Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Strange Case of Justin GIlbert, by Mark F. Barnes, guest columnist.

During a discussion about Browns 2014 1st Round Pick Justin Gilbert in Denny Dice's Facebook Group (Dungeon of Dawgville) Mark Barnes offers the following:

Is Justin Gilbert as bad as the Browns defensive coaching staff believes?  Why does he play well on special teams if he is a poor player?    

He's only played man since High School and cover 2 zone is completely foreign to him. Because if his speed and ability to change direction in backpedal, Gilbert has always been used in man defense. 

I honestly don't know of another team in the NFL that uses cover 2 zone like Jim O'Neil does. Cover 2 man or cover 1 man. I've complained about this before in other articles, how O'Neil uses a bizarre hybrid spill and fill defensive front, problem is, he uses it in conjunction with a Cover 2 Zone secondary, and they do not work together. Cover 2 Zone essentially divides field in half. Your corners are more responsible for the flat and out routes and your safeties take the deep routes. Problem is that gives zero run support and if the LBs are filling the spill or the defensive line, the middle of the field is wide open. Cover two zone is popular in high schools because it's simple, but worthless in really good scheming offenses. Gilbert came out of the Big 12 and the Spread offense craze of that conference. If you haven't paid attention the Big 12 puts up ridiculous passing numbers, and the play primarily press man defense all the time. 

By dividing the field in half, you require two safeties to cover a lot of acreage. This opens the door to vulnerabilities that a smart offensive scheme will exploit. For example, if you put two receivers on either side of the deep zone, you can really stretch that safety, and one of the two will likely be wide open. Sound familiar, the Browns are constantly getting burned like this, and their run defense from this formation is abysmal. 

Also, there are natural pockets of weakness at the edges of each zone. If you're facing an accurate quarterback, and smart receivers, you'll be in trouble in those "soft" spots of the scheme. Linebackers cannot be expected to fill gaps in the run protection and support the the pass in the gaping hole left over the middle after they bight on the play action. The safeties have to be able to come down and lend middle support, but then your cover 2 zone is shot to hell and you're going to get gashed deep, as happens weekly. If you want to run the old Tampa 2 variation which has it's application, you better have the players to support the scheme. The defensive linemen in this scheme have to be quick and agile enough to create pressure on the quarterback without the aid of a blitz from either the linebackers or the secondary, with the defensive tackle in the nose position having above-average tackling skills to help stop runs. Browns don't have that either. The Browns are best suited for Cover 2 Man and nickel and dime, disguising the blitzes from the edge. 

In order to play the cover 2 zone effectively, you need very athletic players at the defensive back and linebacker positions. They need to by physical and smart, able to read the quarterback and adjust to multiple threats in their assigned zone of coverage. You have to have physical corners that can jam up the release of the wide receivers, and you also need linebackers that can run and cover. In the NFL, the cover 2 zone can be a disaster and rarely effective. When have you ever seen the Browns corner jam ANYBODY at the line. They normally play 5 to 7 yards off of them and allow that cushion throughout. That's why Roethlisberger carves them up constantly. 

Bottom line is O'Neil is clueless and is asking his team to do things that the roster isn't equipped for. The corners need to press the receivers, allow the outside linebackers to be responsible for the flats, if the coverage allows, roll that strong safety down in support, and get pressure on the QB. Quit all this spill and fill BS and please develop some gap integrity in the box. Start with firing O'Neil first off. Get a defensive identity and build to it. Play to your athletes strengths for god's sake.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Browns Will Lose Key Players to Free Agency in 2016

Browns fans looking forward to the off-season should be aware that it's not much better.  This years team was very weak, yet believe it or not we have a good chance of losing four Pro Bowlers (or alternates).  

Can the Browns retain Travis Benjamin?  

Several good players have the ability to walk via free agency. The list includes

Travis Benjamin WR, Pro Bowl alternate

Tashaun Gipson, S, Pro Bowl alternate
Alex Mack, C, Pro Bowl 
Johnson Bademosi, CB/special teams, Pro Bowl alternate
MItchell Schwartz, RT, starter
Craig Robertson, ILB, situational player.  

If we lose Travis Benjamin we are going to be short our best big play wide receiver.  The Browns have depth at wide receiver, but Benjamin is the only guy who is definitely better than average, unless you want to count on oft-suspended Josh Gordon.   Certainly Benjamin's low salary made him a bargain this year.  

