Monday, December 31

Big it up for the Brownies

Andy, and I'm assuming Nick, would like to congratulate the Browns on a 10-6 season, one of their more successful campaigns in many years and a high-water mark for victories in the New Browns era. What's more, they gave the faithful something to smile about, claiming a club-record seven home wins in Cleveland Browns Stadium. Sure, they didn't get the help they needed this weekend and became one of those rare 10-win clubs not to qualify for postseason play, but considering that they had no business making the 2002 playoffs at 9-7, we'll call it even.

I still recall reading a Sports Illustrated preview piece on the 2007 Browns where they wrote that the Browns' worst-case scenario for 2007 was 2-14 and the team's best-case scenario was 6-10. Considering the low expectations fans and pundits had for the club, the 10-win season was an absolute delight. Hell, it usually takes our Browns about two years to post that many W's.

Browns fans, including myself, have lots of good memories from the season. I'd like to give a shout-out to the Capital District Browns Backers (Albany, NY) for being such fun people and devoted fans and making the games something worth looking forward to each week. Here are my top 6 Browns moments of 2007, off the top of my head (not including anything from the Cincy shootout because that was the game I missed due to illness):

6) Kellen Winslow's game-winning TD catch against Arizona
The dude catches about a million passes this year and I pick one that doesn't count? You bet. That was a spectacular catch with the game on the line and it should have given the Browns a win, if not for some timid officiating. K2 is a tremendous pass-catching asset for the brown and orange and this was the most remarkable demonstration of his ability and effort.

5) Phil Dawson's snow kick
Seriously, Philly Phil knocking one through from 48? In a blizzard? That was a really fun game and this its signature moment.

4) Braylon burns the Ravens
Early in the teams' first meeting, with Cleveland already up 7-0, Edwards made a sweet double move to get way behind the Ravens' secondary and Derek Anderson put one on the money for (I think) the Browns' longest TD play of the year, a play that essentially put the game out of the hapless Ravens' reach. After a couple of wins over the league's weak sisters, Baltimore would then go on to lose nine straight before OSU's Troy Smith got them a W in the finale against Pittsburgh.

3) Jamal's rumble in the Meadowlands
Yeah, yeah, maybe it would have been better from a clock perspective for J-Lew to fall down at the 1, but didn't you love watching him throw off about 26 would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone at the end of the victory over the Jets? I sure as hell did.

2) Josh Cribbs' KR for a TD in Pittsburgh
Cribbs was flat out awesome this year - one of the NFL's most exciting players and by far its best return man. Having already taken a kick 90 yards to set up a Cleveland TD, Cribbs initially booted this ground-ball kickoff back to near the Browns' goal line before starting a 100-yard tightrope act along the sideline and somehow ending up in the Steelers' end zone with six freshly-minted points. Tremendous.

1) Phil Dawson's kick to beat Baltimore
Everything about this was fantastic; the comeback the Browns had to mount to get in position for the kick, the fact that it made possible a victory over the hated Ravens in Baltimore, and...was there something else? Oh yeah, the fact that it banked in off the upright, hit the goal support, somehow bounced back into the field of play, and was eventually (correctly) ruled good. Take that, Brian Billick.

Saturday, December 29

Heroes & Zeroes: Week 16

The Cleveland Browns obviously enjoy celebrating Festivus just as much as I do. The only explanation for the egg that the Browns laid against the Bengals is that they felt their exuberant and burgeoning fan base was short on grievances. The Browns certainly succeeded; come Sunday night, there was no dearth of grumbling in the homes of the Cleveland faithful.

The loss cost the Browns control of their own destiny, and now the only game that matters in regards to the Browns’ playoffs hopes is the Colts/Titans contest on Sunday night. Feel free to join me and write Jim Sorgi a “good luck” email. J-Bone, we’ll all be pullin’ for you!

This Week’s Zeroes

Five Demerits: Derek Anderson
There’s not much to say about Anderson’s awful performance that hasn’t already been written. Derek Anderson lost the game for the Browns about as single-handedly as you will ever see a player lose a game in the NFL. Anderson threw four interceptions against the Bengals, while he had a total of four turnovers in the previous three games combined.

Anderson’s poor play is more disappointing than anything. By all accounts, Anderson has not corrected the problems that plagued him both in college and during the first two years of his professional career; he has trouble reading a defense, he forces passes into heavy coverage, he has no touch on short passes, he bird-dogs receivers and doesn’t always go through his progressions, and he can be rattled when things don’t go his way. More than anything, it’s Anderson’s inability to improve on his weaknesses and learn from his mistakes that is disturbing.

You can try to sell me on Anderson’s rocket arm until the cows come home, and I’m well aware that having a strong arm is important. But I don’t just want a quarterback who can throw, I want a quarterback who can think. Bernie Kosar had a great arm, but he won games between the ears. Kosar was able to read defenses like a book, and like a great chess player, he was able to see a few moves ahead of the defense.

The great contemporary quarterbacks don’t just win because they have the strongest arms, they win because they’re also extremely intelligent. Peyton Manning has a great arm, but he also plays the Colts’ offense like a piano as he audibles at the line of scrimmage, tweaking routes and blocking schemes. Tom Brady doesn’t have the best arm in the game - far from it - but he’s an intelligent player who almost always makes the correct decision when the game is on the line.

If arm strength was everything, then guys like Kyle Boller, Aaron Brooks, and Jeff George would have had Hall of Fame careers. There’s no doubt that Anderson has the physical tools to be a great quarterback, but until he gets the mental part worked out, he’ll never break through into that upper echelon of NFL signal callers.

Four Demerits: Bob Bratkowski
Bob Bratkowski has been the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator since 2001 and is one of the few holdovers from the Dick LeBeau regime. It’s tough to argue with the job Bratkowski has done in the last few seasons, because the Bengals have been very productive on offense, even when Jon Kitna was under center. But nobody is to blame more that Bratkowski for letting the Browns climb back into the game late in the second half.

Holding a 19-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, Bratkowski kept calling for Carson Palmer to throw the football, when sitting on the ball to run the clock would have been a much wiser choice. Had the Bengals simply run the football until the Browns stopped them and forced a punt, they could have avoided Palmer’s second interception and burned valuable minutes off of the clock.

This situation was eerily reminiscent of the Browns/Jets game on December 9th, during which Rob Chudzinksi kept calling for the Browns to throw the ball late in the game when sitting on the football and burning the clock was probably the smart move. In both cases, had the offense simply run the football and punted, there wouldn’t have been enough time left for the opposing team to mount any semblance of a comeback.

Three Demerits: Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer has owned the Browns during the last few seasons. In his last three games against Cleveland (prior to Sunday), Palmer averaged over 342 passing yards and threw for 11 touchdowns. This time, Palmer threw for only 115 yards, and posted just one touchdown against two interceptions.

Cincinnati’s offensive line has had its problems this season, but they got the job done against the Browns, yielding no sacks and opening up enough holes for the Bengals to average over 4.6 yards per carry. Considering that the Bengals ran the ball 12 more times than they threw it, that 4.6 YPC number is very impressive. Considering how well the Bengals’ offensive line performed, Palmer must bear the onus of the Bengals’ poor air attack.

And while Bob Bratkowski must be blamed for continuing to call passing plays, it was Palmer, not Bratkowski, who threw two interceptions in just 21 attempts. Hopefully the Browns can carry the momentum of their defensive success against Palmer into the 2008 season.

Two Demerits: Dave Zastudil
The game started out well for the Browns. Cleveland’s defense stopped the Cincinnati offense, forcing a punt. The Browns then drove from their own 10-yard line to the Bengals’ 22, where they were set to attempt a field goal until punter Dave Zastudil mishandled the snap. It was still a 40-yard field goal, far from a guarantee given the extremely windy conditions, but considering what Phil Dawson accomplished just one week prior against Buffalo, he had a legitimate shot of making the field goal.

True, it was only three points, but it could have completely changed the dynamics of the game. The field goal would have given the Browns the lead, and maybe they wouldn’t have been so aggressive at the end of the first half. And even if everything else happened just the same, the Browns would have needed only a field goal to win the game on their final drive, which would have completely changed things. Coulda, woulda, shoulda…

One Demerit: Chad Johnson
To a certain degree, this is me venting on Chad Johnson for the entire season. Johnson dropped a few key passes against the Browns, and while Johnson’s ‘07 numbers appear to measure up to his 2006 statistics, he hasn’t scored with the same consistency in 2006 and 2007 that he did from 2003 to 2005. In fact, 10 of Johnson’s 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons have come in just four games.

Part of Johnson’s declining scoring numbers can be attributed to the emergence and continued development of TJ Houshmandzadeh, who may be a better receiver than Johnson, and is certainly a more potent red zone threat. But it seems that Johnson’s antics have worn on the Bengals and especially on Marvin Lewis. Chad Johnson might be wearing out his welcome in Cincinnati, and rumors have been swirling that the Bengals may attempt to trade Johnson in the off-season.

It might not be a bad move; Johnson is no spring chicken (he turns 30 in early January), his numbers appear to have peaked and may in fact be declining, and his elaborate scoring celebrations and eccentric interviews give the team headaches. With capable replacement Chris Henry waiting in the wings, and solid youngster Glenn Holt ready to take Henry’s spot in the slot, the Bengals could afford to part ways with Johnson, and it might help them plug some holes on defense or the offensive line.

And one more thing: why do Johnson’s antics get a free pass from the national media? Personally, when players score, I like to see them act as if they’ve been to the end zone before and simply return to the sidelines. But if a guy feels inclined to celebrate, then a dunk over the goalpost, a leap into the stands, or spiking the football are all perfectly fine. Here’s the problem with what Johnson does: he does it knowing that he’s going to cost his team 15 yards, and he does it anyone. Chad doesn’t care about hurting the team with a penalty, he wants to get himself on SportCenter. I have no patience for players that exhibit such high levels of selfishness.

This Week’s Heroes

Five Dog Bones: Leigh Bodden
Just as Derek Anderson practically lost the game on his own, Leigh Bodden kept the Browns in the game almost single-handedly. After Cincinnati gained momentum early following the Browns’ botched field goal attempt, Bodden put the kibosh on that momentum with his first interception. Bodden’s second interception deep in Cincinnati territory led to a Cleveland touchdown just three plays later.

Bodden added four tackles, as he and Eric Wright impressively held TJ Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson to a combined six catches for just 69 yards. Bodden’s performance was all the more remarkable after he didn’t practice last week due to back problems.

Four Dog Bones: Braylon Edwards
Edwards scored two touchdowns to become the all-time Browns leader in touchdowns by a receiver with 15, breaking Gary Collins previous mark of 13, which was set in 1963. Braylon’s breakout season continued against the Bengals, and with one game to go Edwards is currently sixth in the league in receiving yardage and second in touchdowns. Edwards, with 1,222 yards for the year, is also poised to break Webster Slaughter’s team record of 1,236 receiving yards, set in 1989. Before Edwards, Slaughter was the last Browns receiver to make the Pro Bowl (1989).

