Jul 26, 2013; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson (33) during training camp at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
The start of the NFL season is just two days away and the Browns kick off Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. Under a new front office and new head coach, the Browns overhauled a decent amount of the roster, but unlike in years past, it was not the starters who were overhauled, for better or worse. For the first time since the team came back, there seems to be a slight endorsement of what the previous group was building, at least from a talent standpoint. This team is better than it was last year. The talent is better, the fit in the offensive scheme is better and the coaching is better. Now, when the rubber meets the road, will it be reflected in the standings and just how good will the Browns be in 2013?
Rob Chudzinski is already more capable and qualified than Pat Shurmur was last year. It remains to be seen what he will do when it comes to big decisions late in games, but from a preparation standpoint, avoiding stupid pre-snap penalties and just a sense of how the team carries itself, they appear to be better and far more confident. That starts with the head coach.
The Browns had a pretty good defensive coordinator in Dick Jauron last year; far better than he seems to be given credit in hindsight. Ray Horton is a good one too, although their approaches are completely different. There is certainly more energy and excitement with this year’s defense because of the aggressive, attacking approach but also because of an infusion of talent to fit what Horton wants to do, especially with the front seven. This team has a legitimate strength in their front seven this year. Not just a player, but the unit as a whole looks not only like something the Browns will need to rely on to make plays, but a unit they can consistently expect to do the job. They are going to become the identity for that side of the ball in Cleveland.
Offensively, the difference between Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress to Norv Turner is enormous. Turner’s credentials are impeccable as a coordinator and along with Chud, have made it clear they are intent on making this offense fit the players rather than the players fit the offense. The players have come out constantly to endorse and complement this system. Brandon Weeden in particular has talked about how much more comfortable he feels, how much easier it was to pick up, and that he feels like it complements what he does well.
When the Browns are on offense, it all starts with Trent Richardson. If he is not the MVP of the team this season, something went horribly wrong, he likely got injured and the Browns are in huge trouble. Everything starts with Richards, the offensive line and Weeden has to be the second option. This is a one year tryout for Weeden and when he has protection and can have time to make decisions, he can be extremely effective. The team has some weapons that are developing and could find some answers at positions this year. They know what they have in Davone Bess and Josh Gordon is an incredible talent who is still learning, but this is a huge year for Greg Little and Jordan Cameron. They need to figure out their roles on this team.
If Richardson is running the ball and creating yards, it sets up Weeden to use play action, be put in favorable down and distances to be aggressive and stretch the field. If teams are able to stifle Richardson and put the Browns in obvious passing downs, they could pressure Weeden and cause him to look like he did as a rookie. If Weeden makes big strides as a quarterback this season, he will be able to drive the offense down the field when Richardson is not having a great day and lead the Browns to points. That will be a huge key for whether or not Weeden is a long term solution or if he is a bridge quarterback until they find their guy next year.
When the Browns are on defense, the front seven is going to dictate how far this team goes. They have to stop the run. It simply has to happen and sets up everything they want to do on defense. For a scheme that takes its roots from the Steelers, that is what makes them work and that is what the Browns need to do to be effective. If they can stop the run, they can put teams in obvious passing situations and send their stable of pass rushers after the opposing quarterback. As long as that pressure is effective, it protects the secondary and should create a lot of opportunities for turnovers. The times when the opposition is able to protect their quarterback against the pressure is when fans should hold their breath with the secondary. The fact that the front seven seems to have an endless supply of players they can plug in and use in a variety of ways should really make a big difference as the season progresses and in long, drawn out contests that will be decided late in the fourth quarter.
When it comes to the Browns special teams, they should be better overall but everything will be focused on the kicker. Phil Dawson was so good and the Browns have been so bad during his tenure that he could easily have his number retired as the lone representative of the team since 1999. If the Browns lose a game on a field goal, there is going to be a huge outcry online, on the radio, and in print. In spite of the question at kicker, Travis Benjamin is a better returner than Josh Cribbs was last year when he was clearly not the same player he had been in years past (Sorry, Grossi). If the preseason is an indication, Benjamin could be in for a huge year on returns but the Browns were good on coverage as well. The punter position is still up in the air, but it should still be better than it was last year, when it was a complete disaster.
When looking at the talent on this team compared to other teams on the schedule, the amount of games where the Browns appear to have no chance and are simply outclassed is dropping. There are a few games that this team should be able to be counted on to win. In so many years past, games were marked as winnable but the team would have to eke them out and were perfectly capable of losing them as well. This seems like it represents real progress for this team but none of it matters until it happens on the field.
