Stuck in the mud

You don't need a PhD to understand why the Browns are struggling this year

Getty Images

Every week that I have been writing one of these Browns fan pieces, I have taken copious notes during the game. The notes are usually two or three pages long and filled with all sorts of team historical references or Cleveland memories or jokes about how grumpy coach Mike Pettine looks every time the camera shows him on the sideline. The announcers tend to call his look “stern,” but really he looks like Elmer Fudd just after he’s been hoodwinked by Bugs Bunny. You expect him to shout out, “I hate that wabbit.”

This week, though, in the Browns’ unrelentingly gloomy 24-6 loss to a not-very-good St. Louis Rams team, there wasn’t much to write down. I fully realized this a moment ago when I began writing this and noticed that my notes are sparse. VERY sparse. In truth, I wrote down just three things.

1. Return for TD before my sandwich.

2. McCown. Wall.

3. Isn’t a PhD the same thing as a Doctorate?

This figures to be a pretty short report, which probably is for the best.

The first note is obvious. On the Browns’ third offensive play of the game, quarterback Josh McCown took a shotgun snap, dropped one step and threw a quick pass to Taylor Gabriel, a speedy little receiver I have come to call “Mattel.” Why Mattel? In a drawer somewhere in this house (I can never remember which drawer) I have a handheld Mattel Electronic Football Game. Remember those? It has little buttons with arrows on them; you press these buttons to move a little blip of light that is meant to represent a football player. Other little blips of light (representing defensive football players) chase around your blip of light in an attempt to extinguish (tackle) it. Yes, Mattel Electronic Football took a little bit of imagination.

Now, I don’t think of Taylor Gabriel as a Mattel little blip of light, though I suppose he has some of those qualities. No, I call him Mattel because I almost NEVER think about that game. I could go weeks, months, even years without thinking about Mattel Electronic Football even one time. And then, by accident, I’ll open the right drawer, and I’ll come across the Mattel game, and think: “Oh, yeah! I forgot I had this! It might be fun to play.”

I’m pretty sure that’s how the Browns feel about Taylor Gabriel. The Browns will go weeks and months without throwing him a single pass. And then, it’s like someone in the Browns facility in Berea will open a drawer and come across him and say, “Oh, yeah, Taylor Gabriel! Forgot we had him. We ought to throw this guy some passes.”

This week, the Browns obviously remembered they had Taylor Gabriel, and they threw him the first pass of the game. He caught it behind the line of scrimmage and was promptly hit by St. Louis’ Janoris Jenkins, at which point he projectile vomited the football to Rams safety Rodney McLeod, who jogged 20 yards for the game’s first touchdown. And, no, I had not yet gotten my sandwich.

One more thought on the Gabriel fumble: The other day, a group of us were in a sports bar in Chicago to watch the Giants-Eagles game and the Royals-Blue Jays game and, most significantly, Battle of the Network Stars from 1981. I bring this up not to talk about the inspiring competitive spirit of Nancy McKeon, but instead to point out that at one point an Eagles tight end was thrown a pass which he seemed to catch before he was broadsided by a Giants safety. It was a frightening collision, something like two Land Rovers crashing into each other. And from the table next to us, I heard a guy shout: “Come on! You’ve got to hold on to that ball!”

That seemed kind of harsh, a dude in a Chicago bar eating nachos and drinking beer and judging a man many miles away for not holding on to the football after being waylayed by a guided missile wearing a helmet. But that only seemed harsh because I’m not an Eagles fan. There I was Sunday, watching the Gabriel fumble again and again and thinking, “Come on! You didn’t get hit that hard! You’ve got to hold on to that ball!”

The second scribbled note refers to a play in the second quarter. On third-and-2, Josh McCown dropped back to throw. He was immediately under pressure because the Rams have a great defensive line and the Browns’ offensive line is a sieve. The “sieve” part is disappointing. The Browns’ offensive line was supposed to be a strength of this team, largely because left tackle Joe Thomas is a five-time All-Pro and viewed as one of the best players in football. I have little doubt that he is a great player but on Sunday, Thomas committed two holding penalties (one which nullified the Browns’ only big play of the day) and one false start. I suspect it was just an off-game for Thomas personally. But the offensive line he leads has been dreadful all season long; by NFL stats that consider run and pass blocking, it ranks 30th out of 32 teams.

Anyway, McCown ran right in the hopes of seeing a receiver breaking free and saving his own life. No receiver did get open, so he ran toward the sidelines and away from Aaron Donald, who weighs 285 pounds and runs faster than a puma. He got out of bounds short of the first down, and just as he got there he seemed to get pushed by Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis.

I’m speculating that this sort of vague thought went through McCown’s head: “Laurinaitis might have pushed me AFTER I went out of bounds. This could constitute a penalty because the league tries to protect quarterbacks.” And so McCown kind of kept running. And kept running. And kept running. You could say that this was his momentum, which reminds me of the great Jerry Seinfeld line about what professional wrestlers are thinking when they come bouncing off the ropes and into flying elbows: “Oh, no! My opponent is directly in my path and I’m a prisoner of inertia!”

Yes, McCown kept running and running, that prisoner of inertia, that captive of momentum, that victim of velocity … and then he ran into a wall. Just ran right into it. If you have not seen this, please go right now and look at it. It cracks me up every single time I watch it. McCown refused to stop until he ran into the wall, and then he bounced off and crumpled to the ground. It is one of the silliest, goofiest, most absurd things I’ve ever seen. It’s like a Three Stooges skit only the role of Curly is being played by the least Stooge-like person you can imagine, say Mitt Romney or Queen Elizabeth.

When the whole bizarre thing ended, McCown kind of held out his arm like he had hurt himself, and he grumbled something to referee — I assume he was begging for the penalty. I also assume the referee was laughing too hard to respond. This sort of thing only seems to happen to teams like the Browns.

The third note refers to a quote from Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby. You might have seen the story from earlier in the week suggesting that the Browns’ horrendous run defense might be caused, at least in part, by sheer confusion. The Browns were last in the NFL in rush defense last year; they’re last in the NFL in rush defense this year, and on Sunday they gave up 158 rushing yards to a Rams team that didn’t even TRY to throw the ball. The Browns have spent many of their hard-earned high draft picks on physically talented players who, theoretically, can stop the run. But somehow they do not. Why not?

“It’s an entire guessing game,” is how one unnamed source described the defense to former ClevelandBrowns.com writer Kevin Jones. “Imagine trying to define mud.”

I have absolutely no idea what this last part means — mud is a soft, sticky matter that results from mixing earth and water, that’s not really that hard to imagine — but the overriding theory of the story seems to be that the Browns’ defensive coordinator, Jim O’Neil, spends too much time trying to outsmart offenses and not enough time just getting his players into position to make plays. Or, to put it even more simply, the overriding theory is that Cleveland defenders are too baffled to actually tackle the person running with the football.

Now, my initial reaction to this is pure skepticism. From afar, it doesn’t look like the Browns are getting outschemed. It looks like the Browns are getting outplayed. I see a team that misses a lot of tackles. I see a team that doesn’t get off blocks. I see a team that is getting knocked around. But, obviously, I know very little about the complexities of football so I’m willing to consider any possibility. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s excellent Mary Kay Cabot asked linebacker Karlos Dansby if the Browns are confused:

“No, because they’ve been doing it all their life,” Dansby said. “You know what I’m saying? You get to this level, it’s like you’ve got a PhD in what you’re doing.”

I like this a lot. A PhD in football. What would be some of the courses you would take to become a Doctor of Philosophy in football? How tough a grader would Cris Collinsworth be? I imagine there are more than a few schools that wouldn’t mind adding that degree. And, in a grand sense, I think that Dansby’s right. You play football in junior high, in high school, in college, in the NFL — that’s years and years of watching film and staring at chalkboards and learning the dark arts of stopping the run. You become expert. So this would seem to counter the whole “Browns are just confused” theory.

But then, Dansby said this about Jim O’Neil’s system:

“I’m trying to hone in how he wants to do it, because every coach is different. It’s a learning curve, man. Like I say, you’ve got a PhD in it. You’re trying to get a Doctorate now.”

Um … OK, I’m going to show my own stupidity again but: I thought a PhD IS a doctorate. Here, let me look this up. OK: PhD means “A doctorate in any discipline except medicine, or sometimes theology.”

Well, wait, is Jim O’Neil teaching theology over there? Is that what Dansby means? Can theology stop Chris Johnson? And by the way if Karlos Dansby, who is in his 12th NFL season, is facing a learning curve, what chance do the younger guys have? Also: Do the Browns define mud in some different way?

These are only some of the complicated questions revolving around the Cleveland Browns these days. Also: What the heck do you do with Johnny Manziel?