We're four weeks into Pat Shurmur's NFL head coaching career and the latest Browns reboot. And as much as patience is called for in times like these, you've really got no more to cling to for hope than you did before the season started ("West Coast Offense," "philosophical unity," "In Holmgren We Trust," "pass the phenobarbital").
Yes, the Browns are 2-2 — the franchise's best start since 2007's gift from the schedule makers. But at this point it's hard to imagine that there's a team in the NFL worse than the Miami Dolphins or the Peyton Manningless Indianapolis Colts — unless it's the Browns, who needed fourth-quarter comebacks to overcome both of those crippled (and still winless) units.
So far the Browns have faced one opponent that can be labeled without controversy as outside of the league's bottom six: the 3-2 Tennessee Titans, who came to Cleveland in Week 4 and turned a 21-6 halftime lead into a 31-6 margin and a half-empty stadium midway through the third quarter. Of course, we could feel better about this if the Titans hadn't followed up on their decimation of the Browns by taking a 38-17 beating at the hands of the Steelers, not to mention that the Titans' other loss was to the now 1-4 Jacksonville Jaguars.
Most troubling about the Tennessee trashing is what it might reflect of the new coaching staff's ability to game plan against an opponent with a more talented roster. Throughout the offseason, we heard players like Joe Haden and Mike Adams excitedly explain that the new defensive schemes to be employed are less complicated and would allow the Browns to "play faster."
But we can only assume that "think less/play faster" schemes have a lower ceiling than those that are more complex. And also that it was the higher-ceiling schemes of the previous regime that allowed last season's Browns — unquestionably less talented than this year's edition — to confuse Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees in consecutive dominant upset performances.
The contrast between those 2010 wins over the Patriots and Saints, and the recent loss to the Matt Hasselbeck-led Titans — who picked apart "think less/play faster" to the tune of 192 yards and two touchdowns on 11 Browns blitzes — is fairly discouraging.
It's especially discouraging because Shurmur came into a situation more favorable by every measure (locker room, roster, and organizational stability) than the mess that Eric Mangini took on in the wake of Camp Crennel. If an NFL head coach was ever going to hit the ground running, why wouldn't it be Shurmur, who took over a team in its third year out from a full-scale rebuild and was widely recognized last season to be one of the league's toughest outs? Fully accounting for the differences in talent, and the state of the locker room and organization, there's an argument to be made that the loss to the Titans was worse than any that ever went down on Mangini's watch.
But who wants to make that argument? As much as Mike Holmgren insisted the Browns would make no excuses related to a lockout-shortened offseason (and as much as the same hasn't seemed to slow down the new coach of the 4-1 San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh), we are still talking about a brand-new head coach working with one of the league's most inexperienced rosters. We still have 12 weeks of football left to panhandle for the nuggets of hope we need to get us through another long offseason.
This Sunday, the Browns head to Oakland to take on the Raiders — and, as the luck of a Browns fan would have it, the ghost of Al Davis — in the Raiders' first home game since the passing of their legendary owner. Then it's back home against the surprisingly plucky Seahawks, who will be fresh off their bye week.
So until next time ... West Coast Offense ... philosophical unity ... In Holmgren We Trust ... pass the phenobarbitol.