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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Year in Review – 2012 Cleveland Browns – Part I

2012 Year in Review – the Cleveland Browns – Part I

Well, it was a slight improvement from the 2011 campaign (in terms of the win total), but the 2012 Cleveland Browns were once again an unsuccessful group.  They had a painfully slow start, enjoyed a few victories in the middle games, and suffered injuries and a couple of losses to close things out.  Depending on how Rob Chudzinski fares next season (as well the upgrades on the roster), the team could be leaps and bounds ahead of where they began last season.  Alas, that is down the road – for now, let’s take a look back at 2012.

Offseason injuries/suspensions:  The Browns received three crushing blows before (and one during) the season began in September.  Second-year pro Phil Taylor injured his pectoral lifting weights in May and missed nearly half of the regular season.  The former University of Baylor star had a solid rookie season and was looking to become one of the leaders of the defense.  His absence was felt early on, as two rookies (John Hughes and Billy Winn) were forced into action earlier than expected.

During an August practice, starting linebacker Chris Gocong tore his Achilles tendon and was lost for season.  This extremely hurt the unit, as he and D’Qwell Jackson were expected to influence many games.  Fortunately, the front office drafted a pair of linebackers in the April draft, but Gocong’s injury put these athletes in a difficult position.  Couple that with the fact that one of the two (Emmanuel Acho) went on injured reserve before the regular season, and the team had to find someone who could hold down a couple linebacker spots over the course of the season.

Number three overall draft selection, Trent Richardson, had to take some time off in training camp practices – as a result of his left knee scope.  Before being drafted, the running back had surgery on it but further work was necessary to clean out additional issues.  As a result, the athlete missed the entire pre-season (both practices and exhibition games) and some wondered if not being acclimated to the NFL game would make it rather difficult for the rookie.

It was rumored that veteran Joe Haden had taken the drug Adderall in the offseason; a looming four-game suspension appeared to be imminent.  Following the season opener that was indeed the case for the cornerback.  The defense (specifically the secondary) struggled as a result, and Haden apologized to the team and fans but the damage had been done.  As far as post-season awards went, this eliminated the veteran from Pro Bowl eligibility – something he was looking forward to.

Preseason:  The team’s first game was at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions; the Browns pulled out a 19-17 victory.  But as with many exhibition games, the final score did not tell the whole story.  The four quarterbacks for the visiting team all threw for relatively the same amount of yardage (just under one-hundred) but they got to that point in different ways.  Rookie Brandon Weeden performed the worst – for starters, he was a victim of a fumble and an interception.  Many attributed this to growing pains in the position.  With Richardson out, Chris Ogbonnaya took the most carries but had little success – this would be replicated in the regular season.  Passes were spread out evenly over the roster; Josh Cooper lead the team with three, while Jordan Cameron had the most yardage with fifty-eight.  Defensively, the front four looked rusty as the Lions racked up 198 yards on the ground.  No defender recorded more than four tackles, and Juqua Parker had the only sack.  Starting cornerback Sheldon Brown had an interception and the secondary only surrendered 170 yards through the air.  Looking at the statistics, several of the veterans made a play or two while the rookies and younger players struggled to play well – obviously this was not a surprise.

The second pre-season outing was a visit to Lambeau Field; here the Browns defeated the Packers 35-10.  Brandon Weeden played much better than his previous game (not turning the football over), but the rookie still could not find the end zone.  Although both Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson scored touchdowns, neither of the backs could achieve a high rushing total (or average, for that matter).  Starting to get into regular season form, Greg Little and Josh Gordon were the two leading wide outs for the team – both in terms of receptions and yardage.  Granted, a majority of the contest did not include Aaron Rogers, but the Browns were able to force four turnovers from their counterpart (unfortunately, linebacker James-Michael Johnson was the only member in this group to contribute during the regular season).  Using a more “vanilla” or plain defensive game plan, no sacks were recorded once again and the team’s leading tackler had just four stops (L.J. Fort).  If anything, this contest gave the young team confidence heading into the regular season.