Three games the Browns should be able to put in the win column are the Jaguars, the Bills and Jets. Not only should they win those games, but they should win convincingly.
Jacksonville tore down basically to the studs of the team and is going with almost all young players under new head coach Gus Bradley and the Jags are going head to head with Oakland as the worst team in the NFL from a pure talent standpoint. Most everyone have those two teams going head to head for the rights to pick Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater.
The Bills were not a bad team coming into this season necessarily, but they are getting killed with injuries; and to some of their most talented players. They have a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach which could make for a difficult learning curve. The Bills have playmaking talent in guys like C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, but that is a game the Browns should win. The Browns play the Bills in their nationally televised game as a Thursday night game, which increases the odds of bad football and more oddities occurring but the Browns should still be better than the Bills.
The Jets are a mess. They have some talent on the defense, but their offense is a train wreck. They make it difficult to score points but they look incapable of scoring themselves. And the Browns get them in the second to last week of the season in New York and by that point, it could be a meltdown. Their fans might be tougher on them than any road team’s crowd they see this season.
The games the Browns are a longshot to win are Green Bay and New England. Both of these games are on the road and feature a pair of the best quarterbacks in the league. When it comes to predicting how these games will turn out, they are both losses, but the Browns certainly can win them. It will just be extremely difficult. Aaron Rodgers is the best in the business and they appear to have talent to the run ball this year. The Browns are a team that looks poised to get after opposing quarterbacks and the Packers have struggled to protect Rodgers at times. The Patriots in December are typically a team that has rounded into form and are steamrolling their way into the playoffs, but they do have a number of question marks coming into this season and while Brady is phenomenal, he is not at the peak of his powers anymore.
The games that could really go either way include Miami, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City, and Chicago.
It is incredibly important for the Browns to come out and beat the Dolphins this week, but it is certainly one they could lose. In a battle between two first round quarterbacks from last year’s draft, both teams are still figuring out who they are. They both have some incredibly talented players but some big flaws as well. The Browns should be favored here and there will further discussion as to why later on this week, but the Dolphins could certainly come out with a win.
On paper, the Vikings should not be good, but Adrian Peterson is a force of nature and with half a season of Percy Harvin, ran behind a talented offensive line and carried the Vikings to an inexplicable playoff berth. They have some talented players on defense and three first round picks from this year’s NFL Draft, but the Vikings go as far as Peterson is able to carry them.
About the only thing that seems to be a lock about the Browns and Lions is the fact the game will be bizarre. For whatever reason, these two teams play each other and odd but fun football to watch. The last time these two teams got together? Brady Quinn and Matthew Stafford have one of the best quarterback duels in history while almost no one outside of Cleveland and Detroit is watching because both teams are in the basement of the standings.
Kansas City was putrid in the standings last year but they had a ton of talent on their football team. They really appeared to be a quarterback away from competing for the division. The defense in particular is loaded and is the best unit they have had since Marty Schottenheimer was there in the 90’s. Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Brandon Flowers, and Eric Berry are all incredibly talented players and they have more developing. If the addition of Andy Reid and Alex Smith can allow them to sustain drives with Jamaal Charles running the ball, that defense only gets better because they are not being left to die out there each week. The Chiefs could end up winning 8 more games than they did last year and if the Browns are not careful, they could be one of them.
Chicago is a tough team to predict. They have legitimate star power with Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall. Depending on the night, Jay Cutler can look as good or as bad as any quarterback in all of football. They have made a big investment in their offensive line this year (finally) in addition to bringing the tight end position back with Martellus Bennett after Mike Martz decided to dismantle it. The big question with the Bears is how much of a difference their new head coach, Marc Trestman will make on the team.
The Browns could easily go 3-2 or 2-3 in these games. Anything less would be disappointing. And if they are going to make a big move this year, they will win at least 4 of these games. In the overall landscape of the NFL, this batch of games might be the most telling measuring stick for the Browns compared to the rest of the league.
It all comes back to the division. The AFC North is the best division in football, bar none. Anyone making an argument for any other division is clueless. The AFC North has the best group of head coaches in the NFL right now with three Super Bowls and another in Marvin Lewis who is a big threat to get one of his own. The fact that the Browns look competent makes things more interesting but there are plenty of people predicting some or all of the other three teams winning this division. It is an incredible grind to see the Browns improve year to year because of they have to deal with these three teams twice per year. If the Browns were in the AFC East or AFC South, they might have a shot to make the playoffs. They could easily end up going 2-4 in the division and be a vastly improved team in the process. It is an absolute grind every year.
