The Browns pulled out their first win versus what many consider to be the worst team in the NFL, and had to come back from a 21-3 deficit to do it. You have to do a lot of good things to come back from that kind of hole, and the Browns did a lot of good things. It also takes a lot of bad things to get into that kind of hole, and the Browns did a lot of bad things. Let's break down what happened and see what this victory means to the future of the team.
This offense is maddening. It shows flashes of talent, but it also totally ineffective at times. I'll get into that more below, but despite its inconsistency, the offense managed 24 points and should have had as much as 10 more. On the other hand, a lot of points came when the special teams got the offense on a short field, too.
Let's start with the performance of Rueben Droughns. I said last week that had Droughns played, the Browns would have won. In this game, despite problems on the offensive line, Droughns manages to run for 100 tough yards. He left the game several times with his ailing shoulder, including once when he drove the ball to the three-yard line and then a defender fell on him. Droughns also caught some key underneath passes, especially when the Browns were trying to control the ball and run out the clock. As usual, Droughns showed a lot of toughness. I know he had a very costly fumble that handed the Raiders an early touchdown, but in some ways, this is what you get when a guy is playing hurt. Droughns made up for it. Jason Wright had once nice run in traffic spelling Droughns late. Jerome Harrison did a nice job on a screen pass, but did not do much running from scrimmage.
While I overstated the performance of the offensive line last week, this was once again their best performance of the season. Each week has gotten better. Now, that's not saying this line is even an average NFL line at this point, but the fact that Frye usually had time to throw and that the Browns managed to usually get positive yards on running plays is a step forward. The line still has a problem controlling the line of scrimmage, though the Browns do better running behind the right side. When the Browns used screen passes late in the game, the line did a nice job of pulling out into space. Once place where the line took a step back was penalties.
Charlie Frye overall had a good game. He made a handful of bad plays. Of course, the obvious one was a horrible decision to throw the ball all the way across the field which was intercepted in the end zone. You could see this play coming when he did this last week on third and 13 and it was successful, but that was in the middle of the field. He also made a bad throw on an out route on the second series that should have been intercepted. He ate the ball at least once more when he should have thrown it away rather than do the Fran Tarkenton imitation. Despite all this, though, Frye continues to make plays. I'd love to see what he could do behind a better line.
It was nice to see Joe Jurevicius back in action and he had two big catches. One was a great touchdown catch and the other resulted in a first down. Braylon Edwards also had several good catches. On the other hand, Dennis Northcutt is becoming a liability on offense. He's dropped too many balls, and this week, he was getting yelled at by Romeo Crennel, so one must assume he was having route-running problems. On a deep pass that was intercepted, most people assume it was intended for Edwards, but Northcutt was trailing the play down the sidelines and I wondered if he was really the culprit. Northcutt has been an effective slot receiver in the past. With JJ, Edwards, and Winslow drawing the coverage away, Northcutt should have chances to make plays. So far this season, he has not been able to do it.
The Browns did a nice job of using their tight ends – to an extent. I thought the Browns made effective use of Steve Heiden and Darnell Dinkins as the auxiliary tight ends, but once again, Kellen Winslow seemed to be missing at critical times. Once again, more on that later.
After a problematic first half, the Browns made some adjustments and shut down the Raiders in the second. There were some major problems against the run, including two big plays that set up the only touchdowns scored by the Raider offense this year. Against the pass, the Browns were allowing way too many underneath plays. While some kept the chains moving, fortunately for the Browns, open receivers didn't catch the ball several times.
Last week the Browns did a good job holding the point of attack on the line. That allowed the defense to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. This week, that didn't happen in the first half and at times in the second. That meant the Browns were allowing too many yards rushing and seldom got pressure on a young, inexperienced quarterback. A veteran quarterback would have done a lot more damage.
