Browns Uncensored: Tonight's chat password is "towel", in honor of all the orange and yellow washcloths that were being whirled around last Sunday.
It's not the 2002 season the fans had dreamed of seeing. While Butch Davis has hedged in cautioning that this is still not far from an expansion team, the bar was set at the start of the year by team president Carmen Policy - anything short of the playoffs is a disappointment. Prepare to be disappointed. Unless some major problems are fixed in a hurry, the chances of the Browns winning a playoff berth are slim to none.
There is little chance of the Browns catching the Steelers, who have a perfect 4-0 record in the division, making their 1 1/2-game lead seem more like 2 1/2. The Steelers also have a schedule full of cupcakes in the second half of the season.
To earn a Wild Card spot, the Browns will probably have to win at least six of their final seven games, finish 10-6, and even that record would not make them a sure thing. So what has to happen? What are team strengths that the Browns can take advantage of in the second half? Where are the weaknesses that must be addressed?
Here is a position-by-position interim report card:
INTERIM REPORT GRADE: B+
REVIEW: Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan, Andre Davis and Dennis Northcutt are the strength of the team. Johnson has been disappointed in himself after an unusual number of dropped passes and several other missed assignments. He can still be counted on as one of the more reliable receivers in the league and needs to be a bigger part of the offense in the second half. Morgan is proving himself as a playmaker, despite the fact that he is constantly looking over his shoulder with a coaching staff that overly criticizes his every mistake. Davis is already a threat as both a receiver and kick returner in his first season and Northcutt has resurrected his career with big plays in the return game and on third downs.
COMMENTS: The Browns need to get this group on the field more. It seems obvious, but according to quarterback Tim Couch, spreading the field with four wide receivers and using more no-huddle early in games is not something the coaches have discussed. Couch said he thinks using the spread, four-wide receiver offense in the second half would be a good idea, but will the coaches listen?
INTERIM REPORT GRADE: D
REVIEW: The grade is an average of a C- for the tackles and a D- for the interior linemen. The guard play has been dreadful. That doesn't mean right guard Shaun O'Hara and left guard Barry Stokes should be cast away. With their versatility, hopefully one day O'Hara and Stokes will make quality backups. For now, the Browns need to do more to maximize their abilities. Neither is big enough, strong enough or physical enough to be effective in a power running game. That's the biggest reason for the Browns ranking dead last in the NFL in rushing. Ryan Tucker at right tackle is the best fit for what the Browns want to do. He is a mauler, and if he cuts down on his penalties (averaging nearly one false start per game), he could be one of the Browns' most valuable free agent pickups. The Browns still think Ross Verba is a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle, but he is a bit small, and more of a technician than the dominant power tackle the Browns need to fit their scheme.
COMMENTS: To help the interior line, the Browns need to spread the field and use more zone blocking schemes. The Broncos have never boasted outstanding talent on the offensive line, yet their schemes have made their running game successful. It's as simple as this - adapt the scheme to fit the personnel. Sure, the Browns need to run the football, but they are spinning their wheels trying to play power football behind a line that is not capable of blocking in a power game. It usually takes two or three years together for a line to gel, but that means committing to O'Hara and Stokes as starters. The Browns are not going to do that. Look for the team to finally address the interior of the offensive line in the draft and in free agency.
TIGHT ENDS and H-BACKS
INTERIM GRADE: C-
REVIEW: Mark Campbell and Aaron Shea add nothing to the running game. Neither has established themselves as a capable blocker. Campbell has shown that he can help in the passing game, but Shea is a complete waste as an H-back. In fact, it's more than time to give this H-back experiment a proper burial. What does an H-back do anyway? Do the Browns get any blocking out of the position? Is the H-back a threat as a receiver? No. Just bring in a fullback.
COMMENTS: Hope that rookie Darnell Sanders can develop quickly and gets more of a shot in the second half of the year. Sanders' ability as a blocker can at least help the dismal running game.
INTERIM GRADE: D
REVIEW: Jamel White has been effective as a receiver out of the backfield and at times has provided a spark to the running game. White has earned the right to start, but he still hasn't learned to run north and south. He is often too caught up in trying to make a move, and misses opportunities that could come from just running straight ahead. William Green is simply not ready. The rookie's lack of confidence is evident in his tentative running style. That doesn't mean he is a first-round bust. Remember, he did not redshirt as a freshman at Boston College and he came out after his true junior year. He is still young, and any young back would have a hard time getting started behind this offensive line.
COMMENTS: Back to spreading the field. That might help the backs find a crease occasionally.
INTERIM GRADE: B-
REVIEW: Tim Couch has taken too much of the blame for the Browns' problems. That doesn't mean he is faultless in the team's first-half struggles. Couch has been victimized by some of his teammates mistakes, but he often compounds those mistakes by panicking under pressure and forcing the ball into coverage. Couch also gets himself into trouble with his desire to make the big play, waiting too long for the receivers to break open and passing up on open receivers a level lower. That waiting doesn't offer much help for an average offensive line that is not going to hold off a pass rush for very long. Couch's demonstrated his strengths in gutsy second-half performances against the Titans and Jets. In those games, the Browns spread the field, and used the pass to crate some running opportunities. The Browns are lucky to have Kelly Holcomb. As a backup, he could be one the league's best.
COMMENTS: The Browns may be worried about spreading the field and going to a pass-first offense, thinking that teams would tee off on Couch. Another injury would only further hamper his development. But spreading the field does not mean only passing the football. The Browns could have a better chance to run the ball out of the spread offense, and that would take more pressure off of Couch. He is never going to be the quarterback the Browns hoped without at least an average running game as a complement. Until an offensive line is in place, the spread offense is the best option.
Tomorrow ... the defense and special teams.