Alex Mack is 99% likely to exercise his contract option and walk.  On the other hand, the Browns will save 8 million dollars versus the 2016 cap.  That's a lot of money for a center, and we will have enough to sign two capable starters for that kind of investment.  

Face it, Alex Mack is a bad-ass, now back from last year's injury.   He'll probably leave, and I wish him well.   

Cameron Erving is experienced at center but he is going to have to develop quite a bit to replace anyone.  Right now he is a miserably under-developed rookie.  

Although Mitchell Schwartz does not get a great deal of press, he has been a valuable starter.  It is not going to be easy to replace him, but having the money from Mack's contract may help.  

Mitchell Schwartz doesn't get the love that Joe Thomas does and has never made the Pro Bowl, but like Thomas he has never missed a snap in his career.  He's unbelievably tough, plays hurt and is a solid teammate.  Such players don't grow on trees.    

Johnson Bademosi would be a tough loss on Special Teams, although the Browns seem to be deep in this area.  In particular, the Browns are stuck with Justin Gilbert who has not been able to play effective at cornerback, but he has been a very good special teams player, plus other capable gunners like Marlon Moore, Jordan Poyer and others.   

Linebacker Craig Robertson improved at inside linebacker, but the Browns figure to add some additional talent at that position.  Robertson is good but maybe not irreplaceable.  Like other Browns positions the talent does not match the performance, with Nate Orchard, Chris Kirksey, Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger all seeming to have talent but being part of a bottom five unit.  

But the big elephant in the room is Joe Haden, who gets a guaranteed $10 million dollars in 2016 as long as he continues to fail the concussion protocol.  There may be a very costly injury settlement, and so maybe no salary cap relief once they manage to get rid of him.  It's possible he may never again play for the Browns, while costing them the equivalent of two good starting players in terms of salary cap.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Did the Browns Goof on Joe Haden's Contract?

Did the Browns unintentionally incentivize Joe Haden with $10.1 million dollars to have a season ending injury?  

    First of all, I love Joe Haden.  He's been a great player and given the Browns many exciting moments.   But this year he had to shut it down early due to injuries.   
    Some of my friends, including my good friend Dennis Dice, have wondered aloud whether he is feigning injury.   I have up to this point dismissed this as unfounded criticism, based on Joe's record as a competitor.  But I started reading some more about his contract, and now I'm disturbed.  It looks like the way his contract is written he is highly incentivized to shut down for injury reasons.  It might be that the Browns will be forced to cut him and Haden may be forced to leave because of the way that the contract evolved.  Here's what has happened.  In 2014, Haden signed a contract for $67.5 million dollars. The guaranteed money includes $16 million in bonuses.  His 2016 salary is $10.1 million but is not guaranteed except if he is injured.  If the Browns cut him in the off-season, the salary cap is still charged the remainder of his bonus, but not his non-guaranteed salary.  The net result is they could have $3.4 million of 2016 dollars to sign other players.   
      But if he is injured, say from a concussion problem, it's different.  Now his $10.1 million dollar is guaranteed.  If the Browns cut him, they still pay the other guarantees PLUS $10.1 million dollars, and their salary cap has to absorb that in 2016.   They would have $6.7 million dollars LESS in their 2016 payroll to pay players.  
        In other words, as best i understand Haden's contract,l if Joe is not playing good football (and he hasn't been), he is worth TEN MILLION DOLLARS more money if he has a concussion problem.   
        This is a ridiculous position to put a player in.  Why would I offer a guy 10 million dollars to have (or appear to have)  an injury?  I think this contract device is totally not in anyones' best interest.  It harms the team and greatly increases the likelihood that the player WILL NOT PLAY.   
     I'm not saying that Joe is faking or not trying hard.  I believe in Joe Haden.  I blame a bad contract.  Put yourself in Joe's place.  You have to take a written concussion test. It's not a simple test, you have to concentrate hard to pass it.      But what if you knew that you could get 10 million dollars extra if you failed the test?  And moreover, if you get cut by the Browns you can still play football for another team. Would that affect your concentration?  It would affect mine.  Would I be able to pass such a test understanding everything that is on the line and the huge reward offered if I don't pass?   I'm not sure.  
     I think what the Browns have to do in this situation, if they want him to play, is to say, "Ok Joe, we still want you, we'll guarantee the rest of of your contract."  Then maybe he will do better in the concussion protocol.  If not, they will have to negotiate an injury settlement and release him.  But Haden holds most of the cards, and so the Browns will probably have to pay most of his $10.1 Million 2016 salary.   
     In the interests of full disclosure,  I'm an amateur sports blogger, not a pro sportswriter and not a financial expert. But based on how I understand the way NFL contracts work, I have to think that Joe Haden's contract increases the likelihood that he will never play again for the Cleveland Browns.  A similar problem happened in Washington, where Robert Griffin III gets another year added to his contract if he gets injured.  Hence the Redskins decided to just bench him to avoid the risk.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

