A disappointing season has come to a close for the Cleveland Browns. After a playoff appearance in 2002, many of us expected the Browns to take a step back, but most did not expect the major stumble the team suffered in 2003. There are a lot of reasons for that. In this article, we'll look at each position and examine which players can help the Browns bounce back in 2004 and which might be looking for employment elsewhere.
This is part 1 of 3. In this installment, we'll look at the offense. Part 2 will examine the defense, and part 3 will look at special teams and other team related issues.
The offense overall had a miserable year. There were many cases where it seemed like 1999 or 2000, when the team would celebrate simply making a first down. The Browns failed to score an offensive touchdown in five games, and not surprisingly, they lost them all. One touchdown each in the Indianapolis, New England, and home Pittsburgh games would have been enough for the Browns to be 8-8 instead of 5-11.
The causes for the breakdowns on offense have been widely discussed. The play calling of former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, especially in its predictability, has been identified as an issue. The quarterback controversy that raged most of the season certainly had an impact. William Green's personal and legal troubles leading to a half-season suspension was a blow. The fall from grace and subsequent release of wide receiver Kevin Johnson factors in. But in my opinion, it is difficult to realistically evaluate the offense without considering the problems with the offensive line. The other problems were huge issues as well, but this is the root cause, in my opinion.
There are a lot of question marks on offense, and the answers to these questions will shape the offseason and the 2004 team. Expect a fair amount of turnover here. However, I have my doubts as to whether the problems can be fixed before opening day next year.
Pass the crow, please. I was one of those who felt Kelly Holcomb had won the preseason quarterback derby. While I wondered if his good performances were the result of playing poor defenses, I also advocated giving him a shot to play. The problem is, Holcomb is a seven-year veteran with rookie-level game experience. It showed. Once opposing teams began to game plan for him, Holcomb was unable to adjust to beat the Cover Two defense. With his deep passing game taken away, Holcomb wilted. His bad plays cost the Browns dearly in losses to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and particularly St. Louis. Holcomb played well for one quarter at San Francisco, in relief against San Diego, and in a blowout of Arizona. Holcomb proved he is a backup and no more. I believe Holcomb to be a "system" quarterback. With Bruce Arians gone, if the Browns change offensive systems, Holcomb may never again be even as good as he is now. It would be a mistake for the Browns to bank on Holcomb in 2004, even as a backup.
Tim Couch handled his demotion with class. He played well for half the game against the Bengals spelling the injured Holcomb, then followed that with one of the best games of his career at Pittsburgh. Couch had a marginal game against Oakland, but the following week, he bombed at home against San Diego. At that point, I thought Couch had played himself out of Cleveland for sure. Couch was injured in the New England game, and next appeared in relief in Seattle, playing only five plays due to an injury. Couch relieved again in the Monday night game against the Rams and nearly pulled out a game in which the Browns trailed 23-7. Couch played the rest of the season as an audition. He played pretty well, though none of the game plans called for Couch to sling the ball a lot. He did throw the deep ball as well as I have seen from him. Given his performance, the Browns' position in the draft, and the scant talent available at quarterback in free agency, Couch is likely to return to Cleveland if he takes a pay cut, something he says he is willing to do. I don't see Couch as the long-term answer at quarterback, but he is a known quantity and could probably be a very effective "manage the game" kind of quarterback.
Nate Hybl did not exactly come out of a passing juggernaut at Oklahoma. He has no experience and if he had played for the Browns in 2003, it would have been a disaster situation. The Browns were foolish to part with Josh Booty, who at least knew the system well. I will not be at all surprised if Hybl is not on the opening day roster in 2004.
This season for the Browns proved the old adage that says if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. The Quarterback Controversy was a big part of the failure of the offense in 2003.
