Browns Can Start a Strong Finish in Jacksonville

November 19, 2010
Jack Bacevice

The heartbreaking loss to the Jets is in the past and the Browns now sit at 3-6. While the playoffs are out of the question now, that doesn't meant there isn't still plenty to play for the rest of the season. The Browns have played exciting and competitive football all year and a strong showing over the final seven games could really help this team turn into a playoff contender for 2011. These next five game provide an excellent opportunity to get some new experience. The last four games the Browns went in as underdogs. They played very tough, very smart, football and managed to go 2-2 against more talented teams. Now the Browns come into a stretch where they will be favored in some games. They also will be playing teams where just hanging with them and hoping to win at the end will not be enough.

Sunday the Browns face a Jacksonville team that may be the stiffest test of the next five games. Jacksonville is 5-4, but they're lucky to have 5 wins. The Browns are on the road, but they should go into Jacksonville and be able to move the ball well against a weak defense. On the flip side, the Browns defense should be able to contain Jacksonville. The Jaguars are a very efficient offense, but they don't strike me as a big play team. The big play is what has hurt the Browns defense this year. Facing a team that isn't equipped to strike that way should work in the Browns favor. After facing great defensive coaches like LeBeau, Ryan, Belichick, and Williams, the Jacksonville defense shouldn't be a problem for Colt McCoy to handle.

After that, the Browns face the Carolina Panthers. This 1-8 squad is now starting a quarterback who wasn't even on the roster a week ago. He was a stay at home dad. Then comes a 5-4 Miami team that would rank as the toughest opponent in this stretch if not for their very serious quarterback issues. Next is 1-8 Buffalo. The Bills play hard but the Browns should be able to simply out-talent them. (The Browns could also out-talent the Panthers, but the Panthers don't really play hard, or competent, football so that shouldn't even be necessary.) Finally, the eternally dysfunctional Cincinnati Bengal finish this favorable stretch of schedule.

I think the Browns are the better team in all 5 of those games. I think the Browns are the better coached team in all 5 of those games. I think the Browns clearly have the better quarterback in three of those games (Panthers, Dolphins, Bills), and by the end of the season McCoy could be considered better than David Garrard and Carson Palmer as well.

This are some great opportunities for a number of individual players as well.

Peyton Hillis can confirm to the NFL that he is an elite running back in this league for the next few years with some more big games in this stretch. In terms of age, Hillis is right at the beginning of the NFL prime for a running back. There's no doubt that he is the Browns running back, but Peyton can serve notice to the league that he is a top-10 guy with a strong finish to this season.

Joe Haden should garner even more playing time with Sheldon Brown nicked up and Eric Wright struggling mightily. Haden needs to get used to shutting down opposing receivers in a starting role. It's experience he can rely on next year when I imagine he will be a starter from Day One and the Browns should be a team thinking playoffs from the start of camp.

Colt McCoy can't officially be anointed the franchise guy in a place like Cleveland until we see him succeed in some inclement winter weather. He will get that chance against still defenses in Weeks 16 and 17 vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh. In the meantime, McCoy can continue to gain valuable experience and confidence, both in himself and from and with his teammates, in these next five weeks prior to those final big games.

Mohammad Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie need to prove they can be viable receivers at the NFL level over these next five games. It's likely the Browns will target a receiver in the first round of the draft, particularly if they think they have their quarterback in Colt McCoy. (Personally, I am already having dreams of A.J. Green, Massaquoi's former Georgia teammate.) Massaquoi has done enough, when you also consider 2009, that a strong finish this year could solidify him as an NFL number 2 receiver. Robiskie just needs to prove he can produce at the NFL level. If he can't, he could be on the bubble to even make the team next year.

