Browns fans were nearly unanimous this off-season in their expression of guarded optimism mixed with a healthy dose of reality. The general manager, strategist, and head coach all approached the rebuild of the Browns with the same perspective; this was a team lacking NFL talent that needed to be rebuilt “from the studs up.” That kind of dramatic basketball-style rebuild doesn’t happen often in the NFL, and predictively created a 1-16 team that rarely was even challenging the opposing team in 2016 Flashes were few and far between as the Browns threw “stuff” at the wall, and waited to see what stuck.
It wasn’t all bad. Diamonds in the rough, cast off from other teams, showed the Browns that they were NFL players. A pair of starting cornerbacks from Florida (Jamar Taylor and Briean Boddy-Calhoun) a couple of brief glimpses of missile-like safety play from Derrick Kindred, and some late season aggressiveness from their second round pick Emannuel Ogbah were promising. Corey Coleman blistered the Baltimore Ravens for two explosive touchdowns, before a broken hand sent him to the “what-if” pile like many other first round picks. Sashi Brown had loaded the team with high-upside, sparq-y types of explosive athletes that had no idea what they were doing on the field. The results were exactly what many around football expected.
In year two, the Browns were expected to be more competitive, and by-in-large, they have been. Excluding a sloppy week two in which the teams defensive captain (Jamie Collins) and Quarterback (DeShone Kizer) left early and discombobulated the team against one of the best defenses in the league, on the road, the games have been close. The Browns defense locked up an explosive Pittsburgh offense with fundamentally solid tackling, and stymied a previously moribund Colts offense for an entire half of football, allowing only a give-away field goal on a focus error, 4th and 3 snap. So why are Browns fans upset, so early in the season?
The answer: because the team is exhibiting troubling signs, bad patterns, and what could ultimately prove to be irreconcilable friction between Hue and this front office.
- The Browns staff is designing a game plan that fits what Hue wants to do on offense. It’s much closer to his Coryell scheme roots, with deep, slow developing route concepts. They’ve certainly run a large percentage of plays from the shotgun, but otherwise, the degree of difficulty for the passing game is very high, and he’s doing it to receivers that are inconsistent in their route depth. Back-shoulder passes have been consistently in the right places, and the receivers are either surprised by the throw or unprepared for them. The screen game is almost non-existent, and Jackson rarely runs bootlegs or play-action passes. This shouldn’t be a great surprise given how vocal Hue Jackson is about how little of “his” playbook the Browns were able to run in 2016, but it’s disconcerting to see how little they’re doing to simplify the game for DeShone Kizer.
- Breaking camp with two of six receivers that have zero experience with the playbook or chemistry with Kizer is a real head scratching exercise. Immediately, any play with Sammie Coates or Kasen Williams has been a disaster, as the former was still banged up and the latter has had zero chemistry with Kizer. (One play featured Williams drifting out of bounds on a ball he could have jumped for, and another involved poor chemistry on a break in the red zone towards the inside part of the field). Also, it makes very little sense for the Browns to have 40% of the rotation featuring raw athletes with terrible hands. JUST PICK ONE.
- Against Baltimore, receivers were ending up in the same location on the field regularly, making the jobs of DBs much easier and making throws into traffic far easier to defend. “Levels” concepts can simplify reads, but the combination of poor spacing and ill-timed throws is making the offense a complete mess.
- Hue continues to get the play calls in late, and Kizer is breaking the huddle with 8-10 seconds left on the clock. If Hue’s penchant is for motion at the line to try to get an understanding of pre-snap defensive alignment, getting the plays in this late is counterproductive.
- Playing Jabrill Peppers 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage is creating a 10 on 11 advantage for the offense. It’s also making my head ache. It’s simplifying the reads for the opposing quarterbacks, and isn’t preventing the long gains that should be the only benefit to the alignment. Gregggg Williams continued to have his lunch money stolen by Rob Chudzinski of the Colts throughout the first half of week 3, leaving wide open running lanes by heavily blitzing the front seven at Jacoby Brissett. His adjustments through two weeks have been very good, but he put the Browns in chasm-like hole with the game plan in games 2 and 3.
