Romping and Road Grading into Oblivion in Dallas

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

Once the season ends, it’ll be easy to look back upon the Cleveland Browns’ season and decide which victory was most important. The turning point. Could Sunday’s road grading, 307 yard rushing performance be the one? The offensive line pushed Dallas’ defensive front wherever they wanted, creating holes larger than Jerry Jones’ ego. In the past, on the rare Monday after a victory over a “Super Bowl contender”, the hype and back patting coming from Berea was unbearable. But this year is different and gives hope that, maybe, someone involved in the decision making in Cleveland isn’t guessing anymore.

Kevin Stefanksi’s demeanor is calm, unfettered, resigned. Gone are the silly penalties, mind twisting turnovers, and dumb, undisciplined play. Though only a month in, the head coach’s disposition cleansed the franchise. The victories are workmanlike, even expected. Though Dallas manufactured a 4th quarter rally, cutting a 27 point deficit to 3, the outcome never seemed in doubt. Stefanski didn’t panic, even calling an Odell Beckham reverse, which he housed, when a between the tackles run would have been more prudent. It was a sketchy play call, one that the fans and media would have roasted him for had it backfired. But it didn’t. The players executed and one of the most dynamic players in the league made a play. The players trust their coach. Built over a tough summer in which Stefanski had their backs, whether dealing with the pandemic or the social injustice many players have spent their entire lives fighting, he was there. In their corner. If this is what Kevin Stefanksi is, the Browns have enough talent for special things to happen.

Once again the offensive line and running game dominated. The most yards ever given up by a Cowboys defense on the ground, the rushing attack demoralized a team already reeling from a 1-2 start. The interior of the line is dominant. Here are the line’s positional ranks through 4 weeks, according to Pro Football Focus:
Wyatt Teller: 1
Joel Bitonio: 9
J. C. Tretter: 2
Jack Conklin: 6
Jedrick Wills Jr.: 47

Impressive stuff. Give new offensive line coach Bill Callahan credit. As a group, they’re controlling the action and allowing the offense to do whatever they want. Stefanski can call anything on his play sheet because he knows his skill guys have protection and room to maneuver.

Nick Chubb’s injury, a strained MCL, may cause him to miss 6 weeks, and while the absence of his talent hurts their depth, Kareem Hunt can replace his production. Hunt led the league in rushing in 2017. No one has ever questioned his abilities on the field. D’Ernest Johnson showed capable on Sunday too, running for 95 yards on 13 carries. Hunt has five touchdowns on the season and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He’ll gash defenses while Chubb recovers.

Expect more games like Sunday’s because the defense is what it is. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo are the worst safety duo in the league. Terrance Mitchell is middling replacing Greedy Williams at corner, and the linebackers lack speed. It’s a big play defense. The Browns are leading the league in turnover margin. They’ve scored the most points off the opposition’s giveaways. The defense will continue as a sieve, the talent to stop opposing offenses just isn’t there. But Myles Garrett continues to destroy offensive lines, Sheldon Richardson is a premium run stuffer, and Denzel Ward has shown signs of returning to his 2018 form. If they continue to force turnovers, it’ll be enough to allow their offense to outscore everyone.

From the best offense in the league to its best defense, this week presents a contrasting challenge. Indianapolis gives up the fewest yards in the league, is fourth against the run and first against the pass. The Colts have no holes on defense. Former Brown T. J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes are the best corner duo in the league. Linebacker Darius Leonard is fantastic against the run, but injured his groin in the first half against Chicago. He’s questionable to play Sunday. DeForest Buckner lives in offensive backfields despite recording just 1.5 sacks. He has 8 quarterback hits and his pass rush grade via PFF is 2nd in the league. Justin Houston has 3.5 sacks and provides pressure off the edge. The Browns offense will require more patience this week. Continue running the ball with Hunt and Johnson, but keep working Beckham into the game plan. He’s dynamic, and despite the strength in the Colts secondary, he’s better one-on-one than their corners. Use your talent.

