1. Fans expected the late first round QB draft pick to start sooner rather than later, and clamored for him over the incumbent even when the team was above .500.
2. A soft schedule buoyed the middle part of the season
3. The run game was more effective than it had been in years
Cleveland has enjoyed respectable starts in recent seasons, but those early signs of growth were followed by horribly debilitating stretches of awful play and regression. Cleveland fans have been struck by the worst kind of football PTSD. Local writers and radio hosts have begun to play on fans fears, and it has lead to the following five items being discussed with regularity.
1. "The running game is being held back by the lack of carries for "The Crow," and to a lesser extent, Terrance West."
It is obvious to even the most casual fan who watches the college highlight videos of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West to agree that they are both explosive talents who can physically dominate the game with speed and strength. Both backs utilize different skill sets, but have all the raw tools scouts drool over when evaluating college RBs. They've flashed that play making ability in NFL games, making defenders look foolish and breaking off big runs. Ben Tate has been less explosive in games, but continues to get the Lion's share of the work. Why?
The answer is that it takes more than explosive running ability to win the trust of coaches. Running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery distributes reps based on what he sees in practice and how the skill set of the running backs matches up to game situation. It's far easier to distribute those reps when the line is blowing open holes for all three backs, and the team is in position to run the ball.
The young running backs this year have made mental mistakes, exacerbated and highlighted by the lack of carries. Terrance West has made a habit out of trying to "hit home runs" instead of taking sure yardage, and he's also failed to recognize where to line up in specific formations and who to pass block. Coaches have indicated that his practice habits are not flawless. Isaiah Crowell has made his share of mental mistakes, running out of bounds during clock killing formations and proving careless with the football. These kind of things are common amongst rookie RBs and will likely work themselves out with time and experience. The Browns coaching staff knows that Tate will be effective when the lanes are blocked and cutbacks are there, and that he will be patient and execute the scheme as they draw it up. They know that Tate will not try to ad-lib when the blocking scheme isn't in place, and he showed against Oakland that he knows when to get down and get back to the line of scrimmage instead of trying to shake defenders on broken plays. In essence, Tate is the safer play right now, and until West and Crowell can prove to the coaching staff that they have the mental aspect of the game in hand as well as the physical aspect, they will continue to be understudies at the RB position.
The Browns coaching staff aren't in the business of holding back superior talent just out of principal. When the young stud RBs are ready for an increase in reps, they'll get them.
2. "Hoyer is a poor deep ball thrower and is throwing too many "jump balls"
Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders disagree vehemently, and they're spot on. Brian Hoyer will never be mistaken for Jay Cutler or Russ Wilson in terms of arm strength, but his limitations are due to his accuracy under pressure, NOT because of limits on his arm strength. Hoyer leads the NFL in terms of down field accuracy, and every QB throws the ball up for his deep threat receivers to make a play on them. Unfortunately, his two leading targets down field are Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin, who are far more likely to outrace someone for the ball than to battle them for it. A guy with a similar skill set, Brandin Cooks, had one of his first deep bombs reeled in on Sunday night, and he has one of the best QB's in the league delivering him the ball. The Browns passing offense needs to improve on 3rd downs and on receptions over the middle, NOT down the field, where they currently are executing at an elite level.
I wish more of the deep balls connected, but I don't expect them to.
3. "The offensive line is struggling now because Mack went down, especially with the way defenses are stacking the box and daring the Browns to throw"
This is a true statement, but it reflects only a part of why the Browns have failed to be able to run the ball effectively the last two weeks. Losing Mack has created a trickle down effect on the entire Browns line, and players who had previously performed at a high level (such as Mitchell Schwartz and John Greco) are struggling. Aside from Joe Thomas, the entire Browns offensive line is getting blown off the ball at the POA.
Unfortunately, this is the hardest thing to fix. Nick McDonald will get better with time, and hopefully the guards had an unusually rough two game stretch. When one position struggles, it can affect the adjacent spots. Mitchell Shwartz struggled heavily when Oneil Cousins played next to him in 2013, but improved as the season went on.
Also unfortunate is that the "stacked box" concept is often a fallacy. Teams are certainly run blitzing the line and getting pressure with the front seven, but safeties aren't playing in the box as often as you'd think. The tendency Kyle Shannahan has to bunch TE's at the line and use them as weapons in the passing game means that the passing attack has to utilize high percentage routes close to the LOS (ie, throwing INTO the coverage vacated by folks crashing the line) but Oakland and Jacksonville found huge success rushing with just DL and LB.
Additionally, many of the mistakes the Browns are making on the OL are mental and are not a reflection of the talent of the players. False starts, missed assignments, and DEAR GOD JON GRECO WHY ARE YOU HIKING THE BALL WHEN WE'RE TRYING TO DRAW A TEAM OFFSIDES OHMYGOD are just a few of the mental mistakes making the offensive line......offensive.