In a preview of the regular season opener, the Philadelphia Eagles came into Cleveland Browns Stadium for an exhibition matchup.  Here, Weeden regressed – completing just nine of his twenty throws, losing one of his two fumbles, and not throwing a touchdown.  Along the same lines, both Jackson and Hardesty could not get anything going; it would have been nice to see Richardson take some hits here and work his way into the NFL game.  Rookie Josh Gordon was the leading wide receiver once again (similar to many times in the regular season) and had a catch and run of twenty-eight yards.  Overall, the home team could not find the end zone until the fourth quarter (when backups dominated the contest) and lost the game 27-10.  It was concerning to see the Browns surrender solid passing totals to quarterbacks Nick Foles and Trent Edwards; the former was a rookie and the latter had a subpar career to that point.  Both were efficient (combining for a 72% completion rate and three touchdowns).  In a contest that featured first-teamers getting additional playing time, Joe Haden notched his first interception of the 2012 campaign – it was only a matter of time until the veteran made his mark on a game.

Facing the Chicago Bears in the final contest before the regular season, the Browns employed several reserves a majority of the game (and it showed).  Thaddeus Lewis, active for just the regular season finale, was the leading passer with fifty-six yards.  The leading rusher (Adonis Thomas) was released before the season started, while little-used Josh Cribbs tallied thirty-four receiving yards.  The offense was stagnant and rather boring to watch; the defense was on the same disappointing level.  Josh McCown, a reserve backup who did not play a single down in the regular season, completed almost seventy percent of his passes and tossed two touchdowns.  A duo of running backs gained over eighty yards each – depth did not appear to be the strength of the 2012 Cleveland Browns, who dropped the contest 28-20.  However, the coaching staff believed the players learned a lot and would step up in the regular season – leading to victories.

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Posted by on January 28, 2013 in NFL Season

 

Michael Lombardi – Come on Down

The Cleveland Browns Newest Vice President of Player Personnel:

After jettisoning general manager Tom Heckert a few months ago, the Browns needed to fill the void with a strong talent evaluator.  Many were interviewed, including Ray Farmer (Chiefs’ Director of Pro Personnel) and John Idzik (Seahawks’ Vice President), while interest seemed to be high on Tom Gamble (49ers’ Director of Player Personnel).  However, the Browns were looking to turn back to the clock and hire the man who was with the team two decades ago and, more recently, a member of the NFL Network – Michael Lombardi.

Getting to Know You: 

Lombardi’s history with football began in Hempstead, New York, as he played for Hofstra University.  In the years between 1977 and 1981, the newest VP of Player Personnel was a defensive lineman and long snapper for the team.  Upon graduation, Lombardi headed west to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) – head coach Harvey Hyde gave him an opportunity as the position of Recruiting Coordinator.

After four years on the job, the football man took a crack at the NFL.  Hall-of-Famer Bill Walsh hired Michael to be a scout for the San Francisco 49ers.  This responsibility allowed for Lombardi to evaluate and make critical decisions regarding collegiate athletes.  In his first season, the team selected Todd Shell in the first round (a disappointing linebacker from BYU), John Frank in the second round (an average tight end from Ohio State), and Guy McIntyre in the third round (a five-time Pro Bowl guard from Georgia).  In 1985, the 49ers took Jerry Rice in the first round (arguably the best wide receiver in NFL history); they did not have a second round pick, and Ricky Moore in the third round (a less-than-stellar running back from Alabama).  In 1986, there was not a first round pick, the second round choice was Larry Roberts (a solid defensive lineman from Alabama), and the third round netted two picks – Tim McKyer (a long-time cornerback from Texas-Arlington) and John Taylor (a two-time Pro Bowler who caught the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl twenty-three).  Judging from these drafts, the franchise selected one home run in Rice, a few very good players, and several misses.

