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Everything changed for Browns home opener

Browns vs Saints

Everything was different from the moment I stepped into the stadium for the Browns home opener. The new scoreboards and adjusted seating layout were just the beginning, and then the day ended with a stunning Browns victory in front of a packed house of jubilant fans. After 14 years of misery since the team was reborn in Cleveland, this improbable sight was worth savoring. Few fans ran for the exits to avoid traffic as we’ve seen so many times before.

Going into the game, much was the same. Even with the painful close call last week in Pittsburgh, the mood among many fans and emotional train wrecks on the radio was one of doom and gloom. In one sense you can’t blame them, as we’ve experienced year after year of unwatchable football. But this year it seemed misplaced to me. Everyone seemed to be overreacting to the preseason and ignoring some of the obvious improvement in this football team.

That doesn’t mean I’m thinking playoffs at this point. It’s just that this seems like a football team that should compete and be a legitimate threat to every opponent.

Here are some observations:

- The Browns can run the ball. I said it many times before the season started, and now everyone can see this after the first two games. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Kyle Shanahan has always run offenses that could run the ball, Mike Pettine said the Browns would be running the ball, the Browns drafted Joel Bitonio and resigned Kevin Mack to make sure the line was built for the zone blocking scheme and they loaded up on running backs who could thrive in this system. Am I pleasantly surprised at how quickly Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell have become real threats in the running game? Sure. But with Ben Tate as well it was clear the Browns had the talent to have a real running game. All of the angst over preseason games was idiotic as the Browns were not running every aspect of their offense. This alone should have tempered some of the gloom and doom heading into the season.

- The Browns have solid receivers. The hysteria over the wide receiver position here in Cleveland and around the country has been a joke. It was mostly an overreaction to the Josh Gordon drama, as many draft analysts were shocked that Ray Farmer didn’t panic during the draft and pick up a receiver after the Gordon news broke. Many thought the Browns should have snagged a receiver in the second or third rounds, but look at who they picked. Bitonio has beefed up a solid offensive line and helped the running game. Chris Kirksey has been a stud at middle linebacker helping the defense actually cover backs, tight ends and receivers. And Terrance West has helped lead the powerful running game.

Too many fans and clowns on the radio tried to compare this receiving corps to the lame group we had under Eric Mangini. Even guys like Tony Grossi bought into the panic after some preseason drops when the receivers were learning a new offense and adapting to two very different quarterbacks. But Miles Austin has made two pro bowls – his only issue was staying healthy. He had a drop early on Sunday but was a real stud on that last drive. Andrew Hawkins was a steal as a free agent and he looked great in the preseason and in camp. But all the naysayers discounted him cause he isn’t 6′ 2″. He was excellent on Sunday.

Also, fans and media completely discounted the importance of the running game, play action and Kyle Shanahan’s offense. This balanced attack finds ways to get receivers open, particularly smaller receivers who can run routes in space. After two games we’ve seen tons of receivers getting open again and again. And the receivers are catching the ball and getting good yardage.

- Which brings us to Brian Hoyer, who led the game-winning drive. Hoyer was very good on that drive, though he was mediocre for many stretches during the day. I wanted him to start, and I want him to stay in there. Hopefully he’ll keep improving as he needs to clean up many of the missed passes. His accuracy has suffered and his form seems a little off. Still, this kid is a winner, and I’m happy he’s running this offense with Manziel learning from the bench. Also, I like how Shanahan manages the offense much better when Hoyer is in there. It’s frankly the best offensive scheme we’ve seen in Cleveland since the Browns came back. But when Manziel is in there he seems to rely on the gimmicky offense he used with RG3. That’s not what I want to see. It’s OK for Manziel for limited packages, but if Manziel ever gets to run the team I want to see an offense that looks like the one he’s using for Hoyer.

- Finally, the defense seems to be much better so far this year. Yes, they have given up drives to two excellent quarterbacks, but they’ve also made big plays and put real pressure on the quarterback. Karlos Dansby has been an upgrade at middle linebacker and he made the play of the game with the sack on Drew Brees. Paul Kruger has been rejuvenated in this defense with three big sacks in two games. Overall this defense should keep them in many games, and none of this should be a surprise.