Three Dog Bones: Shaun Smith
Smith was one of the few players who even seemed aware that the Browns were just a win away from a playoff birth. Smith had his best game in Browns uniform, registering eight solo tackles while reeking havoc on his old teammates all game long.

Smith, who has spent most of the year at defensive end, replaced the injured Ethan Kelley at nose tackle and filled in admirably. While the Browns are in desperate need of defensive linemen, they appear to have a very good lineman in Shaun Smith, and a very competent lineman in Robaire Smith. The Browns will need to determine where they want to use Shaun Smith next season, as an end or as the nose tackle. Regardless, this looks like another successful signing from Phil Savage’s terrific free agent class of 2007.

Two Dog Bones: Jamal Lewis
Had Derek Anderson simply managed the game and limited his turnovers, this was a game that Jamal Lewis probably could have won on his own. Lewis was having his way with the Cincinnati defense, picking up 92 yards on 21 carries. Further illustrating the Browns’ dominance on the ground were Jason Wright’s three carries for 38 yards. Lewis added five catches for 42 yards.

Lewis has become a fixture in the Cleveland offense this season, and he’s earned a contract extension. As long as Lewis isn’t asking for the moon and the stars, the Browns would be foolish not to re-sign him. And it would be unwise to wait until the free agent period begins to negotiate with Lewis, who will definitely have high market value as one of the top free agent backs.

Jamal Lewis isn’t going to be the Browns’ featured back for the next five years because he’s just too old. But Lewis can buy the Browns some time, most likely a year or two, as they search for that franchise running back. As effective as Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison have looked at times, it’s unlikely that either runner could withstand the rigors of a full season receiving featured carries. The Browns need Lewis for at least another year, and beyond that he will have value as a power/goal line runner in a dual back system.

Lone Bone: Todd Grantham
Grantham has drawn the ire of fans this season for the defense’s inability to stop, well, anybody. But Grantham deserves credit for the job his defense did against Cincinnati. The Bengals dropped 45 points on the Browns back in week two, but the Cleveland defense wasn’t so porous this time around.

The Browns gave up two touchdowns mainly because both scores were set up by Derek Anderson interceptions deep in Cleveland territory. In fact, the Bengals’ two scoring drives were only 5 and 20 yards long, respectively.

If Romeo Crennel doesn’t bolt for Miami, as the rumors have suggested he might, the Orange Man will almost certainly return next season. Unless he is fired, Grantham’s contract will keep him in Cleveland for the duration of Crennel’s tenure. One encouraging statistic: over the last five games, the Browns’ defense has allowed an average of only 16.2 points per game.

Fasion note: Grantham dresses completely in orange for every game, and as a result many have criticized Grantham’s “fashion sense.” Two things; one, “fashion sense” doesn’t have much bearing on one’s ability to coach NFL football, and two, Grantham dresses in Day-Glo orange not as a fashion statement, but to make it easier for his players to pick him out from the field so that he can relay the defensive signals to them.


Total Dog Bones
Offensive Line---27
Braylon Edwards---26
Jamal Lewis---21
Derek Anderson---17(t)
Joshua Cribbs---17(t)
Kellen Winslow---17(t)

Net Dog Bones
Offensive Line---25
Braylon Edwards---22
Kellen Winslow---17
Joshua Cribbs---15(t)
Jamal Lewis---15(t)

Total Demerits
Romeo Crennel---30
Derek Anderson---21
Brian Billick---16(t)
Defensive Line---16(t)
Todd Grantham---14

Net Demerits
Romeo Crennel---22
Brian Billick---16
Defensive Line---12(t)
Todd Grantham---12(t)
Rich Gannon---7(t)
Willie McGinest---7(t)
NFL Rules Committee---7(t)

Dropping Like Flies
The Browns lost two good players to the Injured Reserve last week, Mike Adams and Ethan Kelley. Adams, a safety, was a big contributor on special teams and in select coverage packages. Kelley, who became the Browns’ starting nose tackle when Ted Washington went on IR, had come into his own in recent weeks, and was one of the main catalysts for the Browns’ resurgent pass rush.

Up Next: 12/30, San Francisco, Cleveland Browns Stadium, 1:00
After winning two straight games to start the year, the 49ers went on to lose 10 of 11. The Niners come to Cleveland the winners of two consecutive close games, but they’re uncertain of who will start at quarterback.

San Francisco was already down to their third quarterback, Shaun Hill, a Maryland product who went undrafted, but Hill missed time in practice this week with back spasms. Hill is listed as questionable, and if he’s unable to go, Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke will get the nod. Weinke, the longtime Carolina Panther, hasn’t played in a game this season and has been pretty lousy pro, with 14 career touchdown passes against 26 interceptions.

San Francisco ranks dead last in the league in offense, scoring only about 14 points per game. The 49ers’ defense allows about 23 points per game. Frank Gore is still a good running back, and stopping Gore should be the focus of Cleveland’s defensive scheme.

In terms of the playoffs, this is a meaningless game for the Browns. Some have suggested that the Browns rest several starters in this game, and I think that’s the right decision. That said, unfortunately I don’t think Romeo Crennel will rest his starters in this game. This is a team that the Browns should handle, and if they play their starters as Crennel has implied, I expect the Browns to cruise to a record seventh home victory.

Be sure to tune in for the game that actually matters, Tennessee at Indianapolis, on Sunday night at 8:15 (NBC).

My Call: Browns 27, 49ers 13

Friday, December 28

NFL Picks: Week 17

The last week of the NFl regular season is weird just because of the sheer number of matchups involving one or two teams who have nothing to play for, many of whom will be resting key guys for the playoffs. The only teams who have anything to play for other than general professionalism and losing out on a high draft pick are the Titans, Saints, Chargers, Steelers, Redskins, and Vikings. That's 6. Out of 32. That, to me, seems like a tough weekend to handicap. Yet Nick and I soldier on.

GIANTS (+13.5) vs Pats
Andy: (Remember what I wrote in that first paragraph? This is absolutely impossible). Giants.
Nick: Giants

BROWNS (-10) vs 49ers
Andy: Browns, because they have this retarded commitment to winning this useless game instead of doing what they should, which is resting banged-up guys for a possible playoff game. THIS GAME MEANS NOTHING. This is a week where I would pick against the Browns, and proudly, in respect for solid organizational philosophy.
Nick: Browns. Fire Romeo Crennel. (Really.)

EAGLES (-9) vs Buffaloes
Andy: Who cares? Eagles.
Nick: Bills

DOLPHINS (+3) vs Bengals
Andy: Bengals
Nick: Bengals

BUCS (+3) vs Panthers
Andy: Bucs
Nick: Bucs

BEARS (+1) vs Saints
Andy: Saints
Nick: Bears

TEXANS (-6.5) vs Jags
Andy: Jags (they'll have a lot of their best players out, but who the hell are JAX's best players?)
Nick: Jags

FALCONS (-1) vs Seahawks
Andy: Seahawks. Ditto, plus the Falcons are the definition of mailing it in right now.
Nick: Seahawks

PACKERS (-4) vs Lions
Andy: Pack. You really think the Lions will win Favre's potentially last regular-season game in Lambeau?
Nick: Packers

BRONCOS (+3) vs Vikings
Andy: Vikings
Nick: Vikings

REDSKINS (-9) vs Cowboys
Andy: Redskins
Nick: Skins

RAVENS (+3.5) vs Steelers
Andy: Steelers (this is my most confident choice of the week)
Nick: Steelers

RAIDERS (+9) vs Chargers
Andy: Chargers
Nick: Chargers (Lock of the week)

CARDINALS (-6) vs Rams
Andy: I would never, ever bet on this game. Rams.
Nick: Rams. I concur; if you bet this game, you have a problem.

JETS (-6.5) vs Chieves
Andy: Chieves
Nick: Kansas City Indians (How can the Jets give nearly 7 points?)

COLTS (+6.5) vs Titans
Andy: Colts, please, please win this game. PLEASE.
Nick: Colts. Did I ever mention how much I love QBs from Michigan?

Necessary Precautions

As far as the playoffs are concerned, this week’s Browns game has no meaning; zero, zilch, nada. Win or lose, Cleveland’s postseason fate will be dictated solely by the result of the Colts/Titans clash which will take place in Indianapolis on Sunday night.

Author’s Note: the Browns game would become relevant if the Colts and Titans played to a tie, but considering that there’s been only one NFL tie in the last decade, this scenario is about as likely as anyone caring that Britney Spears’ sister is knocked up.

Although their fate is in the hands of Tony Dungy and Jim Sorgi, the Browns still have a very real shot at making the playoffs, and they need to prepare accordingly. The Browns should treat this Sunday’s game against San Francisco as they would had they defeated the Bengals to clinch a playoff birth last weekend. In other words, Cleveland’s bench should be teeming with starters late in the second half.

First and foremost, there are several players who have been bothered by significant injuries this season, and should see no more than a few series (if they play at all). Such players include:

  • Leigh Bodden. Bodden had his best game of the season against the Bengals after missing practice last week with back problems. Bodden also battled a groin pull earlier this season.
  • Joe Jurevicius. Jurevicius has been limited in practice this week by a knee injury, and he’s been banged up recently, only posting seven catches for 72 yards in his last three games.
  • Jamal Lewis. By all accounts, Lewis is completely healthy, but he struggled with an injury to his right foot earlier this season that the Browns don’t want to see re-aggravated. Lewis has also had a heavy workload of late, averaging more than 26 touches per game over the last six games. Avoiding the pounding of another 25-plus touches could reinvigorate Lewis for a potential playoff game.
  • Antwan Peek. Antwan Peek has been a fixture of the 2007 Browns injury report. Peek is still suffering from an ankle injury he incurred against the Jets back on December 9th. Peek hasn’t participated in practice so far this week, and I’d be mildly surprised to see him on the field against the 49ers.
  • Kellen Winslow. Winslow has played, and played well, in each of the Browns’ 15 games despite battling a partially dislocated left shoulder for much of the season. Winslow has been limited in practice this week by his surgically repaired right knee.

As for the other starters, many of them would benefit from spending a significant portion of the game as spectators. The Browns can use the second half of the 49ers game as an audition for various players who might be on the roster bubble next year like Colby Bockwoldt, Ricardo Colclough, David McMillan, and Travis Wilson. Young linemen who have seen little or no action like Nat Dorsey, Paul Eslinger, and Isaac Sowells can be rotated into the game to gain some valuable experience. And intriguing prospect Jerome Harrison can be given double-digit carries in an attempt to determine whether or not his production this season (in limited carries) has been a mirage.

Of course, there’s also the quarterback issue; some have called for Brady Quinn to start this week, others have requested that Quinn receive some time in a relief capacity, and many want Derek Anderson to play the game in its entirety. The argument for installing Quinn as the starter is positively laughable. Obviously, the Browns are not going to make a quarterback switch this late in the season, and one lousy game should not make fans forget that Anderson has given the Browns very competent play for the majority of the season.