Over the next decade, Lombardi was employed near the shores of Lake Erie.  Working with the Cleveland Browns organization, he earned the title of Pro Personnel Director in 1987 until 1991 (under the Marty Schottenheimer and Bud Carson regimes).  Following that time period came the label of Director of Player Personnel, alongside Bill Belichick.  Lombardi was given a multitude of tasks; including deciding on collegiate and professional personnel, advisor of salary cap and player’s contracts, and manager of scouting.  He oversaw the draft from the years from 1992 through 1995, with limited success.

Picks like running back Tommy Vardell at number nine overall, Patrick Rowe (wide receiver) in the second round, and Bill Johnson (a defensive tackle) in the third round headed a disappointing 1992 draft.  The following year included selections of Steve Everitt (a very good center) in the first round, a mediocre defensive lineman in Dan Footman in the second, and a journeyman linebacker from Middle Tennessee in Mike Caldwell during the following round.  In 1994, the Browns did not have a second round pick; they chose Antonio Langham at number nine overall (an average cornerback from Alabama) and Romeo Bandison (a disappointing defensive tackle from Oregon).  Craig Powell (linebacker from Ohio State) and Eric Zeier (quarterback from Georgia) were the team’s first two picks in 1995.  None taken in the first three rounds over the period were Hall-of-Famers, let alone one of the best at their position.  Many view this time as a failure for Lombardi, who could not acquire great athletes on his watch.  When the team moved after the 1995 season, the talent evaluator was again looking for work.

The St. Louis Rams hired Lombardi for a “desk job” the following year – he simply prepared reports for ownership to advise them regarding prospects as their next head coach.  In 1997 and 1998, the Philadelphia Eagles hired him to work with Joe Banner as the Personnel Department Manager and an advisor on player contracts and salary cap issues.  This relationship likely helped with the recent hire of Lombardi to the Browns (occurring fifteen years later).  During the implementation of new head coach Andy Reid, the franchise went in another direction and looked for a different candidate to make personnel decisions.

It was Al Davis who was the next owner to take a chance on Michael Lombardi.  The long-time member of the NFL became the Senior Personnel Executive (while evaluating professional and collegiate players and veteran contracts) from 1998 to 2007.  Like his previous stops, the drafting over this period was full of mistakes and not enough excellent picks.  There were three exceptional first-round selections during this period – Charles Woodson (1998), Sebastian Janikowski (2000), and Nnamdi Asomugha (2003).

Decent selections during the decade include players like Jon Ritchie (1998 – third round), Matt Stinchcomb (1999 – first round), Jerry Porter (2000 – second round), Napoleon Harris (2002 – first round), Fabian Washington (2005 – first round), Stanford Routt (2005 – second round), and Zach Miller (2007 – second round).  However, there was a plethora of disappointing draft picks too; Tony Bryant (1999 – second round), Derrick Gibson (2001 – first round), Marques Tuiasosopo (2001 – second round), Langston Walker and Doug Jolley (2002 – second round), Teyo Johnson (2003 – second round), Robert Gallery (2004 – first round), Jake Grove (2004 – second round), Michael Huff (2006 – first round), Thomas Howard (2006 – second round), and JaMarcus Russel (2007 – first round).

Following the 2007 season, Lombardi switched to covering the sport through the media.  In 2008, he became a freelance writer for SI.com (writing weekly articles) and founded NationalFootballPost.com – along with being the Editor-In-Chief.  After a two year stint, it was on to NFL.com – Lombardi was able to continue to find employment through on-line media.  Additionally, in 2008 the NFL Network hired him for NFL Draft programs, and Michael became a full-time host shortly thereafter.  He was successful in making the jump to analyzing professional football on television, but Michael wanted to return to the league.  When the Browns (Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner) came calling, it was an easy answer.

