“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This quote, taken from one of history’s great philosophers in Aristotle, serves as one of my personal favorites. It defines excellence as a habitual trait, based on one’s consistently superior actions. Based on this same notion, it would be safe to say that those who repeatedly perform well beneath the standards of “excellence” would routinely do so, as they would fall into habit, as well.
If Aristotle were to travel to the modern age via, say, a phone booth capable of time travel (a la the one found in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), he may notice the vast popularity of the NFL. He may also notice the consistently horrid nature in which the Cleveland Browns have performed on the gridiron since just before the start of the 2000’s.
The Browns’ perennial ineptitude since returning to the NFL is well-documented, so I shouldn’t have to dig much deeper into the mine of misery that is the history of Cleveland sports for one to understand just how bad the Browns have been. But, in 2013, things were supposed to be different. An entirely new front office, led by the fresh face of Jimmy Haslam, brought in an outfit made up of established veterans (Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Davone Bess, etc.) to complement an already talented, young roster. Together, all of the aforementioned pieces of the puzzle were to align in 2013 to provide a shimmering ray of hope to all those who have had their hopes and dreams shattered by the dismal play of their beloved Browns.
Well, one game into the season, it is most definitely time to throw in the towel, right?
Yes, second-year QB Brandon Weeden turned the ball over four times and failed to look off a single Miami Dolphins defensive back (exaggeration, yes, but not by much); although it must be noted that, if the NFL were to transition to a system similar to that of baseball’s earned run average, most of Weeden’s picks would be accredited to the abysmal play of his offensive line.
Yes, offensive coordinator Norv Turner decided to turn his back on the running game, led by one of the league’s top young talents in Trent Richardson, all too soon (and don’t think we didn’t see you try to put Chris Ogbonnaya in over Richardson at the goal line before calling that timeout, Norv). And yes, Buster Skrine is still Buster Skrine.
But, in the grand scheme of things, this was week 1. I hated the end result just as much as every other Richardson jersey-doning fan in attendance for last Sunday’s nearly sold-out game at FirstEnergy Stadium. Despite this, I was still able to find some positives that could be taken away from the Browns’ first-game dud (along with the performances from all 32 teams around the league) to provide me with a small glimmer of hope for the rest of the season. Small victories, folks. Small victories.
As the Browns approach their week 2 matchup against the division rival Baltimore Ravens, let’s take a look at some of these small victories from week 1 as well as some of the key storylines heading into Sunday’s showdown in Baltimore.
AFC North collectively stumbles out of the gate
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos wasted no time in picking apart a facelifted Ravens defense, providing a possible early answer as to just how much the offseason losses of former defensive mainstays Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (as well as some other notables in Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, among others) will impact the defending Super Bowl champs in 2013.
While Baltimore’s problems rested mostly on the shoulders of their defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers experienced major difficulty with getting anything going on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers lost their season opener against the Tennessee Titans, 9-16.
Together, the four AFC North squads combined for a 0-4 week 1 record. This is obviously good and bad news for all teams, as all four are currently tied for both the division lead and the division cellar. Thanks to this weekend’s slate of inter-division matchups (the Steelers play the Bengals, also), there will once again be a tie for both the division’s top and bottom spots. Until then, this may be the one case where Ricky Bobby’s “if you ain’t first, you’re last” outlook on life might not quite fit.
Defense shuts down Miami’s running game
Not that Lamar Miller was expected to take the league by storm, but the Browns managed to shut down one of many preseason forecasters’ biggest breakout candidates on Sunday. The Dolphins handed Miller the rock ten times, and the second-year back out of Miami rushed for a whopping three yards (0.3 yards per carry). Backup Daniel Thomas didn’t fare much better against the Browns’ revamped defensive front, rushing for 14 yards on eight carries (1.8).
Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger, and D’Qwell Jackson served as the driving forces behind the front seven’s dominating performance against the rush. Between the three, there was a combined total of 16 tackles and three sacks.
