Rumors Start to Swirl as Browns Eye 0-11

|By Mike Young|

Somewhere in the Earth’s liquid outer core, thousands of miles below rock bottom, lies the

current, sorry state of the Cleveland Browns.

CBS Sports’ Jason LaCanfora wrote about the tension between the ownership, front office and coaching staff –– not a surprise to anyone that has followed the Browns since 1999 or Jimmy Haslam’s short stint as owner. We don’t know how much truth there is to the inner-franchise turmoil.

Head coach Hue Jackson and the Haslams appear to be on good terms. MMQB.com’s Jenny Vrentas referenced texts between the eldest Haslam and Jackson, which sounds a lot like the people who post pictures of motivational quotes on Instagram. The messages are overwhelmingly positive, but the “inspiration” for it comes from a place of crippling sadness.

The most damning quote from Vrentas’ piece comes from Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown: “We are not focused on wins and losses this year.” So for any lost soul who still lives and dies with the team each week, its key front office figure is granting you the sweet release of indifference for the final six games.

What went right last week

For the first time this season, the Browns did not lose on Sunday. Unfortunately, that’s because they played the Thursday prior and lost to the Ravens, 28-7.

 

The final score makes it seem like it was a blowout, but that was not necessarily the case. Cleveland was ahead at halftime, 7-6. That marked the fifth time this season the Browns either led or were tied at the half.

Things tend to go downhill quickly once the third quarter begins:

What went wrong last week

With that in mind, we’ll start with the first two drives of the second half.

The Browns exited the locker room and started the half with possession of the ball. Isaiah Crowell ran for two yards on first down. Cody Kessler followed that up with a negative passing play and an incomplete pass, resulting in a three-and-out.

Baltimore’s ensuing drive totaled 64 yards in under four minutes and ended with a touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to tight end Darren Waller.

Cleveland punted twice and threw an interception in their three third quarter drives. The Ravens tacked on another touchdown and a successful two-point conversion. That meant they outscored the Browns 15-0, and added to the third-quarter misery.

Key moment

After the three-and-out to open the second half, Jackson pulled Kessler and Josh McCown. The Browns’ backup quarterback struggled, completing 6-of-13 passes for only 59 yards, was sacked three times and threw two interceptions.

Perhaps that’s what led to a revealing moment in Jackson’s Wednesday press conference.

“I think Cody has done some good things, too. Maybe we have been a little too harsh on him that way,” Jackson said. “He has done some things that have been improvements. He has made some jumps in some areas. There are some areas that he wants to make some jumps in. Quarterbacks, they do that from time to time. He is playing with a cast of players week in and week out that he is starting to get familiar with and they are getting familiar with him. That is just work in progress”

Key stats

Kessler’s arm strength and ability to throw downfield is a valid criticism, one even Jackson referenced prior to the Baltimore game.

“Cody has done a good job of distributing the ball and he has done a good job of putting the ball in the right places for the most part, but he knows now that in the National Football League you have to sometimes take a few more chances to score points because the defenses are too good,” he said, Nov. 8. “They will give you certain things because they know you will take them and try to beat you in the other things. We have to always stay aggressive and push the ball when we can because it gives us a chance to have big plays and make big plays.”

Via Pro Football Focus, Kessler completed 3-of-4 passes targeted ten or more yards downfield against the Ravens, one of which was a 25-yard touchdown to tight end Seth DeValve.

Initial takeaway

Generally, Kessler’s lack of arm strength allows teams to stack the box, play tight coverage and not be punished for doing so. However, given the stats from that Thursday night game and McCown’s age, benching the rookie seems unwise in hindsight.

What does this mean moving forward

Perhaps this means Jackson doesn’t have much faith in Kessler moving forward, and any hope of him being a starting quarterback next season is still slim.

The Browns’ quarterback situation is as muddled as it always is. As usual, the options going forward aren’t great. Kessler probably isn’t good enough, no college QB seems worthy of the No. 1 overall pick, McCown might retire after the season and Jackson thinks Kevin Hogan is more suited as a gimmick running the option than an actual passer.

Hope is in sight, however: Robert Griffin III was cleared to resume non-contact activities and could be activated from injured reserve soon.

First thoughts on next game and opponent

Cleveland faces AFC North foe Pittsburgh, Sunday, at FirstEngergy Stadium. Nothing would really salvage this miserable season, but a win over the Steelers always feels good.

Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger spent the past few days making light of Cleveland’s quarterback situation. He jokingly told reporters on a conference call that he thinks he’s faced a different Browns QB almost every time these two teams play. He’s almost right, as the Sporting News’ Jordan Heck researched.

Roethlisberger matched up against Derek Anderson five times and Colt McCoy three times. He played Brian Hoyer, Charlie Frye and Jeff Garcia twice, as well as eight others just a single time. Including Kessler, Roethlisberger will have played against 14 different Browns QBs.

That inspired a different, yet still wildly depressing stat:

Injury Update

Cleveland is still healthy, for the most part. Their secondary is banged up, as Joe Haden (groin) and Jamar Taylor (groin) were limited in Thursday’s practice. Tramon Williams Sr. (knee) has missed practice all week.

For the Steelers, former Buckeye Cam Heyward is out for the season due to a pectoral injury he suffered in Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys. Otherwise, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), safety Shamarko Thomas (groin), wideout Markus Wheaton (shoulder) and backup running back DeAngelo Williams (knee) missed practice all week. Center Maurkice Pouncey (finger) returned to practice, Thursday, and safety Jordan Dangerfield has been limited all week (groin).

A prediction

Steelers, 31-17.