Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Cleveland Browns?
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With the Cleveland Browns ending their season at 5-11 and firing both their head coach and general manager on Monday, it's not hard to assume more than a handful of things went wrong for the team this season. This is the 12th time since the franchise returned to the league in 1999 that it's ended the year with a below .500 record, and the new head coach it hires in the coming weeks will be its sixth in that time.
The Browns had an excellent draft class, one of the more promising (though young) rosters in the league and many reasons to believe that 2012 would be a different season from those past disasters.
So what went wrong? Let's take a look.
Trent Richardson's Health
Before the season even got underway, the Browns offense experienced a setback when their first overall draft pick, running back Trent Richardson, had to undergo a minor surgery to clean up loose cartilage in his knee. Though it wasn't a serious surgery, it did affect his ability to hit the ground running—literally—as was hoped when the Browns picked him up in April.
He had just 39 rushing yards in the team's Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles (more on that game later), and though he followed it up with 109 the next week against the Cincinnati Bengals, he didn't hit the 100-yard mark again until Week 8.
Prior to that game—in Week 6, when his team met the Bengals for the second time, and won—Richardson suffered his most significant injury of the season, hurting his ribs in what was first categorized as a cartilage injury, but was revealed just this week to have resulted in two broken ribs. Richardson played the remainder of the season with the injury despite the intense pain, and while he had some great games in that span—122 yards in Week 8, 105 in Week 9, 95 in Week 10 and 85 in Week 11—it didn't last.
Though he had 11 rushing touchdowns on the year, much-needed scores the Browns may not have gotten elsewhere, he ended the season with 950 rushing yards and just 3.6 yards per rush on average. A fully healthy season would have absolutely resulted in increased production.
The reason why Richardson was so important this year has to do with the rest of the offense. The Browns' starting quarterback, Brandon Weeden, was also himself a rookie, and the receiving corps was still among the most questionable in the league when the season began. The hope was that a heavy dose of Richardson carries, especially in the first few weeks, would take pressure off of Weeden while still gaining them valuable yards.
With Richardson starting the year hurt, that didn't happen, and his continued health problems thanks to his broken ribs never allowed the Browns to find consistency at the position; it also contributed to Weeden's struggling season.
Getting Off on the Wrong Foot: Week 1
It was to be the glorious debut of the Browns' quarterback of the future, Brandon Weeden. It was to be a statement game—that the Browns were no longer worthy of living in the league's basement. It was to be a showcase of all the young talent all over the Browns roster.
Instead, it was a joke. It was the Browns' Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Neither the Eagles nor Browns looked ready or willing to win this game. The Eagles turned the ball over five times—four Michael Vick interceptions and a LeSean McCoy fumble—while the Browns did so four times—all were Weeden interceptions. Weeden completed only 12 of his 35 passes for 118 yards and no touchdowns and ended the day with a quarterback rating of just 5.1. The game was close, decided by one point, but Cleveland ultimately was the losing team, 17-16.
What was already a difficult situation for Weeden (whom many were skeptical about for myriad reasons, including the fact that he was nearly 29 years old, he was a first-round draft pick and many fans preferred to see Colt McCoy under center instead) turned into an impossible one overnight. To pull himself out of the hole he dug for himself, continue to assert his worthiness of the starting job and make tangible improvements to his game for this to not happen again in the following week was a lot to handle.
It likely affected his entire season. And the one-point loss also began a trend for the Browns that affected their entire season, as well.
Failure to Capitalize in Close Games
Five of Cleveland's 11 losses ended with the Browns losing by seven or fewer points, with all of those games in their grasp in the fourth quarter. However, finding ways to win—and closing out games in the fourth quarter, even when they went into the period with the lead—didn't come easily or quickly to the team, and it helped to doom its season.
It didn't manage to hold a lead, and thus win, until Week 6 against the Bengals. It did hit a stride of sorts after that win, with four victories in its next seven games, including a three-game win streak in Weeks 12 through 14 (though it was one of the weakest trios of opponents it faced all season, including a Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers team that turned the ball over eight times). But still, two of those three losses in that span were by the factor of a touchdown or less, so it didn't prevent there being a bitter taste left from that seven-week slate.
