The Browns went to San Diego and, in a game where most expected they would not even compete, the team managed to outplay the Chargers for three quarters. Unfortunately, there's that pesky fourth quarter, and that was their undoing. The Browns played a very tough, physical game and lost to a more talented opponent. There are plenty of things to provide optimism for the future. But there were also the dark clouds of a gathering storm. Let's take a closer look…
In the second week of the Jeff Davidson regime, the Browns simply appear to have a more organized and focused game plan designed to attack the weaknesses of the opponent. Last week, the offense went triple tight end and ran at the Jets, a team that defends the run poorly. In this game, the Browns tried to be faithful to the run, but instead came out with three and four receiver packages to attack the Chargers secondary. It worked at times. The Browns hit a few big plays and were able to draw some penalties. Ultimately, though, the inability to run hurt the Browns in the passing game.
It would be easy to lay the blame for the problems at the feet of the offensive line. They did have their problems. There were very few holes for the running game. The line had more penalties in this game, mostly false starts and holding, than in any game this season. Backup right tackle Kelly Butler was being eaten alive all too often by the speed rush. Still, the line did a reasonable job of pass protection considering the defensive front of the opponent. Quarterback Charlie Frye had time to throw on several occasions.
I'm afraid many of the problems here have to be hung on Frye. While he made a few good plays, there were far too many bad ones. You may recall that one of my biggest concerns about Frye coming out of 2005 was not taking care of the ball. He's a young quarterback with a tendency to want to do too much. This leads to interceptions, and we've seen those. But more troubling to me are the fumbles. Here we had another one that was lost into the end zone that ended up being a Charger touchdown. Given that the Browns lost by seven, well, it is troubling. Given that this play was almost an exact duplicate of the play in the second quarter versus Baltimore to end last season, one that put the Browns down 13-0, you begin to wonder if Frye is progressing.
Let's go back to the throws. You could say that Frye had just one interception against a tough defense and that, once again, the ball was tipped. I'll give you that. But I'll counter that by pointing out that Frye threw into traffic on several plays, locked onto receivers allowing defenders to jump routes, and just made flat out bad decisions and reads. Frye could have easily had five interceptions in this game. In fact, Winslow had to knock the ball out from a defender to prevent one on what looked to me to be a timing route gone bad. Frye was jawing with receivers after several plays, which leads one to think "bad route". Maybe. I'm not so sure after this game.
We all realize that 2006 is a referendum on whether Frye can develop into an at least competent NFL quarterback. He's a local boy with the ability to make a play where none exists. But both of those attributes can be negatives. Since he's a local boy, it's easy to overlook obvious flaws because we don't want to see them. As an Akron alumni, I remember lots of good things Frye did in college with a weak surrounding cast. He made some amazing plays. But this is the NFL and the bottom line is wins. And though making a play out of nothing can be a great thing, and we've seen Frye do that several times, more often, this leads to mistakes. The NFL isn't college. The opposition are better athletes and they are smarter. You can't always make the Fran Tarkenton play.
Don't get me wrong. I haven't given up on Frye – yet. But this game did not inspire me with confidence in his development. He still has half a season to learn from his mistakes and stop repeating them.
I don't want to gloss over some other good plays on offense. Kellen Winslow returned home and had 11 catches. Perhaps the best of those was a dump off on third and 13. Winslow caught the ball just past the line of scrimmage and outran three defenders to pick up 14 and convert. Joe Jurevicius had just three receptions, though one of them was a 52 yard pickup on third down. He also drew three flags. Braylon Edwards has been struggling and the struggles continued here, but it seemed like there was some light at tend end of the tunnel. Steve Heiden continues to make plays. It was nice to see Jerome Harrison get in the game. But at the end of the day, had Charlie Frye made a handful more plays, the Browns would have knocked off one of the better teams in the AFC.
While the defense had its problems, you can't lay this loss on them. The secondary is a shambles. When Leigh Bodden left early after re-injuring his ankle, the Browns were down to Ralph Brown as a starting corner. Jereme Perry didn't even make the roster coming out of training camp. Yet, the Browns did a credible job and held the explosive Charger offense in check until giving up some big runs late in the game.
