There's a saying in Cleveland that goes, "Bad football is better than no football at all." Isn‘t there? Well, there should be. For as frustrating as it gets watching the Browns sometimes, there's nothing quite like the bye week to come along and put things in perspective and make you yearn for a meaningful football game to watch on Sunday afternoon. Sure, if you're like me, any football is great, especially if you have a vested interest in a fantasy football league... or five. But there's nothing like the experience that comes with watching the team you care about. Even if it ends in disappointment, more often than not.
The Browns, and their fans, went into the bye feeling the disappointment of 25-15 loss to the rival Baltimore Ravens. And frankly, it's been a long two weeks of searching for answers to what went wrong in that heated affair. But, as NFL players will tell you, the most important game is the next game. And fortunately, that is now just hours away. Still, many questions loom as the Orange and Brown take their talents to Dallas to play the Cowboys on Sunday.
How will Brandon Weeden respond from the Ravens performance? Aside from his Week 1 rookie debut against the Eagles, Weeden had the worst game of his short NFL career against Baltimore. He played timid and looked befuddled, though he managed to engineer five scoring drives. Unfortunately, those drives ended in field goals not touchdowns. The only time he threw the ball near the goal line that Sunday was when he hit Josh Gordon on a quick slant for the go-ahead score... until it got call back due to an illegal formation penalty on Chris Ogbonnaya (This message has been brought to you from the makers of ‘Only in Cleveland‘).
Weeden looked in that game as if he was scared to make the game-changing mistake as he did earlier in the season against the Ravens when he threw a pick six to Ravens corner Cary Williams, which ended up being the difference in the game. What's more is he still ended up throwing two picks in this latest meeting, one of which to Williams. When asked this week where Weeden needs to improve over the last seven games of the season, head coach Pat Shurmur didn't mince words. "Don't throw interceptions. Done. End of story."
In addition to not throwing interceptions, however, Weeden needs to stop worrying about throwing interceptions. Clearly that inhibited him in his last outing and it's just something that rookie quarterbacks tend to do. If I'm Pat Shurmur, I'm less concerned with the inevitable interceptions made by a rookie quarterback best classified as a "gunslinger." I'm more concerned with the lack of reads and quick check-down throws Weeden made during five trips inside the red zone against the Ravens. Neither of the interceptions Weeden threw resulted in points for the Ravens. But all five trips into the red zone without a touchdown resulted in 15 points instead of 30. There's your ballgame.
Will the communication problems that existed against Baltimore still exist? Adding to Weeden's struggles against Baltimore was the inability for Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress to get the plays called in on time, which resulted in several blown time outs. Numerous other times, the offense was running up to the line of scrimmage to get the play off on time because the play clock had ticked down to single-digits by the time Weeden broke the huddle. This forced Weeden to hurry up and get the play off without having the ability to make the proper pre-snap reads of the defense or to audible into a play that was more favorable given the formation of the Ravens defense.
This week, playing on the road in a dome, communication is even more crucial. It was reported on Thursday that the Browns practiced indoors with music blaring to simulate the noise distraction they will likely face in Dallas on Sunday.
Prior to practice, Childress addressed the media's questions about streamlining the play calling and communication during the Baltimore game. "I just think we had communication issues whether it be a little indecision or whether or I wasn't speaking clearly or Pat (Shurmur) wasn't speaking clearly, or we were caught on the last play, which you can do sometimes. Sometimes you're irritated about what happened on the last play or what happened officiating-wise," Childress explained. "I feel like it kind of reared its ugly head here recently and hopefully we don't have to go through that again.''
Yes, hopefully, Brad. Your jobs kind of depend on it. Frankly, I can't stand the excuse of how they were stuck on the last play or on "what happened officiating-wise." Coaches preach having a short memory to their players all the time and that you can't control what calls are going to be made throughout the course of a game by the officials. Yet, somehow Shumur and Childress couldn't get the next play in on time because they were too busy bickering over what happened on the previous play?
Another thing coaches should do is try to lead by example. This display of incompetence does not inspire confidence in their leadership to the players, to the fans, or to the two men who hold the keys to their futures -- Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner.
Will Joe Haden play with a strained oblique? The Browns had to endure a painful stretch (no pun intended) at the beginning of the season without Haden while he served a suspension for violating the league's policy against performance enhancing drugs (Adderall). During his absence, the Browns went 0-4. Now, after missing practice this week due to a strained oblique muscle he suffered on Wednesday, there is a chance he could miss Sunday's game. If that is the case, the Browns chances of winning just dropped dramatically.
With Haden playing this season, the Browns defense has given up an average of 17 points per game. Without Haden, that number increases to 30.5 points per game. Dallas (4-5) is averaging 20.9 points per game this season led by quarterback Tony Romo and receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. If Haden is out, Romo will surely look to exploit that hole in the Browns secondary.
Even if he is able to play, it doesn't sound like Haden will be at 100% so it wouldn't surprise me for the Cowboys to test him early. Hopefully, with the rest he's getting in practice this week, he'll be able to recover enough to help shut down the formidable Cowboys' passing attack.
Will Trent Richardson finally go off? The Cowboys currently boast the 13th ranked rush defense in the league, giving up 105.2 yards per game on the ground. They also happen to be without two of their interior linebackers in rising star Sean Lee and veteran Dan Connor. Browns fans know Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan well and they know he likes to dial up the blitz and disguise coverage. Expect a consistent rush of DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge to rattle the rookie Brandon Weeden. To offset this, we should see a heavy dose of Richardson early and often.
Hopefully, the bye week gave his ribs a chance to heal, though Richardson admitted the other day that he wasn't quite back to 100% yet. Fans are just waiting for the day to come where Trent explodes for a huge game and we can finally see the guy the Browns traded up to get in April's draft. There have been glimpses of stardom here and there throughout this rookie campaign but the injuries have certainly held him back.
If the Browns are going to make any kind of serious run to finish this season on a high note, Richardson is the man to get it going. It is imperative that Shurmur put his faith in the ground game, especially as the weather begins to turn for the worst in the North, if the Browns are going to put a string of wins together to close out the season. Sunday, in Dallas, where his childhood idol Emmitt Smith won three Super Bowls, seems like a great place to start.
Will this be the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? The Browns have seven games left in 2012. This season has not gone anywhere near what was planned. Back in May, spirits were up and hopes were high. But the plan changed. And many more changes seem to rest on the horizon. The rookie veneer should be wearing off the new weapons Tom Heckert secured in the offseason. Now is the part of season where the dust has settled and it's time to find out what we have here.
Believe it or not, the Browns have a chance to put together a sizable win streak if they can beat Dallas and then return home to face the Big Ben-less Steelers next week. After that, they face Oakland, Kansas City and Washington, all teams with losing records. There is a realistic chance that they could string together five wins in a row heading into the final two weeks of the season. I believe that would truly signal to all interested parties that this young team has finally turned a corner.
Or... the Browns can continue what they've done all season long and come close but fall short. If they fail to get a win on the road against a very tough Dallas team, there is a chance, at 2-8, morale will bottom out and the need for change will be so obvious that the team will fall apart and have to drag itself across the finish line to end the season. No one in the organization can afford to have that happen. We will see which way the ball bounces for this young team down the stretch. In the meantime, I'm just glad to watch a game I care about on Sunday.