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Browns at the bye week: More encouraging than you think

Sep 23, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP

The Morning Kickoff …

Taking stock: The first three games of the Mike Pettine era have been decided on the last play, the next-to-last play, and the last play.

The Browns lost to Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin (career record: 78-45) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (105-51) by three points.

The Browns beat New Orleans coach Sean Payton (79-43) and quarterback Drew Brees (116-80) by two points.

The Browns lost to Baltimore coach John Harbaugh (73-39) and quarterback Joe Flacco (73-39) by two points.

“We don’t like where we are,” Pettine said Monday. “We don’t like sitting … 1-2 is 1-2. Last place in the division is last place. There’s no asterisk next to what we are, but there are some positives to take out of where we are.”

Despite losing to Roethlisberger for the 18th time in 19 games … despite losing to Flacco for the 12th time in 13 games … I don’t think the sky is falling on the Browns.

As they reach an early bye in their schedule, I see five reasons to be encouraged – no, really encouraged -- by the start of this season.

1. They can score.

This can’t be overstated.  

Their 74 points rank 10th in the league in scoring. That’s their best point total through the first three games since they scored 82 in 2007 – their last good offensive team. And the offense has accounted for all the points except for a Pick 6 by Tashaun Gipson.

The offense has been a huge surprise because it has been good without Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon for three games (and seven more to come), Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron for one game, and starting running back Ben Tate for two games.

The running game, which is the foundation of the Kyle Shanahan offense, has been entrusted to rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell in the absence of Tate. The receiving corps is made up of three undrafted players, a fifth-round pick and a waiver pickup.

After the Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in May, the prevalent opinion was that Brian Hoyer’s leash was so short, he probably would be yanked after an 0-3 start. Not even close.

Today, Hoyer ranks 10th among starting quarterbacks with a passer rating of 97.5. He has not thrown an interception since his first start a year ago in Game 3.

Consequently, the Browns are the only team in the NFL to not commit an offensive turnover.

I repeat: The Browns are the only team to not commit an offensive turnover.

“I think our offense has overachieved to date,” Pettine said.

2. The coaches make halftime adjustments.

The Browns have outscored opponents in the third quarter, 35-14. That’s their best quarter in terms of point differential. It shows that their coaches can make halftime adjustments.

Since 1999, the Browns have outscored opponents in the third quarter in only two seasons. Those were the only seasons the Browns had winning records – 2002, when they made the playoffs at 9-7, and 2007, when they went 10-6 and missed the postseason on tie-breakers.

3. They project an air of confidence.

“We feel that we can compete with anybody in this league … and not compete with – beat anybody in this league,” Pettine said. “And that’s important that our guys have that confidence coming out of the bye.”

I attribute this attitude to Hoyer because every team – every team – takes its cue from its quarterback. If the team doesn’t believe in its quarterback, it is evident. And it is doomed.

Last year, Hoyer rescued the early part of the season by taking over a deflated 0-2 team and winning on the road. Then he won against Cincinnati. Very quickly, Hoyer changed the attitude in the locker room and injected a feeling of confidence on both sides of the ball.

After a rocky preseason, he has done that again.

“I think a big deal is made of the preseason,” Hoyer said. “There were a lot of interchangeable parts, myself included. That’s going to happen, but when you really get to get into game-planning, focusing on who’s going to be out there playing, things really start to come together. I think that’s why you see, obviously, a totally different type of offense now than it was in the preseason.

“I think we’ve proven to ourselves that we can play with anyone.”

4. The schedule lightens up.

After the bye, the Browns play at Tennessee (1-2), home against Pittsburgh (2-1), at Jacksonville (0-3), and home against Oakland (0-3) and Tampa Bay (0-3).

Is a five-bagger out of the question? Would you take four out of five? That would position the Browns at 5-3 at the halfway point. Take that?

5. The return of J.G.

If he stays clean and passes up to 20 drug tests over the next two months, Gordon will be eligible to return for the Nov. 23 game in Atlanta.

Now, do the math. If the Browns take care of business over their next five games and, say, win four to go to 5-3, they would then have games against Cincinnati and Houston before Gordon’s return. Let’s just say they lose them both and are at 5-5 when Gordon returns to the active status.

