No, the Browns did not win, but they did almost battle back from an extremely slow start in the face of the Bills daunting front seven. The team was in the hunt well into the fourth quarter.
While acknowledging (in my warm and dry living room) that this is not horseshoes, the first three games of the Cleveland Browns' year have been valuable. Really.
The beginning of this 2012 season is a crucible, separating those who will go forward on the Browns' climb back to respectability from those who will be left to melt.
As the Browns prepare for their short Week 4 turnaround to Baltimore on Thursday night, some players have seen their fortunes rise and a few have seen their value plummet.
Please note that this is not a fantasy preview. It is about real men and the real future of a real team. You've been warned.
Joshua Cribbs is officially back to form. No, he hasn’t scored any touchdowns.
However, now that Cribbs has been refocused as a return specialist, opposing teams will always be nervous on kicks. And that is a good thing.
Cribbs contributed 85 return yards to the cause in Week 2.*
Meanwhile, Reggie Hodges unfortunately had to punt eight times. Fortunately, he put three of them inside the Bills 20-yard line.
Aside from booting the ball over 65 yards after the two scores, Phil Dawson didn’t have much to do. And that’s not a good thing.
On the poor return on investment side, Buffalo return man Leodis McKelvin had entirely too much success on entirely too many occasions, finishing the game with 87 yards.
That’s a scoring drive, people.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of espn.com's box scores.
Yes, this stock was already depressed. It went lower because of the following sequence of events:
1) The first tackle on Buffalo rusher C.J. Spiller was made by Usama Young.
2) Mr. Young is a safety. Not a defensive lineman or a linebacker.
3) The second tackle of Mr. Spiller was made by T.J. Ward. He is the other safety.
4) Are we seeing a pattern here that does not include run defense by the front seven?
The Cleveland defense let third-string rusher Tashard Choice roll up 91 yards after Spiller’s injury.
Choice is a decent back, but methinks if Spiller had played all 60 minutes, the Buffalo score would have been higher.
The line and linebackers also achieved virtually no pressure on Bills signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, since the Buffalo O-line has given up only one sack this season, we won’t get too picky.
Though listed as the backup at weakside linebacker, Robertson was on the field in the nickel package for most of the Week 2 game. As a result, he led the team in tackles with eight.
The 24-year-old from nowhere (okay, from North Texas) has 23 tackles on the year. Wow.
Craig Robertson is rapidly rising to star status. He left lowly UFA behind in Week 1 and is now powering right on through “pleasant surprise” on his way to “keep that man!”
Second-year safety Eric Hagg leap-frogged over starter Usama Young in July and landed on the free safety starting lily pad.
Now he’s back in the water.
After a frankly embarrassing showing in Week 2 vs. the Bengals, Hagg isn’t even the reserve: he was inactive in Week 3. While that seems a bit extreme, the emergence of Tashaun Gipson may keep him out of pads for a while.
Even many who follow the team closely did not see Gipson coming. The undrafted free agent made the team as a special teams tackler, but got his shot when Hagg struggled and Ray Ventrone hurt his hand.
Although the depth chart currently shows Young backing up strong safety T. J. Ward, he actually started the game and then alternated with Gipson.
For those of you wondering what happened to summer standout safety David Sims, he is now a Philadelphia Eagle.
Probably more to come on this storyline.
The entire Browns secondary only surrendered 208 passing yards. Well, that’s certainly a professional-level afternoon.
Unfortunately, it only takes a couple of good passes to T. J. Graham and Stevie Johnson to ruin your day.
Johnson was able to come down with seven of the 11 footballs heaved his way; Graham caught three of five targeted throws. Both scored. See?
However, the rumors of Mr. Brown’s demotion appear to have been…you know. The venerable one not only started, he proved more dependable than any other cornerback in Joe Haden’s continued absence due to suspension.
Sheldon may have lost a few steps, but his thought processes are just fine.
He has a chest injury that bears watching for Week 4. Worth noting: Brown has played in 163 consecutive regular-season games.
Pat Shurmur’s benching of Brown for Week 2 in favor of Buster Skrine smacks of “immature coach in jeopardy clutching at straws.” One wonders what coordinator Dick Jauron had to say.
