Halfway point of the season – well, almost – and time to assess what has transpired in the first seven games of the season.
Yes, it's time for the dreaded Mid-Season Report Card. That highly subjective look at the good, the bad and the sublime and why the Browns are 3-4.
Grades are given on a position and coaching basis. They will be given regardless of injury. That too-often-used excuse doesn't wash, no matter how often the spin doctors in Berea choose to invoke it.
It's the perfect time to step back and take an honest (warning: sometimes it will be brutally honest) look at the performance of your Cleveland Browns.
We will do so with the knowledge that coach and dictator Butch Davis is sitting on a keg of dynamite. Through political machinations, he has assumed entire control of this team. As it succeeds, so shall his stock rise. As it fails, so shall his stock plummet.
But first . . .
Browns owner Randy Lerner has made it abundantly clear he wants a winner now. He has also made it abundantly clear Davis is his man as long as he wins.
Lerner, reportedly unhappy with the way the team played in Pittsburgh, is not wedded to Davis. One gets the impression the coach is on a short leash in terms of his empirial power. That perch is, at best, tenuous.
Davis' reputation in the area of personnel has taken some major hits. It is very possible that Lerner, who has shown far less patience than his late father, will weaken Davis' power base if the Browns do not make the playoffs.
If that's the case – this is where it gets very interesting – and Lerner insists on bringing in a general manager and/or personnel specialist, then Davis has an important decision to make.
He has three more years remaining on a contract that was extended two years following last season's 5-11 debacle. Will he stay if told he will be strictly a coach? Will he quit (resign?) if his power base is kicked out from under him? If he does opt to leave, would that be a positive move or a setback?
If the club does not make the playoffs, it's not likely Davis will quit or resign because he wants to get paid. Unless, of course, a settlement is negotiated.
Getting rid of Davis would be a mistake at this time. This team needs stability and some more talent. If Davis leaves, for whatever reason, it would create chaos. It's not like all the pieces and parts are in place and only a new voice is needed.
There are still too many areas to fix if Davis departs. Like at least one stud offensive tackle, a premier pass-rushing defensive end, a shutdown cornerback and linebackers who make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There are still nine games left that will determine what Lerner will do. Of the next five games, three are at the Stadium, where the Browns have played surprisingly well this season. That's the good news.
The bad news? The home games are against Pittsburgh, the New York Jets and New England. The other two are in cities the Browns have trouble winning in – Baltimore and Cincinnati. In order to be in good position for a stretch run to the playoffs, they must win at least three of these games. They need no to be worse than 6-6.
Now for the grades.
Line – Fragile at best. Beyond the starters, there is a big falloff in talent. Nothing wrong with their run blocking. That's what raises their grade. But their pass blocking is abysmal. Unfortunately, they have two guards playing tackle. Ross Verba and Ryan Tucker are much more effective inside. Jeff Faine has been steady, but not spectacular. Kelvin Garmon's pass blocking needs work. The fact Jeff Garcia is so mobile has enabled him to keep his sacks at a minimum. Continued good health and improved pass blocking are a must the rest of the way. GRADE: C-
Quarterback – After sleepwalking through the first five games of the season, Garcia, with two strong games in a row, appears to have grasped coordinator's Terry Robiskie's offense. He said as much after the loss to Philadelphia. Let's see what happens Sunday night in Baltimore. On the whole, Garcia has made a nice comeback from his 0.0 game against Dallas. Does not seem to lock on to one receiver. Likes to spread the ball around. GRADE: C (with a chance to improve)
Running back: William Green and Lee Suggs. Lee Suggs and William Green. Makes no difference. Both have run hard and run well this season. Suggs hits the holes quicker, is a better cutback runner and has a greater nose for the end zone. Green is getting better in the two-back set because he's trusting Terrelle Smith at fullback. Would like to see much more of Smith as a blocker and pass receiver. It's an imperative if the Browns expect to stay out of third-and-long and obvious passing situations. GRADE: B
Wide receivers: A huge disappointment. Andre' Davis can't stay healthy. If only Quincy Morgan could catch as well as he blocked. Bill Parcells will find that out in Dallas. Dennis Northcutt, the Browns' best playmaker last season, is exactly the opposite this season. Has made maybe three big catches all season. Antonio Bryant should help once he has mastered the offense. Not much help off the bench. GRADE: D
Tight ends: When Kellen Winslow Jr. went down, half the playbook was shelved. Then Robiskie dusted off Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea and, voila, they became trusted targets for Garcia. If the wideouts continue to struggle, look for Heiden and Shea to get even more attention. GRADE: C+
Line: This is all you need to know about this unit – the Browns have 11 sacks in seven games and eight belong to defensive ends Kenard Lang (three in one game) and Ebenezer Ekuban. That is shameful. It needs to change. Butch Davis is thrilled that the Browns have been very successful against the run this season, but laments the fact they have given up nearly a dozen passing plays or 25 yards or more. Why can't they do both well? No pressure on the quarterback. If that doesn't change soon, look for more big plays in the second half. Tackle Orpheus Roye has been steady. Gerard Warren is not playing like a No. 1 draft pick. GRADE: C
Linebackers: A telling statistic . . . middle linebacker Andra Davis has 55 tackles this season, about eight a game. Last season, he averaged nearly 11 a game. For whatever reason, those numbers are way down. And when was the last time you saw him make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage? His instincts seem to have disappeared. Could it be because he has two new outside backers in Warrick Holdman and Chaun Thompson? Holdman is nothing special and Thompson is, well, fast and quick. Kevin Bentley is also fast and quick and tends to overrun plays. GRADE: C-
Secondary: This crew has played as unevenly as the rest of the defense. At times, cornerback Anthony Henry looks terrific. At other times, he looks like a rookie. Amani Toomer, Plaxico Burress and Terrell Owens schooled him. He is not nearly as steady as his corner teammate Daylon McCutcheon. The best tackler in the secondary has had a much steadier season. A bigger problem exists at safety. Robert Griffith had a strong start, but has fallen off. And Earl Little has played himself to the bench. GRADE: C-
Special teams: How can anyone complain about placekicker Phil Dawson? The guy doesn't miss. And Derrick Frost, until the Philadelphia game, was not punting like a rookie. The punt-return and punt-coverage teams are solid. But the kickoff-return and kickoff-coverage teams leave a lot to be desired. Too many times, the Browns' defense has started too close to its goal line. And isn't it about time Butch Davis comes up with at least one quality kickoff return guy? The Browns average a pitiful 16.9 yards a return. GRADE: C
Coaching: If Davis is to become a successful NFL coach, he has to escape the cocoon in which he has wrapped himself. He has to be less conservative, more daring. Take chances, especially on offense. He has to stop trying not to lose games. Managing games does not work in the NFL. On defense, coordinator Dave Campo's guys were terrific the first four games. With any help from the offense, the Browns could have been 4-0. It is very apparent that in order to get any pressure on the quarterback, Campo must go with blitzes. Otherwise, it could be a very long second half for the secondary. Robiskie, on the other hand, slowly seems to be getting his offensive message across. The increased use of Smith at fullback has made a difference. Now if only he can get Garcia and the wideouts on the same page. GRADE: C
Overall grade: C. A big dose of average. In the sixth year since their return – and in Davis' fourth season – the Browns are wallowing in mediocrity. You guys deserve better.