Monday, November 26, 2007

Make Room on The Bandwagon for Me

Okay, I give. The 2007 Cleveland Browns have finally overcome all of the defense mechanisms that I've built up over the years of futility that we've endured since 1999. I'm officially jumping on the "this team's going to the playoffs" bandwagon.

To me, there's always been an air of unreality to the Browns' success this season. Early on, the Browns gave all of the signs of being a team in complete disarray. They appeared to have wasted an entire training camp on a QB contest that proved so futile that they pressed the reset button on the day after the Pittsburgh game, and jettisoned their most experienced QB in favor of a guy with size 17 feet and four NFL starts.

Trading Frye and putting the season in Anderson's hands seemed to be a reckless gamble by a desperate front office, but if it was, it paid off in spades during the first part of the season. Putting Anderson in charge was like adding rocket fuel to the offense's gas tank. The Browns responded immediately, and found themselves 3-3 at the bye, with wins against both the Ravens and the Bengals to their credit. That record came as a shock to me, and I think to quite a few other fans as well. After the week one meltdown, I thought the most likely scenario for the bye week was a 1-5 record, an interim head coach, and the beginning of the Brady Quinn era.

Despite the team's early success, a lot of questions remained. The defense was terrible, and every game was a track meet. How far could the Browns go knowing that they'd have to win a scoring contest each week? Then there were the penalties, which seemed to come in bunches. The Rams game, in particular, became a comic opera. The Browns opened the third quarter with a nice scoring 80 yard scoring drive. The only trouble was, they actually drove 105 yards thanks to a holding penalty and three false starts. It got worse after that. Remember the last drive of the third quarter? The Browns managed to get a field goal despite 30 yards in penalties, including Braylon Edwards' memorable Dwayne Rudd impersonation.

Those problems persisted well after the bye, and they were added to in recent weeks by the team's lackluster second half performances against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Anderson appeared a lot less confident than he had earlier in the season, especially during the second half of those games. The Browns blew a 21-6 second quarter lead against Pittsburgh and a 27-14 fourth quarter lead against Baltimore. But for the miraculous chain of events that sent the Ravens game into overtime, the Browns would have entered the Texans game with back-to-back losses.

The Browns' recent troubles weren't lost on the local media. Just yesterday, Bill Livingston wrote an unusually coherent column in which he pointed out many of the concerns that fans had about Derek Anderson's performance in recent weeks. In particular, Livingston noted Anderson's lackluster performances against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and the fact that his best outings have occurred against the league's worst defenses.

So despite their record, the Browns faced a lot of questions going into the Houston game, and the good news is, they answered some of them in pretty convincing fashion. As usual, Terry Pluto said it best in his column this morning: it was the team's best performance of the season, and exactly how a playoff team performs at home.

No, it wasn't perfect. The Browns came out flat at the start of the game. Anderson misfired several times, and the play calling was uninspired to say the least. Uninspired, that is, unless your favorite short yardage play is "Metcalf up the middle," in which case the play calling in the first quarter was brilliant. That's because in their first two possessions, the Browns twice threw a running back without a lead blocker into the teeth of the Houston defense on third and fourth down short yardage situations. The first victim was Jason Wright, who wiffed on 3rd and 2 during the Browns first possession, while the second was Lawrence Vickers, who came up empty on 4th and 1 during the team's second series.

Meanwhile, the Texans picked the Cleveland secondary apart on a six play touchdown drive, and pretty much dominated the first quarter, outgaining the Browns 125 yards to 43, and holding the ball for almost nine minutes. Things looked pretty bleak for the Browns, but the tide turned quickly in the second quarter, starting with D'Qwell Jackson's interception of Matt Schaub's to TE Joel Dresseen. Jamal Lewis picked up three yards on first down, and the Browns picked up six more on second down.

That left the team in a familiar spot: 3rd and 1, but they handled it in an unfamiliar way. In hindsight, it was the next play that started me on the path to joining the playoff bandwagon. Why? Because the play was brilliant, and it showed me that there really is something that's different about this team -- it's just a little bit smarter than most of its opponents.

The Browns lined up in an I Formation, with Lawrence Vickers and Jamal Lewis in the backfield. Now, on the first two possessions, the Browns had lined up in a single back formation and tried to run the ball up the middle without a lead blocker. Looking at the formation and what the team had done on their first two possessions, it was pretty clear what the Browns were going to do: they were going to run Lewis outside, using Vickers as a lead blocker. The flow of the play headed in that direction, the Houston LBs bit on that flow and a nice fake by Derek Anderson. Meanwhile, Anderson spun around and hit Joe Jurevicius in the left flat. Thanks to the fake, Jurevicius had a lot of green in front of him, and he rambled for a gain of 25 yards.

What I liked about this play was the way the Browns turned lemons into lemonade. A lot of teams set up defenses for deception based on what they've done well. For example, a team with a strong power running game is often in an excellent position to use play action or to run misdirection. But what the Browns did was a little different. They deceived the Texans by using their past failures to set up a strong perception about what play was coming, and then did something completely unexpected. That's very smart football, and the ability to game plan on the fly like that distinguishes this team from a lot of other teams in the NFL.

That 3rd down conversion marked a turning point in the game. The Browns went on to score on Anderson's 19 yard strike to Edwards, and although the Texans responded with a field goal, the Browns were pretty much in control of the game from the second quarter on.

There were many things to be happy about yesterday, not the least of which was the way the defense stepped up and shut down a team that actually has a decent offense (the Texans rank 11th out of 32 teams). The Browns also demonstrated an ability to play the second half of a game as well or better than the first half, showed that Jamal Lewis remains a viable weapon, and showed that they could deliver a knock-out blow to an opponent when given the opportunity. Penalties remain an area of concern, but aside from that, you can't ask for much more out of a game than what the Browns delivered yesterday.

The Browns' final five games of the season all involve opponents with sub .500 records. That doesn't mean that you can pencil the Browns in for 11 or 12 wins, but I do think that 9 or 10 wins is a reasonable expectation at this point. The Browns are a young team with a lot of flaws. They will lose some games to teams they should beat, and I doubt very much that they'll storm into the playoffs or unseat Pittsburgh as the divisional champ. But assuming they stay healthy, I do think their chances of ending up in the playoffs when the dust settles are pretty darn good -- and the reason for that has as much to do with the smarts they've shown as the talent they've got.

So, make room on the bandwagon for one more. HERE WE GO BROWNIES! HERE WE GO! WOOF! WOOF!

1 comment:

Erik said...

The TD passes to Edwards and Winslow yesterday underscored what a great arm DA has.

There must have been a reason why he was drafted out of Oregon State by Baltimore. It sure wasn't his QB instincts, his big-game play or his consistency. It was his raw talent, which is finally being tapped.

DA still has trouble making the underneath throws consistently, and he still has the occasional "What-the-f%$k-was-he-thinking?" moments (the INT), but when he needs to buzz it into triple coverage, he can do it.

On his TD, Winslow dropped to his knees and waited for the pass like Vic Martinez setting up outside for a C.C. fastball. DA threw a filthy strike right between the 8 and the 0 on K2's chest. Nobody but K2 was getting to that ball, despite the fact that there were three Texans within an arm's reach.

Those are the kinds of big-league throws DA is making. DA might have the best pure passing arm in the league outside of Peyton Manning, and possibly Carson Palmer.

The Browns and Texans are both case studies in what can happen when you replace a shitty QB with a good QB. But the Browns have more pieces in place than the Texans and are probably closer to being a true contender.

At this point, I frankly don't see how you can let DA go after this season, even if you franchise him. He's really been the point man for the Browns' resurgence.