All right class. Time to hand out grades to the Browns for the 2005 National Football League season. A word of warning: This teacher's grades can be considered dangerous to your health.
Rather than grade on an individual basis since football is a team sport, we will assess the performance of the various groups in all three phases of the game.
Easily the most exasperating unit of the 2005 season. One never knew what to expect from it. That's because of the peculiar play calling of coordinator Maurice Carthon. How often did we see the Browns pass on third-and-1 and third-and-2 and run on third-and-10? Too often.
Carthon had the imagination of a wall. His unusual play calls hamstrung quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and Charlie Frye. And the Browns' offense ranked near the bottom of the National Football League in practically every category, especially red-zone scoring.
This unit that excited many fans at the beginning of the season because of the additions of tackle L.J. Shelton and guards Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman. Maybe the best front five the Browns have had since the return to the NFL in 1999, they reasoned.
That might have been the case, comparatively speaking, but it was more an indictment than anything else. The only ones who stayed healthy and played every game were Shelton and fellow tackle Ryan Tucker.
The run blocking was a cut above average as Rueben Droughns ran for 1,232 yards. But the pass blocking left a lot to be desired after they held opponents sackless in the first two games of the season, surrendering 45 sacks in the 14 remaining games. Cleveland quarterbacks were sitting ducks in their five- and seven-step drops. And that's mostly what Carthon called.
This unit still has a long way to go in order to be effective. Look for General Manager Phil Savage to be active in this area in free agency and the draft.
Grade: C (if only for their run blocking)
This is an area where the performances again fell far short of the expectations. Dilfer called this unit the best receivers he has ever worked with. Lip service? Of course. And it didn't work.
Antonio Bryant showed his inconsistency all season with truckloads of critical drops; Dennis Northcutt proved, once and for all, he cannot play in two-receiver formations and is best suited for the slot; rookie Braylon Edwards missed enough training camp during his contract holdout to fall behind and missed early playing time, although he did come on before ripping up his right knee; and Frisman Jackson played in fits and starts.
Training camp unearthed free agents Joshua Cribbs, the erstwhile Kent State quarterback, and Brandon Rideau, the slender wideout from Kansas. But neither did enough to warrant playing time. They should get it next season.
Grade: C- (mostly for Bryant's key drops and the misuse of Northcutt)
When Dilfer arrived with such great fanfare last spring, he brought lots of baggage. Talked a good game. Didn't play nearly as well as he talked. Surprised everyone by remaining vertical through two-thirds of the season. By then, it became apparent he was an interception waiting to happen. Or a fumble waiting to happen. Or a bad play waiting to happen.
In other words, coach Romeo Crennel really had no choice when he anchored Dilfer to the sideline with five games left in the season and did something he had hoped not to do: Play rookie Charlie Frye. The move resulted in mixed reviews.
Frye did not play like a rookie if you take into consideration the poise with which he comported himself. He did not look flustered – although there were many occasions that begged for that look – and managed to wind up the season as the No. 1 candidate for the job next season. However, he will have to improve his arm strength.
What else can you say about Droughns' season other than it's about time. First Browns running back to gain more than 1,000 yards since 1984. But there are several downsides to the feat, especially the number of times he found the end zone: Two. Not nearly enough.
Droughns, whose north-south style became a fan favorite, had 10 games of 70 yards or more as he averaged 77 yards a game. But he clearly wore down in the final stages of the season, gaining only 129 yards in the final three games. His best burst was the five games in the middle of the season when he ran for 487 yards and both touchdowns. They represented nearly 40% of his yearly total.
It took a second season, but the Browns finally found out how to use fullback Terrelle Smith, who helped Droughns gain much of that yardage with some powerful blocking. But the coaching staff didn't take advantage of Smith's soft hands and work him into the passing game more. William Green, Jason Wright, Corey McIntrye and Lee Suggs were non-factors.
Grade: B- (because of Droughns)
In the absence of Kellen Winslow Jr., the Browns fared about as well as most fans believed they would. Steve Heiden had a career year with 43 catches for 401 yards, but his three touchdowns were two less than 2004. However, his blocking improved.
Same old story, though, with Aaron Shea, who once again battled injury problems and lost. Coming off a 15-game season in 2004, it was hoped he and Heiden would be able to offset the loss of Winslow, but Shea couldn't stay healthy.
Crennel's desire to switch to the 3-4 resulted in blowing up and then watching as last season's front line wound up with the Denver Broncos. The domino effect produced disastrous results. Rare was the game where the opponent gained less than 100 yards on the ground. Way more often than not, huge holes became commonplace. It was not unusual to see the Browns get blown off the ball. And their pass rush (23 sacks) was practically non-existent.
