The Browns returned from their bye week to face the Broncos. The fans were hoping for changes, but instead, they not only got more of the same, but in many ways, a worse offensive performance than in previous games. Sure, they scored on a Denver defense that had given up just one touchdown all season, but that was on a drive of 18 yards set up by an Andra Davis interception. Inability to get plays in on time, poor clock management, and general confusion gave evidence not of a team that had fixed its problems, but instead of a team in disarray.
You normally get a lot of player analysis here, about how individual or group performances contributed to the result of the game. Frankly, this game was lost before the team ever hit the field. That's what I'm going to address.
Of course, many fans are dancing in the streets since embattled offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon has been relieved of his duties. If you've read this space, I'm no fan of Carthon. On the other hand, other than perhaps calling the play to the wrong side on fourth down, I didn't think the play calling was the problem in this game. The problem goes deeper, and I think it still remains.
In the eight seasons since The Return, the Browns are now on the third coaching staff. When you look at successful organizations in the NFL, they have stability in leadership. One might argue that there is a "chicken and egg" situation here: if a staff is successful, they will be retained for a long time. I still think that the longevity of staffs in places like Pittsburgh help the team in plugging in new players yet still having success. I say all this because I really don't want to start over again with another staff. That will lead to chucking the players we have and starting over yet again.
Here's where I'm going to eat some crow. Last year at the bye week, I talked about how Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel were bringing strong leadership to an organization that has not had good leadership since the new franchise was awarded. I am a firm believer that in all things in life, success hinges on good leadership. I don't want to have to face it, but I think the evidence is there that Crennel is not providing the leadership this team requires.
After Stalag Butch, Crennel was a nice change. Crennel brought a slow, steady hand that brought consistency to the handling of the team, something it lacked under the previous regime. If this were 1999, that might be a good thing. The fans were willing to tolerate problems with an expansion team. It was understandable given the short startup time. Even in the terrible 1999 and 2000 seasons, there was a feeling of laying a foundation for the future.
Fast forward to 2006. Eight seasons of mind-numbing, boring, inept football have left the fans impatient to see some improvement. The organization signed several free agents in the offseason that were expected to bring a winning attitude and valuable experience. The draft added a lot of good young talent, and right now looks to be the best draft class of the expansion era (though that isn't saying much). Yet, the team has taken a definite step backward. I was being called out by some for daring to predict only six wins this year. The schedule was tough, but I expected some improvement. Instead, given the performances we have seen to date, 2-14 would not be a huge surprise. You can't blame all of this on lack of talent. Some of this has to be due to coaching.
I understood Crennel's reluctance to play rookies last year when the Browns were still in the playoff race. Once they reached a point where that was no longer realistic, it was time to give the rookies a chance. Crennel did so only sparingly. This season, it's early enough that I could see being cautious before the bye week, but at 1-5, let the Travis Wilsons and Jerome Harrisons play. At least you can give them valuable experience in what has quickly turned into a lost season. The coach continues to resist that.
My chief complaint with Crennel, though, is the one that may be his ultimate demise. Reports are that Savage and owner Randy Lerner convinced Crennel to make a change with Carthon. While loyalty is an admirable trait, there is loyalty and there is stupidity. Yes, the team has huge problems on its offensive line. Yes, it has an inexperienced quarterback. But the offense has been ranked last or near last for a year and a half and isn't getting better. The problems were much the same even with the experienced Trent Dilfer at the helm.
More troubling than the play calls are the strange personnel decisions, especially taking the team's most talented offensive players off the field in critical situations. I don't see how this can be defended.
On top of that, in the Denver game, it became obvious to me that the players simply don't believe in their leaders, especially the offense with Carthon. At work, perhaps you have had a situation where you did not believe in your boss or your company. Did that inspire you to do your best work? Add to that the fact that your boss is an authoritarian who won't listen to anyone and is always blasting you. I can't see how anyone can do their best work in that kind of environment. I am baffled by how Crennel could let this go on. Either he had to step in and try to get Carthon and the players on the same page, or he had to realize Carthon had lost the players and do what was necessary. Perhaps he simply could not bridge the gap between Carthon and the offense. None of these possibilities is a great reflection on Crennel.
But even more fundamental than this were Crennel's telling comments in his postgame interview. He said that they wanted to keep the team from getting too banged up in the first half, keep it close, then try to win at the end. Think about what this is saying. Crennel is saying that he did not try to win in the first half, play to a stalemate, then start trying to win in the second half. What? This rings true because it is how the team has played all season. This tells me Crennel has no confidence in his players. While there are talent gaps, this is almost like Chris Palmer's "runaway train" remark or Butch Davis admitting that he didn't even try to win at Tampa Bay in 2002 because the Browns could not compete with them. A game plan that is a vote of no confidence for the players can't possibly inspire them to perform.
These leadership problems don't bode well for Crennel to survive for the long haul. On the other hand, we had a coach in Cleveland in the 90s who made a lot of mistakes, but learned from them. I hear he had some success later. If Crennel can learn and grow from all of this, that would be good for everyone. But given his steady personality, it seems like it will be hard for him to do so. I hope he can.
Taking the Barry McBride Challenge, the Browns have made a move that provides at least a glimmer of hope for the fans. What would I do to change things? Given the problems on the offensive line, it seems to me that the line is better at pass blocking than run blocking. I'd take a ‘pass to set up the run' approach. That will undoubtedly lead to mistakes by Charlie Frye, but I'd live with those and hope he learns from them. I'd try very hard to get the ball into the hands of the offensive playmakers as much as I could. The Browns have also done well on screen plays, and surprisingly, this line seems to pull well. I'd take advantage of that as much as possible, which should also slow down the pass rush some.
But mostly, I'd try very hard as a team leader to give the players something they can believe in on offense. The defense has played well enough to win in most of the games. Had the offense done anything at all in the last two games, the Browns might have won them. There is no point in playing it conservative now. Playing not to lose is what has gotten this team to where it is now. If you are going to lose, then at least go down with your guns blazing.
All this being said, trying to get healthy against Atlanta, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and the other remaining opponents will be a tall task. Even if the changes help, there might not be much to show for them in the won-loss column at the end of the season. But then again, that's why these changes should have been made during the bye week. Waiting two weeks to take a step in the right direction may be a mistake Crennel cannot overcome. We need to hope that is not the case, or we'll be in for more years of rebuilding. Meanwhile, the fans will continue to drift away from this once beloved franchise.
The season is short, bark hard!