Somewhere in the heavens, a collective of football gods are enjoying a boisterous laugh at the expense of our Cleveland Browns.
A 2-3 start has somewhat belied the realization that the twin tenants of regression and rebuilding are again overbearing reminders of the kind of expansion malaise uniquely specific to Cleveland. However, despite a still salvageable record, it’s appears that these Browns are even less equipped than previous versions to perform the impossible and rise to NFL respectability.
Of course, it’s not like we didn’t see the signs.
Or perhaps “omen” would be the more appropriate term.
Considering the fatalistic nature of most Browns fans, the naming of a Cleveland Brown as Madden 2012’s cover athlete back in April should have been viewed as a clear indicator that something sinister was lurking.
After all, combining the legendary Madden curse with a unique blend of Cleveland-specific football tragedies should have been enough to obliterate even the most idealistic of die-hard Browns’ supporters.
Even if the curse’s victim is a tank of a football player named Peyton Hillis.
Hillis’ ascension to NFL stardom was predicated on an unencumbered, somewhat forgotten style of physical aggression that could be easily characterized as caveman abandon.
Yet, in 2011, this same colossus of a football player has been felled by both a case of strep throat and a tight hamstring – leading some to believe that the previously implied curse has already taken effect.
To this, I can only suggest to both gods and mortals alike:
In the same city where Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble and The Move have become hardened legend, a virtual video game curse can offer little more than random circumstance.
At least in the face of what is truly affecting the Browns at the moment.
Beyond the notion of curses, omens, video games and strep throat, Hillis’ video game covers are only a symptom of a much larger problem.
1. The Best Laid Plans
Perhaps it’s coincidence, but Hillis has basically missed two games this season – against Miami and the majority of Sunday’s Oakland contest. After each game, Browns’ head coach Pat Shurmur has appeared confused regarding Hillis’ status, but has also insisted that his original game plan called for heavy doses of his starting running back.
On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Shurmur realizes the limitations of a Browns’ offense that does not feature Hillis. Perhaps the planets were aligned in such a manner that Shurmur’s vision collided with the reality of two Hillis injuries. After all, a healthy Hillis was prominently featured against the Colts during the Browns’ first win.
2. Rookies All Over
If we’re using the argument that Hillis is either a Madden victim curse/profoundly disappointing one-year wonder/or simply off to a slow start, then some evidence must distinguish the Browns’ rushing game with and without Hillis. Again – are we dealing with symptoms or a full-blown disease?
If you factor Hillis out of the Browns’ 2011 rushing totals, the likes of Montario Hardesty, Colt McCoy, Owen Marecic, Armond Smith and Josh Cribbs have accounted for just 197 yards on 62 carries. Or, what is the significance of a 3.1 average per carry?
In the Browns’ case, one could point to Hardesty’s relative inexperience as a player as an indicator of such a low rushing average. Or perhaps more correctly, the combination of a patchwork offensive line that features two rookie guards and a non-stop series of eight-man defensive fronts offer better evidence.
In this sense, had Hillis begun hawking hunting gear in April rather than Xbox games, the results would probably have been similar.
3. Rookies All Over – Part Two
In one of those Browns’ moments that is equal parts joyously ironic and stinging painful, Shurmur recently referred to quarterback Colt McCoy as “basically a rookie.”
Four botched play-action bootlegs, a quarterback broken in two and one Armond Smith fourth-down pitch later, it’s becoming clear that the Browns’ head coach is very much a rookie in his own right.
While Shurmur’s offense is still far less complicated than the one orchestrated by Brian Daboll in recent years, the rookie head coach is still showing his inexperience as a play caller. Primarily, Shurmur is still stuck in a novice mode of outthinking himself. How else to explain not running Hillis on key third and fourth downs in earlier games, or only handing him the ball six times against the Raiders before the second-quarter injury occurred?
4. Metcalf Up The Middle
Speaking of curses and such, perhaps it’s time to revisit one clearly left behind by Bill Belichick. While some would contend that the savagely unpopular one-time Browns’ head coach has already dished out a lifetime of punishment on Browns’ fans, one of Belichick’s most horrid offenses is still haunting his former team.
During Belichick’s formative years as Browns’ head coach, he continually wasted the brilliant talents of Eric Metcalf by sending the diminutive back up the middle of opposing defenses – simply because such a move was unexpected.
Of course, such a move was also completely ineffective.
On that note, Shurmur is fully entrenched in the “paper” form of play calling – meaning that often the reality of a game is forsaken by his creativity. To this end, Shurmur’s head is often buried in play charts and seemingly removed from the game being played in front of him.
Too often in 2011, Hillis has been used as a decoy to allow the passing game to develop – yet opposing defenses have already figured out that the Browns don’t possess any game-changing receiving talent. Also, Shurmur’s “paper” calls that require play-action are based on the reality that an opposing defense is waiting for yet another run by Hillis – something that has yet to develop for a variety of reasons.
5. Cover Worthy and Contract Worthy
Finally – I didn’t forget about you conspiracy theorists out there.
Is it possible that Browns’ management have created two separate rouses through the specters of strep throat and a phantom hamstring pull – all in an attempt to avoid paying Hillis a lucrative contract extension?
And in only hours, the player who instantly gave the Browns a national identity will be shipped away – seemingly only moments after he actually arrived?
What a ridiculous idea, right?
Kind of like believing in curses?