The defense’s excellence performance in regards to shutting down the Dolphins’ ground game went somewhat overlooked, as the defense allowed the Ryan Tannehill-led Miami offense to convert eight of 16 third-down attempts. Compare that to the Browns offense, who converted only one of its 14 attempts.
Don’t expect Joe Flacco to channel his inner Peyton Manning to the tune of seven touchdowns in a single game anytime soon. Flacco has the arm and experience, however, to take advantage of the Browns defense if defensive coordinator Ray Horton lays out the same defensive approach against Baltimore that allowed Tannehill to convert first downs seemingly at will.
Joe Haden, who handled Mike Wallace about as well as humanly possible (Wallace had 1 catch for 15 yards), needs some help in the secondary. As anticipated before the season, the team’s defensive backfield appears to be one of the Browns’ most glaring weaknesses. I don’t expect the Ravens’ wideout duo of Torrey Smith and Brandon Stokley to strike fear into many NFL defensive coordinators, though the combination of Flacco’s skills and the Browns’ lack of secondary depth creates more than enough cause for concern.
Jordan Cameron proves his worth
It was painfully obvious just how much the Browns missed the big-play ability of Josh Gordon on Sunday, and the team will have to suffer through this issue yet again against the Ravens. Greg Little attempted to fill the void of #1 wideout left as a result of Gordon’s absence but did little to impress (four catches for 26 yards with a number of costly drops).
Turner tried to incorporate mini-man Travis Benjamin (he’s listed at 175 pounds but looks more like 150) into the offensive game plan, but the speedy wideout’s true potential may only ever come to fruition in the return game. Davone Bess did his part when his number was called for the most part (5 catches for 47 yards), though it is not very likely that Bess will ever be considered Weeden’s go-to guy once Gordon returns to action.
All of these forces, along with Turner’s unbalanced play-calling, allowed Jordan Cameron to post stellar numbers against Miami. The third-year tight end was targeted a team-high 13 times, nine of which were caught for a total of 108 yards. One of Cameron’s grabs went for a touchdown in the corner of the endzone towards the end of the first half.
Despite all of his success, Cameron also took part in a number of plays (a very costly fumble, in particular) that reminded us that he still has a ways to go before he can be considered one of the game’s top tight ends.
The idea that Cameron possesses more than enough potential to become a solid NFL tight end has never come into question, though his blocking abilities (or lack thereof) and questionable competitive drive certainly have. With minimal competition behind him, expect Cameron to continue his productive ways throughout the remainder of the 2013 season, although Gordon’s eventual return could negate some of Cameron’s red-zone opportunities and eliminate the potential for a repeat of his 13 week-1 targets.
Predictions for week 2
Let me go out on a limb here (okay, not really) and say that I do not believe Brandon Weeden will be able to emulate Peyton Manning’s performance from last week against the Ravens. I do expect Weeden to be improved from week 1, however, as the first-game jitters are now gone, and the offensive line can’t perform any worse than it did last week…can it?
Regardless, the Ravens defense is still seeking a new identity, so it would be wise of Norv Turner to increase the workload for his workhorse running back by feeding Richardson the ball as many times as possible – either on the ground or through the air.
Horton should instill even more blitzing schemes into the game plan for week 2, as the Browns defense experienced its most success against Miami when it was applying added pressure to Tannehill. The addition of rookie Barkevious Mingo – who sat out last week while continuing his recovery from a lung injury sustained during the preseason – should help, as well, although Horton has already stated that he will limit Mingo from seeing too much action during his first NFL regular season game.
Offseason additions and subtractions aside, the Ravens are still the league’s defending champions. This may not be the same team that marched its way to New Orleans for a lights-out (pun intended) Super Bowl, but it’s still a solid team, nonetheless.
I expect the Browns to show some improvement from week 1, but I do not foresee an upset brewing in Baltimore. Final call: 20-10, Ravens.