The Cleveland Browns are 0-10 which sounds just about right if you are someone who believes that the better football team should win the game. The Browns are never the better football team. There are days, of course, when the Browns have a little mojo going or when they face a better team that flounders due to overconfidence, injury, boredom or simply because a healthy percentage of players and coaches woke up on the wrong side of the bed. This is how inferior teams usually win. So far the Browns have lost on those days too.
Even so, the Browns tend to get a lot of praise from national announcers during games. Their 0-10 coach, Hue Jackson, is often said to be exactly the right man (perhaps even the only man) to help the team escape its 17-year malaise. Their 0-7 rookie quarterback Cody Kessler -- taken in the third round ahead of at least a half dozen other quarterbacks presumed by the mock-drafting masses to be better including Dak Prescott -- is often celebrated for his accuracy and remarkable poise. Their 47-107 left tackle Joe Thomas, one of the best offensive linemen in the game’s history, is praised for his patience, which announcers assure us should pay off any time now.
And, more than anything, they tell us: Don’t look at the 0-10 record.
Look instead at the bright future that awaits.
Outside of the bravo world of football announcing, however, it appears that things are not so cheery in Cleveland. There was a report by Jason La Canfora over at CBS Sports that hit all of the angles you would expect from an 0-10 team that has not won a playoff game in its modern history. Let’s see:
-- Front office frustrated with the coach? Check.
-- Coach looking to protect a defensive coordinator whose defense can’t stop anyone? Check.
-- Talk of low morale? Check.
-- Ownership taking a more active role in the team? Check.
-- Anonymous person ripping owner for taking a more active role in the team? Check. “You basically have a husband and wife in charge of various areas they really don’t understand,” the anonymous source said while hoping, I can only assume, to stay anonymous.
All of this static and white noise. As a Browns fan -- and I write this specifically as a Browns fan -- I think there are only two real issues to consider.
1. Is this team heading in the right direction despite the record?
2. Would making significant changes be beneficial?
For the first question: There are no easily identifiable indications that the team is heading in the right direction. The sunny announcers talk about how the team hasn’t quit despite its woeful situation which always leads me back to Kansas State coach Bill Snyder’s classic line: “They don’t let you quit.” Anyway, the Browns have lost their last two games by a combined 7 touchdowns. That might be what quitting looks like.
Then again, this roster is so deprived of talent that I’m not sure what progress would even look like. This has been marked as a throwaway season for a long time.
I suppose the best case scenario of a winless season,would be finding a handful of promising young players who might contribute. And? Well, Terrelle Pryor seems to have made a promising transition from quarterback and rookie Corey Coleman has shown a few flashes of talent. Young linebacker Christian Kirksey has made a lot of tackles, though it’s unclear if he’s made them because nobody else could, and second-year defensive tackle Danny Shelton seems to be playing at a pretty high level. Their young running backs are pretty good.
I have no earthly idea if that’s a decent crop of young talent. I suspect not.
And as for Hue Jackson -- I’m torn. I like the guy a lot. I liked him a lot when he was coaching the Bengals, and I like the no-excuses attitude he has taken with this team. For someone to turn this mess around the most important quality, I think, is clarity of thought. You look at what Theo Epstein and company did with the Cubs. He had a very clear idea of where he wanted the Cubs to go. That philosophy -- acquire hitting, develop consistency through the organization, focus on the strike zone, on and on -- was their North Star. And though they ran into waves and wind and sharks and unexpected trouble, the Cubs stayed on course.
I do think Hue Jackson has some of that clarity of thought -- it sure seems like he has not allowed bad breaks, bad calls, and a stunning lack of talent knock him off stride. He has continuously devised interesting offenses that might be more effective if there was enough talent. He has not made excuses.
But the question is: Are the Browns following the North Star or some firefly that happens to be buzzing around? I don’t know the answer to that. The scariest thing about Hue Jackson’s Browns is how terrible they have been in second halves. In the first half, the Browns have only been outscored 144-124, which isn’t all that bad. They’ve actually led four of their 10 games at halftime, and they were right in it most of the time.
In the second half, however, they have been outscored 157-51. Put another way, in the second half this year they’ve been outscored 22 touchdown and a field goal to 7 touchdowns and a safety.
