Some are playful. Some are used to antagonize. Others are a sign of respect.
For ESPN’s “The Professor” John Clayton, it’s certainly the latter.
Since the early 1970s, Clayton has been covering the NFL, and he’s earned quite the reputation in the process. The Braddock, Pennsylvania native, who started at ESPN in 1995, seems to always have the pulse of all 32 of the NFL’s teams, including the Cleveland Browns.
I recently had a conversation with Clayton about the Browns, the drafting of quarterback Johnny Manziel and the suspension of Josh Gordon.
Steve Orbanek: John, thanks for taking the time to join me here. As you know, the Browns have suddenly become one of the trendy teams. In fact, I just saw for the month of May, they were the number one team tweeted about, above the Dallas Cowboys. It kind of all goes back to the draft selection of Johnny Manziel. Now, do you have a feel on the perspective around the league? Nationally, the media has been all over the Browns. But what’s the perception of the Browns in the NFL now from other general managers and coaches?
John Clayton: Well, they should probably do a movie on the Browns, particularly around the draft. Oh, that’s right, they already did called Draft Day. I think what it still comes down to is they look over and see that there’s a buzz about this team because of the selection of Johnny Manziel, but also too the team seems to have taken the position that they want to water down that buzz by not allowing national media around, not keeping Manziel in front of media, and not even having Brian Hoyer out to speak to the media during minicamp. Overall, I think that the franchise is starting to get a little better, but it’s got to find a way to stop getting in its own way. Every year it seems like, and we saw it last year, change of management, change of direction, change of policy, and now it’s gone from a group of young receivers to a group of older receivers, so you still wonder can it break away from itself and get better.
Orbanek: John, you mention the media. From your standpoint, being that you are a national NFL journalist, was that frustrating at all to you? What’s your take on this protection of Manziel?
Clayton: To me, I’m kind of curious. I can understand it to a certain degree, and I know personally, the organization has been good to me. For example, for a radio show I did for the network, they gave me Mike Pettine about a week ago, so I thank them for that. It’s not as if they’re trying to totally hide, but they need to make it a little bit easier for the local media, and also for the national media because they are in the spotlight more. When you take a guy that’s named Johnny Football, he comes to an organization with a brand, he comes with an interesting reputation, both on and off the field. Why not celebrate that as opposed to hide it? That’s what I kind of wonder about. I know that they want to dampen the expectations initially with the fans because the fans are so starved in Cleveland for getting a quarterback but ultimately I think they need to loosen up a bit and enjoy the ride. I mean, listen, we all know it’s unlikely Johnny Manziel is going to be the opening day starter. If he does, it’s a really a challenge for him and the organization. But try to enjoy the ride a little bit more because this is supposed to be fun when you have a guy named Johnny Football.
Orbanek: Speaking of Johnny Football, you talk about the fans here. Clearly, starved for a quarterback. Starved for a winner. The thing is that these are good fans, to the point that it’s almost to the detriment of Cleveland’s other teams. The Browns fans are hungry. This is now the fourth quarterback we’ve seen taken in the first round since the team’s come back. You saw Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and now Johnny Football. Why should Browns fans be encouraged they might have finally got it right?
Clayton: Well, as long as they’re patient, I think the one thing that we can see is there lack of success for so many years has affected their patience and they want to rush things. In this case, they don’t need to rush things. One of the things that I thought was a mistake was letting a change in administration go when Mike Holmgren was there. Now, I know that’s not a popular thing to say because Mike wasn’t the most popular guy in Cleveland, but I thought what he did and what Tom Heckert did a couple years ago when they went young, they went young because there was such a lack of athleticism on that offense. There were receivers who didn’t have any speed, so what do they do? They go young. They take Travis Benjamin. They take Trent Richardson. They ended up taking Josh Gordon. They had Greg Little. They had a good group of young receivers, pass catchers, you know, they get a great young tight end in Jordan Cameron. So, they’re starting to build something that was going to take some time and get better, but then all of the sudden, everything kind of washes away, and they end up firing Holmgren, firing the coach, firing a coach after another year. Now Gordon is suspended likely for the season, they’ve already let Greg Little go and now they’ve gone to older receivers. It’s that constant change that I think is frustrating. But because of that change, what I think has to happen, is that Browns fans have to give a little time for Johnny Manziel to pick up an offense. You know, he comes from an offense where he almost has to reprogram everything in his mind to get adjusted to the NFL, and that’s going to take time. And it’s not going to be as successful if there’s going to be less athletic guys out there trying to catch passes.
