Over the span of eight weeks, the Browns have had three different starting quarterbacks—Brandon Weeden, who lost his job because of a thumb injury and the strong performance of backup Brian Hoyer; Weeden again, once Hoyer's season ended with a torn ACL; and now Jason Campbell, promoted after Weeden's return went poorly.
Though the Browns have had a three-game win streak this season—all three during Hoyer's run as starter—they have lost their last three games in a row. They have just one more win than the last-place Pittsburgh Steelers and their pace to an 8-8 or 9-7 season has slowed considerably.
The Browns have made many gains over the first half of the season. Their defense looks great, tight end Jordan Cameron has proven himself an impact player (when quarterbacks get him the ball) and their offensive line allowed only one sack of Campbell against the Chiefs, who boast the best pass-rushing defense in the league.
The Browns must find a way for the good to outweigh the bad for the rest of the season to keep from sinking to the depths of the league, which they've been all too familiar with in recent years. Here are ways they can do so.
No More Quarterback Changes
If there's one thing that an NFL offense needs in order to be effective, it's consistency at the quarterback position. It requires the quarterback under center to be consistent, but it also needs to have the same quarterback at the helm on a weekly basis.
Sometimes, quarterback changes happen because of external reasons, namely injuries. If Hoyer hadn't torn his ACL in the team's Week 5 contest against the Buffalo Bills, he'd still be starting today.
In Cleveland, however, the latest quarterback change occurred because of how badly Brandon Weeden had been playing, culminating in Cleveland's 31-13 Week 7 loss to the Green Bay Packers in which Weeden completed only 40.48 percent of his passes. Jason Campbell is now the starter, and the Browns would be best off not removing him from the job for the rest of the year.
In his start against the Chiefs on Sunday, Campbell completed 22 of his 36 pass attempts—61.11 percent—for 293 yards and two touchdowns to no interceptions, averaging 8.14 yards per attempt. He was able to hit top receiver Josh Gordon five times for 132 yards and a touchdown and got Cameron back involved with the offense, with the tight end catching four passes for 81 yards.
|Brandon Weeden, Week 7 vs. Jason Campbell, Week 8|
|via Pro Football Reference|
Campbell's performance was certainly better than what we have seen from Weeden this season, and it was especially impressive considering the caliber of defense he was up against. That Campbell did not turn the ball over once and only took one sack shows just how much an improvement he is over the second-year quarterback.
Most telling is the fact that Campbell actually has a higher time-to-pass than Weeden, at 2.93 seconds according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), compared to 2.84 seconds for the now-second-stringer.
The difference is that Campbell is an eight-year NFL veteran who has had a long delivery for the entirety of his career. He's been able to minimize that weakness with accuracy. When holding onto the football for 2.6 seconds or longer, Campbell completed 54.5 percent of his passes on Sunday. Weeden had a completion percentage of 48.7 percent when holding onto the ball just as long.
Also, Campbell isn't taking 2.6 seconds or longer to throw the ball as often as Weeden did. On Sunday, he did so on 59.1 percent of his attempts, compared to 65.2 percent of Weeden's attempts. Campbell's experience and decision-making skills trump the fact that he takes longer than average to throw.
Campbell is not the long-term answer at the quarterback position, to be sure, but he's the best option the Browns have this season. Barring injury, there is no reason why they should turn back to Weeden this year. Campbell is a more consistent quarterback, and the entire offense benefits from stability at the position.
In Losses, There Are Also Little Victories
The Browns didn't defeat the Chiefs on Sunday, but it wasn't a bad game in every aspect.
Yes, Davone Bess dropped two of the eight passes thrown to him and had just three receptions, and he also fumbled a punt return. The defense again struggled on third downs, allowing the Chiefs 10 conversions on 19 attempts, and it couldn't stop the Chiefs' screen passes in the first half. Receiver and returner Travis Benjamin tore his ACL and is done for the season, which is why Bess was on punt-return duties in the first place.
But there were also little victories for the Browns in the loss, and while they didn't change the outcome of the game, they provided something positive to build upon for the second half of the season.
