The regular season is over, which traditionally means that nothing really matters for the Cleveland Browns until April. It’s a time of reflection, as well as watching competent teams that make us jealous.
I’m not a teacher, so my report card doesn’t get marked up with grades based on how the Browns performed this season. If it did, I would be the teacher of a very strange subject. Instead, my report card will be a long series of answers to one question.
What have we learned this year?
Woof. It’s a tough one to answer. Let’s start with the defense.
The defense wasn’t terrible. Purely from a standpoint of the pieces versus the production, I was okay with the defensive performance this year.
With two starters on the defensive line, that could have gone a heck of a lot worse. Actually, let’s make note of the eight draft picks the Browns had last spring and how every one of them played and contributed this season. Granted, some of those minutes for Jordan Cameron came from showing up in the last few weeks to make a few catches here and there, but that still counts. Buster Skrine made tackles, Eric Hagg made tackles, Cameron made catches, Jason Pinkston did…well (he played), and Owen Marecic, Greg Little, Phil Taylor, and Jabaal Sheard all logged a lot of playing time.
From this we learned two things. First, the 2011 draft class was a productive one. These guys stepped in and contributed to an NFL team in their first year, even though that wasn’t really expected of the later-round picks. This also taught us that the team was bad enough coming into this year that eight rookies were able to make some kind of impact on the team. Either way, young guys getting experience in a less traumatic fashion than the way Tim Couch got his initial experience is generally extremely valuable.
I know that some of this play was circumstantial due to the rash of injuries that finds its way to Cleveland every year, but in a lost season, it seemed fine that Hagg saw some time due to T.J. Ward’s injury and likewise, when Cameron played when Ben Watson (and later Alex Smith) went down. I would have loved to see T.J. Ward out there bashing people and getting better, but it wouldn’t have meant a playoff berth, so it’s also beneficial to get some notches in the belt for newer guys (although I know Ward is also young, and that’s great).
The way I see it, there are two rookies on the defensive line, some mid-career players as linebackers, and two strong second-year guys in the defensive backfield. That’s a pretty good start for a young defense. All of the young guys have experience and the older guys are pretty solid in their spots, Sheldon Brown notwithstanding, of course. And as far as young linebackers go, maybe Kaluka Maiava will channel the badassery of his tribal tattoos and become the stud I always imagine guys with those tattoos are.
Statisically, the Browns’ defense was, well, it was very Browns-like. Scoring wise, the team had the fifth-lowest points allowed per game. They were tenth in yards allowed, second in passing yards allowed, fourth in passing touchdowns allowed, and sixth in yards gained per pass attempt.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that when a team trails for most of a game, the winning team runs the ball a lot. So now for the rushing defense stats: 30th in rush yards allowed, 31st in rush attempts allowed, 18th in rush touchdowns, and 21st in rush yards per attempt.
Also, only forcing 20 turnovers ranked 25th in the league, and having two games in which the opponent had less than 100 yards rushing is just terrible.
So what have we learned from the Browns’ defense?
It helps to get turnovers. It helps to have a good offense. And it helps to look back a bit more objectively than being blinded by how terrible the regular season was.
I hope this is slightly easier to swallow than what we saw during the season. The point is that there are worse things than the Browns season. There are signs of life. The solid 2011 draft, which is leading into another pretty loaded draft, is probably the evidence of that right now. So let’s start crossing our fingers that the Browns don’t mortgage everything for one player and remember that teams are difficult to build, requiring a lot of pieces.