What seemed a position of strength became a mess by the end of the season. Everyone expected William Green to have a 1000-yard season to follow up on his success in the later part of 2002. Instead, Green ran somewhat tentatively, but even so, he had two 100-yard games in the first six. His pass receiving skills were just a shade better than 2002. He seemed to go down at first contact too often, something I didn't remember from 2002. Then, after a minor injury caused him to miss the better part of two games, Green was arrested. Soon after he was involved in a domestic incident where he claims he fell while carrying a knife on the steps, and was stabbed in the back. Right… Green ended up suspended for the rest of the season. When I predicted Green would not return in 2003, people said I was being too rash. So, people will likely disagree when I say that I do not expect Green to play again for the Browns. I'd like to see this fellow who has had a very rough life get himself turned around. It would be wonderful to see. On the other hand, it is very difficult to do. The choices he has made so far don't inspire me with confidence that he can get things turned around. Even if he returns, Green has a lot to prove as an NFL running back.
Jamel White sought a contract extension and got it. Despite a very good work ethic, White never recaptured the level of play he had a year ago. White tried to dance around on running plays, and he was seldom effective on passing plays. White struggled with blitz pickups at times. White had his best game against the Rams, and he also was very effective in the final game at Cincinnati. It is said that White wants out of Cleveland and that the Browns will try to grant his request. However, with the unsettled situation of William Green, the Browns might be foolish to let White go. A trade might be possible.
James Jackson bounced back from a miserable 2002 to have a good season in 2003. When he got the chance to run, he hit the hole faster. Jackson was surprisingly effective as a receiver as well. Jackson showed a lot of hustle and effort, and until he was injured against the Rams, he impressed me. I wouldn't anoint Jackson the starter, but he can be a solid backup and a good change-of-pace back.
The joker in the deck the entire season was Lee Suggs. A flyer of a fourth round pick, Suggs was expected at draft time to be on injured reserve in 2003. Instead, Suggs healed more quickly than predicted and went on to play in the final five games of the year. When given a real chance to run, he made an impressive cameo in Denver, had 20 carries for 68 yards the next week against the stingy Prunes defense, and then capped the season with a 186-yard performance in Cincinnati. Suggs had touchdown runs of 78 and 25 yards in that game. It is looking as if Suggs will enter the 2004 camp season as the starter.
R.J. Bowers came off injured reserve and managed to stay healthy for just one half of a game at Kansas City. He looked good blocking and had a touchdown catch in his limited playing time. Maybe he can expand on this, but can the guy stay on the field?
With Green's future cloudy and White possibly moving on, the Browns might be looking for help at the running back position.
What was a team strength entering the season eroded until entering 2004, the Browns might be forced to look at acquiring a receiver again. While many laud the release of Kevin Johnson as removing a cancer, I think the loss hurt the team in 2003, particularly in the red zone. Johnson may indeed have had attitude problems, but he produced. The only one of the remaining receivers to pick up the slack was Dennis Northcutt. The fact that half the NFL claimed him shows that at least his reputation was good enough to draw interest, yet the Browns got nothing in return for Johnson. Johnson's addition in Jacksonville allowed Jimmy Smith to draw less attention from opposing teams and helped the Jaguars return to respectability in the second half of the year.
I love Andre Davis, and he made some fantastic plays, such as his winning touchdown catch in San Francisco and a spectacular touchdown catch in Denver. Unfortunately, Davis was unable to do this on a consistent basis. It is hard to say how much of this was a result of the rest of the problems on offense, but to reach the next level, Davis must get open and catch the ball game in and game out. He had just a few costly drops. Still, I think Davis has the potential to be a very good receiver and he has shown that at times. Hopefully, he will step up in a big way in 2004.
Quincy Morgan had a very disappointing 2003. He had about half the yards of a season ago, and he would disappear for games at a time. He caught just one pass in the red zone the entire season. He did have a nice catch and run for a 71-yard scoring play against the Bengals. A costly drop early in the San Diego game set the tone for a frustrating loss, but this was just one of many drops throughout the season. What concerns me more than any of this is the fact that Morgan justified his drops by saying that if he was thrown more passes, the percentage of drops would be lower. To me, this is the attitude of a loser. At the NFL level, a wide receiver should never be satisfied to drop a pass, whether it is one of two or one of ten. Can you imagine Jerry Rice making a statement like that? Morgan has talent and it is not too late for him to raise the bar for himself. Like William Green, it is really up to Morgan if he wants to be one of the best or if he is content to be so-so. Is he willing to work to do what it takes? Otherwise, Morgan reminds me of Willie Gault of the Chicago Bears in the mid 1980s. All the speed in the world does little good if you do not catch the ball.
