Outside the Perimeter: Why so Late?

Mark Leonard takes a look at the Browns' late-season improvement...

When last my words appeared  upon these pages, Cleveland Browns' games against San Diego and Pittsburgh were yet anticipated. To that point in time, a serious sense of pointlessness was threatening to descend upon any remaining thoughts of the Browns for 2009.  Too little was being shown by the roster or from its leadership. Most looking on from the outside were counting the weeks until season's end and the inevitable dismissal of first-year Head Coach Eric Mangini.

The second Bengals game had just occurred, one that seemed to suggest the coaching staff was consoling itself (and an impatient fan base) with having kept things rather close more than about resolving to seize the however-remote possibility of victory.

Established and consistent weaponry was admittedly in short supply, but the offensive staff seemed resigned to simply exhibiting more of the same old, same old. That which hadn't worked all year would remain the attack's staple.

One could scarcely identify genuine progress in any aspect of offensive football as it pertained to the Mangini-led ‘09 Browns. What strides were being deliberately made on the defensive side of the ball were mitigated by the offense's continued ineptitude.

Since, however, beginning with the Chargers' game, a different look and attitude seems to have infested those on the possession side of the ball. There is an energy,  a freedom and eagerness seemingly absent to that point. An identity and purpose is materializing that provides reason to watch and an excuse for optimism.

First downs are again possible. Can touchdowns be far behind?

To a degree, it is almost as if the season were just beginning. And, fortuitiously, winnable games await.

The difference has much to do with youngsters being entrusted in roles that constitute key component parts: QB, RB, TE most prominent among them.

Brady Quinn is being permitted to express himself while conducting a no-huddle approach. He's suddenly assisted by a pass-catching TE, a fellow completely unknown to even the most ardent club supporter twelve days or so ago, Stanford's Evan Moore. Running the football behind Quinn no longer is the battered Jamal Lewis, but a youthful crew featuring Chris Jennings, Jerome Harrison and all-purpose playmaker Josh Cribbs. Specific roles and responsibilities were evolving for WRs Mohamed Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey, as well.

One has to ask: "Where have these players been all year? Why has it taken so long for this team and its admistrators to realize how best to function?" And other questions of that type, such as: "Why are the Browns only now beginning to approximate in appearance a professional football offense?"

The simple answer may likely be it either has taken this long for the coaching staff to recognize what it has in its personnel or that the personnel was not previously been ready to perform with the proficiency it now displays—understanding that its present level of achievement is relative to what it had been exhibiting. By no means is this a talent-laden unit nor an explosive, dangerous, intimidating one.

Coach Mangini has reminded fans this week that not only are penalties down, a significant accomplishment for so afflicted a franchise, but turnovers have been virtually eliminated. None over four games. Too, the club has prevented a 100-yard rushing game from either of its last two opponents, San Diego and Pittsburgh, both of whom have been perennial AFC contenders.

While these are very respectable achievements and fundamental to eventual success at any level of football, they do little to excite and energize a fan base—though maybe they should. 

What many have longed for is reason to pay attention when the hometeam has the ball, wanting to believe points might ensue. Presumably, it takes quite some time to gather and coordinate eleven qualified athletes and unify them sufficiently to execute at even this modest a level.  

I guess they first needed to discover how to stay out of one another's way, as well as to avoid turnovers, penalties and both missed alignments and assignments. If so, those who occupy the offensive side of this team's roster had more that needed to be learned and mastered than any of us could've imagined.

Whatever the case, Cleveland finally appears poised to resume its quest in establishing itself as one of the better losers in the AFC. Having already confirmed clear superiority over Buffalo (6 to 3) and having more recently dispensed with the spiraling Steelers (13-6), the Browns might now dispatch both Kansas City and Oakland. In so doing, they could become the second-best last-place club in the junior circuit.

More importantly, however, the team has a chance to create some favorable momentum heading into its latest critical off-season and to clarify both its relative strengths and prioritized weaknesses. At least it shouldn't again require ten or more excrutiatingly painful regular-season weeks in 2010 before the Browns reveal personality and promise.