What would a healthy, fresh, supremely-motivated Gordon mean to the team over the final six games?

So, you see, all is not lost in this young Browns season.

I would say they have survived the worst.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

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 tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns admit concerns with their long snapper

Sep 22, 2014 -- 5:56pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/USA Today

Extra Points …

Snap to it: Look for the Browns to work out long snappers this week. Christian Yount has had snaps off the mark in each of the first three games.

“I talked with Tabe’s (Chris Tabor, special teams coordinator) about it,” coach Mike Pettine said Monday. “That’s something we’ll look to address. I don’t know if it calls for a change, but it’s to be discussed.”

Yount’s off-the-mark snaps cost the Browns one point in the New Orleans game and three points in the Baltimore game.

The 50-yard field goal try against the Ravens was traced to a low snap that disrupted the timing just enough for Billy Cundiff to doink it off the left upright. Later, a block of Cundiff’s 36-yardtry was due to a blown block on the right edge of the protection team.

Yount joined the Browns late in the 2011 season when Ryan Pontbriand developed the yips. They can hit a long snapper without warning. But once they arrive, they don’t go away. Yount maintains his problem is not mental.

“No, just a matter of execution,” he said. “I’m not immune to mistakes, just like anybody else. Just going out there trying to do my best every time. Got to get better.

“I don’t believe in slumps. Every time’s a new snap, every day’s a new day. So I just go out and doing the same things I do every day to execute and work at practice to get better.”

Yount said he can’t be concerned about being replaced because it’s out of his control. Well, at this point, yeah.

J.G. is back: Suspended receiver Josh Gordon reported to the Browns over the weekend and has had a sitdown with GM Ray Farmer.

Under terms of the new drug policy, Gordon is permitted to attend meetings, use the weight room and eat with his teammates in the cafeteria. But he can’t attend or participate in practice or attend games on Sunday, Pettine said.

Those restrictions will be lifted when Gordon is officially reinstated on Nov. 17, the day after the team’s 10th game.

“To me, to have a guy who’s out for the year and all of a sudden get him back at the end, it’s a big plus for us,” Pettine said. “A player of his ability. But I think it’s important we’ve got to talk not just about Josh Gordon the player, but Josh the person. We’re well aware of the human element here.

“We have to make sure we’re getting him everything he needs, (and that) is just as big a part of it of what he can do on the field for us.”

Cornerstones: Pettine made the following comments about the big plays given up in the fourth quarter:

* On Justin Gilbert, whose 31-yard pass interference set up the Baltimore field goal that close the lead to 21-20: “He only played 14 snaps. I don’t know if he took a step back. I do know that the one play that he was beat on (was on) the double-move. But other than that, like I said, it was such a small sample size but they went bigger groupings especially in the second half, that really kept him off the field.”

* On Joe Haden, who was beat by Steve Smith on a go route for 32-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal: “The pass at the end was a perfectly thrown ball. We need to make a play, though. That’s disappointing. We tell our guys all the time, be at your best when your best is needed.”

Pettine said that to his knowledge, the foot injury that Haden suffered at the end of preseason has not been a problem.

“It was unfortunate that (the Smith catch) happened,” he said. “We’re in a bottom-line business. Joe, for the most part played very well. Go back to the Saints game, you can look at two plays where you can vilify Joe and the rest of the game he played very well. But that’s life in the NFL.

“He’s played well at times, but as you can see, at some inopportune times he’s not played well. I think he’ll admit that, as well. That’s what we talk about. The great ones are going to make big plays when it’s needed, and I think that’s one area where Joe will look to improve.”

Brownie bits: Pettine admitted return specialist Travis Benjamin has lost some confidence, but he indicated the coaches are hopeful of coaching him out of it rather than replacing him … Players are required to have four consecutive days off during a bye week. Pettine said they will practice Wednesday and Thursday and then receive the next four days off … Many players traditionally use the bye week to return to their offseason homes or former college campuses for a weekend break. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, whose home and family are in Avon Lake, said he will spend his bye studying the Titans, the next opponent. “Having the bye week so early, you don’t really need … yeah, it’s good to get away, but do you really need to get away? It’s only been three weeks. So, I know I’ll be in here and focus on Tennessee,” Hoyer said.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

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 tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Tony Grossi's Take: Are the Browns being creative on offense, or silly?

