October 22, 2014

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Breaking down the Browns at the bye


The Top 5 from the first half

The Jimmy Effect

Haslam

Of all the reasons for optimism in Browns Town, the arrival of owner Jimmy Haslam tops the list. He’s the anti-Randy Lerner, which means he brings passion, energy and a willingness to appear in front of the camera. It also means he wants to own a football team.

Winning starts at the top, so it’s not an overstatement to say Haslam can change the direction of the franchise. He’s vowed to bring Cleveland a championship and doesn’t have the personality to stop trying until he succeeds.


Right on

Schwartz

The way rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz started the preseason had fans wondering if general manager Tom Heckert had squandered a second-round draft pick. But Schwartz is a fast learner and figured out the NFL in time for the start of the season. He’s played every snap but has rarely been noticed, and that’s a great thing for a rookie lineman.

He’s been steady in pass protection since the opener and has slowed down some of the best ends in the league, including Mario Williams and Jason Pierre-Paul. He also has great potential in the run game and should be leading the way for Trent Richardson for years. With left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack, the Browns have three cornerstones of the line.


Going deep

Weeden

The Browns still throw their share of short passes in coach Pat Shurmur’s West Coast Offense, but they’ve mixed in the long ball this year with success. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden provides the ability to stretch the field that Colt McCoy didn’t, and Shurmur has taken advantage.

The Browns have 30 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, which is equal to all of last year. Rookie receiver Josh Gordon has been the most consistent deep threat, but 10 others have contributed with big plays. Without several drops, the number would be even more impressive.

The West Coast is a lot more fun when it isn’t all dink-and-dunk.


Dawson’s streak

Dawson

Kicker Phil Dawson will make $3.81 million this year on the franchise tag. He’s been worth every penny.

Despite kicking on one of the worst surfaces in the league, Dawson hasn’t missed a kick. He’s 17-for-17 on field goals, including four from 50 yards, and has made 23 straight dating to last season.

Dawson also has 13 touchbacks and reliable placement on kickoffs, helping the coverage unit rank third in opponent’s average start, the 19.9-yard line. The new regime of Haslam and Joe Banner better learn in a hurry just how valuable Dawson is and bring him back for a 15th season.


Young guns

Winn

Sixth-round pick Billy Winn has started all nine games at defensive tackle. Third-rounder John Hughes has started two and played extensively in all nine. They both made immediate contributions and helped the important tackle position become a position of strength.

The Browns have yet to have their top four tackles healthy, but the idea of Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin being backed up by Winn and Hughes excites the coaches. Taylor just returned from a torn pectoral muscle, while Rubin is dealing with a calf injury. The Browns have the talent to impress opponents and the depth to overcome injuries.


The Bottom 5 from the first half

The bombshell

Lerner

Randy Lerner had every right to sell the team, but his timing couldn’t have been worse. News of the impending sale coincided with the opening of training camp and left the entire organization in limbo. It also came halfway through the massive rebuilding project started by president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert.

Coach Pat Shurmur was hurt the worst. Not only was he repeatedly asked about the uncertainty, his guarantee of a third season had vanished overnight. Before his first practice, he knew there was a good chance this season would be
his last — no matter what he did.

The players were also affected because the stability they cherish was threatened just as they embarked on what they hoped to be a turnaround season.


Falling short

The Browns work hard to get into short-yardage situations, but have failed to take advantage of the opportunities. The most glaring issue has come on third-and-1, where the Browns have converted only eight of 18.

Shurmur’s tried pounding Trent Richardson between the tackles, and he’s a dreadful 2-for-7. Shurmur’s tried throwing short and deep, and has gotten mixed results. As luck would have it, Shurmur continues to find himself tested by this down-and-distance on a weekly basis.

The big four

Haden

No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden altered the course of the season with a four-game suspension that began in Week 2. He says he tested positive for the stimulant Adderall, which is on the NFL’s list of performance-enhancing drugs.

The defense missed him greatly and the Browns lost all four games. They won in his return, are 2-3 with him and the points and yards allowed are significantly fewer with him on the field. Haden apologized, but the selfish move sabotaged the season before it could get going.