Orbanek: You mention the team speed, and I clearly agree with you. One of the great things about last year was, for a team that won four games, Josh Gordon was a fun story. I mean, to a fan, and to anyone covering the Browns, you could just tell the talent was tantalizing. It was almost at times that you wondered if he even had to try or was he just that much more athletically gifted. Now, of course, as you mentioned, the suspension comes out. A big, colossal blow to this team. Do you have a gauge at all on this? Is it gonna end up being a year? Is there some room for negotiation there? What do you think ultimately is going to be the decision here?
Clayton: Well, if indeed he’s in stage three, which still I guess is a little bit of a question, stage three of the drug program and he did get a positive test for marijuana or some other substance, then he’s going to be out for the year. But I think the appeals must still be going on because you look at the similarity over in Arizona with Daryl Washington. Daryl Washington was a stage three offender in the drug program, he had a positive test for marijuana and boom, he’s out for the season. Now, Gordon has not been, at least formally ruled out for the year but you get the anticipation that he is, and you also get the anticipation that Ray Farmer, Jim Haslam, General Manager and owner, found out about this before the draft, technically by rule, they’re not allowed to tell the coach until a certain point, and they did not until they got closer to the draft. But I would have to think that he’s going to be gone for the year, I think that there’s the expectation that that’s going to be the case, and there’s no question it’s going to set the offense back.
Orbanek: Speaking of the offense, does this affect a guy like Jordan Cameron? You know, he’s a guy who made the Pro Bowl last year and emerged as a third-year tight end. How much does this affect him and his progression as a player?
Clayton: It could affect him and lead to maybe a 20 percent reduction in his productivity. I think you saw in Baltimore that once they started to get Jacoby Jones involved and getting to the outside and deep, now again, he wasn’t a great pass catcher, but he was able to stretch the field, open up things in the middle of the field for a tight end and inside receivers. Once they got the chance for Jacoby Jones to start getting downfield a little bit more, all of the sudden Dennis Pitta starting getting better, Anquan Boldin was able to loosen up and the next thing you know, the Ravens go and win a Super Bowl against San Francisco. You know, if you don’t have that big outside threat, which now they do not if (Gordon) ends up being suspended, what they do is now put more coverage in the middle of the field, and that probably does cause a dropoff in Cameron. Also too, still knowing if they’re going to go into the season with Brian Hoyer, you don’t know how effective that’s going to be in getting him the ball. In many ways, I still look at Hoyer as a backup, but he did win three games for them last year filling in, and we’ll see if he’s able to continue the trend this year. I just think there’s going to have to be backup because it’s hard to replace an outside guy as talented as Josh Gordon.
Orbanek: Do you think the Miles Austin signing helps at all? A lot of people were excited about that because you’re bringing in a guy, he’s certainly lost a step and his age is north of 30, but a guy like that, do you see him bringing stability? Do you think he has anything left?
Clayton: It will bring stability, but it doesn’t do much for the outside because I think most of his game is in the middle of the field. As you get to a receiver and he gets into his 30s, and remember Austin was mostly a slot guy when he was down in Dallas, that’s where his strength was. As you get a little bit older, you move even more toward the slot because you do lose a little bit of speed, you do lose that threat to the outside, you don’t have the ability to go down the field as well, so when you look at the receivers, most of the guys they brought in are more middle-of-the-field type guys. There’s nobody there to really replace the outside threat of Josh Gordon. That’s why it was so curious that they made the trade and trade down and ended up getting a cornerback when they had the opportunity to get a Sammy Watkins type of guy who would be the big guy on the outside. It’s interesting because Cleveland now twice had the opportunity, well I guess you could say three times because they actually got him in Josh Gordon. But they traded away the chance to get Julio Jones a few years ago, a great outside threat. They traded away the chance to get Sammy Watkins, looks like he’s going to be a great outside threat. Then they end up getting Josh Gordon, who was the outside threat, but they can’t keep him at least for this year it looks like.
