Sunday noon on the south shore of Lake Erie will be Brett Hundley’s Super Bowl. And he knows it.
If he loses this one game, then Aaron probably won’t be able to win the next seven (a loss drops our likelihood of making the playoffs from 85% to 24%). The team needs him to not miss Geronimo when he is this wide open or throw toward Jordy when he is this covered. Against a winless team, one wonders if the Packers might need him to simply not throw at all.
These Cleveland Browns are not the ones we remember from the ’80s with Bernie Kosar, or our parents remember from the ’60s with Jim Brown, or our grandparents remember from the ’40s with Otto Graham. It’s not even the same franchise, except in name.
That team went to Baltimore and became a poem. To keep the name, the town appears to have given up everything else. The new “Browns” are are in their 19th season, only two of which have been winning, and only one of which has made the playoffs.
This 2017 version might be the worst yet, which is saying a lot because last year’s team won just one game in 16 tries. This year it’s been none so far after 12.
This team has been so consistently bad for so long that it is now stocked with more high draft picks than anybody else in the league. And, except at quarterback, those picks have been okay. But drafting Johnny Manziel in 2014, #6 Cody Kessler in 2016 and #7 Deshone Kizer in 2017 to play the game’s most important position has consequences, and so GM Sashi Brown was fired three days before kickoff.
The defensive line, for instance, has only four starting spots, but has five guys drafted 65th or higher in just the last three years. Not coincidentally, that position group is the strength of this team. Right end #95 Myles Garrett was this year’s #1 overall pick for a reason, and even though he missed the opening month with a twisted ankle and then another game with a delayed onset concussion, in the seven NFL games he has played, the 6’5″ 271-pounder has pressured the quarterback multiple times in each, including five total sacks so far.
On the interior, 6’2″, 350-pound #55 Danny Shelton was drafted with the 12th overall pick three years ago, and by some measures he’s become a dominant run stuffer in the A gaps. One of Bob McGinn’s anonymous scouts claims the media guide shortchanges Shelton’s full bulk by a generous holiday banquet. “Shelton is like 360 on a light day,” he told Bob on the phone. “His calves are as big as my hips.”
Lining up next to him in base is the undrafted #93 Trevon Coley, big enough to swallow most mammals whole but still 50 pounds lighter than Shelton.
Rotating on the edge opposite Garrett is last year’s 65th overall pick, #94 Ryan Nassib, and two years ago’s 51st, #44 Nate Orchard. Both of their snap counts have gone way up ever since #90 Emannuel Ogbah, last year’s 32nd, broke his foot last month.
Behind those big fellas, the linebackers are injured or ordinary. #51 Jamie Collins was their captain, and was paid like a superstar ($50 million over four years), but ever since last month his knee is not on the field. Badger fans will be looking for Waukesha West’s #53 Joe Schobert, the 99th pick last year, who is nearly leading the entire league in tackles so far this year, but he is more of scheme fitter than a game changer. He’s all over the field along with #58 Christian Kirksey, the 71st pick from 2014, yet both of them benefit by the lineman keeping them free of blockers.
The exterior of this defense is not elite. The safeties make more noise than the corners. #26 Derrick Kindred, last year’s 129th, cleans up a lot (46 tackles so far) after the cover guys allow catches. #22 Jabrill Peppers, this year’s 25th, plays so deep on most plays you won’t ever see him on TV, except when he’s returning kicks.
The face of this offense for a decade was left tackle #73 Joe Thomas, a former shot-putter from Brookfield Central who was recruited to Wisconsin as a tight end. 10,363 consecutive snaps and 10 consecutive Pro Bowls later, he had season ending triceps surgery two months ago. With his newfound spare time, Thomas decided to start a podcast empire by interviewing rookie tight end #85 David Njoku, who was drafted 29th overall this year after the Browns traded up for the Packer’s pick. I’ll save you the suspense: they’re both better at football than talking.
The remaining lineman feature two big money free agents. Right guard #70 Kevin Zeitler became the highest paid guard in the league when the Browns offered him $60 million to leave Cincinnati this offseason. He’s also the third Badger on the Browns, and all three are from Waukesha County. Next to him is center #64 JC Tretter, who became the highest paid Cornell grad in the league when the Browns gave him $17 million to leave the Packers.
But the big news on offense is the return these past three weeks of the team’s best two wide receivers. #19 Corey Coleman, last year’s 15th overall pick, returned last month after re-breaking one of his hands early this year. He was a major factor in his first two games back, but wasn’t targeted at all last week.
