What a difference a week makes in Cleveland. In the span of little more than three hours, the buzz around Browns' Nation quickly dissipated from playoff aspirations to draft talk and suddenly everyone remembered that the first 26 games of Pat Shurmur's Browns' tenure revealed more than the last three.
Some thoughts from Sunday.
1. There is no better quote to sum up the huge canyon that exists between a Super Bowl-winning Head Coach like the Redskins' Mike Shanahan and an embattled one like the Browns' Pat Shurmur.
"Coach Shanahan put him (Cousins) in a great spot. (The Redskins) tailor-made what he does well. He played well. You have to tip your hat to him."
Unfortunately, Weeden took only 20 words to summarize what I have droning on about for a year and a half. Simply put, Shanahan – both father and son – have put their young quarterbacks in positions to succeed, while Shurmur has taken a rigid, overly complicated, archaic offense and demanded that Weeden adjust accordingly.
While certainly the ill fit of the West Coast system doesn't entirely excuse Weeden from simply making bad throws, it's obvious that Weeden needs a system more reflective of contemporary football to succeed.
2. On Sunday, Weeden floated, overthrew, underthrew, threw behind and basically resembled an ugly conglomeration of the Ghosts of Browns' Expansion Quarterback Past. On the surface, it's clear that Weeden has "regressed", which seems to be the latest buzzword to describe his performance. Of course, to see such a performance this late into Weeden's rookie year is a cause for concern. But again, I have to wonder how much of Weeden's sloppy play is a result of being completely uncomfortable playing in a stilted offensive system.
Mechanics wise, Weeden has looked awkward for probably over a month now. Even during the Browns' three-game winning streak, Weeden would still make throws with an off-center balance and would even occasionally lift up on his back foot while releasing his throws – something a shorter quarterback might do. The reasons for these disjointed mechanics could be varied – injury, nervousness – but overall are a clear symptom of a quarterback who is not comfortable.
3. In the lead up to this week's game, I again threw out the revisionist history example of how RG3 would have fit into Shurmur's West Coast offense. Would RG3 be taking seven-step drops and throwing 6-yard curls?
Or even – would he be experiencing the same kind of late season struggles/regression that Weeden is experiencing?
Of course these are hypothetical questions, but they are worth asking in light of how natural Cousins looked playing in Shanahan's system. In terms of being quarterback friendly, the Shanahan's have crafted a system that allows their quarterback to make plays – but uniquely doesn't demand much from them.
Since the Redskins' offense moves so fluidly in the run game, Cousins – a mobile quarterback in his own right – was able to use play action to give him huge stretches of field to settle and make downfield throws. It's likely that the Shanahan's saw how aggressive the Browns' defensive front has been in recent weeks and dialed up a series of play action calls to exploit this. For the majority of the game, the Redskins' play calling kept the Browns' defense continually unsettled.
4. Speaking of play calling, while Shanahan played to both the Redskins' strengths and the Browns' weaknesses, Shurmur resorted to his earlier season tendency of ignoring the running game. While Shurmur clearly improved as an offensive playcaller over the past three weeks, his "regression" was shown during the second half – even when the Browns were still only a score away from making the game close.
Shurmur's default as an offensive playcaller is to continue to pass, even when the realities of the game require more of a balance. It is this tendency that has continually put the Browns' offense into unmanageable situations. As I have addressed repeatedly since last year's St. Louis game, Shurmur has not really evolved much an offensive play caller. Since the writing is basically on the wall regarding his Head Coaching future, this is probably an area that Shurmur needs to concentrate on moving forward in his NFL career.
4a. An entire 10,000 word post could probably be devoted to Shurmur rekindling his bungled second half adjustments. While more talented coaches figure out changes, Shurmur continues to stick with whatever rigid game plan he entered with.
5. As for the Browns' more successful coordinator, Dick Jauron's defense struggled against a more fluid offense. As SOBO suggested last week, the Browns' defensive front struggled against the Redskins' stretch block runs. On many occasions, the Browns' defensive front couldn't resist the momentum of the stretch blocking and far too many times were tricked by continued play action.
This last note is a symptom of the Browns' relative youth defensively. After playing such aggressive defense against lesser teams in Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City, the Browns' exuberance was used against them on Sunday. Much of the play action resulted in either T.J. Ward or Tashuan Gipson creeping into the defensive front seven, which left the hapless Usama Young exposed down field.
6. Clearly, the Redskins are a team that is peaking at the perfect time. Despite being a team with limited depth as the result of injuries, the Redskins are rolling into a likely playoff berth. The tenants of the Redskins' five-game winning streak are obvious: superb young talent, a physical defense and solid coaching and schemes.
The above dramatically contrasts with the Browns' last several opponents – which have been a mixture of injury-riddled veteran teams in the Chargers and Steelers and poorly coached, talent-deprived squads represented by the Raiders and Chiefs. Naturally, the Redskins posed a legitimate challenge and the outcome of Sunday's game perhaps better displays a proper gauge of the Browns' current talent level – both on and off the field.
7. As such, it was telling that the Redskins likely identified two offensive targets to focus on in Josh Gordon and Trent Richardson. Both Browns' rookies were easily contained – although Shurmur's play calling helped to negate Richardson's impact. While Gordon has been at times revelatory, it's obvious that the Browns need to find a secondary receiving target in the offseason.
Or, if what I have been suggesting all season holds any truth, Greg Little could emerge as such a target in a more contemporary 2013 offensive system. Too often during Sunday's game, the Redskins rolled coverage towards Gordon. With the limits of Shurmur's WCO receiver routes, Weeden wasn't left with many solid secondary options.
8. It seems like I say this every week, but regardless of Richardson's stat line, it is beyond impressive what he has done for the Browns this season. It's yet again worth mentioning that Richardson is playing with torn rib cartilage, yet still possesses the desire to carry a pile of Redskin defenders into the end zone for his 10th rushing touchdown of the season.
9. Speaking of more positive moments – from a rookie – I think I'm onto something with my repeated mentions of the Saddest Man on the Planet, Travis Benjamin. After I suggested that he was the Charlie Brown of the Browns, Benjamin has returned a punt for a touchdown against the Chiefs and provided a long touchdown reception on Sunday.
So in the spirit of Browns' fans everywhere and future Benjamin touchdowns, let us all state that Phil Taylor stole Benjamin's post-game meal.
10. And so we're right back to where we started about a month ago. Suddenly, all it took was a reality check that Shurmur is not an NFL-quality Head Coach, Jauron's defense is technically proficient, but not a great defense from a specific game schematic viewpoint and the Browns as a whole have some talented players, but certainly need a boost in terms of another solid draft and in finding better coaching.
And for a team that is being built in the mold of the Eagles, it's encouraging to think that Browns will not have to play the NFC East for another four years.