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Tony Grossi's Take: Brian Hoyer's final drive saved his bad day and some regrettable coaching snafus

Nov 23, 2014 -- 7:00pm

By Tony Grossi |



Tony’s Take on the Browns’ 26-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons

Offense: Josh Gordon made a huge difference. His presence unclogged some running lanes for Isaiah Crowell (88 yards, two TDs) and Terrance West (62 yards), both of whom ran with authority. Gordon came down with eight receptions for 120 yards. But one unintended consequence of Gordon’s long-awaited arrival was it seemed to add pressure on quarterback Brian Hoyer to get him the ball. Hoyer targeted Gordon 16 times. He wasn’t forcing it to him, except for the ill-advised balloon in the end zone. In fact, Gordon seemed open on almost all the targets. But Hoyer never really established a rhythm with Gordon and misconnected on a bunch of throws. Two of Hoyer’s three interceptions were on passes for Gordon. Hoyer was despondent with his own performance (a 52.3 passer rating was a fair depiction of his game), but he did make four good throws at the end to nail down his fifth fourth-quarter game-winning drive in 14 games with the Browns. Bottom line: Three interceptions, two blown red zone opportunities.

Defense: The serious knee injury to safety Tashaun Gipson cast a pall on an outstanding effort. Joe Haden had an interception, Buster Skrine dropped one and Justin Gilbert added two pass breakups. The secondary held Julio Jones to five receptions (one TD) on 13 targets. Paul Kruger had two sacks, stripping a fumble of Matt Ryan that was recovered by Desmond Bryant. Ahtyba Rubin looked to have his best game with a sack. Filling in for injured Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson had a game-high nine tackles. By limiting the Falcons to 63 rushing yards and a 2.7 average, they forced Ryan to earn everything he got. Bottom line: No run over 7 yards.

Special teams: Joel Bitonio came out of nowhere to flatten Devin Hester who was in the midst of taking a missed 60-yard field goal the length of the field just before halftime. Punter/holder Spencer Lanning got a hand on Hester to help disrupt his return. Billy Cundiff made his other four field goal tries, including the game-winner from 37 yards. Aside from the return with the field goal miss, the Browns held Hester in check, allowing no return longer than 27 yards. While the Browns had zero return yards for the game, they avoided the negative plays that have earmarked each of their losses. Bottom line: Whew.

Coaching: Two miscues were blatantly obvious. The time management at the end of the half was poor. They wasted 22 seconds after a Hoyer completion to Gordon by freezing on a timeout call. It cost them probably two plays and forced a 60-yard field goal try, which almost was returned for a touchdown. Then, the play-call for a pass on first-and-goal from the 6 with 4:59 left in the fourth quarter was indefensible. Crowell and West had gashed through the Falcons for runs of 18 and 20 yards. The Browns had a 23-21 lead. There was no need to throw. Handing off would also have eaten some time off the clock. For some reason, Hoyer couldn’t pull the trigger on the safe throw to West and he compounded the play-call error by floating a balloon for Gordon while backpedaling. Bottom line: Got away with a couple.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




Browns survive Falcons in last-second win, but lose Tashaun Gipson to injury

Nov 23, 2014 -- 4:11pm

By Tony Grossi |



Updated at 5:58 p.m.


Brian Hoyer didn’t look and sound like a quarterback who had just saved a game, maybe a season … heck, maybe his career.

Hoyer’s four completions in the final 44 seconds set up a 37-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff as time expired to give the Browns a stomach-wrenching 26-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

The ending redeemed what Hoyer termed the worst game of his career. He threw three “dumb” interceptions, including two in the last five minutes, to seemingly give away the game to the Falcons.

Lose it that way, and Hoyer’s job status would have been on the front burner with team officials the minute they landed back in Cleveland. Don’t think it wasn’t a topic of conversation as Hoyer struggled to connect with fresh-legged Josh Gordon throughout the game.

But the Houdini act – Hoyer’s otherworldly ability to perform with his back to the wall -- kept the Browns alive in the AFC North race with a 7-4 record. And it left Hoyer drained with mixed emotions.

“I feel I let the team down today with the way I played,” Hoyer said glumly. “I’m happy we won, but I’ve got to play a lot better. I can’t even believe we won it the way I played.”