2013 – New Year, New Opportunity: 

The fact that Lombardi will be the VP of Player Personnel instead of General Manager paves the way for Joe Banner to be heavily involved with selecting members for the roster (via trades, free agency, and the draft).  This is perfectly acceptable for a CEO in the NFL, except Banner does not have a great deal of experience in this area.  Instead, he is known as a salary cap manager, contract negotiator, and an off-the-field expert (administrator/strategist).  Banner has stated that personnel decisions will be made collectively among a few within the organization (including Chudzinski and possibly Haslam).

Personally, this is an unimpressive hire; I do not think Michael has done a great job selecting personnel, no matter which franchise he was working for.  I hope he has made the necessary adjustments and can listen to others in the room.  Lombardi was roasted by the media in his initial press conference; I hope he has a chip on his shoulder and will put everything into this job.  Perhaps then, Michael can be successful – but like many Cleveland fans, I am not optimistic at this point.  I am willing to reserve judgment on him (though) and see how things play out over the next few months – as well as years down the road.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2013 in Front Office/Coaching

 

Next Up – Rob Chudzinski

The Cleveland Browns Newest Coach – Rob Chudzinski

For many fans and media alike, it was a surprise to hear that the Browns hired Chudzinski as their next head coach.  Just a week ago, Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner were meeting with Chip Kelly for seven hours hoping to land the “big name”.  Many were clamoring for Nick Saban, Bill Cowher, and Jon Gruden – all of which did not express interest in the open position, though.

When the field was narrowed down to the final few candidates – Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Zimmer, and Chudzinski, I thought about what Haslam told us last week at his press conference.  The Browns owner wanted a young, offensive mind who is strong and aggressive.  Reading between the lines, it lead me to believe “Chud” was the guy for the orange and brown.  He is the youngest of the three and has been working with offenses over the past two decades.  As far as Chud’s (football) temperament goes, he typically is not passive when it comes to play calling.   The coach has displayed tendencies to take shots downfield (as opposed to shorter passing routes and running plays).  In his press conference, the words “attack” and “downfield” were used multiple times to describe his style of offense (as well as the defense), further cementing this fact.

Getting to Know You:  Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Rob was a Browns fan who enjoyed playing football himself.  The tight end attended St. John’s Jesuit High School and eventually wound up at the University of Miami.  Here, Chud (which I’ll likely refer to him, going forward) lettered for three seasons and was a part of the 1987 National Championship team that featured Brian and Bennie Blades, Michael Irvin, Russell Maryland, and Steve Walsh (Miami also won another title in 1989).  A couple years later, the tight end returned to his alma mater in order to become a graduate assistant with the football team during the 1994 and 1995 seasons.

Over the span of the next eight seasons, he was elevated from within the program – first as the tight ends’ coach.  From 1996 to 2000, Chud worked with talented athletes like Bubba Franks and Jeremy Shockey, who not only excelled in the NCAA but also the NFL.  In the 2001 National Championship season, the soon-to-be Browns’ coach became the offensive coordinator (of a team that, ironically, was no longer coached by Butch Davis – the Browns’ head coach).  Chud enjoyed a great deal success in this position; the university was one of the highest scoring teams ever at 42.6 points per game and defeated their opponents by 32.9 points per game.  After dominance with NFL-talent (in the Miami offense) such as Andre Johnson, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore, to name a few; it was now time to move on to the NFL.

Knowing the position well, Chud became the tight ends coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2004.  Here is where the coach reconvened with Kellen Winslow Jr., the first round rookie from Miami.  Unfortunately though, Winslow broke his leg in the second game, hurting the position’s depth (and giving Steve Heiden a majority of playing time).  The Browns’ season started at 3-3, but it went downhill quickly as Davis resigned from his head coaching position in mid-season.  A majority of the coaching staff was not retained, and the tight ends’ coach was looking for work.  Along came the San Diego Chargers, where once again the title of tight ends coach was bestowed upon him.  Here, Chud worked with Antonio Gates – in 2005 and 2006, the former University of Kent State basketball player became a Pro Bowler and All-Pro (averaging over 1,000 yards receiving and just under ten touchdowns per year).

