Leonard: Entertainment and Answers

Mark Leonard isn't choked up about the loss, as he finds in it some clues to the future...

It's probably just a defense-mechanism. But I'm watching the Cleveland Browns in a different way these days. After having endured an incredibly horrible 1-8 start, even this week's game in Detroit was not one I felt needed to be won.

More importantly, at least to me, it was progress, stimulation, entertainment, competitiveness and legitimate longterm growth I sought, along with illumination as to what might be discovered under specific scenarios.

So, the Browns lost by one, 38-37, on an untimed play from the Cleveland one precipitated by a pass-interference call in the endzone on a desperate and fully-extended Hail Mary of a prayer. Why should I be upset?

The Browns are now 1-9. Draft position is preserved.

At least the team discovered the sudden means to move the ball and to score through the air, even if it was only against the sport's very worst pass defense, that of the historically bad Lions. Had the final Detroit drive—one that covered about 88 yards in the final 1:46 without a single timeout, orchestrated by a rookie QB who'd never before had a come-from-behind win but became the first-ever first-year passer to toss five TDs in a single game—not been productive, Detroit would've become the first professional team to ever lose 32 of its last 34 decisions. Or something horrific like that.

Browns' passer Brady Quinn also had a career day, throwing for over 300 yards and four scores of his own. Included among them were the first three of the 2009 campaign to a Cleveland wide-receiver. The team is still without a rushing touchdown by one of its running backs. The anniversary of the last one arrived five days ago.

I should specify that was the first anniversary, as there may be more to follow. One never can tell with these Browns anymore. It's probably an over-reaction to fret about that non-scoring RB thing anyway; it's only been ten games this year after six last season.

Anyway, these are mostly promising developments. The team had its first three-touchdown-pass quarter since Derek Anderson's first start of 2007, that explosion at home against Cincinnati. It even generated a few sacks, including one that resulted in a safety against Detroit. Three passes were intercepted, though the last was overruled by the aforementioned endzone interference call against heady vet Hank Poteat. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

A few of these developments are also the type of specific illuminations I'd earlier referenced. Others included such things as:

(1.) Is there anyone in-house upon whom a running game might be based?

(2) Are there any receivers on this team around whom a passing game might develop?

(3.) Is there any TE who can catch a bit?

(4.) Will/can this team find any offense whatsoever, inasmuch as it needed the full two-weeks of bye preparation to threaten the Ravens' 45-yard line last week?

(5.) Is there a QB on this roster worth retaining?

(6.) Particularly after injuries have taken D'Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton out of the lineup for the balance of the season, is there enough around which to create an NFL-caliber LB corps?

(7.) Is there enough among the OL to enable the rest of the offensive personnel to execute their expectations?

To a few of these questions came the suggestion of answers.

The RBs again left a lot of yardage on the field, either through deficient speed, quickness, vision or balance. An older player in such serious decline as has been Jamal Lewis is thought to have no place on a squad such as this year's Browns. The other guy is surely not a prime-time talent, either, coming-up short when plays were there to be made. Chris Jennings' endzone drop on a perfectly thrown wheel route just before halftime was inexcusable and, ultimately, a back-breaker.

Mohammed Massaquoi may possibly one day be a number-one WR target, but he'll first need to master tracking the football, as he failed to corral at least two very catchable long balls in the second half. A more consistently accurate passer might help him hone his focus, but he's far from reliable, even as a rookie.

No TE has yet stepped-up, though there seemed to be some desire to get Greg Estandia involved as a threat.

Quinn showed so much of the promise many had been long waiting to see from him. He seemed to have gone the entire first half without a badly-thrown attempt and labored to dispel rumors of deficient arm strength. His long-standing tendencies had Detroit set-up for his sudden break of pattern. Lengthy scoring strikes to Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey highlighted the Browns' surging to a 24-3 first-quarter lead that would too quickly be surrendered.

Fans and curious bloggers also got to see what the club would do with a lead to protect. How the play-calling would be affected. How the defense might respond, particularly since its significant shortcomings had so often been overlooked amid the dreadful ineptitude of the offense.

They also got to see to whom it would be the needed third-down conversion would be directed during the final Browns' drive (It was to Stuckey in the right flat.) Next time 'round, it was unsuccessful to Massaquoi, though the fault was Quinn's inaccuracy.

As for the LBs, it seemed to be Detroit's focus to test and exploit the Cleveland backers' inability to cover. Cleveland adjusted by using more dime coverages, whenever realistic. USC rookie Kaluka Maiava was particularly targetted, most conspicuously on the catch-and-run for 64 yards on Detroit's first possession by RB Kevin Smith, who also later burned him for a score.

Kamerion Wimbley seemed nearly invisible, but Jason Trusnik, the other OLB, generated the safety. It would seem one of these is the strongside guy moving forward, with a fast, ranging athlete desired as a playmaker for the weakside. Though David Bowens may be playing his best football at 32, now that he's concentrating on inside play, he's no longterm answer; so the strongside ILB job is again (still) an organizational need. As things presently exist, this is a dangerously undermanned unit, but that's been the case all year.

The OL is limited, of course, as one might suspect of so putrid an offensive unit. There is little quickness or agility among right side candidates while power is lacking among the others. It would surely help if runners followed the pullers more closely and consistently.

Viewers got to see their head coach go for sealing the win when the prudent step might've been to eat more clock by running the football into predictable tackles, then relying upon the defense and a racing clock. They got to see him gamble just before the half with a fake field goal that must've been expected to score. They got to see his willingness to let his kid QB throw early, often and with the result still unclear.

These are illuminating scenarios, as may be the decisions to de-activate draftees Coye Francies, David Veikune and Brian Robiskie, the latter two second-round choices. Similarly, Jerome Harrison seems to have been eclipsed by Jennings, at least so long as Lewis is around.

The Browns may not have won again this weekend. There is no news in that. But they were entertaining. They did produce touchdowns. They did make encouraging plays on offense. Their QB moved the chains and threw for scores. They got some stops on D as the game was being decided. They even got a few key sacks and occassional pressure.

All in all, it was not a total loss, though a loss nonetheless. Let's see how they fare now with an upset Bengals squad awaiting and the Chargers and Steelers still between themselves and winnable contests versus KC, Oakland and Jacksonville. Will progress continue? Will points be scored with adult regularity? Will the team be competitive against teams not coming-in at 1-8? Will more youngsters with longterm upside be integrated?

Victories involving these questions now mean more to me than on the scoreboard, particularly with draft position to consider. The wait for progress has been needlessly and inexplicably long in coming, as only the first Bengals encounter and Lewis' 119-yard performance in the 6-3 win at Buffalo had existed as encouragement heretofore. That's a very lean season by any standard, especially from a new regime promising deliverance. A successful coaching staff brings the best from its players.

Here's hoping some stability, some efficiency, some consistency emerges, highlighted by successful adjustments and expressions of confidence in the youthful troops. Those would be wins worth having.

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