The defensive line didn't have a stellar game, but it didn't have a terrible one, either. The Chargers were able to exploit some problems against the run up front after making some adjustments at the half. I was not impressed with the performance of Ted Washington here. Nick Eason might have been as good as he was. I like Simon Fraser a lot, but he has to do a better job against the run. After two great games from Alvin McKinley, he didn't have the impact in this one.
Since the line was at best holding its own, this leads to problems with the linebackers. In the 3-4, you want the line to occupy blockers and allow the linebackers to flow to the play. Other than some good pass rushing plays by Kamerion Wimbley, the linebackers did not make many plays. Andra Davis and D'Qwell Jackson were nearly invisible. Chaun Thompson did make a couple of plays, and Matt Stewart contributed sparingly. David McMillan rushed some. But overall, the linebacker play was just not there. This was where the Chargers adjusted.
In the first half, the Browns were shutting down the inside run, disrupting swing plays, and generally keeping LaDanian Tomlinson from being a factor. After halftime, the Chargers did two things differently. They began throwing to Tomlinson or other backs in the flat, hitting them on the move beyond the line instead of behind it. The Browns never did come up with an answer to that play. In addition, they began to run off tackle, taking advantage of the edge rush. The Chargers would take the edge rusher, usually Wimbley, away from the play and seal up the inside. The Browns did a miserable job of getting off blocks. A great example is the final touchdown. Once Tomlinson cleared the line, there was nobody home.
The pass rush was inconsistent, but unlike the recent past, at least there was a pass rush. The Browns were able to harass Phillip Rivers enough at times to disrupt plays. I'd have just liked to seen one of those turn into a turnover. That could have been a big swing in a tight game.
The decimated secondary continues to impress. I like Jereme Perry... the Browns may have a player here. The kid shows tons of hustle, covers decently, and gives good effort against the run. Combined with Daven Holly, who missed this game due to illness, the Browns might have two good finds for the future at corner. Even castoff Ralph Brown made some plays, although he is terrible against the run and has troubles in coverage. The safety play, on the other hand, is well above what anyone could have expected entering 2006. Sean Jones had another great game. He's a rising star. In my opinion, Brodney Pool is underrated. Many were ready to write off Brian Russell after a so-so 2005. He has played hurt and has made play after play this year.
Ho-hum, the Browns got another great kickoff and punt return in this game. Business as usual. It is becoming a concern that the Browns can't finish these off, but I'm wondering if that is the trickle down effect from the injuries to starters. The Browns have had to dig deeper on the depth chart to fill holes on special teams and have probably lost some speed there. It hurts on blocking down the field. Dave Zastudil had another good day punting. Phil Dawson continues to boom kickoffs and had a team-record six field goals. The coverage teams did pretty well. On the other hand, the Browns had some problems in the upfront blocking on kicks, which appear to be due to Kelly Butler. And, of course, there was the inability to come up with onside kick at the end. The recent rule change makes that tougher.
The Browns went conservative at times in this game. Two instances that spring to mind. On the second red-zone possession, the Browns had a third and goal at the three. They were having little success running, but chose to run for no gain. The other spot was the possession starting at their own one. Three straight runs may have been the right call to prevent the kinds of mistakes Frye seems to be making. The problem was that the inability to advance the ball at all put the Browns in a field possession hole that turned the game.
Despite the all the problems, the offense did move the ball. Davidson seems to be making a difference. You may quibble with some of it, but there is a discernable game plan. Had the Browns gotten touchdowns on just half of those six field goals, not an unreasonable possibility given San Diego's history of giving up red zone TDs, that's a 12 point swing. The Browns managed seven scores in this game. They just needed more touchdowns instead of field goals.
You have to tip your hat to Todd Grantham and defensive coaching staff, especially defensive backs coach Mel Tucker. What they did in this one despite missing starters Orpheus Roye, Willie McGinest, Leigh Bodden, and Daven Holly was impressive.
Despite the fact the many of the calls favored the Browns, I have to say that there was some very questionable officiating in this game. The Keenan McCardell fumble that was reviewed didn't look like a fumble to me. Then there was the late hit out of bounds. I've seen far worse not called. The no call on intentional grounding was a blown call, period.
The Browns travel to Atlanta for a different challenge – the ever-elusive Michael Vick.
The season is short. Bark hard!