Season On The Brink

With the season halfway in the books, unpleasantries during bye week, and some curious developments of late, Joe Brownlee offers his thoughts on the state of the Browns...<BR><I>(Fan Commentary)</I><BR>

Good day, Browns fans!

Coming out of their bye week, the Cleveland Browns find themselves at a crossroads. Unlike 2002, the issues facing the team go beyond the field of play. Many of the problems facing the team in terms of injuries and personnel are more issues with the front office and coaching than in the locker room. Let's examine some of these issues.

Transaction Action

Out of the blue, the news surfaces that team president Carmen Policy has sold his 10% interest in the Browns back to owner Randy Lerner. The timing and motivation for this move has been a subject of much speculation. I cannot understand why Policy would agree to this if he has any kind of long-term future with the Browns. This seems like the precursor to Policy moving on.

Much has been written about Lerner's hands off style and lack of involvement. He presents himself like a casual fan who happened to inherit the team. I have a hard time believing this portrayal of Lerner. It would be natural for an owner to take over and put his own management team in place. I also think that it is not a great stretch to think that given the current state of the team, that Lerner may not be happy with the performance of Carmen Policy and/or Butch Davis.

We don't really know enough to do anything but speculate as to what all this means, but some things I felt were cast in stone with the direction of this team just became a lot more fluid.

Running On Empty

My immediate reaction to the arrest of William Green was, "How could he be so stupid?" Unfortunately, the answer is that if you are stinking drunk in the late afternoon, less than four hours after practice, driving recklessly on a flat tire with an illegal substance in your car, you clearly have an addiction problem. This is not a problem that will go away by attending a two-hour seminar. Green is going to have to committed to getting clean over a sustained period of time. Where stupidity comes in is if he is not willing to do so.

As one local writer put it, Green has been "a mild disappointment" this season. Back-to-back 100-yard games are great, but Green has not run with authority at times, has gone down way too easily, and has fumbled. Green did not improve in his receiving ability as we had all hoped. And, though some will disagree, I would say that when given enough chances, James Jackson has actually outplayed Green.

It is hard to imagine Green having a Pro Bowl year the rest of the way after this incident. He is lucky Butch Davis suspended him for just one game. And, of course, the league has yet to decide how it will respond to this situation.

Thank goodness for the resurrection of Jackson's career. This is going to be a lot more than a luxury the rest of the season.

Quarterback Controversy II: The Wrath of Couch

I was on record as supporting Kelly Holcomb as the quarterback choice this summer. However, I said at the time that with Holcomb's injury history and the unknowns of how he would play, it was inevitable that Tim Couch would have the opportunity to play and perhaps win back the starting job. While the Steelers make everyone look good, Couch had a good half against the Bengals, too, and it looked like Couch might just force Butch Davis to reconsider. Then he played a poor but mistake-free game against Oakland, laid an egg against the Chargers, and got off to a horrible start against New England before being injured.

The San Diego game provided the turning point. Couch did what Couch always does. The team was down 6-0 late in the first half. The Browns had outplayed the Chargers, but a lot of mistakes kept the Browns from converting that into points. Couch started to feel the pressure of taking the game on himself, and the next thing you know, he was throwing six-pointers the other way. It is telling that in this game, Davis made his first-ever in-game quarterback switch. When Holcomb came in, I said to my dad and brothers, "If Holcomb does anything in this game, Tim Couch is done in Cleveland." Holcomb came close to pulling off the comeback, and I knew Couch would be needing some change of address cards.

This whole thing is a shame. I was pulling for Couch. It would have been a great comeback story. It would have made the Browns not look so dumb in their drafting. It would have been good for the team. Many of us in judging between the quarterbacks have been saying things like, "Holcomb only played against bad defenses", or, "It's hard to compare them against different competition". Two games with both guys playing showed that right now, even a gimpy Holcomb is a better option than Couch. That is sad and shows just how far Couch has fallen.

Meanwhile, Holcomb goes back into the Chiefs game as the starter having played just two good quarters of football this season so far. Even if he can stay healthy, don't look for the Browns to become an offensive juggernaut. Of course, there are plenty of problems on offense beyond the quarterback.

Revolving Receivers

I was hoping Butch Davis would make a change at the receiver position at the bye week. It was obvious one was needed. Then I heard the news that it is Kevin Johnson hitting the bench.

KJ has his limitations. He isn't as fast as the other three. He doesn't have the size of Quincy Morgan or Andre Davis. He can get a little lazy at times. But he has incredibly sure hands. He caught 11 passes in a game this season. He leads the team in receptions and generally makes the tough catch. When he has a rare drop such as at the end of the San Diego game, we are surprised.

