The San Francisco 49ers travel to face the Cleveland Browns this weekend, in a matchup of a bad team and a worse team. We took a few minutes to chat with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature to get his thoughts on this Browns team, and where they might be headed. Times remain tough for Cleveland. You can check out my answers to his questions here.
Niners Nation: What's up with the Johnny Manziel situation? Will the next four weeks dictate his future with the team? If McCown had not gotten hurt, do you think Manziel would be starting this week?
Dawgs By Nature: I wish I could give you a clear answer, but Mike Pettine's handling of Johnny Manziel since he was drafted has been pretty unconventional compared to other highly-drafted quarterbacks in today's NFL. On one hand, I want to criticize Pettine for being so stingy with his handling of Manziel. On the other hand, how can you go against Pettine's handling of Manziel when you see what transpires after he finally gives in to start him? Last year, Brian Hoyer became a huge liability in the second half of the season, and fans were begging for Manziel. Pettine stretched Hoyer's struggles out as long as he could before making the switch, and only then did we find out why: Manziel was totally unprepared to play quarterback and lost beyond belief.
This training camp, Manziel made a lot of progress on the field, but Josh McCown also had an admirable camp and by far exceeded everyone's expectations in the regular season. Once the Browns fell out of playoff contention, though, fans were hoping for Manziel to be named the starting quarterback. The team officially announced him as the starter heading into the bye a couple of weeks ago, but then he was benched before even making a start for his off-field behavior. At first, fans chastised Pettine for pulling the rug out from under Manziel for simply drinking over the bye week. Then, we learned from Jay Glazer that the real reason he was probably benched was because he not only lied to the team about the age of the video, but tried to recruit others to cover it up. I put myself in Pettine's shoes, and I would've had to bench Manziel too in order to maintain a level of trust in the locker room between the players and coaches.
With all of that said, I am thrilled that Manziel is back under center, and I still feel like these next four weeks could dictate his future with the team. He will be facing some stiff competition over these final four weeks, and a month of game film will allow either the current or future front office to see whether he can be the answer in 2016. Whether he is or not, I don't see the Browns drafting a quarterback high in 2016. So many other needs have surfaced this year, and when I stack all of the positions on the Browns, the group of quarterbacks (Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, and Austin Davis) has probably been the best unit on the team.
If McCown had not gotten hurt, I'd say we must be in an alternate universe on Fringe. He earned the respect of Browns fans this year, but he's just a quarterback who gets hurt by nature. But, if we were in that alternate universe, I think McCown would have started the rest of the year.
NN: What are the offensive strengths of this team?
DBN: The running game is not a strength whatsoever. What is a bit of a strength is the fact that our offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, knows when to abandon ship on the running game, and people typically don't blame him for it. When our running backs are getting hit for losses every time they touch the ball, he substitutes the runs for things like quick wide receiver screens or finding a way to get the ball to running back Duke Johnson as a receiver. Gary Barnidge, who just received a contract extension with the club in a breakout season, has been the lone shining star on the team in 2015. He's not going to mow people over or maul people in the running game, but he runs crisp routes, has above average hands, and has done a good job in one-on-one match-ups in the red zone.
NN: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the defense?
DBN: Heading into the season, Browns fans (including myself) had delusions that the team would be a Top-10 defense with a shutdown secondary and a consistent pass rush, with the run defense improving from 2014. Instead, the defense has been an embarrassment pretty much every single week this season. I wish there was a player I could cherry pick and talk about how well they are playing, but there isn't. The run defense is non-existent. The pass rush not only doesn't generate sacks, they don't even get hits on the quarterback. The tackling has been pretty shoddy all around. Lastly, our cornerbacks are getting beat on deep balls multiple times per game. I remember over the past few years how our defense would go weeks without allowing a big pass play. Although the team is devoid of some talent on defense, I think the issues are more scheme-related, which is why I'd like to lead the charge to, at the very least, have the Browns fire their defensive coordinator (Jim O'Neil) at the end of the year.
NN: How much do you guys miss Phil Dawson?
DBN: We miss him dearly. He was the longest-tenured Brown in the expansion era and always represented a shred of optimism when things were going dismal for the team. "At least we still have Phil Dawson," is what fans could say. There are conflicting reports as to whether our previous front office didn't want to pay him or if Dawson just wanted to try something else out, but when the 49ers were having a fire sale this offseason, some fans were hoping they might just ship Dawson back to us. Our current kicker, Travis Coons, has been pretty stable for a first-year kicker, but he doesn't have that same veteran, calming voice in the locker room like Dawson would when things were rough.
NN: What kind of vision, if any, do you think the front office has for the organization?
DBN: I think the vision has shifted so much that nobody really knows what to do in the front office. In 2014, the front office drafted players who could bring a "wow-factor" for the franchise -- they thought Justin Gilbert was a gem they were stealing from everybody, and they thought Johnny Manziel would bring all of those ticket sales and swagger to the NFL. Unfortunately, both players' off-the-field behavior were not evaluated. In 2015, the front office deliberately took the opposite approach -- they focused on drafting high-character, high-value type of players/personalities. So far, it hasn't panned out. I'm scared to death on how the front office could blow it again in 2016 -- this time with potentially the No. 1 overall pick.
NN: Prediction time. How do you see this game playing out for the Browns?
DBN: Our defense has given me no hope that they can hold teams to under 30 points. Even though Johnny Manziel will provide some excitement, the team's lack of balance -- simply because they don't have adequate run blocking -- doesn't allow them to put together enough consistent drives to match what the defense is giving up. I'm leaning toward the 49ers winning, but maybe my homerism will influence my decision by Sunday.