They were able to win it because of Cundiff’s clutch kick; because of Gary Barnidge’s 15-yard leaping catch between two defenders on the final drive; because of Gordon’s fabulous first game back after a 10-week suspension; because of powerful running by Isaiah Crowell (88 yards and two touchdowns) and Terrance West (62 yards); because of a superb effort by a defense further decimated by injury, this time to safety Tashaun Gipson; and because of a heads-up tackle 70 yards downfield of Atlanta kick returner Devin Hester by 300-pound tackle Joel Bitonio.

And they were able to win it despite one of the boneheaded play-calls of the Mike Pettine era, which was made worse by Hoyer’s uncommon lapse in judgment.

The Browns owned a 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter and marched down to the Falcons’ 6 as Crowell and West took turns eating up chunks of yards. There was 4:51 left in the game and no need to do anything stupid. But that didn’t stop them.

On first-and-goal, Hoyer faked a handoff to West and looked at the back flaring to the right flat. Hoyer couldn’t pull the trigger on the low-risk pass. Instead tossed up a balloon for Gordon while backpedaling. Desmond Trufant, who may have gotten away with a shove, soared above Gordon and made the interception just inside the end line.

Pettine claimed the play was “one we like” and had scored on a few games ago. Pettine said Hoyer was trying to throw the ball out of the end zone. Hoyer said he was trying to give Gordon a chance to come down with the ball.

Asked why the Browns didn't just hand off the way the backs were gashing Atlanta’s feeble defensive front, Hoyer shot back, “I don’t know,” and turned to the other direction for the next question.

The Browns’ defense forced Atlanta to punt in five plays. But when Hoyer got the ball back at his 16-yard line, the heebie-jeebies were still with him. On third-and-17, he threw for Gordon, who was open at mid-field. But the ball found Trufant again for another interception.

This time, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was able to get his team into field goal range and Matt Bryant made it from 53 yards with 44 seconds showing.

On the sideline, left tackle Joe Thomas told Hoyer the Browns would win the game on a field goal.

“We never lost faith in him,” Haden said afterward.

Despite some ugly incompletions between Hoyer and Gordon, they were able to connect for 24 yards on the winning drive to launch the Browns into Atlanta territory. Barnidge followed with his clutch catch, and then Miles Austin’s 11-yarder set up a Hoyer spike with :05 at the 19.

In his first game back, Gordon played about 50 of the offense’s 71 snaps. He was targeted 16 times – eight more than runner-up Austin – and had eight receptions for 120 yards.

“The adrenalin kept me going,” Gordon said. “I know those guys weren’t going to quit on me, so I made sure I definitely wasn’t going to quit on them.

“It means the world to me not just to be back but with this team. This is my third year here. Been through plenty different coaches, owners and GM, and offenses. To finally see it going in the right direction means the world to me.”

Gordon’s most athletic play saved a huge loss when an errant toss back to him from West rolled about 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Gordon picked up the ball with defenders in chase and managed to throw the ball in the direction of Hoyer to end the play safely.

Another heads-up play was turned in by Bitonio at the end of the first half when Devin Hester raced about 70 yards after catching a 60-yard field goal miss by Cundiff. Holder/punter Spencer Lanning got a hand on Hester’s legs and Bitonio flattened him to avoid a score as time ran out with the Falcons ahead, 14-13.

Hoyer finished the day with his second consecutive 300-yard game – 322 yards on 23 of 40 passing. But with three interceptions his rating was a lowly 52.3.

Afterwards, Hoyer said the ending “was a blur to me.”

Pettine said, “If you’re going to be a big-time quarterback in this league, you have to compartmentalize and move on. Brian showed a lot of mental toughness out there.”

As a result, the Browns’ post-season hopes are alive. Their seven wins assures they won’t lose 10 or more games for the first time in seven seasons.

But it’s never easy, is it?


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




Tony Grossi's Four Downs: Will Josh Gordon's return be a triumphant one?

Nov 22, 2014 -- 12:10pm

By Tony Grossi |



Four Downs on Browns v. Atlanta Falcons

First down: J.G. to the rescue.

All the talk lowering expectations of Josh Gordon in his first game back after a 10-game suspension is a little comical. When he returned from a two-game suspension last season and played for the first time with Brian Hoyer, Gordon was targeted 19 times and had 10 receptions for 146 yards and one touchdown. Yes, this has been a longer suspension and Gordon has been away from football contact for about 80 days. But he has kept in superb shape and should have no problem assimilating into the new Browns’ offense. He should open up the running lanes by requiring help in coverage from a safety. I would expect Hoyer to force that by throwing the ball deep to Gordon early.

Second down: Feed the Crow.