Dennis Northcutt has been the spark plug of the offense for two years. Northcutt was the leading receiver on the team in part-time duty. He not only made plays receiving, but he was used on several running plays and even threw a pass. He was Mr. Third Down, catching pass after pass that moved the chains. Northcutt is a free agent and is seeking an Az Hakim-like contract and a starting spot. While the Browns probably don't want to hand a starting spot to a smallish player like Northcutt, he makes plays. How much of that is because of the mismatch of being lined up against a slot corner, safety, or linebacker? I'd like to see Northcutt return, but not break the bank to do it.
Andre King played some and made a few important catches. He is a decent possession receiver. Frisman Jackson was injured for most of the year, but he did have a couple of nice catches in the late going, one a nice third down catch at Cincinnati. Jackson also threw an incredible bomb on a Hail Mary play at the end of regulation in Denver. It was a shame Jackson did not get more of a chance to grow in 2003. C.J. Jones, the darling of the preseason, never saw action in a game.
With KJ gone and Northcutt likely to be gone, if the Browns suffer an injury at receiver, they could be in trouble. Even healthy, it remains to be seen if Davis and Morgan can anchor this squad.
This position was pretty much a disaster. The Browns got very little production from their tight ends, either blocking or passing. A tight end who could be a credible threat going down the seam would force an opposing defense to commit a linebacker or safety to defend them. Instead, opposing teams could safely ignore the tight ends, and when the Browns did throw to them, it was in the flat for less than five yards. The tight ends rarely blocked anyone and contributed to the problems up front.
Steve Heiden entered the season as the starter. He dropped a fair percentage of the passes that came his way. He did not block much. Overall, I waited for Heiden to improve, and until he was injured, there was not much improvement. I don't see whatever it was Butch Davis saw in Heiden.
Aaron Shea is a nice guy who does well on special teams. Problem is, he always to be on injured reserve by the fifth game. When he does play, Shea might be a decent option for stretching the field from the tight end position, but he is not used that way. As a blocker, Shea is terrible. This is a roster spot that could be better used for someone else.
Darnell Sanders had a chance to win the job in camp and did not do it. Then he had a chance to win the job due to injuries. Again, he failed to do so. Sanders did not even look as good blocking as a year ago, and he was not a threat in the passing game. When he did handle the ball, he either dropped it or fumbled as in the Seattle game. Sanders will get a look again next summer, but don't be surprised if he hits the street.
Once injuries took their toll, the Browns looked at some young players. Chad Mustard played with the Browns in the preseason and was in NFL Europe last spring. Mustard has good size and seems like he ought to be a good blocker. He did OK in limited duty. I'd like to see more of him next summer. Keith Heinrich is more of a pass catching tight end and showed the ability to get open and good hands. Of all the players the Browns used at tight end this year, I was impressed with him in limited playing time, and I'd like to see more of what he could do.
The Browns traded Mark Campbell during the offseason and they missed him. Campbell was an undrafted free agent, but he had good hands and was a gamer. None of the tight ends the Browns used this year played even at Campbell's level. The Browns desperately need someone who can block or catch passes at this position, and preferably both. A complete housecleaning here might not be a bad idea.
Much has been written about the problems on the line. I am a firm believer that the offensive line is the heart of your team. If your line plays well, your team will do well. If not, you will struggle. The Browns were hurt tremendously when Ross Verba was injured in the final preseason game. This set dominos in motion that did not help the Browns this season.
Among the starters, the class of this group has to be Ryan Tucker. He had a few problems this year, but he played every snap at right tackle. Tucker really cut down on the penalties that plagued him in 2002. He did a solid job. Rookie center Jeff Faine had a solid but injury-marred season. He was inconsistent, but that was to be expected for a rookie. However, you can draw a line at the play where he was injured against the Steelers and that is pretty much the moment the Browns lost their running game. The line was never the same after that. Barry Stokes stepped into the left tackle when Verba was injured and played well when healthy. Unfortunately, Stokes wasn't healthy most of the season. He gutted it out and often played pretty well despite not being 100%. Shaun O'Hara did better on the left side than he had done on the right, but he is no road grader. O'Hara is probably better as a backup center. Paul Zukauskas eventually settled in as the right guard and did pretty well. He had some penalty problems and the injury bug bit him as well.