Indianapolis’ offense struggles. They’re middle of the pack in most categories, and Philip Rivers is just okay. He’s completing 72% of his passes, however, and tight end Mo Alie-Cox has done a good Antonio Gates impression, catching 11 balls and 2 touchdowns. He’s huge at 6’5” and 267 pounds. The Browns defense will struggle to contain him in the red zone. Indy’s offensive line, also one of the league’s best, keeps pressure off of Rivers, only allowing sacks on 3.1% of drop backs, 3rd in the league. The front four and Garrett need to pressure Rivers. He’s old and slow in the pocket, but can still sling it. If he’s given time, he’ll shred the secondary.

Phil Rivers isn’t the quarterback from his days in San Diego, but he can still move the ball. T. Y. Hilton and Alie-Cox are weapons that will break the defense if the line cannot pressure the quarterback. It’s the key on Sunday. The Browns offense should score, but don’t expect 30+. The defense has to give the offense something. Garrett and Olivier Vernon have to pressure Rivers into mistakes. Turning him over and giving the offense more chances to wear on Indy’s defense with the running game will be vital. Expect a close, tough, lower-scoring affair.

The Whip Around

1.His opener as a Buc against New Orleans was a dud, and he threw another pick 6 on Sunday against the Chargers, but Tom Brady has shown signs in Tampa. His five touchdown passes against a stout Charger front four, along with 369 yards through the air, saved the Buccaneers from a horrid loss. L.A. took the lead at the end of the third quarter, but Brady led a vintage drive after his defense surrendered the lead, going 5-6 for 83 yards and a touchdown. A 29 yarder to Rob Gronkowski put them in field goal range the next drive, sealing the win. Brady’s looked shaky, and his 7.2 yards per attempt is just 21st in the league, suggesting he isn’t pushing the ball down the field despite having one of the best deep threats in the league in Mike Evans. But he’s smart, has weapons, and a stout defense. Seattle and Green Bay look fantastic, but after them the NFC is a tossup. Brady will have a say in January.

2. The problems in Dallas are infinite, and corner Trayon Diggs piles up mistakes. He ranks 93rd out of 109 corners in the league (PFF), unable to cover, defend the run, or play with intelligence. His face mask penalty on a 3rd and four in the third quarter, with Dallas still attached on the scoreboard, killed their defense, allowed the Browns to score, and kept their potent offense on the sidelines. He’s the epitome of their franchise. The Cowboys are undisciplined, poorly coached, and shabbily run. They dash pundit’s Super Bowl hopes early each year because of the incompetence of the decision makers of one of the most talented teams in the league. Until Jerry Jones sells, they’re nothing but a sideshow.

3. Za’Darius Smith tied Myles Garrett for the league lead in sacks Monday Night. One of the best pass rushers in the league also had a touching message to share with NFL fans.

4. San Francisco is floundering at 2-2, playing in a division that includes the Rams and Seahawks, and is dealing with a multitude of injuries. But they have George Kittle back. The talent at the tight end position in the league is deep, yet Kittle has more than anyone who’s played. His combination of size, speed, and tackle breaking ability is unmatched. Though not the best blocker at the position, Kittle stretches the field unlike any tight end in history. He’s impossible to bring to the ground. Corners and safeties bounce off of him like a sugar infused child on a trampoline. The jury’s out on Jimmy Garoppolo, and San Fran’s defense is good this year instead of historically dominant. They need Raheem Mostert’s game breaking abilities back on offense. Kittle, however, is a game changer. 15 catches on 15 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown by a tight end causes a double take. He makes their pedestrian quarterbacks better on his own. If the 49ers return to the playoffs, Kittle’s big plays will be the reason.

5. Another tight end, Travis Kelce, is always open. A combination of his route running, Patrick Mahomes’ ability to keep plays alive, and the talent that surrounds him gives Kelce space within space. He finds holes in zones and sits in them better than most. His size causes mismatches with linebackers and corners alike. The speed Kansas City possesses at receiver pauses teams, pushing their safeties deep, opening the middle of the field for Kelce to operate. Still, it’s staggering to see the room he’s given week after week. But what’s left to take away? Mahomes resuscitates plays like no other, and when things break down, Kelce makes for a large, reliable safety valve. Nevermind stopping them. Unless you’re Bill Belichick, you can’t hope to slow that offense.

