It’s the 10th anniversary of the Browns’ first and only trip to the postseason since the franchise returned in 1999.
Last year, the Browns were the only members of the AFC North to not make it to the postseason. While they likely won’t be quite so alone when the dust settles on 2012, they’re currently all alone at the bottom of the heap.
Hey, someone has to be No. 32. Though the Browns could scratch and claw and climb and thrive (and I personally hope they will), the franchise collectively has pressed the button that falls between “panic” and “reset” for the coming season.
The approach feels a little different, but the outcome is likely to remain the same. At least for now.
The good news is that the Browns continue to have one of the best left tackles in the game. The bad news is that, even with Joe Thomas doing his job as well as anyone who protects the blind side of a right-handed quarterback, having a cornerstone on the offensive line isn’t a stepping stone to a Super Bowl. Or, in the Browns’ case, a playoff berth.
The Browns also have a solid corps of cornerbacks, with Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown, and Dimitri Patterson anchoring an underrated coverage unit. Second only to the Steelers in pass defense last season, with 184.9 yards surrendered through the air per game, the Browns know how to avoid getting burned by today’s high-octane offenses.
Receiver Josh Cribbs remains one of the most dangerous return specialists in the game, even though the movement of the kickoff point from the 30 back to the 35 has diminished the value of a quality kick-return ace. In 2011, Cribbs generated the third highest punt-return average of his seven-year career, and he racked up a career-high 518 receiving yards. The Browns need him to step up even more on offense, especially if he hopes to stick around beyond the coming season.
Though there’s promise at the quarterback position, where 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden arrived via the first round of the draft, the depth chart remains an across-the-board liability unless and until Weeden shows he can perform at the NFL level. The ongoing presence of Colt McCoy serves only to exacerbate the situation; if McCoy is hovering over Weeden’s shoulder as he struggles or if McCoy ends up playing (and, with everyone including McCoy assuming he’ll eventually be benched for Weeden, thriving), the Browns could have another Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn mess.
The Browns’ pass defense may have performed so well statistically in 2011 because opponents didn’t need to throw against Cleveland, opting instead to gash them on the ground. The Browns finished 30th in the league last year in rush defense, giving up 147.4 yards per game. Bringing in free-agent defensive ends Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker won’t dramatically help, but it can’t hurt.
It also won’t hurt if defensive tackle Phil Taylor can recover from a torn pectoral muscle sooner rather than later.
Beyond quarterback, the offense features plenty of potential weak spots and, at a minimum, question marks. Can second-round rookie Mitchell Schwartz step right in and take over for Tony Pashos at right tackle? Can receiver Greg Little make the kind of leap that will make the Browns feel even better about the Julio Jones trade? Can receiver Mohamed Massaquoi finally step up?
The biggest concern comes behind rookie tailback Trent Richardson. With the Browns investing so much in Cleveland’s most-hyped running back since Jim Brown, the Browns had better hope Richardson doesn’t get Ki-Jana Cartered in the preseason. If Richardson does, guys like Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya, and/or Brandon Jackson will need to play the way they should have played to keep the Browns from feeling like they needed to go all in on a dime-a-dozen position.
The Browns wisely have hired an offensive coordinator, in the hopes of taking some of the pressure off second-year head coach Pat Shurmur. He opted for familiarity in former Vikings coach and Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who did well in the latter job (despite not calling the plays) and not as well in the former. Childress knows a thing or two about running an offense with a workhorse tailback drawing safeties into the box; the challenge will be to unleash the passing game if/when Richardson becomes what the Browns expect him to be. In Minnesota, Childress wasn’t able to do that with any quarterback not named Brett Favre.
Richardson has become the star tailback because the guy who was supposed to be the next big thing in Cleveland, Peyton Hillis, took the Madden curse to a new level in 2011. Obsessed with getting a big contract, Hillis eventually got a one-way ticket to Kansas City, where he found a pot of gold far smaller than he thought he deserved.
On defense, safety Mike Adams has gone to Denver, and ends Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker beef up a line that could use more of the same.
The most significant change has yet to be officially made. If the Browns want to get the most out of the 22nd pick in this year’s draft, they need to clear their 2010 third-rounder, Colt McCoy, off the roster. The sooner it happens, the better off Brandon Weeden will be as he tries to become the first franchise quarterback of the reconstituted Browns franchise.
The biggest battle shouldn’t be a battle at all. Brandon Weeden should be installed as the starting quarterback, and Colt McCoy should be shipped elsewhere. If they can’t trade him, they should just cut him loose.
If McCoy stays, Weeden nevertheless has the inside track on winning the starting job. Especially since McCoy already has had enough time to audition for the gig — and has performed just well enough to persuade the Browns to spend a first-round pick on Weeden.
The battle to back up Trent Richardson likely will result in the third-place finisher (Montario Hardesty or Chris Ogbonnaya or Brandon Jackson) getting cut. Hopefully, the winner will at least get a Water Pik.
On defense, Sheldon Brown may not be able to hold off Dimitri Patterson for a starting cornerback job. The 33-year-old Brown could still slide back a level, if neither Eric Hagg nor Usama Young can effectively replace Mike Adams at free safety.
A six-game run against teams that either made the playoffs in 2011 or are being picked to get their in 2012 could cause the Browns to yet again fall down in a way that will prevent them from getting up. It will be critical to at least split with the Bengals in a pair of games played four weeks apart (Week Two and Week Six), and likewise to steal at least one from the Eagles, Bills, Ravens, or Giants.
If the Browns make the trip to Indy on October 21 at 2-4 and beat the Colts to climb to 3-4 with back-to-back home games looming against the Chargers and Ravens before the bye, things could get interesting in mid-November.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Browns will be able to consistently compete in the first season of the Trent Richardson-Brandon Weeden offense. The goal should be to demonstrate the kind of improvement that won’t cause the Browns to reach for the “panic” button or the “reset” button or any button close to either in 2013 and beyond.