The Cincinnati Bengals are the most talented team in the division and it really is not close. They are a quarterback away from being mentioned in the same breath as San Francisco and Seattle in terms of overall talent and how far they can go this year. As a result, they are extremely similar to Houston. They are absolutely loaded at almost every other position on the field. The defensive line is incredible and they have the best defensive tackle in the NFL in Geno Atkins. They have a better rotation than the Browns do and the Browns defensive line is good. Their offense has three mismatches the second they step off of the bus in A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Tyler Eifert. In addition, they have an extremely talented rookie running back in Giovani Bernard who might be a great sleeper pick for offensive rookie of the year.
For whatever reason, the Bengals and Browns play close games and the Bengals often put themselves in position to have one stolen from them. They split the series last year and were in position to lose both of them.
Baltimore is the defending Super Bowl champion but their team is so drastically different from the team that took home the Lombardi trophy, it is difficult to anticipate what they will do this year. Due to attrition and injuries, there is a ton of pressure on the Ravens running game with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce as well as Joe Flacco to figure out a way to drive the offense. The defense still has Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata and they get Ladarius Webb back healthy this year, but they had to replace Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannelle Ellerbe, and the husk that used to be Ray Lewis.
Week 2 is going to be tough for the Browns without Josh Gordon on the road and the second matchup is in Cleveland but the Ravens are coming off of their bye. The Ravens are a huge block for the Browns and a hurdle they need to get over, but it could be another sweep for the Ravens this year.
In terms of talent, the Browns have made up a ton of ground with Pittsburgh. Kevin Colbert has been long been a great talent evaluator, but he dropped the ball on the draft the past two years and their top two picks are currently dealing with injuries that could dramatically impact their season. Losing Le’Veon Bell for a significant portion of the season is a huge blow to that team and more than anyone wants to admit. The defense is extremely old in a couple spots and really needs to stay healthy this year to remain effective.
The Browns could legitimately sweep the Steelers if not for Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is a plague for the Browns. Even when it looked like they broke his leg last year, it turned out only to be a high ankle sprain and he not only came out and finished the game, but led the Steelers to a win. Whenever the Steelers look like they are ready to collapse, Roethlisberger seems to be able to drag them to wins they have no business getting. It is important from a mental and confidence standpoint for them to win one of these games; not only from the players’ standpoint but that of the fans as well. The Browns fanbase has developed an inferiority complex with the Steelers and there will be a large percentage of fans who do not buy into the team improving unless they beat the Steelers in the process. The possibility is there for a sweep, but Roethlisberger is likely going to lead them to a win in one of those games, even with a potentially weaker roster. He really exemplifies how much of a difference a franchise quarterback makes.
In the end, the Browns are probably headed for a 2-4 division record. The potential is there for them to go as high as 4-2 and if that happens, but that will require some luck and some players making big strides for them. Even if they only end up 2-4, the Browns could have really closed the talent gap with the rest of the division with the one missing piece being a franchise quarterback.
The X-Factor for this season that could elevate them and potentially allow them to make the playoffs is Brandon Weeden. If he makes legitimate strides as a quarterback and really has a good year, the Browns could be a surprise team. Weeden looks primed to have a year not unlike Derek Anderson did in 2007 where he puts up some big numbers and big plays, but when push comes to shove, he is not the answer at the position. In Anderson’s case, it was due in large part to a great offensive line and extremely reliable running game. When those were not there, Anderson wilted. If Weeden does the same thing, he is not the answer at the quarterback position long term. And it is important for the Browns not to buy into fool’s gold. Chud was here and directed the offense for Anderson, so he should know the difference. So even if Weeden has a surprisingly effective year in terms of numbers, the Browns still may draft a quarterback to develop behind him.
Overall, the Browns appear to be headed for a 7-9 or 8-8 season. For the sake of predictions, I will say the Browns win the opener against the Dolphins and they split the other four in those toss up games, sweep the Jets, Bills, and Jags as they end up 2-4 in the division, resulting in an 8-8 record. That would be a 3 game improvement from last year but the strides this team makes could be far more significant, especially within the AFC North. Both sides of the ball should come out of this season with an identity and something to build upon and add to going forward.
While the whole season and every season are about player evaluation, the biggest question that needs to be answered is what the Browns have in Weeden. I think he will put up decent numbers this year, but I am not convinced he is the long term answer and they will need to address it in the NFL Draft next year, even if it is bringing someone to develop behind him. The Browns have a good roster but they have to find a franchise quarterback if they want to win the Super Bowl.