More importantly, starting Quinn, even if Anderson remained the starter for a potential playoff game, sends the wrong message to the Browns, the rest of the league, and especially to Derek Anderson. Starting Quinn runs the risk of dividing the locker room and causing a quarterback controversy on the eve of the playoffs. What if Quinn lights things up and fans are calling for him to start in the playoffs? A full-blown quarterback controversy is the last thing a team wants heading into the playoffs.

Keep in mind that Derek Anderson is an extremely valuable asset both to the Browns and to a potential trade partner this off-season. If the Browns started Quinn following Anderson’s worst game of the season, the impression around the league could be that the Browns are down on Anderson, hence decreasing DA’s trade value. Although it seems less than likely at this point, Anderson could very well be in a Browns uniform next season to compete with Quinn for the starting job. The last thing the Browns want heading into either the playoffs or next season is for Derek Anderson, whom many suspect is emotionally and mentally fragile, to think that the Browns have lost confidence in him.

Quinn should make his regular season debut against the 49ers in a relief capacity, with one condition. If Derek Anderson is struggling, he must be left in until either he turns things around or the game ends. For the sake of the Browns, the perception of other teams, and Anderson himself, Quinn cannot be inserted to “replace” Anderson. Quinn should only play if Anderson has a successful go of things against San Francisco, and if everything goes swimmingly, Quinn should play most of the second half.

The 49ers game is the perfect opportunity for Quinn to see his first regular season action. If Anderson plays well in the first half, playing Quinn in the second half will not indicate that the Browns have lost confidence in Anderson, it won’t create a quarterback controversy, and the fact that the game is meaningless will provide a pressure-free situation for the rookie signal caller. It would also be nice for Quinn to play his first game in the friendly confines of Cleveland Stadium, and not in front of a potentially hostile road crowd.

“That's why we play the games, to win them, right? Ten-and-6 is better than 9-7. I'm going to play to win the game. My starters are going to play to give us the best chance to win the game.”

-Romeo Crennel, earlier this week

Sadly, it seems unlikely that many of these moves will occur. For better or worse, Romeo Crennel is an unswerving fellow, and those comments appear to indicate that this game will be business as usual for the Browns. I understand Crennel’s intent; he doesn’t want his players to treat any game as meaningless and he wants them to play hard every week. But these are professional football players, and focus should not be a problem, especially for a team with a winning record. It’s understandable that Crennel doesn’t want to send mixed messages by pulling starters, but is that really the best thing for the Browns?

While winning ten games would be nice, it has absolutely no bearing on the playoffs, and at this point the Browns need to gear their thinking exclusively towards the playoffs. Pulling the starters makes perfect sense in this situation, and if the Browns do qualify for the postseason, then numerous key players will be far fresher when the Browns travel to either Pittsburgh or San Diego next week. If Crennel does treat this game like any other game, leaving the starters in for the contest’s duration, then this Sunday will serve as yet another indicator that Crennel is not the right coach to lead this team to the promised land. Bill Parcells, you can have him.

Thursday, December 27

Shapiro responds

Hi Nick,

Glad to hear we're still buddies.
It doesn't matter whether the reliever I signed is "Oriental" or whether he has a silly name (which he kinda does). A good-value signing is a good-value signing.

Also, season hasn't started yet. Enjoy your holidays!

Wednesday, December 26

Hey, Mark Shapiro

So...are you going to do anything this winter? Oh, you're playing solitaire. No, no, don't worry, you don't need to minimize it.

I was just wondering if you're going to add something more than, you know, a utility infielder and an Oriental reliever with a funny name? Yeah, I know he has the same name as the hot dog guy. Sure, I see the marketing potential there. That's true, he didn't star in a gay porn like the other guy.

But seriously, no trades, no free agents, nothing like that?

That's cool, I just wanted you to level with me. Of course we're still friends.

Tuesday, December 25

Santa, please bring me a Titans loss

As those of you who follow the NFL know, the playoff scenarios in the AFC have shifted such that they no longer favor the Cleveland Browns. Heading into last week's contest, the Browns were in charge - a win over Cincinnati got them in, no questions asked. A loss by the Titans at the Jets would have done the trick as well, but neither worked out in Cleveland's favor. Now, it is the Titans in the driver's seat, to the extent that the Browns game next week is virtually irrelevant.

Yes, that's right, because of the NFL's tiebreaking procedures, the Browns-49ers game has no effect on whether Cleveland qualifies for the postseason. If Tennessee wins in Indianapolis, the Titans go; if Tennesses loses to the Colts, the Browns will be preparing for a first round game. It simply does not matter what the Browns do next week; they can lose to finish 9-7 and qualify if the Titans blow it, or they could win to go 10-6 and miss out if Tennessee wins. OK, fine, if Indy-Tennessee is a tie, the Browns game decides it, but that is extraordinarily likely. The entire outcome essentially hinges on the Tennessee game.

Nevertheless, I found this quote today from a guy named Steve Silverman on, written after all of the week 16 action had taken place and this straightforward situation was public knowledge:

While the loss to their [The Browns'] cross-state rivals hurts quite a bit, they host San Francisco in the final game of the season. If the Browns have a chance to control their own destiny — both games are 1 p.m. (EST) kickoffs next Sunday — they should handle the Niners without much of a problem.

What do you mean, if they have a chance to control their own destiny? It's not a hypothetical anymore, dude - they don't have that chance. It's wouldn't matter if they were playing the 1994 All-Madden team or the LA Raiders from Tecmo Bowl because the outcome of this game is meaningless in terms of securing the final playoff berth. Hell, they should rest the starters like Indy is doing. I'm serious. Still, you're sitting here writing an article about how there's very little to decide playoff-wise in the season's final week, and you can't take 5 seconds to find out that only one game in the AFC affects playoff qualification? Couldn't you have had your secretary look that up? Check your facts, man.

Sunday, December 23

Happy Festivus!

Nick and Andy wish you all a very Happy Festivus!

No bagel no bagel no bagel no bagel!

Friday, December 21

NFL Picks: Week 16

RAMS (+7.5) vs Squealers
Andy: Rams
Nick: Rams

PANTHERS (+10.5) vs Pokes
Andy: Cowboys
Nick: Cowgirls

(Here I am, 0-2 going into Sunday again -Andy)

BEN-GALS (+1) vs Browns
Andy: Fucking Browns!
Nick: Browns

DA BEARS (+9) vs The Pack
Andy: Pack
Nick: Packers

COLTS (-7) vs Texans
Andy: Texans
Nick: Indianians

GOD'S TEAM (-4.5) vs Chieves
Andy: Lions
Nick: Lions

BUFFALOES (+1) vs G-men
Andy: Giants
Nick: Bills

JAGONS (-13.5) vs Darth Raiders
Andy: Raiders
Nick: Jags

AIN'TS (-3) vs Iggles
Andy: Saints
Nick: Saints

CARDINALS (-10) vs Dirty Birds
Andy: The Cardinals giving 10 points? What is this world coming to? Falcons.
Nick: Cardinals

GOLD-DIGGERS (+6) vs Yeeargh!
Andy: Bucs
Nick: Bucs

SEA CHICKENS (-11) vs Baltimorons
Andy: Ravens
Nick: Seahawks

Titanss (-9) vs J!E!T!S!
Andy: Titans
Nick: Titans

PATSIES (-22) vs Dolphish
Andy: Dolphins
Nick: Patriots

VIKES (-6.5) vs 'Skins
Andy: Redskins
Nick: Vikings

BOLTS (-9) vs Ponies
Andy: Broncos
Nick: Chargers

Wednesday, December 19

Heroes & Zeroes: Week 15

It was a game that the Browns had to win, and they responded by delivering one of their most complete performances of the year. Although they only out-gained the Bills 304 to 232, the Browns essentially dominated the game, over one-fourth of Buffalo’s yardage came on their final futile drive. The Bills entered Cleveland territory only three times all game, and just once in the second half.

Jamal Lewis was the headliner, bulldozing his way to 163 yards and becoming the second Cleveland running back to break the 1,000 yard barrier in three years (Reuben Droughns is the other). As ground-heavy as this game was, it was also a waiting game; waiting for the other team to make a costly error. Perhaps the most shocking statistic of the game was the fact that there were zero turnovers. In fact, the ball didn’t even hit the ground once as the result of a fumble.

Buffalo’s botched punt, which led to a Cleveland safety, would prove to be the only real mistake of the game, but it only cost the Bills two points. The Bills started rookies at both quarterback and running back, and while both quarterback Trent Edwards and running back Marshawn Lynch are vastly superior to your typical rookie, the fact that both played their college ball in California showed. Edwards wore gloves on both hands, electing to play with a gloved throwing hand, and neither Edwards nor Lynch seemed too thrilled with the snowy conditions.

On the other hand, Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, and the Cleveland offensive line chose not to wear gloves or sleeves. How many times have you seen running backs and receivers wear gloves and sleeves and lose their grip on the football? The Browns’ hardnosed mentality paid dividends, and the Cleveland offensive line provided yet another dominating performance, keeping Derek Anderson’s jersey clean while also plowing open running lanes for Jamal Lewis. This was a signature victory for the Browns, who retained control of their own destiny in the playoff race. The win also set up a showdown this upcoming Sunday in Cincinnati, during which the Browns can clinch their first playoff appearance since 2002. Game on.

This Week’s Heroes

Five Dog Bones: Phil Dawson
Phil Dawson came up huge against the Bills on Sunday, hitting two field goals, the first of which ended up being the difference in the game. Dawson’s first field goal was amazing, as he compensated for a stiff wind by aiming his kick yards to the right of the upright.

But Dawson’s second field goal, which measured 49 yards, defied explanation. I was shocked to see Crennel allow Dawson to even attempt such a ridiculous feat in such inclement weather, but it paid off. The kick appeared to be hooked way left, but Dawson shocked the world yet again as the wind straightened the ball out, it bounced off of the Dawson Bar, and went in to extend the Cleveland lead to 8-0. While not the longest, it was the greatest kick I have ever seen.

Dawson has taken some heat from fans this season for missing kicks in preseason and for hit weak leg on kickoffs. I remember hearing Dawson’s critics and preseason and thinking to myself, “If Phil Dawson is the Browns’ biggest problem, we’re looking at a damn good football team.”

As for the kickoffs, I’ve also been a critic of Dawson’s weak leg. Why the Browns don’t sign a kicker with a huge foot to handle kickoff duties completely escapes me. Can you imagine what an advantage it would be to consistently get touchbacks on kickoffs? That field position really adds up over the course of a game.

In spite of his flaws, Phil Dawson is one my favorite Browns. He’s the only player remaining from the 1999 expansion team, he’s endured the pain and anguish of six losing seasons (out of eight total). Nobody’s deserves to enjoy a Cinderella season more than Dawson, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

Four Dog Bones: Jamal Lewis
Initially, I was pretty skeptical of the Jamal Lewis signing, but apparently there’s a reason that the Browns hired Phil Savage, not me, as the general manager. I thought Jamal Lewis was washed up, but I’m thrilled that I was wrong.

