Problem solvers

As a Cleveland Browns fan, we have now moved into Apollo 13 phase of the season. You will remember that Apollo 13 was the third mission sent to land on the moon, but then there was an explosion that basically messed everything up. In the movie, there’s a very dramatic scene where Tom Hanks and the crew are asking Houston for instructions. And when they get instructions, Hanks stops and says:

“We just lost the moon.”

Well the Browns lost the moon weeks ago. After the Apollo 13 crew lost the moon, NASA’s Ed Harris had to deal with a million crazy problems, like how to make the air breathable and how to keep the astronauts from richocheting off the atomsphere and into space and how to keep Truman from finding out he was on a TV show. More than anything, though, he had to get his people home.

“Let’s work the problem people,” he said. “Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

This is where the Browns are. The Browns’ thumping of San Francisco was pretty fun to watch, but it was essentially meaningless. This is the part of the season where they need to answer the hard questions going forward so that they can improve and, dare to dream, even contend for the playoffs someday.

The most obvious question, of course, revolves around Johnny Manziel nee Football, the one-time Heisman Trophy winner who partied away his first season, went into rehab, showed signs of maturing, got into a nasty little public argument with his girlfriend, showed signs of contrition, earned the starting quarterback job, partied his way back to third string and Sunday, finally, became the Cleveland Browns’ starter.

It’s easy to forget that Manziel just turned 23 years old a week or so ago. At his age, Johnny Unitas was playing football for the Bloomfield Rams for six bucks a game, Terry Bradhsaw was completing 54 percent of his passes for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kurt Warner was stacking groceries at a Hy-Vee in Iowa, and Tom Brady was a third-string quarterback who threw all of three passes (completing one).

[nbcsports_mpx url=]

It’s easy to forget because Manziel has squeezed so much drama into his short football life. It would be nice to see him finish off this year with four weeks of non-drama just so the Browns can figure out what they have with him.

Early signs with Manziel indicate that:

1. His accuracy comes and goes. Several times during Sunday’s game he tried to make a timing throw — quick drop, turn and fire to where the receiver is heading — and BADLY missed. I mean BADLY. He can improve that part of his game, of course, but I suspect that Manziel will never thrive in a conventional NFL offense. It’s just not in his character.

2. Manziel’s likely to make at least one preposterously dumb play per game and that’s something everyone will have to live with. In Sunday’s game against San Francisco, he made just one — a play where he escaped from the pocket, scrambled to his left and then tried to throw the ball back to the middle of the field where it was easily intercepted. Sometimes, he will make several of those bad plays.

Then again, many good quarterbacks — Brett Favre most prominently, but plenty of others like Bradshaw and Boomer Esiason and Eli Manning — have had that tendency to make mistakes, usually because they are pushing for big plays. You can make it work if the player makes enough big plays. And this is where Manziel is most interesting…

3. Manziel does have an unimistakable genius for improvisation. This became clear a few weeks ago when Bengals coach Marvin Lewis came out of the locker room at halftime with a sort of frustrated look on his face and said something to the effect of, “We’ve got to keep that guy in the pocket.”

Manziel has that rare gift of thriving in chaos. If you see him in the pocket and just throwing the ball, you would definitely think: “Not an NFL quarteback.” He’s too small, his footwork’s pretty shaky, his arm isn’t that great and so on. We’ve all seen a thousand failed quarterbacks who looked like Manziel in the pocket.

But get him out of the pocket, and he comes alive. He is slippery and hard to tackle. He has a keen ability to see the whole field. He scares defensive coordinators because he can unravel sound defensive strategies. He has the athletic ability to sidearm or underhand or fling passes that somehow hit wide-open receivers. It is this gift that made him a whirlwind in college, and Browns fans have seen it succeed enough to think it might just work in the NFL.

Of course for it to work for the long haul, the Browns will have to be willing to build an offense specially made for Manziel. So do they do that? Well, that’s ultimately the question. It’s tricky because nobody is sure if Manziel is good enough or stable enough to build an offense around. And even if he good and stable enough, it’s tricky because that sort of wide-open style can end pretty quickly with one crushing tackle — and then the Browns are stuck with a backup playing an offense that probably doesn’t fit him.

So let’s just say: The Manziel Question is an open one. It’s the most important one to answer the last three weeks of the year. He played pretty well against San Francisco on Sunday, but let’s not kid anybody. That was a beat-up 49ers team mentally, physically and emotionally, and there probably isn’t much to learn from the game.

The next question is about the future of general manager Ray Farmer. It’s hard to find even a devil’s advocate argument for keeping Farmer. He has been general manager since 2014 and he was the assistant GM the year before that.

