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Posted by Sep - 11 - 2012 0 Comment

This time of year around Northeast Ohio you will find annual festivals honoring each of the diverse cultural neighborhoods in and around the fine city of Cleveland, Ohio. From the Feast of the Assumption to the Mantua Potato Festival, you can expect to experience and share in the same iconic cultural pleasantries each provides. For Browns fans, the NFL regular season opener is no exception. Each year you can expect your Browns to make sure an undefeated season is put to rest early, thereby avoiding unnecessary talk of such virtues. Call it the Feast of the Aggravation, where 73,000-plus fans descend upon Cleveland Browns Stadium filled with baseless optimism, hopes dashed by the virtual comedy of errors bound to ensue. It seems the only creativity generated by the Browns is the means by which they will use to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Browns fans are never further than a Dwayne Rudd thrown helmet from a new found way to lose a perfectly winnable game. The 2012 lid lifter did not fail to uphold its rightful place in the annals of Cleveland Browns opening day disasters. I honestly think anything otherwise might actually upset the time-space continuum. And one could only imagine if the Browns ever started the season on a (gasp!) two game winning streak. The universe might simply collapse in upon itself, unable to manage the paradigm shift in the NFL standings.

But I digress. Having taken a full 48 hours from the end of Sunday’s game, I feel a little more clear of thought in reviewing the highs and lows of the contest. Like most level-headed Browns fans, I was slightly entertained by the overwhelming faction of Browns “fans” armed with enough cellular minutes to hold for hours on sports talk radio shows to provide their explanation as to why Brandon Weeden was never going to amount to anything in the NFL after 60 minutes on the job. Or how Trent Richardson, who provided the only offensive highlight of the day by blasting Kurt Coleman’s helmet 5 yards off his head, was a wasted pick at #3 overall after only 21 carries. Ross Tucker was right to call the Monday after the first regular season game “Overreaction Monday“. This is not to excuse Weeden from his abysmal performance, nor to say that despite his 2.1 ypc that Richardson will suddenly turn into Jim Brown by season’s end. It just never ceases to amaze me how some fans (and a small, yet vocal percentage of them) become so easily convinced of a player’s outcome after seeing them only after a poor performance. And even if Brandon Weeden had executed an RGIII-like effort on Sunday, hundreds of callers would have jammed the phone lines dissecting his handful of flaws among his noteworthy accomplishments. So for the few out there that think the are the end all, be all of player prognostication, get your resumes ready. There will certainly be a job opening for GM, scout, and coach once the ink is dry on Joe Banner’s contract. Please feel free to rescue us with your vast football knowledge, saving the rest of us in the majority from ever seeing a single solitary moment of losing, uninspired football from being played on the Northcoast.

Again, I digress, and my apologies for the rant. I know most Browns fans took the game at face value, and saw everything I saw and accepted it as what happens when a second-year head coach who is under qualified rolls out a roster of with 15 rookies – 3 starting at key positions on offense – and expects them to make more plays than not against an NFL defense, let alone one the caliber of Philadelphia’s. That said, the play of two undrafted rookie free agent linebackers was outstanding Sunday. L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson played inspired and inspiring football against the Eagles, making plays both against the run and pass, while each coming up with an interception. Fort would have had the game sealer, but alas it was not to be as it slipped through his overworked fingers the play prior to Vick’s TD pass with 78 seconds left. Many lament Fort dropping what could be considered an easy pick, but given his effort and execution throughout the course of the game, it’s hard for me to criticize him and place the burden of the loss on him by any stretch. Their game play in relief of Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong on this day gave fans a reason to look positively into the future at the potential of the Browns linebacking corps. Again, just as with those that played poorly, it was only one game. However, given the way that Fort and Robertson’s play not only continued from their time in the preseason but improved in the opener, there is cause to be optimistic regarding them, and look forward to seeing them play more and more each week. Along with them, young DT Billy Wynn stood out to me with his athleticism and ability. His effort led to the successful execution of a well-devised game plan by defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Overall, the Browns defense looked more than just ready to play. They looked impressive, made multiple game-changing plays, and did not simply give the Browns an opportunity to win, they had them in position to do so. The last two times the lead exchanged hands Sunday, they were on the field. Unfortunately, the very last time it was the Eagles who assumed the lead.

Offensively, there’s little to speak positive of, aside from the fact that we only had to see them play for four quarters. Watching that offense for longer than three hours on any Sunday would be the football equivalent to waterboarding. Weeden, despite his comments to the contrary, was overwhelmed. Richardson was ineffective, no doubt due to his lack of any playing time over the preseason. Early on he looked rusty, though as the game progressed, he appeared to become comfortable with the pace and adapted somewhat to the conditions. T-Rich’s last few carries were his longest of the day, including a 9 yarder to pick up a first down. There is still plenty of reason for optimism regarding Richardson, and he is the perfect case of one game does not a season make. More often than not, Richardson was dodging defenders immediately after receiving the hand off. If Richardson was bad, and Weeden was horrible, then the offensive line was down right atrocious.

