The Browns are going to Oakland on Sunday to play the Raiders in what seems to be a battle of two lowly teams trying to put the finishing touches on another season of despair and discontent. Both teams have a record of 3-8 and it would be hard to blame either of them if they were to vie for a higher draft pick in April at this point, considering there's virtually no shot of either team competing for a playoff spot.
But this is the NFL and while there may not be a postseason berth to play for, professional athletes are playing for themselves and their teammates. They simply have too much pride to give up just so the powers that be can be in a better position to draft their eventual replacements in a few months. While fans may want the team to lose for their own selfish reasons, though you may be hard-pressed to find anyone to actually admit it, players simply don't operate that way. They may not exactly be buying in to the seemingly hollow words of their coach at this point, but they're still aware of the circumstances that could result if they don't give each and every game from here on out their A+ effort.
Therefore, I expect both teams to come out and put forth a good fight but I absolutely expect the Browns to be able to travel out west and beat the Raiders in the famed "Black Hole" on Sunday. However, in order for that to happen, Brandon Weeden, first and foremost, has to play better than he has in the past few weeks. With the weather forecast calling for strong winds and heavy rain, asking Weeden to step his game up may be a tall order, but he has no choice. Even though he was a 1st Round draft pick just this past year, the heat is on him to start proving to new owner Jimmy Haslam and new CEO Joe Banner that they shouldn't start looking in a new direction at the game's most important position just yet.
Helping Weeden is the fact that there doesn't seem to be as rich a crop of quarterbacks eligible to declare for the draft in April as there was with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, otherwise the pressure would really be on. But it still doesn't change the fact that Weeden has to prove he can win in this league and start stringing together some solid performances to put on his short resume as an NFL starter.
In Oakland, Weeden has to find a comfort zone (not exactly the easiest place to do that) and start making better decisions and more accurate throws. He has to be able to avoid turning the ball over without being afraid to turn the ball over. Oakland's 23rd ranked pass defense should aid him in that cause. But if, for some reason, he struggles like he has in the past few weeks, the worry that is beginning to creep up around Brownstown about Weeden will begin to get more and more traction as the season nears its unfortunate end.
If the weather is indeed a factor, it will limit Pat Shurmur's ability to get too creative with the play-calling, which under normal conditions would be a sight for sore eyes. In any event, we should see a heavy dose of the running game led by, but not limited to, Trent Richardson. Early in the year, I was of the mind that Shurmur was throwing the ball too much and not utilizing the strengths of Richardson in the ground game enough. Since then, Richardson is ranked second behind only Arian Foster of the Houston Texans for carries amongst NFL running backs. That's alarming considering the fact that he is still, by his own admission, not 100% healthy yet after suffering a minor rib injury a few weeks back.
The decision by Shurmur to give Richardson as many carries as he's getting would be understandable if they didn't have a guy behind him who is capable of spelling him and taking on some of the load. Fortunately for the Browns, they do in former second-round pick Montario Hardesty. In the few times that Hardesty has seen action since Richardson's injury, he has provided a spark to the Browns running game. He doesn't have the same patience or toughness that Richardson brings to the table, but he has a speed in hitting the hole that we have seldom seen from Richardson this season. If ever a team were to employ a "running back by committee" ground attack, they could do much worse than Richardson and Hardesty.
In my opinion, offensive coordinator Brad Childress and Shurmur need to find a way to get Hardesty more touches throughout the course of the game from here on out. Not only can he provide a burst and a change of pace to throw off opposing defenses, but he will secure longevity for the star running back that the Browns invested so highly in last April. It makes no sense to have a guy with the talent that Hardesty has to waste away on the bench while a less than 100 percent Richardson is struggling to average more than 3.5 yards per carry.
With the weather calling for rain and wind, the keys to victory for the Browns and Pat Shurmur are to run the ball with a mix of Richardson and Hardesty and put Weeden in situations where he can get comfortable throwing to an improving young corps of wide receivers. It sounds simplistic but if you combine that plan with the way that the Browns defense has been lighting up opposing offenses lately, the Browns should easily cede the higher draft slot to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Truth be told, if conditions for this game were normal, I'd be calling for a blowout... or I'd be pretty ticked if the game somehow stayed close. But under the circumstances, just win baby.