Orbanek: Certainly though, I think the argument there is that they made a heckuva deal. You know, with having two first rounders next year, especially from Buffalo when, well you would know more than me, but I don’t know what the opinion is on Buffalo, especially with EJ Manuel as quarterback. In that case, would you have rather that they took Watkins, or do you think they made out better in that deal by getting an extra first rounder for next year?
Clayton: Well, I think they came out okay, particularly if let’s say Gordon does come back after eight games or something of that nature. Then it may be passable, still you’d like to get a receiver because guys like Sammy Watkins and Josh Gordon and those guys, they don’t come around that often. Sometimes you have to wait a couple years for draft choices that can be that good. I do think that Ray Farmer took care of the coach in getting him a cornerback who can play well on the other side of Joe Haden and help the defense, which is really more talented than people what to give it credit for. I think it’s a very talented defense. That does help and then of course, getting in a position to get Johnny Manziel. The only thought that I have as criticism is in the end, in one of the deepest drafts we’ve seen in a decade, to only come out of it with six draft choices, that’s tough. Particularly too when they had more going into the draft. So, you’d like to have more but still a cornerback and getting a quarterback, particularly if the quarterback works out, you can’t go too wrong there.
Orbanek: Now, I know it’s early. It’s the middle of June, so this is kind of a tough question. But you look at this team, look at the situation, and there is a lot of youth. But if the season started tomorrow, how many wins is this Browns team worth?
Clayton: I’d still say five, six, maybe seven. Defensively, I think their defense is going to keep them in most games. I don’t think their defense gets enough credit. I think it’s very solid in the front seven, its very talented in the secondary, so that’s a defense that may only give up 20 to 22 points per game, but what you worry about is offense because I just don’t know if there is enough offense. They are going to try to run the ball with Ben Tate, but the way I look at Brian Hoyer is a backup quarterback. The book on a good one in the NFL is that he can come off the bench and win you three games, which he did last year. But if you play him six, he can lose you six games, so the interesting thing is what’s going to happen during those three games, particularly too when you start the season and they have a very difficult start to the season. And when you get to week four, that’s when the clamoring might begin if the Browns lose their first three to start going to Johnny Manziel. If they get off to an 0-3 start and then move to Manziel, it still might be five or six. I kind of look at it as five or six, but I do think their defense is going to keep them in most games. It’s just trying to get the offense over the top to win those games and not average 16 to 18 points offensively.
Orbanek: In regard to the clamoring for Manziel. How loud do you expect it to get? Let’s say they do. Let’s say they do start 0-3. How loud is it going to get and do you see this ever ceasing? This Manziel Mania that we’ve seen since the draft?
Clayton: Well, there’s still Tebow Mania, and he’s not even in football anymore, so of course it won’t stop. That’s not going to stop and nor should it stop. He’s an exciting element, and when I look at him, everyone has these different comparisons, oh yeah he’s Brett Favre, he’s this and that. Well listen, I look at him as a stronger-armed version of Jeff Garcia. That’s a positive in my eyes because if you really look back, I know Garcia was undrafted, but if you look at his career, I think you can see the similarity with what Manziel can do. If he can play like Jeff Garcia then things should get better. The only problem is you worry about that first year and is there enough talent, is there enough athleticism around him to at least try to be successful in that first year. But I think he’s going to be a good quarterback, he just needs the time.
Orbanek: Alright, and then one final thing John. You know, I know I’ve asked you this before, and I can’t remember the exact answer, but what do you think? Are things looking up for the Browns? Overall, from top to bottom, is there a reason to enter this season with a hint of optimism? Not just for the year but for next year and the years to follow. Are things finally starting to look better for the Orange and Brown?
Clayton: I think so. I do think that they have a good base on defense. I think they’ve whittled away some things on offense that make it a lot tougher, so that’s what I get concerned about. I worry about the offense because that’s been the problem for so many years, and you’ve seen it with the four quarterbacks that have come in and they’re always back to square one. But they need to get to seven wins. And the reason I say that is what you don’t want to see is another change of coaches. I mean, if it is five or six wins this year, Jim Haslam may be in the same boat where he may say, you know what, I’m going to go for Adam Gase and bring him over from the Denver Broncos, and try to do that. You know, that’s what I worry about because what this franchise needs, as I mentioned at the very beginning, is to stop stepping on its own toes. Try to at least have a little patience, allow the fans to have some patience, and try to build it as opposed to constantly changing.