Monday, August 20, 2007

It's Only a Matter of Time Before the Browns Become the Brady Bunch

Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson are no longer competing to be the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns; they are simply battling to determine who will man that position until Brady Quinn learns the offense well enough to take over. I say that not so much because Quinn racked up impressive statistics in mop-up duty versus Detroit's third stringers in Detroit's 23-20 win on Saturday night but because neither Frye nor Anderson look like competent NFL quarterbacks. Of course, that means that both of them fit right in with the Browns, who have not looked like a competent NFL franchise since the team's 1999 rebirth. Bill Walsh once said that it should only take three years to take a team from the bottom of the NFL to being a solid team. The Browns have been around long enough to have built a couple contending teams but have posted just one winning record--and 9-7 at that--in eight seasons.

It is very instructive to watch the local Cleveland broadcasts of Browns' preseason games. Bernie Kosar, a Pro Bowl quarterback who led the Browns to three AFC championship games in the 1980s, provides a lot of insight about what is happening in the games--and one of the things that becomes quickly apparent is that the Browns have no clue what they are doing. A typical play as described by Kosar sounds something like this: "The defense has eight players in the box, with man coverage outside, so what the Browns should do here is throw the ball to Braylon Edwards on the outside. The last thing that you want to do is run the ball right into the teeth of the defense--ooh, the Browns ran it up the middle and only gained one yard." Basically, before the play Kosar reads the opposing defense and whatever he says the Browns should not do is exactly what the Browns end up doing. Listening to this brings to mind two questions: (1) What exactly are the Browns' coaches teaching their players? (2) Wouldn't Bernie Kosar make a fine NFL head coach? The cerebral Kosar graduated from college in two years with a double major and then utilized his knowledge of the NFL's drafting rules to engineer things so that he could play for his beloved Browns. He obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and during his career he proved that he has tremendous leadership qualities as well; Kosar is not just an "Xs and Os" guy but rather someone who would command respect in the locker room.

I'm a big believer in Bill Belichick, who led the Browns to the franchise's most recent playoff victory, a 20-13 win over New England on January 1, 1995 (New England was then coached by Belichick's mentor Bill Parcells, who has had a notable lack of success without Belichick at his side while Belichick has surpassed him in career Super Bowl wins). Belichick's success in New England has established him as a certain Hall of Famer and his "coaching tree" is probably second only to Bill Walsh's and includes head coaches Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis, Nick Saban, Kirk Ferentz, and Pat Hill, plus numerous NFL executives, coordinators and assistant coaches. Watching the Browns the past two years, though, I wonder if in hiring Romeo Crennel the Browns tethered their hopes to the one withered twig on the Belichick tree. Crennel was an excellent defensive coordinator for Belichick but maybe there is a reason that he has never been a head coach before (Belichick, Ferentz, Mangini and Saban ascended to head coaching jobs at a very young age). Look at the inept way that Crennel has handled the quarterback situation this year. Who ever heard of flipping a coin to decide who starts? Crennel says that he did that because during the season either guy will have to be ready to play at a moment's notice. That may be true but the bigger issue is that one of them needs to be learning how to prepare during the week to be a successful starter. Pick one guy, put your weight behind him and give him every chance to keep the job; if he can't get it done, then give the other guy a similar opportunity. The sad part is that it is not like the choice is between two Pro Bowl level players. Face it, this is not Tom Landry using Roger Staubach and Craig Morton on alternating series--and Landry wisely abandoned the platooning approach almost immediately because it just does not work. You cannot have two starting quarterbacks. For the good of the team--not to mention each quarterback--there has to be a pecking order.

The muddled quarterback situation is just the latest example of what is wrong with the Browns. It's not just the losing that is bothersome but the fact that the team looks so disorganized. This may sound crazy, but I knew that the Browns were going to be bad last year after watching them warm up before the opening game of the season against New Orleans. They looked lackadaisical as they went through their pre-game drills, with Braylon Edwards nonchalantly dropping several passes. As the saying goes, you practice how you play and, sure enough, that is how the Browns played for most of the season: lackadaisical, disorganized and nonchalant. Braylon Edwards dropped passes in practice and then, not surprisingly, he dropped passes during games. Jerry Rice used to run every practice reception to the end zone, even the short plays; that is how you condition your mind and your body, that is how you prepare to win. Kellen Winslow seems to have that mindset, as does Kamerion Wimbley, but the team as a whole surely does not and the proof is in the pudding every Sunday.

If the Browns played hard and played smart but lost because their opponents simply have more talent then that would be easier to accept--but the Browns do not demonstrate the focus and discipline that are necessary to win football games. That is why Quinn already looks like a better quarterback prospect than Frye or Anderson. Quinn went 13-20 for 155 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against Detroit and several of his incompletions came when he spiked the ball to stop the clock. Yes, he was playing with and against third stringers but the one thing that can definitely be said about him is that he looked poised. Quinn knew what he was supposed to be doing and the team executed crisply with him in command; there were no silly penalties, no wasted timeouts and no confusion. He drove the Browns 92 yards for a touchdown in the last two minutes with no timeouts; Anderson and Frye can barely get the right personnel groups on the field, struggle to make the correct reads and frequently turn the ball over.

In general, the best thing for young quarterbacks is to serve a bit of an apprenticeship before they are cast into the fire. The last thing that the Browns want to do is expose Quinn to the kind of physical punishment that Tim Couch received in 1999--but this situation is a lot different. The overall talent on the team is much better now than it was in 1999. Quinn has been described as a quick study, which was hardly the case with Couch. I did not expect Quinn to be this sharp in his first NFL action and now would be as good a time as any to see how he reacts to being given more responsibility. No quarterback is going to play the whole game in the preseason, so this is a good time to give Quinn some repetitions playing with and against starting level players, as opposed to waiting to provide Quinn this kind of opportunity until the team is in a desperate situation in the regular season. If Crennel insists on having a starting quarterback "rotation" on the Browns then Quinn should be included in that group as soon as possible. If Crennel cannot decide who to demote between Frye and Anderson then he could always flip a coin.

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