Maybe it was Bill Simmons’s projection, or maybe it was Peter King’s. Maybe it was the average Cleveland fan’s youthful tendency to overlook logic and get swept up in the romance of a fresh new NFL season. Maybe it was a belief that Peyton Hillis’ Madden cover would somehow create a reverse-jinx that would elevate Cleveland to something great (yeah, yeah: only in Cleveland). Regardless, the 2011 Cleveland Browns season began with a feeling of optimism that has since given way to frustration and disappointment.
Time to take a step back and really look at what the Browns were working with at the onset of the season because, in reality, this never was a Cinderella team. This is still a work in progress, and as often as you update your Facebook or tweet about how Pat Shurmur & Co. drive you to drinking, this team was never destined for greatness.
Much of the optimism bestowed on this team stemmed from a belief that a group of young players would simultaneously elevate their game to a Pro Bowl-type level. Surely, we collectively thought that Joe Haden, TJ Ward, and Colt McCoy would make major strides in their second seasons. Phil Taylor and Greg Little would finish first and second in Rookie of the Year voting and Peyton Hillis would continue to humiliate defensive players on his way to becoming the second coming of Jim Brown.
There were multiple reasons to assume that this team would explode onto the scene and be an AFC North player for the bulk of the season. A first week loss to Cincinnati highlighted how young this team is, and, following victories over hapless teams like Indianapolis and Miami, we’re looking at a 2-3 team with little identity on either side of the ball.
As fun as it was to make grandiose projections in August, we should have seen this coming. The team that Tom Heckert inherited was very, very bad, and as optimistic as we felt following his successful-looking 2010 draft, it was a single draft. There are glaring holes on offense, highlighted by what could be the most inept group of wide receivers in the league. And as solid as Joe Haden’s development has been, the Browns lack a play-making pass rusher to complement the backfield’s star. It could be Taylor, and it could be Jabaal Sheard, but at this point in time they are both too young to consistently dominate the line of scrimmage.
Simply put, the expectations placed on this team were unfair. There are too many holes for the Browns to hang with the best teams in the league. Even if Peyton Hillis weren’t conspicuously MIA, even if Pat Shurmur made better decisions on offense (and, honestly, those are both topics for completely different discussions), this team wasn’t going to finish better than 8-8.
Give the Browns time. As frustrating as it is to watch another mediocre season, take solace in the face that the team actually has talented young players to build around. Temper your expectations and, as always, wait until next year. The Browns will get it right soon.