Browns Lose: Troubling Truths, Challenges Emerge


The problem isn’t so much that the Cleveland Browns lost today, the worst part is that they could be headed toward a full-on meltdown.

This isn’t to lambast the decision to bench QB Brian Hoyer in favor of Johnny Manziel (more on that below); it’s simply the sum assessment of everything that came out of this game. This game goes beyond the continued injuries or horrible game by a multitude of players (even Joe Thomas played possibly the worst game of his career). The Browns need to take a look in the mirror and find a way to consistently play the way they’ve show they’re capable of.

Coach Mike Pettine, as we all know by now, views “mental toughness” as a key attribute that he tries to instill in the team, and after last week’s last minute win over the Atlanta Falcons, he pounded that point home in his press conferences. While there’s certainly validity to that example, Pettine may need to address his teams’ mental toughness on a week-to-week basis. This is the THIRD ugly loss following huge wins this season (the others being the week 7 loss to Jacksonville following a demolition of the Steelers, and the other being 2 weeks ago after dominating the Bengals on the national stage).  This is showing an unfortunate pattern of the team not looking prepared to perform in “statement” or otherwise “must-win” games. The past 2 have been especially troubling because they were against other AFC teams fighting for playoff spots.

Simply put, the Browns have a problem maintaining discipline and executing whenever they seem to hit a peak. Yes, “learning to win” is something that won’t happen overnight, and the players need to make the plays on the field, but it’s on the coaching staff to keep to team focused and it’s obviously taking some time to do so.

Luckily for the Browns, both the Steelers and Ravens lost today, meaning they didn’t lose any ground to them. However, the Bengals won, increasing their division lead to two games. While not out of the realm of possibility, the Browns’ 2-1 record since the Cincinnati game (vs. 3-0 for the Bengals) does not bode well in the quest for a Browns’ division title. The biggest problem is that instead of being all but eliminated, the Bills have now leapfrogged the Browns as both teams hold identical overall and division records with the Bills holding the tiebreaker. And while the Ravens did lose, they lost to San Diego, yet another wild-card contending team.

There were also some on-field issues made apparent in this loss as well. First, the Browns are simply not equipped to handle talented, physical defensive lines, at least not while Alex Mack is out. Despite the talent that they do have, somewhere between their own skillset and the scheme it doesn’t quite work. This was the case today, as well as in Jacksonville and against Houston. They simply allow the defense to gain gap superiority and subsequently get penetration into the backfield, pretty much taking away the running game.

The risk the Browns took in cutting Ben Tate and losing his experience may have come back to haunt them a little today. Isaiah Crowell appeared to be looking for that single cut that would allow him to break up-field for a big gain, much like last week in Atlanta. When it wasn’t there he would have been best served finding a seam and charging forward to grind a few yards out. Hopefully he learns from this today.  I would suggest that Terrance West’s running style would have served the team better today, but as Coach Pettine said after the game, his 3rd quarter fumble was unacceptable. Plus, his near-fumble in the red zone in the first half was too close for comfort. The bottom line is that as talented as both of these players are, they will need to clean their game up if the Browns are going to keep playing in January.

The play calling also became problematic today. The Browns started the day with a lot of screens and quick slants which seemed to be the perfect remedy to the Bills’ pass rush. But, they eventually switched to slow-developing runs and long passes downfield. Despite only a 3-0 lead, the Browns pretty much dominated this game for the first 31 minutes, their only issues being self-inflicted wounds and a failure to capitalize off of Jim Leonard and Joe Haden’s interceptions. Some better execution and increased discipline would have allow them to put the Bills away, but they seemed to revert to an offensive game plan that just wasn’t working today. I certainly wouldn’t call for any coaching changes but let’s put the brakes on speculation that Kyle Shanahan might be plucked away for a head coaching gig next season. He may need more time to prove himself here.

Which brings us to the pink elephant in the room…

Agree or disagree, the wisdom of the decision to pull Brian Hoyer for Johnny Manziel likely won’t be known for at least a couple of weeks, depending on whether the decision sticks and how either one of them plays going forward. The fact is that Hoyer has played horribly the past 3 weeks. Possibly the biggest attribute he has shown this year is an ability to shake off or rebound from bad performances, as he displayed last week in engineering another game-winning drive.  But the Brian Hoyer that we saw today was troubling. He continued to attempt to force the ball to Josh Gordon, stared down receivers, and looked like he was standing in cement. Despite the problems that Buffalo’s defensive line did present, Hoyer was sacked only twice and frequently made throws that looked panicked despite having several seconds to set and throw.

Manzeil’s impact was immediately apparent. After a couple of east completions on play-action rollout, he threw a few sharp passes with conviction before finally rushing for a 10-yard touchdown. It wasn’t perfect or groundbreaking, he was nearly picked on a completion over the middle and also missed what should have been a fairly easy pass to Travis Benjamin. But Manziel’s confidence and ability to come in cold off of the bench was encouraging.

While the coaches need to pick the player that they feel can best help the team win, the locker room dimension can’t be ignored

While the coaches need to pick the player that they feel can best help the team win, the locker room dimension can’t be ignored. Hoyer has been continually praised and supported by his teammates this year, with Pettine and Andrew Hawkins’ comments this past week possibly being the most ringing. With those statements being made, it may have been expected that Pettine would have said Hoyer is still the guy moving forward, but no such endorsement was given. Hoyer was clearly upset after the game, and he should be. His overall solid play and leadership is a big reason why the Browns are enjoying their most successful season in over half a decade. If he shirked and glumly accepted being benched he would be doing nothing but telling the team that he’s not the guy he has displayed himself to be all year.

More from Dawg Pound Daily

Winning football teams don’t switch starting quarterbacks in the stretch run of the season. But if the coaches feel Hoyer has hit a ceiling that will only hold the team back, they’ll be well justified in making a change. Either way, they need to make sure that the whole team is still buying in and on board, to include Hoyer and Manziel themselves. Making big changes as a leader is hard, period. But when the whole group is convinced that the change needed to be made, the transition and hiccups that come with it will be much easier to bear.

The job done by this coaching staff so far is commendable. They have overcome a LOT of injuries, and will continue to do so as they suffered even more today. They have generally schemed to put players in the best position possible to win. But right now the team could be on the brink of a crisis, both internally and on the field. How they manage the quarterback situation and continue to work through the roster attrition that’s occurring will be the key in holding the team’s confidence and having continued success throughout the remainder of this season and future ones.