With Ben Tate waived, the Browns will share the rushing load between Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. Crowell is a native of Columbus, GA, and played his freshman year at University of Georgia before he transferred to Alabama State. He is amped up to play in front of friends and family for the first time as a professional. Crowell has put the ball on the ground five times – losing it twice – so he has to prove he is not a fumbler. If he can’t do that, the Browns could start giving some looks in the near future to Glenn Winston, who will be active in the game for special teams duty.

Third down: Rabbit hunting.

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said he detected this week that Travis (Rabbit) Benjamin had his swagger back. Benjamin has had his best year on offense, leading the team with three touchdown receptions, but his worst year on punt returns with a puny average of 2.8 yards and five fumbles or muffs. Benjamin said this week part of his problem has been focusing on punt returns after being on offense. Gordon’s arrival should lessen Benjamin’s play time on offense and allow him to concentrate on getting his return game on track. Plus, he’s motivated by competing against Atlanta’s Devin Hester, his boyhood idol who is one of the greatest return specialists in NFL history.

Fourth down: Julio and Joe.

This is the first game for the Browns against Julio Jones, the elite receiver they passed up by trading the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft to Atlanta. The Browns netted four draft choices in the trade, but the only player left from those picks is defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who is out for the season after knee surgery. Other players chosen with the picks from the trade were Greg Little, Owen Marecic and Brandon Weeden. This marks cornerback Joe Haden’s first NFL game against Jones. The two paired up twice in college – both times in Georgia Dome – with Haden’s Florida Gators winning one and Jones’ Alabama Crimson Tide one.




Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




Browns Game 11 Preview: A 6-4 team in last place v. a 4-6 team in first place

Nov 22, 2014 -- 12:05pm

By Tony Grossi |



What: Browns (6-4) v. Atlanta Falcons (4-6), 1 p.m, in Georgia Dome.

TV: CBS, WOIO Channel 19 with Andrew Catalon, Steve Beuerlein and Steve Tasker.

The set-up: The Browns are 6-4 and in last place and the Falcons are 4-6 in first place. That’s because the AFC North is the toughest division and the NFC South is the weakest. The Browns are trying to avoid losing two games in a row for the first time. The Falcons are coming off two road wins and a bye, so this is their first game at home in 28 days. Both teams need a win to keep alive their playoff hopes.

Series history: Browns lead, 10-3.

Historical footnote: In their first visit to the new Georgia Dome on Nov. 28, 1993, the Browns were still reeling from the shocking release of quarterback Bernie Kosar three weeks earlier. A small group of Browns fans in attendance reminded coach Bill Belichick of the controversial move when they chanted “Bill must go” throughout the second half. The Browns recovered from a 17-0 halftime deficit and trailed, 17-14, in the fourth quarter. They were driving late in the game. Facing a third-and-1 at their own 43, Belichick called an inside draw play to Eric Metcalf, who was stopped for a 2-yard loss. A fourth down completion by Todd Philcox was short of the first down, sealing the Browns’ fourth loss in a row after a 5-2 season start.

Falcons update: They own a share of first place because of a 4-0 record in their division. Outside of it, they are 0-6, including convincing losses of 24-10 to Cincinnati and 29-7 to Baltimore. Injuries on the offensive line took a toll on an offensive unit that has the skill position players to run up big numbers with a spread formation featuring receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester. The defense, however, has been awful, currently ranked 32nd, and has blown leads of 20-10 to the Giants, 21-0 to the Lions and 16-3 to the Panthers (though the Falcons recovered to edge Carolina). Neither line of scrimmage has shown the physicality to play with the big boys.

Browns update: Receiver Josh Gordon makes his 2014 debut after serving a 10-game suspension. The Browns have tried to temper expectations for the 2013 season leader in receiving yards, but all indications were Gordon was in tip-top shape to make an impact in his first game back. This is also the first game after the release of running back Ben Tate, which left the rushing load in the hands of rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. On defense, the Browns’ suspect run defense has to compensate for the probable loss of starting linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Karlos Dansby. Injuries to those players mean increased play time for Barkevious Mingo, Eric Martin, Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey.

Injury report: Browns – TE Jordan Cameron (concussion) and WR-KR Marlon Moore (hamstring) are out; LB Karlos Dansby (knee) is doubtful; FS Johnson Bademosi (concussion) and LB Jabaal Sheard (foot) are questionable. Falcons – CB Robert Alford (wrist) and OT Jonathan Scott (hamstring) are out.

