I love watching Browns-Steelers games, especially when they are played on a cold December day or night. How can you not like a rivalry like that? Both Pittsburgh and Cleveland have incredible fans who fanatically support their team. For the Steelers fans, they have been rewarded with many Super Bowl wins. However Browns fans have endured many frustrating losses and based on the past two years, there seems to be more losses to come.
Since football returned to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have only been in the playoffs once (2002) and have only two winning seasons. The Browns have only been in the top 10 in points scored one time (eighth overall in 2007); their next best season was 19th in 2002. Browns fans have witnessed some horrible offensive football in the past 13 seasons.
Mike Holmgren came to Cleveland to change all that in a new role as president of the team. In his first year on the job, instead of cleaning house and starting anew, he allowed coach Eric Mangini to stay in charge of the team, but stripped his final say on all football matters. Many in the NFL thought that was a strange move, but Holmgren genuinely is a nice man and thought it would be unfair to fire Mangini after just one year. The following season Holmgren made the decision to fire Mangini because he felt the Browns underachieved with a 5-11 record. Some said Holmgren was just being patient, but I feel it was a wasted year in the rebuilding process.
Holmgren was trained under Bill Walsh in San Francisco (I remember the day I had to pick up Mike at the airport for his interview with Coach Walsh). When Holmgren was named Browns president, I thought he'd follow Walsh's example and find his quarterback of the future right away. It also was what Ron Wolf, then the GM of the Packers, did for Holmgren when he was coach. Wolf wasted little time in trading for Brett Favre to give Holmgren the quarterback he needed to run the offense. It was what Holmgren did when he was named coach/GM of Seattle, trading for Matt Hasselback. But Holmgren came into Cleveland without solving that problem, unless drafting Colt McCoy in the third round or signing Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace was the answer.
Year 2 of the Holmgren plan was to place faith in McCoy that he could run the West Coast offense effectively under the direction of new coach Pat Shurmur. Their approach in the draft was to not take a quarterback, but rather to move down, collect more picks and upgrade the talent level of the team. All those moves are great in theory, but only if the quarterback position is solid. If not, it is hard to actually see the upgrades being made.
Their approach in free agency was to add solid players, but not break the bank or find any skill players to support McCoy. The Browns wanted to keep rebuilding their defense as they made the transition from a three-man line to a four-man front. Against the Steelers on Thursday, Cleveland's offense looked similar to the 2010 version. Add rookie Greg Little at wide receiver and Jason Pinkston at guard and this team has the same look. Both teams lacked explosive players to create big plays, and both teams have concerns at quarterback.
So much of their planning was based on McCoy being the man. Holmgren and his staff passed over many quarterbacks believing that McCoy could be the long-term solution. They might say that was not the case, but all their personnel moves indicate otherwise. Some believe McCoy still could be the long-term answer, but he needs more skill around him. I think the Browns need to be realistic in what they have with McCoy.
McCoy has never looked like the long-term answer at quarterback from my vantage point of studying tape at NFL Films. He lacks power in his arm, willingness to make throws downs the field and ability to drive the ball into a tight pocket. He has the look of a backup quarterback who will play well in the right system for short stints, but have a hard time being the "man."
Browns owner Randy Lerner trusted Holmgren to fix his organization. Lerner loves the Browns and desperately wants to make the fans happy, and he felt bringing in a big name like Holmgren would satisfy the fans and restore the Browns to their glory days. But after two seasons, it is hard to find the progress. Holmgren must prove he can be a great executive without coaching the team. This has been hard for many ex-coaches to pull off, including Bill Walsh. Playing in the hardest division in football is not going to make this turnaround any easier. Lerner has paid everyone in the organization a ton of money for results and has been one of the most giving owners in sports, but so far his money has not produced wins.
Now, the Browns will be entering Year 3 of the Holmgren era without a legitimate starter at quarterback, which means they either have to trade for one (who?) or draft one. And Year 3 is a risky time to address this problem because if they don't make the right choices, there may not be a Year 4. There is a sense of urgency in Cleveland. I hope Holmgren feels it.
The First 15
1. Each time I watch the Vikings' Percy Harvin play running back, I feel he could be like Darren Sproles. The Vikings need to expand Harvin's role in the backfield as he is too talented with the ball in his hands to only have three or four touches per week.