Or put it another way still: The Browns have been outscored in the second half EVERY SINGLE GAME THIS YEAR.
That’s stupefyingly bad football.
So -- why? Is it because Hue Jackson is terrible at halftime adjustments? Maybe. Is it because the Browns are in worse physical condition than their opponents? Maybe. Is it because the Browns talent is so sparse and inexperienced that they need gimmicks to keep the game close but, sooner or later, the gimmicks run out? Maybe.
One thing we know for sure: It’s difficult to spin the Browns’ second half miseries so that it looks GOOD for Hue Jackson. If we were playing Magic 8 ball, the Hue Jackson future would come up, “Outlook not so good.”
Then, this leads to the second question: Would making significant changes be beneficial?
I feel very confidence answer that question like so: NO!
Please, please, please, please don’t make any big changes. Fight over defensive coordinator Ray Horton, that’s fine. Tinker with your offensive coordinator structure, that’s OK. But, in the name of Paul Brown, Lou Groza and Marion Motley, PLEASE leave the core in place.
I have mentioned before that I keep an active spreadsheet of all of the Browns starting quarterbacks (a staggering 27 in almost 18 seasons). On the second page, I keep a list of the ever-changing Browns braintrust -- owner, general manager, coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator.
Jimmy Haslem became owner in 2012. He didn’t do much that first year.
In the last four years, he has hired:
-- At least three general managers (Michael Lombardi, Ray Farmer and whoever the heck is general manager now, either Executive Vice President Football Operations Sashi Brown or Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta … or Dee Haslam, Jimmy’s wife).
-- Three head coaches (Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and Hue Jackson)
-- Two defensive coordinators (Ray Horton and Jim O’Neil, though Horton has served two separate terms)
-- Four offensive coordinators (Norv Turner, Kyle Shanahan, John DeFillippo and, I guess, Hue Jackson is the offensive coordinator now, though Pep Hamilton is associate head coach -- offense).
This is precisely how you make a train wreck. I mean that literally. The most efficient way to design a train wreck would be to keep hiring and firing the various engineers, quality control people, construction coordinators and anyone else responsible for making sure that trains DO NOT wreck. You would put some people in charge of too many things, others in charge of pretend things, and you would give out indecipherable titles so that nobody had any idea who was responsible for what. You would change philosophies every year so that everybody is entirely baffled about what they’re even trying to accomplish.
Train wreck: The Cleveland Browns.
In other words, yes, it’s true, I don’t know if Hue Jackson is the right guy -- I have my doubts but I don’t know.
I don’t know if the Sashi Brown-Paul DePodesta thing makes any sense at all -- I have my doubts, but I don’t know.
I don’t know if Jimmy Haslem can stay out of things long enough to allow the people he trusted to turn this thing around -- I have my doubts, but I don’t know.
But I do know that I want to the Browns to stick with all of them and just go in the direction they’re facing. It might not be the“right” direction, but let’s face it: There is no WRONG direction at this point. The Browns are at rock bottom. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that. You can’t get worse than 0-10 after 10 games. You cannot have a professional football roster with less talent than this one. You cannot have a drearier history than the new Browns have.
So, really, WHATEVER DIRECTION YOU HEAD will lead to someplace better than this. It might not be the direction to the Super Bowl, but at this point the Super Bowl should be the last thing on anybody’s mind. The Browns should be thinking about how to get one elite interior offensive lineman to build around. They should be thinking about getting one terrific young cornerback (two-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden is neither young nor terrific anymore) and someone who can rush off the edge. They obviously need to get the quarterback thing worked out. They clearly need to get stronger physically as a team.
The Browns have a chance to do this: They have a bunch of good draft picks over the next two years. They need a stable front office and coaching staff to make the most of that. They need to give this group three to four years to take this team wherever it is destined to go. You will ask: But what if they don’t know what they’re doing?
Answer: Then you made the mistake hiring them in the first place.
Trust your decision making -- they’re the only thing you have going for you. As bad as the Browns are now (and this is the worst Browns team of my lifetime, which is saying something) they are at the beginning of something. We don’t know where it ends but for once Jimmy Haslem needs to fight off his impatience and just wait to find out.