Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Real Professional Football is Being Played in Cleveland!

The record book indicates that the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 but--except for a 9-7 blip in 2002--it could not really be truthfully said that professional football was being played in the city (at least not by the home team). That seems to have changed suddenly and dramatically this season.

After a 27-17 home win over Houston on Sunday, the Browns are 7-4, which is their best record at this stage of the season since 1994. This success has been largely built on the strength of a five game home winning streak, the team's best since 1994. Derek Anderson's 22 touchdown passes are the most by a Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar also had 22 in 1987; Anderson has an excellent chance to break Brian Sipe's team record of 30, set in 1980 when Sipe won the NFL MVP.

This is a remarkable turnaround for a team that looked dead in the water after a 34-7 week one loss to Pittsburgh that was highlighted (lowlighted?) by the Browns committing four penalties on one play; that pitiful sequence and lopsided score epitomized how the Browns have usually performed since 1999 and strongly suggested that the rebuilding program being orchestrated by General Manager Phil Savage and Coach Romeo Crennel was going nowhere fast. That week one disaster convinced me that the Browns were not keeping pace with the three year time frame that Bill Walsh laid out for rebuilding a team but since then the Browns dumped Charlie Frye, installed Derek Anderson as the starting quarterback and have looked like a bona fide playoff team.

Two key differences between this year's squad and the previous teams are that the Browns now have Pro Bowl caliber players at several positions and have the depth to withstand injuries. Anderson, kick returner Joshua Cribbs, tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and rookie offensive tackle Joe Thomas are all worthy of being Pro Bowlers; they may not all make it this year because established players from previously successful teams tend to receive such honors but the important point is that the Browns have drafted, acquired and developed several players who have top of the line talent. Running back Jamal Lewis may not consistently be playing at a Pro Bowl level but he is the best running back that the Browns have had in a long time; a strong running game is essential for any Cleveland team to do well, particularly as the weather turns cold. Lewis had 134 yards on 29 carries versus Houston, scoring one touchdown and helping the Browns to literally run out the clock at the end of the game. His eight rushing touchdowns are the most by a Brown since Kevin Mack had eight in 1991. Meanwhile, Anderson has the passing game clicking on all cylinders: Edwards has 11 touchdown receptions and is on course to break Gary Collins' franchise record of 13, set in 1963; Winslow tied Ozzie Newsome's franchise record with 89 receptions last season and with 62 receptions in 11 games he has a decent chance to become the first Brown to tally 90 receptions in a season. This is one of the best Browns' offenses ever and that is saying something considering the proud history of this franchise.

The defense is obviously still a work in progress but even on that side of the ball there are encouraging signs. Houston has displayed an explosive offense this season but the Browns held them to 17 points, probably the team's best overall defensive performance this season. The Browns did this without starting cornerback Eric Wright, who was replaced by nickel back Daven Holly, which forced rookie Brandon McDonald into service to fill Holly's normal role. McDonald's first career interception came in the second half and led to Lewis' touchdown, which gave the Browns a 27-10 lead and all but assured the victory. The Browns entered the game with the league's worst defense statistically but held the Texans to seven points and 106 yards in the second half.

This may sound like something that is insignificant, but the Browns looked different during their warmups. I went to the Browns' 19-14 opening day loss to New Orleans in 2006 and one of the things that bothered me most as a fan is how lackadaisical the team looked during warmups. Edwards dropped several passes during warmups and, sure enough, he dropped several passes during the game. I told several people after the game that I had a bad feeling about the season based on the lack of crispness and sharpness in the way that the team warmed up before the game and that assessment turned out to be correct. Things looked a lot different before the Houston game. Edwards caught a short pass and, like Jerry Rice used to do, he ran all the way to midfield (the Texans were practicing on the other side, so he could not run to the endzone); Rice, like the great ones in any sport or endeavor, took practice/preparation seriously and it is nice to see that Edwards apparently is now adapting this approach.

I will always root for the Browns, win or lose, but I really like this team. This is a fun team to watch; some of the previous squads did not prepare well or play hard and it was not much fun to watch them. Maybe this is the start of something special for the Browns and, if so, I could not be happier that my initial take on this year's team has turned out to be wrong.

Give Savage credit for his acquisitions and give Crennel credit for finally getting the Browns to look organized most of the time.

Here are some other NFL games that caught my eye this week:


We saw the best and worst of Kurt Warner in Arizona's 37-31 overtime loss to San Francisco on Sunday. The "best" is that Warner completed 34 of 48 passes for a career-high 484 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions despite playing with a torn ligament in his left (non-throwing) shoulder and a rib injury that he suffered during the third quarter. Warner's yardage is an NFL single-game high for this season and an all-time record for a San Francisco opponent. The "worst" is that the 49ers recovered a Warner fumble in the endzone to score the clinching touchdown in overtime.