Since the second Baltimore game, Lewis has been running like a man possessed, averaging 113.8 yards per game over the last five contests. For all intents and purposes, Lewis carried the Browns to a victory over the Bills with 163 yards on 33 carries (2nd highest career total). Lewis’ short, choppy steps and bruising north-and-south running style is perfect for snowy conditions, making Lewis a great fit for the Browns in the winter months.

Lewis accumulated 80 yards in the first half, during which the Browns stayed fairly balanced between running and passing. But everybody in the stadium knew that Lewis was getting the rock in the second half. That said, the two teams lined up, the Browns’ stellar offensive line beat up the Bills at the point of attack, and Lewis bludgeoned the Bills for another 83 yards. The Browns weren’t going to be stopped, Lewis wasn’t going to be stopped, and there was nothing the Bills could do about it.

Three Dog Bones: Andra Davis
I’ve been one of Davis’ harshest critics this season, but he played a great game against the Bills, essentially setting up camp in the Buffalo backfield from the opening gun. Davis had six solo tackles, four for losses, and was making his presence felt all over the field.

The big knock on Davis this season has been his speed, or lack thereof. Just as the snow was a blessing for Jamal Lewis, it was a blessing for Andra Davis, as Davis was no longer the slow guy, EVERYBODY was the slow guy. The poor conditions allowed Davis to give us a little taste of yesteryear, when he was arguably the best defender on the team.

Davis is in the second year of a five year contract extension that was signed in 2005 and took effect in 2006. The Browns definitely won’t cut Davis this off-season, but next season will be a big year for Dr. Dra. If Davis can fully recover the ankle problems that have dogged him this season and give the Browns solid play in the middle, he has a good chance to finish out his five year deal and possibly retire as a Cleveland Brown. But if he doesn’t perform next season, Davis will likely be dumped on the free agent scrap heap of has-been linebackers.

As much as his play has frustrated me this season, I’m rooting for Davis, who seems to be a pretty likeable fellow. Like Dawson, Davis has played his entire career in Cleveland, and he’s one of the guys who has been through some of the Browns’ toughest seasons. Like Dawson, nobody deserves to be a part of the Browns’ current success more than Davis.

Two Dog Bones: Braylon Edwards
Braylon Edwards’ ability to haul in the impossible catch, coupled with his inability to corral the easy catch, is becoming the stuff of legend. Edwards had two catches of the impossible variety on the Browns’ last drive of the first half that netted them their second field goal.

Although Edwards finished with a very pedestrian four catches for 64 yards, this wasn’t a game in which stats meant very much, and Edwards’ two catches on the aforementioned drive were crucial to the Browns increasing their lead from 5-0 to 8-0 before halftime. Like many of the Browns, Edwards appeared unaffected by the snow and blustering wind, one of the advantages of drafting a player who played college ball above the Mason-Dixon line.

Lone Bone: Derek Anderson
To criticize Derek Anderson on a local sports talk show exposes one to a serious verbal lashing. Like it or not, Derek Anderson has become something of a sacred cow. Personally I think it’s ridiculous, but I suppose it’s the nature of the beast; the quarterback often receives too much credit when a team is winning and vice-versa.

And although I’m in the camp that believes Anderson’s success is due more to a great offensive line and great receivers than anything else, Anderson deserves tons of credit for playing a turnover-free game in ugly, ugly weather. Making a statement along with the majority of the Cleveland offense, Anderson took the field without sleeves. Perhaps more significant, he elected to leave his quarterback gloves on the sidelines (unlike his counterpart, Trent Edwards) in order to maintain a better grip on the football.

Although it wasn’t always pretty, and there were plenty of passes that were candidates for interception largely due to Anderson’s total lack of touch on short passes, Anderson completed what was only his fourth interception-free game of the season. Of equal importance was the fact that Anderson, who had a “butterfingers” reputation earlier in his career, did not fumble any snaps throughout the course of the game.

While Anderson was unable to lead the Browns to any touchdowns, the mere fact that he threatened the Bills with a vertical passing game was significant. The Bills were forced to respect Cleveland’s ability to throw deep, which made the going that much easier for Jamal Lewis because Buffalo was unable to consistently stack eight and nine defenders in the box.

Anderson was largely ineffective in the second half, but the Browns were able to ride the churning legs of Jamal Lewis to victory. Sometimes a quarterback’s job is to be the game-manager and simply not give the game away, and DA played that role well against the Bills.

This Week’s Zeroes

Five Demerits: Romeo Crennel
I had no problem with any of Crennel’s coaching moves or his game plan until late in the fourth quarter. The Browns had the football with exactly 2:00 remaining at the Buffalo 48-yard line, and it was fourth-and-one. It was decision time.

Crennel, playing conservative, and totally gutless, ordered the Browns to punt the football after Derek Anderson led a poorly orchestrated attempt to get the Bills to jump offsides. Crennel’s decision came as little surprise, he’s rarely shown any guts, guile, or desire to go for an opponent’s throat while leading the Browns.

It’s that kind of decision that separates the good teams from the bad teams, the winners from the losers. Losers will punt, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. Winners look the opponent straight in the eye, ram the football down their throat for one lousy yard, and win the damn football game.

The Browns had their best unit on the field, with a running back who the Bills had been unable to stop all game. Lewis had just gashed the Bills with two consecutive runs of six yards after Jason Wrights three-yard loss set the Browns up for second-and-thirteen. It would have been a great way to end a game that the Browns had essentially dominated from start to finish. It would have said, “Here we come, and you’re not stopping us.”

Instead, Zastudil’s punt netted the Browns only 20 yards of field position, and to me, the risk-reward of 20 yards of field position versus ending the football game is worth the risk of that fourth down attempt. Sooner or later, one of Crennel’s blunders is going to cost the Browns a football game, if it hasn’t already. Sooner or later, Romeo Crennel is going to have to show that he has the stones to step on the opposition’s throat when they’re down and finish them off. I won’t hold my breath.

Four Demerits: Brian Billick
Is ripping Brian Billick getting stale? Nope.

Brian Billick’s 2007 Baltimore Ravens are the gift that keeps on giving, and they’ve proven themselves particularly adept at finding new ways to sink to new lows each and every week. How could you top being blown out by 24 points at home in prime time, to the former Baltimore Colts, no less? Simple: lose to the winless Dolphins.

As much as I wanted to see the rudderless Dolphins stay perfect and keep their dream of a winless season alive, the Baltimore Ravens have a dream of their own: to cement their position as the biggest disappointment of the ‘07 NFL season. It was just another day at the office for Billick’s bozos, who have now lost eight straight.

Brian Billick is among the world’s greatest jerk/dork combinations, and nobody deserves this season-from-Hell more than he. A special thanks must be directed towards the ‘07 Baltimore Ravens. Without you guys, this miracle season would not have been possible.

Three Demerits: Ryan Neill
Technically there weren’t any turnovers in this football game, but botched snaps on punts don’t register as turnovers in the box score. A botched snap by Buffalo long snapper Ryan Neill led to a pair of charity points for the Browns by way of a safety.

As much as he’s mocked, Browns fans were grateful to have a quality long snapper like Ryan Pontbriand during a snowy game in which long snaps were extremely difficult to execute properly. Credit Buffalo punter Brian Moorman for wisely kicking the ball out of the end zone instead of trying to run the football, which might have led to a very short field for the Browns.

Two Demerits: Todd Grantham
I’ll admit that criticizing a defensive coordinator when the defense pitches a shutout might be pushing it, but the Browns played a fairly mistake-free game, and aren’t many players or coaches deserving of criticism.

After Romeo Crennel decided to punt with 2:00 left in the fourth quarter, which might have been the worst decision since Sony Pictures decided to make sequel to Daddy Day Care, did anyone honestly think that the Bills were going to go quietly? The snow made pressuring the quarterback difficult for both teams, reflected in the complete absence of sacks, and that final drive was no different. The Browns tried to put the heat on Trent Edwards, but nothing was working.

Pressure hadn’t gotten to Edwards all day, and for once, the answer might have been to dial down the pressure and drop more defenders into coverage. Unfortunately, the Browns’ largely ineffective blitz packages left Bills receivers open for several big plays.

Edwards shredded the Browns defense with three big pass plays, including a 20-yard fourth down pass to Lee Evans to keep the drive alive. Question: Why is Lee Evans, clearly the Bills’ best receiver, in single coverage (rookie Brandon McDonald) on fourth down? Evans should have had at least two defenders hounding him as he’s Buffalo’s only legitimate deep threat.

Although it was partly due to poor play calling on Buffalo’s behalf (swing pass to Fred Jackson), the Browns defense finally stood up at their own 10 yard line, although they gave several Browns fans a mild heart attack on the way.

One Demerit: Kellen Winslow
Like I said five paragraphs earlier, I’m reaching for players and coaches to decry at this point.
Winslow had a couple of questionable dropped passes, which were magnified by the fact that Derek Anderson didn’t throw many passes that were even remotely catchable. Kellen Jr. clearly wasn’t too thrilled about playing in the middle of a blizzard. Considering that Winslow grew up in San Diego and went to school in Miami, he probably didn’t have much experience with that white, powdery substance, or sub-freezing temperatures.

Winslow would finish with only two catches for 28 yards, tying his lowest reception output of the season and marking his second-lowest yardage total. Hopefully the Bills game served as a learning experience for Winslow and he will be better acclimated to cold weather in the future.


Total Dog Bones
Offensive Line---27
Braylon Edwards---22
Jamal Lewis---19
Derek Anderson---17(t)
Joshua Cribbs---17(t)
Kellen Winslow---17(t)

Net Dog Bones
Offensive Line---25
Braylon Edwards---18
Kellen Winslow---17
Joshua Cribbs---15
Jamal Lewis---13

Total Demerits
Romeo Crennel---30
Derek Anderson---16(t)
Brian Billick---16(t)
Defensive Line---16(t)
Todd Grantham---14

Net Demerits
Romeo Crennel---22
Brian Billick---16
Todd Grantham---13
Defensive Line---12
Rich Gannon---7(t)
Willie McGinest---7(t)
NFL Rules Committee---7(t)

Pro Bowling
Congratulations to Joshua Cribbs and Braylon Edwards, who were both chosen to represent the Browns in the 2008 NFL Pro Bowl!

The selection of Cribbs and Edwards breaks the Browns’ well-publicized Pro Bowl drought since returning to the league in 1999. Before this season, only one Browns player (Jamir Miller, 2001) had made the trip to Hawaii since the Browns were reactivated.

Derek Anderson, Eric Steinbach, Joe Thomas, and Kellen Winslow were named first alternates for February’s game, while Lawrence Vickers was named second alternate and Phil Dawson was designated alternate.

Much has been made of several Browns players being snubbed in the Pro Bowl selection process. While Joe Thomas and possibly Kellen Winslow were deserving of making the team, I urge fans to remember that the Pro Bowl means absolutely nothing.