Shaun Lauvao is going to have the opportunity to start the rest of the year will Billy Yates (who was playing very well) going on IR. The Browns already have two elite offensive linemen who are very young in Alex Mack and Joe Thomas. Additionally, the Browns have what I think is one elite veteran in Eric Steinbach and one very strong veteran in Floyd Womack. Lauvao can show he is both the final piece to the 2011 puzzle on the offensive line, and that he can be part of a core with Thomas and Mack of a dominant offensive line for the next 7-10 years.

Finally, there is Eric Mangini. He has put himself in position to assure the 2011 coaching job will be his with some very impressive wins over New England and New Orleans on the road. Now he just needs to get the win total. There is obvious progress on this team. If they stay the course and keep improving, there is absolutely no reason not to retain Mangini in 2011. However, with the way the schedule finishes up and the talent some of these players have already displayed, a 5-11 record won't cut it because that means a 2-5 finish. On the flip side, a 4-3 finish (or better) for a 7-9 overall record (or better) should guarantee a Mangini return.

Reacting to Browns Over Pats

November 8, 2010
Jack Bacevice

That was a spectacular win.

There is credit abound for this one. Brian Daboll, who I can't remember if I have criticized him in this blog or only in my personal conversations and in my head, was great this week. His game plan was wonderful, and his play calling was outstanding. The outstanding execution by the players only speaks to how well Daboll had them prepared for this week.

Rob Ryan used a brilliant defensive game plan to confuse, stymie, and befuddle one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in the middle of an MVP-candidate-quality season.

Eric Mangini, who I have been a fan of since his time in New England, brought it all together and got a big time win over his former mentor and the best team in the NFL record-wise heading into Week 9.

Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy's contributions were obvious.

So what does this win mean? Here are a few thoughts I have going forward:

1) The Browns are definitely playing playoff caliber football right now, but the playoffs are still highly unlikely. The AFC is very strong this year, and it may end up like 2007 when a 10 win team (the Browns, if you forgot) missed the playoffs. I believe 10 wins won't even guarantee the playoffs this year. The Browns would have to finish 7-1 to get to 10 wins. That's a tall order for the best of teams. No team in the league opened the season 7-1 this year. It isn't that the Browns aren't playing well enough right now, it's that they dug themselves too deep a hole starting 1-5.

2) Colt McCoy has earned the right to start the rest of the season. It also seems very likely he will prove to the franchise the he is the guy for the future and there is no need to grab a quarterback early in next season's draft. McCoy is the young kid. He gives the team athleticism and playmaking. He also provides the Browns with the best chance to win right now. McCoy may start here for the next ten years. He has looked that good.

3) Eric Mangini is showing why he should keep his job. The program he has is working. The Browns are beating teams with superior talent. To a man, they play hard and disciplined football. Mangini and his staff deserve a ton of credit for that.

4) Peyton Hillis is having a Pro Bowl level season. He is only 24 and may continue to improve. Montario Hardesty, assuming he can be healthy, would add another big time playmaker to the offense. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Hillis and Hardesty could form the best backfield in the NFL next season.

5) The offensive line is very good, particularly with Floyd Womack at right tackle. The left side has been a strength since Phil Savage paired Joe Thomas with Eric Steinbach in 2007. Alex Mack has quickly turned himself into an elite NFL center in 24 career games. The Browns ran all over the Pats yesterday, and McCoy had plenty of time in the pocket. He was sacked 0 times, threw under pressure twice, and threw the ball away just once. That's a credit to the big guys up front.

6) The defense may lack a superstar, but it makes up for that deficiency with disciplined play, excellent schemes, and about 20 guys who can be trusted to play on any down.

7) If the Browns pick around 15th in 2011 and can hit a home run, or at least a solid double, with a few guys in the first few rounds, this team could very well be poised to really compete for the division title next season. Perhaps even more than that.

8) The foundation is there for a very good football team, from the backing of the front office to the coaching to the players on the roster. Maybe the playoffs won't happen this year, but the foundation is there to be a good team for many years to come. There are a lot of reasons to be happy about being a Browns fan today.

