Call it desperation or call it having a cozy familiarity with his old team, but for the first time in 2011 Browns' head coach Pat Shurmur showed that he possesses a coaching pulse. At times skewing the overly conservative play calling that has made the Browns a ill-equipped, one-dimensional offense, Shurmur brought out a bag of tricks that included Wildcat plays, quick shotgun snaps and downfield strikes.
Unfortunately for Shurmur, the results eventually proved typical. Another malaise of field goals were all the Browns' offense could show – even against an injury and talent depleted Rams' defense.
And so it goes for the luckless Browns in yet another warped season. Perhaps the only solace to be taken from Sunday's 13-12 loss is the realization that at least Shurmur tried to embrace a more progressive route.
Naturally, the results were mixed.
1. Using the Shotgun
As a personal aside, the entire "Is Colt McCoy a Franchise Quarterback?" debate was exhaustively annoying back in August. Some three months later, the issue is still not resolved – and probably will never reach an adequate 2011 conclusion.
However, this much is certain: McCoy will not become successful playing behind a patchwork offensive line – particularly one that features two struggling rookies. Throw in the lack of a running game and protecting McCoy becomes paramount to the Browns clinging to any 2011 fortune.
To this point, Shurmur's decision to have McCoy operate out of a shotgun makes sense. Considering that McCoy is facing pressure on nearly every drop back, extending the quarterback's line of vision is a logical change – even if such a move still only leads to five-yard checkdowns. At the least, McCoy returns to a more natural spot on the field – and relieves his body of constant hits.
2. Pump Fakes
It's amazing what having an even remotely passable running game can do for an offense. In past weeks, Shurmur's decisions to use play action were laughable, considering that the Browns simply couldn't run the ball. Against the Rams, the Browns were able to generate spurts of rushing yards – which allowed Shurmur to employ more natural and opportune play action.
Keeping in mind that short passes are the equivalent to rushes (right, Jim Mora?), McCoy was able to freeze the Rams' linebackers with some sharply delivered pump fakes. Considering how effective the Rams' defense were in blitzing two linebackers – usually against Shaun Lauvao and Owen Marecic – McCoy's pump fakes allowed his receivers some extra space to get open.
The best example of this tactic occurred late in the first half, when McCoy froze St. Louis defenders both underneath and down the field – allowing rookie Greg Little to get open for a rare downfield completion. Of course, Little played his role expertly, executing a beautiful stop and go route before tracking down McCoy's lofty pass.
On the Browns' first second half possession, McCoy again delivered a precise pump fake before lobbing a downfield pass to Josh Cribbs – who had beaten man coverage. The pump again froze the Rams' underneath defenders, but unfortunately McCoy was pressured by a blitzing Ram safety. Also, center Alex Mack was beaten by his defender – which affected the accuracy of McCoy's pass.
3. End Arounds
It's become painfully clear that the Browns' rookie guards are often liabilities in pass protection – not to mention during any type of scenario that requires basic field goal blocking. However, when called on to slide away from the line and move in traffic, both Jason Pinkston and Shaun Lauvao are fairly solid.
Against the Rams, the Browns found success in calling three end around plays. The first – an entertaining call that involved two reverses – stretched the already slow Rams' defense far to the Browns' left side, giving McCoy a huge lane to step up and connect with fellow quarterback Seneca Wallace.
The second end around was perhaps the most effective in design, as Cribbs followed some crunching blocks from the left side of the Browns' line before shifting back across the field for a big gain. The run was negated by a Little holding penalty. Later, Little contributed his own run during the Browns' ill-fated final drive.
What Did Not Work
1. McCoy Under Center
For an offense supposedly predicated on precision and accuracy, McCoy is not given nearly enough two and three step drops. Given the state of the Browns' line and the tendency of opposing defenses to rush extra defenders, McCoy simply doesn't have the time to drop back, set his feet and scan the field.
For evidence to the contrary, simply refer to the Browns' first third down conversion of the game. On a 3rd and 3, McCoy takes a three-step drop, sets his feet and fires a dart to Jordan Norwood for a first down. Add two more steps to McCoy's drop and suddenly a very different play emerges.
2. Joe Thomas playing Tight End
The idea of adding some bulk to the team's strong side is appealing – especially since Thomas and Tony Pashos combine to form some 650 pounds of mass. However, Shurmur relied on this trick several times during the Browns' last two drives – which all but telegraphed that a short run was coming.
3. Screen Passes
In Shurmur's defense, a perfectly timed screen to Chris Obonnaya resulted in a Browns' first down. However, in the first half, McCoy was nearly destroyed by the Rams' Chris Long on a similar attempt featuring Ben Watson. Long was literally untouched on the play, which spoiled any inherent intrigue found on the play.
Let's Not Try That Again
1. Wildcat Right Guard Dive
Nostalgia is a funny thing – especially when it comes to struggling NFL offenses. For all of us who were secretly pining for the Brian Daboll days of offense (don't pretend like you weren't), we were given a few healthy doses on Sunday. Against the Rams, Josh Cribbs took a couple snaps from center, shifted right and harmlessly fell into the backside of either Lauvao or Pashos.
And suddenly, it makes sense why the Wildcat fell out of favor around the league.
2. Handing Off to Alex Smith
Of course – this one is just too easy. According to Shurmur, this lowlight of the final drive – in which Smith bobbled the handoff from McCoy – was originally designed for Marecic. As we now know, Marecic was injured on the previous play. Fair enough – especially since Marecic had pounded his way for a critical first down run.
Yet, this play is an extreme indicator of Shurmur's current inflexibility as a play caller. Much in the way that many of his play calls do not reflect the reality of a game day situation, Shurmur appears far too entrenched in his own playbook. In this example, not having Marecic should have been a clear indicator that another play should be called.
3. Going Back to Basics
It's easy to point an accusatory finger at Shurmur – mainly because the rookie coach doubles as the Browns' offensive coordinator. Or, simply put – Shurmur is both the first and second most unpopular figure in town. But in terms of accurately assigning blame to the Browns' current troubles, it's hard to fully condemn Shurmur. After all, given the limited amount of talent on his roster, Shurmur at least tried to breathe life into his dormant offense.
Then again, it's worth asking the question whether Shurmur's recent binge of creativity was the sole result of knowing the tendencies of his former team. Or – will Shurmur again brainstorm some schemes for the Jaguars next week? If not, are we back to another pure display of ineffective West Coast offense?
Finally – and in a most sinister tone – does the St. Louis game represent the best that Shurmur has to offer? Similar to the Browns' flat effort against the Raiders heading out of an earlier bye week, perhaps we've seen the limits of what Shurmur can do – at least with this current collection of talent.
Either way, the only thing that Shurmur can do now is keep trying.