It was October of 2006 when Dennis Green lost it in a press conference and uttered – excuse me, screamed – those timeless words, “They are who we thought they were!” He was talking about the Chicago Bears after his Arizona Cardinals team blew a 20-point home lead to them on Monday Night Football, but, after watching the hapless Cleveland Browns bumble their way to a season-opening 23-10 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, his famous phrase seems quite appropriate.
This Browns team is flawed. Every fan anywhere knows that. But there was legitimate excitement as the team entered this year with a new coaching staff, new front office, new owner, and a host of new players. The defense would be aggressive and fun to watch. Trent Richardson would be a monster running behind a very solid offensive line. Brandon Weeden might make some strides and look like a guy who should be playing quarterback in the NFL, not pitching in Single A ball.
Those were the optimistic views. Unfortunately, opening day has to come each year and remind everyone who invests their time and emotional bankroll in this team just who they are. So, while some things went right for the Browns – Jordan Cameron showed the athleticism everyone has been waiting two seasons to see, the run defense was as stout as Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Blackout variety, and Billy Cundiff didn’t do anything that prompted Phil Dawson chants – all of the things that Browns fans had been worried about went horribly wrong.
New Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace wasn’t shy with the media in the days leading up to this game. “I’m going to have my swag out, so he better be ready on Sunday,” he said when asked about his matchup with stud Browns cornerback Joe Haden. While Wallace’s comments surely had little to do with it, Haden was more than ready for the Dolphins speedster, as he held the former Steeler to just one catch for 15 yards on five targets from Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Of course, no one in Cleveland was particularly worried about the Haden-Wallace matchup. Instead, all of the concern in Cleveland focused on the other side of the field, where third-year man Buster Skrine would start opposite Haden. Cleveland concerns were quickly realized, as Dolphins number two receiver – and former Ohio State Buckeye – Brian Hartline had one of his best days as a pro, snagging nine catches on 15 targets for 114 yards and a touchdown. The majority of his production came when matched up against Skrine, whom he beat on a double move for the touchdown. The Browns cornerback was also guilty of a pass interference penalty in the end zone after he was beaten and decided to drag Hartline down to stop an easy touchdown.
In all fairness to Skrine, Hartline is a very solid second receiver – he definitely earned the five-year, $30.77 million contract he signed in March. Furthermore, Chris Owens, with whom Skrine competed through training camp for the starting cornerback spot, did not play much better in his playing time at nickelback. Finally, defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s commitment to an aggressive pass rush often left Skrine on an island against Hartline. Still, Skrine’s inability to stop the Tannehill-Hartline connection was a large reason why the Dolphins converted eight of their 16 third down attempts and was one of the main problems that the Browns opened their season with a loss for the fourteenth time (and ninth straight!) in the fifteen seasons since they rejoined the league.
This unit is supposed to be a strength of the team. Well, at least four-fifths of it is supposed to be. Tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, center Alex Mack, and left guard John Greco are all proven stalwarts or emerging talents. Schwartz struggled with Dolphins’ Pro Bowl defensive end – and two-time Canadian Football League Most Outstanding Defensive Player – Cameron Wake on Sunday, but that is to be expected when a second-year offensive tackle with previous struggles against the wide-nine technique is repeatedly put in one-on-one situations with one of the NFL’s best pass rushers.
While Schwartz’s struggles should not be overlooked, his performance was not nearly the biggest problem on the Browns offensive line. That would be right guard Oniel Cousins, who had one of the most noticeably awful game I can ever remember for an offensive lineman. Cousins, who was only starting due to injuries to Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston, was called for four penalties and was consistently manhandled and pushed around by the Miami defensive line. Even worse, two of Cousins’s penalties negated important Browns plays. His first canceled an 18-yard reception by Davone Bess that would have given the Browns a first down near midfield. That drive instead ended in a Browns punt from deep in their own territory. The second penalty nullified a late Browns touchdown on a Brandon Weeden pass to tight end Gary Barnidge that would have given Cleveland a chance for an onside kick down just six. Instead, the play was called back and the Browns eventually turned the ball over on downs.
Cousins did own his disastrous day on Monday in the Browns press conference He made no excuses for his poor play and told the assembled media, “You’re going to see a better game from me on Sunday.” However, he will be faced with the daunting task of blocking such proven performers as Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil, and Terrell Suggs in Baltimore next Sunday. If Cousins and the rest of the offensive line can’t limit the Ravens to fewer than the 16 quarterback hits they allowed on Sunday, then it could be another long, sore day for both Weeden and Browns fans.
Offensive Play Calling
This might be my biggest concern after a frighteningly bad season opener. At least Browns fans were aware that the team had holes at right guard and the non-Joe Haden cornerback spot. There was a certain level of trust that offensive coordinator Norv Turner would call a reasonable and logical offensive game. That trust was buoyed by information about how Brandon Weeden’s strengths fit into Rob Chudzinski’s offensive system and comments from the coaching staff that running back Trent Richardson would be the offensive bell cow this season. Browns fans rightly expected a balanced attack that would soften defenses with Richardson’s punishing runs, thereby opening chances for Weeden to take shots down the field with his strong arm.
Instead, the 71,513 who made their way down to FirstEnergy Stadium were treated to a fundamentally illogical offensive game plan from the home team. Richardson got four carries on the Browns first drive, totaling 26 yards. Somehow, that 6.5-yard average convinced Turner to give his starting running back and best offensive skill player a whopping nine more carries through the game’s final 56 minutes. Add to that just two receptions for 30 yards and Richardson got just 15 touches which went for a total of 77 yards (5.1-yard average). That is completely unacceptable after Turner’s own comment that Richardson could see 300 or more carries this season. The 13 carries that Richardson saw on Sunday – that puts the Browns starter on average for just 208 attempts in 16 games.
While willingly keeping the ball out of your most talented player’s hands is bad enough in and of itself, it also leaves the rest of your offense in less than ideal situations. Brandon Weeden was expected by some to have a much improved season in his sophomore campaign, but Turner called for 53 passes on Sunday. That is not a recipe for success when your quarterback is as unproven as Weeden. With an inexperienced starter, it is imperative that an offensive coordinator puts him in situations in which he can be successful. Instead, those 53 passes put undue pressure on both Weeden – who threw three interceptions and completed under half of his passes – and the offensive line – which allowed six sacks and the aforementioned 16 quarterback hits to the talented Dolphins defensive front.
In the postgame press conference, Rob Chudzinski cited the deficits the Browns faced as well as their failure to convert third-downs – they converted just one of 14 chances – as the reasons for Richardson’s limited touches. However, that explanation is completely disingenuous, as for the entire first half the Browns trailed by no more than six points. In fact, Cleveland did not face a two-score deficit until there were less than seven minutes remaining in the game. Giving Richardson more carries would not only have helped to wear down the Miami defense, but also would have likely left the Browns in better third-down situations, giving them a much improved shot to convert those opportunities.
It’s just one game. The Browns were without Josh Gordon, Ahtyba Rubin, Shawn Lauvao, Jason Pinkston, and Barkevious Mingo. Next Sunday they will face a Baltimore Ravens team reeling after facing Peyton Manning at the height of his powers to open the season. The season isn’t over, but as of right now, one thing is clear. This season’s Cleveland Browns are still exactly who we, the fans, thought they were. It remains to be seen if they will be able to transform themselves into something better before another season slips away.