The pro himself was, well, a pro:
"It's their car—they have the keys. I didn't need any explanation. I'm far past that in my career.” (quoted by Marty Gitlin of CBSSports.com)
Now that is maturity.
If only this unit wouldn’t give a cushion big enough for a school bus to the opposing wide receivers.
Where's the hole?
The Cleveland weather did not help the city’s football team in Week 3. The report was for 20 percent chance of rain. It was pouring when the game began.
Whether the footing and general slippery conditions contributed to a second poor showing for the blockers is unknown to outsiders.
Whatever the reasons, the group was just as ineffective in Week 3 as it had been in Week 1.
Credit must be given to the vastly improved Eagles defense and the vastly expensive Buffalo Bills D-line.
However, gentlemen—you play in the AFC North. The defenses aren’t getting any softer.
Fairness compels a mention of the generally B+ pass protection against Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus. Four sacks vs. these monsters with a rookie QB is rather credible.
Honorable mention to rookie Mitchell Schwartz, who was roundly criticized in his first two games. Cleveland’s new RT did an impressive job taking on Mario Williams throughout the afternoon.
Trent Richardson is a partner in crime for this drop in stock. Upon occasion, Richardson seems to believe that he can still simply pull up and then run around defenders at the NFL level.
The results of that thinking are 27 yards on 12 carries.
Nevertheless, the former Alabama star is flashing those quick direction shifts that earned his draft status—and he has a firm grasp on the concept of ball security. He has proven that, given a hole, he's a star.
We wanted to stop Richardson. We talked about it and made a big deal about it. We did not want to let him get out. We wanted them to throw the football. It worked kind of like we thought it would.
–Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey quoted by ESPN.com
Welcome to the defensive game plan for every opponent until further notice.
Time, practice and an injury to Alex Smith combined to give Jordan Cameron a breakout game against the Buffalo Bills.
The scorecard may have only shown five receptions for 45 yards, but it seemed like Cameron was suddenly everywhere on the field—often in line with a Brandon Weeden pass.
The TE made a few big plays that unfortunately didn’t have an impact due to penalties or sacks, but he has arrived and could become a much-needed red zone threat not named Trent Richardson.
With the wind.
Stock Temporarily Down: Mohamed Massaquoi was beginning to look like Brandon Weeden’s go-to guy until he pulled a hamstring. Their timing has steadily improved and a deep bomb in Week 3 would have been a score if the trajectory had been just a bit higher.
With Mo on the sidelines, Weeden will have to build chemistry elsewhere. Shurmur has said that Jordan Norwood and/or Josh Cribbs would fill in were Massaquoi to miss the next game.
Stock Up: Travis Benjamin is getting better each game. After feeling his way along in the first two weeks, Benjamin contributed 44 yards of offense and a score in Week 3. He’s not the first or second target yet, but he could be by the end of the year. Stay tuned.
Stock Slightly Up: Josh Gordon is a raw talent; but he is a talent. If Greg Little doesn’t stop dropping passes, we may find out whether Gordon is ready for prime time. Josh had one tremendous catch of an overthrown pass that perfectly showcased his talent. Now, if his learning curve can speed up…
Stock Way Down: Wide Receiver Greg Little hasn’t had a positive couple of days. Despite dropping a couple of passes that hit his hands, he decided that a first-down celebratory pose was appropriate when his team was losing.
He may not be the NFL poster child for “not getting it,” but this is hardly the way to win friends and influence coaches—or a new owner.
Earth to Greg, “Catch first; preen later.”
Running back Richardson caught six balls for 24 yards. RB Chris Ogbonnaya caught all three balls tossed to him. Jordon Cameron pulled in five-of-seven passes.
Greg Little dropped 50 percent of the balls thrown to him. That sounds absolutely dreadful until one realizes that Travis Benjamin also only caught half of his passes, Josh Gordon caught half of his and Ben Watson caught half of his.
However, those numbers do not reflect two facts:
1) Several of Weeden’s deep attempts to the other three were off-target.
2) The passes to Little were catchable.
As the game went on, Little was more and more open. Heck, I’d stop covering him too.
Laser, Rocket Arm. Maybe.
Now we get to it: the rookie quarterback.
1) Weeden completed almost 63 percent of his pass attempts.
