ST. LOUIS, MO - NOVEMBER 20: Brandon Browner #39 of the Seattle Seahawks breaks up a pass intended for Brandon Lloyd #83 of the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on November 20, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Seahawks beat the Rams 24-7. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Brandon Browner's up-and-down 'rookie season' - rookie in the sense that he played his first regular season game ever in week 1 - has been particularly wild lately. The big play touchdown he allowed versus Washington is just another in a series of mishaps that have driven Seahawks' fans mad. But in true bounce-back fashion, he intercepted two passes - one was gift wrapped - versus the Eagles; pretty apropos back-to-back performances with the way his year has gone.
Browner's season started rough, the Week 2 game in Pittsburgh being the low point. He had no interceptions or passes defended through four games to go along with his handful of penalties. And despite some big plays since, penalties have remained his kryptonite. Pro Football Focus currently has him at 12 defensive penalties with three more on special teams, 15 total for the season. A lot of those penalties happened on crucial third downs, another negated an Earl Thomas interception. Most of them have been untimely, to say the least.
He's struggled locating, tracking and playing the deep ball at times throughout the year, sometimes committing a big yardage penalty and/or giving up the touchdown. He's been too handsy, not quite sure yet how to use his long arms and big frame within the rule book. He doesn't always get a good jam, which should be a strength given his length. His aggressive nature is something the coaches love about him, but the combination of inconsistency locating the football and his style has prompted too many flags. To sum up, he's caused some legitimate frustration.
That said, sometimes habits can be extremely hard to break. Is it fair to expect his transition from a CFL All-Pro to an NFL stud (or even a solid player) to occur overnight? I think not.
As a proponent of the Browner experiment from the beginning, I've managed to also focus on the good. He's a 27 year old rookie that's not really a rookie. After all, he helped his team win the CFL Grey Cup in 2008. He has winning in his history, and in a league that is not about money or fame. In his presser a few days after the Redskins loss, Pete Carroll noted that Browner put the blame on himself. In the few interviews or newspaper pieces I've read focused on Browner, the tone is of hunger and a drive to succeed. Simply starting in the league isn't the end of his journey.
Despite his inconsistency, he's proven to do some of the little things well. In the preseason I noticed how he would hog-tie players' feet if he was going to the ground but still trying to make the tackle. It showed strength and savvy. He's a strong tackler on the edge and around the line of scrimmage - Doug Farrar looked past the early struggles and gave Browner some praise after his performance against Atlanta in Week 4, when he blew up Julio Jones on multiple occasions near the line of scrimmage. Instead of covering multiple topics, Farrar covered "the way a former NFL-to-CFL castoff covered a rookie receiver like glue, and how stats don't always tell the story."
Former Seahawks linebacker Dave Wyman praised Browner after the Redskins loss; "I understand if you want to focus on the penalties and the downside of Browner, but I'll take a guy that will stand toe-to-toe with some of the best athletes in the world, body-slam them when necessary and fight them tooth and nail on every single play. Given what we've in the defensive backfield here in Seattle over the past few years, I for one can swallow a few pass interference and holding penalties on the way to interceptions and deflected passes. Could it be possible that the entire tempo and personality of this defensive team is based on the tone set by a cornerback? I say yes."
Wyman adds; "How many corners in the history of the NFL have been physical enough to get the kind of penalty he got during the Redskins game? He hit a player legally in-bounds, but knocked him so far out-of-bounds that the referees flagged him for unnecessary roughness. Enough said."
Browner's numbers reflect his potential. His past four games: three interceptions and 11 passes broken up, including a locate-and-play-the-ball interception against the Eagles that Danny highlighted on Thursday - the game after his failure to do that aided the long touchdown catch against Washington.
He is tied for 3rd in the NFL in passed defended (16, not including interceptions in the total as NFL.com does) and tied for 5th in interceptions (4). Advanced NFL Stats "win probability added (WPA)" metric has Browner ranked as the third best corner (Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are one and four among safeties). Pro Football Focus has Browner rated in the top third for coverage and the top ten for run support, among corners playing 50 percent or more (65 players) of their teams' snaps. Earlier in the year, one could say praise for Browner was merely conjecture based on his physical attributes. Now the praise is based off of his play.
In the short term, Browner must find a way to stop being victim to the mismatch versus the speedy receiver and deep ball, and obviously the penalties need to stop (or decrease, anyway). In the long term, the final quarter of the season is a big one for Browner. He is signed through the 2013 season for a low level salary (topping out a $405,000 in 2013, on par with Jeron Johnson's deal); he's played a quarter of his contract with the team, now entering the second quarter. The Seahawks have a decision to make with Marcus Trufant, and hope Walter Thurmond can fully recover. Does that make Browner more important to the organization? Potentially.
Furthermore, remember that he cost nothing to acquire, an undrafted player coming out of college and a seemingly unwanted CFL All-Star until recently. John Schneider mentioned his name to Pete Carroll as a potential tryout and Carroll was pumped about the opportunity, as he initially tracked Browner coming out of high school and recently said he lost track sometime around the move to the CFL - Carroll wanted Richard Sherman coming out of high school, too.
Browner was a low risk acquisition for the greater experiment of extreme length and size at the cornerback spot. I've been on the train all along, and I acknowledge that potentially makes me biased. But at the same time, it's hard for me to ignore that his game is getting better and that he's as physical as they get at cornerback - he wrestled 268 pound Redskin TE Logan Paulsen backwards and to the ground with ease a few weeks ago.
Remember, most thought he'd merely be fighting for a roster spot, not be an opening-day starter - though it's possible Walter Thurmond's training camp ankle injury contributed to that occurrence. At the least he's remedied Seahawks' fans constant groaning about Kelly Jennings, but that's not meant to be a silver lining. Thus far Browner's been a risk, but he has a clear upside.
After recovering from a rough start, his recent spurt of production shows he can produce in the league. Presumably, he hasn't hit his ceiling, but there are still some skeptics. It will be interesting to see how his finish this season shapes public opinion regarding the defensive backfield heading into the offseason. Hopefully his play continues to improve and skeptics don't have much of a choice other than to praise Browner for a successful first season in his transition to the NFL.