- It’s painful to discuss, but the effort displayed from Jamie Collins this year and Jamar Taylor in the first part of the season is terrible. (Collins had two down weeks prior to concussion) If this is happening in the first few games of the season, what is going to happen after 16 games of being yelled at by the defensive coordinator?
- The Time of Possession for the Browns offense is dreadful, and is leading to a LOT of time on the field for the defense. This may go without saying, but the offensive line (and the offense, in general) is never going to develop a rhythm if the only way they can score is via chunk yardage. The downfield passing game will eventually become DeShone Kizer’s strong suit, but featuring it this heavily early on is a recipe for disaster.
The Front Office
8. Every position group on the field (sans the DL) is young and inexperienced. In some cases, this problem compounds the development of other roster areas, for what feels like the 15th consecutive year. The drops and inexperienced route running from the wide receivers hurts Kizer’s development. Having to use Duke Johnson in the slot (instead of where he’s most effective, as a change of pace back and catching balls from the backfield) hurts the RB group. Bad safety angles make the linebackers and cornerbacks look slow. In 2016, most plays were sunk because there were 1 or 2 players that failed to execute their assignment on each play. This year, there’s more capability, but each failed assignment creates a cascading effect.
9. The Browns broke camp with only one workhouse running back on the active roster. Matthew Dayes and Duke Johnson have a NFL skill sets, but neither profile as a pure “between the tackles” runner. For a coaching staff claiming that running the ball is going to be an identity, this makes Crowell’s inability to consistently hit holes and run strench/zone read plays a real problem.
10. Similarly, breaking camp with only one veteran receiver is proving to be a costly mistake for the Browns FO. Britt’s inconsistencies exacerbate the receiving corps issues, because every other wide receiver on the team is an unknown quantity. Having players go from cuts on other teams or the practice squad to starter minutes and targets is creating an enormous inconsistency in the passing game, and Hue Jackson isn’t interested in adjusting his game plan.
11. The Browns front office put Hue Jackson in an impossible position with his quarterbacks room. Breaking camp with an incredibly low ceiling veteran (Brock Osweiler) and damaged goods in Cody Kessler encouraged Hue to start Deshone Kizer, whose NFL tools and field vision already eclipsed the in-house options. Hue (and his QB coach) said throughout OTAs and camp that Kizer needed to go a long way and needed a lot of work. His incumbent vets were so bad that he just decided the gameday output would be similar. He’s probably right, but this ruins the ability to do what’s best for the team AND what’s best for Kizer.
The Future Problems and the plea for Continuity
12. The Browns, historically, have not proven to possess an ownership group or a coaching staff that has shown the smallest bit of patience. The strides in talent and experience the Browns are making with the roster are not showing up in the box score, and there’s a visible frustration between these entities prior to even reaching the quarter pole of the season. The shame is that the Browns are seeing an enormous leap in capability from the incredibly raw talents procured in 2016, but the overall youth of the roster continues to put individual players in difficult positions.
13. The “back 8” of the season should be weighed more heavily for evaluation purposes, and the team continues to get comfortable in its schemes. The problem with this theory is that if injuries create revolving doors to playing time for key position groups, and the coaches are unable to inspire the players to continue to grind it out and change the culture, the Browns will be in the same position they’ve been in for a decade.
I believe in the talent evaluators in Cleveland. I think they have a strategy that works in the long term, and that they’re generally getting the right kind of players.
I believe in Hue Jackson. I believe in the man, the vision, and the innovator. I believe what you saw in Cincinnati and Oakland was authentic, and wasn’t surprised that it came screaming down around its ears the moment he left. I Believe in players wanting to play for him, and crying their eyes out when they got their first win in 2016. I also believe that he’ll only look foolish for so long, despite the very realistic goals and expectations that were set in front of the group prior to the 2016 season.
I also believe that trying to balance play calling and QB coaching, while attempting to be the CEO of a football team, is a difficult load to juggle.
I want to see continuity, and I believe that the Browns will have to play better football in the coming weeks to make that a reality. I believe that the biggest fear Cleveland Browns should have is not a losing season, but a fundamental disagreement in the strategy for how to improve this team causing a complete change in the coaching ranks or front office, which would ultimately be catastrophic to the franchise.