Cleveland Browns Self Scouting: 6 Play-Calling Tendencies That Must Change
After nine weeks of play, the Browns are in last place in the AFC North and have logged just three wins in 2011. That alone is certainly frustrating for fans who, though they knew the Browns wouldn't be playoff ready this season, certainly expected better than what they're getting.
Add to that the Peyton Hillis controversies both on and off the field that continue to persist and the fact that the team doesn't really appear to be making much progress on the offensive side of the ball, and you can see why the frustration level in Cleveland is through the roof.
Some of this is premature impatience with a young team. Some of it is very well-founded irritation with a team whose forward progress appears to have stagnated or even regressed in recent weeks.
Either way, fans have had it up to here with the disastrous protection of the offensive line, the total lack of running game thanks to injuries and a lack of depth, and a passing game that doesn't seem to be improving.
But the thing that seems to have fans most incensed is the play calling they've seen from rookie head coach Pat Shurmur.
It's one of the biggest problems the team has on offense this season, and to many it's also the most frustrating because it's probably the easiest one to fix.
We could probably sum up how to fix the play calling in one sentence: Hire an offensive coordinator.
But that's not going to happen during the season, so for the time being, we can only hope that Shurmur will make some much-needed adjustments to his game plan.
Following are six play-calling changes the Browns should make to help their offense right itself and attempt to save their season.
1. The Mix of Run and Pass Plays Has Become Too Predictable
The biggest problem across the board for the Browns play calling is predictability. It seems that no matter the situation their offense is facing, opposing defenses always seem to know exactly what they're going to do.
After the Browns lost to the Raiders, LB Aaron Curry suggested that the Browns offensive linemen were tipping their plays. Perhaps that was true.
More likely though, the problem was that it was just so darn obvious what they were going to do next because they always did, well, exactly what any half-decent defense would expect.
One facet of the Browns predictability problem in play calling is the way they mix and vary (or rather, don't mix and vary) their pass and run plays.
It's a two-fold problem. First, it's a situational issue. Every time they get into a certain situation, whether it's 1st and 10 or 3rd and 3, they do the exact same thing every time.
And it goes beyond just passing vs running; there have been a number of situations where the Browns not only pass every time, they run the exact same passing play each time it comes up. Any half-intelligent defender watching film before their team faces the Browns can figure out the pattern.
Second, they seem to get into a rut where they insist on either passing over and over, or rushing over and over, which is problematic both because defenses know what to expect, and also because it's often the wrong call for the situation at hand.
The bottom line is that right now, every defense has the Browns' number because they're pretty much handing it to them. Until the Browns start to vary their pass and run plays in a way that is both less predictable and more appropriate for the situation at hand, they're going to continue to be shut down by opposing defenses.
2. Give the Slant a Rest
Nine weeks into the 2011 season, I have seen more short slant passes from the Browns than I would have to cared to see for the rest of my life.
For whatever reason, Pat Shurmur seems to be incredibly hung up on this play, which is odd considering it has pretty much never worked for his team.
First, it's become entirely too predictable, just like so many other problematic play calls the Browns are making. Defenses have seen them try this over and over again all season long, and thus they know exactly how to stop it.
Second, it's just plain old ineffective for the players the Browns are working with on offense. Every time they try this, the receiver gets stuffed at or near the line.
That's not a terrible thing if you've got a couple of downs to work with and only need a few more yards to convert or if you're simply trying to run out the clock, but the Browns run this play when they need a lot of yardage and only have a down or two to get it, and even worse, they run it when they're behind on the scoreboard and are running out of time.
Plus, they just don't have the right personnel for this. A play like this needs far better blocking than the Browns have to offer at the moment. Receivers can't get open quickly enough for it, and if they do make the grab, they have nowhere to go but out of bounds or right into an oncoming tackler.
I would be fine with this play being run all the time if it was working for the Browns, and I would be fine with it being run occasionally even if it wasn't just to mix things up, but neither of these scenarios apply. The Browns are simply hung up on repeating a play over and over that just never gets them anywhere.
3. Underuse of the Offense's Most Reliable Weapons
I'm honestly sick of hearing myself say this, and I'm sure you're all sick of hearing it too, but it unfortunately has to be said again and again until the Browns figure it out.
The Browns' best offensive weapons are Josh Cribbs and tight ends Ben Watson and Evan Moore. And yet the team still manages to underuse or misuse all three of them.
Cribbs is perhaps the biggest victim of this problem of anyone on the team. There were concerns before the season started that the Browns still hadn't figured out how best to use Cribbs, and those concerns turned out to be well-founded since Cribbs' talent appears to be going to waste over and over again.
Last week he had 50 yards and a touchdown on five catches. He could have had more, had the play calling dictated it. He's the team's most reliable and probably most talented receiver, yet he gets less than half the number of targets of the most thrown-to receiver nearly every week.
