MMQB Mailbag: Browns are total wreck; secret to Saints' success
Browns owe at least $20 million to former executives and coaches
Saints study other teams' run games to get new ideas for themselves
Mailbag questions on Brett Favre, St. Louis Rams, TV and more
The Browns are a certifiable train wreck now. That much we know, in the wake of the departure of general manager George Kokinis from the organization. I've heard the ESPN report that the Browns are investigating firing Kokinis "for cause,'' which means he may have done something untoward to get him canned. And let me say that in conversations with three front-office people in the league who know Kokinis well, I could hear their jaws drop when that nugget was relayed. I know Kokinis, but I'm not close to him. Those who are describe him the way you'd describe a trusted friend and honest to a fault. So we'll see where this leads.
The problem as I see it is this organization careens from one disaster to the next. If owner Randy Lerner trusts Eric Mangini, he's got to take the slings and arrows of a furious fandom and let Mangini try to fix this huge mess. If he doesn't, Lerner has to fire Mangini, issue a mea culpa, and hire the next franchise leader.
The one thing that's maddening is the Browns owe former GM Phil Savage and ex-coach Romeo Crennel their salaries through 2012 and 2011, respectively. There are other lingering contract payouts from the assistants on Crennel's staff. It's a pill of at least $20 million Lerner is swallowing, and if he cans Mangini -- in the first year of an estimated four-year, $12-million deal -- it just adds to the financial mayhem.
(Writer's Note: I'd planned to use this note about the success of the Saints' running game, ranked second in the league, on Monday, and I even Tweeted that the story would be in Monday Morning Quarterback. But other stories intruded, and rather than have it be buried in yesterday's column, I decided to use it today. Sorry for misleading those of you who took the time to write.)
The Saints have used a game within a game to start 7-0 and take a commanding three-game lead in the NFC South with nine to play. That game within a game is deep in the hard drive of Saints offensive line/run-game coach Aaron Kromer's computer at the Saints' practice facility in Metairie, La.
Near the season's midpoint, Drew Brees -- rightfully -- has become the coverboy for the resurgence of the Super Bowl-contending Saints. He's a legit MVP candidate, and one of the two or three best leaders at his position in football. The Saints are ranked sixth in the league in passing after eight weeks. But they're ranked fourth in rushing. Now that's something you probably wouldn't have figured, the Saints' running game being ahead of the pass in the NFL stats this far into the season.
It's happened because of four reasons.
1. Coach Sean Payton emphasized the run more in the offseason and in training camp than in any year since being named coach in 2006.
2. The Saints have built an interesting stable of backs, with the punishing Mike Bell, the elusive Pierre Thomas and the enigmatic but threatening Reggie Bush. Bell might get 12 carries one week, 24 the next. Same with Thomas, and Bush will get the ball on the edge four or five times a game, minimum, and the Saints hope he breaks a big play a week. Thomas and Bush both had rushing touchdowns in the 35-27 win over the Falcons Monday night.
3. The zone-blocking line has been precise and deep, adjusting to a couple of significant injuries and leading the way against several tough run-defense fronts.
4. "We've got a little bit of a library,'' offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said.
That library might be where the Saints' advantage lies. Kromer is a football man through and through, but he's also part video-geek. When he coached under Jon Gruden in Oakland and Tampa Bay for seven years, he learned not to waste time late in the week when the hay was in the barn for that week's game plan.
"I learned a lot from Jon Gruden,'' Kromer said. "He used to watch every NFL play every week because he knew he could learn something new every week. So I try to watch run games every week from around the league. I recognize from Jon that there are many intelligent coaches in the league who can advance your knowledge exponentially. That's how you grow as a coach, and I believe it's how you grow as a player too.''
Kromer said he has "hundreds'' of plays inside his digital video folders on his computer. During a game week, Carmichael and Kromer might assign tight ends coach Terry Malone to look at short-yardage and goal line runs of teams that runs similar plays to the Saints, to see if there's anything they can pick up. Sometimes, Kromer will take one of these filched plays and use it to teach his linemen or back a specific technique. "They might show me how many steps Alan Faneca takes before he gets onto a linebacker, showing me how he doesn't waste any time or motion in getting out there,'' guard Jahri Evans said. "I've learned from a lot of players.''
And sometimes, Kromer takes a play, copies it, drills his linemen on it, puts it in the running-game play-call list for a particular game ... and the Saints score a touchdown using it.
Kromer has his favorites -- Joe Bugel of the Redskins, Bill Callahan of the Jets, Mike Mularkey of the Falcons. Last year, he was watching a late season Atlanta-Carolina game, and he saw Atlanta run a play from the Panthers 16 that fit the personnel group New Orleans might use in the same situation. Two tight ends, two backs, one receiver. As Matt Ryan called signals, one tight end motioned left, and at the snap of the ball, the play flowed right and Ryan handed it to Michael Turner, with the fullback preceding him into the hole. Suddenly the fullback broke left, followed by Turner, and the Panthers were caught rushing toward the strong side of the play. Cutting against the grain and using blocks from the fullback and motioning tight end, Turner ran for a 16-yard touchdown.
So Kromer filed the video away in his library, and when it came time to install the 2009 running game, this play was in the Saints playbook. They practiced it a few times in the offseason, figuring Thomas would be strong enough to break a tackle if he had to, but quick enough to bust the play back to the weak side.
In Week 3 at Buffalo, Kromer put the play on his call sheet. The Saints practiced it again that week. Then, with 2:10 left in the game, on second-and-four from the Buffalo 19, Payton called it. The tight end went in motion, Brees handed to Thomas, fullback Heath Evans led Thomas into the hole, and Thomas cut against the grain, found daylight and scored.
"By the time we ran it,'' said Kromer, "our team was very comfortable with it. The Buffalo defense had a fast flow to the play side -- the side they assumed the play was going to -- and Pierre bent it back and scored.''
Pretty rewarding. When you have smart coaches, players with ability who can learn and adapt, and good backs, good things can happen in the run game. New Orleans is living, winning proof of that.
Give credit to Payton, the play-caller, for making sure all three backs get fed. The total touches for the three backs after seven games: Bell 90, Bush 81, Thomas 78. Most teams at this point of the season don't have two backs with 75 touches. The Saints have three.
Kromer made a good point about how digital video is changing the face of scouting, and coaching. "We can see any play in the league from the sideline view and all-22 [the wide end-zone angle] a couple of days after Sunday's games,'' he said. "That can give you a pretty good tool to use.''
A side note on that story: The Saints are most definitely not alone in doing this. Many teams do it. I spoke to an NFL head coach about a few topics on background Monday, and he asked me what I was working on. One of the things was the Saints' running game story. The coach told me his team has used the exact same play, with the running back cutting behind the lead-blocking fullback against the grain ... and that he and his staff look to borrow from other coaches weekly too.
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