I’m not one to get overly concerned about individual awards. Awards are nice, but in a team sport, they don’t amount to much more than a gold star on a chart. When fans get worked up about awards, it usually means that the team isn’t winning, and this Browns team is certainly winning. Don’t sweat the Pro Bowl, if the Ravens have losing seasons, but Jonathan Ogden beats out Joe Thomas for the Pro Bowl during the remainder of the decade, I can live with that.

Up Next: 12/23, At Cincinnati, Paul Brown Stadium, 1:00
This is it. Win and you’re in. The Browns and Jaguars can sew up playoff births with victories this Sunday. For a fantastic breakdown of playoff scenarios, be sure to read Hiko’s “The Browns Outsider” column this week.

Cincinnati has officially fallen from grace this season, but they’re still a dangerous team, evidenced in the fact that they’ve split their last six games. The Bengals can still move the ball, especially through the air. Receivers Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh have each recorded consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. Houshmandzadeh is the red zone threat with 11 touchdowns.

Also watch out for number three receiver Chris Henry, who recently returned from his eight-game suspension. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Henry is one of the most dangerous slot receivers in the league. Defenses often key on Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, which is when Henry is most dangerous.

The Browns are a little banged up, as Antwan Peek, Orpheus Roye, Robaire Smith, and Shaun Smith were all limited in practice this week. Leigh Bodden did not practice this week due to a back problem.

The Browns should look to limit the Bengals’ possessions by pounding Jamal Lewis early and often against a run defense that allows almost 120 yards per game on the ground. The Bengals have looked like a team just waiting to implode in recent weeks, so it’s important for the Browns to build an early lead. If the Browns get ahead early, the Bengals will quit. But if the Browns let the Bengals hang around, they’ll become more dangerous as the game progresses.

If you were looking for an early Chirstmas present, or perhaps more appropriately, a stocking stuffer, Steelers running back Willie Parker broke a bone in his lower right leg during Pittsburgh’s victory over St. Louis on Thursday night. Parker’s season-ending injury comes just in time for the playoffs. Happy Festivus, Pittsburgh!

My Call: Browns 31, Bengals 24

Monday, December 17

Must See Dark Knight Trailer (Finally!)

Pirated versions of this trailer have been popping up on YouTube for the last few days. Warner Brothers has promptly been taking them down, usually within hours of the initial posting.

I guess WB finally said, "to hell with it" and released the trailer online, here.

Check it out. Easily my most anticipated release of '08.

Thursday, December 13

NFL Picks: Week 15

TEXANS (+1.5) vs. Broncos
Andy: Broncos
Nick: Broncos

49ERS (+8.5) vs. Bengals
Andy: Bengals
Nick: Bengals

SAINTS (-3.5) vs. Cardinals
Andy: Saints
Nick: Saints

BUCCANEERS (-13.5) vs. Falcons
Andy: Falcons (I can't believe I'm doing this)
Nick: Buc(ko)s

DOLPHINS (+3.5) vs. Ravens
Andy: Dolphins
Nick: Ratbirds

BROWNS (-5.5) vs. Bills
Andy: BROWNS!!!

RAMS (+8.5) vs. Packers
Andy: Rams
Nick: Pack

STEELERS (-3.5) vs. Jaguars
Andy: Jaguars
Nick: Steelers

PATRIOTS (-23.5) vs. Jets
Andy: Patsies
Nick: Pats

PANTHERS (+7) vs. Seahawks
Andy: Panthers
Nick: Seahawks

CHIEFS (+4) vs. Titans
Andy: Titans (I hope I'm wrong!)
Nick: Oilers

RAIDERS (+10.5) vs. Colts
Andy: Colts
Nick: Colts (I wouldn't touch this game)

CHARGERS (-10) vs. Lions
Andy: Chargers
Nick: San...Dee-ago

COWBOYS (-10) vs. Eagles
Andy: Cowboys
Nick: Pokes

GIANTS (-4.5) vs. Redskins
Andy: Redskins
Nick: Giants

VIKINGS (-10) vs. Bears
Andy: Vikes
Nick: Vikings

1st and 10, do it again

I've had enough of people complaining when the Browns (or any team) throw to a receiver short of the first down line on a 3rd down play and it results in a punt. "Why do they always do that? I can't understand it." goes a typical whine. Why? I'll tell you why:

1) Many armchair football analysts may not realize this, but once a player catches a forward pass, he can advance the ball until tackled or pushed out of bounds. So, you see, throwing a 4-yard pass on 3rd-and-5 is not simply giving up - the idea is that the receiver will gain that extra yard with his legs. This is not a difficult concept, especially on a team like the Browns with strong pass-catching gentlemen like Winslow, Lewis, and Jurevicius. What's amusing to me is no one ever gives any credit in situations where a pass short of the 1st down marker is in fact advanced past the line for a new set of downs. This happens all the time, yet the short pass rarely earns praise; only complaints when this approach fails are ever heard. People at my Browns Backers club get annoyed when I point these things out and provide examples of successful short-pass conversions, but no one wants to hear facts on gameday.

2) It's not a simple matter of simply having a receiver go to the requisite yardage, stand there, and receive a first down pass. The defensive players all know it's 3rd down and they know how many yards the offense needs to convert, so they tend to hang around that line in an effort to force 4th down. People need to understand this - for every throw completed short of the marker that you see, there was indeed a terrific chance for Derek Anderson to throw the pass that you wanted, the one that would have gotten the first down...except that it would have been intercepted.

Are there instances where throwing short of the first down line is not the best decision? Of course. I'm just arguing that it is not necessarily the wrong move - it frequently works via receivers earning yards after the catch, and good defenses tend to force such throws by playing near the first down line. Next time your team comes up just short on a 3rd down pass play, keep these things in mind before reflexively decrying your coaching staff's lack of strategy.

Wednesday, December 12

Heroes & Zeroes: Week 14

Well, that was easy…for about 55 minutes or so. Just when it looked like the Browns would lock up a ho-hum road victory against the sorry, albeit scrappy Jets, things became a bit more complex.

While the Jets were able to move the ball with ease in the second half, the Boy Genius made a few questionable decisions, and the Browns were able to keep the Jets out of the end zone, limiting them to six field goals, four of which came in the final stanza.

When’s the last time you saw three onside kicks in one NFL game? How about three onside kicks by the same team? Six of the last seven Browns games have now been decided by seven points or fewer, and it seems that bizarre finales are the flavor of the year for these Cleveland Browns; win or lose, they’ve certainly been entertaining. And after years of watching football that was uninspired, undisciplined, and borderline unbearable, what more can you ask for?

This Week’s Heroes
Five Dog Bones: Jamal Lewis
For the fourth consecutive game, Jamal Lewis looked stellar. Lewis had 137 yards and two scores on 24 touches, one via reception and the other by way of a vehement 31-yard run that said “I dare you to tackle me.”

Lewis’ long run sealed the deal and let several degenerate gamblers (nobody I know…) off the hook, as the Browns were a 3.5 point favorite. Jamal seems to be getting stronger as the year progresses, and he also seems to be getting healthier. Lewis doesn’t quite have the breakaway speed of yesteryear, but that said, I’ve never seen him run harder.

When Baltimore jettisoned Jamal in favor of Willis “I might be your father” McGahee, didn’t the Ravens cite Lewis’ poor receiving abilities as one of the reasons for his dismissal? That seemed an odd claim, considering that Lewis caught 47 passes for 442 yards during the 2002 campaign. At any rate, Lewis has proven himself a capable receiving option for quarterback Derek Anderson, on the rare occasion that Anderson throws a decent swing pass.

A quick aside. Former Bills running backs seem to have an affinity for fathering illegitimate children. Question: How many illegitimate children do former Buffalo runners Travis Henry and Willis McGahee have between the two of them? If you guessed 11, you guessed correctly. Henry holds a commanding 9-2 lead over McGahee, but considering that Henry is almost three years McGahee’s senior, Willis definitely has the potential to mount a comeback. After all, McGahee’s dissatisfaction with the females in the Buffalo area is well-documented, so maybe a change of scenery will get McGahee back into the game.

Four Dog Bones: The Offensive Line
For the fifth time this year, the line kept Derek Anderson’s jersey spotless. Anderson has been sacked more than once in a game only twice this season.

For the year, Anderson’s been sacked only 11 times, less than one sack per game. To put that into perspective, last season, Anderson and Charlie Frye were sacked 52 times combined. In 2005, Frye and Trent Dilfer teamed up to get sacked 45 times.

Still, nothing compared to the flogging Tim Couch absorbed his rookie year: 56 sacks, despite starting only 13 games. Couch is hardly a beloved figure in Cleveland sports, but as an associate of mine wrote last Sunday, Couch had some pretty amazing moments for such a lackluster career. I don’t think Couch had the physical tools to be a great quarterback, but if he’d had a team around him and the opportunity hold the clipboard for more than three quarters, he could have been solid, if unspectacular.

But returning from that quick digression, the number one reason that the Browns are better this season is the improved play of the offensive line. That’s not to say that other parties, like Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, and the receivers haven’t done their part, because they have, but the line has been the catalyst for everything the Browns have done on offense this season.

Three Dog Bones: Braylon Edwards
Braylon Edwards may have had only three catches, tying his second-lowest total of the year, but he made those three catches count. Edwards had one of the year’s most spectacular catches on a fourth-and-four jump ball from Derek Anderson, a 45 yard catch and run, and a spectacular leaping touchdown grab which tied him with Gary Collins for the most single-season touchdown receptions in Cleveland Browns history (13). Edwards has now found the end zone in nine games, being held scoreless only four times, which is about as consistent as you can ask a receiver to be.

Braylon Edwards, Pro Bowl. Book it.

Two Dog Bones: Sean Jones
Sean Jones is the most important Browns defender. Sunday was just another day at the office for Jones, who totaled seven tackles (six solo), half a sack, and a key interception.

Jones’ interception early in the second quarter terminated a New York drive that got within a yard of the Cleveland end zone. At the time the game was scoreless, and Jones’ interception kept the Jets from building any early momentum, while sucking the life out of the New Yorkers and New Jersey-ites in attendance.

Lone Bone: Brad Kassell
I’ve always been a big fan of Brad Kassell ever since he played his college ball in the Lone Star State for the North Texas Mean Green. I actually have a North Texas Fathead on my wall, which I bought after it was recommended to me by my favorite quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in a commercial worthy of an Oscar nomination. I fondly remember watching day two coverage of the 2002 NFL Draft and cursing at Butch Davis when he passed on Kassell round after round.

Actually, that’s a total fabrication. I had no idea who Brad Kassell prior to last weekend, I detest everything that’s come out of Texas except Phil Dawson and, and I have nothing but deep-seething hatred for that Pittsburgh quarterback who wears number seven.

Even so, Kassell’s recovery of New York’s first onside kick was a fine, leaping play, and the guy deserves major props for an job well done. Fortunately for the Browns, Joe Jurevicius came up big by recovering the following two onside kick attempts.