2. I thought ESPN analyst Ron Jaworksi was extremely kind when talking about Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert's lack of toughness in the pocket last Monday night. Jaws was much more diplomatic than I would have been because I was appalled when watching Gabbert play. Gabbert refuses to stand tall in the pocket and take a hit. If this lack of courage continues, he will lose his teammates, if he hasn't already. Good teams need their quarterback to be the toughest player on the team, not the softest. This is not a rookie problem, it's a toughness issue that Gabbert must quickly correct. Otherwise, who would want to come and coach the Jaguars next season stuck with him at quarterback? They would be doomed for failure. GM Gene Smith believes in Gabbert and he was just rewarded with a new three-year contract, so neither him nor Gabbert are going anywhere anytime soon. Gabbert's lack of toughness as well as Smith's commitment makes this job unattractive to quality candidates unless Gabbert can change in the next four games.
3. When Ben Roethlisberger was hit Thursday night, I thought for sure he'd be out for a long time, if not the season. From my view on the couch, it looked bad. But apparently, Big Ben is made of steel. Coming back and playing on a bad leg was really remarkable and another reminder of how tough Roethlisberger is as a player. No wonder his teammates rally around him. I hope Gabbert was watching in Jacksonville.
4. Who will be the hot new candidates for a head coaching job next year? Rob Chudzinski of the Panthers deserves a look for his work with Cam Newton. Jay Gruden of the Bengals deserves one based on his work with Andy Dalton. And Marc Trestman, two-time winner of the Grey Cup in the CFL, should get a strong look for his work in Montreal. Trestman, a former offensive coordinator in the NFL, did what Bill Walsh always told young coaches to do -- go and become a head coach, learn the job, and if you win, the NFL will find you. Trestmen is a modern version of Marv Levy and should get serious consideration.
5. I wonder if the Packers promoted QB Graham Harrell from their practice squad to protect themselves for next season when they will lose Matt Flynn to free agency. Harrell was available for any team to take, and with all the injuries at quarterback especially in Chicago and around the league, moving him to their main roster protects them for next season. Smart move by the Packers.
6. I am not a big fan of drafting wide receivers early, in part because there always seems to be a free agent or late-round pick who looks better than some of the players picked early. Victor Cruz of the Giants, undrafted in 2010, is a perfect example. He is one of best young receivers in the league. His play has been spectacular and it is hard to believe he was not drafted.
7. All this talk about Peyton Manning being untradeable because of his contract is ridiculous. If -- and this is a big if -- the Colts want to make that move, the team they trade Manning to would redo the deal, making him fit into their cap structure first. The contract won't be the holdup, his health will be.
8. With the spread option in vogue now due to Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, I wonder if Dennis Dixon of the Steelers will get strong consideration this offseason in the free-agent market. Dixon has skills as a passer and now might be ready to take the next step and become a starter in the league in a system that fits his talents.
9. I knew this would happen sooner rather than later, but clearly the 49ers are going to be "all-in" the next two years after they re-sign Alex Smith to a longer, starter-type contract. Smith has played well for them this year in his role, and the 49ers seem certain he is their man for the next few seasons. The great part of winning is that everyone gets rewarded and Smith will be the first one in line. I hope everyone is convinced he can lead them to a Super Bowl because I still have strong doubts.
10. In three games with NFC West teams, the 49ers have outscored Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona 82-24. They have not just won the West, they have dominated it. The other teams better spend the offseason finding ways to close the gap.
11. Andy Reid said this week that no one from the front office has asked him to fire defensive coordinator Juan Castillo at the end of the season. But do they really need to ask? If Reid cannot see that this move has been a disaster, then he is not watching his defense play. If Reid wants to defend and keep Castillo, then what he really wants is to retire or move on from Philadelphia. Reid has the right to hire and fire his staff, but he also has the responsibility to win games. Being loyal is a great trait; admitting you made a mistake a greater one.
12. It will be really interesting to see if Texans corners Jason Allen and Kareem Jackson can hold up against Bengals wideouts A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson. This will be a huge challenge for the Texans and a great way to prepare for what they will see come playoff time.
13. Jared Gaither of the Chargers looked decent last week in his start at left tackle after he was cut from the Chiefs. It would be hard for me to imagine the Chiefs have better linemen than Gaither. Was it his penalty on Sunday night that got him cut in K.C.? Not sure, but finding a decent left tackle in Week 13 of the season is hard to do.
14. If Miles Austin returns, it will be the first time the Cowboys will have their full complement of skill players on the field at the same time. And it could not happen at a better time. The winner of the Cowboys-Giants game will be the team that can get its defensive line to control the game. Both teams have talent in their fronts and both teams lack talent in their secondary, so whoever dominates the front will win.
15. C.J. Spiller is now the starting back for the Bills due to the injury to Fred Jackson, but if I were in Buffalo, I might think of moving Spiller to receiver and re-sign Jackson to a long-term deal. Spiller is best in the open and looks like he could become a dangerous player outside with more training.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi