Monday, September 10, 2007

Four Penalties on One Play and Other Signs of the Football Apocalypse

The Cleveland Browns are the most inept, disorganized and undisciplined team in the NFL. After failing to get a first down on their initial possession in their home opener versus Pittsburgh, the Browns ran perhaps the most messed up play in NFL history. Punter Paul Ernster bobbled the snap, ran around frantically and launched a 15 yard punt. Amazingly, the Browns committed four separate penalties on this play, which has to be some kind of record. Pittsburgh scored a touchdown on a 22 yard "drive" after that fiasco, en route to a 17-0 first quarter lead and a 34-7 win.

The loss dropped Cleveland Coach Romeo Crennel's record to 10-23, including a dismal 1-12 versus divisional opponents. The Browns committed five turnovers and seemed to average about two mental errors per play. Crennel benched starting quarterback Charlie Frye late in the second quarter in favor of Derek Anderson. Frye finished 4-10 for 34 yards and an interception and he was sacked five times; Anderson went 13-28 for 184 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Frye's passer rating was 10.0, while Anderson's was 65.2. Crennel spent the whole preseason waffling back and forth over which one of these guys should be the starter, at one point flipping a coin to decide; too bad the coin did not have a side that read "none of the above." Cleveland fans chanted for Crennel to hand over the reins to rookie Brady Quinn but Crennel rejected this option, explaining after the game, "I didn't play him because he's a kid and the game was out of reach. What am I supposed to do? Put him in the game and throw him to the dogs? That wouldn't be fair to him. It wouldn't be good for him."

Give Crennel credit: at least he got one decision right--but that does not change the fact that the Browns need a new coach. How do I know this for sure? Bill Walsh told me. Actually, I never met or spoke with Walsh, but, as I noted in my tribute to him after he passed away, in a 1998 Sporting News article Walsh made it perfectly clear that rebuilding a football team should not require one of Stalin's infamous five year plans: "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump." Browns General Manager Phil Savage likes to not so subtly point out how badly previous Browns' administrations performed, drafting guys like Tim Couch, Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren--but those blunders do not justify or excuse how pitiful the Browns are entering the third season of the Savage/Crennel regime, the year that Walsh says should be the turning point. Crennel went 6-10 in his first season and 4-12 last year. Maybe things will turn around in the next 15 weeks but right now there are few tangible "signs of improvement," to use Walsh's phrase. Walsh took over a 2-14 team and won the Super Bowl three years later; Savage and Crennel took over a 4-12 team that three years later looks very much like it will be 4-12 again.

Savage and Crennel always have explanations for why things went wrong but their actions offer little hope that the team will improve any time soon. Ernster was signed on Saturday to fill in for the injured Dave Zastudil, who got hurt on Monday. Why did Savage and company wait almost a full week to replace him? If any position is essential for the Browns it is punter, considering the offense's perennial ineptitude. A competently run team would have ascertained that Zastudil could not punt this week and would have signed a replacement early enough so that he could get some practice repetitions. If the Browns cannot line up, snap the ball and execute a punt without literally tripping over themselves then that is a direct reflection on Savage and Crennel. In New England, Bill Belichick can seemingly grab defensive backs off of the street, coach them up and keep winning; in Cleveland, poor decision making has crippled the team. It is inexcusable to not have at least one competent veteran starting quarterback on the roster and it is impossible for the other offensive players to develop any kind of rhythm when Crennel keeps shuffling back and forth between Frye and Anderson.

No one wants to hear about how Chris Palmer and Carmen Policy and Butch Davis set the team back. Savage and Crennel need to put a better product on the field quickly or owner Randy Lerner needs to send their Keystone Kops routine packing and bring in a real football administration that will generate wins instead of excuses. The Browns not only lack talent--earning no Pro Bowl selections since 2002--but they always look unprepared and often seem disinterested. All of this is a direct reflection on how the team is managed and how the players are coached. Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." Losing has become a hard habit to break for the Browns and this will not change until the right people are put in charge of the program.

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