This Week’s Zeroes
Five Demerits: Rob Chudzinski
Chud called a great game for about three quarters. He slipped up in the fourth quarter.

With about 10 minutes left, the Browns held a 17-6 lead, and looked primed to run out the clock. Derek Anderson had struggled in the second half, perhaps due to the rain, but Jamal Lewis was starting to have his way with the New York defense, who clearly were tired of tackling the 245-pounder.

After Lewis ran for 28 yards to pick up a first down and move the ball into Jets territory, the Browns ran on the next play and lost two yards. Derek Anderson threw on the next two plays, both incompletions. The Browns were forced to punt.

When the Browns got the ball back for their next possession, Lewis once again got the call on the first play, but lost a yard. As before, Chud called for passes on the two ensuing plays, Derek Anderson was unable to complete either pass, and the Browns were forced to punt with 5:41 remaining.

Had the Browns elected to run on those four plays instead of pass, they may have picked up more first downs, and they at least would have run another three minutes off of the clock. At the time the decision to throw seemed of little consequence, but had the Browns run the football and milked clock a little bit more, the bizarre events that unfolded in the final five minutes probably would not have occurred.

Four Demerits: Dave Zasudil
Perhaps it’s the result of a lingering injury, but the D-Zaster has not been the same punter he was last season. Zastudil did a great job pinning the opposition inside the 20 last season, landing 34.6 percent of his punts inside the 20.

This season, Zastudil’s numbers have dwindled, as his percentage of punts inside the 20 has dropped to 28.6 percent. Zastudil’s net yardage numbers have also declined from 38.4 yards per punt to 35 yards per punt.

Fortunately, the improved offense has meant that the Browns have had to punt far less frequently, but Zastudil’s struggles are still unsettling. These problems may just be the lingering effects of the back injury Zastudil suffered earlier this season, and hopefully Zastudil can return to form next year.

Three Demerits: Anthony Smith
Leave it to the Steelers to shoot their mouths off. Anthony Smith, a second year defensive back from Syracuse, made a well-publicized victory guarantee prior to playing the New England Patriots.

Good call, Anthony. Bill Belichick, master of motivation, could probably find a way to get his players riled up for having their laundry facilities criticized, let alone an opposing player guaranteeing victory. Can you imagine the Grinch-like grin that must have spread across Belichick’s face when he heard of Smith’s antics? Who am I kidding, Bill Belichick never smiles.

Smith was torched on several occasions during the Pats/Steelers showdown, as the Patriots won in blowout fashion. Don’t think that Smith’s guarantee fired up the Patriots? After the Patriots scored their first touchdown, Tom Brady, not exactly known as a motor-mouth, sought out Smith to bark in his face. Watching the Steelers get embarrassed never gets old.

Two Demerits: Todd Grantham
The defense held the Jets to 18 points, but those points came by way of six field goals. Translation: the Jets were moving the football.

The Jets actually out-gained the Browns 387 to 337 in total yardage. Part of it’s attributable to the Browns going into somewhat of a prevent defense in the second half, which begs the question: why do the Browns ever play prevent? More often than not this season, playing a prevent defense has burned the Browns.

The Browns simply must find new ways to generate a pass rush. You can have the best coverage in the world (which, by the way, the Browns do not), but no defensive back can cover an NFL receiver for 10-plus seconds.

One Demerit: New York Fans
Giants Stadium was like a ghost town on Sunday. Now I’m willing to cut Jets fans some slack on leaving early; their team was losing, the Jets stink, and the weather looked quite unpleasant. However, there were probably more Browns fans than Jets fans at the stadium by the time the clock hit triple-zero.

There’s an empty stadium, and there’s an EMPTY stadium, and this was the latter. There were entire sections completely devoid of fans. It was like watching an extended preview for Will Smith’s I Am Legend. Fair weather fans? I’m afraid so.

Total Dog Bones

Offensive Line---27
Braylon Edwards---20
Kellen Winslow---18
Joshua Cribbs---17
Derek Anderson---16

Net Dog Bones

Offensive Line---25
Kellen Winslow---18
Braylon Edwards---16
Joshua Cribbs---15
Jamal Lewis---9

Total Demerits

Romeo Crennel---25
Derek Anderson---16(t)
Defensive Line---16(t)
Brian Billick---12(t)
Todd Grantham---12(t)

Net Demerits

Romeo Crennel---17
Brian Billick---12(t)
Defensive Line---12(t)
Todd Grantham---11
Andra Davis---8

Playoff Picture (as of late Thursday)
Houston’s defeat of Denver really helped the Browns. At this point, the only two teams that pose a real threat to the Browns are the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans, significantly upping the ante for this Sunday’s game. If the Browns win and the Titans lose to Kansas City, the Browns will clinch their first playoff birth since 2002.

Games to watch this week include Tennessee at Kansas City, Jacksonville at Pittsburgh, and Detroit at San Diego.

Up Next: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns Stadium, 1:00
Most of my thoughts on this game can be found here.

Suffice to say that this game will be a huge barometer as to how far the Browns have really come this year. All I’ll add to what I wrote earlier this week is that this is absolutely a team the Browns should beat, and if the Browns can’t beat the Bills, then quite frankly they don’t deserve to make the playoffs.

As someone who lives in a Buffalo Bills television zone, I watch a lot of Bills football (the only teams I watch more are the Browns and Steelers) and I urge you not to be frightened by Buffalo’s 7-6 record or their winning six of their last eight games. They aren’t for real, but the Browns can’t take them lightly.
My Call: Browns 31, Bills 20

Fraud Protection

This week the Cleveland Browns (8-5) will face off against the Buffalo Bills (7-6) in a game with enormous playoff implications. If the Browns win, they will extend their lead on the Bills to two games, while also holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Buffalo with only two regular season games remaining. In other words, if the Browns beat Buffalo, their only concern will be the Tennessee Titans, currently 7-6, who have two tough matchups left on their schedule (at Kansas City, and at Indianapolis).

So this game is the big one for the Browns. If they beat the Bills, they can essentially start printing playoff tickets, and start worrying about catching Jacksonville to avoid a first round showdown with Pittsburgh on the field that condiments built. But for now, the focus needs to stay on this Sunday’s game.

When all 32 teams embarked on their quests for the Lombardi Trophy back in September, nobody circled the week 15 pairing of Buffalo and Cleveland. Hell, until recently, tickets for this game could have been had for significantly under face value on various ticket resale sites. But in the NFL we’ve learned to expect the unexpected, and the Bills and Browns are textbook examples of how things can be turned around in just one season. The Bills have already matched their 2006 win total (seven), while the Browns have already doubled their ‘06 victories (four).

So how did this happen? How did these two teams who were given little respect or attention outside of their respective cities, play their way into contention? We know the various reasons for Cleveland’s improvement; relatively good health, a friendly schedule, a revamped offensive line, great receiver play, a rejuvenated running back, sound offensive play calling, a Cinderella story at quarterback, and a defense that has risen up to make some key stops when necessary. But what about Buffalo? What winds their collective clock?

Honestly, the Bills are a lousy team on offense (ranked 28th). They’re right in the middle of the league running the football (16th-110.5 yards per game), but they can’t pass worth a lick. Rookie quarterback Trent Edwards seems to have beaten out the disappointing JP Losman, but Edwards has looked very rookie-like, and thus the Bills have averaged only 173 yards per game through the air (28th).

Nobody has suffered from Edwards winning the starting job more than wideout Lee Evans, the Bills’ most explosive player. Last season, Evans caught 82 balls and racked up nearly 1,300 yards, but he hasn’t so much as sniffed those numbers this year (47 catches, 768 yards). Nevertheless, Evans is probably Buffalo’s best player, and he’s a threat to go for 150 yards and multiple touchdowns if Trent Edwards can get him the football. The Browns need to use a safety to double cover Evans whenever possible.

As mediocre as the Bills are on offense, they’re ranked lower on defense (30th overall). Weather permitting, Derek Anderson should put up monstrous numbers against a Bills secondary that gives up 251.4 yards per game through the air (29th). The Bills have trouble stopping the run, as well (16th-112.4 ypg). Somehow, Buffalo has managed to stay in the middle of the pack in points allowed (16th-22.4 points per game), as they aim to play rubber band defense; bending for big chunks of yardage but refusing to break in the red zone.

Roscoe Parrish is the only Buffalo special teamer worthy of recognition. Parrish leads the league with an intimidating average of 17.5 yards per punt return, and has returned one punt for a touchdown. Unfortunately for the Bills, their defense doesn’t force many punts.

So here’s the lowdown: the Bills score 17.1 points per game, allow 22.4 points per game, and have been outscored by 69 points total this year. Yet, the Bills are 7-6. How can this be?

The answer is simple: a cushy schedule. Buffalo plays in an AFC East that, minus the Patriots, is an absolute joke. Four of the Bills’ seven wins have come against Miami and the New York Jets. Two of Buffalo’s wins are against Baltimore and Cincinnati, a pair of teams having tough seasons. And Buffalo notched one win against the grieving Washington Redskins on the week of Sean Taylor’s passing. The Redskins are a mediocre team even by NFC standards. You can search high and low for a quality win, but you won’t find one on Buffalo’s schedule.

On the flipside, when the Bills have had to face a playoff-caliber foe, they haven’t been up to the task. Buffalo has lost four games by 23 points or more (Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, New England twice), and they couldn’t beat the Cowboys in Orchard Park in spite of six Tony Romo turnovers.

Folks, this is not a playoff football team. The Buffalo Bills are a complete fraud, and like Jacksonville, New England, and Pittsburgh before them, the task of exposing the Bills now falls to the Browns.

This is the cliché “statement game” for the Browns. It’s at home, it’s December, and a win would give the Browns a stranglehold on a Wild Card spot. The Browns need to draw a line in the sand, come out of the tunnel, and absolutely buffalo the Bills. Here’s a chance for the Browns to develop some killer instinct, a chance to get ahead of a mediocre team early and stomp on their figurative throat in the second half

This is a game that the Browns should win handily. A blowout win would send a message not only to the Bills but to the rest of the league that Cleveland Browns football is no longer a punch line, that this team has arrived, and that this team has no intention of going quietly in the first round of the playoffs. It’s time for the Browns to take care of business.

Tuesday, December 11

Independent events

Let's discuss briefly the Jets' end-game strategy during this past Sunday's NFL contest in New Jersey, won by the Browns.

Many people are criticizing Jet coach Eric Mangini's decisions to kick field goals and attempt on-side kicks instead of trying to convert 4th-and-long situations late in the game. Personally, I think Mangini's decisions were OK, except that out-of-bounds deep kick at the end was kind of weird. Getting that field goal with two minutes left to pull within a touchdown was not a bad strategic move, nor was kicking prior to that instead of trying to convert a 4th-and-10 with Kellen Clemens at QB. You could argue that playing for the touchdown would have been the right move, and I think you also would have been right. To me, both were reasonable strategies - I probably would have done it like Mangini but would be OK with a coach going the other route.

