First and Ten - Thank you, replacement refs

BY foxsports • September 25, 2012

1) Nothing like a good controversy to take the focus off the local bad team. Midday Monday the Browns were struggling to explain another 0-3 start -- the fourth in the last five seasons -- and dropped passes and poor defense and all that stuff they’ve been trying to explain for 13 years. But shortly after midnight Monday the focus became the scabs … err … replacement refs who botched the end of the Seattle-Green Bay game. One envisions the Browns staff gathering like the old 1972 Dolphins after the play, popping champagne because they realized the replacement refs might take some of the focus.
2) Bottom line on the replacement officials is the all-powerful and all-knowing NFL asked for this situation by not settling with the regular guys. It was only a matter of time until something stupid would cost some team a game. Lo and behold, it happened. … Of course we should also realize that the NFL’s financial situation makes it tough for them to actually pay the real refs. The league is buried so deep in cash it can’t get its arm free to sign a new agreement.
3) One other point on that play: How anyone shrugs off Golden Tate shoving Packers safety Sam Shields and getting away with it is mind-boggling. The shove was blatant. Former Packers safety Nick Collins posted on Twitter that Tate put Shields at risk of serious injury, and he did. Yet the ref swallows a flag on an obvious shove that resulted in a guy being pushed forward with his head down and into the waist of another player. The league talks about player safety and this, that and the other thing and it hires fake refs who turn the other way to a dangerous play at a key moment of the game. That shove alone -- it was reminiscent of Hank Poteat knocking down the Lions receiver in Detroit on the last play of the game in the Eric Mangini days -- should have meant no catch, no TD and game over with the Packers winning.
4) Why do players get upset? Thursday night in Baltimore, Henry Zaborniak will be the field judge. Zaborniak is a local guy who went to Ohio Northern and Bowling Green (wonder how the Ravens feel about that?). His present job: Director of Officiating for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Zaborniak is a very good guy who officiated games in the Big Ten for 15 years until he retired in 2011. That’s better than dragging a guy out of the Lingerie Football League, but the league is asking a guy who’s running a high school officiating association to go from retirement to telling Haloti Ngata he’s lined up wrong.  
5) As for the Browns, when this season began, I felt that they would be an improved team but the record would not show it because the schedule was so tough. But the game against Buffalo was always considered -- for some reason -- winnable. Pete Prisco of actually predicted that the Browns would win one game all season, and that victory would come over Buffalo. Well, that game has come and gone. And the Browns didn’t just lose, they lost in very bad fashion, leaving everyone angry and frustrated and all that stuff. Things do change in the NFL from week to week, but it now appears that the belief for improvement is certainly shaken. As for the record … well … there’s always 2019.
5.5) This is the point where uncertainty takes a toll. Jimmy Haslam will be named the team’s new owner on Oct. 16, which puts the job of everyone in Berea in question. When the sale of the team was announced -- fittingly, for the Browns, on the first day of training camp -- it meant that changes were coming and the only way to avoid them was to win. The silver lining on the timing was this coaching staff had a chance to prove itself. But the Browns started 0-3 and though the games were close and winnable, the Browns found a way to lose them all. Of the last 113 teams to start 0-3, four made the playoffs. The Browns schedule makes the dream of joining that quartet longer than long. Coaches know this. So do GMs. And presidents. Nothing has been cemented, but Mike Holmgren may attend the meeting that leads to him losing his job in Cleveland. Tom Heckert knows a new owner probably wants his own GM, so it would be surprising if he weren’t casting around for next year already. And every assistant coach is working with one eye on his next job and one on this job. Losing increases the stress -- the head coach clearly is feeling it -- and usually when that happens the pressure is transferred to the players. Players start to resent it and fissures develop. Winning might fix that, but the Browns couldn’t compete in a home game against Buffalo. This season is already starting to look like it could be very depressing.
6) It’s impossible not to like Greg Little. He’s a straightforward guy. And he truly believes he is a “huge playmaker on this team.” His words. His drops are a constant source of aggravation, and his posing just made the situation worse. But when a guy is on the field for 61 of 63 offensive plays, then the coaching staff is not going to bench him the next week. In three games, Little has been on the field for 165 of the Browns 189 offensive plays -- or 87.3 percent. To think that he’s suddenly going to disappear from the offense in lieu of Jordan Norwood and Josh Gordon in a short week when Mohamed Massaquoi might not play is to think Atlantis will next open a resort in Fargo.
7) To pretend that Joe Haden’s absence is not affecting the secondary is also foolish. In the opener, the defense forced five turnovers. In the next two games, they forced two. In the first game, the Eagles scored 17 points. In the next two, the Bills scored 34 and 24. In the first game, Mike Vick threw two touchdown passes. In the next two, the Bengals and Bills threw six -- to six different receivers. Haden’s absence has the Browns juggling three corners and moving safeties in and out of the lineup. A starter suddenly is inactive, and a rookie who barely played is in the rotation. All done, as Shurmur said, to find “the right combination.” He might need Danny Ocean to jump out of the movie screen to break that code.
8) On Tuesday, Shurmur told the media: “I’m not talking about lineup changes or injuries.” Because, well, you know … things have gone so well not talking about them so far. As for the injured, Massaquoi did not practice Monday or Tuesday, but offensive coordinator Brad Childress said he expected Massaquoi to play on Thursday. Gotta figure Childress was giving the Ravens one more thing to worry about as they prepare for the Browns offense.
9) Joe Flacco is in his fifth season. He’s 8-0 against the Browns, though he has yet to play the Browns in the playoffs.
10) It’s easy to get sarcastic when a team struggles, and when a team struggles for 13 years it’s easy to get very sarcastic. Shurmur clearly does not want to lose. He spends countless hours working his you know what off to try to win. His methods might not be the same as everyone’s, but he’s the head coach and he deserves the chance to do it his way. He is not trying to lose. Really, the one safe thing that can be said is nobody with the Browns wants to lose. But when things go as they have for so long, and when promise after promise comes along that is not met, it gets old. Methuselah old. When Shurmur said he wouldn’t talk about lineup changes or injuries, you had to wonder why have the news conference? Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said he didn’t notice any Bills fans in Cleveland Browns Stadium, making him the only person in the continental 48 not to notice. And Jauron also said the defense is “playing hard and playing fast.” Offensive coordinator Brad Childress followed, and he said Shurmur told the team that RVs go on the road and plug into other people’s electricity and that’s what the Browns would be doing in Baltimore, plugging into their electricity. Shurmur told the media, though, that he doesn’t want his team thinking about playing on the road, that it’s not worth worrying about distractions. As he spoke, I thought of Jimmy Johnson wanting to go on the road and telling his team to take it as a challenge to silence the crowd. Shurmur was telling his team not to think about it. And talking RVs and electricity. Go figure. Just win a game.
Like last week, there are bonus items in the blog, this time including a memorable quote from Sheldon Brown. For that, we kindly ask you you to go here, and please, drive carefully.