It’s hard to believe – and, honestly, kind of depressing to admit – but the NFL’s young season isn’t so young anymore. The first quarter of games is officially history. The Browns, entering the season with expectations that seemed to very person-by-person, have shown flashes of young, legitimate talent that’s been conspicuously absent since they were reborn in ’99. They’ve also shown a penchant for knuckle-headed penalties and lackadaisical offensive sets. Sitting at 2-2 and headed into the bye week, expect every facet of the team to be put under the microscope in Berea as Pat Shurmur and Co. prep for Oakland.
Joe Haden – You really can’t say enough about the effort that Haden puts forth on and off the field. The love that this Florida transplant has given the city of Cleveland is unreal. His escapades range from zany (dressing up in full uniform at Cavs and Indians games) to touching (sponsoring a youth baseball team and actually showing up to watch the kids play), and are always a joy to hear about.
Oh, and he also happens to have developed into one of the league’s premier corners. Quarterbacks just can’t get a ball past him. His awareness is off-the-charts good; he always seems to position himself to make plays, and he has the athleticism to get a hand on any ball thrown his way. And you have to love a guy who talks as much trash as he does. As obnoxious as people like Ray Lewis and Hines Ward are to play against, having a vocal leader on your own team is a beautiful thing.
A potential superstar in the making, Haden is the kind of athlete that would be embraced in any city he landed. Buy him a beer next time you see him making the rounds through Cleveland’s suburbs.
The Defensive Line – Anchored by the youthful Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, the Browns defense actually finished in the top five of team sacks through the first three games of the season. There was nothing fluky about the way the team’s front four played: using shear, unapologetic strength to bulldoze opposing offensive linemen, the Browns defensive front ripped and rumbled their way to opposing quarterbacks. Jabaal Sheard looks like a monster on the outside, although he’ll have to refine his game a bit to hang with the league’s top defensive tackles.
Colt McCoy – McCoy could just as easily fit into a less favorable category, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt through four games. At times, he has looked really, really good; that Week Three comeback against Miami represented every solid aspect that his game is built around. His quick release and smart decision-making were evident throughout the fourth quarter. Perhaps his biggest talent at this point, though, is his ability to allude pressure in the pocket and make plays on the run.
At times, though, he looks extremely average, overthrowing his own receivers and forcing balls into double or triple coverage. Common mistakes that young quarterbacks frequently make.
Great signal-callers aren’t built over night; at this point, Browns fans must be content with taking the good with the bad. Let him take his lumps. He threw the ball a whopping 61 times in Sunday’s loss to Tennessee – that’s 61 opportunities to learn, and ultimately improve, from.
Lack of Discipline – They looked better against the Titans, but through the first three games the Cleveland Browns had an uncanny obsession with the referee’s yellow flags. If it wasn’t holding, it was some extracurricular, late-hitting nonsense. If it wasn’t a pass interference, it was a hold. And, please, let’s not get started on Week One’s broken fourth-quarter defense. Middle schoolers know better.
This is par-for-the-course behavior for young, inexperienced teams, but still, the Browns need to keep their heads in the game the full 60 minutes, not just 45. This is a team that should be 3-1 right now.
Poor Receiving Corps – Not to be confused with Cleveland’s stable of tight ends, the Browns feature a corps of average, second-option-at-best receivers. Greg Little has shown glimpses of playmaking ability, but the young Tarheel finds himself playing behind two recievers incapable of seperating themselves from elite defensive backs. That’s not to say that Mohamed Massaquoi or Brian Robiskie can’t contribute to the team in a smaller role, but neither possess the route-running ability needed to excel. Give the Browns a double team-demanding deep threat and watch things open up on offense.
Peyton Hillis – Or, rather, a lack of faith in Peyton Hillis. Montario Hardesty has more than proven his worth – he possesses a combination of speed and strength that render him extremely valuable moving forward. But, given the Browns inability to make things happen in the passing game, Hillis needs to get the rock 20-plus times a game. Hardesty isn’t going to keep defensive coordinators up the week before the game, but a healthy, determined Hillis? That’s the kind of talent offenses can build around and defenses always have to remain accountable for. Giving Hillis anything less than 20 touches a game is Pat Shurmur psyching himself out.