27. Season in Review: Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND - NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Colt McCoy #12 of the Cleveland Browns runs away from linebacker Calvin Pace #97 of the New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 14 2010 in Cleveland Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Rarely, if ever, will you hear the terms 'respectable' or 'promising' used to describe a 5-11 year in the NFL. Yet after a grueling season during which they battled 10 playoff teams, such descriptions seem only fitting. The Browns schedule was so tough that even Harvard Law students were wincing. Constitutional law will never seem as punishing.

Heading into training camp, Browns fans must have been positively giddy seeing Kansas City and Tampa to start the season... Looking back those two games followed by a stretch of 6 playoff teams in a row was positively unfair. it was like testing second graders on the capitals of the world. Not fair. 

Capital of Canada anyone? How about Bahrain (smart-asses frown)? 

Such a losing record did little to take the sting out of an 8th straight year without a trip to the playoffs. Cleveland fans are frustrated, upset and disappointed. Such raw emotions probably have to do more with Lebron's departure and the state of the Browns as a franchise, than what they witnessed on the field, because the effort was there and when you give your best, thats all we fans can ask for (My mom would be so proud!)

To compound the frustration and losing mentality, the Browns may have been the least talented team in the league. Besides Josh Cribbs returning kicks, Joe Thomas at left tackle and the promising rookies T.J. Ward at safety and Joe Haden at corner, you would be hard pressed to find another player who could start on a competitive team let alone one of playoff caliber. Nevertheless the Browns fought hard.

The season was reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem the Charge of the Light Brigade. The outcome was preordained and Cleveland was destined to fail, nevertheless the Brown charged in every week willing to battle overwhelming odds. 

It was a rough season and the Browns took their licks, but finishing 3rd in a conference with Pittsburgh, Baltimore and - a disappointing yet talented - Cincinnati was certainly no reason to hang their heads.

Week after week the Browns exhibited a tough, gritty character that defines the city they play in. Along the way they were able to pull off surprising upsets, including back-to-back beat downs of New England and New Orleans.

After a two game win streak, the Browns were still grasping for a playoff berth as late as the last week of november. A 4 game losing streak to close out the season dashed such minuscule hopes, yet after a solid draft this past season and more reinforcements on the way, things are looking up in Cleveland. 

The best news of all? The Browns got rid of the Eric Mangini, finally purging the curse of Belichick's disciples (Next week Lebron will probably show up in a Pats hat just to twist the knife). Poor Cleveland - better days are on the horizon. 

Season In Review: Thank Goodness its Finished

It wasn't that the play on the field was overly painful to watch. For the dawg pound, losing seasons are the same, no matter how the team played. This year the relief stems from the fact that the schedule from hell is finally over.

Never mind facing the Ravens or Steelers twice, the Browns also drew the Jets, Pats, Saints, Falcons, Chiefs and Bucs. That is 9 games against playoff teams and another against a 10-win team. In the first 11 weeks, they faced just 1 team that finished with a losing record. With that schedule, its a little easier to excuse the Browns for getting off to such a slow start and matching their 5-11 record from 2009. Even the biggest of the big dawgs in the pound can't disagree with that.

The positives from such a brutal gauntlet are that as a young team, they now are very well acquainted with elite teams and know and what it's going to take to join them. Right now the Browns are at the bottom end of the measuring stick, but wins over New England and New Orleans show they are capable of beating the best. The focus this offseason needs to be on finding the consistency to do it every week.

The Browns lost their first 3 games by a combined 12 points. Had they found  a way to put the ball in the end zone just twice more and the season might have had a much different feel. Confidence from a 2-1 start may have snowballed and who knows, Eric Mangini might still be wearing brown and orange. In retrospect, its a good thing they struggled to score...

Offseason Momentum: Building

Pat Shurmur is unproven but should be a major upgrade over Eric Mangini who Sports Illustrated columnist Joe Posnanski dubbed 'the worst hire in 25 years.' Tough words, but I can't really disagree with him there. (In a non-related but bizarre note, Mangini's 3rd son was born on Brett Favre's birthday. As some sort of sentimental perk to get Brett Farve to sign, Eric Mangini promised to name his son after the quarterback if he signed with the Jets. Weird. Really really weird. He did keep his promise though) 

Anyway, back to Shurmur. As offensive coordinator for the Rams last season, Shurmur did wonders for the development of QB Sam Bradford and his tutelage should benefit Colt McCoy as well. 

The Browns have made a mess of coaching hires in recent years. 4 coaches in 11 years to be exact. Owner Randy Lerner is not shy about spending the big bucks to lure the hottest young coaches, yet so far they have all been busts. 

Butch Davis? - forgettable, Phil Savage? - lousy. Romeo Crennel? Overmatched (typical Belichick coaching tree flop). Eric Mangini? - disappointing (although that more describes his hire and his general personality than his actual coaching). 

