Have the Cleveland Browns done enough to close the AFC North gap?
By Thomas Moore
The Cleveland Browns need to stop being a speed bump for the other teams in the AFC North Division before they can think about being a playoff contender.
The Cleveland Browns have yet to play a game that matters in 2016, but optimism continues to run high as the team undergoes its latest biennial rebuilding project.
Much of the renewed hope centers on head coach Hue Jackson and his coaching staff, which is being hailed as one of the best groups to work the Cleveland sidelines since the team returned in 1999. (Just don’t look to closely at defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s numbers from the past few seasons.)
There is also a refreshed roster that will look much different come the fall, as a group of 14 draft choices will look to fill holes left by aging or unproductive veterans.
Finally, the Browns will once again be pining their hopes on a recycled quarterback in Robert Griffin III.
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There is no question that the Browns appear to finally be trending in the right direction in several areas, but does that mean the optimism is warranted?
Before the Browns can even think about competing for a playoff berth (something that some of the more exuberant Browns fans have projected for the coming season), they have to figure out how to win within the AFC North Division.
Consider that since returning to the NFL, the Browns are:
- 12-22 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and have lost 11 of the past 15 meetings
- 9-25 against the Baltimore Ravens, and have lost 14 of the past 16 meetings
- 6-29 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and have lost 22 of the past 25 meetings
Add it all up and the Browns are just 27-76 within the division, a .262 winning percentage that makes it increasingly premature to talk about setting aside a January weekend for a Browns playoff game.
The Browns have contributed greatly to their own demise within the division over the years, but the task has been made even more difficult by the fact that the other teams in the division are working just as hard to improve and have been doing a far better job of it.
While it is only one writer’s opinion, albeit an accurate one, Bucky Brooks at NFL.com lists both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals on his list of 10 most talented teams for the 2016 season, which does not bode well for the Browns prospects this fall:
"The Steelers could be downright scary in 2016, with a roster that is chock-full of blue-chip talent on both sides of the ball. The offense features the most explosive version of the “Triplets” (quarterback, running back and wide receiver) in the NFL today, with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown all ranking among the absolute best at their respective positions. (Bryant has the raw skills to become a true star, but his season-long suspension puts that on hold for 2016.) On defense, the emergence of Lawrence Timmons and Cameron Heyward as impact players along the front seven could help the defense return to the ranks of the elite and help fuel a Super Bowl run down the stretch."
"There’s no disputing the depth or talent on the Bengals’ roster — after all, the team’s made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. Despite the loss of a few key contributors (Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Andre Smith), Cincy should remain among the AFC’s elite with a lineup that features a handful of game changers in the trenches and a pair of the NFL’s most explosive pass catchers (A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert). Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler solidify an offensive line that provides excellent protection for Andy Dalton in the pocket. Defensively, the Bengals have a solid 1-2 combination on the defensive line (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap) that creates opportunities for Vontaze Burfict on the second level. With Adam Jones growing into a CB1 in the latter stages of his career, the Bengals still have enough firepower to continue their postseason streak."
There is a line in Brooks’ article, however, that provides hope that even though the Browns may be in the early stages of the journey, they may be on the right path. In writing about what makes a successful team, Brooks highlights the importance of general managers and coaches working together to find the right players, and then the coaches working to ensure that each player has a clear plan for success within the scheme.
While previous regimes have talked a good game when it game to cooperation between the front office and coaching staff, the on-field results have consistently painted a different picture. But this time it feels different, as executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and his front office team seem in step with Jackson and his coaching staff.
The Browns are still in the early stages of their latest rebuild, and while they still have work to do to close the talent gap within the division, this time it seems like they are finally on the right path.
Which is a great place to be.
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What is your take, Browns fans? Has the team done enough to close the gap with the other teams in the AFC North, or is there still work to be done?