Browns Thought

November 6, 2010
Jack Bacevice

This isn't a major post, I just want to go on record with my thought right now, prior to the New England game. I think the Browns have a much better chance against the Jets than the Patriots. I think the Jets are really overrated. Assuming no major injuries befall the Browns, and the Jake Delhomme doesn't somehow end up starting the Jets game, I am picking the Browns to beat the Jets next week right now. I want to get the pick in just in case the Browns do upset the Patriots tomorrow (which really could happen). I want to be clear I won't be riding the back-to-back upset high picking the Browns to beat the Jets. I really do think the Jets are not that great and am picking the Browns to beat them regardless of tomorrow.

Okay, I think I sufficiently beat that into the ground.

Browns Bye Week Overview: Part 5, The Defense

November 5, 2010
Jack Bacevice

The Browns defense in the first half has been a tale of two, um, I dunno what to call it cleverly. Let's say it's been a tale of what they do against the run vs. what they do against the pass. That matches up pretty well with the Browns defense experiencing the best of times (vs. the run) and the worst of times (vs. the pass).

The front seven has been pretty good overall. The defensive line has been solid despite at times resembling a MASH unit. However, Ahtyba Rubin has played very good football this season. He may be able to man the middle of the Browns 3-4 for years to come. Rubin is only 24 years old. A good nose tackle can be effective for a looongg time (see Gregg, Kelly; Hampton, Casey) because the biggest thing they need to do is plug up space. Often that is best accomplished by... occupying a lot of space. So being really big helps. Rubin, listed at 330 lbs., is big.

After sitting out training camp, Shaun Rogers is starting to round into form. He had his best game of the year against the Saints where he singled handedly created a pass rush on many plays, sometimes as the only down lineman. It's obvious that with key players getting up there in years, such as Rogers (31) and Kenyon Coleman (31) and Robaire Smith (32 and allegedly contemplating retirement), the Browns will need to get younger up front in the immediate future. For 2010 though, this group is more than solid.

The linebackers have been a unit that features roughly 7 guys (that count does not include special teams stud Blake Costanzo) who play big roles on Sundays. None is a superstar, but all are very effective and smart. When you have seven guys who are all quite capable and are all smart enough to always know where to be on every play, you can find yourself with a pretty good linebacker group. Credit needs to go to both the players and the coaches for putting in the work off the field to making sure this is a smart group. Two guys really standout to me in this group going forward, Chris Gocong and Matt Roth.

Gocong has been very solid in the middle of the defense for the Browns. He has made plays against the run and the pass. At a listed weight of 263 lbs., Gocong has nice size for a 3-4 middle backer. At 26 years old he has a lot of good years ahead of him.

Roth is an absolute monster. He may be the most powerful player on the team. Listed at 6'4" and 275 lbs., he is a large man to be standing up on defense. Roth has done well pressuring the quarterback and playing against the run. At 28 and with his skill set, Roth is right in his prime and playing at a high enough level to be starting for a very good, playoff caliber defense. At 28 years old I see no reason he can't sustain this high level of play for at least 3 or 4 more years.

Scott Fujita has proven to be a very shrew and solid offseason addition. It's impossible for an outsider to really measure how much Fujita's intelligence on the field helps the defense as a unit, but judging from the aforementioned mentally sound play of the linebackers it's safe to say Fujita is having a major positive impact there. While being (I imagine) something of a coach on the field, he has also found time to be productive with 44 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 force fumbles, and a pick.

Marcus Bernard also merits a quick mention. He seems to have a great knack for getting to the quarterback. Being only 25 years old, he can at the very least help as a situational pass rusher here for the forseeable future and perhaps even develop into a high quality 3-4 linebacker.

The secondary has not had anywhere near the success of the front seven. I'd prefer to focus on the positive though. T.J. Ward and Joe Haden.

