Saturday, December 24, 2016

Cleveland Browns: "We're Not the Worst NFL Team Ever"

Fans like to declare "We're Number One" but in the aftermath of the Cleveland Browns' 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers all that Browns fans can honestly say is "We're Not the Worst NFL Team Ever." The Browns started this season 0-14--and had lost a franchise-record 17 straight games prior to beating the Chargers--but the dubious distinction of worst NFL team ever probably still belongs to the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that went 0-14 in the franchise's first year and then lost the first 12 games in the franchise's second year; those 26 straight losses are an NFL record that ranks among the sports records least likely to be broken (just think about how awful this Browns team is and then realize that they would have had to lose more than another half season's worth of games to match the Buccaneers' epic futility). Or, perhaps the 2008 Detroit Lions merit consideration, as they remain the only NFL team to lose every game in a season since the league expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978. In any case, the 2016 Browns have elevated themselves out of that conversation, because one win is infinitely more than zero wins.

Browns versus Chargers was one of the most exciting Browns games I have ever watched, but the excitement was perverse, not joyous--kind of like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. Until the clock hit triple zeroes, I had no idea what would happen. Even as Josh Lambo's game-tying field goal attempt sailed wide right as time expired, I still was not convinced that the Browns had won; I first had to make sure that no Brown had thrown a helmet in celebration or jumped offsides or called timeout to ice the kicker or committed some other folly that I cannot even imagine or conceive.

It felt strange to become so emotionally invested in the possibility that an awful team might hang on to beat a pretty bad team but being a sports fan sometimes involves suspension of disbelief or logic. Let's be honest: the Browns did not win because they had a great game plan or because they played so well; the Browns won mainly because they were playing a sorry team featuring lame duck Coach Mike McCoy. San Diego's Philip Rivers is a talented quarterback but this season he is the most intercepted passer in the league and after he executed a crisp touchdown drive on the first series of the game he did not do much of note the rest of the way. His Cleveland counterpart, Robert Griffin III, is a marvelously talented athlete who cannot stay healthy or consistently throw the football accurately, two attributes that are rather important for long term success as an NFL quarterback. This was a typical Griffin performance: he ran well, played with heart/determination--and did not finish the game due to injury (he has now been entered into the NFL's concussion protocol and I hope that he is OK not just in a football sense but also as a human being).

Trailing by three points with less than two minutes remaining in the game, the Chargers raced downfield into field goal range with no timeouts because the Browns refused to double cover tight end Antonio Gates, San Diego's most dangerous offensive weapon. The Browns are the anti-New England Patriots; Patriot Coach Bill Belichick identifies the opposing team's best weapon and comes up with a plan to neutralize that weapon but Gates had eight catches for 94 yards and a touchdown against the Browns. After the game, the CBS studio crew (most notably Bill Cowher) gave credit to Browns Coach Hue Jackson because he is an upbeat person who supposedly inspired the Browns to play hard. Look, most of the Browns players are paid more money for one game than the average U.S. citizen earns in an entire calendar year; playing hard is the least that these players can do--not to mention the old cliche "the eye in the sky don't lie": everything a player does is filmed and the habits and techniques that a player demonstrates on film will go a long way toward determining whether or not that player has an NFL job next season.

A well coached team is disciplined and the players are always in the right position, even if the players lack the size, strength and/or speed to complete the play; the 2016 Browns are not just a bad team but they are a team that demonstrably lacks discipline and does not execute properly. CBS color commentator Solomon Wilcots repeatedly pointed out that the Browns should be double-teaming Gates. The coach is responsible for the product on the field; if Jackson is giving the right instructions but the players are not executing then he needs to put different players on the field: the bottom line is that whatever happens on the field has either been taught by the coach or is being permitted to happen by the coach. Remember Mike Singletary's rant about how he would rather play 10 on 11 than put a player on the field who does not buy into the game plan? A lot of people made fun of the way that Singletary delivered that message but his underlying thought process was right on the money.

Speaking of cultivating the right mentality, it should be noted that the problem with the Browns starts at the top and predates Jackson joining the team. Case in point: I did not catch this during the telecast, but apparently the Browns played Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" after the game. I am a lifelong Browns fan. I am happy when my team wins and I am disappointed when my team loses. I hate to quote Mike Tomlin, the coach of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, but I love the attitude behind his oft-repeated statement, "The standard is the standard." Tomlin's Steelers expect to win any time, any place, regardless of injuries or circumstances. The Steelers are not going to play "Celebration" after one win against a bad team during a season that will not end in a playoff berth, let alone a Super Bowl title (that is the standard that the Steelers set for every season).

I would say that after a regular season victory the Browns should act like they have done this before but the problem is, the 2016 Browns had not done this before. The ownership group, front office and coaching staff have plunged a once-proud franchise to the lowest point in its long history--but they won one game and avoided being considered the worst team ever. "Celebration," indeed.

The Browns face the Steelers next week. As Wilcots noted, the Browns have no realistic chance to win that game. This is just not right. Browns-Steelers is supposed to be a rivalry game, not a stepping-stone for the Steelers to possibly improve their playoff position.

I am happy that the Browns won; it sure is better than the alternative--but Browns fans will really celebrate when they believe that they have the right owner, front office, coaching staff and quarterback to be successful in the long run and when Browns-Steelers is a competitive contest, not a foregone conclusion to punctuate the most forgettable and lamentable season in Browns' history.

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