File that one under, “the more things change the more they stay the same.”)
If undrafted rookie Connor Shaw joins Jason Campbell, Thaddeus Lewis, Bruce Gradkowski and Colt McCoy on the list of forgettable quarterbacks it would be a fitting end to a once-promising season.
We’re still not sure how to explain this season from the Browns, especially when you consider that:
- The Browns dominated Cincinnati in a primetime road win and came within a couple of plays of sweeping Pittsburgh; the Bengals are Steelers are both playoff teams.
- Beat Atlanta, which can make the playoffs with a win this Sunday, on the road.
- Came within one point of beating Indianapolis, which is also going to the playoffs after winning the AFC South.
Of course, the Browns also:
- Lost to a Jacksonville team that is currently 3-12.
- Lost to a Carolina team this past Sunday that entered the game with just five wins.
- Needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to beat a Tampa Bay team that is currently 2-13.
- Need the biggest road comeback in NFL history to defeat a Tennessee team that is currently 2-13.
The defense seems like it has gotten better – only five teams in the AFC have given up fewer points – but then you realize they are dead last in the league when it comes to defending the run and you start to scratch your head.
The same can be said about the running game on offense, which didn’t have to go far to be an improvement over last year’s abomination. While rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West have combined for 1,180 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, as the season has gone along their production has gone down.
In his last four games, Crowell has rushed for just 2.87 yards per carry and scored just one touchdown. Over that same timeframe West has outperformed Crowell, rushing for just a shade over four yards per carry, but didn’t even get off the bench against the Panthers in part because of poor practice habits last week.
Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert found himself in the same situation against Carolina, as his playing time was drastically reduced after a poor week of practice, despite cornerbacks Joe Haden and K’Waun Williams missing the game because of injuries.
Not to single them out, but the situation last weekend with West and Gilbert may actually go a long way toward explaining why the Browns have had such an inconsistent season.
And in the case of the numerous rookies, they are still learning that being an NFL player is more than just what you do for 60 minutes each Sunday.
Cornerback Buster Skrine, who is in his fourth season, and linebacker Karlos Dansby, touched on that this week when talking about the differences between Gilbert and fellow rookie cornerback Pierre Desir, who saw significant playing time in favor of Gilbert against the Panthers.
“You see it in the facility every day,” Skrine said of Desir’s maturity level. “He goes about his business like a true professional, and that’s the reason he was able to step in and play cornerback at a high level. I thought he played well – a couple pass break-ups, a couple good tackles – he did a good job.”
Players are no different than anyone else, some can self-motivate while others need a push or time to mature. That’s why adding veterans such as Dansby and Donte Whitner to the roster is helpful beyond just what they bring to the team on the field.
But in the case of Gilbert, he needs to be willing to take the first step and reach out to his veteran teammates for help.
“It has to be within him. He has to look in the mirror and do that himself. I can only give him the keys. I can’t make him drive,” Dansby said of Gilbert. “Like I say, ‘I’m an open book.’ Everybody in there knows I’m an open book. I’m going to put it to him. He’s got to search for that knowledge. I’m here to give it to him, but he’s got to want it. He’s got to ask. I’m not going to just give it to him. No, you’ve got to go get it. If you want it, you’ve got to go get it, and that’s just how I’ve always been.”
While Dansby was speaking directly about Gilbert, he could just have easily been talking about rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, who admitted on Tuesday that he needs to start working harder if he is going to make it in the NFL.
“It’s been a year of growing up for me,” Manziel said in published reports. “It’s a job for me now. I have to take it a lot more seriously than maybe I did at first.”
We’ll just file that one under “better late than never” and move on, OK?
There is still a long way to go before the Browns take the field next fall and so much can happen between now and then. You only have to look at this season to see how baffling the quarterback situation continues to be for this franchise.
At one point, there was talk of how much it was going to cost the Browns to resign veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer. Then Hoyer struggled and was replaced by Manziel, who proved to anyone who’s watched football for more than five minutes that he is not ready to be an NFL quarterback. (And it revealed why Pettine and the coaching staff held off as long as they could before playing Manziel.)
Now we are just one decent Connor Shaw performance away from spending the next eight months listening to fans talking themselves into Shaw being the answer at quarterback.
We’ll admit up front to the fact that we are probably reading too much into this, but during his press conference on Monday, Pettine listed the qualities he wants from his quarterback: one who is mentally tough and can lead vocally and by example, one who has a complete knowledge of the offensive playbook, and someone who is on the same page with the offensive coordinator.
Of all the quarterbacks currently on the Browns roster, who does that most describe? (Hint: it’s not Johnny Football.)
But that is a discussion for the long off-season; for let’s just get ready for the annual holiday joy of watching a back-up quarterback take over the Browns offense for the season finale.
It’s Cleveland, after all, where the more things change …
Well, you know the rest.