Ward was a pick questioned by many as a reach (myself included). I'm happy to report I was as wrong as could be. Ward seems like a major find. He hits hard and always seems to find himself around the ball, regardless of whether the play is a run or pass. The biggest criticism I have of Ward through 7 games of his career is he drops interceptions. Even THAT is a veiled compliment, since it points out he manages to get in position to intercept passes and still manages to break them up. I thought his hit on Jordan Shipley was one of the dumbest plays of the year, but mostly because of the situation. It was 3rd and goal and when Ward made contact with Shipley the ball had already hit the ground (at least I am pretty sure it did). I certainly don't think it was a "dirty" play and I am quite certain there was no intent on Ward's part to do anything except make a good football play. Regardless, Ward is a playmaker. He could be big time here, for a long time.

Joe Haden has not had the immediate impact of Ward, but that isn't to say he hasn't had an impact. He seems to improve each week. He plays one of the most important positions in the NFL. Cover skills are only going to become more important as the league moves more towards protecting players and into a pass friendly league (which the NFL already is, pass friendly I mean). I think Haden will move into the starting lineup in the 2nd half of the season and won't relinquish the job until the tail end of this decade at the earliest.

Can you tell I'm optimistic?

Browns Bye Week Overview: Part 4

October 29, 2010
Jack Bacevice

Time to take a look at the offensive line. While the tight ends, an important part of the blocking, have done well blocking as well as receiving (covered by yesterday's post), the linemen have been somewhat up and down this year. Part of it has been the constant state of flux on the right side of the line. Shaun Lauvao and Tony Pashos were widely expected to start on the right side. Lauvao hasn't been healthy all year, and while Pashos showed talent when healthy he battled healthy issues before an ankle issue against Pittsburgh put him on IR.

Floyd Womack is a very capable right side offensive lineman, either at guard or tackle. I like him a lot. I have hopes of the bye week allowing Shaun Lauvao to get fully healthy, catch up, and overtake Billy Yates. That'd set up a right right side of Lauvao at guard and Womack at tackle. Assuming Lauvao is as good as he was advertised in the preseason (notably by the Cleveland Plain Dealer) the right side could solidify, as long as those two stay healthy.

The left side is anchored by the best offensive lineman in the NFL (an opinion shared by, Joe Thomas. Yes, he had a bad game against the Falcons. You could argue that Joe Thomas isn't perfect, he's human and he's due a bad game occasionally. You could also argue that Joe Thomas possesses superpowers. He knew Colt McCoy is the quarterback for this team. He knew he didn't want Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace to suffer serious injuries. He knew that high ankle sprain would keep them out and allow McCoy to move in while creating no long term problems for Wallace and Jake. He knew John Abraham could create those injuries. So he knew what he had to do for the long term health of this team. So the dude is Anthony Munoz ability crossed with Confuscius type wisdom.

Maybe I'm giving Joe too much credit.

Eric Steinbach and Alex Mack continue to play excellent football. Alex Mack is going to be a Pro Bowler, maybe even this year. He will be a multi-time Pro Bowler, in my opinion. Joey is 3-for-3 in making Pro Bowls in the NFL. The importance of the offensive line is unquestionable in the NFL, and those who ignore it often pay a steep price in the loss column. It seems every day some NFL writer somewhere points out the folly of having a poor offensive line. In fact just today Mel Kiper pointed to Dallas's weak offensive line as the downfall to its season:

(Note: ESPN Insider access required)

Going forward the line should continue to be a strength for the Browns. Even without Pashos, the Browns will get Lauvao back and paired with Womack that should create a solid right side to compliment the superb left side of the line. There is some depth still there with Billy Yates (better than I thought he would be), Steve Vallos (I've liked him since his days at Wake Forest), and even - gulp - John St. Clair (much more valuable as a back-up than a starter since, he just isn't good enough to start anymore).

Frankly, this offensive line is good enough to be on a solid playoff team. The rest of the offense just needs to make like Heinz tomatoes and ketchup.

