Cleveland Browns: Midseason Review
By Joe Zevchek
We’re halfway there.
But, the Cleveland Browns are living on more than a prayer (apologies to Bon Jovi for the terrible joke).
As I wrote in my article after this past week’s game against Tampa Bay, this Browns team is winning due to intangible qualities. A lot of people are calling them ugly wins, and while they certainly haven’t always been pretty to watch, I’m starting to think that the “ugly” label is unfair. There’s a lot of lamenting about our inability to run the ball lately, but instead we should be applauding their ability to overcome it and make gains through big passing plays. Most are still worried about the struggling run defense, but they are ignoring the turnovers being generated and stops at key times. I know the past few games haven’t been played against top-tier opponents, but the fact of the matter is that good teams find different ways to win games, and the Browns have done that. Let’s take a look at a few key factors accounting for how the team got here:
Quarterback Play- Brian Hoyer has, by all reasonable measures, done exactly what has been expected and needed thus far. His season QB rating of 90.3 is more than solid, and his ability to shake off slow starts (rating in first half of games-82.6, 2nd half – 97) is a testament to his resolve and ability to lead by example. Whether or not he is in the Browns’ long-term plans remains to be seen, although I’m doubting it following GM Ray Farmer‘s press conference on Tuesday (of which an entire article itself could be devoted). If the Browns make the playoffs this year, the front office will have quite the conundrum on their hands if they had assumed they would let Brian walk after a season serving as a placeholder and let the Johnny Manziel era begin. If Brian does no worse than plateau at his overall level of play form the first half of the season, the Browns stand a chance to extend the season into January.
Defense- this has been, without a doubt, the biggest disappointment of the season. What was supposed to be the team strong and identity is currently ranked 29th in the league, and 31st in rushing yards, a pretty big liability. Interestingly enough, though, the Browns are currently giving up only 21.9 points per game, which is 8th in the league. Additionally, the team boasts a turnover ration of +6, which is due to not only the offense’s good ball control but also the defense’s ability to crate takeaways, which is increasing in recent weeks. Plus, having the league’s leader in interceptions in Tashaun Gibson helps. Bottom line- The defense has a lot to prove and I think the run defense is a major liability. But overall, they seem to be on the upswing and are deserving of a little more patience as they develop.
New Talent- I don’t want to dig too deep into the draft picks only 8 games in, but G Joel Bintonio (2nd round) looks excellent, RB Terrence West and LB Chris Kirksey (3rd round) very solid, and CB Justin Gilbert (1st round) seemed as if he was coming along. CB Pierre Desire (4th round) has been tucked away and has not played much, and while Manziel showed some promise in the preseason, he is also ultimately an unknown.
As far as free agents go, Karlos Dansby looks to be the best signing since Ben Watson, if not since 1999. All due respect to D’Qwell Jackson, Dansby’s closing ability, hard hitting and passion are the driving force behind what success this defense has had. Miles Austin has provided a steady, sure handed presence at WR, and Andrew Hawkins has proven to be as shifty and dynamic as advertised. While Ben Tate has struggled as of late, and did miss time with an almost expected injury, he has still run well and been dependable in pass protection and in catching the ball.
Overall, Farmer and his staff have done a commendable job in building a solid roster. It’s easy to see the strategy-bring in tough , dependable players, including veterans with experience winning and plenty left in the tank. So far, it’s working and helping to overcome injuries and a suspension to Josh Gordon. As the seasons go on and the philosophy is followed, the roster should have some very nice depth with an ability to match up with anyone in the league.
Finally, coaching- There’s probably plenty of nitpicking that could be done for things that have been said and decisions made, but the fact that this team is where they are is a testament to them. They have overcome a lot of offseason drama with the firing of the front office and drafting of Manziel, still managed to succeed on offense while not having Josh Gordon, and have won 2 of 3 while overcoming the loss of their Pro-Bowl center. Not bad at all.
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The Browns still have a lot of issues to overcome. They need to re-discover their own philosophy in running the ball, and continue to improve on defense. It is essential the Brian Hoyer doesn’t let his play slip too much. He’ll likely always make some head-scratcher throws, but will also prevail with overall sound-decision making and strong leadership. If the team continues to follow the coaches’ lead, find ways to fight back and maintain their confidence, they can stay in the hunt to the end. Thursday is the biggest test yet-there’s no bigger test than a game against a division leader on the national stage. Win or lose, how the Browns perform could be the barometer for the future.