To be honest, I'm not sure exactly where the problems were up front. It might be that Orpheus Roye was playing hurt, though he came up with a couple of big plays. It may be that Alvin McKinley was not having near the game he had a week ago. His missed tackle at the line allowed the long touchdown run, though people were out of position in the secondary and the Browns got burned by sending a linebacker up the middle on the play, opening the middle of the field. I wonder if the Browns might be better off to get Simon Fraser more playing time even if the veterans are healthy. There is no question, though, that when Ted Washington was not in the game, Ethan Kelley was getting pushed around. Kudos to Roye for a great stop on fourth down, but it was Washington taking out two Raiders that allowed Roye to come free to make the play.
Another sure sign of problems at the point of attack is that very few plays were being made by the linebackers. Other than Kamerion Wimbley, who had two sacks and chased down the other long running play from behind, the linebackers didn't do much. The Raiders had the right idea to dump the ball underneath to their tight ends and other receivers, but all too often, the play failed. I see this as a very effective strategy against inexperienced players like D'Qwell Jackson who struggles against the pass. And by the way, the personal foul face mask call on Wimbley was a joke. There was no twisting of the face mask at all. That call gave the Raiders a first and goal at the six.
Finally, injuries have decimated the secondary, yet the Raiders did little to capitalize on it. Leigh Bodden twisted his ankle. He left and tried to return, he even played effectively, but evidently just taping it or wrapping it wasn't enough to allow him to continue. This left the corners to second year man Daven Holly, veteran cast off Ralph Brown, and bust draft choice Antonio Perkins. Surprisingly, other than a fade where Randy Moss had six inches on Holly, the secondary held Moss to just that one catch for only five yards. That's not to say their weren't problems. Brown was totally ineffective against the run, for example, but it was surprising to see Brown and Perkins make decent plays. Once again, Holly has potential, but he isn't ready for the big time just yet. The Browns need to hope he can grow up fast. He covers well but just doesn't close out the play when the ball arrives. Admittedly, that's no small problem.
At safety, after a lost year due to injury and another lost year where he simply couldn't cut it, Sean Jones has really come on. He always seems to be around the ball. Once again, he dropped an interception, but he is very effective. Surprisingly, the Browns went far more with Brian Russell in this game that Brodney Pool. Russell had a stupid penalty, and just looks slow. He took a terrible angle on the long touchdown run and was the last hope to stop it. To me, it is clear that Pool, despite some holes in his game, is a better option than Russell at this point.
I'll say this flat out – special teams won this game for the Browns. Three big kick returns, two kickoffs and one punt, put the Browns on short fields and allowed them to come back. I think having both a kickoff and punt return be thwarted by the kickers in the same game has to be a record of some kind. Without those two "tackles" and Josh Cribbs being ruled out of bounds on the other, all three should have gone for scores. Beyond the great kick returns, you had Northcutt being leveled while trying to field a punt that dug the offense out of a hole, solid punting by Dave Zastudil, good coverage on all the Raider returns but one including a great tackle by Mason Unck, and more deep kickoffs by Phil Dawson. Dawson did miss a field goal from 48 yards, and despite all the people who say how great Dawson is, I think he is very unreliable outside 45 yards.
Last week, the Browns lost, yet I felt a lot better about their performance. This week, if the Browns had played any decent NFL team, they lose this game. I'm trying to decide how much of this is lack of talent (some due to injuries) and how much is coaching. Unfortunately, I must a fair amount of this is coaching.
Let's start with everyone's favorite target, Maurice Carthon. Let me start by saying that I liked some things he did in this game. Despite the interception, the deep pass stretches the field and the Raiders took over at their own five, so I can live with that. Also, despite the criticism of his decision to throw some underneath stuff when the Browns were running out the clock with a tenuous lead, I like the fact he didn't go conservative.
I have two main beefs with Carthon, and they aren't unique to this game. Worst, he is not getting the ball into the hand of playmakers. Why are we putting the ball in the hands of Terelle Smith, for example, other than perhaps one token "keep them honest" play per game. If one thing has become clear in the time Smith has been in Cleveland, he can do some effective things, but he is not someone who should be handling the ball except in special situations. Meanwhile, Kellen Winslow wasn't used at all in the first half and was off the field on third down again. Winslow not only ended up with a touchdown, but he had a critical fourth down conversion.
