First and Ten: Cone of Silence

1) Mike Holmgren danced the very delicate dance a team must dance (like that word?) when a player returns from injury after missing the entire preseason. Especially if said player is a key player the offense needs rather badly. Trent Richardson had arthroscopic surgery Aug. 9 and was not seen on the practice field for the Browns until Monday. Will he play in Sunday’s opener? Can he play? How much will he play? Those are all questions the Browns must answer. On the one hand, the Browns have a coach who believes if a guy can play he should play, so put him out there. Pat Shurmur does not seem inclined to ease a guy back in. But Holmgren danced the dance, mentioning “number of touches” and adding Richardson “hasn’t practiced in a while and I’ve been in this situation before with players.” He said with a full camp, Richardson was going to touch the ball a lot. “Now, you have to be careful,” Holmgren said. “Because he hasn’t practiced. The worst thing we could do is rush him before he is ready. So, that’s a medical, training decision. They’ll help us with that one.” Holmgren was not contradicting his coach. Shurmur admitted the Browns “still have to be smart” (!) about how they use Richardson. What both guys were doing is illustrating the difficulty of the decision the Browns have ahead of them. The last thing this team needs is a bad start, but the last thing the team needs to do with the third pick in the draft is take a chance on losing him by rushing him back. Nothing, it seems, is ever simple with the Cleveland Browns.

2) It’s also possible the Browns are sandbagging by keeping Richardson under wraps until the season opener. This would not seem to gain the Browns any edge against the Eagles defense. Either the Browns run or they don’t; it’s not like the Eagles will decide tackling is optional if it’s Montario Hardesty or Brandon Jackson. Holding Richardson out merely keeps him fresh. Perhaps the Browns made a judgment to let him take two extra weeks to get ready, and they’ve declined to reveal their intentions. This would mesh with the “new secrecy” approach in Berea.

3) Example of said secrecy: On Saturday coach Pat Shurmur said of Richardson practicing: “We’re hopeful that he’ll be out here very soon. I keep saying that, but that’s where it’s at.” Monday after Richardson practiced, Shurmur said: “I knew he’d be out here today.” Which sort of brought to mind the cone of silence form the old Get Smart TV show, because it seems appropriate for the situation. If the Browns knew Richardson would practice Monday, why not say so a couple days ahead of time? Is it that big a deal to keep it secret? Shurmur could say he knew Sunday, but if there was a plan to bring Richardson back on Monday, why not say Saturday: “He rode the bike today and the plan is he practices on Monday.” Is that really all that difficult? Or would the cone malfunction and smash through the desk and leave all participants sitting cross-legged and bent over on the floor?

4) Don’t remember the cone of silence you say?

5) The sooner this Joe Haden drama ends one way or the other the better. Early Tuesday Mike Holmgren spilled the beans on 92.3 The Fan that Haden had indeed been suspended and filed an appeal, but an NFL spokesman said there was nothing to report on the matter. Bottom line: A suspension hurts the Browns defense because Haden can actually cover people. If he plays, the defense gets a boost. If he doesn’t, the defense has problems.6) Mike Vick could show just how meaningless the preseason is for veterans. Vick missed the final two games and threw a grand total of seven passes as he dealt with two injuries. If Vick comes out and plays well, all this drivel about the importance of preseason games is just that. Of course, Richardson could show the same thing for rookies as well. Provided he escapes the cone of silence before Sunday.

6) If the Browns aren’t paying a lot of attention to the right side of their offensive line as Sunday approaches then it’s time to get some secret information through the shoe phone (sorry about that Chief … note the theme?). Because the Browns have a rookie right tackle lining up to face Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks a year ago. Sliding help to the right side seems possible because the Browns have Joe Thomas on the left side, but in the third preseason game against Philadelphia both Trent Cole and Darryl Tapp took advantage of Thomas. Then the Eagles roll in backups like Phillip Hunt and Brandon Graham, both of whom have the ability and the quicks to get to the quarterback. This in essence is why Sunday’s opener is so tough: The Eagles rush with relentless speed, and don’t need to blitz to bring the heat. Aside from Thomas and Phil Dawson, it’s honestly tough to find an individual matchup in this game that favors the Browns. Not that they can’t win, just that it’ll take some serious cone-of-silence planning to get it done.

7) It’s tough to grasp the Browns attitude toward the third preseason game, especially from the offensive line. Thomas didn’t shrug it off, but he did shrug it off, saying: “It was a pretty vanilla game, from both sides of it.” His point: Because the two teams play in the opener, neither team did much other than run basic plays and focus on individual matchups. So Thomas said he would learn a lot more about the Eagles from watching tape than by watching that game. “Both sides basically used it as a scrimmage,” he said. Schwartz was asked if he learned a lot from that game, and he said: “You learn from everything you do, not just the games.” O-K. The take from GM Tom Heckert: “It wasn’t good. I’m not going to lie. … It wasn’t a good game. I’m hoping to just throw that out because we’re way better than that.” The key word there might just be “hoping.”

8) Conversely, the Browns are paper thin at linebacker as they try to defend Vick and LeSean McCoy, who ran for 1,309 yards and had more than 1,600 total yards a year ago. With Scott Fujita suspended and Chris Gocong hurt and James-Michael Johnson hurt, the Browns are down to Craig Robertson or L.J. Fort or newly acquired Tank Carder at outside linebacker. “You have young people that are going to have to stand up and play,” Holmgren said. “That’s just the way it is.”

9) Why does this opener seem like such a mismatch?

10) Hard to say what’s more eyebrow-raising. The fact that the Browns kept 15 rookies (second to the Rams in the NFL)  or the fact that everybody who was involved in the decision seemed surprised by the number. Bad teams usually have a lot of turnover, but for 15 rookies to be on a roster in the third year of a regime is really unusual. “In this locker room, my three-year-old is old,” said tight end Ben Watson. “I mean, goll-lee, we are a young team.” Holmgren used the word startled about the number, and Heckert said he wasn’t aware until he was told. Bill Walsh once won a Super Bowl with three rookies in the secondary, but he also had a guy named Montana at quarterback. Heckert put an … interesting … spin on the benefits of so many rookies. “Not that veterans aren’t, but these guys know — and I don’t want to be callous — but they know if they’re not performing we can make changes real quick,” Heckert said. “The veteran guys sometimes that’s probably less likely to happen, but these guys are enthusiastic. They’re excited about playing and its fun.” O-K.