NFL Plays Musical Chairs with Franchises for Los Angeles and London

Your team could play here in a few years.   Don't assume the NFL will look out for your city's interests.  They look out for the NFL's interests.  

     I remember when the Browns moved to Baltimore.  It was a horrible feeling of betrayal.  The team owner sold out the fans in favor of making more money.   Well, we should have seen it coming, pro sports are a business and the teams are there to make money for the owner.   Mr. Modell did well financially and became a hero in Baltimore, even though he could never ever return to Cleveland.  In my lifetime, franchises have packed up and moved several times.  There was the Baltimore Colts...the Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles and back again...the Rams moved to St. Louis, the Chargers, Titans, and several others.  

    This terrible situation will happen to other teams.   Los Angeles is set to acquire two teams in the next few years, and perhaps one or two in London also.   The names thrown out are usually the San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams and maybe the Oakland Raiders.  All three teams have played in Los Angeles previously.    

Los Angeles is so huge that many observers feel that it will certainly receive two franchises in the next few years, not just one.  

    London is eyeing the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have been a grossly mismanaged team.  The Buffalo Bills are rumored to be another possibility if they are not nabbed by a group from Toronto first. 

     But if those moves go off without a hitch, that does not end franchise movements. Now you will have empty stadiums in San Diego, St Louis and Jacksonville, and groups will no doubt be formed to seek other NFL teams willing to relocate in order to get a sweeter stadium deal, and potentially enhance the value of the team by several hundred million dollars.  

      Fans assume that the candidates to move are primarily teams with poor fan support.  This is not true.  Any team that has a profit-oriented owner, preferably without family contacts in the team's current home, are candidates to move.        Greed is the motivator, so it merely has to be shown that a move to a new city will result in a new stadium with a sweet lease deal, and other teams will consider a move.  

        A few teams are so amazingly wealthy that they would not generate new revenue by moving.  If you look at the value of teams listed as estimated by (Forbes), that would include teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and the New York teams.  The average value of an NFL franchise is currently 2 billion dollars.  

      I'm not an expert but I have to think that franchises in Los Angeles and London will rank near the top of the list in ten years.  At least they should be comparable to franchises from Chicago or Philadelphia with a present value around $2.4 billion.    
      There are several teams valued at about $1.6 billion dollars or less:

     Minnesota, Carolina, Arizona, Kansas City, San Diego, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Tennesee, Jacksonville, Saint Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Oakland and Buffalo.  Any of these teams would stand to create at least $800 million dollars of value by moving.   

     Many teams are owned by people with strong connections to the host city, and the owner would not want to become a pariah there as Modell became in Cleveland. Not so in the case of Jacksonville or Cleveland.  

    As a Browns fan, I am amazed that the team is owned by a resident of Tennesee, and no one seems to mind.   Rather, Clevelanders assume that the owner is a kindly football fan seeking to bestow riches on the team, and who is not swayed by profit motives.  Hence, getting a billion dollars for moving the team to LA or London would have no appeal for this saintly individual.

     But I breathe easier knowing that Haslam has been in quite a bit of legal trouble, and probably would not want to create more problems for himself and his brother the Governor of Tennessee, at least not at the present time.

    But returning to the scenario in which the Jaguars move to London, with the Rams and Chargers moving to LA, we have to ask how long it will be before new groups in Jacksonville, Saint Louis and San Diego will emerge to compete for the remaining teams.  It's a gigantic game of musical chairs, as the number of teams is limited by the NFL, while there are several more cities that want the NFL.   As Yogi Berra might say, it ain't over.  

    As a minimum this will result in a bidding war as teams scramble to keep their teams.   Stadium improvements worth hundreds of millions of dollars are certain to to result. Certainly when the Browns current lease expires in 2029, it will cost a pile of money to negotiate a new one.  We will have to outbid cities in the market for a new team to play in their new stadium.  This is just going to be the norm as the NFL extorts money from cities to keep their teams.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Enough Manziel, How About the Browns Defense?