Sep 21, 2014 -- 7:00pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP

Tony Grossi’s Take on Browns’ 23-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens

Offense: For three quarters it was good – 21 points, 305 yards, 5 of 7 on third downs. Brian Hoyer was 17 of 19. The fourth quarter was atrocious – two blown field goals, 0 for 4 on third downs. They had 70 yards in final quarter, all coming on a catch-fall down-get up and run play by Taylor Gabriel. Although the balance of run-pass was there, it seemed the running game was underused. The Johnny Manziel “hideout” trick play was illegal, according to FOX analyst Mike Peirera, though it was nullified by a penalty on Terrance West for not setting long enough after motion. Bottom line: Negative plays at the end.

Defense: After a thorough shredding on the ground throughout the game, the unit actually made two plays in the deciding fourth quarter that should have led to victory. The first was a Tashaun Gipson interception after a quarterback hit by Paul Kruger, and the second was a fourth-down stop of back Lorenzo Taliaferro. But it still had plenty of bad plays left – confusion in the substitution process caused one penalty and burned one timeout, Justin Gilbert’s 31-yard pass interference penalty and Joe Haden’s 32-yard burn by Steve Smith. Bottom line: Giving up 5.2 yards per rushing attempt through three games.

Special teams: The return game was worse than non-existent. Travis Benjamin’s inability to fair catch Sam Koch’s punt at the end tipped the field in Baltimore’s favor and set up the game-winning field goal. Benjamin also muffed an earlier punt. Billy Cundiff banged the left upright from 50 yards (dropping his career mark to 7 of 28 on field goal tries from 50 yards and longer) and had a 36-yarder blocked by Asa Jackson, who zipped past the right wing of protection before Billy Winn got out of his stance. The protection breakdowns were evident a week ago and nearly cost them their lone win. Bottom line: An extra week to ponder changes.

Coaching: The substitution process on defense is broken and must be fixed. For that matter, the defense as a whole seems out of whack, both against the run and pass. The offensive play-calling treads the fine line between creativity and silliness. You can argue the fun aspect of the Hoyer-to-Manziel pass, but also ask why not reserve it for a knockout punch later in the season when the team has had more work on it in practice. The running game looks like it has more to offer. And those special teams are in need of some changes. Bottom line: One blown call by Rob Ryan from being 0-3.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

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 tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns blow chances, bungle way to 23-21 loss to Baltimore Ravens

Sep 21, 2014 -- 4:04pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP

Updated at 5:52 p.m.

There are team wins, when everybody pitches in and makes plays. Like against New Orleans.

And there are team losses, when the offense, defense and special teams each contribute with eye-gouging mistakes compounded by confusion, ugly plays and wasted opportunities. Just very bad football.

The Browns had one of those losses on Sunday. They blew opportunities on offense, suffered periods of sheer dreadfulness on defense, and botched kicks. The coaches had a bad day, too.

And all of that equated to a 23-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on a last-second field goal.

So the Browns have won a game against the Saints by two points and lost games by three and two to division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. All three games have been decided in the last five seconds.

“It’s going to be a long two weeks,” said quarterback Brian Hoyer, referring to the team’s upcoming schedule bye. “We’re going to be mad at ourselves. This will hang with us a little longer. We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

For Mike Pettine, it was a coaching nightmare.

His defense was shredded on the ground by a rookie making his NFL debut, and his pride and joy – cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Joe Haden – failed at the end. His offense got too tricky early and couldn’t capitalize on Hoyer’s highest passer ranking (127.1) as a Brown. The kicking team blew one field goal and had another blocked, and punt returner Travis Benjamin let a fair-catchable punt sail over his head and be downed at the 7 with 2:19 to go. Overall, the Browns committed 12 penalties, including two for having 12 men in the defensive huddle. They burned a timeout to avoid a third.

“I put this one on me,” Pettine fumed afterwards. “We didn’t coach well enough to win today. I’m not going to get into specifics. The list is long.”

For much of the day, the Browns were taking it to one of their rivals who had dominated them for 15 seasons.

Through three quarters, Hoyer completed 17 of 19 passes and rookie backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West each had touchdown runs. As the third quarter wound down, Hoyer’s 4-yard touchdown throw to Miles Austin gave the Browns a 21-17 lead – the fifth lead change of the game.