Meanwhile, Quincy "Hands of Stone" Morgan will continue to start. His drop in the San Diego game with a wide open field ahead of him killed an early drive that might well have changed the course of the game. His one big play this season was more of defensive lapse by the Bengals than anything Morgan did. I cringe every time they throw to him. He rarely catches the ball cleanly.

Some of you will disagree, but I can't say anything other than Butch Davis is clearly playing favorites in the way he has handled this. I have not understood why he has seemingly been against KJ since arriving in Cleveland. KJ has more catches at this stage of his career than many Hall of Fame-caliber receivers did. He has caught a pass in every game he has been a Brown. He isn't the greatest blocker, but at least he gives it a shot. He is the only player to start every game since The Return. I love Andre Davis and agree he should start. But Morgan should not.

It is this sort of thing that makes me wonder if Butch Davis cares more about his ego and protecting his draft record than winning football games. Bill Belichick made a similar decision about a young receiver when he coached the Browns. He said he did not practice well enough, yet, every time this player was given playing time, he made big plays. When the Browns left town, the player moved on. Perhaps you've heard of this player – Keenan McCardell.

Offensive Offense

The Browns haven't had so many problems with play calling since the days of the immortal Steve Crosby. The Browns run too much on first down and are far too predictable. Then, once the game gets going, even if the run is working, they abandon it. Against New England, you had a rusty quarterback who was not 100% healthy in the game. The run was working. James Jackson had 71 yards on just 12 carries. The Browns were never behind by more than six points, and that was not until late in the game. I love the passing game, but the Browns should have run more in that game.

I am sick and tired of hearing about the Cover Two defense. It allows the safeties to each take half of the deep field to help prevent the big play. Isn't that what safeties have been doing for years? Are our vaunted receivers that bad that they can't get open anyway, at least sometimes? Certain quarterbacks used to kill the zone defenses Bill Belichick ran when he was in Cleveland. Our receivers can't find the soft spot in a zone? My guess is that the coaching staff is insisting on running precise routes regardless of the defense. If there is no ability to adjust to what the defense is giving you, you won't do very well.

This offense has to put up points. Have you seen the stat that through nine weeks, 25 times has a team held their opponent to less than 10 points. In those games, teams are 23-2. The Browns have accounted for both losses, 9-6 to the Colts and 9-3 to the Patriots. Everyone thought the offense would do great things this year. Instead, it has been lucky to get a first down at times.

Many are calling for the head of Bruce Arians. I'm not his biggest fan, either, but I suspect that were Kelly Holcomb to play in some other offense, he'd look like Scott Mitchell after he left Miami. If we dump Couch, dumping Arians might in effect leave us with no options at quarterback.

Shuffling The Line

Here's hoping that the offensive line starters return this week. The group of Barry Stokes, Shaun O'Hara, Jeff Faine, Paul Zukauskas, and Ryan Tucker were really starting to come together against Pittsburgh and Oakland. I'm not a fan of Chad Beasley, but I though Enoch DeMar and Juaquin Gonzalez did a solid job stepping in against New England. They gained valuable experience that may pay dividends down the road. I am still not impressed by Melvin Fowler.

The Browns have killed themselves by ignoring the line in the draft for the most part. I think the Browns need to find either a left tackle or a good run-blocking guard through free agency, then spend some draft picks, with at least one first day pick, to fill the other holes. I'm not sure how I feel about Ross Verba and his offer to take a pay cut to stay. I think Barry Stokes when healthy is every bit as good as Verba, which really says why the Browns need a good left tackle. Orlando Pace has been suggested by many, and I'd love to see it, but I'm not holding my breath.

For now, I'd settle for this line reaching the point where the quarterback isn't getting beaten to death.

Big Money Small Change

Gerard Warren has made some plays here and there this season. But he easily gets taken out of most plays and only seems to do something if he lucks into it. Even if a runner runs right at him, he may or may not make a play, and opposing blockers always seem to be able to route Warren to a place where he is not in any danger of stopping them. The guy rarely fights off a block, something Orpheus Roye is way better at doing.

I've heard hints that Alvin McKinley will see more playing time. Given what Butch Davis did with the receivers, I guess we'll see Roye hit the bench so Small Change can continue to be an even larger waste of space. If it were me, I'd seriously look at dumping Warren after the season.

Meanwhile, Courtney Brown is having a good year. Maybe not spectacular, but he is making a lot of plays. It makes me wonder how the Browns could leave him on the bench on the last drive against New England. I know there is a rotation in place, but isn't that so the starters can be fresh at the end of the game? That was the end of the game. So the coaches conveniently leave the team's best pass rusher on the bench so he can be fresh for the plane ride home? Stupid.