Cribbs is nothing if not dependable. Throw it his way, and he'll do everything in his power to come down with the ball, and most of the time he'll succeed. He's the smartest, hardest working guy in the WR corps, and when he the throws come his way, it almost always pays off.
The tight ends seem to have a similar problem. Ben Watson is the next-most reliable target after Cribbs, yet he too doesn't see the ball all that often. And then there's Moore, who the Browns signed to a three-year contract extension and then proceeded to barely even send out on the field.
I'm all for giving guys like Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi a chance to prove their worth. That especially goes for Little, who is only a rookie and needs the experience to get better.
But that doesn't mean those opportunities should come at the expense of the team's most reliable ball catchers and thus at the expense of a potential win.
So few things are going right for this team in 2011; they need to take advantage of the few things that work and stick with them.
4. Stop Making the Same Call over and over on Third and Short
This is a little like that pesky three-yard slant obsession the Browns seem to have. Every time they're facing third-and-short or even fourth-and-short and going for it, they call the same play.
Over and over again when faced with this situation, we see a draw play up the middle. It almost never works.
Part of this is a personnel issue; the Browns don't have the necessary blockers for this to work, nor do they have a running back who can bulldoze his way up the middle the way one needs to in order to move the chains (by the way, this wasn't working early this season even when Hillis was healthy, because they kept trying to run this play using Hardesty or even Armond Smith).
The other part is, yet again, a predictability issue. The whole point of a draw play (and why it's named as such) is to "draw" defenders downfield by looking as though you're going to pass in order to create a gap in for the rusher to sneak through.
The problem of course is that if you do this every time you're in this situation, defenses know what's coming, and they aren't fooled by the attempt to fake a passing play before the handoff.
Obviously, there are situations where such a play is the right move or at least the move that gives the team the best chance to convert.
But for the Browns, it hasn't been successful enough and isn't being run correctly to be their go-to option in this situation, especially since their overuse of it has resulted in defenses seeing it coming a mile away.
5. McCoy Should Be Throwing out of the Shotgun More Often
Prior to being drafted into the NFL, QB Colt McCoy had spent pretty much his entire life throwing out of the shotgun. It's the formation in which he is most comfortable, performs best, and the one which made him the successful "winner" of a quarterback that the Browns were so interested in drafting.
And yet, we almost never see the Browns line up in shotgun formation now, despite McCoy's clear struggle in plays from under center and notable success throwing out of the gun.
Obviously this is an adjustment many quarterbacks have to make when entering the NFL after leaving the spread-happy NCAA, but the formation does have its uses in pro football.
I'm certainly not suggesting that the Browns abandon their current offensive scheme and start running a spread offense or some form of modified run-and-shoot using the shot gun formation, but I do think it would be to their benefit to allow McCoy some freedom and allow him to find some comfort in the familiar by setting up this way more often than they do.
Overall, what it comes down to is that McCoy has been better out of the shotgun than he has been from under center since he took over for the Browns at QB last season. With an unreliable offensive line and no real go-to marquee receiver, McCoy has enough of the deck stacked against him already.
If the Browns can give him a greater chance for success by employing the shotgun formation more often, there's no reason they shouldn't do so to improve things for McCoy and for the team as a whole.
6. Get over the Fear of Throwing Downfield
Here would be another one of those things that we all complain about every Sunday after the Browns lose every week that never seems to change.
Coach Shurmur seems to be positively allergic to allowing his offense to throw downfield.
With the West Coast Offensive System, the team obviously is going to be largely focused on shorter plays. However, as we've said many times before, West Coast Offenses may not favor long passes that use more of the field, but they don't prevent the use of them, either.
Most truly good West Coast Offenses won't hesitate to throw downfield if the situation calls for it. They'll do it multiple times in a game or even in a drive if necessary.
The excuse always given by those who support the lack of inclusion of longer passes into the Browns West Coast Offense is always that McCoy doesn't have the arm strength.
The flaw in the argument is that, first of all, no one is saying that he needs to throw 80-yard bombs. We're talking about 20-30 yard passes, which I'm pretty sure he can handle.
And secondly, for those who don't think McCoy is capable of making such a throw or that it wouldn't help the team, take a look at the Browns game against the 49ers, where almost all of their success on offense came on big-gain, 15-25 yard pass plays.
Obviously they didn't win that one, but the success the Browns had throwing downfield then proves they might have been able to win other close games if only they had tried to use the whole field rather than restricting themselves to plays contained within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
If the Browns can get the West Coast Offense working the way it ideally should within the next season or two, they won't need to go downfield out of desperation or as an attempt at misdirection all that often. But no good offense, even one of the West Coast persuasion, can survive on short gains alone.
The Browns don't have to go big all the time, but they have to get over their fear of using the whole field or they'll continue to miss opportunities that could have paid off for them if they weren't so afraid to diversify.