What was once the strength of this team might now be one of the weakest links in the offensive chain. While their first test was against a very good Philadelphia Eagle defense that still resonates with the teachings of the late, great Jimmy Johnson, even perennial Pro-Bowler Joe Thomas looked less-than-capable Sunday. It has taken Tom Heckert two short years to reduce this line from something that you could run effectively behind with virtually any running back to one that frequently has our QB and RB on their backs. Second-year guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao are inconsistent in their execution, with Lauvao hardly being worthy of a roster spot, let alone a starting job. Rookie RT Mitchell Schwartz, to whom the starting job was simply handed to, has not inspired one iota of confidence in myself and many fans, as he is easily overwhelmed and in constant need to help from either a TE or FB Owen Marecic – the latter who himself should be in a State Farm polo right about now. A contributing cause to the poor footwork displayed by Brandon Weeden on Sunday was due to the large amount of traffic at his feet often. If it wasn’t an Eagle defender diving in for a sack, it was a Browns lineman on his back having just gotten blown up. And this happened more often than not. If this line does not improve both individually and as a unit, that running game that a young rookie QB really must have will be non-existent. And a season affecting injury is all but certain for Brandon Weeden.

Speaking of Weeden, he looked about how I think I would look if given the opportunity to start at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. Aside from the opening drive, Weeden looked out of sorts and out of place running the Browns offense. Its somewhat understandable given the lack of playing time he accrued in the preseason. Like Schwartz, Weeden was handed the starting job, regardless of whatever semantics the Browns coaching staff and front office spew forth. He played in barely 5 quarters of a possible 20 during the exhibition games, and rarely ran out there with a consistent lineup of battery mates. While the preseason is a time where the coaches have to see as much of all of their players as they can, this year Pat Shurmur decided the overall roster evaluation exceeded preparing his extremely young and inexperienced team for the regular season. And it showed with his rookie QB. Weeded burned holes into receivers with his eyes on routes, and tried to cauterize the wounds by firing the ball into each receiver regardless of depth. That is, except for the two balls intercepted that were intended for the diminutive yet speedy Travis Benjamin. Numerous balls sailed on Weeden, including two that should have been easy touchdowns to Mohamed Massaquoi and Alex Smith. After going back and watching the game tape, it was easy to understand why. Weeden rarely stepped into his throws, causing his back shoulder to drop below his front. Sometimes he had no option to step into them, citing the aforementioned issues with his blocking, or lack thereof. Other times, he either seemed to “jacked up” (as he put it) or appeared to anticipate not having room to finish his throws. Either way, he will certainly need to address that before they load onto the team plane for Cincy  this weekend. He also must learn to see the field more…at all…period. He missed a wide open Ben Watson on a critical 3rd down where he threw the ball to the stone handed Marecic, who promptly dropped the ball as if it bit him on the hand. A conversion there keeps a drive going, all but eliminating a last minute scoring drive by the Eagles in the first half. I also saw Weeden, as all rookie quartebacks tend to do, waiting for his receivers to break open into the kinds of throwing windows only found in college defenses. He must quickly understand that the kinds of passing lanes and windows for throwing the ball into he saw in at OSU simply do not exist among NFL defenses. Timing is imperative, and it goes without saying that his timing with his primary receivers would have been better had they spent more time working on it in preseason games.

In the end, there is plenty of room for optimism among Browns fans in 2012. Not the kind of optimism that causes one to budget for playoff tickets and rearranging holiday vacations, but enough to give fans hope that each Sunday the Browns have a chance to be competitive. It’s obviously too early to close the book on Weeden, Richardson, or even Mitchell Schwartz at this point in the season or their careers. In reality, what sort of expectations should Browns fans have of a team with so much unproven talent being coached by unproven talent and led by a front office that is about to be blown up in a few months? Should we have expected more of Weeden, I think it’s fair to say yes. How much is debatable, and I think he would agree wholeheartedly. Richardson threw himself on the game loss sword taking responsibility when he really didn’t need to. Poor L.J. Fort probably can’t close his eyes without seeing the pass he should have intercepted drop to the ground over and over again, regardless of how well he actually played. If for no other reason, the law of averages should provide the grounds for improvement for the offense, as you simply cannot play much worse than that unit did for 16 weeks. And while that law may also affect the defense, its hard to imagine that they won’t continue to improve and become more cohesive as time goes on. Jauron’s defense last year was the lone bright spot for the Browns, and this year has started off in similar fashion. And like most games did in 2011, opening day for the Browns ended just as similarly. Something Browns fans can set their calendars to.

Categories: Cleveland Browns, Featured

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