Comments? Talk to Joe in the Fan Commentary Forum.">
Comments? Talk to Joe in the Fan Commentary Forum.">

Joe's Midseason Review

Now that most of the Browns beat writers have produced their "report cards" for the team, who can the Browns turn to for help passing the class? Joe Brownlee, of course, who has been analyzing the team after every game this season and who offers his thoughts on how the team can improve during the second half.<BR><BR>Comments? Talk to Joe in the <A HREF="">Fan Commentary Forum</A>.

Good day, Browns fans!


I've thought long and hard about what to write. I had planned to offer a position-by-position commentary, a team report card, but after reading at least ten of those during the bye week, I've decided to go another direction, figuring that most of you have already read those, too.


As we head into the home stretch, the Browns find themselves a disappointing 4-5. We can look at helmet tosses, blocked kicks, and other such things and conclude that the Browns should be better. But the fact of the matter is, the NFL is not going to give the Browns a "do over" on any of their games. As Butch Davis has pointed out, 12 of the 16 teams in the AFC have either four or five wins. Four of those teams will make the playoffs. While many would like to play for next year, the Browns aren't in a position to do that yet. So, the only thing you can do is look at the seven-game season that remains and decide what you can do to improve on what you've done up to now.


That being said, it is November, not February, so there aren't marquis free agents sitting by their phones. Personnel options are limited. So, if the Browns are to make changes, it will have to be by either changing the way they are playing or by juggling the existing players. However, in most cases, there isn't a Pro Bowler on the bench that can come to the rescue.


So, here are some humble suggestions for things the Browns can do to maximize their chances in the remaining seven games.


1.  Use The No-Huddle Offense


Unless you count the very end of the Steelers game a week ago (a first-and-91 situation), nobody has stopped the Browns in their no-huddle mode. The Browns have really only used it when they've gotten behind, but it has been the catalyst for comebacks against Tennessee, the Jets, the Bruises, and the Steelers. I'm not suggesting the Browns go to this as their base offense. But at times, it might catch an opponent off guard.


If I was granted a "do over", I'd have used a no-huddle attack against the Buccaneers. This would have kept their vaunted defense on its heels and prevented them from making substitutions. The closest thing they've faced to that is the Falcons, and they had success with it. While I might make some use of this approach this week against the Bengals, I'd probably save it more for the Saints.


2. Get Dennis Northcutt On The Field


Rather than the camp cut I expected, Northcutt is the team's MVP to date. He has made numerous big plays. People might argue that he is going up against nickel and dime backs as the #4 receiver, and they are probably right. I'm not suggesting he be promoted to #1, but I think the Browns either need to go four wide more, or use Northcutt as the #3 man. The Browns might also consider some of the gadgetry the Steelers have used to get the ball into the hands of their "slash" players, possibly lining Northcutt up in the backfield or getting it to him in other creative ways.


This one goes hand in hand with…


3. Junk The H-Back

The Browns just don't have the right players to do this, and the talent they do have is not being used. It may be moot if Aaron Shea is injured yet again, but Shea is not a lead blocker. That's how he's been used. We've seen Shea be very effective going down the seam as a receiver. I can only recall one play where Shea has done that. Most of his pass receptions have been for five yards or less. That's a waste of his talent.


Then there is Mark Campbell. He has shown himself to be a decent receiver in the short passing game. The Browns have used him there in goal-line situations. Other than that, the Browns threw short to him against the Jets, but he has not been used. When the Browns have tried to throw medium or deep to him, Campbell is not generally open, but that isn't his game. It has led to interceptions.


Finally, Steve Heiden needs to sit until he can stop the penalties. I'd rather take my lumps with Darnell Sanders. At least he can block and has upside.


Whenever Campbell and Shea are on the field together, it means one of the wide receivers is on the bench. This is not a good trade.


4. Use The Blitz Effectively


I know the Browns want their rush to come from the front four. It hasn't with any consistency. Problem is, very little has been accomplished by blitzing the linebackers. They get picked up or don't get to the QB. The Browns have tried sending Darren Hambrick and Dwayne Rudd at times, and neither has had success.  Brant Boyer is the only linebacker who has had any success blitzing, and he would not be my first choice. I think the Browns should consider using an end like Mark Word as a fifth lineman on obvious passing downs. Of course, this will be predicated on Kenard Lang being healthy. The Browns could also consider sending a player like Lewis Sanders who has some size.


Incidentally, the Browns used blitzes very effectively against the run in the recent Pittsburgh game. Perhaps they should consider a similar tactic against other tough running teams like the Bengals and Saints.


5. Loosen Up Courtney Brown


Brown had his occasional great game against the Steelers. More than sacks, Brown played with more reckless abandon than he has maybe ever. Brown disrupted the Steelers on plays where he did not make sacks or tackles, and that is what is needed. It allows other members of the d-line to make plays, and it keeps the opposition from using simple schemes to thwart him. If Brown can duplicate the kind of performance he had against the Steelers, it will make a big difference down the stretch.


However, and I hate to say it, history says that Brown will once again disappear for the rest of the season. I'm hoping the second half of the Jets game and the Steelers game are the start of a trend, not an aberration.


