Happier times could be coming to the Factory of Sadness. For now, however, the optimism that comes from every team being 0-0 must yield to the reality that there are 32 teams. One is currently the best, one is currently the worst, and there are 30 others in between.
Our six-man crew voted, and the Browns landed one spot above the worst team, for now. It’s not a prediction as to where the Browns will finish, but an assessment of where they are right now.
And the Browns are what they are: A chronically mediocre-at-best team that has been to the playoffs once since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999.
The good news (if there is any) is that the Browns have moved up a spot from their 2012 preseason ranking. The far better news is that the Browns are in position to climb even higher come 2014.
In recent years, change has been the one constant in Cleveland. In the past year, pretty much everything has changed.
New owner. New CEO. New General Manager. New coach. New offensive coordinator. New defensive coordinator.
But the changes should be fewer going forward. Joe Banner, who’s running the football operations, hopes to have continuity. Though ongoing losing could alter that approach, the best way to become a consistent contender is to establish true consistency within the organization.
It could be hard to remain consistent at one of the coordinator positions. Ray Horton, who now runs the defense, could vault himself to a head-coaching gig elsewhere if the Browns’ thrive in his 3-4 system. Norv Turner, who has coached three NFL teams (Redskins, Raiders, Chargers), likely has run out of chances to run a team, barring a Super Bowl run with the Browns or something close to it.
The new regime inherits a fairly talented corps of young players, including an underrated offensive line (anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack), a potentially potent front seven on defense (led by former Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger), and a secondary that features Joe Haden, one of the best cover corners in the NFL.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden is a potential strength, and also a potential weakness. But with two types of teams in the NFL — teams with franchise quarterbacks and teams trying to find franchise quarterbacks — the Browns remain firmly in the latter category. And so, in this quarterback-driven league, the position remains a weakness, until a Browns quarterback proves otherwise.
The tight end position isn’t necessarily a weakness; unproven is perhaps the better term. But with coach Rob Chudzinski having a reputation for incorporating tight ends into the attack, Jordan Cameron will get a chance to step up and become a star. Newcomer Kellen Davis is poised to be the fallback, if the balls don’t continue to fall out of his hands.
There really aren’t many/any other glaring weaknesses on the roster. Which makes me wonder why they’re at No. 31. Which in turn makes me think they’re poised to climb.
Still, they’ll climb only as far as their quarterbacks can take them. Whether it’s Weeden or veteran Jason Campbell or late arrival Brian Hoyer, good quarterback play will be the key to transforming a team that has seen precious little of it in recent years.
Change remains the only constant in Cleveland. Off the field, pretty much everything is new (with the exception of special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor). On the field, the Browns spent nearly $90 million on free agents, pumping up the defense with players like linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant.
They somehow got value from the 49ers for odd-man-out Colt McCoy, who will be replaced by proven veteran Jason Campbell.
Receiver Davone Bess, who has averaged 64.2 receptions per year over his first five seasons with a revolving door of quarterbacks in Miami, somehow was gotten for the draft equivalent of a bag of day-old popcorn.
The departures primarily will impact special teams, with kick/punt returner Josh Cribbs leaving for Oakland after eight NFL seasons in Cleveland and kicker Phil Dawson joining Cribbs in the Bay Area (the 49ers) after spending every single season with the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 199. Also gone are tight end Benjamin Watson, tight end Alex Smith, receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, defensive end Frostee Rucker, linebacker Chris Gocong, safety Usama Young, and cornerback Sheldon Brown.
The biggest fight comes at quarterback, where 2012 starter Brandon Weeden must fend off Campbell and Hoyer. Indications point to Weeden keeping the job. The real question is whether the Browns would sit him down if the team struggles early. Regardless of who gets the bulk of the snaps in 2013, it’s hard to envision any of the three quarterbacks becoming the long-term answer at the position.
The tailback depth chart behind Trent Richardson is to be determined, with Dion Lewis joining holdovers Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson, and Chris Ogbonnaya. Undrafted free agent Miguel Maysonet, who was waived quickly by the Eagles, provides intrigue, but the only way he sticks around is by showing he can contribute on special teams.
With Josh Gordon suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season, the starting job across from Greg Little is open, at least initially. Bess likely will play the slot position in three-receiver sets, but he could be one of the two starting receivers when two are used.
With Cribbs gone, the Browns need a punt and kick returner. Last year, Travis Benjamin was the primary understudy to Cribbs. Look for Benjamin to serve as the punt returner. The kick returner likely will be Johnson Bademosi or Dion Lewis.
On defense, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo will vie for reps at outside linebacker. If Mingo makes a quick adjustment to the pro game, Sheard could (could, not will or should) end up being available via trade, if/when the inevitable injury bug strikes in other camps.
At corner, some have suggested Buster Skrine will replace Sheldon Brown at starting cornerback. It’s more likely that Skrine will remain at the nickel position, with rookie Leon McFadden and Chris Owens fighting for the spot across from Joe Haden.
The Browns have plenty of talent, on both sides of the ball. But they play in one of the toughest divisions in football, featuring the defending Super Bowl champions in Baltimore, the up-and-coming Bengals, and the always-dangerous Steelers.
To compete in the AFC North, the Browns need Richardson to get and stay healthy. And the Browns need to develop a passing game that can move the chains and score the points.
Each year, the quarterback becomes more important in the NFL. The Browns’ ability to become competitive depends largely on their quarterback play.
Over the long haul, the team’s ability to become and to stay competitive also depends on stability. With the arrival of Jimmy Haslam as the team’s owner in 2012, fans believed that the next set of changes would lay the foundation for the kind of continuity that successful franchises enjoy. Now, with Haslam’s ownership threatened by a federal investigation of the billion-dollar truck-stop company he runs in Tennessee, Browns fans have to worry that a new set of changes will be made if/when someone else takes over the franchise.
It’s a potential distraction that shouldn’t affect the players in 2013. Even if Haslam were to step down today, it would be too late for a new owner to make any significant changes.
Unless the Browns can make a strong move toward contention for a playoff berth, it’s safe to say that, come 2014, Haslam or whoever is running the show will continue to be in the group of NFL teams that is looking for a franchise quarterback.
Until the Browns find a franchise quarterback, it will be difficult for them to compete for the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history.