Monday, November 24, 2014

View from the Dawg Pound Browns at Atlanta 23 Nov 2014

            The Browns last second 26-24 victory over Atlanta Sunday made two big statements about the state of the team: #1 This was definitely a game they would have lost in the past, but they weren’t going to; #2 Even with the last drive, Brian Hoyer is not the guy to lead the Browns to the Promised Land.
            Much good comes out of the game, especially the win and the team’s record improves to 7-4. Who would have thought that in August?  Another quality win to go along with previous victories over Bengals, the Steelers, and the Saints. The Browns did it on the ground and in the air with the return of Josh Gordon.  And they did it at crunch time, with a time management gift from the Falcons, with a classic Brian Hoyer drive and a Billy Cundiff 37 yard field goal as time expired.
            Remember, the goal for each team in the NFL is the same every season, to win the Super Bowl.  In the big picture only one team has a good season, the last team standing holding the trophy.
            The Browns are not that team this year, but can be in the near future.  Wins over teams like the Falcons are little steps to the big prize. The Browns are becoming a talented, seasoned team. Their window for big success is beginning to open. How long it will remain open is uncertain. The Browns need to make sure things are settled at quarterback.
            A lot of things are falling in place for the Browns. The culture of losing is disappearing.  After years of change and dysfunction, there is a good general manager making personnel decisions. The coaches so far appear to be the best staff in who knows how long. High draft picks, for the most part, are producing, and the current crop of rookies and free agents, again for the most part, have been solid. They have two first round picks next year. They will end this season fighting for a play off spot. The core of the team is young and talented on both sides of the ball. I know this is the Browns, and we have been conditioned to expect the worse, but when did the future ever look brighter?
In the big picture I hope that Brian Hoyer will remain part of the team. Because when the team does get deep in the playoffs, and the starting quarterback gets dinged up, there is no one else I would rather have to come off the bench for a game or two.  But to get to that point the week-by-week quarterback must be able to lead a balanced offense that includes a downfield passing attack. One of the most misleading stats this year is the Browns success with long passes. Most of the yardage has come after the ball has been caught. The Browns need someone who can throw the long ball, as well as the short stuff, consistently.
A balanced NFL offense is like an empty tick-tack-toe puzzle. The bottom three boxes represent the running game and the short passing game. The Browns have upgraded their running game tremendously over last year. The middle three boxes represent the short to medium passing game that Brian Hoyer is so good at. Play action passes, slant routes, out routes for first downs. The top three boxes represent the deep passing game, from passes in front of the safeties in zone coverage to deep routes against man-to-man coverage. It is that deep passing game a team must have in its arsenal if it is going to go deep in the playoffs, and Hoyer has yet to show that he can master. And, his history in the league, as well as with the Browns, probably shows he never will. It is time to see if the other guy can do it.
Each season for us Browns fans is a roller coaster, but usually by this time the ride would be over with. Lets enjoy the moment, there will be plenty of time in the offseason to discuss quarterbacks and draft picks and free agents. This week it’s the Bills in another crucial game and of this writing we don’t even know where the game is going to be played. There is nothing like being a Browns fan.  
We watched the game this week at Grub’s, a sports bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we went to watch the Arkansas/Ole Miss game the day before. It was a great experience watching games in a football crazy place without a nearby professional team. Tables of fans all rooting for their different favorite teams. It seemed like everyone in the place, including all the waitresses, had a fantasy team or two. When it became known we were Browns fans we were bombarded with questions about Josh Gordon. It was an enjoyable day and the Browns win made it even better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