Our take: The Falcons are capable of piling up points against anyone if their line can give Matt Ryan some protection. Therefore, it will be incumbent on the Browns to be able to convert third downs and complete scoring drives. This should be a scoring contest. The presence alone of Gordon should unclog running lanes for Crowell and West and move Andrew Hawkins down into the slot position, where he was originally pegged. If this becomes a duel of passing games, the Browns’ secondary gives them the edge.

Prediction: Browns are peachy, 31-27.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




As Josh Gordon returns, Browns commit the running game to rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West

Nov 21, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi |


Photo/USA Today

The Morning Kickoff …

The home stretch: Teams evolve over a season. Dynamics shift at critical points. As the Browns (6-4) set forth in the final six games on a run for the playoffs, they made two crucial changes on offense.

The obvious one was the return of receiver Josh Gordon. He’ll make a huge difference in every facet of the offense. All 10 other positions on offense are instantly better with Gordon on the field. It’s not a stretch to say that the defense is better, too. (Although injuries to linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard would certainly seem to offset that.)

The other change was the surprise dismissal of running back Ben Tate, the free agent pickup who began the season as the starter. The message delivered was twofold: 1. Malcontents are not wanted, and 2. youth will be served.

On a team ingrained in setting up all possibilities on offense through the running game, the Browns have entrusted their season in the hands, and legs, of two rookies – Isaiah Crowell, 21, and Terrance West, 23. A third, Glenn Winston, 25, will serve as the emergency backup.

“We’re putting them into a situation where it’s their show now,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said on Thursday. “They’re the only guys in the room. Puts a lot of pressure on them, but I think they’re going to rise to the occasion. We need them to step up, and I’d be surprised if they don’t.”

Fantasy headaches: Much like the New England Patriots, the Browns have become a fantasy player’s headache. You never know which running back will start and, even then, which one will be featured.

Game 1: Tate started and hurt a knee. West rushed for 100 yards. Crowell scored two touchdowns.

Game 2: With Tate down, West and Crowell answered the call with 122 yards and one touchdown.

Game 3: West started. Crowell was the leading rusher.

Game 4: Tate returned and rushed for a career-high 124 yards.

Game 5: Tate had 78 yards and two touchdowns. Crowell had 77 yards and one touchdown. West was inactive because of a bad practice week.

Games 6, 7, 8: Adjusting to life without center Alex Mack, the three backs combined for 151 yards on 67 attempts – an average of 2.2 yards a rush.

Game 9: West started. All three backs scored a touchdown.

Game 10. Crowell started for the first time. Tate’s last game was horrific – two carries, minus-9 yards, and a chop-block penalty.

Now that Tate is gone, the backfield situation heads into Atlanta with Crowell and West a committee of two, with neither assured of being “the man.”

“Unless you find a guy that’s the elite of the elite, I think it’s very difficult to be a one running back team,” coach Mike Pettine said. “Especially the way that we’ll use them and as much as we will run.

“Tailback by committee, I think that insulates you from injury or from somebody having an off game where you can feed the hot hand. I think if you go into every game with two and then you could potentially still roll a third where there’s some special teams value there. I think that, for us, would be the ideal scenario.”

A new day: A year ago, these were the backs to carry the ball for the Browns: Trent Richardson, Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya, Fozzy Whittaker, Edwin Baker and Bobby Rainey.

The present and the future are in the hands of West, a third-round rookie draft pick, Crowell, an undrafted free agent, and Winston, an undrafted free agency claimed off waivers.

“I feel me and Terrance, we’re still learning, still working. I feel like we got what it takes,” Crowell said.

“We all think that they are quality NFL backs,” Pettine said. “I think that they’re headed in the right direction, but they also have to – it’s part of the process, the maturation process – becoming a professional. How do they study when they leave the building? How are they taking care of themselves? What do they do in the offseason? What’s their workout regimen like?

“You don’t last in this league if you don’t handle yourself out of the building correctly, but these are both guys that we feel have the potential to be quality NFL backs. Time will tell.”

A generation ago, the Browns plowed to the playoffs behind the running of young backs Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. Now the names are Crowell and West. Gordon will make them better. But they will be the ones carrying the ball – and the fate of this Browns team over the final six games.


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




The rookie Browns cornerback playing at a high level is not their No. 1 draft pick

Nov 20, 2014 -- 5:04pm

By Tony Grossi |



Extra Points …

Rookie ups and downs: Who’s the better cornerback in his first NFL season – Justin Gilbert, the Browns’ first-round pick, No. 8 overall in the draft, or K’Waun Williams, who was undrafted?