That might be because all eyes were on #12 Josh Gordon, a 6’3″ 225-pound speedster who would be Canton-bound by now if he wasn’t addicted to several drugs. Suspensions from those positive tests kept him out of the league for nearly three seasons until last week, when he caught four passes against the Chargers. But Kizer tried to throw his way eleven times, and at least one fan took the time to break down all seven misses, while another even charted some jams at the line on his untarggeted routes. If you’re only going to watch one video clip of Flash Gordon’s return, though, make it this one. YouTube user “Voch Lombardi” described Josh’s first catch as “easy peezy lemon squeezy.” The commentary only got tarter from there.
As all of those film breakdowns emphasize, it’s very hard to evaluate anyone else on this Browns offense because the quarterback is just so bad. Kizer’s college team—Notre Dame—got better as soon as he left, and it’s looking like the Browns will, too, once they draft somebody else next year.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
Nobody knows about bad quarterbacks limiting receiver outputs better than our very own Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. We don’t have a quarterback capable of going through progressions and staying cool under blitzes, so we should focus on letting our line and ends run block for Jamal Williams and Aaron Jones. Jamal is a jabber, Jones throws the hook; as last week’s overtime winning run suggests, Jamal can set up a team up by working the body and then Aaron can work his way around the edge for the kill shot. In overtime last week the two crucial plays both used the defense expecting Jamal to dive inside to perfection, as first Brett then Aaron delivered knockout sprints to the edge.
Running a lot will also allow our big uglies to be the aggressors against the strength of their defense: the line. If Garrett, Nassib, and Orchard are allowed to pin their ears back and hunt Hundley, then our timing will fall apart. Better to take it to them.
On defense, the heroism of Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels was obvious last week. They’ll be up against some expensive and highly drafted guards and center this week.
Our edge rushers should have another stat stuffing feast of pressures against the tackles, tight ends, and backs.
Can the secondary stop their many receiving weapons, including #29 Duke Johnson out of the backfield? If the Browns had a competent quarterback, probably not. But with Kizer tossing the oblong skin around, our secondary should have a field day.
It’s clear that last week, Coach McCarthy wanted Jordy to get the ball. Watching the tape of all that effort (a team-high 8 targets which yielded just 17 yards), Bob McGinn had this to say: “Watching Nelson maneuver is like seeing a Great Lakes freighter entering port. Everything is labored. There isn’t any suddenness.”
GREAT FOOTBALL ON GREAT LAKES
It’s probably not a coincidence that Bob McGinn used a Great Lakes freighter to describe Jordy’s movements this week, as the team is headed across three great lakes, just as the Edmund Fitzgerald once was on a fatal journey that inspired this song, a favorite of Bob’s (and of Jim From The South Side’s).
There are five current NFL teams on the lakes. Besides the Packers on Green Bay, the Chicago Bears are further down Lake Michigan at the mouth of a wrong-way river, the Detroit Lions are on a river connecting Lakes Huron and Erie, the Buffalo Bills are on the falls connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario, and this week’s opponent, the Cleveland Browns, are on the south shore of the shallowest and least healthy lake: Erie, named after an Iroquois speaking tribe that “scattered everywhere since the destruction of their country” in the middle of the 17th century.
The further back you go into football history, the more you find yourself on the same shore of that very same lake, and in the small towns a little further south in the hills that drain to the Ohio River. Pro football began—in the decades before the NFL—with an association called the Ohio League in 1902. As soon as that league folded in 1919, the NFL (called the APFA at the time) was created—not coincidentally—in Canton, right in the heart of those small Ohio towns.
The intense rivalry between Canton and its neighbor Massillon was the engine of those early pro games, and the football spirit of these two towns continued at the high school level after the formation of the bigger, multi-state league. Paul Brown became an Ohio legend in the 1930s when he constantly beat Canton as the head coach of the Massillon Tigers.
Brown would go on to coach at Great Lakes Naval Academy during WWII (north of Chicago, this was also the football “school” where Bears founder George Halas would get his start). Paul Brown would then become, right after the war, the first coach of the Cleveland Browns. He was so good (they would win seven titles, four in the AAFC and three in the NFC just in his first decade) that they named the entire team after him. Then they fired him, in 1962, and he went on to found the cross-state Cincinnati Bengals—a team that his descendants still own.
So the Packers are returning to pro football’s roots this Sunday, where the Cuyahoga meets one of the big lakes.
Tune into this week’s PackerVerse radio show below, featuring Bob and Jeff up on Lake WannaSpilarski, Sonny, Curious Over the River, WildCat Mark, Jim From The South Side, and KB Just Getting Home in Madtown.