Injury report

General manager Tom Heckert has succeeded in improving the depth of the roster, but it wasn’t yet strong enough to absorb the rash of injuries, especially on defense.

Weakside linebacker Chris Gocong was lost in training camp with a torn Achilles tendon. Strongside linebacker Scott Fujita played four games before his neck could no longer take the pounding and he was lost for the year. Defensive tackle Phil Taylor missed the first eight games with a torn pectoral muscle, defensive tackle Ahytba Rubin missed all but seven snaps of the last four games and cornerback Dimitri Patterson missed the last four games.

The offense hasn’t been hit as hard, but lost starting left guard Jason Pinkston for the year with a blood clot in his lung and slot receiver Jordan Norwood for at least eight weeks with a foot injury. Of course, Norwood’s injury came during a game in which he caught a career-high nine passes.

Agonizingly close

If Josh Gordon had caught the post in Indianapolis … If Brandon Weeden hadn’t thrown the pick-six at Baltimore … If L.J. Fort had held onto the interception in the end zone in the opener … If Chris Ogbonnaya had been lined up properly against the Ravens …

The Browns have been in just about every game with a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Yet they have two wins and seven losses. The plays that need to be made in the clutch haven’t been made frequently enough.

The first half by the numbers

  • $1.05 billion: Selling price of the Browns.
  • $700 million: First installment paid by Jimmy Halsam to Randy Lerner. The rest is due in four years.
  • $16 million: Amount owed to outgoing president Mike Holmgren in the next two years, when he won’t be working for the team.
  • 2,088: Passing yards by Brandon Weeden.
  • 132.2: Rushing yards per game allowed by the Browns.
  • 67.9: Weeden’s passer rating, which ranks 32nd.
  • 575: Rushing yards by Trent Richardson.
  • 26:53: Average time of possession by the Browns.
  • 21.9: Yards per catch by Josh Gordon, which ranks second in the NFL.
  • 17: Field goals made by Phil Dawson.
  • 12: Interceptions thrown by Weeden.
  • 10: Interceptions by the Cleveland defense.
  • 10: Consecutive losses to the Ravens.
  • 6: Touchdowns by Richardson.
  • 4: Drops by fullback Owen Marecic.
  • 0: Catches by Marecic.
  • 0: Misses by Dawson.

5 things to watch for in the second half

Brandon Weeden’s future

The most important roster decision facing CEO Joe Banner involves the 29-year-old rookie quarterback. Is Weeden the guy for 2013 and beyond? Or should the Browns consider a quarterback with their first-round draft choice? The decision is more complicated because Banner wasn’t involved when general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur drafted him in April.

Banner doesn’t like 30-year-old players, and Weeden will hit the big 3-0 next October. But age matters less for quarterbacks because they can play at a high level later into their careers.

I believe Weeden is the answer for the next five or six years, even after the rough outings the last two games. He has a great arm and good poise in the pocket. The lack of a fourth-quarter comeback would be a bigger concern, but a drop by Josh Gordon and a penalty by Chris Ogbonnaya erased two go-ahead touchdown passes.

Trent Richardson’s health

Rookie running back Trent Richardson (center) is hoping for an injury-free second half. (AP photo.)

The rookie running back said fans will see a “whole ’nother Trent” after the bye. That would be something to see.

Richardson was a leading candidate for team MVP of the first half despite missing the preseason after arthroscopic knee surgery and playing the last four games with injured rib cartilage. He may never be 100 percent this season, but he’s getting closer while getting familiar with the offensive line.

He has back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, 575 rushing yards, 815 yards from scrimmage, 31 catches and six touchdowns. He trails Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin among rookies in touchdowns and rushing yards but said he’s “due” for his own 250-yard game. If Richardson can double his production in the final seven weeks, he’ll have the best rookie season for a Browns running back.

Jordan Cameron’s potential

Shurmur recently said Cameron remains one of the most improved players on the roster. That may be true, but his impact has been minimal — 12 catches for 140 yards.

Cameron, the former basketball player, is athletic and improving as a blocker, but he’s yet to develop into a consistent target or threat in the red zone. He’s still not entirely comfortable in his second season, which was clear when he didn’t turn around on an interception by Weeden last week against the Ravens.