The enjoyable portions of this season may be here at last. Much of the fun will be in discovering if this suggestion of potential verifies itself against comparably-reconstructing competitors.

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Perhaps in yet another example of necessity being the mother of invention, the Browns' defensive coaching staff frequently employed an alignment versus Pittsburgh that utilized two or fewer DL, flooding the field instead with stand-up personnel, be it LBs or DBs. Many were the snaps near the end, if my eyes did not deceive, when no down linemen were employed at all.

The resultant quickness and unpredictability frustrated the Steelers' already weak OL, contained their frequently-scrambling  QB Ben Roethlisberger and helped create 8 sacks. To put that figure in perspective, it equals the completions achieved by Cleveland passers in their two victories.

What is also worth noting about the scheme is how little either Alex Hall or David Veikune figured. In fact, the latter was again not even activated for the contest. The point to be recognized is that neither figures prominently, at least at this point in time, even when the team goes into a game knowing it intends to feature sack-focused stand-up personnel. Both Hall and Veikune were collegiate DEs.

Similarly, even with injuries having hit the secondary, in much the same manner as it has the DL, draftee CB Coye Francies is as marginalized as he is, deactivated yet again.

One might be tempted to wonder how much waiver-wire acquisition Arnold Harrison, a LB who spent most of his four-year career as a Steeler, influenced Cleveland schemes with what inside knowledge he had to share. Then one remembers Mangini used similar approaches in New York when helping the Jets beat Pittsburgh.

Also worth noting is how many among the present stand-up personnel have joined the club since opening day. Harrison is accompanied among the new LBs by former Jets Jason Trusnik and Matt Roth, an ex-Dolphin, both of whom are now Cleveland starters.  Another, undrafted free agent Marcus Benard, was promoted from the practice squad.

Certainly, injuries to ILBs Eric Barton and D'Qwell Jackson have something to do with these developments. Another factor may be that what the staff inherited at the LB position left too much to be desired. Whether it is for quickness, range, attitude, athleticism, or general in-space viability, these additions were deemed necessary.

Similarly, DL Brian Schaefering and Corey Williams seem to better fit in a scheme emphasizing mobility. Key to much of this is the guidance, leadership, versatility and gamesmanship of vet LB David Bowens.

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On the other hand, the waiver availability of two seemingly qualified fits for the still-suspect Cleveland OL were ignored by the Browns' braintrust, most likely for their suspect characters.

Former Jaguar and Michigan Wolverine Maurice Williams was allowed to pass to Detroit when Jacksonville released the RT/RG over what has been thought to be an off-field finding. Williams subsequently failed the Lions' physical, causing the Lions to raid the Browns' DEV for tackle Corey Hilliard.

This week, StL waived RG Richie Incognito, an on-field hothead who's regularly drawn unnecessary roughness calls over past seasons, complicating challenges for an inept Rams' contingent. He's now in Buffalo, meaning Cleveland again forfeited earlier claims to a lineman's rights.  

With Rex Hadnot still impaired by a training-camp knee sprain and Hilliard departed, the Browns have little depth along the front wall, even with the practice squad population included. Had an injury struck either Joe Thomas or John St. Clair last week versus Pittsburgh, the club would've been dependent upon one of their guards as a replacement: Eric Steinbach, Floyd Womack or Billy Yates.

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Finally, the suspicion articulated in this space months ago that the Rustbelt teams face a distinct disadvantage when enticing free-to-choose NFL talent has essentially been confirmed by a recent poll reported in Sports Illustrated.

Supposedly, 296 players participated in ranking the franchises they'd least and most like to play for. Four of the top five most-unappealing destinations skirt the Great Lakes: Green Bay, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo. Among the preferred, only Pittsburgh and New England made the top five as cold-weather cities, doubtlessly for their winning ways.

Dallas and Miami joined San Diego on that latter list, with the first two benefitting not only from climate but also for their states not having personal income tax. Oakland headed the list of sites to avoid, though GB's chilly reputation intimidated the most younger players.   

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More from this writer available at xanga.com/maleonard


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