The Browns are coming off of an overtime win against the hated Baltimore Ravens. Up next are the 5-0 Denver Broncos, who are bringing the league's top-ranked defense to town. As the Dawg Pound prepares for the showdown with Peyton Manning & Co., the NCP field your Browns questions.
1) Suddenly the Browns have come to life. Take away a few stupid penalties and we could almost squint our eyes and see a 7-win season. What the hell is going on?
Big $: There is one thing certain about an incredibly uncertain NFL; Browns fans have a short memory. At this time last year, Hoyer and Shanahan were the new Bernie and Lindy. Well, that plopped and fizzled faster than Bruce Drennan's hourly Alka-Seltzer and the season imploded. Coaches and players at the NFL level are all good enough to compete with any other team on any given Sunday. It's the full season grind where the cream rises, and the Browns are perennially half & half. Don't expect a miracle .500 run.
2) Josh McCown had one of the greatest games in the history of the franchise. What the hell is going on?
K-Dubs, the Soldier: The NCP has believed that the Browns could put up points if McCown stays healthy. He really seems comfortable with the offense and he generally delivers an accurate ball. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has shown he can scheme guys open, and the ascension to stardom for tight end Gary Barnidge and wideout Travis Benjamin have been very pleasant surprises. Also, the emergence of Duke Johnson as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield gives the team an added dimension, especially when the Dave Meggett-esque Johnson [in terms of elusiveness and ball skills; not in terms of a penchant for deplorable criminality] is covered by a slower linebacker. That said, I did not see a 450-yard game coming, especially against a historically strong Ravens defense.
Despite the promise the offense showed last week, there are still a few kinks in the system. First, four of the team’s five leading receivers—Andre Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Johnson, and Benjamin—are 5’7”, 5’8”, 5’9” and 5’10”, respectively. McCown is completing a very high percentage of his passes at 68%, but a lot of his misses are sailing over the heads of a receiving corps that have smaller-than-normal catch radii. I think his completion rate may eventually relegate to the mean because his targets are harder to hit. Second, for a quarterback in his 13th season, McCown still has a hard time avoiding sacks. Too often he takes a loss instead of throwing the ball away when he can. For as well as he has played and as mobile as he is, his tendency for the untimely sack has cost the team scoring opportunities and field position at a few crucial times this year. Which takes us to the third problem: the Browns rank 28th in league in rushing, at 89 yards per game, and they are averaging 3.7 yards per carry. If the offensive line, which ranks among the highest paid and most-highly-drafted in the league, doesn’t start to open holes for Johnson and Isaiah Crowell, expect to see more third-and-longs and more sacks.
Big $: Joshy Mac is a seasoned vet who is relying on the undercarriage of a journeyman 6’-6” tight end. I don’t know if those two qualities alone can sustain with the upcoming stretch of schedule. I’m enjoying this ride (especially since it muzzles the Johnny-ettes) but eventually Father Time and a lack of skill-position depth will bring him back to the pack. I expect that regression will be fast-tracked by the bad ass Bronco defense this Sunday.
3) After the win against the Ravens, the first words from Joe Thomas were, "Who wants to put Johnny in now?” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of J Football and with McCown dinged, it looks like Johnny may play this Sunday against the undefeated Broncos? How will this play out?
K-Dubs, the Soldier: McCown has proven that he is a gamer, and he is listed as probable on this week’s injury report. I don’t see any way he is not under center against the Broncos. Unless he absolutely cannot play for some reason, I believe McCown leads the huddle the rest of the season. We hear from Berea each week that there is a Johnny package, but the longer that package stays on the shelf, the better off the team is. I would much rather see the team put up points with its traditional offense than rely on gimmicks. Everyone loves trick plays, but they are best used as sprinkles and not as the cake itself.
Big $: Joe Thomas has played football at a high level for a long time. I'm pretty sure that in that time he's probably earned a doctorate in film study. It's my belief that a weekend seminar in watching tape would be enough to ascertain that Johnny is not an NFL QB. As frustrated as I am by cries for the diminutive back-up, I can't imagine how infuriating it must be for the true professionals on the Browns roster and coaching staff. One way or another, I do believe Manziel will wiggle his way back to the field this season and the situation will play out as I have always maintained: He will prove he doesn't belong in the league.
4) Can the Browns defense improve or is this the reality?
K-Dubs, the Soldier: That is the question of the year. The Browns’ defense is the highest-paid in the league, but it surrenders the 3rd-most yards and 11th-most points per game. The biggest problem I see continues to be the defensive line. The Browns have not been able to control the line of scrimmage. Many reporters and commentators have bemoaned the inability to “set the edge” and force runners inside, but the truth is that the defense is getting gashed in every gap. They need better play at the point of attack and free up the linebackers to stuff the run. Some threat of a pass rush from the middle of the defense wouldn’t hurt either. The team needs to get healthier on the outside, too. Both cornerback Joe Haden and safety Tashaun Gipson are out this week, as are outside backers Scott Solomon and Craig Robertson. That means second-teamers will be hunting Peyton Manning’s ducks outside the numbers this week. Unless the Browns can improve upfront and get healed soon, I think the team’s best chance to win games will be to outshoot opponents on the offensive side of the ball.
5) Who should LeBron start for this week?
Big $: The King just got a shot in his back and needs some pre-season rest before the quest begins. The last thing he needs to do is join up with this group of clowns this week.