Confidence in the Face of Despair- Why to be Optimistic About the Browns
By Joe Zevchek
In the wake of the Cleveland Browns’ 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers this past week, there’s a lot of negativity to go around. Yes, Johnny Manziel once again looked woefully unprepared. The run defense looks like they’re out of gas and out of answers. The running game couldn’t get going to make enough of an impact. We could go on.
However, as upsetting as this game was to most fans (and rightfully so), upon further reflection , there’s a few things that came out of it that should encourage fans that things are going in the right direction. This isn’t an attempt to sugarcoat anything-the apparent failures by the coaching staff, players and front office shouldn’t be ignored. But let’s look at both sides of the each situation.
First, the top half of the draft is looking sketchy. Justin Gilbert should have been expected to make an immediate impact as a top-10 pick. While he has shown some sign of improvement, he didn’t even start Sunday with Joe Haden being out with an injury. Manziel looks like he doesn’t even belong on the field after 2 starts, and the questions will remain as he was ruled out for Sunday’s game in Baltimore.
Let’s start with Manziel. All the pre-draft hype and season storylines aside, the most disturbing issue to most observers is his lack of readiness to lead the offense during a game. Naturally, much of this criticism falls at the feet of the coaching staff for playing him when he was not ready to. While some of that may be fair, there are a couple of things to consider. First, some players are simply better in practice. It’s relatively easy to perform when you’re facing players you know and have the constant presence of coaches at your side to guide you. A player could show every sign of understanding what to do and how to react during the week, but doing the same in the line of fire is an entirely different matter. Panic will easily set in for some players as defenders come at them full speed and the script breaks down. If this is the case with Manziel, it could still get better, but only time and experience will tell.
Provided that Manziel showed every sign of being ready, the coaching staff had little choice but to start Manziel. The offense was flat-lining while the team was desperately fighting to stay in the playoff hunt, and Brian Hoyer was simply not getting it done. In retrospect, it may not have been the best decision, but it’s hard to blame the coaches for trying everything they could to jump-start the team.
Gilbert is a bit of an anomaly so far. His technique in covering pro receivers has been the most-cited issue in explaining his troubles so far, but now his own teammates are calling him out, questioning his commitment and preparation. Again-time will tell. The same goes to Terrance West, who also continues to suffer with issues in both the locker room and on the practice field.
However, the way the situation with Gilbert and West has been handled is admirable. With injuries to K’waun Williams and Joe Haden, one might figure that Gilbert would get a good share of reps by default. Most wouldn’t have blamed the coaching staff for essentially saying-“You’re a top pick, we need you, so go out there and do what’s expected.” The same applies to West in light of Ben Tate’s departure from the team last month. Instead however, the coaches are sending a clear message: if you fail to buy in and prepare the way you need, you won’t play, no matter who you are.” This simple philosophy is setting a culture of accountability and rewarding of hard work, and while it may be hard to suffer through now, the results will inevitably show.
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In contrast to the disappointing play from some of the higher-end picks, the front office should be commended for finding talent later in the draft and in free agency. Pierre Desir, who was essentially supposed to have a red-shirt season due to his very raw talent, came in for 75 plays this week and performed admirably. Linebacker Chris Kirksey has been solid, and 2nd rounder Joel Bitonio has likely solidified the guard spot for a decade if he can be retained. Even undrafted rookies Taylor Gabriel and Williams have been major contributors all year, and the fantastic performance of practice squad player Scott Solomon this week is a credit to the scouts and coaches. Finding talent deep in the draft or outside it is where a front office really shows their worth, and so far the Browns have done very well in that area.
The bottom line is clear- a foundation is being built. Yes, the coaches have seemingly had an issue having the team ready to play recently, or at least problems having better game plans in place. The front office will receive a lot of criticism for the top half of this year’s draft, at least until the players chosen prove otherwise. But, a philosophy of playing tough, practicing well and being accountable is being ingrained into the team. Despite the rough ending to the season, 7 wins is still more than the team has had in 7 years, 4 coaching staffs, and a half dozen quarterbacks. Getting the veterans to buy in shouldn’t be an issue, and the rookies will follow. Obviously, the quarterback situation is still THE huge question mark. But the team is being built solidly around the position. No one has any reason to be happy about the last month of the season, but for the first time in a long while, fans should be looking to the future with true optimism.
Are you optimistic for the future of the Cleveland Browns?