6. Play Man Coverage


You would not think so, but with the secondary banged up, the Browns have had much more success with close coverage in the secondary. I want to scream after four years of watching DBs line up 15 yards off receivers. Pressing the receivers has been more effective. When healthy, I think the Browns can play that scheme and make it work. As it stands, they are not healthy, and at least it was more successful than letting receivers run unchecked.


7. Rudd's A Dud


Ever since the helmet toss, Dwayne Rudd has never been the same. He hasn't made plays. It's time to give the spot to Kevin Bentley. He makes rookie mistakes at times, but he does make plays and he has emotion out there, something the Browns need. Only problem is, Bentley broke a hand against Pittsburgh. But whenever he can go, he should start.


8. Get Couch To Relax


It's been a rough season for Tim Couch with some peaks and valleys. His biggest problem continues to be pressing when things aren't going well. That leads to turnovers. With a lack of a running game, Couch is under a lot of pressure. This is why I think Butch Davis should let Couch play a wide-open passing attack style similar to what Couch did at Kentucky. He has been successful in that mode and he seems more comfortable. In the interim, though, Couch can't be forcing the ball to Kevin Johnson just because of their chemistry. I like KJ as much as the next guy, but until the other receivers show consistently that they can do the job, teams will double KJ. If they want to do that, let them. It means someone else is open.


Couch has to make better and quicker decisions. He did that in the preseason. I think there are two explanations. One is that Couch is not as healthy as we've been led to believe. That might be it. But I wonder how much the performance of Kelly Holcomb has Couch trying too hard to prove he deserves to be the starter. Couch may yet be successful, but this year is the last "no supporting cast" pass he gets from me, and even this year is wearing thin.


9. On The Run


So much has been said and written in this area, but the ultimate solutions will require the offseason. After thinking about it, I don't think a massive shakeup on the o-line is possible or profitable. The Browns don't have any proven improvements on the bench. Maybe work some of the young guys in for experience in the right situations, but what little cohesion the line has will suffer.


I think what the Browns are missing are some simple trap blocking schemes. Run the back off tackle and try to bottle up the defense to one side. The Browns did this in the Palmer era with probably less talent and had some success. Straight-ahead drive blocking is not going to happen.


I am not calling William Green a bust. I will be anxious to see what he can do after an offseason of conditioning and learning and a full training camp. I'm not averse to giving him some chances now, especially since he has started to come around some lately. But given a healthy Jamel White, he is by far the better overall back at this point.


10. Coaching


If you've read this column this season, I've laid a lot of the blame for the problems at the feet of the coaching staff. They've doggedly stuck with what hasn't worked, and they have not adapted well to the talent we have. OK, we aren't the Lombardi Packers, but the team has talent. I can't help but feel other coaches would have gotten more out of them. I think the offense could achieve more if it were allowed to, and I really find it hard to believe that the offensive line can't do anything right in the running game.


That being said, I felt that Butch Davis finally honestly addressed some of the issues and acknowledged that there are problems in certain areas he hasn't discussed before. I find that hopeful. I'm waiting to see what he will come up with on Sunday, in particular, the plays and defensive schemes that have been eliminated.


It is also hard t gauge just how much the illness of Al Lerner was impacting the team. Many of the players were very close to Mr. Lerner.


The Schedule


If you look at the remaining schedule, there is a good chance the Browns can win some games. A lot will depend on who steps up and the changes that are made.


·         At Cincinnati (1-8). I am scared to death of this game. The Bengals are out of it, and this is usually about the time they get on a roll. They have played better of late. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. This is a must-win for the Browns to even their record at 5-5.

·         At New Orleans (7-2). A good team, on the road, on turf, but I think they can be beaten. The Browns need to open it up. I think they could win a shootout. If Butch Davis plays like he did against Tampa Bay here, he should be fired. This is one game to let it all hang out and see what happens.

·         Carolina (3-6). Remember when these guys were 3-0? Our starters manhandled theirs in the final preseason game. Another couple of losses and they may be mailing it in by then.

·         At Jacksonville (4-5). Salary cap problems have left this team a shell of its former self. The Jags are beatable. Just ask Houston. Still, Brunnel, Smith, and company are a dangerous bunch.

·         Indianapolis (5-4). Granted, they pasted the Eagles, but they have not played all that well against some pretty poor competition. This is in Cleveland in December, and it should be a game that can be won.

·         At Baltiless (4-5). This game is a must-win because it is in the division. There was no excuse for the earlier loss in Cleveland, and if that isn't motivation enough, some guys need to be unemployed.

·         Atlanta (5-3-1). Michael Vick could run wild on the Browns. The only saving grace is that it will be December 29 in Cleveland.


A nice goal would be to finish 9-7. That would be a nice improvement, but probably not good enough for the playoffs. The only joker in the deck is that tie by the Steelers. They held all the tiebreakers, but that takes those out of the picture. But it is unlikely 9-7 would be enough.


Next Up


The Browns travel to Cincinnati to take on the dangerous Bengals.


The season is short. Bark hard!

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