Hitting The Wall

The young linebacker trio has been a mixed bag so far. Andra Davis started off very well. Yes, he made some big mistakes, especially against Jamal Lewis, but overall, he was playing at a high level the first six games. The last two games, Davis has tailed off. The New England game, I thought he actually played poorly. I'll take his effort and hustle, but he has to make tackles when the opportunity comes and he has to be in the right place to make the play. I'm hoping the week off will bring him back fresh and ready to move to the next level.

Speaking of hustle, I love the effort Ben Taylor gives. He has made a few good tackles for loss this year. I know of his 21 tackles against New England, several were too late to really stop the play. But even so, compared to the options the Browns had last year at outside linebacker, I'll take Taylor's motor compared to his predecessors. Kevin Bentley has been an enormous disappointment. After a good preseason and early part of 2002, Bentley came back late in the year from an injury and has never gone back to the previous level of play.

Speaking of disappointments, second round pick Chaun Thompson has made little impact on defense. His holdout really cost him any chance to make a difference in 2003. His biggest impact has been on Special Teams, and that impact has been negative. Off the top of my head, I can think of three special teams penalties he has caused. If you can't even put the guy in as a third down designated pass rusher, you have to look at this as a pick that has made no impact this season.

Stellar Secondary

When you consider that the secondary has shut down Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and David Boston, you really can't complain. Even in the preseason, it looked like Anthony Henry and Daylon McCutcheon would struggle. Instead, both have done a good job. Even Lewis Sanders has done a solid job on the corner.

At safety, Earl Little hasn't been able to come up with the right bounces to get the interceptions he has had in the past. Robert Griffith continues to go for the big hit rather than wrapping up. I don't look for him to return in 2004.

Not So Special Teams

Phil Dawson has hurt the team with some missed kicks and poor kickoffs. The kick coverage teams have been horrible. When they make a tackle, a penalty wipes it out. Long returns by opposing teams are far too common. Likewise, the kick return teams has not allowed Dennis Northcutt many chances, and Andre Davis does not look the same as last year on kick returns.

Credit where credit is due, though, for Chris Gardocki, who is having a great season. Also, both the fake field goal against the Raiders and the fake punt at New England were nicely done.

Coaching Capers

I've said a lot about what I believe to be coaching gaffes, more so by Butch Davis and Bruce Arians, but Dave Campo has also had some problems. But the Browns have been tremendously hurt by many decisions, starting with not drafting or otherwise acquiring decent offensive linemen. There was also the debacle with Josh Booty that leaves the Browns with two nicked quarterbacks and fielding undrafted Nate Hybl as the #3 man. There is the decision to sign Jamel White to a new contract, then not use him. And I have some real questions about the bye week changes that have been announced.

I see a lot of wheels turning on the sidelines. I don't see many points on the scoreboard or wins in the standings. I see a lot of players on the field who have not been productive over a long period of time, and a coach who says he values consistency. I could live a lot better with taking a step back this year if the coach appeared to have a strategy in mind. I don't see it.

A Big Finish?

The Browns find themselves 3-5 at the midway point of the 2003 season. They have beaten the 49ers, who don't seem to be a very good team, the Steelers, who don't seem to be a very good team, and the Raiders, who don't seem to be a very good team. Do you notice a pattern here? The Browns have also lost to the 1-7 Chargers, who lost to Chicago Sunday, and to the 3-5 Bengals, who lost to Arizona. The Browns gave up nearly 300 yards to Jamal Lewis and a 70-yard run to LaDanian Tomlinson.

Coming up, the Browns face the undefeated Chiefs, and a three-game stretch that includes trips to Seattle and Denver and a visit from the resurgent Rams. To be blunt, Butch Davis is going to have to go to rehab with William Green if he thinks the Browns can win nine games this year. The Browns would have to go 6-2 the rest of the way. Right now, with Shipp running as he is, I don't think the Browns will even beat Arizona a week from Sunday. They have done the worst against teams with one-dimensional running attacks.

I had said earlier this year that this looked like a 5-11 team. A lot depends on how things go from here. If the team can hold together, a 4-4 finish for a 7-9 overall record is not impossible. I will not be surprised to see them do worse. While the upcoming game at Kansas City is exactly the type of game the Browns have won under Davis, it isn't realistic to expect the Browns to win. Think about what Dante Hall will do the kick coverage teams alone.

Should the team fall to 3-6, the playoffs are most likely out of reach. The question then becomes, what changes do you make to look ahead to 2004?

Next Up

The Browns travel to Kansas City to face the 8-0 Chiefs.

The season is short. Bark hard!

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