First and Ten: Don’t call it a comeback…yet

1) It’s probably too soon to call the Browns recent success a turnaround. The record, after all, remains 4-8. But the past seven games have been better. Wins over Pittsburgh, San Diego, Oakland and Cincinnati have come against teams that are a combined 21-27. Two of them are playoff caliber (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati), one is a disappointment (San Diego) and the last a perennial mess (Oakland, which sure looks smart giving those two first-round picks for Carson Palmer now, eh?). The fact the opponent records are not overly impressive is mitigated by this fact: The Browns beat a Pittsburgh team that a week later, with the same quarterback, beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Which means that Pittsburgh win was earned, start to finish. But … an 0-5 start means going 4-3 merely has turned the season more palatable. The start doomed the season to disappointment, because that’s next to impossible to recover from. But the finish could set a foundation for the future, and whoever coaches will benefit from this season’s growing pains. Provided the new regime does not blow everything up (which is not guaranteed), that foundation could be real. This time.
2) Something said by one of the assistant coaches from a team the Browns played earlier this season bears repeating: “The only thing that team needs is confidence.” Which is why these wins are so important. They generate confidence, which is vital to winning.
3) Someone on the radio today did have a scenario in which the Browns win out, finish 8-8 and then earn the sixth playoff seed as the Steelers and Bengals finish 1-3 and lose the tiebreakers to the Browns. Browns fans. Gotta love ‘em. They simply never give up.
4) The best development in these last few games? The Browns have discovered what has been missing from this team for 13 years: A run defense. The last three games, the Browns have given up 85, 49 and 63 yards rushing. That’s a total of 197, or 65.7 per game, which ties for the best three-game total in the league (OK, it’s three games, but any good stat in a storm, OK?) Since giving up 148 yards rushing to the Colts, the Browns have given up 90.2 per game. Clearly the return to health of Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor has helped, as has the play of some very active young linebackers. Finally, T.J. Ward is having by far his best season — and playing far better than I expected. The last three games have helped the Browns improve the run defense from 27th in the league after nine games to 17th, from giving up 132.2 yards per game rushing to giving up 115.6.
5) Why is this significant? Since 1999, the best year the Browns had in stopping the run was 2010, when opponents averaged 129.4 yards. Last season teams ran for 147 per game. Since ‘99, the Browns have given up more than 130 in 10 of 13 seasons — with one season finishing at 129.9. The 115.6 yard figure would rank as the best run defense since the fateful season of 1995, when Bill Belichick’s defense gave up 114.1 per game. Clearly this is real and tangible improvement, and it marks probably as clear a defensive step toward consistently winning as anything that is happening on offense. In the NFL, teams that run the ball win games, and teams that stop the run win more. Even in this pass-happy era.
6) In case anyone was wondering … the Browns as a team have not held an opponent under 100 yards per game rushing in any 16-game season. The last time they did it was 1987, when they gave up 95.5 in a 15-game season. They also did it twice in the Paul Brown era: In 1955 (99.1) and 1954 (87.5). By contrast, the Steelers haven’t give up more than 100 yards per game rushing since the 2003 season. The last nine years, the Steelers are giving up an average of 85.7 per game. Yes, there is a correlation between run defense and winning.
7) It would be next to impossible for the Browns to give up less than 100 this season (hey … a guy can dream, can’t he?). They face Kansas City and Jamaal Charles, Washington and Robert Griffin III, Denver and Pittsburgh in the final four games. To limit teams to less than 100 a game, the Browns would have to give up just 53 per game in the final four. That just seems highly unlikely, though there was a hurricane in Cleveland, Oh-ho-ho this year, so anything, technically, is possible.
8) Did someone mention that a certain basketball player won the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award? Remember when the definition of “sportsman” used to include behavior and fair play, and that it wasn’t all about winning? Guess those days are gone.
9) Pat Shurmur’s future remains uncertain, and he is well aware of it. Shurmur’s argument to stay, in addition to a strong finish, would be continuity. But think back to Mike Holmgren’s first season, when he decided against his better judgment to keep Eric Mangini a second season. It turned out to be a wasted year, because the styles of Holmgren and Mangini simply did not fit. They weren’t going to, and they never would. If another new president decides to keep a coach against his better judgment, then 2013 might turn into another wasted year. The coach and management have to be on the same page, and perhaps Banner and Shurmur can be. But if Banner is bringing in his own GM, it would simply not bode well for Shurmur, no matter how strong the Browns finish.
10) The most interesting game left on the schedule? The Browns may have the opportunity to knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs with a win in Heinz Field in the finale — presumably with Ben Roethlisberger playing. The game in Denver might be meaningless. The Broncos have already clinched their division, and by that point playoff seeding may be settled as well. This Sunday’s game against the Chiefs is not exactly thrilling, but it is interesting. And it might be the game when the emotional toll of what happened in Kansas City takes effect for the Chiefs players. The game that seems most intriguing, then, is the one Dec. 16 against Washington. The Redskins have put themselves back in the playoff hunt by winning three in a row, and are 6-6 with a home game against the Ravens on Sunday. Washington leads the league in rushing, and RG3 is changing the quarterback position. If the Browns can win that game, that will say something.
For the rest of the story, including a few words on the Mike Lombardi rumors, go to the blog …