Good day, Browns fans!
Rather than a normal post-game review, given the events of this past weekend, I thought I would instead offer some commentary on where the Cleveland Browns find themselves and the close out the preseason and head toward opening day. Because the Green Bay game was on national TV, I'm sure most readers saw the game anyway. The fact is, I am not left with warm and fuzzy feelings after the game.
The Quarterback Competition
Many are saying they are not surprised that Butch Davis selected Kelly Holcomb as the starting quarterback for the 2003 Browns. I am surprised. I am not surprised because I felt that Holcomb won the competition. I am surprised because I, like many others, felt that the "competition" was not as open as Coach Davis was saying it was. Well, I am ready to eat my words. I believe Davis wanted Tim Couch to win the job, but he did not do so. I give Davis a lot of credit for making this tough but correct call.
I will also agree with what Davis said in his press conference. Couch is playing the best football of his career right now. That is the sad part about this situation. Couch is playing his best and it still is not good enough. If you have read this column over the past year, you know that I have not always been in Couch's corner. Last preseason, before the arm injury, Couch looked very sharp. But when he returned, he was not the same. At first, I thought perhaps he was still hurt but was playing anyway. But it soon became clear that Couch just did not have the same moxie running the Arians offense that Holcomb did. I tried to be balanced in my viewpoints, but over the course of the season, I just became fed up with making excuse after excuse for Couch. Even in some of the games the Browns won in 2002, Couch did not play all that well.
I think when Couch finally lost me was the Carolina game. The Browns were playing a battered team with injury problems and off the field legal troubles. Couch had an absolutely terrible game and the Browns lost 13-7, putting their backs to the wall in the playoff hunt. That game was Couch's biggest game of his career and he absolutely flopped. Now, Couch did play some good football to allow the Browns to climb back into the race. Couch supporters point to his many fourth-quarter comebacks, and in particular, drives at the end of the Baltimourge and Jacksonville games. Allow me to remind you that the Browns would not have needed a Hail Mary pass in Jacksonville were it not for a horribly thrown ball that the Jaguars intercepted to go up 20-14. Against the Bruises, Couch engineered a fantastic 90+ yard drive, but other than the opening drive, he did nothing all day. I do not want to minimize some fantastic moments for Couch last year, such as in the Jets game, but neither should his contribution be overstated.
All this being said, in many ways, we just don't know what we have in Holcomb. In limited chances, he has looked very good. Can he stand up to the pounding of a full NFL season? Can he learn to be a little more careful with the football given more in-game experience? Can he work his magic against some of the best defenses in the NFL? Nobody can answer those questions right now, but we are about to find out. I have a feeling Browns fans might like the answers.
Many were concerned about a divided locker room. I think the only chance of that was if Butch Davis had ignored what everyone was seeing and picked Couch anyway. Holcomb's attitude is a healthy one: now comes the hard part, winning football games. Also, Tim Couch handled the tough questions from the media about his demotion with grace and class. Regardless of how things play out for Couch with the Browns, I wish him well.
I am very excited about the offense. With Holcomb, the Browns should be able to take full advantage of their skill players. William Green had limited chances against the Packers, but he was exciting and looked fabulous. This was a marked departure from the scrimmage and Tennessee games where Green combined for 20 yards on 12 carries. In particular, the long screen pass was well executed by Green. He paused and waited for his blockers to get set. Jeff Faine and Barry Stokes were out in front and Shaun O'Hara cleared a man behind the play. Green will make this offense go, allowing Holcomb to kill opponents with play action and a more vertical passing attack than the Browns had with Couch at the helm.
While I am pleased with the outstanding preseason play of Kevin Johnson and Dennis Northcutt, Quincy Morgan continues to be frustrating to watch. He makes some tremendous big plays but drops too many balls. Also, on the ball thrown to Morgan that was intercepted, Morgan made no attempt whatsoever to turn into a defensive back and break up the play. The Browns have to be concerned with the injury to Andre Davis. He is a tremendous threat as the #4 receiver and would start for many teams in the NFL. Rookie C.J. Jones looks to be an exciting player, and combined with his special teams ability, I like his chances to make the team. Even Antoine Burns and Richard Alston have shown talent. Andre King, on the other hand, has had a nightmare preseason, with two critical dropped passes and a dumb personal foul.