View from the Dawg Pound Browns vs. Texans 11.16.2014

In the process of a team becoming something special, things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Good things recently happened for the Browns against the Steelers and Bengals, bad things happened against the Jaguars and the Texans.
The Brows are getting better, but they are not that good yet. Not good enough to be a perennial playoff team, like the Patriots or the 49ers. I’m not even sure there is such a thing in the NFL anymore. This years playoffs will be missing the Giants, one of those usual perennial playoff teams. And last year the Steelers missed out on the playoffs. The NFL is always filled with surprises as the season begins to end, look what happened to the Broncos this week. Did anyone see that coming?
Let us not forget that Houston is a good team. They are not the Jaguars. They are currently 5-5 and, like the Browns, still playing for a playoff spot. They still have the core of players from two years ago when many picked them to go to the Super Bowl. Things blew up on them last year, but they seem to be coming together again under Coach Bill O’Brien.
Sunday’s game against Houston showed once again the things the Browns must improve upon if they want to get deep in the playoffs next year. First, more depth at some obvious positions.  Even the defensive line, considered the deepest part of the team in preseason, could use another quality player or two. Second, get healthy. To get deep in the playoffs next year they need a healthy Phil Taylor, a healthy Cameron Jordan, and a mentally healthy Josh Gordon.
I’m not guaranteeing something special in the near future is going to happen to the Browns, but it could. And I am not one of those wait until next year fans. A team doesn’t go from where the Browns were last year to the Super Bowl in one season. With all the hoopla around the Browns being in the playoff hunt, remember what the expectations were back in week one. I’m sticking with the hopes I had in August, at least an 8-8 record, 3-3 in the division, and fighting for a playoff spot.  All of that is still possible entering game #11.
One thing the team can work on immediately and in the off-season is cleaning up their special teams. Every week it is something, this week it was a missed chip shot field goal. They need a full time punt returner who can get them some yardage, not just catch the ball. The best teams have the best special teams.
The Houston game once again showed Brian Hoyer at his worst. He has had a good season, and he does some things most of the time very well. Play action, short to medium routes, the no huddle offense. But you got to be able to attack the whole field, and that includes throwing the deep ball. Houston gave the Browns the short stuff, but nothing downfield. Sometimes that isn’t a problem when you score first and build up a bit of a lead like the Browns did against the Steelers and Bengals. But when you make field goals instead of touchdowns, and then give up a touchdown that followed a turnover in the last minute of the half, and fall behind, you cant always come back.
The Browns have to make a decision at quarterback before next season. What will Brian Hoyer’s body of work look like at the end of the season? Is the team going to see what Johnny Manziel can do? Hoyer’s stock goes up and down each week. The Browns can be a talented playoff proven team next year, ready to make a legitimate move for the big prize. Things could really be that good. But they have to make a decision about the man who is going to be the quarterback.
Even with the loss, there was lots of excitement for those of us sitting in the original Dawg Pound in the east bleachers.  Most of the action and scoring in the game, for good or bad, took place at our end. Two plays made by Browns in front of us stood out to me. The first was Joe Haden’s interception in the first quarter. The way he made the play, first denying a touchdown, then tipping the ball in the air, and then making a catch for the interception, was terrific. Not too many athletes in any sport can make that sort of play.
The other play showed why the Browns are going in the right direction. On Andrew Hawkin’s touchdown catch, he caught the ball with a couple of defenders between him and the goal line. Instead of being run out of bounds short of the touchdown, Mike Austin came off his route and made a terrific downfield block that sprung Hawkins for the score. Just like solid special teams, the best teams have running backs and receivers that consistently make downfield blocks. Austin’s was as good as it gets.
One last note, if the Browns are ever to get to where they want to go, and that seems to be a possibility, they need stability in the front office and on the coaching staff. We need all of this never ending Jimmy Haslem legal problems to finally disappear. Just when we thought it was over, it reappeared this week. Not good.
I said last week to hold on tight the rest of the season is going to be a heck of a ride. Last Sunday we went back to the bottom turn of the roller coaster, hopefully next week at this time we will be back on top.

View from the Dawg Pound Browns at Bengals November 6, 2014

As both a fan and an old coach, there are so many things to like about the Browns win over the Bengals Thursday night in Cincinnati. As a fan I like the divisional win, a big win on national TV, and a win over an obvious rival. It has been a very long time since the Browns had a winning record this far into the season.
But it’s the things that I saw through my coaching eyes that really make me feel good about the win and the future of the team. I saw a defense completely dominate their opponent. I saw guys off the bench coming in and making big plays. I saw a running game the Bengals could not stop. And I saw another week of a short passing/play action attack that keeps getting better and better.
Even with all the rule changes over the years that favor the offense, defense still wins games. The Browns defense took it to the Bengals. They completely shut down not only a pretty good quarterback, but also one of the premier receivers in the league. A.J. Green was held to three catches for 23 yards. Mohammed Sanu, who is another solid receiver, was held to two catches and 20 yards. Quarterback Andy Dalton had his worst game ever, held to 86 passing yards on 10 for 33.
The defense was lead by the usual suspects, including Joe Haden, Tashaun Gipson, Craig Robertson and Paul Kruger. But it was some other guys that stepped up too. Buster Skrine had two picks; Desmond Bryant had six tackles including two sacks on two consecutive plays; rookie K’Waun Williams had some big plays; and Jim Leonhard played more than usual and had four tackles.
On offense with both Alex Hawkins and Jordan Cameron out, Miles Austin stepped up with five catches, and Gary Barnidge had two, including a key catch in coverage that was all over him.  The offensive line keeps improving in the post Alex Mack era, and it was Terrance west’s turn to lead the rushing with 94 yards.
The Browns are good enough to challenge for a playoff spot. As I have said before, it is amazing to see the talent that has been accumulated under all the different front office and coaching changes over the last five years or so. General Manager Ray Farmer did a great job with the draft this spring, and also with signing undrafted players and free agents. Another off-season like the last one and the team could be challenging for a championship, not just a playoff spot.
With the success with Brian Hoyer at quarterback the Browns are left with a major decision at that position. There are many variables. Do they sign Hoyer for the long term? What do you do with Johnny Manziel? Are they completed sold on either player being a championship level quarterback?
Next spring’s draft could be filled with many talented quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel’s reputation could be a thing in the past if the Browns wait too long to move him or to play him. Does Hoyer warrant big money or a long-term commitment? Is Manzel in the team’s long-term plans? I doubt vey much the team wants to have both quarterbacks in camp when summer practices begin next year.
Where should we go from here? Fans and the team should be on the same plan for the long weekend and enjoy the time off. Get healthy and clear your heads, the rest of the season could be a heck of a ride.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