The Browns should use the last seven weeks to determine if Cameron can be a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 tight end. Starter Benjamin Watson is 31 years old and in the last year of his contract, so the Browns must find out exactly what they will need at tight end in the offseason.

Josh Gordon’s development

After a slow start, the supplemental draft pick introduced himself to the NFL with four long touchdown catches in three weeks. He came down to earth with a huge drop of a touchdown pass in Indianapolis and a drop of a deep post against the Ravens, but has looked worthy of the second-round pick Heckert gave up to get him.

Gordon is big (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and fast, proved he can get open deep and is natural catching. After not playing his last season in college, his quick adjustment to the NFL speaks to his talent, intelligence and work ethic. But he’s far from a finished product and has plenty of room to grow in the second half.

“It is overall consistency, all the little things that maybe are not obvious to somebody watching the game,” Shurmur said. “There are a handful of things that we know he does well, let’s make it two handfuls.”

Jabaal Sheard’s slump

Slump may be too strong of a word for the sophomore, but Sheard’s production is noticeably down after a strong rookie year in which he led the team with 8½ sacks. Sheard ranks fourth on the team with 1½ sacks, which came in the two games against the Ravens. He and the coaching staff insist he’s playing well and the sacks will come.

“He’s tough. He’s relentless. He’s got a really good feel for the game,” coordinator Dick Jauron said. “I think he’s a terrific player. Sometimes the stats add fast and sometimes they don’t. He’s the same player. I believe he’ll just get better and be a really outstanding player for this franchise.”

Sheard’s effort can’t be questioned and he’s been a half-step from hitting the quarterback numerous times. He has 29 tackles and four pass breakups.

5 things Scott would do

Keep Pat Shurmur

Scott Petrak

It’s an unpopular opinion and I don’t expect it to happen. But I see potential in the second-year coach and believe he can be the man to guide the Browns to the playoffs.

I’m bothered by how defensive he gets when dealing with the media — this could be what causes CEO Joe Banner to make a change — but think he’s smart enough to handle the job. His leadership can’t be questioned, as several respected players have offered unwavering and unsolicited support.

Shurmur will be viewed harshly if he’s gone after this season, but his two years have been marred by the lockout and the sale. No coach has ever had to work under such circumstances.

Keep Tom Heckert

Again, I don’t expect it to happen. The new regime has every right to bring in its own people, and I think it will.

But Banner insists he has a great relationship with Heckert, and Heckert says he wants to stay. If that’s the case, keeping Heckert should be a no-brainer after the time they spent together in Philadelphia building playoff teams. But word out of the City of Brotherly Love is that Banner was happy when Heckert left.

Heckert didn’t rush his long-term plan in Cleveland with quick fixes and has done a good job of transforming the roster to young and immensely more talented. He deserves another two years.

Keep it simple

Shurmur said he would streamline the process on the sideline during the bye. It’s overdue.

Play calling’s the first part of the equation. Instead of the collaborative process between Shurmur and coordinator Brad Childress before every snap, one needs to take control. With his job on the line, it should be Shurmur.

The other part of the process is personnel. We’re in the “multiple” phase of the NFL, where every team uses a wide array of skill players. But the personnel doesn’t have to change every snap. The Browns should commit to their favorite packages and top three receivers, while sprinkling in Travis Benjamin and Joshua Cribbs. The stability will help quarterback Brandon Weeden’s comfort level and allow the offense to pick up the pace.

Go on the offensive

Any chance of Shurmur sticking depends on him convincing Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam he’s got a vision for the future.

Rather than overreacting to the negative questions from the media and second-guessing by the fans, Shurmur should go on the attack. He needs to passionately explain his general philosophies and decision-making process and stick to his guns.

He believes in the plan — and it’s a solid one — he just needs to communicate it better.

Go get the quarterback

Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron started blitzing less during Joe Haden’s suspension. With Haden back, Dimitri Patterson due back soon from an ankle injury and Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine playing better, Jauron should again dial up the blitz.

The Browns need to force turnovers to help out the offense, and pressuring the quarterback is the best way. The defensive line has accounted for 10 of the 20 sacks and would benefit from the back seven bringing some heat.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.