Cleveland's defense sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith six times, hit him three more times and hurried him 12 times. The offense battled back from a 20-7 deficit to close the gap to 20-17 at one point in the second half. The Chiefs were held to just three second-half points.
Campbell took just a single sack from a team that had, before that game, a league-leading 35 on the year. Star Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe had just a single seven-yard reception, effectively shut down by Browns cornerback Joe Haden.
To lose by just six points against the top team in the NFL in its house is actually quite the positive outcome for the Browns, the loss itself aside.
It wasn't flawless football by any stretch, but it also wasn't an unmitigated disaster—something we've seen from the Browns all too often. Keeping the good plays and good moments in mind while working to improve the bad will go a long way to help Cleveland's morale and reinforce the notion that this season is nowhere near spoken for just yet.
Lean on the Defense
The Browns defense ranks seventh in the league in yards per game allowed, at 320.4. The Browns had effective pressure on Smith in the Week 8 loss and also notched six tackles for loss. Though their interception numbers are low, at five, their sack total is high, at 26. They also rank 15th in the league in points allowed per game, at 22.4.
Though far from perfect—the Browns rank just 31st in opponent third-down conversion percentage at 46.40—Cleveland's defense is still the best it has been in many years. Thanks to new coordinator Ray Horton, the defensive side of the ball is playing aggressively and intelligently and is not afraid to adapt to its opponents.
Horton has acknowledged that the third-down defense needs work, but he also anticipates that by Thanksgiving, the defense as a whole will be performing at the highest level we've seen this season. It is important for the Browns to limit the points scored by their opponents; it puts their sometimes-shaky offense in a better position to succeed without having to put up 30 or more points of its own.
If Horton is correct in his claim that the Browns defense will fix its third-down problem and fully realize its potential with in the next month, the Browns will have fighting chances in the important AFC North-heavy portion of the schedule ahead.
Focus on the Division
The final half of the Browns' season is full of in-division opponents. That begins in Week 9, when they host the Baltimore Ravens, and continues after their Week 10 bye at the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 12, they host the Pittsburgh Steelers before playing their customary Week 17 contest against their oldest rivals.
With two AFC North contests behind them—a loss to the Ravens and a win over the Bengals—and four ahead, the Browns have the opportunity to earn some truly meaningful victories. And, for once, those victories are not out of their reach.
Season after season, the Browns have had to look up at the Ravens and Steelers, who were always duking it out for the AFC North crown, as well as the Bengals, who have reached the playoffs in each of the last two years and who had success in fits and spurts in years previous.
Though the Browns' grasp on third place in the division is tenuous, there's nothing indicating that they cannot win two, if not three, of their remaining four AFC North contests. Both the Steelers and Ravens have played like shells of their former selves, with the Steelers presently in the division's basement at 2-5 and the Ravens coming off of their bye week at 3-4.
|AFC North Standings Through Week 8|
|Browns host Ravens, Week 9|
Only the 6-2 Bengals seem like a formidable foe, especially with the Browns having to face them in Cincinnati, but even if the Browns lose this meeting, they do already have one win over them. Splitting the series with a team that could eventually end the season in the Super Bowl is nothing to be ashamed about.
The Ravens and Steelers both are beatable teams for the Browns. Now that Cleveland's passing game is more efficient with Campbell under center and its defense is on the verge of a breakout, the struggling Ravens and Steelers don't seem like such daunting opponents.
The Browns can't run the ball well, but neither can the Ravens or Steelers, who have offensive line issues that run so deep, it's hard to imagine them turning around midseason. The Browns' ability to get to opposing quarterbacks also makes Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sitting ducks behind their bad lines.
As long as Cleveland's passing game continues to improve now that Weeden has been deposed, the Browns have a much better offensive situation than either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, and their defense is in many ways better than their two divisional rivals' as well.
If the Browns can win three out of these four games, that would put their total victories at five, the same as last year. That doesn't mean the Browns can't or won't win their other remaining games.
After all, they host the winless Jacksonville Jaguars and the potentially Jay Cutler-less Chicago Bears and travel to the up-and-down New York Jets. However, making a 4-2 statement in the AFC North would be a great way to prove the Browns truly are turning things around.