After a few days of quiet reflection and one Tuesday night radio show on No Static Radio, it is finally time to sit down and write about the lackluster performance by the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season. Instead of trying to pack everything into one article, I am going to break this up into one on the offense and one on the defense—this, as you can tell by the headline, will focus on Hue Jackson’s offense.
Before we dive into the mess that was last Sunday in Philadelphia, I want to make something perfectly clear—by criticizing the offense in this game I am in no way calling for Jackson to be fired. It seems that is a trendy assertion for some in the media to make this week—likely because many of them do not understand the game of football. In fact, I believe quite the opposite, the front office should commit to Jackson in the way that Cincinnati has done with Marvin Lewis—give him real time (four to five years) to turn this thing around.
Alright, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk shop.
Coming into a Week 1 matchup against rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, everyone expected the major problem to be the defense. With an innovative quarterback guru at the helm in Jackson, who is known for taking offenses to the next level (see Andy Dalton’s growth in Cincinnati), many (including myself) expected the game against the Eagles to be a shoot-out with the offense showing some promise.
Instead, Browns fans were treated to an offense featuring the now IR bound (more on that later) Robert Griffin III that looked watered-down and scared. In fact, it is safe to say the team’s offense was more aggressive and looked more NFL-ready in the team’s four preseason games than it did during 60 minutes of action this past Sunday.
So, what went wrong? Let’s start with Griffin.
If Jackson felt the “earth move” beneath his feet during that private workout with Griffin earlier this year, he likely felt a tectonic plate opening up beneath him as he watched the first quarterback he chose to work with during his tenure in Cleveland attempt to play on Sunday. Yes, we all knew a reclamation project was in store for Griffin—what we did not know is the fearless player who pushed boundaries with his running ability and big arm on his way to one of the best rookie seasons ever a few years ago would be this long gone.
To open up the game after the Eagles marched down the field for a score, many expected the Browns to come out firing. Instead, the team came out with a whimper and a punt.
A short pass—likely a confidence builder—to Gary Barnidge was dropped on first down. Then Jackson ran Isaiah Crowell into the heart of the Eagles defense for a one-yard gain. On third down, Griffin would be stopped for a four-yard gain. Anddddd punt, literally.
On the second possession after an Eagles punt, the same lack of aggressiveness and imagination would be on display again. Crowell right for one yard, Griffin threw a short pass to Crowell for two yards and Griffin threw a short pass to Duke Johnson for no gain. Andddd punt, yet again.
It was not until the team’s third possession of the game at the end of the first quarter that Griffin would throw a pass further than two yards to someone, and it was to the team’s fullback for six yards. You all know the rest from this mind-boggling drive. Andrew Hawkins ran it for a loss, Barnidge dropped another one and then for some reason still not known to the universe on fourth down from their own 41, the team called a direct snap fake punt with Johnson—not the punter—alone behind the long snapper.
In an offseason in which the team had Terrelle Pryor emerge as a potential big-time playmaker, the big-play threat was not targeted one time in their first three possessions. In that same offseason, the team used a first-round pick on the electric wide receiver, Corey Coleman, he too was not targeted. In an offseason which featured the total addition of four rookie wide receivers, not one of them was targeted in the team’s first three possessions of the game!
Seriously, if Vegas had odds on what the Browns first play of the 2016 season would be after all those moves and what we saw during the preseason, the odds would have pointed toward a pass to Pryor or Coleman.
Instead, it would take the team all the way until the fourth possession of the game to even attempt a pass to either player. And guess what happened? This magical thing called a touchdown, after Pryor reeled in an 11-yard catch and then a 44-yard catch to set up Crowell to run it in for the team’s only trip to pay-dirt all game long.
The box score at the end of the game would read 12-of-26 for 190 yards and one interception for Griffin, but the effort was surprisingly worse than that. He had a lame duck thrown up into the air that Coleman came down with for 58 yards in between three defenders, and a 44-yard pass Pryor had to go up and get. If you remove those two, the stat line reads 10-of-24 for 88 yards and an interception.
Now, I get that he spent all of last season inactive playing scout team safety for the Washington Redskins. But how could a quarterback be this far off from the guy who made his coach feel like the earth moved beneath him a few short months ago? It is not like Griffin hasn’t been there before, hell, he even knew the stadium he was playing at because it was in his old division.
As for Jackson, things do not get any better when you move to the run game either.
Crowell finished the day with 12 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown—but those numbers are misleading. For anyone who did not watch the game, they see a 5.2 average on the day and say “whoa, you should give him the ball more.” But Crowell racked up 40 yards on draw plays on the final drive when the Eagles were not playing anything but prevent defense. His stat line should really read, nine carries for 22 yards and a touchdown.
Maybe it was a product of Cameron Erving and Austin Pasztor being blown up every other play, but the team seemingly could not get anything going. Johnson was the only back with moderate success, rushing three times for 22 yards, but 17 of those yards came on one rush. Overall, it was a poor day at the office for the Browns running game as well.
You cannot say Griffin did not eventually try to get Pryor and Coleman involved some by the end of the game. The two combined for five catches for 137 yards on 12 targets. But it took too long to try to get them involved in my eyes.
As far as the rest of the pass catchers, after dropping two passes early, Griffin never targeted Barnidge again in the game. Hawkins was targeted three times, but did not record a catch. Rookie receivers Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins only logged one play each in the game. In fact, the running backs (Johnson five times, Crowell twice and Malcolm Johnson twice) were nearly targeted as much as Pryor and Coleman when it was all said and done.
Disaster of an Offensive Line
If there was something the front office and coaching staff did not want to happen after letting Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz walk in free agency, it was for the two players who replaced them to struggle in a big way in game one. But, that’s exactly what happened.
Erving was pushed around throughout the game and continued his streak of high snaps by tossing one that would have gone over LeBron James’ head for a safety. Austin Pasztor won the starting job over two rookies, but looked like one himself out there despite being a five-year veteran with 27 starts coming into this game under his belt.
Sure, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is one of the best at mixing up blitzes and bringing pressure. But that is not an excuse for looking like a turnstile out there at right tackle. Pasztor’s poor performance trickled over to right guard John Greco, who found himself cheating to the right at times trying to help out his right tackle, which led to additional pressure on Erving.
I’m not sure there is a fix from week to week to get these guys ready, but the coaching staff needs to be all over these two this week breaking down what went right and what went wrong. Because with Griffin now out for the next eight weeks at a minimum with a fracture in his left shoulder, if they cannot keep pressure off Josh McCown the Browns may have to go bargain basement shopping in order to protect their rookie third-round pick, Cody Kessler, by keeping him off the field.
Can it be Fixed in Time For Baltimore?
With Griffin out, McCown should provide an immediate upgrade in terms of Griffin’s indecisiveness in his first start. The journeyman certainly isn’t afraid to push the envelope and chuck the ball around the yard, as he threw 51 times for 457 yards and two touchdowns in the Browns win over the Ravens last year.
Ultimately, it will all come down to whether the line can give the running and passing game enough time to get something going. If they are still struggling during the week, Jackson is going to have to scheme plays to get it out of McCown’s hand quicker and into the hands of his playmakers.
If I could make one suggestion to Jackson in this game, it is this. Go deep on the first play of the game no matter what.
First Energy Stadium still is not sold out for the team’s first home game of the season, and those who will be there will be on edge from the first beer they consume at 7 a.m. in the Muni Lot. Coming out the way the team did against the Eagles will get the boo-birds out bright and early.
Instead, give them a little taste of excitement out of the gate. See if Pryor or Coleman and blow by their man for a big-gainer, and as a safety valve, sneak Barnidge out over the middle in case the Ravens bring pressure on the first play. As long as McCown has a few seconds, a big play to start the game could energize the crowd and swing the momentum the Browns way early.