When finally given a job as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, Chud took the opportunity and ran with it.  He returned to the Cleveland Browns, and the 2007 campaign was their best offensive season since the team returned – eight years earlier.  The franchise went 10 – 6 and averaged just over twenty-five points per game (the most since 1999).  Along those lines, the team sent six players to the Pro Bowl after that season; four of which were from the offense (Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow Jr., Derek Anderson, and Joe Thomas).  The team was looking to turn the corner and sustain success, but that was not the case.  The 2008 Cleveland Browns lost their final six games of the season and finished with a 4 – 12 record, which was the demise for then-coach Romeo Crennel.  Once again looking for another opportunity, Chud went back to his other former place of employment.

The San Diego Chargers did not skip a beat when their tight ends coach was re-introduced.  Gates had another stellar campaign (1,157 yards and eight touchdowns), while the team enjoyed a 13 – 3 record.  They were fourth in the league in scoring and fifth in point differential, but were ultimately defeated by the Jets in the playoffs.  The Chargers’ 2010 season included a relatively mediocre record (9 – 7), and the team narrowly missed the playoffs.  However, the offense continued to produce – they were second in the league in scoring points (27.6) and once again fifth in point differential.  Gates was status quo (782 yards and ten touchdowns); having great athletes makes the coach’s job easier.  After the two years as tight ends coach, Chud was seeking to become a head coach one day – returning to the offensive coordinator role was a way to accomplish this.

The Carolina Panthers came calling in 2011; number-one overall draft selection Cam Newton was in need of guidance in the NFL.  The rookie-led offense put up more than respectable numbers – the team was fifth in the league in scoring and thirteenth in giveaway/takeaway differential.  Newton was rewarded with Rookie of the Year honors and a participant in the Pro Bowl; he also closed in on a couple all-time rookie records.  The quarterback put up 432 yards through the air (something the Browns have not seen in generations), 4,051 passing yards (second-most ever by a rookie), and the third-most passing touchdowns with twenty-one.  A porous defense really hurt the franchise (allowing 26.8 points per game) and the Panthers finished with a record of 6 – 10.  The 2012 team was slightly better (7 – 9 record), but the offense was not as dynamic.  They ranked just 18th in the league in scoring points and had the same ranking in points allowed and point differential.  On a positive note, the Panthers finished the season winning five out of their last six games (and six of the final nine), including wins over playoff teams like the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons.

2013 – New Year, New Opportunity:

After many different positions and locations across both the NCAA and the NFL, the forty-four year old finally got his shot at becoming a head coach – for his favorite franchise, nonetheless.  Now, it will be interesting to see how he fills out his staff, his feelings on the current roster, and his coaching philosophies.  One thing that is for sure – this is where he wants to be.  While some are let down, I look forward to seeing what Chud can go as a head coach.  I do not think he will be overwhelmed like Shurmur was – he has had success relatively everywhere he has been.  Also, the coach is inheriting a Browns’ roster that has more talent than any coach has seen in the last fourteen years; couple that with the team will likely sign more free agents this offseason (with over $40 Million under the salary cap), and the team has an opportunity to amaze in 2013.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2013 in Front Office/Coaching

 

2013 – Out with the Old, In with the New

Out with the Old – In with the New – Cleveland Browns in 2013

Head Coach:

Former head coach Pat Shurmur gave his new bosses (Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner) few reasons to retain him after the two came into power.  The first-time head coach went just 9-23 in his two seasons, which was actually a game worse than his predecessor (Eric Mangini).  Along those lines, Shurmur was steadfast in employing the West Coast Offense and did not make a strong attempt to tailor his offense to his personnel.  It’s time for a much-needed change and I remain optimistic (although excitement has faded a bit in some fans’ eyes) in the front office’s decisions at this point.

