After three consecutive road games, the Bengals return home to face a familiar foe in the Cleveland Browns. Unlike their epic battles of the 1980’s, this game features a pair of teams combined for a 4-16 record. Will the Bengals continue to slowly work their way into wild card consideration? Will the 0-10 Browns avenge their worst loss of the season? We spoke with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature to find out.
Scott Schulze: The Browns’ philosophy of late seems to be focused on stockpiling draft picks and “playing for next year”. Considering that, is Jackson back in 2018 coaching the Browns, or do fans feel that a different coach would have done much better than Jackson’s 1-25 record?
Chris Pokorny: I think it's darn-near impossible for an NFL team to have a 1-25 record over a two-season span. Every time I see that record in writing, I can't believe how long it's been since I've been able to blog about a Browns victory. I think a lot of coaches could have gotten more than one win when you scrutinize things like usage of personnel and time management issues, etc. But would a 3-23 record really make much more of a difference?
In 2016, the Browns were 'playing for next year.' This offseason, they made a lot of moves that made it seem sure the team would take a big step forward, with 2018 being the culmination of the three-year rebuild. Now, we're stuck in a pickle: although the team is more talented, it's still unfathomable to win as little as the Browns have. Surely, anyone can do better than 1-25. At the same time, though, we're already endured two years of misery in what was supposed to be a three-year commitment. We've made it this far, so why don't we just see it through for one more year? Because of that, I think Hue Jackson returns in 2018. The biggest excuse he has is that for all the rebuilding the team has done, he doesn't have a franchise quarterback to work with. If Cleveland had even an average quarterback, I think they'd have 3-4 wins right now.
SS: Seeing the productive play of ex-Browns quarterback Josh McCown this year with the Jets, did the Browns make the correct decision in moving on from the journeyman, to focus on developing their young quarterback trio of DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, and Cody Kessler?
CP: Although he had trouble winning with the Browns, Josh McCown was no doubt a warrior who earned the respect of fans. McCown had shoulder injuries last year, though, and when he returned at the end of the season, something seemed 'off' about his play. I think the Browns thought he was done as a player and ready to retire, so I don't jump on them too much for letting McCown go. In hindsight, I think the bigger problem ended up being the acquisition of Brock Osweiler. While I liked the trade itself -- to acquire a second-round pick in exchange for cap space -- the mistake was letting Osweiler actually compete for the job over time. The offseason saw Cody Kessler with the first-team offense, but right after training camp started, Osweiler became the starter for two weeks...and then was quickly demoted after it was confirmed how bad he was. As a last ditch resort, DeShone Kizer was thrown into the starting job. Not only that, Hue Jackson decided not to scale things back for the rookie, but let him manage the offense as if he was a seasoned veteran. Big mistake -- and only recently did he finally scale the gameplan back a little, to better results.
One of the most disappointing aspects about Jackson is that he was viewed as a 'quarterback guru' -- someone who could take mediocrity and turn it into something above average. Instead, he has completely mismanaged the position.
SS: After 10 weeks, who has been the Browns’ MVP this season, and what should we expect from him on Sunday when the Browns play the Bengals?
CP: The MVP is cornerback Jason McCourty. He is having a Pro Bowl caliber season, and lately only seems to be allowing 1 catch for 3 yards with a pass break-up or interception every week. Pro Football Focus currently has him ranked as the No. 2 cornerback in the NFL, and teams have just stopped throwing the ball his direction. Instead, they are attacking Jamar Taylor on the opposite side or connecting with their receivers on crossing routes in zone coverage, where Cleveland has been most vulnerable to opposing receivers.
SS: Sitting at 0-10, with a one game lead on the 49ers for the top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, is the primary concern avoiding an 0-16 winless season, or keeping the top pick in the draft?
CP: Without question, it's avoiding an 0-16 season in my opinion. The biggest hurdle this team needs to clear is being able to win when they are in striking distance. You see Matthew Stafford rally the Lions every week. You see the Saints come back from 15-point deficits with under 5 minutes to go. With the Browns, the formula this second half of the season so far has been to lead or within a touchdown around the start of the fourth quarter, only to end up losing by 10-14 points. Cleveland has two first round picks and two second round picks. If they fall from No. 1 overall and they really want someone, they have the ammunition to buy their way back up.
SS: I won’t ask for a winner or a score, but I will ask how the Week 12 Browns are different (better or worse) than the Browns that were defeated at home, 31-7 by the Bengals in Week 4?
CP: Two factors stand out -- the Bengals will now face two of the Browns' better players in WR Corey Coleman and DE Myles Garrett. Coleman was out with a broken hand in Week 4, while Garrett was still waiting to make his debut off of an ankle injury. Coleman returned against the Jaguars last week and ran very crisp routes against Jalen Ramsey. The Jaguars have the best secondary in the NFL, but even with a quarterback like DeShone Kizer, Coleman was able to have an OK day with 6 catches for 80 yards. Garrett isn't dominating games, but he's generating pressure on the quarterback close to a handful of times per game, which is far more than anyone else on the team can do.