Getting back to the stadium changes, everyone there had to realize things were different in the first quarter when the crowd noise became incredibly loud as the Browns defense was pushing around Drew Brees and the Saints. Acoustically this place is now different, and with a real product on the field we might finally start to develop a home field advantage.

I have no idea what the record with be for the Browns this year. My guess is the range is 6-10 to 9-7. The record will depend on the breaks. But this is not one of the league doormats any more. They will compete, and they are building a real foundation now. Let’s hope Jimmy Haslam continues to let Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine do they jobs.

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Buckeyes escape vs Navy

We knew J.T. Barrett would have some growing pains after replacing the injured Braxton Miller, and some of that was on display as the Buckeyes opened the season again a scappy Navy squad and their annoying triple-option offense. Barrett threw an ill-advised INT in the red zone, and on one third and short ran the option very poorly as he pitched when he surely should have cut inside and run for an easy first down.

Still, Barrett flashed some of the attributes that had Buckeye coaches raving about him leading up to the opener. Well, maybe the word “flash” doesn’t apply to Barrett, but his performance indicated he can grow into the job.

That’s primarily because all the hype about Ohio State’s weapons on offense seems to be legitimate. Sure, there isn’t an established star like Carlos Hyde, but the Buckeyes can attack you with waves of talent. Guys like Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall will make defensive coordinators lose sleep at night, and all the of backs and wideouts look like legitimate threats as well. So as many have already pointed out, Barrett just needs to play his game and distribute the ball and he should be fine.

As for the defense, it’s hard to judge a team based on a game versus Navy as their offense offers a unique challenge. Virginia Tech isn’t really known for its offense but let’s see how the Buckeye D performs next week and we’ll start to see if the promised improvement takes shape.

So the Buckeyes avoided disaster in Baltimore and can start thinking about Virginia Tech.

Get ready for Johnny Football packages

With Brian Hoyer named as the starter, the next question will be whether the Browns will have some packages ready to get Johnny Manziel on the field. Head coach Mike Pettine initially said no, but then he clarified that as the season progresses we might see special packages for Manziel.

This makes sense. Some national writers were questioning the decision, and there are plenty of arguments out there for never taking out your starting quarterback. One writer pointed out that Manziel isn’t the kind of runner that can bull his way to a first down or touchdown in short yardage.

Yet Manziel brings quickness and elusiveness, and that offers a real advantage in short yardage situations. Now the defense has to at least account for the possibility of the quarterback running, and a read-option formation offers all sorts of opportunities for misdirection. Any hesitation on the part of the defense can be the difference in getting a critical yard.

Also, this makes coordinators have to prepare for other packages, so I think offering this wrinkle from time to time makes a ton of sense for the Browns.

Lebron 2.0 era begins in Cleveland

Lebron James is coming home. Looking back now, the signs have been there for a long time that this is what he wanted, but that didn’t make the process any less dramatic, particularly in the last several days when panic started to set in for Cavs fans as James delayed his latest decision.

His letter in SI struck the perfect tone, and was much better than contrived public apologies from him and Dan Gilbert. Also, the context made this easier for me and some Cavs fans. Lebron had a mixed record in Miami despite winning two championships, and is leaving the team whose best days were clearly behind it.

I actually enjoyed the free agency process. I knew a return would be great for the Cavs, the city of Cleveland and Lebron, but I also wasn’t holding my breath. If Lebron made the wrong decision again, that was his problem, and the Cavs were set up with a young and talented team with Kyrie locked up for a long time.

But this time Lebron did make the right decision, and he did it with class. He’s created a path for himself that can now lead to a legacy he can be proud of.

Some national reporters are saying this morning that winning a championship in Cleveland isn’t important, but that’s just foolish. Things will get tough again if the Cavs falter, particularly if Lebron buckles when the pressure to win ramps up. But I don’t expect him to falter. Lebron has made it clear that winning at least one championship is critical, and he has embraced that challenge. It’s no longer a burden dumped on his shoulders – it’s mountain he has chosen to climb. That makes this decision even more impressive. Welcome home.

Can the Browns get the quarterback position right?

There are tons of good QB prospects in tonight’s draft, and frankly I don’t have a strong preference. I’d be happy with many of them – I just hope the Browns are able to land the one they really want.

That said, this photo illustrates the pathetic QB history of this franchise since its return in 1999. We need our luck to change . . .