In those three drafts, the Browns’ first round picks have been:

— Barkevious Mingo, a pass rusher with zero sacks this year who can’t get into the starting lineup.

— Justin Gilbert, a cornerback who has made three starts in his entire career and is already at a career crisis.

— Johnny Manziel, who is an open question.

— Danny Shelton, a defensive tackle who has already had the Cleveland Plain Dealer writers asking: Is he a bust? (Their verdict seems to be “too early to tell, but probably yes”).

— Offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who has been so astonishingly bad this year that he’s already been a “worst block in NFL history” meme and has been benched mid-game to play someone picked off the waiver wire. Last week, he added to the rookie horror show even though he didn’t start or play on the offensive line. He did go in for a field goal, and he was promptly shoved five yards backward, allowing his guy to block the kick. On the next field goal, it happened again (though, at least, the guy didn’t block the kick).

Throw in that Ray Farmer also, in the fourth round this year, drafted receiver Vince Mayle, who proved so unfit for the NFL that the Browns cut him and didn’t even offer him a spot on the practice squad after training camp. That was a fourth-round pick chucked right into the incinerator. And you can also throw in that Farmer gave pretty big money to receiver Dwayne Bowe, whose first name is now “active scratch.” And as if that’s not enough, Farmer was suspended for four games for texting plays to his coaches during the game.

Yeah, it’s going to be hard to make any case for Ray Farmer.

So let’s try this: The Browns have to pick a direction and stay with it. They just have to. This disastrous season (and disastrous decade) is, in my opinion, a direct consequence of an inability to find the right leaders and, even more, an unwillingness to let them lead. The flurry of change has left a million remnants of yesterday’s plans littered all over the place. Every time a new regime comes in, they sweep out the old — and whatever slivers of good that the old regime did.

For instance: I don’t know if Danny Shelton can be an impact player in the NFL. But I do know that if you bring in a new GM and coach and defensive coordinator, they will come in with a new plan — one that probably won’t fit Danny Shelton very well. And what happens then? Shelton, who is off to a terrible start anyway, is written off, and the Browns have to find another defensive tackle and so on. That’s what has happened to the Browns over and over and over. Cleveland drafted four quarterbacks just since 2007 — three of them in the first round. Maybe none of them could play. But maybe having five different coaches and seven different offensive coordinators in that time hasn’t helped.

In the end, though the Browns crave stability, I don’t think Farmer can survive. Even Fox announcer Matt Millen, who knows terrible football teams when he sees them, ranted about the Browns’ lack of talent.

And with Farmer likely out, the third question — what about the future of coach Mike Pettine — is probably settled too. It seems unlikely a new GM will want to keep the coach. I just don’t know about Pettine. I’d like to believe he’s a good coach. He certainly SOUNDS like one at times and he LOOKS like one and he’s worked hard to get this opportunity. Unfortunately, the evidence on the field has not been very good. It was nice to see the Browns play with some enthusiasm and competence against a dead-looking San Francisco team, but one week earlier against the Bengals, the Browns played the worst game I’ve seen in my 40-plus years of Browns fanhood.

[nbcsports_mpx url=]

So should the Browns keep anyone?

Well, of course eight-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas has to be a part of the future. I tried to focus on him during the San Francisco game; he still plays at such a high level. He’s obviously getting older, but he wants to be part of a Cleveland renaissance and nobody deserves it more.

Tight end Gary Barnidge just signed a three-year deal with the Browns, which was nice to see. Barnidge was a longtime backup in Carolina and as you no doubt know from your fantasy league, he’s having a breakout season — he should end up with about 75 catches, more than 1,000 yards and 10 or so touchdowns. He’s a great story.

Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell are the Browns’ running backs; both are young, both have shown promise. Johnson in particular looks like one of those multi-faceted backs who can catch the ball and block and do whatever a team needs. Receiver Travis Benjamin is a pretty good deep threat. There seem to be some pieces to work with on the offensive line. You could see this developing into a decent offense if they could get a couple more weapons and if Manziel (or whoever the next quarterback is) develops.

Defensively — I don’t know where you start. Armonty Bryant has shown a little bit of feistiness as a defensive lineman and Nate Orchard was unblockable Sunday against San Francisco, though again, I don’t know if that means anything. It’s been a lost season for Pro Bowl defensive back Joe Haden, so I don’t know what’s happening there. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do here, and there’s no doubt the defense will change schemes again.

I suppose the key at this point is for owner Jimmy Haslam and his staff to have a clear plan going forward. Work the problem, people. Find someone to run things. Give them what they need to be successful. Create some stability. Hey, NASA brought Apollo 13 back. Anything is possible.

Scroll Down For: