With today’s game at the Houston Texans marking the midpoint of the NFL season, the Browns’ unspoken goal for the second half should be a return to watchability, since respectability seems out of the question for 2011.
But along with the moments to forget, like anything to do with Peyton Hillis, there have been some to cherish. Here’s a look at the highs and lows thus far.
• D’Qwell Jackson finds his true calling.
Why former General Manager Phil Savage drafted Jackson in the second round in 2006 when then-coach Romeo Crennel was playing a 3-4 defense is a question for another day. But new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron installing the 4-3 scheme that made Jackson, a Maryland product, the ACC player of the year in 2005 has been a godsend for the middle linebacker.
Missing all but six games the previous two years after tearing both pectoral muscles, Jackson should be a candidate for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. His 65 tackles rank sixth in the NFL and helped earned him AFC defensive player of the month honors in September.
But Jackson is by no means satisfied.
“I’ve yet to have a pick-six, I’ve yet to do a lot of things I want to do in this league,” he said on Oct. 23. “It’s all credit to the guys up front. I’ve been in that 3-4, attacking those guards every play. It’s definitely a blessing to be in a 4-3 and have good guys in front of you.”
• Joe Haden shows Pro Bowl form.
The seventh overall pick in 2010 has been a joy to watch on the field and a breath of fresh air off it, attending Indians and Cavaliers games, sometimes in costume. He broke up five passes in the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Haden’s 28 pass breakups since the start of the 2010 season are the third most in the NFL, trailing only the Atlanta Falcons’ Brent Grimes (32) and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Brandon Carr (30). Haden would be looking at them in his rear-view mirror if former coach Eric Mangini had started him in more than seven games as a rookie. Argue all you want about the Browns’ questionable draft choices, Haden wasn’t one of them.
• Jauron rebuilds the defense.
Going into the season with three new starters on the defensive line, some believed the Browns might have to win a shootout every week. Under Jauron, former head coach of the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, the Browns ranked fifth in the league last week in defense, second against the pass. Last season, they finished 22nd and 14th respectively.
Rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard haven’t developed into game-changers at defensive tackle and end, but they’ve played up to General Manager Tom Heckert’s expectations. And Heckert called defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, always hustling downfield, “the glue to that whole defensive front.”
“He’s played harder than anybody I’ve seen on the defensive line in my 20-something years in the NFL,” Heckert said Wednesday on the radio show Cleveland Browns Daily.
Jauron has also made a productive right end out of Jayme Mitchell, who didn’t seem worthy of wearing Michael Dean Perry’s No. 92 going into the season.
• Phil Dawson still deadly.
In his 13th season, Dawson has made a career-high four field goals of 50-plus yards. His past six successful attempts have been 47 yards or longer.
Dawson thought he was leaving after the 2010 finale, selling his Westlake home and saying his goodbyes. But in their best offseason move, the Browns made Dawson their franchise player, raising his salary from $1 million to about $3.25 million. He’s worth it.
• Josh Cribbs provides spark.
On Wednesday, Cribbs wore a T-shirt that bore his number and the positions he’s played: KR, PR, WR, QB, RB. Perhaps he was campaigning for a spot in the backfield with injuries to Hillis and Montario Hardesty.
The Browns’ lethargic offense looks to Cribbs for inspiration, whether it’s a reception or a return. It’s hard to question the selfishness of his touchdown dance in San Francisco when his 45-yard catch was the second-longest play of the season.
• T.J. Ward reaches the next level.
After serving as one of the NFL’s poster children for hard hits last season, Ward has elevated his game, improving as a blitzer and in his pass coverage. His 33 tackles and three pass breakups are on pace to fall below last year’s totals, but the durable Ward is blossoming.
• Hillis drama never ends.
Last season’s workhorse running back might secretly wish he’d never been voted onto the cover of Madden NFL 12. Whether it’s strep throat, the lack of a contract extension, a hamstring strain, his off-day wedding or his failure to appear at a Cleveland Boys & Girls Club on Halloween, the injuries and missteps don’t seem to stop.
After rushing for 1,177 yards, catching 61 passes and scoring 13 touchdowns last season, Hillis has just 211 yards, 15 catches and two touchdowns. On Friday, he aggravated a hamstring injury suffered Oct. 16 against the Oakland Raiders that has already kept him out two games. The Browns need a healthy and productive Hillis, but he can’t seem to shake the Madden curse. Michael Vick must be glad he lost.
• Colt McCoy struggles to prove he’s the future.
In his second year, McCoy is essentially a rookie and running the new West Coast offense. Now 5-10 as a starter, he’s being given every chance to show he can be the franchise quarterback, but is regressing. Most shocking is the disappearance of his trademark accuracy (he’s now completing 57 percent of his passes). McCoy’s rating of 76.4 ranks well below two real rookies, Cam Newton (87.1) of the Carolina Panthers and Andy Dalton (82.7) of the Bengals. McCoy’s average of 5.66 yards per attempt is second-worst in the league behind Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Blaine Gabbert’s 5.24.
At times McCoy has held the ball too long, perhaps because he’s having problems seeing the field. His 6-foot-1 stature might not be entirely to blame.
• Offensive line woes.
Losing left guard Eric Steinbach to back surgery before the season was a huge blow to a unit that appeared to be the strength of the team.
The Browns have been forced to use two youngsters — rookie left guard Jason Pinkston and second-year right guard Shawn Lauvao, who started only one game a year ago. Right tackle Tony Pashos missed the first three games with an ankle injury and has not been as stout as expected. Three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas lauded Pinkston’s play last week, but the unit has had a major effect on the anemic offense.
• Receiving corps languishes without a No 1.
Rookie Greg Little, a second-round pick from North Carolina, is emerging with a team-high 29 catches (tied for 21st in the AFC) for 262 yards. But when the Browns need a big play, McCoy looks to Cribbs or tight end Ben Watson. The Browns’ 11 pass plays of 20-plus yards rank last in the league. Little has four more catches than the Falcons’ Julio Jones, whom the Browns bypassed with the sixth overall pick, but Jones is averaging 14.3 yards per catch to Little’s 9.0.
• Special teams snafus.
A strength of the team under former coach Mangini, special teams cost the Browns the game against the Raiders, giving up a 101-yard kickoff return and a touchdown on a fake field goal. The next week against the Seattle Seahawks, Red Bryant blocked two Dawson field goals and an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown was wiped out by a questionable penalty on the Seahawks. The Browns lost several core special teamers in the transition from Mangini to Pat Shurmur along with guru Brad Seely, who went to the 49ers. Under coordinator Chris Tabor, the unit’s has fallen out of the upper echelon.
• First quarter a disaster.
It might be time to dig out the Bernie Kosar to Reggie Langhorne play from 1986 in Cincinnati, a 66-yard bomb on the first snap that helped the Browns stun the league’s No. 1 offensive team 34-3, because the opening quarter has been a nightmare. The Browns have been outscored 44-3 in the first 15 minutes. If that isn’t bad enough, the Browns held edges of 77-40 in 2010 and 66-65 in 2009 under much-maligned (even by me) former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. President Mike Holmgren said last month the Browns would probably hire an offensive coordinator next season, but he expected Shurmur to continue calling plays. If the first-quarter trend continues, Holmgren might have to rethink that.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.