View from the Dawg Pound Tampa Bay at Cleveland 2 November 2014

             On what turned out to be a good afternoon for football in November, sunny with temps in the 40’s, the Cleveland Browns raised their record at the halfway point of the season to 5-3 as they defeated the Tampa Bay Bucs 22-17.
Why is it so hard for many fans to be happy with a 5-3 record at the mid-point of the season? Most Browns fans back in August would have been very happy with that. What was it with this week’s victory over Tampa Bay that left you unsettled?
Whatever it is it needs to be ignored because reality is soon coming and we will finally know how good this Browns team really is.  Cincinnati on the road this Thursday, then ten days later Houston at home. The next two games are against talented, solid teams. We know what the Bengals got, and the Texans are bouncing back from last year’s disaster. The Cincinnati game will be the first time the Browns will be out-talented this season, but not by much.
My notes from the first half are filled with scribbles about field goals instead of touchdowns. For the second game in a row I thought that was going to sink the Browns. It did let the Bucs, just like the Raiders last week, hang around. How this is going to play as the competition gets better and the games get more important we will have to see. We have yet to see this team play a complete game. Deep down in our hearts we keep waiting for too many field goals and not enough touchdowns to come back and haunt us.
On the talk shows after the game I heard a lot of criticism of the Browns’ clock management before half, so I won’t rehash that. They did a better job in the second half, but these moments of indecision have to be eliminated if the Browns want to get to where they want to go.
            There were a lot of positives for the Browns in the win over the Bucs. Once again the Browns’ undersized receivers came through. Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, and Andrew Hawkins all come up with big plays at important times.  Craig Robertson, the linebacker many had not making the team in August, made another big play by blocking a fourth quarter punt that lead to the winning touchdown. Joe Haden made a tip play to Dante Whitner that will be highlight reels for years. Paul Kruger and Justin Gilbert again had good games. And, oh yes, Tashaun Gipson had another interception.
            Brian Hoyer had another up and down game, but got things done when it mattered. For the Browns to be productive this Thursday against the Bengals he is going to have to play more consistent.
            Mike Evans had a great game for Tampa Bay. The rookie from Texas A&M, who was a big part of Johnny Manziel’s success there, caught 7 passes for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns. How good would a big outside receiver like him look in a Browns uniform?
            The Browns coaches know they received a gift from the Bucs in the fourth quarter.  Deep in the fourth quarter the Browns were clinging to a 22-17 lead, the Bucs made a few plays and had a second and one at the Cleveland 36. Three times the Bucs went from a shotgun formation and were unsuccessful making a yard for the first down. If they would have put the quarterback under center, and went to a two back set, they would have had a good chance of getting the first down. Quarterback Mike Glennon is as tall as they come, he could have leaned over and gotten it by himself. Not smart coaching by the Bucs.
            Things were subdued for most of the game in the Dawg Pound, as fans were waiting for bad things to happen as the Browns let the Bucs hang around. But most fans stayed to the end to celebrate the victory, and left the stadium with a sense of optimism.
            One last comment to elaborate on something I said last week about uniforms…How ugly were the Bucs uniforms? Different shades of orange and red and gray, a design that looked like it was put together by first graders. I hope the Browns don’t look like that in the future. Who knows what Nike has planned?
(Greg Cielec is a former college football coach, a freelance writer, and a veteran of over 25 years in the Dawg Pound as a season ticket. Contact him at