Cleveland Browns: The Good, Bad and Ugly of the First 4 Games of the 2012 Season
A quarter of the 2012 NFL season is over, and once again Cleveland Browns fans wonder whether, by the time the halfway point comes around, they will have to turn their attention to the 2013 draft.
History suggests that an 0-4 start means there will be a 10th straight season without any chances for postseason football for Browns fans.
Since 1992, only the San Diego Chargers have come back from such a deficit. It should be noted however, that the Chargers not only came back from 0-4, they actually won their division, winning 11 out of 12 games. And if the Chargers did it, it means it is possible.
Now, after that blast of sunny optimism, lets come back to reality. This is Cleveland, after all, and even when the sun shines in December, it's still bitterly cold. This is a young team of players still learning their potential and still learning to play together.
It is unlikely that we will be chanting "Super Bowl" come playoff time. That doesn't mean they won't be worth watching if it is, indeed, determined by the halfway point that there won't be a postseason bid.
The first four games of the season have certainly had their share of bad and ugly, but there have also been signs of good things to come as the season progresses.
The slides that follow show the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the first quarter of the 2012 season for the Cleveland Browns.
I'd like to address the negatives first, otherwise this is going to be one downer of an article. And by addressing the problems first, it really mirrors what could very well be the Browns' 2012 season: an "ugly-bad" start that gives Browns fans hope for good things to come in the near future.
The Pass Defense
This has been this team's Achilles heal through the first 4 games of the season. The Browns have given up an average of 300 passing yards a game. The official NFL.com stat is listed at 286 yards a game, good for 28th in the league.
While the Browns have shown promising signs of a pass rush, (ranked 5th in the league with 13 sacks), the young secondary team has given up 14 deep pass plays this season (ranging from 17 to 44 yards), a combined 368 yards on deep routes for an average of 26.2 yards per pass.
What is perhaps more troubling are the short passes that have gone for huge yardage, including a Ryan Fitzpatrick TD pass to C.J. Spiller for 32 yards in the Browns' Week 3 game against the Buffalo Bills, and an Andy Dalton pass 10 yds off the line of scrimmage to Andrew Hawkins that ended up going for 50 yards and a touchdown in their Week 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In all, the Browns have given up 22 pass plays for 15 or more yards in 2012, five of which went for touchdowns.
The Offensive Line
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line is, as of this point, a disappointment. The Browns line is tied for fifth worst in quarterback hits with 22, and they've given up nine sacks, putting them 17th in the league.
It's clear that the Mitchell Schwartz-Shawn Lauvao combination on the right side of the line is a weakness on the team. But as a whole, the team hasn't allowed Weeden to go through his progressions before having to seek a check-down receiver. This makes Weeden's play over the last three games all the more impressive.
The run-blocking has been equally less than impressive, as it often seems as though the opposing defensive line is in the backfield before a play can develop.
Hopefully the offensive line will begin to gel as the season progresses, though strong anchors Joe Thomas and Alex Mack don't look to the form Browns fans are used to seeing.
While the pass defense has been bad, the Browns have still been in every game this season, with the highest margin-of-loss being 10 (to Buffalo). The game went down to the wire against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, both teams that are supposed to be far superior to the Browns.
A major reason for this is a problem that lingers like pneumonia.
Catching the Football
No player personifies this more in 2012 than no. 1 WR Greg Little. Praised for his size and athleticism, a glaring weakness in 2012, his problem has reared its ugly head again. Little already has four drops this seas, tied for second highest in the NFL.
What's worse is when the drops come.
For example, with 4:45 left in the game, with the Browns down 10, Branden Weeden threw what would have been a 15-yard TD pass to Greg Little, had he only been able to hold onto the ball. Now, provided, Little was covered, so he did have to jump for the ball. But he did put himself in position to make the catch, and it was a ball that, as his rank suggests, he should have caught. It hit off his hands a mere yard from the end zone, instead.
What magnify his case of the drops are the catches he does make and the guaranteed celebrations that follow.
Little is not the only one dropping the football: As a team, the Browns have 11 dropped passes.
The team is ranked fourth worst in the league in this category, tying with the Houston Texans (4-0), the Denver Broncos (2-2) and the New England Patriots (2-2). As I'm sure you've noticed, the talent levels of the other three teams with 11 drops have allowed them to overcome these mistakes.
The Browns are simply too young and too inexperienced to allow such mental lapses, or maybe it is that youth and inexperience causing those problems. Either way, catching easy balls could be, and probably have been, the difference between a win and a loss on a few occasions this season.
And, finally, we can get that bad taste out of our mouths and look at the positives, the reason to keep watching this season.
What can I say that hasn't been said about the team's perpetual MVP? He is one of the league's most consistent kickers and has showed up in big games this year, including three field goals over 50 yards against the Ravens. He is perfect on the season, 8-for-8 in field goals and 7-for-7 in extra points.
Brandon Weeden's play has improved light years from the first game of the season. If you discount the Eagles outing, Weeden is 78-for-132 (a 59-percent completion percentage), averaging 293 yards a game with 3 TDs and 3 Ints.
Are his numbers overpowering? Perhaps not, but factor in that he is a rookie. Also factor in the games in which he showed great poise, namely against division rivals Cincinnati (26-for-37 for 322 and 2 TDs) and Baltimore (25-for-52 for 320, with a few key drops by receivers), and there is a lot to be excited about in regards to his play.
Expect to see Weeden continue to improve as the season progresses.
Trent Richardson and Travis Benjamin
Fellow rookies Trent Richardson and Travis Benjamin have also shown their worth early on.
Trent Richardson offers a great deal of promise moving forward. Negating stats for the moment, what is most impressive about Richardson is the difficulty in bringing him down. On most runs, even those that go for short yardage, Richardson is dragging multiple tacklers with him.
Much of his success relies on the offensive line, which hasn't consistently created holes for him. However, if the passing game continues to progress and teams are forced to respect Branden Weeden's arm, we should see Richardson's numbers positively affected as well.
Travis Benjamin has proven to be worth the fourth-round pick the Browns used on him. He is a versatile player whom the Browns have incorporated into both pass and run plays. He has five catches for 82 yards and 1 TD. He also has four carries for 50 yards.
The Pass Rush
The Browns have gotten to the quarterback 13 times this season and are ranked fifth in the league. This, of course, does not include hurries or the number of plays that haven't been recorded as a sack but have disrupted the passer's throw.
Rest assured, the Browns front four, whatever the rotation, has done a good job getting to the quarterback, and teams have taken notice.
Conclusion: Things Look Promising
While there has been plenty of bad, and while the good has not netted any wins for the Cleveland Browns, it will be interesting, moving into the second quarter of the 2012 season, to see how this team progresses.
There are positives to build on and reasons to be optimistic about this 0-4 football team. This is a team that has fought in every game, and with a few plays here and there, the Browns could be looking at a 3-1 record instead of 0-4.
It will be interesting to see where the team stands at the halfway point..