I'm not here to discuss that, though. No, I'm here to set the record straight on onside kick probabilities and how Mangini's choices should be evaluated. A number of people at my Browns club during the game and many of the people criticizing Mangini since the game have talked up "the odds" of recovering two onside kickoffs in one game or, as one blogger put it, having lightning strike twice. This is poor analysis.

The chances of a successful on-sider are roughly 1 in 4 in the NFL. So, starting from scratch, the odds of getting two in a row are about 1 in 16 (6.3%). That is not good. Considering the Jets actually tried three kicks, their chances of getting two were closer to 11%. Still not especially good, but in this discussion, not especially relevant either.

You see, those criticizing Mangini for trying a second kick, both at the time he elected to do so and after the game, failed to realize that the first kick had already succeeded and had no bearing on future on-side recovery probability. People kept saying, "what are the odds of getting two onside kicks in a row?" and I kept saying, "It doesn't matter - they've already gotten the first one so now all that matters is the odds of getting one again, still 1 in 4." Once lightning has struck, the odds of it striking twice are the same as they originally were for it hitting once.

The point is that the second (and third) onside kicks were independent of the successful result of the first. Likewise, a failed first try wouldn't have meant they were "due" or had any enhanced probability of getting a second attempt, nor should it have deterred them if a second one seemed like the right strategic move. The whole notion of athletes being "due" is entirely incorrect - the past does not strongly affect the present. Fans and columnists may criticize Mangini for trying a second short kick if they wish, but they cannot frame it in the context of trying to grab two on-siders, since the first had already been executed successfully.

Sunday, December 9

NFL Picks: Week 14

REDSKINS (-3) vs. Bears
Andy: Bears
Nick: Redskins (No way Bucko, no forfeits here)
(Try to make it on time, next time. I doubt Vegas would let you make this pick on Saturday night.)

LIONS (+10.5) vs Cowboys
Andy: Cowboys
Nick: Cowboys

BILLS (-7) vs Dolphins
Andy: Bills
Nick: Bills (the Dolphins will win this game)
(Odd, then, that you picked the Bills.)

EAGLES (-2.5) vs Giants
Andy: Giants
Nick: Giants

JAGUARS (-10.5) vs Panthers
Andy: Panthers
Nick: Jags

TITANS (PK) vs Chargers
Andy: Titans
Nick: Chargers

BENGALS (-7) vs Rams
Andy: Bengals
Nick: Bengals (They have killed me this year)

PACKERS (-10.5) vs Raiders
Andy: Raiders
Nick: Pack

PATRIOTS (-10.5) vs Steelers
Andy: Steelers
Nick: Pats

TEXANS (+3) vs Bucs
Andy: Bucs
Nick: Bucs

SEAHAWKS (-7) vs Cardinals
Andy: Seahawks
Nick: Seahawks

NINERS (+8.5) vs Vikings
Andy: Vikings
Nick: Vikings

JETS (+3.5) vs Browns
Andy: Browns!
Nick: Browns

BRONCOS (-6.5) vs Chiefs
Andy: Broncos
Nick: Broncos

RAVENS (+9) vs Colts
Andy: Colts (feel free to edit this, slacker)
Unlike some of us, I'll have them all in before gametime...
Nick: Colts (I'm cuckoo for favorites!)

FALCONS (+4) over Saints
Andy: Saints
Nick: Saints

Tim Couch's Finest Moments

The offensive success the Browns have enjoyed this season has naturally led to much discussion of the team's quarterback situation - they've got a guy (Derek Anderson) who is showing that he is a solid NFL starter, plus an untested rookie who seems a very safe bet to succeed. This whole QB situation, along with the random appearance of a dude at the Capital District Browns Backers last Sunday sporting a #2 jersey, led my thoughts to none other than Tim Couch.

Couch, as you almost certainly know, was the New Browns' #1 pick when they re-entered the league, helmed the club off and on for five tumultuous seasons, and never really made it back into the league. Debates are ongoing as to whether Couch was a victim of an unfortunate situation or simply not an effective QB. The right answer is probably a bit of both. Couch played behind a terrible line, usually trailed thanks to poor defense, and rarely had any semblance of a running game. Still, he was maddeningly inconsistent even when given time to throw and never really developed into the type of QB you expected to lead the team forward.

But we're not here to talk about that. We're here to reminisce over the Best of Tim Couch. Let's not forget that the guy had some really awesome games, and a pretty solid campaign overall in 2002, when he led the Browns to an 8-3 record down the stretch and their lone playoff berth of the new era. For fun, and to give the guy some credit, let's talk about the five greatest games of the Tim Couch Era. To eep it to 5 (which I didn't actually manage to do), I had to leave off his commanding performance in the 2000 win over Pittsburgh (127.9 passer rating, 23-31 for 316 yards, 2 TD's, no INT) and efficient work in the first 2001 over Baltimore (124.5, 11-18, 149, 2TD, 0 INT). Still, I wanted to give them Honorable Mention as an excuse to talk about those great wins over those two rival clubs.

Onto the list...

5) 21-16 over NO (1999), 21-20 over JAX (2002)
If you need a guy to play consistently week-in and week-out and direct a high-scoring offense while making smart decisions and not turning the ball over, Tim Couch wouldn't be your first choice. But if you need someone to throw a desperation jump-ball into the end zone at the end of a game, you can't do better, as these two ridiculous wins prove. The first one, of course, was hauled in by Kevin Johnson in the Superdome, giving the resurrected Browns their first victory over a stunned New Orleans team. The second, one of about 300 improbable events that had to happen for the '02 squad to qualify for the playoffs, was lucky but not entirely so. They wisely sent everyone to the left side of the end zone except Quincy Morgan, who hauled in the catch near the right boundary over two defenders. After surviving a replay challenge, the Pittsburgh Browns Backers club I was at erupted in celebration over the victory and the bizarre season rolled on.

4) 24-21 over NYJ (2002)
The week after Al Lerner's death, Couch led the Browns to an inprobable comeback win in the Meadowlands, highlighted by an absurd hook-shot falling-down throw that was somehow completed for a game-tying two-point conversion. They were behind by like 18 points or something in this game and still came back and won it in dramatic fashion. For the game, Couch finished with good-not-spectacular stats: 97.0 rating, 32-48 for 294 yards, 2 TD's and 0 interceptions, but I'll always remember that 2-pointer.

3) 41-38 over TEN (2001)
One of the wildest games in New Browns history, this was the only contest the Browns won out of their last six in 2001, after starting the year 6-4. After four straight losses, the Browns promptly fell behind 14-0 to the Titans and things didn't look good, to put it mildly. I was barely into my first beer by the time McNair threw his 2nd TD pass. But Couch and the Browns offense never gave up; Timmy posted a line of 20-27 for 336 yards, 3 TD's and just one pick for a sparkling passer rating of 137.3. The Browns trailed late, needing an onside-kick recovery and a TD pass from Couch to Northcutt to force overtime, where they quickly put the stunned Titans to bed with a Phil Dawson FG. This one is Couch's best shootout, trailing only DA's gunslinging against Cincy earlier this year and Holcomb's loss to Cincy in 2005 among new-era slugfests.

2) 14-13 over Baltimore (2002)
If the Browns only scored 14 points and Couch's passer rating was a so-so 86.6, how is this the second-best game of his career? The final drive, that's how. Trailing 13-7 to the Ravens on the road in the season's penultimate game, back when Baltimore was still pretty awesome on defense, Couch and the Brownies had only 2:08 and no timeouts to go 92 yards for a TD and keep their playoff hopes alive. I still don't know how they did it. I almost hit my head on Mike's ceiling when they scored the winning TD. The icing on the cake was Couch sarcastically waving to Baltimore's fans on his way out of the stadium - it was great to see such a beleaguered fellow so happy.

1) 33-13 over Pittsburgh (2003)
Easily Couch's finest hour, this Sunday night special is the only time we've taken down the Steelers in about the last 800 tries. Couch wasn't even supposed to start this game - Holcomb was a late scratch. I was living in Pittsburgh and remember listening to a radio DJ doing a remote and announcing to the crowd that Couch was starting and everyone laughing. All Couch did was lead the Browns to a dominating victory, completing 20-25 passes including two scores and running for a TD(!) by halftime. All this while wearing orange pants.

Saturday, December 8

Where Credit Isn't Due

The Cleveland Browns have seemingly come out of nowhere as a serious playoff contender. As I write this, the Browns are 7-5, tied for the AFC’s second Wild Card sport, and have a 63.4 percent chance of making the playoffs according to projections by Football Outsiders.

As the Browns begin to garner national attention and respect, head coach Romeo Crennel has likewise been praised for the job he’s done with this year’s squad. But what has been the true catalyst for the vast improvement of the ‘07 Browns?

Naturally, the narrow scope of national media outlets like ESPN focuses on a few key skill players (i.e. Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow) and the head coach. No doubt, the Browns have received markedly improved play at the quarterback and receiver positions, but what has Crennel done differently? How much credit does Crennel actually deserve?

Of course when a team is struggling, the head coach will be criticized, and vice-versa. Sometimes the praise and criticism is warranted and sometimes it isn’t; a head coach’s influence is often difficult to truly quantify. But getting back to the original question at hand, why are these Browns so much better than last year’s version? Here’s a look at the drivers behind Cleveland’s Cinderella season, complete with commentary on who’s really responsible for all of this development.

An Apple A Day…
One of the biggest reasons that the Browns are better is that they have managed to avoid their customary mass visits to the Cleveland Clinic. At the 12 game mark, Cleveland offensive linemen are usually wearing “Hello, my name is…” tags, and keeping the quarterback off of a stretcher, let alone upright, is a tremendous achievement. The NFL is too well-balanced for any team to survive the heightened attrition of a barrage of injuries, and the Browns are no exception.

Obviously, the Browns have not been completely injury free. Several players, such as Willie McGinest, Seth McKinney, and Eric Wright have missed significant time due to injury. But the Browns have yet to suffer the lethal blow of a season ending injury to one or more of the team’s most integral players, and unless such a catastrophe befalls them (e.g. LeCharles Bentley), the Browns will remain highly competitive.
The Credit Goes To: Luck

Luck Of The Draw
For once, the Browns received a break from the folks responsible for drafting the league’s schedule. The Browns schedule currently has a collective record of 84-108, a winning percentage of only .438. Although the Browns have won seven games, only one victory has come against a team that presently has a winning record (i.e. Seattle). As a borderline playoff team, sometimes the difference between a playoff birth and playing golf in January is simply the luck of the draw.