Tight end remains a concern. We've heard what a great camp Steve Heiden was having, but he hasn't shown it on the field yet. Against Tennessee, he dropped two passes that would have picked up first downs. Against Green Bay, Heiden did catch a nice touchdown pass over the middle and another ball, but he also wiped out a 10-yard gain by Green with a holding call away from the play, and had a false start. Darnell Sanders seems mired at the bottom of the depth chart. Aaron Shea is a good special teams player and can catch the ball, but he has injury problems and is just awful as a blocker. Tight end/fullback is an area of concern.
The offensive line was terrible with Melvin Fowler at left guard. While Barry Stokes won't go to the Pro Bowl, the line was much better with him in the game. That being said, it was his man getting into the backfield on Holcomb that caused the interception. Unless Qasim Mitchell has a revelation very soon, it looks like the starting offensive line is set. There will be some painful decisions as to who stays or goes, but I'd have to say Paul Zukauskas is on shaky ground. It's too early to give up on Fowler, but so far, it doesn't look like he is going to develop into the player the Browns hoped when they drafted him in the third round last year.
While James Jackson is no William Green, he is having a pretty decent preseason. If the line can open a few holes, the guy can be a decent backup. I don't know if there is room on the roster, but Billy Blanchard looks like a solid player. He gets down the field on special teams, keeps his legs moving, and does not go down on first contact.
We've talked about the good news. Here is the bad news: this defense stinks. I thought there was one real bright spot against the Packers, and that was Andra Davis. His interception showed great hands, and he had the presence of mind to hand the ball to Anthony Henry and block. Davis needs to start ahead of veteran Barry Gardner immediately. Davis may not be played perfectly, but he makes plays. Gardner hustles but doesn't have the same impact on the game.
Beyond that, it is time to seriously question just how far this team can go with the defense in its current state, especially with the toughest part of the schedule weighted to the beginning of the year. The Dave Campo defense is supposed to be predicated on the play of the defensive line and corners, with the other players filling in. If it starts up front, the Browns are in big trouble. They have one playmaker on the defensive line, and that is Orhpeus Roye. The Packers did a decent job of neutralizing Roye. Beyond that, Kenard Lang hustled, but had minimal impact on the game. Mark Word was just horrible against the run and was ineffective against the pass. Word was manhandled by the offensive tackle on nearly every play. Then comes Small Change. Gerard Warren is now o'fer the entire preseason. In two games and a scrimmage, this guy has yet to even register a tackle. I'm not going to even get into the effort he is giving here, because that is debatable. The fact is, this guy does not produce. It is time to start Alvin McKinley. Butch Davis draft pick or not, Gerard Warren is killing the Browns up front.
The second-string defensive line has been playing well up until this week. In the Green Bay game, they were burned just as badly if not worse. Other than one find stop by Alvin McKinley at the goal line and a good quarterback pressure that should have been a sack by Felipe Claybrooks (the Packer lineman was called for holding), they struggled against the run even worse than the starters.
It is hard to know if Courtney Brown would make a difference, but it is a concern that he took himself out of the Green Bay game. After what happened to Michael Vick over the weekend, maybe it is better to err on the side of caution. You just have to wonder if Brown truly has the heart to play at the NFL level. I certainly hope the answer is "yes" but I'll be watching this situation carefully.
The fact that the d-line is struggling so badly really puts pressure on the young linebackers and secondary. Ben Taylor is playing with a lot of fire, but he often seems out of position. Kevin Bentley looks lost. He looked so good last preseason. It was a great concern of mine seeing Bentley covering wide receivers several times Friday. What is going on? Favre had to be salivating over that mismatch. Earl Little and Anthony Henry have shown little during the preseason as teams work to exploit Daylon McCutcheon. Michael Jameson has made some good plays here and there.
The defense is a shambles, and no spin doctoring or sugar coating can change that. It is an open question whether they can pull together enough to keep the team in games. With Vick's injury, the defense may not get the type of test that will tell us the answer against Detroit and Atlanta to close out the preseason.
Consider this: What will Peyton Manning and Edge James do to this defense week one? I shudder to think.
The Browns have not faced a crossroads like this since The Return. The team has benched its #1 overall draft pick; a supposed cornerstone of the franchise. The massive overhaul on defense is not going as well as anyone had hoped. Several high profile players are not living up to their billing or salary cap hits. It is hard to imagine the Browns going very far with a defense this bad.
But then, where can they go but up?
The season is short. Bark hard!