2) He achieved just as many passing first downs as did Ryan Fitzpatrick (11).
3) Several successful medium-deep completed throws were called back by penalty. But they got there.
4) Weeden completed passes to nine different players.
5) Weeden successfully made Buffalo’s Kyle Williams jump with a hard count.
6) His two interceptions were understandable and not totally bone-headed. He generally displayed much-improved ball security instincts.
7) He has learned how to check down. He has a tendency to do it too often.
1) He averaged only 5.5 yards per pass.
2) His deep balls need work. Pretty extensive work. However, they are close and they will get there. One hopes it happens before Cleveland fans go bald pulling their hair out.
3) He has the dubious distinction of being Mario Williams’ first sack as a Bill. I’m sure he’s thrilled.
4) Yes, we know he’s not a mobile quarterback, but even the Mannings have had to learn to run a little. It’s not pretty—but they do it. Take a hint, Brandon. You have to be able to get yourself out of trouble.
When it comes to quarterback development, it is frankly mystifying how Pat Shurmur could have been so successful with Sam Bradford.
He is certainly not engaged with his passer on the sidelines and Offensive Coordinator Brad Childress is “above it all” in the booth.
The future of this franchise rests on the experienced shoulders of quarterback coach Mark Whipple.
Brandon Weeden is going to be good. He’s not good yet.
Get used to it, Cleveland fans—you drafted someone whose hero is Brett Favre (whether he admits it or not).
This means that he’ll have you on the edge of your seat and will pull off some amazing feats. It also means that you have to accept some disasters.
It’s the new reality in the Dawg Pound.
It’s easy to bash the coach. Pat Shurmur makes it easier when he says things in press conferences like:
I don’t know, we’ll have to talk about specifics later. I think if we’re running in a position to make a play, then then we’ve got to get a good throw and we’ve got to catch it. I think that’s fair to say.
Please tell us he doesn’t sound like that when he’s trying to inspire the team.
It’s especially easy to trash the coach when he insists on calling the plays and the plays he calls lose the game.
Yes, we all know that it’s the West Coast Offense. Run it a couple of times and then switch to the short-passing game. Take a few deep shots.
If the stock market were as predictable as the Andy Reid version of the West Coast Offense, there would be no recession.
On the Browns second possession of the game, Pat Shurmur (or Brad Childress or whoever is coming up with this stuff) called: Trent Richardson run right (three yards), pass to Trent Richardson left (six yards), Trent Richardson run right—punt.
Please. Fans don’t know whether to storm out or take a nap.
The broadcasters gave Pat Shurmur credit for “sticking with the run.” Really? Since when does 13 rushes in four quarters count as a commitment to the rushing attack?
By the beginning of the third quarter, the run was a faint memory—and the game was still well in reach at that point.
Not to mention using Chris Ogbonnaya twice. Twice. Let’s not even go there.
To give Shurmur and the short-passing approach their due, the offense’s best series was their first possession in the third quarter. Eight short completions, one run and one 22-yard TD pass.
Terrific. Move on. Don’t try to replicate that drive through the rest of the third quarter and into the fourth. The Bills saw it coming. Everyone saw it coming.
(As a short digression, may I just say that I hate the draw play? About 95 percent of the time, it’s too slow for professional defenses. I really hate it when the draw play works. It just encourages coaches to use it again.)
Of all the “throw things at the television” moments, the capper was the Browns final offensive play:
On a last-ditch hope, on 3rd-and-21, Little ran a route that stopped 12 yards from scrimmage.
Of course that’s who Weeden threw it to, but why is that route even in the play call?
Of course he was open—the defense ignored him since the reception was irrelevantly short of the first-down marker! What the…?
To date the best comment that Pat Shurmur has made during his tenure was, “To me, every down is crucial.”
With a record of 4-15, one would think so.
Despite these frustrations, it is truly easy to be optimistic about Cleveland as an observer and football lover who has not spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on Browns tickets. There are many areas of increased franchise value.
Had one paid hundreds (thousands) to sit in the rain—perhaps one would not be quite so filled with a feeling of hopeful largess.
Join me tomorrow night (Tuesday September 25th at 9 p.m. EST) on The Huffington Post's new live platform: live.huffingtonpost.com. We’ll be discussing the NFL referee lockout.