One area that shone, ironically, was the one that hurt the Browns on offense: The red zone. They were among the stingiest teams in the NFL when the opponent crossed their 20-yard line. And their transition defense played well almost all season. The Minnesota loss proved the lone exception as the Vikings scored their three touchdowns on short drives after Cleveland turnovers. But their inability to create turnovers and get off the field on third down put enormous pressure on the offense.
Jason Fisk had no business playing at nose tackle as long as he did. He did not require a double team, enabling guards to get to the second level and take care of inside linebackers. Halfway through the season, Ethan Kelly took over at the nose, got hurt and Fisk, clearly at the end of his playing days, returned.
Alvin McKinley was spotty at one end, but Orpheus Roye turned in his usual quiet-but-very-effective steady performance despite playing on balky knees. Opponents ran away from him. Nick Eason showed some spark late in the season at end, but it appeared the coaches were afraid to use rookie Simon Fraser. In the overall, no run defense, no pass rush.
Grade: D (and that's being kind)
It's difficult to evaluate this group because of the ineffective defensive line. The front seven works as a group and when one underperforms, that usually has a domino effect on the other. In this case, the linebackers suffered.
Andra Davis led the team with 199 tackles, 103 solo. That's more than 12 a game. Nice stat. Deceiving stat. Made at least half of those tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That's because the aforementioned guards got to him before the ball carrier.
Right behind was fellow inside 'backer Ben Taylor, who surprised everyone by playing the entire season without getting hurt and finished second in tackles with 139. He also surprised by not being able to bring down the ball carrier at the point of attack. It was not unusual to see Davis and/or Taylor being dragged several yards before bringing down the runner.
On the outside, the Kenard Lang experiment was an abysmal failure. The converted end never looked comfortable unless he was called on to rush the quarterback. Chaun Thompson showed glimpses of why Butch Davis frothed when he drafted the kid from West Texas A&M in 2003. Off the bench, Matt Stewart was serviceable at best and Orlando Ruff did not bring his training-camp game into the regular season.
Grade: D+ (blame the defensive line)
Sometimes, statistics can be deceiving. The Browns, for example, ranked in the top half of the NFL in pass defense, allowing 179 yards a game through the air. The reason? They were so bad against the run, opposing teams didn't have to pass to beat them.
But when they did, as the Pittsburgh Steelers did in the penultimate game of the season, the results were embarrassing. The Browns surrendered 19 touchdowns through the air, while the run defense permitted just 11.
Cornerback Daylon McCutcheon missed the entire training camp, but was his usual steady self and was the best tackler on the team. Gary Baxter started the season strong before going down in game five, but Leigh Bodden surprised by outperforming everyone else in the secondary with his strong cover skills and sure tackling. Michael Lehan and nickel back Ray Mickens left a lot to be desired.
Brian Russell and Chris Crocker were adequate at safety, but adequate is not what Crennel wanted. Young safeties Brodney Pool (the rookie was injured most of the season) and Sean Jones (played mostly on special teams) very well could be starting next season.
A mixed bag here. The punt and kickoff coverage units were inconsistent all season. Their failure to control Houston's Jerome Mathis led directly to the Texans' first victory of the season. And they committed numerous penalties that wiped out two TD punt returns by Northcutt and several other long returns. And the very ordinary punting of Kyle Richardson had to make some wonder why the Browns cut Derrick Frost, who had a better season in Washington than Richardson.
Phil Dawson's kickoffs did not get the depth most clubs like, but his angled kicks made it more difficult for opponents to return. And he dispelled any notion that he was losing it by missing only two field goals in 29 attempts.
The biggest surprise was the kickoff return team that featured Cribbs, who averaged 24.3 yards on 45 returns and scored once. He was also a valuable contributor on the coverage teams as a gunner.
Crennel did about as well as can be expected given the talent with which he had to work. He kept games close, for the most part, because of a defense that tightened the closer the opponent go to the goal line. With any kind of an offense, the Browns very easily could have won two more games.
Crennel learned on the job that being a head coach is far different than being a coordinator. Preparing a team, not just a unit, is not as easy. Too many times, he failed to have his troops emotionally ready for a game. Hopefully, he will be able to hone that aspect of his job.
Sometimes, he trusted his lieutenants too much. Carthon, for example, had carte blanche with his play calling. You can blame the players just so often when something doesn't work. Culpability eventually has to lie with the coordinator.
Todd Grantham's first year as a defensive coordinator proved a moderate success. Now let's see if Crennel will take off some of the shackles and we see a more aggressive unit next season.