Armonty Bryant #95 and the Cleveland Browns defense pounded San Francisco into the Cleveland Stadium turf.  Photo:  Bleacher Report.

     The football world is abuzz about the Browns exciting young quarterback, Johnny Manziel, rightly so.  But for people who follow the Browns it was not really a huge surprise because Manziel has been good all year long, though not playing much.   Last time out he threw for 375 yards against the Steelers, though apparently nobody from ESPN was watching that day.  

Blaine Gabbert was tackled hard and often.   I give the guy credit for being able to walk off the field on his own power at the end.    

     But the real story was the Browns defense which finally came through after grossly underperforming all year long. Consider that the Browns had only 17 sacks all year long, but Sunday they broke out of their funk and hung 9 sacks on the 49ers.   Not only that, it wasn't just one weak spot in the 49ers' line, as evidence by the fact that 7 Browns participated, including  2 DEs, 2 OLBs, 1 ILB, 1 CB and 1 S:  

Armonty Bryant       OLB   2 sacks
Desmond Bryant,       DE  1.5 sacks
Xavier Cooper,           DE  0.5 sacks
Nate Orchard,          OLB  2 sacks
Christian Kirksey,      ILB, 1 sack
Jordan Poyer             CB, 1 sack
Donte Whitner,             S, 1 sack

     Holy cow!  Everybody got into the act.  How did they do it?  I noticed that they played several plays without a nose tackle, and instead replaced the NT with a pass rushing threat.  To find out more, I consulted Denny Dice's forum (Dungeon of Dawgville) on Facebook.  

     I found that others were also intrigued.  Mark F Barnes writes "They were rotating into a 4-3 defense on specific downs in order to confuse blocking schemes and disguise the pressure and where t was coming from.  They would bring Kruger a wide split at times and force an H back to block him one on one by scheme, by cheating Nate Orchard down on the weakside, and forcing the TE to stay with him, so they were bringing a five man rush, with eight in the box and it kept the guards from getting to their second level blocks, freeing them up to stuff the run game on 1st ad 2nd downs, thus putting the 9ers behind the chains constantly. On third and long they shift to a 3-4 Bear and bring pressure from the edges with Kruger and Orchard." 

     The "Bear" defense, as I understand it, is an 8 man front with an extra pass rushing lineman, made famous by the 1985 Chicago Bears. 

     They switched up blitz packages and would wait until Gabbert designated the Mike then when they loaded up to stop Kruger, he's drop into coverage and they'd bring inside pressure without twisting and giving up gap integrity. So the few times they tried the delayed draw it went nowhere. The front seven or eight played an inspired game..."

    Several of us fans have speculated that Jim O'Neil may have had less input for this game, and someone else, perhaps Pettine himself or linebacker coach Chuck Driesbach may have had greater input to the game plan and play calling. Whatever, we can say that up till last week the Browns had a top 5 defensive payroll and bottom 5 defensive performance.   

     As Mark Barnes points out, "Nothing they did Sunday resembled anything he (O'Neil) has done in the past on defense. It did however look oddly familiar to a David Cutcliffe/David Bailiff type of defense and [Browns linebacker coach] Chuck Driesbach was the Defensive Coordinator under both of them for years. He's known for his blitz packages, and if you were watching Sunday that's just what you saw...."

       If it is true that Pettine pulled the plug on O'Neil, the main question is, "what kept you, Coach?"  I understand that the offense had some holes.  But the defense has had nothing but high draft picks and choice free agents the past few years, resuling in one of the highest defensive payrolls in the NFL.   But we have consistently been around 30-32 in defense (we can't get much lower folks).   Sunday's game was the first positive sign.  

     We'll see if the inspired play continues against the Seattle Seahawks, a very tough and professional outfit.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Cleveland is the Best Match for Manziel

 Can Johnny maintain his concentration on football?   We'll find out...

   There is a lot of media buzz that says the Cleveland Browns need to jetison Johnny Manziel as quickly as possible so that some team like the Dallas Cowboys can pick him up and allow him to reinvent himself.    In this fan's humble opinion, that is nonsense.  Cleveland is a good place for a troubled but talented football player trying to find himself, and the Browns have no compelling need to replace him.