6. He showed flashes as a rookie, but Daniel Jones is just, ugh. The turnovers are disgusting. While playing a clean game (he fumbled early against the Rams, but his team recovered) his defense kept the Giants in it versus the Rams. Down eight, Jones hit Darius Slayton for 33 yards and scrambled twice for 22 to get into the red zone with less than a minute to go. Then, a pick to end it. Jones is athletic with a powerful arm. But he cannot hold on to the ball. He’s 1-12 in his last 13 starts and has never played an NFL game without a turnover. He’s 31st in the league in yards per pass attempt, 6.0. A turnover machine who doesn’t push the ball down the field? What are we doing here?

7. Miami’s feisty. Their three losses are to New England, Buffalo, and Seattle, teams with a combined 10-2 record and three of the top seven offenses in the league. When can we see Tua? Ryan Fitzpatrick continues on, dragging teams back into games they’re out of and tossing away chances at wins with interceptions. He led the game off with a pick on the opening drive of the game against Seattle, putting the Dolphins in an immediate hole, then slung another in the fourth quarter to end all chances of a rally. Rookie quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert look exemplary at this early stage. Why not play Tua Tagovailoa, Brian Flores? The Fitzpatrick show needs canceled, and with Buffalo and New England in their division, the Dolphins aren’t making the postseason. Flores has done an outstanding job in Miami. Their five wins last year when the team’s expectations were zero showed as much. Time to see what Tua has and how good the Dolphins can be with him.

8. Often overlooked, Keenan Allen remains one of the best wideouts in the game. He’s keeping the Chargers interesting and helping rookie Justin Herbert’s confidence. This snag is how you go get the football.

9. Goodbye to Bill O’Brien in Houston. The Texans are 0-4, and while O’Brien the coach isn’t the worst, O’Brien the general manager is. No first or second-round pick this year, traded to Miami for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. No DeAndre Hopkins, traded for David Johnson (197 yards, 2 TDs, 3.9 yards per carry). When teams have one of the five best quarterbacks in the league on their roster, they must do everything necessary to make a Super Bowl run. O’Brien the GM was erratic, making rebuilding trades following win now moves. The GM/coach doesn’t work. Each job is too hard on its own. Here’s hoping the Texans don’t ruin Deshaun Watson’s promising career.

10. When you lead the league in touchdowns since the start of the 2019 season, one would expect that player to get the lion’s share of his team’s touches. Not so with Aaron Jones and the Packers. His 25 TD’s over the last two years screams dominant back, yet Matt LaFleur treats him as a change of pace scatback. He had 15 carries in Monday Night’s victory over the Falcons. All other Packer ball carriers had 11. He’s been on the field for only 56% of the Packer offensive snaps this season. Christian McCaffrey has missed two-and-a-half games and still has played 40% of Carolina’s snaps. Jones is a top five back in the NFL. Besides finding the end zone, he averages 5.8 yards per carry. The Pack is 4-0, so it’s hard to argue with success. But if Green Bay hopes to make the Super Bowl, they must allocate more minutes to their best skill position player.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

Changes that will make the Cleveland Browns a Contender in 2020

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

2019 was a typical season in Cleveland. The talent and hope acquired over the off-season was over-hyped and misplaced. The despair of 1 win over two seasons caused an abundance of optimism; fans expect the misery compiled over two decades to one day pay dividends. What if it never does?

The talent is still in place for a rebound in 2020. The attitudes and discipline must change, however. In a division alongside exemplary franchises in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they cannot cut corners. Certain things need fixed if the Browns are to compete in the AFC North.

Baker Mayfield must become a leader. Quarterbacks in the NFL have no other choice. The position is too important; his teammates will follow his lead in whatever direction he goes. No more calling out teammates in the media, as he did with Duke Johnson last spring. If there’s a problem with the training staff, keep that in house. His intentions were to take heat off Odell Beckham when he attacked the team’s medical personnel; it’s still a bad look. Mayfield needs to mature. That’s fine, he’s only 24. But if he is to improve in 2020, it’ll start with his attitude.