Secondly, his use of ineffective formations and personnel groupings. My biggest gripe in this game is the empty backfield look. Frye was getting hammered on those plays, and Carthon might want to consider who is on the bench if Charlie is injured. It screams to the defense that you are going to throw, and I'd rather see Droughns, Harrison, or Vickers on the field as opposed to Cribbs as a receiver. The empty backfield is what led to the interception that might well have lost the game against a better opponent.
Finally, there were strange play calls. The worst was the "give up" call on third and 15 to run which led to no gain. Perhaps Carthon's logic was that if they could fool the Raiders, they could pick up a few yards to make it an easier field goal attempt. The play failed and Dawson missed from 48. Even an underneath throw that might gain 5 to 10 yards is a better option. If you miss that throw, you are in the same boat as running for no gain. Once again, Carthon only manages to fool himself.
On defense, the game plan in the first half seemed odd. I would have thought the book on playing a young quarterback would be to aggressively rush him, especially after the success the Browns had doing that last week. Instead, the Browns played a lot of soft coverage, sometimes just rushing three. With the problems in the secondary, this seemed odd. Where Todd Grantham is better than, Carthon, though, was he adjusted at halftime. The Browns began to blitz more and disrupt things up front. With little or no pressure on the quarterback in the first half, the defense was eaten alive. It was more effective in the second half, allowing just one sustained drive that was blown up by the stop on fourth down.
Once again, the Browns came out with poor game plans and though they adjusted, the net result is another game where the team did not play effectively for four quarters. This is becoming the norm. Add to that mismanagement on the sidelines including the strange red flag on the Droughns fumble and taking a time out to decide whether to go on fourth down, and I can only lay all of this at the feet of Crennel. While Grantham may have had problems, he has a track record of being effective in the past. Carthon, meanwhile, continues to repeat the same mistakes and put our players in a position to fail. Carthon may or may not be able to do better, but allowing him to continue down this path comes from the top. These are not good signs.
I said last week we'd learn a lot about the character of team, and I think we did. This was a tough, gritty effort to overcome a big deficit on the road, which is always tough even if the opponent is not that good. I am proud of the players for hanging in there. I think we also learned that despite some encouraging signs in the Ravens game, there are still big problems in the game day management of the team.
Despite the optimism from this win, when you look at the upcoming schedule, things look bleak. The Browns will face Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson this week, probably with Brown and Holly covering them. The Panthers also ran effectively against the Saints and their defense is solid. Following a bye, even if the Browns get some players back healthy again, as I look down the upcoming schedule, it is hard to imagine the Browns being favored in a single game until their Christmas Eve game with Tampa Bay, and that assumes Chris Simms is not back at quarterback. At best they might be a toss up with the Jets because it is at home, but the Jets are playing inspired football right now. Are the Browns? Yes, it is possible this team will upset one or two teams along the way, and in fact, I think they will, but they are not playing at level that opponents like Denver, Atlanta, and San Diego are right now.
Granted, maybe some of these opponents will have injuries along the way. Maybe the Browns will make changes that allow them to use their players effectively. Perhaps things will suddenly come together for the offense. All I can go by is where things are right now. Unless better use is made of the talent already on this team, my preseason prediction of six wins looks like it is out of reach. The sad part is, this team could easily be 3-1 right now. Yes, the young players have made mistakes, but I think the bigger issue is that the leadership of the team is where the problem lies.
I can't see the Browns firing Carthon in the middle of the season, though stranger things have happened. However, Carthon could be given less freedom to call plays and/or design the game plan, or someone else could call the plays. And though I think Crennel is the ultimate culprit, I like him and hope he can learn from his mistakes and turn things around.
The Browns travel to Carolina to face the Panthers, a preseason favorite of many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The season is short. Bark hard!