While some might contest that the NFL’s scheduling formula is responsible for the Browns’ good fortune, this really isn’t the case. Yes, due to their 2006 fourth place finish, the Browns do play some teams that also finished in fourth. But the only two teams on the Browns’ schedule who are not on the schedule of any of the other AFC North teams are Houston and Oakland (who, like the Browns, finished fourth in their respective divisions). This year’s weak schedule isn’t so much attributable to the Browns finishing in the AFC North’s cellar last season as it is to the North matching up with two divisions that are very weak overall this season, the AFC East and NFC West.
The Credit Goes To: Luck

It All Starts Up Front

General manager Phil Savage made several key personnel decisions in the off-season that helped stimulate this year’s improvement, not the least of which being a renewed commitment to the offensive line. Savage first moved to re-sign the solid, if unspectacular, center Hank Fraley to a long-term contract on the eve of free agency. During the ‘07 free agency, Savage made a big splash early, adding prized guard Eric Steinbach within the first 24 hours of the signing period with a 7-year, $49.5 million contract.

Certainly, the Browns had to overpay for Steinbach, but you can’t add premium talent in free agency without paying an equally extravagant price. Savage would later do more to solidify up the line, inking Seth McKinney, a 28 year old guard from Texas A&M.

Finally, Savage made the biggest move of all, sending a mild shock through the football world by drafting Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas with the third overall pick, in lieu of running back Adrian Peterson or quarterback Brady Quinn. No one with more than half a brain will debate the fact that Thomas was the right pick, especially in hindsight, but at the time it was surprising to see the Browns pass on the “sexy” pick of a flashy running back or a high profile signal caller. The Thomas pick made all kinds of sense, but considering that it was made by a Browns franchise that has written the book on high-end draft busts, it was a pick that left fans and media alike in disbelief.

The Thomas pick represents a commitment by Savage not only to throw big money at the offensive line, which the Browns have been doing for years, but to build the line the right way; both with quality draft picks and via a more focused approach in free agency. In other words, the dart board “shoot ‘till you hit” strategy that the Browns previously employed when adding free agent offensive linemen, is dead.
The Credit Goes To: Phil Savage

Behind Enemy Lines
Savage also added running back Jamal Lewis by way of free agency. When paired with the trade of plodding incumbent back Reuben Droughns to the New York Giants just days later, the Cleveland backfield had a brand new look, and many murmured quiet criticisms of the Lewis addition.

Prior to joining the Browns, Jamal Lewis was one of the most hated players within the fraternity of Cleveland fans. Lewis torched the Browns for 500 yards in 2003 on his way to a 2,000-yard rushing year. Along with Ray Lewis, Jamal became a symbol of a Baltimore Ravens team that Browns fans hated at a level second only to that of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But Browns fans have put aside their initial reactions and embraced Lewis, as he’s helped fuel the team’s bid for the postseason. The addition of Lewis has given the Browns a bruising, between-the-tackles runner who effectively sets up the play action game, in addition to giving the Browns the best goal line back that they’ve had since their 1999 return. Lewis has proven to be an excellent signing.
The Credit Goes To: Savage

“He Is The One…”
Perhaps the most publicized change for this incarnation of the Browns has been the astonishing emergence and development of third year quarterback Derek Anderson, who replaced the incompetent Charlie Frye just two quarters into the season opener.

Anderson looked awful during the preseason. In fact, Anderson looked worse than the clueless Frye. But after watching Anderson play almost an entire season, it’s easy to see why he looked so bad in the exhibition games: Crennel was alternating series with the quarterbacks. DA is a guy that needs to get into a rhythm, and sometimes it takes him a few drives for him to do so. With Crennel initially auditioning the quarterbacks - one drive for Anderson, one drive for Frye, etc. - Anderson never had the opportunity to show how explosive the offense can be with a strong-armed quarterback because he never found his rhythm.

Don’t blame Crennel for rotating quarterbacks so frequently, because there weren’t any clearly superior options. The Browns wanted to see each quarterback both with the first team offense and pitted against the opposition’s first team defense, and considering how little the starters play in three of the four preseason games, it was the only way to achieve that goal.

But Crennel is at least partially to blame for not identifying Anderson as the better player in mini camp and training camp. Crennel also might be responsible for Charlie Frye starting the season opener against Pittsburgh.

There was never anything concrete, but rumors swirled in late August and early September that Crennel was in favor of starting Frye, while Chudzinski and Savage preferred the laser-armed Anderson. At any rate, thank God that Anderson wasn’t traded over the summer, or worse, released. Author’s Note: Over the summer, I suggested cutting Derek Anderson after the second or third preseason game, when it became clear that Frye would be the starter, at least initially. I am an idiot.

Crennel substituted Anderson for Frye in the opener, but Koko the gorilla could have made that decision. Coach Crennel certainly isn’t responsible for discovering Derek Anderson. If anything, Crennel’s handling of the quarterback competition only hindered Anderson’s development.

Rob Chudzinski deserves accolades for designing game plans in which the passing game is primarily vertical, and focuses on long and intermediate patterns. Such game plans accentuate Anderson’s main strengths of pocket presence and a freakishly strong arm, while taking the onus off of Anderson’s Achilles’ heel, the short slants and dump off patterns. If the Browns had tried to run a West Coast Offense, for example, Derek Andreson might have already been deposed by the Mighty Quinn.
The Credit Goes To: Savage, Chudzinski, and the Steelers (for exposing Frye)

Bring In The Chud

Installing Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinator has brought order to a chaotic Browns offense that seemed to invent new and unique ways to implode in recent years. Chudzinski has given the Browns sensible, yet creative play calling, coupled with an offensive system that plays to the strengths of the offense. Anderson’s strong arm, the downfield playmaking abilities of Edwards and Winslow, and Joe Jurevicius to a lesser degree, along with the juggernaut left side of the line composed of Thomas and Steinbach, all have been brilliantly exploited by Chudzinski during Cleveland’s scoring renaissance.

Why was Chudzinski hired? It’s easy to forget that Romeo Crennel was on the hot seat less than one year ago, when Crennel was essentially given an ultimatum by Savage that there would be significant, non-negotiable changes instituted on Crennel’s coaching staff. You can hardly blame Savage for being so active, as Crennel had been guilty of significant cronyism in his first two seasons with the Browns, particularly with the hiring (and retaining after one awful year) of Maurice “Throw Vickers, Throw!” Carthon as offensive coordinator.

After some deliberation, Savage hired Chudzinski, in addition to eight other coaches, replacing nearly half of Crennel’s staff (offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, offensive line coach, strength-and-conditioning coach, assistant strength-and-conditioning coach senior offensive assistant coach, running backs coach, quarterbacks coach, tight ends coach).

Romeo Crennel had nothing to do with hiring Rob Chudzinski.
The Credit Goes To: Savage

Back To Romeo
Crennel was not integral to any of the changes that have made this team so much better than its predecessors, but he hasn’t made any noticeable improvements while coaching, either.

Time management has always been an issue for Crennel, and his problems handling the clock have continued this season. How can this be? It’s baffling to think that Romeo Crennel has coached in the NFL for 26 years, and yet he still struggles to identify the correct moment to stop the clock. From a fan’s perspective, Romeo being chronologically challenged is extremely frustrating because time management should be one of the easiest parts of a head coach’s job. If a guy can’t determine the appropriate time to stop the clock, he’s not qualified to lead a professional franchise.

During his time in Cleveland, Crennel has always struggled to get his team prepared and well-focused going into a game, while also struggling to make the appropriate adjustments at halftime. The proof is in the pudding; the 2007 Browns are being outscored in the first (50-85), third (73-79), and fourth (85-91) quarters, outscoring opponents in only the second (122-83) quarter and overtime (6-0).

While the team’s performance in the second half is similar to their opponents’, a difference of only 12 points, it still reflects that Crennel’s halftime adjustments don’t give the Browns a significant advantage in the second halves of games. More disturbing, though, are the aggregate scores of this year’s first quarters, where the Browns are losing by a total of 35 points. To start the game, the Browns have kicked off six times and received six times, so the skewed numbers aren’t tainted by an inequity of possession. No, the Browns’ first quarter problems appear to simply be the result of coming out of the tunnel flat, lifeless, and ill-prepared, a staple of the Crennel era.

Another very visible ongoing problem for Crennel has been his complete ineptitude with the use of the coach’s challenge in instant replay. Crennel’s infamous multiple timeout challenge that may have cost the Browns their week 10 game in Pittsburgh has become the stuff of legend.

Crennel came into the season 1-for-15 on his career coach’s challenges, including 0-for-7 his first year, and 1-for-8 last year. This year hasn’t been much different, as Crennel currently stands at 2-for-7, bringing his career mark to a bleak 3-for-22. That said, if this trend continues, Crennel will win not one, not two, but three challenges next season. Watch out, New England! Book your flight to Tampa for the ’08 Super Bowl, folks!

At least Crennel has apparently realized that he’s challenge-challenged, as he designated TJ McCreight, the Browns personnel director, the new replay advisor this season. McCreight replaced Jerry Butler, the Browns director of player development, who occupied replay advisor post the previous two seasons. Unfortunately, a new face has done little to change Crennel’s luck with the red flag, and one has to wonder how NFL teams don’t have replay review down to a science by now.

There are coaches who have excellent records on challenges. In fact, one of the things Butch Davis was best known for during his time in Cleveland was his mastery of the replay system. Maybe Romeo should give Butch a ring down at UNC to ask for a few pointers, because whatever he’s doing now, it’s not working.

Three concerns regarding Crennel’s coaching techniques have been isolated, and standing alone, each concern might be forgivable. HOWEVA, the bigger issue here might be Crennel’s apparent inability to identify and rectify the problems that have plagued him in each of his three seasons as a head coach. It’s not easy to be a successful NFL head coach, which is why it’s not unusual to see as many as half a dozen head coaching changes in any one off-season. If you can’t identify and correct your mistakes as an NFL head coach, your chances for success are severely diminished.

Romeo Crennel has numerous positive qualities; he’s a very experienced coach, he’s learned from legendary coaches like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, he’s a class act all the way, and he’s loyal to his players, never publicly berating or embarrassing one of his guys. And there’s no debating that Crennel has a brilliant football mind, because coaches like Parcells and Belichick are renowned for their abilities to identify and surround themselves with smart people. Hell, it’s why other teams keep stealing Belichick’s coordinators.

But does Crennel have the ability to think on his feet and adjust on the fly that separates great head coaches from the also-rans? Does Crennel have that elusive “it” factor, or is he just a great defensive coordinator? Two weeks ago I referenced the Peter Principle, insinuating that it might apply to Crennel, and I’m willing to stand by that assessment. Crennel may have been promoted to his point of incompetence.

Like many of the Orange and Brown faithful, I was extremely lukewarm on Crennel at the season’s onset. Although the Browns have exceeded all realistic expectations, nothing seems to indicate that Crennel has played a major role in the team’s improved performance. I still don’t think that Romeo Crennel is the right man for the job.

Make no mistake, Crennel will be back next season. The Browns’ resurgence has earned Crennel some buzz as a coach of the year candidate, which shows just how ignorant the national pundits can often be. Romeo’s contract runs through the 2009 season, and unless the Browns absolutely go into the tank next year, it looks like Crennel will serve out the duration of his contract.

For better or worse, we’re stuck with him. But that doesn't mean we have to like it.