4. "The Browns offense can be effective by setting up the run with the pass"
Before the season began, I mentioned that the offense on this team would be as effective as the line play allowed it to be. The first seven games of the season has put an exclamation point on that fact. When the Browns are able to consistently run the ball on first and second down, Brian Hoyer *(and in the future, Johnny Manziel) will be able to punish teams on play action roll outs and deep passes down the field. When the threat of the run is gone, teams can keep LBs and DBs in the middle of the field, creating individual battles with the undersized wide receivers. The Cleveland Browns are not designed to consistently win battles with bigger DBs, instead using great short area quickness and rub routes while continuing to lean heavily on the run game. Mike Pettine and Kyle Shannahan have talked about this philosophy at great length, and don't want to have a team that's dependent on a high volume aerial attack to win.
When run-heavy teams are unable to run the ball, the passing game struggles as well. Matt Schaub was a quality NFL starter for years in Gary Kubiak's Houston ZBS, but when they stopped creating running lanes for Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the team's offense completely came apart (2012). In Carolina and Seattle this Sunday, we saw what happens to offenses predicated on running the ball when they can't win the battle at the LOS. Alex Smith and San Francisco struggled for years until they established a physical mentality in the trenches.
This Browns team, for better or for worse, will be successful on offense when they can create balance. The second half of the 2014 schedule is littered with teams that will destroy a passing game if you allow them to control the trenches. (Houston, Carolina, Baltimore, and Cincy, to name a few)
The good news? Even with Alex Mack, the Browns have a capable RT/RG combination and the best LT/LG combination in the AFC. Joel Bitonio will have rookie moments, but he's a road grading presence that will create craters in defensive lines. Nick McDonald will shake off the rust.
5. "A Rookie QB who can run would have a better shot of winning these games"
100% of football fans want to see Johnny Manziel play football in the NFL. His combination of elite athletic talent and creativity is legitimately special and unique, and even the analysts who predict that he will fail are desperate to see what he can do. No one electrified audiences more thoroughly than JFF did while playing in the TAMU Air Raid offense.
The fact of the matter is that it's highly unlikely that Manziel will be able to transition seamlessly into running this offense, despite how easy Shannahan can make it for a rookie QB.
1. Manziel only had two years of starting experience in college.
2. Manziel only ran "scripted" plays each week, and had to adapt to new language and a bevvy of new protections and schemes.
3. Manziel displayed deep ball passing issues in the preseason that showed that his improved mechanics sometimes slip as he struggles to throw down field, which suggests that he is still cementing weight transfer/throwing mechanics issues when throwing from a stationary position. The coaching staff considers throwing him to the wolves a panic situation, not something unlikely likely to make an immediate impact on the W/L column.
4. ROOKIES STRUGGLE IN THE NFL. If the play of Derek Carr and Blake Bortles is any indication of what NFL rookies look like (and it is), then Hoyer likely gives the offense the best chance to win at this moment, which means it's a win now/win later situation with Manziel refining his game and maximizing his potential.
DBN readers have had this argument for 6 months now; at best, it's easiest for me to assume that the coaching staff is going to know better than the fans when they deem a kid ready to handle the pressure. For every Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, there are dozens of examples of kids not ready to succeed immediately, who may have been best served by acclimating to the situation before being thrown into the pressure cooker. Even Cam and RGIII, two of the best examples of rookies exploding onto the national scene, struggled in Sophomore campaigns as the league adjusted to what they do. The best thing the Browns can do for JFF AND the current skill/position players is establish a team that can win in the trenches, consistently run the ball, and trust the entire team to play at a high level. Teams that can surround young QB talent this way are infinitely more successful at having them hit the ground running.
The Browns want to maximize Manziel's ceiling, and the best way to do that is to make sure that he's 100% ready and comfortable when he's inserted into the starting job. Every moment that Manziel spends learning the playbook and acclimating to the speed of the game (even if it's from the scout team) is another step towards eliminating costly mistakes.
At the end of the day, the prospect of Manziel's very bright star shouldn't keep fans from enjoying the present. The curiosity regarding JFF's play will be assuaged soon, and there's a good chance that if he's developed properly and started when the coaches feel he's ready, he can avoid the bumps and bruises that Bortles is working through, and won't have to operate a stripped-down version of the offense similar to what RGIII ran in 2012.
End of the day? Enjoy the win, Browns fans. Enjoy the modicum of respectability, even if it doesn't result in a playoff berth. Try to save the inevitable forecasting and wistfulness about backups from when the possibility of winning and going to the playoffs is a foregone conclusion. Love the Browns, love the energy, and love the establishment of a scheme and system that we'll be able to enjoy for more than one season.
Love your nose. Don't cut it off to spite your face. After a dominant defensive performance where the team plays its heart out and gets above .500, try to remember the 11 game losing streaks. This team can and will play better, but Sunday was the best example of a game that the "Same Ole' Browns" would have found a way to lose. The teams the Browns have beaten (New Orleans and Pittsburgh) demolished two Super Bowl candidate teams this Sunday, and the resurgent Patriots hung a 50-burger on a team after squeaking by this SAME Oakland squad 17-6, earlier this season. Enjoy the ride.