“We want an individual who is a head coach, who is a strong leader, who’s tough because this is a tough business, but also is smart, very organized, has great attention to detail and is aggressive.” – Jimmy Haslam on 12/31/12

The Browns’ owner and CEO have determined the franchise will go forward hiring the next head coach before the general manager (or director of player personnel), as well as implement his input in personnel decisions.  Depending on who the Browns hire, the team could sign multiple athletes on one side of the ball as opposed to the other (as the incoming coach’s specialty gets preferential treatment).  I understand this to a certain point, but the front office must also be smart enough to realize the team is not talented enough to give lesser attention toward upgrading a large portion of the roster.

As far as listing imperative personality traits, Haslam’s wishes seem resonable.  Clearly, Shurmur did not personify all five qualities (arguably two of the listed); that is a reason why he is now looking for work.  Whoever can come in and impress during his interviews will be the frontrunning candidate as the next head coach.  This includes revealing and explaining his philosophy in coaching and leadership of the team, as well as outlining his vision for the future.  The front office anticipates this hire will be with the team for many years – the incoming leader’s short and long-term goals (assuming they predominantly coincide with those of management) could be the difference between getting the job or not.  One thing Haslam and Banner also want is commitment; the new boss must be 100% on board with everything that accompanies the job.

It appeared a few days ago that the team got their guy in Chip Kelly, but that was ultimately not the case – the University of Oregon coach listened to job offers but will return to coach in the NCAA.  The candidate search, as a result, will be much longer and multiple options will continue to be interviewed in the upcoming weeks.  I still believe Haslem and Banner want to find a leader who has a strong background in offense, but at this point it remains difficult to predict who the next head coach will be (or even when he will be hired).

General Manager:

In his three years as general manager, Tom Heckert made both successful and disappointing decisions when dealing with personnel.  Whether it was against his personal philosophy or the owner’s wishes (as some have assumed, given the impending sale of the team) – the former general manager largely shied away from free-agent options.

Over the past two seasons, the Browns brought in lower-profile athletes like Brandon Jackson (eight rushes for fifty-four yards in two seasons) and Usama Young (averaging just four tackles a game in two years), while missing out on higher-rated players like Pierre Garcon (who would have averaged the most receiving yards-per-game on the 2012 roster) and Josh Morgan (who would have had the third-most yards and touchdowns by a Browns’ receiver).

Looking at the NFL Draft, Heckert went the conservative route as opposed to selecting the perceived playmaker.  Part of this could have been caused by the dearth of talent on the roster, but the general manager traded down instead of taking Julio Jones in the 2011 draft and was unsuccessful in obtaining rights to draft Robert Griffin III in 2012.  Granted, he has gotten several, solid players – like Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Billy Winn, etc., but they need to be complemented with some of the best athletes to elevate the team as a whole.

I believe Heckert’s replacement will team up with Banner to bring in highly touted options in the offseason for at least three reasons.  First, this is similar to what Banner did in Philadelphia – whether it was with free agents like Michael Vick or selecting LaSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin early in the draft (as opposed to offensive or defensive linemen).  Second, that line of thinking seems to coincide with Jimmy Halsam’s beliefs.  His business approach is to find the best people possible and to never settle.  Finally, what has occurred over the past three seasons paves the way toward going “all in” – the Browns have a young, talented roster that is solid in the trenches.  A couple of play makers sprinkled in (on both sides of the ball), and this franchise could elevate to levels they have not seen in many years.

The issue of not being able to hire a new coach promptly could hurt the team’s chances of getting one of the better general managers.  Should the team continue to look at coaches into late January, they might have to go against their previous statement and hire a director of player personnel first.  There are two reasons for this – not only could they be in trouble of hiring someone who is over his head, but the incoming general manager would have less time to prepare for the upcoming draft and free agency.  Like the coaching search, which man to fill the void remains to be seen.  The front office of the Browns has been quiet as of late, but once they find their new target – it will be somewhat obvious.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2013 in Offseason