Damarious Randall is a free agent, and he needs to go. Most thought the trade that brought him to Cleveland was a steal; a talented defensive back for a sub par backup quarterback, DeShone Kizer. Good organizations don’t let talent walk without reason, however. Green Bay knew what they had in Randall and gave him away. Freddie Kitchens suspended Randall for unknown reasons before the biggest game of the year in Pittsburgh. He was the most disinterested member of the team on Sunday against Baltimore, blowing coverages and allowing 3 of the Ravens’ touchdowns. Randall has an attitude problem, and the Browns are no longer in a situation to overlook discipline in favor of talent.

Randall is #23. This is nonsense

On that note, John Dorsey has to consider character in the draft. No more Antonio Callaway’s or Josh Gordon’s. The organization can’t afford to take fliers on guys in hopes they’ll rehabilitate themselves in the NFL. The franchise doesn’t provide an environment for struggling players to get better. Everyone deserves a second chance to prove themselves. Cleveland can no longer be that place. Take a lesson from Bill Belichick and draft intelligence over talent.

Sign Kareem Hunt. On the surface, this flies in the face of my last point. From the outside, however, it seems Hunt has made an earnest attempt to rehabilitate himself. A restricted free agent, the Browns can match any contract he’s offered or will receive draft pick compensation for him. The offense was at its best this year once Hunt returned from suspension. A Nick Chubb-Kareem Hunt backfield gave Kitchens a plethora of options and different looks to throw at defenses. Throw in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and the offense’s ceiling remains high. If a coaching change is inevitable, give the next guy a chance with these weapons.

Other than quarterback, the ability to pressure the opposing offense without blitzing is the most valuable attribute on the field. On November 15, the day after the 1st Pittsburgh game, the Browns were 6th in the league in pressure rate at 8.33%, according to teamrankings.com. Today they’re 14th at 7.09%. When all were healthy and not suspended, the Browns’ defensive line was one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback. Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson are the most talented group on the team. Don’t get cute by trying to trade out of a strength. If the defense succeeds in 2020, it will be because of the defensive front.

Draft offensive linemen. Dorsey has forsaken the line for other positions in his previous drafts, for good reason. O-line is best filled with late picks and free agents. Wyatt Teller has played well at guard since being inserted in the lineup, and they acquired him with a 6th round pick a week before the season. The skill positions have talent now; the front office can address other needs. Dorsey should try to get younger and more athletic at the tackle position through the draft. Safety, linebacker, and tight end are also holes on the roster. Expect a less sexy draft this year.

A complete organizational makeover must occur. It’s time for the power mongers in Cleveland to get serious about winning. Success is a mindset, built every day. The disappoints of 2019 can act as a wake up call if the Cleveland Browns treat them as such. The entire franchise needs audited. John Dorsey must flush selfish attitudes. If they ever expect to win, a sobering look in the mirror must occur. The knee-jerk reactions, preseason chest pumping, and smug approach to team and roster building can no longer continue. The Haslams must study accomplished organizations in all walks of life and change their philosophy and approach to running an NFL franchise. Sadly, this is the hardest change to make. If it does not occur, however, the Cleveland Browns will continue to be an underachieving failure.

The Whip Around

1.Many teams failed in 2019, but the L.A. Rams are at the top of the list. Sean McVay is no longer a delicate genius; Jared Goff now just an average quarterback. The Rams move into a new stadium next year and their owners were hoping a dynasty would reside in the new digs. What are the Rams now? The team of the future a year ago, things look murky now. Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks will account for 108.7 million of the salary cap next year, and the NFL projects the cap to be in the 200 million dollar range. Over half on five players. They traded their 2020 and 2021 first round picks for Jalen Ramsey. Gurley may or may not have arthritis in his knee, but something is wrong, and he’s only 25. Cooks dealt with concussions the entire year. Goff took a severe step backward. His cap hit is 36 million of that total. What a difference a year makes.

