The dismantling of the Cleveland Browns by the trending up- the New England Patriots were the third act in a week of philosophical decisions that may go a long way toward determining if they are on the right course with their rebuild- or not.
Extending contracts of their two starting guards
Sundays debacle, including what to do with Baker
Let’s start with the Beckham departure. This one move has been the focus of most fans and media attention for the last couple of weeks. I will start by saying- he had to go. His off field, behind the scenes behavior left decision makers no choice. The undermining of his QB (no matter who was at fault) is an act that team builders just won’t tolerate in the NFL. Don’t get me wrong. Odell has tire tread left in his game, although he is not a difference maker. Kevin Stefanski is a good coach with a system that has made the Browns better but let's not confuse it with the “greatest show on turf”, St Louis Rams of 2000.
The high flying, Mike Martz orchestrated system, that spreads defenses thin in the back end and keeps defensive guru’s awake at night, was something totally different. I spent time in Miami with one of the greatest defensive coaches of our time, Nick Saban, and I know for a fact that he fears spread offenses that can’t be confined by space or speed. We played the Detroit Lions, with Martz as their OC, in a Thanksgiving Day game in Nick’s last year in Miami. I saw the angst it caused in preparation. He was a nervous and complete wreck all week long.
Stopping BIG-BOY football does not present the same challenges and Bill Belichick showed exactly this in his game plan and execution vs the Browns last week. Defending a run first, play action style offense is what Saban and Belichick love. They are the masters of 9 on 7 in-the-box football. I am betting on them in any similar matchup- EVERY TIME. So, moving on from Beckham may have been addition by subtraction from a system fit (or not) standpoint, but having one less way to spread the field makes them easier to defend, IMO. By going to LA, OBJ joins an offense, where the coach likes shiny objects with big play potential on both sides of the ball. Time will tell if the “big fish” approach will work.
At any rate, it’s another philosophical move by the Browns to go all in on this 9 on 7 big boy football scheme. The extending contracts move of their two starting GUARDS is yet another move down the same road. I think both Joe Bitonio and Wyatt Teller are really good. They are skilled, strong, and have the exact temperament that you want to grow and build WITH. And I say “with” because that’s different from AROUND. I have no problem committing north of $30M to two very good offensive linemen. What makes this a bit of a philosophical crossroad is the fact that it's not for an edge protecting tackle. I know they have a young left tackle who seems to have passed most tests to date, and another tough and physical right tackle who even though might be challenged by feet and athleticism, can serve a purpose with temperament and intangibles. However, committing this amount of salary to a position that most feel is not one that can’t really impact a game is worthy of those kinds of financial commitments.
All I’m saying is that team builders have a finite amount of “cap dollars” to divide up amongst your 53-man roster.
Again, I am ALL FOR taking an offensive line first approach, I get it. It’s a foundational decision that we all make, but that money has to come from somewhere. I’m just not sure I could do it at the expense of playmakers and perimeter players on both sides of the ball that great coaches can’t scheme and take away (see Saban and Belichick). Now maybe the salary cap is going to go up so much, in future years, that it doesn’t matter. Smarter people than I have more information than some of the rest of us. If that’s the case and signing your two starting guards does not force you to do so without not paying other more premium positions (on both sides of the ball), then I love the decision and signings.
Which takes us to Sunday’s dismantling of the Browns by the Patriots. Let me first say this after breaking down the film. I don’t think QB Baker Mayfield was healthy. He showed physical signs of not being his same- carefree self. I saw body language of a guy trying to protect himself and I am not questioning toughness or motives at all. I just think he was in survival mode and his competitive nature was speaking louder than ever. At less than 100% there are very few QB’s who can withstand the physical punishment on any given Sunday. At six feet five, and 235 pounds the big guys have a distinct advantage in more ways than one at the QB position.
Which brings us back to the offense. People in Cleveland laughed at me last spring when I suggested that the Browns draft a QB in rounds 3 or 4 that they could develop as an option for down the road. The worst contracts I’ve negotiated are those done when I had no options. Maybe Case Keenum is an option but nothing would save the Browns more cap dollars to use for building the rest of their team to a higher level, as opposed to having to make another FRANCHISE ALTERING, philosophical decision to pay Baker 35M-40M dollars on average to be an average QB. A contract like this would take us close to $70M of a $200M cap, on two guards and a QB. Just saying.
So far, we have seen very little flexibility in the sacred, run first, replaceable parts, offensive philosophy. That being said, did the Pats expose the Browns as a team taking a one off, short 3-hour detour or a more extreme possible derailment of the plan?