Late mistakes—and the play calls that often led to them—were the major causes of these fourth-quarter disasters, and it often looked as though players and coaches alike weren't learning from them.
Head coach Pat Shurmur (now gone) and offensive coordinator Brad Childress had a specific vision for the Browns offense, but unfortunately, it didn't entirely suit their personnel.
Weeden wasn't the best quarterback for their West Coast system; their use (and misuse) of Richardson and the run game didn't effectively advance either their agenda or the ball, and the slow-developing chemistry between the wide receivers and Weeden should have resulted in adjustments being made to their players' strengths. Instead, they wanted to adjust their players to their system, and just like fitting a square peg in a round hole, it didn't work.
Though Weeden is known for having a big arm, the deep pass just wasn't his forte this season. Just 10.8 percent of his passes were attempts of 20 or more yards—the same as Tony Romo—but he only completed 14 of those 56 passes for nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
Weeden, of course, isn't the only one to blame for this low completion percentage. It took until Week 5 for supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon to emerge as Weeden's deep target—before that, Weeden was relying on the likes of Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi (possession receivers both) to be his deep scoring threat. Drops were common—four of them on the deep pass—and often, the timing of the deep play call wasn't smart either.
Beyond just deep passing, however, Shurmur's calls were also baffling. From his desire to throw on 3rd-and-short (on third-down plays with fewer than four yards to go, the Browns passed the ball 74.3 percent of the time, to running the ball just 25.7 percent, and the result was a conversion in just 48.6 percent of those situations) to him not setting up more conservative pass calls that would have resulted in a higher chance of completion, what he wanted to do wasn't playing to the strengths of his players and didn't account for their very real limitations.
The Brandon Weeden Question
The rookie Weeden did Shurmur's play-calling little favors, just as the play-calling didn't entirely suit him, and with a new head coach and general manager taking over the team soon, Weeden's job security is in question.
Though the most important word to keep in mind when discussing Weeden's rookie season is "rookie," that still fails to excuse some of the mistakes he made when it comes to his biggest critics and detractors.
As I detailed last week, Weeden didn't have a great season, but in any other situation, he would have done enough to earn another year as the starter. Under Shurmur's West Coast system, another offseason of preparation would likely reverse some of his errors from his first year—errors that were more attributable to his first-year status than any inherent deficiencies he has as a quarterback.
But with Shurmur's fate sealed as soon as the Browns changed ownership, it had to have creeped into Weeden's head somewhat that his job was no longer safe. And his inconsistencies on the field didn't help his case either, regardless of how expected and fixable they are.
With 3.385 passing yards, Weeden had more yards in the air (and pass attempts) than any of his rookie counterparts save Andrew Luck—he also had more than veterans like Jay Cutler and Christian Ponder. However, his completion percentage of 57.4 percent puts him in the league's basement, keeping company with the likes of Mark Sanchez and Brady Quinn (and interestingly, Luck as well, who completed 54.1 percent of his regular season passes).
The Browns have a decision to make, not just about who their starting quarterback will be in 2013, but how much of a role that quarterback will play. With Shurmur's West Coast system, the quarterback bears the biggest load of the offensive responsibility, but that may not be a role that Weeden's best suited for. Trying to turn him into that in his first year in the league was a major mistake the Browns and Shurmur made.
There needs to be an easing-in process in the NFL, even for rookie starting quarterbacks. They don't need to be thrown to the fire right away to make an impact—especially when that impact initially doesn't look to be all that positive. It's not the Browns deciding to draft and start Weeden that was the problem, it was how they chose to use him.
Now, the Browns are embarking on another offseason of change, one that couldn't have been avoided by a different win-loss record, a playoff appearance or a dazzling season by their quarterback. Not only do they have to right the wrongs of the season that just ended, they have to do so while assimilating an entirely new offensive (and perhaps also defensive) scheme, dealing with the political changes that the front-office shakeup causes and having to fight off the inevitable malaise that comes from many of these players again having to adapt to another staff turnover. That means yet another uphill climb.
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