2. The Texans, week to week, are an enigma. They’ve beaten the Patriots and Titans in Nashville but lost to Denver and scraped by Tampa in the last four weeks. Their record is 10-5, yet they’ve only scored 14 more points than they’ve given up on the year. The loss of J. J. Watt was a killer to an already average defense and Deshaun Watson has cooled off. He’s only thrown 8 touchdown passes compared to 7 picks with a completion percentage of 62% over the past six weeks. Watson has to carry the Texans if they are to win in the playoffs. A first round loss to Buffalo is a possibility.

3. One of the best stories of 2019 has been Ryan Tannehill. His instincts on this touchdown pass to Tajae Sharpe are beautiful.

4. Alvin Kamara scored two rushing touchdowns in Tennessee on Sunday, his first scores since week 3. While he missed four weeks because of injury, it’s amazing he went that long without a touchdown, yet the Saints barely missed a beat. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas kept the New Orleans offense afloat, but they must lean on Kamara in the playoffs if they hope to advance. Brees will need at least the threat of him in the backfield to keep good defenses like San Francisco and Green Bay off balance. If healthy, he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league this side of Tyreek Hill. He’s key to their Super Bowl hopes.

5. What did we learn about Daniel Jones this year? The numbers are good: 62% completions, 2726 yards, 23 TDs, 11 picks. Three games buoyed his TD-Int ratio. Against Detroit, the Jets, and Washington he threw 13 TDs and no picks; otherwise he’s been average. Jones showed athletic ability, running for 253 yards and the game winner in his first start against Tampa. Not the bust many expected, the Giants need more weapons on the outside for him and Saquon Barkley to flourish. New York will be an interesting team in a poor division in 2020. If Jones and the defense improve, they have a shot in the NFC East.

6. The Steelers’ lack of talent showed itself on Sunday in a horrible loss to the Jets. With their playoff fate in their own hands, Mike Tomlin benched Devlin Hodges after throwing 2 picks. Mason Rudolph avoided the turnovers that earned him a seat next to the head coach earlier in the season, but could only generate 10 points. Pittsburgh is coaching rich but talent poor. The surprise is that they’re anywhere near the playoff race. Still, this was a bad loss against a weird Jets team. Will Ben Roethlisberger fair any better when he returns next year?

7. I’ve questioned Jimmy Garoppolo’s poise and playoff readiness all year. If he makes throws like this while pressured in January, the Niners will be in Miami come February.

8. Bad teams do dumb stuff. The Rams, Cowboys, and Browns all had horrible blown coverages in their games over the weekend that led to losses for all three. In week 16, one would be inexcusable, but three? There’s an attention to detail needed at the highest levels of everything; these teams and players are lazy in their preparation and execution. Talent is important, but having players who know where to be when 10 other guys are counting on them is essential.

9. Has any player single-handedly disrupted an offense the way Za’Darius Smith did to Minnesota’s on Monday night? 3.5 sacks. 5 tackles for loss. 5 quarterback hits. He’s making a late push for Defensive Player of the Year and giving the Pack an identity beyond Aaron Rodgers. He and line mate Preston Smith have combined for 25.5 sacks on the year and give Green Bay’s defense a chance against the high-powered offenses in New Orleans and San Francisco. They must be at their best for the Packers to compete in the playoffs.

10. San Francisco-Seattle
The only interesting game on a poor week 17 schedule, Seattle needs a good showing after 3 weeks’ worth of blah performances. Forced to sign off-the-street running backs Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin after a slew of injuries, its past time for Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to hand the reins to Russell Wilson. If the Seahawks win in the playoffs, it will be because of their quarterback. The conservative game plans must go; Seattle’s defense isn’t good enough to support 3rd down runs and punts on the opponent’s side of the field. Let Russ cook. See how far he can take you.

The 49ers need this one to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A Sunday nighter in Seattle should toughen this young team, but are they ready to win on the road in the playoffs? For San Francisco to have any shot at the Super Bowl, they need this one to keep them out of Green Bay or New Orleans in January.