1) How happy are Browns fans with Mike Pettine?
Considering the Browns are winning, fans are generally pleased with what Mike Pettine has done thus far. When he first became the head coach, one of his favorite sayings was that he wanted his men to 'Play Like a Brown.' There is deeper meaning engrained into that phrase, which is plastered on a wall at the Berea headquarters, but the bottom line message is "toughness." It's a different attitude than the team's previous head coaches have had, which was refreshing. However, if Cleveland was playing at a lower level right now, I'm sure the fan response would be much more sour, and we'd be mocking his phrases and overall demeanor. Winning is a cure all for everything.
The biggest criticism I had for Pettine in terms of a game manager came two weeks ago against the Jaguars. Cleveland's offense was struggling in their first game without center Alex Mack, and we had a 6-0 lead facing a 4th-and-1 around the 25 yard line. Our running game had been stuffed all day, and with our defense shutting the Jaguars down, it seemed obvious to me that Cleveland should take the two possession lead at 9-0 heading into the half. Instead, Pettine kept the offense out on the field, we failed to convert, and the Jaguars used that momentum to score a touchdown and take a 7-6 lead into the half. There is such a thing as "winning ugly," and that's what Pettine should have put us in position to do. Instead, the Browns gave Jacksonville their first win. Last week, facing a similar situation, Pettine opted to kick the field goal, and it helped Cleveland ride a 9-6 lead into the fourth quarter until they started to pull away for the win.
2) So Brian Hoyer is vaguely competent, while Johnny Manziel apparently hasn't done much to earn playing time. How surprising is that? Do you expect Hoyer to remain the starter going forward, even over the next couple of seasons?
The competency of Brian Hoyer hasn't been a surprise for me. In our limited time viewing him last season and then during camp this year, Hoyer seemed to have great intangibles, particularly knowing where to throw the football in a timely manner. The throw itself might not be the greatest, but other factors -- a slight degree of mobility and being an inspiring leader -- help make up for that. Johnny Manziel showed off his mobility in the preseason, but I think his mindset was still programmed to take off before being patient and going through his reads in the pocket. Don't get me wrong -- Manziel's ability to make plays with his feet is the most compelling aspect about him, but a lot of other elements of his game still needed to be fine-tuned. While every other team with a rookie quarterback has thrown their guy into the fire, Manziel has had the benefit of building his confidence in practice while watching how a fellow rookie quarterback carries himself.
I expect Hoyer to remain the starter this season, but all bets are off for next season because he will be a free agent. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, Hoyer's contract will probably be the most discussed topic of Cleveland's offseason. If he leads Cleveland to the playoffs, how can we just let him go and hope that Manziel is the answer? But, because we've been starved for a winning quarterback for so long, would we be "settling" for Hoyer when the real answer is Manziel? If Hoyer is the type of quarterback who can get us to the playoffs, does he have what it takes to be a game-changer in January? It's a predicament, but one that I'm willing to shelve until the Browns' season is over. Until then, fans are mostly just willing to enjoy the ride we're currently on.
3) The Browns have been a little up-and-down this season -- beat the Saints, Titans, Steelers and Raiders, but then lose to the Jaguars, Ravens and Steelers (again). Is that just the consequence of a mediocre team, or is there something more going on? How good are the Browns, really?
If you can imagine a graph in your head, think of it like this:
-Offense starts the season great, particularly due to the running game.
-Defense starts the season terrible, way under expectations.
-The first four games go 50-50 because of both units being on opposite sides of the spectrum.
-In our second game against the Steelers, a 31-10 stomping three weeks ago, the offense and defense finally played a complete game together.
-Since then, the units go in opposite directions: the offense, particularly the running game, is non-existent, while the defense has started looking like the dominant unit we expected.
-Again, the inconsistency results in a 50-50 split.
With all of those factors to consider, it's hard to define the Browns right now. If we were an outright bad team, those inconsistencies would have us at a losing record. We're 4-3, though, and there seems to be confidence in the air, especially with Josh Gordon returning in late November, that the ship is headed in the right direction overall. Cleveland is not an elite team, but they could hang around and flirt with a playoff spot at 9-7 or even 10-6, given our relatively soft schedule the rest of the year.
4) The Browns paid a lot of money to hang on to Alex Mack, even as there was some speculation that the Bucs would go after him, in part because of George Warhop. How big of a blow has his season-ending injury been?
It's been a big blow. Cleveland's strength on offense this year was its rushing attack; nobody could stop our zone blocking scheme. In the two games since Alex Mack's injury, Cleveland faced two of the worst run defenses in the NFL in Jacksonville and Oakland, and I believe they averaged less than 2.0 yards per carry against them. The Browns never abandoned the run, which makes it even more shocking that the Browns haven't even been able to break out a "fluke" run or something like that.
Two weeks ago against the Jaguars, the Browns moved their starting right guard, John Greco, to center, and inserted veteran Paul McQuistan in at right guard. The result was Jacksonville's defensive line manhandling our offensive line, particularly McQuistan. This past week against Oakland, Greco moved back to right guard and we started Nick McDonald at center. McDonald was coming off of the non-football injury list and hadn't started a game at center since 2011 with the Patriots. There was some rust, but overall, Cleveland's offensive line wasn't the problem last week. Oakland's outside linebackers just absolutely destroyed our tight ends on the edge, disrupting run play after run play.
The loss of Mack has definitely been felt, but Cleveland still has some quality offensive linemen. It'll take a couple of weeks before they re-establish the right level of chemistry in the run blocking department, but they'll get there. Note: pass protection has not been an issue, with or without Mack.
5) Care to predict the game?
Without giving a final score prediction, I'm taking the Browns to win. Cleveland is 3-1 at home, and the Buccaneers are 1-7 with unthinkable slaughters against Atlanta and Baltimore. Also, with hearing that the Buccaneers traded Mark Barron, are shuffling running backs again, and, most crippling of all, starting Oniel Cousins at left tackle, there is no way I can pick against Cleveland. I will say this, though: I don't understand why Tampa Bay has been so bad the past two years. Heading into both seasons, I thought they made a lot of good moves and had playoff-contending talent, only to see them fall short of expectations greater than any team in the NFL.