Where do you begin to sift through this game? The Browns led the entire game until 32 seconds left, but as they have so often since The Return, they could not put the game away. Since I'm not a professional writer, just an observant fan, I'm having a hard time separating the emotion of losing this game against an arch rival from the objective analysis of what went wrong. Indulge me a bit while I share some of my thoughts on where this team is.
I've read what a lot of you are saying. A lot of fans are on the ledge. Eight years of losing following three years of no football and the pain of the second half of the 1995 season and, well, that's understandable. I have to admit, for the first time in my life, I'm questioning why I follow the Cleveland Browns. I'm questioning whether the folks making the big decisions for the organization are up to the task. I'm questioning whether the coaching staff is getting the best out of the players. I'm questioning how long I can hang in there though all of this.
But what I come back to is this one thing that gives hope for the future.
Over these expansion years, we've watched the Scott Rehbergs and Jim Pynes and Dwayne Rudds. We've seen some veterans come through who were past their prime or just weren't up for the challenge that is expansion football. We've also see high-dollar, low-motivation players who perhaps had ability but could not translate that to success on the field. In addition, we've seen the snake-bit players like Courtney Brown and Lee Suggs who could not stay healthy. The difference between the previous teams and this one is, quite simply, talent.
Before 2004, the Browns had not had one successful #1 pick in the expansion era. That is going to hamstring your franchise. Plus, they squandered two years of double picks. We all know that other than Daylon McCutcheon and Dennis Northcutt, almost nothing remains of the drafts from the early years of the team's return. The players that should be the core of this team are asking someone, "Do you want fries with that?" instead of playing professional football. Either that or living large on the big bucks the Browns paid them to sign a contract.
But, starting with the last Butch Davis draft, the Browns finally hit on some talent. Kellen Winslow is proving that Davis was right about his abilities. He's not only contributed in his first real year in the NFL, he's been a game changer. Sean Jones was looking like a possible bust even into the summer, but has instead turned into a potential Pro Bowler. A non-drafted player from the Davis regime, Leigh Bodden, is looking like a huge contributor. Andra Davis may not be a Pro Bowl player, but he has become a steady presence on defense.
Enter Phil Savage. While the jury is out on his picks, Braylon Edwards has shown flashes of brilliance. NFL receivers usually take three years to come into their own. Edwards needs time. Brodney Pool looks like a success, and if it wasn't for the emergence of Jones, he might be getting a lot more kudos. We're still trying to figure out the story with Charlie Frye, and I'll get to him in a minute. David McMillan is a second-day pick that has been a contributor this year. And how about undrafted Josh Cribbs as a find?
It's far too early to rate the 2006 draft, but so far, it looks like the best the Browns have had in years. Kamerion Wimbley oozes talent and seems to be getting better each week. D'Qwell Jackson has steadily improved and is one of those players who give tons of effort. I think he still has upside. Leon Williams has battled injuries, but he looks like at least a capable rotation player. Jerome Harrison and Lawrence Vickers have contributed in limited opportunities. It also looks like Savage hit pay dirt with castoffs like Daven Holly and Jereme Perry.
The problem comes down to one simple thing: games are won and lost in the trenches. Look at the names listed above. How many of them play on either line? The answer: none. And that's a huge problem. That is in large part why the Browns can't take advantage of the talent they have on offense and why the linebackers can't make plays on a consistent basis on defense.
Let's bring that back to Sunday's game. While the Browns did an admirable job shutting down the run, especially through the first three quarters, they could get some pressure on Big Ben but not enough. When the Steelers went to the two-minute offense in the fourth quarter, the Browns had no answer for it. Other than Wimbley, the Browns had no rush at all. Big Ben escaped numerous times when the Browns might have gotten to him. With little push in the middle, the linebackers can't come free to make plays. Even blitzes didn't generate much pressure. I credit Nick Eason in particular with great effort, but at the end of the day, even one sack probably would have turned the game. The Browns didn't get it.
Meanwhile, this game showed that perhaps Reuben Droughns has become a liability. I like him and his effort, so I don't say this lightly. But there was no question that Wright and Harrison were hitting the hole quickly. On plays where there wasn't much of a hole, Droughns would have likely gotten no game or perhaps lost yards. Wright and Harrison were turning those into two or three yards on a consistent basis. Still, once again, when the Browns are in a must run situation, they just can't seem to get it done.
Finally, let's talk about Charlie Frye. I admit that I am skeptical whether he has the upside to be even a decent NFL quarterback. I really want him to succeed. I admit that he's really improved on some things since the poor performance in San Diego. Once again, Frye threw no interceptions, and the one fumble was when he was blindsided when preparing to throw. That's going to happen to a lot of NFL quarterbacks. But the bottom line is that the offense simply left too many points on the field. Even when he isn't making mistakes, I'm not convinced that Frye is getting the Browns the best option available on each play. At times, I think he is missing open receivers. He is doing better at avoiding sacks, but still doesn't always get rid of the ball when he needs to. This game didn't help in my evaluation. While Frye is improving over the last two weeks, I'm just not sure it is enough to bank the future of the team on him.
Are Frye's problems due to problems on the line? Absolutely there is some of that. But I think the problems are less with taking sacks and such and more with the line's inability to give the Browns a credible and consistent running threat. That would take the heat off Frye and maybe we'd get a better idea where his ceiling lies. But I also don't think you can lay all of the problems on the offensive line either. To me, it is clearly a combination. I'm still trying to sort out which way the scale tips.
Many things contributed to this loss. Besides the obvious failings on the field, Simon Fraser's bonehead second hit on Big Ben probably cost the game by itself. I like Fraser, but he had better learn a huge lesson from that Rudd-like gaffe. Another one nobody is talking about is the kickoff return. When the Steelers closed to 13-10, the Browns offense never saw the field because of the great kickoff return by Cribbs. Even if they didn't score a touchdown, taking some time off the clock would have helped. And you have to also mention the normally reliable Phil Dawson missing a makeable kick, though I think someone tipped it, and allowing a huge kickoff return that luckily did not come back to haunt the Browns. You also can't ignore some very conservative play calling, especially in the red zone. Run on first and second down when our receivers have a tremendous height advantage over an ailing Steeler secondary? Is that a vote of no confidence for Frye?
Once again, the team faces a crossroads. The Bengals come to town with renewed confidence after beating the Saints in New Orleans. The Browns have to play the next game after a heart-wrenching loss that they probably built up into way too much. We'll see the character of this team revealed again. Knocking off the Bengals would put a huge dent in their playoff hopes. The Bengal defense in particular is getting gashed week in and week out. This game can be won. Will our team show up to do it?
I guess all I can say is that there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, though, rebuilding both lines will be difficult. One draft can't do it. Teams rarely let go of top-flight talent on either line. All we can do is watch, look for improvement even if it does not show up in the final score all the time, and hope that perhaps some players will take the kind of steps Sean Jones has taken this year.
Don't give up yet. There are certainly reasons for concern, but there are also reasons for optimism.The season is short. Bark hard!