The backups had mixed reviews. Melvin Fowler, a third round pick in 2002, was tried at guard and failed. When Faine was injured, he was pressed into service at his natural position, center. Fowler is terrible and should not even be on the roster in 2004. Chad Beasley is a converted defensive lineman. The Browns think he has all the physical tools to be a left tackle. That may, be but he has no experience at all. He got some experience this year. Beasley did not impress me, nor was he an absolute embarrassment. Only time will tell if he can make the transition, but clearly, Beasley is a project. Juaquin Gonzalez was pressed into duty at tackle and I thought he did a credible job. I don't know that he is an NFL starter, but he might be a capable backup. Enoch DeMar was rookie from Indiana and was thrown to the wolves. When he entered a game due to an emergency, he struggled, but when he was prepared to play, as in the New England game and the final game at Cincinnati, he held his own. He is worth another look next summer.
The main problem with the line is just that the talent is so thin. Most of the players on the line should be backups. If the Browns could shift Stokes back to guard and find a left tackle and another guard, pushing O'Hara and Zukauskas to the bench, then you might be talking. Better yet, replace Stokes with a true road grader at guard and make him your swing man. Might more talent on the line cut down on injuries to the linemen and the other offensive players? For example, if the running backs take less hits, might they tend to stay healthier?
Without a decent line, all the offensive talent in the world is worthless. Changes must be made here.
Bruce Arians and his staff had their problems. The Browns ran on a vast majority of first downs, a tendency opposing teams had to see. Both quarterbacks do not look off receivers, something we know at least the Rams realized. Receivers consistently failed to get enough yards for a first down on third down. They did not catch the ball consistently. Running backs either danced or hesitated. When these problems occur week after week without being corrected, it is hard to fault anything but coaching, unless you have players that don't belong on an NFL roster (Hmmm…).
Butch Davis gets a good deal of the blame for the problems on offense. First, the yo-yo effect at quarterback robbed the offense of any kind of consistency. Supposedly, Arians had weeks where he did not know who would be playing quarterback until Thursday or Friday. Davis is ultimately the one who is responsible for selecting William Green when the Browns knew he had substance abuse in his history. And let's not even consider the whole Kevin Johnson fiasco.
But I think the worst problem is this ridiculous insistence that everyone on the offensive line play multiple positions. This was the reason why the Browns released Qasim Mitchell and Tre Johnson in 2002. Do other teams insist that Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, or Walter Jones be able to play every position on the line? No, they expect them to play one position and play it very well. Backups might be reasonably expected to play multiple positions, but the starters should be evaluated on talent and ability first and versatility after. I believe this silly notion comes from two things. First, Davis came from the college ranks where you have 100 players and can afford specialists for everything. At the college level, the talent differential between various players after the most talented ones is not as pronounced because of sheer numbers. Second, Davis is a defensive coach. It is much easier to rotate or substitute players on defense where continuity is not the same issue as it is on offense. This philosophy is what has led the Browns to field an entire offensive line of backups. I hope Davis has learned from and given up on this idea.
The offense failed to move the chains and score points. That is the bottom line. While the offensive line is the root of the problem, there is blame to go around. Yet, call me crazy, but I believe there is reason for hope. With a decent offensive line, the Browns would have won the game at Denver and could have played the clock much better. The inability to convert third down and short situations throughout the season hurt the Browns and directly contributed to losses (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, at New England, at Denver). The quarterbacks often did not have time to find anything down the field, allowing opposing teams to stack the line knowing the Browns could neither run nor protect the passer. A decent offensive line would cure a multitude of ills.
Suggestions For Improvement
- Upgrade at least two and preferably three positions on the offensive line.
- Settle on a quarterback.
- Find a good tight end.
- Re-sign Dennis Northcutt, if feasible.
- Add a true fullback.
- Evaluate remaining players at running back. Replace Jamel White, if necessary.
- Evaluate remaining players at wide receiver, especially Frisman Jackson and C.J. Jones.
Next Up: A look at the 2003 defense.
The season is short. Bark hard!