Make no mistake, Manziel is a high risk project and may fall prey to an off the field substance abuse problem.  Nobody really knows for sure if he can or should handle alcohol at this point, or whether he would be better off going to rehab.  Then there is some question whether he can actually play, though if you look at the numbers they are actually rather encouraging.  

But if you think in terms of rookie quarterbacks, ALL rookie quarterbacks are  at risk of failure for one reason or another.   The success rate is not better than 50%.  Manziel came out of college two years early, so 2016 should have been his rookie year. Looking at him that way, he's about where he should be:   promising but with considerable doubt whether he will make it or not.  The Browns could take Pax Lynch, Connor Cook or Jared Goff, but nobody knows whether they will succeed brilliantly, and it is even less likely that they will be ready for stardom in 2016.  No, if Manziel were allowed to be re-drafted, I imagine he would slide some because of his off-the-field issues, but he would still be taken in an early round.    

Another point I would like to make is that just because he was a first round draft pick does not mean that he has to be a superstar to justify the pick. He was drafted with the 23rd pick, and many felt that guys like Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, Terry Bridgewater and maybe Jimmy Garoppolo might be better.  In his draft position, he projects to maybe the 15th to 20th best quarterback in the NFL after a few years, and maybe some additional upside.  In other words, he might be as good as Josh McCown is now based on statistical ranking.   That's very reasonable.  

The  Browns are able to play without him in 2016.  They probably aren't contending for the Super Bowl anyway, and if Manziel were unavailable due to injury or some off the field issue, they have Josh McCown, Austin Davis and Connor Shaw available.   Everyone seems to deplore McCown, but the fact is that his rating of 93.3 ranks 14th in the NFL, far and away the best rating achieved by a Brown since their return to the NFL.  Austin Davis won 3 games as a substitute starter for the Rams in 2014, and Connor Shaw has been studying the playbook for two years.   These guys are all capable backups, now with an extra year to study the team, should Manziel not be available.  Conversely, if they draft a developmental quarterback, they would have to cut Davis or McCown in favor of the rookie with limited experience with the playbook.  Unless it's a true franchise qb, he won't have a major impact in 2016.  

Browns fans think that all the quarterbacks are horrible, but this is not true.  In reality they are four deep, though none is a star.  

Absolutely nothing good would happen if the Browns throw in the towel on Manziel.   He's under contract thru 2017 with an option year for 2018.  Since he gets guaranteed money, the Browns would incur a salary cap  penalty if they cut ties with him early.  What possible purpose does that serve?

    The Browns are clearly uncomfortable having a controversial and highly visible personality representing their team.  Pettine in particular appears to have cracked due to the pressure and interest surrounding Manziel and whether or not he will start or be kicked off the team or whatever.  But other sports figures generate huge media following and endless questions.  Joe Namath, Fernando Valenzuela, Ichiro Suzuki and Tim Tebow come to mind, just to name a few.   That's part of being in the sports and entertainment business.  

Manziel's issues involving substance abuse are potentially very serious not only to the team but also his life. That needs to be separated from the media publicity surrounding his every move.  If Manziel needs to go back to treatment, that's one thing.  But the fact that he goes to Texas and get kissed by pretty girls should not embarrass the team. What's the matter with you guys? That's not embarrassing.  The rest of us should be so lucky! The media spotlight, though perhaps a pain sometimes, should absolutely not deter the team from keeping him.  If you don't like fame and publicity, you shouldn't operate in the NFL.    

Controversy surrounding Manziel is dwarfed by the larger-than-life exploits of other quarterbacks including Joe Namath.  Cleveland, get used to it.  Coach Pettine, quit your whining.  New York has ten times as much media scrutiny and pressure as Cleveland.  

I think if they wanted to improve the offense quickly, an impact wide receiver and running back would be a better investment.  Our existing qbs would be better if the Browns were better than last place in rushing, and after Travis Benjamin we really have no receiver to scare the likes of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.   

So I think we should definitely keep Manziel for another year and see if he can work through his problems, maybe with a better coaching staff to help out.  Not interested in drafting another quarterback unless there is some hotshot that is just too good to pass up.  Draft a running back and wide receiver instead and maybe a lineman in a later round.  

There are a lot of areas that need to be fixed on a team that is close to last in rushing offense, rushing defense and overall defense. Quarterback is not great, but is adequate for at least the next year even if Manziel doesn't play a down.    Manziel offers upside, and the main negative is psychological as the fan base and front office have trouble dealing with their feelings about him.