Much is at stake as we approach game No. 8 in the Cleveland Browns’ 2011 campaign. The already injury-depleted squad suffered yet another blow in the form of Peyton Hillis’ aggravated hamstring. Reports indicate he will miss a couple weeks, leaving the Browns with none of the three backs (Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson) they expected to have prior to the season.
Looming are the offensively potent and defensively feisty Houston Texans. One has to wonder how Cleveland will maintain a reasonable time of possession in this game while fielding a backfield comprised entirely of players that were not on NFL rosters 14 days ago. The running game has struggled with Hillis and Hardesty carrying the load, so what can we expect out of Chris Ogbonnaya, Thomas Clayton and presumably Armond Smith?
The mainstream school of thought would say that this game, and the rest of the season, are set up for a tremendous failure. In fact, this line of thought has begun to permeate the city, frustrating fans and media alike. Thanks to the lockout-influenced schedule, the Browns will face their formidable AFC North foes in five of the last six games of the year. This leaves a narrow window of good opportunities to add to the current win total of three.
It’s hard to argue against the negative outlook when you consider the Browns’ complete lack of offense thus far. In fact, the Browns are the only NFL team through Week Eight to not have a 100-yard rusher or receiver. Washington, Tampa Bay and St. Louis are next in line for futility with only two such performances. The league leader? That’s right, the Houston Texans with a whopping 11 100-yard games, and that’s with Andre Johnson missing the last four contests. This truly is the focal point of Cleveland’s offensive woes, a complete lack of playmakers that opposing defenses have to account for.
Yet, there is still hope. The defense has shown progress and while even the most optimistic fan would be hard pressed to envision a win in Houston, the next two weeks provide ample opportunities for victories, as St. Louis and Jacksonville visit Cleveland Browns Stadium. The obstacle for the Browns now is how to adjust to life without Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty, as both will likely miss the next three games.
So the 2011 season is at a crossroads. If the Browns can manage to go 2-1 in the next three games they will head into the meat grinder portion of the schedule with a 5-5 record and some confidence built in achieving wins without the help of any NFL-caliber running backs. However, if Pat Shurmur’s team fails to capitalize on this last soft spot in the schedule there is a very real possibility of it spiraling out of control in December and falling to a three or four-win season.
For the sake of Browns fans and the psyche of the city as a whole, let’s put our faith in the path of hope.