Will Shurmur be any different? After his tenure in St. Louis, signs point to yes. It is also a telling indication that Bradford voiced his sadness at his departure. 

Staying on the offensive side of the ball, the Browns found their running back of the future in Peyton Hillis, who embodied the team's tough resilient approach to the season. Hillis exploded on the seen for 1,177 yards and 11 scores. As Colts fans we relished watching him gash the Pats for 180 yards in their surprise thumping of New England back in week 9.

Hillis was aided by strong line play anchored by the best left tackle in football Joe Thomas. Alex Mack earned his first pro bowl honor and Eric Steinbach again provided a reliable veteran presence. (Btw - check out this post about Alex Mack from our sister site dawgsbynature.com. How cool is that to see such excitement and passion for the game? Bravo Alex Mack). 

Josh Cribbs was a blur returning punts, but offered little in the passing game, a reoccurring theme for Brown's receivers.  If the Browns want to improve, and I imagine they do, the front office is going to need to find receivers through the draft or free agency. Not only will this take pressure of Hillis and open up the offensive, but having a reliable receiving threat will boost McCoy's confidence. It was obvious that when Bradford's best weapon, Mark Clayton went down, the rookie quarterback and the offense as a whole struggled in Clayton's absence.

We as Colt's fans know how Peyton Manning lifts the level of his receivers. When quarterbacks reach that elite plateau, their presence can raise the play of others around them. Until that happens, its the reverse. Receivers are critical for young quarterbacks to gain their footing in the league and grow their confidence. With McCoy looking like he will be the starter, Cleveland needs better receivers to give him and the team a chance to improve. 

Offseason Anxiety: Defense and star players

The Browns roster lacks talent across the board. They also lack a star marquee player. The Browns have no face of the francise. Provided he avoids injuries Joe Thomas is a future hall of famer but can a left tackle really be the face of franchise?

The problem is two fold. From a marketing perspective, its hard to attract fans and fill the seats if there is no one that fans can endorse. Cleveland is used to stars. Jim Thome and he-who-must-not-be-named (although I think I already mentioned his name above...my bad). But excitement doesn't just translate to money in the owner's pockets. The team feeds off it as well. Of course the dawg pound will always be there, but the team, especially a younger one, needs to feel the love and support of the community as well. On the field, the Browns don't have a proven winner and leader than can turn to. They have no one that is capable of putting the team on his shoulders and willing them to victory. As Colts' fans we do. We have Peyton Manning and his laser rocket arm. Between him and Dwight Freeney on defense, the two have easily directly contributed to 50 wins in the last 10 seasons. No one means more to any team than Peyton and in fairness to other teams, he is probably one of the best three players at the most important position in the history of the league. Relying on one or two players to such an extent is rather unique and probably a poor long term strategy to build a team. But, having guys who can carry the team (in Peyton's case the franchise) or improve the play of those around them is critical. The Browns don't have that and currently, while he has a bright future ahead, Colt McCoy can still be a liability. Just look at his numbers from the last two games - 6 interceptions, 1 touchdown.

The Browns are like a young dynamo soccer team. They all run around, are excited to be out there (see Alex Mack article linked above) and try really hard, but there is no leadership or organization to their efforts. No natural leader has emerged and until one does, the Browns will continue to exert maximum energy without achieving results.

Defensively, the Browns are in dire need of an injection of more talent. As a unit their collective statistics are horrible. Their secondary is their strength and close to becoming very very good. While cornerback Sheldon Brown is solid but past his prime, Joe Haden is about to join the NFL's elite at his position and T.J. Ward is an explosive and powerful hitter who after recording 123 tackles his first year, has pro bowl written all over him. (By the way 123 tackles is an absolutely astounding number for a rookie. The Browns struck solid gold with Ward). 

Aside from Webb and Haden, the defense is atrocious. Mack Brown wouldn't trade his unit for Cleveland's and given the year Texas had, that is saying something. Without any pass rush to speak of Haden and Ward can only be so good and it would be a shame to waste such coveted talents. 

Right now though, opposing Qb's are less likely to be touched than illegitimate money in Swiss bank accounts. The fact that Hosni Mubarak (an avid football fan I am sure) isn't troubled by that statement shows just how little pressure Cleveland is getting. 

On a related note, what happened to Shaun Rogers? Besides the fact that I feel terrible for the guy because he left Detroit for promises of milk and honey in Cleveland, wasn't he supposed to be an absolute monster in the middle and the guy that would fix Cleveland's woes? hmmm....

Draft Desires: Face of the Franchise, Deep Threats, Defense, defense and more defense

Colt McCoy is the runaway favorite to be the Browns starting Qb. He has earned the right and hopefully he is successful. He seems like a great guy similar in a lot ways to Drew Brees

He also has a chance to be the face of the franchise and leader of the team. According to www.dogsbynature.com, teammates like McCoy's toughness and mettle. 

Quarterback may be an issue in the future if McCoy doesn't pan out as hoped, but this year its not a concern.

The focus in the first few rounds should solely be on a receiver and the defensive line. 

The Browns have numerous picks and I imagine 5/6 will be on d-line, defensive tackle and linebacker.

The good news for the Browns is there is a deep talent pool on the d-line. There are a lot of good athletes that are athletic and strong enough to play end or linebacker (presuming they keep the base 3-4 approach). 

The bad news is there is a dearth of game changing receivers. The standout receiver prospect  A.J. Green will almost certainly be gone at this point. The Browns may consider trading up to guarantee getting him, but they have too many other holes and needs and cant afford to give up too much in order to make the deal.

If they are considering to mix it up with a trade, a smarter and more likely scenario is that they move down in the draft to around the 12-14 spot and select Julio Jones from Alabama instead. Jones is a big explosive receiver who can out-muscle and out-run defensive backs. More importantly, he is a precise route-runner who could quickly develop a rapport with McCoy.

If not Green or Jones, look for Cleveland to make a play at Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl in the 2nd or 3rd rounds.

If receiver is not the pick, Cleveland will probably select either Texas A&M's Von Miller or UNC's Robert Quinn. Both fit what Cleveland is looking for. Sorry Browns fans, but Da'Quan Bowers will not still be on the board - get used to it. 

Free Agent Farewells: Special Teams, Eric Wright 

Eric Wright is the most critical offseason free agent. Limited by a persisting knee injury that eventually ended his season, Eric Wright was a productive and promising cornerback. Sheldon Brown was the recipient of of his minutes and played decently in his absence, but he is on the downhill part of his career and not part of the long term plans. Teaming Wright with Haden would give the team a terrific starting dou with Brown providing depth for at least a few more years.

Other pressing free agent concerns are kicker Phil Dawson and punter Dave Zastudil. Dawson has been with the team since 1999 and is closing in on several franchise records including the leading scorer. One would assume that he will be resigned. Zastudil, the punter has been with the team since 2002 and is regarded as one of the league's more consistent punters. Besides the fact that both guys, are consistent, known and well liked, the Browns will probably extend them offers in order to save draft picks for more pressing concerns at 'skill positions.'

Chansi Stuckey will probably will be resigned because of the lack of depth at wide receiver. Lastly, Colt's fans may be interested in Shaun Rodgers. At one point, Rodgers was regarded as one of the biggest and most fierce defensive tackles in the league. This year, his production slipped to the lowest levels of his career. It is highly unlikely the Browns will offer him a new contract, yet while he may be reaching the end of his career, it would be interesting to see if playing for a contender like the Colts, could motivate him and bring out his old self. 

Premature Glimpse into the Future: The future is along ways off 

Cleveland's record for the next few years depends a lot on Colt McCoy (no pressure buddy, there's just the hopes of Cleveland ending its title drought riding on your shoulders!) I don't envy him, but he certainly has a promising career ahead of him. It's no coincidence that the teams beneath Cleveland all have similar situations at quarterback as well. Its a passing league and until McCoy can make the leap to elite status, the Browns won't contend for the playoffs. Certainly not in the AFC North anyway. McCoy has been thrown into the lions den - the lions being Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Terrell Suggs and James Harrison. Whether or not he escapes alive, remains to be seen (we know one guy who crossed Ray Lewis' path didn't make it...).  In the meantime, Mike Holmgren needs to continue stocking up on talent until McCoy is prepared and capable of shouldering the load.

Until then, its hard to picture the Browns winning more than 6 games. Effort can only take them so far. If it was the NFC West, then 9 games would be reasonable bet. Unfortunately for the Browns, they play in one of, if not the toughest conference in the league. Therefore, for the time being, the playoffs remain a distant fantasy. 

Threat to the Stampede: Minimal 

The Colts have mastered the rear view mirror trick: games may appear closer than they really are (or at least should be). 

We have made it a habit of allowing bad teams to stick around and hang in until the last few minutes. Sure it makes Sunday's exciting and strengthens our ties to God, but its frankly annoying. At some point - like what happened for a rather depressing 4 game stretch this year - Peyton won't be able to bail us out at which point God will tell Bill Polian 'I warned you this will happen.' This game, at home, could reach this scenario. More than likely however, the Colts will be fine and will benefit from home field advantage. The chance of seeing them when it really counts is zero. 99 percent chance Browns won't make it. 1 percent chance the Colts don't either. 

Sorry Cleveland fans it looks like your record setting playoff drought (8 years) is going to last one more. 

 

 

 

 


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