Based on playing time and stats, the numbers are close. Based on comments from defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, the competition isn’t close.

“I think you would struggle to find a corner that was drafted this past year playing at a higher level than K’Waun right now,” O’Neil said. “It’s just hard to keep K’Waun off the field.”

The distinction should be made that Williams plays inside against the opponent’s slot receiver. Gilbert is being trained as an outside cornerback. Not many cornerbacks do both – Buster Skrine being a notable exception. But the Browns have tried hard to keep Skrine from doing double duty, which is why Williams is receiving more playing time recently than Gilbert.

“For Justin to get on the field more, he’s got to outplay Joe Haden or Buster Skrine,” O’Neil said. “Right now, we feel our three best cornerbacks are K’Waun, Buster and Joe. (Gilbert’s) our fourth corner right now. That’s where he fits on the totem pole.”

For the record, Gilbert has played 274 defensive snaps (37.7 percent of the total) and has 23 tackles and five passes defensed. Williams has played 210 snaps (28.9 percent) and has 20 tackles, six passes defensed and one sack. Neither has an interception.

Williams was inactive for the Jacksonville game because of a concussion. Gilbert did not play a single snap on defense in the Houston game because of a heel injury and the Texans’ offensive scheme.

Gilbert figures to see more time in Atlanta because the Falcons like to line up four wide receivers. In those cases, Haden and Gilbert would line up outside, and Skrine and Williams inside.

O’Neil stressed, “I’m not down on Justin. I’m just really high on K’Waun. If they let us play with 12, I’d play with 12 and put him out there.”

The Gordon factor: Another benefit of Josh Gordon’s return involves the domino effect on Travis Benjamin. Fewer reps on offense might result in more concentration from Benjamin on the punt return game.

On Thursday, Benjamin hinted that an increased role in the offense may account for his troubles on punt returns. He has had three fumbles or muffs, no return longer than 13 yards and a miniscule average of 2.7 yards on six returns total.

“Throughout my years of returns, catching the punt was never a problem,” Benjamin said. “It’s all about getting refocused, knowing what’s on your plate, going back to offense, going back to punt return. It’s all about settling in.”

While Benjamin said he has been “very happy” about a larger role on offense – he does lead receivers with three touchdowns – you get the feeling his No. 1 focus this weekend is on igniting the punt return game.

Going up against his hometown idol, Atlanta’s Devin Hester, will help.

“Both of us are from Palm Beach County (FL), both of us went to Miami, so I always kept my eye on that guy,” Benjamin said. “I know him very well. Before the game, I’m going to go out there and try to challenge him on who’ll have the better game, just to push myself to that next level.”

Benjamin said he senses a big return coming, and the ideal conditions inside Georgia Dome could be the spot.

“It’s steaming up,” he said. “It’s going to be a very fast track. It isn’t cold, isn’t sunny. You can just spot the ball and get upfield.”

Nobody could use a breakaway return more than Chris Tabor, special teams coordinator, who’s banging his head trying to snap a season-long slump on the punt return unit.

“There’s no question, any time something bad happens in our area I feel terrible about it,” Tabor said. “It’s painful. I can’t even describe it to you what it’s really like.”

Tabor said Benjamin will handle punts in the Atlanta game.

“There’s a little bit about him out there (at practice). I see him walking around, the confidence, the swagger, is coming back. I sense that,” Tabor said.

Brownie bits: Not practicing on Thursday were tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion), linebacker Karlos Dansby (knee) and linebacker Jabaal Sheard (foot) … With Dansby and Sheard unlikely to play, Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey would fill the inside ‘backer spots and Barkevious Mingo would adjust to a pass-rush role instead of coverage on passing downs … Special teams core players Tank Carder and Eric Martin also would see more time in reserve roles on defense … Everyone’s marveling at the sight of Gordon picking up things as if he hasn’t been away for 11 weeks. Coach Mike Pettine said Gordon’s practice “pitch count” was increased on Thursday. Quarterback Brian Hoyer prides himself in delivering the ball in games according to the play-call’s read progressions, but in practice it’s been hard to resist the temptation of getting Gordon the ball frequently. Pettine: (On Wednesday) at practice every time he was out there the ball mysteriously found its way to him. (Hoyer) was like a kid with a new toy on Christmas.”


Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi




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