The 2011 NFL season for one Cleveland Browns franchise has been nothing shy of perpetual chicken-egg debates surrounded by a (once again) disappointed franchise and a local media scene left in bewilderment. Is Colt McCoy the answer? How can he be when he has no time to throw? He wouldn’t need time if he had playmakers – Peyton Manning makes his receivers better! He wouldn’t need playmakers if he could read blitz packages or had better plays drawn up. But what about if the plays were just executed better?
And so on…and so on…
This past Sunday, at least for one day with Colt McCoy playing in front of a hometown crowd, we saw a quarterback who withstood everything thrown his way and looked increasingly more comfortable doing so. The unfortunate part, as has been well-documented over the past 20-or-so hours, was the final score of what amounted to be yet another dismal performance by the offense which hs is supposed to lead.
In 2006, Cleveland Browns quarterback Charlie Frye found himself on a mid-week injury report with “general soreness” listed as his ailment. In a day where the list of bruised and battered within a professional sport often needs a medical translator (akin to Montario Hardesty’s “moderate tear of a medial gastroc”), being shelved due to extreme discomfort thanks to being manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens ever-physical defense is quite the rarity.
In Cleveland, however, little is rare. Where the Hillis’ and Hardesty’s of the world receive physical therapy and potential rehabilitation stints, Frye’s treatment involved a methodicaly, snail-paced walk to the ice bath where his musculature would be submerged for several minutes – what would undoubtedly feel like an eternity – with the goal of being able to stand stay upright as much as possible the following week.
It is difficult to envision much of a scenario different from that this week, five seasons later, as Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was on the receiveing end of several high-impact collisions this past Sunday. Sacked four times, hit and hurried many more, McCoy was responsible for the football through 24 minutes of the Browns possessing the football. Receiving snaps, back-pedling three, five or – gulp – seven steps, only to find countless defenders screaming relentlessly toward him, mostly untouched, destined to turn the quarterback clad in all white into a human golf ball, crushed at a 10-degree angle off of a navy blue, white and red driver.
Someone needs to check the field turf at Reliant Stadium, because there is bound to be a mirror-like “1″ and ”2″ near the Houston 29-yard line as the second-year quarterback was plugged into the ground like a mid-April range ball, complete with the orange markings to ensure he can be located in the snow. He would subsequently be bailed out by rookie receiver Greg Little who would make an athletic catch, leading to the touchdown pass to Joshua Cribbs - not exactly commonplace when it comes to the men in orange helmets. The mere fact that the six-foot, 215-pound quarterback was able to peel himself off of ground without a spatula was even more surprising.
In search of answers, WFNY reached out to former Pro Bowl center and Ohio State product LeCharles Bentley who, like most of us, watched and analyzed Sunday’s debacle in Houston from the confines of his home. What he saw witnessed was no different from what our eyes were forced to endure, but his experience in the trenches allowed for some additional commentary to the issues currently being sustained by the Browns’ offensive line.
To Bentley, the group of men tasked with the responsibilities of not only creating holes for their tailbacks but protecting their quarterback are marred with three things: the inconsistencies at right tackle, schematic imbalance, and the complete lack of fear in the Browns’ passing game.
Even when Tony Pashos has been healthy, which has been few and far between, the bookend oppsite of All-Pro Joe Thomas remains incrasingly weak. Offensive lines thrive on continuity; the right tackle position for the Cleveland Browns has been everything but. Browns general manager Tom Heckert has used mid-round draft selections in back-to-back seasons to bolster an otherwise aging offensive line, but even with Shaun Lauvao (who planted a nice headbutt on Houston’s Brian Cushing) in his second season with the team, the Browns essentially have two rookies attempting to block opposing rushers in a pass-first offense.
Compounding these issues is the continual use of the double-tight end sets, bringing additional defenders into the box. When additional tight ends are brought in to help a struggling offensive line block, there are defenders that end up being unaccounted for from their offensive counterparts – the responsibility then comes down to the running back recognizing where he needs to be from a blitz standpoint. Couple this with the fact that the Browns are now using their fourth- and fifth-string running backs, both of whom have little-to-no experience with this team’s offense, and McCoy finds himself in situations like the one described above where his teammates need a spade shovel to remove his remains from the depths of the earth. Earlier in the same contest, Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya opted to block an invisible defender behind Shaun Lauvao on the right side of the line; the Texans countered with a linebacker streaking through the left side of the interior, meeting McCoy in un-blocked fashion, sending his corpse flailing into the ether.
Which all boils down to the skill players who surround McCoy. The Texans bolster two strong running backs, but they’re aided by the zone-blocking scheme that has made Pro Bowlers out of countless ball-carriers – the School of Shanahan. The Browns’ running game, conversely, is more power-based and requires increased skill from the man carrying the ball – recognizing holes, thinking multiple steps ahead. The team had something that resembled this last season with Peyton Hillis, and had flashes of it in 2011 with a then-healthy Hardesty. Needless to say, the talent gap widened this past Sunday with practice squad players getting the start, looking lost and lifeless from the onset.
“If you’re going to have a donkey in the backfield,” said Bentley, “you can line him up behind five stallions, but it’s still going to make everyone look like a jackass.”
Not having a true tailback allowed the Texans defenders to creep even further into the box, daring the Browns to throw the ball in the face of blitzing defenders. With the Browns seemingly refusing to use Football 101 concepts like “hot route” receivers or sliding blitz protection, McCoy is left on an island with defenders being the only ones with access to bridges.
Browns head coach Pat Shurmur confirmed this sentiment in his Monday press conference, stating that the blitz pick-up was properly schemed, but his young, inexperienced players need to do a better job of executing, thus saving his quarterback from being dismembered in front of thousands of fans in his home state.
When struggles continue to mount during what is otherwise a developmental season for McCoy, the offensive line becomes a focal point, allowing for increased scrutiny and hand-wringing. Bentley assures WFNY that both Joe Thomas and Mack are doing everything they can in their power to ensure that No. 12 can leave each game with his helmet on straight. Sure, every player has good days and bad days – Thomas even had a rare false start this past Sunday. But with a team completely absent of play-makers, opposing defenses have been afforded the opportunity to go all-out against an otherwise helpless quarterback.
Last season, despite the perpetual revolving door on the right side of the line, the Browns managed to bolster a physical run game behind Thomas, Mack and Eric Steinbach manning the left side of the line. Having a talented back like Hillis running the ball with power and efficiency made two of those men Pro Bowlers with the other just being on the outside looking in. With Hillis now succumbing to injuries and a team that has had to throw the ball more than they would like due to being on the wrong side of the scoreboard early, the focus has turned to an offensive line that is merely being overpowered by opposing defenders.
The Browns players were not afforded a Victory Monday this week due to the fact that they were not only beaten, but their offense was rendered useless against a team which happened to be without it’s top pass-rusher. While the rest of the team likely took to the film room before continuing on with the rest of their day, you can bet that McCoy stuck around for some quality time with the giant stainless steel vat of ice located in the trainer’s room. After the beating he took this past Sunday – one that continued to leave more questions that answers about the players, the coaching staff and the city - the goal is to conquer what will undoubtedly be immense soreness as the team prepares to host the St. Louis Rams.
With Hillis and Hardesty likely missing next week’s game as well, the grass isn’t looking much greener. Unfortunately, if this is the case, McCoy’s jersey will not be any less.
(Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)