I'm starting to like the Browns.
Strange week for the Browns. Mike Holmgren sounded last week like a man who's itching to coach. It's an odd mix in Cleveland. The coach, Eric Mangini, had a shotgun marriage with the new all-powerful franchise czar, Holmgren, and most of us thought it was a matter of time before Holmgren picked his own coach and sent Mangini away.
The last two weeks -- with wins of 30-17 over New Orleans and 34-14 over New England -- have convinced me of a few things. One: It would be a mistake to fire the imaginative Mangini and his hungry staff unless the bottom falls out on this team in the next two months. Holmgren, if he really is interested in going back to the sidelines, should tell the owner of the team, Randy Lerner, that he's had a change of heart, and wants out to coach (pick one) San Francisco or Dallas or whoever. Two: The Browns aren't far away from competing every week in their division. Three: Colt McCoy is afraid of nothing, and I think it's unlikely the Browns will have to spend their first-round draft choice on a quarterback in 2011.
When you're not as good as the opposition, you have to find ways to get an edge. Or two. Two weeks ago, the edge came from a 68-yard fake-punt run by Reggie Hodges to spur the Browns to the win at the Superdome. Sunday in Cleveland, it came from the most imaginative play of this NFL season.
Cleveland was up 10-7, with 3:30 left in the first half, and in possession of the ball at the New England 11. In the huddle, McCoy got the play in his ear from offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and said to the 10 men around him: "Brownie,'' with the formation and snap count. And one of the guys in the huddle, journeyman wide receiver Chansi Stuckey, thought: It's go time. We're really calling it!
On the play, McCoy lined up split wide right. Josh Cribbs took the traditional quarterback position, behind center and not in the shotgun. The offensive linemen didn't go down in their stances, but rather stood up; a couple looked around as if confused, which was part of the play. And the 5-11 Stuckey scrunched down in a low football stance directly behind right guard Billy Yates. Like he was hiding behind the 6-2, 310-pound Yates.
(Two interesting points: Yates was once the highest-paid practice-squad player in Patriots history. New England paid him $420,000 as insurance so that if another team wanted to promote him to the active roster, he'd be tempted to stay with the Patriots. And Stuckey was part of the Braylon Edwards trade a year ago, coming from the Jets -- where he was once coached by Eric Mangini -- to be a sub receiver for Cleveland.)
"Hey, 83 in the backfield!'' Stuckey heard a Patriots defender yell, and it caused him to freeze like a statue.
"The play is really designed for everyone to act weird, like they're confused, like they don't know what they're doing,'' Eric Mangini told me last night. "Chaos. Confusion.''
Then Cribbs ducked under center and grabbed the snap. Immediately and almost imperceptibly, he crammed the ball into Stuckey's breadbasket. Stuckey waited for a second, while Cribbs began to sprint right.
"GO!!!!'' Stuckey yelled. On cue, the offensive linemen pulled left to create a convoy for Stuckey. He squeezed into the front corner of the end zone, just over the orange pylon. "All I knew is I had to score,'' Stuckey told me. "Score, no matter who was in the way or what I saw. You've got to give the coaches credit for calling it. [Mangini] gave Brian Daboll the free rein to call anything on his sheet today.''
That's what a team with less talent than other teams has to do. Be smart. Draw things up in the dirt and say, "Why can't this work?'' Daboll, Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have shown the ability to do that. Then there's the super-fast maturation of McCoy, who seems destined to keep Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace on the bench for as long as he keeps making plays; the Browns are 2-1 since he took over (lost to Pittsburgh, defeated New Orleans and New England), and he's completed 67.6 percent of his throws. Very unrookie-like.
"The interesting thing about Colt is he had a much more difficult time not being the man than being the man,'' said Mangini. "That's not the case with many rookies. When he wasn't playing, he was dying. Think of what it was like for him at Texas -- he played four years. Played right away, practically. He took every snap. So he gets here and doesn't play much, and he doesn't work with the first team much. Then, when it was time for him to play, I remember he stood up in front of the team before his first game, at Pittsburgh, and he said to the team, 'Hey, you can count on me. I'm going to play well in this game.' You can tell when a guy's trying to convince you he's confident, and you can tell when a guy actually is confident. Our guys believed in him.''
And then there's the Hillis deal. The Browns dealt backup quarterback Brady Quinn to Denver for Hillis in the spring, and if that's not a big-enough piece of highway robbery, consider this: Denver has to give Cleveland a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft, and I'm told the Browns will also get a conditional pick in the 2012 draft -- a sixth-rounder or better, depending on Quinn's playing time. I mean, should Cleveland be giving Denver draft choices the way this thing is working out? Hillis is 11th in the NFL in rushing with 644 yards, and he's averaging a gaudy 4.8 yards per rush. Who'd have thought that could ever happen?
"Have you had any better days in coaching?'' I asked Mangini? "Ever?''
"It's right up there,'' he said.
Too early to gloat. Smart. Like his team.
Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/w ... z14hWQbJtE
I'm disappointed with the lack of references to coffee and hotels, but this is a good piece.