The fourth quarter blew up into a comedy of errors. It was one of the worst quarters of football, a surprise relapse of the losing mentality Pettine and Hoyer and others have worked so hard to change.

Here is the list of foul-ups, bleeps and blunders that comprised the Fourth Quarter from Hell:

* Paul Kruger’s hit on Joe Flacco caused a flutterball that was intercepted by Tashaun Gipson and returned to the Ravens’ 30-yard line. Four plays later, Billy Cundiff’s 50-yard field goal try in swirling 23 mph winds banged off the left upright with 13:26 to play.

* After the defense finally stopped rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro (91 yards, one TD, on 18 carries) on a fourth-and-1 carry at the Browns’ 21, Hoyer found receiver Taylor Gabriel open five yards behind safety Matt Elam. For some reason, Gabriel fell after making the catch at the Ravens’ 28. He jumped up and raced to the 9.

The Browns proceeded to lose 9 yards on the next three plays. Hoyer killed the second down because of miscommunication with a back. On third down, he lost track of geography and threw to Austin in the end zone from five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Consequently, Cundiff’s field goal try was moved back for a 36-yard effort. It was summarily blocked.

“We’ve got to be better,” said punter and holder Spencer Lanning. “We can’t leave six points out there. The first one, the wind was pretty bad and (the snap) wasn’t as clean as we’d like. The second one was just a breakdown in fundamentals.”

* Baltimore kicked a short field goal to close the Browns’ lead to 21-20 at the 5:00 mark. The blunders on that 71-yard Flacco march were a 31-yard pass interference penalty on Gilbert against Torrey Smith, one penalty for 12 men in the huddle and a burnt timeout to avoid another. Oh, yeah, the drive was jumpstarted on three runs by Justin Forsett for 38 yards right out of the gate.

Linebacker Karlos Dansby, who railed about the run defense during the week, said, “We have to play technically sound and make better plays. That’s the nuts and bolts of it right there.”

* The Browns’ offense had two more possessions to close out the game. The first expired in 47 seconds. The second one, which was set up at the 7 because of Benjamin’s decision not to catch Sam Koch’s punt, consumed a total of 8 seconds.

“I wasn’t afraid at all,” Benjamin said. “I got up under the ball correctly and at the last minute a gust of wind blew it and it went past my hand. I didn’t want to go back and reach for the ball, so I just let it pass by.”

Hoyer threw the ball well all day (19 of 25 for 290 yards, one touchdown and his fourth complete game in a row without an interception) but suffered his first loss at home as a Brown.

“We made a lot of plays but we didn’t make them when we really needed to,” Hoyer said.

After Lanning’s 40-yard punt, Flacco took over at the 50 with :58 left and no timeouts. On second down, Steve Smith beat Haden on a perfectly thrown pass for 32 yards down to the Browns’ 12 to set up the game-winner.

“There were a lot of opportunities, but we pride ourselves on going on the field, making plays and getting stops and I just didn’t do that today,” Haden said. “He just got me on a go route.”

For the second game in a row, rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel made a cameo appearance. He came in for successive plays in the second quarter and actually caught a pass from Hoyer on the latter one. Of course, it was nullified by a penalty.

After handing off on his first play, Manziel walked toward the sideline and made a hand gesture towards offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to throw confusion into the Ravens. Manziel stopped before leaving the field, however, and Hoyer, sneaking back in, made a quick snap and threw to Manziel down the left sideline.

The play would have been worth 39 yards, but West was flagged for an illegal shift because he didn’t set long enough after motion. Later, former NFL officiating chief Mike Peirera, now a FOX analyst, wrote on Twitter that the play was illegal because no player can line up within five yards of the sideline when the line of scrimmage is in the “bench area,” which is marked off between the 32-yard lines on either side of the 50.

“It was our understanding that where he was lined up was sufficient,” Pettine said.

The Browns hit their bye week with a 1-2 record. Both losses came to division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore when the clock ticked down to zeroes.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

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 tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns uniform makeover is complete, but remains under wraps until April

Sep 21, 2014 -- 11:15am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Twitter

The Browns won’t unveil their uniform changes until April of 2015, but they do know what they look like. At least a select few know what they look like.

The team has made its choices in what will be the biggest uniform makeover in the last 30 years of the franchise.

According to a source with knowledge of the process, the Browns have chosen three jerseys and two pants styles. The jerseys are categorized as dark, light and an alternate.

The Browns intend to mix and match jerseys with pants, giving them up to six combinations to wear over the course of a season.

Sources previously have said the color schemes would remain largely orange, brown and white – the colors selected by founding coach Paul Brown when the team debuted in 1946. There could be slightly different shades than accustomed to the franchise. But the source declined to comment on a rumor that a fourth color would be introduced, believed to be metallic gray.

The process of redesigning the uniforms of the Browns was initiated in spring of 2013 by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

At the time, Haslam said, “I will say there will be no change to the helmet. But we will look at everything else. We may change a lot. We may change a little.”

When he said “no change to the helmet,” Haslam meant that the Browns’ tradition of being the only team without a logo on its helmet would not change. But there has been some discussion about altering the tint of the orange on the helmet to match the modern look of the new uniforms.

In partnership with NFL marketing executives and designers at apparel-maker Nike, the Browns market-tested their fan base, tested wearability and durability of fabrics, and camera-tested designs worn by models to make sure they were pleasing to TV cameras.

Haslam is one of six people in the organization who participated in the selection of the uniforms, and he had final say. Others involved were Alec Scheiner, club president; Brent Stehlik, executive vice president and chief revenue officer; Kevin Griffin, vice president of fan experience and marketing; General Manager Ray Farmer; and coach Mike Pettine.

According to the source, those are the only six people in the Browns organization who have seen the new uniform combinations. NFL marketing and Nike executives also know of the selections.

The Browns hope to keep the uniforms top secret until a big-splash introduction prior to the April 2015 draft.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

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 tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Tony Grossi's Four Downs: The best mudders, Hoyer's last first, Cundiff's chance for revenge, and more

Sep 20, 2014 -- 6:15pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

Four downs on Browns v. Baltimore Ravens

First down: All-weather Browns

Weather forecasts are calling for possible rainstorms through Sunday morning. If they move on by kickoff, conditions still would favor running the ball over passing it. Mike Pettine has talked about making his team “weather-proof,” meaning it could win in any conditions. There was a day in training camp when Pettine had his team practice in a downpour. Balls squirted out of the quarterbacks’ hands and receivers dropped more than they caught. If the conditions are similar, a premium will be on the running game and the backs’ ability to secure the ball. A good test for rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

Second down: Hoyer’s last first

With only six career starts on his ledger – five with the Browns – there are plenty of teams that Brian Hoyer has yet to experience on the field. The Ravens are the last of the AFC North teams Hoyer is facing for the first time. Last year with Hoyer at quarterback, the Browns defeated the Bengals, 17-6, in Cleveland, and this year lost to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 30-27. Hoyer was injured for both Ravens games last year and never played against them in stints with the Patriots, Steelers and Cardinals. This week, Hoyer downplayed the fact he hasn’t played them before and said he studied them often in his three years as Tom Brady’s backup with New England. The teams split four meetings between 2009 and 2011, counting the 2011 AFC Championship.

Third down: Receiver advantage, Ravens

If the teams’ facsimile running games play to a standoff, the passing games favor the Ravens – by a wide margin on paper. Joe Flacco’s receiving targets have been bolstered by the addition of former Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr. – an emotional powder keg -- and former Texans tight end Owen Daniels. Also, reliable tight end Dennis Pitta is back to good health. Flacco (11-1 v. the Browns) has leaned on those three for 62 percent of his completions and 66 percent of his passing yards. So far this year, speed receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have been fairly quiet.

Fourth down: Cundiff’s revenge?

Billy Cundiff was replaced by the Ravens in the 2012 training camp following his missed game-tying short field goal try in the 2011 season AFC Championship Game. Cundiff has had few game-deciding field goal tries since then. One of them was last week when he converted from 29 yards to defeat the Saints. If this becomes a close contest decided by a kick, Cundiff could avenge Justin Tucker, the young gun who replaced him in Baltimore in 2012. For the record, Cundiff is 7 of 25 on field goals of 50 yards or more in his career. Tucker is 10 of 12.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

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 tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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