The clock is counting down, and each tick is louder than the last. Less than two weeks remain until the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh.
“If we feel we’re not ready, nobody’s going to change Sept. 7 and push that back for us,” first-year coach Mike Pettine said Sunday on a conference call. “We have to be ready for the opener, and that’s why we’re going to take the field this week and anytime after that with a very strong sense of urgency.”
Opening day is supposed to provide hope. But after three preseason losses mostly filled with sloppy offensive play, the start of the season seems scary.
Pettine, however, remains confident the plethora of problems can be fixed.
“I believe in the coaching staff,” he started. “I believe in the players in the locker room. That we have a system that we’re trying to implement, and you don’t get in midseason form implementing something new overnight.
“But it’s certainly no time for us to panic, and I think when we get into true game-plan situations that we’re going to take advantage of what our guys do well and avoid some situations. I’m confident that by the time we get to Pittsburgh that we’ll have a good game plan. We’re going to put our players on offense in the best position to be successful.”
The first-team offense scored its only touchdown of the preseason Saturday night in the final minute of the first half of a 33-14 loss to the Rams. The drive, capped by a 5-yard pass from Brian Hoyer to receiver Andrew Hawkins, was only 37 yards and came against St. Louis’ backups.
The starting offense has played 14 series under Hoyer, totaling 271 yards, a touchdown and three field goals. Pettine’s biggest concern is the lack of consistency.
“We’ve had some good plays. But then we just find ways, a lot of times it’s self-inflicted, whether it’s a drop at a key time, or a missed block at a key time, or a missed read,” he said. “You have to have the ability to sustain drives in the NFL.”
Another look, or 12, on tape didn’t improve Pettine’s opinion of the showing Saturday night. The starting defense allowed the Rams to convert seven of 10 third downs, while the first-team offense was 3-for-7.
“There’s no sugarcoating it. We didn’t play well,” he said. “We refer to third down as money down and we need to be better both sides of the ball and we just had some very uncharacteristic mental mistakes, some technique errors, and they took advantage of it.”
The reasons for the offensive troubles are numerous.
Hoyer split first-team reps with rookie Johnny Manziel until he was named the regular-season starter last week. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan brought in a complicated system that was a departure from what Norv Turner ran last year. The receiving corps is unsettled — starting with a possible suspension for All-Pro Josh Gordon — and has been hurt by injuries.
“Anytime you come in and you’re installing systems that are by NFL standards radically different from what your guys are used to and you have new players in it as well and you’re mixing veterans with rookies and free agents and guys are all very new to each other and they’re new to the staff …,” Pettine said, echoing the string of fired coaches who preceded him. “I mean, there’s only so many opportunities that you have to get on the field with them and coach them and get in the meetings and we’re taking as full advantage of it as we can. But there’s no substitute for playing and there’s no substitute for being together and going through it.
“We’re confident as we get going that we’ll improve by leaps and bounds, but there’s a process. And we have to go through it and there’s a strong sense of urgency to get it done.”
Any improvement will start at quarterback. Hoyer’s accuracy has been hit-and-miss in all three games, and he had an interception and lost fumble against the Rams. He’s 18-for-36 for 192 yards, a touchdown, an interception, three sacks and a 63.7 rating.
“I made some mistakes and other people made some mistakes,” he said Saturday night. “Coach put it the right way: We all have to play better. Obviously, I have to, too.”
The continued struggles naturally bring up more questions about Manziel, the first-round pick who went 10-for-15 for 85 yards, two sacks, an 81.2 rating and a 7-yard touchdown run Saturday. Only days after picking Hoyer, Pettine was asked if he had rethought his decision.
“That hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “Brian had his plays. He knows what he needs to work on. We need to play better around him. I think that’s important. Sometimes the quarterback gets held accountable. He’s out there with 10 other guys and they need to be functioning as a unit, fully functional.
“But Brian knows he needs to get better, needs more live game reps. That’s the one positive thing about having a short week, we know we didn’t play well, but we can go out there Thursday and get the bad taste out of our mouths.”
The starters will play in the finale against the Bears at home, altering Pettine’s original plan. There’s too much work to be done.
“I think we need it,” Hoyer said of the playing time. “This is our first time together in this offense and with the competition that was going on, we need to go forward and be unified in one direction.”
The lack of continuity is why despite the hype and outsiders clamoring for a package of plays for Manziel, the Browns are unlikely to use a two-quarterback system until they take steps in their one-quarterback system.
“You only have so much time to practice, whether it’s real practice time or walkthrough time,” Pettine said. “Because we went to the third week (before picking a starter) we do feel that we were behind with Brian getting work with the ones exclusively.
“But it’s something that is an option for us. The timing of it will be the question, when we feel comfortable with it or if it’s even necessary.”
No matter who’s under center, the offense has lacked a deep passing game. The longest completions have been catches-and-runs, and there were zero downfield shots against the Rams.
“That’s something we’ve talked about,” Pettine said. “We’ve had them called to be deeper and I just think whether it was the coverage, whether it was the read or whether it was the protection or whatever the reason, we haven’t been able to get the ball downfield.
“But I think that’s been a trademark of Kyle’s offense in the past and it’s something I’m confident won’t be an issue for us once we get going.”