Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Did the Browns Offense fall apart in 2014?

    The Browns started off the 2014 season playing at a high level on offense and defense.  But by the end of the year, the Browns faltered badly, especially an offense as they seemed to lose the ability to move the ball.   Much of it was simply injury related, as the Browns lost Pro Bowl Center Alex Mack. But in my opinion, Mack's situation was made worse by odd personnel decisions at the end of training camp.  This and other disfunctions can be traced to a disfunction between Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan and General Manager Ray Farmer.  The upshot was that the team was short of personnel and Shanahan was unable to compensate for the loss of a star player.  

  First let's review what went right.     The fact is that the Offense was very formidable early in the year, with Joe Thomas, newcomer Joel Bitonio and Alex Mack all playing at or near Pro Bowl level.  On the right side, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz also played well,  The offensive line seemed to thrive on Shanahan's zone blocking schcme.  

    Early on, opposing defenses thought they could challenge the Browns by playing 8 man fronts all day long, daring Hoyer to throw deep.  Well, Hoyer was able to hit  Taylor Gabriel and  Andrew Hawkins with the deep ball, with Miles Austin proving to be a reliable possession receiver and Jordan Cameron also disrupting defenses foolish enough to stay in 8 man fronts too long.   All three running backs excelled on the ground, including starter Ben Tate and the two rookies, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.   However, the Browns rarely threw to the running backs.

    One of the most peculiar roster moves was almost completely gutting the offensive line deptch at the end of training camp, cutting  Reid Fragel, Garrett Gilkey, Donald Hawkins, Alex Parsons, Abasi Salimu and Martin Wallace.  Only Paul McQuistan survived, probably because he had guaranteed money.   My guess is that Offensive Coordinator Shanahan may have asked for the purge, frustrated by the inability of less talented players to pick up his complex blocking schemes.

    Everything fell apart when Center Alex Mack  broke his leg.  The Browns, having cut all of their backup linemen, had only Paul McQuistan ready to play, and he was ineffective.   By Game 8, they switched to newcomer Nick McDonald at center, followed soon by Ryan Seymour.   But the offensive line never regained its early season form.

"Look out, Brian!"  The Browns O-Line was much less effective after the injury to Alex Mack, partly because all the backup linemen except Paul McQuistan had been purged at the end of training camp.

    The Browns also lost confidence in Ben Tate, and shockingly released him in mid-season.   Ben is a very good player, and was always lobbying for more playing time.  This kind of "bad attitude" I am totally ok with it.  Nevertheless, the Browns seemingly couldn't tolerate it, and coupled with his declining performance after a hot start, Tate was gone by mid November.   The Browns kind of got away with this because of the emergence of West and Crowell, but in my opinion Shanahan probably forced Farmer's hand to get rid of the admittedly underperforming Tate.  

    Yet another oddity is that GM Ray Famer was known to be high on running back Glenn Winston, who destroyed defenses in pres-season for the 49ers, and was one of their last players cut.   Yet the number of carries that he could obtain in the Shanahan offense?  Zero.   Especially in an offense that could not move the ball the last five games of the year it is preposterous to think that the guy wasn't worth a carry or two.  No, the signs point squarely to a feud between Shanahan and Farmer, with Shanahan forcing a number of questionable personnel decisions and then not being able to compensate when his starters went down.    

Kyle Shanahan refused to play Glenn Winston at running back, probably to show Farmer who's boss.

Eventually Miles Austin was injured and replaced by Josh Gordon, returning from a drug suspension.  Gordon was just not the same player as he was before the suspension.  The 2014 Gordon was out of shape,  flabby and did not learn the playbook.  He was just a shadow of his former self, and not nearly able to replace Austin.

In turn, Hoyer cooled off and was unable to rally the troops.  He eventually finished the year as the 31st highest ranked quarterback in the NFL.  The talented but drug infested Johnny Manziel started two games and made a fool of himself before giving way to an unspectacular Connor Shaw.  

Clearly the Browns were talented at first string, but when injuries hit they had no answer.  Shanahan was brilliant at designing plays for the first string but could not deal with lesser talents.  In particular, they gutted the team of backup offensive linemen, and then the team fell apart when they had no trained backup linemen.   Certainly that was their own fault.  To the extent that Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan contributed to this dysfunctional offense, it is probably a good thing that he has left the team.  

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