Warner, a two-time NFL MVP (1999, 2001), is tied with Carson Palmer for seventh in passer rating this season (90.8) but ball security has often been a problem for him. According to Yahoo!Sports, Warner has lost 32 fumbles in 89 career games. This ratio is the worst one among the NFL's top quarterbacks (based on passer rating this season): the top ranked Tom Brady has lost 27 fumbles in 107 games; number two Ben Roethlisberger has lost eight fumbles in 52 games; number three Tony Romo has lost five fumbles in 43 games; number four David Garrard has lost five fumbles in 36 games; number five Brett Favre has lost 54 fumbles in 252 games; number six Jeff Garcia has lost 21 fumbles in 110 games; Palmer has lost 12 fumbles in 56 games.

Warner is a wonderfully gifted passer who generates a lot of offense but his turnovers also help the other team put points on the board.


The Philadelphia Eagles had an excellent game plan offensively and defensively. They executed it reasonably well. The New England Patriots were not as sharp as usual, yet they still won, 31-28. Even the greatest teams have at least one close call sooner or later; rather than a "blueprint" for how to beat New England this is more likely a wakeup call of sorts and may turn out to be the closest that the Patriots come to losing all year. You just know that Bill Belichick will be serving extra portions of "humble pie" this week and that his players will devour every crumb. That process actually seemed to begin during the game; New England adjusted to the pass rush pressure the Eagles brought by shelving the deep passing game to Randy Moss and utilizing Wes Welker on short, quick hitting pass patterns. Welker's 13 receptions tied for the second most ever by a New England player in one game. Tom Brady went 34-54 for 380 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. It was clearly his worst game of the year--and he still had a passer rating of 90.0, a number that would rank in the top ten for all NFL quarterbacks this season.

Donovan McNabb is supposedly the Eagles' franchise player and he certainly deserves credit for leading the team to four NFC Championship Game appearances and one Super Bowl. However, there are questions about his ability to perform in big games and there are also questions about how valuable he is at this stage of his career after sustaining so many injuries recently. The Eagles looked better last year with Jeff Garcia at quarterback than they did with McNabb calling the signals and they certainly did very well on Sunday with A.J. Feeley (27-42, 345 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, 83.9 rating) at the helm. McNabb's rating this season is 87.3, slightly above his career average, but he has been all over the map, from a perfect 158.3 rating in a week three 56-21 rout of Detroit to a .4 rating (that is not a typo) in a 17-7 win over Miami. When Terrell Owens was an Eagle he raised some eyebrows by publicly questioning McNabb's performance down the stretch in the team's Super Bowl loss to New England; the media jumped all over Owens and McNabb called Owens' comments an example of "black on black crime"--but most of the other Eagles were conspicuously reluctant to come to McNabb's defense and some of them reportedly even privately agreed with what Owens said. Owens may have been wrong to say what he did but that does not mean that what he said was wrong.


The Pittsburgh Steelers maintained a one game lead over Cleveland in the AFC North by beating Miami on Monday in a 3-0 slopfest at Heinz Field. The lowest scoring game in the history of Monday Night Football was delayed due to lightning and probably should have been canceled due to deplorable field conditions. One punt hit the turf and came to a dead stop as literally half the ball sank into the soggy, muddy quagmire that resembled quicksand. The Steelers had their first scoreless first half at home in a regular season game since 1955. As a Browns fan I would have loved to see Pittsburgh lose but I disagree with any suggestion that the bad field conditions hurt Miami's chances of pulling off the upset; the winless Dolphins are clearly inferior to the Steelers, who spent much of the game operating in Miami territory but were unable to score until just seconds remained in the contest. Without the leveling effect provided by the muddy field, the Steelers--who have been dominant at home all season--would probably have won by three touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger set a Steelers record for single game completion percentage, going 18-21 for 165 yards. His only serious mistake was a first quarter interception by ex-Steeler Joey Porter.

Give Miami credit for fighting hard until the end. As ESPN's Steve Young noted, the Dolphins did not make many errors in terms of execution and played a lot better than one would expect from an 0-11 team. They have lost six games by three points or less but that will be little consolation if they end up becoming the first NFL team to go winless since the NFL expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978. While the game was literally an eyesore, one of the highlights of any Monday Night Football game on ESPN is hearing Steve Young's pregame and postgame analysis. Young constantly provides interesting insights based on his experiences as a top quarterback and he steadfastly refuses to hype up players, teams or matchups that do not deserve it. After the Pittsburgh-Miami game he said simply that there was nothing that happened that was worth analyzing: the Steelers are the better team and they did just enough to win but due to the uniquely bad conditions this contest told us nothing about their ability to beat New England or Indianapolis, particularly on the road, which is the challenge that Pittsburgh will likely face in this year's playoffs. I always respected Young's approach to what he terms the "craft" of being an NFL quarterback and it is clear that he takes being an analyst just as seriously.

No comments: