Since returning to the NFL in 1999 after a three-year hiatus, the Browns have had more lows than highs. One playoff appearance a dozen years ago, one other winning season, and otherwise futility.
In recent years, the futility has flowed in large part from inconsistency, with four coaches and four General Managers since 2009. Before the Browns can contend, the front office and the coaching staff need to stabilize. It’s unclear whether that will happen. But that’s not one of the five specific questions I’ve selected to address as the season approaches.
1. Who will be the quarterback?
After the Browns traded up from No. 26 to No. 22 in round one to snag Johnny Manziel, the Browns opted not to install Manziel as the starter. It’s possible, if not likely, that it was part of the effort to short-circuit the immediate ascension of Manziel to the same kind of power Robert Griffin III had (and likely still has) in Washington.
Nevertheless empowered by the team’s apparent acceptance of a “Work Hard, Play Harder” two-sided offseason T-shirt motto, Manziel eventually took it too far, hanging out with Justin Bieber and rolling up a dollar bill after the team told him to tone it down.
With an owner who isn’t bashful about handing out pink slips but with termination not an option, the next best way to send a message to Manziel becomes sending him to the bench. Which is what the Browns now apparently plan to do, given the ongoing praise heaped upon Brian Hoyer.
It’s a dangerous game, for multiple reasons. First, making Manziel the backup means exposing him to injury in the preseason behind the No. 2 offensive line. Second, it opens the door for another Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn do-si-do that could delay the date on which Manziel ascends to the job they surely want him to have. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have drafted him.
2. Who will run the ball?
Ben Tate arrived via free agency, Terrance West comes to Cleveland through the draft. Tate presumably will get the first crack at becoming the primary ball carrier, but his contract doesn’t point inescapably to Tate being the clear-cut bell cow.
“Competition is needed to have a good team,” Tate recently told reporters. “You look at San Francisco. You look at Seattle. There’s competition at every position. Obviously you know who their guy is, but there are guys behind them that are good that can push them. That’s what’s needed so I don’t see it as a threat.”
It’s only a threat for Tate if the competition results in a conclusion that West is a better option that Tate.
3. What’s the plan at receiver?
Josh Gordon may or may not be suspended for the year, and the Browns haven’t done much to plan for life without him. Miles Austin and Nate Burleson arrived via free agency, but both guys aren’t who they used to be.
G.M. Ray Farmer has defended the failure to make a move to replace Gordon by explaining that Super Bowl champs rarely have dominant receivers. Of course, Super Bowl champs also often don’t have elite left tackles, but it’s unlikely that the Browns will be cutting Joe Thomas any time soon.
Perhaps the Browns ultimately played it right, if Gordon’s low concentration of marijuana metabolites and luck-of-the-draw “A” bottle/”B” bottle discrepancy results in a short suspension or none at all. One way or another, we’ll know the answer soon enough.
4. Will Kyle Shanahan be more flexible with Manziel?
The Browns possibly would like a Mulligan when it comes to drafting Manziel. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan possibly would like a Mulligan of his own when it comes to taking a job with the team that drafted Manziel.
Kyle Shanahan ensured two years of RGIII in D.C., with plenty of dysfunction fueled by a quarterback who wouldn’t or couldn’t be coached the way Shanahan wanted to coach him to the degree that Shanahan likes to coach/control all of his quarterbacks.
Shanahan wants everything done according to his plan. Manziel does some of his best work when the plan disintegrates into no plan at all. Whenever Manziel plays, Shanahan will need to become more flexible, or he’ll lose whatever is left of his mind after 2012 and 2013.
5. How good is the defense?
Lost in all the talk about the team’s offense is a defense that finished in the top 10 both for yards and points allowed. Sure, coordinator Ray Horton is gone after a year, and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and safety T.J. Ward have been swapped out for Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, respectively. But head coach Mike Pettine, who made a major impact during his only season with the Bills after stepping out of Rex Ryan’s shrinking shadow, could push the finished product to even greater heights.
To get there, Pettine needs to get more out of pass rushers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo. If forgotten top-10 cornerback Justin Gilbert can make a quick impact, he and Joe Haden could quickly become of the best tandems in the league.
The end result could be a defense that’s even better than it was a year ago, and in turn an offense that benefits from fewer points allowed, better field position, and more turnovers.