(I am hilarious)

Browns Bye Week Overview: Part 3

October 28, 2010
Jack Bacevice

First of all, let me pimp myself a little bit. Check out this article:
I'm Jack from Cleveland! It's almost like I'm a real writer!

Ok, seriously though. Let's take a look at the Browns receivers and tight ends through the first part of the season. It's been a tale of two positions really. The receivers struggles have been well documented. The tight ends have played well though.

Let's begin by praising the tight ends. Ben Watson leads the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. In fact, Ben Watson is the only player who has receiving touchdowns. Meanwhile, Evan Moore has a touchdown of his own and leads the team in yards per reception with 22.4. That helps Moore to sit at third on the team in receiving yards despite having exactly one-third of the total receptions as Peyton Hillis, who is fourth in receiving yards on the team. Oh, and here's some more praise for the tight ends. The running game has been very effective this season. That's a part of the offense where the tight ends are integral. The goal line rushing, which often includes third tight end Robert Royal, has been extremely effective. An evaluation of this group is pretty simple. These guys are getting the job done week in and week out. Really this is one of the strongest positions on the team.

The wide receivers have been the polar opposite. Nominal number 1 WR Mohammad Massaquoi has just 9 catches in 5 games and 2 quarters. Nominal number 2 WR Brian Robiskie has been even worse with just 8 catches and an embarrassing 7.6 yards per reception. Eww. That being said, I think both of these guys (particularly Massaquoi) may benefit from a switch to Colt McCoy. Last week for the first time in (as far as I can remember) ever, Brian Robiskie led the team in receptions. Sure, Colt only threw the ball 16 times but Robiskie did catch one-third of the completions. I think the real beneficiary from a move to McCoy could be Massaquoi. Supposedly, Seneca Wallace isn't comfortable looking to Mohammad's side of the field. McCoy also appears to have the best vision when it comes to knowing where to go with the ball and hangs in the pocket best of the three quarterback (as a rookie!). The Patriots weakness has been their secondary and it is possible Massaquoi could get a breakout game on November 7th after two full weeks working with Colt.

Some of the receivers have actually received (pun totally intended) a bum rap. Josh Cribbs has managed 14 grabs for a shade over 13 yards per catch. Not great but respectable for a number 3 receiver. He also is the only wideout with two grabs of 20+ yards. (Conversely, the previously praised tight ends Watson and Moore have 5 catches of 20+ yards, each.) Chansi Stuckey is really getting it bad being lumped in with the failures of this group as a whole. Supposedly the number 4 receiver, Stuckey is 2nd on the team with 21 catches and 213 yards receiving. True, he has 0 TDs and averages a paltry 10.1 yards per catch. At the same time, he has come up with some really clutch plays. Stuckey has 14 first downs in 21 catches, second only to Watson's 18 first downs in 30 catches. Stuckey has a better ratio than Watson with 2/3rds of Stuckey's grabs going for first downs. Only Evan Moore has a better ratio on the team, with 7 of his 9 grabs going for first downs. The receivers have gotten a terrible rap, but if I had to grade them all, I'd give Massaquoi a D, Robiskie an F, Cribbs a B-, and Stuckey a B+. Assuming a standard grading scale that's a GPA of 1.75.

Okay, that's pretty terrible.

This group, particularly Massaquoi and Robiskie, really need to step it up in the 2nd half. At least one of the two has to step it up big time, then the other underachiever can be demoted. Regardless, the Browns need a lot more production from the receivers. This is sort of the wild card of the second half. If the Browns receiver can make a major improvement, it's very possible the team (and the team's record) will follow. Even a minor improvement might turn some of these close losses into close wins.

The tight ends have been great. The receivers have... not. Overall though, this is a progress report. The tight ends still need to keep doing what they are doing to secure an excellent season. The receivers are in trouble, but there is still time to salvage their school grades... er... year... um... I mean season. Whatever. Pick it up receivers.

Browns Mix blog featured writers Clayton, Jack Bacevice, Josh Jeffi Adam Doc Fox,
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